Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

When I hear the harpsichord in Vivaldi or Bach, if I picture anything, it would be rococo drawing rooms—George Washington asking Jane Austen for the pleasure of a dance. When I hear it in pop, perhaps thanks to Peanuts and the great Vince Guaraldi , I picture green lawns and white sidewalks—suburbia, my home.

Guaraldi was actually latching onto a craze for the instrument that began in British-Invasion pop, around 1965. From a coldly objective point of view, it was just another little trend that came and went. But I say it is one of those symbolic keys. Just as some will tell you it is the pill, or long hair, or Vietnam on TV that is the key to the sixties, I give you the harpsichord.

It was associated with a certain mid-to-late 60s approach to pop music, sometimes called Baroque Rock, sometimes Pop Art—but in many ways quite unlike the irony-loaded visual arts movement—, and whose basic spirit is still very important to understanding our music today.

It was a music style that allowed middle class folks to signal that even amid their newly-celebrated attraction to rhythm and blues, they still had one foot in the classical. Socio-culturally speaking, part of their muse remained in the drawing room , the place of fine-arts cultivation and socializing of an aristocratic sort. It involved an attempt to see how far one could mix classical music with R+B pop song. Since there were also efforts to mix international sounds with R+B, we might more broadly call the trend The Promise of Mixing, which helps to explain why a whole slew of instruments hitherto unusual in pop were introduced at this time: the flute, the sitar, the harpsichord, etc. (The momentous arrival of the cowbell , of course, was still several years away.)

Let’s begin with something of a Pop Art hit parade . . . yeah, more along the lines of what pops into my head than what was a hit.

1) The Zombies, “Care of Cell-Block 44”
2) The Kinks, “Wonder-Boy”
3) The Left Banke, “Pretty Ballerina”
4) The Zombies, “This Will Be Our Year”
5) The Rolling Stones, “Back Street Girl”
6) Love, “She Comes in Colors”
7) The Yardbirds, “Heart Full of Soul”
8) Pink Floyd, “Matilda Mother”
9) The Beach Boys, “Heroes and Villains”
10) The Outsiders, “Monkey on your Back”
11) The Mamas and the Papas, “Monday, Monday”

And perhaps the best of all, and about which one of the best Songbook posts was written:

12) The Kinks, “Waterloo Sunset”

What do we notice here? The main thing is that the Afro-American feel is either absent or downplayed. Relatedly, most of the songs are not very danceable, or feature a kind of child-like dance rhythm. Indeed, evocations and explorations of innocence —think also “Penny Lane” or “Tatoo” —seem natural with this music, although the likewise common evocations of sadness can be particularly strong, and usually feel more hopeless than any blues. Each song is presented as a neatly boxed package, like a three-movement Vivaldi piece, but far simpler. You don’t get the sense you often got in R+B and swing, say, with Ray Charles or Count Basie, that the 3-minute song is essentially a snippet from or a summary of a larger jam-session, i.e., you don’t get that loose sense which rock fans will soon gravitate towards again, following the success of Dylan’s band and the Fillmore West sound. Rather, a neat-freak aesthetic, somewhat fey and certainly not trying to exude manliness the way the hard-rock guys will be, predominates, and in some numbers (“Incense and Peppermints,” anyone?) becomes outright embarrassing.

While I’m not focusing on it here, this Pop Art pattern also has a mode that is more avant-garde, with an emphasis on mixing in noise (feedback especially—see the songbook entry on “Anyway, Anywhere, Anyhow” ).

Now the mid-to-late 60s obviously saw the dawning of a couple of other key Rock-creating musical developments, such as the folk-rock-rooted exploration of 1) sensitivity (culminates in the early 1970s, a la James Taylor), and the most important one for rock, the 2) primitivist-yet-Beethovenic creation of hard rock , pretty thoroughly considered by Songbook #s 12 and 41 . I am pretty harsh on 2), and while I certainly don’t reject 1), and enjoy some of its manifestations (this week, let us honor the Bee Gees’ “Run to Me” particularly), most folks know how tedious it can get. But I’m genuinely sympathetic to the Pop Art development.

The overt goal, particularly in its Phil-Spector-led proto-phase, was a hit record, achieved via fuller and newer sounds. One can think of everything from kettle-drums in an early-60s R+B song up to the pinnacle achievement, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds , as primarily driven by this. But also at work, particularly with the British or British-influenced bands from late 65’ on, was a desire to bring the varied things modern middle-class persons were listening to on their hi-fi’s together , and thereby to bring out an expression of who they were. Such new music would have to reflect such persons’ pop-chart populism, touristic “world-citizenship,” love of change, and, what I’m most interested in here, their remaining aristocratic inclinations.

Now we all know what the use of the sitar in 60s pop symbolized—an openness to things Indian, especially pantheistic religion, and, an appetite for psychedelic drug experiences(Ravi Shankar was not pleased by that last association, incidentally).

We should think of harpsichord use in about the same way. It had two more specific associations in addition to the basic classical-evoking one already mentioned.

First, in the most sophisticated sense, it symbolized allegiance to the Bach/Baroque craze among classical audiences that had unfolded during the 50s and 60s, a reaction against the overly-romantic and aggressively-abstract trends in 20th century classical mentioned last time . Baroque was also a way for classical listeners now aware of the rhythmic richness of Afro-American music to reconsider a period of European music that had been friendlier to overt rhythmic structure. Obviously, not every mix-in-the-classical rock band ran with this—The Moody Blues, for example, were more attuned to Romantic grandeur.

