As often happens with those who carry the blessing/curse of teen idol-dom, it became easy to forget just how big a star he was, capable of carrying a hit TV show and, despite being signed only as an actor, taking over the lead vocals of the show’s Family Band conceit himself and becoming enough of a draw to sell out 50,000 seat stadiums on his own.
Like many who were blessed/cursed before and since, he yearned for more than fame–wanted to write, produce, be taken seriously.
He did the first two, and quite well (check his The Higher They Climb for a fine version of the Beach Boys’ “Darlin'” and the original version of “I Write the Songs,” which went to #11 in the UK (he and the song’s composer, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, co-produced) before it became forever associated with Barry Manilow. Unable to achieve the third goal, however, he sank into a classic spiral of alcoholism and hubris. Lynn Goldsmith’s invaluable book of rock and roll photography carries an anecdote of her and Cassidy walking on a beach somewhere and him telling her he was legend in his own time.
In your own mind maybe, she thought.
But he was probably more right than she was. He was a legend in his own time. That shouldn’t be devalued just because he didn’t transcend his time.
The Partridge Family was the cool show of my elementary and junior high years, so cool that I was able to follow along despite the frequent absence of a working TV at my house. That was how much other kids talked about it.
And, while Cassidy himself should have acknowledged the show being conceived around the Cowsills, and then yanked from them because of their boorish father, (DC’s real life step-mom, Shirley Jones, the on-screen Mrs. Partridge, became a big supporter of the group once she found out what had happened–which was after the show went off the air), he was a draw no Cowsill–or other Partridge–could have matched. Much as we all related to Danny Bonaduce’s character, we all knew, in our secret hearts, that the show could never have revolved around him.
For that you needed a star. David Cassidy was a star.
And, as far as I know, he and Ms. Jones (the only “Partridges” who actually sang on the records) are still only one of two Parent/Child vocal combos to hit #1 in Billboard.
The other one was named Sinatra.
Not bad company really, for a man who was, like all the greatest teen idols, a fine pop singer, as evidenced by a long, successful solo career that counted a handful of hits in the US (and as late as the nineties) and a near-dozen in the UK.
Besides which, anybody who hasn’t hit the natural high of that “Hey-y-y-y-y” a few times in their life, hasn’t lived as fully as they should have.
67 is too young to die of anything in a modern, developed country. It’s horribly young to die of complications brought on by dementia. I don’t doubt the years of self-abuse–abuse he brought on himself, in part, because it took him far too long to accept the kind of stardom that was in his bones and his stars–took their toll.
That’s not the worst you can say about a teen idol–that he wanted what his talent probably deserved.
Hope while the world is remembering tonight, it will also take a moment to listen.
[NOTE: I’ve posted this video before, but in a different context. It felt right to post it again because it’s context grows by the year. So maybe call it re-found in the connection.]
I’m a sucker for hope…but it’s exceeding rare to pull up a modern clip of some group doing one of their old hits from the prime days of Rock and Roll America (50’s, 60’s, 70’s) and find it enlarged. As often than not, if there’s an exception, it’s because the Cowsills got together in some environment where they were being well-recorded, like this clip from a concert they gave as a benefit to their cancer-stricken brother Billy, who had been the group’s resident genius-in-training until their father kicked him out of the band (and the house), killing their career just as the “family group” ethos they had more or less invented was taking off.
Believe me, no post-millennial reunion of the Jacksons, Osmonds, DeFrancos or Partridge Family ever has or could produce anything like this….let alone while playing their own instruments.
(Barry Cowsill, at the far right, would vanish in Hurricane Katrina a year later. His body washed up two months later. The others got the news of Billy’s death while they were holding Barry’s wake. I’ve heard about life being a bitch…but serendipity? It’s a bit much!)
When I wrote at length about the Cowsills’ documentary a while back, I mentioned that my main caveat with an intriguing film was a failure to recognize the pioneering role the band played as the harbinger of teen-pop oriented “family” groups (and a style of teen pop marketing that has essentially never gone out of style, though, of course, the cultural parameters in which that marketing takes place have shifted beyond recognition).
I just came across a lengthy interview with John Cowsill, the band’s drummer from age 10 (and the drummer for the Beach Boys the last decade-plus), which makes it plain that the Cowsills themselves are very aware of their place in history…and still working on getting paid for it.
That’s not why I’m posting this link.
I’m posting this link because it goes even deeper than the documentary itself into the horrors and realities of being raised in a family of abused children and the various methods of coping. Anyone interested in either of those subjects, or a child’s-eye view of the pop machinery of the sixties from the inside (or finding out why Bill Mumy beat out John for a part in a Disney movie), should find this interesting. You can skip the first hour: John’s a guest for the entire second hour.
Please listen to that whole second hour if at all possible.
Then listen to this and remember that, back in the day, John was probably the sixth best singer in his own family…Just in case anyone thinks the Jacksons or the Osmonds (both of whom I love) were “more talented”:
Yeah, it was (eventually) a marketing concept. Also (eventually) a “genre.”
But before, during and after all that, it was also an Aesthetic. That’s the history I’m trying to trace here (before I head into my multi-part dissertation on the vocal history of soul–I’m up to five categories and counting so we’ll just have to see how long that takes).
I’ll just add that, if the current charts are any real measure of such things, as plenty of people believe, then this is by far the most influential genre of rock and roll extant.
Make of that what you will.
Meanwhile…. (as always, I’ve linked a combination of live, synched and studio versions, with an eye toward balancing fun and education. And as always, some of the info on background singers is fuzzy to say the least. I’ve done my best but if you spot a mistake or can fill in any missing blanks, please give me a shout in the comments section and I will update accordingly.)
“Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop”–Little Anthony and the Imperials (Anthony Gourdine, lead vocal; Tracey Lord, Nathaniel Rogers, Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright, harmony vocals): Silly, smooth and sublime on every level. As good a place to start as any once I figured out Frankie Lymon was too rough around the edges.
