NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hi! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and so’s your mother.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Do I have a trivia question for ye today? You bet I do.
You all remember the good old 1980s, when MTV spent a lot of their programming on the videos. But of all the videos aired, only one of them is included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. What video would that be?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.
During the first week of April in 1967, these were the songs in the Top Ten:
[Top Ten Montage]
- #10 was “Western Union” by the Five Americans;
- #9 was “Somethin’ Stupid” by Nancy and Frank Sinatra;
- At #8 was the Beatles with “Strawberry Fields Forever”;
- The #7 song was “For What It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield…
- …meanwhile Petula Clark held the #6 slot with “This is My Song”;
- (out: that we possessed)The Four Tops were in the #5 position and about to peak one slot higher with “Bernadette”;
- #4 was Herman’s Hermits “There’s a Kind of Hush”;
- The Beatles appeared in the chart again at #3 and on the way down from the top with “Penny Lane”;
- The Mamas and the Papas’ cover of the Shirelles’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” was spending its second week in the #2 slot;
- And at Number One, spending its second week out of three there, was “Happy Together” by The Turtles
Some of these songs are ballad-y, some are poppy, a couple have the folk-rock feel to them. All of them are solid songs and most of them have endured in the land of Oldies Radio. That same week I was only four years old, so these have always been part of my music experience. So I can only imagine what it must have been like to suddenly have this come bursting out of the speakers:
It wasn’t the first single from the Jefferson Airplane, and Surrealistic Pillow wasn’t the first album from that band, but this is the point where folk, rock, and the counterculture shouted its presence to the world at large. But before that, let’s back up about two years, to another band called the Great Society.
I should mention that The Great Society was a popular name for small-time bands around then, because it came from something that President Lyndon Johnson came up with as the name for a series of domestic programs designed to reduce poverty and racial injustice, and it’s where we got our Medicare and Medicaid systems from. At any rate, there were lots of bands around the country called The Great Society, to the point where the one we’re concerned with once played in Fort Worth, Texas, while another band with the same name played across town.
At any rate, our band The Great Society, which sometimes you’ll see with a pair of exclamation points after the words “Great” and “Society”, was formed in the summer of 1965, when a model-turned singer named Grace Slick and her husband Jerry, along with his brother Darby, were inspired by the Beatles to form their own musical group. Around this same time, the original lineup of the Jefferson Airplane was also doing its thing in the San Francisco area, and probably influenced the Slicks. They brought in David Miner for vocals and guitar, Bard DuPont on the bass and Peter van Gelder to play various other instruments like saxophone and flute.
The Great Society got a lot of traction early on in the San Francisco club scene, often opening for other bands including Jefferson Airplane. They got some attention and managed to get a contract with Autumn Records. While they were there they Autumn’s staff producer, a fellow named Sylvester Stewart. Does that name sound familiar? You probably know him better as Sly Stone, who was still putting his own band together at the time. The story is that Sly walked out on the Great Society when it took them over fifty takes to record the song you’re listening to now, called “Free Advice”. “Free Advice” was the B side to this next track, which was also written by Darby Slick:
“Someone to Love” was composed by Darby when he discovered that his girlfriend had left him, and you can hear the despair and the alienation in this version.
The Great Society got an offer from Columbia Records, but unfortunately by the time it came, Grace Slick had caught the attention of the Jefferson Airplane and accepted their offer to replace their departing vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson. Coincidentally, Anderson died on the same day as the Airplane’s co-founder Paul Kantner, on January 28, 2016.
Grace’s departure from the Great Society pretty much doomed that band, since she was both the musical and—let’s face it—the visual center of the band, and they finally broke up about a year later. For that matter, Grace and Jerry Slick broke up pretty soon afterward as well.
So that was pretty much it for the Great Society—one single and they’re done. But wait! You might say, if you’re a music aficionado. I’m pretty sure I have a Great Society album in my vast collection! Don’t worry, we’ll come to that in a minute or two.
“Someone to Love”—that’s the original title—backed with “Free Advice” got practically no traction outside the San Francisco area, so when Grace Slick joined the Jefferson Airplane, she took the song with her, and it got re-worked into “Somebody to Love”, with some re-arrangement of the verses and a little bit of a different tone. In the Great Society version, Grace Slick is more subdued and even buried a little deeper in the mix.
But in the Jefferson Airplane version, she’s way out front, but the music is right there with her, and the whole thing is very in-your-face. Part of that, believe it or not, is because of Jerry Garcia, the leader of the Grateful Dead, who did some work on the album, including the arrangements for “Somebody to Love” He’s credited on the album as a “Spiritual Adviser” but he played on a couple of tracks, did arrangements for others, and counseled the band all around. Oh, and he came up with the album title, noting that the band’s music is about as surrealistic, as a pillow is soft.
“Somebody to Love” was the second single from the album, following “My Best Friend” which failed to chart. But this breakout single climbed all the way to Number Five in the US and Number One in Canada. It also peaked at Number Three in the Netherlands. So, one for the Dutch. It’s also been ranked as Number 279 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. You might argue that position, but it’s among some pretty good company. And there’s no doubt that it was truly the moment when the Haight-Ashbury-based counterculture made itself known to the world.
OK, so let me get back to those Great Society albums. So Columbia Records, remember, had a contract with Great Society. What they didn’t have, was a band. But they DID have some tapes of live performances from times that they played at the Matrix, which was a small club in a neighborhood in San Francisco called Cow Hollow, where the Jefferson Airplane was the house band, and one of the places where the Great Society opened for the Airplane. Got all that? These recordings were released in a couple of different packages. One of them was called Conspicuous Only in its Absence and another one was titled How It Was. Then these were later re-issued as a double album called Collector’s Item in 1971, and a couple of times on CD; the first time in 1989 as Live at the Matrix and again in 2009 under its original title. And then finally a label called Sundazed Records released a compilation in 1995 called Born to be Burned, which has both sides of that single, plus a bunch of other unreleased studio tracks. If you’re truly curious, Born to Be Burned lists Track 1 as the released version of “Free Advice”, but in fact it’s one of the discarded takes. Remember I said “Free Advice” was over 50 takes? The one that was ultimately used was Take 16, with a fairly obvious edit at the end.
There aren’t a lot of covers of this song around. Jim Carrey did a cover of the song for the movie The Cable Guy, and while it was actually released, it didn’t chart.
The only other one that’s of any real note would be this one, which was the debut single of the German act Boogie Pimps, which was more like a sampling of the original Airplane version with a heavy techno backbeat added. It was a Number Three song in the UK in 2004 and went to Number Seven in Ireland and was Top 20 in several European nations.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to name the one video, out of all the music videos that have been made, that’s been placed on the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. I get the feeling that when you hear the answer you’re going to be all, “of course!”
The video that gets that distinction is the one for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
For those of you who don’t remember, the video was directed by John Landis and premiered on December 2, 1983. In that video, Jackson turns into a zombie, which pretty much ruins his movie date with a girl, and he begins dancing with a bunch of other undead dancers. And if you want to know more about the song, I’m going to direct your attention all the way back to Episode 15 of this podcast.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, when you’ve got Somebody to Love.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.