by Chris Davidson
What can sunshine pop hope to prove in this evil, angry world? Sunshine pop—the effervescent song of rampant happiness. A thousand hummingbirds grooving to newly discovered nectar. The virginal essence of pop, wispy and white and skimmed off a cool vanilla milkshake to be infused with gleeful melody. The together timbre of the Association, the pleasing gum-snap of the Yellow Balloon, or—most perfectly—the dazzling choral layercake of the Cowsills. What chance do these sun-drenched sounds have with us moderns?
Those with the faintest longing for purity know well the uplifting—nay the inspiring—power of this music. At its most blinding it matches bubblegum’s oomph note for note. But not for sunshine pop the sexual subtext or nasal bleating: where bubblegum says, “I got love in my tummy,” s-pop exclaims: “I love the flower girl.” A fine line, to be sure. Over here one type of joyful noise, over there another. But darn it if sunshine pop isn’t its own cheerful potpourri of twirling, exuberant arrangements and over-the-bra lovey-doveyness. Baroque pop, you ask? Not really, although the harpsichord features prominently at times, and an Old World flavor definitely pervades. Folk rock, then? Not quite, despite an acoustic drop cloth on which everything eventually lands. The balance is precarious. The peel of a harmonica or improper throaty vocal will snatch an otherwise frisky sunshine tune from your grasp and deposit it back into the standard 1960s pop camp.
Sunshine pop had a fling with the best-seller crowd in the mid-’60s—or, more correctly, light harmony pop did, for its lush harmonies and wistful themes approached but did not capture the oblique and melancholy X Factor of sunshine pop. Radio staples like “Younger Girl” and “Love (Can Make You Happy)” came close. Reams of sublime examples ducked beneath the charts. Bubbling under, the likes of the Sunshine Company’s “I Just Want To Be Your Friend” the well documented “The Grooviest Girl In The World” and “California My Way” by the Committee turned us gay with AM delight.
Some b-gum stars straddled both camps—the Archies’ “Sugar and Spice” is sun-baked like Dennis Wilson’s split ends. But sunshine pop is best discovered in the margins of bubblegum where the acknowledged luminaries took a backseat to a simplified (and remarkably moving) emotional milieu, an endless series of first dates and the blinding optimism of youth. Hit and flop alike, speak softly, and behold sunshine pop’s gentle-hearted best and brightest:
The Beach Boys
Traced directly to these rapturous lads, the roots of sunshine pop reside not so much with the overplayed hits as with certain pre-Pet Sounds album cuts. The trick is the rich B. Wilson production, which piles high the harmonies—a central facet and key differentiator between straight surf vocal disks and the true sunny stuff. Sunshine pop is, after all, less about summer rock-and-roll and more about the evocation of summer shadiness, a delicate point. A thousand harmony-laden masterpieces owe patent infringement damages to “In the Parking Lot” and especially “Let Him Run Wild.”
Too freshman-year earnest after their first hits to qualify as mainstays of the movement, the Association delivered a superb first album—And Then Along Comes The Association—overseen by producer Curt Boettcher and featuring tight bursts of harmony pop shrapnel. Forgive the facial hair for their still-thrilling “Along Comes Mary.”
Optimism rock—family division. The vociferous Cowsill brood galvanized Rhode Island with the most gleaming pipes of all, a team of precision instruments tightly wound like a teenage Magnificent Seven. After a few flop singles, the tribe exploded with towering, sun-basted material: “The Rain, The Park And Other Things” “Gray, Sunny Day” “We Can Fly” and, most euphoric of all, “All My Days” part of a Cowsills EP sponsored by the American Dairy Association (fully one-sixth of tiny R.I.’s milk supply is suspected to have been consumed by a Cowsill).
The Bee Gees
Happy in spurts amidst ever-present (but very welcome) pensiveness, the Bee Gees mastered the pop form while still teens. The early Australian recordings point skyward while simultaneously staring down and come extremely close to sunshine pop without fully capitulating. Still, brothers in lock-step harmony singing about butterflies says include them with an asterisk. Said “Butterfly” is a good place to begin. “Cherry Red” and “Spicks and Specks” receive extra points for overcoming the Euro-sunshine curse, as relatively few overseas pals convincingly linked up with this sound (is it even possible to be truly happy outside of the U.S.?). Yes, the Hollies came a breadth away with “Everything Is Sunshine.”
Gary Zekley, SoCal insider and one of many budding maestros orbiting the Wilson camp mid-decade, found chart fame producing the Clique’s “Sugar On Sunday” and writing hits for the Grass Roots. Of his earlier work, this delicious ‘67 album typifies the airy and upbeat mini-Spector density found on the most atmospheric s-pop. The Yellow B.’s self-titled theme song was also cut by a Jan-less Jan and Dean on the lost, but since rediscovered, Save For A Rainy Day LP. No better full-length specimens of sunshine pop exist.
The Ballroom / Sagittarius / Millennium
Surfacing soon after his association with the “Along Comes Mary” crew, Curt Boettcher launched a harmony steamship with a trio of worthy vessels. In quick succession, the Ballroom gave way to the Gary Usher-led Sagittarius which sired the stud-filled Millennium. The constant? Boettcher’s ability to wrest symphonic miracles on cut after cut of California vapor-pop.
“Small Town Commotion” b/w “Keepin’ Your Eyes On The Sun” (UNI). Top side, a complex weaving tale of a fiery municipal disaster. The flip provides a luscious Gary Zekley artifact (produced under the nom du rock Yodar Critch), a perfectly realized distillation of July using girl backup, harps and a driving beat. Zeke’s command: walk with me awhile and smile.
“Make Believe” b/w “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe” (Life). Uplifting melodious bubblegum masquerading as a 4 Seasons-like beat ballad. Joey Levine involvement. Slice off the harmful instrumental flip side, and a sun is born.
The Pleasure Fair
“Morning Glory Days” b/w “Fade In Fade Out” (UNI). Add one more entry to David Gates’ long cool-guy resume. Gee-whiz harmony with light orchestral fanfare, like a very white Fifth Dimension (perhaps the Fourth Dimension in disguise).
Hyle King Movement
“Flower Smile” b/w “Forever ‘N Ever” (Liberty). Atmospheric swirl akin to Sergio Mendes harmonizing in a hot-house garden—plus decidedly hippie sentiments told in a deliciously un-hippie manner.