"Green Tambourine" / The Lemon Pipers
Sometimes I'll hear a song like this, a half-forgotten hit from my tender youth, and I nearly swoon with love for it. Don't tell me it's just nostalgia, that everybody feels this way about "their" music. No, I'm convinced that the music my generation grew up on ( this one hit #1 in February 1968) was deeply, radically better than whatever our parents listened to at the same age. The stuff our kids are listening to today? A mere shadow. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
It's not really fair to call "Green Tambourine" a one-hit wonder -- that makes it sound cheesy and second-rate, when in fact it's anything but. Perhaps a better term would be what Glenn in a recent comment termed "Martian music": It comes out of nowhere, a perfect gem with no obvious reason for existing. The Lemon Pipers never had another serious hit, though it's not their fault -- they were a blues-jam rock-and-roll band from Ohio that never enjoyed the sort of smartly crafted pop songs that their label, Buddah Records, steered them towards. (The old story, eh?) This song was written by professional songwriters, Paul Leka and Shelly Pinz, whose offices were across the hall from Buddah's New York headquarters, and apparently the Lemon Pipers only performed it because they knew the label would drop them if they didn't. Later, they got out of their contract so they could reassert control over their own music -- and were never heard from again.
Oddly enough, the lyrics of the song reflect this music-for-money conundrum. It's the song of a street busker, begging passersby for spare change: "Drop your silver in my tambourine / Help a poor man fill his pretty dream / Give me pennies I'll take anything / Now listen while I play [echoing ay-ay-ay-ay] / My green tambourine." (Why a green tambourine? Because it rhymed, probably, but it's still a beguiling detail -- hippies were always painting their stuff weird colors.) There's no pretense of art, as the singer admits in the third verse: "Money feeds my music machine." Surely the Lemon Pipers could see the irony of that.
It isn't played as cynical satire, though. Are you kidding? This was the hippie era; street people were seen as romantic outsiders, not ragged bums. Besides, the main thing about this track isn't the story, it's the psychedelic swirls of sound laid over the lyrics. Listen to the spiraling string accents, the little guitar fiddles, the spinning ratchets and jangly triangles, the sitar in the instrumental break (you couldn't have a proper psychedelic track without a sitar, could you?). Vocals dissolve into a wobbly echo at the end of each verse, and the tinny rattle of the tambourine is foregrounded out of its own speaker. Even though it only lasts for two and a half minutes -- no endless "In-a-gadda-da-vida" jams here -- it's actually quite mesmerizing while it lasts.
For some reason " Green Tambourine" is often referred to as the first bubblegum song. Knowing the kind of crap that came later, I hesitate to call this "bubblegum." I think of bubblegum music as having nonsense lyrics (like "Sugar Sugar" or "Yummy Yummy Yummy") and being way more cheerful than this song, which keeps sliding into minor chords and the unresolved C# on "play." Okay, there's a childlike quality to the song, but that was the hippie-dippie vibe -- listen to some of Donovan's stuff from this era if you want to talk childlike quality. To me it sounds earnest, not pre-digested pap. But then again, it's not surprising that a #1 hit would spawn a lot of cheap imitations, and once the hitmakers got their hands on it, the whole psychedelic sound devolved into meaningless goop.
"Green Tambourine" sounded great in 1968 when it first came out; hearing it unexpectedly the other day, I felt that old shimmer of delight all over again. If you can't smell the pot on this song, at least you can get a whiff of incense (with no peppermints).
Green Tambourine video