Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All Aboard!: The Seekers: "Morningtown Ride"

As the frenzied year of '66 draws to a close, we find ourselves on a train; the whistle blows and out it chugs, with its passengers - sleeping children - safely tucked away under blankets (where they are is cold, cloudy, maybe even a bit frosty - it is Christmastime)...and they go along the bay down to Morningtown, where everything will be sunny and pleasant. This is cosy children's music and folk music as well (the popularity of folk music is rarely shown by this blog lately, but it's about to branch out into folk rock - we'll get to that soon). Children's music is normally big around Christmas, but there is something here for grown-ups too - something akin to this song, wherein a train is also involved, also headed for a destination where things will be better. In the depths of winter, the promise of spring is not far behind; we are moving towards it, or it is coming to us, depending on how you see it. I have been known to like soppy songs for kids, and while I don't know this one from my own childhood, I do know others...

The promise of warmth and sunshine may sound odd coming from an Australian band, but this song was written by the American singer/songwriter Malvina Reynolds, who also wrote "Little Boxes" - she also contributed songs and appeared on Sesame Street, whose own theme song is also for children (obviously) but also is about a place where everything is just that much better. (Sesame Street was just the beginning for US public television's radical ideas on how to do shows for kids; it was thought up in '66 and the first episode aired in '69 - by '72 it was able to do this, which is a heck of a long train ride from The Seekers).

So, apart from this Christmas cheer - again, a bit sad for my taste, but maybe that's just Judith Durham's voice - what else is looming for the new year? Tom Jones is ONLY DREAMING at number one, The Kinks sing about getting nowhere on "Dead End Street," The Supremes are getting tough...and this new "power trio" called Cream lingering at the bottom, biding their time. Death, in a way, stalks the chart, from the top song to the continued presence of Jim Reeves, who had departed in '64 but persisted, Tupac-like, for years afterward. Fellow Australians The Easybeats longed for escape as much as anyone, but there was one song that talked about a different kind of escape; it starts '67 off very appropriately.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Are Better Than One: Val Doonican: "What Would I Be"

"I don't ponder because I don't even see the world without it. It's too big, or buried too deep, with edges that thin out to nothingness, binding itself to everything else."

Julie Powell, Cleaving

Suddenly we are out of the club and have ended up in one of the country variety, or perhaps in a waiting room somewhere. This may be called "easy listening" by some, but any song which has "angry voices raised in vain" and "unspoken thoughts we both regret" could only be called easy by someone who is going through a very tough patch indeed. Jackie Trent wrote this song and while I can't say if it was autobiographical or not (I hope not - she was falling in love with Tony Hatch at this time) it has the ring of authenticity. It is as if the man in the Manfred Mann song is speaking up - the other one - and describing what marriage is really like. There may be irritating things but they are far outweighed by the irresistible ones, the ones that make despair or dismay evaporate, the ones that make thinking of life without the Other impossible. What would he be, he wonders - and he will never know. It is one of those unknowable things, unthinkable, because it is literally beyond the bounds of perception. This is what Powell is saying here, and Doonican as well - that the minor troubles they go through are in reality nothing compared to the much bigger alternative. Adolescents and young folks may sulk after a fight or a bad day, but adults know that there will always be the rough with the smooth and that the balance between the two is what counts; a relationship that lasts takes this well into account and even, so to speak, banks on it. It is a mature song, realistic, perhaps a little sad (Doonican always sounds a bit sad to me, but perhaps that's his Irish accent).

Marriage is a complex thing that requires a lot of attention and care (I am presuming this is a song about marriage, though it could stand for any long-term relationship) and it has always been a fringe subject in pop, since so much music is about crushes, flirting, searching, maybe finding, being dumped, etc. There are songs that celebrate weddings, too, but beyond that, it's up to "easy listening" crooners and the odd star like Kurt Cobain or Biggie Smalls to sing about marriage, as if it was a fringe state and something that happens every day. I am aware that "easy listening" is almost presupposed to be for those who are married, older, who don't go to clubs but don't want to listen to their parents' music all day, either. There is a substantial bloc of listeners in the 60s who like this kind of music and they don't have any interest in pop music unless it speaks to them: and this is exactly what does.

