When I first started blogging, I filled the empty spaces between compelling new releases with historical reviews primarily covering Oasis and the four bands I heard most while growing up: The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. With the first four names on that list, I just randomly picked an album based on mood or time of the month, but for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to do The Stones’ albums in chronological order. Because I was primarily interested in exploring the work of the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, I skipped the first two albums and began with Out of Our Heads. I liked learning how The Stones developed as the years progressed, following straight lines and detours along the way. I remember feeling pretty good after reviewing Sticky Fingers, one of their best, and I looked forward to Exile on Main Street, an album that was unfamiliar to me because it was curiously missing from my father’s collection.
I hated it. Still do. I think it’s a fucking mess of an album, a background-music-party-disc created in a heroin-induced haze.
“Why didn’t you warn me, you bastard?” I screamed at my father.
“I thought you’d figure it out when you didn’t see it in my stacks. What the hell did I send you to college for, anyway?”
Exile on Main Street turned me off to the Stones for a long, long time, and I had no intention of ever reviewing another Stones record as long as I could still sashay over our lumpy planet.
Then my gorgeous, voluptuous, damn-I’d-like-to-fuck-her-right-now partner put Some Girls on her list of Desert Island Disks. It reminded me how much I hated ending The Stones’ series on a down note, so I decided to see if I could pick up where I left off. I listened to Goat’s Head Soup, and came away with feeling that “Angie” is the second-most overrated song in history, right after “Stairway to Heaven.” I took one look at the cover of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and said “Fuck that.” Black and Blue didn’t grab me either.
I should have trusted my partner’s instincts. Some Girls turned out to be WAY better than I expected, though my initial reaction was utter confusion.
The confusion arose from the consensus opinion that Some Girls is The Stones’ “punk album.” I listened to it and sure as hell didn’t hear anything that sounded like The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not one song clocks in at under three minutes, not one song is played at hyper-speed, and if we’re talking punk in 1978, where the hell is the anarchist rage? Punk is also characterized by intense, hyper-active drumming, and one look at Charlie Watts would tell you he’d be the last drummer on earth to go manic on the kit.
If punk did have an influence on Some Girls, it encouraged The Stones to get back to the basics. Some Girls is successful because The Stones rediscovered their sweet spot: cheeky R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll marked by a healthy dose of humor, with a touch of country thrown into the mix. The songs on Some Girls could have appeared on any of their albums released during their peak period, from Aftermath to Sticky Fingers (except for the psychedelic detour in Their Satanic Majesties Request). The Stones somehow managed to go backward while moving forward at the same time, for unlike a trip down Nostalgia Lane, Some Girls feels fresh, alive and immediate. Part of the reinvigorated sound came from Ronnie Wood’s ascension to full-member status, but most of the credit for the album’s compelling combination of looseness and sass goes to Mick Jagger, who rediscovered his writing and singing chops just in time to save The Stones from bargain bin irrelevance.
Jagger clearly has his mojo working on “Miss You,” a song that should have been subtitled, “Goin’ Home Revisited.” While that lengthy tune from Aftermath about unfulfilled libido seems disconnected from both time and space, “Miss You” features an insistent, libido-tickling rhythm that I could grind to all fucking night. Trapped in the context of the times, many listeners described this as a disco song, ignoring the simple fact that if disco had never been invented, The Stones still would have come up with a song like this sooner or later due to their passion for American soul and R&B. Instead of the over-the-top orchestration we hear in too many disco numbers, the layers in “Miss You” are a combination of blues harp (courtesy of Sugar Blue) and cool sax (by way of Mel Collins). Collins’ solo helps urbanize the piece, reinforcing the New York feel of the album. Meanwhile, Sugar Blue spends most of the song repeating the melodic refrain until the very end, when he finally steps into the spotlight and delivers a deep-soul solo that expresses the theme of emotional longing more effectively than words ever could. With Jagger on fire and Bill Wyman delivering one of his most active bass parts, “Miss You” sends a clear message that The Stones are in the groove and feeling it.
The title “When The Whip Comes Down” initially excited this kinky girl, but alas, the song has nothing to do with the more refined erotic arts. What it does have to do with is being gay, and while you might think my bisexuality might give me some magical insight into the psyche of the gay male narrator, the life experience of a bisexual woman is as far apart from the experience of a gay male as I am from celibacy. While pure lesbians tend to view bisexual girls with feelings ranging from distrust to hostility, most heterosexual men I’ve met are okay with bisexual women because they think they’re going to get a threesome in the bargain (NOT!). Gay males, on the other hand, are much more likely to get the shit beaten out of them by the same guys who want to get into the sack with my partner and me. Since I grew up a few blocks from The Castro, gay men are a part of my definition of “normal,” which has sometimes blinded me to the shit they have to deal with—it’s unthinkable to me, so it takes a while to register.
Here Jagger conjures up a gay dude who abandons L. A. for the Big Apple to become a “garbage collector,” a euphemism, not an occupation. While the move raised his status from “faggot” to “gay,” the attitudes of the populace are anything but an upgrade (“Wherever I go they treat me just the same”). While we all have to sacrifice something in order to make a living, our hero faces more workplace hazards than the average moke:
Yeah I’m going down Fifty-Third street
And they spit in my face
I’m learning the ropes
Yeah I’m learning a trade
The East River truckers
Are churning with trash
I’ve got so much money
That I spend so fast
Having been spat on by homophobes a couple of times while out with my girl, I’m befuddled by the hero’s willingness to turn the other cheek and write it off as part of the deal . . . but this was 1978, less than ten years after The Stonewall Riots and only five years removed from the change in the DSM that ended the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder. To make a living in such an environment, he is forced to work the streets, where the men who are “churning with trash” seek someone to relieve their secret burden:
Yeah, some called me garbage
When I was sweeping on the street
I never roll
Oh I never cheat
And I’m filling a need, yeah
I’m plugging a hole
My mama’s so glad
I ain’t on the dole
Both buyer and seller are part of the garbage cycle, and like the movement’s adoption of the formerly pejorative word “queer,” our hero wears his “garbage man” status like a badge. Economics student Mick Jagger even assigns him a sense of legitimacy by giving him credit for his sensitivity to the laws of supply and demand with the fabulous pun, “I’m plugging a hole.” But even with his stellar work ethic and commitment to quality customer service, he’s still a homosexual in a heterosexually-biased culture and the whip is always going to come down . . . again, again and again. A damned courageous song for its time, “When the Whip Comes Down” features a non-stop relentless attack with dual guitars and as much energy as Charlie Watts can muster. It’s still not punk, but hey, it’s The Stones rocking out, so who the fuck cares?
Next up is the cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination.” I approached this song with great trepidation, fearing another lame copycat attempt at the Motown sound as in “My Girl.” My trepidation vanished about four lines into the song when it hit me that the arrangement was pure garage, just a bunch of guys in the studio playing around with a song that caught their fancy. Stripping the song down to its essentials and playing it at a faster tempo actually allows the listener to better appreciate the melody and chord progression of the song, and while The Temptations version will always remain the gold standard, I have to give The Stones credit for revealing the fundamental structure that made “Just My Imagination” a great song in the first place.
Some Girls wouldn’t be a great Stones album unless they pissed somebody off, and with the title track they wound up pissing off both the usual suspects (feminists and Christians) as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his dual roles of civil rights activist and shepherd to the flock. Before we get into all that hoo-hah, I want to say I love the feel of this song. Most of it is a two-chord pattern with plenty of drone, a mesmerizing combination that allows the three guitarists (Jagger included) and Sugar Blue a lot of latitude with fills and responses. The original cut ran twenty-three minutes, largely because of its vast improvisational potential. That potential is what put The Stones in hot water with the Purity Police, as Jagger improvised the most offensive lines in the song.
We all know that Jagger and Richard were big league Johnny Appleseeds, offhandedly shooting their wads in various locales making up a large part of the planetary landmass. We also know that many women were desperate to fuck rock stars, and while some really thought they were in love with their idols, we can assume that the majority of the women plunked by The Stones were probably motivated by pecuniary considerations. Fucking groupies is often a mutual exploitation arrangement where both parties use the other to get what they want: sex, money, property, notoriety, whatever. The evidence from various interviews indicates that members of The Rolling Stones had indeed been engaged in sexual escapades with groupies, that they fucked available women wherever they could find them on multiple world tours, and had no discriminatory restrictions related to race or color. They were equal opportunity fuckers, and for all I know and with the flurry of scientific advances in the study of erectile performance, they may still be.
