After years of talking about how great this music is, it's time we started actually listening to it. For example, does a song sound like the year 1968, or does it sound like Deep Purple?
Few, if any, kinds of popular art have been canonized the way that rock and pop music of the late '60s and early '70s has been. By now it's a platitude that this canonization has been aided by the boomer generation's aging into control of contemporary media, taking advantage of the position to promote the music it holds dear. The Woodstock era provides a steady source of revenue-generating nostalgia and keeps the lighter sounds of an ostensible revolution securely in their museum display cases, revered as a sort of golden age.
Within that context, it would be easy to dismiss each new repackaging of the period as irrelevant (the end spot of much art, especially any that's politicized), redundant (given the ubiquity of the period's music on oldies radio), or reactionary (the heavy efforts at maintaining the past's glory). All these concerns are legitimate, but they, like so much of the discussion about the time's recordings, neglect the most basic element of the songs: the music itself.
The release of Time Life's box set Flower Power: Music of the Love Generation provides an opportunity to re-visit the music with fresh ears. Of course, we'll have to bypass the silly artwork, including the hippied-out minibus. The liner notes keep encomium to a minimum, primarily by saying very little at all. The discs themselves are the treasure. Ten CDs come packaged in pairs under five themes: "Groovin'", "Time of the Season", "Born to Be Wild", "Age of Aquarius", and "Summer of Love". While the categories hardly matter (Elton John's "Rocket Man" and "Your Song" show up under "Born to Be Wild"), the 175 songs add up to a remarkable overview of the era, even if a few stray cuts wander in from the mid-'70s as unlikely inclusions.
Scott McKenzie - San Francisco
Of course, while many great songs are included, their era contains just as much unevenness as any other. If you can allow yourself to detach these songs from their cultural significance (which counts for something, of course, just not here), some of these performances become utterly forgettable, lacking even the sensation of something great ventured and not quite gained. The problem arises because some of these same tracks keep their wonderfulness within their context. "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" works beautifully as an establishing song in either your imagination or on film, as in Forrest Gump, but hardly works as a relevant track today.
Some of these songs sounds incredibly dated, while others have stayed fresh even after runs through Vietnam films, infomercials, and car ads. The puzzle, then, is sorting out what works and what doesn't, and why. This question isn't one of approaching that empty term "timelessness". If it were simply that, we could tie each song into how well it reflects universal themes (keeping nearly all these songs about love) or deals with issues nearly each generation faces collectively (save the anti-war songs). Instead, it's a matter of sorting out the detailed qualities of each cut, and figuring out what places a song on a spot on the Ziploc continuum. (Don't worry, you're not in for 175 close readings. My point isn't to provide an exhaustive overview of the era, but to develop a return to these songs as songs rather than historical artifacts, cultural signifiers, audible memorials, or whatever else they've become.)
Eric Burdon & The Animals - San Franciscan Nights
The most obvious and superficial part of the answer lies in lyrical content. A song like Scott McKenzie's aforementioned "San Francisco" could only come from one cultural source. As Colin Escott explains in the liner notes John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas) wrote the piece specifically about the youth coming west for the Monterey Pop Festival. The lyrics aren't just concerned with the very-precise themes of the day, but they use the language of the period, discussing the "love-in" and the "strange vibration". The song also conceives of its audiences as a unified group with a specific ideology, "a whole generation with a new explanation". The kind of thinking would quickly die off with the much-discussed disillusionment rising after Altamont, the persistent life of the Vietnam War, and the inability of public love-ins to save the world.
While that song may be the piece most tied to an exact moment, it doesn't contain the most egregious example of culture-specific lyric writing. Eric Burdon, a Brit, might provide that with his "San Franciscan Nights", a praise to and from the city during 1967. Explaining that it's a "very personal song", Burdon seems a bit out of his head -- for once an actual artist sounding like so-and-so on drugs -- suggesting European "viewers" fly over to at least get the song, if not learn the city. He gives a stream-of-consciousness run-down of the city's "leather wings" and "jeans of blue" before touching on the local cops and eventually acknowledging, in the song's most unintentionally comical moment, that "It's an American dream / Includes Indians, too." Burdon, generally a fantastic singer and performer, sings with a charming exuberance, but the song remains hopeless dated in content and delivery. Admittedly, he's probably right in thinking you had to be there.
Peter, Paul & Mary - Blowin' in the Wind
But lyrical explanations veer too close to the mystique of "timelessness" and "universal themes", and don't go far enough toward examining the actual performances. On those grounds alone, "Blowin' in the Wind" would be DOA, but it's success has more to do with specific recordings. The Peter, Paul & Mary version contained on Flower Power might be the quintessential take, but it also stays utterly grounded in the past, unlike, say, the various versions Bob Dylan has toyed with over the years. The fact that different versions of a single song age better than others suggests that there's something specific to the sound of a given recording that provides clues about how it holds up.
One of the key elements of a song's enduring success (a song from the past one can enjoy, rather than one that's trapped in its time) depends on whether it expresses the particularity of its time period or of its artist. Does a song sound like the year 1968 or does it sound like Deep Purple? There's nothing about "San Francisco" that screams Scott MacKenzie; instead, plenty of it screams "1967", from the guitar style to the flowery sentiments. It's not usually a clear separation, the sound of the time and place vs. the sound of the band.
The Byrds - Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds frequently sound like a manifestation of their time, yet maintain an unlikely singularity, even in their cover songs. "Mr. Tambourine Man" especially pushes the limits, making Dylan's nasal delirium too palatable, even if they are establishing their trademark (and influential) sound. While the Byrds occasionally sound mired in a particular time, they more often break free. Their particular vocal harmonies and country-folk music would influence too many bands, but the Byrds themselves still express their own singularity.
