I am not prone to hyperbole. When I was first traveling through France three decades ago, I learned not to say something was “great” if it was merely “outstanding.” I just saw a film that is not only great; it’s the best film of the past decade.
“Pirate Radio” (aka “The Boat That Rocked”) is the movie I’m writing about. It was written and directed by Richard Curtis, one of the five finest filmmakers working today (I have no idea who the other four are but I wanted some wiggle room just in case I was forgetting someone in the heat of this moment). Mr. Curtis also wrote “Love, Actually” (which he directed), “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, “The Girl in the Café”, “Bridget Jones’ Diary”, “The Tall Guy” and “Notting Hill”, among many other films.
I might also add that it stars the incredible (and incredibly funny) Bill Nighy, an actor who, in my eyes and ears, can do no wrong.
Why would a guy who was a teen in the Los Angeles area during 1966 respond so heavily to a film about the importance of pirate radio, a situation that occurred only in the waters of Great Britain, a phenomenon that solely affected the populace of Great Britain and was never heard on these shores?
It’s because we in the United States (or Los Angeles, at least; I wasn’t traveling around the rest of the country back then) had a direct parallel. Underground radio, radio whose playlist was not controlled by the government, advertisers or corporate owners, began around this time. In Los Angeles it began with KFWB disc jockey B. Mitchell Reed. FM rock did not exist at the time. The Beamer played whatever he wanted. And what he wanted to play was not especially the hits of the day, the music all of the other AM stations were playing. Reed wanted to play the album cuts, English imports, breaking bands in L. A. — in other words, the music the was fresh, new and exciting, the music that no other station was playing.
The key moment in the film comes when The Count, brilliantly (as usual) played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, savors the fact that this period is the best time of his life — the peak. It is rare in life to realize that one is living in a Golden Age at the time one is experiencing that Golden Age. Realization of most Golden Ages typically comes decades later, with their auric sheen heavily burnished by nostalgia.
Like The Count, in 1967 I realized I was enjoying a Golden Age of music while I was experiencing it. In that state of elevated consciousness and recognition, I dearly craved not to miss a single musical second of this glorious time. I listened to the radio constantly, fearful that I would miss a song, an instrumental break, a lyric or any other rare musical moment that might never occur again.
I have crystal clear memories of the night an excited Buffalo Springfield burst into B. Mitchell Reed’s DJ booth, asking him to play this new song they had just recorded, “Bluebird.” It was an eighteen-minute version, now lost in space to the airwaves. The band’s enthusiasm was boundless, almost tangible. The came back night after night with that song, each version a radical departure from the one played on the previous night. Reed and Buffalo Springfield presented listeners with an intimate window into the band’s creative process.
This was a time when Music mattered to me nearly as much as Life. I would take my transistor radio to bed with me each night and stay awake as long as I could, the tiny radio jammed in my ear, my entire body and soul absorbing every precious note.
Not long after this radio breakthrough, FM rock radio began. Suddenly, there were multiple stations playing phenomenal music 24/7. It was a musical heaven here on earth. These weren’t pop stations, nor were they rock stations, country stations, heavy metal stations, hard rock stations, soul stations or jazz stations. These were GREAT MUSIC stations. The quality of the music was the only criteria for it getting on the air. There were no corporate decreed subdivisions of only one musical genre to be played. A pop song would be followed by a soul number after which something psychedelic would be played, then something country or jazz or blues or an Indian sitar raga. This cross-pollination affected the bands and, as a result, 1967 became a peak year in the history of popular music.
What can you say about a year that not only produced The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but Magical Mystery Tour as well? That was bookended by the release of The Doors’ eponymous first LP, Fresh Cream and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced in January and Strange Days, Disraeli Gears and Axis Bold As Love in December?
Without even dipping into the more obscure gems of 1967, that astounding year of the Monterey Pop Festival also saw: the first three Monkees albums (The Monkees, More of The Monkees and Headquarters); three albums each by Donovan (Mellow Yellow, Wear Your Love Like Heaven and For Little Ones), Tommy James & The Shondells (I Think We’re Alone Now, Gettin’ Together and Something Special!) and Otis Redding (Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul, King and Queen and Live In Europe); and five (!) LPs by the ever-so-prolific James Brown & The Famous Flames (Mighty Instrumentals, Handful of Soul, Raw Soul, Cold Sweat and The James Brown Show). Sonny & Cher were nearly (one LP is a greatest hits compilation) as productive as the Godfather of Soul with five LPS released in ‘67: In Case You’re In Love, Good Times (soundtrack to their film), The Best of Sonny & Cher, Sonny’s wacky bad trip solo LP Inner Views and Cher’s solo album, With Love, Cher.
