I. “Hey, man, I’m selling my guitar so I can play the electric jug.”
Thinking about the early Bee Gees records reminded me that they were far from the only musicians to decide in 1967 that it was time to step up their ambitions. On both sides of the Atlantic, new and established acts alike could not help but hear the innovation happening around them. It was more than Sgt. Pepper and Revolver: the painstaking beauty of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, the increasingly elaborate and emotional wordplay of Bob Dylan’s electric albums, and the fearless, avant-garde experimentation of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on Freak Out! all helped to expand the definition of what pop and rock were capable of. And in 1967, there were no nationally-televised prime-time singing competitions, no radio conglomerates; was marketing, but marketing was new and willing to take chances. An artist could push the boundaries and get major-label deals and mainstream exposure.
The results were some terrific albums like those of the Brothers Gibb…and a lot of mediocre and just plain bad material. There’s only so many “electronic masses” and sound collages and electric jug bands a person can absorb without going insane.
But as often happens, the former could be confused with the latter. Some magnificent long-players were overlooked, and some major sellers faded away to the marginalia of rock history. Once in a while, however, a 1960s gem is promoted from obscurity to pantheon status: two recent examples include Love’s Forever Changes and the Zombies’ Oddessy and Oracle. Yet there is still much to discover from this golden era, and I would like to point out three records made in 1967 and 1968 which have a few things in common. They were all recorded with budgets unheard of for their time. They have weaknesses which I won’t deny. But most of all, they have far more in the way of strengths, and deserve to be listened to further.
II. “That poem about new mothers and senior citizens is the best poem I’ve ever heard.”
If Oddessy and Oracle can be described to the novice as “the one with ‘Time of the Season’ on it!” then the Moody Blues’ breakthrough LP Days of Future Passed (1967) could be introduced to those who haven’t heard it in its entirety as “the one with ‘Nights in White Satin’ on it!” And I’ll narrow the focus onto “Nights” in a little while, but first I have to talk about why Days of Future Passed was a mammoth seller back then and why it deserves reassessment and appreciation today.
You could argue Days of Future Passed beat Tommy or (for you other rock snobs out there) S.F. Sorrow to become the first rock opera. You would be wrong, because there’s no story and only one character, but Days was one of the first true concept albums, a work on which every song was conceived as part of a coherent whole with an overarching theme. And that theme is…the day.
No joke. The nine songs are all, when you get technical, titled after parts of the day, from “The Day Begins” to “Night.” And once you get past drummer Graeme Edge’s opening and closing poems designed to impose a sense of grandeur on us–“Breathe deep, the gathering gloom/Watch lights fade from every room/And more flowery language like this”–here’s what happens on this day: protagonist wakes up, goes to work and wishes he wasn’t at work, relaxes in the evening, and goes to bed hoping for and maybe finding romantic companionship.
So yes, they asked us to take our money and buy a record on which they sang about all the ordinary stuff that we do ourselves every twenty-four freaking hours over and over again to make that money on the first place…
Except our ordinary days don’t have ORCHESTRAL ACCOMPANIMENT, do they? TAKE THAT, LESSER MORTALS!
In all seriousness, the Moody Blues were taking a bigger gamble then many realized. They had started out as a British Invasion R & B combo much like fifty other British Invasion R & B combos, then wisely realized that sounding like fifty other bands could get you one giant international hit if you’re lucky (and they were) but not a lasting career. The Moodies picked up new members, started writing their own songs (and all of them could write good songs or at least really pretentious poems), and eventually hit on Days of Future Passed, which they honed in concert before taking it into the studio.
Once there,the five-piece band decided to collaborate with the London Festival Orchestra for the entire record. This had never been done before in rock ‘n’ roll. Even the Beatles had used strings on only two tracks on Sgt. Pepper. But don’t get the wrong idea: unlike almost everybody who came after them and tried this, from the Rolling Stones to Metallica, the band and orchestra are never heard together. Anything orchestral sounding during the songs is courtesy of the Mellotron, an instrument few mastered as well as Mike Pinder did. The orchestra plays interludes arranged by conductor Peter Knight in between songs, and quite frankly, if you’re in a bad mood, these interludes will sound like the most Mantovani-recalling easy-listening piffle there is, and having Graeme Edge tell us all how night removes the colors from our sight over their swelling doesn’t help matters.
