You Don’t Own Me: 1968 and Women in Music

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75)

To understand “women in music” in ’68 – and to understand why that’s even a thing worth talking about – we have to look at what was going on during that time with women in society. In ’68, women in music and women in society were second-class citizens, and they were angry. That anger laid the groundwork for change that would happen in subsequent years.

But before we go there: why “women in music”? Why not “everybody in music”? Men were, and are, the majority in the music business, so looking at women in music does have the effect of making them the outsiders, the oddities, the exceptions. But that separation is necessary to fully understand those women’s experiences, and to assess their impact on music then and now.

So roll back, Father Time, roll back, to the early ‘60s – when father knew best, when mother was at home, and when women only stayed in higher education or the workplace until they found a husband.  In ’63, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique started turning all that on its head. For many women, the book was Continue reading

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Reachin’ To Be Free: The Supremes and The Temptations’ ‘A Place in the Sun’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75)

1968 was a time of upheaval and change at Motown Records. The company had moved its Detroit headquarters into a soulless commercial building, and founder and president Berry Gordy was spending much of his time in Los Angeles. Gordy was also being criticized for his relative silence on racial inequality – which was not an abstract issue for the company; among other things, many Motown artists were regularly subjected to racist threats or attacks while on tour. Other Motown acts were expressing frustration at the company’s focus on entertainment rather than on social commentary.

But amongst that uncertainty came ‘A Place in the Sun’, a song that spoke profoundly both of struggle and of hope for a better world. Although it was first recorded in ’66, more than a dozen artists –including, jointly, The Supremes and The Temptations – covered it in ’68, which indicates its relevance to those troubled times.

Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the song’s co-authors, both came to Motown through quirks of serendipity. Miller, delivering pizzas to pay the bills, happened to bring Continue reading

Maybe It’s the Best Thing: Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 73)

Hearing that your true love has married someone else is a devastating experience that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. (Unless you are a nasty, miserable excuse for a human being, in which case you should probably be reading a different magazine.)  As music fans, we tend to want our favourite artists to be happy – but we also recognize that an artist’s personal misery often results in great art. And so it is with Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’: a song that draws on Webb’s own life events to brilliantly encapsulate the torment of someone else’s happiness becoming your sadness.

By the time Webb wrote ‘The Worst That Could Happen’ in the mid-60s, he had already Continue reading

Where is the Harmony?: Nick Lowe’s ‘What’s So Funny (’bout Peace, Love and Understanding)’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 69)

The world currently seems to be descending into an abyss of alternative facts, ruled over by a terrifyingly ignorant spray-tanned buffoon with access to nuclear weapons. In that context, Nick Lowe’s song ‘(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ might be even more powerful as an expression of hope than when Lowe wrote it in the early ‘70s.

But given the abject misery and desperation of the past few decades, maybe there’s never been a time when ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ was irrelevant. That’s tremendously depressing to acknowledge, but it also helps to explain the song’s enduring popularity. Pete Curry of Los Straitjackets, who cover the song on their new album What’s So Funny About Los Straitjackets, describes ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as having “a great sentiment. Even the most cynical person gets it.”

Lowe has described ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ as Continue reading

Building Castles in Shifting Sands: The Bee Gees’ ‘Morning of My Life’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #67)

It seems that music fans either adore or despise the Bee Gees.  The adorers believe the Gibb brothers have been unjustly ignored even though they might have been as musically adventurous as the Beatles. The despisers have heard enough of the Bee Gees during the disco era to last a lifetime and then some. Having lived through the aforementioned era – at its peak, allegedly, at any given moment there was at least one radio station somewhere in North America playing a Bee Gees song – this writer has some sympathy for the “enough” argument. But unfortunately the falsetto vocals and nasty polyester trousers have distracted attention from some of the Bee Gees’ other, truly lovely music.

‘Morning of My Life’– also known as ‘In the Morning’ – was never a hit, but Continue reading

The Dawning Grey: Randy Newman’s “Living Without You”

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #65)

“He can communicate complex human emotions with just a few perfectly chosen words.”  That’s how record producer and music industry executive Lenny Waronker, Randy Newman’s friend since childhood, explains the brilliance of Newman’s songwriting. And there is no better demonstration of Newman’s evocative ability than his songs about romantic heartbreak – such as ‘Living Without You’, from his ’68 debut album.

Newman started Continue reading

Fred Neil: Lost Child in a World of Sorrow

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #63)

Fred Neil’s ‘The Dolphins’ grabs the listener from its first notes, just because it sounds so very different. The echoing acoustic and electric guitars shimmer like light reflecting off rolling ocean waves, and Neil’s dynamic, resonant baritone voice ebbs and flows like the tide.  ‘The Dolphins’ doesn’t sound like the other songs on the same album; it doesn’t even sound like what other artists were doing in the same era. More than one commentator has described ‘The Dolphins’ as a perfect song, or something very close to it.

With that level of critical esteem, it’s more than surprising that Neil’s music, so well-regarded in its time, is now not widely known. That might be because his recording career was relatively short. He made only five albums between ’65 and ‘71, and then essentially walked away from the music industry; he may be most familiar to contemporary audiences as the writer of Harry Nilsson’s ’69 hit ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Neil also kept a deliberately low profile during and after his musical career, right up until he passed away in 2001. He was generous, he was kind to his acquaintances, he was humble, but he was also very private. Ric O’Barry, his friend for nearly 40 years, says, “I probably knew him better than anybody, and he was still a mystery to me. I didn’t know much about him and he didn’t talk much.”

But those who had the privilege of being his friend agree that ‘The Dolphins’ may be the song that is Fred Neil. Peter Childs, who played guitar on the song, describes ‘The Dolphins’ as “one of the purest expressions of who he really was.” O’Barry says, “It’s a beautiful song, it’s from the heart, and if you really want to know who Fred was, you just have to listen to his songs.”

Neil’s life and musical career Continue reading