Our favorite guest blogger John Walker Ross returns with Part 2 of his series about the importance of musical arrangements in the music of the 60’s! John, as most of you know, is the creator and curator of his popular blog https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/ Without further delay, “Here’s Johnny”…
By the time the second half of the 60’s arrived, arrangers had access to a freedom never seen before or since. The Beatles had brought new chord changes. House bands specializing in rock and roll and soul had been assembled all over the U.S. and the U.K. With the Beatles in the lead—barely—bands and producers were experimenting with every instrument known the man. Even electronic synthesizers (a mixed blessing in the long run) were finding a place. This column barely scratches the surface of all that was gong on with the “secret weapon” of 60’s music…But it’s a place to start. I hope folks will pitch in with their own favorites—it’s a bottomless subject!
The Shangri-Las, “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (1965, Billboard #6)
There are those who find some Shangs’ records corny or camp. I say au contraire. That may have been the case conceptually, but by the time this record in particular, was waxed, it transcended all that. There’s no gainsaying the importance of lead singer Mary Weiss in selling the concept, turning melodrama into real pain. But the crew at Red Bird records was top notch all around and arranger Artie Butler never matched this anywhere else: a spoken-word symphony with a climactic bridge that features five crescendos in fifteen seconds—unprecedented, unrepeatable and a fitting capstone to the Girl Group Era.
The Byrds, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (1965, Billboard #1)
Credit for the Byrds’ harmony arrangements usually goes to Roger McGuinn. Credit for their equally stunning guitar arrangements could hardly go to anyone else. When it came to blending the two, this was his finest hour. They reversed the verse/chorus sequence (not unheard of—see the Beatles’ “Help” for a prime example from the period), sang close three-part harmony throughout so that the distinction between verse and chorus was further blurred (more unusual), ended on the verse without repeating a final chorus (a genius move imposed by the demands of Top 40 radio which limited a hit record’s running time) and climaxed with an instrumental break where McGuinn combined his knack for anthemic chords with a counter-melody played at breakneck bluegrass speed. Then they split the fade between guitar and drums and trying to guess who is splitting who will keep you up nights.
The Mamas & the Papas, “Go Where You Wanna Go” (1966)
Not promoted to radio—best heard on their first LP, ‘If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears’. The pinnacle of vocal harmony arranging. I once called head Papa John Phillips’ approach “canyons of harmony” and this is the deepest canyon there is. Just incidentally, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector weren’t the only ones the Wrecking Crew got up for—after the first hundred spins you might want to focus on the playing. It’s every bit as spectacular. No one who ever made any sort of orchestral rock afterwards was unaffected.
The Left Banke, “Walk Away Renee” (1966, Billboard #5)
All contrast and a force of nature. With lush strings and a flute, harpsichord and a rock band all pitching in over Steve Martin Caro’s somewhere-deep-in-a-pit vocal, how could it be otherwise? This is one of the prime examples of a record that could only have been thought of, let alone made, in the 60’s. That violin is going crazy. But spare a little attention for the muffled boom of the drums, which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Roy Orbison record.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967, Billboard #19)
Perhaps Motown’s finest hour. The deepest bass line in the known universe (presumably played by James Jamerson) cross-pollinated for the astonishing intro with some deceptively light percussion, which runs counter and congruent simultaneously. Try THAT at home! It all sets up a seamless two-and-half-minute call and response between the man who was arguably the greatest label’s greatest singer and the woman whose life was almost inarguably its greatest tragedy. They recorded their respective vocals at separate sessions and sounded like they were finishing each other’s heartbeats. It begins at the bottom of the valley and soars ever higher until they’re at last together—“Hah!”—standing on a mountain from which it seems impossible they could ever fall. A modest hit in its day. Never off the radio since.
Merrilee Rush & the Turnabouts, “Angel of the Morning” (1968, Billboard #7)
Chips Moman’s house band at American Studio in Memphis had to figure in here somewhere and they really topped themselves on this one. The song by, “Wild Thing” composer Chip Taylor, had been recorded first by Evie Sands, one of the era’s great lost voices. Typical for Evie, her record company went under just as her record was taking off. Truth to tell, I’m the world’s biggest Evie Sands’ fan….but this one belonged to the former Merrilee Gunst, who caught a break in Memphis when her band was touring with her Northwest homeboys Paul Revere and the Raiders and came to Moman’s attention through his guitar ace Tommy Cogbill who had been carrying a demo version of the song while looking for the right female voice. The rest was history. Moman and company made enough subtle changes to lift Taylor and Sands’ already fine record a notch—a lonely horn to augment the acoustic guitar on the intro, tightening the “baby, ba-a-a-by” climax—and Rush took it the rest of the way. Remade endlessly ever since and never touched.
Simon and Garfunkel, “Mrs. Robinson” (1968, Billboard #1)
Anyone who thinks this is as simple as it sounds hasn’t really listened to this anthem put together by ace engineer Roy Halee and these nice Jewish boys not exactly for, but in response to, the ultimate WASP movie, The Graduate, which of course also had a Jewish star and director. What can I say? It was the 60’s! The vocal track alone is a miracle of nuance, tracing the emotional journey of its age in strictly vanilla two-part harmony, straight out of a Greenwich Village coffee house, that only seems to keep repeating itself. Meanwhile, on what sounds like it’s coming from a whole other universe—one constructed to defy everything the harmonies assert—Paul Simon arranges however many acoustic guitars he’s playing—somewhere between one and a thousand—like an instrumental equivalent of the old doo-wop records he grew up on in the 50’s. It took everything they had to live up to asking Joe Dimaggio where he had gone. I’ve heard it a thousand times and not once have they failed to meet the challenge.
The Impressions, “This is My Country” (1968, Billboard #25)
Though it was only a minor hit and not destined for endless oldies’ replay, there was no more important message to hear in 1968 than this one. Curtis Mayfield was already one of the era’s great record men. Like Smokey Robinson he could do so much his arranging might be underrated. But not if you pay the least attention to such things. The remarkable thing about this spectacular horn-driven arrangement is that, for Mayfield and the Impressions, it was about average.
Sly and the Family Stone, “Everyday People” (1969, Billboard #1)
The good side of the 60’s embodied by the world’s funkiest nursery rhyme and the controlled cacophony of voices only Sly the Arranger could provide. Note the refusal to let loose a last “yeah, yeah.” Always leave them wanting more!
The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (1969)
Best heard on the LP ‘Let It Bleed’. What else could end a discourse on 60’s arranging? With not just Jagger/Richard, but Al Kooper, producer Jimmy Miller (who also sat in for Charlie Watts on drums), Jack Nitzsche and the London Bach Choir involved, this was bound to be a true collaboration, rising or falling on whether every single element could be put in its perfect place—again the kind of thing that could only happen in the 60’s. The Stones had become more and more adept at arrangements since their early days as crafty—okay, transcendent—R&B imitators with really good PR. By the time the tumultuous decade they had helped define was ready to close down, they were ready to supply the soundtrack.
Originally released as a shortened B-side to “Honky Tonk Women” (itself a mind-blowing arrangement) then at full length as the closer of their last 60’s LP, it has never left the conscience of Western Civilization since. Kooper’s French horn signals the last train leaving the last station and Mick Jagger’s plaintive vocal winds through a musical and spiritual journey which, by all logic, should have been a train wreck along the lines of the drug deal described by the “literal” lyrics but instead matches, extends and finically exceeds the fin de siecle import of the song’s true meaning. Nothing quite said the past is gone and nothing lasts forever like this very meticulously assembled bit of madness. And nothing does yet…no matter where it finds you.