Friday, July 24, 2020

McQ's Best Of 1969 Vol 10 - Poptimists & Operatics

To be blunt, after a five year stretch that saw the pop/rock world producing an enormous number of it's most timeless and definitive singles, pop music took a big step backwards in 1969.

Not that the year didn't generate some fantastic pop music, it did, but compared to the years just past, harmonic, tight, concise pop just wasn't where most ambitious musical heads were at in 1969.

But in the wake of Sgt. Pepper's conceptualism, a new idea did emerged, the rock-opera.

And in 1969, two already prominent acts, The Who and The Kinks, took declarative first stabs at the form, with Tommy, and the originally intended for television Arthur (or the Decline of the British Empire).

So for this mix, we focus heavily on those two groundbreaking narrative efforts, as well as some of 1969's other most memorable pop from the likes of The Beatles, The Velvet Underground (who had suddenly decided to get real gentle), and several of the year's best singles acts, ending it all, in the only way a mix dedicated to 1969 should, with the Beatles "Sun King" medley.

Set 1 (Arthur In Decline)

1. Victoria - The Kinks (3:40)
2. Candy Says - The Velvet Underground (4:04)
3. Marrakesh Express - Crosby, Stills & Nash (2:37)
4. Don't Let Me Down - The Beatles (3:36)
5. Something In The Air - Thunderclap Newman (3:54)
6. Christmas - The Who (4:35)
7. Come and Get It - Badfinger (2:23)
8. Venus - Shocking Blue (3:08)
9. Brainwashed - The Kinks (2:35)
10. What Goes On - The Velvet Underground (4:54)
11. Octopus's Garden - The Beatles (2:51)
12. Crystal Blue Persuasion - Tommy James & The Shondells (4:02)
13. Soul Deep - The Box Tops (2:28)
14. Daydream - Wallace Collection (4:59)

Set 2 (Tommy In Ascension)

15. I'm Free - The Who (2:39)
16. Marley Purt Drive - The Bee Gees (4:27)
17. The Reason - Thunderclap Newman (4:06)
18. Shangri-La - The Kinks (5:21)
19. Some Kinda Love - The Velvet Underground (4:03)
20. The Ballad Of John And Yoko - The Beatles (2:59)
21. Hitchin' A Ride - Vanity Fare (2:53)
22. Sally Simpson - The Who (4:10)
23. Reflections Of My Life - Marmalade (4:11)
24. Do It Again - The Beach Boys (2:26)
25. I'm Set Free - The Velvet Underground (4:04)
26. Arthur - The Kinks (5:26)
27. We're Not Gonna Take It - The Who (7:06)


28. He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother - The Hollies (4:18)
29. You Never Give Me Your Money - The Beatles (4:03)
30. Sun King - The Beatles (2:26)
31. Mean Mr. Mustard - The Beatles (1:07)
32. Polythene Pam - The Beatles (1:13)
33. She Came In Through The Bathroom Window - The Beatles (1:59)
34. Golden Slumbers - The Beatles (1:32)
35. Carry The Weight - The Beatles (2:22)
36. After Hours - The Velvet Underground (2:07)

Meet The Poptimist and Operatics Singers:

The Kinks: Tommy got there first and has always gotten the buzz, but listening back with 2019 ears, I personally feel The Kink's more consistently great Arthur (Or The Decline Of The British Empire) (Strong Recommend) stands today as the superior 1969 rock opera statement. Originally conceived as a companion piece to an experimental play planned for British television (which fell through in the 11th hour), and loosely based on the life story of Ray Davies carpet-layer brother-in-law Arthur, who relocated his family and Davies' sister Rose to Australia to escape England's lack of opportunity. The album also marked a turning point in The Kink's musical direction.  After producing three brilliant albums of increasingly quaint and bucolic simplicity (and diminishing sales) in Face To Face, Something Else By, and Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur saw the band re-engaging with it's harder rocking roots, a shift that would set the course for the bulk of the band's 70s work. For this mix, we're touching upon several tracks, starting with the album's classic "long-live-Britain" opener Victoria, and then also the almost punkish critique of capitalist conformity Brainwashed, the lyrically depressing but musically rich depiction of suburban stagnation Shangri-La, and the ironically cheerful title track

