THE SPIRIT OF ’65

CD Review:

Completely Under the Covers (2016)
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs

There’s always been a place in Susanna Hoffs’ voice that feels like 1965 and is all the more compelling for persistently suggesting that the only thing 1965 was ever missing was her.

This is four CDs worth of her indulging the premise.

Oh, Matthew Sweet is here also and that’s hardly insignificant (they call themselves Sid n Susie….cute). But I’ve never thought I’d be interested in hearing him sing the phone book. With Hoffs, be it lead or harmony, I’m not so sure.

Well there’s no phone book test here, just a bunch of great songs from the Sixties (Disc 1: The original Under the Covers from 2006), Seventies (Disc 2: Under the Covers, Volume 2, from 2009 and Disc 3: Outtakes from the same sessions) and Eighties (Disc 4: Under the Covers, Volume 3 from 2012).

I didn’t make a count, but I’ll guess she takes the lead about two-thirds, him about a third, with a few trade-offs and close harmony leads throw in.

It doesn’t all work, or anyway it’s not all outstanding. I wasn’t surprised because I’ve pulled up their collaborations here and there on YouTube over the years and while the song choices always seemed compelling, the actual performances were a little too true to the originals to really add anything obvious.

Still, I thought it might be more compelling to sit down and listen to them all at once so when this came up cheap on Amazon with my birthday rolling around I sprang for it.

I wasn’t wrong either time.

Listening close, listening all at once, it’s compelling enough to amount to some sort of vision: a quarter-century of white rock and roll re-imagined as a set of well-produced folk songs. Slick but (mostly) not too slick.

Despite the slightly salacious series title, there’s nothing like sexual heat or chemistry going on here and nothing remotely like the subliminal, rivalry-based anger that drove pretty much every one of the great harmony acts that were around in ’65 (Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Simon & Garfunkel….all in all, not a happy bunch). I miss the heat. I miss the subliminal, which is so often the springboard for the sublime.

But this has a pull all its own. Some of it’s just the confidence that every song is tried and true. There’s no wondering if the tunes won’t work, especially since Sweet and Hoffs work only the tiniest variations on the originals. As the songs roll on–sixty in all, including fifteen bonus tracks not previously available–it’s those variations and their subtleties that take hold: Hoffs making rare use of her soprano for two magic seconds at the fade of “You’re So Vain” pulling the song backwards and forwards at the same time while also making it do something it never quite did before, which is hurt; the gentle subversion of refusing to either switch the gender for “Maggie May” and (following Linda Ronstadt) “Willin'” or just give them to the guy; the shift from Love’s “Alone Again Or” to Bran Wilson’s “The Warmth of the Sun” that actually feels like it’s straight from a bar band stage at Ciro’s on a night when nobody wants to dance.

And, all the way up in the Eighties’ portion of the program, proof that the old alternative universe dream of Hoffs fronting the Go-Go’s (the better singer hooking up with the greater band), was, like so many alt-universe dreams–including those being dreamed from left to right in this new world we’ve made–a false flag. All this version of “Our Lips Are Sealed” does is suggest that, in our non-alternative reality, Belinda Carlisle really is some kind of genius.

That’s how it goes throughout. The highs and lows chase each other around without leaving any indication that there could ever be a consensus on exactly which is which. The notion of a place where there’s a home for Yes and the Clash, the Who and James Taylor is just as mixed up and confused as you might fear and as oddly reassuring as you might hope.

Music for these times then?

I honestly wasn’t sure until I got to the middle of the third disc–all outtakes–and, with Sweet taking the lead and Hoffs pushing him from underneath the way Jackie DeShannon might have pushed Gene Clark if God had been on the ball in, yeah, ’65, and had them do an album of duets where they submerged their personalities into each other and the spirit of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” even if the song wasn’t yet available.

It’s a song Nick Lowe wrote in 1974 about the spirit of ’65, an unofficial sequel to the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” (which, by some unfathomable mystery, is missing from this set). A short time after, Elvis Costello and the Attractions turned it into an anthem of pure fury and one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made. You can hear those versions here:

Since then, there have been a boatload of other covers. You can chase those around YouTube all day long if so inclined, but, if not, I’ll just pull up the other two good ones I found here:

That gives you some idea of the song’s flexibility…its own ability to reach forward and back.

If you listen close to Costello’s version, you can even hear that old Byrds’ jangling guitar–the secret language of white rock for the last fifty years–chiming throughout…and breaking loose in the bridge.

Now what I can’t do is post Sid n Susie’s studio version, which hit me this week the way “Turn, Turn, Turn” hit me in the spring of ’78, when I got my high school diploma and my first copy of The Byrds’ Greatest Hits in the space of about twenty-four hours.

