In 1970, Griffin’s “Yours Till Forever,” written by a young songwriter named Kenny Nolan, skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart. A band called The Exception, led by singer/bassist Peter Cetera, became one of the biggest acts of the decade and kicked off their international success with the horn-driven hit “My Mind Goes Traveling.” And, of course, the Lettermen, those pioneers of psychedelic pop, are still remembered for their ode to “Mr. Sun.”
Okay, none of that really happened. But listening to Now Sounds’ new compilation, Book a Trip: The Psych Pop Sounds of Capitol Records, is like spending an hour on an alternate-reality AM band where all of those things were possible. It’s a reality where Neil Young ruled the airwaves with sunshine pop (check out Summer Snow with the Peppermint Trolley Company do “Flying on the Ground (Is Wrong)”) and bands with names like the Carnival Connection, the Burgundy Street Singers and the Tuneful Trolley thrived. Did any other era produce so many groups with names that so accurately reflected how they sounded?
What’s most remarkable about the 26-track CD (CRNOW19) is that far from being dated, these songs still sound fresh. The dense, multilayered harmonies, string-and-horn-enhanced orchestration and bright lyrical spirit may put them squarely in a particular time frame, but their invention and enthusiasm keeps them from being musty time capsules. Melody is the order of the day, and a great melody never grows old. So much of what makes rock exciting is its primal rawness; one quality that makes pure pop so enduring is its polish and craft.
Ready to meet some favorite artists “before they were stars?” Book a Trip gives us the pre-Bread David Gates-penned “Let the Trumpets Sound” – and of course, they do – as sung by a seven-member male/female vocal group, the Lively Set. The Exception’s “My Mind Goes Traveling” has a terrific Peter Cetera vocal, and a horn chart that would have made his later bandmates envious. Leon Russell is the producer and arranger behind “Hitchhiker,” a Brian Wilson-influenced tune performed by the Four Preps, the 1950s vocal trio seeking to reinvent themselves for a new generation. (Good as this song is, the Lettermen’s similar attempt heard here, “Mr. Sun,” is even better, with an arrangement by Harry Nilsson's musical compatriot, Perry Botkin, Jr.) The Teddy Neeley Five offers “Autumn Afternoon,” years before Neeley became synonymous with Jesus Christ Superstar thanks to its film version. This Addrisi Brothers song sounds like a long-lost follow-up to the Association’s “Never My Love,” and in fact, the liner notes tell us that a recording by that more successful group was in fact recorded, and remains sadly unreleased. Other names will be familiar to collectors of the soft pop/psych genre, and of course, many of the tracks feature the renowned Wrecking Crew of musicians: Glen Campbell, Mike Deasy, Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel, to name a few members. Most of the groups here sound as if they were on the cusp of a great might-have-been in a crowded pop field filled with so many driven young musicians. You’ll hear echoes of those contemporaries: a touch of Turtles, a dab of Association, a tinge of the Mamas and the Papas or Spanky and Our Gang. But spotting these stylistic similarities is part of the fun.
While not every song is an obvious shoulda-been-a-hit, each has something to offer, as producer Steve Stanley well articulates in his track-by-track liner notes. So many of the songs, though, will stick with you instantly upon listening, such as the sparkling title song, “Book a Trip,” performed by This Side Up and written by the team behind the Classics IV's "Spooky" and "Stormy," Buddy Buie and James Cobb. While Los Angeles musicians predominate on the set, there’s even a British track, the Shanes’ “Chris Craft No. 9,” which to these ears owes a great debt to Herman’s Hermits’ “A Must to Avoid.” Chicago is represented via the Cetera/Exception track, and a few tracks originated from New York City and the last remnants of the Brill Building scene. The Sidewalk Skipper Band split their time at Capitol between Chicago and Los Angeles, and all four of their single sides are included, with period titles like "Strawberry Tuesday" and "(Would You Believe) It's Raining Flowers in My House."
In short, this should be required listening for anyone interested in the psychedelic pop era, the Hollywood/LA music scene, or indeed for anyone with adventurous ears. All tracks have been remastered from the original Capitol master tapes, and the full-color 24-page booklet provides fine accompaniment to the songs at hand. And Now Sounds' designer deserves special mention for the loving attention to detail on the package, including the retro "File Under: Pop/Psychedelic" banner atop the far-out cover art. Based on this album, I’m ready to book a trip on a tuneful trolley (or a peppermint one, for that matter), to Burgundy Street or with a sidewalk skipper. Another volume of these effervescent pop nuggets would be more than welcome, and indeed this set serves as a fine complement to Rhino Handmade's Come to the Sunshine: Soft Pop Nuggets from the WEA Vaults (RHM2 7818), which did for Reprise, Atlantic and Warner Bros. what this disc does for Capitol. Book a Trip definitively proves that there was more to Capitol Records in the 1960s than just the Beatles and the Beach Boys.