Aug 152008
 

Here’s a running theme that veterans and probably even newcomers to the Halls of Rock will notice in the otherwise piercing and wise posts of Townsman Hrrundivbakshi: “Hippies weaken rock ‘n roll!” I cannot fully subscribe to HVB’s anti-hippie stance, although like others, I find it fascinating. Hippiedom seemed to me such a logical and necessary extension of where rock ‘n roll had been heading. Sure it ran its course after the musical equivalent of the eighth day without a shower, but I still treasure the injection of Flower Power and poor grooming that their long weekend in the hot, stinking sun brought to rock.

An interesting unfinished part of this story, which is only hinted at in the original comments this post generated: Mike Rabon of The Five Americans came across this essay through his feed, or whatever it’s called, and agreed to an interview. I quickly came up with what I thought would have been some cool questions, but after repeated requests for replies and numerous delays, I finally gave up on hearing back from Mike. Too bad, but I know how life can get busier than expected. Maybe I’ll try once more to get a true hero of the anti-hippie scene’s take on all this. Enjoy!

This post initially appeared 11/14/07.

Starting today, I offer a series of short posts that I hope will help illuminate how and why things went so very WRONG ’round about 1967.

Those of you who’ve been following RTH for while now have probably come to understand that I have a visceral dislike for much of what has come to be labeled “hippie” culture. And, if you’ve been following RTH, you probably know that Mr. Mod has never stopped busting my balls for not donning the white lab coat and providing a detailed taxonomy of all the toxins mixed into my beloved rock and roll music by that messy generational burp.

And so it is that I’ve decided to meet Mr. Mod halfway on the field of cultural battle. Starting today, I offer a series of short posts that I hope will help illuminate how and why things went so very WRONG ’round about 1967.

In today’s essay, I hope to let others do much of the talking, and to allow some of hippie music’s main offenders hang themselves on a rope they painstakingly twisted themselves. In the opposing corner, I present my surprise champions of the day, The Five Americans.

The Five Americans popped up on my rock radar screen as a result of finding a beat-up copy of a song I’d long forgotten, the delightful “Western Union Man”. What a joyful testament to the beauty of the economically designed, tightly arranged pop song! On the strength of this one single, I went and did something foolish: I plunked down $12 for their Greatest Hits compilation. “Greatest Hits”?! The Five Americans had — maybe — three hits worth mentioning! Still, I was overcome by the simple beauty of “Western Union”, and off my money went.

Well, to make a long story short: if you’re looking for all the Five Americans worth listening to, I recommend you find a copy of the “Western Union” single. The rest of the comp I bought vacillates between pretty-good-but-my-life-didn’t-suck-for-never-hearing-them tunes and a sizable portion of full-on needle-lifters.

But the album liner notes did provide inspiration for this post, in the form of a crystal-clear case study of hippie music hubris (and its righteous comeuppance), as related by lead singer and guitarist Mike Rabon, who desribes a bill the Five Americans shared in their home state of Texas with the Jefferson Airplane:

“By then, we’d had three hit records, and they’d only had ‘White Rabbit.’ But they wanted to headline in our back yard. We just told ’em, ‘Go ahead,’ and they ended up jamming and getting the plug pulled. The screamin’ teenies wanted to hear our three-minute zingers.”

Three-minute zingers. How much of what we all love about rock and roll is neatly encapsulated in those three fine, “winner” words! I mean, seriously, how many of you prefer sitting through this:

… to enjoying this:

I’m with Steve Allen — and all the old squares — all the way on this one. Yay, Five Americans, and your one Great American pop song! Boo, Jefferson Airplane, and your self-indulgent, churlish, rooftop drone rock!

Who’s with me on this one?

HVB

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  29 Responses to “FRIDAY FLASHBACK! My Case Against the Hippies, Part One: The Five Americans Versus The Jefferson Airplane”

  1. I was on the fence until the Five Americans started in with the dot-to-dot-to-dot telegram-style backing vocals and then I was sold on the three minute zinger! I’m with you.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Allright, Loophole! You and your excellent blog are welcome on Team Quality!

  3. Mr. Moderator

    “Western Union Man” is a tremendous song, and the Jefferson Airplane usually suck. What does this tell me about hippie culture, that it resulted in some bad music as well as some great music? As much as I dislike the Airplane, I wonder which band’s Greatest Hits collection would be more enjoyable – for whatever reason – to listen to.

  4. The Airplane’s first hit was “Somebody to Love” so the story startsa out sounding fishy; the guy’s facts are wrong. You put up this self-serving, unsubstantiated story as evidence of something? “Western Union Man” is a great single. It hardly makes The Five Americans better than the Jefferson Airplane. “Somebody to Love” is at least as great a single. Even on your terms. It’s short, punchy and includes one of the best female rock vocals of all time. I’m not denying any of the horrible things that set you off about the Airplane, but you allow them to obscure your judgement of EVERYTHING they’ve ever done to the point that you have no credibility on the matter. When your hero, Massimo, knocks Costello, his criticism is coherent, measured and defensible. When you go on your Airplane rant, (or your Velvets/Dylan rants), you display all the focus of “After Bathing at Baxter’s”.

