Nostalgia: a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past. But is it possible to be nostalgic for a time you never knew?
For as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve gravitated towards artists from the Sixties. The first music I owned was taped copies of three of my dad’s LPs from the era: Help!, Sgt Pepper and The Seekers’ Come The Day. Soon after, I became a devoted (and possibly the youngest) listener to Brian Matthew’s Sounds Of The 60s on Radio 2, tuning in each Saturday morning in the hope of hearing something new (Brian rarely disappointed on that score).
When a paper round supplemented my pocket money, I began scouring the bargain racks in Woolworths for cut-price Sixties compilations, evaluating each on its ration of price to the number of unfamiliar tracks it possessed. A schoolfriend kindly filled in the many gaps in my Beatles collection, putting the rest of their albums on to C90 cassettes – although for reasons still unclear, not in chronological order. (Even now, I cannot hear Her Majesty without expecting Drive My Car to follow.)
Many of the decade’s tracks, from its world-famous classics to the many lost gems, still trigger a Pavlovian reaction, taking me back to a world of polka-dotted miniskirts and fluorescent flares, LSD and beehives – a world I never saw for myself. The scenes in my mind are entirely created from images on record sleeves, photos of my parents’ youth, and films such as Help!, Austin Powers and, more than anything, 1969 Camden as portrayed in Withnail And I.
Few tracks evoke this sensation more than Nature by New Zealand five-piece The Fourmyula, which I discovered when my backpacking trip coincided with it being voted that country’s best-ever song. The band enjoyed great success in their homeland but, despite a four-month tour of the UK, failed to become established here (I don’t ever recall hearing them on Sounds Of The Sixties).
But clearly the spirit of the decade managed to drift as far as the other side of the world. Their signature tune is emblematic of the era, with its lazy, lethargic rhythm and a haunting melody that veers between cheerful and melancholic. And, like so many others of its vintage, it has an ultimately meaningless lyric that still manages to convey the meandering sense of contentment that came from being part of 'the greatest decade in the history of mankind'.
Through falling leaves I pick my way slowly Talking aloud
Eases my mind
Sunlight filters through I feel my head is bursting So full of thoughts
I've thought of
Songwriter Wayne Mason admits as much: 'It was a nice, happy song which I wrote as a 19-year-old. I do sort of cringe a bit at the words.' It’s nonsense, but an uplifting, whimsical sort of nonsense, the kind that immediately transports me to an easier, happier time – one of which I have no direct experience.
There can be few better wormholes to fall into than Sixties pop
Such faux-nostalgic escapism is even easier today. No longer do I have to browse the discount CD racks on a Saturday morning, as Spotify provides everything in an instant. The downsides of streaming – from the demise of the album to unfair recompense for artists – are well documented, but for unscrupulous music fans such as me, it facilitates that delightful pastime of ‘wormholing’: exploring new corners of the musical universe, guided by algorithms that try to guess what you
might enjoy (and, more importantly, click on adverts while you're listening to it). And there can be few better wormholes to fall into than Sixties pop.
So it was, thanks to my repeated playing of The Fourmyula, that I was guided to The Millennium. Within 30 seconds of To Claudia On Thursday, the first bone Spotify threw my way, I knew I was going to enjoy this band. Like all the best music, their only album, 1968’s Begin, defies neat categorisation, but if I tell you that one track is titled Karmic Dream Sequence #1, you probably have an idea of the territory we’re in.
It’s dreamy, psychedelic sunshine pop built around tambourines, harmonic singing and jangling guitars, lounging soporifically somewhere between Buffalo Springfield and the Monkees’ less cheesy moments. It came as little surprise to learn that The Millennium also hailed from California. Their songs airlifted me to the big skies, open roads and dope-infused hippy encampments of the Golden State (even though I’d never been there). After Begin was reissued in 1990, Pitchfork described the album as 'probably the single greatest 60s pop record produced in LA outside of The Beach Boys'. Even with the caveats, it's a bold claim – but one that holds up.
Yet like The Fourmyula, the band's abundant talent wasn't enough to break into the global mainstream. The beguiling Begin failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic, and perhaps as a result proved to be their only album. The band's members, each of whom helped to create at least one of the tracks, went on to work with other artists as session musicians, backing singers and producers. The group's founder, Curt Boettcher, worked with The Beach Boys and Elton John; Michael Fennelly, who co-wrote To Claudia On Thursday with Joey Stec, later teamed up with Steely Dan, among others. Perhaps not the success they were dreaming of, but probably not a bad life either – especially as they must have known they had produced a classic during their brief time together.
And that’s why the Sixties remain, despite fierce competition from the Britpop years, my favourite musical era. I thought I knew the Sixties, or at least a large tranche of its best stuff. But even now – 50 years after it ended, around 35 of which I’ve been mining its rich seams – there are still new bands, new songs and new albums to be discovered and marvelled at. I never experienced the decade for myself, but bands like The Fourmyula and The Millennium give me a rewarding taste of what I missed.
Tim Woods is a Berlin-based writer. His debut novel, Love In The Time Of Britpop, an unromantic comedy about bad sex and great music, is available now in paperback and ebook. Or you can read his blog here. Twitter: @tim_woods77