Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Lover's Discourse: The Four Tops: "Walk Away Renee"

Or, The Summer of Love With A Vengeance

"My language trembles with desire." Roland Barthes, "Talking" A Lover's Discourse

There are certain voices that can sing anything - and then there are grander voices that are best suited to whatever their voices most suggest. Holland-Dozier-Holland knew what Levi Stubbs' voice was capable of, what it could bear, and wrote songs for him and The Four Tops that only they could really sing. Stubbs' voice is big, pained, noble; it needed a setting and lyrics that could match it.

When H-D-H left Motown The Four Tops were (like everyone else H-D-H had worked with) at something of a loss for songs, when someone - I'm not sure who - found this and knew it would work. (I am writing about this, by the way, as a #2 hit on the NME chart.) I can well imagine them hearing to the original in '66 song by The Left Banke and being impressed by it; the singer is paralyzed with hopeless love. He is stationary, empty, and the world floods around him, the sky cries the tears he can't, the symbol of love - a heart on a wall with her & his names - haunts him. Because she can never be his, she may as well leave; he cannot follow her or even be near her. It is too much for him, he literally cannot stand it. The singer Steve Martin (and here we come to feeling The Four Tops understood) cannot help himself; he sounds as if he is singing from a fugue state, just conscious enough to sing, to say what little there is he can say, that can be expressed in words. The rest is taken up by strings, harpsichord, flute; the elegant and comforting touches around a terrible loss.

He is noble in recognizing what the situation is (she's not to blame; there's no blame here at all) and being able to sing it. (Renee was an actual person, a muse for the harpsichordist/lyricist Michael Brown, and she was present when the song was being recorded, but not during his playing; he was trembling and in no fit state to record when she was around, and he did his part later when she'd gone.)

So this is not mere infatuation or a crush; this is closer to the scary, sweaty but inspirational Robert Graves' The White Goddess situation, where the writer is almost driven to write out his profound and worshipful experiences*. That is the kind of urgency and agony that suited Stubbs' voice very very well, and the grief and baroque pop of the original also suited the Motown's continuing aim of being 'The Sound of Young America' - they had started recording in Los Angeles as well as Detroit in 1967 and the baroque/psychedelic sounds were starting to filter into the songs and production. (Think of "Reflections" by The Supremes or "More Love" by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles.)

The version by The Four Tops sounds large and perhaps a bit rough compared to the original (there's no harpsichord or flute on it, that I can tell - horns and piano are dominant here). Stubbs dominates the song with his pauses, his soaring exclamations, as he is supported by his group and other backing singers. He isn't so much paralyzed as proclamatory; he is past the agony of the situation, sure, but not so much that every thing - the one way sign, the heart - are just reminders of what he can never have, and he sings about them as if (almost) he is wounded by them, like arrows. He can live without her, but he can never escape her, and the emptiness and literal signs of love will outlive him.

That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but this is a song about one man vs. the world, the awfulness of every particular thing as symbols of what he wants and cannot have. They are noble because they are his; no one will ever feel about them the way he does. For Brown they are actual, for Stubbs they are dramatic (that the song starts with 'And' implies there is something that could come before the lyric, but doesn't - the listener is thrown right into the thick of things). With each high "AWAY" she is willed further and further out of his life**; the song resolves on a downward graceful landing, a note of peace that points back to the beginning - starting with "And" means he will go on, it's not the end of the world, just the end of his possibility of requited love (which can seem like the end of the world, admittedly).

The crushing feeling here is the aftermath of love; the Summer of Love left many heartbroken and in '68 - a time of turmoil and trouble almost as soon as it started - is full of songs where emotion, not reason, come to the fore. From hope comes desire, and from thwarted or doomed desires come drama; an awful lot of drama is to come on this blog. But few of these songs are as cathartic as this one, which leaps immediately in to fill in the once empty air with a near-operatic song. Like I said, The Four Tops understood this, and by extension give the listener a compassionate hug, as well.

"How does love end? - Then it does end?" Roland Barthes, "The Ghost Ship" A Lover's Discourse

*Brown referred to his love for Renee as "mythological."

** The Four Tops did an Italian version of this called "L'Arcobaleno" ("Rainbow") - something else that can be admired but never reached.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We Are All Together: The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour EP

When an artistic movement helps to define an era, the era can – and often does – supersede the movement, leaving whoever is participating in it to their own devices until they can regain their bearings. The haze of ’67 was brought on in large part by The Beatles with “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” and Sgt. Pepper, and celebrated by “All You Need Is Love.” The Beatles didn’t invent psychedelic music, but without their success with it other bands wouldn’t have recorded some of the songs I have written about/mentioned recently.

Ian MacDonald describes the summer of ’67 as something of an egalitarian free-fall, a time when the movement was starting to show its cracks. The Rolling Stones were framed and put on trial and sentenced, pirate radio all but disappeared; The Man plc had had enough of the fun times, the party was over. If Charles Shaar Murray could write a piece about the public abuse of The Sex Pistols and call it “This Sure Ain’t The Summer of Love” then I should say that the Summer of Love itself wasn’t all that loving in the first place (and hence the worldwide rebellions of 1968 didn’t come out of nowhere).

For The Beatles it was as if they had been elevated to a status that made them godlike, which is pleasant enough if all is well. The artistic highs – writing and recording one of the greatest, if not the greatest single of all time, album ditto – led to a dual anxiety and laxness, neither of which are helpful in making music. Add to this the death of Brian Epstein in late August and you can see how Magical Mystery Tour was more or less going to be patchy, and if you factor in drugs and their lingering side effects then it is a wonder the thing – soundtrack and movie – were done at all. Most groups would take a good break and think things out before proceeding, but as pioneers The Beatles were na├»ve in their way; they had to keep going in order to keep existing at all, and had already begun the project when Epstein died. In a way it was griefwork, and if it sounds distracted then that’s a good reason why.

I should also mention the collapse of the SMiLE project of The Beach Boys, due to the pressures Brian Wilson had as he tried to get his recalcitrant band to work on something utterly different while fighting Capitol Records’ legal team at the same time. The sessions were legendary from the get-go, and The Beatles (because the two groups had the same publicist, Derek Taylor) must have heard some of them, though just what they heard I don’t know*. If SMiLE had been released in January of ’67 as planned then so much would have been different, but it wasn’t and The Beatles, in effect, had no competition**. This added to their laissez-faire attitude, one which didn’t really suit them. (They also of course had stopped touring – something no group would normally do unless they were about to break up or were taking a breather. They had a right to stop, but it took the fresh air out of the group, and in the long run I think they suffered for it.)

If the public – or at least a good section of it – turned away from psychedelia, it was because they could hear in it – even if the words made little sense – a rejection of the world as it stood, and unless they were also were part of the counterculture, that rejection would include themselves. That psychedelia did matter to many as not just meaning drugs but an embracing of such things as the I Ching, Tarot cards and so on as guides and symbols shows the longing for another order of things altogether, a sensing even that behind the modern world of new-fangled things was an older order that would feed the soul…that randomness was a way of making art as well, what with everything – every symbol, every card – meaning something, after all…

Before '67 for The Beatles, this randomness was a tool to inspire new songs; but now it became for them a way to just get things done, an end in itself. The I Ching is a profound work, however and not one to be taken lightly; the Tarot can be used to present situations and suggest the obstacles and solutions to them, rather than just being a series of medieval symbols that are pretty. I don’t know if they used either of these in their work, but it was in the air, and as with anything the more attention and care given to them, the more you get back. Again, laxness and anxiety are not helpful in harnessing these random (or some would say not-so-random) sources, when what is needed is calmness and concentration.

Magical Mystery Tour the tv movie was shown on Boxing Day; this EP preceded it by a few weeks. It has six songs, each one a little more strange than the previous – “Magical Mystery Tour” itself sounds like a tv show theme, hectic, full of brass, echoes, desperate for attention and winning it, because they are “DYING to take you away.” It is as if The Beatles are more or less kidnapping their audience, promising strangeness and beauty and whatever else they need in return. If it’s “an invitation” then it is one of the most demanding ones of all time; the audience has a right to feel uneasy.

Then, from the menacing “coming to TAKE YOU AWAY” it goes quiet and still; “The Fool On The Hill” observes the spinning world, oblivious to public opinion, simple in his way but wise as well. I don’t know if this comes (as IMac guesses) from The Fool in the Tarot, but if you know anything about that card you know he is going along his business, dog nipping at his heels – far from the lonely figure McCartney sings about. It is a gently sad song – is the fool a pitiable figure, or is he at one with the world, centred, while everyone else is mad? He is there perpetually, “day after day” and his naive and childlike nature are admirable but also kind of unnerving. No one seems to know him, like him, care for what he says – so I, anyway, tend to find this song a little off-putting, though lovely as well. (The recorder and other instruments suggest the medieval Tarot-like vibe of the song, far more than the lyrics.)

Flying” is a mellow instrumental ; it sounds uncannily like Stax, reminding me of Booker T & the MGs’ McLemore Avenue, which is their own laid-back take on Abbey Road. This sounds as if it is an homage to that label to me, with added mellotron; weightless as the title suggests, and proof that all the Beatles together could indeed write a song.

Blue Jay Way” is a song that Harrison wrote while in Los Angeles, waiting for Derek Taylor; he may have been listening to the SMiLEsessions before writing this, if only because the tempo changes are of the same sort. It is - like all of Harrison's songs at this time - based on Indian music, but instead of being enlightening, it sounds as if he is just being whiny, unable to just go to sleep when he wants to. This is what I mean by the chance element - being stuck waiting for someone - might seem like a good idea at the time for a song, but in reality it's not. Maybe he should have just meditated, gone to sleep, called someone up? But MMT needed songs, and so this was included...

Your Mother Should Know” may not seem very intimidating or strange, but the fact that it’s an unfinished song (musically it just meanders along pleasantly enough) adds to the unease that has been steadily building up. The idea of dancing to an old song – a song from “a long, long time ago” (the WWI era, perhaps?) verges on the vintagizing effect. This sounds cute – to throw away the present for the past – but as a song it lacks knowingness that The Beatles usually kept in their collective back pockets. Is it anti-Modern? Has time stopped? Are The Beatles now like Hamlet, in a world out of joint? I am not sure, but I do know that while they were recording this Brian Epstein dropped by to see how they were doing – the last time they were all together. The old world is gone, there is nothing new and so why not celebrate the past? Things are getting more and more confusing, and I can’t blame the UK audience for finding this a less than satisfactory ending for the movie.

None of these songs could prepare the listener for the next song, however; in it a threshold is crossed, and the palpable underlying dissatisfaction in so many psychedelic songs utterly explodes.

I Am The Walrus” is the point at which The Beatles justify this entire exercise. To say that it’s monumental is barely adequate; it is such a big song that as it ends you aren’t in the same place as when it started, and hence pop music isn’t in the same place, either. It warps and changes and surrounds the listener, inducing (I’m sure, because I feel it) in more delicate listeners dizziness and slight nausea. There is simply nowhere to hide. The lyrics are deliberate nonsense (Lennon wrote them to frustrate any hapless interpreters, so I am going to leave them alone) and they are sung with such disgust and venom that they cannot help but be scary. (Not as scary as the Blue Meanies, but pretty close.) Every key is hit here, every target Lennon can think of is included, and this howl is more than matched by Steve Race (orchestration) and George Martin in the slowly vertiginous alternating keys and general claustrophobic feeling. (The only thing that breaks up that is the pause for “Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun” which inspired Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne no end in Birmingham***.) The closest thing I’ve heard to it is “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” from SMiLE– that same repetitive churning, the same loudness, reflecting a world in chaos. Another small link is Lennon’s high “I’m CRYING” with Wilson’s “too tough to cry” in “Surf’s Up” – the nonsense of Lennon comes out of frustration/repression, whereas Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics are an expression of a collective memory, one where the child is father to the man. For better or for worse, Lennon spoke only for himself. (Another generation would bring their own energy to the song, of course.)

This was not pop music as usual and in a song that cries out against everything, some novelty – something new – must come to take its place. Lennon had caught up with McCartney on the avant-garde art front (thanks to Yoko Ono) and thus Lennon & McCartney then up the ante towards the end by baffling/assaulting the listener with the Mike Sammes Singers yelling, like cue-carded Village residents on drugs, “EveryBODY’s GOT ONE!” repeatedly while a live radio feed of King Lear is put into the mix, a record is scratched (the first time this happens on a single, I think – hello rap) and the cellos and horns keep blaring away. Gradually it fades away, as a whole world is falling apart. That this wasn't the last song in the movie makes sense, but on the EP it could only be at the end; because in more than one way, it is the end.

Out of the death of Brian Epstein came forth MMT, much like the unwanted liberation of Julie Vignon in Bleu - her husband's death eventually leads to her being discovered as a composer in her own right. The Beatles had already been in the process of finding their own voices, but with Epstein's death this was accelerated, with the attendant artistic egos coming out of what was once a gang bent on taking over the world. So the MMT stands as the last time The Beatles were indeed The Beatles; after this they began their lives as solo artists, the cover of their next album being blank, representing the effective clean slate they had been given, whether they wanted it or not.

So Magical Mystery Tour EP is a record of how they were caught up in the haze of '67, the death of Epstein, their own naivety that they could do anything and because they were The Beatles, it would be good. The grief and whimsy sit uneasily together, though, auguries of what is to come, just as in a couple of months another (overlapping?) tv audience will be outraged by this ending, one that includes "All You Need Is Love" and may or may not have the group itself as cameo masked figures. (They wanted McGoohan to direct MMT but he was too busy with The Prisoner to do so, and rightly figured they'd probably take over directing anyway.) Other groups would have done one more album to tie things up and then called it a day; but The Beatles had no leader (McCartney was their ringleader, as such, but there was no one outside the group to herd them) and thus lacked focus; they still had plenty of music to make, but after the movement, what was left for them? The times would now determine them, as much as the reverse; and the Magical Mystery Tour EP would be an indicator of everything to come, good, bad or indifferent.

Here we leave 1967 temporally, but it will come back, as ever when least expected, multi-colored and kaleidoscopic and celebratory. Why? In part because it is the year of the 60s when all held promise and so much was expected; expected in part because so many things had already happened. The intense flood of emotion and drama to come are the result of the feelings of being let down; of being betrayed. Maybe The Beatles continued on because others looked to them for The Answer; 1968 gives answers all right, but not the ones people wanted.

In a way that starts here too - MMT the movie was not praised in the UK at the time and people felt as if the Fab Four had let them down. Just the cultural weight of that alone would bring a new spin to '68 as if to say: the gods have clay feet. No one is perfect; better to enjoy the here-and-now-roughness of life than dream of an ideal world. So say we, The Beatles would have answered, born again, squinting in the new world's light; so say we.

*Paul McCartney visited Brian Wilson in April and played him “She’s Leaving Home” and guest-chomped on “Vega-Tables,” and generally encouraged him to “keep up.” The Beach Boys were able to salvage the SMiLE sessions and get Smiley Smile out of them, and then recorded Wild Honey in the same time The Beatles did Magical Mystery Tour. It seems unfair to compare the two groups, as ever, but these days Wild Honey gets a lot more love than MMT.

**The Rolling Stones were in disarray and both The Who and The Kinks were in states of transition from being Shel Talmy-vestibule-inhabiting loud rockers to being more thoughtful and rock-operatic.

***John Lennon once remarked that if The Beatles had continued they would have ended up like ELO, little knowing that once he’d died Jeff Lynne would produce “Free As A Bird.” There is no winning, sometimes…

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Same Old Song: Tom Jones: "I'm Coming Home"

As Christmas approaches, certain kinds of songs tend to get released; in '67 (as you'd expect) Tom Jones released a big ballad in full expectancy of getting to number one, as he had the previous Christmas.

As a song, it is about as close to what he wanted to do - be on Stax or Motown - but he can never really cut loose here and dig into the emotions of the song, due to the predictability of the music (it sounds just like you'd imagine it does). This catches Jones in his Las Vegas phase - big emotions, open shirts, otherwise sensible women throwing their underwear onstage, etc. That it's a song about a man who has done his woman wrong who is coming home - whether she wants him back or not - seems to get lost in the soaring voice and sense of familiarity the song has - hearing it for the first time, I already have felt like I've heard it before. That must have been the appeal he had - a handsome bad boy/man who wore his heart on his sleeve, who would repent and show his vulnerability, all the better to maintain his sex appeal...begging forgiveness, claiming his life is nothing without her...(this song may seem like it's translated from another language, but I believe it's Les Reed & Barry Mason, yet again)*...

...all that is fine, but something got in the way of this plea in getting to number one, which in this time of big sobbing ballads must have seemed like a sure thing. Unfortunately for Jones, those pesky Beatles had a hit single - far-out enough for psych fans but chirpy enough for those who thought they had perhaps forgotten how to do something uptempo. The Beatles were literally saying "Hello!" to a whole new crop of fans as well as their old ones, and no amount of manly confessing was able to get past that.

I would like - for a moment however - to look at the U.S. charts and see what was happening there, as a reminder of what else was going on. In the Cashbox chart's Top 40 for around this time are these songs: "Summer Rain" by Johnny Rivers, "Wear Your Love Like Heaven" by Donovan, "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" by The Cowsills and "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin. So there definitely was something up at this time, reflective or active, but for whatever reason - again I am guessing the radio playlists - but there are hardly any sob story songs there, besides the Old Guard of Bobby Vinton and such.

So what is going to happen next? Can anything break through this Housewives of Valium Court drear? Has there been something lurking for months in the corner, something revolutionary that will once again make people look at their stereos in confusion and delight?