Second, in a more superficial fashion-connected sense, there was something haughtily ornamental about the baroque and rococo periods that the harpsichord had flourished in, that became very attractive during the 60s. Fashion-wise, baroque-era clothes lent themselves to a brand of dandy-ism that became, via massive ruffles and such, one more way to react against the sharp ultra-modern late-50s/early-60s international style.

In any case, precisely because the harpsichord worked well enough with Afro-American rhythmic structure, as Artie Shaw/Johnny Guarnieri had shown in the 40s, but was nonetheless a rarely-heard instrument, it was an easily added element that would signal refinement, and in a way that sounded fresh, experimental, etc.

That the initial addition was ornamental, i.e., did little to obscure the swing , we can hear in The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” the harpsichord-breakthrough song. It enacts the idea of wanting to be a little bit rhythm and blues, and a little bit Bach overtly: here is the harpsichord-dominated section, where the singer declares his love and the dancers can make preparatory half-movements, and here is the R+B section, where the love is celebrated and the dancers can let themselves go. A fun drum bit links the two, but the whole is a counterpoint of two distinct sections that do not bleed into one another. It works wonders on the dance floor.

But what happens if we try to take things further, try to find a sonic spot more fundamentally between the classical drawing room and the down-home night club? Well, go too far in the classical direction and one can wind up with interesting songs that nonetheless do not swing, that most charitably considered, sound like minor bits from an opera or musical, such as the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad” or the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” (One cheap solution to the no-swing problem is to be more radical in the time-change department, so that instead of periodically throwing ten-second harpsichord interludes into “For Your Love,” one will insert a minute-long romantic/grandiose movement into the middle of “The Question,” a song that, all its deep lyrical themes, mystic choruses, and acoustic guitars aside, is basically a groovy R+B run.) But more deftly done, one winds up with music that seems to defy categorization, like this song , which I guess is a kind of samba-meets-flute-recitation-meets-the-Beatles.

And that brings me to Da Capo by Love, perhaps the greatest 60s hippie album. The brilliance of its follow-up Forever Changes is widely acknowledged, with its intriguing lyrics and an employment of classical strings that set the standard for rock. I think Forever Changes is the lesser of the two albums, however, because it has stepped decisively away from R+B, and become sort of a blend of Broadway Musical and folk-rock, i.e., love it as much as I do, it is few steps down that eventually insufferable Long and Winding Road of folk-rock-sensitivity-meets-torch-song, whereas Da Capo’s glory is its remaining grounded in a punchy R+B-infused sound, even as it plays amid a broader palette of colors.

So it makes perfect sense that Da Capo’s lead-off rocker “Stephanie Says,” is driven by a harpsichord and has a free-jazz solo at its center. It likewise makes sense that such an album can feature both one of the most aggressive 60s punkers, “7 and 7 Is,” and one of the gentlest of reveries, “Orange Skies.” It’s music to groove and dance to and music to dream and ponder to. We can stop and analyze the components of each song, but ordinary listening gives us the impression that this music is free . As Dylan would say, we don’t know what it is .

The writers who valorized Rock, who established the rock-n’-roll grows up narrative, placed heavy emphasis on 60s pop becoming unclassifiable, becoming something free, intellectual, unpredictable, and walking (easily, the rock writers thought) a tight-rope between the natural spirits of folk art and the heady sophistication of fine art. Briefly, i.e. about 1965-1968, not a few bands really delivered on this, and to my ears Love’s Da Capo captures such promise as well as anything from the era. (Here is a You-Tube overview of Da Capo , in case the individual song videos are taken down.)

However, California hippies dominate our memory of the 60s somewhat more than they should, as does the freedom-celebrating aspect of the 60s Pop Art Promise of Mixing. What I mainly want to remind us of in this post is that the more orderly and classical side of the sound.

To sum up, in the mid-60s we begin to hear songs that swing less, but which seem remarkably more interesting , at least for middling intellectual types, and much more in touch with their concerns and moods, than what is on offer in R+B pop. It’s true that soon enough all will be swept before the hard-rock (and prog-rock) muses of Intensity, Freedom-Evocation, and Grandiosity, inviting many to retreat into Sensitivity, or the Country, but for a few years, certain groups are able to maintain a certain tension between baroque orderliness and the minimal requirements of rock n’ roll pop-song—the Kinks of their Something Else period come to mind especially here—and thus to provide music capable of speaking in an authentically middle-class voice. Songs like “We Are the Village Green Preservation Society” and “Two Sisters” simply could not come out of Nashville, Chicago, or Muscle Shoals.

Album-wise, the high-water marks of the style are 1) several albums by the Beatles and Stones, with the less said about the gets-annoying Sgt. Pepper’s the better, 2) several fine albums by The Kinks, 3) The Zombies’ glorious Odessey and Oracle , gone into here , and 4) highest of all, indeed towering above all, Pet Sounds .

This has been a link-heavy post already, but you should top it off by taking time to appreciate this video on the recording of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” What you’ll witness is truly a composer, Brian Wilson, using what is essentially an orchestra, to pretty much give us, or at least as much as is possible, what Phil Spector would only jokingly describe his own records as being: a “little symphony” in a pop-song format. Amazing.

For now I’ll leave you there, up on the mountain top; but do understand, the come-down is inevitable.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles