Feelin' Counter Revolutionary
By Tony Rettman (March 2002)
If you must rely on your history books (and I suppose some of us younger types have to) you'd be led to believe that 1967 was the year of ultimate musical revolution. If this is the case, where does Harpers' Bizarre fit in? You know, the cats who looked like they just stepped off the set of The Sting and sang songs about debutante balls and did oddball orchestrated covers of Cole Porter tunes. With a sickeningly squeaky clean image and a head-tiltingly bizarre knack for non-psychedelic studio trickery (partly due to their association with some of the finest arrangers in the West Coast scene) you could say Harpers Bizarre were the complete opposite of what was taking over the world at their time of existence. I could go on about how counter revolutionary they were, but I am far too under-educated and you have no time for such tom foolery. I think the band speaks for themselves on that front, so let's just skip the crap and talk about the Harpers Bizarre catalog that was just given the full re-issue treatment by those fine folks at Sundazed.
Harpers' Bizarre debut full length Feelin' Groovy (some might remember the top 30 Paul Simon penned title track) came out in the thick of it in the Spring of '67. Sgt. Pepper, Surrealistic Pillow and many other 'life changing' albums came out around the time, but something in your gut has gotta tell you this particular kitten had very strange claws. Soft lilting pop songs so frickin' square the fellas had to know what they were doing were so off-kilter for the time. The highlights on here are all the Randy Newman penned tunes ("Debutante's Ball," "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear") that are just oh so fulla surrealistic pleasantries in both the lyrical and audio department. The bonus tracks on the CD of this consist of tracks recorded back in '66 when Harpers' Bizarre were known as The Tikis and the songs are a beast of a different pedigree for sure: more of a darker Byrds-like feel than any kind of sunshine 'n' raisins thing. Makes me wonder even harder about these guys.
Harpers' wasted no time and chucked out Anything Goes in the tail end of '67. Working on a thinner tight rope of peculiarity, H.B. opened the thing up with two Cole Porter covers arranged by forgotten genius Perry Botkin Jr. Botkins' arrangements of these tracks are nothing less than being audio equivalents of sophisticated comic books: sounds and colors pop out of corners all over the god damned place and make these tracks some of the best forgotten wonders of the world. In between the goofy covers, there's some truly inspired stuff. The cover of Doug Kershaw's "Louisana Man" and the embarrasingly heart wrenching "Jessie" will always have a close part in my heart. The closing rendition of Van Dyke Parks' "High Coin" will always be a joy to listen to. Roll a joint the size of your head and get lost in it and you'll know what I'm talking about.
In the fall of '68, Harpers' released The Secret History of Harpers' Bizarre, the most studio savvy release of the lot. The arrangement and songwriting credits are spread albeit thinner this time around, and I think it works in the boys' favor. Once again, the non-rock cover tracks ("Sentimental Journey" and "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise") are handed over to Botkin to take care of and he comes up aces again. Tyson and Frickers' "When I Was A Cowboy" would have your average beard rocker hunting for his checkbook and the Ron Elliot (anyone else out there think this guy is one of the most under rated guys in popular music?) penned "I Love You, Momma" is a nice slice of West Coast laid-back rock. That politically correct Bacharach tune "Me, Japanese Boy" is on here as well and it's as lush as a velvet lined pump I tell ya. On the other hand, the tune "Mad" is basically "Hey, You In The Crowd" from the previous album done up with a different shade of make up- pretty sneaky, guys. The bonus track, their stab at Joni's "Both Sides Now," is the capper on a very guilty pleasure.
The final Harpers Bizarre full length with the original line-up (Harpers Bizarre 4) was released in March '69 and it's a strange one to get your head around. There's still the tarted up pop of 'I Love You Alice P. Toklas' (the 'theme song' from the Peter Sellers film of the same name and my first exposure to Harpers' Bizarre, by the by) but the bulk of the material sounds like they were trying to play 'catch up' with the rest of popular music by going 'back to basics.' Whether this is truly the case or not, I do not know. I wasn't there. But nonetheless, the record is a great effort and my favorite out of the group. Ry Cooder's and Ed James' presence on the covers of Otis' 'Knock on Wood' and "Hard to Handle" turns the songs into a backwoods Hollywood party. "Witchi Tai To" is a great pop song, making wonder how it ended up in obscurity. The covers of 'Blackbird' and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (?!?) are obviously best left forgotten. When and if you pick this up, check out the original liner notes for this thing. Truly hilarious to a simpleton like myself: H.P. bass player Dick Yount likes to 'just hang out, or shoot pool, or jam until five in the morning, smoking heavy and chit-chatting,' drummer John Petersen enjoys 'writing poetry and just being quiet').
Overall, the re-issuing of the H.P. stuff is a strange, though endearing effort on Sundazed's part. They look and sound great. My only complaint is that I wish there were present-day liner notes in these things, but I suppose it's hard to find someone who will admit to knowing anything about Harpers' Bizarre. Hey, when you think about it, you can probably pick up all four of these for the same price of some over-rated Krautrock piece of crap. Why not hop to it? Hey Sundazed, when you gonna tackle The Association catalog? I already volunteer for the liner notes. I'll start my research tomorrow and buy a dictionary the next day. Promise!