California Is Just Over The Horizon

For a couple of months now I've been playing a lot of '60s West Coast stuff. Which is quite odd because, as I've said before, for years I hated it all with a vengeance, mainly because it was the domain of hip boys and girls with much better dress sense than me. These days of course I don't much care about that, probably because I don't venture very far from my attic. And in that attic it's always nice to dream, especially of California.

I've only been to California once, for two weeks last Easter vacation, but I miss it terribly. So in the wintering and early Spring months of England I've been making it California, in my head at least, by playing stacks of stuff by the likes of The Millennium and their assorted off-shoots.

I knew about the Millennium and Sagittarius etc a while back. The hipster kids were always on about them, partly because there were Beach Boys and Byrds connections, and there was always a big buzz around them amongst the Creation gang. People like Joe Foster and Alan McGee. There was a lot of abuse hurled at Creation towards the end of its life (some of it hurled from me, I have to say, although I still stand by it) but lots of people missed the fact that the RevOla re-issue off-shoot was busy putting out loads of interesting stuff. It was RevOla who made all the A Certain Ratio albums available wholesale once more, and it was RevOla who released the Fire Engine's awesome Fond and Josef K's The Only Fun In Town. It was RevOla also who put out re-issues of The Millennium and Sagittarius.

Since the death of Creation and RevOla, there have been a lot of people down on Poptones too, but really whilst the real gems of their contemporary artist releases have been fairly few and far between (the exquisite Slumber Party and the divine Denise James albums of recent months spring to mind) they have also been quietly reissuing some absolute gems, not least making sure those Millennium related projects are still seeing the light of day. For that alone we should praise them to the skies.

Best of the bunch is the Again CD by the Millennium, which is all aquiver with sunlight and shadow, great tunes aglow with the mildest pf psych inflections, which is just how I like it, thank you very much. I'd far rather have the gentle flower psych of the frankly peerless Pop that lies within the likes of 'To Claudia On Thursday', 'Love At Last' and 'Suspended Animation' than any wigged out full on electric brain fry any day, thank you very much for asking. Again is a truly beautiful album, although as any Millennium aficionado will tell you it was actually titled Begin when it was originally released back in the summer of 1968. I'm not sure what's gone on in the mixing and mastering stakes with the Poptones release, and frankly I don't really care much, but Again does sound appreciably different to the reissue of the entire Begin album that appears on the 3 CD Ballroom/Millennium Magic Time set, issued in the US by Sundazed. The Poptones version sounds much smoother, mellower maybe, and certainly more contemporary. The Poptones release also has the 'Wearing Levis' gem which is, as you might expect, an advert for the jeans of the same name, and in fact there's several more advertisement tunes from Millennium king-pin Curt Boettcher on the Misty Mirage album (also on Poptones, of course), which are maybe throwaway but isn't that the whole point about Pop? Discuss in your own time....

There's a quote in the terrific booklet for the aforementioned Sundazed collection from Gary Usher (producer par-excellence in '60s California, as if you didn't know) that compares Curt Boettcher and Brian Wilson (both of whom Usher worked with). In it, Usher says that 'Curt was light years ahead of Brian' which is some mighty suggestion to make, given the way that Wilson is treated like a deity these days, but one that on the whole I'd go along with. Certainly I love the Boettcher records I've heard even more than the Beach Boys' records. Which is saying something. Best of the solo Boettcher is that Misty Mirage collection. There are songs from the Millennium album here, in different versions, notably 'Baby It's Real', which is one of thee finest sunshine and shadow summer Pop gems ever committed to tape. And then there's 'Astral Cowboy', a glorious blend of massively echoing piano and Boettcher singling plaintively of the country music of the stars, or the awesome, vaguely hallucinogenic, swelling title track which sets sail on the seas of the moonlit night, dipping and loping through the constellations like a bejewelled tall-ship.

Which is something you could equally say of much of the Sagittarius releases, Sagittarius being of course essentially a Boettcher/Usher collaboration, with much of their recording taking place in 'spare' studio time between recording sessions that Usher was working on for the likes of the Association. Poptones has the Blue Marble collection that features the classic 'In My Room' and the gorgeous, proto-eco awareness title track. Also featured on the Poptones resissue is 'I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City' which almost lives up to the promise of its fantastic title. There's no UK release of the Sagittarius debut Present Tense currently in print, but Sundazed still has it available in the USA, so it's easy enough to get hold of. Present Tense is now rightly hailed as a classic of its time (July 1968 was its original release date) by those that know, right up there with the likes of Younger Than Yesterday and Forever Changes. That claim is based on the fantastic production and arrangements (didn't they used to call this kind of thing 'Baroque' at one time? I read also that it was called 'Soft Rock', but that doesn't sound at all right...), but also on the fact that these are wonderful songs that reverberate with a special spatial evocation of almost mythic time and place. There's a glorious light in these songs, a kind of innocence teetering on the edge of oblivion, that lightness all the more profound with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that all of the hope, the belief in a love-filled tomorrow was, to paraphrase the Mamas and Papas, set to trip, stumble and fall. But in songs like 'Another Time', 'Would You Like To Go', 'Hotel Indiscreet', 'The Truth Is Not real' and especially the wonderful Mamas and Papa's-esque 'My World Fell Down' (with Glen Campbell on lead vocal), Sagittarius made music infused with sun-drenched West Coast Hippy culture without resorting to easy formulas; simply made classic optimistic Summer Pop. The Sundazed reissue also throws in some previously unreleased tracks, standout of which is the terrific 'Get The Message', which in an ideal world would surely have made for a killer single.

