Compilation (various artist)
The term "flower power" brings to mind images of beautiful hippie girls in mod skirts and go-go boots, gyrating wildly to a groovy backbeat as psychedelic lights flash and TV cameras zoom in and out. (Well it does for me, anyway!) But where did that groovy backbeat generally emanate from? Why Hollywood, of course! L.A. in '67 was undergoing a psychedelic revolution, and it needed a record label of its own solely devoted to ushering in the swingin' new sounds of the sixties. Thankfully, two young visionary record execs named Ned Tanen and Russ Regan took the bull by the horns and established UNi Records, a subsidiary of MCA.
UNi wasn't in the business of signing sappy lounge singers or Nashville bumpkins like Columbia, Capitol and their ilk. No, they were after the "hot" sounds. The sounds of "now". Groups were signed fast and furiously as the label scoured the countryside (or at least the Sunset Strip) in search of anything that would put them over the top and get them that hit. Naturally, bands that didn't produce were dropped just as fast.
The label's first mid-sized hit was provided by a Colorado outfit called the Rainy Daze. "That Acapulco Gold" rode its old-timey sound up the KHJ Boss 30 until the deejays got hip that the song's lyrics concerned smuggling bricks of hash across the border from Mexico. The powerful industry tip sheet the Gavin Report blacklisted the song and the band, and that was pretty much the end of the Rainy Daze. (The group did put out two more singles and an LP for UNi before leaving the label, all quite good. I will eventually get around to discussing these.)
After another charting single with Marcia Strassman's "The Flower People", the label finally hit paydirt with a group of teenagers from Glendale named Thee Sixpence. The young band provided plenty of their own material, but one song-- an instrumental called "the Happy Whistler"-- caught producer Frank Slay's ear. Tim Gilbert and John Carter of the Rainy Daze were brought in to write lyrics, and the lead vocal was cut by sixteen year old Greg Munford, who was simply a friend of the band brought in to do harmonies. The song was released as the b-side to a throwaway titled "Birdman of Alkatrash". The band changed their name to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and when the record hit radio stations many DJs began to favor the now re-titled flip side, as it was obviously the superior track. It's often out of such unlikely scenarios that #1 records are born, and "Incense and Peppermints" would go on to achieve just that position. The Strawberry Alarm Clock, with an aggregate age of 17, were now the flagship artist of UNi Records.
The label would continue on for the rest of the decade, but their commercial fortunes mirrored that of the SAC to some degree. The Alarm Clock never again hit the Billboard Top 20, and despite a second #1 hit from the prestigious South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masakela titled "Grazing in the Grass", UNi would not find another rock band that could match the commercial success of the SAC. Thankfully they had better luck on the singer-songwriter circuit, signing Neil Diamond and later Elton John who would both go on to score numerous hits for the label. Their international division also did okay, producing a couple of big hits with the Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" and Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites".
This is essentially all the information you'll find out there on UNi. The deeper, much more interesting story was revealed to me almost by accident. It started out with me coming across a few 45s and being captivated by the gorgeous psychedelic swirl pattern on the label. To this day it's still the coolest design I've ever seen for a label and sleeve. After buying a few more UNi singles for the collection, it began to occur to me that everything I was hearing from these guys sounded great, thirty some odd years after the original releases. Most of the artists were unknown to anyone aside from a few hardcore record collectors, but it almost didn't matter what the name on the label said, because I knew once I put needle to record that it was going to KICK ASS!
So what you've got here are more than 50 of the best UNi "A" sides (1967-1969) in my collection, sequenced in exact chronological order according to their matrix numbers. There are a few famous names mixed in here, but chances are you've never heard of more than a handful of these artists at best. Ignore that fact for a minute and take my advice: Sit back, put the music on, drink a cocktail or smoke a few bongloads, put away the track listing and just listen. UNi was a label with EXCEPTIONAL QUALITY CONTROL. Though they only scored a small smattering of hits in their pre-Elton John days, the important thing to the sophisticated music fan is that everything here was a POTENTIAL HIT just waiting to happen.
When you're done digging the sounds, you'll probably want to find out more about bands like the Lollipop Shoppe, the Giant Crab, the Fun & Games, the Yellow Payges and the Hook, just to name a few off the top of my head. Of course, all these bands have interesting stories in their own right, that we will get into at another time. But this set here is required listening for all you children of the Crystal Sphere.
Enjoy the UNi Records Story-- disc one and disc two-- and ask yourself the eternal question as posed by the Rainy Daze on track four, "is it better to wear a gray flannel suit or a paisley mind?"
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