It’s rare that anyone has much of interest to say about an old album without having a personal reference as a cornerstone of their opinion. I am no exception. My affection for The 5th Dimension stems from a single evening many years ago and this is so often the way with such things. I came upon it years after its initial release. Some music just creeps in, has its say and then drifts in and out of our lives. Perhaps there is some that your parents or siblings used to play that suddenly, years later you stumble across and there’s a resonance that you feel that is somehow greater than the music itself. Often it’s best to hold onto these as a purely personal gemstone that glows within only you as, trying to share the joy seldom works in my experience.
But from whatever era, good music is good music, right? It’s hard then, not to make these moments personal. I’ve always been a big fan of the song-cycle where an album has an overall concept which is made complete where one song flows into another and the personal interpretation of it all sparks the listener into wondering what it’s really all about. As a musical mechanism for telling a story it is supreme but needs a firm hand at the wheel to bring it together into something whole.
Nick Drake the long-lost British singer-songwriter cited The Magic Garden as a major influence when he considered the orchestrations within his Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter albums. The opening orchestral sweep of the latter has Jimmy Webb writ large and has a fellow admirer in me because Magic Garden is a guilty pleasure of mine, one that I tend to listen to, front to back, when nobody is in the house. Some of us walk the line between musical affection, nostalgia and unease easier than others and I can totally understand why anyone, after a first listen, might send the album to the remainder bin where it would sit, largely unloved, perhaps for decades. But, recently I took a bit of time with it after that memorable evening all those years back, before finding myself thinking about it a little more deeply.
Up Up And Away….
Picture the scene. It is San Francisco and the year is 1967. Your clothes are of bright colours with flower motifs all over them. Your hair is long and the cut is notable by its absence and you are still in your teens perhaps . You know it all and LOVE is the answer as you trundle around in your psychedelic VW camper. Everything seems possible.
All the above is obviously fanciful and just to flavour the scene. Forgive me.
The soundtrack of your life is to be found on vinyl and among the albums strewn on your bed or your living room floor, there will perhaps be one or two of the new concept albums. The album cover that you could pass around is a piece of art that could be used for many purposes. Info contained on it played right into the whole experience of the music and you have read every word many times. In fact, this could be anywhere, the San Francisco reference is just another dream, the substance of which flowed through the loudspeakers in the form of the music that was new and exciting because for UK-based listeners Haight Ashbury seemed a Universe away.
The album that you’re playing is The Magic Garden by The 5th Dimension. It’s different and somehow more than a collection of tracks. Beautiful musical motifs link the tracks and Sitars combine with orchestral arrangements to suck you in and lead you through. The band are new. A five-piece vocal group of three men and two girls who have a sweet charm and a way with warm harmony that has its origins way back. But, it’s the formula that is so interesting and this is because it’s from the pen of a single songwriter, the great Jimmy Webb. This is with the exception of the late-added version of The Beatles Ticket To Ride. Personally I have always found this to be an odd inclusion, apparently stuck in there to enhance the appeal of the album which performed dismally at the record counter. It seems now like a cheap shot but The Beatles were in full swing by then and the market had an appetite for their songs and quite a few albums also had their bizarre inclusions. Pet Sounds had Sloop John B which I always felt was a really uninteresting sea shanty that had no place on Brian Wilson’s introspective and great album and merely broke up the flow of his stream of consciousness songwriting.
Jim Webb went on to write many notable songs including the twin giants, best performed by Glenn Campbell, By The Time I Get To Phoenix and the superb Wichita Lineman. But on the Magic Garden he had written a suite of songs that The 5th Dimension turned into something rather special through the notable vocal arrangements, Webb’s orchestrations and their own feel and technical prowess. Marilyn McCoo being the stand-out soloist whose lead vocals shone against the superb backdrop of those timeless harmonies. The band were always considered to be light and bouncy but Webb’s song cycle on The Magic Garden was anything but.
