Elvis and Dino took on hypocrisy. Dion lamented the senseless deaths of Abraham, Martin, and John. Johnny "Poetry in Motion" Tillotson cast a spotlight on the poor treatment of veterans returned home from war. Bing Crosby wondered "What Do We Do with the World" and Paul Anka observed that "This crazy world has come undone." Such are the moments captured on Ace's thoroughly captivating new collection Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs Present State of the Union: The American Dream in Crisis 1967-1973.
This 24-track set chronicles the tumult and upheaval of Vietnam-era America as seen not through the eyes of rock and R&B artists, but rather (in large part) the pop establishment. It boasts some of the heaviest hitters and most unexpected names of any Ace release, including Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Mel Tormé, and the previously mentioned Messrs. Presley, Martin, Crosby, and Anka. These songs showcase the adventurous spirit that had overtaken even the most mainstream artists, as they tackle divorce, war, assassination, suicide, infidelity, racism, the generation gap, morality, and the hollowness of hypocrisy. All great music reflects the time in which it was created, and the years 1967-1973 were one of the most creative times in music as popular artists from Elvis to Sinatra to The Beach Boys struggled to define their identities, both personal and musical, in the new landscape.
On State of the Union, observational songs sit alongside socially conscious ones. Stanley and Wiggs have wonderfully sequenced Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes' extraordinary movies-in-miniature from Frank Sinatra's Watertown and The Four Seasons' Genuine Imitation Life Gazette back-to-back. It's heartbreaking to hear the nakedly vulnerable Sinatra embodying a divorced single father in "The Train" as he confesses to his estranged wife, "And it will be so good/We'll talk about the part of you I never understood..." or in the final, devastating moment when realizes that she isn't coming home after all. The image of Sinatra, face "wet with heavy rain," is indelible. Such suburban strife is also the milieu of the Seasons' touching "Saturday's Father," sung with tremendous sensitivity by another Jersey boy, Frankie Valli.
Dean Martin visited the territory of Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A." with "Do You Believe This Town?" in which the famously laconic vocalist audibly rolls his eyes at the various characters populating small town America. Its imagery wouldn't be unrecognizable today. Singer-pianist Buddy Greco, a pal of Sinatra and Martin's, is represented here with another fantastic selection, Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield's cutting and dramatic "Cardboard California" ("You just can't survive in a make-believe town...") as produced and arranged in the U.K. by Tony Hatch.
Further gems here include future Touched by an Angel star Della Reese's funky rendition of Al Kooper's anthemic "Brand New Day," The Four Preps' unusual "Hitchhiker" (with a baroque psych-pop arrangement from Leon Russell), and Bobby Darin's funky, disturbing "Directions." Darin would continue to explore his social conscience in life and music; Second Disc Records was proud to excavate his Motown protest song "We're Getting There" on this year's Go Ahead & Back Up: The Lost Motown Masters.
Once upon a time, a Beach Boys song called "4th of July" would have been an uptempo celebration of America, baseball, and apple pie. But in 1971, Dennis Wilson and co-writer/manager Jack Rieley saw anything but, and delivered a darkly beautiful lament of "the stripes and bright stars...promise lost." Carl Wilson's anguish is clear as he asks, "Where has it gone?" on this hauntingly poetic outtake (first released in 1993) from the Boys' Surf's Up sessions.
Woozy mariachi horns echo the woozy voices of Anita Kerr and her singers on the offbeat "Wine in the Wind," an ironically lovely and altogether groovy track. Kerr liltingly posits that there's "too much wine in the wind" leading to "the world...losing balance but nobody seems to care." The seeming cautionary tale about intoxication (in one form or another!) plays like a dark spin on the Tijuana Brass.
The man to whom all popular singers owe an enormous debt, Bing Crosby, wasn't about to be left in the cold. He convincingly queried, "What Do We Do with the World?" on the Henry Mancini/Bob Russell composition from 1967 reflecting upon the space program (and other matters, natch). Younger artists weren't exempt from sharing Bing's puzzlement at the changing times. Take Paul Anka's powerful "This Crazy World" one year later. Culled from one of Anka's most underrated periods and written for Brazil's International Song Festival, the sophisticated ballad features a gorgeous Don Costa orchestration and one of the singer's most powerful marriages of words and music. On the (much) lighter side is Mel Tormé's loose, carefree, big-band take on R.B. Greaves' ode to the pleasures of cheating, "Take a Letter, Maria."
