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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.
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.
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’).
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.
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 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.
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.
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