(Ed. note: This is the second installment of, God willing, an ongoing series on sitar 45s. The saga began here. – Little Danny)
Starting with its early and perhaps most famous pop appearance on the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the sitar was the right instrument at the right moment. Its drones, its flurries of exotic scales – the sitar inherently sounded psychedelic while simultaneously evoking India, that composite Western fantasy of all things mystical and heightened-consciousness. The sitar captured a counterculture’s imagination to such an extent that to hear the instrument today, even in the hands of classically trained musicians, is to evoke hazy visions of beads and flower child gullibility.
It’s always the ‘60s bands we hold dearest which we believe to have played their own instruments. Everybody knows the Monkees were a prop, we can accept that. We still want the Byrds to have played their own instruments on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” however, and Love to have done the same on their Forever Changes album. But they didn’t. With so much ‘60s pop, it’s not always easy to discern the genuine article from the handiwork of studio surrogates.
No such confusion with sitars in play however. By 1967 any hip record producer would have been keenly aware of this new subcontinent fetish and would have coveted the sitar. Of course, being unwieldy instruments, fragile and complicated to tune, sitars were – when procured at all – played by trained studio musicians like Bill Plummer, Vinnie Bell or Mike Deasy. Many American ’60s garage bands probably coveted sitars, too, but they were many times likelier to have guitars that they played like sitars.
Heard in a ’60s pop song the sitar usually means only one thing: played by professionals. Sitars would remain almost categorically an instrument of the big studios. This week on Office Naps, we again examine the sitar, a celebration of pop music masquerade.
1. The Ceyleib People, Changes (Tygstl) (Vault)
“Changes (Tygstl),” from 1968, comes to us from a loose-knit group of Los Angeles session musicians that, when not maintaining a hectic schedule in the studio world, was indulging in some seriously unencumbered grooviness.
The young whiz Ry Cooder, for one, played guitar on this selection. So too did stalwart session guitarist Mike Deasy, who, along with the sitar duties here, co-wrote this under the pseudonym of “Lybuk Hyd”. Deasy and Cooder would be joined by Joe Osborne (bass), Larry Knechtel (bass and keyboards, later in Bread), Jim Gordon (drums, later in Derek & the Dominos), and jazz keyboardist Mike Melvoin. Even in 1968 these were names unlikely to evoke more than blank stares. Reading charts for a Mancini film soundtrack one week, interpreting Brian Wilson’s instructions the next, these guys loomed large, however, as core members of the “Wrecking Crew,” the studio group who, amongst their thousands of sessions, played on some of the classic Phil Spector and Beach Boys productions.
“Changes (Tygstl)” is the highlight of the Ceyleib People’s Tanyet LP, an entire album of Eastern-inspired meanderings from 1968. Was their Tanyet a purely creative response, an experiment and a means to exorcise urges long stifled by too many Jan & Dean sessions? Or was Vault Records (which served mostly as a West Coast subsidiary for R&B and jazz giant Atlantic Records) simply attempting to cash in on the vogue for all things Aquarian? Like so much in ‘60s Los Angeles pop music, the answer isn’t straightforward. The answer lies somewhere in those cracks between opportunism, dissolution and creativity.
This would be the sole 45 culled for release from the Ceyleib People’s Tanyet album.
2. The Believers, Soul Raga Cookin’ (Capitol)
Capitol Records, though responsible for some top-notch psychedelic LPs, hadn’t quite navigated the straits of late ‘60s pop and rock with the same savvy as West Coast label rivals like Warner Brothers, A&M, Reprise, Dunhill and Uni. The Beach Boys were becoming increasingly irrelevant by 1969, at least in terms of their chart success, and the Beatles, with their newly founded Apple Records, had negotiated their Capitol contract down to a distribution-only agreement a year earlier. Pink Floyd wasn’t yet the powerhouse, and Grand Funk Railroad had just made a somewhat forgettable debut album.
But Capitol Records was, by other standards, still a bona fide industry powerhouse. Among other late ‘60s sellers, the label enjoyed the unrivalled popularity of a host of Southern-inspired pop-country artists. Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”), Glen Campbell (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman”), and Joe South (“Games People Play”) belonged to a group of artists that was in some ways a stylistic vestige of Capitol’s pioneering Bakersfield country sound and that, in other ways, engendered a hipper, unclassifiable brand of Southern pop-country.
Joe South wrote and produced this particular selection. Born in Atlanta, South was already a rising phenom in the early ‘60s, a seasoned country and R&B session guitarist in Nashville and Muscle Shoals who would later develop into a talented singer-songwriter. A series of solo records on Capitol commenced for him in 1968, and so, too, did the crossover hits. South compositions like “Games People Play” and “Walk a Mile In My Shoes” defined his idiosyncratic, country-flavored blend of soul, folk, and pop. With their occasionally psychedelic and electronic production, they were improbable hits then, and odd, if highly enjoyable, relics today; South is remembered better for covers of his own compositions. “Hush” (Deep Purple), “Down In the Boondocks” (Billy Joe Royal), “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” – Joe South compositions all.
“Soul Raga Cookin’” came from the sessions that comprised South’s third LP, 1969’s Games People Play. This trippy selection was excised from the same jam that served as the backing track for South’s “Hole In Your Soul,” and attributed to “The Believers.” (Sharing their name with the Joe South opus, “Be a Believer.”)
“Soul Raga Cookin’” is many things: psychsploitation artifact, boogie raga with Bo Diddley beat, cosmic swamp brew. Capitol obviously tossed this single out there in the hopes that at least one of its component parts might stick.
But that isn’t a real sitar we hear. It was an electric sitar, an instrument that looked very much like a guitar, that was played very much like a guitar, and that generally lived up to its name.
Joe South is today semi-retired from the music business. Check out a vintage clip of him – with electric sitar – at his website.
3. The Flower Pot, Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin’ (Vault)
The Flower Pot was, like the Ceyleib People, a Mike Deasy vehicle.
Deasy must have felt very strongly about this composition. Its Dylan-inspired free associations and funky, flower-power aesthetic made just enough loopy sense that Deasy prevailed upon West Coast sunshine popsters the Association to cover it on Insight Out, their third album. The two versions are nearly identical, and it’s not clear whose – the Association’s or the Flower Pot’s – was released first.
It isn’t clear, either, who is singing on “Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin’,” whether they were a “real” group or, more likely, a studio composite. It is undoubtedly Deasy who we again hear on sitar, though, and again he is mashing the hell out of the instrument’s drone strings. He was probably joined here by some of the same session players – like Joe Osborne and Larry Knechtel – who’d played with him on “Changes” (and on the Associations’ version of “Wantin’ Ain’t Gettin’,” as well).
This artifact was released in 1967. Deasy, with California sunshine pop producer/arranger extraordinaire Curt Boettcher, would release yet another full-length album of budget-priced rainbow thrills the same year with his Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar LP on Mercury Records. Its recent reissue includes Deasy’s two singles from the Flower Pot.