Even within the world of music, a realm fraught with subjectivity, it is an ‘undisputed truth’ universally acknowledged that 1969 and 1971 were the most glowing years of popular music to date. The freight train of emergent pop culture was flying ahead on the tracks and technology had elevated the Promethean energy with a blast of art-meets-science brilliance.
In 1969, man landed on the moon while protests ran rampant against the Vietnam War and Civil Rights issues on the troubled planet below. The counterculture movement culminated in Woodstock and Charles Manson hit dramatically tragic headlines. The music this eventful storm produced was astounding; Bob Dylan returned from his self-imposed exile with Nashville Skyline, The Beatles strolled across Abbey Road, The Stooges birthed proto-punk, Captain Beefheart went mental on Trout Mask Replica, Joni Mitchell melted hearts. And on.
With everybody absorbed in the giant glut of the gleaming mainstream, it was easy for the meek, peculiar or otherwise indisposed to fall through the cracks and remain shackled to the back rooms of history.
Now, however, I have heroically summoned these songs from the slumber of the sixties last hurrah to finally present these perennial bridesmaids as the brides they were born to be.
Hopefully, there are some tracks in here that you haven’t heard before or at least interesting songs of old, but ultimately, I simply hope they are all appreciated for the gems that they are.
You can catch a playlist of these ‘hits-that-never-were’ at the bottom of the piece.
The 13 unlucky gems from 1969:
13. ‘People’ by The Tymes
The Tymes are an American soul vocal group who for whatever reason proved more successful in the UK than in their native lands. With vibrant harmonies and an energy so upbeat that Apollo 11 was in danger of being taken out of orbit, it’s hard to see why they were huge all over the universe.
The track ‘People’ sees the late George Williams let loose on this soul classic. It’s brilliantly arranged by Richard Rome and Jimmy Wisner’s production brings a healthy dose of vintage without ever delving into kitsch.
12. ‘It’s Too Late Now’ by Long John Baldry
Long John Baldry is the perfect paradigm for the many pivotal figures parading in the backrooms of the 1960s. The British vocalist was one of the first to bring the blues to the club scene. In this pioneering foray, he shared a stage with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, before welcoming Rod Stewart and Elton John to his band.
‘It’s Too Late Now’ might seem a little bit flowery and glossed, but as he pours all the silk his pipes can offer into the line, “There’s one cigarette burning through, where there used to be two,” over a melody of butter cutting ease, there’s no way the toes aren’t tapping.
11. ‘Something in the Air’ by Thunderclap Neuman
There is so much of ‘Something in the Air’ in the indie music that followed decades later, that it seems like a song you’ve known all your life and heard a thousand times. But that’s a supposed ubiquity that the listening statistics don’t reflect.
The melody to the song is the sort that almost alchemically summons nostalgia. You can pour over the song structure and musicology all you’ll never quite find the answer as to why it seems so sanguine and dreamy; there is simply something ethereal in the mix that brings about a honeyed reverie, and that’s an effect that proved effortlessly influential.
10. ‘Jennie Lee’ by The Frost
With only 815 monthly listeners on Spotify, it is safe to describe The Frost as one of the many forgotten acts of the sixties. However, it is a mark of the brilliance of the era that you could describe the vocals as Joe Cocker-esque, the guitar work as akin to blitzing Freddie King, and the arranging as cut from the same cloth as The Who.
Sadly, the recording quality does render the whole thing a little bit tinny, but it’s a song that hints at why Frost won out as the audience favourite at Meadowbrook Theatre on a bill that featured MC5 and The Stooges.
9. ‘Fly Me to the Earth’ by Wallace Collection
It is a queer quirk of music that the, ahem, unassuming looking Wallace Collection would espouse the track ‘Daydream’ that proved absolutely pivotal in the development of Hip Hop and has been sampled a thousand times over.
The prog-rock stylings of ‘Fly Me to the Earth’ might not have proved as influential as their biggest hit, but equally exhibits the band’s mastery of the craft. They certainly might not have been the coolest cats of the 1960s, but their innovation and exuberance still prove invigorating today, far outstripping the flippancy of fashion trends.
8. ‘I Scare Myself’ by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks
Inspired by the likes of Django Reinhardt and Hank Garland, the idiosyncratic Daniel Ivan Hicks, disavowed genre and simply focussed on the hottest of licks. This, in turn, crafted him out as an almost outsider figure in music without a home and this creative demimonde he existed in imbues his tracks with something strangely timeless.
In his tragic posthumously published memoir, I Scare Myself, the enigmatic character clearly present in his music is brought to life and opens the curtain just a little bit to glance at the depth of music he crafted. However, everything else written about the man and his music essentially muses on how to define it all, which, in the end, makes it all the more alluring.
7. ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’ by Bettye Swann
‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’ is one of those old soul standards that got passed around the sixties like a reefer at Woodstock, but nobody toked it harder than Bettye Swann with a version of such honeyed belle that it slows the ticking of clocks for a few sweet, sanguine minutes.
Originally penned by the fantastically named John D. Loudermilk, the track was first released by Don Cherry in 1962 and it travelled through various genre permutations before arriving with Swann’s atypical soul number. Soul is the sonic glass slipper for the track and Swann doesn’t try anything fancy with it, she just serves it up with understated hot-buttered perfection.
6. ‘Fancy’ by Bobbie Gentry
As the sultry cool phenom of the era, Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Fancy’ proved to be a women’s lib statement that carried some hefty both in terms of context and the class with which it was propagated. Gentry was one of the premiere songwriters of the entire era and ‘Fancy’ shows off the timeless feats she was capable of.
In an interview with Mid-South in 1968, she remarked: “I don’t really have a great time doing it, but I have a need to write. I am driven to being industrious, and the finished product is well worth the effort.” Fancy, and indeed most of her back catalogue, is bonafide proof of that.
5. ‘Nothing but a Heartache’ by The Flirtations
The South Carolina vocal trio of The Flirtations faced tough competition from The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las, The Supremes and many others when they emerged onto the scene. They needed a hit of their own in a hurry and ‘Nothing but a Heartache’ delivered in style.
Sadly, it would seem that the Motown-inspired soul that they served was possibly a little bit too similar to the already established Supremes to make a lasting dent, but if ‘Nothing but a Heartache’ was their parting gift, then we can all be glad that they were invited to the party.
4. ‘To Love Somebody’ by Nina Simone
Nina Simone is quite possibly the greatest song interpreter of all time. She is so good at applying her awe-inspiring talents to other people’s work that it prompted Nick Cave to say that he thinks she sings other artist’s tracks better than her own. This cover is up there with the best she ever offered up and that is not something that can be said lightly!
Her take on the Bee Gee’s melodramatic love song is a tour de force of powerfully pretty beauty. It’s dainty and measured but always profoundly poignant, like the proverbial sonic equivalent of moving like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
3. ‘Saturday Sun’ by Nick Drake
If Nick Drake’s songs were any more ethereal, then they could never have been etched into something as bulky as vinyl. The sanguine sound of ‘Saturday Sun’ floats on towards a silken conclusion like a fleeting British summer day. If you could guarantee just one Saturday morning a year as sweet as this sonic depiction, then you wouldn’t have to worry about making the most of your free time ever again.
It is a track that you want to live in, and it yearns for you to turn the album over and listen all the way through once more. With its azure blue poetry, breezy production and a cacophonous bird song of musical flourishes, making music has never sounded so effortless, and its ability to harness the joys of summer is what beer commercials have trying to copy ever since. There is a simple air of perfection to this song, and it never tries other than itself, whatever dreamy moment of pure contentment that happens to be.
2. ‘Peaches in Regalia’ by Frank Zappa
Although Zappa would continue to work intermittently throughout his career with his old Mothers of Invention bandmates the back end of the ’60s saw his go his own way. From Zappa’s 1969 record Hot Rats comes ‘Peaches En Regalia’ an instrumental roller-coaster through the stratosphere. It says a lot about Zappa’s work that one of his most accessible songs is an instrumental piece.
The track exists somewhere in the multicoloured splatter that would result when you chuck classical, jazz, rock & roll and Dr Suess in a blender. Once again though, it as a song that abides with Zappa’s paradoxical nature as somehow the kaleidoscopic mayhem is always perfectly structured and merely parading as being out of control. The rock influences were starting sway from prominence and varied grooves began to make an impact, Hot Rats, is one of his best as a result of this funky middle-ground.
1. ‘A Time For Us’ by Joe Pass
Joe Pass was a guitar maestro who played formed a pivotal part of Elle Fitzgerald’s sound and indeed that of many others. He once brilliantly remarked: “You can’t think and play. If you think about what you’re playing the playing becomes stilted. You have to just focus on the music.”
The unfurling sonic beauty seems to slide ride into his mantra to offer up a message that packs a punch and elevates the silken melody to rarefied heights. As he surmises of his own sound: “I feel, concentrate on the music, focus on what you’re playing and let the playing come out. Once you start thinking about doing this or doing that, it’s not good. What you are doing is like a language. You have a whole collection of musical ideas and thoughts that you’ve accumulated through your musical history plus all the musical history of the whole world and it’s all in your subconscious and you draw upon it when you play.”