When Psychedelic-Country-MOR-Pop Ruled: The Magic of Nancy & Lee
For all that psychedelia presented itself as counterculture, it was co-opted by the mainstream very quickly indeed. No sooner had The Beatles’ Revolver, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension been released into the wild in 1966, were their exploratory arrangements and studio techniques parlayed into a whole new language for pop – and even easy listening music. This has since resulted in some of the greatest music ever created.
Harpsichords, baroque string and horn arrangements, mellotrons… all of these things proved extremely adaptable to pop’s melodics, and perfectly in tune with the “light orchestra” arrangements of lounge music, cool jazz and easy listening. Meanwhile there was a lightness and whimsy to a lot of psychedelia itself – from the wide-eyed innocence of Brian Wilson to the rather kookier confections of Donovan in ‘Sunshine Superman’ mode, it felt on the surface at least a little bit sweet and childlike.
Given the male-centric, over-analytical nature of the music press, of course pop psychedelia was never given the important cultural place that, say, Hendrix or the Grateful Dead did. Even now, this is the case: it’s all looked back on as fun and bubbles and Austin Powers aesthetic, not serious music. Some artists suffered from this: the poor old Monkees, for example, never really got over not being taken as seriously as their brilliant records deserved; while Brian Wilson’s attempts to span both ephemeral sweetness and grandiose profundity may well have contributed to his declining mental state.
Nonetheless, between ’66 and the end of the decade, untold glorious sound was produced from this interface. Add to this the effortless musicianship of session players like Los Angeles’s revered loose collective The Wrecking Crew, and a whole explosion of music came out that may or may not have been sincere in its dedication to mind expansion, but was untethered in its ambition and pursuit of total delight. The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Free Design, The Cowsills, The Left Banke, the Hair soundtrack and so many more reached huge audiences and set the tone of the time just as much as any hairy, meaningful rock dude.
There was another strand to this too: the omnipresence of country and western in American culture. Already, country had plenty of mavericks, and into the mix of psychedelia and middle-of-the-road pop production came all kinds of unusual countrified interjections. The mysterious, southern gothic genius of Bobbie Gentry, for example, or the Everly Brothers’ psychedelic period – which on paper was a cynical latching onto post-Beatles pop, but in the delivery of songs like “Mary Jane” and “Talking to the Flowers” was absolutely note perfect.
From all these threads was woven Nancy & Lee by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Take one Oklahoman country oddball, who’d been making extraordinary records since the mid ‘50s, both for the likes of Duane Eddy and solo, showcasing his own distinctive baritone voice. Add the daughter of one of the biggest stars on earth, looking to find a creative space of her own, marinate in the delirious environs of ‘60s Hollywood, and add the creative freedom that comes with having created a mega-hit like “These Boots are Made for Walking”, and you get the recipe for a country-psychedelic-easy-listening-pop album for the ages.
Nancy & Lee, now remastered and reissued with two extra contemporary tracks – their covers of “Love is Strange” and The Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” – sounds now as dazzling and brilliantly baffling as it ever has. How could it not when it has “Some Velvet Morning” as its centrepiece? Essentially two songs mashed roughly into one another in clashing time signatures and keys in a manner that somehow works, this bit of mystical kitsch has never lost its ability to twist people’s brains. Hence, multiple cover versions by the likes of Lydia Lunch, Slowdive, Yo La Tengo, Primal Scream (with Kate Moss) and even Swedish death metal band Entombed.
“Some Velvet Morning” is a truly unique song in its ability to be silly and profound, kitsch and intergalactically weird at the same time. But the rest of the album supports it ably: even though the orchestrations are pure Hollywood, and the duo indulge in endless vaudevillian mugging in their interplay, there is something intensely beautiful about it all. Even just the opening of the album – a driftingly slow take on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” which doesn’t even introduce Nancy until a minute in – is audacious, and from there on in, you’re adrift in a giddy, bizarre, fertile world in which pretty much anything goes.
Songs like “Storybook Children” are simultaneously as easy-listening as any Perry Como album, and as eerily psychedelic as a Syd Barrett mock nursery rhyme. The jauntily swung “I’ve Been Down So Long (It Looks Like Up To Me)” could easily be from some rhinestone-crusted Nashville country TV showcase – but in the context of the album, its twang is rendered as weirdly as the English music hall affectations of The Beatles during their Sgt. Pepper era. Rarely for a deluxe re-release, the two new tracks are beautifully incorporated into the flow of the record, and feel right in place – the Kinks cover in particular capturing the decadent, stoned, but oddly impassioned atmosphere of the whole. It is, all in all, a trip, and an absolute joy to be reminded of the frankly deranged explosion of creativity that was happening as counterculture and mainstream flowed together.
Buy or stream album here.
All Images: RON JOY, © BOOTS ENTERPRISES, INC
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.