Well, YES. Did someone say, out of death comes new life?

*I feel it necessary to note that Scott Walker also has a single out for Christmas - the avant-MOR "Jackie." I wonder if Tom ever wanted to sing something like this? (The lines about having a bordello and a number one single may have cut a bit too close...)

In Public: Dave Clark Five: "Everybody Knows"

For some reason, in late '67 the charts start to go retrograde; there is hardly anything that could be called "forward" actually making much headway, and there are songs from the 40s creeping in, such as "Careless Hands" and "There Must Be A Way." Meanwhile, songs that pointed to the future, such as The Who's "I Can See For Miles" and Simon Dupree's "Kites" - songs that I should be writing about - didn't do nearly as well as songs like "Let The Heartaches Begin" by Long John Baldry (not a song he wanted to record), or "If The Whole World Stopped Loving" by Val Doonican.

In part this is due to hardly any competition from pirate radio; and radio thrives on variety. The charts at this time were like amber, with lively butterflies stuck in them, all the more obvious for their brilliant differences. Into this morass appear The Dave Clark Five, who needed a hit; they went to Les Reed & Barry Mason, reliable purveyors of songs to Englebert and Tom Jones and got a song from them, and hey presto, it was indeed a hit. The DC5 were not known for sitting down in frilly shirts and singing ballads about how they were crying and everyone could see; their usual singer, Mike Smith, was unsuited to this sob story, and thus Lenny Davidson does the job here.

The dilemma here for the group was that, unlike other groups who could adapt, psychedelia was just not meant for them; there was no way they could harness that big stompy beat of theirs to bucolic wanderings in parks or tales of fantastic happenings. And so they were reduced, as such, to this; they needed and got a hit. (They had not been in the top 10 since '65.) Thus the DC5 add, unhappily, to the ongoing sense of torpor in the chart - the summer is over, the nation is hunkering down for a ballad-heavy winter of stupor. I can see the empty bottles wine, the flickering candles, the exhaustion; it is as if the party is nearly over and hearts, oh hearts have been broken all over the place, and people are weeping in the streets.

The grooviness and enlightenment which '67 promised has nearly evaporated, though it still exists, waiting to spring up with just one ray of light. I can only shake my head at these charts; but then the radio situation was as such that the easy way out was almost always the one taken. And maybe a breather was necessary, after such excitement. But does it have to be so uniformly old-fashioned, dowdy even? What happened to rock 'n' roll, to anything silly or outrageous or gloriously weird? It's gone underground...for now...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Language of Love: Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich: "Zabadak"

And now we turn from earnest psychedelic pop to...earnest pop? Seeing how last time they were trying to instigate nothing more than erotic chaos, to a Greek beat no less, here there is percussion galore and an attack on...lyrics themselves?

This NME #2 is predictably sweeping and loopy and everything you'd want/expect from these guys, the sort of song that could get played, no problem, on the new Radio One. It's an awkward thing in songs always to point out (in words, of course) that lyrics/words have less meaning than feelings, that love itself is more important as a feeling than as something expressed. Love, as a band we'll be getting to again soon, is all anyone needs, and words just get in the way...

...and this of course opens up a whole bucket of worms as to how important language is in songs in general as opposed to the feeling the song is trying to promote - that ultimate goal, Love. Do lyrics in songs matter as much as they should? Do they matter at all, ultimately? Are they dispensable? Are they a necessary but unwelcome part of a song? Lyric writers have the annoying position of working for hours on songs, only to have the public mishear them, misunderstand them or just plain ignore them altogether, which can be irritating if the lyric writer is actually trying to get something across*. (There are people I know who only listen to music because of the lyrical content, and others who tend to see it as superfluous because music is their main thing, not words.)

Using words to explain that ultimately words aren't as important as you might think is very Friendly Forebear, and Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley must have realized this when writing it - as T.S. Eliot's puts it, "I gotta use words when I talk to you." Even in trying to escape from language and make it sound like a bunch of nonsense, there has to be some kernel of meaning or the listener is going to wonder why you bothered to say anything anyway. (Even, God bless them, The Trashmen were saying something with "Surfin' Bird" although it's never going to be seen as poetry.) Even if you go by the Bangsian notion that rock 'n' roll is nothing but a huge indestructible joke that will go on forever because it's at bottom it's all about THE PARTY, there is still that basic message to relate, in one way or another.

So when songwriters reflect on the relative unimportance of what they are writing, there is another wall casually knocked down; one between the listener and writer, who here is saying that the feeling of love - love as big as an ocean - dwarfs anything he could write, and maybe that's '67 hyperbole but also, just maybe, it's true. Words can do a lot, but they can also only do so much, and the indescribable is sensibly left that way, to a lot of percussion and grinning and general good vibes. This is Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich's "All You Need Is Love"; but it's also saying that as a song it (in a way) is meaningless, next to the epic feeling that it's patiently pointing towards...

Next up: one last swim through balladsville, before the end...

*There are lyricists who love to write and others who leave it at the last minute, as for them it's a chore, not a pleasure (Jarvis Cocker and Rod Temperton are two I can name right off the bat). I wonder how many songs have been written where the words are seen as homework, something to just get done and over with.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Backyard Trip: Traffic: "Hole In My Shoe"

As many a group found out in the late 60s, the key to success in a group was having a stable and happy group dynamic. This doesn't sound very sexy, but when you consider the groups that kept on going as opposed to those that didn't, those that did were able to continue because everyone was - more or less - content with what their role in the band was. If you have three people in a band who work together on songs and a third who comes in with a song in hand, expecting the others to play it just so then there's going to be problems.

