Monday, April 23, 2007

"Goodbye" / Rainbow Ffolly

No, that's no typo -- that archaic double-f was just one of many deliberately weird details about this 1960s British art-college band. Their one and only album (Sallies Fforth -- that double-f again) faded into quick obscurity, but from what I read, for one brief shining season Rainbow Ffolly were all the rage among their famous peers like the Beatles and the Who and the Moody Blues.

There's more than a whiff of Monty Python in the odd fragments of dialogue and half-caught radio jingles and sound effects on Sallies Fforth. Absurdist experimentation evidently drifted around in the cannabis-hazed air in London in 1967 -- Magical Mystery Tour didn't come out of nowhere -- but these guys took it farther than anyone else. The stylistic patchwork of the album was accidental; the Ffolly threw together a dozen tracks as a demo tape to show their range (folk-blues-samba-vaudeville-psychedelic-rock-pop), but execs at Parlophone liked it so much they released it as is. Maybe if the band members had had time to craft the album, their instrumental performances would have sounded more polished, the sound fuller, but I don't know -- the dreamy zaniness of this LP might have been destroyed with long studio sessions.

Rainbow Ffolly is yet another brother band (I've got such a weakness for those), with Jonathan and Richard Dunsterville on vocals and guitar, along with bassist Roger Newell and drummer Stewart Osborn. Unfortunately, despite constant gigging for a year or so, they never made enough money to give up their day jobs; they disbanded in 1968. But their stage shows were apparently a heady experience, full of fake smoke, strobe lights, outsized props, and outlandish costumes. They had teakettles rigged to whistle at a certain moment in a song, at which point the band members made tea and sat down for a cuppa. They performed one entire show with a dressed-up cardboard cutout substituting for their rhythm guitarist. They drove around in an old ambulance with spiral-painted hubcaps and a huge wind-up key protruding from the roof. The cover art for Sallies Fforth (painted by Jon Dunsterville, who was also their prolific songwriter) is a swirl of vivid colors and jumbled imagery, most of it coded clues to the songs on the album. Reading about all of this makes me wish I could time travel back to London in 1968.

Rainbow Ffolly remained a footnote in the annals of British pop; I never heard of them until a few months ago. (Copies of the original vinyl LP regularly sell for 150 pounds -- there just weren't many copies sold in the first place.) Whenever the songs come up on my shuffle, I'm startled by the funny voices, the echoes of other songs floating in and out -- it reminds me of the Beatles line about "voices out of nowhere put on specially by the children for a lark." But not all the tracks are experimental; "Goodbye" is fairly straightforward, and so beautiful it makes me wonder what more this band could have done.

It's a slipstreaming bossa nova with a deft Spanish guitar solo, the lead vocal breathy and sincere, a few hushed back-up vocals in close harmonies. But those hypnotic rhythms seem a little sinister; notice how the lyrics of the first verse trip over a tangle of accented internal rhymes: "Goodbye / You sigh, but in a while you'll smile again / Goodbye / Don't cry now, I'll come through to be with you again." The alternation of those long exhaled "goodbyes" and the swiftly delivered excuses seems a little dodgy to me. In the second verse he assures her, "I fell before for you and I'll fall for you again," but that's not the same as being a constant lover, eh? And in the bridge, it seems even clearer that something's wrong between them: "Your eyes betray the setting sun / Your eyes tell me that your day is done / Our time will come." But who's breaking up with whom? In the third verse, he says almost morosely, "So long / It's wrong but I cannot turn back that clock again." This sounds pretty final, and bitter, too.

Why do I keep puzzling over these words, trying to write the story of this love affair? For all I know, this song was scribbled overnight for those demo taping sessions. Maybe Jon Dunsterville was high when he wrote it. (Ya think?) I don't know. But I do know that it's simply enchanting. Now if I could just find a time machine, and set the dials to 1968...

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