Song 290: McCoy Tyner, “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” (1968)

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I would be the first person to admit that my taste in jazz isn’t particularly adventurous. I tend to favor the melodic and happy instead of the dissonant and dark. Case in point: McCoy Tyner’s version of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top.”

Which isn’t to say the song isn’t a worthwhile listen. You may recall that “Surrey” is from Oklahoma, and I wouldn’t personally call it Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finest hour. The lyrics in particular are so light they barely register: “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry/When I take you out in the surrey/When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top.” And did I mention that it’s sung by a dude named Curly? It’s sung by a dude named Curly.

But in McCoy Tyner’s nimble hands, “Surrey With the Fringe On Top” becomes something else entirely. It’s still exciting and joyous, but it’s also twitchy and more than a little bit frantic, as if the invitation is coming from a guy with less-than-noble intentions. My favorite part happens around the 2-minute mark, when Tyner pounds out atonal chords like a distress signal (the theme returns, more unhinged, about a minute later).

I don’t think Tyner was out to mock “Surrey” or make it sound perverse. If anything, he added depth and layers of interesting conflict. What was once a bland invitation is now a panicked, almost vain begging for companionship. And that—and here’s where the perversion actually lies—is a lot more fun.

By the way, no offense intended to the great Rodgers and Hammerstein. They were geniuses, and I hope to write about them more hospitably soon.


Song 283: Traffic, “Feelin’ Alright” (1968)

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I understand why Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright” was such a big hit, but I like Traffic’s original more. Dave Mason sounds nervous and shaky; he doesn’t sound coked up and frantic. I think Mason’s approach is a lot more interesting.

I also think the combination of the acoustic guitar and piano is a really good choice. It makes what would otherwise sound like a bluesy rock jam (cough Joe Cocker cough) something more like a quiet singer-songwriter song with an uneasy edge. That’s also why Mason is such a good singer, and, like Steve Winwood, such a good singer for Traffic in particular: he always sounds a little unsure, a little mysterious. Cocker can belt the hell out of a song, but Winwood and Mason can make you think about what’s prompting the song in the first place.

Speaking of which: what’s going on here? Something sure went down, whether it was a breakup or just a falling-out. The vivid word choices—locked doors, imprisonment, “there’s too much to do before I die”—make it sound like the narrator is suffering from some kind of breakdown. As the song builds in volume and energy, his mental state  sounds increasingly dire, finally reaching a zenith with those high-pitched “aaaalllllright” background vocals.

I’m probably reading more into this than necessary, but that’s kind of my point: there’s so much to read into with this version. With Joe Cocker’s take, you know where you stand. And who wants that?


Song 237: Judy Clay & William Bell, “Private Number” (1968)

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Allmusic says that this song “made the summer and fall of 1968 more pleasant.” That’s a hard thing to claim objectively, but I’d believe it. That year was basically a living hell, and this song, so light, airy and pretty, is anything but.

Admittedly, when “Private Number” starts, the world seems dark and mysterious. Its first chord is A-minor, the relative minor of the key of C, which means the song starts with the most basic of minor chords, a universally known bummer. The song then slinks down to G-major and then F-major, and it finally settles on the root chord of C-major as William Bell sings “since I’ve been gone.” The sun comes out in that moment, and the darkness doesn’t return.

That minor-major turnaround befits a song about hope following heartbreak. We’re dropped immediately into the memory of the breakup, and Bell’s plea for forgiveness is accompanied by a series of major chords with the occasional hint of a minor. There’s undeniable optimism in the lyrics (which include immediate forgiveness by a serene Judy Bell), a tone mirrored by a sweet arrangement featuring horns and cinematic strings. It’s all very lovely.

If this blog has taught me one thing, it’s that I’m terrible at guessing the years of certain songs, especially when it comes to soul and R&B. I would never have guessed that this song, which reminds me of the Temptations and early Marvin Gaye, came out as late as 1968. But it’s heartening to know that something so beautiful came out in the middle of such madness.


Song 111: Simon and Garfunkel, “America” (1968)

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Have you ever noticed that the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” don’t contain rhymes? I’ve known this song for at least 20 years, and it never once occurred to me, until today, after reading about the song. Is it Paul Simon’s songwriting prowess that sneaks the blank verse by us? Are we supposed to notice?

Now that I know about the non-rhymes, I think it contributes to the song’s themes of loneliness and loss. The two main characters are making their way across the country and becoming increasingly directionless. It’s telling that the only hint at a rhyme is in the first verse, when the couple is still in the beginning phase of their journey: “Michigan seems like a dream to me now.” After that, as the pair runs out of cigarettes and counts cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, the lines are fragments with no rhyming counterparts.

“America” has always been my favorite Simon and Garfunkel song, not only because of those lyrics, but because of the melody, which is so beautiful but so simple. The fact that he uses that simplicity to portray this complex, crumbling relationship (both the relationship between the characters and their relationship to their country) is what makes this song so heartbreaking.


Song 37: The Kinks, “The Village Green Preservation Society” (1968)

img00737I can never figure out if the Kinks are celebrating or mocking nostalgia. It’s probably a little of both, depending on the song. In “The Village Green Preservation Society,” the band is definitely making fun of British stuffiness (“God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards/Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?”). But I also think the song is an honest, if exaggerated, view of the Kinks’ role in popular culture. They sang about Britishness all the time, in a way that made clear that they loved where they came from, and also thought it was funny that people (including themselves) thought so damn much about it.

Then again, the Wikipedia page on the The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society makes it sound like Kinks frontman and main songwriter Ray Davies was playing it straight. I believe his love of Britain and its traditions is genuine, but his tongue was almost always in his cheek, and I can’t imagine that this record wasn’t intended with some irony.

In any case, this song is a great one. It must have sounded pretty antiquated when it was released in 1968 (on the same day as the White Album!), all tinkly pianos and lyrics about steam engines. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do well on the charts. It’s stuck around as a major influence–just listen to any Blur song from 1994 or so–and holds up after repeated listens. It’s a record about Britishness, to be sure, but also about memory and the dangers of holding on to the past. It’s sad, funny, and altogether amazing. And this song is where it starts.


Song 5: The Zombies, “This Will Be Our Year” (1968)

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For the longest time, I knew the Zombies only from their song “Time of the Season,” which I could not hate more. I may just be sick of it from having heard it repeatedly on WZLX, but good lord. It still just sounds like psychedelic nonsense to me.

I was therefore thrilled to discover that the rest of Odessey and Oracle, the record on which that song appears, is wonderful. For the most part, it’s everything that “Time of the Season” is not: light, amiable, melodic. And “This Will Be Our Year” is its mascot.

The song is optimistic, but not naively so. Unlike, say, “I Want You Back”, there’s an underlying assumption that Things Can Be Shitty. “I won’t forget the way you held me up when I was down,” sings Colin Bluntstone; the title’s sentiment may be wishful thinking, but it’s not without skepticism. This is one of the sweetest songs I know, mostly because of that underlying assumption. Things Can Be Shitty, but darkness has gone. We’ve only just begun.

Should I mention that the Zombies broke up before Odesseey and Oracle came out? Probably not.