Despite Warner Brothers Records' conviction that it had mid-wifed the American equivalent of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Song Cycle" wasn't rock music, and it didn't sell like rock music. The album's arrangements taxed the storage capacity of multi-track tape and its lyrics allowed enquiring minds to follow a Joycean snakes-and-ladders path through multiple meanings, allusive wordplay and puns. "Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle" is an intelligent take on a classic left-field album. For good and for ill, the full arsenal of bouquets and brickbats available to music writers has been tossed at Van Dyke Parks during his tenure of forty years and more in the music business. The Mississippi native has been hailed as a great American original - Charles Ives in Groucho Marx's pajamas, was Rolling Stone's pull quote - and derided as a charlatan. He was among the first to achieve the questionable status of cult artist; defended by a vocal few, dismissed or ignored by the greater audience. His career arc, and indeed his own life invite parallel consideration with another maverick who made his name in Hollywood, the film director and actor Orson Welles.
Both were immediately recognized as child prodigies and took full advantage of the status conferred upon them. Each had the mantle of genius conferred upon them; in both cases, the mantle was worn with increasing difficulty as the years progressed. Both men, perhaps unfairly, have been accused of never bettering their artistic debuts. The compounded triumph and debacle of Welles' Citizen Kane is the stuff of a crammed shelf of film history books. In Van Dyke Parks' case, his calling card and his bete noir both fit within the same cardboard sleeve, the one containing "Song Cycle". The album was released on Warner Brothers Records in 1968. It cost more than any recording made prior to that time (Warners would ultimately recoup its costs sometime in the early 90s). No one can say that the label didn't get its money's worth: "Song Cycle"'s arrangements taxed the storage capacity of multi-track tape and its lyrics allowed enquiring minds to follow a Joycean snakes-and-ladders path through multiple meanings, allusive wordplay and puns. Said lyrics were sung by their author, his piping tenor swathed in a galactic fog of studio effects.
The rhythms veered from Broadway to box step, little or none cut from the cloth of psychedelic, blues-based turbulence that dominated the landscape of the late 60s. 'A growing Alexandria of rock criticism' - "Los Angeles Times", 2008. 'Ideal for the rock geek who thinks liner notes just aren't enough' - "Rolling Stone". 'One of the coolest publishing imprints on the planet' - "Bookslut". 'A brilliant series...each one a word of real love" - "NME" (UK). For more information on the series and on individual titles in the series, check out our blog.
Richard Henderson writes for Billboard and The Wire. He has also worked as a music supervisor and editor for feature films, the most recent being Borat and Into the Wild.