Friday, May 20, 2011

The American Sound-Off

The American Response: Part 1

So after a fun run with great bands of the British Invasion, we're finally jumping across the Atlantic to check out the American sounds that put up a fantastic front; many influenced by the Brits, and others who created purely American music.
Probably the biggest band that could actually compete with The Beatles were The Beach Boys. I know I've already raved a bit about "America's Band" here, but these guys are considered one of the greatest artists of all time for a reason, having thirty-six Top-40 hits (more than any other American rock band). Expanding their music from the surf rock genre, The Beach Boys went on to create some of the best music from the 1960s with their complex, multi-layered sounds. Considered by many to be the most beautiful pop song of all time (even a big favorite of Paul McCartney), "God Only Knows" is a fantastic baroque pop song from the influential album Pet Sounds, released in May 1966. Composed and produced by Brian Wilson, and with lyrics by Tony Asher, this song broke ground in many ways: not only was it one of the first pop songs to use 'God' in its title, but it was more technically sophisticated than any of their music before with its complicated melodic structure and vocal harmonies. Twenty-three musicians were used in this recording, which was unheard of for pop music at that time, and a variety of instruments were used including harpsichord, French horn, woodwinds, and strings, creating a "rich, heavenly blanket of music." With a wonderful melody sung by brother Carl Wilson, here's one of the finest songs of the 1960s.
The next three groups are some of the folkies we heard about during Folk Rock Week, each a significant aspect of the American sound. Initially influenced by The Beatles, The Byrds were publicized on their 1965 English tour as "America's answer to The Beatles" (however a label impossible to live up to), yet The Beatles actually stated that The Byrds were their favorite American group at that time, even drawing inspiration from them as well (see "Nowhere Man"). The Byrds, who helped establish the sound of folk rock, released their second #1 hit single, "Turn! Turn! Turn!," in October 1965. With the lyrics taken almost word-for-word from the Book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible (with the addition of just six words), this tune was actually written by folk singer Pete Seeger in 1959, but with The Byrds' successful mix of vocal harmony and jangly twelve-string guitar playing, their folk rock version is a classic and the most well-known. Technically holding the record as the #1 pop song with the oldest lyrics, the words about peace also struck a chord with the American record-buying public as the Vietnam War gained momentum. Although known for their sometimes lackluster stage presence, here's a Shindig! performance by a classic American band.

Like the above bands, The Mamas & The Papas were another L.A.-based group with wonderful vocal harmonies as well, blending their distinct sound with folk rock and sunshine pop styles. An inventive pop musical group, The Mamas & The Papas (along with The Beach Boys and The Byrds) helped bring attention back to America in the wage of the British Invasion. Written by the group's leader, John Philips, with the help of his wife Michelle, "California Dreamin'" was released November 1965 and became the group's first hit single, peaking at #4 on the US charts and launching them into stardom. The California natives came up with the lyrics while living in New York, longing for warmer weather during a cold winter (Michelle's first time seeing snow!). With their sunny, tight-knit harmonies and free-wheeling persona, it's clear how this initially rag-tag group appealed to a diverse record-buying public.

To complete today's post, we have another group with a pure American sound, The Lovin' Spoonful, whose folk-flavored pop songs captured the essence of classic American music. At the height of their success, their first seven consecutive hits reached the chart's Top-10 (a feat only achieved by one other group in 1960s, Gary Lewis & the Playboys) and they were even the original band selected to perform and act in the show that would become The Monkees. Naming their approach as "good-time music," The Lovin' Spoonful are probably the most successful pop/rock group to have their roots in the jug band style, which was an inspiration for several of their songs including "Daydream." Written and sung by the group's leader, John Sebastian, this #2 hit single was released in March 1966 with their second album of the same title. With a TV performance from 1967, it doesn't get much more American than a folk rock song with a honky-tonk piano, whistling, and mutton-chop sideburns!

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