Wednesday, January 30, 2013

One-hit wonder

The Fifth Estate is pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder band. They had exactly one song make the Billboard pop chart, "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead," which just missed making the top 10, and, as British music critics say, they never troubled the charts again. But, as with most such bands, there is more to their story than that one hit. As someone who delights in finding obscure 60s pop gems, I bought the recent 2-disc release "The Fifth Estate: Anthology Volume 1: The Witch is Dead." I would recommend this to other fans of oldies mainstream pop, though giving over 2 whole discs with the promise of at least one more in the works does seem excessive.

The five Connecticut musicians got their start in 1963 as The Decadents, then changed their name to The D-Men and eventually released a handful of singles that got some spotty airplay but never hit the national charts. By 1966 they were called The Fifth Estate, and according to the album's liner notes, they recorded "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" because they took a bet that no one could make a hit out of any song from The Wizard of Oz. One member who was studying Renaissance music and who had just built a harpsichord interpolated a section of music in the middle by 17th century composer Michael Praetorius, and it's that move that, in that brief era of "baroque pop" ("A Whiter Shade of Pale," "Walk Away Renee," "Eleanor Rigby") probably made the song a hit. Their record company wanted lightning to strike twice and pushed them to do another baroque version of an old song, "Heigh Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it didn't hit the charts and the band folded soon after, though the surviving members have just released a new album.

If you're hoping to hear more songs like "The Witch is Dead," this album will disappoint you. But if you like the sound of Beatlesque garage-band pop, this has much to offer. One reason why the band didn't hit it big may have been because they never settled into one groove. Many of the songs have a mid-60s Beatles sound, especially "Don't You Know" and "Love is All a Game," but some sound more like the Monkees or Paul Revere & the Raiders ("Heartache Heartbreak," "Morning Morning"). There are half-hearted attempts at blues ("Strange Blues") and a rewrite--at least lyrically--of Petula Clark's "Downtown" called "It's Waiting There for You."

Later songs have some slightly more sophisticated arrangements ("Someday Maybe, Someday Soon," "Night on Fire"). They even make a stab at a humor/retro sound (think "Winchester Cathedral" or Tiny Tim) with "No. 1 Hippie on the Village Scene" and "Lost Generation." Almost everything on disc 1 is worth listening to, and most of the songs I've named above are ones I'll be pleased to add to my iPod playlists.

But the set has its problems. Disc 2 consists of demos and live recordings of mostly poor quality. There are a couple of interesting songs but I can't imagine ever listening to the second disc again. The liner notes are good but there is no list of songs with information (date of recording, album name, etc.) as most archival CD sets contain, only a numbered list of song titles--and on disc 2, the order of cuts is listed inaccurately. Overall, a worthy purchase for 60s pop fans, but I doubt I'll keep an eye peeled for volume 2.

No comments: