Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Released in time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Rhino’s 4-disc “Love Is The Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970,” has 77 far out tracks that are bound to inspire multi-colored flashbacks. If you can’t reach nirvana meditating to this, then you’ve taken the placebo and need to grab a latte, put on that tie dye T-shirt you bought at the last Ratdog concert, light up a Macanudo and let the coolness get in to your vertebra.
Because of groups like The Beatles, Donovan, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, and Traffic, England is viewed as the cradle of psychedelic rock. But outdoor concerts, poster art, underground radio and mind altering drugs all originated in San Francisco, as did the music that inspired these artistic distractions. “Love Is The Song We Sing” is a musical touch stone to a time when the psychedelic revolution captured the imagination of a generation, when hippies challenged the establishment to make love, not war, and to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Its proof that good, bad, stoned or weird, it all started in San Francisco, baby.
“Love” is divided into four distinct themes. Disc one’s “Seismic Rumbles,” marks the shift from folk and pop in San Fran to heavier sounds. Disc two’s “Suburbia,” explores the psychotic and psychedelic music emerging in nearby Berkeley, Sausalito, Sacramento and San Jose. Disc Three, “The Summer of love,” assembles some of the classics of the era, and Disc four “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music,” examines the evolution of late 60s San Fran rock.
Familiar tracks are spread over the four discs, including “It’s No Secret,” by the Jefferson Airplane, featuring original lead singer Signe Toly Anderson; the heavy metal sonic overdose of “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer; “Soul Sacrifice” and “Evil Ways” by Santana, the superstars of Latin Rock; the eloquent “White Bird” with classically trained violinist David LaFlamme; and “Mercedes Benz,” a grizzled commentary about materialistic fat cats offered up a by jaded Janis Joplin.
The set’s main attraction is the bonanza of obscure tracks from cult bands of the period. Artists include the Warlocks (an early version of the Grateful Dead), the Sons of Champlin (whose leader, Bill Champlin would eventually join Chicago), and the Grass Roots (singing Dylan long before they became AM darlings). But the number of groups you’ve never heard of or have long since lost inside the cobwebs of your smoky memory is astounding. How about the Vejitables, who boasted Jan Errico, one of the few female drummers; the Tikis, who birthed Harper’s Bizarre, or Loading Zone, with Linda Tillery’s bad trip shrieks? And yes, there’s a few bands here I’ve never heard of.
Rhino sent out an eleven track sampler in advance of the box set’s release, and it offered a good cross section of what to expect. The set begins with “Let’s Get Together,” written by firebrand folkie Chester Powers. Powers was better known as Dino Valenti, lead singer for another San Francisco band, Quicksilver Messenger Service. (He was also known by a third name, Jessie Otis Farrow, and he wasn’t even in the witness protection program.) Facing serious time for a drug bust (for which he ended up in the slammer anyway), Valenti sold the rights to the song. “Let’s Get Together” had already been recorded by The Kingston Trio, We Five, and Jefferson Airplane, among others, so Valenti was satisfied it had run its course. When it was released as a single in 1967 by the Youngbloods, “Get Together” tanked, barely inching its way into the Top 100. Two years later, the song was picked by The National Council of Christians and Jews as their theme song in radio and TV commercials. Re-released, it peaked at #5. Valenti did his time, rejoining Quicksilver, whose popularity hit its apex with him at the helm, penning the classics “What About Me?” and the thinly disguised tribute to illegal tobacco, “Fresh Air.” Success was short-lived and the group fractured in 1972. Valenti reconstituted the band in 1975, but by then the chance to reclaim their notoriety has slipped through their hands. Valenti was felled by a brain tumor, succumbing in 1994. The tumor was said to have been the reason Valenti was viewed by his peers as an angry, scary, sometimes violent and bitter man, but just as many will say it’s because he didn’t get a dime for writing one of the peace generation’s most enduring anthems. “Love is the Song We Sing” begins with the roughly hewn folky Valenti original of “Let’s Get Together” that offers little of the peace and love he’s singing about, and ends with the Youngblood’s more familiar, gentler version. Aha, closure. What goes around comes around.
The Youngblood’s may have been one hit wonders, but what a hit it was. Their version of “Let’s Get Together,” retitled as a demand rather than a request (“Get Together”), was a starry-eyed, idealistic message of hope that sadly went unfulfilled. In the wrong hands the weighty message would have sounded preachy (as Valenti’s version did), but Jessie Colin Young’s fresh, boyish vocal gives him the air of innocence the song needs. The accompaniment is equally understated, from the quiet chime of the guitars to the short bass solo that introduces the last verse.
With lead singer Dino Valenti in jail for a three year stretch, Quicksilver sojourned on as a blues/jam band. (One of their best known songs without Valenti is a version of “Who Do You Love” that lasts for a mind numbing half an hour.) Actor Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man” registered on the charts and “Codine,” gave listeners a look at the world of an addict without the pain of withdrawal. David Freiberg is more a tortured communicator than Valenti, but what he lacks in ability he makes up for in realism, and guitarist John Cipollina should be canonized as one of rock’s groovy greats. “Codine” burns rope, and is an impressive high point of the set.
Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” is one of those songs that made parents cringe. Every child of the Woodstock generation who owned the soundtrack album would play Joe’s rebellious intro loud enough for their ancestors to hear “…Gimme an F…Gimme a U...etc..” When Joe finished with his spelling bee urging listeners to tell him what the letters said, thousands of teens rejoiced in getting what they thought was a free pass to swear. (“But Mom, it’s on record!”) The song poked fun at the cavalier manner in which the government conducted the Vietnam War: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, the next stop is Vietnam. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates. Oh there ain’t no need to wonder why –WHOOPEE! We’re all gonna die.” Removed from a live audience, “Rag” is more of a good timey novelty piece with serious overtones, a protest song with its middle finger pointed at the establishment that supported the war.
The Charlatans were one of the first folk groups to embrace psychedelia. They chose their version of Buffy Saint Marie’s “Codine” as their first single, but the record company turned then down, promoting “Number One” instead. Singer George Hunter has a slightly stoned, goofy delivery -- Buddy Holly meets Jonathan Richman. Hard to believe country dung-slinger Dan Hicks was a member, and it’s even harder to believe he was the group’s drummer!
“No Way Out” by The Chocolate Watchband is replete with rippling drums and bumble bee guitar, mixed together with Alan Price-like organ runs. Aha! Flashes of backwards guitar, a staple of psyche music! “No Way Out” is a kitchen sink of styles and tempos. Every time you get comfortable with something, the format changes. It’s blues, it’s hard rock, it’s R &B, it’s interesting! The Jorma Kaukonenish guitar gets a little annoying, but the Pink Floyd suck the air out of the speakers ending befits its way out nature.
The Beau Brummels were best known for melodic pop singles, particularly “Laugh, Laugh,” “Just A Little” and “Sad Little Girl.” The distinctly romantic voice of Sal Valentino carries “Two Days ‘Til Tomorrow,” although Valentino sounds like Jerry Lewis with the shakes, (which is to say he’s sounded better). A little outside the realm of psyche, “Two Days ‘Til Tomorrow” indicates the Beau Brummels were downplaying the harmony thing and attempting to evolve with the times. They may not have survived the transition, but they went out singing.
Moby Grape was a band of dysfunctional rebels who fell victim to their own hype, drugs and each other. Resident nutter and guitarist Skip Spence wrote “Omaha,” with its “everything free in America” intro and country redneck sound that inspired the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Graham Parsons and other spineless country rockers. Spence, one of those semi-talented, heavily medicated types whose creative pilot light burned out quickly, once chased a band mate down the hall with an axe and wound up homeless, carrying on detailed conversations with himself in the street. Spence started out as the guitarist for Quicksilver Messenger Service, who had their own temperamental talent in Dino Valenti. He shifted to drums when he joined the Jefferson Airplane and then back to guitar when he co-founded Moby Grape. Perhaps all that shape shifting was an early indication of the schizophrenia to come.
“White Rabbit” is Grace Slick’s finest rock and roll moment, one of the first songs to couch drug references and sneak by the censors – much to the delight of the record buying public. It’s “Alice in Wonderland” set to music, with glimpses of the Dormouse, the Red Queen and a hookah smoking caterpillar, a surging, operatic synopsis of what a mind expanding journey was supposed to be like: “One pill make you larger…and one pill makes you small…” Marty Balin, Slick’s mortal enemy in the band, thought it was genius, and it is.
A pair of tunes on the sampler registered as buzz killing bummers. “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” by Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks is dippy, twangy country-rock. Dan and his not-so-hot licks have somehow survived to annoy us to this day (only the good die young). He should have followed the advice of this title a long time ago. The Grateful Dead, the most trippy, dreamy, disjointed band to come out of San Francisco, serve up an edited version of “Dark Star.” This will speak to anyone who drank the brown Kool Aid and mistakenly envisioned Jerry Garcia as some sort of guitar deity. Decades removed from anything non-prescription, “Dark Star”’s lack of cohesiveness hasn’t improved – and this is the edited version. Please pass the Cherry Garcia.
You get every type of music imaginable in “Love Is The Song We Sing.” Some of the songs seem to revel in their offensiveness and primitive production – but that’s why they were obscure in the first place. The majority of the musical novellas are bound to take you back to an innocent time when everybody had long hair (or at least had hair), and the only flavor of coffee you could get was coffee. Ready? (I’m going to sum things up using some titles I’ve yet to mention…tricky, eh?)…
It’s no secret… “Love Is But The Song We Sing” will lead you down the golden road (to unlimited devotion)…So go find somebody to love, and roll with it baby…It’s fat city…Satisfaction guaranteed.