What The Stones do in “Some Girls” is simplify their experience by using stereotypes, always a dangerous practice, but not all that much different from what The Beach Boys did in “California Girls.” The first set of stereotypes in “Some Girls” are a catalog of the different manifestations of female greed in various cultures (French girls want Cartier, Italian girls want cars, American girls want everything in the world). These are pretty tame accusations; the first two are backhanded compliments (French and Italian girls are style-conscious, well, duh) and the third is a teeny dig at American materialism. We then learn that English girls are prissy (another stereotype that has the positive connotation of “selective”) and that white girls are funny and sometimes annoying (as are all girls). I can’t see any of these targeted groups calling for a Stones boycott based on such lightweight jabs.
Then they clearly cross a big red line:
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They’re really such a tease
You never know quite what they’re cookin’
Inside those silky sleeves
Whoa, dude! I’m hearing that you think black girls are primitive animals who still hear the jungle cry and can’t control their instincts . . . and that you’ve been watching too many movies depicting Asian women as “devious Orientals.” What? Say that again! “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.” Hold that thought . . . let me scan the lyrics for supporting evidence . . . no, I’m not seeing anything there. Sorry . . . I missed that, Mick—could you repeat that please? “If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad.” Getting a little touchy there, are we? Okay, let’s accept your argument that you were just trying to have fun and you didn’t think people would be stupid enough to believe you meant what you said. Then why did you later change the lyrics in live performances to eliminate those lines? And while I have you here, why did you change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for Ed Sullivan? You’re just going to stare at me, Mick? Why can’t you just admit that you blew it by not providing a stronger context and move on? Hey, I defended you over “Under My Thumb,” I stood up for you after “Stupid Girl” and I even went to bat for you on “Brown Sugar.” But Mick, this time . . . if satire was your intent, you really should have done a better job of establishing the narrator as a blind, insensitive jerk right from the start. Maybe if you’d moved that verse with the lines “Some girls give me children/I only made love to her once” we would have understood we were dealing with an irresponsible asshole and heard the lines through that perspective . . . if that’s really what you intended.
Intent is pretty clear in “Lies,” a dual-guitar ass-kicking ripper of a song where The Stones rock for no other purpose except to rock. Flipping over to Side Two, we get a nice change of pace with the hilarious, “Far Away Eyes,” a pure country number marked by Ronnie Wood’s outstanding pedal steel guitar and Mick Jagger’s approximation of a hicksville accent. Speaking of stereotypes, naïve people the world over believe that California is a place of sand, sun and liberal mores, but there’s a good-sized chunk of California where it feels like more like Oklahoma than Malibu. “Far Away Eyes” satirizes hick culture and its strange mixture of fervent Christianity and loose sexual morals, presented here as relatively harmless, but this was long before anyone realized that a group of stupid, superstitious people could coalesce to elect an equally stupid blatant racist to the most powerful job in the world:
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this
That I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find . . .
Of course such a loser wants a girl with “far away eyes,” because stupid is as stupid gets.
It’s back to kick-ass mode with “Respectable,” a song Jagger described as a “Punk meets Chuck Berry number.” We’ll ignore the attempt at relevance-oriented marketing and simply congratulate The Stones for giving us another number that hauls serious ass. It’s followed by the Keith Richards confessional, “Before They Make Me Run,” which deals with his legal and personal struggles with heroin addiction. Keith can’t sing worth shit, but the song has a certain vulnerability to it that makes it charming, and Ronnie Wood’s steel pedal guitar sounds even better in a rock context.
Some Girls features one of the strongest finishes of any Stones album, beginning with the semi-slow number, “Beast of Burden.” Keith Richards came to the studio with a shell of a song and relied on the rest of The Stones to flesh it out. The prerequisite for such an approach is the musicians have to be able to easily slip into the groove, and this is where the remarkable chemistry between Richards and Ronnie Wood pays off huge dividends. There is an instrumental-only take on YouTube that I absolutely adore and highly recommend. You’ll hear Keith on the right channel and Ronnie on the left, but what you may not notice (because the guitar work will immediately draw you in) is Charlie Watts playing the base rhythm with the clear punctuation the guitarists need as a foundation for their explorations. The musical dialogue between the two guitarists as they trade off lead and rhythm roles and integrate harmonic solos into the mix is a fascinating journey—you can hear them sensing each other out, one offering a possible direction and the other responding almost immediately to the new musical idea. In many ways, I prefer the instrumental version to the original, but I do think Jagger does a damn good job with the emotional content as he sings at the higher end of his range. The lyrics that pop out at me are those that define the “real man” paradigm—men are expected to be hard enough, rough enough and rich enough, and anything less than enough simply won’t do. Putting aside the double entendre of “hard enough” for a moment, I’ll point out that the paradigm is the source of all toxic masculinity. The men who commit acts of domestic violence don’t act out of a position of power but from feelings of inadequacy about those three qualities, and lacking any kind of self-awareness, blame the broad for all their troubles. In this song, the narrator is a gentler sort of fellow unlikely to resort to violence, but it’s still tragic that he has to live with perceived inadequacy because of a dated philosophy of what it means to be a man. I also hope that those who whine about The Stones’ allegedly unrelenting sexism will take note that Jagger placed the gent in the position of supplicant, begging for attention from a woman who holds all the cards. Power in relationships is not always dictated by gender or worn-out rules of behavior.
We end with my favorite song on Some Girls, the marvelously manic “Shattered.” We’ll get to the New York-in-the-70’s aspect of the song in a sec, but there’s one tiny passage I can’t restrain myself from singing at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, because it is the relentless message of my inner consciousness bursting through the layers of bullshit I wear as I go about the world trying to make a living:
Work and work for love and sex
Ain’t you hungry for success, success, success, success
Does it matter?
Yes, I work and work for love and sex and THAT matters. I have no hunger for success and that DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL. Work leaves me in tatters! Shattered! Let me the fuck out!
Back to the real story . . . Jagger says he wrote the lyrics in a New York taxi, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. The Stones had been spending more time in New York City during the 70’s, and the Big Apple of the 70’s was nothing like the sanitized and safe version of New York that exists today. The city was in deep financial doo-doo, the infrastructure was falling apart, crime was commonplace and tensions between the various ethnic groups and political factions were at their peak. I recommend the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mailer if you want to learn more. Note that Mailer’s story of New York’s decline is integrated with the ascension of the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, so if you’re not into baseball, forget about it, and by the way, I don’t want to know you.
Jagger’s sprechgesang commentary on the state of Gotham is expressed with sincerely-felt disbelief at the craziness of it all: how can a place with so much wealth and power seemingly self-destruct before one’s eyes?
Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street
And look at me, I’m in tatters, yeah
I’ve been battered, what does it matter . . .
. . . Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown
What a mess—this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
It should be noted that The Stones didn’t flee New York in response to the decaying environment. Even in its worst times, there is no place on earth as endlessly compelling as New York, whether you like it or not.
What makes the song so compelling is the combination of Jagger’s maniacal vocal, the simple but remarkably effective two-chord riff, and the haunting, almost random appearance of low-voice vocals in the background (shattered, shay-oobehy). The feeling of a song unstuck in time and space is intensified when Charlie Watts does a virtual disappearing act and limits his activities to the high-hat—when that happens, I feel like the lights have suddenly gone out and I’ve lost all connection to reality. Brilliantly arranged and expertly performed, “Shattered” is a remarkable expression of the modern just-beneath-the-surface madness we all feel as we make our way through the inexplicable worlds we have created.
While I’ve think they’ve taken the farewell tour thing way too far for way too long, Some Girls is a piece of The Stones at their best—rocking, rolling and riffing with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. It ain’t punk in terms of genre, but as my father will righteously claim with all his heart and soul, The Stones were the original punks, with a stellar record of defying the stricter social norms of the time.
And though Mick Jagger is now Sir Michael, had nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher and still supports the Tories, he still had his moments—and Some Girls contains some of his best.
1967 was a big year for dad.