“I Will Follow Him”–Little Peggy March: “The Producer” steps up, throws a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball. Singer takes a deep breath and hits a five-hundred-foot home run that lands at #1 Pop and #1 R&B, establishing a key dynamic of the Aesthetic whilst identifying its great theme: Hormones!
“Denise”–Randy and the Rainbows (Dominick “Randy” Safuto, lead vocal; Frank Safuto, Mike Zero, Sal Zero, Ken Arcipowski, harmony vocals): Ode to a Girl: Volume I.
“Hanky Panky”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God in training, as a first-rank garage band singer. (Recorded,1964; #1 Pop, 1966)
“Let’s Lock the Door (And Throw Away the Key)”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Doo wop pros from way back. They were often good. Just this once, they were as good as the Four Seasons. “Just this once” is a very key element of Naked Truth (not to mention “rock and roll”) aesthetics!
“Iko, Iko”–The Dixie Cups (Barbara Ann Hawkins, Rosa Lee Hawkins, Joan Marie Johnson, shared lead and harmony vocals): Chant power by way of New Orleans, which has to be in the basic DNA of this stuff somewhere. (Alternate: Lee Dorsey’s “Ya-Ya.”)
“I Want Candy”–The Strangeloves (Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer, shared lead and harmony vocals): NY session pros pretending to be Aussies to cash in on the British Invasion. Hey, the hunt for cash is never far from any true rock and roll endeavor! If they had hooked up with Tommy James, they would have kicked this thing into overdrive three years early, because the singer is the only thing missing. (Notably remade by Bow Wow Wow, who took the whole naked part of the Naked Truth quite literally.)
“My Boy Lollipop”–Millie Small: Truth to tell, this is not a big favorite of mine, but it put Jamaica on the map in a way I suspect Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff or Toots Hibbert couldn’t have possibly done in 1965.
Beatles? …We don’t need no stinkin’ Beatles!
“Last Train to Clarksville”–The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “unknown”): Writer/producers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart have said this was essentially a Viet Nam record. David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren included it in their Heartaches By the Number (a terrific list of five hundred essential country records). Twelve-year-old girls went ape by the millions. Don Kirshner laughed all the way to the bank. None of them were wrong.
“Come on Down to My Boat”–Every Mother’s Son (Larry Larden, lead vocal; harmony vocals by “I ain’t real sure”): Signed as a “nice” garage band by the corporate overlords, they had one sly classic in them: about the hunt for poontang, naturally. Just what you’d expect from nice boys operating undercover.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron”–The Royal Guardsmen (Barry Winslow, lead vocal, Chris Nunley, harmony vocals…along with…possibly….others): More Brit-fakes, by way of Ocala, Florida. Actually, a derailed garage band. And, just vocally speaking, a perfect blend of the Monkees and the Swinging Medallions.
“Just My Style”–Gary Lewis and the Playboys (Gary Lewis, lead vocal, Ron Hicklin, bass and harmony vocal and, er, “vocal guidance”): Young Hollywood’s version of the malt shop. Meaning it’s so ersatz it hurts, but the bass vocal is a killer.
(Tommy James, a.k.a. “The Sun God,” accepting an award from Hubert Humphrey, for whom he served as “Official Youth Advisor” in the 1968 presidential campaign. The Naked Truth was everywhere.)
“I Think We’re Alone Now”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God finds His voice. The concept crystallizes. (Note: Best I can tell, various Shondells sang harmony vocals on all records by the group from this point forward but I can’t find an authoritative session listing so I’ll leave it at that.)
“Mony, Mony”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): The Sun God reminds everyone that He started life leading a gutbucket garage band. Then He considerably ups the ante.
“Little Bit O’ Soul”–The Music Explosion (Jamie Lyons, lead vocal): Actually quite a bit more than a little. This could fit the blue-eyed soul category or the garage band category or just the blow-your-throat-out category, but their bosses (a couple of guys names Katz and Kasenetz, see image above) were working up to something….so it’s slotted here.
“Incense and Peppermints”–The Strawberry Alarm Clark (Greg Munford, lead vocal): Munford was actually a sixteen-year-old ringer, hired for this session only. The rest of the band? “In their early days of touring, the band members would often sit on ‘magic carpets’ as their roadies carried them to the stage and drummer Randy Seol would rig up wrist gas jets to give the illusion that he was playing the bongos and vibes with his hands on fire. This last gimmick was soon abandoned when it got to be too dangerous.” If that ain’t the Naked Truth, there’s no such thing.
“Daydream Believer”–The Monkees (Davy Jones, lead and harmony vocals; Mickey Dolenz, harmony vocals): There’s a piece of the sixties residing in this record–and specifically in Davy Jones’s vocal–that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Would we be any better off if it did?God only knows.
“Savoy Truffle”–The Beatles (George Harrison, lead vocal, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, harmony vocals): Edges “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” for the chewiest cut from the Aesthetic’s greatest conceptual album–the concept being a double album which, before Charles Manson got hold of it, was a perfect and completely abstract celebration of….Itself! Also a splinter under the skin of the entire sixties. Sometimes, the Truth is a little too Naked.
“She’d Rather Be With Me”–The Turtles (Howard Kaylan, lead vocal; Mark Volman, harmony vocal): I wouldn’t call them mercenaries just because they were every bit as convincing here as they ever were at surf-rock or folk-rock or whatever you want to call that album just around the corner that included “Surfer Dan” (“He’s so ripped he can’t see you go by” and I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (“We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts”). I’d call them eclectic visionaries who could handle a line as tricky as “Some girls like to run around/They like to handle everything they see” with admirable aplomb and I’d put them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But then I’m not part of the Conspiracy-That-Rules-Us….am I?
“Indian Lake”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Billy Cowsill hated his transcendent moment, which was forced on him by “management” (i.e., his abusive dad). According to Susan, Brian Wilson loved it. Brian Wilson knew best.
“Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and (preferably) “Chewy, Chewy”–Ohio Express (Joey Levine, lead vocal): Er, remember Katz and Kasenetz? Well, they’re back and, okay, now it’s a marketing category. Joey Levine and whoever does that chirping on “Chewy, Chewy” save the day.
