Well, checking out the history of May 20 at Wikipedia, I learned something. Or rather, I learned a number of things, most of which don’t have any application here today. Those can wait.
My useful bit of learning is that it was on this date in 794 that King Æthelberht II of East Anglia visited the royal Mercian court at Sutton Walls, hoping to marry Princess Ælfthryth. The reception he got was less than cordial. He was taken captive and beheaded, though sources differ as to whether King Offa’s decision to execute the visitor was his alone or was influenced by – as Wikipedia characterizes her – “Offa’s evil queen Cynethryth.”
Wikipedia notes that the tale of Ælfthryth’s betrothal to Æthelberht II is “a late and not very trustworthy legend,” though the tale of his death at the Mercian court seems to be true. And I imagine one has to question as well, then, the tale that after Æthelberht’s death, Ælfthryth – as Wikipedia tells it – “retired to the marshes of Crowland Abbey,” where she was built into a cell about 793 and lived as a recluse to the end of her days.
Why does that matter? It really doesn’t, except that I love old English names with their odd vowels and odd consonantal combinations. And I remain thankful that none of the parents of the women I courted when I was young – or in later years, for that matter – decided that I’d be more useful without my head.
And then, learning of the tale of Princess Ælfthryth gives me a chance to offer here another of my favorite long-form pieces of pop rock: “Tie-Dye Princess” by the Ides of March. The long track, running 11:31, was the closer to Common Bond, the 1971 follow-up to Vehicle, the group’s 1970 debut, the title track of which had been released as a single and had gone to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album itself went to No. 55.
Common Bond didn’t fare nearly as well. The singles “Superman” and “L.A. Goodbye” went to No. 64 and No. 73, respectively, and a single edit of “Tie-Dye Princess” bubbled under at No. 113. (Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles shows “Tie-Dye Princess” as the A-side of Warner Bros. 7507, while the site Discogs.com shows it as the B-side. I’m inclined to agree with Whitburn.) And Common Bond bubbled under the Billboard 200 at No. 207.
I’m pretty sure that a princess at the court of Mercia wouldn’t have worn tie-dye in 794, but I don’t care. Here, in honor of Princess Ælfthryth and in honor of the possibly true tale of the ending of her courtship 1,222 years ago today, is “Tie-Dye Princess” by the Ides of March.
A couple of weeks ago, Odd, Pop and I spent some time looking at records that over the years on July 8 had perched at No. 100 in the Billboard Hot 100 and at the bottom of the magazine’s Bubbling Under section. The exercise brought our attention back to the music of B.W. Stevenson, which provided two CDs’ worth of new listening and fodder for a few posts in this space.
I don’t expect anything quite as cool as that to come out of a similar exploration for three charts released on July 31 in the 1960s and 1970s, but we’ll see what we find.
We’ll start in 1961, when the No. 100 record was a lugubrious bit of wedding bell doo-wop by a New York-based R&B group called the Van Dykes. “The Bells Are Ringing” had been released in 1958 on the King label and went nowhere; this release, on the Deluxe label, would climb one more spot, to No. 99, before disappearing. (Earlier in 1961, “Gift Of Love,” a re-release on the Guardian Angel label of a recording that had been released on the Spring label in 1960, had done a little better, climbing to No. 91.)
Parked at No. 120, the bottom of the Bubbling Under section on July 31, 1961, was “Johnny Willow” by Fred Darian, the ludicrous tale of a World War II infantryman who, if I hear the record correctly, helped hold off the enemy while holding a letter to his girl in his left hand and his rifle in his right hand. The record, which accelerates alarmingly to an almost tongue-twisting speed, eventually spent one week in the Hot 100, making it to No. 96. It was Darian’s second low-charting record based on things military; the Detroit native saw his spoken word “Battle of Gettysburg” spend one week at No. 100 in February 1961. (Darian was also a co-writer of “Mr. Custer,” Larry Verne’s No. 1 hit from 1960.)
And we’re off to 1965, when the No. 100 record on July 31 was a single recorded live that in ten weeks would peak at No. 5 (No. 2 R&B): “The ‘In’ Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. It was the sole Top Ten hit for the jazz pianist, but he’d put three more records into the Top 40 in the next year: “Hang On Sloopy” went to No. 11, a cover of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” went to No. 29, and “Wade In The Water” went to No. 19. Lewis’ 20th and last record in or near the Hot 100 was “What’s The Name Of This Funk (Spiderman),” which went to No. 69 in 1976.
The Bubbling Under section that July 31 was thirty-five records deep, and sitting at the very bottom of that section was a record by young English singer who in a little bit more than a year would become a television and recording star. “What Are We Going To Do” by David Jones is a lightweight record that to my ears owes a lot to Herman’s Hermits. In a couple of weeks it would move into the Hot 100 and peak at No. 93. Starting in September 1966, Jones would be better known as Davy, and with the other three members of the Monkees, would star in the hit television show and record and release numerous hit records, including three that went to No. 1.
In her first hit record, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (No. 1 pop and country, 1968), Jeannie C. Riley took on small-town hypocrisy. In 1971, in the last record she had in or near the Hot 100, Riley took on cohabitation, telling her beau in “Good Enough To Be Your Wife” that shacking up wasn’t gonna happen. The record was at No. 100 as July 1971 ended, and it would only move up three more notches before disappearing. On the country chart, however, “Good Enough To Be Your Wife” went to No. 7, the sixth and final record Riley put into the country Top Ten.
The horn band Ides of March had a No. 2 hit in early 1970 with “Vehicle” and kept throwing singles at the wall for the next eighteen months or so, hoping something would stick. Nothing really did, with “Superman,” the immediate follow-up to “Vehicle” doing the best, getting to No. 64. In the last days of July 1971, the band’s “Tie-Dye Princess” was parked at No. 124, smack on the bottom of the Bubbling Under section. It would get up to No. 113, and it was the last time the Ides of March would be in or near the Hot 100. (The single version of “Tie-Dye Princess doesn’t seem to be available at YouTube; you can find the eleven-minute album track here.)
A while back, on one of those Facebook memes that friends send through occasionally, I was asked to list the twenty essential songs/records for my desert island. I don’t recall everything I listed and then sent out to other friends, but I do recall the top two: “Cherish” by the Association and “We” by Shawn Phillips.
I got a note from my friend, the Half-Hearted Dude, who blogs at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart and who stops by here and leaves an occasional note. He said – and I’m paraphrasing here, as the note has been consigned to the ether and to whatever files Facebook keeps on its registrants – that when he saw that I had responded, he figured that “Cherish” and “We” would show up somewhere on my list, and their presence in the top two spots was not at all surprising.
Well, I guess it shouldn’t have been startling. I’ve written about “Cherish” several times during the life of this blog, calling it at least once the best single ever released. And although I’ve written about “We” far less often – and do not recall exactly what I said about it – I know that I’ve never hidden my high regard for Shawn Phillips’ 1972 recording. In it, one can hear many virtues: strong melody; inventive, coherent and cohesive lyrics; a sparkling backing track; and the conciseness of a record that gets all that done in 3:43 (and I’ll acknowledge, as a fan of Phillips, that concision wasn’t always present on his other 1970s albums).
Then add to those virtues Phillips’ remarkable vocal, especially the portion where his scat singing takes him into the stratosphere (starting at 2:38 into the song), and you’ve got a record that for me, at least, comes very close to the top of the all-time list.
But wait, as the hawkers on television say, there’s more!
Faces, the album that is home to “We,” was released in 1972. The album got to No. 57 on the Billboard chart, and “We,” its lone charting single, got to No. 89 in the Billboard Hot 100 during the last week of January 1973. What’s always puzzled me, then, is how the single showed up on the jukebox in St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center during the early autumn of 1974, twenty-one months after it spent three weeks in the Hot 100. Was it re-released? Did the jukebox jobber goof? I don’t know, but whatever the reason for its late appearance, the record was welcome. I dropped a lot of quarters into the machine that autumn, and “We” was one of the preferred records for me and a couple of other folks at The Table, the diverse and sometimes odd collection of people with whom I spent my free time.
