VARIOUS ARTISTS – What A Groovy Day: The British Sunshine Pop Sound 1967-72

Over the years, Cherry Red Records and their vast array of subsidiary labels have been responsible for releasing some great box sets centring around 60s and 70s material, but ‘What A Groovy Day: The British Sunshine Pop Sound 1967-72’ is potentially one of their most quirky. By throwing a light on an era when single releases were still considered important, it guarantees a great listen full of pop laden treats. but It also provides an easy opportunity to rediscover various oft-forgotten or unknown three minute nuggets when digging deeply into the archives. As always, by mixing the cult with lesser known tunes by familiar faces, it’s the kind of Cherry Red release that should appeal to a broad spectrum of retro pop fans.

Giving the set its name, Harmony Grass open proceedings with ‘What A Groovy Day’, a number which more than sets the tone with its fascination with a blend of easy sixties pop, driven by brass, a faux accordion and fey vocals. It represents that blurry moment in time where the pop of The New Seekers intruded into light popsike, and every element of its multifaceted busy sound is perfect. The instrumental breaks hint at muzak, the vocal tones are rich and busy, and the brass is confident. In some ways, it sounds like an overblown advertising jingle, but it’s certainly none the worse for that. In a rare bit of recycling, this track can also be found on the Cherry Red/Grapefruit Records box set ‘Come Join My Orchestra’, but in fairness, its bright and breezy approach makes it a much better fit here. A second tune from the band, ‘Move A Little Closer Baby’ trumpets a love for a very Californian sound very confidently, with harmonies that aren’t far removed from Beach Boys and Monkees fare, some great strings and a jaunty rhythm. What’s certainly the biggest draw here, though, is the rhythm section: the percussion and bass are lifted straight from ‘Pet Sounds’, right down to the fact that, assuming you didn’t know better, it could be Carol Kaye on the bass…

No strangers to a 60s themed comp, Episode Six’s ‘Gentlemen of The Park’ sounds perfect for its role as the musical theme to ‘Bicyclette De Belsize’, a little seen film from the era. With its McCartney derived rhythm, close harmonies and another ‘God Only Knows’ inspired bassline, it’s perfect retro pop. Moreover, It has such a natural sunny demeanour underscored by an almost European lilt, you can actually sense its place as part of a soundtrack without being told. It’s hard to believe that the low key pop melody from the vocal belongs to none other than Ian Gillan, but his soulful tones are a perfect marriage with the easy tune. It’s all great, but at the point that the gentle, almost folk-pop vocal refrains fade into a brassy interlude and, latterly, some catchy as hell “la la”s, you might find yourself wondering why this has never been considered a late 60s classic. It’s that good.

Barbara Moore’s ‘Fly Away’ places finger picked folk guitar against a warm bassline, before unleashing a whole world of busy vocals – often happily darting between various wordless la-las. Free Design style. That allows an almost immediate connection with a very sixties sugariness, but when Barbara belatedly drops in an actual lyric or two, her voice seems to take on a much broader sound that’s incredibly uplifting. It’s definitely the kind of track to file under “quirky”. Equally as much from the “easy listening, 60s style”, The Californians’ ‘Early Morning Sun’ is loaded with fantastic orchestration and flutes and, as such, sounds like a montage from an old comedy film – perhaps a number written by Johnny Hawksworth – before stretching into something that falls between Dusty Springfield and Bobby Gentry. The high tenor vocal often feels mismatched to the music in hand, but the melodies are terrific in a really cheesy way.

In terms of deeper cuts, the mysteriously named Robbie tells us to ‘Listen To The Man’ on a bouncing, piano led piece of pop that fuses Frankie Valli chorus vocals to a tune that could have been pulled from The Brian Wilson and Monkees’ musical worlds. It doesn’t add anything especially distinctive to the sunshine pop genre, but between another fat bassline, some impeccable production values and a strong melodic core, it’s more than pleasant enough. If there’s something here that sounds familiar to connoisseurs of the movement, it’s because “Robbie” is Robbie Fair of West Coast Consortium and, apparently, the rest of the band can be found propping up this Pye Records 7” from ’67. It’s unclear what prompted the change of billing, or why the label thought that a solo single for Robbie (although in name only) might bring more success. In any case, they were likely pre-occupied with the hits The Kinks brought their way, and although Raymond Douglas Davies and the lads aren’t represented here, their ‘Phenomenal Cat’ – as featured on ‘Climb Aboard My Roundabout’ (Cherry Red “toytown pop” box set) – isn’t a million miles removed from a sunshine mood. When pairing this box set with it’s toytown partner, so many of the songs featured here begin to feel much stronger, somehow.