Webb always has been an interesting songwriter. He never had the sheer output of Burt Bacharach who also had lyricist Hal David working with him for much of the time, but his songs were perhaps more enigmatic and somehow curious. They were absolutely more personal and rather heavier in tone too.
Take McArthur Park.
‘Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again.”
This, according to Jimmy Webb is a metaphor for a part of his life where he lost a girl he loved deeply. He says he poured his heart into that song and the more you listen to his lyrics through his songs it doesn’t take much imagination before you understand that this whole sense of love, loss, separation and regret has always driven his music and creativity. We should also remember though that, at this time, Jimmy was barely out of his teens.
Listen to The Magic Garden and you might well begin by wondering what the album is actually about and this isn’t so easy to answer as the love story within it is told from both sides. I was never totally sure about this myself despite reading several opinion pieces but I think it’s fair to say that the very young people involved break-up, make up etc with all the pain and angst that a dramatist might inject into that age-old journey. If you were to discover later that Webb himself lived through this cycle and that it happened over a single summer, would it be a surprise? This seems to be the real story behind the songs according to Jimmy and his relationship with singer Susan Horton is often cited as the period that The Magic Garden covers. There is actually a mention of a Susan in Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe, one of the songs (dreams) on the album. What is certain is that Jimmy Webb has always been and still is an intense and very serious songwriter who writes of personal matters in a uniquely melodic, if enigmatic, way.
This was the 5th Dimension’s second album and was something of a departure from Up, Up and Away, which was the first. Certainly that was a bouncy, more poppy mainstream album that also launched the career of Webb who penned the title track and several other songs on the album. For a debut album it was well received and Webb conceived and sketched out the whole idea of The Magic Garden as the next release. Classic second album territory, this was an altogether more intense and perhaps even dark affair and was really one of the first Concept Albums with a central theme. The songs unravel through a full orchestra, recurring hooks and links plus a sense of flow and continuum that would become more and more common. Thinking about it now, it’s hard to imagine what an exciting project this was to be for everyone involved in its making. The story, however you interpret it yourself, would be told by the two people involved. The musical score and arrangements would be critical but whether the new found fans of the band would readily accept the intensity of the whole thing after the musical lightness of Up, Up and Away (In my beautiful balloon) probably exercised the music executives minds both artistically and where the budget was concerned. Webb would also conduct the orchestra to give the album its ‘feel’ and the additional musicians read like a list of the finest sidemen available at the time. This was a brave move.
Listening to the album now, it shows its age technically for sure. The lack of sampling electronics though has, somewhat ironically, left it with a freshness in its orchestral colours though the vocals can sound a touch compressed. But that’s missing the point as its scope and scale is great and the arrangements are superb, if from another era. I sat through the whole thing a few times over the weeks before writing this piece and the sheer depth and complexity of the 5th Dimension’s vocal performance is superb. It’s a throwback of course and decidedly not the kind of album that is being made currently. I actually wonder if the knowledge and spirit to forge a piece of work like this still exists. I doubt that the inclination does, especially from the money men at the record labels who would have a fit if they saw the bottom line where costs of musicians and studio time were concerned. Put it this way, you couldn’t make it in your bedroom with a Vocoder and auto tune.
In fact The Magic Garden was a failure commercially which must have been a crushing blow artistically for Webb who had certainly let it all hang out and I might say that he had bared his soul too. This is the great risk that all ‘deep’ songwriters take I suppose. Then again they probably feed off the rejection. The 5th Dimension went on to have a very successful career through many albums and sold millions of records though not many of them were The Magic Garden.
Today it has more fans than ever as time seems to have bestowed it with a curious attraction. It could, as I said, be filed under the Guilty Pleasures heading perhaps as it’s a curio from many years ago that has aged somewhat better than music from much more recent times. It does need to be played from beginning to end though, preferably without Ticket To Ride. Personally, I am glad to have spent some time with it. It’s a bit like a musical time machine. Honest, complete and conceived within the mind of one man who used the idea and framework of a concept album to voice a part of his own life’s struggles which is where a lot of great music has always come from.