“This Magic Moment”–Jay and the Americans: (Jay Black, lead vocal; Howard Kane, Kenny Vance, Sandy Deanne, harmony vocals): Want to drive an Establishmentarian absolutely crazy? Make him hate you forever? Say this is as good as the Drifters. Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Just go ahead and say it anyway. Get Naked!
(Monkees?….We don’t need no stinkin’ Monkees!)
“Sugar, Sugar” and “Seventeen Ain’t Young”–The Archies (Ron Dante, lead and harmony vocals, Toni Wine and Andy Kim, harmony vocals): The Beatles had just done “Ob-La-Di, Ob-la-da.” Seriously, they needed to go. It was the Archies who broke up too soon. [Footnote: the Cuff Links’ “Tracy” didn’t quite make the cut, but it’s worth noting that Dante was the first (and I believe only) lead vocalist of the rock and roll era to have two songs in the Top Ten at the same time with two different groups. Of course he was!]
“Hair”–The Cowsills (Billy Cowsill, lead vocal, Bob Cowsill, Barry Cowsill, Paul Cowsill, Susan Cowsill, Barbara Cowsill, harmony vocals): Banned in Viet Nam. You bet. One of rock’s greatest productions and arrangements, (vocally and every other way)–created nearly as obsessively as “Good Vibrations,” courtesy of Bob and Billy (and the fact that little brother John needed fifty-something takes to get the drum part right…these days, he drums for, you guessed it, the Beach Boys). It sold two million plus and their manager Dad almost immediately kicked Billy to the curb, leaving the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy families to reap the enormous benefits of the vacuum.
“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)”–Edison Lighthouse (Tony Burrows, lead vocal; harmony vocals by some assemblage of British session singers): Ode to a girl, Volume II. The Secret Agent, a.k.a. Tony Burrows, arrives.
“United We Stand”–Brotherhood of Man (Tony Burrows and Sunny Leslie, lead and harmony vocals; Sue Glover, John Goodison and Roger Greenaway, harmony vocals): The Secret Agent under another of his many guises. Here trumped, for the only time in his career, by Sunny Leslie.
“Montego Bay”–Bobby Bloom: The Naked Truth, Island style. Bloom split his time in the music business between singing jingles and engineering records for the likes of late period Louis Jordan. He shot himself in 1974, the year of the Apotheosis. Accidentally, of course.
“Sweet Cherry Wine”–Tommy James and the Shondells (Tommy James, lead vocal): Hey, there had to be at least one great anti-war bubblegum drinking song. Who else was gonna provide it?
“Which Way You Goin’ Billy?”–The Poppy Family (Susan Jacks, lead vocal; Terry Jacks, harmony vocal): Once in a while, even the Naked Truth must stand before the Void.
(Wait…now Motown is involved? This is getting serious…)
“I Want You Back,”“ABC” and “The Love You Save” (Michael Jackson, lead and harmony vocals; Jermaine and Jackie Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals; Tito Jackson and Marlon Jackson, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Motown. And, from there, the emergence of the concept’s transcendent star, who would eventually crack under the strain and rain sorrow everywhere he went.
“One Bad Apple,”“Double Lovin” and “Yo-Yo”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, second lead and harmony vocals; Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals): Biff. Boom. Pow. Courtesy of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and real competition for the J5 no matter what you might have heard. Then, of course, they decided to go it on their own. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.
“Tighter, Tighter”–Alive ‘N’ Kickin’ (Pepe Cardona, Sandy Toder, lead and harmony vocals): Side project for the Sun God. He gave them this one after He decided to keep “Crystal Blue Persuasion” for Himself. I’m still not sure He made the right call, though, to be fair, even He couldn’t have bettered this.
“I’ll Be There”–The Jackson 5 (Michael Jackson, lead vocal, Jermaine Jackson, second lead and harmony vocals, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson and Tito Jackson, harmony vocals): So ethereal it really oughta float away. It’s Jermaine who keeps it on track and it’s the contrast between the two leads straining to live up to a concept supposed to be far beyond their years that makes it transcendent.
“I Think I Love You”–The Partridge Family (David Cassidy, lead vocal, Shirley Jones, Ron Hicklin, John Bahler, Tom Bahler and Jackie Ward, harmony vocals): While the TV show was on the air, the great photographer Lynn Goldsmith did a photo shoot with Cassidy. One night while they were walking on the beach, he said “You know, Lynn, I’m a legend in my own time.” The Aesthetic could do that to a guy.
“Indiana Wants Me”–R. Dean Taylor: Of course, in any Aesthetic this quintessentially, buck-chasing, All-American there had to be a murder ballad. And the complete lack of sociopolitical import–reflected in both the lyrics and Taylor’s superbly callow vocal–probably runs a lot closer to the true spirit of the sort of guy who ends up running from the law saying things like “If a man ever needed dyin’ he did/No one had the right to say what he said…about you,” than anything ever managed by Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen (who, for better and worse, has spent a large chunk of his life trying to re-write this).
“Ballroom Blitz”–Sweet: (Brian Connolly and Steve Priest, shared lead and harmony vocals; Andy Scott and Mick Tucker, harmony vocals): Blitzkreig is more like it, “glam” being the Naked Truth’s logical next step. Recorded in 1973, a US hit in 1975.
“How Do You Do”–Mouth & MacNeal (Willem Duyn, a.k.a. “Big Mouth,” and Maggie MacNeal, shared lead and harmony vocals): Caveman and Cinderella. Cinderella’s two-line solo verse may be the Aesthetic’s finest vocal moment.
(Elton John on Soul Train..it was that kind of time.)
“Rock Me Gently”–Andy Kim: The Apotheosis of the Apotheosis. By a former Archie, of course. (Would really like some help identifying the background singer(s) on this one!) UPDATE: Wikipedia has come through. Carol Carmichael and Company….though it’s unclear if there was really a Company or just overdubs. In any case brilliant. She also reportedly did the harmony vocals on Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California” which is enough to justify any human’s life.)