Most of the time, though, the listener will be in a good mood, and the orchestra will sound, if not perfect, then a seamless part of the overall flow. Seamless because Tony Clarke’s production makes the Moodies sound as lush and vast as an orchestra unto themselves, part of the flow because the orchestral music is based on the band’s songs and the songs are great. Sometimes, admittedly, the lyrics are only slightly better than Edge’s poems (there aren’t many insightful things to say on the subject of, oh look, it’s evening now and it was just the afternoon!) But new members Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass) come up with resonant melodies, harmonize beautifully with Ray Thomas (flute/percussion), and make every song sound different, from children’s lullabies to guitar rave-ups to primitive chants to the bouncy, what-a-lovely-day feel of “Tuesday Afternoon.” (Real title: “The Afternoon: Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)”)
And then there is “Nights in White Satin,” when the band threw the concept aside for five minutes and made a masterpiece, a song so enduring that it hit #2 in America and sold millions FIVE YEARS after the album was released when it started getting lots of requests on radio stations. (The album itself went back to #3.) The only thing it has to do with the concept is that it’s nighttime when the protagonist does his reflecting. The lyrics are contemplative and moving, Hayward’s vocal is as angelic as anything from Simon & Garfunkel, and all five members play perfectly together, each instrument (Mellotron, acoustic guitar, flute, and note-perfect bass and drum) getting a moment to make its presence felt when not supporting the others.
Despite the presence of “Nights,” Decca, which had already earmarked the album for their new experimental Deram label, was convinced it would be reviled by rock fans and classical fans alike. Instead, it was a giant seller, and the Moody Blues went on to a long and successful career, their subsequent work copying Days of Future Passed both at its best (melodic songs full of harmonies and masterful production, with Pinder’s keyboards eliminating the need for an orchestra) and its worst (concepts such as…what our dreams are like! Thousands of years of space travel! Ecology! With Graeme Edge poems accompanying each one! As a side note, the Moody Blues had two number-one albums after they GOT RID of concepts.). For all their other achievements, and its own flaws, Days of Future Passed is still the one album of theirs which few have heard entirely and absolutely must. An album which remains a charming artifact, but also reveals how future pieces came together.
And it’s not surprising that the Moodies abandoned the orchestra after this. Orchestras are…expensive. You’re paying at least fifty people, and take it from me, you never want to take them on tour because travel is insane. Days of Future Passed was a costly recording, but Decca could be reassured that they were going with a known quantity, albeit one trying to radically change their sound. The other two albums in this article were even more daring risks for one reason:
The artists in both cases were almost complete unknowns.
III. “Nothing on here sounds like a single.”
In 1968, Columbia, that most venerable of labels, released the most expensive album in their history thus far. Considering that their roster included Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and the New York Philharmonic, Columbia’s going all out for a giant disc might not have been a surprise, except for one small detail. The Millennium, the band who recorded Begin, in some ways did not even exist.
How this happened has to do with one man to whom the record could have been credited just as aptly: a 24 year-old named Curt Boettcher.
Curt Boettcher was part of a remarkable strain of record producers, arrangers, and songwriters who emerged in Los Angeles during the 1960s, including Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and Boettcher’s mentor Gary Usher. These men were young, ambitious, and eager to push the boundaries of what pop music could sound like and what was possible in the studio. Their obsessiveness with crafting records was sometimes a sign of mental instability, as Spector and Wilson’s biographies prove. But from all my research into his life, Boettcher was a perfectionist in the studio but an unassuming and genuinely liked man outside of it. And one of the cardinal rules in Los Angeles is that if you’re not a dick, people are more inclined to work with you.
Columbia was inclined to work with Boettcher in 1967 for reasons far more important than his personality. As a staff member with the fledgling Warner Bros. label, he produced the debut album for the Association, one of the truly great 60s pop groups; in particular, he arranged and sang back-up on their two singles “Along Comes Mary” and “Cherish,” the latter of which topped the Billboard charts. But Boettcher was eager to record his own songs, and formed a band called the Ballroom for that purpose. Warner did not release the Ballroom’s album, but then a turn of events came along which helped in the Millennium’s formation, which I wish to dwell on for one second as a history lesson.