After graduating from high school in June, he entered the University of California in September as a Sociology major. On his eighteenth birthday he signed up for the military draft, and in a few weeks learned that he was classified 1-A-O, a conscientious objector still available for military service, but only in non-combatant roles. While he wouldn’t have to carry a gun and shoot strangers, he could still wind up in Nam as a medic or a gofer, and no one was safe in a place with no defined battle lines.
In his first year in college, dad used the student deferment option to avoid the draft entirely, but chose not to exercise it the following year once he saw it for what it was: a way for privileged white boys to avoid a trip to Saigon. Some of his buddies from the neighborhood opted for another strategy and enlisted right after high school based on “common knowledge” that enlisted men had a better shot of avoiding dangerous assignments, while draftees were automatically shipped to the front lines. The strategy turned out to be more myth than reality, though, and the following summer dad lost one of his closest friends who had volunteered for the Navy.
I still ache with the memory of seeing my dad break down when he found his friend’s name on The Wall.
My grandparents had been shaving dad’s earnings in the construction business for years, taking a cut from his pay and putting it aside for his college expenses. Back then, college was incredibly cheap—UC Berkeley was tuition-free for California residents (though they did charge modest “registration fees”)—so paying for college was the least of dad’s worries. His original plan was to continue living at home and take the AC Transit bus to Berkeley and back every day, but that plan went up in the sweet smoke that hung in the air during the Summer of Love.
That’s when he met my mother.
The late-teen version of my mother had a paralyzing effect on any man who came within thirty feet of her. A natural beauty with a great bod framed in long, dark hair would have intimidated any wannabe suitor, but when you add a French accent to the mix—well, those American boys never had a chance.
At the time she met my father, maman had only been in the States for a little over a month and though fluent in English, she was still building her American slang vocabulary. One of the earliest slang words she learned is one she still uses frequently today, especially when the subject of Donald Trump comes up in conversation: jackass. While it comes out of her mouth sounding more like zhag-ass, you can definitely hear the bite.
“Except for your father, they were all a bunch of jackasses,” she responded to my query about her initial contacts with young American males. Strengthened by his experience listening to Lesley Gore, naturally curious about people and so enthralled by her presence that any self-consciousness was obliterated, my father became the first American male to engage my mother in intelligent conversation, giving him a decisive advantage over his drooling Neanderthal competitors. For her part, she was equally attracted to him, his relatively long dirty-blonde hair and the green Irish eyes he passed on to his daughter.
Dad knew within fifteen minutes of first contact that this was the love of his life; maman wasn’t ready to make that leap quite yet. Throwing caution to the fierce winds of San Francisco, he decided then and there that he would find a place of his own away from the parental nest so he could entertain, engage and hopefully bang this hot French piece of ass. After checking out apartments in that charming relic of yesteryear known as the “want-ads,” he realized that to afford a place in Berkeley he’d have to work full-time—an impossibility given his full class schedule. Undaunted by the challenge, dad took two part-time jobs and connected with a few East Bay contractors for pick-up work on the weekends. Even with those income streams, he couldn’t afford a place by himself, so he had to find a roommate. He and his new best friend—a geography major from Placerville—found a crummy but serviceable two-bedroom place on the Berkeley-Oakland border off Telegraph Avenue where at least he and his intended could have a private room all to themselves.
Despite all the change going on in his world and the world around him, Dad remained passionate about music—probably even more so, given his new sweetheart’s musical training, talent and knowledge. Now that he was responsible for his own survival, he had to cut back on some of his impulse buys and select music that gave him the biggest bang for his buck. As it turned out, the music industry was more than happy to accommodate a young man on a budget, and had just the thing to help him stretch his meager dollars: the album.
The Beatles had done more to legitimatize the album than any other recording artists due to their overwhelming influence on both music and culture. Rubber Soul had awakened artists, moguls and the listening public to the idea that albums could be more than just collections of songs, and though Rubber Soul is only faintly thematic, it has a certain unity that separates it from The Beatles’ earlier LP’s. They took the concept to an entirely new level with Revolver, and despite Frank Zappa’s protestations to the contrary, turned albums into art with the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. In addition to its groundbreaking music, Sgt. Pepper was a Beatle consumer’s dream, with lyrics printed on the back, a controversial cover that spurred endless conversations about its significance and a set of cutouts you could pin to your shirt or blouse to show your allegiance to the rebranded band. Albums became all the rage in 1967, and several classics hit the shelves that year in addition to The Beatles’ masterpiece: Surrealistic Pillow, The Doors, Between the Buttons, The Who Sell Out, Alice’s Restaurant, Pleasures of the Harbor, Disraeli Gears and Axis: Bold as Love.
There was also Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music from Outer Space, but only hardcore trekkies would consider that ripoff a classic.
The increased quality of albums made them a less risky purchase and a much better deal for the consumer. You could buy an album with ten to twelve tracks back then for $2.99 or $3.99. 45’s cost 99 cents. Even using the higher price level and the 10-track format, the per-unit price of an album worked out to 40 cents while a 45 with only two songs came out to 45 cents. It’s hard for a generation like mine who grew up believing coins were the stupidest thing ever invented to appreciate that nickels and dimes used to have real value. In 1967 you could still get a Snickers bar for a nickel, pay a dime for a cup of coffee (fuck you, Starbucks) and buy a value pack of twelve rubbers for only 89 cents! Lyndon Johnson was working hard to make sure that something called inflation would turn those charming prices into nostalgia pieces, but a dime still made a difference to my dad back then (fuck you, George Wallace). My dad shifted his investment strategy to albums about mid-year, and as noted in the series intro, the number of 45’s he bought would dwindle precipitously by year’s end.
As for the singles released in 1967, the pop charts reveal a boom-or-bust climate. Some of the releases that year are always part of the conversation when people talk about the greatest singles of all-time. “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” would win my vote, but “Light My Fire,” “Purple Haze” and Aretha’s version of “Respect” all had a tremendous impact on popular music. Still, when you scan the charts, you get the definite impression that 45’s were not “where it’s at” (or where it was at, whatever it was). Compared to 1966, there was a surprising lack of innovative music appearing on 45’s, and less adventurous acts like The Monkees, The Buckinghams, Nancy & Frank Sinatra, The Young Rascals, The Association and Lulu often found their way to the top.
Even with the lower overall quality, I found several great 45’s and some delightfully quirky releases that somehow burst through the haze of marijuana and incense smoke to earn a spot on AM rotations. I’ve already covered the iconic songs noted above as well as several albums from 1967, but we still have several classic hits to cover and a few that had greater influence than their highest chart position might lead you to believe.
One aspect of the music of 1967 I found very curious was the almost complete disappearance of the protest song from the popular charts. The number of American casualties in the Vietnam War almost doubled that year and the annual summer race riots were particularly destructive, so there was plenty of material to work with. But though there were many anti-war demonstrations and be-ins throughout the year, there were no new popular anti-war anthems to lift protester spirits: protest songs had gone underground. And despite their proximity to the 12th Street Riot that killed forty-three and turned Detroit into a virtual war zone, Motown maintained a stubborn silence on the race issue. In dad’s collection of singles from 1967, I only found two 45’s that dealt with social reality.
My read of 1967 is that it was a year when Americans were sick and tired of reality and turned to music to escape it all. This was the year of love, love, love, and those seeking escape from the horror of the nightly news grasped onto the incredibly naive notion that if everyone could just love one another, the world would change overnight. At the seminal Human Be-In that took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967, Timothy Leary spoke for millions of Americans with his advice to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Recreational use of drugs was on the rise, new gurus arrived to educate spiritually atrophied Westerners in Eastern paths to higher consciousness, and nearly everyone wanted to disengage from the ugliness.
Dad attended that be-in and even at the ripe old age of seventeen figured out that Leary was just a hippified version of P. T. Barnum. Still, he did turn on and he did explore yoga and meditation. He drew the line at dropping out, however. “Even with all the fractures in American society at that time, I still believed that the only sure path to change was through the democratic process. I didn’t see how we could defeat the system, but if we could get inside the system, we might be able to change a few things. When I entered college, there was still hope—we still had Bobby Kennedy and MLK on our side in the fight against Johnson and Reagan. I think what you read as people being naive was actually people looking for better days ahead and feeling that there were a lot of good reasons for hope.”
