We’re all weird people, and we love it

I was scrolling through Facebook recently, where my feed typically includes music-related posts based on my tendency toward music-related topics. Some random website came up with a playlist of “Weird Songs We Love,” which definitely piqued my interest. Most of the selections were from recent years by artists I didn’t know, but it got me thinking about compiling a list of weird songs I like from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, which readers know is the era I write about on “Hack’s Back Pages.”

Let’s define our terms. Historically, “weird” meant eerie or supernatural, but on this post, I’m talking about weird as in bizarre, strange, odd, eccentric, or off the wall. I don’t mean silly, which generally means foolish, idiotic or frivolous. I’m referring to music that is intentionally unusual, even uncategorizable. It might offer the use of quirky sound effects, or an unorthodox blend of instruments, or somewhat nonsensical lyrics. And yet, the result is music that some people might find strangely appealing.

You’ll notice that more than half of the songs on the playlist were released in the ’60s, a time when boundaries were being broken and conventional approaches were being questioned. For instance, some tracks are almost atonal in their strangeness. Some are rather shocking (or were, for their time). Most are merely outside the box, seriously different from what we’re used to hearing.

Conventional or narrow-minded listeners might consider these tunes to be “songs that make you say ‘WTF?'” The dozen songs I have included here, probably the most subjective list I’ve ever assembled, are for the more broadly receptive listeners who are willing to experience these artists’ experimental projects. No doubt many of you can come up with your own candidates for “weird songs we love.”

It might be tough to play this setlist in its entirety, but I hope you’re curious enough to put your expectations and preconceptions on the shelf for a spell and try to absorb what’s going on here. Perhaps you’ll be surprised by how compelling some of this stuff can be.

****************************

“The Intro and The Outro,” Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, 1967

The Bonzos were British art school multi-instrumentalists and performers in the 1960s who creatively combined elements of music hall, jazz and psychedelia with surreal humor and avant-garde art. Their 1967 debut album “Gorilla” includes “Death Cab For Cutie,” a song heard in The Beatles’ surreal “Magical Mystery Tour” film (and also inspired the 1990s/2000s band of the same name). I’ve always been amused by “The Intro and The Outro,” on which droll member Viv Stanshall rattles off the names of people who ostensibly perform on the track (Quasimodo? Roy Rogers? Liberace? Adolph Hitler?) while a loose jazz jam plays in the background. Funny, and weird.

“Plastic People,” Mothers of Invention, 1967

It’s no surprise that California had its own avant-garde music scene, led by the brilliant, prickly maverick Frank Zappa and his erstwhile band, The Mothers of Invention. Zappa was heavily into sonic experimentation and outrageous lyrics with the band’s original lineup (1966-1970), and those first several albums broke barriers and had many listeners scratching their heads. The band brazenly debuted with a double album called “Freak Out” that inspired dozens of edgy bands in the coming decades. On their second album, the opening track, “Plastic People” offers a fine example of The Mothers’ singularly weird stew of rock, classical, jazz and atonal musical genres.

“Let X=X,” Laurie Anderson, 1982

A super-literate performance artist, composer and multi-instrumentalist, Anderson emerged from the New York arts scene in the mid-’70s with an arresting brand of avant-garde music, merging unusual vocalizing and instrumentation with the latest music technology. Her first album, “Big Science,” turned a lot of heads, and its uncommercial 8-minute single, “O Superman,” somehow reached #2 in the UK. Anderson’s virtuosity on violin was typically overshadowed by her fascination with innovations like vocal filters and talking sticks, creating weirdly compelling sounds like on “Let X=X” from the “Big Science” LP. She ended up marrying iconoclast Lou Reed later in life.

“You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” The Beatles, 1970

This track, one of the weirdest in The Beatles’ catalog, was recorded over four separate sessions between 1967 and 1969. It wasn’t released until 1970 when it became the B-side of the “Let It Be” single. As Paul McCartney recalled, “John turned up at the studio and said, ‘I’ve got a new song’. I said, ‘What’s the words?’ and he replied, ‘You know my name, look up the number.’ I asked, ‘What’s the rest of it?’ ‘No, no other words, those are the words. And I want to do it like a mantra.” That’s exactly what they did, repeating the phrase in various affected voices over a plodding rock beat, a cocktail-lounge shuffle and a jazzy night-club groove with disruptive asides shouted intermittently. Don’t know why I love it. I just do.