Going further back of course, you have The Ballroom, who were I guess at least one of the starting points that eventually led to the Millennium. The Ballroom was Boettcher, Sandy Salisbury, Jim Bell and Michele O'Malley, and they made enough recordings for an album in 1966/7 but nothing was ever released. The Magic Time CD set however has a CD and a half full of Ballroom recordings and they are of course excellent, in the same kind of vein to the Sagittarius/Millennium material but maybe with a more Mamas and Papas feel, which probably comes over mainly because of the great interplay between the vocals. Michele O'Malley really does sound lovely on this set, especially on the utterly glorious 'Magic Time' (a song that tells how Boettcher felt about dusk) and 'Musty Dusty', which is a lovely song about childhoods lost that later cropped up on Present Tense. It's best here though, with O'Malley's sweetness really fitting the subject matter. Apparently after the Ballroom disbanded she went on to make a solo album called Saturn Rings, which I would love to hear.

Aside from the Boettcher solo albums, other off-shoots from the Millennium axis include the release at last of the Sandy Salisbury album and a great set by Joey Stec. The Salisbury collection (titled just Sandy) is a real gem, especially if you love your Pop light and airy. Originally slated for release on the Together label back at the start of the seventies (I think I'm right on that one... there are plenty other people more academically up on all this than I am), this album lay unreleased for the best part of three decades, which is criminal, because there are few albums I can think of which sound so delightfully upbeat and pure. Sandy was maybe the only person involved in that whole '60s California scene who never took drugs, and I think that really shines through in his work; there's a beautiful innocence here, a purity like I said, but in no way aloof or prissy. It's just fabulously uplifting Pop, especially on the sonically packed version of 'I Just Don't Know How To Say Goodbye' (the song that Sandy and Stec wrote for Midnight Cowboy). Listen out also for Sandy's fantastically simple version of the Fleetwoods' classic 'Come Softly' which features some exquisite heart beat thuds and crystalline sleigh bells in the mix, and which, according to Joe Foster's sleeve notes, Sandy recorded singing into an open grand piano. Whatever, it sounds divine. And for pure unadulterated ass-shaking Pop, check out 'Goody Goodbye' which is a sugary sweet gem made for laughing at the sun to.

A wholly different beast is the eponymous Joey Stec album on Poptones. Stec is a fascinating character. As the typically brief sleeve notes tell us, he was of course a member of the legendary Sagittarius and Millennium setups, and after their demise played in the Blues Magoos before joining up with Gram Parsons' entourage and hey, you can just imagine the hi-jinks those guys all got up to. The album that Poptones has released was made after the death of his friends Parsons and Brandon Dewilde and was produced by the legendary Jimmy Miller. It is, as you might expect, a great collection of hard-driving blues/country/soul tunes with some real choice cuts. There's the beautiful pairing of 'I Wish It Would Rain' and 'No Knowing'. 'I Wish It Would Rain' is a fine song about giving in to sorrow full of fat guitar sounds and horns that cascade and splash like teardrops off the sidewalk, whilst 'No Knowing' is a chamber of echoing ghosts, a country tinged eulogy to Gram and Brandon and an oddly sad nostalgia for a recent past already lost to the sands; a paean to an already fading and elusive, maybe illusive era. It's a beautiful song, anyway. Similarly essential are 'Standing Here Alone' which echoes both those previous songs and the album closing 'Even Angels' which takes a guitar riff straight off the last train to Clarkesville and stuffs it through a cranked up fuzz pedal, accompanying it with a plethora of pianos and exploding drums. It's a terrifically chaotic ending to a great album, and one that any fans of the Flying Burrito Brothers or early '70s Stones would surely love.

So there you go; a clutch of awesome records that are by turns playful, experimental (where, like with Brian Wilson at his finest, the spirit of experimentation never gets the better of the drive to make great Pop records), occasionally hilarious (often all at the same time) and always, but always, beautifully uplifting and unutterably gorgeous. When I hear these records the sun is always within reach and California is just over the horizon. Frankly I couldn't ask for much more.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002