That does sound pretty naive to me, but then again, I’ve spent my life in an era of middle class decline where the system is controlled by the One Percent. America in the 60’s had a large and thriving middle class, living up to its reputation as the land of opportunity. Perhaps there was something to this hope thing after all.
“Pretty Ballerina,” The Left Banke, January 1967: We begin what would turn out to be a pretty wild year in music with a wintry, melancholy piece about the unattainable woman. That unattainable woman was none other than Renée Fladen-Kamm, subject of “Walk Away Renee” and either the object of pianist Michael Brown’s late adolescent fantasies or his personal muse. Since Renée was hooked up with the bass player, both seem likely motivations.
I’ve always wondered why the muse has to be asexual. Personally, I find sex pretty fucking inspiring!
I’m a bit more attached to this song than “Walk Away Renee” because it was one of the first pop songs I learned on the piano. It’s a great song for a beginner-level piano student just starting to build some confidence and aching to play a complete composition in any genre instead of another goddamned Czerny étude. While the chord progression is not particularly challenging, Michael Brown’s composition allows for plenty of free-flow melodic play on the fringes of the key (encouraged by the introduction of an augmented fifth at the ends of the verse lines). The string arrangement is exceptional, highlighted by a key change that makes the instrumental passage all the more intriguing.
I also prefer “Pretty Ballerina” because its lyrics are far more intelligible than those of “Walk Away Renee.” Instead of mumbling his way through the melody, Steve Martin Caro sings the lyrics with sexless purity, suitable for an ode to the idealized woman. If you placed “Pretty Ballerina” on one end of a spectrum, you’d find Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on the other end.
And that’s where you’ll find me most of the time.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James & The Shondells, February 1967: Lester Bangs called this song “the bubblegum apotheosis,” but I heartily disagree. I have a bipolar opinion of Tommy James. I find both “Hanky Panky” and “Mony Mony” rather dull and somewhat dated, even for the 60’s, but I love his work on the more melodic pieces like “Crimson and Clover” and this song. Written by Ritchie Cordell, who later produced Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n Roll album, the lyrics capture the essence of those sweet and semi-secretive teenage relationships as well as any other song you’d care to mention:
That’s what they say when we’re together
And watch how you play
They don’t understand and so we’re
Runnin’ just as fast as we can
Holdin’ on to one another’s hand
Tryin’ to get away into the night
And then you put your arms around me
And we tumble to the ground
And then you say
I think we’re alone now
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around
Teenagers never have the privacy they need, and that was as true with me and my ultra-understanding parents as it is for any teenager today. Teenagers live in a strange space: they’re unsure of themselves and the world around them, and they know that their parents still look at them as the little kid they knew and loved, not the blossoming adult with a shape-shifting identity. The only people who can truly understand the teenage experience are other teenagers, but because parents are forever sticking their noses into teenage business, worrying about pregnancy or praying for grandchildren, teenagers often feel the need to hide that part of their lives from the old farts. While I talked openly and honestly with my mother and sought out her perspective after a relationship had played itself out, I avoided talking with her about relationships while they were still in progress. That was my world, my life, and I needed to have it all to myself.
“I Think We’re Alone Now,” with that vivid imagery of narrow escape and tumbling to the ground in each other’s arms, describes the essence of life as a teenager. Adults may dismiss it as “bubblegum” stuff, but to a teenager, it’s real, immediate and intensely important. Teenagers are human beings who have genuine human experiences. They don’t deserve the dismissive, belittling attitude that is a defining feature of many insecure, controlling adults. “I Think We’re Alone Now” is a beautiful song, and Tommy James’ voice expresses all the complex, wavering emotions that teenagers feel almost every day of their lives.
“Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” Mojo Men, February 1967: Now THIS is bubblegum. “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” is a listening experience that will dissolve your tooth enamel unless you brush after every spin. The arrangement of this Stephen Stills composition is best described as “hippie circus music,” and the only reason I selected this 45 was to get another opportunity to hear Jan Errico’s voice. While the male lead sounds wimpy, the former lead singer of The Vejtables comes through strong and clear when she enters the mix at the start of the bridge.
I have to confess that when I was a cute little blonde girl composed of nothing but sweetness and light, I adored this song. I also liked circuses. Today I wouldn’t be caught dead at a circus and as far as sweetness and light is concerned, let’s just say that “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” isn’t the kind of song that goes well with leather lingerie and riding crops.
“Epistle to Dippy,” Donovan, February 1967: Wow! Jimmy Page! The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! No fucking colors! No fucking seagulls! Maybe Donovan has finally turned the corner!
The British were spared the experience of “Epistle to Dippy,” as the single was only released in the United States, where it made it all the way to #19 before thankfully fading into oblivion. According to Wikipedia, the song has a strong pacifist message, but I guess I’m not stoned enough to find it. Without a lyric sheet you can hardly make out the words due to Donovan’s patented method of syllabic torture, which by itself negates the argument that there is a strong message. In fact, I’m very suhhhhhhhhh . . . spicious about the assertion that there is a message at all, unless it’s contained in the opening line of the last verse: “rrrrree-bell ughents suh-sigh-utt-ay.” If he really wanted people to rebel against society, wouldn’t that have been the one line in this fucking song that he would have articulated clearly and with due emotion?
Sigh. I guess “Epistle to Dippy” is what you get when you see life through crystal speck-tickles. Now that I’ve covered it, I will skip across to the next song quite merrrrrrr-ily.
“Dead End Street,” Lou Rawls, March 1967: Damn, I love this man’s voice.
The label on the 45 is somewhat misleading, as it identifies two separate parts with two separate playing times: “Dead End Street Monologue” (1:27) and “Dead End Street” (2:10). I guess Capitol Records was still operating under the assumption that DJ’s were still averse to spinning anything longer than three minutes, so the label served to give DJ’s the go-ahead to skip the monologue and go straight to the “real song.”
Wow. That’s like cutting out the first two acts of Hamlet. The play would open with an obviously mentally disturbed young man wandering around Elsinore doing bizarre things that make no sense at all. You’d have no insight as to what caused him to behave so strangely, and would probably take an immediate and lasting dislike to this throughly unsavory fellow who goes about ordering a young woman to a nunnery and impulsively stabbing an old man hiding behind a tapestry. “I didn’t spend forty bucks to see a play about a psychotic loser,” you’d grumble as you stormed out of the theatre.
The same is true of “Dead End Street.” Cut out the monologue and a white person in the 60’s would hear a black man bitching about how unfair life is. “Glad I voted for Governor Reagan,” the white man would say, and switch the dial. Listen to the monologue and you get a completely different picture: a vivid description of life in the ghetto for a boy stuck on a street that was dead-end in more ways than one:
I was born in a city the called the ‘Windy City’
And they call it the ‘Windy City’ because of the ‘Hawk’.
The Hawk, the almighty Hawk, Mr. Wind
Takes care of plenty o’ business around winter time
The place that I lived in was on a street
That happened to be one of the dead-end streets
Where there was nothing to block the wind, the elements
Nothing to buffer them for me, to keep ‘em from knocking my pad down, Jim
I mean, really socking it to me
When the boiler would bust and the heat was gone, Jim,
I had to get fully dressed before I could go the bed
‘Course I couldn’t put on my goulashes cause they had buckles on them
And my folks didn’t play that
They said, “Don’t you tear up my bedclothes with them goulashes on.”
Playing the role to perfection, Lou then goes on to describe how he split as soon as he could get a job and save enough money—a key point to demonstrate to the largely white listening audience that this kid didn’t steal their tax dollars by going on public assistance. Now you understand Lou when he sings about the limited options available to a black boy caught in the cycle of poverty:
They say this is a big rich town, but I live in the poorest part
I know I’m on a dead-end street in a city without a heart
I learned to fight before I was six, the only way I could get along
When you’re raised on a dead-end street you gotta be tough and strong
Now all the guys I know getting in trouble that’s how it’s always been
When the odds are all against you how can you win?
Lou dominates the “real song” with his rich, commanding voice, weaving tiny bits of scat into the drama-packed narrative to keep the groove going. His anguish and passion about the condition of black children in America comes through loud and clear, but equally strong is the message, “Hey, all I want are the same things you white people have that I don’t”—to get a good job, to learn a trade, to make a life for himself. While the non-revolutionary stance of “Dead End Street” may have frustrated a few militants, the message doesn’t differ much from points two, four and five in The Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: full employment, housing fit for human beings and a real education.
