Friday, June 29, 2012

Up, Up And Away

Sunshine Pop: Part 2
Well, it's officially summer and the weather is fantastic in Southern California (my apologizes to those suffering in the heat waves across the country), so looks like it's only appropriate to continue with this sunny series.

One of the essential Sunshine pop tunes from this era is definitely "Up, Up And Away" by The 5th Dimension. Themed around images of hot air ballooning, this single was a breakthrough hit for the Los Angeles-based group, reaching #7 in mid-1967 and earning the vocal quintet several big Grammy Awards including Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Written by young songwriter Jimmy Webb (while actually skipping a Music Theory class!), this song also features those excellent session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew (to be featured soon), including Tommy Tedesco and his Latin-flavored flourishes on nylon-string guitar. With those beautiful leading ladies Marilyn McCoo and Florence LaRue, this airy anthem is pure '60s sunshine pop.

From Delevan, New York, The Free Design was vocal group known for their sunshine pop and baroque pop music. Made up of siblings from the Dedrick family (originally Chris, Sandy, and Bruce, and later, sisters Ellen and Stefanie), their trademark sound incorporated complex vocal harmonies with folk, jazz, and classical elements. Although Chris did most of the songwriting, this ironically sunny tune, "Umbrellas," was written by brother Bruce and was featured on their debut album Kits Are Fun in 1967. Unfortunately, no live performance here, but you will hear how effectively this song evokes the subject matter with light sprinkles in the beginning, a cloudburst in the middle, followed by the sun coming out and the rain fading away at the end. 
From the East Coast, The Cyrkle also fall into the sunshine pop genre, particularly with their biggest hit "Red Rubber Ball" in 1966 (previously featured here). That same year, they followed up with that #2 hit with "Turn Down Day," which managed the Top-20 at #16. Although this tune sounds a bit more melancholic than most sunshine pop songs, it still fits the category (as well as drawing from folk rock and surf rock) with its well-arranged production, extensive pop smarts, and warm harmonies. Although their career was short-lived in the mid-'60s, this "summer goof-off" anthem is another essential Cyrkle song. Plus, check out that multi-neck guitar (actually a Gretch guitar/bass combo, pretty cool!), and although it's a mimed performance, you gotta love the drummer's showmanship.
Created by Curt Boettcher (who worked with Sagittarius from our last post), The Millennium was an L.A.-based group consisting of psychedelic rock musicians that incorporated sunshine pop harmonies. In 1968, they released their first and only album, Begin, which became notorious for being the most expensive album that Columbia Records had released at the time. Despite its poor sales, critics agree that it was money well spent, and it is now generally considered to be a classic of sunshine pop. Featuring the first two tracks from the album in this audio clip, you'll notice "Prelude" begins with a very harpischord-heavy, baroque pop-ish sound (turning into a dream-like carnival), but around around 1:20, "To Claudia on Thursday" starts subtle and evolves into an impressive and beautiful work of sunshine pop. 
Today's final group associated with the sunshine pop genre is, well, The Association, of course, also based in California. A benchmark in this style of pop music, their 1966 debut album released two singles that gave the six-man group their national break: "Along Comes Mary" (#7), followed by the even more successful "Cherish." Skillfully produced by Curt Boettcher (hey, there's that name again!), "Cherish" reached #1 on the Billboard chart for three weeks, and features their trademark sound of tight vocal harmonies and lush instrumentation (much like the amazing "Never My Love," previously featured here). Written by founding member Terry Kirkman, this shimmering tune is widely regarded as one of the greatest love songs ever written, and their original version still receives a lot of airplay today. Although members of this multi-instrumentalist group were classically trained, the Wrecking Crew studio musicians were used in most of The Associations' recordings. However, here's a truly live performance from 1967 (although the video quality is a little dark).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sunshine Pop