“Beach Baby”–First Class (Tony Burrows, lead and harmony vocals; Chas Mills, harmony vocals): The rumor was, this was the Beach Boys recording under another name. An Australian DJ played it for Brian Wilson who said it wasn’t the Beach Boys but it was definitely West Coast America. Actually it was recorded in London by a bunch of English session pros headed by the Secret Agent. But that’s just geography. I prefer to think Brian was referring to a state of mind…in which case he was dead on. (The link is fun and is the 45 edit…Full glorious version here (in particularly superb sound). I’ll leave the story of how this record was very weirdly linked to my first speeding ticket for some other day!)
“Rock On”–David Essex: Re-channeling the fifties was a very big part of the Naked Truth. Never better than on this record which made the fifties sound like they could have only happened in a glam-rock dream. I mean, it’s so fake it’s kinda….real.
“Rock the Boat”–The Hues Corporation (Fleming Williams, lead vocal, St. Clair Lee and H. Ann Kelly, harmony vocals): Lifted by the discos, which only proved the Naked Truth was getting around. Or maybe just that certain forms of perfection really are undeniable.
“Benny and the Jets”–Elton John: Star looks audience dead in the face and plays the me-looking-at-you-looking-at-me-looking-at-you game, sans cynicism or naivete.
“The Locomotion”–Grand Funk (Mark Farner, lead vocal; Don Brewer, Craig Frost, Todd Rundgren, harmony vocals): If you turn it up to eleven and listen all the way through, you might feel like you’ve just been bludgeoned to death with a ball peen hammer on the set of a bad seventies-era cop show. But if, for any number of reasons, you should find yourself in need of identifying the prime source for hair metal, this is as good a place to start as any.
“Hooked on a Feeling”–Blue Swede (Bjorn Skifs, lead vocal; harmony vocals? I dunno. A steam packet?): Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga-cha-ka, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga, Ooh-ga-cha-ka. I think I had this in philosophy class in Junior College. I think it was part of a multiple choice test where all the options were this or “I Want Candy.” Aced that test! No, really, I’m sure I did.
“Waterloo”–Abba (Agnetha Faltskog, Anna-Frid Lyngstad, lead and harmony vocals; Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, harmony vocals): Couple of guys teamed up with their manager to write lines like “I was defeated, you won war” for their significant others to sing back to them in a song contest. Thus was Euro-pop born.
“Billy Don’t Be a Hero”–Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (Sorry, couldn’t find any solid info on the lead or backing singers..Help, I need somebody!): Okay, so this was a little late to the Age of Viet Nam Protest. Let alone the age of Civil War Protest (to which it was supposedly referring). But you could argue Bo and the boys were really protesting the next war. Which might make it the most Naked Truth of all. (Note: This song was originally done by an English group, Paper Lace, who hit #1 about the same time with “The Night Chicago Died,” one of the strangest records ever made. I didn’t include it only because I found trying to formulate actual thoughts about it made me more than usually inclined to just give up a life of abstinence and become a drinking man.)
“Kung Fu Fighting”–Carl Douglas: “In fact it was a little bit frightening.” A little bit? Hey the Establishmentarians had to come up with punk rock to combat this stuff. It was clearly getting out of hand.
“Rock and Roll Heaven”–The Righteous Brothers: See what I mean? Necrophilia in the top five. Isn’t that just what the Velvet Underground was after all along?
Post (What Came After):
“The Proud One”–The Osmonds (Merrill Osmond, lead vocal; Donnie Osmond, Jay Osmond, Alan Osmond and Wayne Osmond, harmony vocals) : One last improbable shining moment for the brothers, courtesy of Bob Gaudio, Bob Crewe and harmonies only a shared womb can produce.
“It’s OK”–The Beach Boys (Mike Love, lead and harmony vocals; Dennis Wilson, second lead and harmony vocals; Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Marilyn Wilson, Al Jardine, harmony vocals): Really guys? It took you this long?
“Boogie Fever”–The Sylvers (Edmund Sylvers, lead vocal; Foster Sylvers, second lead; Olan Sylvers, Charmaigne Sylvers, J.J. Sylvers, Ricky Sylvers, Angie Sylvers, Pat Sylvers, harmony vocals): You know how you can tell if something fits the Aesthetic? When the lead singer can sing a line like “You know she ate a pizza, dancing to the beat,” with the purest conviction.
(The Aesthetic now brimmed with such confidence that teen idols even came in…plaid. This may have been hubris.)
“More, More, More”–The Andrea True Connection (Andrea True, lead vocal): Abba. Blue Swede. Then this. What was it with the Swedes and the Aesthetic. Even their porn stars got into the act. They’re obviously a strange people.
“That’s Rock and Roll” and “Hey Deanie”–Shaun Cassidy: The last blast of the teen-pop ethos kick-started by the Cowsills. Shortly after, the switch flipped. I think it had something to do with Reagan being elected and the end of politics. But it’s possible I’m paranoid.
“New York Groove”–Ace Frehley: Hey, KISS didn’t miss by much, themselves. KISS’s guitarist cashing in on disco by calling on the spirit of the Sun God? That goes straight to the heart of the matter. (Worth visiting this update here…In case you’re wondering what a recording studio can do for a fella. To be fair this is the very first time I’ve ever paid the least attention to the words.)
“You’re the One That I Want”–Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta: Suzy Creamcheese and Boy Toy smoke themselves, each other, the charts, whatever else happens to be standing near.
“B-A-B-Y,”“Shadows of the Night”–Rachel Sweet: The link between Carla Thomas and Britney Spears (there had to be one, didn’t there?) and teen-rock’s great lost voice. (Pat Benetar having the hit with “Shadows of the Night” was one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse. And, yes, I know which one, but I’m not allowed to tell.)
“Mickey”–Toni Basil: Ode to a Boy, Volume I (subsequent volumes….pending). “I Want Candy” from the other side of the fence (even further than Bow Wow Wow’s actual remake of “I Want Candy,” if only because it was a natural smash.)
