Andy Childs reviews State Of The Union: The American Dream in Crisis 1967-1973 – Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ latest compilation for Ace Records (out now and available here).
Oh, the wonder and beauty of music to surprise and inform! The compelling proposition behind this ear-opening and eminently listenable compilation is that by 1968, the political problems and divisive social issues confronting America were no longer the sole concern of American youth railing against the establishment, but were now preoccupying and troubling mainstream society.
And what’s more, the recording artists of an older generation and/or a more conservative persuasion were actually making records – remarkably good records – that were shrewdly expressing the disquiet and unease then being felt throughout the whole of American society.
Much has been recently discussed and written about the political, social and cultural events of fifty years ago. 1968 was a pivotal year; the year when, for the youth of the world, the possibility of a utopian counter-culture future, so bright and hopeful in the preceding two years, faded rapidly. In the face of governments disposed towards suppression and the preservation of the status quo, the peace and love ethos of the hippie culture gave way to a more radicalised and confrontational approach to dealing with society’s political and social ills. It was no longer enough to turn on, tune in and drop out. It was time to stand up and be counted.
I was 16 years old for most of 1968, increasingly distracted from academic study by the torrent of great rock records that were released that year, but also acutely aware of the dramatic clamour of events that were taking place around the world, particuarly in America. The Vietnam War, student demonstrations in the Paris, the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the Russian invasion of Czechslovakia, riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention – the world was convulsing and transforming and watching itself in the process. Television, for so long a visual palliative, was now bringing stark reality into peoples’ living rooms, and a lot of people didn’t like what they saw. The esteemed Walter Cronkite declaring that the Vietnam War was “unwinable” and the shocking scenes of police brutality in Chicago were key TV moments when the American people en masse began to accept that not all was well with the state of the union and the American Dream.
Ironically, Bob Dylan, for so long youth culture’s pre-eminent social and politcal commentator, didn’t release an album in 1968, and white rock’s heavyweights had already largely voiced their own anti-establishment sentiments with varying degrees of certitude. Personal favourites Jefferson Airplane kept their voice of dissent alive with Crown of Creation, and Joseph Byrd’s short-lived band The United States of America provided a scathing and humourous indictment of current social mores. But it was largely left to black artists such as James Brown, Nina Simone, The Temptations and Curtis Mayfield to engage with the continuing crises and provide America’s youth with a voice of protest and inspiration. They didn’t necessarily speak to the country’s middle-aged and middle-class though. As Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs have so ingeniously and revealingly shown here, artists defined by that generation, and whose reputations were largely based on success with decidedly non-confrontational material, were quietly making and releasing records that echoed the growing social malaise. Mental illness, family breakdown, divorce, environmental neglect, racial injustice, the futility of war – all of these perpetual issues were confronted and presented to an audience in a manner that had meaning and uncomfortable relevance for them.
State of the Union opens boldly with Elvis Presley’s ‘Clean Up Your Own Backyard’, followed by a vocal tour de force from Della Reese, Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin & John’, and two poignant songs about family breakdown – from Frank Sinatra, no less, and The 4 Seasons. The tone and quality of the set is immediately established and a further nineteen tracks chart the scope of mainstream American angst. My own favourite tracks are a beautiful Everly Brothers record called ‘Lord of the Manor’, written by Brit Terry Slater; Roy Orbison’s ambitious and affecting ‘Southbound Jericho Parkway’ – about a divorced businessman’s suicide; Bobby Darin’s ‘Questions’; ‘Cherrystones’ by Eugene McDaniels; The Tokens’ ‘Some People Sleep’, and a powerful vocal performance by Teresa Brewer on ‘Save The Children’. Really though, there isn’t one track out of the twenty four that you wouldn’t want on here – and it begs the question: how many other records like this are out there, neglected and forgotten?
Bob Stanley – whose brilliant sleeve notes add so much in the way of context to the enjoyment of this album – has been doggedly re-defining the parameters of coolness in pop music for years now, and this is perhaps his most accomplished project yet. It invites us to re-appraise the work of artists that my 16-year-old self had certainly already consigned to history’s dust-bin. It is the work of someone with a deep, deep love of pop music, an intense knowledge of its convoluted shadow history and hidden treasures, and the skill to offer us new perspectives in such an entertaining and unexpected way.