‘We Just Have One Thing To Say To You Fuckin’ Hippies…’

Sha Na Na were the most important act at Woodstock, and I’m not fucking kidding

Sha Na Na on stage at Woodstock 1969

Woodstock is a place where we dump our cultural trash, a frequently employed punctuation mark that is often misused, like the apostrophe or the ellipsis. 

Like those other gigantic landmarks from the summer of ’69 (the three M’s: The Moon Landing, the Manson Murders, and the Miracle Mets) we pull Woodstock out of the Tupperware every now and then because we think it tells us something trés important about who we were, or who we became. I understand why we do this with the Mets and the Moon: for those of us who were very young at the time (I was seven), those events gave us a warped and healthy/unhealthy faith in science and miracles at precisely the time we were surrendering our belief in dinosaurs and Santa Claus. But that Manson thing was a false flag: Look, hippies are killers, too! So let’s ignore that we are sending all those kids to die in Southeast Asia!

(The same week as the Tate-La Bianca murders, 225 young Americans died in Vietnam. But those horrifying, unnecessary deaths are not nearly as sexy or Tarrantino-riffic as the savage huzzahs of the Manson crew.)

The Manson family

Woodstock’s ultimate “meaning” is also likely a false flag. First and foremost, I think people were amazed you could put half a million young people in a muddy field for a few days and they didn’t end up dead or killing each other. It’s like when you have to go to the emergency room and you’re out of the house for ten hours and you come home and the dog is still alive, and you’re like, oh shit, it can do that? 

Our amazement about that fact helps us overlook the reality that with the possible exception of a landmark performance by Hendrix, we do not really chatter about Woodstock because of the music (like we do when we watch concert films of the Newport Festivals or Monterey). Instead, we cite Woodstock because of this crap idea of meaning. We go gobble-gobble about a vibe. When I consider Woodstock ‘69, here’s what I see: An experience whose myth and significance come merely from the fact that it existed without undue collapse and that it accomplished existing, and not via any greater depth or consequence. Here’s what I don’t see: anyone putting down their damp acoustic guitars long enough to convince half a million boys and girls to March to Albany and take over the state capitol and burn every draft card. Man, can you imagine having that kind of army at your disposal and playing them songs about fucking Animal Crackers or your fucking coke dealer? Fucking idiots. 

Once again, music was a false flag. 

Rather than being a highlight of the 1960s, Woodstock was a forecast of the dullard-ism of the 1970s. This is largely because in the United States at that exact time, rock ‘n’ roll, like the Alex Keaton-esque mammon-seeking rebellious child of hippie parents, was turning its back on everything that had made it brilliant, liberating, hot and hysterical. It was abandoning boogie, space, and simplicity; it was convinced it was ever so superior to the rhythm and spirit of plantations, Storyville whoreshacks, Louis Jordan Fish Fry chants, coal-fogged Appalachian hollows, and the Juba Diddy Wah’isms of Diddley. 

 

AUDIO: Louis Jordan “Saturday Night Fish Fry”

The Woodstock Nation ultimately stood for inaction and complacency. The rather safe idea of Peace & Love was even less threatening to Nixonland than George McGovern (now fucking George Wallace, that’s who Nixon was really afraid of). It is absolutely essential we understand that Peace & Love and the vapors of Woodstock did not bring down Richard Nixon: Some clumsy burglars, a bizarrely ethical Attorney General and an unnaturally honest Presidential lawyer did. 

At Woodstock, smirking Arlo Guthrie gleefully reminded the masses that they were far more interested in planes carrying in drugs than planes carrying in caskets. I can find no song that sums up the emptiness of Woodstock better than Guthrie’s set-opening “Coming Into Los Angeles.” The Woodstock attendees welcomed, with weakened, open arms, all those mewling bands that just wanted them to get high and sit in the mud until the Eagles formed.

We cite the Woodstock ideal because we somehow think it poses some solution to our current state of affair. It doesn’t. Figuratively, with our chatter about the CATS trailer and Area Freaking 51, we continue to sing along to “Coming Into Los Angeles.”  

