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. 

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