In the 1960s, AM pop radio was king. FM wasn’t wide spread or heavily commercialized yet — most car and portable radios didn’t even have Frequency Modulation — and the majority of FM’s content was talk and Jazz, with some avant garde college stations breaking new ground by playing true alternative music like the Velvet Undergorund. But if you wanted to hear the hits you’d hear them on AM. While it’s easy to think that only heavyweights like Cream, Hendrix, The Doors and The Byrds were getting all the airplay two of the biggest AM chart toppers of that pop friendly-era were The Grass Roots and The Rascals.
I’d Wait a Million Years – The Grass Roots
The Grass Roots were a prototypical LA band: a good looking and interchangeable bunch of non-threatening white guys who could write a little, play a little but mostly sing very well while letting professional session musicians handle the recording dates and a master producer and songwriting team create their “sound.” On vinyl they were often backed up by that famous group of anonymous studio aces, The Wrecking Crew. But unlike other truly ersatz acts like The Association and The Monkees, The Grass Roots could really Rock when called upon with the commitment that makes for great Blue-Eyed Soul and pop rock. Sure, their music was heavily produced and the band members wound up coming and going at a dizzying pace — their only real mainstay was bassist/singer Rob Grill who wound up owning the band’s name and kept the Grass Roots going until his death in 2011. But under their nod-and-a-wink hippy moniker and backed by the remarkable West Coast songwriting team of PF Sloan and Steve Barri (of “Secret Agent Man” fame) and that great ultra-pop producer/Svengali Lou Adler (Mammas & the Papas, Carole King) and his Dunhill Records label, the Grass Roots cranked out some the seminal hits of the 60s.
Foremost among them is the great “Let’s Live For Today”. Released in 1967 at the height of the Summer of Love, “Live for Today” seemed to capture the youth explosion at its most optimistic, literally proclaiming carpe diem in 2:47 of dramatically arranged, beautifully constructed near-perfection. If it wasn’t “A Day In the Life” or “Good Vibrations”, well, not much else was either and “Let’s Live For Today”s yearning, passionate optimism and chiming but slightly wobbly, almost Eastern guitar notes — not to mention that great shouted “1-2-3-4!” bridge — signaled generational change and renunciation of establishment expectations in the guise of a plaintive love song. It brought the band major success, charting at #8 and selling over a million copies, and it’s simply a great pop record redolent of 60s zeitgeist that still holds up very well.
Midnight Confessions – The Grass Roots
Though not an album band due to their somewhat manufactured, ad hoc structure the Grass Roots had another smash with the beautifully produced and well-arranged “Midnight Confessions,” a typical hopeless love song elevated to super-hooky greatness by a swirling Hammond organ, a walking bass line and some innovative time shifts by the percussion. It deservedly reached #5 on the pop charts late in 1968.
Temptation Eyes – The Grass Roots
1969 saw them score another big hit standing out from a lot of middling material with the intense “Wait a Million Years” and its through-line of insistent electronic beep, dramatic horns and propulsive rhythms. Amidst much band reshuffling the ‘Roots had one more really good song in them, 1970’s “Temptation Eyes”, a solid straight-ahead rocker that was definitely consistent with their overall sound and contribution to the Rock canon. While they’d have even more success with 1971’s “Sooner or Later” and “Two Divided By Love”, those songs are pretty weak sauce with an inescapably cloying Wonder Bread mushiness that does the band no credit. It’s no wonder that they soon petered out and onto the oldies circuit. But their best songs still hold up really well and are a pleasure to listen to. By definition a 60s band, The Grass Roots nevertheless seem prescient in predicting the pop direction of similar acts like The Raspberries, Three Dog Night and Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The Rascals might be viewed as the mirror image of a band like the Grass Roots. Although they charted just as frequently on AM radio during the 60s and their music was also an integral part of the pop soundscape of the era, the Rascals (originally the Young Rascals) were not a West Coast studio creation at all, despite the excellent production and sophisticated arrangements of their best singles. The Rascals hailed from back east in New Jersey and were a real band with four longstanding members who wrote and performed their own material: Felix Caviellieri on keyboard and vocals, the band’s linchpin, Eddie Bregati on vocals and percussion, Gene Cornish on guitar and Dino Danelli on drums. With three of their members having already honed their chops in the band Joey Dee and the Starlighters, The Young Rascals came out of the shoot ready to rock with two reasonably successful hits, the pleasingly raw “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore” (1965) and the propulsive, all-time great party anthem “Good Lovin'” (1966).
Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals
Already the authenticity of the vocals and more rough-hewn, organic excellence of the musicianship declare that the Rascals are not going to be just another sweet sounding pop band with only one or two hits. With an attack owing more to garage bands like the Standells and The Outsiders than to the highly polished sheen of LA’s “West Coast Sound,” but also with more than a casual nod to the British Invasion, the Rascals made the case that East Coast Rock ‘n Roll would not go gently into that good, super-sweet AM radio night.
Which is not to say that the Rascals were radical or confrontational in any overt way. They weren’t musical revolutinaries like Love or social rabble rousers like Jefferson Airplane. But neither were they bubblegum pop. The Rascals were grittier Blue-Eyed Soul with an authentic, intuitive feel for a non-condescending, non-homogenized version of that sub-genre that so many other white acts just couldn’t match. They kept up the good work in 1967 with the Bacharach-like “How Can I be Sure” (covered to even better effect by Dusty Springfield for my money), the surprisingly soulful ode to love and good times, “Groovin'”, a #1 chart-topper, and its fraternal twin single, 1968’s “A Beautiful Morning.”
A Beautiful Morning – The Rascals
Those last two lush and ostensibly happy singles cleverly utilize hints of Latin percussion and feature Cavaliere’s wonderfully evocative, emotionally complex vocals, turning what could easily be pop tripe into something lasting, universal and great. The Rascals were also dedicated participants in their tumultuous times, taking a stand on racial segregation by not accepting bookings on segregated, all-white bills. And when Martin Kuther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 it seemed only fitting that they’d be releasing a single that made the case for peace, tolerance and brotherhood, “People Got To Be Free.”
The Rascals peaked early and wouldn’t last much into the 70s, failing to find chart success when they tried to be more ambitious than the 3-minute single and ventured into longer-form tracks incorporating psychedelia, Eastern philosophy and jazz fusion (though for true aficionados the later recordings are still worth a listen, as the musicianship is always excellent). Nonetheless, as a band that wrote & performed almost all of their own material, they were undoubtedly a more serious, substantial Rock band than The Grass Roots despite sharing a similar timeline of success, no argument. As if to prove the point, The Rascals were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. But for pure listening pleasure, both The Rascals and The Grass Roots still deliver the thrills and hooks of a beautifully fresh pop sound that resonates all the way from the late 1960s to today, whether you’re listening via AM, FM or WiFi.