“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha,” Napoleon XIV, 1966

I suppose this track would be considered offensive today to those with severe mental illnesses who require institutionalization, but in 1966, it qualified as a novelty hit that actually reached #3 on the US pop charts. A singer/songwriter/producer named Jerry Samuels adopted the stage name Napoleon XIV to record the track, randomly speeding up and slowing down the tempo to make the vocals sound crazier. It’s one of several he recorded that comically explored insanity (“Bats in My Belfry,” “The Nuts On My Family Tree,” “I Live in a Split-Level Head”). On the B-side of the “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” single was the same song recorded backwards (“”!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT”). Talk about WEIRD.

“Oscillations,” Silver Apples, 1968

On of the earliest influences on my rock music listening habits was my friend Paul and his brother Joe, who turned me on to boundary-pushing artists like Frank Zappa and also lesser-known ones like Silver Apples, a New York City synthesizers-and-drums duo. Simeon Coxe and Danny Taylor were among the first to make use of electronic music techniques in the rock/pop genre, employing pulsating rhythms and synthesized melodies from primitive equipment of Coxe’s own devising. These days, electronica is an accepted genre played by many dozens of bands worldwide, but in 1968, Silver Apples — and songs like “Oscillations” — were definitely at the vanguard of a new, weird genre.

“The Scarecrow,” Pink Floyd, 1967

There are those who think the bulk of Pink Floyd’s repertoire qualifies as weird, but in my view, only their earliest work (1967-1971) falls under that category. In particular, the group’s debut LP, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” largely written by their ill-fated founder Syd Barrett, was really out there, an enigmatic, perplexing batch of tracks the likes of which no one had heard before. I could’ve selected any of the “tunes” from this LP for this post’s playlist, but I settled on “The Scarecrow,” a strange, brief track, using primarily percussion and organ, which equates the scarecrow with society’s outcasts: “The black and green scarecrow, as everyone knows, stood with a bird on his hat and straw everywhere, /He didn’t care…”

“Pasties and a G-String,” Tom Waits, 1976

Waits arrived in 1973 with a remarkable debut album, “Closing Time,” which offered gorgeous melodies and poignant lyrics delivered with vocals so gravelly as to make Bob Dylan sound like a choir boy in comparison. Waits often wrote about outliers and sketchy characters from life’s dark underbelly, championing them as people who were merely dealt a bad hand. His material drifted into looser jazz arrangements as his career progressed, and by 1976, his LP “Loose Change” included quasi-improvisational tracks like “Pasties and a G-String,” with its strip-club lyrics and weird forms of scat singing/talking. Waits has dabbled in blues, rock and experimental genres well into the 2000s.

“The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back,” Captain Beefheart, 1969

Right up there with the other iconoclasts of the avant-garde frontier of ’60s rock music was Don Van Vliet, who assumed the stage name Captain Beefheart. The California-based artist imposed dictatorial control over his rotating ensemble called His Magic Band, pumping out a dozen albums between 1967-1982 that offered idiosyncratic free jazz, blues rock and absurdist lyrics. His high-water mark, if you can call it that, came when he collaborated with Zappa on “Trout Mask Replica,” a favorite LP of many critics of that era. Beefheart’s recorded output was as influential as it was weird. Take a listen to “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back” for a quintessential sample.

“Zilch,” The Monkees, 1967

“Headquarters,” The Monkees’ third LP, was their first with songwriting and instrumental performances by members of the group. Michael Nesmith wrote three songs himself and five others were written or co-written by the other three Monkees. One of these was the zany tongue twister “Zilch,” in which each band member repeated a nonsensical line they had heard on film, in court or on loudspeakers: “Mr. Dobbaleena, Mr Bob Dobbaleena”; “China Clipper calling Alameda”; “Never mind the ‘furthermore,’ the plea is self-defense”; “It is of my opinion that the people are intending.” It’s a precisely timed vocal exercise until it eventually degenerates into chaos and laughter. To a 12-year-old like me, this was both weird and hilarious.

“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” David Bowie, 1974

The late, great David Bowie has been likened to a chameleon for the way he would continually change his persona and musical approach, sometimes radically, throughout his six decades in the business. He thought nothing of giving his listeners figurative whiplash as he flip-flopped from accessible to dense, from sunny pop to weird industrial. Sometimes this happened on the same album; on 1974’s “Diamond Dogs,” Bowie gave us the commercial rock anthem “Rebel Rebel” as well as the head-scratching finale, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” The full range of Bowie’s musical spectrum is on display in a new biopic called “Moonage Daydream,” to be released at IMAX theaters in mid-September.