Traffic were such a group; Jim Capaldi, Steve Winwood and Chris Wood wrote songs together (the first two wrote the previously mentioned "Paper Sun") and Dave Mason tended to write songs on his own, like this one. The other three didn't like it but recorded it anyway; I can guess it was a bit too whimsical for them. (Traffic were made up of musicians who had gone out to the countryside, away from the industrial Midlands, to, as they said back then, "get their heads together.") It has all the hallmarks of something almost too typical of the time - sitar (played by Mason), flute, lyrics that once again focus on water (is water the most psychedelic of the elements?), a young girl's narration straight out of a fairytale. The "elephant's eye" harks back to Oklahoma!, the unreal fields (strawberry?) full of tin soldiers, the passive voice wherein everything seems to be happening to him - the only thing he is sure of is that pesky hole that is letting in water...

...this does seem a bit cliched, but then being on a trip at this time was likely the same as having a mystical experience way back when; there are similar experiences and vocabularies you use to explain what is otherwise hard to describe to anyone else. But there is a fine line between using language others can understand and using language everyone has heard before. The psychedelic experience here is fantastical ("bubblegum tree" Mason sings, as if foreseeing the bubblegum pop explosion to come) and disconcerting, and it is only the literal hole in his shoe that is grounding him, perhaps keeping him from floating off to this other world altogether.

So this is not a song about complete absorption, but that tingling sensation that can be an anchor through an otherwise strange experience - and he ends up on his back, his coat getting wet, waking up much like the narrator of "Flowers in the Rain" in that he's outside and communing with nature, not airborne like the child narrator on the albatross, off to a place where the music plays loud.

This is psychedelia as genteel escapism, as opposed to psychedelia that has something to say, per se: it is always awkward when something that seems meaningful to you personally has to be explained to the masses, so Mason must have been gratified (though it irked the others) that this was their biggest hit. They wanted something a bit tougher lyrically and musically, I'd expect; but in the late hazy days of '67 the single-buying public wanted to digest psychedelia as a pastoral thing that didn't threaten their lives but gave them a window to a world where having wet feet was the biggest problem.

What was startling in the winter of '67 was by the fall an accepted commonplace. Dave Mason came and went in Traffic as they themselves ebbed and waned (Winwood formed Blind Faith with Eric Clapton for a while when the ever-embattled Cream broke up in late '68). As the music indeed got louder, bands found themselves in a dilemma - whether to make light "pop" music like this song or go into more complex and tougher territory, leaving behind anyone who just wanted a nice tune to hum on the way to work. '67 was a year when bands could have it all, but many had problems being all things to all single & album fans, and they had to make their choices. (Some had theirs made for them, such as Pink Floyd, whose most "pop" member was Syd Barrett, who was sidelined in the band and then formally left in '68.) The pop scene was changing and rock was the new thing - pop being left for The Housewives of Valium Court and kids who were young enough to enjoy psychedelic pop without asking too much of it.

Yes, the dreaded-by-some 'classic rock era' has by now begun, leaving the singles charts open to almost anything, as we shall see.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fantastic!: The Move: "Flowers In The Rain"

Imagine it's the early morning of September 30, 1967. It's 7am; you are just waking up when you hear this.

A whole world - save for rebellious Radio Caroline - has ended. The future - as brought to you by George Martin himself - has begun. Before I get to the main song here, I'm going to pause a bit and remember my own reaction to hearing Martin's piece...I must have first heard it in 2007, when I was haphazardly planning, along with Marcello's help, the music for our wedding. I wanted it to be launched with something dramatic, of my year, but also something warm and cozy. Something to say: a whole new world has been achieved, something that was a mere notion has grown into this - true love and hence, marriage. And I cried when I first heard it, so of course it was the only choice...

The first song played on the station was this one; thunder booms give way to a chirpy song which is about flowers, trees...and escaping the commitments of the world by immersing yourself in nature, even to the point of sleeping outdoors. Lost in fantasy, taking a break to realign priorities - all done to a typical march-beat that sounds anything but dreamy. In the video you can see them in their psychedelic finery, eating apples and reading comic books - there is something deliberately regressive going on here, another facet of the rebellious/childish part of UK 'hippie' music (as opposed to the more confrontational US version).

Or perhaps this nyah-nyah I'm going to watch flowers business is more rebellious than it seems? Perhaps some notions of a greater society will occur as the day passes? It is a huge leap to go from this to the current occupations across the UK - the only thing they have in common is their refusal to go 'indoors' and 'behave' normally. (Well, these ideas have to start somewhere.) But the group's manager promoted the single with a controversial postcard illustrated with a drawing of a naked Harold Wilson (then the Prime Minister) linking him to his secretary. The band were sued and forced to give their royalties from the song to charity, which shows that maybe egging The Man plc on isn't always the best idea. (To this day the group don't make any money from the song, which considering Wilson died in 1995 is kind of unfair.)

This, if you were to believe in omens, was a mixed one at best for Radio 1, and The Move themselves got rid of their manager and were shy to do anything quite so bold promotionally again. This song did give a certain young producer fresh from NYC - Tony Visconti - experience in arranging however (he did the woodwind and strings). And thus we take a step from the mid-60s to the late 60s and the increasing strangeness on one side of pop, just as the other becomes more and more uniform*. This got stuck behind new heartthrobs The Bee Gees' "Massachusetts" - the second record played that morning - and while it found friends in the chart ("Homburg" by Procol Harum, "From The Underworld" by The Herd) it must have seemed something of an understandable disappointment to the group, who (like so many 60s groups of this time) mutated away until The Move had a parallel band, Electric Light Orchestra, as a Wood side project. Psychedelia turned out to be much harder for groups to adapt than you might think - The Who didn't really 'go' psychedelic beyond clothes; The Rolling Stones' late '67 album wasn't...very...good...[though it has its champions]; The Kinks were busy with writing about English life in its strange normalcy.

The genteel oddballness of UK psychedelia is undoubtedly because the UK wasn't involved in Vietnam, and thus the listeners did not have the ugly fact of the war beyond news reports - whereas it was the daily life of every American, because of the draft and so on. (If you didn't know someone who was over there, chances were good you knew someone who did, and draft dodgers were rampant, as well.)