Val Doonican himself was an colorful-sweater and rocking chair-friendly Irish singing star who had his own television show, where he had a regular cast and many guest stars, including American singer-songwriters such as Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne and Laura Nyro, whose first album comes out around this time...and actually born around this time is Sinead O'Connor, who grew up with Val Doonican records and learned to sing "Scarlet Ribbons" - Doonican himself admires her version.

Yes, we are far from the sweaty club, and by the time we get back, things will be far more complex than they were before.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Going Out On Top: Spencer Davis Group: "Gimme Some Loving"

And here we are, dancing wildly on the edge; the crowning song of the beat boom rightly belongs to the hardest working band out there, the Spencer Davis Group. The band (even in this...Swedish?...version) is tight, Steve Winwood sounds as if he's much older than 19, and the kids are raving in the sweating club, the emblematic Hammond organ conjures up all sorts of images of what 'groovy' and 'Swinging' could mean...

...and there is something sweet, too, in a band from Birmingham - right in the center of the country - uniting everyone in the face of a cold and uncertain winter (Cathy Come Home had just been aired on tv; unemployment was rising yet again). The effervescence of the mid-60s was slowly wearing off, for various reasons; obviously the party continued for many, but even from this version I get that something more contemplative and not quite as simple is around the corner for Winwood. There are only so many nights you can pound out foot-stomping classics - even one as elemental and contagious as this one - without wanting to vary things up a bit, expand what you can say and how you can say it. In short, this is another club banger, from a band used to making people dance, and there is no topping it (though the Winwoods' last single with them - "I'm A Man*" - is as fitting a goodbye as possible). Both of these songs were produced by Jimmy Miller, an American who had drifted (anyone know how or why?) to England (see also Tony Visconti and Joe Boyd - here beginneth the era of Americans helping to push UK music forward**). He got to work with The Rolling Stones with his success here - making a song sound as if it was the apex of the boom itself, the figurative end of the long hard week so many bands had had so far, zooming through the years, riding on their own hard work and good luck and love of music.

I hope I am not getting too sentimental about this time, but the joy and innocence and simple good times of the mid-60s should not be forgotten; they help to define the decade as a whole and are the only way the late 60s make any real sense. By now, John had met Yoko; drugs were in wide use, LSD in particular being what the self-consciously cool types were dropping; those mutant energies were growing stronger and would not always be satisfied with a simple "boom-boom-boom-boom-BOOM-boom." That is sad, maybe, but expanding minds were going to change the way music sounded, the way it sold, even the way it was performed.

For now we are going to leave the sweaty club, the land of a thousand dances, happy to hear this pounding out and even now I can hear the giddy "Hey" and hands clapping in unison. Goodbye mid-60s, you won't be forgotten.

*Forewarned: I will be including as many songs from my wedding cd on this here blog as possible, because I can. I hope you enjoy them!

** Shel Talmy, producer of the early singles by The Kinks and The Who, is also American. This makes me wonder just how British the British Invasion was, sometimes...

Man and Wife: Manfred Mann: "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James"

And so the 60s sit, perched, as it seems from here, to break into two not-so-clean pieces - the one that, raunchy as it is, still wears matching suits (as we have seen) and the more rebellious types who wear whatever they want and have more ambivalent feelings about what 'normal' people do. This song stands clearly on that side, the one that asks, effectively (decades before Lloyd Cole) "Are you ready to be heartbroken?" Not in the dumped way, but in the way that cozy security and regular routines can fetter those free spirits who aren't quite ready for domesticity. Is the woman here, newly engaged, able to see her future? Does she know what awaits her, out there in the new town? There are two possible answers: yes, and no. This song wouldn't have much point if it's the first answer, because then the Manfreds would be patronizing, right?

