Listen/Download – The Cowsills – Gotta Get Away From It All Listen/Download – The Cowsills – I Need a Friend
I hope the new week finds you all well.
One of the hardest things to do, when you are as deeply into music as I am (I think “voracious consumer” would be a fair assessment) is to avoid becoming jaded.
As someone to whom the golden years of pop/rock criticism were an important touchstone, I have also had to learn to realize that “consensus” is not always so, and sometimes you have to expand your reach (sonically, anyway) to make your own musical decisions.
Iron Leg readers should already be aware that I am a huge devotee of harmony singing, especially in regard to sunshine pop, the Boettcher axis and all points on that line and associated tangents.
I like nothing better than strapping on some headphones and immersing myself in records like ‘Monday Monday’ by the Mamas and Papas, ‘To Claudia On Thursday’ by the Millennium or ‘Just One More Chance’ by the Hondells, letting the remarkable mix of voices wash over me blissfully.
One of the groups that lodged itself I my ears very early was the Cowsills.
I can remember taping ‘The Rain the Park and Other Things’ off of WCBS-FM in New York on my old cassette recorder and listening to it over and over again.
While I was certainly familiar – and enamored – with all of their hits, I never had more than a couple of their 45s in my crates.
Then, a little while back I watched the 2010 documentary ‘Family Band: The Cowsills Story’.
The film was – to say the least – an emotional roller coaster, and a revelation.
I would strongly suggest that you check the film out when you get a chance for a look at a group that was both well-known and sorely underrated, and weathered a harrowing life off-stage.
The biggest surprise for me was learning how deeply involved the Cowsills were with their own records as performers/composers/producers.
I had always assumed – thanks in large part to their image – that the group was by and large a studio concoction.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
By the time the Cowsills signed with MGM, they had already recorded for both Johnny Nash’s JODA label, and Philips Records.
The original group, which played live extensively was brothers Bill, Bob, Barry and John Cowsill (and later Paul).
When they signed to MGM their mother Barbara was added to the group, followed by their little sister Susan on the ‘We Can Fly’ album.
Though they often worked with seasoned pop writers like Steve Duboff and Artie Kornfeld (aka the Changin’ Times) , Gary Geld and Peter Udell, Bill and Bob Cowsill were writing their own material from the very beginning, with their originals often being far more interesting than their collaborations with others.
What sets the Cowsills apart from a lot of the more obscure “sunshine pop” artists, is that their work had a remarkable consistency.
Not only were they possessed of a stunning facility for close harmony, but Bill and Bob Cowsill (and later, Paul and Barry) were exceptionally talented songwriters.
Of all of their albums – including their excellent later records like ‘II x II’ and ‘On My Side’ – the finest by far is ‘We Can Fly’.
Released in 1968, and generating a hit (Pop #21) with the title track, ‘We Can Fly’ is as fine a sunshine pop album as was made in the era.
Produced and (mostly) written by Bill and Bob,’We Can Fly’ manages to reflect bits and pieces of the musical counterculture without ever explicitly taking them on.
Despite the occasional psychedelic filigree, there was never a point where the Cowsills ever projected an image that was less than wholesome (see glasses of milk, above). It is however extremely important to note that while they also tread lightly into the realm of bubblegum, they were never cloying or juvenile.
The feeling I get when listening to their albums (and that’s really how you ought to approach their body of work) is that they were constantly striving for – and usually achieved – musical sophistication.
The two tracks I bring you today are my favorites from ‘We Can Fly’, though it should be said in advance that there’s not a duff track on the album.
‘Gotta Get Away From It All’ is an upbeat, swinging cut with that popsike-once-removed vibe that you hear on so many of the best Monkees cuts. There are a couple of ill-advised bits of sonic gimmickry but not enough to tarnish the track, which also features a great vocal by Bill. Interestingly, ‘Gotta Get Away From It All’ appeared on a 45, backed with one of the tracks (‘The Prophecy of Daniel and John the Divine’) from that year’s ‘II x II’ album.
‘In Need of a Friend’ was the second single released from ‘We Can Fly’, and despite its obvious beauty, just managed to graze the outer limits of the Top 50. The song has the kind of bittersweet melody that would have fit on any Left Banke album, or with some of Paul Williams’s early solo material.
Though the term ‘lost classic’ gets bounced around by collectors all the time, ‘We Can Fly’ really fits the bill.
Even though I often find myself neck-deep in “sunshine pop”, when it’s carefully considered it becomes obvious that the term is an umbrella under which reside a whole lot of different things.
When you talk about bright, upbeat (often successful) pop music, there’s a temptation to question the authenticity of the acts in question, sometimes because we’ve come to expect a certain level of “seriousness” in the music of the late 60s, but also because so many of the “bands” in the genre existed only in the studio, or were “false fronts” for songwriting/record making factories.
On the first point, I’ll just go ahead and say that ‘seriousness’, at least as a musical point is overrated, and too often applied where terms like ponderous and pretentious would be more fitting.
Second, a careful investigation of the landscape – at least as far as most records were made during the era – will reveal that sometimes even the most ‘serious’ bands had as much help in the studio as the supposed lightweights.
It also pays to say this again: they not only played their own instruments but also wrote (and produced) their own records, which sets them well outside of the musical ghetto that many people would try to force them into.
Just because the Partridge Family was modeled on the Cowsills, doesn’t mean that the Cowsills were the Partridge Family (if you follow me).
Sadly, Bill Cowsill was forced out of the group that he led in 1969.
The group went on to record two more LPs after his departure, one for MGM and their last for London.
Bill went on to record a fairly cool (and very obscure) solo album for MGM in 1971, as well as producing other bands like Bodine.
The Cowsills story, especially the last few years of their first incarnation is an extremely interesting one. I may have to put together a mix of their lesser known stuff sometime in the future.
Until then, make sure you check out ‘Family Band: The Cowsills Story’. It’ll give you a new respect for a band you probably overlooked.
Oddly, though it has been reissued on CD (with – alas – no bonus tracks), “We Can Fly” is unavailable on iTunes. You should however be able pick up a copy of the original LP for under $10.00.
See you next week.