Saturday, June 29, 2013

Three from the 1960's San Francisco Music Scene (Part One of Two)

One of the best musical finds I've run across recently is a CD series put out by Rhino Records called "Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-70."  It's basically a eighty song compilation featuring the type of music (folk, psychadelic, protest, even country-western)  that came to be synonymous with the "San Francisco Sound" that helped transform American music.  The most famous bands from that period include "The Jefferson Airplane", "Country Joe and the Fish",  "The Grateful Dead", "Santana" and performers like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia.   All were part of a time of great urban changes in America, where young people flocked to California (especially San Francisco) looking for a new life and a fresh start and maybe a revolution.  Most didn't find it, and some people wound up disillusioned or dead.  But most crossed some kind of personal Rubicon and this period became part of a separate identity from the epic militancy of the times coming out of the military industrial and consumerist America.  Even if the world wasn't turned upside down the freedoms this place at the edge of a continent unleashed helped set the stage for a less puritanical America. The seeds of this movement in music and style help bring the fruits of greater tolerance in the larger society--from different ways of looking at the spiritual world to questioning the role of  money and power from the Establishment, an entity that lost some of its hold on the youth in society thanks to consumerism, a seemingly  unending South East Asian war and the racial and sexual awakenings of a generation.  

The bad parts--the hard drugs and the rise in unhealthy cults of violence and total control---were there as well, but no movement for the better has ever been without its violent pariahs and false leaders.

       The first song featured in the set of three here is from  a group ironically titled "The Great Society".  It was the first band Grace Slick was a part of before  she came to The Jefferson Airplane. The song here was of course made famous by the latter group but there is something more earthy about this original rendition.

From Wikipedia: "Slick's music career started in 1965 in San Francisco when she and then husband Jerry Slick formed their own band, influenced byThe Beatles as well as by a performance by the freshly-formed Jefferson Airplane at The Matrix and who, Slick realized, maintained an impressive revenue in comparison to her earnings as a model while having fun performing.[3] Grace and Jerry Slick and Jerry's brother Darby Slick and other friends named themselves The Great Society after the social reform program of the same name, beginning during the autumn of 1965 and by early 1966 becoming a popular psychedelic act in the Bay area. By the summer of 1966 The Great Society was recording, releasing one single in San Francisco, a precursor to the future Jefferson Airplane success "Somebody to Love", which was written by Darby. Grace provided vocals, guitar, piano and recorder and co-wrote a majority of the band's songs with her brother-in-law."

Below--Grace Slick (AKA, "The Acid Queen", "The Chrome Nun") and her "Airplane" crew.

The next one comes from 1967.  It's by a cheery melody by a group called The Sopwith Camels that constituted their biggest hit.   Forty five years later, in July of 2012, many of the same band members reunited for a gig that was covered by The San Francisco Examiner:

"If you look at any vintage 60s concert poster, particularly with bands from the California coast, The Sopwith Camel were on the bill as part of what would come to be known as the San Francisco Psychedelic Ballroom Bands. The original Sopwith Camel was the name for a British fighter plane used in World War I. The unusual name was perfect for the band to adopt.
"The band released their first album in 1967 on Kama Sutra Records and their first single, “Hello Hello” found the Top 10 Billboard spot, marking what the band says is “the first national hit out of San Francisco psychedelic band scene.”
“Postcard from Jamaica” was also the title of their second single, and it brought on an East coast tour with the Lovin’ Spoonful, playingthe college circuit primarily. A third single, “Saga of the Low Down Let Down,” was the single from the album of the same title, which concluded their contract obligations to the Kama Sutra label.
         Two years earlier another group, We Five,  came out with this big hit, something that seems to owe more to the lyrical phase of The Beatles in their "A Hard's Day's Night" phase and groups like "The Lovin' Spoonful" and Australia's own "The Seekers" than any hard-edged urban stuff from Haight-Ashbury. But it's  always been one of my favorites so here it is:
From Wikipedia: "Michael Stewart formed We Five after graduating from Pomona Catholic High School and attending Mt. San Antonio College. He was the brother of John Stewart of the Kingston Trio and came from Claremont, California.[1] When Michael was a student at the University of San Francisco in 1964, he formed We Five as a quartet, although it soon added another member. The group played adult rock 'n roll, pop jazz,Broadway show tunes, and Disney tunes. Stewart did all the arrangements, which ranged from "My Favorite Things", in a style which reflected Bach, to Very Merrily Un-birthday. He put in several additional hours working on arrangements after the five band members worked together for five or six hours each day.[2]
The ensemble played acoustic guitarselectric guitar and bass and sang multi-part harmonies. The original quintet line-up, which grew out of a band called the Ridgerunners, included:
  • Michael Stewart (Baritone-Bass, 5-String Banjo, 6-String Acoustic Guitar, 9-String Amplified Guitar)
  • Beverly Bivens (Low Tenor to High Soprano, Rhythm Guitar)
  • Jerry Burgan (Tenor, 6-String Acoustic Guitar)
  • Peter Fullerton (Tenor, Acoustic & Fender Bass)
  • Bob Jones (Baritone-Tenor, 6-String Electric Jazz Guitar, 12-String Electric Guitar).


