Friday, August 29, 2008
The Best Groovy Instrument
I frequently disparage the 1960s, and for good reason: the 1960s have been overrated by the media for, well, for 48 years now; people started thinking the 1960s were supersignificant pretty much as soon as they started, and it's continued unabated ever since then. They've done that, thinking the 1960s were hyperimportant, even though in reality, the 1960s were not even in the top 5 decades of all time.
The top 5 decades of all time, from 10-1, would have to be:
5. 1860-1869: Lincoln, the Civil War, freeing the slaves, the beginning (I think) of "Manifest Destiny"... a very important decade.
4. 1490-1499: Columbus sailed the ocean blue, right? He discovered the New World in this decade. Now, granted, it was (as Douglas Adams might have Dirk Gently point out) just sitting there waiting to be discovered, and there were indigenous people who think they discovered it, and it had been discovered a couple of times before, too, but remembering all those things makes Americans uncomfortable and is hard, whereas ignoring all of those considerations is easy, and if we ignore all of those considerations, then Columbus discovered the New World!
3. 1780-1789: Not for the reasons you think. Yes, the United States won its independence from England in this decade and we made the Constitution, but what's really significant about the decade is that we created not one but two entire governments in just a few short years. Think about that and marvel at how smart and motivated and free from television influences our forefathers were: two governments in a couple years? Nowadays, we can't nominate someone to run the government we already have in that amount of time.
2. 720-729: You don't think this is important, but you didn't live then and never paid attention in history, so who are you to question me?
1. The very first decade of human existence. How could any decade, let alone the 1960s, top this for significance? Every really important development in human existence: walking upright, thinking, existing, occurred in this decade. Plus, it didn't have dumb fashions.
Compared to those, what did the 1960s have? A bunch of baby boomers who by sheer numbers would overwhelm everyone into thinking that everything they ever did was great. Now, granted, every generation thinks that everything that generation did was great, but that's just not the case. What has "Generation Y" ever done? Given us Nirvana and grunge and a new Madden NFL game every year? Big whoop. Generation X's sole contribution is the name "Generation X," which everyone misapplies to the wrong people anyway.
So every generation thinks that everything it's done is really significant and neat and great, and every generation except the ones who fought in world wars is wrong about that. Especially wrong about that are the Baby Boomers, who not only think that everything they've ever done is great, they think that everything they think about everything they've done is great.
I'm not kidding about that, either. In Entertainment Weekly, a while back, some Baby Boomer was able to print a list of all the movies he'd ever seen. He's been keeping that list since he began seeing movies, for some reason, and then he just printed it. No real explanations, no explication, nothing. Just a list. Suddenly, just existing is awesome, if you're a Baby Boomer.
Baby boomers get away with this because they make up 98% of our population, so they can force the rest of us to constantly hear the same three Rolling Stones songs on the radio (Fun fact: did you know the Stones made songs after the 1960s? They did! I looked it up!) and then force us to watch Imax movies about the Rolling Stones playing those songs, and, I expect, they will at some point force us to read a list of all the Rolling Stones songs they've ever heard. At least it will be a short list-- just those three songs.
When you make up 98% of something, you control that thing. Baby boomers have the money, and people who have things to sell need to sell it to the Boomers, which means using those three Stones' songs and letting the Boomers publish lists of things they ate in the 1960s (mostly marijuana brownies, as far as I can tell). Baby boomers grew up in the 1960s, and love hearing how great the 1960s were, so everyone keeps focusing on how great the 1960s were, and nobody ever stops to say wait a minute the 1960s weren't all that great after all.
Before you protest and say what about The Bay of Pigs and the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam and blah blah blah pleh the 1960s was really significant, let me just say this:
Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson didn't compete in the 1960s. Brown v. Board of Education wasn't decided in the 1960s. The Underground Railroad wasn't still running in the 1960s. The 1960s was part of the process of Civil Rights, not the be-all and end-all of it. For all the good the Civil Rights movement did (and it did a lot), it was this current decade that finally saw an African-American nominated for President by a major party.
And the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam? That's a claim to significance? I suppose the arms race of the 1980s was nothing. Or Korea ,World War II, World War I, the Mexican-American War, The Civil War, and the War of 1812, to name a few, were nothing.
So, let's get that out of our system. The 1960s was not all that important, as a decade.
Which is not to say that the 1960s didn't make some contributions to our culture, one of which was good, and that one good contribution made by the 1960s was The Best Groovy Instrument: the synthesizer used in "96 Tears" by "? and the Mysterians."
I'd like to tell you the exact instrument, but I can't -- because like the band's name and lead singer itself, there is some mystery about the exact instrument that was used. Let me quote from a site I found through my usual exhaustive research techniques (googling "what was the synthesizer they used in 96 tears?");
"96 Tears"/Question Mark and the Mysterians: This one has typically been thought to be a Farfisa Combo Compact, but there's been quite a bit of discussion and disagreement about it, with much of the available evidence actually pointing to a Vox Continental as the more likely instrument, including several photos and live appearances with the Vox. According to "The Billboard Book of Number One Hits", regarding "96 Tears": “One of the song’s attributes that has merited attention the past two decades has been its acclaimed use of the Farfisa organ. It was a surprise, then, when Martinez (Lead singer/songwriter Rudy Martinez), revealed in a 1982 Goldmine interview with Jeff Tamarkin that the group used a Vox organ, not a Farfisa” . The Rolling Stone "Encyclopedia of Rock&Roll" also attributes it to a Vox, also mentioning the common assumption that it was a Farfisa. However, our friend Eric from Boss Guitars apparently spoke to Lavern, the band's manager, in 1997, and this is what he said: "Not many people know this, but the organ used mostly on the bands first album "96 tears" was a big Lowery organ. Not a combo organ. Live they'd usually use a Vox continental or a Combo Compact Farfisa." Exactly what model Lowery he didn't know. So score one more for the venerable Lowrey home organ.
Another mystery to ponder: Record labels frequently insist, when they sign a group, that one person be singled out in case the group later breaks up; if they do break up, the record company can still promote the individual singer instead of having to rebuild a whole career. That's why "Edie Brickell & New Bohemians" weren't just "The New Bohemians" when they signed with a major label -- so that if the New Bohemians broke up, Edie Brickell could continue her pop career and the record label wouldn't have wasted all taht time and promotional effort.
So, with that in mind, consider whether a record label exec, in the 1960s, thought well, if they break up, we can always just focus on promoting "?" without The Mysterians.
Leave aside all the questions and controversy about the instrument, though, and just focus on the music. Listening to that song, there is no denying it: that synthesizer is the epitome of groovy. It is swingin', hip, psychedelic, grooving. It is the 1960s, or should be; I've said before that as time marches on and crunches down history like a metaphorical Langolier (or maybe like a literal Langolier; I'm not very clear on whether a fictional concept would be literal or metaphorical if it actually existed), as time does that, we remember less and less of the previous years, so that eventually the developments encompassed by whole centuries can be summarized in just two words ("Magna Carta,") and as time marches on and rolls over the 1960s, we will (hopefully) be thankfully released from the tedium of lists of movies the boomers have watched, and left solely with the one memory of the 1960s that deserves to survive: the synthesizer in "96 Tears," as The Best Groovy Instrument.