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Review: Spanky and Our Gang, “The Complete Mercury Singles”

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Spanky and Our Gang - SinglesBetween 1966 and 1970, Spanky and Our Gang released three studio albums, one greatest-hits collection, one live set and 21 single sides. Though the gang was, in Spanky McFarlane’ s words, “eclectic as hell”– they covered John Denver and The Music Man on their first LP alone – they’re best remembered for three AM radio staples released in 1967 and 1968: “Sunday Will Never Be the Same,” “Lazy Day” and “Like to Get to Know You.” These three tunes are inextricably tied to the period in which they were recorded, yet are timeless evocations today of that era in which anything was musically possible. Despite the quality of the band’s album material, however, it can be fairly said that Spanky’s outfit (named, of course, after Hal Roach’s gang of Little Rascals!) was a “singles band,” making Real Gone Music’s release of The Complete Mercury Singles (RGM-0270) a particularly felicitous one.

This superlative 21-track anthology spans the period between 1966’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” b/w “Sealed with a Kiss” and 1969’s “Echoes (Everybody’s Talkin’)” and traces the evolution of the group. Spanky McFarlane, Paul “Oz” Bach and Nigel Pickering first joined together in Florida and then reunited in Chicago before being discovered by prolific Philadelphia producer Jerry Ross (“The 81,” “1-2-3,” “98.6” – seems he had a thing for numbers!). The trio was joined by Malcolm Hale (of The New Wine Singers) for their first recording session at Mercury Records, the label with which Ross was then affiliated.

The Complete Mercury Singles begins not with the sound of shimmering sunshine pop but with a rather brisk but largely straightforward cover of The Beatles’ “If Your Bird Can Sing” and an update of Gary Geld and Peter Udell’s Brian Hyland oldie “Sealed with a Kiss.” Arranged like “Bird” by prolific Philly-based arranger Joe Renzetti (who would later pen the string chart for Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” and pick up an Oscar for The Buddy Holly Story), “Sealed” was beefed up with a strong drum rhythm while strings kept the track appropriately ethereal. Still, neither side captured the zany, theatrical and eclectic quality that had made the group a standout on Chicago’s stages or effectively utilized the band’s foremost weapon: Spanky’s distinctive, powerful voice, a kind of combination of Grace Slick’s husk and Cass Elliot’s big belt. She was out front on the A-side of the group’s second single, “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” – and Spanky and Our Gang’s career would never be the same, either.

Gene Pistilli and Terry Cashman’s melancholy reflection of a love lost was originally conceived as a ballad and included on the duo’s Bound to Happen LP, but another Philly native, arranger Jimmy “Wiz” Wisner, turned it into a dynamic, ironically upbeat, pure-pop reverie. Ross and Wisner employed the cream of New York’s session players on the record and brought not only Spanky’s voice to the fore, but the Gang’s intricate vocal harmonies (somewhat recalling The Mamas and the Papas, one of the groups originally pitched the song by Cashman and Pistilli.) Released just a few months prior to the Summer of Love, it was an ideal, sunny soundtrack to that blissed-out period.

John Morier’s uptempo, positive “Making Every Minute Count” was the immediate follow-up to “Sunday,” but the real stylistic sequel was on the very next 45: Wisner’s arrangement of “Lazy Day” from writers George Fischoff (the Broadway musical Georgy) and Tony Powers (an early collaborator of Ellie Greenwich’s). Fischoff and Powers had written the Top 10 hit “98.6” for Keith, produced by Ross and arranged by Renzetti, in late 1966. The ebullient “Lazy Day,” with its happy, pastoral imagery, captured the zeitgeist of the era, and did almost as well as “98.6.”

The flip of “Lazy Day,” “(It Ain’t Necessarily) Byrd Avenue” introduced the names of Bob Dorough and Stu Scharf to a Spanky and Our Gang single; soon they would take over for producer Ross upon his departure from Mercury. Dorough brought with him a jazz background, and Scharf one in jazz. Both qualities would inform their work with Spanky and Our Gang. The infectious “Byrd Avenue,” also recorded by the Harmony Grass and the Serendipity Singers, married a breezy melody and bossa nova-inspired arrangement to some rather absurdist wordplay; it’s actually a stronger side than some of the tracks chosen as A-sides!

