Yellow Balloon

I have read the lengthy booklet that comes with Sundazed’s reissue of The Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album two times now, and I’m still not really sure I understand the band’s story. But here’s what I think it is:

Gary Zekley, – a songwriter, producer and sometimes band member on the West Coast pop circuit of the 1960s – wrote a song, called “The Yellow Balloon,” and handed it off to Jan and Dean. Knowing the song was going to be a hit, Zekley threw together a band and recorded a version of his own, hoping to beat Jan and Dean to the studio finish line. One member of the band Zekley assembled was Don Grady, who played Robbie Douglas on the hit TV show “My Three Sons,” and who had already been moonlighting as a rock ‘n’ rooler, most recently in a folk-rock band called The Palace Guard. Zekley’s motley band wound up naming itself after the song they were assembled to record, scored a minor hit with their version of “Balloon,” and went on to make a full-length album.

I may or may not have all of that right, and I may have missed some important points of the band’s brief story. But here’s the real gist of what I want to say in this space: the album, The Yellow Balloon, is a minor treasure of sun-soaked California psychedelic pop. Part Byrds, part Beach Boys, part Turtles, part Left Banke . . . but the 60s band the Balloon most sounds like is the good-timey Lovin’ Spoonful. The songs are happy and bouncy, they boast excellent melodies and just enough acid flavor to let you know what era they were recorded in. That studio pros like Jim Gordon and Carole Kaye played many of the instruments on the record is something we’ll overlook for the moment – the band The Yellow Balloon (with Grady wearing a wig and shades so as not to be recognized) did tour to support the record, and played some of the instruments on the album, and their lead singer, Alex Valdez, sang most of the songs (Grady sings others).

The bonus tracks Sundazed added to the set include some songs Grady recorded as a solo artist and as leader of an outfit called The Windupwatchband. There is also an interview with Zekley, who died in the late 90s. Some of Grady’s solo stuff is as good as, maybe better than, the material on the main album.

The Yellow Balloon were not a great band. But they managed to make one record which nicely captures the time and place of California in the mid-to-late 1960s. The Gary Zekley mystique and the Don “Robbie Douglas” connection only add to their allure.

Peppermint Rainbow

I have heard lots of complaints about the Collectors Choice label, about the sound quality of their CDs, and the cheapness of the packaging. But I love this label, because they reissue all kinds of obscure music, from various decades and genres, that nobody else would. My latest Collectors Choice find is the album Will You Be Staying After Sunday, by the late 60s Baltimore soft rock band Peppermint Rainbow. This is Spanky and Our Gang meets The Lemon Pipers, and is 30 minutes of pure pyschedelic bubblegum bliss. The title track, which seems to be referencing Spanky’s "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," is rich with soaring harmonies and vocal hooks. "Pink Lemonade" picks right up from there, with its candy-coated acid vibe. And although those are the best two songs on the 11-track album, it is all pleasant and there is nothing on the record that you mind hearing again. I love the photo of the band on the back cover of the CD almost as much as the music inside. All five members (three guys/two sisters, one of the sisters married to one of the guys) look out of place in the gaudy hippy clothing they’re wearing, the men with sky blue ascots and the women in matching-colored dresses and white go-go boots; they look like a pack of hillbillies who got invited to a party at a drug house and went to the hippy boutique and asked what they should wear. But when they play and sing there’s no confusion at all. They are masters of melodic soft rock and this album goes on my all-time list of greats in that style, alongside records by people like The Sandpipers, Lemon Pipers, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Merry-Go-Round, Cowsills, etc.

My Best of 2006

I bought 50 albums that came out in 2006, if you include reissues and compilations. Following is a list of the 15 or so I enjoyed the most. It was also a big DVD year for me. I have been buying movies – mostly double feature B-movie packages distributed by Something Weird Video – like a fiend, so I am including a short list of video favorites which came out this year. My main reading kick has been the crime novels of British writer Ted Lewis, who wrote the book the film Get Carter was based on, as well as seven other tough guy novels that are both harder and better-written than much of what is considered to be great pulp fiction. Early 2007 album releases I am looking forward to are the new one by Lee Hazlewood, Cake or Death, and The Go-Go Music of The Mark Wirtz Orchestra & Chorus, both of which are due to come in late January.


New Records

*His Name is Alive-Detrola: After releasing two criminally underappreciated soul albums, the diverse Michiganders return to left-of-center pop, with a little jazz thrown in. Think of the more indie rock stuff on Ft. Lake.

*Sid ‘n’ Susie-Under the Covers, Vol. 1: Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet record a jukebox of cover versions of their favorite 60s songs. When “Susie” hits the crescendo on the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum” every hair on my arms stands on its end.

