Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: The Youngbloods
Diggin’ around in my sister’s record collection today, I found a forgotten classic by one of the best bands of the 1960s. The album is Elephant Mountain, from the Youngbloods, which came out in 1969. The Youngbloods were the folk-rock band from California that many people compared (then and now) to the Lovin’ Spoonful – a likeable rock group with strong, radio-friendly songs.
The ‘Bloods came out of the Northeast in 1967 with a self-titled debut that contained the song “Get Together,” the well-worn hippy-dippy brotherly love anthem. Upon its initial release, it only struggled to about No. 62 on the pop charts. Two years later, the Youngbloods were a trio after founding member Jerry Corbitt left, and the band had moved its base of operations to the Bay Area.
Jesse Colin Young was the band’s lead singer, bass player and main songwriter, Lowell “Banana” Levinger was a multi-instrumentalist who mainly played guitar and piano and drummer Joe Bauer could play jazz. After lead guitarist Corbitt left in early 1969, Levinger moved over to electric guitar.
The songs on Elephant Mountain put a polished pop-rock sheen on the jam-till-you-drop vibe shared by many of the era’s Bay Area bands. Young knew his way around a hook, and one grabs you right off with the great “Darkness, Darkness,” which opens the album. Opening with the ominous strains of a fiddle over an acoustic guitar, “Darkness” is probably the Youngbloods’ best moment on record. The song certainly is a Sixties classic, perhaps because many soldiers in Vietnam shared the song’s sentiments of hope fighting off fear by embracing the darkness.
“Darkness, Darkness” was the first single off the album, but it was eclipsed by no less than”Get Together” from two years earlier. After being used in TV spots for by the National Council for Christians and Jews, “Get Together” was re-released – it hit the Top 5 and sold more than a million copies. But even though “Darkness, Darkness” wasn’t a hit, it has been covered by many artists and has appeared in a handful of movies as a late 1960s period piece. And here’s a bit of trivia: the haunting violin figure was played by none other than Charlie Daniels, who was actually the producer of Elephant Mountain. Daniels went on to later fame as a country fiddler/singer, with hits like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”
“Smug” and “Sham” are also strong rockers; it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch to hear either of these becoming radio hits of the day. “Rain Song (Don’t Let The Rain Bring You Down)” is actually a leftover from Corbitt’s time in the group and it has the same jug-band roots that surface in music by the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Sopwith Camel and (at times) the Grateful Dead. Levinger turned in a jazzy instrumental, “On Sir Francis Drake” which is cool but at nearly seven minutes goes on a bit too long. “Ride The Wind,” which closes the album, also deploys the jazz piano and although it also clocks in at six minutes plus, it’s more interesting than “Drake.”
On songs like “Sunlight” and “Beautiful,” Jesse Colin Young foreshadows the strengths he would exhibit later in his solo career. He’s got a nice tenor voice that isn’t afraid to ride rough over more rockin’ material and Young is one of those songwriters that consistently produce deceptively simple but catchy songs.
Despite being hailed as the band’s masterpiece, Elephant Mountain wasn’t a big hit and the next year the Youngbloods would find themselves on Warner Bros., on their custom label Raccoon Records. The band would release four records on Raccoon before breaking up in 1972. Young had some success as a solo artist, his most acclaimed albums include Song For Juli (1973) and Light Shine (1974).