Harpers Bizarre – Come To The Sunshine
Released 19 March 2021
Subtitled “The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings”, this set has four albums by sunshine pop aggregation Harpers Bizarre, most famous for their cover of Paul Simon’s 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). The collection also includes bonus tracks taken from the band’s non-album single sides…Ian Canty opts instead for a spot in the shade…
In terms of the sound they perfected, Harpers Bizarre seemed to share some common ground with fellow sunny vocal specialists The Free Design (their recent boxset is reviewed here). But Harpers arrived at the baroque pop milieu by way of a completely different route. They were originally a five piece beat band from Santa Cruz, California called The Tikis, that formed in response to the British Invasion groups. How far they were from Harpers Bizarre musically before the name change can be judged by the two bonus tracks on the first disc of Come To the Sunshine, where The Tikis offer up a couple of punky folk rockers Lost My Love Today (which was eventually the flip to their hit) and Bye, Bye, Bye.
The Tikis came to the attention of producer Lenny Waronker, when the Autumn label they were signed to was swallowed up by Warners, his employer. He was impressed by the singing talents of Dick Scoppettone and drummer Ted Templeman, but not so much with the band itself. Waronker had secured the rights to cover the Simon And Garfunkel song 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). He had Templeman and Scoppettone voice a version of the tune, with a musical backing from the crack session outfit The Wrecking Crew. The finished product referenced the increasingly sophisticated work of time by bands like The Beatles and particularly The Beach Boys, but with a gentler touch.
The other Tikis members were pretty much side-lined, with the rhythm section Dick Yount and John Petersen plus guitarist Eddie James shoved firmly into the background. At this point the band had misgivings about the song and the completely different style the producer had achieved. Though Templeman was thrust into the limelight by this recording, he asked for the track to be put out under an alias, so Tikis’ fans would not think that this was an unpalatable change of direction by them.
They agreed on the Harpers Bizarre handle and the single subsequently raced up the US charts, eventually reaching the dizzy heights of number 13 on the Hot 100. After this success, The Tikis were quietly forgotten about and Scoppettone and Templeman were soon back in the studio with Waronker and the session hotshots to produce the first Harpers Bizarre album, the aptly titled Feelin’ Groovy.
On this debut platter, Waronker fed the band songs sourced from top quality writers Randy Newman, Leon Russell and Van Dyke Parks, the latter of which had recently worked with The Beach Boys. A reasonable enough methodology, which paid off with another top 40 single in the hearty blast of feel-good vibes written by Parks called Come In The Sunshine, but Harpers would never again taste the level of success of that first single. The LP is where easy listening and pop music meet, with occasional dips into the real oldies bag like South Pacific’s Happy Talk a good decade before Captain Sensible stomped his DMs all over it and Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf. It’s a pleasant, undemanding experience on the whole, sounding just about contemporary enough to inch it towards the lightest end of psychedelic pop.
Still it would take a hard heart indeed not to be a little seduced by harmony pop diamond Raspberry Rug or the beautifully evoked Randy Newman number The Debutante’s Ball. Peter And The Wolf sails perhaps a little too close to trad, something the band would barely avoid at most stages during their lifespan. But I Can Hear The Darkness is a fine Leon Russell-penned effort, which helps to get the record back on track. The final item is Simon Smith And His Amazing Dancing Bear, always a bit of a marmite song for me, though Harpers Bizarre do inject necessary gusto to prevent it flagging too much.
In summary, Feelin’ Groovy is still a very pleasing light pop LP, if the listener is in the correct mood. The two Tikis tunes tacked on to the end of this disc are excellent too. It did make me a little sad the lively fashion portrayed by this pair of numbers was curtailed by Harpers’ success, but they help to make this first disc an enjoyable experience.
Second album Anything Goes was cranked out for Christmas in 1967, introduced by a frantic DJ spiel before going into their version of the Cole Porter song that gave the LP its name. Another Cole song Two Little Babes In The Wood follows, seeming to hint that Harpers Bizarre had gone backwards rather than forwards in time in the months since their debut. Added to that, their final hit to grazed the US Top 50 was a take of Warren and Gordon’s aged Chattanooga Choo Choo, penned way back in the war years. In its favour, it is given a slightly updated pop/rock treatment here though.
For much of its duration Anything Goes is featherweight vocal pop with the kind of lovely harmonies and instrumental detail you would expect. Breezy, but not really essential and pitched into The Summer Of Love they must have appeared an anomaly, a relic from the easy listening past. Having said that, Randy Newman pitches in again with the playful The Biggest Night Of Her Life and a beauty in the moving Snow. Dick Scoppettone and Ted Templeman’s own Hey, You In The Crowd skips along nicely and Van Dyke Parks provides the very fine set closer High Coin, but otherwise Anything Goes struggles to make an impact beyond being pleasant. This disc has two non-LP single tracks as bonuses, jolly tv theme Malibu U and the slight folk rock of Cotton Candy Sandman (Sandman’s Coming).