“Surfin’ Bird,” The Trashmen, 1963

In 1962, a talented vocal doo-wop trio from Los Angeles called The Rivingtons came up with a gritty soul classic called “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” that, while memorable, stalled at #48 on the charts. They tried again the following year with the similar sounding “The Bird’s the Word,” which also failed to connect with listeners. Then came The Trashmen, a Minneapolis band that billed itself as “the premier landlocked Midwestern surf group of the ’60s,” who took elements of both Rivingtons tracks and came up with “Surfin’ Bird,” which has a more garage-band feel and the outrageously abrasive vocals of drummer Steve Wahrer. Nowhere near as good as The Rivingtons, but it reached #3 on the charts. How weird is that?

***************************

Honorable mention:

C.I.A. Man,” The Fugs, 1967; “Baby’s On Fire,” Brian Eno, 1974; “Heinz Baked Beans,” The Who, 1968; “Hocus Pocus,” Focus, 1973; “The Lantern,” The Rolling Stones, 1967; Do the Strand,” Roxy Music, 1972; “Alley Oop,” The Hollywood Argyles, 1960; “Coconut,” Harry Nilsson, 1972; “Ahab the Arab,” Ray Stevens, 1962.

*****************************

Songs to see you through the end of summer

As summer winds down, I’m feeling a little wistful, a little relaxed, and my deep dive into “lost classics” of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is consequently leaning toward the mellower choices this time around.

The rockers among my readers may fail to recognize some of these selections, or even the artists who recorded them. But that’s the fun of lost classics — even though they were recorded 50+ years ago, sometimes they’re brand-new songs to you because they came in under your radar at the time.

I hope you find these tunes to your liking.

************************

“Tell Me What You Want,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974

I think it’s safe to say that every album The Doobies released has at least one “lost classic” — a deep track that got little airplay but is still well worth our time and attention.  The band’s fourth LP, “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits,” will forever be known for its first #1 hit, “Black Water,” and the minor single “Eyes of Silver,” but there are about a half-dozen other strong tunes to explore.  I’ve always enjoyed Pat Simmons’ engaging, mostly acoustic “Tell Me What You Want,” featuring the sweet pedal-steel work of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter in the outro.  Baxter was then still a full-time member of Steely Dan, but as that group evolved into a duo with multiple guest musicians, he would soon make the jump to join The Doobies’ lineup.

“You’re Only Lonely,” J.D. Souther, 1979

If the lush harmonies you hear throughout this soothing track sound like those of The Eagles, that’s because the voices belong to Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Don Felder, plus Jackson Browne and Phil Everly for good measure.  These gents were happy to help their friend John David Souther on his 1979 solo LP because he was an honorary Eagle, having co-written such hits as “Best of My Love,” “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight.”  (He also co-wrote and co-sang “Her Town Too” with James Taylor in 1981.)  “You’re Only Lonely” — a tribute of sorts to Roy Orbison’s 1960 classic, “Only the Lonely” — reached an impressive #7 on the US pop chart at a time when disco and New Wave were dominant.

“Still Believe,” Michael Tomlinson, 1987

Tomlinson came up out of the Austin, Texas, music scene in the mid-’80s, offering a pleasing acoustic style that caught the attention of certain radio program directors, particularly “relaxing radio” like The Wave. That’s where my friend Mark first heard Tomlinson’s song “All is Clear,” prompting him to buy his 1989 LP, “Face Up in the Rain,” and also his earlier album, “Still Believe.” I borrowed these records and enjoyed several standout tracks, most notably the positivism behind the lyrics of “Still Believe.” Tomlinson grew frustrated with record labels and corporate takeovers of radio stations and chose to withdraw from the business, but he later established his own private label and continues to write and record new music.

“It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” Jim Croce, 1973

Croce’s story is such a sad one, ending prematurely in a plane crash just as his years of hard work were beginning to pay off.  After two hits in 1972 (“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” and “Operator”) and a #1 hit in the summer of 1973 (“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”), he was poised to join the top ranks of singer songwriters with his album and title song (“I Got a Name”) until fate intervened.  Several posthumous singles were released — “Time in a Bottle” (another #1), the #9 hit “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song” and, one of my favorites in his catalog, the poignant “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” with Christmas-flavored lyrics and even the use of handbells.