I can’t post it because it’s not on YouTube yet and I’m not into posting music there. Maybe I should be. Because, as things stand, I heartily recommend that you avoid the live versions which are posted and give no hint of anything but professional boredom.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to take my word for it that, without Matthew Sweet being anywhere near a Byrd (or Elvis Costello) vocally, or the band being anywhere near able to generate the Attractions’ mind-meld, Sid n Susie made me feel the gap between 1965 and now like nothing I’ve heard in decades. Like it still might be possible–just…and just for a moment–to wake up tomorrow and find that Peace, Love and Understanding had finally, in the moment when the children of ’65 have so far lost their minds that they’re holding their breath waiting for the CIA to save the Republic and the next Democratic Congress to convene anti-anti-communist versions of HUAC hearings, become not so funny at all.

It’s almost enough, all by itself, to redeem the idea of spending this last horrific decade treating rock and roll as folk music with which black people had nothing to do while pretending that such oversights are in no way responsible for our current predicament.

Well, that plus doing right by bubbling unders from the Left Banke….

 

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

FOLK ROCK (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 2)

Continuing with this little idea inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the British Invasion last month.

As before, I’ve linked to live performances, or at least interesting video comps, where possible, even if they aren’t always the best vocal presentations–there’s usually a pure studio version next door on YouTube if you just want to listen to the record. Also, as before, I’ve listed lead singers for groups and relevant harmony singers (not necessarily every singer who appeared on every record).

And, once again, this is really a smattering. Most “vocal events” in rock and roll history are deep enough and broad enough to warrant their own encyclopedias. The Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas, for instance, could each easily sustain a list of this length all by themselves.

What I’m trying to do with each segment is give the general shape of the thing from a singing perspective–including all the most important voices, who did what, a little of why it mattered and what it may have felt like in the moment, plus how it resonates through the years. I encourage any and all to comment on any significant oversights! I do put some time into these but it ain’t entirely scientific.

As a final note, for all of this great genre’s vaunted (and revolutionary) lyricism–defined by, but not limited to, the emergence of Bob Dylan as the Voice of a Generation–it was, as always, the singing which put it across. Harmony singing, for instance, though it had (thanks to the Everly Brothers) been in the rock and roll mix from almost the very beginning and had been raised to new, exciting heights by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, had never been quite so central to American music and never quite would be again.

“When You Walk In The Room”–Jackie DeShannon: Released as a B-side, it crawled to #99 on the charts in the space between John Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles’ arrival in America, staying there for exactly one week. Not the first time the future has come creeping in the back door. This was probably intended as a “girl group” record and, frankly, it works on that level, too. But she was already on to Bob Dylan and somebody, at least, was on to jangling guitars. Her record company refused to let her do an album of Dylan covers or the actual term “folk rock” might have been coined a year and half earlier than it was. (Heck a lot of things might have had names a year or two earlier than they did if the world had been in the habit of paying just a touch more heed to whatever Jackie was up to.) Anyway, with rockabilly and soul already deep in her skin, bones and vocal chords and every hipster in L. A. in her social circle, she really was the perfect harbinger.

“Laugh, Laugh”–The Beau Brummels (Sal Valentino, lead vocal): This broke out of San Francisco in the Winter of ’64. It sort of got lost, later on, that the Summer of Love San Francisco scene-sters nearly all started out as folkies. Odd, then, that the Beau Brummels should grab the spotlight first–and with Sly Stone producing no less. Their sound was nicely stripped down, though. Folk rock before it had a name, yes, but the “rock” part was from the garage. (Alternate: “You Were On My Mind” by San Francisco’s We Five, which radiates joy.)

“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn, lead vocals, Gene Clark and David Crosby harmony vocals): The cataclysm. Summer of ’65. Of course, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the breakout, watershed, etc.–truly one of the most important records ever made. Dylan had been taken high on the charts as a protest poet (Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Blowing In the Wind,” Mary Travers leading) and slick-as-grease ladies’ man (P,P&M’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Noel Paul Stookey leading and laying it on even thicker than Dylan himself, which was maybe harder than anybody thought at the time). Now, he went to the very top–not as those or any of the multitude of other, occasionally dubious. things he was–but as magic realist. All well and good. But the purely vocal essence of both the Byrds and the larger cosmos they had latched onto, was perhaps better defined by “Chimes of Freedom,” which was not only more imaginatively arranged and deeply felt, but more magical and realist and Dylanesque as well. (Alternate: Their version of DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” also from their monumental first album, which, among other things, brought Bo Diddley’s beat into the mix.)

“Like a Rolling Stone”–Bob Dylan: Speaking of cataclysms. Greil Marcus wrote a good book about this one and I don’t think I really have anything to add except to say that it’s worth writing a book about.

