Hokey is hard to pull off; do it wrong, and you look foolish. If you do it right, though, the results can be rewarding. No group was better at this than Harpers Bizarre, a Bay Area pop band who quickly became a definitive band of the “Sunshine Pop” movement. In their brief three year existence, they would release four albums and a slew of singles. Those singles are compiled here on The Complete Singles Collection 1965-1970, offering twenty-six songs of amazing, wonderful pop music.
Though they would become known as an easy listening pop band, they began life in Santa Cruz as The Tikis, a good but not particularly exceptional garage-rock band, and one that would briefly count songwriter Randy Newman as a member. Fronted by Ted Templeman, they would release two singles on local label Autumn Records. Debut single, “If I’ve Been Dreaming,” is fun, Beatles-inspired pop. Their next single, “Bye, Bye, Bye,” would be released under the name The Other Tikis, and it’s clear that they’ve developed a keen sense of harmony.
When the group signed to Warner Brothers, they would meet up with wunderkind Lenny Waronker, who would soon transform their sound into something new. Their debut single as Harpers Bizarre was a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” Though faithful to the original version, it’s the arrangement that really won people over; circular harmonies, a woodwind section, harmonium nestled these elements into a song that would turn the song into a hit. Their follow-up, “Come To The Sunshine,” wasn’t a hit, but the tune—written by Van Dyke Parks—would help give their sound a genre name, while the B-side, “Debutante’s Ball,” was even more interesting; written by friend Randy Newman, it was a song that recalled the innocent, Waronker’s next choice for a single—a cover of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”—was met with resistance.
The flowing release of singles over the year would seemingly be idiosyncratic to the Summer of Love—music more apt for Lawrence Welk than Laugh-In—but not so; their take on American Popular Song, blended with a charming innocence, created an alternate reality that seemingly appealed to the hip crowd and to those who probably looked upon youth culture with disdain. Releasing a single of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” at the height of psychedelia was a brave move. Yet there was subversiveness to be found; their theme song to stoner classic “i Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” openly references drugs and getting high. Though later singles failed to reach the heights of their 1967 releases, the songs themselves are fine, understated, sunny-day pop; a cover of “Both Sides Now” offers up a soon-to-be-classic tune in a unique arrangement, while “Knock On Wood” is a lush take on a soul number that would later become a disco anthem. “Witchi Tai To” is definitely a highlight of the set; a dreamy, lysergic vocal trip that turns a Native American-minded number into something quite sublime.
Yet things were not always harmonious within the harmony group, and by 1970, they seemed to be depleted. The songs are nice, but somewhat formulaic, especially “Look To The Rainbow” and “Poly High.” The autobiographical “Soft Soundin’ Music” feels like a career wrap-up, even though it’s a lesser number; at four and a half minutes, it’s the longest song of the set, and it meanders two minutes too long. Their final single, “If We Ever Needed The Lord Before,” backed with “Mad,” closes out their career on a high note; the A-side is a Gospel number, while the b-side is a catchy rocker that isn’t too far removed from The Tikis’ recordings.
Harpers Bizarre would split as a result of “creative differences” in 1970—Templeman wanted to carry on with Waronker as producer, while the rest of the band wanted someone new. Instead of reaching a consensus, they broke up; they would reform briefly in 1976, but without Templeman. fronting the band, their recordings suffered, and they would soon disband. Not that Templeman was hurting; his career as a producer would put him worlds away from the AM gold, family friendly fare of Harpers Bizarre and into the world of hard rock. Yet as this singles collection demonstrates, the anachronistic four-piece left behind some of the prettiest sunshine pop of the era.
The Complete Singles, 1965-1970 is available now via Now Sounds.