Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Time/Peace: The Rascals' Greatest Hits"

Although I've never owned a copy of this, every song is imprinted on my DNA -- not from airplay on oldies radio, but from growing up on Long Island in the '60s. As I've written elsewhere, in my German-Irish-Italian Catholic 'hood, first the Four Seasons, then these guys, then the Vanilla Fudge were all more popular than the Beatles, because they were _Italian_. It seemed kinda odd, in the Seasons' case, that Frankie Valli could "Walk Like A Man," sing like a woman, and still get the guys hangin' out in front of the deli so worked up: "'Oo the fahhhck are these _faggots_ from England wit' no collars on dere jackets? SEASONS!"

The Young Rascals might have appeared on Ed Sullivan wearing ridiculous Little Lord Fauntleroy suits, but if you closed your eyes, they sounded kindred spirits of Wilson Pickett, the Isley Brothers, Ray Charles, James Brown, and a strain of urban black masculinity the living incarnation of which scared the absolute living shit out of the slightly older guys in my neighborhood, although they liked their music fine. It puzzled me that not only did the kids I grew up with love this music, but so did my cousins from Hawaii, whose taste generally ran to the Banana Splits and the Osmonds. Maybe it was because the Rascals had played in the Islands.

Sure, in the fullness of time, "In the Midnight Hour" (bane of Jimi Hendrix's existence during his apprenticeship as a chitlin' circuit sideman) and "Mustang Sally" have risen to near the top of my list of "songs I never want to have to hear or play again" (the result of years of playing in shitty bar bands), but I still have to admit that the Rascals did justice to the Wicked Pickett's originals, in the same way the Rationals and Vagrants did to Otis Redding's "Respect" before Aretha got hold of it and made it hers forever.

That brand of "blue-eyed soul" also manifested itself in contemporary hits like the Soul Survivors' "Expressway To Your Heart" (around which we contrived an elaborate mythology that involved two bands' vehicles colliding on the Long Island Expressway and the survivors joining forces to form a new group) and perhaps reached its fullest flowering circa '70 with Detroit's Rare Earth, who were actually signed to a Motown subsidiary, but whose psychedelic soul trappings couldn't hide their lounge-act roots.

The Rascals had a bloodline, Felix Cavaliere and Dino Danelli having played in Joey Dee & the Starlighters of "Peppermint Twist" fame. Felix was among the era's greatest soul shouters of European ancestry and a whiz on the Hammond B-3 to boot, making that instrument a sine qua non of Long Island bands through the end of the '60s. Dino Danelli was excitement personified behind the traps, forcing Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson-loving parents to have to admit that maybe these Rascals had something going for them after all. (When I saw ex-Blondie drummer Clem Burke playing in the Magic Christian with ex-Flamin' Groovie Cyril Jordan at SXSW a couple of years ago, I walked up to him afterward and said, "Dino Danelli lives!" I _think_ he got the compliment.)

Eddie Brigati shook a mean maraca and tambourine, danced up a storm, and was probably a really nice guy, and Canadian Gene Cornish, in spite of playing an unfashionable hollowbody guitar in a time when everyone else was moving to Les Pauls and Strats, was the first guy I ever heard play sliding barre chords and make them _snarl_ the way he did on the Rascals' signature cover of the Olympics' "Good Lovin'" and their even-better revenge fantasy "You Better Run" (on which Felix's anguished cry of "MERCY!" is worth whatever you have to pay to hear it).

After their initial splash, their sound got softer, but never weak. "I've Been Lonely Too Long" skirted Motown territory, while their biggest hit, 1967's "Groovin'," was the most idyllic R&B since the Drifters' roof and boardwalk and a precursor to Sly's "Hot Fun" and War's "All Day Music." For all its goofy cod-psych sound effects, "It's Wonderful" could have been penned by Bob Gaudio for the Seasons circa "Let's Hang On." The only non-snazz aspect of Time/Peace is that it doesn't include their brotherhood anthem "People Got To Be Free," released later and a big hit in the summer of '68, when the decade took a turn to the dark side.


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