A genuine obscurity The Wilson Malone Voiceband’s ‘Loonin’ – an LP cut from ’68 – opens with a hard, clanging piano before bursting into a slab of pop that takes the core of an R&B deep cut and overlays it with flutes and choral elements in a similar manner to the Barbara Moore track. Unfortunately, the production values aren’t quite as sharp; there’s a strange, demo-like echo on the final mix which may or may not have been deliberate, and despite occasional sax noises veering off piste, there’s a nice enough melody lurking within. Wilson might be familiar to some cult pop fans via contributions to other Cherry Red box sets, but for most people, he’ll be best remembered as being the man who’d take the producer’s credit on Iron Maiden’s debut LP in 1980. Career paths can take unexpected turns…

Taking more of a straight ahead approach, Jason Cord’s ‘Why Should I?’ plays like one of the greatest late 60s hits that never was. Featuring strident brass against a massive harmony vocal, it comes with another light entertainment core, but beneath that sheen, the musicianship is fab. A hard and somewhat plunky bassline gives the music an unexpected muscle, and the sugary melodies look forward to UK bubblegum pop from the likes of First Class, in a way that should’ve given it maximum radio exposure. Perhaps it came two years too late, but it’s more likely that the Chapter One label (a subsidiary of Decca) just didn’t consider actual promotion as being that important. They also failed to make Episode Six and Philwit & Pegasus household names after all. Philwit & Pegasus, meanwhile, bring a touch of proto folk-prog to the table during the intro of ‘Yo-Yo Thoughts’ (an album cut from 1970) before losing themselves in something really syrupy. There are moments during this warm number that threaten to morph into ‘Elusive Butterfly’, while at other times there are traces of melody that could pass for Stephen Stills – something helped by a heavy twelve stringed guitar used liberally during the coda. In the main, though, a rich vocal and a huge dose of jazz flute ensure that the track fits nicely alongside the likes of Wil Malone and Episode Six. It might take a few listens to truly appreciate, since a very deep vocal occasionally feels at odds with the music, but there’s something rather nice here. That might sound glib, but for a lot of these long forgotten tunes, “nice” is a word that very much fits the bill.

Lovers of busy 60s pop should head straight for ‘I’m A Train’, a 1968 side by Colors of Love which fuses a Seekers-like vocal harmony to a rattling guitar line in a way that quickly suggests the musical equivalent of an old locomotive. The incessant pace is infectious, and the vocal – featuring a pre-fame Elaine Paige – is incredibly tight. The single failed to meet approval with the record buying audience (let’s face it, at this point, a lot of “serious” music fans would have been overdosing on The Beatles, The Stones and Cream, and had much less time for something that sounds like musical filler from ‘Crackerjack’ (“CRAAACK—ERRRR—JAAACK!”), but it’ll supply a fun discovery for most people as part of this set. It’s also worth seeking out the more sedate version of the track which was recorded by one of its writers, Albert Hammond, in 1974. For those who can’t get enough of a rolling piano and broad sixties harmonies, ‘Lady of The Morning Sun’ by The Bullring should provide another standout cut with its obvious love of McCartney, and even with a gruff lead vocal in tow – something looking far more towards the proto hard rock of Toe Fat than the pop of (The) Marmalade – it’s a catchy number that captures a genuine piece of musical sunshine that will create an instant favourite for retro pop fans everywhere.