*Gnarls Barkley-St. Elsewhere– Uncategorizable, genre-bending mini-masterpiece from Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse. Hip Hop, Trip Hop, Rock and Roll, Power Pop, Psych Rock – they do it all, and it all comes off with energy and urgency.

*Sonic Youth-Rather Ripped: Everything that’s good about Sonic Youth bottled up in one long-player. Somehow perfectly accessible and dissonant at the same time. Both Kim and Thurston are on here.

*Of Montreal-The Sunlandic Twins: Precocious psychedelia with hooks around every curve.

*Neko Case-Fox Confessor Brings the Flood: By many accounts she is a prima donna. So don’t have her over for dinner, but the power of her voice is undeniable.

*Persephone’s Bees-Notes From the Underworld: Girl-fronted, Euro-sounding power pop, that has both a 60s and 80s feel. Kinda like The Primitives/Darling Buds (but better than them) meets Shocking Blue (but not as good as them – nobody is).

*Grandaddy-Just Like the Fambly Cat: Jason Lyte & Co.’s swan song is their best album. Gorgeous melodies that make your head feel funny in a pleasant way.

*The Essex Green-Cannibal Sea: A notch below their previous record, the excellent The Long Goodbye, but any album with a song as catchy as “Don’t Know Why (You Stay)” needs to be on this list. They still sound like the Go-Betweens with a girl singing half the songs.

*The Tyde-Three’s Co.: Ditto what I said about Essex Green. This doesn’t match the band’s last album, Twice, but if you took the four or five best songs, you’d have a fine EP. Sun-drenched surfer boy rock with some Britpop spliced in.

Reissued Records and Compilations

*The Hoodoo Gurus-Stoneage Romeos: The Aussie psych-rockers got more pastoral on their second album, but this debut was all fuzz blasts and tribal chants.

*Various Artists-Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited: Most tribute albums are crap, but this one rises above. The highlights are versions by Jarvis Cocker/Kid Loco and Marianne Faithful.

*Buck Owens-21 #1 Hits: What to say? Buck was the coolest guy around, without ever trying to be cool. His songs are so simple, yet they hit at a deep place.

*Delaney & Bonnie-Home: The white Ike & Tina, with Booker T. the MGs backing them. This is like Exile on Main St. meets Otis Redding’s Greatest Hits.

*The dB’s-Like This: When Chris Stamey left the dB’s they got less spastic and more a straight-ahead power pop outfit; both versions of the band were excellent. This is Peter Holsapple peaking as a songwriter and frontman.

*Various Artists-The In-Kraut Vol. 2; Hip Shaking Grooves Made in Germany 1967-74– The subtitle says it all. Beat Club, psychedelia, soundtrack sounds . . . Includes a track by an early version of what would become Can.

Best DVDs Released in ‘06

*The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk Icons: The whole two-disc set is worth the price, if not just for the opening segment, where the quirky Snyder discusses “this new punk rock thing” with an uptight Bill Graham, an exuberant Kim Fowley, and a professorial rock critic. Throw in memorable performances by, and interviews with, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, The Ramones, et al, and you’ve got a party.

*Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel: A documentary on GP that doesn’t mind pointing to his foibles while shining a light on his greatness. The first time I’ve heard his wife and family members talk about how hurtful it was to them when Phil Kaufman famously stole Gram’s dead body and took it out the desert.

*The Last American Hero aka Hard Driver: Compelling 1973 race-car drama. Jeff Bridges is convincing as a North Carolina boy from a moonshining family who decides to become a champion driver. Able supporting cast includes Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, and Valerie Perrine. Two-Lane Blacktop meets Rebel Without a Cause.

*Alley Tramp/Over 18 & Ready: Drive-in double feature from Something Weird is on this list for Alley Tramp. The scene where the rebellious teenage girl hysterically tells her parents they can no longer control her features some of the most delightfully horrid acting ever committed to film.

*The New York Dolls: All Dolled Up: The Dolls in their heyday, being followed around by a crude camera. See them drunkenly carry on backstage, take Hollywood by storm, and play their rears off in cool-looking clubs.

*Red Lips Double Feature: Two Undercover Angels/Kiss Me Monster: Two of Jess Franco’s best films. A team of hottie detectiives solve art-related crimes in exotic locales. Lots of great clothes, great music, and one of the most riveting cage-dance scenes ever. Plot-lines? Who needs ‘em?

The Graham Gouldman Thing

In the mid-1960s Graham Gouldman was a one-man Goffin/King or Boyce & Hart. The British musician and songwriter wrote perfect pop songs that were totally of their time, and which were popularized by other, better-known acts. Gouldman penned the two best songs The Hollies ever recorded (“Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window”) two of the better tracks done by The Yardbirds (“For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul”) and also provided material for Herman’s Hermits, P.J. Proby, Wayne Fontana . . .

