The CD liner notes for The Cowsills in Concert identify the 1960s as “a unique decade" when, especially in pop music, "anything [was] possible." What they don't mention is that the proof is on the CD itself. As much as any multi-volume Time-Life collection, The Cowsills in Concert is like a microcosm of what made sixties' rock and roll unique.
Although the Cowsills were famously the inspiration for TV's "Partridge Family," the actual family band's story was as improbable as actor Danny Most actually playing those Joe Osborn bass parts on their records. In 1965, there was nothing unusual about a bunch of guys getting a band together to play frat parties and carnivals. What could be more far-out, though, than a rock band made up of five brothers, their sister, and their mother? And Dad retiring from the Navy to manage the band!
Rock and roll was supposed to be about rebellion, about rejecting the older generation's "plastic trip," not cutting loose on some Cream jams with your mom. And certainly not about the very embodiment of the Establishment—a retired military man—calling the shots on your career.
And yet, what could be more representative of this most egalitarian era of rock than a bunch of kids who go from playing Beatles and Everly Brothers songs at school dances, to multiple gold records and virtual immortality (in ersatz form, anyway) via "Partridge Family" reruns.
The Concert album, in particular, is very much a product of its time. In those days, a major act like the Cowsills could put out an album of cover songs—the same set list as countless bands in garages across the United States—without it seeming too much like a contractual fulfillment. Or a joke.
Just how close the Cowsills still were to their frat-party band roots, even with a couple of hits under their big wide belts, is evident in the range of rock and pop styles they cover. With vocal harmonies that rivaled the original groups’, their versions of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee,” the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday,” and the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” are all credible. Even the complexity of “Good Vibrations” doesn’t trip them up, although the lyrics seem to. Some of the lead vocal performances are especially noteworthy, such as John’s “high lonesome” sound on “Act Naturally” and Barry’s on “Please Mr. Postman” (which suggests he could have really torn up Larry Collins’ “Whistle Bait”).
This is not to say that the Cowsills were equally adept at every style they tackled. Despite strong lead vocals, their take on “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” proves they were no Funk Brothers, and the Mitch Ryder medley is just too garage for them. The faux-vaudeville “Hello Hello” doesn’t show Susan in the most flattering light, either. And while “Sunshine of Your Love” is, surprisingly, not an embarrassment, poor John was no match for Ginger Baker.
To help ensure sales, MGM slapped the group’s studio version of “Hair”—their biggest-ever hit—onto the l.p. The song’s very basic arrangement actually has a similar sound to the rest of the album. Because, if Concert was entirely a studio concoction, nothing in the arrangements gives it away. No strings, no horns, no theremin (or tannerin). Just pure rock band instrumentation.
Three years after this album was recorded, I had the opportunity to see them perform. Barb (a.k.a. “Mini-Mom”) and Bill had left the band, they had been dropped by MGM Records, and they were playing a county fair. For all that, they brought their “A” show and I can attest, they could play. Whether or not the playing on Concert is all Cowsills—and it likely was not—it could have been; they were a legitimate band.
Appropriately, at the end of the decade, this album also brought down the curtain on the original Cowsills band. There would be more Cowsills records, break-ups, and reunions over ensuing decades. The Cowsills in Concert, though, served as fitting punctuation to this phase of their careers.
It’s also a highly-listenable souvenir of an age when a hugely popular act could release an album of covers like this without being ironic about it, and when anyone could get a record deal, have a hit, and be a rock star. Even a wholesome-looking group of kids. And their mom.[The Razor & Tie CD release of The Cowsills in Concert appends four studio tracks, collectively known as “the milk e.p.,” of decent psychedelic-lite and Merseybeat balladry, along with “The Fun Song,” a breezy piece that could fit nicely alongside the Beach Boys “Friends.”] Powered by Sidelines