Majority One’s ‘Looks Like Rain’ isn’t great from an audio perspective. The recording has an odd hiss that makes it sound as if sourced from a second generation cassette, but looking beyond that, it’s quasi-Simon & Garfunkel folk-pop is nicely arranged with strings bolstering a very gentle melody throughout, whilst a choir of vocals accentuate an easy listening mood. It doesn’t veer away from a melody that’s set in place some fifteen seconds in, but its simplicity eventually becomes its strength, and the fey lead vocal conveys a soft drugs haze that suits the material in hand. It’s unlikely that anyone would get excited enough by Majority One to want to seek out their sole album (Jolly Records, 1971), but when heard as part of a sprawling compilation such as this, they’re certainly enjoyable enough. The Flower Pot Men will be best known to some via tenuous links with Deep Purple; others will know them due to an involvement from the ever busy session guy Tony Burrows (White Plains, Edison Lighthouse, First Class), but regardless of ever-shifting personnel, their ‘Am I Losing You’ is an interesting piece of whimsical pop. By combining something that sounds like an old French crooners’ melody with a distinctly Beach Boys bass sound and soft harmonies, it pulls together an arrangement that’s both sad and strangely uplifting at the same time. Sounding like the archetypal sixties soundtrack filler, its “Zombies on valium” sound is very rich, and due to the lasting impression it leaves, it very much gives this anthology one of its many highlights.

An unexpected inclusion, Cliff Richard’s ‘Mr. Nice’ (originally on the b-side of 1967’s ‘Marianne’) supplies something gentle yet quirky when another Carol Kaye-esque bass underscores more brass and harmonies in a distinctly easy fashion, while the erstwhile Harry Webb croons rather politely. He might be the star, but it’s the Sunday Night At The London Palladium orchestration that’s the high point here. It’s been too easy to knock Cliff over the years, of course, and this is a pleasing reminder that, looking past some horribly lightweight 80s fare and some offensively bad yuletide hits, he’s actually recorded several well arranged tunes that many people haven’t heard. This is fine for what it is, but check out ‘It’s Only Money’, an album cut from 1973, for something genuinely great (and largely unknown) from Cliff; it’s a proto-Pilot piece of power pop that deserves to be on any decent 70s playlist.

Another household name, Genesis, drop in with a track that’s never really been heard by anyone bar the most obsessive fan. ‘Try A Little Sadness’ is a fey acoustic guitar and piano tune that was recorded at some point after their associations with Jonathan King and finding their “true” sound on 1970’s ‘Trespass’ LP. The melody carries echoes of the ‘From Genesis To Revelation’, especially in the way that the guitar shimmers against a slightly easy listening harmony, but there are a couple of other moments where the piano melody seems keen to branch out. In recording terms, it sounds half finished; there’s no real bass sound here and the drums are absent, but armed with a strong pop chorus, it sounds like the sort of tune that would have faired better in the hands of an easy listening vocalist. Speaking of Jonathan King – which, honestly, we probably shouldn’t be – he’s included here too, with one of his many forays into the world of pop vocal. His 1970 version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Cherry Cherry’ is respectful, but rudimentary. He doesn’t do anything with the arrangement at all; he’s clearly hammering through it quickly with the hope of an easy chart hit. He failed. It might have been more interesting if he’d had the foresight to make the arrangement his own, somehow. Then again, he did exactly that with The Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’ in 1971 and that was pretty awful.

Risen from the ashes of Pinkerton’s (Assorted) Colours, The Flying Machine were a short-lived UK pop band who attempted to break the US with the charming, easy pop of ‘Smile A Little Smile’, a mid tempo number loaded with harmonies. With echoes of various easy listening bands fused with the light pop of the likes of The Marmalade, it fills a very pleasant couple of minutes with a deep electric piano sound providing a strong backbone. No matter how natural it all sounds, it’s easy to hear why it didn’t break through – the late 60s were awash with similar material, and after a follow up, The Flying Machine called it a day. In terms of sonic greatness, ‘But I Know’ by Normie Rowe couldn’t be any further removed from some of this set’s best material. This 7” side from ’67 retains a really harsh mono sound that sounded a couple of years out of date at the time of its original release, but looking past that, the single has a few things in its favour. Firstly, it’s absolutely swamped by bouncing piano lines akin to an old McCartney demo; in addition, a few flute sounds convey the sun and rainbows era from which the song came, and a few weirdly shrill harmonies on a quickly knocked out chorus hook hint at a light psychedelic influence. With all of Normie’s best intentions – he was a big star in his native Australia – it failed to connect with UK audiences at the time, possibly due to it sounding like a cheap Mark Wirtz knock-off.

For lovers of beat pop, The Mellow Yellow’s previously unreleased ‘Cried Enough For You’ will be one of this anthology’s highlights with its busy twanging guitars, hefty bassline and danceable beat. Musically, it isn’t too far removed from a few selections on Strawberry Records’ mod and soul themed sets, but a huge swathe of harmony vocals ensures the recording carries a huge sunshine pop vibe. With a foot in both camps, the track plays like a true late 60s gem; the rhythms are solid, the melodies blossom into something hugely catchy, and a two minute duration should have made it perfect for AM radio. Quite why it took fifty five years to see the light of day is a mystery. Also great, compilation regulars The Orange Bicycle come across like a weird hybrid of The Move and some shameless, faceless toytown pop practitioners on ‘Dropping Out’, a quirky song loaded with bright guitar sounds juxtaposed half-stoned backing vocals, and offset by a weird and tuneless instrumental break, whilst the similarly named Oscar Bicycle opt for harpsichord sounds and smooth harmonies on their ’68 flop single ‘On A Quiet Night’. A near perfect recording, its blend of syrupy vocal sounds (occasionally not far removed from The Seekers meeting with The Mamas & The Papas) and Zombies-esque lightweight pop captures the hazy feel of a late 60s summer day, and between a busy keyboard part, a couple of nods to an earlier beat group age, and its ability to still capture something that would’ve felt really contemporary for the era, it should’ve been a massive success.

Elsewhere, Edward’s Hand supply a perfect pastiche of early Moody Blues sounds attempting something in the California pop style, and although it isn’t drastically different to a few of this set’s best tracks, for lovers of great harmonies and greater orchestration, their ‘Close My Eyes’ – an LP cut from ’69 – will definitely hit the mark. Fluff’s ‘Holly Golightly’ is much closer to being another beat era throwback but, again, taps into perfect pop driven by a buoyant bassline and a lot of enthusiasm. It might not have been particularly striking at the time, but heard decades after the fact, it sounds like perfect pop, loaded with some great melodic quirks. The first single for the DJM label, it wasn’t a massive success, but Fluff plugged on, eventually appearing on TV’s Opportunity Knocks. In another world, ‘Holly Golightly’ could’ve been a hit for the Mike D’Abo era Manfreds as the sixties pulled to a close, but as it is, it’ll have to settle for being a genuinely great curio, awaiting discovery by very discerning pop fans.

By comparison, Sun Dragon’s ‘Look At The Sun’ feels a little flat at first, but a huge swathe of light entertainment style orchestration suggests an expensive recording that was made with a massive amount of care. Like so much of this set, it’ll eventually strike a chord with lovers of smooth pop tunes, and there’s plenty within the natural vocals that also captures a great sixties naivety. Presenting something of a misfire. Deep Feeling take ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ – a tune often associated with Cliff or Ramones – slow it down, and present it as if it were played back through a slightly out of tune AM radio. They’ve applied a few pleasant chorus harmonies, but otherwise sucked every ounce of joy from the familiar number. Even with an obvious nod to The Beach Boys and an unexpected soul vocal beefing up the climax, it’s hard to imagine anyone loving this damp squib of a recording. Paper Bubble’s ‘Being Human Being’ fares much better, despite treading an all too familiar harmony pop path where the jaunty sounds of The Left Banke collide with something a little more Zombies-tastic. It sounds brilliantly naive, especially so for something released as late as 1970, but since it languished as a deep cut on a largely overlooked LP, it didn’t ever bring the kind of attention deserved of such a busy recording. It finally gets a welcome chance for reappraisal here, and it’s easy to imagine how, in another universe, this could’ve been the theme to a cult TV show for kids.

Fleshing out an already great collection, fans of the period will surely need no introduction to The Zombies, whose ‘Friends of Mine’ marries a jaunty melody with one of the sprightliest backing vocals of the era, The Seekers wheeling out the Jim Dale penned ‘Georgie Girl’ for the millionth time, or the more raucous New Seekers, whose close harmony singing sounds particularly full throughout the easy pop of ‘Night In The City’. Likewise, a couple of strong cuts from The Hollies and Petula Clark aren’t likely to be particularly enlightening or new to the average listener, but both really help to paint a fuller picture on a British take on some very American influenced harmony driven sounds.

Presenting almost ninety tracks during a three hour musical binge, there’s a lot here to take in, but this release really is a fun and loving look back at a golden age of pop music, and of many radio friendly treats. Overall, ‘What A Groovy Day’ is a brilliant release that, even with a few odd choices and a couple of tunes that shift towards the purest cheese, should supply more than enough enjoyment for anyone interested in revisiting sounds from an altogether more innocent time.

Buy the box set: What A Groovy Day

November/December 2022