THE LEMON PIPERS by Kim Cooper
Bubblegum music was largely the brainchild of producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, with more than a little marketing help from youthful Buddah Records general manager Neil Bogart. The core of the sound was basic American garage rock, two parts “Louie Louie” to one part “96 Tears.” But the lyrics took a giant step backwards, avoiding teenage concerns (girl trouble, mean bosses, bad luck) in favor of the defiantly infantile (sugar-drenched oral gratification, nursery rhymes). It was a style just waiting to explode onto the charts, pushed by a preteen rock audience enjoying their first brush with the thrills of a weekly allowance.
So when in 1967 bubblegum kings Kasenetz and Katz needed a new band for their Super K Productions stable, they knew exactly where to look: central Ohio, which had already provided them with fine raw garage band material in the Music Explosion (which hit with “Little Bit Of Soul” for Laurie Records) and the Ohio Express.
In Oxford, OH they found Ivan & the Sabres, a somewhat progressive Miami University band that was willing to change their name to the Lemon Pipers and follow K&K back to New York City. It was a smart move. Within six months they’d have the #1 record on the pop charts, “Green Tambourine,” just one of many Paul Leka (music)/ Shelley Pinz (lyrics) compositions they’d record.
The Lemon Pipers probably didn’t realize it at first, but Kasenetz and Katz expected that they’d have hits, by any means necessary. If they could knock out a terrific bubblegum single on their own, that was great, but the psychedelic, Byrdsy rock they favored was going to end up as album tracks, if it was released at all.
Nevertheless, the Lemon Pipers would prove the most psychedelic of the so-called bubblegum bands recording for Buddah, as well as the only one that is generally accepted to have played on all their own records. As their producer and main writer, Paul Leka gave them playfully far-out numbers that made use of elaborate orchestration and charmingly simplistic lyrics full of alliteration and fanciful pairings. The result: two of the more cohesive bubblegum albums ever made, and a pair of minor hits to follow the one smash.
The band didn’t think much of “Green Tambourine” on first hearing, and initially refused to record it. A gentle warning from Bogart that they’d do just that if they wanted to stay on Buddah was sufficient to coax out a fine performance. It would be the first Buddah bubblegum single to top the charts.
The Green Tambourine album shows the Pipers in a whimsical Beatlesque vein, dodging Liberace piano trills and raga riffs as they sang about how rice was nice on one’s wedding day, as was living in love’s world of blueberry blue. Leka’s arrangements are dense without heaviness, witty and enjoyable. It’s lightweight orchestral pop fun.
But kids who stuck around till the last track on side two were in for a big surprise. “Through With You” was a 8 1/2 minute garage rock rave up with a great propulsive energy and a mind-expanding, channel-hopping Byrdsy solo leading into an eerie section that’s like a psychedelic whale song, sounding like another band entirely. The same can be said for their first single, another Bartlett original reprised on the album. “Turn Around Take a Look,” is a deceptively simple little tune about stalking, with an insidious hook.
Somewhere between these two sounds was the real Lemon Pipers. You can see why the band was skeptical about becoming a musical mouthpiece for K&K, Bogart and Leka. While “Turn Around” could have been recorded by a number of groups, there weren’t too many that could explore spacerock dimensions and keep a listener’s interest for almost ten minutes. But eight-minute songs don’t sell many singles, so the Pipers’ progressive ambitions were kept carefully in check throughout much of the band’s life.
So who were these Lemon Pipers? Vintage 1968 press releases and liner notes offer some peculiar clues. We learn that 20-year-old singer and rhythm guitarist Ivan Browne digs motorbikes, weird clothes and climbing trees, and lives in a belltower, which helps him get up in the morning. Bill Bartlett (21), lead guitar, from South Harrow, Middlesex, UK, is a senior in the fine arts department, digs Ravi Shankar and aluminum foil, and claims to have seven pet cats –quite an accomplishment for someone in a hit touring band. Organist R.G. “Reg” Nave (22) enjoys SCUBA and skydiving, preferably at the same time. New Zealand-born Steve Walmsley (18) plays bass, and is a poet who likes to catch passing freight cars, with or without trains attached. Drummer Bill Albaugh (18) got himself a pilot’s license for kicks.
The first album reveals an apparent obsession with footwear. “Shoeshine Boy” has an interesting double tracked vocal, and a mournful “Penny Lane” quality. “The Shoemaker of Leatherware Square” is spookily medieval, and quite an odd subject for a pop song. Add these to frothy singles like “Rice is Nice,” “Blueberry Blue,” and of course “Green Tambourine” and you have a strange trip through a psychedelic fantasy land where life is simpler, more sugary, and ones’ shoes look nice.
Album two, Jungle Marmalade, shows the Pipers slipping deeper into demented metaphor with highly entertaining results. The album’s hit (stalling at #51) was Leka and Pinz’ “Jelly Jungle (of Orange Marmalade),” in which the Pipers made a rare attempt at matching the lyrical double entendres practiced by their Buddah colleagues the Ohio Express and 1910 Fruitgum Co. Over an infectious riff the group entices you to “take a trip on my pogo stick/ bounce up and down/ do a trick/ I’ll play a beat on your pumpkin drum/ and we’ll have fun in the sun.” And check out the tongue-in-cheek tribute to enlightenment, “Love Beads and Meditation,” where the singer intones “the tangled mass of membranes that used to be me/ is a memory!” Moving away from orchestration, a countryish side ias revealed on “Catch Me Falling” and on a fine cover of Goffin-King’s “I Was Not Born To Follow.” “Wine and Violet” is cool apocalyptic psych with a freaky backwards tape section, and the 11:52 “Dead End Street/ Half Light” closes the record with some heavy psych slipping into spaced-out reverie.
A lack of chart action seems to have spelled the end for the Lemon Pipers, and the name was retired following album #2. But guitarist Bill Bartlett stayed in touch with Kasenetz and Katz, and his band Autumn again recorded for Buddah in ’73. Four years later, as a member of Ram Jam, he brought K&K a countryish cover of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” that had earned some minor local airplay. K&K re-recorded it in a rock arrangement and saw it reach the Top 20.
Thanks to Gary Pig Gold and James Porter.