Over the years that I’ve been researching for TLA, information about the release date of Song Cycle has changed. Until a couple of years ago, Wikipedia suggested a release date of November 1968. Recently it has been ascribed by the same site as having been released during Christmas Season 1967. As far as I know, dates and details about Song Cycle recording sessions have not been released to the public. In my memory, the release of Song Cycle belongs to November 1968, after the release of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Most of the music of Christmas 1967 (save Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding) took up the challenge of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and attempted to extend its “experimentation”. Song Cycle was actually composed in opposition to that aesthetic but in a different way than Bob Dylan or the Band’s approach on Music from the Big Pink. Though Song Cycle shared the drift toward a nostalgic Americana becoming evident in 1968, it did not express itself in the stripped bare and honest country / folk music that Dylan promoted, but rather from another angle entirely--the heyday of Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. In this, Song Cycle most closely resembles the eponymous album Randy Newman released in June 1968, which it turns out, Van Dyke Parks (VDP) helped produce. (Both albums featured photos of the artists who looked quite “square”; most everyone else in 1960s psychedelic music looked the part of a freak, rather than a nerd.) Neither album sold well as popular music; it is then perhaps not a surprise that both Randy Newman and VDP have financed their careers for nearly fifty years as composers of movie scores.
Van Dyke Parks himself states he was making the album before the release of the Sgt. Pepper, according to an interview with Bob Claster on the Los Angeles radio station KCRW in 1984. Another source claims that recording company Warner Brothers sat on the album for a year before it was released [Alan Koznin: “Smile” and Other Difficulties, NYT 7/22/2013]. However, it’s difficult to believe that VDP would have been recording Song Cycle at the same time he would have been working with Brian Wilson on SMiLE. (With the release of a reworked Smile in 2004 the connection with VDP is more evident. However VDP was part of that 21st century reworking process. The Beach Boys’ album Smiley Smile, supposedly derived from the lost SMiLE sessions—with the exception of Heroes and Villains--doesn’t hint at the sort of psychedelic Americana composition / orchestration evident in Song Cycle.)
The earliest mention of Song Cycle is in an article by Pete Johnson for the Los Angeles Times, dated 12/10/67. But most music articles indicate that the album was put on the market in 1968, and often-times critics review albums before their general release to create buzz. There was an article by Jim Miller, posted in Rolling Stone magazine on 2/24/68, in which Miller claims that “Van Dyke Parks may come to be considered the Gertrude Stein of the new pop music”; and there is an article by Robert Christgau, written in June 1968 for Esquire magazine, in which VDP is called “Charles Ives with a twelve-track console.” So, recent scholarship offers documented support for arguing that Song Cycle is contemporary with Love’s Forever Changes. However, Richard Henderson’s Song Cycle book, released in the 33⅓ book series, clarifies the issue by stating that, though the first recording of Song Cycle was finished in November 1967, there was a period of mixing down the tapes for stereo before album release.
In the story I want to tell, Song Cycle relates far less to Sgt. Pepper than to the Beatles’ White Album. I mean by this that Song Cycle was the first pop album conceived with a postmodern aesthetic, deliberately combining and juxtaposing (often in rapid succession in the course of a single song) various periods of music in order to create something novel, even if it was not, strictly speaking, “new”. (As I recall, the White Album contained the first pop music referred to by critics of the day as postmodern. Gone was the modernist sense of infinite progress erasing past history that provides much of the excitement of Sgt. Pepper; rather musical forms were borrowed, replicated like Andy Warhol images, in the White Album as in Song Cycle, often with ironic effect.) If the Beach Boy’s SMiLE had come out in the Summer of 1967, and if it were produced in the manner we heard in Brian Wilson’s 2004 release Smile, the album would have preceded Song Cycle in this postmodern aesthetic. But Smiley Smile didn’t hint at the psychedelic Americana that is evident in throughout much of Smile.