The Band - Up on Cripple Creek
Likewise, the Band took some of the same influences so important to this music -- folk, country, the blues (and Bob Dylan) -- but managed to create a less time-specific sound. In part, they succeed by sounding more ancient than they are. While they do reference American roots music, they also created a sound that only alluded to an imaginary past, tapping into a mythological landscape (heavy on the American South) in order to build a sound as seemingly looking backward as it was progressive. As an example of this effect, Escott points out that the "mouth organ" on "Up on Cripple Creek" actually comes from Garth Hudson playing his clavinet through a wah-wah effect. This kind of precise sound and mythology renders the Band's music essentially idiosyncratic, and largely devoid of the markers of its time.
Obviously, the music world contained enough styles that we couldn't pin it all down to one batch of characteristics, but concerning ourselves simply with the kind "flower power" music examined here, we can get a quick grasp on some essential elements. The sound frequently builds on gentle folk-based sounds, sometimes tinged with mild psychedelia (the kind that's safe enough to have been bought by the mildly leftist consumers of the late '60s). At its worst, it decided to the empty head-swaying of the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", a song as much mired in the period as in the commercialism of its history.
Donovan - Mellow Yellow
The mild experimentation and drug-addled outreaching leaves the box set's pair of "Age of Aquarius" CDs on the shakiest ground. These two discs compile mostly folk-rock cuts that do little to distinguish their artists, whether it's Donovan's vibrational assertion of "Mellow Yellow" or the 5th Dimension's astrological Broadway rock or Albert Hammond's version. At the same time, these songs don't seem trapped in the era's performance codes, but they become even more distinct by comparisons. With their over-the-top funk-rock Sly & the Family Stone were, and still are, completely on their own planet, no matter how much stargazing other acts did. And don't look back, but Bob Dylan's still in a different league than Donovan, largely because it's his imprint and not (forgive the word) the zeitgeist's.
Tommy James and the Shondells - Crimson and Clover
It's not always obvious which songs escape the sonic conventions and hold up on their own. "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells holds up remarkably well, despite seeming to contain the necessary ingredients for datedness. The atmospherics have just a tinge of the psychedelic, the lyrics are sexual (but not radically so), the "crimson and clover" sounds like it signifies more than it does (but at least reminds us of incense), and the performance ends with mild, pointless experimentation. The song still works, though, because it never quite gives in to any of the conventions. James doesn't work as a singer-songwriter, the song refuses to fall into a folk mode (consider that aggressive bassline trying to break free), and the wobbly vocal at the end sounds too garage-based and even too directionless in its experimentation, even if it does perfectly fit the formal development of the music and lyrics. The finished piece could only be from Tommy James and the Shondells (actually just James and Peter Lucia, Jr. at this point); its period of origin has little presence in the final material.
The Mamas and the Papas - Creeque Alley
We can see this split play out within a single artist's work. John Phillip's "San Francisco" stands as one of the most dated pieces in this collection, yet Phillips and his group, the Mamas and the Papas, manage to sound wonderfully idiosyncratic at times. "California Dreamin'" relies to heavily on its period (the vocals, the tone, the lyrical content) to completely succeed, no matter how charming it remains, but the less ubiquitous "Creeque Alley" expresses its performers beautifully. It, too, has all the trappings of its period, and alludes to the scene in great detail (and sometimes obscurely -- don't try to say you remember the Mugwumps). However, it comes across as an exceedingly personal vision, one that only these artists could have expressed. And the playful self-referentiality of the lyrics gets presented with headbop more connected to the ridiculous "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" the San Francisco hippies' serious swaying. [Sidenote: this seriousness weighs down some of the period's music. Judy Collins somehow manages to make a centuries-old hymn sound dated when she gives "Amazing Grace" the Love Generation treatment. I will admit this might be more contextual than musical, so let's keep it between these brackets.]
"Creeque Alley" relies heavily on its period and offers little, if anything, in the way of universal truths, yet remains a unique and, well, timeless piece -- from a period, but not terminally of it. In a similar manner, it's also possible to subvert a period's conventions by so completely giving into them, by being so consumed by them, that some sort of massive other emerges.
Steppenwolf - Born to Be Wild
Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" (or, more accurately, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" [sic]) uses the popular talking blues form to wander around for 18 minutes just to be a protest song. It's hippies, it's outsiders, it's Vietnam, it's the heavy-handed fascists of America line, it's every possible late '60s convention wrapped in a folky performance quintessential of the era. And it comes out as so absurdly of the period that it can never be dated (even if anyone outside the Guthrie clan can be persuaded to listen to it more than once every 10 years or so, usually to convince some novice of its greatness). The absurd and extended degree to which Guthrie dives into and uses all of the era's conventions means he produces something new and "other"; something parodic if it were more self-conscious, or something epic if it were less farcical. In the end, the use of and consumption by every convention makes them all moot in the face of a novel piece. (Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, Flower Power only includes the brief, forgettable "Alice's Rock & Roll Restaurant", which sounds like between-set music in the Village.)
That sort of demonstration of idiosyncrasy largely sinks or floats any music from the past. With the performances on Flower Power, we get an entire era quickly amassed for us, and it's an opportunity to forget about the documentaries, the Hollywood soundtracks, the dreamy memories, and the nostalgia industry to actually listen to the music we've heard too many times. Often the music itself sounds as dusty as those old yearbooks no one ever gets out of the attic, but that just makes the rest of it all that more exciting. And it's not like that dustiness makes it any less fun to go through those old snapshots.