Or maybe...not. Even those with something of a clue of what is ahead cannot see everything which is to come; but the subtleties of that are more for the introspective 70s, not now. Clearly this is about a girl who is about to see her life change and probably not for the better. "Semi-detached" refers to a kind of house, but you can imagine Mr. James is a lawyer or physician or someone who works in The City and will not have much time for his Gidget-type girl, who will become - so the singer believes - something of a bored drudge, listening to pirate radio* (maybe) to keep whatever is still vital and sparkling from being smothered completely. The 60s were the 60s, but there was still an expectation that women - no matter how wildly they danced or how short their skirts or radical their views - would eventually settle down (both connotations apply here). Is the girl in this jaunty song ready to do this? Can she do it without becoming depressed, numb or just bored? Manfred Mann don't think so, and the next year will see them proved right.

The chart at this time is ablaze with many emotions, from joy to loneliness, desperation to liberation; whimsy, even. That better-have-a-drink-before-I-sing-this schlock was in the mix was fine, too; but the divide is about to become greater as the year comes to a close, though the swinging 60s aren't going to disappear once the church bells start ringing. Those who want to conform and be "square" and those who marry into that life will sit and be - annoyed, bemused or baffled - by those who refuse to join in. Now seems like the last time the two sides will even talk to each other, let alone contemplate marriage.

*Pirate stations only employed men as they were supposed to be substitutes for husbands for any wives listening. I may have mentioned this before, but I still think it's worth noting.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Boy Can't Help It: The Hollies: "Stop, Stop, Stop"

Okay, what the hell is going on here?!? I mean, DDDBM&T and The Troggs are expected to perform songs that are suggestive (hell, suggestive - they practically give instructions) and now these nice boys from Manchester (not London - what did that guy think) are singing about...sexual obsession?

He's sweaty, the belly-dancer's sweaty, he's getting excited and there is no way this is going to end well. If anybody wanted to know what the 'male gaze' is about, it's all right here - she enters the room, the spotlight is on her - even if he wants to look away, he can't. Even more than The Troggs though, he is nervous; he compares her to a snake - alluring and strange - and he can barely breathe. The dancer dances on, unaware of him, doing her job, tapping her cymbals and rolling along, gyrating to and fro...

...and then he's there, onstage with her! Standing in the light, stock still I'd guess, but then just as suddenly he grabs her and they tussle, falling into the crowd and knocking down drinks. He wants her and he wants her now; who knows anything beyond that, even himself? It "happens every week" (for how long now?) and he of course gets thrown out, which may or may not also happen every week. The sparkling harmonies and high ringing banjo are very typically Hollies, but this song (by the band's composers) goes beyond just wanting and needing to obsessing and taking (or trying to take) the girl. That he keeps pleading for the dancing to stop could mean he knows what he feels is wrong, he knows darn well what's going to happen, but his desire for her is so strong that it drowns out that more sensible side of himself. On the one hand, he's a jerk; on the other, a man who really should know better but- in a different way from The Troggs - can't control himself.

Who could have expected this from The Hollies? What the heck was going on with pop in general? Here Clarke and Nash talk about what pop is and how much things have changed in a few years. The kids have moved on, a new crop of girls scream for them, and presumably the older kids want something different now. I'm not sure if this song is for those older kids (it's a strange song for The Hollies, after all) or if the older kids are now getting into...rock?

There is a shift here, something is indubitably happening and all the bands must sense it, and the old restlessness is returning. The kids of '63 who went crazy for Merseybeat are nearly four years older now and can handle psychological complexities and weirdness - as long has a good beat and they can dance to it. Just how a song about - let's face it - attempted rape/abduction got on the airwaves I don't know, save for The Hollies' general good reputation, and the brightness of the song itself. But that they - Graham Nash in particular I sense - want to keep pushing limits just as much as anyone else means something seriously is up, and if this is acceptable then all hell's going to break loose*, if it hasn't already.

