Saturday, June 10, 2006

Kat's Korner: Kites are something

Kat: If you're one of the small number dedicated to the belief that Free Design's first album Kites Are Fun is a masterpiece of artistic achievement, you can stop reading now. It's not and nothing I have to say will please you.

"Small number?"

Free Design was a group that emerged in 1967. They had some local success but were largely undermined by a lack of strong distribution. For the first album, that was far from the only problem.

I actually enjoy Kites Are Fun. I enjoy it the same way as I do the closing songs in those big studio films of the late sixties where some guy has had a coming of age experience or a some mismatched couple is playing us against the world. The song is pure vocal and it's lah-lah-lah as the credits roll and maybe someone runs across an empty beach or up a hill. It's the sound that Simon & Garfunkel should have demolished with their more complex work on the soundtrack to The Graduate -- yet somehow the earlier sound managed to hang around for a few more years.

On a shady, lazy day, I enjoy putting on this album, the vinyl version. I wasn't even aware the album had been released on CD until an e-mail came in asking if I had any thoughts on it?

The good news first. Wonderful remastering by Light Sound Attic. There's a booklet that will please the dedicated but probably not many others.

At this point in time, Free Design was three people: Bruce, Chris and Sandy Dedrick. Sandy, the sister, is easy to pick out in the photos. If you don't know the group, you may look at any of the four photos inside the booklet (there are also reproductions of album covers) and wonder, "Wait, which one is Chris? Which one is Bruce?"

1967 was the year Lou Adler, Michelle & John Phillips and others staged the Monterey International Pop Music Festival. Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix would be among the ones who would rip apart the stage and capture the fascination of America's record buying public. That's important to remember when trying to figure out why Free Design never made it to the ranks of hitmakers -- let alone super groups.

The original cover (also used as the cover for the remaster) shows you the three siblings wearing what might have been considered "with it" clothes in the early sixties. By 1965, forget 1967, the only word for the look was "square." (The group would change their look on later albums.) Looking like the last refugees from the folk coffee house circuit, the boys sport turtle necks and Sandy, in a striped shirt, wears her long hair as if she'd just had her photo taken for the 1963 yearbook.

1967 was a year when image mattered. When cues were sent via image. Janis was letting it all hang out and adorned in feathers and fringes. The Mamas and the Papas had long since smashed the cookie cutter mold with their outfits. Here's a vocal group where the men are wearing turtlenecks and chinos with hair cuts that Mike Love would term "conservative." The times, the hair was flowing. Along comes Free Design with a look that no one was wearing. It hurt their credibility.

Another minus was Sandy being surrounded by her brothers. Free Design was going for an intelligent crowd -- read "older" than those who might spin the Archies. Just as, in the seventies, Donny & Marie were dubbed "sexy" only by the young; those actually having sex were kind of grossed out by the closeness factor of the squeaky clean Free Design. You better believe that hurt.

Know what else hurt? The new liner notes tell you how artistic and talented Free Design was.
It wasn't that talented. They could hit notes. There's no question of that. But mechanics doesn't mean great singer.

A great singer doesn't sing "kites are fuuNNNNNNN . . . kites are fuuNNNNN" because a great singers knows that vowels sing, consonants don't. But there's Free Design on the closest thing they had to a hit singing "NNNNs" over and over.

If you're confused, the Beach Boys sang "fUn, fUn, fun, 'till her daddy . . ." They didn't sing "fuNNNN, fuNNN, fuNNNN, 'till her daddy . . ."

For all the praise heaped on the group's debut album, all the talk of how talented they were, how trained, how their background is strongly in music, they didn't know the first thing about singing. That's a problem when you're a vocal group.

At a time when Hendrix and Pete Townsend were about to change the landscape with the guitar work, the da-da-da, crisp, quick, stacatto vocals backed up with a gentle acoustic/chamber music sound were as retro as Tiny Tim. (But he had a visual which helped carry him to fame.)

Songwriting? "When Love Is Young," credited to "S. Zynczak & S. Dedrick," is the strongest original composition. Not, as we're led to believe "Kites Are Fun." The latter track is supposed to now be seen as the sort of thing Brian Wilson could have written. Possibly . . . on a really, really bad day.

If the only thing amazing about Wilson's growth as a songwriter had been that he had started writing about childhood, he wouldn't be remembered today. It was how he wrote about it.

I like flying
Flying kites
Flying kiiiiites
Flying kiiiiiiiites
Kites are fuNNN
Kites are fuNNN
See my kite is fuNNN
See my kite is green and white
Laughing at it's distant flight
All that's between us is a little yellow string

That's not a song, it's a commercial for a hobby. The apparent 'rebellion' comes in one line, repeated throughout, of how, tragedy, "Mom and Dad and Uncle Bill don't realize" that, of course, kites are fuNNN.

It's a piece of fluff, fun fluff, but it's not even a distant family relation of the songs of Brian Wilson.

With few exceptions, that's the entire album. Along with "When Love Is Young," the song "Make the Madness Stop" is evidence of songwriting talent. "Kites Are Fun"? It may have made Alex Wilder, writing many years later in the New York Times, "weep," but it will more likely lead you to roll your eyes or burst out laughing.

"Corneilus (Keigo Oyamada)," writing in 2003, tries to group them in with the Beach Boys and the Carpenters. That may be the first comparison of the Beach Boys and the Carpenters I'm aware of. The comparison is ill suited on every level; the Beach Boys were aiming for the kids, the Carpenters (a favorite band of Tricky Dick's) were parent-pleasing.

So is Free Design. You can picture a mother picking up a vinyl copy while taking the Singer in for repairs and saying to her teenage son (who carried the sewing machine into the store), "Why can't you be more like these kids? Look at them. They bathe, they have short hair. They're so clean cut!" And you know what, it was probably those moments more than sorry distribution (the album actually was distributed at Singer sewing machine stores) that killed any chances of success for this album.

"So you're saying avoid at all costs?"

No. It's a nice piece of fluff. They'd change up on later albums (adding a sister and losing a brother). I might try to note one or more of those albums in the future (maybe the pyschadelic children's album they did). In terms of this album, if you get the giddy rush you're supposed to when some big-budget, youth-geared film rolls the credits, you'll get a rush from this album.

My brother gave me this album. He'd just turned 13 and was being picked on for having it in his collection. I'll never forget his face as he handed it over and asked me to take good care of it. Reminded me of the face of my sister when she decided she was too old for Barbies. Kites Are Fun is a wonderful toy. You can have fun with it. It's just not art. No matter how hard the liner notes try to convince you otherwise.

In fact, dropping back to the general time period these notes were written in, what it reminds me of is all the children of stars that were attempting to become famous. Most didn't have the goods to (and faded into other work) but since they couldn't do anything but hype the supposed talent, the press would tell you about their "pedigree." The liner notes for the CD attempt to do the same. They try to convince you that this was just too good, too wonderful, too classically trained for success.

That's not reality. Which, if you think about it, makes the liner notes perfect for this CD release.