In ’68 Gouldman – who had previously been part of two different bands, both of them flops – decided it was time to put his own versions of some of his songs on record. John Paul Jones (Francoise Hardy’s playmate, and later bassist of Led Zeppelin) was brought on board as arranger and co-producer. Some top-of-the-line sessions musicians took up instruments. And Gouldman sat down and cobbled together a workbook of songs that had been hits for other artists, as well as some new and previously unrecorded material.

What came out is a record that should be generally regarded as a Mod-era classic, right alongside The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, The Kinks’ Face to Face, and early recordings by The Who, as well as the afore-mentioned Hollies and Yardbirds. But the album wasn’t even released in Gouldman’s native land, and only managed to hit the lower reaches of the Billboard Top 100 in the U.S.

The artist/band Gouldman most sounds like on this record is Emitt Rhodes and The Merry-Go-Round. Gouldman the vocalist has a lisp, and he sings in that almost girlish way that Rhodes does. The arrangements and the production of the material on The G.G. Thing are bubblegumy poppy, a la The Merry-Go-Round – that kind of bubblegum where Pure Pop meets Mod Cool.

Gouldman later become a member of The Mindbenders, before the 70s saw him and another Mindbender form 10CC. Later into the 70s he did the soundtrack to the Farrah Fawcett movie, Sunburn.

In 2004 BMG reissued The Graham Gouldman Thing, and anybody who’s into 60’s Mod pop should thank them. It is one of the best records of its kind.

Female Bunch/Alley Tramp

Another passion of mine, besides music, is Exploitation cinema from the 60s and 70s. Films that should have been seen at the drive-in, but you’ll take watching them at home on VHS or DVD, because that’s the only way you can see them now. The worse the acting, the thinner the plot, the tackier the set pieces, the better. My latest great find in this realm is an odd and highly enjoyable film from 1969 called The Female Bunch. If Russ Meyer and Sergio Leone had ever collaborated on a movie, this is what might have come from such an ungodly marriage. It’s warped Spaghetti Western meets Warped Sexploitation as a band of pissed-off, man-hating honeys set up a commune on a ranch in New Mexico. There, they drink, do drugs, brawl, and maim or kill any many unlucky enough to wander onto the ranch or look at them the wrong way. A young Russ Tamblyn and a not-so-young Lon Chaney are among the hapless victims. There is a theme song that is absolutely cool and which sounds like the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! theme, if it had been written by Ennio Morricone. I got my DVD copy of this film from an independent seller on Amazon Marketplace. The picture quality is not the best ever, but the film is perfectly watchable.

Prior to that, my most recent trash movie happening was when I bought Something Weird Video’s twin bill of Alley Tramp and Over 18 and Ready. The second feature is kinda cool in its own way, but the real rave-ability of this DVD is all about Alley Tramp. This is what B-movies can and should be. A teenage girl with an annoying Midwestern accent, who catches both of her parents cheating on each other, decides she’s going to join in on the fun. The scene where her parents, who now know that she is fooling around with a distant cousin, confront her about skipping school and generally carrying on in a shameful way, will have you giggling hysterically and doing multiple playbacks. But maybe the coolest part of this movie is the music. In the opening scene, the bad girl walks into her house after a day at school, pops on a record on her parents’ stereo console, and what comes out, and what she does a dramatic dance to, is some kind of groovy, reverb-heavy instrumental that sounds like a cross between The Velvet Undergound and the backing track to a song by The Association. Airy yet rocking.

Nick Garrie Discovery

This is my first LITG Blog, and in fact my first blog at all. I am happy to be here, and will keep this first one brief. My most recent discovery of an obscure and great record comes courtesy of The Big Takeover magazine, who did a piece in their last issue on Nick Garrie (Hamilton). The article had me running to get Garrie’s late 60s lost masterpiece record, The Nightmate of J.B. Stanislas. Wow. Think the soft, orchestrated pop of Bergen White running into more “serious” folk stuff by, say, Nick Drake, then having some encounters with the Baroque pop of The Left Banke, the left of center melodic singer/songwriter sounds of Harry Nilsson and . . . I could go on with the comparisons, but let’s just say this is a great record that the people of Rev-Ola have put back into the world for us. If you’re into sprawling, pyschedelic folk/pop from the late 60s, Nick is your man and this record will hit your sweet spot. My apologies if anyone on this site has already raved about this record.

Amazon has the record, and if you prefer to buy from your local shop, get them to order it if they don’t have it on the shelf.