Monday 23 November 2015

Psychedelic Pop: LEMON PIPERS remembered


The most difficult trick of all to pull off is to have a big Pop hit, but also retain your hip credibility. Falling to one side or the other has crippled too many bands to list. Arguably, for a while, Lemon Pipers pulled it off. “Green Tambourine” was about as big as a chart hit could get. Gold disc, radio play, TV profile, cross-Atlantic sales. Yet there was no-one, either hip or straight, who’d bad-mouth it. It had that irresistible quality about it that was impossible to dislike. Teenyboppers could toe-tap to the bubblegum catchy chorus and harmonies. For the hipster, even if ‘tambourine’ was something of a cool shorthand link into Dylan and the Byrds, the touselled minstrelsy of the down-at-heel street-corner busker came rifted with all the counterculture romance you could possibly inhale.

But for the Buddah label’s first no.1, there was also a major shot of corporate contrivance at work. Money also fed their music machine. The song was written, not by the group, but by in-house producer Paul Leka, with Brill Building co-writer Shelley Pinz. So, not quite ‘reflections of the music that is mine,’ as a reflection of the music that is theirs! Yet unlike – say, the Monkees, the Lemon Pipers – although initially unconvinced by the song, did play the session. While it was Leka’s initiative to score soaring strings into the mix, and add the studio-effects that boost its psychedelic charms, the electric sitar, the receding tape echo on the word ‘play play play’ and the distinctive vibraslap drum figure which extends indefinitely into the fade. As with the hidden final ‘Sgt Pepper’ effect it almost – but not quite, constitutes a locked groove that goes on into infinity.

And pause for a moment – yes, we’ve seen Gene Clark thumping the tambourine on the Byrds TV-clips as McGuinn’s Rickenbacker jingle-jangle chimes around him, but would a busker actually fare well using that as his primary instrument. ‘Any song you want I’ll gladly play’… on a tambourine…? Well, maybe he’s just using his tambourine as a collecting tray, on behalf of the group, in which case I’d gladly toss my dimes their way. Or perchance I’m being overcritical. Heard on the radio 3 February 1968, as it knocks John Fred & His Playboy Band off the ‘Billboard’ top-slot, it was so of-the-moment it was at least an hour ahead of its time.

It might have fared less well when issued in the UK on the Pye International label (as 7N 25444) – it only reaches no.9 on the ‘New Musical Express’ chart (8 March 1968), and no.7 on the ‘Record Mirror’ listing, albeit beneath Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” and Status Quo’s “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”, but the Pipers were simultaneously fighting airplay opposition from an opportunistic Xerox-cover by a group called Sun Dragon (on MGM 1380). And Status Quo actually cover the song on their debut album too. Yet this ‘poor man’s dream’ sure sounds super-fine on the pulse of newly-launched Radio One. The Lemon Piper’s “Green Tambourine” is one of those time-fix records that instantly slams you back to the sunshine burst of hippiedom, even if you were never there, even if you were living in drizzling Hull, or even if you weren’t born yet, the mythopoetics are so strong it’s imprinted in the DNA.

First photo I ever saw of the Lemon Pipers is a beguiling halftone in ‘New Musical Express’ – heading a ‘New To The Charts’ feature, moodily posed – like Love, with a crumbling masonry backdrop, long-hair, tinted shades, weird coolie-style hat, eccentric in a cool-groove kind of way. Never saw them live. Never even got to see them on TV back then. Now they’re there on YouTube, a clip from the ‘Mike Douglas’ show overlaid with pixel-effects, singing live over pre-recorded backing tape. Live because Ivan’s vocals go off-key. These Pipers, at the gates of dawn, were British-born Bill Bartlett from Harrow in Middlesex in green round-eye shades, beads and electric sitar (lead guitar, born 1946), chunky long-hair Dale ‘Ivan’ Browne in striped flares (vocals, green tambourine and rhythm guitar, 1947), William E ‘Bill’ Albough in cowboy hat (drums, born in 1948), beatnik-bearded Robert ‘Reg’ G Nave (keyboards, 1945), and Steve Walmsley (bass, 1949).

Formed while still college-kids on March 14, Wednesday night – according to Ivan, there’d been an earlier Buddah single, a Bartlett composition called “Turn Around And Take A Look” in September 1967. Opening with an ‘oops’ false intro, it’s carried on a ‘Mellow Yellow’ cymbal-splash backbeat broken by keyboard cascade, shimmering guitar-break, hi-hat and falsetto vocal interjections. But when “Green Tambourine” hit they’d timed the moment perfectly with a bright listenable single that was also accessible to those confused by feedback, lysergic hi-jinks and forty-two levels of lyrical-significance. The hit’s ‘B’-side “No Help From Me”, was another group-composition, a deeper more soulful piece with burbling organ and quivering guitar.

