Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Keeping it clean in the era of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll


“You should write one about Gunhill Road’s ‘Back when My Hair Was Short’ with all the drug references.”

Interesting suggestion, I thought, though I didn’t recall drug references in the 1973 one-hit-wonder song.

But when Mike Dean, longtime friend, college professor and chronicler of the weird and arcane in music (check out his Christmas music lists sometime) makes a suggestion, you listen.

So I rifled through my album collection and pulled out Gunhill Road’s self-titled release, actually a re-release and alteration of an earlier version of the album -- which makes Gunhill Road not only the band’s second album but also its third. Stay with me, it gets weirder than that.

My Gunhill Road album is the reworked version. I picked it up decades ago, listened to it a couple of times, and then it went into hibernation. “Back When My Hair Was Short” is a rollicking pop tune that describes the transition from crew cuts and white socks of the 1950s to long hair, college and the hippie scene of the ‘60s. I listened to the song anew. Where are the drugs, Mike?

Trusting my friend, I dug deeper and discovered through Iinternet research (God, I love Google) that an earlier, far more twisted and darker version of “Back When My Hair Was Short” was recorded by the New York group. This version still follows the same 1950s-1960s journey, only it includes references to such drugs as LSD, THC and STP. The narrator sings about reading Screw magazine and going to court for selling dope to kids. OK, Mike, you were right.

But why the two versions? That is due to the vision(?) of Neil Bogart, who ran Kama Sutra Records.

Gunhill Road’s debut album, First Stop, was issued on Mercury Records in 1971. It wasn’t a huge seller but did attract a following on free-form FM radio stations, mainly for the song “42nd Street,” an examination of the decadence of the world as it existed on New York City’s 42nd Street.

The band was subsequently picked up by Kama Sutra, and the first version of the Gunhill Road album was issued in 1972. This album, with the darker version of “Back When My Hair Was Short,” was produced by then-garage-rock hippie Kenny Rogers, who had recorded his own psychedelic drug song, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a nod to the effects of LSD. Now, to be clear: This is the same Kenny Rogers who went on to country-pop fame with “The Gambler” and duets with Dolly Parton along with selling fried chicken. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bogart thought “Back When My Hair Was Short” had hit potential but needed to be “really bouncy and really pop” to make it on the charts. With a new producer, Kenny Kerner, in place, the band changed the song’s tempo and rewrote the lyrics. Several other songs were also reworked. The original Kama Sutra album was pulled from the market and was replaced with the revised version.

With its heavy drug references and allusions to the hypocrisy of the American life, the original, Rogers-produced song was aimed squarely at the underground FM-radio crowd. The revised tune dropped the topical statements and instead went for nostalgia. The narrator no longer reads Screw magazine and deals dope. Instead, he steals hubcaps and has an abiding faith in love. (You can compare the two versions of the lyrics here (original), and here (revised). The original recording may be heard here and the revision here.)

The ploy worked. The new version of the song made it to No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band had some success on tour and appeared on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special TV shows. Alas, they were true one-trick ponies and never charted another single. The group disbanded in the mid-1970s, only to reform decades later to issue a new album titled Every 40 Years.

But this story still has one more twist.

After completing the Gunhill Road album, Kerner listened to a demo tape Bogart passed on to him for review. On the tape were five songs from four local kids in a band called Wicked Lester that had been playing area clubs. Kerner was blown away by what he heard on the tape, and the band was the first act Bogart signed when he launched his new record label, Casablanca, in November 1973. The four guys in Wicked Lester would henceforth and forever be known as KISS. And the rest is history.

The question remains, though: Why, in the era of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” did Gunhill Road have to alter their song?

Today there appears to be virtually no constraints on artistic content, but the 1960s was still a pretty buttoned-down time, especially in mass entertainment markets, despite the massive societal changes sweeping across the nation. Remember, only a few years earlier, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Rob and Laura Petrie had to have separate beds in their TV marriage bedrooms. A bathroom wasn’t shown on national TV until a 1957 Leave It To Beaver episode. Cher was the first female to show a belly button. Previously, network executives forbade Barbara Eden from exposing her belly button on I Dream of Jeannie, and Dawn Wells and Tina Louise were required to wear shorts that covered their navels on Gilligan’s Island.

Radio broadcasters were petrified that the Federal Communications Commission would yank their broadcast licenses if inappropriate songs made it on the air, so it was common practice that sanitized versions of songs were released on 45 RPM records for radio airplay while the more risque versions were released on LPs.

It wasn’t any less restrictive for musicians on TV, either. The place to be for national television exposure in the 1960s was The Ed Sullivan Show. But the “really big shew” guy, Mr. Ed himself, served as a pretty powerful censor.

Sullivan, host of a variety show that bore his name and aired on CBS for 23 years, really didn’t like anything that smacked (no pun intended) of drug references. Not to mention Elvis Presley’s hips; he didn’t like them, either. He and CBS censors ordered The Doors not to use the word “higher” during their 1967 performance of “Light My Fire.” Singer Jim Morrison defied the edict and kept the lyrics intact. “‘You will never do this show again,’ Ed fumed after we'd directly disobeyed his censorship requirements,” drummer John Densmore recalled. “Jim turned to him and remarked, ‘Hey, that’s okay. We just did The Ed Sullivan Show.’”

Earlier that year The Rolling Stones, the reputed bad boys of rock, were not so rebellious with Ed when the band was told it would have to alter the lyrics to “Let’s Spend The Night Together.” Frontman Mick Jagger acquiesced and instead sang “let’s spend some time together.” Rebel that he was, though, Jagger rolled his eyes as he sang the new lyrics.

Folk-rock duo Brewer and Shipley ran into serious headwinds when they released 1971’s “One Toke Over The Line,” garnering the attention of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who declared the song was "blatant drug-culture propaganda" that "threatens to sap our national strength." Agnew pressured the FCC to add the song to its list of music banned from the airwaves because of drug references, but the tune made it to No. 10 anyway. Hmmm. Pot more popular than Agnew. Who would have thought it? Reminds me of an anti-drug message from the days of my youth: “Stay off drugs, kids. The only dope worth shooting is Richard Nixon.”

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