Next week, Collectors Choice Music will be reissuing the original Atlantic Records catalog of the Rascals (originally the Young Rascals). This is something of a boon for record collectors and other music purists, as the seven albums comprising the so-called "Atlantic Years" — which are agreed by most to represent the pioneering sixties blue-eyed soul band's peak — have never before been reissued in versions which include the original, superior mono mixes, in addition to the usual stereo remix jobs.
These original seven albums not only saw the band evolve from what was essentially a white, sixties R&B cover band (albeit a great one), to a band who wrote some pretty great songs of their own ("Groovin'," "A Beautiful Morning," "How Can I Be Sure," "People Got To Be Free," etc.).
On later albums, the band (who by this time had dropped the "Young" from their name and shortened it to the hipper, more "serious" sounding moniker of the Rascals), did what most bands did back in the sixties. They grew beards, dabbled in eastern mysticism, and started putting out records that featured things like sitars and various "psychedelic" studio effects.
In doing so, the newly serious Rascals managed to alienate much of their original, mostly teenybopper audience, while failing to attract the hipsters of the day who couldn't get past the "bubblegum" image of top forty hits like "Good Lovin.'" Lenny Kaye, who would later produce the classic garage rock anthology series Nuggets, and play guitar in the Patti Smith Group, probably summed it up best when he said in a Rolling Stone review of the Rascals final Atlantic album, See, that he wished the group would ditch the lofty concepts and concentrate again on those hit singles.
But before their ill-advised descent into bad psychedelia, the Rascals were a near unequaled hit machine, cranking out one great record after another. They were also arguably the very first truly great blue-eyed soul group of the golden rock era of the sixties.
Oh sure, there was the Righteous Brothers before them. But despite the great voices of Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley, those guys really only had two bonafide classics — and at least one of them, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," had as much to do with Phil Spector's sweeping production as it did with the Righteous Brothers themselves.
The Rascals on the other hand were a self-contained band, and a damned great one at that. On early hits like "Good Lovin'," the Young Rascals summoned the garage rock vibe as well as anybody around at the time. But when they did the R&B cover thing on songs like "Land of 1,000 Dances," they could sound as "authentic" as the house band on any number of classic R&B records of the day by people like Aretha or Sam & Dave.
It's no wonder they found a home at the "house that soul built," Ahmet Ertegun's Atlantic Records.
I was a thirteen year old military brat living in Hawaii at the time the Rascals were enjoying their biggest popularity. The Rascals were big everywhere at the time, but in Hawaii they were absolutely HUGE. I could never really understand it at the time, but the local top 40 station in Honolulu, K-POI, played the living crap out of the Rascals.
When they headlined a concert at what was then Honolulu's 15,000 seat H.I.C. Arena, it was an instant sellout and local media sensation, complete with front page headlines, local TV coverage on the nightly news, and screaming teenage girls camped outside the arena a la' Beatlemania.
I don't know. Maybe it was because they had this really nice song called "Blue Hawaii" on their album Once Upon A Dream. After all, this was a state where the Ventures theme song for the TV hit "Hawaii 5-0" stayed at #1 on the local charts for something like a full year.
Getting back to those original albums though, there are three of them that really stand out in my mind. The first is Groovin', not only because it featured the great title track, but also because this was where the songwriting team of Eddie Brigati and Felix Cavaliere really began to come into their own.
The album holds up surprisingly well today, and in addition to that classic title track (with its trademark lazy harmonica riff), it features a number of other great tracks. From the Brigati/Cavaliere team there's of course "A Girl Like You," and "How Can I Be Sure" (and was there ever a sweeter, more earnest sounding ballad than that one?). Some of the great Arif Mardin's earliest arrangements are also featured on this record. A lesser known track attributed to that team that is still instantly recognizable once you hear it (courtesy of Pat Benatar) is the rocking "You Better Run."
