butterflies and wheels
10@10

let the sunshine in

The 5th Dimension were a pop R&B ensemble formed in the mid-60s. Three men with different musical backgrounds joined together with two beauty pageant winners, all African-Americans, they were signed to the Soul City label in 1966. Soul City was the brainchild of Johnny Rivers, a white singer who had a series of hits with some excellent covers of Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, and Motown (along with the immortal theme song "Secret Agent Man"). Their first big hit was "Up, Up and Away," which won several Grammies and was written by Jimmy Webb, who also wrote such tunes as "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," and "MacArthur Park." Another early hit for the group was "Stoned Soul Picnic," written by Laura Nyro, an eccentric white girl from the Bronx whose songs were also hits for artists like Barbra Streisand, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Three Dog Night.

Meanwhile, the Summer of Love came and went. Among the "inauthentic" artifacts of that period was a stage musical, Hair, that opened Off Broadway and moved to the real Broadway in 1968. Hair featured such true-to-hippies songs as "Good Morning Starshine" and the title song ("Hair! Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair!").

The story goes that the 5th Dimension took in the play on Broadway and decided to release a medley of two of the musical's songs, "Aquarius" and "Let the Sunshine In." It was a good idea: it won Grammies, it hit #1 on the charts, it sold millions. (The subsequent album, Let the Sunshine In, included songs by not only Laura Nyro, but also Neil Sedaka and Cream.)

So ... we've got an African-American vocal group, singing faux-hippie epics from a Broadway show, on a label run by the guy who sang "Secret Agent Man" when he wasn't covering black artists himself. Some things are simply bottomless.

Fast forward to 1981. Ronald Reagan is inaugurated President of the United States. At the Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco's top punk club back in the day, an anti-inauguration party is held. One of the acts is the drag band Sluts a-Go-Go. I described the event on this blog here:

one thing from that night still sticks with me, when the Sluts sang "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" while incense burned. There I was, in a punk club at the dawn of the Reagan Era, listening to men in drag sing a Broadway version of hippiedom, and I'm not much for irony, for that matter ... in any event, I felt one with the band and the crowd, I wasn't alienated from America in that moment, I was as close to Hippie Community as I'd ever been in the actual hippie days, and I started to cry at the ridiculous wonder of it all.
Like I say, some things are simply bottomless, and you can't always predict what those things will be. Like a Broadway version of the Summer of Love, sung by R&B groups and drag queens, making an impression on a hippie wannabee like me.

Now playing: whattya think? Fifth Dimension, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," of course!

Comments