“Junk Maker Shoppe”: Hard-Edged Sunshine Pop

One of the lesser-known practitioners of West Coast sunshine pop is Yellow Balloon, a group formed after-the-fact as a performing and touring vehicle for songwriter/producer, Gary Zekley, who released his own version (#25) of debut single, “Yellow Balloon,” in direct competition with Jan & Dean, whose version (#111) he felt to be lacking.  Yellow Balloon released one album and 3 singles in 1967 for Canterbury, a label owned by Ken Handler – and financed by his Mattel Toys co-founder father, Elliott Handler.

Drummer Don Grady, in the middle of his 12-year run playing Robbie Douglas on TV’s My Three Sons, wrote the final track – “Junk Maker Shoppe” – on Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album, which was recorded at Western and Sound Recorders in Los Angeles and featured such top session musicians as Carol Kaye, Jerry Cole, Jim Gordon, Mike Post, Bob West, and Don Randi.  “Junk Maker Shoppe,” interestingly, is the only song on the album where the band members play all the instruments themselves:

“Junk Maker Shoppe”     Yellow Balloon     1967

Yellow Balloon - 45             45s Whose B-Side Consists of the A-Side Played Backwards:

– “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!” b/w “Aaah-Ah ,Yawa Em Ekat Ot Gnimoc Er’yeht” by Napoleon XIV  (1966)

– “Yellow Balloon” b/w “Noollab Wolley” by Yellow Balloon  (1967)

– “Honey Love” b/w “Evol Yenoh” by Burt Walters [Lee “Scratch” Perry production]  (1968)

Johnny Seay Asks That You Not Look Behind His Baby’s Bedroom Door

In July of 1967, one month after the release of Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe album, Johnny Seay went into Columbia’s Nashville recording studio to record one song – a singularly strange, slightly surrealistic Southern gothic tale.   Listen for the ghostly train whistle near the end of the first verse, but under no circumstances should you look behind the bedroom door – you’ll be sorry:

Behind My Baby’s Bedroom Door – Johnny Seay

Curiously, Columbia chose to release this song as a single as well as include it in their 1968 sampler LP, Welcome to Columbia Country.

Welcome to Columbia Country LP

“It’s Time”: Unleash the Light Within

I find 1969’s “It’s Time” by The Sons of Champlin to be very evocative of its time – there’s a similar uplift in tone and lyric (at least on the chorus) as with Sly & the Family Stone, both bands being from the Bay Area, coincidentally or not.

It’s Time – The Sons of Champlin

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play ”It’s Time” by The Sons of Champlin.]

Nice use of church chimes in the run-up to the chorus. This song was the A-side of a 1969 Capitol 45 – the third of four singles for that label – and included on the band’s second album, The Sons.

Sons of Champlin LP

As it turns out, the similarity in spirit to Sly is not coincidental – so say the historians at the Soul Tracks website:

The Sons of Champlin arose in the late 60s out of a dynamic Bay Area music scene that was most noted for psychedelic rock acts like Jefferson Airplane, but which was also the home of groups like Sly & the Family Stone and Tower of Power that were changing the face of soul music, taking James Brown’s funk introductions to the next level of assimilation in popular music.  The Sons of Champlin were caught somewhere between the two groups, resembling the look and often the lyrics of the former but always clearly displaying their affinity for soul music.

“Bin Wieder Frei”: Unrelenting Verbal Onslaught

The unrelenting verbal onslaught of 1978’s “Bin Wieder Frei” by German heartthrob, Benny, immediately made me think of Joey Levine’s famous feat of rapid-fire elocution from 1974, “Life is a Rock” (But the Radio Rolled Me) – which later helped inspire REM’s   “End of the World (As We Know It)” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:

I think it’s fair to say that Bob Dylan helped open the door for this sort of lyrical bombardment with the release of his landmark 1965 single, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” especially its iconic promotional video with Dylan himself holding oversized flash cards of the song’s key lyrics.  But who before Dylan dazzled listeners with similar demonstrations of verbal dexterity at breakneck speeds?