*Beyond the intensely sexual side of the charts in late '66, there's also the freakout of "Good Vibrations" (talk about people staring a radios wondering what that was) and "Painter Man" which is allied with The Who's taking-art-to-the-masses idea quite literally. Happenings, where the action was part of the art - and participants could become part of the work-in-progress - knocked down the idea that art was special, even as The Creation lamented the life of the artist.

You Can't Play That On The BBC part 3: The Troggs: "I Can't Control Myself"

"AAAwwwwOOOOOOOHHHHHHH NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" screams Reg Presley, as if he is doing something he likes maybe a little bit too much and also maybe has done something wrong.

But it's not his fault!

This man is on fire, after all, and possesses (or is possessed by, more accurately) something way beyond anything he's experienced before. Unlike "Wild Thing" where he bosses the girl around, here she is an idol, a figure with naked hips and long hair and a way of breaking him down until he's helpless, swamped by a fervor so big it could "move a nation" (whatever thatmeans). In such a state he of course is going to scream and the bubblegum "ba bas" are like so much background noise to his passion. He is swamped by something he can't control (and this loss of control is fun, of course, as long as she's faithful) and if only she knew how it felt, her hair would curl. Well! He may be ridiculous to others but what the hell does he (or should he) care?

I can't say this is the beginnings of ye olde punk rock*, but I can't say this band (beloved of Lester Bangs, mais oui) isn't getting back to the basics even as the baroque and (shh-it's just starting now) psychedelic modes are beginning to take hold of the more famous bands. The Troggs knew where their bread could be buttered, so to speak, and it wasn't in anything that would take long to write or record. Mutant energies were working elsewhere; here the thudding bass and hapless howls are enough to make sure that rock 'n' roll stayed just as degenerate and disrespectable as it should be. His scream of pure pleasure at the end is miles away from anything normal radio would play. I wonder if it will return?

Next: more uncontrollable behavior, believe it or not.

*Chrissie Hynde dedicated this to Sid Vicious at the Pretenders' first gig; before the concert she found out he had died.

Monday, September 19, 2011

You Can't Play That On The BBC part 2: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich: "Bend It!"

In the midst of all this it's important to remember that we are still in the Age of Meek, though the man himself was entangled in a lawsuit and increasingly (understandably) anguished over many things, he was still writing and producing songs. Not hits; Edinburgh's own The Buzz's epic "You're Holding Me Down" should have been a monster freakbeat hit of the first order, but it was just too much for The Man (talk about a song only playable on pirate radio). Meek was a producer who had his own technique and sound, stubborn, unable to just simply record a band and have a "live, off the floor" vibe that was the hallmark of others (The Who songs at this time all sound like they were recorded as is in a broom closet, for instance.)

How I wish I could say that this song was a Meek production, but songwriting team Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley (who had had success with Meek with this song, one so compressed it sounds like a singing baseball bat) had no luck with the band (then called Dave Dee and the Bostons) as Meek wanted them to play slowly, then speed them up on tape; the band just knew how to play the songs they had one way, and that was that - Meek stormed upstairs, and the band schlepped their equipment back down the stairs. Howard and Blaikley then not only were their songwriters and managers, but producers too. Part of Meek's anguish must have been knowing how successful they were, while his own songs were busy getting nowhere.

If The Who introduced gender confusion to pop, well, here comes DDDBM&T with something so utterly blatant that I am surprised anyone played it...but a cheery bit of "Zorba's Dance" makes this playful and you just know girls loved Dave Dee*, the sort of guy who could sing this with a smile and enjoy its campness without being camp himself in the least. It got played because it was naughty (so naughty that they had to re-record it with different lyrics for the US) and the fact that it was written by a gay songwriting team...did not seem to matter. (DDDBM&T's first chart hit was called "You Make It Move" - no kidding.) The slow-building excitement, the clapping, the insinuating melody - it's like a Greek dance meeting a late-night Blow Up-style freakout wherein everyone is having a good time and anything could happen afterwards, to the point beyond just flirting and dancing. This impending shagfest rave-up was too much for the BBC (who only played The Honeycombs after they had reached the Top 20), who still are reluctant to play it. It may seem embarrassing now, I suppose, but such insistent and scrunching rhythms were exactly what the grannies in Arboath/Iowa didn't approve of, bless them. Pop always needs a WTF song of one kind or another, and while this is the strangest of the bunch of '66, it is by far the last...