The Velvet Underground: As already stated in our write-up for Vol 2 - Best Of The Best, few 1969 albums have aged better than the Velvet Underground's intimate eponymous third outing (Highest Recommend), released soon after bassist, cellist, and principal avant-gardist noise-maker John Cale had been kicked out of the band and replaced with the much more conventionally wired Doug Yule. We're tapping this record in depth for this mix with delicate album opener Candy Says, the stellar What Goes On, one of the best straight-forward rockers of the band's career, hipster classic Some Kinda Love, anthemic ballad I'm Set Free, and one of the greatest "cute" album closers ever with the Moe Tucker-sung After Hours. And if we hadn't already included the truly breathtaking Jesus on our 2013 Lou Reed tribute Goodnight, Sweet Prince, you can bet it would have been included here as well.

Crosby, Stills & Nash: We'll be covering Crosby, Stills & Nash's fabulous and highly impactful self-titled debut (Highest Recommend) to a much greater degree on Vol 13 - Creedence & Friends, with the other landmark albums of that year that tried to dial down the hard rocking and psychedelic tones that had been pervasive the previous two years, but felt it made more sense to include the album's second biggest hit and most purely pop composition, the Graham Nash written-and-sung holdover from his days with The Hollies Marrakesh Express, here.

The Beatles: Although we've already touch-based on The Beatle's last great release Abbey Road (Highest Recommend) on four previous mixes, here we tackle a few final Abbey Road tracks highlighting what the band always did best - smart, sophisticated, highly inventive pop. First up is Octopus's Garden, which allowed Ringo to lend his voice to yet another enduring children's classic, but it's our second selection from Abbey Road that was the album's (and the bands) coup de grace, where our now weary, burnt-out veterans chose to blend together a baker's dozen or more of lingering song fragments into one rapid fire opus rather than flesh them out individually in full. Forever since referred to as The Sun King Medley, it's one of the greatest feats of gestalt engineering in pop history, the entire sequence feeling so much grander than any of it's individual parts, and fitting penultimate sequence for this mix. 

But Abbey Road wasn't The Beatles only output in 1969.  They were also active in the singles department. One of the better B-Sides of their career came in the form of the pleading Don't Let Me Down, a song recorded during the Let It Be sessions but which Phil Spector rejected for the upcoming album, and so was instead attached as the back half of a pairing with Get Back
Finally, also released as a standalone single in 1969, Lennon's The Ballad Of John And Yoko, his caustic detailing of the headaches surrounding his wedding to Yoko Ono, which would go on to be the band's final number one single in the UK, even though it was banned from some radio stations for its references to Christ and crucifixation.

Thunderclap Newman: One of 1969's most appealing small-scale larks, Pete Townsend is widely responsible for creating Thunderclap Newman, when, in an effort to showcase the songwriting talents of his flatmate and personal driver, John "Speedy" Keen, he paired Keen with two other promising young talents, drummer Andy "Thunderclap" Newman, and future Wings lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, brought them all together in his home recording studio, and then in addition to overseeing production their album also filled in on bass under the credit moniker Bijou Drains. The resulting Hollywood Dream (Strong Recommend) was one of the decade's singular low-key charmers, obviously powered by enduring single and Covid mix standard Something In The Air, but including so much more with the likes of Look Around, I Don't Know, Open The Door Homer, Wild Country, the sprawling nine-minute Accidents, tasty instrumental Hollywood Dream, and my second favor track from the album The Reason also included on this mix here. 

The Who: The a genuine pioneering effort and a guiding star for the driving concept of this mix, the truth is, at least to my ears, that there are few album in rock history than The Who's 1969 rock opera Tommy (Solid Recommend), which despite its grand ambitions, has never been dinged nearly enough for mediocre quality of so much of the music, especially the boring and omnipresent Overture/Underture theme that well establishes the rock opera motif but dominates far too much of the record. Taken on its own, Disk One, which sets up the narrative, but only offers one legitimate top tier musical highlight - the brilliantly demented and yet simultaneously affecting Christmas - would only merit a Mild Recommend, but the excellent Disk Two, which would merit a Strong Recommend on its own, salvages the project, offering up classic rock staples I'm Free and We're Not Going To Take in addition to the sublime Pinball Wizard (already profiled on Vol 2 - Best Of The Best), as well as some fun late-narrative POV shifts like the fan-girl tragicomedy Sally Simpson.

