Green Tambourine

The Lemon Pipers were a fairly hard-edged sorta-psychedelic band from Oxford, Ohio. And when they weren’t blowing your mind, they were a slightly dazed, folky band of the Lovin’ Spoonful variety. Suffice to say, they had ambition and vision, and there’s a good reason we still hear them on the radio today.

UNFORTUNATELY–and there’s always an “unfortunately”–ambition and vision aside, that good reason for hearing them on the radio today is that they were the first and among the most prominent “bubblegum” pop bands of the late ’60s. So what the hell–how did they go from shooting for Byrd-like artistic sincerity and wind up Top 40 teeny-bopper fodder? The producers.

The band signed with Buddha early after that label was formed in 1967. And though Buddha seemed at first to be a progressively minded label (it’s first LP release was Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk, for crying out loud!), it quickly took the lead on what would become bubblegum pop. Buddha is today best known (in my house, at least) for bands like the 1910 Fruit Gum Company and Ohio Express.

So… The Lemon Pipers made something of a devilish deal with Buddha executives, agreeing to record what would, in hindsight, be their only hit, the colorfully nagging “Green Tambourine”. It can be assumed that the band really, really wanted a hit, as did the label, and though “Green Tambourine” was a step back in the band’s evolution, it was at least off-beat and reasonably well-expected to succeed in the mainstream. But, as often happens when a band has only one really good shot to shoulder into the market, the Lemon Pipers fell ass-backward into what would become a lasting, decades-long pigeonhole.

Buddha would move on and do quite well, going on to sign notable acts like Gladys Knight & the Pips, but the band was stuck. “Green Tambourine” was a success, but Buddha’s powers-that-be only wanted more of the same. Typical! The band (presumably still dreaming big) didn’t want to be dumped or miss out on lucrative sales, and had to settle for sneaking larger-scale, more conceptual tracks onto the tail end of their records. And that’s where their secret potential stayed hidden. You can still find it now; it’s easier to find now than the Lemon Pipers’ careers were to find after, oh, 1970 or so.

Still, a good song is a good song. And though you can practically hear their teeth grinding in the background the whole time, that bubblegum stuff the Pipers released is pretty entertaining. The production values are great, and the variety of sounds reflect a genuine effort to integrate what were at that time still fairly innovative techniques and instruments–so much sitar! At times it even cribs enough Magical Mystery Tour vibes to transcend the cringe-inducing corporate shellack that tried so hard to sell the counter-culture to middle school students. I get the impression there were a few rock snobs wandering around, defending their affection for the band with feeble “It’s better on acid–I swear!” arguments. And they were probably right, though.

Buddha released a Lemon Pipers compilation (called Green Tambourine: The Best of the Lemon Pipers, to put as fine a point on their piddling success as possible, I guess). It’s worth hearing, though of course so are their original albums. I’m sharing here a little handful. “Through With You” is one of the band’s better stabs at legitimacy, Byrds-inflected as it is. The rest are very good either for being bubblegum or despite of it. “I Need Someone (The Painter)” is very lovely, almost Zombies-esque, and I couldn’t complain about that song in anyone’s catalogue. I especially like how the painter cleans his brushes with his tears. “Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade)”, on the other hand, is flagrantly mining psychedelia; if your mom were tripping, she’d be listening to this song. Not to mention that the narrator makes some pretty implausible, outlandish promises, and that’s not cool. I don’t even have a pumpkin drum. The songs are all good, if conflicted.

Oh, Lemon Pipers. Your shattered dreams are my fleeting curiosity today.

The Lemon Pipers “Rice is Nice”