Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"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


Anonymous said...

As always Holly, I enjoy reading your blog. I've been on a major 60's sunshine pop kick as of late - check out this wonderful new compilation that came out on the fine U.K. label, Ace.

I just know you'd really enjoy it.

Take care,

Holly A Hughes said...

That does look good! And I like the term "sunshine pop" --- so much better than bubblegum. How could anyone call "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things" bubblegum?

Clutch Cargo said...

Pop perfection...that song always moved me...but it treads a bit on guilty pleasure corny as it is lyrically, it melds nicely with the time-warp sonic embellishments to create an ultimately blissful Pop gem.
Sad that a song such as that, if released today would go nowhere among the garbage-preferring music downloading public mutants.

Holly A Hughes said...

I know what you mean. If Death Cab for Cutie did a pitch-perfect recreation of this song, kids in skinny jeans all over the world would be hailing it as a masterpiece. But the chances of them ever finding the Lemon Pipers' version is next to nil...

I suppose if it was included on the soundtrack of the OC it would have a chance, though!

Glenn said...

Hi, Holly,

Ah yes, Green Tambourine, the Kapitalist Hippie Song... Brings back memories.

It is an excellent choice for Martianity, Holly. You get an A+ on your extraterrestrial detection homework. It did just come out of nowhere, and was nicely produced. And just as you and the OP were saying, it certainly doesn't deserve to be pigeonholed into the kid-stuff "bubblegum" slot.

Funnily enough, I too have a Martian story about this song.

For years, every time I'd hear the Pipers playplayplayplaying their tambourine I would get some kind of weird wormhole association from another part of the musical universe... right at that point in the song

    My green tambour[right here at chord change]eeeeen...

Every time. It would trigger something in my head, something, something... wait... wait a sec... what is that? What the hell is that echoic "playplayplayplay" and the chord change there reminding me of? But I could never solve the puzzle.

It bugged me for years. Any time the song would come on, that same association would stand up, very intense, reminding me of that same something, another song, some other distant, unrelated tune from across the galaxy... but I could not get hold of it.

Anyway, three or nineteen years later, another lifetime, another place, I'm out on the deck grilling some meatloaf, and here comes GT, rolling out the speakers in the living room. Suddenly -- as always in cases like this, without any conscious effort -- it leaps out at me: Yesss! That's it! That's what it is: It's "Bolero". Ravel's freakin' Bolero. Holy cow.

I stick the spatula in the BBQ grates and go into the house to listen, right in front of the speaker, make sure I'm not imagining it. GT finishes, I put on Bolero from some old CD. Yep. No mistake about it. That's the connection that's been making me mental for the last N years.

I don't know if I can describe it well enough to make sense here, but it's in the last couple of bars just before the resolving chord change at the end of certain of the Bolero "verses", that what's doing it. It's the combination of that chord change, superimposed on the hypnotizing snaredrum figure, that synchs with the "playplayplay..." of GT.

Here, watch:

    Tump, tatata Tump
    tatata Tump-Tump!
    Tump, tatata Tump
    tatata TAtata tatata
    [final chord change]Tump, tatata Tump
    tatata Tump-Tump!
    Tump, tatata Tump
    tatata TAtata tatata

     [begin next verse]Tump, tatata Tump...

    Play [playplayplayplayplayplay]...
    My green tambour[chord change]eeeeeeen.

  Superimposed version:
    Play [playplayplayplayplay]...
    My green tambourTump! tatataTump!
    tatata Tump-Tump!


OK, admittedly this isn't crystal clear in ascii. But if you listen to them yourself, maybe you'll hear what I mean.

--- continued ---

Glenn said...

The thing that makes this oddball association truly Martian is that it depends on an unusual mathematical coincidence: Bolero is in strident 3/4 time, driven relentlessly by that snaredrum with perfect atomic-clock precision. GT is plain vanilla 4/4... except at that moment when they playplayplay... and there, GT transitions to triplets (or so it seems, not having actually seen the sheet music). It's only during that half measure or so that the two rhythms synchronize in 3 beats per bar. After that, they diverge totally. And, most important, the synch happens right at the sweet spot of both melodies, that magical happy point where the minor key finally resolves back to the original major. I think that's what makes the connection so intense.

Anyway, I don't really know what the hell I'm talking about, but maybe you or someone reading your blog here can comment on whether this makes sense from a music theory standpoint.

Btw: This coincidence only works with the certain of the Bolero "verses", not all of them. Only those past roughly halfway thru the piece, after the snaredrum comes to the fore and the final bars of each instrumental solo are dissonantly drifting down, semitone by semitone, until that final resolving chord change. Other than those particular ones, the minor-to- major resolution isn't so prominent, so the association isn't as strong.

Anyway, when I went back out to the deck, the meatloaf was burnt to a cinder and the handle on the spatula had melted into the grill burner. Took me two hours to clean up the mess. Sheesh. Martians.

Anonymous said...

I have to tip my cap to your old school work ethic. I know if your editor asked you for a couple of thousand words on The Lemon Pipers your mind would experience drudgery and future pain just thinking about it. But no, Holly, you took it upon your self to do this assignment.

Liked the part about how if the group didn't perform the Brill Buildingesq single...well, maybe they could take a hike.

I'm walking down the street near Wai Kiki beach in the middle of the afternoon in 1973 and hear the strains of some rock music coming from a club. A chalked blackboard announces "1910 Fruitgum Company-Today." I had to peek my head in. There were about ten people sitting at six tables and the lead singer was PRE berating his limited audience to the tune of "If you came here to hear "One Two Three Redlight," or "Simon Says," forget it, we're doing our new stuff."

!!! Like, why ELSE would anyone show up to see them?