Lou Rawls won a Grammy for his performance, and though I loathe the Grammies and all they stand for, his vocal on “Dead End Street” deserves every award it can get.
“The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion),” The Grateful Dead, March 1967: The Dead’s first single was literally an afterthought: they’d finished recording their first album but Warner didn’t think any of the tracks qualified for release as a single. So they headed over to Coast Recorders, then located on Folsom Street in The City, and came up with a single based on the name of their fan club. “Golden Road” is a precious bit of you-are-there history, describing the burgeoning hippie scene in the Haight before tourists and the skeptical national press showed up and disrupted the vibes:
See that girl, barefootin’ along,
Whistlin’ and singin’, she’s a carryin’ on.
There’s laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She’s a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street.
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Hey hey, hey, oh, by the way, come and (party every day)
Well everybody’s dancin’ in a ring around the sun
Nobody’s finished, we ain’t even begun.
So take off your shoes, child, and take off your hat.
Try on your wings and find our where it’s at.
The feel of the song is loose and fun, reflecting the carefree spirit of those who chose to drop out of the absurd world sponsored by the white-shirted Establishment and tune in to music, dance and good times. The group vocals are outstanding, and while I think they may have overdone it a bit with the overdubs, the energy of the song never flags. I love the dissonant ending, a small but treasured bit of defiance against convention. If you want to get an idea of what the Haight felt like in its prime, “Golden Road” is a good place to start . . . and that’s my father talking, since I wouldn’t arrive on the planet for another fourteen years.
“Friday on My Mind,” The Easybeats, March 1967: The Easybeats were Australia’s answer to The Beatles, generating a form of teenage girl hysteria referred to in the Aussie press as “easyfever.” While the sheilas went apeshit for The Easybeats, the band might as well have lived on the moon as far as the rest of the world was concerned. I listened to several of their early tracks that made it big down under and what I heard was a rougher, even more unpolished version of garage rock. When they tried to sell their wares to the big boys in the U. K., their material was dismissed as unsuitable and unsophisticated—a reaction similar to that of the American arm of CBS when they first heard The Clash. Things finally got moving when The Easybeats were paired with Shel Talmy, notorious for his production work with The Kinks and The Who. After listening to their repertoire of originals, he chose “Friday on My Mind” as their best shot at a breakthrough.
Well, duh! The wow factor of this song is off the charts in terms of both musical sophistication and unbridled energy. The simple, insistent staccato guitar in E minor establishes an edgy tension for Stevie Wright’s vocal, which complements the tension with its sullen frustration, reflecting the drag we all feel in the early part of the work week. When the second guitar joins and delivers that amazing scale-defying run, you feel like the tension is about to boil over, but Stevie holds back for a couple of lines (including my favorite, “Even my old man looks . . . good”) before rising in the scale to the clinching line, “I’ve got Friday on my mind!” A rapid series of chords provides the bridge to the chorus in joyful A major, an increasingly delightful passage heightened by call-and-response vocals that ends in harmonic unity.
“Friday on My Mind” was their breakthrough hit, but unfortunately The Easybeats fell apart pretty quickly after earning international success. Damn! They really had something here, and had they continued writing in that vein, they could have created some terribly exciting material. Damn!
“Here Comes My Baby,” The Tremeloes, April 1967: I was so disappointed to learn that Cat Stevens wrote this song. I would like to send Cat Stevens and Graham Nash to whatever level of hell Dante reserved for those whose mere presence causes fatal diabetic shock.
Though it’s still hard to believe that Decca chose Brian Poole and the Tremeloes over The Four Moptops, the group did have a relatively successful career in the U. K. “Here Comes My Baby” was the first single after Brian Poole’s departure, and proved to be a breakthrough hit that gave them greater access to international markets. Personally, I can’t stand their even more successful follow-up, “Silence Is Golden,” and was thrilled not to find it in dad’s collection. Though the lyrics of “Here Comes My Baby” tell the story of a humiliating breakup, the manufactured party background helps lighten the atmosphere, and The Tremeloes’ infectious energy makes parting a sweeter sorrow.
“I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman,” Whistling Jack Smith, April 1967: File this under “Confidential: Confessions of a Whistling Whore.”
I wholly and completely reject the characterization of this song as a novelty song! People have been whistling for centuries—how then is whistling a novelty? I refuse to accept the cheapened definition of novelty as something popular for a short period of time and insist that this song has legs, people! Legs!
This song makes me incredibly happy! The arrangement is superb, opening with a brief gazebo band passage calling up nostalgic moments on the village green. A gentle arpeggiated guitar appears, and then we hear the sound of a jaunty air delivered through the puckered lips of a human being. Ah, the sweet sound of whistling! A bass and tambourine join in to strengthen the whistler’s fortitude, because as incredible as this may seem, some people think whistling is a silly thing to do. Harrumph! Now facing a half-step key change, the whistler receives additional support from an organist, a surprisingly energetic drummer and a good helping of reverb that helps the whistler maintain center stage. What? Another half step rise! What’s this? A WHISTLING DUET? OH MY GOD! YES! YES! BRING IT ON HOME BABY! AAAAAHHHH! NO! DON’T STOP! WHAT? YOU’VE GOT MORE? AAH! YES! YES! COME ON BABY, GET IT ALL OUT! YES! FUCK YES! AHHHHHH!
I don’t give a rat’s ass that Whistling Jack Smith was a figment of producer imagination. The man knew how make a woman take it, like it and beg for more. Whistling Jack Smith will always have a place in my heart as my virtual male blow-up doll.
One more time!
“New York Mining Disaster 1941,” The Bee Gees, May 1967: Although two Australian bands breaking into the American pop charts in the same year doth not an invasion make, The Bee Gees confirmed the existence of the mysterious subcontinent for geographically-challenged Americans and helped establish Australia as a viable source for new acts. While their disco phase appeals to me about as much as a guy who hasn’t showered in a week, The Bee Gees did some good stuff during the early years of international awareness. Bee Gees 1st (actually their third album but the first outside ANZAC) is a pretty solid album with surprising diversity. “New York Mining Disaster 1941” was the first of three A-sides from that album (“Holiday” and “To Love Somebody” are the other two) and is my favorite of the three. Composed by Barry and Robin Gibb, this dramatic monologue of a miner trapped in a cave-in is beautifully sung and brilliantly arranged. Contradicting the classic rules of song structure that demand you build to a peak, “New York Mining Disaster 1941” works in reverse: the lyrics become more spare and are sung more slowly as the song proceeds and the miner’s oxygen supply becomes depleted. The string support is equally spare, adding to the drama, and the carefully-placed harmonies supplied by Robin and Barry enhance the feeling of despair. Beatle-like? Sure, but virtually any English-sounding group that sang harmonies could have been nailed on that charge.
Look: if you can’t tell the difference between The Beatles and The Bee Gees, you’re a fucking idiot.
“Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” Janis Ian, May 1967: One of the very few protest songs to chart this year, “Society’s Child” was a remarkable song in many ways. And the shit Janis Ian had to go through after recording it was even more remarkable.
Janis was something of a musical prodigy who was trained on several instruments, composed her first song at the age of twelve and completed writing “Society’s Child” at fourteen. At the time she attended school in a neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey where whites were a distinct minority, enabling her to see racism at work on both sides of the divide. The song was released three times before Leonard Bernstein gave it a helpful push and brought Janis into the limelight at the tender age of 16. Even with Bernstein’s imprimatur, many radio stations banned “Society’s Child” because it dealt with a seriously taboo issue: interracial romance.
Janis received hate mail and death threats. Bill Cosby spread the word that she was a lesbian in an attempt to have her blacklisted (she came out as bisexual much later). Her career stalled for years until “At Seventeen” was released to widespread acclaim in 1975.
“Society’s Child” is still a beautiful and moving song today. The arrangement is tastefully dramatic, having been produced by Shadow Morton, who worked wonders with The Shangri-Las. The unusual key change from Cm to Am in the chorus adds depth to the girl’s feelings of despair and disconnection. Janis’ voice combines power, beauty and a genuine sense of anguish.