In 2012, Jayson Green wrote in Pitchfork that “Song Cycle is a freewheeling, often goofy listen, a down-the-rabbit-hole take on American music that reimagines bluegrass on a symphony-hall stage, showtunes up in Appalachia, and the sturm-und-drang rumblings of Romantic-era classical orchestras facing off against a squeezebox." Richard Henderson, in his 33 1/3 book on Song Cycle, called the album ‘Charles Ives in Groucho Marx's pajamas', and it captures the antic spirit of an album whose working title, before Song Cycle, was 'Looney Tunes'. Parks doesn't corral all of this mess so much as rattle around cheerfully inside it…This tension-- a distrust of finer things, a respect of their power; an appreciation of their beauty, an understanding that the finer things are inherently ridiculous-- gives Song Cycle its melancholy depth, corroding its sheen like acid rain on a sculpture.” Song Cycle is not an easy listen. At times it seems to cross Gustav Mahler with Busby Berkeley, vaudeville blackface with gospel music. In my lifetime, I have personally found only one other person who “gets it”. I’m shy about playing it to others, because I’ve almost always gotten the response “What the hell is that???” This is not the direction that popular music would flow toward, and marks the end of a very distinct line which few artists had participated in. Still, I have to admit I’ve always thought highly of the album since I first heard it back in the late 1960s, as the music is so dense, creating a consistent atmosphere so unique, there’s always some new aspect to it in nearly every listen.
Wikipedia writes that “Lenny Waronker, the producer of Song Cycle, was a childhood and lifetime friend of Randy Newman, and with his creative leanings and production credits, Waronker became known as an ally for artists at a time when the industry was being bombarded by 'corporate suits' who knew little and cared less about rock music. Yet, Waronker's dedication to the artists and his reputation for discussing music over business led Warner Brothers and its subsidiaries to be viewed as a positive family atmosphere where music, not money, was still number one.” He made possible the atmosphere that made Song Cycle a reality. The album was one of the earliest to use eight track recording. (This is also an indication that it was probably not produced before 1968. The earliest use of eight track that I am aware of was in the chaotic production of the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun, recorded around March 1968 and released in July of that year.) Song Cycle is known for its high ambition and its gigantic budget for the era (it is still one of the most expensive albums ever made, allowing for inflation). In present day terms, the album cost approximately $240,000 to produce, according to Kirk Lake (There Will Be Rainbows 2013).
The most accessible song on the album is an instrumental adaptation of Donovan’s Colours. Despite his love for using color as psychedelic metaphor, Donovan had originally released the song as a folk tune. To hear the song’s complex transformation through the use of eight-track mixes from a simple melody into a song a varying tones and textures is an experience somewhat similar to hearing Johann Sebastian Bach rendered electric by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos through the use of a Moog synthesizer in Switched on Bach (released in March 1969). Robert Christgau wrote of Donovan's Colours in June 1968 that it “is literally like nothing you've ever heard, with multiple overdubbing, tape distortions, echo, and God knows what else--music that never could have been created without the record industry.” However he immediately adds the warning, “Caution: It does not rock.”
I count at least five or six variations or “movements” in the less than four minutes that comprise VDP’s version of Donovan’s Colours. Initially one hears something like a coin dropped into a mechanical device resembling a player piano that starts galloping along with the percussiveness of castanets to make something of the sound of figures that come dancing out of a door on a grandfather clock. According to Henderson, VDP explained “I wanted to make homage to the electro-mechanical era, a golden era that was obliterated by recorded sound.” Then, what sounds like a tack piano, harpsichord and harmonium play out the melody. This shifts into a slower pace and shift of key and melodic line, played by xylophone and something that sounds like a bassoon. Then things take a dramatic shift (similar to villain appearing ready to tie the heroine to the railroad tracks), with the piano swinging to a quicker rhythm accompanied by maracas in tandem with a clarinet and cello. When the piano falls away from the melody again, the music moves into a slower scary register with an echoing electric bass guitar reminiscent of the bass Brian Wilson used in Here Today on Pet Sounds, accompanied by something flutelike. According to Henderson, VDP described this movement as “Vincent Price coming out of the wine cellar”. A return to the melody ensues, carried by the harmonium while a tack piano weaves through with quick backward somersaults. We are returned to the aural reminder this is a mechanical device, and the song is done. The result of it all is kaleidoscopic.