“Uptown”–Prince: The Sun God’s natural heir and an all but official sequel to “Sweet Cherry Wine.” (Sorry, couldn’t find a useful link.)
“Jessie’s Girl”–Rick Springfield: The greatest record ever made by a soap opera star. And one of the greatest records ever made by anybody about that strange place called L.A. At least in the sense that, despite it’s universal lyric theme, it’s sense of helpless, plasticized doom couldn’t possibly have been conceived anywhere else at the time. These days, plasticized doom being such common coin of the realm, it couldn’t be conceived anywhere at all. Strange, that. Has all the markings of a Security State plot. I’d investigate further but, hey, I don’t want to end up like this guy.
“Jump”–Van Halen (David Lee Roth, lead vocal): Somebody once described “Dance the Night Away” (perfectly) as “the Archies meet the Rolling Stones.” For this one, they ditched the Stones.
(Dressed for success…in a Beatles’ t-shirt. “This is the end. My only friend, the end.”)
“Dressed for Success”–Roxette (Marie Fredriksson, lead and harmony vocal; Per Gessle, harmony vocal): If somebody asked me for one record to define the eighties, you know, the end of Politics in the West, this would be it. The Swedes again. Is anyone surprised? But, hey, at least the end sounded wonderful. It had a good beat and you could dance to it.
“Rhythm of the Night”–Debarge (El DeBarge, lead vocal; Bunny DeBarge, Randy DeBarge, Mark DeBarge, James DeBarge, harmony vocals): Light as a feather and God love ’em. You start with the J5 (or, if you like, Little Peggy March) and by the time you get to here, the Naked Truth is virtually….indistinguishable…from…anything….else. Catchy at least.
“TLC”–Linear (Charlie Pennachio, lead vocal; Wyatt Pauley, Joey Restivo, Trevor Anthony and Billy Griffin, harmony vocals ): The new paradigm. Hip-hop style, rock image, Aesthetic vocals, catchy marketing (“Latin Freestyle”). It never quite took hold. This, in fact, was as far as it got Aesthetically speaking. Too bad….But if there could only be one, at least it was perfect.
“MMMBop”–Hanson (Taylor Hanson, lead and harmony vocals; Isaac Hanson, Zac Hanson, harmony vocals): The most exciting teen-and-under vocalist since Michael Jackson. And, after this fell from #1, there was absolutely nowhere for him to go. Need some semblance of a culture for that particular sort of career development, so goodbye to all that. Singing I mean. Teen-pop lives on, of course. Heck, it rules. But it’s the (mostly white) quasi-hip-hop version now. And hip-hop, quasi- or otherwise, belongs to suits and producers, not singers. After this, the men in charge finally figured out a way for teen-pop to permanently be both crust and filling, instead of the cherry on top.
A Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, directors (2010)
[SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT: I haven’t updated my Rock and Roll Cinema category for a couple of years. Along the way, I decided it would be better the call this category Rock and Roll Screenings, so I can write about television or other video formats under the same umbrella…not saying I will…just saying it’s….possible.]
[NOTE: H-m-m-m-m…The Jackson 5, Julie Brown, Tommy James and now, finally, my long-promised review of the Cowsills’ documentary. It must be “Naked Truth Week” at The Round Place In the Middle. I’ll have one more post in the next few days tying it all up. For now…]
[2nd NOTE: Oh wait….Previous thoughts on/links to all things Cowsill here. I especially recommend that newcomers search for the Playboy After Dark clip, which I’m pretty sure is the only clip I’ve ever posted twice. Okay, on with the show…]
Rock and roll certainly gets in the blood.
Take Louise Palanker, who apparently decided to spend a decade or so chasing down the story of the Cowsills and putting it on film.
On the surface, that is a strange obsession–and it becomes a little stranger when you watch the result and realize that, while its self-deprecating tone might win a few converts, it is not especially aimed at doing so. If you come to this film thinking, as one (admittedly deeply misguided) reviewer put it, that the Cowsills were the most meretricious band of the sixties, then there’s not much chance this film will change your mind.
It might stick with you, though, even then.
Not that I was among those who needed convincing–I loved “Indian Lake” the first time I heard it on a crappy sounding TV-special oldies’ collection back in the late seventies, and, a thousand spins later, hearing Billy Cowsill moan about being forced to record “this piece of shit” doesn’t diminish my love one bit!–but this particular labor of love has certainly stuck with me.
The claims for the Cowsills’ “importance”–that overused, very sixties-style word–are, I think, a good deal more significant than the film acknowledges…or maybe just has time for.
They pretty much invented a certain approach to teen-pop–both as music (thanks to the inordinate talent of the kids) and marketing (thanks to the inordinate obstinance of their horribly abusive father)–which took a deep hold in American life at the very moment their own band (and family) were disintegrating. That approach, carried on by so many others, has never really gone out of style since.
Several commenters in the film espouse (without contradiction) the view that the Cowsills’ stopped having hits because their time had basically passed. I’d argue that, by the time the events recalled elsewhere in the film had wrecked their career, their true moment had finally come. One semi-tragic element of their story (mostly unexplored here)–is that they weren’t allowed to participate in the mini-Pop Explosion they made possible.
So what’s not in the film is this: Within six months of their last major hit–1969’s “Hair” (brilliantly produced by Bill and Bob, the great story of how they got it released against their record company’s wishes is both fully told in the film and well worth remembering if you’re under any illusion that the barriers to the Cowsills transitioning to adult stardom were any way musical)–falling from the charts, the next family of talented kids waiting in the wings entered those charts for the first time.
That was the Jackson 5.
Starting in January of 1970, the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy (aka “Partridge,” for whom the Cowsills were the very direct inspiration) families spent eighteen of the next fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Those other families–real and imagined–maintained a semi-iconic cultural presence for decades to come, and, of course, produced the biggest pop star of the post-Beatles era.