 

VIDEO: Arlo Guthrie “Coming In From Los Angeles” from Woodstock The Movie

Of course, there was some wonderful music at Woodstock. I’m not overlooking that. There was Hendrix (who mainstreamed the frenzy and slug-riffing of pre-Fabs Northwest punk rock better than any other artist, even the Raiders); a Feelgoods-anticipating ramalama from Ten Years After; the lazier but still gratifying ramalama of Creedence and Canned Heat; bruising, charismatic and accomplished tastes of multiculturalism from Sly and Santana; the proto-stoner rock snarl of Mountain; and a lesser display by the greatest live band of all time, The Who (Keith Moon gives a particularly sludgy, sleepy, behind the beat performance). But what did Woodstock actually achieve? It created the myth of peace and love at precisely the time that Nixon was arriving to bring his sordid, creepy flop-sweats into America, it did nothing to prevent Kent State or Attica, and it certainly encouraged the Eagles. It was Sominex and a peace sign when we needed amphetamines and the finger. 

However, it also reveals this very powerful idea:

In physics, the observer effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. This is a fascinating quirk of quantum physics that compels us to question the very fabric of reality.

The observer effect also reveals that Sha Na Na were very likely the most important act at Woodstock. 

Sha Na Na in action at Woodstock

Sha Na Na looked like two things at once, depending on what slit in the lab you saw them through. Circa August 1969, Sha Na Na were  likely perceived as some sort of corny, comic relief, a flashback to an Eisenhower past when people were not enlightened enough to sway to Ravi Shankar or appreciate the Dead’s lysergic, heretical desecration of bluegrass. Certainly the cutaways in the Woodstock film during Sha Na Na’s performance tell us precisely how the producers and filmmakers wanted their presumably with-it audience to perceive the group: We see shot after shot of slack-jawed, sneering, smug long-haired audience members. They clearly want you to virtually hear these future America and Eagles fans thinking, “Ohhhh! We are so much above this greaser nonsense of our childhood. Why can’t they play something deep, like “The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil”? 

Fuck you. 

But the fact is, undeniably, when Sha Na Na hit the stage at Woodstock ‘69, we are seeing the future. It’s like some Greaser TARDIS from 1977 has landed a mile or so north of Bethel, New York shortly after 7 in the morning on Monday, August 18th 1969, and dropped the future onto the farmland, amidst the sleepy longhairs. To quote something Sha Na Na sneer out on their 1973 live album, The Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll, “We’s got just one thing to say to you fuckin’ hippies…rock’n’roll is here to stay.” 

 

AUDIO: The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

It’s integral here to address the fact that you likely associate Sha Na Na with their family-friendly early-evening variety show, which ran from 1977 to 1981. By that time, Sha Na Na were peddling nostalgia in the wake of moronic, catastrophically inaccurate Happy Days-ism; but at Woodstock ‘69 (and for about the next half decade), Sha Na Na were peddling revolution, a toothy, careening, hyper-speed alternative to the slow drools and acoustic patchouli stink of the Bread brigade. Heck, they were doing something only a few steps away from what Mott the Hoople or the Dolls were doing (plus a pile of UK acts I will mention shortly; we also note that Hoople recorded a song called “The Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll” two years after Sha Na Na had an album of the same name). If you are over 55, perhaps you recall how you would spin through the radio in the pre-punk days, and after hearing “Year of the Fucking Cat” or England Dan & John Ford Coley you would come across the oldies station (WCBS 101.1 in New York!) and Little Richard, the Marcels or Dion & the Belmonts would sound like manna from heaven. 

But back to Woodstock. We meet the band with an acrobatic, double-time dash through Danny & the Juniors’ “At The Hop.” Sha Na Na race through the song in about 90 seconds, taking it nearly a full minute faster than the original. This introduction to the group can be seen as roughly simpatico with the MC5’s (contemporary) set-launching “Rambling Rose.” The MC5 analogy may not be as silly as it sounds: A live clip of Sha Na Na’s opening number at the Fillmore East in September 1970 — a bruising, sloppy, amphetamine’d tear through the instrumental “Walk Don’t Run” — appears to indicate that at times the band may have been consciously modeling themselves after the MC5. 