“The Sound of Silence”–Simon and Garfunkel (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, shared lead vocals): (Also known as “The Sounds of Silence.” I’m using Simon’s preference.) Recorded a bit earlier, when folk harmony duos were all the rage on the folk scene and nowhere else. Even the success of British variants like Peter and Gordon in the wake of the Beatles success couldn’t get the concept off the ground in Middle America. But the duo (which had broken up by the summer of 65) had been signed to Columbia and, after the Byrds and Dylan smashed out, producer Tom Wilson decided to see how the folkies would sound with electric guitars and an echo chamber. Turned out it sounded like a natural #1. The boom was on. Thrown back together by the record’s unlikely ride up the charts, Paul and Artie sounded like they could finish each other’s heartbeats. They’ve been fighting ever since.

“Do You Believe In Magic”–The Lovin’ Spoonful (John Sebastian, lead vocal): Here, the “magic” was rock and roll, which was a pretty heady admission for any folkie as deep-dyed as John Sebastian–I mean, the man played an autoharp. Probably the best example, among an army of such, of a singer–and a band–forced out of their collective comfort zone by the times. They retreated soon enough, but while the walls were down they went a lot further than anybody could have guessed in the days before Bob Dylan and Jackie DeShannon came along. Never further than this, their brightest of many shining moments.

“It Ain’t Me Babe”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal): A heartbeat earlier, they were the Crossfires and you know a concept is breaking big when it catches up the local surf band and turns them into singing folkies. And you also know the local surf band isn’t just any old band–that they might have a run of hits in them–when they make it sound this good.

“I Got You Babe”–Sonny and Cher: What was it George Melly said? Revolt into style? Something like that. (Alternate: “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, which sounds even better but lacks the essence of a Zeitgeist that’s bound to occur whenever Cher is involved in either the revolt or the style. NOTE: It could be my imagination, but judging by the chilly audience reception in the otherwise very charming Top of the Pops clip I linked, the Brits may really have seen folk rock as a very specific threat to the Pop hegemony the Beatles had established on an almost gut-level. In which case, they were right. Or maybe Sonny had ticked somebody off. Yeah, that could be it.)

“Turn, Turn, Turn”–The Byrds (Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark, shared lead vocals, David Crosby, harmony vocal): Go tell it on the mountain. Look forward, look back.

“Eve of Destruction”–Barry McGuire: Go tell it on the mountain again. Tell everybody an earthquake is coming.

“California Dreaming”–The Mamas and the Papas (Denny Doherty, lead vocal; Cass Elliot, John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, harmony vocals): The greatest pure vocal group in folk rock and probably in all of rock and roll, with two fantastic leads (one male, one female) and, because of the unrivaled gender balance, so many ways to approach harmony that my lifetime of listening has never stopped yielding surprises. And their credentials were fully established before they escaped the first line of their first record. (Incidentally, I heard a right wing talk show host play this coming out of a commercial break just the other day. He wanted to make some point about the uselessness of hippies–yes they still do that. He thought this was the song to do it with. Believe me, it was a mistake.)

“Go Where You Wanna Go”–The Mamas and the Papas: Lead? Harmony? Who knows. The dynamics are literally head-spinning. The lyric is a great shout of freedom, something you might have expected from the early Beatles. The vocal arrangement, which might be the tightest in the history of the universe, is also so expansive that it actually amounts to a shout of maniacal laughter directly in the face of any and all listeners (let alone any rival singers) who try to keep all the way up. All that without being too tricky for its own good. Given what happened–to them and the world–it winds up in a rather disorienting place. Every time it starts, I think it’s bound to end happily and every time it ends I can’t believe I got fooled again. Can’t get more folk or rock than that. (By way of comparison, the Fifth Dimension, who have a claim on being one of the dozen or so greatest vocal groups of the rock and roll era themselves, covered this, had a hit with it, and sounded like somebody had stranded them in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.)

“Sloop John B”–The Beach Boys (Brian Wilson and Mike Love, lead vocals, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, harmony vocals): Having had no small amount of influence on the scene themselves, it figured they’d make at least onr classic of the form. That it would be an actual folk song–and from the West Indies at that–was maybe not so obvious. Nor was the fact that they would improve the concept so dramatically.

“For What It’s Worth”–(Stephen Stills, lead vocal, Richie Furay and Dewey Martin, harmony vocals): Stills looked out the window (or something) and saw some kids being hassled over protesting the closing of a night club (or something). Wrote this song, waxed his greatest vocal by far, and proved a point: All politics is local (or something).

“Different Drum”–The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt, lead vocal): Not my favorite Ronstadt by a long shot, but a necessary deep breath in the wake of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” and a look ahead to some essential elements of California Rock (and, actually, pretty darn great for all that).

