[25 May 2012]
Mainstream American society held conservative and narrow views during the early 1960s. Pop songs concerned romantic love and teen tribulations. Brill Building songwriters such as Carole King helped expand the topics and concerns, but mostly they were commercial composers in a world whose values centered on the acquisition of material wealth, buying a nice house in the suburbs and living happily ever after with one’s spouse and children. Songs generally focused on the one true love to the exclusion of any societal topics. Being serious meant having sex, not actually being serious about the world.
The first two cuts chronologically on King’s new release of original demo tracks from the ‘60s reflect this. (Just a note, this record is far from including all of King’s demo records and just contains 13 songs.) The songwriter’s rendition clearly indicates the type of artist, if not the particular act, she had in mind. Her 1961 self-sacrificing declaration of love, “Take Good Care of My Baby,” was covered by Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Dion and who knows how many other male crooners from the period. King’s tear-jerking rendition of “Crying in the Rain” uncannily mimics the trademark Everly Brothers sound.
These are fun pop songs that baby boomers still karaoke to today because of the rich and earnest vocal styles. The music from the middle of the decade shows how much things have changed in such a short time. The songs are serious, even when they do concern love, such as “So Goes Love”, about the end of a relationship. But these more adult concerns are still wrapped in pop conventions. One of the great ironies was King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” as song by the Monkees. This topic is worthy of deep consideration.
First of all, The Monkees had a big hit with this. This is the first time King’s version, which was just a demo, has been released. It hit number 3 on the Billboard charts during the summer of 1967. The summer of love. The summer of drugs. And this song soared to the top 10 by celebrating individual expression rather than conforming to community standards and keeping up with the Joneses. That makes sense to a point, but….
This song of authenticity was performed by a band of actors openly parading as rock musicians. They weren’t rockers, but they had a funny television show based on the humor found in the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night. The group members were famously picked for their looks rather than their musicianship. This was never a secret. And so for this group of imitators to mock suburbanites for not being real made no sense. The suburbanites were the people who watched the show.
The targets of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” didn’t make sense either. The first object of ridicule was “the rock group down the street trying hard to learn their song”. How could the Monkees make music making fun of real musicians? The others called to task include a woman tending her roses and a man with televisions is every room. Did this mean he might never miss the Monkees on TV? The Monkees complain about this. You figure it out.
But of course The Monkees did not write the song. King did, and one can imagine a creative person feeling pain at “all the houses that just look the same / and no one seems to care” as much as one can lament the modern day McMansions which blot the landscapes of exurbia. King’s song may contain an overabundance of earnestness. She articulates every word clearly, some of which did get lost in the Monkees’ harmonies. No wonder she leads the disc with this track.
The other songs have their charms. The passion of “For Once in My Life”, a Righteous Brothers release from the mid-‘60s, and the free-lovin’ “Yours Until Tomorrow”, later covered by Dee Dee Warwick and Cher, are minor gems. Most of the rest of the tunes here show up later by King herself on her blockbuster LP Tapestry. The versions on this record are a tad rawer, but the songs sound pretty much formed.
The demos from Tapestry reveal how introspective King and her audience had become. There are no more songs about the one true love as an ideal. Now it’s how he makes her feel like a natural women. There are no songs of social and political importance. Instead, they are fantasies about dream worlds and the brighter unseen future. This may be attributing too much significance to too little evidence, but it’s clear that the world has changed during the past 10 years. So has King’s songwriting.