 

VIDEO: “Walk Don’t Run” at Fillmore West 1970

We also note what Sha Na Na were wearing at Woodstock. At the time it may have appeared silly to all those shirtless, mud-caked attendees, but this is a fact: Sha Na Na undoubtedly look far less ridiculous than almost anyone else at Woodstock. 

The three men in front are clad, sloppily, in unadorned, understated gold lame; they could probably slip into a less-well groomed Roxy Music. The rest of the large band wear standard greaser casual, that is, white and black t-shirts and tight jeans. In fact, two members, with their black jeans, black t-shirts, black leather jackets, and puffed up D.A.’s, are dead ringers for one of the coolest looking guys in rock history, Pete Farndon of the Pretenders. All in all, Sha Na Na at Woodstock look pretty much like two-thirds of the bands that you’d see on any given night at Max’s or CBGB’s in 1977 or ’78. They also do not look like a fucking joke: They look like guys who work at the gas station but had also seen a couple of Warhol movies, had confused feelings about Joe Dallesandro, and are now intent on getting in hippies’ faces and telling them the truth. 

Sha Na Na are ripe for serious reconsideration, not just as a shortcut between wasted Woodstock and speed swallowing punk, but also as an important influence on the high-energy, backwards/forwards looking British acts of the 1970s who tenderized the public for punk’s rotten meat. 

In England, where Sha Na Na were taken a bit more seriously, they were an absolutely fundamental influence in what came to be know as the Rock’n’Roll Revival movement. The Rock’n’Roll Revival movement made a significant impact on the charts (and the media) in the U.K. in the years before punk. Roy Wood’s Wizzard, Showaddywaddy (who sounded very much like Sha Na Na-via-Joe Meek), Shakin’ Stevens, even Garry Glitter, Mud, Slade, and the Bay City Rollers can all be seen as direct descendants of Sha Na Na. Perhaps most interestingly, In their gold lamé jackets, D.A.’s, and hyper-rhythms, we can clearly see Sha Na Na in the image and sound of early Roxy Music, who I have a strong feeling were fans.

Also significantly, in the churn, howl and wallop of black-jeaned Sha Na Na, we see a direct connection to the immediate forefathers of punk, the oldies-obsessed high-energy pub bands. Specifically, I am talking about the gob-smackingly phenomenal Dr. Feelgood, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and Joe Strummer’s 101ers.

 

VIDEO: Roxy Music perform “Virginia Plain” at Top of the Pops in 1972

For instance, when we hear the Hot Rods blow – and I mean fucking steamroll – a series of covers on the live tracks of 1976’s Teenage Depression album, we are just hearing them treat ‘60s garage rock the way Sha Na Na treated ‘50s greaseball. Likewise, on Dr. Feelgood’s Down by the Jetty (released in June of 1975), the Feelgood’s tightened and streamlined the glitter excesses of the Rock’n’Roll Revival movement and released something that is, essentially, the very early Stones or Pretty Things tempered with the rhythmic simplicity and urgency of punk. Down by the Jetty is the exact mid-point between Sha Na Na and the Ramones.   Arguably, the more greaser-obsessed 101ers (who were essentially a more simplistic and roots-rocky clone of the Feelgoods) were even closer to the image and ideal of Sha Na Na. 

 

AUDIO: Dr. Feelgood Down By The Jetty (full album)

I would also strongly suspect that there is a direct connection between Sha Na Na and Phil Ochs’ gold-lamé-clad oldies set at his legendary March 1970 Carnegie Hall show. I mean, there has to be: in August of 1969, Sha Na Na dressed in gold lamé and played oldies in front of a skeptical audience searching for meaning, maaaan; just seven months later, Ochs did exactly the same thing at Carnegie Hall. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise when we take a dive back and re-examine Sha Na Na is that they made one really goddam good studio album featuring (mostly) original songs. Who knew? In 1972 (after the initial flash of attention for their high-energy, gum-snapping revivalism, yet prior to their resignation to kid-friendly nostalgia-slinging) Sha Na Na released The Night Is Still Young, which features three or so covers against a backdrop of truly first-rate songs that sound, very goddamn much, like Dean Friedman, Steve Goodman and Mike Nesmith forming a supergroup to make a Bonzo Dog Band album. 

