“Hair” & the Hippie-Pop Explosion
Hair opened on Broadway, after a run at Joe Papp’s Public Theater downtown, in the spring of 1968, and by the following year, its freaky, fuzzy vibes were everywhere.
Fifty years ago—March ’69—the number one song in America was a Hair medley cobbled together by the Fifth Dimension (“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” went on to snag the Grammy for Record of the Year), and it was joined on the singles chart by the Cowsills’ peppy version of the musical’s title song. The covers of the Gerome Ragni–James Rado–Galt MacDermot songs kept coming; and in the late ’60s, this was an unusual thing. The days of Broadway scores, even of smash successes, spawning hit records were long gone. Could most people sing, or name, a tune from 1967’s Tony winning musical (it was Hallelujah, Baby! by the songwriting team of Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green)? Or from How Now, Dow Jones or You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown? Hair lost the Tony for Best Musical to 1776, but there was no question which one had more impact.
There were those in the theatrical community who recoiled at this hippie invasion. Old-guard gatekeepers like Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers were unimpressed, and how were conservative audiences supposed to respond to songs like “Sodomy” (basically a list of sexual practices), “Colored Spade,” and “Hashish”? Nothing like Hair had been mounted on Broadway before, a musical that in spirit if not execution reflected the cultural and social upheaval of the late ’60s (its midtown opening followed Martin Luther King’s assassination and preceded the Paris youth riots). But it was a phenomenon. The original cast album was a huge hit (number one for thirteen weeks in ’69) and its cast (sorry, its “tribe”; it was billed as a “Tribal Rock Musical”) was everywhere you turned: on TV variety shows—they’d invade the audience: if you went to the Ed Sullivan Show to see the Lennon Sisters and Steve & Eydie, suddenly there might be a shaggy James Rado in your face—and at beads-and-weed be-in’s and antiwar rallies.
It was not exactly hip, but certainly hip-adjacent, and there was a stampede to bask in its sunshiny, free-spirited glow. “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” was released on singles by Anthony & the Imperials and by L.A. cast member Jennifer Warnes before the Fifth Dimension linked it to “Aquarius” and made it an inescapable hit, with the assistance of the Wrecking Crew; once the record leaps into its second half, it basically becomes a showcase for Joe Osborn’s bass and Hal Blaine’s drums (and, in live performance, for Marilyn McCoo doing the shing-a-ling). The Cowsills’ “Hair” (suggested to them by Carl Reiner, who was doing a TV special called the Wonderful World of Pizazz) leaves out the most controversial lines (the ones about how Jesus’ hair was pretty long, and his mother still loved him), but is cheerily defiant in its clean way. Three Dog Night had a hit with “Easy to Be Hard,” Nina Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life” was a U.K. top ten single. Producer Bob Crewe took two shots at “Good Morning Starshine” (Why are the stars shining in the morning? We don’t know), first with Eddie Hazelton (aka Eddie Rambeau) and then with Oliver. The soft-pop group the Happenings tried the medley approach (“Where Do I Go/Be-In/Hare Krishna”) and had a mid-charting sort-of-hit.
The lovely “Frank Mills,” which is something like a free-verse monologue, was a non-album single by Barbra Streisand, who sounds more lost than forlorn, and was done definitively—in English and in French—by Sandie Shaw (not to mention The Lemonheads in 1992). Streisand wasn’t the only middle-of-the-road singer who couldn’t quite navigate the Hair repertoire: Liza Minnelli (who did “Frank Mills” also) decided to join “Everybody’s Talkin’” with “Good Morning Starshine.” Shirley Bassey stumbled on “Easy to Be Hard.” Andy Williams did a couple of Hair songs with the Osmond Brothers. And everybody followed the Fifth Dimension’s lead with the “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” medley: Johnny Mathis, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Ray Conniff, Dizzy Gillespie. There’s an infectious Latin-pop version by Celia Cruz with Tito Puente (and a whole Hair Goes Latin album by Edmundo Ros).
Phil Spector supervised a sidelong, 20-minute “Hair Anthology Suite” for The Checkmates’ Love Is All We Have to Give album, “brilliantly, ingeniously and magically arranged by Dee Barton.” It is none of those things, but it is a hoot, as you might imagine: Spector unhinged, with spoken interludes, big orchestral sequences, and the group’s two lead singers—Sonny Charles and Bobby Stevens—struggling with lyrics like “I got my liver!!” It’s quintessential late-’60s madness, situated somewhere at the intersection of Hair and Vegas. Hair launched a lot of those screwy ideas. Jazz albums by Stan Kenton, Barney Kessell, Tom Scott. Something called Don Kirshner Cuts “Hair.” Raquel Welch singing “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” on a TV show. But there’s also Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and the Trinity on Streetnoise, doing inspired mod-jazz takes on “I Got Life” and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).” There’s an album by Julien Clerc, who starred in the Paris production, singing the score in French (a highlight: “Manchester England”). The singer Bojoura, from the Netherlands, has a lilting folk-rock version of “Frank Mills” that was a hit in Europe. Quincy Jones used “Walking in Space,” with Valerie Simpson on vocals, as the title track for his debut album on A&M.
The international reach of Hair, the ease with which its songs translated, really did, even to people skeptical of its goofier elements, feel like a shift in the cultural mainstream. No one took it seriously as a Statement even back then, but it was a pageant of all the themes that we now think of as “The Sixties”: antiwar politics, drugs, sex and nudity (the whole cast got naked at the end of act one except, legendarily, Diane Keaton, who was in the original cast and sang about the appeal of “Black Boys”), astrology, “rock” music (the score doesn’t really rock all that hard), and, of course, long hair.
And as of-its-moment as Hair was, there’s a timelessness about the show’s effervescence, all that freewheeling flailing that has its offshoots in youth-on-the-brink musicals like Rent and Spring Awakening. It’s like a psychedelic carnival. And apparently it still has the ability to get people rattled. NBC had planned to mount a live production of Hair this May, but last month the network decided to pull the plug. You can picture the reaction in the Standards and Practices department when they took a look at the song titles and lyric sheets. “16-year-old virgin”: Nope. “Hashish, cocaine, heroin, opium”: Nope. “Sodomy…”: COME ON!! Maybe NBC can put on You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown instead.