There were two albums each plus a greatest hits collection by five great artists: The Mamas and The Papas (Cass, John, Michelle, Denny plus Deliver and Farewell to the First Golden Era), Eric Burdon & The Animals (Eric Is Here, Winds of Change and Best of Eric Burdon & The Animals – Volume Two), Petula Clark (Color My World/Who Am I, These Are My Songs and Petula Clark’s Hit Parade; plus her single “The Cat in the Window”), Wilson Pickett (The Wicked Pickett, The Sound of Wilson Pickett and The Best of Wilson Pickett), and Paul Revere & The Raiders (Revolution!, A Christmas Past…and Present, and Paul Revere & The Raiders Greatest Hits featuring the previously-unavailable-on-LP 1967 hit “Ups and Downs”).
The following acts produced a mere two albums each (slackers!) in 1967: The Hollies (their psychedelic classics Evolution and Butterfly), Aretha Franklin (her sexually potent and seminal Atlantic LPs I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Loved You and Aretha Arrives, which she followed with the singles “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools” and “Since You’ve Been Gone”), The Dave Clark Five (5 X 5 and You Got What It Takes, plus the single “Everybody Knows”), The Association (Renaissance and Inside Out), Herman’s Hermits (There’s A Kind of Hush All Over The World and Blaze), The Electric Prunes (Electric Prunes and Underground), The Five Americans (Western Union and Progressions), The Four Tops (Four Tops Live! and Four Tops Reach Out), The Fifth Dimension (Up, Up and Away and The Magic Garden), The Spencer Davis Group (Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m A Man), the Temptations (Temptations Live! and With A Lot O’ Soul), The Lovin’ Spoonful (The Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the You’re A Big Boy Now soundtrack and the singles “Six O’Clock” and “She Is Still a Mystery”), Mitch Ryder (Sock It to Me! and What Now My Love), the Small Faces (the From The Beginning collection and their first Immediate LP Small Faces), the Supremes (The Supremes Sing Motown and The Supremes Sing Rogers and Hart, plus their singles “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone,” “The Happening,” “Reflections” and “In and Out of Love”), Martha & The Vandellas (Watchout! and Martha & The Vandellas Live!), The Young Rascals (Collections, Groovin’ as well as their single “It’s Wonderful), Dionne Warwick (Here Where There Is Love, On Stage and In The Movies and The Windows of the World; plus her two-sided hit single “I Say A Little Prayer”/Theme from “The Valley of the Dolls”), Sky Saxon & The Seeds (Future and A Full Spoon of Seedy Blues), The Turtles (Happy Together and The Turtles! Golden Hits, as well as the singles “You Know What I Mean” and “She’s My Girl”) and The Kinks (Live at Kelvin Hall and the magnificent Something Else, plus their wonderful “Autumn Almanac”/”Mr. Pleasant” single). Between The Buttons and Their Satanic Majesty’s Request by The Rolling Stones (plus their “We Love You”/”Dandelion” single), the first two albums by Cat Stevens (Matthew and Son and New Masters), Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys (The Stone Poneys and Evergreen – The Stone Poneys Volume Two), Peter, Paul & Mary (Album 1700 and In Japan) and Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention (Freak Out! and Absolutely Free) were all released in 1967.
As if that wasn’t enough, there were the eponymous debut albums of Procol Harum, Buffalo Springfield (plus their singles “Bluebird”, “Mr. Soul” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman”), Moby Grape, The Grateful Dead, The Cowsills, Spanky & Our Gang, Ten Years After, David Bowie, Big Brother & The Holding Company and The Youngbloods. Other LP debuts from 1967 include Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd (Piper At the Gates of Dawn), Traffic (Mr. Fantasy), Keith Emerson’s first band, The Nice (The Songs of Everlist Davjack), The Strawberry Alarm Clock ( Incense and Peppermints), The Bee Gees (First, plus the singles “Massachusetts” and “Words”) and Scott Walker (Scott). 1967 saw the release of the last album by the Yardbirds (Little Games), Younger Than Yesterday by The Byrds, Smiley Smile by the Beach Boys, Da Capo by Love, Electric Comic Book by The Blues Magoos, Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, Whispers by Jackie Wilson (and his hit single “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”), Down to Earth (and the non-LP singles of that year: “Travellin’ Man,” “I Was Made To Love Her” and “I’m Wondering”) by Stevie Wonder and Days of Future Passed (which resurrected the Moody Blues).
But wait — there’s more! 1967 also gave birth to the first singles by Fleetwood Mac (“I Believe My Time Ain’t Long”/”Rambling Pony”), Fairport Convention (“If I Had A Ribbon Bow”), Van Morrison (“Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Ro Ro Rosey” and “Spanish Rose”), The Move (“Night of Fear,” “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” and “Flowers in the Rain”) Steppenwolf (“A Girl I Know”/“The Ostrich” plus their pre-Steppenwolf recordings as Sparrow) and Jeff Beck (“Hi Ho Silver Lining”/”Beck’s Bolero” and “Tallyman”/”Rock My Plimsoul”). There were hit albums by Booker T. & The M.G.’s (Hip Hug-Her), Neil Diamond (a greatest hits collection that included the ‘67 smashes “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” “I Thank The Lord for the Night Time” and “Kentucky Woman”), Ray Charles ( Ray Charles Invites You to Listen, plus his singles “In the Heat of the Night” and “Yesterday”), Dusty Springfield (Where Am I Going and the singles “The Look of Love” and “I’ll Try Anything”) and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (Away We A Go-Go and the single hits ”More Love” and “I Second That Emotion”).
