Floating Above the Earth, Never Anchored to Time or Place
“My addiction to contradiction might cause a bit of friction.”
—Dann Baker, “Let It Be” (on Love Camp VII)
“I laughed till the tears ran down my cheeks.”
—Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception
The summer of 1964. David Crosby and Jim (“not yet Roger”) McGuinn are sprawled side-by-side in an air-conditioned Los Angeles cinema, checking out the new Beatles flick, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s an amusing enough diversion at first, a black-and-white, slapstick farce that gives the Fab Four ample room to project their youthful intelligence and charm onto the screen. But it’s certainly nothing life-changing.
Love Camp VII
Then, right in the middle of a silly skit involving a game of cards, the British band launches improbably into John Lennon’s “I Should Have Known Better.” The song’s opening bars feature Ringo Starr’s joyously vertical drumming, Lennon’s five-note freight-train blasts on harmonica, and—what really makes the two friends lean suddenly forward in their seats—the shimmering chords of George Harrison’s twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. It’s a revelatory, transcendent sound that somehow absorbs and resolves all of the disparate musical influences that have lately been dragging the two young musicians and their bandmates, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman, back and forth across the musical landscape: the ecstatic meditations of Ravi Shankar, the free-jazz improvisations of John Coltrane, the raw urgency of Bob Dylan’s folk jeremiads, the sweet lyricism of bluegrass and old-time country music. With a single sweep of Harrison’s arm, everything suddenly makes perfect sense.
With the film’s soundtrack not yet available in the States, Crosby and McGuinn are back at the movie theater the following night, Clark and Hillman in tow, and in short order their band’s signature sound is born.
Crosby, McGuinn, and company make their youthful appearance in the song “A Hard Day’s Night,” the third track on Brooklyn band Love Camp 7’s brilliant new recording, Love Camp VII (the title and cover design a clever reference to the LP Beatles VI). The emergence of the Beatles, the Byrds, and the host of other wildly inventive pop bands that followed their lead during the mid-1960s was, as Love Camp 7’s songwriter, guitarist, and lead vocalist Dann Baker reminds us repeatedly throughout the song, “a new thing under the sun.”
Over the course of the new recording’s 13 listed tracks (a couple of offbeat treats are hidden away at the end), Baker and his longtime bandmates Bruce Hathaway (bass), Steve Antonakos (guitar), and Dave Campbell (drums) escort the listener on a spirited exploration of what exactly that “new thing” was and how, over seven brief years, it wove its way in and out of the turbulent world of Los Angeles and beyond, transforming the lives of the album’s protagonists and countless others in the process. In addition to the fledgling Byrds (who serve as musical proxies for a host of California bands whose music is suddenly transformed by the British invasion), we meet the Beatles themselves, who preen, bicker, compromise, and flex their musical muscles throughout.
We meet an emotionally estranged married couple, a prophetic lawn gardener, and a cynical record company executive, determined to cash in on the current music craze.
And, in keeping with the narrative theme first established on Love Camp 7’s debut recording, 1993’s Where the Green Ends, and nurtured throughout each of the band’s five subsequent releases, we wander repeatedly in and out of the life of the album’s not-so-fearless hero, a shy, bookish early-adolescent who does his best to navigate—using the spiritual and intellectual resources at hand (the poetry of William Blake and the late Romantics; the bizarre neo-mysticism of L.A. eccentric Aldous Huxley; and, most important, the remarkable “new thing” that he hears everywhere around him)—the complexities and contradictions of life, love, and loneliness in late-1960s Los Angeles.
The recording’s most daring conceit is Baker’s decision to use the names of the Beatles’ 13 (American) studio albums as the titles for his songs. Rather than a literal tribute to the recordings themselves, however, each of the songs recreates the day in the life onto which the album was released.
“Meet the Beatles,” with its chimed guitars, infectious beat, and airy choral harmonies, initiates the listener into a magical world of sun-drenched picnics, teacup rides, and spinning rainbows. For a moment, at least, the rest of the world recedes before the wonder of the new sound.
Before you meet the Beatles, you must learn to the trust the word—
The word is
The magic is short-lived, however, as the world stubbornly reasserts itself on the album’s second track, “The Beatles’ Second Album.” Caught in the crossfire of his parents’ troubled marriage (a father who refuses to sit with the family at the dining room table, a mother who sits alone in her car, going nowhere), the song’s young protagonist struggles with the tension between the joyful sounds blasting from the speakers of his stereo and the muted turbulence of his home life, hoping against hope that the former will somehow redeem the latter.
Put on the hi-fi, it will rectify us for a while.
Make us cry and make us smile.
On “Help,” our brooding young hero is troubled by the mercurial life of his alter ego, John Lennon, another troubled and estranged “kid from the neighborhood.” In quick order, Lennon descends from creative accomplishment and religious enlightenment to infidelity (“getting it on in the Bahamas” with Yoko), personal betrayal (“stealing ideas from Denny Laine”), and shameless materialism (“stadium tours sponsored by Coors”). Yet, somehow he retains the essence of himself in the midst of it all.