Subsequent releases would be less well-received. They’d scored big, but not big in the – say, Jefferson Airplane way. Not big enough to stand up against venal label manipulation. Instead, like – say, Electric Prunes – archly compromised by producer David Hassinger, they were a group with potential that was to be largely-unrealised, victim of corporate politics. The label suits insist that the breakthrough hit must be replicated with another Leka-Pinz composition. And “Rice Is Nice” is sweetly melodic in a throw-away Lovin’ Spoonful kind of way – ‘twice as nice when violins play’, but the free-love times were surely not sympathetic to 1950s suburban dreams of white weddings? It scores no higher than a US no.42 (on ‘Cashbox’).

Then came the album tagged for the hit single – ‘Green Tambourine’ (Buddah BDM-1009, February 1968). Despite its trippy false-colour sleeve-art, it’s messily torn down the centre by conflicting ambitions. It brags no less than six slickly commercial pleasantly harmonic songs from the Leka-Pinz duo – including the sophisticated tight Pop of “Blueberry Blue” with its harp ripples and string-quartet break. They sing of lovers who share a world of ‘peppermint leaves on lollipop trees’ and ride on blue butterflies. While Dylan, or John Lennon’s ‘semolina pilchards crawling up the Eifel Tower’ were innovatory and revolutionary, Hendrix’s ‘footprints dressed in red’ and Procol Harum ‘spinning the light fandango’ were imagist poetry, by the time it comes to “Blueberry Blue” the technique has been reduced down to cutesy formula, kindergarten nonsense-rhymes. It’s as contagious as Chlamydia – although with less enduring consequences. But then again, the STD’s cleared up nicely. And Lemon Pipers are here again over fifty years later in shiny digitalised-CD editions for new ears not even born back then. So perhaps I’m wrong?

There’s the plaintive “Shoeshine Boy”, sprinkled with the sitar and string-echoes of the hit. Then “Shoemaker Of Leatherware Square” – lifted as a single in its own right in Australia. This picture-book fairytale is not without a certain kitsch allure that retains affection among some freakbeat aesthetes. And the taut catchy “Rainbow Tree” philosophising that ‘time and place is only something your mind creates, only boundaries your mind makes’, laced with harpsichord. This song came via another Buddah-staffer, Kenny Laguna who would soon carve out space with the Kasenetz-Katz ‘Singing Orchestral Circus’ bubblegum empire (the song was also spun off as an instrumental single, flipped with “Green Tambourine”, by The Beautiful People on Roulette R-7001). There’s also country-inflected “Ask Me If I Care” with double-speed McGuinn guitar, from the pen of eventual ‘Rolling Stone’ journalist Eric Ehrmann. He also wrote “Ordinary Point Of View”, another demo-track cut with Bartlett’s country-roots solo, which Buddah reject.

All this is offset by a scattering of group originals. Recorded and mixed in the group’s native Ohio Cleveland Studios and in New York, the funk-supple anti-war jam “Fifty Years Void” with its heavy-riff stinging guitar, extends to 5:47-minutes. A gruff-voiced harmonica-led work-out with riffing organ, it carries all five Piper’s names in the credits, while the most ambitious track – “Through With You” bears just Bartlett’s. But what a track! Running to 9:09-minutes this provides some indication of where the group were really headed in their own minds, and hints at some of those frittered what-might-have-beens. A fast compulsive play-in, high-flying Byrds harmonies, with urban-sharp lyrics detailing taillights moving down the street, the sidewalk hard under my feet, breaking into tempo-change ‘Eight Miles High’ raga-guitar phasing up and down the mix, bent and distorted through spacey electronic ripples in a trancelike lysergic fuzz.

If you download just one Lemon Pipers track other than “Green Tambourine”, it has to be this one. Because they never got better. It could be argued that the Pop hits gave the group a visibility they wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed, while the original compositions give them a counterbalancing depth to validate it. The Lemon Pipers had started out playing Hard Blues and Folk-Rock in Cincinnati and Oxford bars, graduating to larger venues – including the ‘Fillmore West’, alongside Moby Grape and Spirit. If only there’d been more like “Through With You”, and less candy-coated Leka-Pinz honeyed bonbons, things might have worked out different. But of course, they didn’t…

The next single was make-or-break crucial. And despite Leka-Pinz throwing everything they had into constructing the ‘sunshine-buzz’ of “Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)”, it stalls just one position outside the fifty – at no.51. It uses the contentious ‘trip’-word, although it’s difficult to see how even the most rabid anti-drugs campaigner could draw LSD-inferences from ‘take a trip on my Pogo-stick, bounce up and down, do a trick,’ unless there’s a phallic innuendo at work here instead? While we can but conjecture whether serious art-rocker Edgar Froese tapped a stylish Germanic boot-heel to the ‘tangerine dream’ line. As the title threatens, the lyric takes the entire soft-surrealism of ‘plasticine porters with looking-glass ties’ to its most infantile devolution, climbing rainbow rainbow ladders to the sky, while determinedly retaining the hallmark cascading strings, sitar and receding vocal-echo from “Green Tambourine”. Not exactly unattractive in itself, but a cruel and predictable come-down from yesterday’s highs. On the TV-clip it seems by his fey send-up hand-gestures that Ivan is embarrassed by what’s been foisted on him, feigning playing an imaginary violin as the strings surge. And when even such a cynical level of calculation fails, all is surely lost? But no, not quite.