Pete Townshend was telling life stories through The Who in under three minutes (with songs like “Happy Jack”, “Pictures of Lily” and “I Can See For Miles”); crisp, concise stories that would later take him double LPs to relate.
Burt Bacharach’s and Hal David’s heyday had already peaked in 1965, but in 1967 they were still on a roll with songs like “What the World Needs Now Is Love”, “The Windows of the World”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “The Look of Love” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You”.
Top Ten charting singles in 1967 also include “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville, “Knight In Rusty Armour” by Peter & Gordon, “Winchester Cahedral” by The New Vaudeville Band, “Sugar Town” by Nancy Sinatra, “That’s Life” by Nancy’s dad, Frank Sinatra, “Something Stupid” by the two of them, “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers, “Tell It to the Rain,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “C’mon Marianne” by Frankie Valli & The 4 Seasons, “Kind of a Drag,” “Don’t You Care,””Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song),” “Susan” and “Mercy Mercy Mercy” by The Buckinghams, “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet” by The Blues Magoos, “98.6” by Keith, “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” by The Casinos, “Baby I Need Your Lovin’,” “Summer Rain” and “The Tracks of My Tears” by Johnny Rivers, “Sweet Soul Music” by Arthur Conley, “Close Your Eyes” and “Love Is Strange” by Peache s & Herb, “Release Me (and Let Me Love Again” by Engelbert Humperdinck, “Little Bit O’ Soul” by The Music Explosion and “I Got Rhythm” by The Happenings.
More ‘67 Top Tenners: “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie, “Tip of My Tongue” and “Let’s Live for Today” by The Grass Roots, “Come On Down to My Boat” by Every Mothers’ Son, “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, “Come Back When You Grow Up” by Bobby Vee, “The Letter” and “Neon Rainbow” by The Box Tops, “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” by Jay & The Techniques, “At the Zoo” and “Fakin’ It” by Simon & Garfunkel, “Shake a Tail Feather” by James & Bobby Purify, “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” by Dean Martin, “Little Darling (I Need You)” and “Your Unchanging Love” by Marvin Gaye, plus “Your Precious Love by Marvin with Tammi Terrell, “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)” by The Hombres, “Gimme Little Sign” by Brenton Wood, “To Sir With Love” by Lulu, “Soul Man” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” by Sam & Dave, “Expressway to Your Heart by The Soul Survivors, “It Must Be Him” by Vicki Carr, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Everybody Needs Love” and “Take Me In Your Arms and Hold Me” by Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Back On the Street Again” by The Sunshine Company, “Please Love Me Forever” by Bobby Vinton, “Green Tambourine” by The Lemon Pipers, “Boogaloo Down Broadway” by The Fantastic Johnny C, “Woman, Woman” by The Union Gap, “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band, “Bend Me, Shape Me” by The American Breed and “Skinny Legs and All” by Joe Tex.
The pop flowers of 1967 sprang from the ripe seeds of 1966.
Following the racial music barriers broken down by Motown in 1966, the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival brought the introduction and embrace of Otis Redding and the gritty hard core black soul music to a white audience.
Black music influenced white music. White psychedelia influenced black music (i.e., the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack”). We were all tripping together. George Harrison introduced Eastern music, sowing the seeds for the current interest in World Music, whose influence spread to Donovan, The Animals and The Rolling Stones. The Eastern sound permeated the underground here and then mainstream American pop. Every group seemed to have their eastern-influenced song or jam.
Don Kirshner recruited the finest songwriters to write songs for his group The Monkees, transplanting Brill Building pop pioneers Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Neil Diamond, Ellie Greenwich & Barry Mann to the west. Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, and session musicians (including Glen Campbell and members of Phil Spector’s legendary Wrecking Crew) were recruited to play on the records, augmenting The Monkees’ own huge talents. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band first broke through the underground with a cover of The Monkees song “Mary Mary”, penned by Monkee Michael Nesmith. “Monkee money” kept a lot of young songwriters and musicians alive.
Prior to 1967 the pop market’s focus was primarily the singles market. Underground radio changed all of that. The hip amongst the youth sneered at AM radio for only playing the short version of The Doors’ “Light My Fire”. On FM you could hear the full 5:17 version. Spearheaded by The Beatles, who insisted that their LP songs be every bit as good as their singles, other groups took noticed and applied the same craft and care to their album cuts.
Although “Pirate Radio” is about a Great Britain event, its metaphors and energy clearly transcend the geographical limits of borders and oceans to apply and affect us Yanks.
I urge any of you music fans out there to drop everything and rush to see “Pirate Radio.” To badly paraphrase a Beatles lyric, the rush you make will be equal to the rush you take from this great film.