“Too Much of Nothing”–Peter, Paul and Mary (Mary Travers, lead vocal, Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, harmony vocals: They had put Bob Dylan on the charts, and done it so far ahead of anybody else that it is hardly a given he would have gotten there at all if they hadn’t made him–and management–a bucket-load of money practically right out of the box. (Laugh if you want, but it never happened for Woody Guthrie and the times hadn’t changed all that much.) That said, there wasn’t much “rock” in their early sound. They smoked this, though, and, on the live version I linked, you can hear (and even see, frankly) Stookey’s roots in doo-wop.

“She Belongs to Me”–Rick Nelson: A chance for a rocker–and a weary teen idol–to pause, take his time, find his natural rhythm, maybe grow up. (Alternate: Bobby Darin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” and ditto.)

“Abraham, Martin and John” and “Sonny Boy” and “Daddy Rollin”–Dion: There had to be one definitive topical record in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive tribute to the blues in a genre called folk rock. And there had to be one definitive song about drug addiction in a genre that was so deeply associated with the radicalizing aspects of the sixties. Happened that the same guy sang all three–in 1968, when all that stuff pretty much had to happen. Not saying that guy had to be a New York doo-wopper recovering from his own drug addiction of course. But it worked out that way. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a link to “Sonny Boy.”)

“Meet On the Ledge”–Fairport Convention (Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, dueling lead vocals): The Beatles and the Stones were hardly immune to folk rock and its key practitioners were hardly immune to them. But the Fabs really were a tad slick and the Stones really were a bit louche. That’s a lot of what made them great, mind you, but for a genuine British variant of “folk” and “rock,” I think this dove much deeper into the connection than, say, “Yesterday,” or “Ruby Tuesday.” (Alternate, looking forward: Robert Plant and Denny dueling on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin IV–an album that represents but one of the interesting directions this concept took in the seventies. Alternate, looking back: Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” which I wrote about in the British Invasion portion of the program linked above.)

“Freedom”–Richie Havens: Now there had to be something great in the form that would become attached at the hip to Woodstock. Without that, the cosmos really would have gone all out of whack–God might no longer recognize us at all. And why shouldn’t it be by the dude who owned the coffee-house circuit in the days when the idea of moving so many masses was just so many gleams in so many folk-singer’s eyes? Actually, why would it be by anybody else?

“Get Together”–The Youngbloods (Jessie Colin Young, lead vocal, Jerry Corbit, harmony vocal): A song so many people had taken a shot at that, by 1969, when this became a hit, it must have seemed next to impossible that anybody would ever define it. Turned out somebody already had, all the way back in 1967, when they recorded it. Very folk, that. And very rock and roll. (The link is to a medley, of which “Get Together” is only a small piece…but it’s too perfect a time capsule to pass up. Where else can you find Milton Berle asking for a “warm recession?”)

“Put a Little Love In Your Heart”–Jackie Deshannon: An apotheosis from the founding mother–understatement and urgency tugging on each other’s sleeves. Perhaps the finest purely vocal evocation of the better world waiting that, of course, never arrived.

“We Can Be Together”–Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shared lead vocals, Paul Kantner, harmony vocal): Had to get some genuinely radical politics in there somewhere. The difference, if you will, between waiting for a better world and demanding it. Not that it ended up making much difference, but it’s nice to recall that somebody–anybody, however callow–once actually tried.

“Ohio”–Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (Neil Young, lead vocal, David Crosby, harmony vocal, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, additional harmony vocals): The dirge of history and tragedy and violence that was lying under the folk part of folk rock all along (not to speak of the righteous anger), finally boiling all the way to the surface, with a guitar line that always makes it seem impossible any singer can live up to it, right up until Neil Young opens his mouth.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Maggie May”–Rod Stewart (Maggie Bell and Long John Baldry, harmony vocals on “Every Picture Tells a Story”): Well, like I said, the concept went in interesting directions, including straight back to the blues. I suspect the narratives of these two songs are the sort of story the Coen Brothers were really trying to tell in their recent homage to the early sixties folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis (a scene which Rod Stewart, of course, had nothing to do with but it turned out that a wannabe soccer hooligan diverted by his talent into lasting fame and fortune knew more about it than all their research could discover). Not too surprisingly, they lacked the nerve. Then again, their considerable skill was bound to be squandered. No amount of mere nerve would have let them tell these tales anywhere near as well.

“Lean On Me”–Bill Withers: Back to the healing basics, sans any trace of  the old utopianism. And actually a purer example of this style by now so fully incorporated it could go almost anywhere than, say, “Heart of Gold” or “Horse With No Name.” And I’m pretty sure this was the only folk rock record to ever hit #1 on the R&B charts, which it reached the week after the Watergate break-in and initial arrests sent an early sign that the reactionary chill which always follows a revolution (no matter the outcome) and was bound to leave us in need of a little basic healing, had begun in earnest.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”–Bob Dylan: World weary theme from a Sam Peckinpah movie. Hard to think of a better way to close down the concept than that.