A few weeks ago I stayed up til four in the morning watching The Doors, Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic about Jim Morrison and his bandmates (who remembered Johnny Drama was the drummer?), which HBO’s been running all month. It was one of those deals where I happened to catch the beginning just before two and I knew I was fucked. I’m a sucker for anything set in the Sixties and for L.A. movies, and this was both.
By 3:30 I was polishing off the last of the weeks-old refrigerator cooking wine, watching Val Kilmer snort bloody coke and pull out his cock at a show in Miami. A great time had by all!
I think of this because there’s a scene during Jim’s downward spiral when everything’s going to hell, and the band is in the studio recording The Soft Parade. They can’t lay down the vocal track for “Touch Me,” because Jim’s too drunk to sing. During a break, he happens to catch sight of a television commercial on a TV in the studio green room: An insipid chorus is singing “Light My Fire” to hawk some vacuous product. Jim goes psycho and trashes the TV and the room. It’s supposed to be a nadir, personally and professionally, the band as a lampoon of itself, Jim the poet sold out by his enterprising, soulless bandmates while he was looking in the wrong direction.
I had to laugh at how far rock and roll has come. Bands today who gig that same stretch of the Sunset Strip (Whiskey A Go Go, Key Club, House of Blues, the Roxy, et al.) and call Jim Morrison their idol would give their combined left nuts to get a song on a television commercial or as background music on Gossip Girl or Laguna Hills. That’s how the music business is done these days. The machinery is so intrinsic no one even stops to consider if it’s shameful. No one knows what a “sell-out” even is anymore.
Once upon a time, Easy Listening music was an equally reliable punching bag for rock and roll purists. In some ways it was actually a perverse sign of status to have an Easy Listening album made of your catalog. The Beatles, the Stones, hell, even the Doors got the treatment—a rite of passage slyly acknowledged in the liner notes to The Les Williams Orchestra Plays the Collected Works of Donovan:
The truly big names on the current pop scene have been paid the supreme tribute by having their music transfigured into fully orchestrated instrumental recordings aimed at a broader age spectrum. This is the last full measure of real success… these performers are the chosen few whose efforts show talent capable of transcending the generation gap. (John Paul Shoptaw)
Or, "Don’t freak out cause we turned your counter-culture poetry into lite classical for old farts."
Shoptaw lays it on pretty thick with the religious, rapturous, high falutin rhetoric. I’m not sure Donovan Leitch would find his music “transfigured” by Les Williams' arrangements, as though they were each a sonic Heloise ravaged to ecstasy by the holy digit of God, but they’re not half-bad. Not by a long shot.
Williams employs a vast array of unique instruments on this record to convey the folk and dream elements of Donovan’s songs. Oboe, woodwinds, harp and congas all make key appearances, and he really rolled up his sleeves and challenged himself to find symphonic translations that conveyed the textures and feelings of the songs selected. This is no mere bland, lazy rehashing of melodies with strings.
I don’t know the first thing about Les Williams, but in my head I see an endearing old timer—a cross between George Martin and Mike Myers—in a navy blazer and grey flannel trousers, taking a nip of his first joint of hash, and using words like “groovy” and “far-out” and “happening” and “the kids today” to well-meaning, hilarious effect.
There is a lot of interesting work here, if you can get over the fact that it’s Easy Listening (or as the liner notes suggest, “Contemporary Instrumental Music.”) “Oh Gosh” sounds like an Ennio Morricone lush film score as lovers race down a windswept beach into an old Romanesque town. “Sunshine Superman” has every bit of the reedy, psychedelic exoticism of the original by simple use of drums and a harpsichord. “Mellow Yellow” is simple, fluid, relaxing, while maintaining that shady sense of sin lurking under the surface of the melody.
On Side B, “Catch the Wind” becomes a sweeping, High Romantic love song. “There is a Mountain” is all conga drums and clockwork rhythm. “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” is the most proto-typical “Easy Listening” effort of the batch, but gloriously so, with sweeping woodwinds for the chorus and tick-tocky percussion rationing the time beneath flute and harpsichord verses. Somewhere, there is a movie being written with a newly dead man riding an elevator up to the pearly gates, and this song is the music playing in that celestial elevator.
Finally, “Colours,” one of Donovan’s most beloved songs, closes the album with beauty and grace. Beginning like a John Barry Bond tune, it relaxes into something natural and deeply-felt—the incongruous pairing of guitar and oboe morphing into tight drums and flutes and even synth keyboards, all ornamental instrumentation added keenly one by one until there is only the rushing harmonic force of saturated sound, then stripped away one by one to a twinkling day’s end close. Absolutely stunning!
This music is forty years old now. In some ways the easy listening versions are more interesting today than the originals, so familiar from years of classic rock radio and movie soundtracks and insipid tribute albums. Classical pianist Christopher O’Reilly’s well-received albums of songs by Nick Drake, Radiohead and others are a more sophisticated version of this idea and proof that good songs have a timeless ability to adapt and move in a variety of musical environments.
Unfortunately, The Les Williams Orchestra Plays the Collected Works of Donovan is not available on mp3, so I have all the songs here, for your enjoyment and pleasure. Just don’t trash your computer if you don’t dig it.
THE LES WILLIAMS ORCHESTRA PLAYS THE COLLECTED WORKS OF DONOVAN, 1968, Liberty