The second album – ‘Jungle Marmalade’ (Buddah BDM-1016, 1968) tells pretty-much the same story. The sleeve-design, dressed up as a marmalade jar with the five Pipers set among flowers inset as the oval label, is less than promising. There are four more tracks from the Leka-Pinz tunespinners, the maudlin “Lonely Atmosphere” with harpsichord-effect, “I Need Someone (The Painter)”, and “Everything Is You” which resembles a Plastic Penny husky love-ballad, soothingly riding on a snaky-smooth organ-figure into radio-friendly blandness. Then “I Was Not Born To Follow” from Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Take her mega-selling ‘Tapestry’ (1971) out of the equation and the duo were the Lennon-McCartney of American teen-Pop, effortlessly stick-shifting up-gear from “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” into the ‘legendary fountain’ and ‘clear and jewelled water’ of hippie-shtick. Of course, when you see the Byrds do the song on the ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) soundtrack, breaking into reverberating phased-guitar at the ‘where the trees have leaves of prisms and break the light in colours that no-one knows the names of’, no other version could possibly compete. The Lemon Pipers is acceptably strong, but just a little superfluous.

The very title “Love Beads And Meditation” inspires dread expectations of kitsch trend-overkill, although when you listen, it’s nowhere near as bad as your worst fears, and hadn’t the Beach Boys done “Transcendental Meditation” on their ‘Friends’ (June 1968) album? Sure, they had. In the song Ivan claims he’s ‘just one more flowerchild’ with clean horns and ‘love and peace my inspiration’, but there’s a harder edge to ‘leaving purple nightmares and shadows behind.’ When he sings about heading east to find reincarnation he’s not talking about the East Coast of the USA. And there’s a manic line about moving away from ‘the jagged edge of insecurity, the tangled mass of membrane that used to be me.’ Like he’s seeking a kind of spiritual rehab after bouts of nervy excess.

And there’s a higher equation of group originals. With “Hard Core”, then “Catch Me Falling” which is deceptively country-sweet, upset by off-centre instrumental breaks, which are bluesy with faster-slower pacings. “Wine And Violet”, is set to waltz-time bleep-effects, firefly spinning, and Spanish guitar tuned ‘closer to insane.’ And then there’s the full 11:43-minute closing segue “Dead End Street/ Half Light” – no connection to the Kinks hit. In a last shot for credibility there’s hard Blues-Rock passages with cutting organ and guitar stabs, fades and builds, involved tempo-changes and glimpses of Vanilla Fudge or Spencer Davis Group as he walks ‘down a dead-end street without the sense to turn around.’ It bridges into “Half Light” as a more reflective classical gas interlude, light-years from the Pop hits. ‘I don’t know how I found my way here, I only know I want to stay here’ dissolving into a freaky electro-fade with a false-ending slight-return back to the beginning again.

Yet the moment had passed. Sales were disappointing. Despondent, the Pipers quit Buddah in 1969, and subsequently split to go their separate ways. The story was over. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Steve, Bob and Bill reform as Starstruck who adapt Lead Belly’s slight “Black Betty” into hard speed-Rock. By the time the track was picked up and issued by Epic as by Ram Jam, only Bill Bartlett remained in the line-up as the single hit US ‘Billboard’ no.18 (23 July 1977), and went even higher in the ‘New Musical Express’ – peaking at no.9 (22 October 1977). There was a Ram Jam album with four of Bartlett’s songs, and although there were no more hits, its temporary success must have made for sweet revenge. A remix actually returns to the UK charts in February 1990, when it reached a very respectable no.13.

While Lemon Piper tracks were being compiled onto Greatest Hits collections, Golden Hits, and Best Of’s in various reconfigurations. “Green Tambourine” appeared on the 1970 ‘Buddah In Mind’ (UK, 2349-008) label-sampler alongside Lovin’ Spoonful, Captain Beefheart and Melanie, then the ‘Golden Hour Of Simon Says’ (1977, GH862) where it was joined by “Jelly Jungle” and “Rice Is Nice”. Later, tied into their increasing retro-collectability, CDs with various shufflings of tracks began appearing. ‘Record Hunter’ magazine commends ‘Lemon Pipers’ (1990, Sequel NEXCD 131), sniping that ‘if they were still around today, the (Lemon Pipers) could probably give whelps like Flowered Up and Inspiral Carpets a run for their love beads.’ Through to the latest CD reissue of ‘Jungle Marmalade’ (Aurora, June 2015). If the most difficult trick of all is to have a big Pop hit, but also retain your hip credibility, it seems Lemon Pipers have finally pulled it off.


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