Help me understand how he ended up so much the same…
He had a peasant’s understanding of the truth—
That understanding kept a watch over his youth, hiding it away.
“Let It Be” represents Lennon’s dismissive reply to McCartney’s facile attempts at diplomacy and consolation. With its sudden shifts between the furious punk rhythms of the verse and the lilting lyricism of the chorus, the song is equal parts confession, indictment, and plea for understanding.
You’re enterprising, quite compromising—
When were you last surprising?
You’re no fanatic—quite diplomatic—
When were you last ecstatic?
Near the center of the album, “Rubber Soul” announces the overall theme of the recording: the futile but irresistible search for stability and direction in a world of constantly shifting pressures and perspectives.
I’m in possession of a rubber soul.
I go bouncing back and forth,
Back and forth between today and yesterday.
Never certain of the North, I go bouncing back and forth,
And guess the way.
At the end, the uncertainty expressed in the song is resolved in two parallel visions: the unapproachable girl of the narrator’s childhood infatuation and the “Capitol disc” that he stumbles upon in Hollywood.
“The Capitol disc on display,” Baker recalls, “was the actual Rubber Soul cover, which I glimpsed in a display case outside Capitol Records on Vine Street, I think before it was actually released. A weird, distorted harbinger of a new era!
“I’m characterizing my own soul,” continues Baker, describing the continually shifting perspectives of the song and the album as a whole, “as incapable of embracing the present, as floating above the earth, never anchored to time or place.”
Whatever its personal costs, Baker’s existential unease is the key to the music’s distinctiveness. It’s the constant vacillation of moods, styles, and points of view that sets Love Camp 7’s approach to pop music and the 1960s apart from many other treatments of the same deliriously troubled era. Consider, for example, David Wojahn’s elegiac depiction of the pathetic descent from musical authenticity to self-destruction and commercial compromise in the sonnet sequence Mystery Train; rock journalist Nick Kent’s lurid exposé of the seamy underbelly of pop glamour in The Dark Stuff; Love’s sun-tinged apocalyptic broodings in Forever Changes; or the Pretty Things’ dark, humorless odyssey from youthful innocence to the despair and abjection of old age in S.F. Sorrow.
In place of the gloomy, predetermined trajectories and either/or moralism of its predecessors in pop mythology, Love Camp VII presents a rich, kaleidoscopic vision of a world in which the complexities and contradictions of life are clearly acknowledged—if not outright celebrated—from start to finish. It’s a world that begins and ends with an equal measure of dark clouds and sunny skies, daydreams and deep secrets, harmonies and dissonances, confections and introspections. And the vital force that holds it all together is pop music itself.
After more than two decades of dutifully indenturing themselves to Baker’s adventurous, idiosyncratic take on popular music and culture, the Love Camp 7 crew is remarkably adept at holding the contradictions and complexities together and bringing the music to life. On earlier releases, the band’s musical eclecticism and turn-on-a-dime shifts in time, tone, and volume threatened at times to overwhelm the integrity of the songs. On Love Camp VII, even the most daring leaps and sudden transitions faithfully serve the dramatic unfolding of the lyrics.
From the pure-pop delicacy of “Meet the Beatles” and “Beatles ’65,” to the moody introspection of “Help!” and “Abbey Road,” to the feedback squeals and grinding rhythm of “Beatles VI,” to the frantic, hardcore aggression on the opening bars of “Let It Be,” the sounds serve the words with a directness and clarity that makes even Baker’s most eccentric musings immediately believable.
Instrumental highlights include Campbell’s manically lyrical drum solo during the abrupt break in the final chorus of “Meet the Beatles,” Hathaway’s beautifully ornate bass phrasings on “Rubber Soul,” Steve Antonakos’s majestic guitar solo at the end of “The Beatles,” and the bouncy, lighter-than-air, full-ensemble performance on “Beatles ’65.”
Love Camp VII is the band’s final recording featuring drummer Dave Campbell, who died in May of 2010 after an extended struggle with cancer. Campbell was a wildly inventive, nervous wreck of a drummer with a mastery of just about every musical style imaginable.
“What Campbell brought to the band was a truly manic energy,” reflects Baker, “which manifested itself in unpredictable playing that often teetered on the verge of chaos. Dave’s musical heroes were Max Roach and Elvin Jones, and he brought the jazz tradition of never playing the same thing twice to the band. Sort of a punk-jazz approach.”
While it’s difficult to imagine Love Camp 7 without Campbell’s distinctive presence on the stage and the recordings, Baker insists that the band will go on, though the shape it will take has not yet been determined.
“We’re not sure of our future course, but we will continue in some form. We’ve talked about having a ‘stable’ of people who could join us for shows and/or recordings.
“I’m probably too much inside of it to comment,” Baker reflects, considering the band’s legacy over the past two decades, “but I think our songs unfold in a unique way, following the logic of the words in a kind of musical adventure or journey—but also having a unity. I think the aesthetic might be rooted in the epistemology of Los Angeles, specifically the nature of freeway travel, where rapidly shifting scenery is observed, with an overall impression not of discontinuity but of seamless transition.
“I think we also have a ‘sound,’ ” he adds, “which any good band should have.”