 

AUDIO: Sha Na Na – The Night Is Still Young (1972)

Listen, I’m going to type that again, because I want it to sink in: Sha Na Na’s third album, 1972’s The Night Is Still Young, sounds like Dean Friedman, Steve Goodman and Mike Nesmith forming a supergroup to make a Bonzo Dog Band album. 

The Night Is Still Young has the cool, creamy FM-flavor of the Beach Boys’ Holland (which it bears some spiritual relationship to, for reasons that would I would need another 2800 words to explain; suffice to say that it is often overlooked that the Beach Boys, at their root, were very much a doo-wop group, an element that resurfaces around the time of Holland and the lesser Carl and the Passions). In addition, The Night Is Still Young contains (likely) the only anti-Nixon doo-wop song ever recorded, Scott Simon’s “The Vote Song”; a rather wonderful straight-up imitation of Mike Nesmith’s country pop, Richard Joffe’s “Oh Lonesome Boy”; and a totally bizarre, totally Bonzo-esque ballad, “Glasses,” that asks the question, 

 

How did people see in the 14th century

When no one had invented glasses?

Walking all around, were they more tuned into sound?

Did everything they set their eyes on seem to merge with the horizon?

Now this delightful oddity, which some hipster band MUST cover, was written by BOWZER, i.e. Jon Bauman. So put that in your Marlboro pack and roll it up your sleeve. 

Honestly, I see pre- variety show Sha Na Na as an absolutely essential cog in the shaping of the course of rock and pop in the 1970s. I think it is undeniable that Wizzard, Showaddywaddy, the Rollers, and Gary Glitter emerged directly out of their shadow, and very likely that Roxy Music did, too. I also think Sha Na Na’s spirit – mixing the beautifully basic and the blue-moon ludicrous with a New Yawk City pizza-folding spit an’ drawl — probably made KISS possible, and found echoes in the ‘50s-via-Dead-via Door-isms of Blue Öyster Cult. 

So take Sha Na Na seriously. And that process begins at Woodstock. 

 

VIDEO: Sha Na Na perform “At The Hop” in Woodstock The Movie

 

Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

9 thoughts on “‘We Just Have One Thing To Say To You Fuckin’ Hippies…’

  • August 12, 2019 at 12:52 pm
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    One of yer best Timmy.

    Reply
  • August 12, 2019 at 2:29 pm
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    Excellent, Tim. And I had that Night is Still Young album. Forgot how truly great it was. Thanks. Always enjoy your writing

    Reply
  • August 13, 2019 at 12:53 am
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    So, you deceive everyone with the title, which leads one to think Sha Na Na said this to a crowd of Woodstock hippies. Then you go on as if Nixon was demonic conservative. He was a Liberal. You write long essay, repeating what has been said a million times before…that the hippies weren’t really hard progressives. You’re a self-impressed bore.
    VH-1 vj…what a rebel.

    Reply
    • August 13, 2019 at 8:47 pm
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      I wrote the title and I had initially thought they said that to the crowd. It has since been changed. – Ed.

      Reply
      • August 23, 2019 at 3:43 am
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        We did not say that to the crowd at Woodstock. It became a standard line of ours only later on. –Donny York, Sha Na Na co-founder

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        • August 23, 2019 at 6:46 pm
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          Thank you Donny. I changed it last week to the one that’s up now. And thank you for reading and commenting!

          Reply
  • August 13, 2019 at 6:35 pm
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    yea no i have only read a few paragraphs and i assume you were not there at 7 but I was there at 14. Sha Na Na sucked beyond suckage and Hendrix was as depressing as all get out.

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  • August 15, 2019 at 1:51 pm
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    Sha Na Na may actually have been the show that made the syndication company Lexington Broadcast Systems possible in the early 1980s now that I think about it further. Henry Siegel founded LBS, buying it out of Grey Advertising in an LBO. It may very well be that Bauman went along with Henry to the investment bankers to show them that he had a valuable asset.

    Reply

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