So a song about kipping in the garden and evading the requirements of daily life was all that was required or needed; sooner rather than later, though, the true cost of being on the outside of society was going to make for some astonishing music, music that more than lives up to the golden promise of "Theme One." The village of A Teenage Opera, the disturbing tidiness of "Penny Lane" suddenly come to life on tv, as if its creator was also creating his own psychedelic masterpiece, trying like Wilson, Wirtz or Wood to keep a handle on it, lest it suddenly gets scattered and lost...what, was that the sound of thunder again?

*"King Midas In Reverse" by The Hollies is a good example of this; it was Graham Nash's last stab at making the band more hip, but they - and their producer - weren't interested in getting further out, and so Nash left them the following year for the welcoming hippie world of Laurel Canyon.

Psychedelia Has A Right To Children: Keith West: " Excerpt From 'A Teenage Opera'"

Throughout the late summer a song has been steadily climbing up the charts, to rest at #2; it had the advantage of being played a lot (esp. on pirate radio) and being a narrative that could be understood by anyone - the sad passage of time, as experienced by not just one or two people, but a whole community. The sob stories that have just passed are merely personal - this is about a whole village losing its grocer.

How on earth could this have happened? Well, this is 1967 and we find ourselves at none other than Abbey Road with one Mark Wirtz, who had been hired by - remember him? - Norrie Paramor to work as an in-house producer for EMI. Wirtz was hip; he was responsible for Pink Floyd being signed by EMI and dug another underground group he saw playing at the same time - The In Crowd (soon to change its name to the even more underground Tomorrow), featuring guitarist Steve Howe and singer Keith West. He had had the musical idea of a teenage opera for some time and mentioned the Grocer Jack character to West, who promptly wrote the lyrics; the group recorded the song and it was a hit - (such a hit that for a while Keith West was a pin-up, much to his & Tomorrow's discomfort).

The song is as lush and orchestral and Beatles/Kinks inspired as you'd expect; West sings with compassion about an 82-year-old grocer who dies, the village's lack of food and the funeral, where the folks realize they should have been nicer to the old man. The most poignant and influential part of the song is the children's chorus - little girls who wonder where Grocer Jack is and want him back, even though their moms tell them he won't be back. I can't help it, their voices tug at me - the children are the voice of the village, missing Jack, helpless to change the way the whole village is going to have to operate. (The premise of the opera is that the songs are all sung to a young woman who must stay awake after a motorcycle accident; they are almost all songs about people in a village who are antiquated, about to disappear, if not gone already.)

That a song such as this did so well shows that the public maybe wasn't so scared of psychedelia as previously reported, if it's focused on an understandable narrative and has little kids singing on it. There was also the tantalizing idea of it being an 'excerpt' - that there was a lot to come and that a teenage opera was indeed possible. Wirtz found out, however, that the audience was maybe more fickle than expected (and he lost West's involvement, as he wanted to focus on Tomorrow), and while other singles appeared, none of them did that well and he soon stopped working on it in '68 to work on other things.

This is a pity, because had it been released (as it was in '96) it would have been the first real rock opera, complete with a whole cast of characters ("Auntie Mary's Dress Shop," "The Paranoiac Woodcutter," "[He's Our Dear Old] Weatherman," "Shy Boy*" to name a few). This year pretty much saw the flowering of the concept album - not to mention the album market in general, as the kids so happy to buy 45s in '63 had grown up and wanted something a bit more substantial. This - for all I know - would have done really well, but as Brian Wilson could have told Wirtz, doing something so concentrated and thematic is not easy. (The other lost album of 1967, The Beach Boys' SMiLE, surfaced first as bootlegs, then as a Brian Wilson album in 2004, and just now as an actual Beach Boys album.) A Teenage Opera was for some just as legendary - who knows what the talented Wirtz & Co. were getting up to at Abbey Road? (One Pete Townsend was certainly curious, and this in part inspired Tommy.)

What this song also cements is psychedelia's interest in and sympathy with children. This might seem a bit odd, but at heart it is the siding with the young instead of the old, the naive and hopeful as opposed to the tired and traditional. Children were to a point romanticized, but their spirit of adventurousness and tendency to blunt speech - then as now - meant they could at least be trusted, unlike the older generation who were - not to make a big point of it - square and didn't approve of anything the counterculture believed in, from pirate radio on down**.

There is also nostalgia; a whole world is disappearing and the spirit of the times is to reflect on this, to bring the old and new together in a mish-mash (think of the military-style jackets worn by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix) that somehow liberates the culture from the past, even as it's being remembered (anti-vintagizing). The village is changing, old customs and ways are going, ones that may be going for good, for all anyone knows.

Rock 'n' roll has now split between pop and rock; avant-MOR as pioneered by Scott Walker is appearing, alongside a new station the BBC is putting together to play what the pirates did - sort of. Its name is Radio 1, and with it the chances of Wirtz' concept album took a dive, as its listeners weren't as adventurous as the pirate ones. What did they want? The answer is next.

*Done by Kippington Lodge, with the lead singer, one Nick Lowe, making his debut.

**A personal anecdote: When I was two-and-a-half I 'ran away' (the gate was open and I left to walk down the sidewalk). My mother predictably was concerned and called the cops, who found me not that far away being guarded as I walked by...some counterculture guy who was looking after me on my little escapade. No one famous, though this was in Hollywood, so you never know.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Loneliness Is Such A Drag: Tom Jones: "I'll Never Fall In Love Again"

Ah, and now to someone this here blogeuse will get to know only too well. Tom Jones was a star by this time, his anguished voice and more saucy demeanor a contrast to the more stolidly romantic Englebert. Jones is forever getting caught up in Drama, being deceived and luring other women into who knows what mischief in turn. Clearly here his girl has gone off with another man (how CAN she?) and he...sniff...knows he's never going to fall...in love...aggaainnnnn....a patently silly thing to sing, obviously, and the cheese that was in the fridge with Carr is plainly right on the table here for all to see.

