Thursday, February 24, 2005

Harpers Bizarre: Surrealist Sixties Soundwaves

They were the spawn of a musical mixed marriage between the surf-tune genre and bombastic psychedelia. Simplisitcally underrated and miscast under the moniker of "Sunshine Pop", Harpers Bizarre was a complex, eclectic experiment which succeeded in enhancing the top 40 sound.

It started with The Tikis, an early '60s Santa Cruz beach band comprised of Ted Templeman (drums/vocals), Dick Scoppetone (guitar/vocals), Dick Yount (bass), and Eddie James (guitar). The Tikis released a string of amiable, surf-oriented songs and rode the wave to Warner Brothers when San Francisco disc-jockeys Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell, sold their recording label, Autumn, in 1966. Adding drummer Jon Peterson of the pop-rock group The Beau Brummels to the lineup allowed Templeman to become the definitive frontman for the group.

Warner Brothers producer Lenny Waronker, having scored a hit, Sit Down I Think I Love You, with another former Autumn band, The Mojo Men, decided to revamp The Tikis' style to further access the burgeoning flower pop sound. After hearing Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme lp, Waronker set out to expand the duo's 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) and tailor it for The Tikis. Concurrently, the transformational influences of The Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, and the incorporation of classical riffs, such as those used by the baroque-jazz Swingle Singers, were subliminally infiltrating the entire pop music industry.

Session musician Leon Russell (who later became a hit soloist in his own right), was called in to assist Waronker and The Tikis on their recording of 59th Bridge Street Song (Feelin' Groovy). The result, an elaborate 18-piece flute and string arrangement, with Tikis Templeman and Scoppetone on vocals, so transformed The Tikis' sound that it was decided that the group would change its name. After discarding suggestions such as The Power Struggle, The Bells Of St. Mary's, and The Atchdiocese, an ad agency executive proposed the name Harpers Bizarre, an exotic spin on the spelling of the popular magazine of the same name.

Harpers Bizarre's version of 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) floated to the lofty (and ironically appropriate) peak position of #13 on the Billboard charts in April, 1967, competing successfully with powerhouse acts such The Beatles, and Aretha Franklin. Following the group's first success with the Van Dyke Parks'-penned Come To The Sunshine, a perky piece of pop perfection which incorporated a Roaring Twenties bounciness, Harpers Bizarre transcended the one-hit-wonder shroud and became recognized as established hitmakers.

When considering the inevitable lp which followed Harpers Bizarre's first triumphs, producer Waronker aimed at upping the ante of camp quotient as regards material while retaining musical depth and purity. The group's squeaky-clean vocals proved to be the stuff of pristine pop parody when wrapped around the musical compositions of songwriter Randy Newman. Happyland, which tells of an imagined return to the idyll of summer street fairs of the 1890s, carried a deliciously sardonic edginess. In Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear, which tells the tale of a self-styled carnival act involving Smith and his pet bear, one can easily see Dumbo's circus act usurped by the evocative ursine imagery.

Continuing the successful rumble-seat-era atmosphere invoked with their first lp, Harpers Bizarre named their second album, Anything Goes, after their hit version of the Cole Porter tune. The Templeman/Scoppetone/Perry Botkin, Jr. arrangement played like an old-time Vaudeville comedy act, complete with sassy, kazoo-like whistles and player piano melodies.

Fluffernutter, fruit, and far-away fairy tale days were not the entire underbelly of Harpers Bizarre's works. Taking Native American jazzman Jim Pepper's classic peyote chant Witchi Tai To, and Rhythm and Blues artist Eddie Floyd's hit Knock On Wood, Harpers transformed each into mysterious, ethereal, choirlike odes to vision quests and sensuality.

After a short run in the sunny days of Summer Of Love pop, Harpers Bizarre disbanded in the early '70s. Ted Templeman stayed on at Warner Brothers, becoming an established producer working with artists such as Nancy Sinatra, Captain Beefheart, The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Van Morrison, and most notably Van Halen.

Today, the musical legacy of Harpers Bizarre is that of unique contribution to one of pop music's most experimental and individualistc creative Camelots. Adapting and integrating musical styles from earlier eras, unlike the oft-uninspired sampling and deadeningly repetitive drum machines of today, Harpers Bizarre helped move the music world through the post-pop-era of the Beatles and the British Invasion. Fluffy yet multi-layered, sweet but not saccharine, Harpers Bizarre's top 40 is the Bach and Beethoven of 20th Century hit music.