Some may complain about the copout at the end when she gives into her parents and ends the relationship with her black boyfriend, but I get the sense that the social reality of the time demanded such a copout. Though the people of the 60s’ thought they were living in an age of progress, most of that progress took place in the fields of consumer goods, military technology and the space race. When it came to the right to love whomever you choose, the 60’s were a pretty grim period.
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” Scott McKenzie, May 1967: Another 20-minute effort on the part of John Phillips, this song was primarily written as an advertisement for the Monterey International Pop Festival. Phillips was one of the festival’s organizers, as was producer Lou Adler. Though Phillips didn’t make a dime on the festival because the proceeds went to charity and the artists played for free (except for Ravi “Higher Consciousness” Shankar), there is such a thing as a loss leader, a marketing strategy where you lowball a product or service to stimulate sales of other product lines.
If you really think Phillips and Adler did this out of the goodness their hearts, you belong in 1967.
You also have to question why Phillips and Adler would promote a festival taking place in Monterey with a song encouraging people to travel to San Francisco. That’s a two-and-a-half hour drive if you’re lucky, and my research could find no evidence that Trans-Love Airways ever flew to Monterey. Or to San Francisco. Or anywhere outside of Donovan’s head.
But hey, if you’ve only got twenty minutes to put together an ad, you might end up with a few embarrassing typos.
When I hear Scott McKenzie’s wholesome-white-guy voice, I imagine him donned in the culturally-aware-oh-so-hip Nehru jacket and beads, standing in a field of wildflowers free of stinging insects and migrating animal shit, the sun shining brightly but not bright enough to damage Scott’s tender white skin, directing his naturally-benevolent gaze upwards at the clear blue sky free of rain clouds, passing jets and air pollution, projecting his Karo-brand corn syrup voice over emerald hills and dales where thousands of wannabe hippies have gathered to achieve peace, oneness, a great high and oodles of groovy, out-of-sight and blessedly free love.
The only problem with that picture is there is no way in hell a guy can get it up listening to Scott McKenzie.
While his voice creeps me out in the same way I get creeped out when I see pictures of Jesus in spotless white robes and squeaky-clean, obviously conditioned hair, I don’t blame Scott McKenzie for this turkey. He had a job to do and he did it with good faith and to the best of his ability. No, the fault here lies entirely with John Phillips, who (very much like Paul Simon) constantly inflated his importance by positioning himself as a “spokesperson for the generation.” This is the verse that makes me want to retch:
All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion, people in motion
If I could go back in time and grab John Phillips by his scruffy collar for a quick interview, here’s what that conversation might look like from my end:
“Hey, John, about this verse that starts with “all across the nation” and “a strange vibration”—what kind of vibes are you feeling from the people in the ghettos? How about the American Heartland? Think all those racists in Mississippi and Alabama feel those vibes? And you’re saying the whole generation is feeling those vibes, heh? What about the guys who signed up for the ROTC? What about the girls who still want to grow up and raise families? What about the farm boys? What about the Young Republicans? What about the young people living in poverty? And hey, what’s this “new explanation” all about? Got any plans? Can you share any details? What are you trying to achieve? And those people in motion—why are they in motion? Where are they going? What are they going to do when they get there? What’s that, John? I just don’t get it—is that what you said? Oh, I see—I had to be there. Well, John, I’m right here, right now. Show me the vibrations. Show me the new explanation. Show me how the whole generation is united in motion and tell me where they’re moving to and why. What’s that, John? I’ll see someday? I’ll see? Okay, I’ll see you and raise you a nickel that you didn’t know what the fuck you were thinking when you wrote this song. Is that right, John? Hey! Hey! Don’t you turn your back on me! Stop! Okay, I warned you!”
Wow! He . . . vanished! That nose twitch I picked up from Samantha really works!
“Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison, July 1967: I chose this song from the pile even though I’m sick to death of it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song played so frequently in public. I’ve heard it while strolling through the casinos in Vegas, on elevators in several different countries and when flipping through the stations on my car radio (in the days when I owned a car). I’ve heard it on television commercials, in between innings at baseball games and most recently on a boom box while strolling through the streets of Nice.
I think I remember liking it at one time, but I think I would have liked it better had Van stuck with the original title: “Brown-Skinned Girl.” Van says the title change was an accident, a story that has as much credibility as Lyndon Johnson did in 1967. He changed it because it would have been banned or censored on radio stations because of the interracial implications.
As it was, the song was partially censored anyway. The “making love in the green grass” was overdubbed with a repetition of the “laughin’ and a-runnin'” phrase. Still, I find the title change troubling—far more troubling than The Stones caving into Ed Sullivan and singing “Let’s Spend Some Time Together.”
I guess a 16-year old Jersey girl had more guts than a young man from the mean streets of Belfast.
“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry, August 1967: You can’t compare “Ode to Billie Joe” to any other song that came out in 1967, and it must have had a profound grounding effect on music listeners engulfed in a period of experimentation and often over-the-top wackiness. Instead of having to sit through another song celebrating the muddled values and questionable virtues of Hippie Utopia, here was a song about real people using real language to tell a real story. All over the U. S. A., people previously engaged in passionate debate about the war, moral decline, the credibility gap and the generational divide tuned out of the daily news cycle for a few blessed weeks and engaged in passionate debate about what the hell Billie Joe McAllister and his girlfriend threw off the Talahatchee Bridge.
There is nothing like a great story told well to bring people together. Bobbie Gentry not only wrote a great story, but she told it exceptionally well. Just like it was when your mom or dead read your favorite book to you for the umpteenth time, she has your undivided attention as you hang on every word, every nuance, every slight shift in the mood of the narrative.
I completely agree with Bobbie Gentry that the issue of what the couple tossed into the river isn’t really that important. What is important is the conversation between family members and how they process the meaning of Billie Joe’s suicide. Papa takes the classic American Puritan view that Billy Joe got what he deserved and that his death is a trivial event compared to the lower forty he’s got to plow. The line “Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense—pass the biscuits, please” is the ultimate negation of Billie Joe’s life. Mama maintains her native emotional intelligence (“and mama said it was a shame about Billie Joe anyhow”), but moves on from Billie Joe relatively quickly (“That nice young preacher Brother Taylor dropped by today”) then shifts to motherly concern over her daughter’s possible involvement in Billie Joe’s death. Brother has the typical reaction of finding death hard to believe and tries to do battle with the finality of death by recalling childhood memories. The girl who narrates the story is almost invisible until the last verse, refusing to partake in either the family dinner (note that dinner is the midday meal on the farm) or the family conversation. She mourns Billie Joe silently by throwing flowers into the muddy river. The visual of the young girl tossing petals from a bridge takes on an even greater sense of mourning by its appearance at the very end of the song—after we learn that the family that we met at dinner no longer exists. Daddy’s dead and gone, Brother’s moved up to Tupelo with his new bride and Mama has withdrawn into her grief. “Ode to Billie Joe” could be interpreted as a microcosm of the splintering of American society or the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family . . . but like the mysterious something flung into the water, that is a secondary interpretation based on “future hindsight.”
In addition to Bobbie Gentry’s first-rate storytelling skills, Jimmie Haskell’s cinematic string arrangement is a wonder in itself, a perfectly-synced mood track characterized by stark simplicity. Every note and every silent passage has a purpose; nothing is wasted; nothing is superfluous. The passage towards the end of the song where the strings build on held notes to the fluttering finale is a marvelous mixture of tension and lingering uncertainty.
Bobby Gentry’s original composition ran for eleven verses, and I’m glad Capitol Records made the decision to pare it down to fit on a 45. The final version you hear today is a paragon of poetic economy, an impactful aesthetic experience that encourages self-reflection.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson, August 1967″: They called him “Mr. Entertainment” for his electric performance style, but many of Jackie Wilson’s records fall short of capturing the man in his element. “Higher and Higher” comes closest in my book, a single-take display of Jackie Wilson in the zone. While I love the sheer enthusiasm in his voice, it’s the little touches he throws into the mix—a bit of falsetto support here, a fill-in word there—that really show how much he was feeling it. Jackie was also very lucky that The Funk Brothers decided to moonlight on this session, ensuring a tight groove and superb fills. Last but not least, kudos to The Andantes for their edge-of-female-falsetto background vocals that add immediate and lasting significance to the phrase “higher and higher.”