Alas, this is the only time I get to write about these colorful, winking and theatrical men (Howard & Blaikley and DDDBM&T) - Meek was growing ever more morbid, trying to record ghosts in graveyards...just as the 60s were at their most vivid and alive, just as the strangeness began to creep in, around the edges...things were only barely in check.

*Dave Dee was a policeman before he formed a band; he was called out to help at the crash that killed Eddie Cochran and injured Gene Vincent, a moment that may well have transferred some of Cochran's rebellious spirit into Dee. Who knows? I am sure Meek would have understood, and maybe even envied him for it.

You Can't Play That On The BBC part 1: The Who: "I'm a Boy"

Away from the pastoral sweep of The Beach Boys, now, and back to the UK, where something was most definitely happening, though for just now there are only glints of it on the pop charts. That something is the division between pop and rock, easily seen by the differences between album and singles charts. For now they remain more or less the same, but this state will only last for a couple more years, at best. The word 'art' comes back naturally with The Who, lead by the self-consciously audacious Pete Townsend, who wanted more- more than just regular pop songs as provided by everyone else. Other groups did too, of course (the Rolling Stones always being hip to trends, and The Beatles personified restlessness) but Townsend's sincerity makes this song (from an abandoned project about a world of gender-selected babies called "Quads") stand out.

There is no overt menace here, just a refusal (because she wanted another daughter) of a mother to accept that she has a son, which makes Bill into a "headcase" - dying to escape from the world of femininity to one of cricket, mud and bicycles and blood - but who "gets it" if he does. This goes beyond the Stones' dressing up in women's clothing for "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows" (a different way of defying norms and testing of their audience; the song stalled at #5).

"I'm a Boy" wins out because it seems to be leading the listener into something, something different and interesting, unless you are a light programme devotee and songs about gender differences and incipient madness make you...uncomfortable. The song is full of harmonies (influenced by Pet Sounds, I'd guess) and sung as prettily as possible, as well, by both Townsend and Daltrey. It is nearly weightless (anticipating "I Can See For Miles") and the anger comes out in Moon's drumming as usual, but the two harmonize at the end, lamenting and asserting the boy's point of view, one that can't be denied forever...

...it is a good point to ponder the role of pirate radio at this time, mainly because it would play what the BBC would not - songs such as the ones mentioned here. The pirates - from what I can tell - created the utterly free climate for bands and songwriters to do whatever they wanted, within reason, and then to see just how much they could get away with. Would they have been as daring without the pirates? Just how closely did people then listen to lyrics? Part of pop - or rock, if you will - is to push limits, to say the previously unsayable, to give the outcasts and freaks and geeks a voice - a voice that was needed and at present able to be heard, though by now objections to pirate radio were getting louder and louder, much like the music itself.

Townsend would eventually write longer and longer pieces about confusion and alienation and the search for some kind of resolution; this song is the start towards Tommy and Quadrophenia as well, rock as art (as opposed to art rock, which this blog will reach in time). In the meantime a whole new crop of bands would appear, blowing the minds of some listeners and driving others (more timid ones, perhaps) to the more standard fare of love songs and cheery uptempo toe tappers. Pop is the girl and rock is the boy? If only it were as simple as that; but once the door is open then anything can happen, and the idea that a song has to be anything will be tested during this time, until something breaks.

The promise of this song is that the boy can sing at all (unlike Tommy he's not dumb) and he will go on singing, even to himself. Another singer/songwriter heard this and was perhaps encouraged to write his own song, one that would be too much for even pirate radio. Something was happening, indeed.