Meanwhile, The Cowsills themselves–pioneers of the concept and (excepting Michael Jackson) likely the most talented of the bunch–entered the oblivion zone.
Whatever the reasons, the market for families of cute kids with teen idol looks drying up wasn’t one of them.
Semi-tragic, as I mentioned. Quite possibly a great movie there.
But, as I also mentioned, that isn’t the tale Palanker and the Cowsills chose to tell.
So I guess the very fair question going in, is “Do they have another tale worth telling?”
You bet they do.
For the surviving Cowsill children, it’s pretty clear that, from this distance, making sense of their lives meant more than making sense of their career.
This the film does beautifully. Not by providing easy answers (or, in some cases, any answer) but by continually asking the right questions and giving us an up-close-and-personal view of the results.
The framework has Bob Cowsill, the band’s putative leader since their father kicked brother Billy out in the immediate aftermath of “Hair,” going back and interviewing various record men and family members. The parents, Bud and Barbara Cowsill, were both deceased by the time filming began, but there are several aunts available and their responses are, by turns, frustrating, poignant and infuriating. “I spanked my own kids,” one of Bud’s sisters says.
It’s not clear that she grasps the long difference between spanking your kids and doing what Bud Cowsill did.
What he did in the beginning was manage his own kids’ musical career well enough to get them on the national stage with a family-oriented pop image that was far removed from the garage band ethos the older boys wanted to pursue. What he did in the end was wreck every single opportunity he made–multiple lucrative recording contracts, an unprecedented ten-show contract with the Ed Sullivan Show, a chance to be participants in (or at least compensated inspiration for) the Partridge Family TV show–by his boorish, paranoid, ultimately incompetent personal and managerial behavior.
What he also did, from beginning to end, was relentlessly mete out virtually every form of physical and psychological abuse known to fatherhood.
The damage shows. Bill, Barry and Richard (the only sibling not allowed in the band–dad’s decision again and, according to Bill, not a good one) all struggled with various addictions and have passed away since filming began (Bill and Barry before the film was finished, though, fortunately, both were interviewed extensively).
For the rest, there was a troubled but ultimately inspirational (in the best sense) journey of individual and collective discovery.
It’s that journey Palanker chose to focus on and one of the film’s great strengths is that–through some really skillful editing (and given how long this project took, and how small its budget must have been, I mean really skillful–this thing flows)–the basics of the musical story manage to rest easily inside the family’s tortured narrative. Bob Cowsill is a genial presence, gently probing his relatives and other principals (like the band’s first producer, Artie Kornfeld, and Partridge mom, Shirley Jones, both genial presences themselves and a welcome relief from the often grim family drama), without becoming abrasive or judgmental.
The film benefits enormously, too, from the simple fact that the charisma of the first “first family of pop”–that is, the elements, beyond their considerable talent, that made them stars–still comes through: Bill’s ferocity, Barry’s sly wit, Susan’s spunk, even John’s essentially laid-back little-brotherness (to which I can relate). It’s not hard to see why they made it big–and it’s easy to lament what might have been even if they’ve understandably grown long-ago-and-far-away philosophical about the whole thing themselves.
I’m not sure there’s anything here that a victim of an abusive parent would call revelatory, but that’s part of the point. It’s a too-common family story told uncommonly well. If I have a quibble with the film, besides perhaps selling their historical significance a little short, it’s a relative paucity of music clips–I assume that was a rights issue, but the Cowsills were often superb on period television and I thought there were a few places where a well placed video could have added to the impact of the familial story as well as beef up the musical one.
There’s always YouTube, though (see below), and, in any case, this particular lack is more than made up for on DVD by the inclusion of a second disc of truly extraordinary “extras.” There’s a great musical tribute to Barry (who died in Hurricane Katrina, and which should be included in the links above), and several excellent full-length interviews that were edited for clips in the film.
Most of all, there’s a long clip with Barry and Richard–the son who was sent to Viet Nam instead of the Ed Sullivan Show–riding around in a darkened van, reminiscing, coping, fending off demons. At some point Richard takes over with a monologue about his experiences that beats every “Viet Nam” movie ever made as a primer on the enduring damage done to the national soul.
In the end, Palanker, Bill Filipiak and their team, plus the Cowsills themselves, made a fine film against what I take to be next-to-impossible odds.
The end product is rather like the Cowsills themselves.
Not perfect, just vital.
Oh, and about that musical thing (not from the film, but it could have been…and, if you’ve been here before, you know how I feel about singers):
Sorry for the light posting….Trying to meet some year-end (self-imposed but real) deadlines and getting ready for a trip. Meanwhile, here’s a nice story from Susan Cowsill on the art of collaborating with her brother Barry, who was killed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005:
Which is also a good excuse to re-post this, their finest hour together on this side–and the reason God made YouTube (Barry sings lead on the second song, “II X II” which starts around 3:20):
I was saddened to learn that Richard, the lone Cowsill sibling (six brothers and one sister) who was not a member of his family’s seminal rock band succumbed to lung cancer on July 8.
Though he never sang or played professionally, he was a powerful presence in the invaluable documentary The Cowsills: A Family Band (which I will get around to reviewing here soon).
As the documentary makes plain, Richard was prevented from joining the band by his tyrannical father, who instead packed him off to Viet Nam while the other kids were playing state fairs and the Ed Sullivan Show. The most harrowing footage in the film (abetted by extensive extras on the DVD) is of Richard, riding around in a van late at night (first with his brother Barry, soon to be lost in Katrina, then alone), telling his side of the story.
How many beatings he took for his brothers–who all took their share–from the father who hated him most is unknowable. But in that van, wearing the beatings and the PTSD and the resulting addictions on his face all those decades later, it’s easy to guess which will tend to have the most lasting effect–abusable substances, combat in a war where any ground you take is sure to be given back by leaders who are bound to blame anybody and everybody but themselves, or having your father use you for a punching bag.