Sunshine Pop: Part 1
 Lately, we've had our fair share of foggy days out here on the West Coast, so I thought I'd lighten up the place with some Sunshine Pop. Originating in the mid-'60s in California, this subgenre of pop music is naturally upbeat and cheerful, characterized by warm sounds, rich vocal harmonies, and sophisticated sound productions. It is similar to baroque pop (my first featured series!) in its use of classical elements and instruments, although much less melancholic and dramatic. As this is a retroactive term, it's sometimes hard to pinpoint which songs actually fit this mood, especially since sunshine pop is influenced by easy-listening, has hook-like jingles, and sometimes contains psychedelia (minus the mind-altering aspect), drawing from other genres like folk rock, bubblegum, garage rock, and surf rock as well. Like I said, it's hard to describe, so hopefully the sounds of the next few posts will clarify the mystery of Sunshine Pop.  
As an excellent composer and vocal arranger, Papa John Phillips perfected this sound of sunshine pop with the help of producer Lou Adler. While still embracing a hippie-like persona, The Mamas & The Papas brought this sunny yet apolitical sound to the airwaves and enjoyed great success in this genre. Released in June 1966, "I Saw Her Again" hit #5 in US, #1 in Canada, and #11 in the UK. Compared to the ultimate sunshine pop tunes  "Monday Monday" and "California Dreamin'" (both previously featured), the lyrics may not be as light-hearted as the mood implies; written by Phillips and lead singer Denny Doherty, it was inspired by Doherty's brief affair with Michelle Phillips, who was then married to John, and it resulted in Michelle's temporary expulsion from the group (until fans complained!). In the recording, Doherty sings the first line of the third chorus a few beats early ("I saw her..."), but since it was left in the final mix, no one's quite sure if it was a mistake or not. Having a little too much fun in a clothing store, here's a cheerful music video that the group made to promote the single.  
From 1965 through 1969, The Beach Boys (specifically Brian Wilson) began shifting gears from their usual surfing and hot rod racing tunes to musical experimentation in the recording studio. While their sunny vocal surf pop was a precursor to sunshine pop, it was at this time in the mid-'60s when their sophisticated music, with its warm sounds and prominent vocal harmonies, perfectly embodied this new genre. While predominantly a psychedelic rock/pop and baroque pop album, their '66 Pet Sounds is recognized as one of the most influential records in pop music history and one of the best from 1960s, including songs "God Only Knows" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Released as single in July 1966, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" reached #8 in the US and #2 both the UK and Australia, and has become one of the most widely recognized song by The Beach Boys. Written by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Tony Asher, this beautifully-produced tune features a wide variety of instruments including accordions, mandolins, saxophones, trumpet, and ethereal-sounding guitars in the introduction. Here's a cute promo video of this brilliant song. 

Although sunshine pop is strongly associated with California, the genre did expand across the nation with groups like Spanky & Our Gang from Illinois. Although this folk rock/sunshine pop group was only together for under 2 years, their memorable vocal harmonies and well-produced music captured the essence of this upbeat genre. From their 1967 debut album, their most popular songs are "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" (featured during the Flower Power series) and "Lazy Day." Referred to as "a giddy joy no matter what" (Allmusic), the purely sunshine pop "Lazy Day" reached #14 on the charts and sold over a million copies. Since their Ed Sullivan Show performance is not available on YouTube, here's a video someone's original 45 recording by Spanky & Our Gang.  

This next song is a fascinating one as it seems to combine those angelic harmonies of The Mamas & The Papas with the sophisticated productions of The Beach Boys, while throwing in the sounds of psychedelic pop and classical music. However, Sagittarius was not actually a band but a studio group devised by songwriter/producer Gary Usher (known for co-writing some Beach Boys tunes with Brian Wilson). Using LA studio musicians, Usher drafted friends like guitarist Glen Campbell (before his solo country career), as well as Beach Boy Bruce Johnston and record producer Terry Melcher (who produced The Byrds' biggest hits), and threw in some musique concrète (hey, so I do remember something from college!) in the middle. "My World Fell Down" was presented to Columbia executives under the group name Sagittarius, but when the song managed to reach #70 on the Billboard chart and there was pressure from the record label to tour, it was revealed that there was no group. Usher went on to complete the album with Curt Boettcher (a big influence on Brian Wilson just before Pet Sounds), but it was an expensive flop. With Glen Campbell singing lead vocals, here's the mysterious yet sunshine pop-ish "My World Fell Down" (and you'll know the musique concrete part when you hear it; it's the random noises in the bridge section).      
And we'll conclude this first post of Sunshine Pop with the popular family group The Cowsills from Rhode Island. Like The Beach Boys, this family was known for their ability to achieve 4-and 5-part harmonies with impressive accuracy and relative pitch. Although their music ranges from bubblegum to rock and roll, one of their most popular hits, "The Rain, The Park, and Other Things," is a prime example of this sunny genre as it features their warm vocals and a elaborate arrangement. However, since this #2 hit song was already featured last year (here), I'll post their cover version of another quintessential Sunshine Pop song, originally by The Mamas & The Papas. Performing live on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969, here are The Cowsills singing "Monday Monday" (as well as "Children, How Do I Send Thee" with Johnny Cash; very different genre, of course, but cute nonetheless). Little Susan Cowsill sure seems to enjoy groovin' in their performances. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Land of a 1000 Dances

Dance Crazes: Part 2

OK, so it's been over month since we started this series, but we're finally finishing up our Dance Craze posts.
This next one is more of a novelty dance that came from one of our British Invasion bands. As frontman for the Manchester group Freddie & The Dreamers, 5-foot-3 Freddie Garrity was known for hopping around onstage, flapping his arms and legs. Following their #1 hit "I"m Telling You Now" in 1965, their next biggest US hit was "Do the Freddie," which was intended to inspire 'The Freddie' dance craze. The accompanying album included diagrams from dance instructor Arthur Murray on how to perform the routine. Now you try to sing this live and kick your legs this high!

