Van Dyke Parks
I have something very special to share with you today.
As has been written in ths space before, I am a big fan of Van Dyke Parks, as an artist and in his capacity as a arranger/muse/facilitator for other artists.
Parks is best known for his collaboration with Brian Wilson on the ‘Smile’ LP, in both its aborted beginnings and it’s coming to fruition decades later.
During the 1960s he worked with Wilson and the Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Nilsson, Ruthann Friedman, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley and many more.
The term ‘Americana’ has come over the years to represent a dose of rural/country sounds in music, but with Parks it means something much bigger.
While he is best known for his contributions to 60s and 70s pop, and he worked well within the stylistic framework of that era, he also brought with him the sounds of popular music, beginning with the days of Stephen Foster and moving on up through ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and into the years of vinyl.
That said, he always managed to imbue his music with a contemporary sound, and as I wrote when I posted tracks from his most famous album ‘Song Cycle’:
“It is psychedelic, but in a way that opens and expands the mind – via the ears – in ways outside of the standard operating procedure, and one must be immersed, and allowed to soak in its wonders before all is revealed.”
While it seems – in hindsight – a remarkable achievement I am of the opinion that it was this quality that kept Parks on the exotic end of the menu throughout his long career.
It is possible that time will show that Parks importance lay in his work as a partner/facilitator, but that would be a shame, considering how good his own work is.
I can’t be sure where the song ‘Come to the Sunshine’ first entered my ears. It’s likely that I read about the Harpers Bizarre hit (Top 40 6/67) but I don’t think I actually heard the song until I picked up a 45 with a version of it by a country/pop singer named Roberta Lee (with a Link Wray cover on the flip).
Lee’s version stripped some of the wonder out of the song, making it sound like a Florida Department of tourism commercial.
I finally encountered Van Dyke Parks’ original version (albeit a badly mixed/mastered one) on a late-60s MGM sampler called ‘The Core of Rock’.
It wasn’t until the Rhino ‘Where the Action Is’ box set that I finally heard a nice, clear take on Parks recording.
Not long after that, I set out in search of the 45, which took the better part of a year.
That 45, recorded in 1966 by Parks, and featuring a dense, heavily layered arrangement, is a sunny, yet complex pop experience.
The record doesn’t really evoke a specific sound (you get alternating strata of piano, mandolin and rhythm section, all with Parks’ high tenor running over it) aiming more at a mood of sunny (what else?) optimism.
He even manages to namecheck his father’s dance band (the White Swan Serenaders) in the lyrics!
Interestingly, for all the layers, the record was apparently recorded in three takes on a single day.
The Harpers Bizarre version of ‘Come To the Sunshine’ (which features VDP in keyboards) brings some of the hazier parts of Parks recording into sharp focus, which is not necessarily a good thing, since the end result is a good deal slicker than the original.
The flipside of ‘Come to the Sunshine’ is a fairly straight reading of the country gospel tune ‘Farther Along’, which was also recorded by the Byrds a few years later on the album of the same name.
‘Come to the Sunshine’ was also covered by the Marketts, the Pleasure Fair, and a UK group called the Chuckles.
I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you all next week.