“The Letter,” The Box Tops, August 1967: Poor Alex Chilton. This song made him an international star at the ripe old age of sixteen and was the first in a string of hits for The Box Tops, including the solid follow-up, “Cry Like a Baby” and the rancid future commercial jingle “Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March.” All very well and good, but the truth was The Box Tops were seriously over-managed and the kids in the band were getting screwed by anyone in the music business who could worm his way onto the gravy train. Alex was a kid with a shitload of potential, but management just saw him as a lead singer who could bring home the bacon to the all the little piggies crawling in the dirt.
Alex would go on to demonstrate his formidable talents after leaving The Box Tops, both with Big Star and in various solo efforts. The tragedy is he never found the right mentor who could challenge him, guide him and help him get the most of out his natural gifts. While he remains a hero in the indie scene, it pisses me off that he died in relative obscurity, almost completely penniless and unable to afford medical insurance.
Back to “The Letter”—Alex’s vocal carries this song, overcoming the superfluous horns and strings that come close to ruining it. You can hardly hear the other Box Tops, so really, it’s Alex Chilton versus the sappy arrangement, and Alex wins in a landslide.
“We Love You/”Dandelion,” The Rolling Stones, September 1967: The Stones enter the revolutionary fray with a furious, unrelenting assault on . . . direct object pronouns?
We love you
We love you
And we hope that you will love we tooWe love they
We love they
And we want you to love they too
Way to hit the capitalist oppressors where they least expect it, guys! We will not be objectified!
The universal outrage of grammarians may have doomed “We Love You” from the get-go, as it never climbed above #50 on the Hot 100. Promo dollars were then shifted to the b-side, and “Dandelion” climbed to a respectable #14. “Dandelion” is the better song, which in comparison to “We Love You” isn’t saying a whole hell of a lot. It’s one of two decent pieces from this dark period in Stones history; the other is “She’s a Rainbow” from that disastrous experiment known as Their Satanic Majesties Request.
The Stones had no fucking business getting into psychedelia in the first place, as their sweet spot was and will forever be groove-based, R&B-influenced rock with a bite. They also made it more difficult for themselves during this period by falling in love with complex vocal harmonies, ignoring the inconvenient fact that their voices weren’t particularly suited for such work. To their credit, they may have been subliminally aware of their harmonic deficiencies, and for “Dandelion” they brought in Lennon and McCartney for emergency assistance.
No one was saved, not even “Dandelion.”
“Soul Man,” Sam and Dave, September 1967: This was a great year for soul, and I’m a sucker for soul songs where men sing about what studs they are. They’re a source of endless motivation because they remind me of how many men I have to subdue before I croak!
I was brought up on a side street
I learned how to love before I could eat
I was educated from good stock
When I start lovin’ I just can’t stop
I could respond, “Hold on, I’m coming” but that can be taken in so many ways.
Isaac Hayes wrote “Soul Man” as a pride song after seeing the word “soul” plastered on the windows of small businesses during the Detroit riots. The superficial intent of the signs was to discourage any black looters in the area from taking out their understandable frustrations on a black-owned business, but Isaac grasped the deeper meaning of the word “soul”—an affirmation of identity merging body and spirit.
The Soul Man in the song does more than fuck: he’s also there to help a woman out and give her hope. That thread served to challenge the stereotype of black men as unbreakable sex machines who value women only for their honey pots.
Personally, I don’t need the help or the hope, but I can always use a great fuck.
Sam and Dave trade verses and harmonize on the chorus, and make a fabulous duo, especially when paired with Booker T & the MG’s and horns from The Mar-Keys. I’m also a sucker for strong bass lines and “Soul Man” rumbles like a rhythmic earthquake. And I just love the way they back off the double time of the verses and ease into the basic groove in the chorus—it’s like a great fuck sequence when the guy follows five minutes of high-speed penetration with long, deep, measured thrusts that seriously test the elasticity of the vaginal wall.
No, I don’t hear sex in every piece of music, but I do hear it when it’s there.
“Incense and Peppermint,” Strawberry Alarm Clock, September 1967: I have to compliment the British on their musical taste here. While “Incense and Peppermint” made it to #1 in the USA, it failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart. Blimey!
The song has a weird history of disputed authorship and a strange decision concerning the lead singer. In a narrative piece on Songfacts, keyboard player Mark Weitz recalled that each of the band members tried to sing the lead vocal but none of them sounded right. A 16-year old kid who happened to be visiting the studio that day gave it a shot and got the job. And no, he did not join the band, even after “Incense and Peppermint” made it to the top.
I hope The Strawberry Alarm Clock were world-class lip-syncers.
An alternative version of the story is that the band members didn’t want to sing it because they couldn’t stand the lyrics provided by co-writer John Carter. I hope that’s the real version, because I don’t know how anyone with an ounce of self-respect would want to have anything to do with these ludicrous phrases:
Good sense, innocence, cripplin’ mankind
Dead kings, many things I can’t define
Occasions, persuasions clutter your mind
Incense and peppermints, the color of time
I have no idea what that means and I don’t think another acid trip would help. Later Carter borrows a piece of Timothy Leary’s tune in mantra then urges listeners to “throw your pride to one side, it’s the least you can do.” Whatever you say, man.
It’s really too bad that the Strawberry Alarm Clock a.) adopted a very silly name and b.) will forever be associated with a very brief moment in music history. They were actually one of the better L. A. bands and featured some solid musicians like Weitz and Ed King, who would move on to contribute his fretboard talents to Lynyrd Skynrd.
Oh well, “little to win, nothing to lose,” as they say.
“Get Together,” The Youngbloods, October 1967: Damn. Another barf bag song.
Jesse Colin Young approached the lead vocal with the same syrupy style of Scott McKenzie in a vain attempt to imbue meaninglessness with meaning and nothingness with feeling. The Kingston Trio had recorded this song as far back as 1964, but apparently no one was ready to love their brother just yet. “Get Together” was We Five’s follow-up to “You Were on My Mind,” and while it made the Top 40, there weren’t enough hippies around yet to turn into an anthem. Even when The Youngbloods released “Get Together” shortly after The Summer of Love, the song seemed finally destined for much-deserved oblivion after peaking at #62 in the Billboard Hot 100. It took two more years and a PSA by the National Conference of Christian and Jews to draw attention to The Youngblood’s version, and they finally made the Top 10 in 1969.
I really wish religious people would mind their own goddamned business.
This thoroughly repulsive song was written by one Chet Powers, aka Dino Valenti, who bounced around music scenes in Boston, New York and L. A. before winding up in the Bay Area just as the counterculture was rearing its hairy head. Eventually he became the lead singer and songwriter for Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that enjoyed modest success in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Chet-Dino was also busted several times for marijuana and amphetamine possession and actually had to spend some time in Folsom Prison for those seemingly minor offenses. To pay his legal expenses, he sold the publishing rights to “Get Together,” so in the end the song did provide some value in helping out a guy in a tough spot.
“Get Together” is repulsive on so many levels I hardly know where to start, but let’s get “smile on your BROTHER” out of the way first. Thanks for excluding more than half of the human race, Chet! Like many hippie anthems, the song hints at greater meaning but never provides anything the least bit meaningful. Lines guilty of this heinous crime include: “You can make the mountains ring/Or make the angels cry,” “We are but a moment’s sunlight/Fading in the grass,” and the entire last verse:
If you hear the song I sing
You will understand (listen!)
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It’s there at your command
WHERE’S THE FUCKING KEY? Is it under the doormat or in the fake rock hidden in the garden? If I smile on my BROTHER, is that like a secret password I have to use so I can get the fucking key? Hey, I’m all ears here—where is that goddamn key? Where’s the door? Where are we, Chet?
The weirdest verse is the second, where Chet turns into a half-assed theologian . . . I guess.
Some may come and some may go
We shall surely pass
When the one that left us here
Returns for us at last
We are but a moment’s sunlight
Fading in the grass
Wait, whoa, what? “Some may come and some may go, we shall surely pass . . . ” are you talking about birth and death? Don’t we ALL come and go? Are you hinting that there’s a secret path to immortality? Aha! That fucking key must have something to do with it! Okay, Chet, stay with me, stay with me, I think I’m starting to get it . . . oops, Chet, you lost me again with “When the one that left us here/Returns for us at last.” I hope you’re not talking about God or Jesus or anybody like that, Chet, because now you’re going to exclude another five or so billion people who don’t subscribe to Christianity . . . are you talking about The Aliens? Okay, I can dig that but . . . there’s only one alien? That must be one powerful motherfucker if he or SHE is going to manage the transportation arrangements for seven billion inhabitants!