  5. I agree with Geo. “Somebody To Love” is an awesome song. It just flat-out brings it. I have always liked “Western Union” but it doesn’t have the gravitas ofr STL.

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    One man’s focus is another man’s pedantry, Geo. It’s late, but I’ll get back to you, Velv and Mod tomorrow to explain how you’re all missing the point, as usual. Please go back and read the pull quote at the top of this post; it clearly explains how this is one of a *series* of posts that I am undertaking to explain this vitally important issue.

    Yours, etc.,

    HVB

  7. sammymaudlin

    I get your point Hrundi, I think, and agree. I have loads of issues with self-indulgent, mind-exploring, hippy-shit. I enjoy a small dose of the Dead and I firmly believe in the ideals of the hippy movement (peace, love…), even if the majority of hippies bailed on them themselves, but crap like this Jefferson Airplane thing or Mungo Jerry et al, forget it.

    Think about what was going down in Britain at the same time, not just the music but the Carnaby Street style and all. In comparison the US just looks like a bunch of long haired idiots in bad need of a bath. And I mean that metaphorically.

  8. dbuskirk

    I own the FIVE AMERICANS best-of (I like the shameless “Western Union” re-write “Zip Code”) AND the best of Jefferson Airplane. Why Not? I think you’re getting wrapped up in some subcultural hater stance, not liking some perfectly wonderful pop tunes (“Today”, “It’s No Secret”) because you don’t like the way the musicians cut their hair or the drugs they take or some other completely peripheral thing to the actual music. It’s like demanding to know the political party of a restaurant’s chef before you eat their food.

    Life’s pleasures are fleeting enough. Why invent mental rules on whose music you should like?

    -db
    np Wire – READ & BURN 03

  9. Mr. Moderator

    Hrrundi, I’m well aware that this is a series of thoughtful essays. One I regain full use of my keyboard, I will be posting thoughts on the Joe Strummer movie, The Future Is Unwritten. I saw it last night, and it was as if direktor Julian Temple set out to show you exaktly where you’ve gone wrong on this issue.

  10. dbuskirk

    Hey HVB-

    I see that the ramblings of the thread distracted me from your real point but yes, you’re wrong about that too.

    I love the perfect pop single as much as anybody around here, but I completely support people’s right to look at what they do as “art” and let them tear down whatever barriers you think all musicians should bow to. Any rule that disqualifies “Hey Jude” or Hendrix is highly suspect in my book.

    -db

  11. 2000 Man

    Western Union has all the charm and fun of Winchester Cathedral or 1900 Yesterday if you ask me (and you did). I’d rather listen to Jefferson Airplane over that any day, and I’m not much of a fan. When they kept it short and punchy like the aforementioned Somebody to Love or Volunteers, I really liked them. Some of their longer stuff was dull, but that can be said for a lot of long rock songs.

    The screamin’ teenies may have wanted to hear their three minute Zingers, but no one on the planet can remember a Zinger they ate ten minutes ago, let alone 40 years ago. While I don’t miss the Airplane much, I don’t miss The Five Americans at all.

  12. Man, you sound like everyone of my students who complains about reading Walden.

  13. Thoreau was an ass. Emerson, bitches!

  14. BigSteve

    I like three-minute zingers. I like self-indulgent, mind-exploring hippy shit. I’d be so bored by now if all music had to be in the three-minute format, which is not divinely ordained but rather the result of the limitations of the 45. Limitations can produce great art, or great zingers, but it’s a given that great artists will try to break through externally imposed limitations. Whatever bad art may have been produced by the move to longer and more open forms, great art was produced too.

    When I got the Airplane boxset a few years ago, I was reminded what a weird mix they were. The three singers, the 12 string guitar, the fluid bass playing, the stringency of the lead guitar sound, it’s all very unlikely, but when it works it really works.

    I like Western Union Man too, but it’s really just a step above a novelty song.

  15. I like the evidence that hrrundi musters here: The Five Americans best song vs. whatever crappy video he can find on YouTube. A perfect example of the principle “Who needs evidence? Evidence is just whatever I feel.”

    The most remarkable self-indulgence in this thread is hrrundi’s. No surprise really, but the guy needs to stop complaining about self-indulgence when his posts are often the most self-indulgent around, a perfect example of the navel gazing he so claims to despise.

    If we’re talking about short, radio friendly singles only, the Airplane has about 5 or 6 that are pretty sharp.

    I think the first side of “After Bathing at Baxter’s” is pretty nicely focused, by the way. The second side fades fast.

  16. Yeah, but did you ever try to get students to read Emerson?

  17. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody use Emerson in the same sentence as an exclamation point.

  18. I’ll go to bat for Baxters. I agree with mwall that first side is strong. It’s got an overarching vision that I find appealing. I like the proto-feminist politics of “Rejoyce.” Jack Cassady’s bass playing is amazing throughout. And the closer “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” outdoes anything similar that the Byrds tried.