Gary Usher had assembled the best session musicians in Los Angeles, including Glen Campbell (!) on guitar and lead vocals, to record a song he had fallen in love with called “My World Fell Down” which was released under the moniker Sagittarius. “My World Fell Down” was the pop-song equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie: a very quirky but charming record that was far from a big hit (#70) but inspired rabid acclaim. Columbia wanted a Sagittarius album, and fast. Usher recruited Boettcher, and Boettcher slipped him remixes of the Ballroom’s recordings plus a few new songs. After the album Present Tense was released to further praise, it isn’t hard to conjecture why Columbia now was interested in a proven talent with ambition to spare and the capacity to work under pressure. They signed Boettcher and basically gave him a blank check and a guarantee that his work would reach the public. Boettcher immediately recruited six friends of his whom he had worked with on past projects, named his new band the Millennium, and went into the studio to create Begin.
The crucial idea here is that the Millennium was not a band in the sense that they had spent time playing together, developing their sound, working their way up the ladder of the music world. Like the Ballroom and Sagittarius, they were a purely studio creation. In the days before MTV, American Idol, and YouTube–an age in which we are so inundated with artifice that we want to see something real behind the image–studio-only bands were very common, and they often produced huge-selling singles.For example, the British singer Tony Burrows had five giant hits in America, but nobody but diehard music lovers knows his name because each of those singles was recorded by a different band put together pretty much for that record alone.
Their albums, if there were albums, were hasty afterthoughts based around the single, and tours and promo appearances were the rarest of birds, killing any hopes of a real career.
The difference with the Millennium was that Boettcher was determined to craft a perfect album, not a perfect single.
The expense account on Begin ran up not because of additional musicians; there are no orchestras to be heard. Instead, Boettcher and his apprentice Keith Olsen (who went on to helm twenty-eight platinum albums) utilized every trick in the producer’s book in terms of mixing and overdubbing, recording instruments and vocals over and over again, blending the different takes together or layering one over the other, distorting guitars and keyboards, playing with pitch and volume, and generally trying to wring sounds never heard before from the basic rock instruments. What helped was that Boettcher didn’t pick the members of the Millennium at random. Ron Edgar had played drums for the Music Machine, whose 1966 hit “Talk Talk” is considered a forerunner of punk, and his percussion is an insistent setter of tempo and tone throughout the album. Doug Rhodes, who played celesta on “Cherish,” knew his way around every piano and keyboard you could get in the 1960s, and showcases them all on Begin. Most importantly, the five singing guitarists, Michael Fennelly, Lee Mallory, Sandy Salisbury, Joey Stec, and Boettcher himself, could harmonize like few others.
All seven members contributed to the songwriting as well, for better or for worse. For worse because the one foreboding aspect of Begin is it is a completely 1960s record. The opening two tracks, “Prelude” and “To Claudia on Thursday,” set the tone, a jaunty, childishly simple but ornately arranged instrumental melody fading into a dreamlike number which urges the listener “Don’t give a thought to anything in the world.” The lyrics rarely rise above safe love, peace, and happiness simplicity, and the listener can be excused if they get sick of hearing how I just want to be your friend, or how I don’t want to be a millionaire because I’m with you, or how THE island is calling you.
But the music…God, the music. Begin is forty-two minutes of nonstop hooks, a record crafted to have five different melodic ideas going on at any given time and all of them are terrific. The aforementioned “To Claudia on Thursday” is one of the best instances, with electric guitars, pianos, and new harmonies popping into the low-key acoustic mix at just the right moments. On my personal favorite track, “Some Sunny Day,” Boettcher arranges so many counterpoints to Mallory’s music and lyrics that one can imagine the song never ending, going on and on in an infinite exploration of possibilities. But the main example may be the final ten minutes of the album: Boettcher stretches out on “Karmic Dream Sequence #1,” attempting to cram everything he knows into a single ruminative ballad turned crazy soundtrack for an acid trip, and makes us focus on the music instead of the pretension, especially as the song fades out on a reprise of “Prelude,” which in turn leads into “There is Nothing More to Say,” a plaintive number which showcases the Millennium as a group with the loveliest vocals on the record exhorting that now, at the end, is the true beginning. It seems over…until “Anthem (Begin)” finishes things off for good with the most hilarious conclusion to a serious album you could imagine.
In short, Begin is a damn great album.
