Once a flop, always a flop?

Song Cycle dominates the Van Dyke Parks discography the way "Citizen Kane" overshadows Orson Welles' cinematic output. That simply cannot be denied, though Welles created other outstanding films- "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Touch Of Evil" for example.

Parks' produced Discover America and the much misunderstood Tokyo Rose—two worthwhile albums. But for both artists, the earliest works, so singular and overwhelming, rule. Parks claims his best works lay ahead. Time will tell.

For now, the grand scope of Song Cycle, with its labyrinthine lyrical thread, packed with seemingly indecipherable arcane word play, it's sonic collages and complex instrumental choruses dotted with balalaikas and otherworldly electronically manipulated accents, and its windy vocal choruses, puts it near the top of the album art of the sixties. You'll either agree with that assessment or you'll find Song Cycle "pretentious and boring" as one critic is quoted in a Warner Brothers promo LP as having written. There's no in between.

A "rock critic" named Jimmy Gutterman once declared the album "the worst rock record ever made." That's like saying a Greyhound bus is the "worst sports car ever built," because Song Cycle isn't a rock album, Gutterman!

The album opens with a faux primitive, hissy bluegrass recording (perhaps an homage to Parks' "Mighty Wind" phase?) which serves as a flashback for the real album opener, Randy Newman's "Vine Street", a music business reminiscence in a few short movements, which lurks a while wistfully while quoting Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

From there, with the exception of a sophisticated musical deconstruction of Donovan's "Colours", it's Van Dyke Parks, laying out his life so far, tracing his Southern upbringing, his move west, his impressions of L.A., his good fortune, his ambivalence about Hollywood in particular, and show business in general- all told through a hazy impressionistic Joyce-ian barrage of words, phrases and concepts.

"Palm Desert", the first Parks selection, is enough to certify Parks' genius as a wordsmith and arranger. The seamless segueways between some of the song's "movements" are worth hearing again and again for their compositional and arranging brilliance. Parks sings in a wispy, intimate, almost effeminate style, ( often heavily processed), of a Hollywood long gone and in transition. The double meaning of the line "Dreams are still born in Hollywood" is one small example of the deft wordplay sprinkled throughout the album.

What "Chinatown" did for the development of L.A., Song Cycle does for the L.A. music scene of the mid-sixties-though in a much more diffuse way- filtered through the eyes and ears of a classically trained Southern born academic. As he sings in "Laurel Canyon Boulevard", "What's up Laurel Canyon....the seat of the beat.....And what is up the canyon will even eventually come down." Which of course it did, yielding to the whole rock scene which Song Cycle , a decidedly non-rock album pointedly ignores.

A mint julep of a Southern gothic musical novella, Song Cycle contains so many memorable musical and technical achievements, a book is probably called for. There's a segueway in "Palm Desert" involving a pedal steel guitar phrase which leads to the song's chorus that is so exquisitely conceived and rendered I've played it hundreds of times and it's still not enough.

The mix of sound effects, solo instruments, large acoustic ensembles, and vocal choruses all electronically processed in elastic, psychedelic arrangements which lurch, bounce and reverberate on a large shifting soundstage, creates a rich sonic spectacular unlike any other record before or since- and that's not hyperbole. There is no precedent for Song Cycle . It is a singular work and a unique listening experience, one which never fails to excite the mind's eye with rich, mythical images of the deep south and of "the all golden" Southern California.

The sound credits tell a very complex production story: "Produced by Leonard Waronker. Engineering supervised by Lee Herschberg. Stereo and monaural compositions by: Bruce Botnick. Sound effects by: Jack Glaser and El Supremo. Musical advisor and conductor: Kirby Johnson. Contractor: Donald Lanier and Tommy Tedesco."

When I spoke with Lee Herschberg a few years ago, he told me that the recording was done mostly on 4 track which was bounced back and forth a few generations, adding tracks each time. You can hear the generational hiss build up on the CD reissue, but it's much less obtrusive on LP—original or Sundazed , though it is audible. Herschberg remembers the mixing of the record as "a nightmare".

Clearly, the best way to hear Song Cycle is on an original gold label Warner Brothers LP. Second best and very close is Sundazed's superb reissue, which is actually cleaner and more transparent than the original. This removes a bit of haze as well as some of the atmospherics that lend mystery to the production, but tonally, the reissue is about as close to the original as a later rendering can get. Let's face it: the master tape wasn't "used up" cutting lacquers! The record never sold that well, but then we know what usually rises to the top!

Early album jackets contain a note which reads "Lyrics to the songs are available by writing Copyright Dept., Warner Bros. Records, Burbank, Calif." Later jackets—the artwork used by Sundazed— give you the lyrics. You cannot completely appreciate Song Cycle without the words close at hand.

The liner notes on the original LP, which dropped a heavy list of names including Botticelli and Mahler, the Beatles, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Gershwin, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Dylan (Bob and Thomas), Thomas Pynchon and even John-John Kennedy (!) is a bit of a pretentious embarrassement— an assessment the writer, Paul Jay Robbins might agree with today. It's left off Sundazed's reissue.

Both the original and reissued LP (to differing degrees) give you a warm, large, wet, airy and deep soundstage with outstanding inner detail and harmonic structure. Front to back instrumental layering is vivid, and image specificity despite the reverberant overlay, is superb. Any way you listen, a magical musical experience. Turn the lights out and away you go!

While Song Cycle was greeted with critical acclaim and brought both Parks and Warner Brothers accolades and admiration for their efforts, Song Cycle was a commercial flop. How it must have hurt! Warner Brothers tried to keep the album alive by advertising a "one cent sale" in the "underground press" of the time (ie: The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Free Press etc.). If you sent them your "worn out" copy of Song Cycle and a penny, they'd send you back two fresh copies, one for you, one for a friend. Is this offer still good?

The liner notes to the 1969 Warner-Reprise Record Show put it this way: "In the face of the unbelievable commercial failure of Song Cycle , Van has been keeping himself busy by composing music for commercials, rather like Buckminster Fuller tightening bolts in an aircraft factory!" With a few notable exceptions, that kind of wit has long since departed the major record labels' writing output. Today you're satisfied if the grammar and spelling are correct.

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I don't think so. So do you mean, they can't redeem themselves right?
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