The song’s lyrics, of course, tell of how two – a “he” and a “she” – can make a “we,” and I was dreaming about that same process that autumn. Those dreams left abruptly, as friends and long-time readers likely recall. And I don’t think I heard “We” again for almost nine years. I imagine I could have sought out the album, as I did for a few records that marked that autumn. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1983, when I chanced on Faces at a flea market in Monticello, that I heard “We” again. If anything, it had become more powerful in its absence. Over the years, I’ve increased the quality of my copy of the album, finding a better vinyl version in 1997 and then finding a rare CD copy in 2007. But no matter the format or quality, “We” remains one of the most emotionally potent songs in my entire universe of music.
Its potency is not tied, as some might guess, to the young woman who might have been the other half of that “he and she make we” equation. (At least not entirely.) It’s linked, rather, to a time before things changed, to a vague memory, a moment when all of us at The Table were listening to Shawn Phillips’ voice soar through the basement snack bar where we gathered, all of us – for that moment – looking at things beyond the range of our vision and finding bits of our own dreams expressed in Phillips’ words and music.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 27
“San Francisco Girls (Return Of The Native)” by Fever Tree from Fever Tree 
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2486 
“Vehicle” by the Ides of March, Warner Bros. 7378 
“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces 
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees from Main Course 
“Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young from Comes A Time 
The myth of San Francisco circa 1967 and 1968 was grist for the mills of who knows how many songwriters and performers, with the best-known result probably being John Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” which was a No. 4 hit for Scott McKenzie during the singular summer of 1967. Fever Tree, a relatively forgotten band that offered an odd mix of psychedelic tunes, soft ballads and cover versions of others’ hits, didn’t get its San Francisco tune out until June of 1968, when “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” spent three weeks at No. 91. Despite the group’s eclectic style and despite the lack of attention given the single, I think that “San Francisco Girls” is just as evocative of what was happening in that California city as McKenzie’s record, especially in its opening, with the harpsichord eventually joined by tympani and organ for the hushed opening verse:
Out there it’s summertime Milk and honey days Oh, San Francisco girls with San Francisco ways.
From there, the song takes off in a rushed, fuzz-laden gallop, and the rest of the tale isn’t quite as interesting. But those first few moments pull me in every time.
I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.
There was a discussion not long ago at the blog AM, then FM about how the lyrics to “Vehicle,” the Ides of March hit from 1970, might play today, what with the “friendly stranger in the black sedan” inviting the object of his interest into his car: “I got pictures, got candy. I’m a lovable man, and I can take you to the nearest star.” I’d guess – as did Jeff at AM, then FM – that what was heard as a (lame) come-on forty years ago would come off today as really creepy: This dude is exactly the kind of guy parents have been warning kids about for years! So times have changed, and the guy in the car would have needed to find a new way to get the attention of a pretty young thing. But as he long as he brings those horns along, he’ll do okay, as the horn chart was at least partly the reason that “Vehicle” went to No. 2 during the spring of 1970.
The Bee Gees’ long career had, as I see it, three distinct segments. Call them acts, if you want. Act One was the group’s early work as a kind of Down Under Beatles, running – as far as hits in the U.S. were concerned – from 1967 into 1969. Act Two was the split in the group and then the tentative music after the reunion, with that segment running from 1970 to 1972. Then, in 1975, started Act Three, during which the Bee Gees were for a while the world’s most popular group, throwing off hits for themselves and producing them for others as if there were nothing hard about it at all. The first portion of that third act was the 1975 album Main Course, which telegraphed the disco triumph to come in its first two hits, “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” which went to No. 1 and No. 7, respectively. My favorite from the album, though, is the third hit, “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which went to No. 12 during the early months of 1976. Why that record? It’s no secret that I like a good ballad, and to me, “Fanny” is one of the best. And it comes from a time in my life that held at least two good things: my college internship and the pleasant (and unfamiliar) dilemma of having to decide between two very nice young women.
“Four Strong Winds,” Ian Tyson’s song of retreat from love to the Alberta prairie, has been recorded by hundreds of folks since he wrote it as the title tune to the second album he and his then-wife released as Ian & Sylvia. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with the song until I heard Neil Young’s 1978 version on the radio one day. Young’s cover of “Four Strong Winds” was released as a single but only got to No. 61. Nevertheless, hearing the tune inspired me to run down to the local record outlet and grab a copy of Comes A Time, which has only turned out to be my favorite Neil Young album. And the tune marks the only appearance of Neil Young in my mythical jukebox.