Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Song A Day: Paul Revere and the Raiders, "The Great Airplane Strike"

JULY 29, 2017




Paul Revere and the Raiders were the real deal: a rockin’ garage band from the sticks that came to L.A., became stars, and enjoyed a long string of quality hit singles, most of them self-written.

And when I say the sticks, I mean Boise, Idaho, in the early 1960s. That’s where Paul Revere (real name) and Mark Lindsay (real name) got together with some friends to play what later would be called “frat rock”—a white take on rhythm and blues. They soon relocated to Portland.

Like the other northwest bands of the era (Wailers, Sonics, Kingsmen) they made loud noise in order to facilitate dancing at parties. In the early 1960s, before Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or hallucinogens, that was enough.

The band kitted itself out in Revolutionary War uniforms to cement its onstage identity. After eight singles on the local Gardena label, one of which (“Like Long Hair”) was a minor national hit, the quintet (Revere, Lindsay, Drake Levin, Phil Volk, and Mike Smith) recorded a Richard Berry R&B joint in early 1963 called “Louie Louie,” issued on local DJ Roger Hart’s Sande label.

The rip-roaring “Louie Louie” was a big local hit, and the group’s visual image, good looks, and energetic live shows brought them to the attention of Columbia Records. The label quickly made Paul Revere and the Raiders its first-ever rock and roll act.

“Louie Louie” was issued around the same time as the Kingsmen’s iconic version. It was pretty spare, featuring just Lindsay’s sax, Smith’s drums, and Levin’s guitar. But it kicked up a lot of dust and was a huge hit in California, going to the top five in San Jose, San Francisco, and San Bernadino in the early fall before, reportedly, Columbia A&R director Mitch Miller halted any further promotion on the song.

Into the breach stepped the Kingsmen, whose version had failed on first release but had spread, in an almost underground fashion, due to rumors that the lyrics were obscene. It was first a huge hit in the northeast then in the rest of the country. Unlike the Raiders’ version, the Kingsmen’s version was so unintelligible that “dirty lyrics” could easily be attributed to it.

Revere and Co. struggled to find the right formula. Cover versions of R&B hits were great in the clubs, but didn’t do much on record. It wasn’t until mid-1965 that the group relocated to L.A. and, assisted by producers Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson, found its formula: catchy original songs with powerful production, aggressive rhythm, loud guitars, and gobs of attitude.

The first record with the new Secret Sauce was “Steppin’ Out,” released just in time for the new school year in 1965. Next came “Just Like Me,” their first top twenty hit, in December, and their career as superstars had begun. Melcher was highly involved with these records, often co-writing them. Johnson’s role ended when he joined the Beach Boys in 1966.

A fortunate alliance with Dick Clark meant that PR&TRs were often on television in the mid-1960s. The band played up a goofy persona for the tube, and its singles got instant promotion. Lindsay was teen-magazine fodder with his rugged good looks, ponytailed hair, and tight pants (sometimes the band even wore leotards under their military-type tunics). And the top 20 smashes continued from 1966 through the summer of 1967: “Hungry,” “Good Thing,” “Kicks,” “Him or Me,” “I Had a Dream.”

During all this, the band lost and replaced several members. Levin, Volk, and Smith left, frustrated that most of the band’s backing tracks were played by session musicians. Other talented musicians came and left based on their ability to tolerate playing concerts and smiling while having little actual musical input.

By mid-1967, things had begun to change. “Commercial” was out, and “underground” was in. No longer were the Raiders hip; their whole “plastic LA” scene was under attack from the new rock mecca, San Francisco, whose underground bands were just as calculated in their moves but scruffier, and therefore to some people more authentic. The Raiders symbolized studio wizardry, catering to teenage girls, and tight pants. The new music eschewed such things, though in reality it just exchanged those “clich├ęs” for new ones of its own.

As Paul Revere and the Raiders continued to make some good singles, they also became more beholden to trends—a “soul” LP here, a bubblegum LP there, an underground-type LP there—and their 45s were no longer guaranteed to get radio play or make the little girls swoon.

Even during their string of big hits, two of the Raiders’ singles were relative failures: their very odd, Phil Spector-like “Ups and Downs” and the ripping, garage-y “The Great Airplane Strike.” It’s the latter that concerns me here.

Issued late in August 1966, “The Great Airplane Strike” was a goofy “narrative” of life on the road, but with a twist—the singer throws his sax in his suitcase, runs for the airport, but can’t get out of town. The planes are grounded and there are no taxis. It’s a nightmare situation, with the Dylanesque lyrics and bluesy melody augmented by a symphony of six and twelve-string guitars—fuzzy, tremeloed, and chunky—and insistent bass and drums.

But it wasn’t it as big of a hit as the ones that preceded and followed it. Maybe it was too complicated, too involved of a lyric, not sexy like “Hungry” or “Good Thing” or message-y like “Kicks.” Maybe it was too rough—this was, no matter the band’s profile as teeny heroes, some of the hardest, most uncompromising rock on the radio at the time.

Or maybe it’s because of the intro. While the song’s stereo mix begins with an explosion, the mono mix—which is what was played on the radio in 1966—started instead with screeching sound of airplanes. Or maybe it was the avant-garde ending, which I won’t give away.

“The Great Airplane Strike” barely scraped into the top ten in big markets like Chicago, Boston, and Miami, and was bigger in Seattle, but did surprisingly poorly in Los Angeles and bombed completely in New York. 

Here it is in its glorious mono mix. Listen.

1 comment:

  1. At age seven, I got money from my grandma in 1967 at Christmas, and Bill encouraged me to buy albums - mostly it was stuff that featured songs I'd heard and liked on the radio - The Turtles, Tommy James and maybe one other. But he also had me get this one - I'm sure for him, as I had no idea who these guys were. Back then, I doubt I listened to it more than once. (As you know, it's still not my thing.)