Badfinger: Performing throughout the bulk of the 60s as The Iveys, the Welsh pop act was at a crossroads in 1969. The first non-Beatles signed to Apple records, they felt the were being significantly underserved by the label and said as much in a public interview. In response, rather than getting mad, Paul McCartney gave them a sure fire hit, his recent composition Come And Get It, which he insisted they record note for note as he had on an earlier demo. It would become the first in a series of major worldwide hits for the band, but it also forced a name change, as all parties agreed The Iveys was no longer a hip enough name for the 1969 music scene. Hence Badfinger, a riff on John Lennon's original title for With A Little Help From My Friend, Bad Finger Boogie.

Shocking Blue: The biggest hit of Dutch psychedelic rockers Shocking Blue's career and enduring nugget of the era, Venus actually had to be rerecorded six months after having already gained significant traction on the worldwide charts, as neither English-as-a-second-language songwriter Robbie van Leeuwan or lead vocalists Mariska Veres realized there were several grammatical errors in the song, particularly the repeated use of "godness" wherever they meant to use "goddess."

Tommy James & The Shondells: Michigan soft psychedelic rockers Tommy James & The Shondells contribute to our 1969 collection with their chill #12 on the year hit Crystal Blue Persuasion.

The Box Tops: With the band's demise less than a year away the Alex Chilton-fronted Memphis blue-eyed soul hit makers The Box Tops scored the last top-40 hit of their existence with 1969's Soul Deep, written, as was their 1967 breakout hit The Letter, by renown country songwriter Wayne Carson.

Wallace Collection: Having already heard Belgian band Wallace Collection's biggest ever hit Daydream sampled many times over the years and on these mix collections (most notably in Lupe Fiasco/Jill Scott's 2006 hip hop hit Daydreamin', and I Monster's '98/'01 club banger Daydream In Blue), it is without question high time we finally profile the symphonic pop original.

The Bee Gees: Created in turbulent recording sessions fraught with tense internal discussions regarding musical direction that led to a temporary break-up of the band, the Bee Gee's double-album Odessa, a high-concept doublealbum thematically anchored around a late 1800s shipwreck, has had a varied critical reception over the years. Critically savaged upon its original release, it was re-edited down to a single disk in the mid-seventies to capitalize on the band's sudden disco fame, and that version has gained critical steam for years, to the point where many music writers now consider it the most significant album of the band's formative years. I myself, however, feeling those original critics got it right, for the most part, Odessa is a dud, in either form. But it does have a few moments that are likable enough, as on the Paul McCartney/Ray Davies-at-their-hammiest Marley Purt Drive included here.

Vanity Fare: The bubblegum-slight-and-sweet Hitchin' A Ride, which gets a special award for being one of the few rock/pop songs of the last fifty years to make prominent use of elementary school recorders in its arrangement, was the biggest stateside hit of still-active Kent-based singles group Vanity Fare's career (though they did produce several other charting singles across Europe in the late 60s/early 70s - most notably Early In The Morning, also released in 1969).

Marmalade: We're choosing Marmalade's original single and bigger American hit Reflections Of My Life over the group's even bigger 1969 (in the UK) cover of the Beatles Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to represent the Glaswegian's as the first Scottish act to ever score a number 1 hit on the UK charts.
The Beach Boys: With Brian Wilson's mental issues really started to rise to the fore, and the sour aftertaste of Smiley Smile still recently behind them, the Beach Boys were on the verge of transitioning from one of the 60s most significant bands to the long-lived nostalgia act they would become.  But they would still manage to manufacture a few middlingly decent albums over the next few years. 1969's 20/20 (Mild Recommend) is one of them, probably nothing to bother with unless you're a big fan, but it does contain a few excellent songs, starting with late career critical fav Cabinessence, and the old-school opener Do It Again that we're spotlighting the album with here. 

The Hollies: Kicking off our encore is the Hollies 1969 rendition of Bobby Scott and Bob Russell's oft covered He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother, which would become a top 10 hit for the band both stateside and overseas, and along with The Air That I Breathe, the definitive ballad of the act's career. It is also a very important song for me personally, as well as several of my best friends, but to say more on that would be in violation of some sacred bonds:-)

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