  19. Point, but no one should force anybody to read the narcissistic babble of a self-righteous tool just because his far more philosophically and emotionally rewarding former mentor is a tougher read.

    There was a recent article in the New Yorker that thrilled me no end because it was one of the very few general audience pieces about Thoreau I’ve ever read that mentions the thing that for me sums up everything that was wrong with the guy: not once in the course of his smug little treatise about how awesome his life as Captain of the Huckleberry Patch was does he mention that he walked into Concord every day (a heroic trek of just over a mile, or what I walk every day to get to the post office and back) to drop off his dirty laundry at his mom’s house.

    Thoreau was the 19th century’s version of that tool who thinks he’s done his part for the environment because he kinda thought about buying a Prius once.

  20. 2000 Man

    Limitations can produce great art, or great zingers, but it’s a given that great artists will try to break through externally imposed limitations.

    That’s so true. Great artists can even use those limitations themselves as an advantage, but I think that’s a lot harder. Sometimes average artists get called great just because they ignore limitations and use a bigger canvas, though. I usually like the guys that can do something new or good within the limitations the best.

  21. I dunno, Thoreau drops several hints that he is not at Walden alone for the entire time.

    I find Thoreau highly ironic at times, and I enjoy his mocking of those who think everything he says is meant to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

    I enjoy Emerson as well, but for different reasons.

  22. I enjoyed reading this blog. Of course our song was “Western Union” not Western Union man. At any rate I enjoyed all the comments both negative and positive. Here is the thing…. We were attempting to buck a british tide with music that was uniquely american instead of british. Hence the name The Five Americans. Let me tell you that wasn’t easy. The songs that we wrote and produced were indeed gimmicky and rather monkee like in nature but without the backing of the colgems hit machine in hollywood and were written and recorded long before the monkees and others came along. And people apparently do remember our songs as they are played all over the world still. Western Union was just awarded the Millionaire award for 2 million plays on the radio since 1967. Actually we were just 5 guys from college who wanted to get more women’s attention than we were getting at the time. Much of our album stuff was in deed filler but in our defence it bordered on solid ground breaking college garage rock . Thanks again for all the comments good and bad they were very interesting to read and thanks hrrundivbakshi for your advocacy. And by the way I did misspeak when I said white rabbit it was in fact Somebody To Love. Mike Rabon The Five Americans thefiveamericans.com

  23. hrrundivbakshi

    Wow — how’s THAT for commentary! Thanks, Mike, for finding our lonely, nerdy corner of the Rock/Web universe. Don’t be a stranger!

    Yours, etc.,

    HVB

  24. Mr. Moderator

    Hey Mike, like HVB said, thanks for chiming in and being a good sport! I’m sorry for carrying on the addition of “Man” to your song title. Once I get the true title straight in my head I’ll no longer have to think, “Are we talking about the cool Five Americans song or the cool Jerry Butler song?”

  25. 2000 Man

    2,000,000 plays? That’s impressive, Mike. It may not be my cup of tea, but as you said, you were looking to meet girls and with that many plays, you guys had to have achieved that noble goal!

  26. Thanks 2000 man. Really Western Union was the first and only tune to contain a dear john letter to a lover using the “modern” technology of the telegraph. So to me it broke ground in a couple of places. At it’s release the top five consisted of ( to the best of my memory ) mostly groups like The Beatles, Dave Clark Five, Yard Birds, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Animals all from England. So it was a pretty tough nut to crack into. At any rate here is a shameless plug. You can vote to have The Five Americans inducted into the Hall of Fame as pioneers at thefiveamericans.com. Just click on the link to the left of on the opening page. ( everyone has an agenda don’t they? ) Thanks again and this blog rocks!

  27. By the way, a look at the 5 studio albums by the classic Jefferson Airplane reveals the following about song lengths:

    Jefferson Airplane Takes Off: no songs over 4 minutes.
    Surrealistic Pillow: only one song over 4 minutes: “Comin’ Back To Me” (5:20)
    After Bathing at Baxter’s: only two songs over 5 minutes: “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” (5:09) and “Spare Change” (9:12)
    Crown of Creation: only one song over 5 minutes: “House at Pooneil Corners” (5:51)
    Volunteers: Four songs over five minutes: “We Can Be Together” (5:48), “Hey Frederick” (8:31), “Wooden Ships (6:00), “Eskimo Blue Day” (6:31).

    “Spare Room” is one of their least successful efforts, but “Hey Frederick” develops a strong long jam, reminiscent of Fairport Convention’s “Sailor’s Life,” a song that’s 11 minutes long.

    Based on these numbers, the following bands put longer jams on record than the Airplane: The Beatles, Mott the Hoople, and even Creedence Cleerwater Revival. Not to mention many other bands, of course.

  28. Bakshi’s short term “gotcha,” whatever its catchy initial oomph, looks even shorter term in reviewing all this.

  29. Mr. Moderator

    Hrrundi, this series never continued, did it? I was looking forward to a Tom Brokaw-like examination of the issue. Please consider a Pt. 2. Thanks.

 
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