Suddenly Single: When ’60s Undergrounders Made Peace with the Top 40
by Gene Sculatti
A couple of Scrams ago (#21), we looked at the ’60s phenomenon of middle-of-the-road acts trying to hip up their images by recording pop-rock material. A lesser examined but related event, it turns out, was taking place at roughly the same time, at the other end of the telescope.
It’d be hard to name a more tumultuous pop-music time frame than 1965-to-1967. Monthly, it seemed, new avenues of expression were being bulldozed across the landscape: Brit invaders, folk-rock, blues-rock, goodtime music, new Dylans, sunshine pop, acid-rock. Until late ’67-’68, when the West Coast psychedelic movement, with its establishing of the LP as the coin of the realm and the advent of “underground” FM radio, toppled the age-old hegemony of hit singles, concessions to the old machine had to be made. A band needed a 45, as a sort of aesthetic business-card and introduction to the public. This requirement led to some fascinating records, on which the new boundary-stretching artists got a chance to show their creativity in a way that still fit the commercial strictures of the day.
The earliest example of this is probably the Yardbirds. An initial handful of straight blues covers failed as singles, and the decision to cut the cool but clearly un-Chess-like “For Your Love” (no slide guitar, plenty of harpsichord) precipitated a huge rift within the band. The group’s first hit came from the pen of pop scribe Graham Gouldman (who provided Top-40 fodder to the Hollies and Hermits, later founded 10 cc and even made bubblegum records), which led directly to the departure of Muddier-than-thou guitarist Eric Clapton. GG next gave the ’birds the even poppier “Heart Full of Soul,” while Manfred Mann drummer/vibist Mike Hugg contributed the socio-spiritual “(Mister) You’re a Better Man Than I.”
It would be a while before Clapton could shred freely and fill the Fillmores with 20-minute “Spoonfuls.” While Cream’s ’66 debut album sported instrumental adventurousness and some truly unusual songwriting, it was preceded by the atypical “Wrapping Paper.” Jack Bruce’s sporty piano sortie sounds like a pleasant Sopwith Camel outtake or an entry by one of a dozen Lovin’ Spoonful sound-alikes.
Other free-formers complied with the rules of the game too. The Grateful Dead’s first album boasted a couple of extended cuts, but the bet hedge was Side 1 Track 1, the single “The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion).” The jubilant, two-minute cut features a tight, ringing Garcia solo, frequent choruses and old-time movie-serial organ on its intro and fade. The single’s flip, "Cream Puff War," which I recall the band introducing as one of their first original compositions (from the Fillmore stage in 1966), is a breakneck rocker that mashes a Dyl-lite vocal with the spirit and sound of the Animals’ “I’m Crying.” (Sadly, the disc was a stiff, as was the band’s second Warners seven-inch, a three-minute edit of their “Dark Star” opus.)
Seattle’s Daily Flash were also improvisers (a bootleg CD offers their 13-minute version of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”), but their debut single pairs a feedback-packed blues adaptation (“Jack of Diamonds”) with a familiar cover (“Queen Jane Approximately”). L.A.’s eclectic Kaleidoscope eschewed the often lengthy excursions of their live sets for a pair of 45’s that aimed for radio-friendliness. “Please” b/w “If the Night” was a double deck of exceptional folk-rock (a later release coupled “Please” with “Elevator Man,” which rather recalls the Stones’ “Off the Hook”), and “Why Try” was a conventional pop tune, albeit with Middle Eastern accents. Its B-side nodded to the camp predilection of the day—“Little Orphan Nannie.”
Blues bands, like their cousin psychedelicians, were obliged to pop up too. The (Barry) Goldberg- (Steve) Miller Blues Band cranked out the buzzing garage rocker “The Mother Song” in 1965 (Billy Sherrill, who recorded the Remains, produced) and appeared on Hullabaloo to promote it. Goldberg’s subsequent Barry Goldberg Blues Band issued the noisy, attitudinal Dylan homage “Blowing My Mind.” Even more interesting are the Blues Project singles. Early on, these relied on the dominant ’65-’66 folk-rock trend. The A-sides of the first two issues were written by Donovan (“Catch the Wind”) and Eric Andersen. The BP’s rendition of the latter’s crypto-Zimmy “Violets of Dawn” was one of several recorded in 1966 (others were done by the Robbs, Daily Flash and the Mitchell Trio).
Far more innovative was the Project’s next pair, both composed by keyboarder Al Kooper. The former Royal Teen, Dylan accompanist and material source for various girl groups, Gary Lewis and Gene Pitney first delivered the smoldering “Where’s There’s Smoke There’s Fire” (a collaboration with writing partners Irwin Levine and Bob Brass; the duo later penned Dawn’s first hit, “Candida”). The Tokens (of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) add vocal heft to the track, and it’s a gem, but sadly a flopped 45. The same fate befell the rockin’ “No Time Like the Right Time,” cut in December ’66. This one’s got it all: an insistent melody, Kooper’s Queens soul-patrol vocal and a mid-song instrumental breakdown (featuring AK on the spacey Ondioline keyboard), all of it perfectly in synch with the flavor of pre-Pepper psyche. The band’s post-Kooper “Gentle Dreams” b/w “Lost in the Shuffle” couples a quirkily arranged A-side (its fussy arrangement almost suggests the BS&T of “Spinning Wheel”) with an undistinguished Curtis Mayfield-derived blues.
The period, of course, subsequently saw real smashes originate from the new rock community; records like “White Rabbit,” “Light My Fire” and “Piece of My Heart” would have been unthinkable visitors to the Hot 100 in 1965 or even ’66. Eventually, the ascent of psychedelia and album-rock meant that hit singles were unnecessary, impossibly unhip and maybe even counterrevolutionary. Rather like the Byzantine contortions that govern the maintenance of indie-rock cred today, when you think about it.
All of the tracks discussed are available on CD; the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band’s Hullabaloo appearance is available on DVD.