Hit the jump for more!

Spanky and Our Gang became a quintet with the addition of drummer John Seiter, but would undergo further changes when Oz Bach left. He was replaced first by Geoffrey Myers and then by Kenny Hodges. Banjo player Lefty Baker also joined, bolstering the group to a six-piece with additional possibilities for vocal harmonies. As a sextet consisting of McFarlane, Pickering, Hale, Seiter, Hodges and Baker, the Gang released Margo Guryan’s haunting “Sunday Morning” to follow “Lazy Day.” The track shows off their strong fusion of folk, pop and jazz but lacks as strong a hook as its predecessors, perhaps accounting for its failure to build on the success of “Lazy Day.” It was backed with a Malcolm Hale lead vocal on Fred Neil’s “Echoes,” far better known as “Everybody’s Talkin’.” This recording predates Harry Nilsson’s famous 1969 version; Neil had recorded it himself in 1966. There’s an appealing folk-rock-with-strings sound to Spanky’s low-key interpretation even if it doesn’t soar in the manner of Nilsson’s reinvention. One more major hit came next, though, penned by Stu Scharf: “Like to Get to Know You.”

Soft and gentle as a breeze, “Like to Get to Know You” might have been Spanky and Our Gang’s most sophisticated, and most unexpected, hit single yet. The delicate beauty of Scharf’s melody and the striking vocal arrangement (with all of the group members sharing the lead) buoyed “Like to Get to Know You” to a No. 17 peak. As Spanky and Our Gang’s Top 20 hits dried up at about the halfway mark of this new compilation, much of the rest of The Complete Mercury Singles could well be described as “hidden treasures.”

Not that Spanky and Our Gang remained completely off the radar after the March 1968 release of “Like to Get to Know You.” There was a tempest in a teapot over Scharf and Dorough’s “Give a Damn” (“…about your fellow man”), hardly the most strident of protest songs. Ed Osborne’s terrific liner notes here tell the story of the furor that surrounded the song’s release and ultimately may have stalled it outside of the Pop Top 40, Spanky and Our Gang’s lowest-charting single since the band’s debut. Its B-side was “The Swingin’ Gate,” a more rock-oriented track also in step with the youth movement (“My, but your hair’s so long!” goes one ironic line.)

On Halloween 1968, Malcolm Hale tragically died at 27 of walking pneumonia; soon after Spanky released the downbeat, edgy “Yesterday’s Rain.” The group’s AM successes seemed even further in the rearview mirror, and before long, the group disbanded. Mercury extended the group’s shelf life, however, with three more 45s. The boisterous “Anything You Choose” hardly sounded like the work of the same band as “Sunday Will Never Be the Same” or “Like to Get to Know You.” Its B-side, “Mecca Flat Blues,” showed off a very different side of McFarlane. This brassy slice of barroom jazz was recorded in Chicago with its writer, blues pianist “Little Brother” Montgomery, and McFarlane’s vocal is delicious. The penultimate A-side “And She’s Mine” was a stronger meld of folk and pop but still unexceptional. It was joined on 45 by the offbeat “Leopard Skin Phones” complete with requisite lite-psych freakout.

Spanky and Our Gang inauspiciously concluded their Mercury singles with a remix of “Echoes” issued in October 1969 in the wake of Harry Nilsson’s success with the song; it’s the final track on Real Gone’s new compilation. Their final new album, Spanky and Our Gang Live, arrived in December 1970, but may have disappointed the group’s fans as it included none of their hit singles.

In 2005, Hip-o Select issued the limited edition 4-CD box set The Complete Mercury Recordings which included all of the studio and live albums, some previously unissued rarities, and a disc of the original mono singles. The Complete Mercury Singles replicates the contents of that disc, but all tracks here have been freshly remastered for Real Gone by Mike Milchner at SonicVision.

If Spanky and Our Gang couldn’t top their three big hits – after all, they’re three of the most deliciously sunny pop singles of the 1960s – there are great pleasures to be found in McFarlane’s big voice and the intricate vocal interplay of her bandmates. Chances are you’ll like to get to know The Complete Mercury Singles.

You can order The Complete Mercury Singles at Amazon U.S. or Amazon U.K.!

Written by Joe Marchese

October 6, 2014 at 12:17

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