  1. A fine performance of Somebody To Love which as you say Doug is more 'earthy' than the Jefferson Airplane version I know and love, an inspired choice there Doug. I remember well 1967 when all eyes were on San Francisco and particularly Haight Ashbury of course the very epicentre of the psychedelic revolution.

    In England there was already some recognition of Californian music from the early 1960s because Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys were popular here too and the southern surf sound was the stufff of adolescent dreams of a happy-go- lucky hotrod racing, surf board riding endless rock and roll orgy on the beach...who could fault it? Not me at the time anyway, but i digress.....the San Francisco sound also captured the wider cultural offer of northern California from John Steinbeck to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

    To me San Francisco was a sort of opposite pole to New York City and Haight Ashbury was the Greenwich Village of the west hosting the psychedelic café society. The Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey, the Greatful Dead, Tom Wolfe and the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Timothy Leary it was all going on then and if you wanted a peice of the action San Francisco was the place to go. Unfortunately it took me another 35 years to get there so I may have looked a little out of place when I sparked up my chillum in Frankie and Benny's, but hell this is Haight Ashbury I said and it may have been a 1.30 pm on a Tuesday afternoon in December.... but I was out to party and party I did Doug.

    I'd never heard of The Sopwith Camels which is a very strange name for representatives of the Summer of Love, but I can hear something here that reminds me of the slightly discordant, edgy version of this style I think can be heard in early Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground songs. The latter is of course suffused with a narcotic and somewhat nihilistic focus compared to the rather more wholesome sounding Sopwith Camel lyric, but the tune and style of vocal reminded me of The Velvet Underground's eponymous third album.
    I vaguely remember We Five, but I know the song well from the hit Crispian St Peters had with a UK cover of You Were On My Mind a single which I played during my short career as a pirate radio DJ in 1967.
    All good stuff Doug, thanks for giving a short historical account of the capital of psychedelia, before the rot finally set in during the , the Beach Boys tuned in, turned on and dropped out and Brian Wilson recorded his friend Charles Manson and things started to slide in a distinctly wierd direction around 1969.

    Nevertheless this is I think a fascinating era in American cultural and social history and it was immensely influential upon young people right across the world ....and probably beyond that .... on the astral planes. It is good to recall how it influenced people of my generation and therefore I think you can say that the revolution was a success, it changed not on my world but THE world too I think.

    1. Thanks AA. Yes I'm glad you enjoyed yourself in the restaurants and bars and oft-colorful venues of the Haight District, even in the inauspicious time of a Tuesday afternoon! I think I felt a similar fission of enthusiasm when I strolled one work-day along Oxford Street and discovered what was left of the old "Carnaby Street" scene twenty years on was mainly yuppie clothing shops, trendy wine bars and pubs and stores selling "corporate punk" t-shirts, but fun I had anyway because the vestiges are there if you look hard enough. I had the same feeling when I was around San Fran in the 1980's. The world in effect crowded into San Francisco like a new gold rush of counter-culture. It all crashed down with the like likes of Manson suddenly engulfing what the Beach Boys and the Merry Pranksters represented to the world. The ugly and violent "killer" side of America was not confined to Dylan's "Masters of War", sadly, but hidden in the viscous mind of a madman like Manson and his mesmerized followers. Other things like the Altamont Concert in 1969 fifty miles east of the City by The Bay and the rise of nihilistic violence high-jacked what was a strictly peaceful if grungy movement.
      I know the 1967 "Summer of Love" had its high-points, but also a lot of kids who came out looking for utopia and not finding more than the sort of angry cops and uptight business types they had left at home. Those who were a little "ahead of the curve" time -wise had more fun I suspect. Still, I agree what happened in places like "Frisco" changed the world. It still IS changing the world as you might have noticed with the recent cause to make Gay marriage legal in California (as well as ten other states) bearing fruit with a recent decision by the US Supreme Court. This is a direct carry-over i would argue from the work of people involved in the battles against censorship and civil rights for women and blacks and migrant farm workers from Mexico and against the war---all thing for which the West Coast hub is and remains the San Francisco/Berkeley area.

      Your musical acumen is dead-on with The Sopwith Camels; now that you mention there is a clear link to the Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground sound, albeit it is more friendly. That counter-culture vibe that these somgs created (for which I will explore in another part tomorrow) is quite a legacy for my home region. I'm glad to share this with someone who experienced and helped disseminate the music and those remarkable times.

      PS--To tell you the truth, I always thought "We Five" was a British Invasion band until I got this album. Cross-cultural pollination can be deceiving, as I once discovered to my shock when the seven-year daughter of my girlfriend told me in total innocence around 1986 how The Beatles were a band that copied their style from the US mellow-rock group The Monkeys!