236. Scott McKenzie – San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967)

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‘San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…’

If a raging, savage cynic like Hunter S Thompson could write so warmly about San Francisco in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then it must have indeed been quite a place. After two homegrown Summer of Love anthems from Procul Harum and the Beatles, the third that summer to hit number 1 came from US singer-songwriter Scott McKenzie with his tribute to the hippies of the Golden City.

McKenzie was born with the very un-hippy-like name Philip Wallach Blondheim III in Jacksonville Florida, January 1939. When only six months old the family moved to Asheville, North Carolina. At school he became friends with John Phillips, future member of the Mamas & the Papas and writer of this number 1 you’re reading about. In the mid-1950s Blondheim sang with Tim Rose in the Singing Strings at high school, and later formed doo-wop group the Abstracts with Phillips, Mike Boran and Bill Cleary.

The Abstracts soon became the Smoothies and they signed with Decca Records. Around this time, Blondheim decided if he was ever going to be famous he needed to change his name. Comedian Jackie Curtis said he looked like a Scottie dog. He has a point, but I’d say he looks more like a Spaniel. Anyway, from then onwards he became Scott McKenzie (McKenzie was the name of Phillips’s daughter).

During the folk revival of the early-60s, McKenzie and Phillips teamed up with Dick Weissman to form the Journeymen. They recorded three albums for Capitol Records, but failed to ignite the charts and so they disbanded in 1964. McKenzie and Weissman went solo, while Phillips formed the New Journeymen, who eventually morphed into the Mamas & the Papas. McKenzie was offered the chance to join them, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to cope with the pressure and declined. He did however audition to join the Monkees, but was rejected for looking too old at 24.

In the spring of 1967, Phillips, along with music producer Lou Adler, Alan Pariser and Beatles and Beach Boys press spokesman Derek Taylor planned the first major rock festival, inspired by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Celebrating the counterculture, the Monterey International Pop Festival was planned for 16-18 June at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California. Phillips may have been a hippy, but he was also a budding businessman. Some of the psychedelic era’s biggest acts agreed to play for free, including Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas & the Papas (of course) and Otis Redding. Documented in a famous film by DA Pennebaker, without Monterey we may have never had the music festival culture we have today.

With Phillips being such a canny businessman, he could see the way the wind was blowing, and decided, why stop there? He wanted a song to promote the festival, and hopefully make him a lot more money in the process. So he wrote San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) in 20 minutes to promote his project. Perhaps deciding it would look too cynical to get his group to record it, he asked McKenzie, who was an unknown by comparison. Members of the Wrecking Crew were hired as backing, with Phillips and Adler co-producing. Phillips also provided guitars and sitar. The song was released that May.

It’s looked down upon these days for not being a cynical marketing tool, but I don’t mind San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). The lyrics are a little cheesy and bland, but it’s well-produced, with Gary L Coleman’s orchestral bells and chimes making for an atmospheric sound, and together with McKenzie’s wistful vocal, it makes for a strangely downbeat tune, seemingly mourning the passing of the hippy movement while it was at its peak.

It’s an unusual number 1, and it was certainly a case of ‘right place, right time’. Strangely, it didn’t get to number 1 in the US, despite him performing it at the festival, so I’m guessing that San Francisco must have seemed to many Brits to be a mystical, out-of-reach paradise, and buoyed on by the success of Procul Harum and the Beatles, McKenzie’s folk song seemed a suitable way to follow up the mood of hippy celebration that summer. It even inspired the first Bee Gees number 1, Massachusetts, later that year.

Scott McKenzie would remain a one-hit wonder. The follow-up, a re-release of his debut single, Look in Your Eyes, failed to chart once more. Phillips co-wrote and co-produced Like an Old Time Movie, but that and debut album The Voice of Scott McKenzie, didn’t capture the public mood. But McKenzie was aware of the fact he just wasn’t a natural pop star, and after his second album Stained Glass Morning in 1970, he retired.

McKenzie resurfaced in the 80s and rode the nostalgia wave of the baby boomers as part of the new version of the Mamas & the Papas, and then in 1988 he co-wrote the risible Beach Boys hit Kokomo with Terry Melcher, Mike Love and Phillips for the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.

In 1998 McKenzie left the Mamas & the Papas and retired once more. He appeared at the Los Angeles tribute concert for Phillips in 2001. Nine years later he began suffering from Guillain–Barré syndrome, which would eventually claim his life in 2012 at the age of 73.

San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). ruled the charts for most of August. During that time… playwright Joe Orton was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at their North London home on 9 August. Halliwell then committed suicide. The hippy movement took a knock on 14 August when The Marine & Broadcasting (Offences) Act 1967 declared participation in offshore pirate radio in the UK illegal. Therefore, Wonderful Radio London closed down that afternoon with one last song – A Day in the Life by the Beatles. Three days later, Coventry City, who had been promoted to the Football League First Division for the first time, lost their manager when Jimmy Hill announced he was leaving his position to become a television pundit.

Ten days later, the manager of the Beatles shocked the music world, dying of an overdose aged only 32. This comes as a surprise to me now, as I assumed he was a fair bit older. More on this when I cover Hello Goodbye. And on 28 August the first late summer holiday on the last Monday of the month occured in England and Wales, replacing the previous holiday, which occured on the first Monday of the month. Bet it rained.

Written by: John Phillips

Producer: Lou Adler & John Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 August-5 September) 

Births:

Scottish ice hockey player Tony Hand – 15 August 
Footballer Michael Thomas – 24 August
Politician Greg Clark – 28 August
Comedy actor Steve Pemberton – 1 September
Field hockey player Jane Sixsmith – 5 September 

Deaths:

Playwright Joe Orton – 9 August
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein – 27 August 

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July