But while Columbia believed they had gotten their money’s worth, they had no idea how to market Begin. For one, the Millennium’s reluctance to tour became certain refusal when they played a few shows in Los Angeles and soon found that reproducing their sound on stage was impossible. For the other, an album on which every song is a potential hit single is a trap. Columbia had already mishandled Moby Grape, who had been considered the best band in San Francisco, by releasing five singles at once from their debut album, none of which became hits. The label now took the opposite tact by being unable to figure out what to release as a single. Without a public presence or radio airtime, Begin did not even make the charts, and the Millennium disappeared.
Curt Boettcher died in 1987 without ever making a grand-scale impact on American pop music, but with a lauded reputation as a cult figure.
Interestingly enough, while Boettcher was running up his bills at Columbia, his former employers at Warner Bros. were sinking money into a record which was as uncommercial as Begin was radio-ready. This album would become the most expensive in rock history by the time it was finished, but it would leave a more positive legacy.
IV. “I completely understood Song Cycle on the very first listen!”
Like Curt Boettcher, Van Dyke Parks had started to make a name for himself as a composer and arranger when he was approached to record his debut album. That was where the similarities ended. Unlike the quiet, earnest, pure pop Boettcher, Parks had a sharp, distinctive voice recalling his Southern roots, pushed his own complex compositions into the realm of experimental and modern classical, and wrote lyrics which were always open to interpretation, full of alliteration, allusion, wordplay, and surreal imagery…and, at this point, mostly written in an amphetamine-driven state, when meaning is not important as how good words sound when strung together.
A former child actor who had a recurring role opposite Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners, Parks switched his artistic allegiance to music when it became clear his gifts as a pianist and songwriter were even more abundant. He also had a gift for never playing it safe: his first musical job in Los Angeles was a spell in the Mothers of Invention, an environment which encouraged peculiarities. Parks had fully developed his unique style by the time he was introduced to Brian Wilson during the final stages of Pet Sounds.
Wilson and Parks immediately recognized themselves as two of a kind and were determined to work together, with Wilson concentrating on music and Parks on lyrics. Wilson at first wanted Parks to add some new words to “Good Vibrations,” but when they determined the single was pretty much complete, they began mammoth writing sessions for the next Beach Boys project. The first result was the magnificent “Heroes and Villains,” and soon Wilson and Parks had written the entire Smile album. Sadly, part of why they finished it so quickly was because Parks was high on various substances and encouraged Wilson in Wilson’s own mind-altering explorations. Most of the time, combining such drugs with a fragile mental state is not the best idea in the world. The tragedy of Smile and Brian Wilson’s collapse is a story too familiar to be rehashed here. Suffice to say that Mike Love marshaled the other Beach Boys to kick Parks out of their ranks.
Despite this, the parts of Smile people did hear were clear indicators of Parks’s abilities, and he began writing and arranging songs for several acts, including the witty, postmodern vocal group Harpers Bizarre (whose first three albums are definitely worth searching out).
Harpers Bizarre was, like the Association, signed to Warner Bros., a new label still in need of talent. Lenny Waronker, who would go on to be one of the most respected executives in music, felt that Parks could make something superb if given creative freedom and no Brian Wilson and antagonistic Beach Boys and signed him as a solo artist. And the words “creative freedom” were taken seriously: Waronker was listed as producer, but Parks was in charge of the musicians, the arrangements, and the eight-track studio.
Song Cycle, mostly written, entirely arranged, and sung in his nasal Mississippi twang by Parks, went even further than arguably any sixties act dared to go with their music. And this writer has a theory of why: in determining what the cycle’s theme is, inspection of the titles and the lyrics reveals a fascination with places and people in Los Angeles and conceits of American history and old Hollywood movies. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a small town in Mississippi like Parks or Ohio like me: moving to Los Angeles creates unparalleled culture shock. The city is so sprawling, so incongruous and unintelligible in its layout, dominated by industries which deal with imagination and aesthetics to the point where an air of unreality pervades every block, where poor and rich neighborhoods, different ethnic blocs, all crossfade into each other. Song Cycle is an album about an encounter with Los Angeles in the context of America’s psychological tumult in the late 1960s, and Parks makes the album SOUND like the unpredictability of Los Angeles.