You look sad, Chet. You didn’t really think this one through, didja, buddy? Don’t worry about it, Chet . . . you weren’t the only one.
“Boogaloo Down Broadway,” The Fantastic Johnny C, October 1967: I’ll take the lyrics of “Boogaloo Down Broadway” over “Get Together” anytime:
Baby, oh baby,
Boogaloo down Broadway,
Baby, oh baby
Boogaloo down Broadway.
Come on Sally, come on Sue,
All day long we’re gonna Boogaloo.
But when the sweat begins to fill the air,
We’re gonna funky Broadway everywhere.
Songwriter Jesse James wasn’t trying to make a meaningful generational statement. He wasn’t tying to raise anyone’s consciousness. He was just trying to get people in the mood to dance, and the lyrics are perfectly suited to that purpose.
Of course, he needed a great singer who shared that purpose, and he found one in an ex-gospel singer named Johnny Corley. He was re-christened The Fantastic Johnny C after Jesse James played the demo for some friends, who all described it as “fantastic.” And it is! “Boogaloo Down Broadway” is an absolute gas in large part because Johnny C was seriously feeling it. That little stop time section that opens the song and reappears between the verses is a precious moment of sensual delight and a model of effective simplicity: a nice little bluesy guitar riff and one powerful whack on the snare drum. The juxtaposition of a rock-solid groove with stop-time intervals make for a fabulous dance song that gives dancers the chance to show their stuff. I tried it at home with my partner and sure enough, every time that little riff appeared I felt an overwhelming urge to give her one powerful whack on her ass in time with the snare hit. And I did! And it was . . . fantastic!
“Homburg,” Procol Harum, October 1967: Stylistically similar to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” with piano more prominent than the organ, “Homburg” proved to be a worthy follow-up to one of the most cherished songs of the period. I love the structure of the chorus and the way the chords ascend in full-step intervals up to the major third while avoiding the obvious choice of the major fifth as the return to the root. I like the music far better than Keith Reid’s lyrics, which are unusually awkward (“for the floor she found descended”) and weaken the apparent theme of man trapped within his socially-defined perceptions. Oddly enough, it was paired with “Good Captain Clack,” a music hall bit from their first album about the consequences of a half-assed erection.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” Gladys Knight & The Pips, October 1967: Apparently Americans of this era had an unusually strong appetite for grapevines. Only a year after the Gladys Knight & The Pips version made it to #2, Marvin Gaye took his version to the top, where it stayed for three weeks. Not to be outdone, Creedence Clearwater Revival produced an eleven-minute version of the song for their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory. Their single version peaked at #46.
As it is with penises, length is irrelevant. Creedence’s version is a colossal bore from one of the most overrated bands in history, so Fogerty can put his long one back in his pants and get the hell off the stage. The only versions that matter came from Gladys and Marvin.
There’s really no sense in comparing the two, as Marvin Gaye put such an unusual spin on the original that it feels like they’re almost two different songs. Gladys’ take is more “You think you’re going to fuck with me, dude?” while Marvin’s reflects the deeper emotional consequences of rejection. Gladys deals with the obvious; Marvin plays with the subtext. There’s no question that the Gladys Knight & The Pips version is the better dance number, but Marvin Gaye wasn’t trying to get your feet moving—he targeted your heart and soul. I love both versions, and my preference for one or the other depends entirely on my mood: if I want to shake it, I go with Gladys; if I want a full emotional experience, Marvin’s my man.
“Itchycoo Park,” The Small Faces, November 1967: I can’t tell you what a wonderful feeling it is to end this series with a song featuring musicians who knew how to play.
I will never understand why Small Faces and The Pretty Things never made serious inroads with the American public. They were two of the best British bands of the era, compiling wonderful catalogues of diverse and exciting material. While I realize that they didn’t get much in the way of management or record company support in the States, I’m amazed that even the limited airplay they received didn’t start a groundswell of demand. The Pretty Things never charted in the United States, and Small Faces only hit the Top 20 once, with “Itchycoo Park.”
I’ve noticed that most reviews of this song focus on the engineering wizardry that created those cool psychedelic sounds and ignore the underlying truth that cool sounds do not make a memorable single. The reason you hear “Itchycoo Park” today is because fundamentally it’s a great song performed exceptionally well. The chord sequence in the verse is a bit unusual with its move from C#m to G in the context of the key of A major—when I first tried to learn this song the DOES NOT COMPUTE alarm went off in my brain and I must have tried twenty other chords before surrendering. Steve Marriott gets to show why he was one of the best lead singers of the era with a performance that ranges from soft restraint to all-out power. Ronnie Lane’s bass fills are simply marvelous, Kenney Jones is solid on the kit and Ian McLagan does superior and surprisingly subtle work on the keyboards. As with “Ode to Billie Joe,” the song featured a controversial unanswered question: “Where is Itchycoo Park?”
Personally, I couldn’t care less, but if you’re really interested, go look it up on Songfacts. To me, it’s another distraction from the delightful musical experience of the song itself.
After Dad helped me with the editing for this series (I always have my parents review the conversations I transcribe for accuracy), we had a nice little chat about our father-daughter shared experience. I should note that we started working on the series early in June 2016, and our progress was interrupted by two life-changing events that occurred back-to-back: my grandfather’s passing and the terrorist attack on the Prom. The emotional drain of grandfather’s death and the aura of tension in Nice left us with no energy to move forward, and due to the heavy travel demands of my relatively new job, I had very little free time. When we finally felt motivated to finish the job, we both went nuts, manically throwing ourselves into the music as if the music was our path to salvation. I then used all that dreary alone time in hotel rooms to complete the drafts, and I had dad over one night for dinner so we could reflect on the experience.
“You’re done, huh?” he said to me after I poured him some coffee.
I laughed. “I don’t know how to answer that. I’ve already quit twice and came back. Let’s just say I’m happy that I’m done with everything I wanted to see in the book and now I can send it to Robert for final editing—I hope. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be writing something every week, but I reserve the right to drop in from the ether every now and then if a piece of music really motivates me.”
“Maybe you’ll get motivated to do the Wilburys someday.”
“Ain’t gonna happen, dad!” We both laughed. When the laughter died out, dad shifted to a more reflective mood.
“This has been a great experience for me in many ways. I know you’ll understand this more than most in your generation because of the way you were raised on music, but not entirely because you grew up in a different world than I did. For me, music wasn’t just a way to pass the time, it was the center of my life—it shaped my experience, colored my memories, opened my eyes and ears to worlds different from mine. Music is sacred to me and to many in my generation because we didn’t have the thousands of avenues of entertainment your generation has. When I was growing up, every song took on at least some importance, because we didn’t have all that many to listen to. That’s probably why you get so much shit from people my age—when you try to explode cherished myths or mess with special memories, you’re going to get some blowback.
“A lot of memories came back as we listened to all these songs—some good, some not so good. What surprised me was how rich memories are when they’re tied to music. There were songs we played that literally took me back to my teens—I could feel the fog on my face and the slickness on the sidewalk as I walked to school, or smell the perfume on the girl I danced with at the mixer, or trivial stuff like when I was in study hall one day trying to remember the words to ‘Paint It, Black’ because my band wanted to try it out. I wrote them down in my spiral notebook in pencil—and when I hear that song I picture my words on the page, all covered with that pink residue from the eraser. I remember a kid who thought learning ‘Paint It, Black’ was a thousand times more important than acing the civics test.
“So this has been a great experience and I think the music helped us both through a pretty tough time. And I want you to know how much I appreciate you sharing it all with me—the good, the bad, the ugly. I love you, Sunshine.”
“Aww, dad, I love you, too.”
We hugged a long time, and shed a few tears of love and relief.
Then we took care of the dishes, stepped outside into the warm cocoon of a summer night in Nice and walked hand-in-hand down the hill to meet up with maman and my partner for late night cocktails, conversation and a little night music.