Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: The Lemon Pipers
My sister hasn’t been home for a while – I’m beginning to think this absence is becoming more or less permanent. Mom and Dad aren’t saying much, and nobody tells me anything. So I have no choice but to retire to my own room, and my own record collection. Today I pulled out a classic of sorts from 1968, Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers.
The Lemon Pipers started life like just about every other rock band in the 1960s – college buddies from Ohio, the quintet gigged around Cincinnati and Cleveland, and eventually were discovered and signed to Buddah Records. That was kind of troubling for the Pipers, because the band wanted to have the chance to write and record its own music while Buddah bigwigs had other ideas. You see, Buddah was the label of bubblegum pop, and its stable of artists included the 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express.
From the outset, Buddah most likely wanted the Lemon Pipers to cut some bubblegum, but they nonetheless gave the band the benefit of the doubt and its first release was “Turn Around Take A Look,” written by Pipers guitarist Bill Bartlett. Despite its peppy beat and rock flourishes, the single stiffed so the suits at Buddah asked the Pipers’ producer Paul Leka to come up with a catchier tune. Leka was a Brill Building songwriter, and with his songwriting partner Shelley Pinz, they came up with “Green Tambourine.”
The band didn’t want to record the song but knew they would be dropped from their big-label gig if they refused. “Tambourine” had some unusual hooks for a pop song – in addition to a sitar, the vocal skips into a psychedelic echo hiccup in the chorus as the singer sings the word “play,” maybe not so original when you consider the Beatles had been doing stuff like this for a couple years. Anyhow, “Green Tambourine” went all the way to No. 1; it was Buddah’s first chart-topper and the first No. 1 bubblegum hit.
Which put the Lemon Pipers in a box. After their big success they released a followup “Rice Is Nice,” also written by Leka/Pinz. This one barely climbed into the Top 50, but the label kept trying to strike gold again with the Pipers. Green Tambourine, the album, was released in mid 1968 to capitalize on the hit single and it contained five tunes by Leka/Pinz. But the band got to do a few of their own tunes, including “Through With You,” a nine-minute epic written by guitarist Bartlett with a definite Byrds-y vibe. The best tunes on the album are “Blueberry Blue” and “Shoeshine Boy,” which both wear their Beatles influences well.
Members of the Lemon Pipers knew they were kind of schizophrenic on their first album. Their second album, Jungle Marmalade, also came out in 1968 and it just so happens I have a copy of that too! This one has as its lead single another bubblegum popper, “Jelly Jungle.” Producer Leka must have been getting a little desperate, because he pulls out something called “Love Beads and Meditation,” which is truly wince-worthy. It’s better when the band covers Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s “I Wasn’t Born To Follow” – it’s the same tune covered by the Byrds on Notorious Byrd Brothers but the Pipers’ version adds a nice psychedelic guitar solo, presumably by Bartlett or second guitarist Ron Simkins, over some Glen Campbell-style strings.
The Pipers didn’t go down without a fight, however: “Dead End Street/Half Light” is an 11-minute psychedelic rock epic with a vocal that gives you an idea what Jim Morrison’s early takes for Doors songs probably sounded like. But by the end of 1968 the Lemon Pipers were getting sour on the experience – not only did they hate the bubblegum songs they were told to record, but lead singer Ivan Browne and guitarist Bill Bartlett didn’t see eye to eye on the band’s direction. Browne didn’t mind being a pop frontman, while Bartlett envisioned a “jam band.” So Browne left.
That was the end of the Lemon Pipers, as a band and as Buddah recording artists. Bartlett and the other three refugees would scrape along for a couple more years, getting no respect for being a “pop” band, and the Pipers broke up in 1970. One footnote: Bartlett and the Pipers bassist and keyboardist, Steve Walmsley and Reg Nave, formed a new band which cut a version of a Leadbelly song. “Black Betty” appeared as a single in 1977 and was a hit for the band Ram Jam, which featured ex-Lemon Piper Bill Bartlett.