I have read the lengthy booklet that comes with Sundazed’s reissue of The Yellow Balloon’s self-titled album two times now, and I’m still not really sure I understand the band’s story. But here’s what I think it is:
Gary Zekley, – a songwriter, producer and sometimes band member on the West Coast pop circuit of the 1960s – wrote a song, called “The Yellow Balloon,” and handed it off to Jan and Dean. Knowing the song was going to be a hit, Zekley threw together a band and recorded a version of his own, hoping to beat Jan and Dean to the studio finish line. One member of the band Zekley assembled was Don Grady, who played Robbie Douglas on the hit TV show “My Three Sons,” and who had already been moonlighting as a rock ‘n’ rooler, most recently in a folk-rock band called The Palace Guard. Zekley’s motley band wound up naming itself after the song they were assembled to record, scored a minor hit with their version of “Balloon,” and went on to make a full-length album.
I may or may not have all of that right, and I may have missed some important points of the band’s brief story. But here’s the real gist of what I want to say in this space: the album, The Yellow Balloon, is a minor treasure of sun-soaked California psychedelic pop. Part Byrds, part Beach Boys, part Turtles, part Left Banke . . . but the 60s band the Balloon most sounds like is the good-timey Lovin’ Spoonful. The songs are happy and bouncy, they boast excellent melodies and just enough acid flavor to let you know what era they were recorded in. That studio pros like Jim Gordon and Carole Kaye played many of the instruments on the record is something we’ll overlook for the moment – the band The Yellow Balloon (with Grady wearing a wig and shades so as not to be recognized) did tour to support the record, and played some of the instruments on the album, and their lead singer, Alex Valdez, sang most of the songs (Grady sings others).
The bonus tracks Sundazed added to the set include some songs Grady recorded as a solo artist and as leader of an outfit called The Windupwatchband. There is also an interview with Zekley, who died in the late 90s. Some of Grady’s solo stuff is as good as, maybe better than, the material on the main album.
The Yellow Balloon were not a great band. But they managed to make one record which nicely captures the time and place of California in the mid-to-late 1960s. The Gary Zekley mystique and the Don “Robbie Douglas” connection only add to their allure.
I have heard lots of complaints about the Collectors Choice label, about the sound quality of their CDs, and the cheapness of the packaging. But I love this label, because they reissue all kinds of obscure music, from various decades and genres, that nobody else would. My latest Collectors Choice find is the album Will You Be Staying After Sunday, by the late 60s Baltimore soft rock band Peppermint Rainbow. This is Spanky and Our Gang meets The Lemon Pipers, and is 30 minutes of pure pyschedelic bubblegum bliss. The title track, which seems to be referencing Spanky’s "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," is rich with soaring harmonies and vocal hooks. "Pink Lemonade" picks right up from there, with its candy-coated acid vibe. And although those are the best two songs on the 11-track album, it is all pleasant and there is nothing on the record that you mind hearing again. I love the photo of the band on the back cover of the CD almost as much as the music inside. All five members (three guys/two sisters, one of the sisters married to one of the guys) look out of place in the gaudy hippy clothing they’re wearing, the men with sky blue ascots and the women in matching-colored dresses and white go-go boots; they look like a pack of hillbillies who got invited to a party at a drug house and went to the hippy boutique and asked what they should wear. But when they play and sing there’s no confusion at all. They are masters of melodic soft rock and this album goes on my all-time list of greats in that style, alongside records by people like The Sandpipers, Lemon Pipers, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Merry-Go-Round, Cowsills, etc.
In the mid-1960s Graham Gouldman was a one-man Goffin/King or Boyce & Hart. The British musician and songwriter wrote perfect pop songs that were totally of their time, and which were popularized by other, better-known acts. Gouldman penned the two best songs The Hollies ever recorded (“Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window”) two of the better tracks done by The Yardbirds (“For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul”) and also provided material for Herman’s Hermits, P.J. Proby, Wayne Fontana . . .
In ’68 Gouldman – who had previously been part of two different bands, both of them flops – decided it was time to put his own versions of some of his songs on record. John Paul Jones (Francoise Hardy’s playmate, and later bassist of Led Zeppelin) was brought on board as arranger and co-producer. Some top-of-the-line sessions musicians took up instruments. And Gouldman sat down and cobbled together a workbook of songs that had been hits for other artists, as well as some new and previously unrecorded material.
What came out is a record that should be generally regarded as a Mod-era classic, right alongside The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, The Kinks’ Face to Face, and early recordings by The Who, as well as the afore-mentioned Hollies and Yardbirds. But the album wasn’t even released in Gouldman’s native land, and only managed to hit the lower reaches of the Billboard Top 100 in the U.S.
The artist/band Gouldman most sounds like on this record is Emitt Rhodes and The Merry-Go-Round. Gouldman the vocalist has a lisp, and he sings in that almost girlish way that Rhodes does. The arrangements and the production of the material on The G.G. Thing are bubblegumy poppy, a la The Merry-Go-Round – that kind of bubblegum where Pure Pop meets Mod Cool.
Gouldman later become a member of The Mindbenders, before the 70s saw him and another Mindbender form 10CC. Later into the 70s he did the soundtrack to the Farrah Fawcett movie, Sunburn.
In 2004 BMG reissued The Graham Gouldman Thing, and anybody who’s into 60’s Mod pop should thank them. It is one of the best records of its kind.