Once Upon A Dream doesn't hold up nearly so well — and in fact sounds the most dated of their entire catalog when heard today. Still, the record is notable for its more experimental feel –some of which works quite well, while in other places not so much — and its expanded instrumentation. Here the Rascals brought in key session guys like King Curtis on sax — which was probably a good move in as much as it allowed the band to maintain at least some of its soulful pedigree.
On the other hand, much of the album is watered down by the use of an orchestra. On tracks like the aforementioned "Blue Hawaii," this works well by further sweetening what was already a pretty sweet sounding song. Likewise, the album's opener "Easy Rollin'" expands on the lazy harmonica idea of "Groovin'" to create the sort of dream-like feel where one conjures images of just lazing in an open field or whatever, and you know, groovin' to the beautiful day.
In other places however, the strings tend to overwhelm the songs. "Rainy Day," for example, would have held up much better if they just had left the song alone, rather than overwhelm it in violins and such (although the thunderclap effects of the drums sound pretty cool).
Still, the band does manage to get down to business on a couple of the tracks here, most notably on the soulful tandem of "Please Love Me" and "Its Wonderful" — the latter of which features some killer harmonies and a great little hook. "Singin' The Blues Too Long," is another standout, with its wonderfully pre-dated sound of something like Tower Of Power (courtesy of King Curtis) meets B.B. King. But just when they start to reel you back in with that great track, they lose you again with the silly, sitar-laden psychedelia of "Saliva."
Once Upon A Dream is a mixed bag for sure. I don't recall that the album ever did yield a hit single ("Easy Rollin'" would've come the closest to that). Still, the album is not without its share of gems.
1969's Freedom Suite was initially promoted as something of the Rascals big artistic statement. A double album released at about the same time that people like the Beatles were releasing, well double albums, this was supposed to be the band's masterpiece. Which back in the sixties often didn't necessarily mean a bunch of great songs, but rather one long conceptually driven record.
The thing is, that despite a loose theme focusing on the charged political climate of the time (the murders of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were still fresh memories), this really feels more like two seperate records. On the first half, damned if the Rascals aren't right back in the pocket, working a tight R&B groove on tracks like "Any Dance'll Do." On "Look Around," there's a pointed message for sure, but here the various effects of Vietnam gunfire and the like, don't get in the way of what remains another great song.
More great songs follow, including the minor hits "Baby I'm Blue" and "A Ray Of Hope." On the latter, the hippy-drippy lyrics are ever evident. But even this doesn't stop Felix Cavaliere from singing with the sweetest sounding falsetto this side of Smokey Robinson, and the Rascals sounding for all the world like their own little version of the Miracles. This is just a great song. Wisely sticking to the R&B based stuff they once did best, "Love Was So Easy To Give" channels early Motown, the same way their earlier songs did early Stax. The Rascals sound almost like a male version of the Supremes here.
And then there's "People Got To Be Free." Here, the Rascals not only hit one out of the park, scoring one of their biggest hits ever — they also finally managed to nail one where the lyrics really did echo the times. It still gets played all the time on all those sixties documentary shows that crop up from time to time on television.
The second half of Freedom Suite on the other hand is just plain weird. The centerpiece is two side long songs, that really would have to be called something more like loose jams. Of these, "Boom" is little more than a thirteen plus minute drum solo showcasing the marginally underrated Dino Danelli. "Cute" is a fifteen minute jam that despite giving guitarist (and occasional songwriter) Gene Cornish a rare chance to stretch his own chops, never quite achieves its intended liftoff.
In retrospect, Freedom Suite would have made a much better single disc at the time. Still, the great songs on the first half include some of the best of the Rascals career as the band, perhaps unintentionally, reconnect with their inner Bar-Kays quite successfully here.
For my money, The Rascals don't quite get the due they should these days. But there is no doubt they were one of the best, if not the best, white practitioners of R&B of their generation. Maybe even the best ever, period.
Collectors Choice Music will release the Rascals seven original releases for Atlantic — which represent the cream of the band's catalog — next Tuesday August 28, complete with both stereo and mono mixes on the first four albums (The Young Rascals, Collections, Groovin, and Once Upon A Dream).