Listen -Free Design – Kites are Fun – MP3
I want to start things off by saying a hearty “Thank you!” to everyone that donated during the Funky16Corners/Iron Leg 2009 Pledge Drive. Once again the nut – as they say- has been covered, and things (at least as far as interwebs storage/bandwidth is concerned) will remain up and running for another year.
The tune I bring you today has been sitting in my “to be blogged” folder for a while, waiting for just the right time to be posted. A few weeks ago a reader wrote asking if I would ever post said song, and since it was burning a hole in my hard drive, I took the request as a sign, said yes, and here we are.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, there was once a time where my taste for the twee side of pop was, for lack of a better term, undeveloped. If you had played a Free Design (or Curt Boettcher) track for my long-haired, Led Zeppelin listening to self, I would have choked on the sugar and perhaps beaten you soundly (though in that same period I was often stoned and sluggish, so you probably would have gotten beyond my grasp without much effort).
When I look back on it, this seems odd because the band that got my head into music in the first place was the hookiest of all, that being the Beatles. My sensibilities have always been hooks and harmony attuned, but like any youngster (which believe it or not I once was) I had a head full of roadblocks that only time and tide would erode. Now that I am at an age my 18 year old self would likely consider my dotage (I’m 46), many of those walls have been torn down, some by myself, some by the urging of others and some all by themselves.
If memory serves I first found my way to the Free Design via the mid-90s Japanese fascination with them and their sweet sounding ilk, via the pricey reissues put out by Cornelius, and the homage by groups like Pizzicato Five. At some point I got my hands on the compilation by Varese Sarabande, and my mind was, in short order, good and truly blown.
It’s only in the last few years that I finally acquired some OG Free Design vinyl (there are still a couple of albums I’m looking for) and I was pleasantly surprised that much of the material that I hadn’t heard yet was up to the standards of the ‘greastest hits’.
Like many of the groups I would group with the Free Design, like Sagittarius, the Millennium, early Paul Williams (all faves, and barely scratching the surface of the genre), I would hesitate to push them on anyone that wasn’t already somewhat attuned to the sound. The digestion of this kind of music requires a certain amount of context and preparation for proper appreciation. Where the Curt Boettcher sound is based in a conventional pop/rock setting, the Free Design drew from Now Sound and sophisticated harmony singing like the Hi-Los and the Swingle Singers before touching on rock tangentially, sounding like a high school swing choir led by a pop visionary. Though their arrangements were often dense with ideas, and the backing tight and energetic, at first listen some of their recordings sound like so much candy floss.
There were times when I was first exposed to the group where the music seemed to radiate earnestness that at times struck me as a put on. However, repeat listening, especially to the right songs, reveals that the group really had a lot going on.
Formed in the mid-60s by the Dedrick siblings (Chris, Bruce, Sandy, Ellen and Stefanie) the members of the Free Design came from a musical family. Their seven albums (most of which were released on Enoch Light’s Project 3 imprint) were a mixture of brilliant original material and interesting covers (Bacharach/David, Turtles), all delivered with the group’s intricate harmonies and backing from the same group of crack session players that recorded for Enoch Light’s other projects.
The tune I bring you today is the title track from their first LP, 1967’s ‘Kites are Fun’. An ode to the pure, childlike pleasure of kite flying – something that would have been assumed to have lysergic roots in other hands – ‘Kites are Fun’ features cascading, madrigal-like harmonies and a relatively spare backing (bass, tambourine, acoustic guitar and recorder), and lyrics that defy any attempt at interpretation on anything but face value. No one was going to hear ‘Kites are Fun’ and jump to conclusions that what the Free Design were blending their heavenly voices about was a euphemism for anything stronger that a little exercise in a windy field*.
That vibe is one of the things I dig so much about the Free Design. Like the narrator in ‘Bubbles’ (featured in Iron Leg Digital Trip #18), the person singing about kites is undeniably a kid. This may be hard for someone from 2009 to understand, but Free Design were operating in an irony-free zone. This is not music delivered with a wink and a knowing smile. To paraphrase a then popular phrase, with Free Design, what you hear is what you get.
If you get a chance to scan their entire catalog, it is clear that they were capable of delivering more adult themes – they did a wonderful version of one of my fave Bacharach songs ‘Windows of the World’ – and despite the childlike subject matter, the music of Free Design was nothing if not sophisticated. If I ever get my hands on the rest of their records, I may have to do an all Free Design edition of the Iron Leg Digital Trip.
I hope you dig the tune, and I’ll be back later in the week with something Free Design-related.
*Keeping things kid, on an episode of the very groovy ‘Yo Gabba Gabba’ I was surprised to hear a cover (with a short, animated video) of ‘Kites are Fun’ as performed by the Parallelograms. Back in the 60s the song was covered by another Project 3 artist, guitarist Tony Mottola.