Monday, 9 November 2015

The Interesting Story of Seals and Crofts... and Zou [no download]

My friend sent to me a wonderful little progressive rock album from France with the above gorgeous pencil sketch of a boat by the sea, from the wonder year of 1975.  The art is from the famous French expressionist Bernard Buffet.  Have a listen to this tour de force of prog-rock called Puzzle-Head, in five parts:

And do try to seek out this record, it's worth hearing.

Out of respect for his generosity of course there will be no availability today but notice another track in there called "Hummingbird."  Sure enough, this is the fantastic Seals & Crofts composition about God, which, hopefully, everyone here is familiar with.  If not, listen to its incredibly creative structure here on youtube.

Notice the tripartite structure, with three-quarters intro in E minor & its cascading chord progression that shockingly leads to A major, via D flat major (!), then moves up a semitone to the middle, main part of the song, which is in D minor.  Here the song pattern clearly evokes the flitting flight of the hummingbird with its minor 6th grace note or accaciatura (I'm probably using the wrong term for this).  But what's always most astonishing to me is that, in addition to a bridge part with chords revolving around D major, the song has a third section, the outroduction--  with its sustained melody repeatedly evoking either B flat or C, it takes the song out to the skies, up beyond the clouds, clearly as if flying off to heaven when it terminates at last in a gorgeous, plump and mandolin-decorated E major-- as if the rapture was upon us:  the beginning, remember, in E minor, thus resolving to its tonic major.  Is it a masterpiece of songwriting or am I crazy?

After listening to this track again I resolved to dig up the whole Seals & Crofts discography (don't ask me how), at least the first 8 albums until the late seventies when the quality seriously deteriorated.  As you can tell from the lyrics they were clearly religious; in fact they were of the Baha'i faith.  Those among us who are old enough will recall this popular faith in the seventies that attempted to unite all Gods: Islam, Christian, etc., an idea as seemingly obvious as it is impossible-- at least today.  Of course, the zeitgeist was totally different back then.

The story goes that soon after the success of 1973's Diamond Girl (which followed the monster Summer Breeze), Seals & Crofts decided to go all out with their religion with a track and album called Unborn Child.

Looking at it, we think automatically of thousands of other seventies records that look exactly the same: the monarch butterfly, the flowers, the rainbow, the cloudy blue sky (Canadian Harmonium for example).  Surprisingly to me, however, as well as everyone else at the time, it turned out the eponymous song was an anti-abortion paean.  Here it is on youtube again.  Listen closely to it.

This, remember, was shortly after the famed Roe vs. Wade case in the United States.  Inevitably perhaps, both song and record were boycotted and ostracized, derided by a very liberal artistic critical apparatus at the time: this was when women were seriously fighting for equal rights in the world, a battle which is essentially almost won today, at least in theory: in the courts, and in the developed world.  At that time it was a new effort however.  So lyrics like "Go back, Mama, think it over" and the ghastly (here I refer mostly to the bluntness of it): "you're still a-clingin' to the tree of life-- but soon you'll be cut off, before you get ripe."  Now, of course, I'm not going to get into the politics of this debate, which with the exception of the US, is mostly past history in the western world.  There's no reason for that, as you can see in a google search on the song.  The fact is that the lyrics are far too coarse, and the music not that listenable in quality-- some subtlety would definitely have gone down better with this medicine.  It's often the case, of course, that propagandistic songwriting falls flat artistically.  Was it career suicide at the time for these two?  Probably, although, objectively, from the point of view of today, it's quite clear they hit their peak 2 years back with Summer Breeze and Hummingbird.  Nothing thereafter can touch the sheer pop gorgeousness of those two hits and their blanketing album.

Now here's what really interests me about this subject, and I've mentioned this before.  When we look back on those years-- only forty years ago really-- it amazes us how culture has changed, without us realizing.  It is too gradual. Abortion is no longer a heated issue in most of the world, neither are women's rights, homosexual rights, or matters such as respect for the disabled (unthinkable back then) and bullying among children in schools (a persistent concern in my personal life today).  Going just fifty years back, even equal rights for black people was controversial.   And what about drunk driving?  Did anyone think twice about driving home after downing ten beers at happy hour?  Only twenty years ago I recall jumping into the car with a smashed friend racing down the streets innumerable times... What about adults molesting twelve year old babysitters?  Were there a lot of convictions 50 years ago?  No, at the time, it was something girls just had to endure.  (Particularly this idea that children have rights equal to adults and society must address them correctively, is probably unique to the last 100 years.  Clearly it was unthinkable in the past though it seems so 'natural' to us today.  I mean even my father found it impossible as I remember well.)  The world has changed very significantly (and in the process crime has dropped considerably on average), and it has changed only in one direction: it has become more liberal.  Stricter in rules yes, but only in the direction of personal rights that are assumed equal for everyone, including children and all other 'minorities'.  So when we see these old men like Trump, who are so formidably conservative in their opinions, we have to look at them as objects rearing out of the past, like submerged jetties: they themselves have become more liberal than their counterparts (or themselves, in his case) from 40 years ago, without realizing it.  A politician today who states women do not deserve equal rights, homosexuals are diseased, abortion should be outlawed, the handicapped should be kept apart, drunk driving is not a crime, it's OK to hit children and have them start work at 6, would be laughed at (unless of course his name is Putin).  Obviously there are always those on the far right who do state those things in code words, like Canada's Harper denouncing the niqab as a metaphor for muslims in general or his counterpart in Australia who denies climate change despite raging fires in his country...  But they're all on the wrong side of history-- at least for us now, from our perspective.  When we look to the deep past of human civilization, it's a different story altogether: every civilization has a golden age, and then a decline and end.  And we are obviously in a golden age right now.  Are there signs of a decline yet?  I should think so, if this growing worldwide income inequality means anything at all it must be such a discrete signal.  In this sense a politician could also declare, horrifyingly, they are the harbingers of a coming age of reduced rights for all minorities and a return to the 'nature tooth and claw' past where we all must fight for survival and the weakest, the hardest.  Luckily there has not been such a politician yet that I know of.  Good luck then if you are not a rich, middle-aged white heterosexual male (not elderly, as pensions will surely reduce for you, if not be removed altogether)...

I would go so far as to say I can guarantee (based on a wide-angle view of deep time) a Gibbonsian fall will happen to Western civilization too, though it may take hundreds or even thousands of years, just as it is biologically certain our species will one day be extinct, as every species must, though this might take millions of years.

After listening to those 8 records and all their songs, I found one tiny overlooked masterpiece of longing called "East of the Ginger Trees" (again from the Summer Breeze album):

I love how tastefully the arrangement was done with light touches of electric piano chords, a sitar, a very quiet string section that barely intrudes on the harmony vocals in thirds.

That longing for a better world, how it just breaks my heart to think of it...  In a sense, we do have a better world here today, but there's such a long way to go still...


  1. The information you have given in the blog really marvelous and more interesting.

  2. For anyone interested, found a file for Z.O.U. (not my rip, not my post) in the web: