July 18, 2015

Casualties of the British Invasion

As I sipped my latte at Peets this morning and considered next steps (pastry? shower? Luminal?), a familiar song, scientifically selected no doubt, came through the speakers.  It was the Zombies' Summertime, and it hurled me back into the maelstrom I'd just crawled out of, the extraordinary creative destruction the Summer of Love visited on the music industry.
Fun Fact:  Both the Zombies and Cream quote The Odyssey, incorrectly.  The Zombies' posthumous triumph, Odessey and Oracle, inadvertently mis-spells the title of the epic poem.  Cream, meanwhile, has Odysseus encountering Aphrodite (apparently) in "Tales of Brave Ulysses", although this never happens in The Odyssey. 

The reality is that both bands folded for primarily commercial reasons.  Cream was an artistic success by any standard, but they didn't need that - all three members were already well-regarded.  For all the talk about the band being "an experiment," the reason they came to America, and recorded Disraeli Gears in LA, and toured all over the country, was that they wanted to make it big.  And they did, but...
We went off to America to record Disraeli Gears, which I thought was an incredibly good album. And when we got back no one was interested because Are You Experienced had come out and wiped everybody else out, including us. Jimi had it sewn up. - Eric Clapton

If you were going to pick a year to try to break through as a band, 1967 might have been the worst one possible.  Here are some other albums that came out that year:
  • Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles 
  • "The Doors" - The Doors (which owes a lot to the Zombies, by the way)
  • "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" - Aretha
  • "Are You Experienced?" - Hendrix
  • "Between the Buttons" - Rolling Stones 
  • "Surrealistic Pillow" - Jefferson Airplane
  • "The Velvet Underground and Nico" - Velvet Underground
  • "Grateful Dead" - Grateful Dead
  • and Big Brother and the Holding Company etc. etc.
Some noise was not meant to be broken through.

Come at me bro.

The Zombies had an even tougher time of it.  It must have been particularly frustating for them, because just a couple of years before they had been the new sound.  They released "She's Not There" in September 1964, and it was #2 in the U.S. by December.  Here were the top Billboard hits of that year:
  1. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" The Beatles
  2. "She Loves You" The Beatles
  3. "Hello, Dolly!" Louis Armstrong
  4. "Oh, Pretty Woman" Roy Orbison
  5. "I Get Around" The Beach Boys
  6. "Everybody Loves Somebody" Dean Martin
  7. "My Guy" Mary Wells
  8. "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" Gale Garnett
  9. "Last Kiss" J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers
  10. "Where Did Our Love Go" The Supremes 

These are fine songs, but "She's Not There" is a different animal, completely away from the pop vernacular of the time.  Imagine hearing the Beatles on the radio in 1964, then getting this, in a minor key, with its slightly histrionic vocals, rhythmic stops and starts, and trippy keyboards, not to mention the lyrics themselves - "why should I care?" indeed.

Perhaps it was their own fault for not writing three more of those right away, but by 1967 the Beatles had long since caught up and the Zombies were yesterday's news.
Fun Fact:  In the 1970s the Zombies' guitarist, the late Paul Atkinson, worked with Paul McCartney.  McCartney sang him "She's Not There" from memory, knew every word.

And listening this morning, I'm thinking this music completely holds up.  I am so fond of that cover of "Summertime" they did, because it's respectful to the original but also really puts the band's own stamp on the material.  "Summertime" fits perfectly with their intentions, right down to the  ambiguity of its origins:
Summertime is often considered an adaptation of the African American spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child", which ended the play version of Porgy.  Alternatively, the song has been proposed as an amalgamation of that spiritual and the Ukrainian Yiddish lullaby "Pipi-pipipee".  The Ukrainian-Canadian composer and singer Alexis Kochan has suggested that some part of Gershwin's inspiration may have come from having heard the Ukrainian lullaby, "Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikno" ("A Dream Passes By The Windows") at a New York City performance by Alexander Koshetz's Ukrainian National Chorus in 1929 (or 1926). - Wikipedia

Maybe there were hallucinogens in the coffee, but it occured to me that "Time of the Season" is a kind of bizarro-"Summertime".  Apart from the musical similarities, and the fact that the band knew "Summertime" inside and out, "Time of the Season" virtually quotes Gershwin:
  • Your Daddy's rich
  • Who's your Daddy?  Is he rich like me?
  • Summertime, and the living is easy
  • In this time, give it to me easy

"Time of the Season" will always be associated with the Summer of Love, and it was recorded at exactly that moment: July/August 1967.  When they were done taping, the band broke up and went their separate ways.  In April of 1968 the album was actually released, and "Time of the Season" really did break through, becoming their greatest hit.  The band eventually got to play it live...when they reunited 40 years later.

The album did ok, too:
[It] has risen from obscurity to be hailed as a pop masterpiece. It appears on numerous “Greatest Albums Of All Time” lists, including those in Rolling Stone and Mojo, and has been cited as a favorite by artists as diverse as mod rocker Paul Weller, folk hero Elliott Smith, and grunge god Dave Grohl. Unlike many rediscovered “lost albums” that owe their belated success to a movie soundtrack or television advertisement, Odessey and Oracle has endured solely thanks to its musical merits and the passion of those who’ve heard it. Based primarily on word of mouth, the record’s status increases each year.  -  Jordan Runtagh, VH-1 News

After Cream reunited at the Albert Hall in 2005, they followed up their success with an implosion full of the same toxic rage and recrimination that wrecked them the first time.  The Zombies stayed together, though:  they closed their show with "Time of the Season" at Stern Grove last year.  But, unlike the Cream reunion, which to my mind represented some of their very best work (Clapton not struggling to keep up anymore), I am not so moved by the re-vivified Zombies.  They're ok, I guess, but I think Dave Matthews, for example, does a nicer job with "Time of the Season":

Say what you want about the band, the song stands up.  Gershwin would be proud.


Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

Dave Matthews band?


July 20, 2015 at 7:45 AM  
Blogger Laird of Madrona said...

That's more like it!

July 20, 2015 at 8:49 AM  

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