Sunday, August 25, 2013

Flashback, August 1968: The Rascals Hit #1 With Equality Anthem

The group that first epitomized the notion of “blue-eyed soul,” The Rascals, achieved their third #1 Billboard pop chart hit with their socially conscious anthem, “People Got to be Free,” in August 1968. But just when the New Jersey quartet had reached its zenith, changing musical tastes and internal tensions led to a decline in popularity so precipitous that they never had another Top 20 hit.

A prior post of mine considered the group during the brief Broadway run of their concert-career review, Once Upon a Dream. But “People Got to be Free” represented a particularly fascinating moment both for the band and the popular music scene in that tumultuous year.

In January 1968, the Tet offensive heightened concerns that the Vietnam War was a futile exercise in bloodletting. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy that spring blighted hopes for a less racially divisive, more egalitarian society. Later in August, when Chicago police cracked down on protesters at the Democratic Convention, it confirmed radicals in their worries about the government’s incipient authoritarianism (and conservative concerns that the center could not hold).

Just how supercharged the atmosphere was that month can be seen in another hit released then, the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Deejays (and many listeners) missed the handwringing when Mick Jagger sang, "But what can a poor boy do, 'cept sing in a rock and roll band." Instead, they focused on a lyric that appeared to promise an army of clenched fists: “the time is right for fighting in the street."

In contrast, The Rascals (now a long way from their initial name, The Young Rascals) yielded a record whose buoyant production matched its exultant lyric. It was almost like a protest record without the anger. Felix Cavaliere’s vocal exuded optimism from the first syllable, promising that the instinct for freedom was both universal (“all the world over”) and, similar to what an American founding document declared, self-evident (“it’s easy to see”). Moreover, Cavaliere, vocalist Eddie Brigati, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli, always eager to expand their aural palette, overlaid everything with a brassy horn section. When they promised in the song’s closing spoken words, then, that “the train of freedom” was “about to 'rrive any minute, now,” triumph—both for the progress of freedom and the group—seemed unstoppable.

Atlantic Records execs begged to disagree. "'You can't put this record out,"' Cornish remembered them saying, according to an essay on the Jersey boys by Joe Russo and Kevin Phinney that was included on CD retrospectives years later. "'Why not?' 'Because you're not black. You are free.' We said, 'Who's talking about just being black? We're talking about freedom of speech, artistic freedom, freedom of religion. People got to be free."'

The group may have believed in riding “the train of freedom,” but more important for their creative purposes, they were still riding the train of success from hits such as "Good Lovin'," "Groovin," "How Can I Be Sure," and "It's a Beautiful Morning." The record company yielded. "People Got to Be Free" went on to spend five weeks at #1 on the U.S. charts, eventually being covered by Dionne Warwick, Johnny Johnson and the Band Wagon, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Keb’ Mo. The Rascals were at the zenith of a cultural moment. The moment wouldn’t last. It never does.

To their great credit, the group announced it would not appear in any concerts unless half the bill consisted of blacks. It was a noble stand in a rock ‘n’ roll industry where audience tastes would soon calcify along racial lines (and, indeed, it probably cost the quartet some lucrative dates in the South).

More worrisome, the group began to take itself a mite too seriously, to Make Statements. They weren’t just content to sing one song about freedom, but to follow it up with an entire album, Freedom Suite. Their new, jazzier compositions stretched the envelope of the tight, three-minute song format in which they excelled. For many fans, tiring of both the preacher and the greater attention demanded of their eardrums, the envelope broke.

In one sense, the year before, when they jettisoned both their matching Edwardian jackets and the “young” from their name, the Rascals had recognized the dangers ahead. “Flying too high can confuse me,” Brigati had cautioned his lover in the passionate lament, “How Can I Be Sure.”

"We were going so high up, we lost control,” recalled a bitter Cavaliere nearly 40 years later in an interview with Gary James for the Web site Classic Bands. “Everything was happening too quickly. The money. The parties. The women. The kids screaming. The constant pressure to produce. Orgies in the back seat. It was sickening. I was very disillusioned."

The rumors that songwriting partners Cavaliere and Brigati were squabbling turned out to be true. The hits petered out, and by 1971 so were Brigati and Cornish. The following year, the group issued its last album under that name.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released at the same time that the Rascals were crumbling, was, in effect, the last echo of the great decade for protest music. Their dream of a shared musical culture was dying, along with the lack of self-consciousness that rich performers could bring to commenting on dire social conditions no longer closely within their ken.

But the influence of The Rascals didn’t die. The “blue-eyed soul”  they pioneered would be taken up in the years ahead by the likes of Hall and Oates, Rare Earth, Tower of Power, the Average White Band, Steely Dan, Boz  Scaggs, and Michael McDonald. Moreover, their success in blending motley influences, black and white, impressed itself on the man who would work tirelessly to reunite them 40 years later, Steve Van Zandt, as well as the latter’s “Boss,” Bruce Springsteen.

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