Bin Wieder Frei 45 sleeve

Reggae + Strings: Crossover Need Not Be a Dirty Word

For so-called secular pop music, reggae is pretty deeply rooted in matters of spirit – an element that makes the music so distinctive.  Just as John Lennon once dared to imagine “all the people living in peace” undivided by religion (still one of the most radical lyrics ever to hit the Top Ten), seven years earlier Bob Marley had forthrightly declared that we are all “one love, one heart” and should join together in joy and brotherly spirit.

As the 60s slipped into the 70s, reggae became more and more commercially viable, particularly in the UK, where single releases were increasingly supplemented with strings to sweeten the sound.   The inevitable backlash against the slicker and more overtly commercial sound was certainly understandable, but we can now see in hindsight that in some instances, the use of strings wasn’t simply a shameless bid to sell records but rather an inspired choice that suited the song.  I would contend, for instance, that the strings at the beginning of “New Morning” by Nicky Thomas give the mix a buoyancy and hope that underscores the song’s title (alternatively, as the person who posted this YouTube audio mix declares, “strings reggae is good!”).

In a similar vein I find the highly-augmented sound on Jackie Mittoo’s 1971 album Wishbone – achieved with the help of a 32-piece orchestra on many tracks – to be a musical marriage that works.  Wishbone is one of three albums released by the legendary Skatalites keyboardist and Studio One session bandleader after Mittoo emigrated to Canada at the end of the 60s.  Unusually, for a Jackie Mittoo album, there are a few vocal tunes, such as excellent album closer, “Right Track”:

Jackie Mittoo - Wishbone

Jackie Mittoo, curiously in the music news this past July when indie-pop veterans, Superchunk, announced the title of their latest single, “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.”

Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

In a curious twist, 1973’s hit by The Heptones, “Book of Rules” – whose first verse and chorus were largely taken from “Bag of Tools” by American poet, R.L. Sharpe – would itself be appropriated 27 years later by Noel Gallagher for the musical bridge to “Go Let It Out,” a #1 UK single for Oasis in 2000.

Bag of Tools” by R.L. Sharpe

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings, and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me, are builders for eternity?

Each is given a list of rules; a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown; a stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.

“Bye Bye Birdie”: Groovy Guitar & Organ Instrumental

Chet Atkins’s guitar sounds mighty and majestic when propelled by the infectious, burbling rhythms of an unnamed organist in this treatment of “Bye Bye Birdie” from Chet’s 1963 album, Teen Scene — dig that groovy roller rink organ sound.

Note the original album cover:Teen Scene I cover

Check out the new and improved cover for the 1975 reissue on Pickwick Camden:Teen Scene II cover-x

J Mascis Takes a Run at the Sun

Allison Anders’ 1996 fictional film, Grace of My Heart – a clever and heartfelt tribute to the great sounds of the 1960s and early 70s – features original songs that take their inspiration from Brill Building & girl group pop, as well as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” British Invasion beat groups, and confessional singer-songwriter balladry that later set the stage for “adult contemporary” pop.  The soundtrack’s effectiveness is due, in part, to the fact that a number of songs were written by veteran songwriters of the classic pop era in collaboration with more contemporary artists, as in the case of “God Give Me Strength,” which was written by Burt Bacharach with Elvis Costello.

“Take a Run at the Sun” – a deft blend of surf and theremin that is one of the soundtrack’s highlights – was written and performed by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and is notable for sounding nothing like the gargantuan guitar roar for which the 90s “alternative” rock trio is famous:

The following year saw the release of a Dinosaur Jr. 3-song single (in the UK and Australia only) which featured “Take a Run at the Sun” as the A-side with “Don’t You Think It’s Time” and “The Pickle Song” on the flip side.

Take a Run at the Sun 45 - Dinosaur Jr

“Jackson”: Public’s Help Sought in Identifying Artist

As soon as I picked up this album and felt the lightweight textured paper, I knew right away that this record was from outside the “West” – in this case, Romania:

C & W Greatest Hits

Much of this album is a mystery since there are practically no credits, but I’m guessing it came out in the mid-to-late 70s.