Which means that he continually switches back and forth between pop melody, modern classical tonalities, bluegrass, choral music, folk, and ragtime, often within the context of the same song. When he latches onto a melody, he changes it within a minute or two. He fills those eight tracks with pianos making every noise he can coax out of them, orchestras, horns, all run through so much processing as to turn their usually comforting sounds into scary, uncanny noises. Most importantly, just like in the real Los Angeles, each individual section of Song Cycle is connected to the other sections seamlessly if stylistically disjointedly. Though there are twelve songs, Song Cycle comes across much more as a single 33-minute piece of music with different movements. How a single was chosen for radio play is beyond me, because the album demands a full listen every time it is started.
Mostly because the lyrics are all but impenetrable. Song Cycle, like an intelligently-written thriller concerning time travel (and if I gave a musician an idea for a concept album, great), demands repeated listenings to make sense of it all. Parks pushes the lyrics into more elaborate imagery and complexity than he did on Smile, and he composes the music to accompany the attitudes of the lyrics. Finally, Parks doesn’t give a crap if you can relate to what he’s talking about or not, and I’m not even sure what attitude he has in the end. For instance, take the album’s single “The All Golden,” a song foreboding enough to turn anyone off of Song Cycle. Parks jauntily sings about a hayseed from Alabama now living in Silver Lake over a Chinese restaurant (Parks was ahead of his time) to a piano tune fit for a marching band, only to shift halfway through into a mocking blast at his subject for not fitting in, now accompanied by a sophisticated big band chart in a subtle transition. But since Parks himself was in a similar situation, is he being sincere? Ironic? Masochistic? Sympathetic but attacking the Angelenos? I have no idea. Parks’s mood-shifting travelogue includes visits to “Palm Desert,” where he clings to idealism while shitting on Hollywood executives, “Laurel Canyon Boulevard” for two moments of sarcasm, his own attic in “The Attic,” where he retreats into a fantasy world still tinged with war in a Gershwin-meets-Coward style, and the entire country in the closing songs “By the People” and “Pot Pourri,” a stream-of-consciousness meditation on patriotism, segregation, and getting stuck in your backyard gardening, all the while sounding like a giant musical number from the golden era of the studio system.
If it’s not clear already, Song Cycle is an album full of paradoxes, above all in how Parks forges a coherent final product out of all this incoherence. The unity of the entire cycle is most reflected in how he incorporates a few covers into the work and makes them sound like Van Dyke Parks songs. Specifically, the album-opener “Vine Street,” written by his fellow Southern-born idiosyncratic songwriter Randy Newman, rearranged by Newman himself for banjos and a vaudeville band, “Van Dyke Parks,” which is actually “Nearer My God to Thee” sung over recordings of Vietnam bombing (and credited to “Public Domain” so it can sit side by side with the track “Public Domain” composed by Van Dyke Parks), and a fantastic instrumental version of Donovan’s “Colours” in which the style and instrumentation change with every verse.
The last thing which should be mentioned is that Song Cycle may cycle through a mix-and-match bizarre collection of melodies, but those melodies are so strong that they endure even when you have no idea what the hell Parks is singing. And when you do figure out and stew over the lyrics, Song Cycle transforms from a work of art you admire to one which is genuinely enjoyable. I still don’t know if it’s a really good curiosity or a truly great record, but I do know I like to listen to it.
Though not many did at the time. When Parks and Waronker were done, they had the most expensive album ever made on their hands. And nobody wanted to buy it. It never made the charts and Warner Bros. didn’t get their money back for three years.
But Song Cycle was a cult favorite almost from the beginning and paid off benefits for both artist and label. Van Dyke Parks recorded slightly more accessible albums, but also built off the mystique of Song Cycle to become one of the most sought-after studio geniuses in music, scoring several movies and collaborating with artists ranging from U2 to Judd Apatow to Joanna Newsom.
And for Warner Bros. Song Cycle was only the most expensive of several albums they released in the late sixties which left traditional pop-rock far behind and made scant chart penetration, including Anthem of the Sun and Astral Weeks, but collectively gained the label a reputation as a major corporation which actually respected artists. Songwriters and bands flocked to Warner Bros., and by the 1970s they had an enviable roster which would make them one of the most successful record labels in history. Not a bad result partly thanks to a record on which “Our lowly liquor lobby longs to back a road to old time songs/Bible belts worn from here and after all were in the know” is a typical lyric.