Richard did occasionally join in with the group in later years. Much as I hope he’s found peace now, it would be nice to think that he found at least a little bit of it here (thanks to Family Band director Louise Palanker for making these “extras” available on YouTube):
CNN kicked off its series on “The Sixties” tonight with an hour on the British Invasion. Despite the presence of some fine music clips (which apparently couldn’t be helped) and a single, spirited, un-sourced moment from the period that had Graham Nash and Peter Noone debating whether pop music had the power to prevent World War Three (Nash in favor of the motion, Noone opposing) it was dreadful.
Maybe at some point I’ll acquire it and re-visit it long enough to dwell on all the reasons why. Depends on how firmly it stays stuck in my craw. The best I can say for it right now is that they didn’t actually come up with any new falsehoods–though they sure did string the existing, fossilized notions together fast and furiously, after the manner of warding off evil spirits.
For now, suffice it to say they did not attribute the Beatles’ smashing success to their combination of real musical genius and their special position of being–unlike virtually every other major pop star reigning over the American charts at their moment of arrival–neither black nor hillbilly nor urban immigrant nor (gasp) female. Or that the curious hold they have had on the intelligentsia from their moment of arrival (a hold completely unacknowledged in the special, which portrays them as “outsiders” facing the same kind of across-the-establishment-board opprobrium as the first generation rockers who inspired them) is surely as much due to this fact as to their undoubted musical genius.
Not that I was holding my breath or anything, but it would have been nice to have at least one countervailing, or merely skeptical, voice!
Anyway, the one sort of compelling bit for me was a handful of brief interview snippets with Susanna Hoffs, lead singer of the Bangles.
Like everyone else, she lacked for anything very interesting to say…But I realized it was the first time I had ever really heard her speak at length and I was struck by how disconnected her speaking voice is from her singing voice.
This isn’t at all common. Most really good singers, like most really good actors, carry the essence of their performing style in their every day voice and, much as I love Hoffs’ music, I might not have pursued it any further or thought of it as anything but a quirky anomaly…except…
Except that ever since I had my Cowsills’ kick a few months back, I’ve been working on a tantalizing theory (okay, tantalizing for me if not for anyone else) that, in the early eighties, when Vicki Peterson went looking for a lead voice for the Bangles, she might have, at least subconsciously, been looking for a replacement for her best friend at the time…
Who happened to be (and still is) Susan Cowsill.
Who also happened to be in all likelihood unavailable herself because she was then Dwight Twilley’s significant other and a member of his road band…Unlikely to quit her day job in other words.
There’s probably never going to be a way to prove my little theory, but I do know that the first time I pulled up this–Susan’s first solo single, recorded when she was seventeen and released in 1977 (or thereabouts)–I was immediately struck by how much she sounded like a slightly more laid-back, seventies-era version of Susanna Hoffs.
Or, to be more accurate, I was struck by how much a slightly revved-up, eighties-era version of Susanna Hoffs, adjusting for the full weight of the Bangles’ hair-raising harmonies behind her, sounded like Susan Cowsill.
This time, after I played Susan’s song a few times, I started searching around for some of Hoffs’ vocals (just to make sure I wasn’t kidding myself) and found the expected evidence (proof enough to my ear anyway, not that I really needed it…I’ve had enough Bangles’ kicks in my life to know I wasn’t imagining things).
And that led me to this, a slightly altered, knockout arrangement of “Eternal Flame” which I’m posting not so much because it proves a little part of my theory (there are plenty of examples that do it better) as because I like it so much…and because I now really wish they had used this stripped down arrangement on the record (which I love anyway…but from now on I’ll always hear what might have been):
And, lovely as all that is, I still might not have posted anything….
Except that chasing Bangles’ videos led me to a lengthy interview with Hoffs, which is worth hearing in any case, but which I’m linking especially for my Elvis fans…because the way she lights up when she briefly talks about Graceland between the 6:30 and 7:30 marks says as much about why the flame won’t die as any thousand scholarly essays ever will (you can fast forward to that segment if you don’t want to listen to the rest…Hope you’ll get as big a kick out of it as I did).
I’ll definitely write more about the Cowsills in the future…at very least a review of the documentary about them which came out a couple of years ago. I’m a sucker for “might have been” stories and few people have a better one. And, as I’ve said before, Susan Cowsill has led an epic American life, in which little asides like possibly inspiring the revolution’s last really great vocal group are basically par for the course.
Maybe this will get me fired up for that little project again.
Then at least I’ll have something to thank CNN for…Well, besides leading me to all this.
I always liked the Cowsills but even as recently as a year and a half ago when I started this blog I wouldn’t have said I knew much about them or called them heroes of mine.
I do now.
And they are now.
Here’s a transcript of Susan Cowsill being interviewed for Family Band: The Cowsills Story (2013)
My father was emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually abusive. Probably tried to fuck me since I was born, til I was eleven.
The band broke up.
This is my…this is my ten-year-old person, whoever, this is how she sees it.
It was a night, Mom was working and I was in my bedroom and my Dad came into my bedroom. And I will tell you, in short, that I knew what was going on with me from the minute it started until the minute it ended and I had a plan to end it.
It was like ‘Dad’s trying to get in my bed.’ And I had Cat Stevens’ Tea For the Tillerman on my hi-fi. And I remember him taking it off and he came in and he was just doing his thing and I said to him, I said, ‘Dad, you need to leave me alone.’ And he was like, uh, swagger sailor. He was like ‘What-t-t-t-t?….Kid, what’d you say?’ And he came over by my bed and he was leaning over me going, ‘What the….What did you just fuckin’ say?’
And I said, ‘Get the fuck’–‘cause he said ‘fuck’ so I’m just gonna say ‘fuck’ too–‘Get the fuck out of my room!’
He got sober for like two good seconds.
He went–’Cause I’ve never said anything like this to this man!–and he hauled off and full on man-punched me. And I Charlie’s Angel kicked him. He like sprawled. It was like bad wrestling on TV and, you know, Dad couldn’t even get up. And I was just like ‘This is the bomb!’ And I was bleeding and I knew I was a mess. But I felt nothing. Endorphins were just like raging.
