By the time you read this, America will have come and gone. They will have performed in Bangalore and in Mumbai. And loads of sad, middle-aged men like me will have gone “toot, toot, toodoo toodoo toodoo” during the chorus of Tin Man.
If you have read the preceding paragraph with mounting bewilderment, then you are probably a lot younger than I am. You are not part of the generation that thinks of America as a band. Quite reasonably, you think of America as a country.
MALAY KARMAKAR / MINT
Even so, at least one of the songs should sound vaguely familiar. Remember A Horse With No Name? It came out something like 35 years ago, but it has entered the collective consciousness, partly because of the droning vocal but mostly, I suspect, because of the unusual title.
But even if you don’t remember America, do not worry. You almost certainly remember Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY). You recognize the dreamy look that wafts on to the faces of fat bald men when somebody plays or sings Teach Your Children. Even The Byrds (who predated CSNY) may seem vaguely familiar: that jingle-jangle 12-string guitar on their cover of Hey! Mr Tambourine Man, for instance.
And, of course, you’ll know the next generation. Some of you may even remember the Eagles from the era when they had graduated from being Linda Ronstadt’s backing band and thought of themselves as slender, wind-blown outlaws (Desperado). But all of you will know them in their most recent avatar, as podgy, stubbly guys who wear plaid shirts and sing Hotel California to audiences who, spookily enough, remember every last line in the song. Plus, there is a new album out; their first original material in decades.
All these bands belong to a category that we used to call folk rock in the old days. It was a category invented by the record labels. There had been commercially successful folk groups before (The Kingston Trio, for instance) and, of course, there were rock groups. But as the newer generation of folk singers began departing from the traditional patterns (mostly after the debut of Bob Dylan), record companies decided that there was money to be made in marrying the new folk with a rockier sound.
The Byrds’ version of Tambourine Man (followed by an update of Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn) set the template: lots of acoustic rhythm guitar, a rocky drums and bass section, and vocal harmonies. The new sound became so popular that Columbia records picked a folksy song called The Sound of Silence off a flop album (Wednesday Morning 3AM) by a duo called Simon and Garfunkel, added a rhythm track without the group’s knowledge, and released it as a single. Paul Simon was in London playing the folk clubs when he heard that he had a hit single. He rushed back to the US and put together a new album, rehashing most of his old songs (which had appeared on a solo album called The Paul Simon Songbook) in the new rocky style (the album was called Sounds of Silence) and suddenly Simon and Garfunkel were No. 1 on the charts.
But the band that did more to define the genre than any other was Crosby, Stills and Nash. David Crosby was from The Byrds and Graham Nash from the English pop group, The Hollies. They met in Los Angeles and discovered that they were masters of double harmony. Along with the harder-edged Stephen Stills, who had played electric guitar for Buffalo Springfield, they formed a trio and released a classic album. Atlantic Records made them add another Springfield veteran, Neil Young, and the band changed its name to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and recorded just one studio album (Déjà Vu) as a foursome.
Both albums came to define that era. When the Woodstock (1970) movie was released, the band’s songs featured prominently (Long Time Gone and their cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock among them), and the group was filmed performing what must be their greatest-ever song, Judy Blue Eyes (another of those “toot, toot, toodoo toodoo” affairs, I’m afraid).
The band broke up after releasing a live album. Neil Young went on to highly regarded solo success. Crosby’s drug problem wrecked him. Stills fought his battles with his own demons, but Nash reunited them in the 1980s as a touring outfit (minus Young) and they released largely indifferent studio albums.
America sprung to fame when CSNY broke up. Their first hit, A Horse With No Name, sounds so much like Neil Young that many people actually thought that it was a CSNY reunion song when they first heard it on the radio. Other songs kept the CSNY parallels alive: Sandman and Ventura Highway, for instance. But they never really found their own identity till George Martin, The Beatles producer, took them under his wing, and made their sound more pop and less folk rock (Tin Man is their best song from this period).
By then, of course, CSNY fans had migrated to the Eagles, who tried to add a country edge (when it suited them) to the old folk rock sound. Their best songs (Tequila Sunrise, Best of My Love and even Take It Easy) are folk rock but after they found commercial super success with One of These Nights (mixed so that you could dance to it), they experimented with new genres. Some of this was rubbish (the tedious Life In the Fast Lane and everything that Joe Walsh wrote) but their classic song Hotel California effectively merged folk, rock, country and even reggae.
The funny thing about the Eagles is how long their music has lasted outside the US. Go to Manila or Bangkok, for instance, and request Southern Man or Marrakesh Express or anything at all from the CSNY catalogue, and they will stare at you blankly. But everybody can play Eagles songs. There isn’t a restaurant band in the Far East that does not know Hotel California, and even Get Over It is a hot favourite.
I am not very enthusiastic about the newer Eagles stuff, but I still think that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young defined my generation (that’s the generation after The Beatles) in a way that no other band did. Funnily enough, though Graham Nash was regarded as the group’s lightweight, his songs have stood the test of time. Teach Your Children is not the only example. The tweeness of Our House still holds a certain appeal, Marrakesh Express always make me smile and Cathedral (from one of the later albums) is a classic.
Why do people like me enjoy folk rock—that disappearing, dated genre—so much? Well, I guess because we like the distinctive acoustic guitar, the hummable melodies and those irresistible harmonies. Yeah, I know it sounds wimpish. But give me Judy Blue Eyes, or even America’s Ventura Highway, and I will happily swap them for every trance record ever made.
Sometimes, you just can’t fight the memories of your generation.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org