The musical ambitions of the era are crystallized on such epic productions as Lou Christie's "Paint America Love" and Roy Orbison's "Southbound Jericho Parkway." A psychedelic spin on a "death disc" with a dash of "MacArthur Park" in its multi-part structure, Orbison's opus unflinchingly details the suicide of a father and its effects on his family, taking full advantage of the operatic qualities inherent in his booming voice.
Political songs were unavoidable then, as now. Folk-pop quartet The Brothers Four, who had previously recorded an entire album dedicated to the Lennon-McCartney songbook, took their "Revolution" as a slow stroll, drawing attention to the (slightly-amended) lyrics. Eartha Kitt's unforgettable, impassioned rock-and-soul plea to "Paint Me Black Angels" ("We blacks have love in our soul/Paint us in your churches, too!") is entirely gripping. Stylistically, Eugene McDaniels' scorching "Cherrystones" feels somewhat out of place on this set, despite its obvious strength. Dripping in irony ("Long as I never read /About others' needs/I don't have to vote in the election") it blends funk, jazz, soul, and folk into a stirring whole. In a similar genre-defying blend is "Music! Music! Music!" songbird Teresa Brewer's spare, affecting take on Gil Scott-Heron's "Save the Children." Both McDaniels and Brewer reinvented themselves for the new generation to deserved success and acclaim.
The 24-page full color, lavishly illustrated booklet boasts an introductory essay from Stanley as well as track-by-track liner notes, while Duncan Cowell has superbly remastered. In the 50-plus years since the earliest tracks on State of the Union, the meaning of the American Dream is still up for intense debate. These two dozen expertly-curated tracks remain, for better or worse, strikingly relevant. [A 2-LP vinyl edition from Ace adds one bonus track: Louis Armstrong's all-star recording of "Give Peace a Chance."]
- Clean Up Your Own Back Yard - Elvis Presley (RCA Victor 47-9747, 1968)
- Brand New Day - Della Reese (Avco Embassy 4645, 1970)
- Abraham, Martin, and John - Dion (Laurie 3464, 1968)
- The Train - Frank Sinatra (from Watertown, Reprise LP FS 1031, 1970)
- Saturday's Father - The 4 Seasons (Philips 40542, 1968)
- 4th of July - The Beach Boys (rec. 1971, rel. Good Vibrations: 30 Years of The Beach Boys, Capitol C2 0777 7 81294 2 4, 1993)
- Wine in the Wind - Anita Kerr (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 7211, 1968)
- What Do We Do with the World? - Bing Crosby (Reprise 0645, 1967)
- Lord of the Manor - The Everly Brothers (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 7226, 1968) (*)
- Hitchhiker - The Four Preps (Capitol 5921, 1967) (*)
- Paint America Love - Lou Christie (Buddah BDS 5073, 1971)
- Mr. Businessman - Ray Stevens (Monument 45-1083, 1968)
- Paint Me Black Angels - Eartha Kitt (from Sentimental Eartha, Spark LP SRLP 105, 1970)
- Southbound Jericho Parkway - Roy Orbison (MGM 14039, 1969)
- Questions - Bobby Darin (from Born Walden Robert Cassotto, Direction LP 1936, 1968)
- This Crazy World - Paul Anka (RCA Victor 47-9648, 1968) (*)
- Take a Letter, Maria - Mel Tormé (from Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, Capitol LP ST 80430, 1970)
- Cherrystones - Eugene McDaniels (from Outlaw, Atlantic LP SD 8259, 1970)
- Some People Sleep - The Tokens (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts 7255, 1968) (*)
- Cardboard California - Buddy Greco (from Movin' On, Pye LP NSPL 18413, 1973)
- Do You Believe This Town - Dean Martin (from I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am, Reprise LP RS 6338, 1969)
- Welfare Hero - Johnny Tillotson (Buddah 256, 1971)
- Save the Children - Teresa Brewer (from Singin' a Doo Dah Song, Amsterdam LP AM 12012, 1972)
- Revolution - The Brothers Four (from Let's Get Together, Columbia LP CS 9818, 1968)
Stereo except (*) mono