too much typing—since 2003

9.12.2005

over and over

I think it's difficult for people now to understand much of the 1960s simply because our whole prevailing mindset has changed dramatically. Specifically, that a lot of '60s ideas seem impossibly earnest might suggest that it's very difficult for us to conceive of those ideas now as having been genuine or uninflected by irony, cynicism, etc. While the naivete (as we see it now) of some '60s ideas has led to problems ranging from misunderstood to outright chilling (I'm thinking of the way ideas of the nobility and innocence of, say, third-world peoples ultimately colluded in their oppression), more often it's just rendered it difficult to approach a lot of cultural material in the spirit it was intended. And part of that spirit, I think, was suspending disbelief, willing hope and earnestness into being, on the grounds that, hey, it just might work - and certainly, your grim '50s rationality didn't seem to work very fulfillingly.

I think it's no accident, for example, that we seem to imagine the '50s in black and white, while the stereotypical '60s image not only is in color but in supersaturated, wildly pulsating color. It's as if people were working all day in a dim building, then left work expecting the gray of late evening and were surprised to find it still full, near-blinding daylight.

Still, some folks at the time seemed aware of some of the problems, and managed to speak in a way that's less dated. One example, one of my favorite songs from the era, is the Mamas & the Papas' "12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)." The narrator, who seems to be a bit older than the women he describes (he calls them "young," after all), both feels renewed and inspirited by the new sense of joy, openness, and love he sees and experienced - but also a bit saddened, worried that, already, he's too old, that the moment has already passed him by. And that it will eventually pass us all by, and quite possibly before we can adequately remember it.

Judging by the difficulty with which the '60s is shorthanded as mere fashion, as trendy (but outdated) politics for some, or as hopeless, even dangerous naivete, maybe the song's narrator was correct. I'm reminded - despite this song's sadness and autumnal air - how much more difficult it is in music to convey joy, without succumbing to saccharine, than it is to convey darkness.

The other '60s track I'm posting is here as a sort of delayed follow-up to a comment I made over at Said the Gramophone when Sean & Co. posted it. Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover" was one of my favorite songs as a grade-schooler, and like a surprising number of those songs, I still enjoy it, and not only as an exercise in nostalgia. At the time, I wrote in STG's comments board that, contrary to some commentors, I preferred the long version (even though the short one is a fine pop single). In particular, the omitted section is three very different guitar solos: first, a pedal steel (or something like it) playing a pretty straight little lick, then a wah-wah guitar soloing rather more agitatedly, and finally a distorted, snarling little number which (in contrast with its tone) plays in a very regulated little manner (with wah-wah in counterpoint)...until at 3:47, it erupts in a little frenzy of notes, as if forgetting itself, before returning briefly to its settled state, and then there's the big build-up back to the coda (a version of the chorus), with a big chromatic wah-wah guitar part.

What's striking about this song is its deliberateness: we imagine the '60s somehow as being big on abandon, as if everyone just freaked out all at once... Yet, lassitude is well-known as an effect of pot, for instance - and there's definitely that sort of air to this song's deliberate tempo, its refusal to get overexcited. Yet at the same time (and that guitar eruption is key) there's quite a bit of emotion and tension underneath the song, a tension that that deliberation only heightens. (I could ramble on here about key differences between US and British psychedelia, by the way: British tended to work within the context of a pop song, even if it expanded it, whereas Americans often felt the need to completely dispense with such structure, in favor of extended freeform ramblings. A generalization, to be sure, with many exceptions - including this song.)

But the real reason I'm posting this version of the song: Rhino "fixed" this on the reissue I have - but when I first heard this song as a kid, the guitar solo section was a little flat in pitch relative to the rest of the song - which meant that when the circular rhythm riff underlying the chorus comes back after the solos, not only was it modulated upward a half-step as intended, it was in a whole different pitch-ballpark entirely. It just about lifted you out of your chair is what it did. The way Rhino should have fixed it was to fix the flattening at the entry of the guitar solo (the steel), but leave the microtone rise afterwards - in other words, raise the pitch of the ending part just a hair. Thanks to Audacity, that's exactly what I did: the last part of the track is raised a quarter-tone in pitch, to reproduce the effect the original version of the track had (on me, at least). Curiously, because I didn't correspondingly flatten the pitch during the solos (because that, for some reason, always grated against my ears), I'm not entirely sure the effect is the same. Then again, I don't have the original version anymore - so I'm not sure exactly how much the pitch was altered. It may have been that the particular amount of the pitch-change was key to the effect - sounds are tricky that way (as Thurston Moore knows...).

But to connect this back to my musings at the beginning of the post: this song is usually presented nowadays somewhat cynically: chart-lusting musicians jump on the psychedelic bandwagon, cute but campy artifact of a highly marketable era, etc. But it's a fine song, not only in its guise as a pop song but also as an artfully arranged but colorful expression of longing and frustrated joy, yet calm and accepting in a way as well.

The Mamas & the Papas "12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)"
Tommy James & the Shondells "Crimson and Clover" (altered version)

3 comments:

Joe said...

The Mamas & The Papas' songs often have an air of melancholy about them. John Phillips seemed to see the results of free love etc. a little better than most.

Sean said...

i don't think i had ever heard the long vsn of "c&c", and i love that you tweaked it to fit the recording you remembered.

me, i love the vocoder thing most of all, and loathe that it fades out straight afterwards.

the pedal steel's great, but the electric guitar is bugging me: for me when it "freaks out" it's like it's shaking its shoulders and dismissing everything that came before. "fuck that melancholy pedal steel! yeah, this is the reg'lar and good way to go."

2fs said...

Do you mean the wobbly vocal thing on "Crimson and clover, over and over"? I think technically that's a tremolo - but my sister and I used to imitate by simply vibrating an index finger on our throats while singing it. But yeah: I like that a lot.

About the guitar: I see what you mean - and it would probably feel that way to me if it didn't then immediately go back to its more measured lines.