And he looked at me and he said….“You’re not even worth it,’ and walked out.
And I went ‘Cool! Right! Excellent! Go now!’ And he walked out the door or crawled out the door. Shut it. I took the little thing (motions picking up a record needle), put Tea For the Tillerman back on and laid back in my bed and just reveled in the moment.
I was so grateful to whoever it was that was inside of me that just pulled that off.
…My mother and I never spoke about anything that happened. We had one conversation and the words were ‘What happened to you?’ My answer was ‘Dad.’
And her next words were, ‘Well, where do you want to go?’ and I said (her brother) ‘Paul’s.’
(NOTE: I plan to write more extensively about Louise Palanker and Bill Filipak’s fine documentary in the next few weeks. For now, here are the surviving members of the Cowsills knocking it clean out of the park on one of those hit-and-miss PBS oldies’ specials.)
I rented Hemingway and Gellhorn, popped it in the DVD player, negotiated my way past the menu and immediately found myself staring into the age-and-war-and-Dachau-witnessing-ravaged face and listening to the tobacco-stained-and-whiskey-soaked voice of Martha Gellhorn, one of the twentieth century’s greatest journalists and war correspondents, looking back on her glorious youth. Gellhorn herself having been dead for a while when this was made (and me actually having no idea whatsoever of how she really looked or sounded), I spent the first thirty seconds or so wondering who this terrific actress was they got to not so much “play” as embody Gellhorn in old age.
Then there was a certain flicker of the eyes or tilt of the head that hinted it might actually be the woman whose name was over the credits.
Viewing this very, very good film (or “miniseries” or “TV movie” or “event” or whatever it’s supposed to be called if it ran on HBO), I was never quite able to recover from that initial shock. I’m a fan of Kidman’s. She was the main reason I wanted to see this, and, of course, she’s been truly fantastic here and there over the years. And she’s quite good in this, too, playing–but not quite embodying–Gellhorn in the days before age, war, Dachau and Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen, first rate as usual) took their toll.
But what she achieves here as the older, backward-looking-but-always-forward-moving Gellhorn really begs the question of why she’s been so hellishly obsessed with losing her looks and having all that useless plastic surgery that’s done nothing but make her a punch line. My God, woman, if you can act like that you’ll work forever–and you’ll be remembered forever! Let the other stuff go. I beg you.
YouTube Dynamite: The Cowsills at the Playboy Mansion (1970).
For those who don’t know (or remember), the Cowsills were the family band who essentially invented the brand of Teen Pop that–from the J5 and the Osmonds (who were breaking wide open as this played originally in May, 1970, on Hugh Hefner’s short-lived music show Playboy After Dark) to whoever is set to replace Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus tomorrow–has periodically ruled the world ever since.
They had a run of late-sixties’ hits themselves but were ultimately cheated out of their truly just reward when the television producers who had directly modeled The Partridge Family after them wanted some–but not all–of them for the cast and they refused to participate. At which point an industry already heavily aligned against them because of the actions of their abusive, alcoholic, manager-father, whose belligerence had, among other things, previously cost them a record setting ten-show contract with The Ed Sullivan Show, rapidly turned its back.
Within two years of the video linked below they had disbanded, as both a musical group and a family unit. The family unit and the musical group both reformed in later years–tentatively at first, but these days they’ve become a permanent fixture on the oldies circuit. There has been a new birth of critical respect after retro-genres like “Sunshine Pop” came into vogue and more has become known about the brothers’ considerable writing and playing abilities. Evidently, many of the personal wounds have healed as well.
But the saddest words of tongue and pen are still “it might have been,” and what I see in the video below is a Teen Pop act that never would have needed to take a back seat to any of their heirs if talent had been all that mattered.
If you don’t already know, it probably won’t be hard to guess from watching the video which two of the children the producers wanted in particular.
That would be Susan Cowsill, then a week short of her eleventh birthday, who first charms a room full of Playboy Bunnies and then makes them utterly disappear (not least when they are milling about in front of her, blocking the damn view! get out of the way people, we wanna see the ten-year-old! don’t you know talent always wins!), dancing beside her brother Barry–the other one the producers were ready to cast.
Great as Barry’s vocal is here on what was probably their best song (“II x II”–the second song in the sequence), he was even better on his instrument. The epic bass guitar on “Indian Lake” and “Hair,” two of their biggest hits, which most people probably assume were played by the sort of crack session men who have backed every single other Teen Pop act from then to now, were his (both records were produced–superbly–by his brother Bill, who had subsequently been kicked out of the band by their father in a crowning act of genius!).
Those landmarks–as indelible as any bass lines in the rock and roll era, which means as indelible as any in the history of bass lines–were well in Barry’s past when he stepped to the mike on this particular night, four months short of his sixteenth birthday.
The Cowsills “Where Is Love,” “II X II” and “Poor Baby”(Live at the Playboy Mansion)
Susan Cowsill has long since become one of the country’s best singer-songwriters and has lived a genuinely epic American life which I’m just beginning to learn about in depth and which I’ll get to more of in the coming days or weeks.
Barry Cowsill disappeared during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His body washed up in the Mississippi River four months afterwards and was finally identified a week later.
Believe it or not, some people made fun of me back then when I said it was a musical, as well as human, tragedy.
You can listen to Susan’s tribute to Barry below–singing one of his songs, with her surviving brothers on backing vocals (plus Jackson Browne and the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson)–and judge for yourself:
Susan Cowsill “River of Love” (Studio Recording with Video Clip)
NOTE: I’ve got the recent acclaimed documentary about the band on its way and I’ll almost certainly have more thoughts on them (and more links–to Susan’s story for sure) after I have a chance to watch the whole thing.
But that first video above has been my YouTube crack for this week. And, hey, if you don’t cry (or smile) for anything else, you can at least cry (or smile) for an age when Hugh Hefner still had taste in women! Still can’t figure out if he ruined us or we ruined him in the long fall since. The corny jokes here provide no clue to the enduring mystery…