The summer of 1968 would see the third Harpers album emerge, a 19 track opus entitled The Secret Life Of Harpers Bizarre. Ethereal strings and voices drift in attractively on the opening track Look To The Rainbow. This LP seems to display the first signs of an effort to re-position the band in a more contemporary context, with unexpected stops, starts, sound effects and segues incorporated. Again utilising some hoary old numbers, group compositions and outside writer efforts, I enjoyed the more eccentric approach that is employed. Some songs are given short introductory interludes and Roger Nichols/Paul Williams’ The Drifter gets its own coda.
It takes a while for the mood to settle, but Sylvia Fricker and Ian Tyson’s When I Was A Cowboy is given a decent country/folk rock treatment and Sentimental Journey is akin Simon And Garfunkel’s milder moments. They recut The Tikis’ Bye, Bye, Bye as part of a medley with the touching chamber music of Randy Newman’s Vine Street. I’m bound to say I prefer the first version, but it does work pretty well in this context. A dip into the Bacharach/David songbook yields Me, Japanese Boy and Scoppettone/Templeman tune Green Apple Tree swings convincingly. Funny How Love Can Be marches along in the kind of stately, orchestral pop style that ran concurrently to psychedelia. But then it judders to a jarring halt about 100 seconds in, before a quick restart, which certainly caught me on the hop!
If there is occasionally the feeling that at times The Secret Life… is a bit too pleased with itself (the overheated Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat for instance), overall I found it for the most part a lovely experience with a faint dab of late 60s oddness thrown in for good measure. The two bonuses on this disc are Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and Small Talk, which combined on 7 inch single was a non-LP minor US hit. The Joni song is given a breezy run out and its flip is as gentle as punch up with a Care Bear.
By the time of the final album of this set Harpers Bizarre 4, the other members of the band were beginning to feel unsettled, wanting to actually play on their records (which they did on this record alongside a young Ry Cooder on bottleneck guitar). Also although Scoppettone was a natural frontman, Templeman wasn’t so comfortable taking a lead role on stage. Their chart success began ebbing away after the first hit single and by the 1969 release of the LP was a thing of the past. With all these issues ongoing, an outsider observer at the time may have been drawn to the unavoidable conclusion that their trip was nearly over.
However Harpers Bizarre 4 was a pretty good note to go out on. That Cotton Candy Sandman (Sandman’s Coming) is included again may make it seem like the group had a lack of material, but they later pick through the songbooks of some very successful acts of the time, with good results. Opening effort Soft Soundin’ Music is mildly trippy and as rock & roll as HB ever got and is followed by a slowed down, groovy and phased version of Eddie Floyd’s soul classic Knock On Wood. Otis Redding is also covered, his Hard To Handle even struts a little alongside with a full horn section. There are plenty of orchestral touches in the intricate arrangements featured, with Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin’s Something Better being beautifully presented.
The short Lennon and McCartney number Blackbird gets a jolly workout and though film theme I Love You Alice B. Toklas failed as a single, it is prime pop sike excellence, something which no doubt presented a fitting sound accompaniment to the “Peter Sellers goes way out flick”. There’s No Time Like Today is mellow and attractive and the lissom and elegant All Through The Night proves they weren’t just good at covering other people’s songs. That the album ends with a take of John Denver’s Leaving On A Jet Plane is in some ways a pity. It is a fair attempt, but this was a well-worn song even back then and just when they should have been looking forward, Harpers Bizarre looked back.
Harpers Bizarre 4 is so nicely chilled that it is a bit of a shame that they split up after two further singles in Harry Nilsson’s Poly High and If We Ever Needed The Lord Before, which dips into the blues. Adding to their problems, they were also held hostage in an airplane hijack just before they parted. Harpers Bizarre had hit on something good late in their career, but the rest of the music world shrugged its shoulders and ignored it. This was probably my favourite LP of the set, with the feeling that HB finally getting a chance to cut loose relatively speaking.
Ted Templeman must have been paying attention in the studio as when Harpers Bizarre split, he forged his own very successful producing career, helming records for Aerosmith, Van Morrison and Joan Jett And The Blackhearts among others. This meant he did not need to take part in the band’s reunion of 1976, which yielded the unsuccessful As Time Goes By comeback LP.
This set has detailed sleeve notes that take you through the band’s existence and the albums are all presented in mini-sleeve repros. You’re going to have to favour a bit of easy listening to get much out of Come Into The Sunshine, I think that is fair to say. If you do you will find much to enjoy despite a few very sugary moments which may have you reaching for your toothbrush. Harpers Bizarre were never “cool”, but their dreamy vocal stylings on occasion summed up the relaxed chill of the US in late 1960s.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here