That he had to drag himself through such songs was the secret misery of Jones' career; he wanted to be on Motown or Stax, he wanted to be the Welsh Solomon Burke, but The Man plc said there was hay to be made singing weepy ballads like this, which was written by...oh look who's here, it's Lonnie Donegan! Yes, this song marks the unexpected return of Donegan, who wrote and recorded this song in '62 and must have been delighted with Jones' hit version. Suddenly another facet of the complex world of music is revealed - Lonnie Donegan, inventor of punk rock, has this as a hit, in the US as well as in the UK. See? There is always an upside in the darkest of times; and late August '67 was the beginning of the last month of pirate radio, with the effective switchover being signalled by this song's great success (#2 for a month) as well as Englebert's next #1 - and there is hardly anything the Light Programme can't play in the Top Ten.

The Housewives of Valium Court are the audience that is being courted here, not the kids. The vivacity of the charts of just a few months ago has been swept away, and in that sweeping away the charts are confusing, the general tone is becoming more and more bleak...it is as if it's the end of an era and everyone knows it, and Jones is just carrying that sorrow, unwittingly, for all who thought that Love could conquer all. It is a bittersweet time, one of "Itchycoo Park," and "The Day I Met Marie" and "Burning of the Midnight Lamp"; wistful songs about how enchantment is either fleeting or already gone. The Summer of Love isn't over just yet, but it certainly hasn't been all that it was cracked up to be - or perhaps it could have happened, had more people been less scared and more adventurous? The Housewives sat back and got gently drunk as Tom sang his song of woe - ah women, he's giving up on them now, for sure...while station after station packed up and brought their ships ashore. What now?

Don't Touch That Dial: Vikki Carr: "It Must Be Him (Seul Son Sur Etoile)"

And now we step, seemingly simultaneously, into the swanky world of international hotels and the less elegant rooms of that most put-upon figures in pop music, single girls. It is alternately grand and hysterical, tough (what other song of the period uses the word "chump"?) and maudlin. Carr sings the song as best she can (it was originally a song by Gilbert Becaud and Maurice Vidalin; the English lyrics are by Mack David, Hal David's older brother), giving a three-alarm-fire performance of desperation that nearly stood alone in the Top Ten against the invasion of strangeness and beauty that was the Summer of Love. You might wonder how something that reeks (if I can put it that way) of obsessive-compulsive behavior and disdain for others (that "puppet on a string" reference, as if she's in a position to judge) could be so successful, while songs like "See Emily Play," "Strange Brew," and "Paper Sun" didn't get to #2?

The answer is, that as receptive to psychedelia as the some of the British public were, there was a large segment that found it kind of...scary. Not hide-behind-the-sofa scary, but disturbing and weird nevertheless. (It should also be noted that psychedelia's greatest audience, from Sgt. Pepper on down, was in albums, not singles.) What was left for those who didn't dig the new scene, and who weren't crazy for Motown/Stax? Songs like this one, where our heroine has a relationship with the nameless/characterless "him" that makes you think she's virtually a prisoner of her love, unable to see how maybe if she just didn't answer the phone once and got out and mixed things up a little - instead of being so available - he might actually take some real interest in her. It is as if the whole world consisted of nothing but her and him, and all her praying and subsequent dashed hopes and wailing, etc. are all that matters.

This is yet another in I don't know how many songs of the 60s where the woman suffers and suffers and the song succeeds (commercially I mean; it was a big hit in the US as well) and it walks that very fine line between telling like it is and masochism. This puts Carr in the same unfortunate boat as Janis Joplin, who had to live with guys getting off on the pain in her songs - different crowd, of course, but the same dynamic is in place, whether it's in the glamorous world of Carr or the freaked-out one Joplin inhabited. (Oddly enough, they're both from Texas, of the same generation and may well have known of each other. Who knows?)

What is clear is that there are those who like the experimental and those who would just as soon hear a song of woe sung with unironical conviction; these two audiences don't crossover and the latter is taking over the singles chart, just as the former is taking over the albums. For some the 60s were just fine until about now; for others, it's just getting started. The generation gap is clear, and by the time the next song appears, pirate radio will be illegal and stations will begin to disappear from the dial. This lowest-common-denominator everyone-can-relate song will persist in the charts, the single woman's tormented relationship with her phone will also continue...but it's the sob stories that make the Summer of Love a lot less cool than it could have been, and it's not ending here...

Friday, November 4, 2011

We've Got Something To Say: The Monkees: "Randy Scouse Git" (aka "Alternate Title")

And now, I feel, dear readers, that we have reached the crux of this year, the point where the let's-just-have-fun part of the 60s gives way to something more serious. That it comes from a 'manufactured' group that The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still don't deem as legitimate is ironical to say the least, because nobody ever rebelled and wanted to be a band as much as they did.

By this time The Monkees (the band) and The Monkees (the show) were a big deal; recruited in '65 for a show about four young guys in a band who lived together and got into wacky trouble each week, their very theme song was a big HELLO to middle America, where guys with long hair and funny clothes were definitely suspect. The Monkees was a huge hit and yet the songs so integral to the show weren't theirs, for the most part. (The proto hip-hop "Mary, Mary" was by Nesmith, however.) Seeing as how two of them were musicians already (and the actors, not at all bad musicians who, ironically again, did almost all the singing) this was a situation bound to explode, with Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork demanding the right to write and perform their own songs. Artistic control - to stop being so many Pinocchios and be real musicians - was theirs, but the whole process was exhausting, as you can imagine.