 From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Dovells were an a cappella singing group (with member Len Barry, prior to his '65 solo hit "1-2-3") known for the million-selling "Bristol Stomp." Reaching #2 in 1961, this song was written about teenagers who were dancing to a new step called "The Stomp" at dances. Written by Kal Mann and Dave Appell, two executives with the Cameo-Parkway record label, it refers to Bristol, Pennsylvania, which was a blue collar suburb of Philly. The lead vocal was recorded by Matthew Cavallaro, a short-time member who was forced to leave the group because of military obligations, however, Len Barry takes the lead in this performance.

Formed in 1957 by lead singer Walter Ward, The Olympics were an American doo wop group known for their 1959 recording of " Hully Gully," which initiated the hully gully dance craze. This unstructured type of line dance actually did not originate in the '60s however, as it was a dance common to black juke joints some forty years prior. In its modern form, the dance consists of a series of steps that are called out by the emcee. Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs' hit "Wooly Bully" was originated titled "Hully Gully" and written as a tribute to the dance, but the record label made Sam change the title and lyrics.  

From Detroit, Michigan, R&B/soul singer and songwriter Wilson Pickett was a major figure in the development of American soul music, and one his biggest hits was his version of "Land of a 1000 Dances." Reaching #6 in 1965, this song itself isn't a dance craze tune but the lyrics mention 16 dances including the Pony, the Chicken, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator, the Watusi , the Twist, the Fly, the Jerk, the Tango, the Yo-Yo, the Sweat Pea, the Hand Jive, the Slop, the Bop, the Fish, and the Popeye! Originally recorded by Cannibal & The Headhunters earlier that year, the song's memorable "na na na na na" hook was initiated by accident as Cannibal had forgotten the actual lyrics to the song.

And as we began this series with the King of Dance Crazes, we'll also conclude with one more Chubby Checker number, the 1961 "Pony Time" in particular. His second #1 US single after "The Twist," this song introduced a new dance style, The Pony of course, in which the dancer tries to look like they are riding a horse. Sounds easy enough but Mr. Checker gives a little instruction at the beginning of this (unfortunately out-of-sync clip), just in case. Thanks to this guy's series of upbeat dance tracks and dance-related singles in the early '60s, he pretty much changed the way we dance to the beat of music, a major contributor to pop culture.

Monday, June 4, 2012

50 Years of America's Band

Last night, my friend and I attended The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour at the Verizon Wireless Ampitheater (formerly Irvine Meadows) in Orange County, CA. Being one of those California Girls, the music of The Beach Boys was a big part of my childhood as the actual soundtrack for our summer days down at San Onofre State Beach, so it was nostalgic and such a special treat to actually see "America's Band" live! The current band includes the still-living, founding members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and David Marks (active with the BB in the early years), as well as Bruce Johnston who joined the group in the mid-'60s, and not to mention, a stellar group of supporting musicians who helped give these classic songs that "Wrecking Crew" studio quality. With the exception of select appearances, this is the first time since 1965 that Brian Wilson has toured with The Beach Boys, so it was extra meaningful for the fans to see the mastermind behind The Boys' sound. The evening was broken up into two parts: the first set consisted of The Beach Boys' early years of and the second featured their music released after 1965. As Wilson has mentioned this world tour is dedicated to the memory of his two brothers (and founding members) the late Dennis and Carl Wilson, there were two, touching moments when the band sang harmonies along with a video of Dennis on "Forever" and one with Carl on "God Only Knows" (a personal favorite). Performing over 40 songs, most of the hits were heard as well as some less known tunes, beauties from their influential Pet Sounds, and even their brand-new single, "That's Why God Made the Radio." Even 50 years after their debut, their performance still holds that distinct sound with those rich vocals harmonies and beautiful melodies. Although the audience was surprisingly mellow (maybe because of that smelly, smokey substance that apparently was making the rounds), the biggest crowd-pleasers were "Surfin' Sufari," "Be True to Your School," "Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "California Girls," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Surfin' USA," "I Get Around," as well as a fun medley of their hot rod-related tunes, and an encore including "Kokomo," "Barbara Ann," and "Fun, Fun, Fun."  Here's the current touring lineup:

I was particularly looking forward to hearing "Good Vibrations" and it definitely lived up to my expectations; such an amazing composition. Another stand-out moment of the show was Bruce Johnston's impressive performance of "Disney Girls," a beautiful tune we wrote for the 1971 Surf's Up album. Also, an interesting surprise was the unannounced pre-show performance that featured several of the grown children of The Beach Boys including Carnie and Wendy Wilson (Brian Wilson's daughters) of the '90s female vocal group Wilson Phillips. Performing a few Beach Boys songs, their lovely vocal harmonies definitely carried the essence of their fathers' unique sound.

Here's my friend, Janay, and I posing by one of those beach cruisin' Woodies. And yes, I wear white boots to all my concerts.

And of course, keeping true to this blog, we've got to throw in a few tunes from back in their heyday. Live in 1964, here's that memorable ballad "Surfer Girl" (you know, that song I thought was written for 7-year-old me).

And another from that same TV appearance, here's some more "Fun Fun Fun!"

Thank you to The Beach Boys for a special night of music we'll never forget!