Joel Gol;denberg: Sunshine pop offered some respite from '60s strife

The Peppermint Trolley Company

I just finished watching the two CNN miniseries The Sixties and The Seventies. Judging from what was covered during the two programs, those two decades were horrifying — assassinations, the carnage in Vietnam, destructive riots, racism that resulted in murders, threats of nuclear war, the resignation of a president, horrible conditions in cities like New York, serial killers, and other morale-lowering aspects of life.

I can imagine that someone born after the 1970s who watched the two programs must have wondered if people were afraid to leave their homes. I grew up during those two decades, and was mostly blissfully unaware of current events in my suburban surroundings. The first news event I was aware of was the 1970 October Crisis and the kidnapping/murder by the FLQ of Quebec minister Pierre Laporte.

About two episodes each of the two series dealt with the music of the time, with a very broad brush. There was the British invasion, folk and folk rock, hippie rock (Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, etc.), and the decadence of disco culture. Some of that was portrayed in a bit of an off-putting way, as well.

Notwithstanding how the events of the '60s were (pretty much accurately) portrayed, some artists did offer some respite from the turbulence of the times.

Wikipedia describes the genre of "sunshine pop" as derived from the melodic music of The Beach Boys and the dense productions of Phil Spector. In my opinion, the vocals of sunshine pop songs are a little more anonymous and not as lushly featured as that of The Beach Boys. And I don't see the Spector connection. The light touch applied to the songs reminds me more of soft samba music.

But while the music was light, it wasn't totally lightweight. Numerous groups produced very pleasurable music in the mid-to-late 1960s that was memorable enough to stick in the mind for decades.

The Association was one of the best of them. Along Comes Mary, which some thought referred to marijuana, was about as edgy as they got. Cherish was so gorgeous, it was not only a #1 hit, but Madonna appropriated part of it for her own song of the same name. And Never My Love was the best one of all — it has such a heartswelling melody that it was unsurprisingly named the second most played song on radio (I believe Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven was first).

Another wonderful group was Spanky and Our Gang, which was influenced by the similarly great group The Mamas and the Papas. Spanky and Our Gang's songs were derived more from those old harmony groups like the pre-rock Swingle Singers, and that approach worked wonderfully on the very infectious Lazy Day and Sunday Will Never Be the Same. The powerful voice of Spanky McFarlane (a woman, by the way, not the child actor of the same name from the Our Gang comedies) didn't hurt.

While pretty much all of the sunshine pop groups produced memorable, melodic music, they inevitably had an image problem when coupled with the troubled times. Consider the names of many of the groups — The Sunshine Company, the Sugar Shoppe (from Canada), the psychedelic Strawberry Alarm Clock, Sounds of Sunshine, Peppermint Trolley Company, and The Peppermint Rainbow.

It's enough to give you sugar shock. And yet, many of those groups found a sizable audience.

One sunshine pop group was actually very influenced by the Good Vibrations-era Beach Boys, at least for one song. The band Sagittarius's one moment of glory was the densely produced and intricate My World Fell Down, which had Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys included as part of the harmony stack. It trod the line between the Brian Wilson influence and the sunshine pop genre very nicely.

But my favourite song from the whole genre comes from an unlikely source. Jan and Dean were a surf, car song and comedy duo. But after Jan Berry was incapacitated in a 1966 car accident, Dean Torrence recorded a concept album credited to Jan and Dean dealing with rain. One of those songs — recorded in a crude style and then re-recorded more professionally — was Yellow Balloon. The song is so memorable, and the lyrics so uplifting, that I find myself singing along whenever I hear it. Years ago, I brought a CD with the instrumental track to a karaoke session and sang over it, having memorized all the lyrics. The song has also been recorded by a group called The Yellow Balloon, which included the writer of the song and Don Grady from the TV show My Three Sons.

Sadly, Jan hated that Dean recorded the song without him, and the chart-worthy, re-recorded version went nowhere.

One prominent group did not benefit from the sunshine pop craze, even as they influenced it. The closest the Beach Boys came to the genre was the peaceful and lightly produced album Friends. But it was released when the group was in a downward spiral chart-wise, and the album rose no higher than a devastating #126.

Better to leave such albums to groups with caloric names like Creamy Delight, Apple Pie A La Mode and the Chocolate Eclairs.

Damn! Now I'm getting hungry.

•••

Speaking of sunshine pop, we may be in for a modern version of that this summer when the Monkees get together in a studio for the first time since 1996 and commemorate their 50th anniversary by recording an album called Good Times!. It's going to include songwriting contributions from XTC's Andy Partridge, a vocal from the late Davy Jones on an instrumental update of the already released Neil Diamond composition Love to Love; and some unreleased 1960s tunes that will be instrumentally and vocally completed.

Fans are already speculating how much Monkee Mike Nesmith will contribute to the project, as he has shied away from several Monkees tours and is seen as a bit reclusive.

I will actually buy this CD — not just stream it.

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