This song is about that struggle, even if Dolenz is singing about meeting his future wife and The Beatles ("kings of EMI") on a short trip to London. The kettle drums and off-kilter piano set up the two sides, and the unpredictable hurriedness of the song explodes like a thunderstorm at the chorus: "Why don't you be like me?!/Why don't you stop and see?!/Why don't you hate who I hate, kill who I kill to be free!" Silence: then the kettle drums erupt again, with the piano nervously trembling, as if it's about to be smashed. This is no ordinary song. It is, in effect, the first real protest record on this blog, against a world that wants conformity and has no interest or sympathy with - and this is only a slight jump - the rebellious counterculture itself, who look at the world and see that its very straightness and conformity leads to social and political ugliness, if not corruption. Dolenz even gives The Man plc a voice: "Why don't you cut your hair?/Why don't you live up there?/Why don't you do what I do,/See what I feel when I care?*"

The struggle, as they say, continues. What do The Monkees have to do in order to get respected? They didn't play at Monterey for fear of getting booed; they took their artistic freedom as far as they could while still being tv stars; they begat, unintentionally, bubblegum pop; they toured happily with Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles liked them, in part because they took the pressure off them having to be The Beatles, in effect. Yes, The Monkees were anxious and uncertain - a fake 'band' turning into a real one is bound to cause that - and with this song all of that jittery instability comes to life. (There's even an argument for The Monkees being a model of sorts for all boybands to come, particularly a certain one I'll get to in the 70s.)

With this song, The Monkees break through that fourth wall - leap from being two-dimensional group into a living, breathing real one; there is no Don Kirshner telling them what to sing, no producer telling them they have to let the session pros do the job. They managed to do more music that is just as good as this, and while the tv show got predictably routine, they did manage a small coup: one Tim Buckley appeared on the show in '68, introducing him to who knows how many impressionable teenagers. So perhaps they did win in the end, even if their own creators killed them off the same year in the movie Head. Thus the singer-songwriter movement gets a push from a band that had to fight to be truly heard. There is something sweet about that, and it makes the sour Hall of Fame look even more as if it had just bit into a lemon.

Next up: something the Light Programme loved - it's the complete opposite of this, as the two sides of the radio stand. For now...

*"Randy Scouse Git" means, translated from the English, "a horny jerk from Liverpool" (or words to that effect) that he picked up from a tv show Dolenz saw while in the UK. (I think it starred Tony Booth - am I wrong here?) The record company, knowing this was not a polite name for a song, told him they needed an alternate title; thus the song charted as "Alternate Title."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This Is The End: Englebert Humperdinck: "There Goes My Everything"

There are certain historians of late who have tried to give a different spin on the 60s, on 1967 in particular; these are the sort who will point out the album sales of The Sound of Music were still going strong and that this man, Englebert Humperdinck (a stage name given to him, after the Hansel und Gretel composer) was the true star of the time. All else is hippy-hypey nonsense, so much florid ephemeral noise. The solid majority of folk did not want backwards guitars and baroque orchestration; they wanted a four-square song they could understand, with lyrics that are brief, lovesick and thus romantic. This is true enough; his first hit was on the charts for over a year, and this one stayed around for over six months. He had been working in the club circuit for years, honing his craft as an entertainer (a term he takes seriously) and his management thought that his way forward was to change his name (from the less exotic Jerry Dorsey) and give him some big ballads that would have women and girls a new idol to worship, more or less.

Idol worship is strange; reality shows that try to find one tend to come up trumps a lot of the time as idolatry is really either one of two things: temporary or permanent. It's also another thing: illogical. No Fullers or Cowells can ever really gauge what any given audience will want after a certain point, and the ones that are chosen who succeed tend to do so because they don't agree with their so-called masters. Cliff Richard still has his fans in part because he does what he wants, as does Englebert*. The "too beautiful to suffer" element is also here, of course; idols are adored and glamorized by women who feel they could be the one, if only in their dreams. (In his previous hit he wanted out of a relationship; in this one she's leaving him - how many adult listeners heard these songs as reflections of their own lives?)

And the narrator in this song is a pitiable creature, indeed. He hears her footsteps as she leaves, her last statement as she goes; clearly he has no energy to try to win her back, to plead or beg. That is all done. And so this song seems vast and empty, as if all the air has disappeared from the room. I could be all new age and say that it's not right for someone to be so utterly dependent on someone else (his only possession is her, he now has no reason to live) but again that would be our good friend logic talking. If you have been in the unfortunate situation the narrator is in, you would know better than to judge the absolute extreme he presents, because to him it's real. His heart is broken and there's nothing for him, he can't even speak. He can't move. It is as if a thick black line has been drawn, dividing him from...everything else.

This does seem terribly romantic, this waltzing misery, and yet there is a horrible realism to it, one that stands stoutly next to Procol Harum or Jimi Hendrix (who learned a thing or two about working a crowd from Englebert when he toured with him). The Summer of Love is here, but love is a risky thing that, like idolatry, is either temporary or permanent. Romantics are those in love with love, who maybe even enjoy a good wallow in despair once in a while; and if they can't sing, then they can listen to music that doesn't think they are backwards or old-fashioned, but instead puts them on a kind of eternal plane. (I'm not saying this is a timeless song though: referring to anyone as a 'possession' as if they were a car or house isn't very hip these days, and must have seemed positively Brontesque to some - not all - in '67**. Country songwriter Dallas Frazier wrote it, but then he also wrote "Alley Oop" and "Elvira" amongst many hits, so I can forgive him.)

The realism and romanticism appealed to women, who love him to this day; women who want a handsome man who has a handsome voice and seems to understand that life isn't always pleasant or fair. He may be an idol, but he is grown-up, laid-back, unlike Tom or Cliff or any of the others. 19th century by name, 19th century by nature? 1967 has opened a time warp wherein the past and the future are blending together, or where time has stopped making sense altogether...but then for romantics, Love is eternal...

Next: another bunch of romantics fight The Man plc in the name of Art. Oh yeah!

*Like Tom Jones, Englebert's son is his manager now, since his previous one turned down a chance to appear on a the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach without bothering to ask the singer first, which upset him greatly (as it would any right-thinking person). This gives me an excellent excuse to post this, of course. Maybe next time?

**Two of the musicians on this song - guitarist John McLaughlin and bassist Dave Holland - were a bit tired of playing such traditional music (as well-paying as it was) and not long after this they both joined (at his request) Miles Davis' group; thus they were liberated to play on In A Silent Way, a sublime album every jazz lover should own (if s/he doesn't have it already). They tried their best with this song, goodness knows, but some musicians just aren't cut out for standard country ballads.