Things May Change: Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #58)

A listener in 2016 discovering Janis Ian’s ‘67 hit ‘Society’s Child’ might well hear it as the musical equivalent of a fly in amber: a well-preserved relic from a distant time when interracial relationships were shocking or even illegal. Some might argue that racial discrimination has diminished since then; after all, a black man is the president of the United States, and a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants is the Mayor of London. But the racial conflicts that have erupted in the US and elsewhere over the past five decades – the Watts riots, the Rodney King trial, the shootings that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement – show that the prejudice Ian portrayed in ’67 is still very much with us.

Ian was a 14-year-old high school student when she wrote ‘Society’s Child’. Because of the song’s first-person perspective, and because of her age, many assumed that ‘Society’s Child’ was based on events in her own life. But Ian explains Continue reading

Dutch Courage: The Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor”

(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #57)

When the Beach Boys recorded ‘Sail On Sailor’ in ’73, there could not have been a better metaphor than the sailor to characterize the band and its circumstances. The group was facing the possibility that some of its key members might no longer participate, and it had relocated to another continent in search of new artistic directions. In that context, ‘Sail On Sailor’ stands as a bold declaration of determination in the face of turbulence. And, like all great seafaring sagas, the story of ‘Sail On Sailor’ itself is full of improbable characters and unexpected occurrences. Continue reading

Taking a Trip: Marty Wilde’s “Abergavenny”

(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #55)

By the late ‘60s, Beatlemania and the Summer of Love had delivered a one-two punch to the careers of many artists who were stars earlier in the decade. As TV impresario Jack Good put it, “they were all-round entertainers with nobody left to entertain”. Some attempted to update themselves by donning paisley-print tunics, flashing the peace sign, and jumping on the psychedelic bandwagon – but, more often than not, the music that resulted was cringeworthy.

It would be easy to label Marty Wilde’s ’69 album Diversions as an example of that desperate opportunism, but that label would be wrong – because from the start of his career Wilde had demonstrated a chameleonic ability to adapt. Continue reading

Reason to be Cheerful: Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #53]

Tim Hardin’s song ‘Reason To Believe’ has a remarkably simple structure, but within that simplicity is a universe of emotional complexity. The lyrics are steeped in the pain of betrayal by a lover, worsened by the inability to stop justifying the lover’s deception. Hardin gave very few interviews during his short lifetime, and apparently never spoke specifically about the origins of ‘Reason To Believe’ – but it is one of the Hardin songs that Charlie Gillett characterizes as “achieving the elusive balance between personal miseries and universal suffering”. Continue reading

Natural Exuberance: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s “I’m the Urban Spaceman”

(This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #52)

At the start of 1968, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were described by their manager/producer Gerry Bron as “a cult band with a huge following, deservedly”. Their live shows were chaotic sets of sardonic original tunes mixed with obscure novelty songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s, all performed amidst “horror masks, weird instruments, explosions, and a life-size rag doll named Alma”. Led by the eccentric charisma of frontman Viv Stanshall, the Bonzos were a popular live act everywhere from the Northern club circuit to premiere London venues such as UFO and The Marquee. The band had also acquired fans of all ages through regular appearances on the ITV children’s series Do Not Adjust Your Set.

But the Dadaist anarchy that made the Bonzos such entertaining performers did not translate into chart-friendly records. Their album sales were so poor that Liberty, their UK record company, only pressed 2000 copies of their LP Gorilla. According to singer/guitarist Neil Innes, “The record company was saying, ‘Well, what about a single?  What about a single?’ And we couldn’t care less. We were just still being silly art students.”

As it happened, when the band went into the studio in autumn ’68, Innes brought along a catchy ditty he had titled ‘I’m the Urban Spaceman’. Continue reading

Sounds of Mellow Fantastic: Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street”

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #51]

‘Sunny Goodge Street’ first saw the light of day in 1965, on Donovan’s second album Fairytale. While other songs on the album, such as the Top 5 hit ‘Colours, initially drew more attention, Sunny Goodge Street is perhaps Fairytale’s most memorable song. The contrast between its gentle waltzing instrumentation and its hard-edged lyrical urban vignettes was intriguing to listeners – especially those who didn’t know there was an actual Goodge Street in London, and thus for whom Goodge Street could have been some mystical place in an imaginative Lewis Carroll story. Continue reading