“The Euphrates,” Seals and Crofts, 1972

I remember being so knocked out by this duo’s first hit, “Summer Breeze,” that I pretty much ran to the record store to pick up the album of the same title.  I found a delightful collection of melodic songs brimming over with spiritual lyrics espousing a life of selflessness and optimism.  The voices of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, the instruments (guitars and mandolin, mostly) and professional production give these tracks a majestic sweep.  Buried on side two is a real sleeper called “The Euphrates,” which references the historic river running from Turkey through Syria and Iraq into the area formerly known as Mesopotamia:  “The deep, deep river.  The wide, wide river.  The long, long river.  Spiritual river.  The river of life…”

“Dreidel,” Don McLean, 1972

“American Pie” is so imbedded in the arc of popular culture that, sadly, it has overshadowed everything else McLean ever recorded.  He is a gifted songwriter who has composed some thoughtful pieces over the years that are worthy of our attention.  “Vincent,” his tribute to Van Gogh, was a fairly sizable hit on its own, but other McLean material has been overlooked.  I love the changes in tempo and instrumentation that mark the arrangement of “Dreidel,” a modest #21 hit in early 1973 based on the four-sided spinning top Jewish children play with while observing Hanukkah.  For him, a dreidel symbolizes life itself:  “Round and around the world you go, spinning through the lives of the people you know, we all slow down…”

“Time to Space,” Loggins and Messina, 1974

This duo happened more or less by accident when Jim Messina, a staff producer at Columbia and alumnus of the country rock band Poco, was tasked with shepherding newcomer Kenny Loggins through the production of his debut album.  It became instead “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In,” the first of six studio albums (plus two live LPs) by the duo in the 1970s.  For my money, 1974’s “Mother Lode” is their best stuff, with nary a weak moment on the album.  The track that has never ceased to captivate me is “Time to Space,” which begins and ends as a beautiful ballad, interrupted halfway through with an exhilarating uptempo section featuring flute/sax man Jon Clarke.  Wow!

“Written in Sand,” Santana, 1985

Emerging from San Francisco at the end of the ’60s, Santana went through many personnel changes over the years, but always with guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana at the helm. The group’s LPs routinely made it to the Top 20 on the US album charts, including two #1s in the early ’70s. The use of congas and vigorous percussion remained a mainstay element of Santana’s oeuvre, but by the 1980s, synthesizers and drum machines began creeping into the mix, which alienated some longtime fans. The 1985 LP “Beyond Appearances” was their first to fail to crack the Top 50, but it had a minor hit, “Say It Again,” featuring vocalist Alex Ligertwood, who also sang on the LP’s best track, the luxurious “Written in Sand.”

“Ship of Fools,” Robert Plant, 1988

In the wake of Led Zeppelin’s demise, many observers assumed we’d hear much more from Jimmy Page, but it was Robert Plant who emerged with the most active solo career, scoring four consecutive Top 20 LPs in the 1980s. His fourth, “Now and Zen,” was probably his most consistently satisfying, with the killer opening song, “Heaven Knows,” “Helen of Troy” and the intriguing “Tall Cool One,” in which Plant made liberal use of samples from a half-dozen Led Zep tracks. I’m also partial to “Ship of Fools,” a wonderfully moody piece that shows off Plant’s vocal shading in the same way we heard on “I’m in the Mood” from his 1983 LP, “The Principle of Moments.”

“The Right Moment,” Gerry Rafferty, 1982

Following his rocky beginning as half of Stealer’s Wheel, with whom he recorded the 1973 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You,” Rafferty finally resolved legal differences and made a huge splash with his first solo LP, “City to City,” which included the #1 hit “Baker Street” and “Right Down the Line.” Two more albums in the same vein followed, but by 1982, people had stopped paying attention, due in part to Rafferty’s aversion to touring. His “Sleepwalking” album that year failed to chart in the US, but I found three strong songs on it: “Standing at the Gate,” “Cat and Mouse” and the gentle yet forceful “The Right Moment,” carried by Rafferty’s rich vocals and the marvelous keyboard work of Dire Straits’ Alan Clark.

“Bitter Creek,” The Eagles, 1973

With strong personalities like Don Henley and Glenn Frey around, it was inevitable that the other two founding members of The Eagles would eventually feel marginalized enough to become disillusioned and leave the nest.  Bernie Leadon, whose country/bluegrass roots had brought him to the group by way of The Flying Burrito Brothers, was probably the group’s most talented player, and a fine vocalist and songwriter as well.  He co-wrote three tracks on “Eagles” and then penned two of the best songs on “Desperado” by himself.  In particular, Leadon’s “Bitter Creek” remains the most neglected song in The Eagles’ repertoire, with lyrics that warn of desert dangers while tying into the outlaw cowboy theme of the “Desperado” LP.

“Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” Judy Collins, 1968

A stalwart of the thriving folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, Collins at first limited her repertoire to traditional material and the works of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. By 1966, she began branching out, attempting covers of nascent songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, eventually scoring a Top Ten hit with Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” In 1968, she enlisted the help of fine musicians like Stephen Stills, James Burton and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Emmons to beef up the arrangements for her countryish hit, “Someday Soon,” and the moving song written by Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.”

*******************************