Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Songs That Time Forgot: The Rascals

The Rascals, on some beautiful morning in 1969.
Image source: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Today, I want to talk about songs that are fading away and share one of them with you.

As we move further away from an artist's peak period of creative activity, that artist's less popular works begin to fall out of view, until all that remains in the public consciousness are the major successes. (I'm reluctant to call them the "best" works, because as a loyal fan of any artist knows, the big hits aren't always necessarily the best.) The classic-rock station where I used to live frequently featured a "three-fer Thursday," and whenever the DJ announced that there was a trio of songs coming up from Kansas, you knew exactly what they were going to play: "Dust in the Wind," "Point of Know Return," and "Carry on Wayward Son." For all practical purposes, the band's vast repertoire had been boiled down to those three cuts.

Dedicated fans, of course, can always dust off their LPs if they get an itch to listen to that obscure song on Side 2 that Classic Rock Radio has long forgotten about. But as physical media gives way to streaming services and aging fans sell off their old records, tapes, and CDs to the local resale shop, those forgotten gems again run the risk of being lost to time.

That's one reason I still like physical media -- that, and the fact that I'm an old fart. Call me crazy, but I prefer not to hand over the availability of my favorite music, books, and movies to the whims of a Spotify or a Netflix that can, whenever the mood strikes them, cease offering access to that one thing my eyes and ears really, really wanted to feast on.

I thought about this when I was going through a YouTube mix I made and pulled up some fairly obscure music from 1971. That's my birth year (I told you I was old), and it happened to bring the world a lot of good tunes. So a while back, I did my best to come up with an exhaustive list of the popular music released from that year, and after assembling a video collection on YouTube of well over 500 (!) tunes I liked, I intended to enter 2021 running a blog that would feature the wonderful sounds of '71, in celebration of the music's 50th anniversary and my own. I intended to dribble out posts with accompanying songs all throughout the year.

I think I made a single post before I fizzled out. Once I realized how much time would be involved in doing what I intended to do with the blog, I set the project aside and never got back to it. But the YouTube playlist still remains, even as YouTube informs me that a handful of the videos I put there are no longer available. Again, this is why I prefer physical media.

With all that in mind, today I want to talk about The Rascals. These masters of blue-eyed soul had a hot run of hit singles from 1965 through 1968, and more than half a century later, music fans remember the feel-good vibes of songs like "Good Lovin'," "People Got to Be Free," and "Beautiful Morning," reflecting the sunny optimism that hung thick in the air back then.

As the late '60s rolled around, the band decided to shift its focus from putting out singles to becoming an album-oriented act, following in the footsteps of The Beatles and other popular bands that were beginning to think of their songs within the context of a long-playing platter. For The Rascals, the transition resulted in music that was more exploratory and tinged with the psychedelia of the times.

During this period, singing and songwriting duties began to increasingly fall on keyboardist Felix Cavaliere. Singer Eddie Brigati would leave the band at the end of the decade, and under Cavaliere's sole guidance, the band carried on into the early '70s, their music becoming something of a meeting place of rock, soul, and jazz.

Those '70s albums didn't yield any hits for the band, and after the commercial failure of 1972's The Island of Real, The Rascals were no more. But there are some marvelous hidden gems tucked away in the grooves of those forgotten albums. The one that caught my ear was the side-long title track from the 1971 album Peaceful World. It's basically a long two-chord vamp that sounds more like meditative jazz-rock than anything resembling the R&B that made The Rascals famous.

The piece is languid, evocative of a lazy summertime afternoon, in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. Over a foundation of Cavaliere's organ and electric piano and drummer Dino Danelli's insistent and slightly funky shuffle, the piece opens with a long, relaxed flute solo, fluttering around like a butterfly without a care. We move from scene to scene -- a jazzy electric guitar leads the way for a while, giving way to a busy soprano sax that momentarily builds up the intensity of the piece.

A little after the 14-minute mark, we get some cooing freestyle vocalizations from a female voice. As her voice dances around the saxophone in breathy bursts, the feel becomes not unlike the interplay of sax and female vocals that close out the comparatively laid-back "Formentera Lady," the King Crimson track that also greeted the world in 1971.

Soon the words "peaceful world" come in, sung like a gentle, hypnotic mantra, as the piece takes its time quieting down, until finally coming to a rest some 21 minutes after it began.

Add some trumpet, and this piece wouldn't have felt out of place on one of Miles Davis' fusion records from the same era. The mellow happiness it exudes is reflective of the simpler and more hopeful time it was recorded in. Can we ever find our way back to a time like that, where the hope of a peaceful world is in sight? Well, it costs nothing to dream, and songs like this are little treasures that can at least transport our minds to such a place, if even only for a few fleeting moments.

May good old tunes like this never die.

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