Van Dyke Parks’ big break had broken. The album on which he had been collaborating with Brian Wilson, Smile, had fallen apart, and Heroes & Villains, the single that was originally to be the basis for the album, had been a comparative flop. Parks had little to show for many months’ work, other than being involved in “the greatest unreleased album of all time” — an album that would act as an albatross around the neck of everyone involved in it, dominating all discussions of their later careers. The recording sessions had become so tense and unproductive that Parks felt he had no choice but to leave the project before it was completed; he believed that some members of the band, notably Mike Love, were so unsympathetic to his work that it was impossible to work with them, however great the financial rewards might have been. The project itself collapsed soon after Parks left, although it had been clear for some time before that it was in trouble.
But Parks, luckily, had kept many irons in the fire while working with the Beach Boys, and had been working with almost every up-and-coming musician in LA, either as a session musician, an arranger, or just as someone to bounce ideas off. In particular, Parks had been working with Lenny Waronker.
Lenny Waronker was a young staff producer at Warner Brothers records, who had got his job largely through family connections — his father, Si Waronker, had been head of Liberty Records, and Lenny had gone from working for his father to working at Warners. Waronker was responsible to the label for the Mojo Men, the Beau Brummels, and a band called the Tikis (who he got Van Dyke Parks to produce; parks renamed them Harper’s Bizarre), and had built around himself a small team of musicians, including Waronker’s childhood friend Randy Newman. Parks was part of this group, which quickly started making some of the most interesting — if not always the most commercially successful — music coming out of Hollywood.
As a result of this work, Waronker soon offered Parks the chance to make a solo album with Waronker producing, and Parks eagerly accepted. Provisionally titled Looney Tunes, his album would be a continuation of Parks’ (as opposed to Wilson’s) artistic vision for Smile — a unified piece, with allusive lyrics, a tribute to America and Americana, and to the pre-rock popular song.
To test the waters, a single was recorded and released, under the pseudonym George Washington Brown. Donovan’s Colours took the simple folk song Colours by “British Dylan” Donovan, and turned it into an instrumental (apart from one single line of vocal on the single mix, absent from the album), with Dixieland clarinet, multiple overdubbed ragtime pianos, clanking percussion and complex but joyful orchestration, sounding somewhere between the music Carl Stalling wrote for Warner Bros cartoons, the original, jazzier, version of Rhapsody In Blue, and the piano-roll experiments of Conlon Nancarrow.
While this was, obviously, not a commercial success, it generated enough interest that an album was a definite possibility. Donovan’s Colours was included on the album, of course, as was a small section of Nearer My God To Thee (retitled Van Dyke Parks and credited to Public Domain — another track on the album was titled Public Domain and credited to Van Dyke Parks), but with one exception the songs on the album, now titled Song Cycle, were all Parks’ work — intelligent, complex, music that required multiple listens to grasp, and which eschewed rock instrumentation almost completely in favour of tuned percussion, chromatic harmonica, balalaika, accordion, woodwinds, strings, and tack piano. It’s an album that has a unique sonic fingerprint — a bar or two from the album is enough to identify it absolutely, and not just because of Parks’ arrangements, but also the treatment of his vocal, which is reverbed and processed by engineers Lee Herschberg and Bruce and Doug Botnick so it sounds distant, as if coming in on a radio signal from some other plane of existence.
There are only two exceptions to this on the album — two tracks where you can hear Van Dyke Parks singing as himself, undistorted, without effects. One is the last song, the gorgeous Pot Pourri, where only Parks’ vocal and piano are used, and where the piano is so far up in the mix it’s almost impossible to make out the voice at all. The other is Vine Street, the opening track, and the only new song on the album not written by Parks.
Vine Street, though, was completely of a piece with the rest of the album. Written by Randy Newman with Parks in mind, the track starts with what sounds like a field recording, before the song proper comes in — “that’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade/That was me, third guitar, I wonder where the others are…” (Newman knew that Parks had been third guitar in a folk band with Steve Young and Steve Stills), before introducing two of the major themes of the album — nostalgia, and the landscape and geography of LA and Southern California.
Newman was, by this time, a successful songwriter for hire, and in Vine Street he managed to encapsulate the feel of the album, but in a slightly more accessible way than Parks’ own songs. Musically, Newman’s arrangement contains references not only to other songs on the album but to Parks’ influences — there’s a snatch of Rhapsody In Blue, a couple of bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Parks had earlier recorded a jangle-pop version of the Ode To Joy from the Ninth and released it as a single under the title of Number Nine), and a string figure, suggested by Parks, coming in just before the first mention of the title, designed to mimic the sound of the train in the distance at the end of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album — despite stopping work on Smile, Parks still had enormous admiration for Brian Wilson as a composer and producer.
Parks did make one change to Newman’s original song, though. Newman originally intended the intro to the song to be a performance of a cheesy pop song he’d written called Anita [FOOTNOTE: Newman’s original intended opening can be heard on Harry Nillson’s gorgeous cover version on the Nilsson Sings Newman album, one of the best things either man ever did.], but Parks instead replaced this with a recording of an old folk song, sung by his old friend the country singer Steve Young (who was himself the subject of another of the songs on the album, The All-Golden). The song chosen was Black Jack Davey, a variant of a very old traditional song sometimes also known as The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, about someone who forsakes the comfort and reliability of life as a rich person to run off and live on the fringes of society. Possibly Parks, who had given up writing for what was still at the time the most successful band in the USA in order to write a collection of oblique art songs, saw a parallel with his own life?
Sadly, Song Cycle was not to find the commercial success it deserved — Warners’ head, Joe Smith, was unwilling to release the album at all until Jac Holzman, the head of rival company Elektra, offered to buy it off him. Warners did then put it out, but with a bizarre advertising campaign that Parks believes killed what commercial potential the album had.
Song Cycle would go on to be regarded as a classic, and has as good a claim as any to be the best album of the 60s, but Parks, Newman, and Waronker were already all thinking about future projects together…
Composer: Randy Newman
Line-up: Van Dyke Parks (vocals), Randy Newman (piano), plus some or all of Ron Elliott and Dick Rosmini (guitar), Carl Fortina (accordion) Nicolai Bolin, Vasil Crienica, William Nadel, Alan Reuss, Leon Stewart, and Thomas Tedesco (balalaika). Donald Bagley, Gregory Bemko, Charles Berghofer, Harry Bluestone, Samuel Boghossian, Dennis Budimer, Joseph Ditullio, Jesse Erlich, Nathan Gershman, Philip Goldberg, Armand Kaproff, William Kurasch, Leonard Malarsky, Jerome Reisler, Orville Rhodes, Trefoni Rizzi, Lyle Ritz, Misha Goodatieff, Joseph Saxon, Virginia Majewski, Ralph Schaffer, Leonard Selic, Frederick Seykora, Darrel Terwilliger, and Robert West (strings), Gayle Levant (harp), Norman Benno, Arthur Briegleb, Vincent De Rosa, George Fields, William Green, James Horn, Richard Hyde, Jay Migliori, Thomas Morgan, Ted Nash, Richard Perissi, Thomas Scott, and Thomas Shepard (woodwinds), Hal Blaine, Gary Coleman, James Gordon, and Earl Palmer (percussion), Steve Young (guitar and vocals on Black Jack Davey)
Original release: Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks, Warners WS 1727
Currently available on: Song Cycle, Bella Union CD