Check out the song selections – and Johnny Cash’s looming shadow:

Side 1

1. “Give My Love to Rose” (Johnny Cash from his Sun catalog);  2. “Oh Susanna”;            3. “Frank[y] and Johnny” (song made famous by Johnny Cash but actually over 100 years old);  4. “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”; 5. “Jackson” (Johnny Cash yet again)

Side 2

6. “She’s Gone”;  7. “Sunday Morning Coming [to] Down” (also made famous by Cash);   8. “My Old Kentucky Home”;  9. “Willow Tree”;  10. “Red River Valley”;  11. “Paper Roses”

It says “greatest hits,” so it gives the appearance of being a compilation of various artists.  But then you listen to it and find out there is but one artist.

Unnamed.

I find that very funny.

Anyway, “Jackson” – Johnny & June Carter Cash’s big declaration of love from 1967 – is easily the coolest thing on this album:

Jackson – Romanian All-Stars

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Jackson” by Artist Unknown.]

Could this possibly be another musical prank from Jonathan King?

“The Message”: Nyah Rock from the UK

K-Tel put out a 70s hits package called Super Bad and wisely decided to include Cymande‘s moody and mysterious 1972 hit, “The Message“:

Says Discogs:   “Formed 1971 in London, England, disbanded 1974. Cymande played what they themselves called NyahRock: a mixture of funk, soul, reggae and African rhythms.”  Wikipedia claims group members to be from Guyana, Jamaica & St. Vincent.

Pronounced Sah-MAHN-day.
Cymande
“The Message” would reach #48 on the pop chart, #22 on the R&B chart in 1973.
`
K-Tel's Super Bad

“Alone Alone”: Nino & April Are All Strung Out

In 1966 brother and sister duo, Nino Tempo & April Stevens, left Atco for White Whale, a label then enjoying commercial success with The Turtles.  White White demonstrated their eagerness to do business with Nino and April by allowing them complete artistic freedom in the recording studio. The first single – “All Strung Out” – served as the title track of their debut album, which ended up hitting the #26 spot on the pop chart.

All Strung Out - Nino & April

This song – which was originally offered to the Righteous Brothers as the follow-up single to their huge hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” – was recorded at Hollywood’s Gold Star studios by legendary recording engineers, Larry Levine and Stan Ross, along with the usual top-notch support from some of LA’s finest session musicians.  Hear the final mix yourself in this (mimed) performance on TV’s Lloyd Thaxton Show in the summer of 1966.  Interesting to note that Vinnie Barbarino enjoyed a hit cover version in 1977 under the title, “All Strung Out on You.”

How surprising to learn that one of the album’s tracks, “Alone Alone” – a song brimming with obvious hit potential – was never released as a single:

“Alone Alone”     Nino Tempo & April Stevens     1966

Very effective use of steel drums on the instrumental riff that opens and closes the song.   Tune was written by John Dalton & Gary Montgomery – produced by Nino Tempo.

Six Degrees of Syd Nathan

Sometimes it seems as if just about everyone has passed through Syd Nathan’s King Records at some point in their career, even if just for one or two singles.  April Stevens,  as it turns out, released two singles on King in 1953 that were also issued in the UK on Parlophone (future home of The Beatles):  [1] “C’est Si Bon” b/w “Soft Warm Lips”; and  [2] “How Could Red Riding Hood (Have Been So Very Good)” b/w “You Said You’d Do It (Are You Gonna).”  Those two singles, however, were preceded by April’s King debut – “Hot Tamale” b/w “Treat Me Nice.”  Fascinating to discover that one of two unissued tracks in King’s vaults is “Wanting You,” a fantastic dance track that April later recorded for MGM in 1967 and that was originally (now, hold onto your hats) an Oscar Hammerstein song from the 1928 operetta, The New Moon!  Sadly, “Wanting You” didn’t burn up the charts, although it was later vindicated as a classic track of the UK Northern Soul music scene.

April Stevens - 1953 King EP