Friday, June 11, 2010

"Pied Piper" / Crispian St. Peters

I was surprised by how saddened I was today to read the obituary for Crispian St. Peters, who just died at age 71. Not a major British Invasion star, not by any stretch of the imagination, but still . . . As a kid I owned his one big US hit, "Pied Piper," and I faithfully learned its lyrics by heart (that head crammed with 60s lyrics is one reason why I can't remember my daughter's cell phone number). Well, if I'm this affected by the death of Crispian St. Peters, I can't imagine how gutted I'll be when the great British rockers from my formative years shuffle off this mortal coil. I daren't even name their names, but you know very well whom I'm thinking of.

Crispian St. Who? you may well arsk. Come on, listen to the song; you know this record.

For a brief spell in the summer of 1966 -- oh, that glorious summer! -- this tune haunted the airwaves, pouring out of every little transistor radio we kids held snuggled to our ears. With its boppy prancing beat, its Donovan-like feyness, "Pied Piper" hooked us but good.

St. Peter's real name was Robin Peter Smith -- a properly British-sounding name, but not nearly as evocative for us Americans: hence the stage name. Let's face it, nobody in my grade school in Indiana was gonna have a name like Crispian. And St. Peters? In Indianapolis, the North Side clothing boutique that peddled all the must-have clothes was Roderick St. John, a name chosen for its faux-English pretensions. St. John = St. Peters = upper-crust class. Basing a pop song on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin could have seemed precious, but St. Peters' earnest tenor and twee Englishness sold the literary reference just right.

Though he'd been knocking around as a professional musician since the late 50s, after Beatlemania Robin Smith jumped onto the British beat bandwagon, reinventing himself with his new stage name and signing to Decca in 1965. His first big UK hit, in 1966, was the Sylvia Tyson song "You Were On My Mind," but that didn't chart over here -- we had our own homegrown version recorded by We Five. In July 1966, however, he followed that up with "Pied Piper" -- a cover of a minor 1965 single by The Changin' Times -- and scored a Top Ten hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Recording "Pied Piper" was a stroke of luck for this guy. You may never have heard of The Changin' Times, but one-half of this short-lived duo was songwriter Artie Kornfeld, who'd already had one big hit with Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve"; he and his Changin' Times partner Steve Duboff also later wrote the Cowsills' 1967 hit "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things." Perhaps even more important was Kornfeld's role as one of the prime organizers of the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. As a professional songwriter, Kornfeld -- a Brooklyn boy -- had songcraft down pat. How else could he have turned out three such different hits -- a California surf rock classic, a gauzy sunshine pop anthem, and this British Invasion charmer?

Okay, so this song didn't have much to do with the Pied Piper myth. Just as well, because the Hamelin story is one of literature's creepier tales. As a kid, I remember being freaked out by the idea of a town so infested with rats, they needed to hire this exterminator with a flute. (The bit about the town burghers stiffing the guy once the job had been done completely went over my head.) And the TV version I remember further wrenched my heart by adding one Tiny Tim-like boy with crutches who got left behind when all the other kids followed the vengeful piper out of town.

Luckily in this song, the Piper is only used in its metaphorical sense as a charismatic leader. Most likely Kornfeld and Duboff got the idea from reading somewhere how the Beatles were "pied pipers to a generation" (as indeed they were). To this, Kornfeld and Duboff added just the right amount of hippie gloss. The singer -- the "I" of the song -- is a free spirit, addressing some hung-up soul ("masquerading," "contemplating") who's afraid to follow him. Singing in a low, coaxing voice, St. Peters weaves a spell, pointing an accusing finger with repeated "you's" and tempting his prey onward. The arrangement is deliberately minimal, with a prominent bass line, light guitar strum, and martial drums (the better for marching away). What is he offering? Drugs? Eastern philosophy? Marxist revolution? Only in the second verse does it become clear that he's singing to a girl, which clarifies his motives considerably. But hey, he waits until the second verse to put the move on her, and he never even mentions intercourse -- how refreshing!

Remember, in the mid-60s coded drug messages were everywhere; this timid soul clearly needed to be turned on. And so the chorus blooms into full orchestration, including a sprightly penny whistle, representing the piper's pipe. "Come on babe," he invites, swinging into his beautiful upper register, "follow me / I'm the Pied Piper / Follow me / I'm the Pied Piper / And I'll show you where it's at." Talk about 60's lingo -- "where it's at," man. That's pusher talk if I ever heard it.

Calculated British Invasion pop -- and yet, it's an absolutely lovely recording, redolent of its era and yet timelessly lilting. Hearing Crispian St. Peters launch into that chorus still makes my heart leap. We talk so dismissively of one-hit wonders; but having even one hit this delightful is something to be proud of. Rest in peace, Robin Peter Smith.


Dave K. said...

When I read the obit today, I had no recollection of anyone named Christian St. Peters. But the moment I came across a reference to "Pied Pier, I instantly recognized the song and it played in my head with great clarity. Funny how the mind works.

Joe Dimuro said...

Thanks Holly for reporting about Crispian St. Peters. 1966 was a magical year with Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas and Donovan just to name a few!

Holly A Hughes said...

A magical year indeed. I could do this entire blog based just on songs from 1966, 1967, and 1968 and I'd never run out of material.

On the other hand, then I'd never be able to mention Nick Lowe or Graham Parker, which would be a shame. Scratch that plan....

mervap said...

I was still in the Mama oven that summer...but what a neat time it must have been. Plus, "Revolver" was about to be released. "Pied Piper" is still a great tune today....RIP- RPS!

wwolfe said...

This song has one of my favorite hooks ever written. It's amazing how HAPPY a good hook can make us feel. That's a really nice legacy for anyone to leave behind, whether it's for one song or a hundred. (By the way, another singer - same era, but as different as different could be - died over the weekend: Jimmy Dean, of "Big Bad John," James Bond villainry, and pork sausage fame. His autobiography had a great title - "Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham.")

wwolfe said...

Oh - and here's a truly goofy clip of St. Peters lip-synching his hit on some TV show:

Holly A Hughes said...

What a hoot! Ah, the days of truly awful live TV....

Anonymous said...

Mr St Peters could never get away with this stuff today. "Come with me, I'm the Pied Piper..." Yeah, right, the Nanny State and Soccer Moms would have already instructed their tikes to never go near, let alone talk to, let alone FOLLOW a foppish, prancing dude, adorned in a green cape, playing the flute, and already accompanied by a score or two of rodents.

And I KNEW Van Johnson, and I can assure you, Holly A Hughes, Christian St Peters is no Van Johnson.

Have a great weekend.


Anonymous said...

By the way, loved the "We Five" reference. Saw them do the lip synching on (the late) Lloyd Thaxton show...probably on WPIX channel eleven. Those black and white days.
I've got trouble
I've gotta ramble
I've got wounds to bind.
Woa, Woa.


Anonymous said...

Never thought that Christian's thread would lead to comments that seem to be unending.

But, Holly, shouldn't the line have been:
"And I'll show you WHERE IT IS,"
vis a vis
(I bet that's your first "vis a vis" today)
"And I'll show you where it's at."

When he "come hither's" the poor children of Hamlin...

Good night,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the beautiful blog about Crispian St. Peters. I agree with you that "The Pied Piper" personifies that magical time and place as perhaps no other song from the '60s does. I wonder if we will ever see its like again?