Candy Floss: The Lost Music
of MidAmerica 1967-1969
Long Live the King
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with all due respect to the laws of our country, hear this message," says Al Dean on 1970's "Hangman," possibly the first anti-death-penalty song in country music. The Rochester, Minnesota, singer proceeds to croon like a cowboy. "Hangman go home, we don't need you anymore," he sings. "He shouldn't die by our hand." Then a surf guitar seconds the melody of the chorus, and the verses build into a sermon: "We don't have the right to take this man's life/Remember if we're wrong it's too late/It's written in the Good Book 'Thou shalt not kill'/What makes us think our law is an excuse?"
Anachronistic and timeless, "Hangman" sounds like it was recorded in God's wind tunnel, with its rolling timpani drums (shades of Low's "Just Like Christmas") and ghostrider female backup vocals (provided by Dean's sister). The track was cut by the Al Dean Show band for the Sonic label at Okoboji Music in Okoboji, Iowa, after a 10-hour drive—Dean remembers crashing on the studio carpet.
"Back then, a song like that, you could hardly get airplay on it because of what it was," says Dean today, speaking over the phone from his home in Duluth. (He's retired, in a state where executions were abolished five years after a botched hanging in 1906.) "It's always been a controversial thing. But even today, just watching the Saddam thing— I'm sure he had that coming, but I don't believe in the death penalty."
The country and western singer says he worked North and South Dakota in the '70s. He played in Mankato and Wisconsin, but never the Twin Cities, though he patronized the Flame. "Hangman" was his first recording, and it's a standout on the new compilation Traditions in Country (Showcase Records/Duluthrocked.com), which collects Nixon-era twang from Northern Minnesota and surrounding areas, reproducing A-sides on Mercury and Stop by Dean's better known peers and heroes—Dottie Lou ("One More Memory"), a teenage Danny Larsen ("Careless"), Johnny Jay ("Buck 2.80," "Tears"), and the late Dave Dudley ("It Takes Time").
Like most artists on the CD, Dean went to Nashville, though his session there, recording material he didn't write, never went anywhere. "I always thought I had a better song in that first record than the stuff I did in Nashville," he says. Which might explain the track's unique vibe amid Music City-produced hits and misses elsewhere on the disc. (Dean says studios were scarce in Duluth, where this latest in a series of local retrospectives from Showcase was culled from old 45s.)
"Looking back on it," says Dean, "I should have worked harder at it."
In those years, getting played on the radio wasn't a challenge unique to country musicians. The era of the regional hit was coming to a close by the time the 24 misses on Candy Floss: The Lost Music of MidAmerica 1967-1969 (Weekend Records) were committed to four-track tape at Dove Studios in Bloomington, Minnesota. The title of that CD comes from the songwriting team/management company/house band that emerged out of Dove Studios in the Summer of Love, a failed business scheme that nonetheless made-over a slew of hungry young bands—T.C. Atlantic, the Shambles, Nickel Revolution, Seraphic Street Sounds—as glistening bubblegum pop.
"[Shambles singer] Barry Goldberg went to an uncle and got $1,500," remembers Candy Floss producer and former Gestures frontman Dale Menten. "We used that to do those first tunes, and funded their way to New York," convincing labels such as Mercury, Sire, Atco, and Parrot to put out the tracks as singles. Yet the sides were ignored in other cities—Menten blames a darkening national mood—and local radio wouldn't push them. "We were buried by Top 40," he says.
What's left are I-still-can't-believe-this-was-once-commercial sounds of compact vocal harmonies, occasional calliope, and orchestral backing. Compiled from stored-away acetate discs, Candy Floss seems as unofficial as Traditions in Country: "These two songs were found on an old acetate with Avanties listed as the band," reads one note on the tracklisting; "If you know anything about these songs, please let us know." (That band's authorship has since been confirmed.) But gems dot the curios, including previously unreleased tracks by the still-going Michael Yonkers. As Michael & The Mumbles, on "Need Your Lovin' Oh No," he sounds like Buddy Holly on Calhoun beach. But "It's All a Dream," credited to Michael Yonkers, sets the psych man's guitar-twang-throb against Hitchcockian strings, in what must be the closest-ever musical approximation of a sinking feeling. Sixties naivete ends here.
Among those reissues, Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, Cyn Collins's book-and-CD West Bank Boogie: Forty Years of Music, Mayhem and Memories (westbankboogie.com), and returns to form by Dylan and Prince, there was a less heralded 2006 breakthrough in music made by Minnesotans who are (for lack of a better word) old. The Flamin' Oh's' Long Live the King (SMA Records) is the band's first full-length album in 19 years. Produced by Rich Mattson and released without publicity in late 2005, the disc marks the studio reunion of singer-guitarist Robert Wilkinson, bassist Jody Ray, and drummer Bob Meide from the 1977 original Flamingo line-up—plus longtime Wilkinson keyboardist Bob Burns (in place of the late Joseph Behrend). The CD won "best locally-released album" in 2006 at the Minnesota Music Awards in October, where the group stole the show like zealous newcomers with no concept of back aches, and only people who missed previous Oh's reunions and Wilkinson's 2004 solo disc were entirely surprised.
Yet Long Live the King deserves life beyond its immediate fan base, as "Dreamtalk," "I Can Tell," and "Big Love" court eternity on the sheer humanity of Wilkinson's enunciated flow. Who knew the old Oh's standby "I Remember Romance" (with its vintage Chuck Statler video now on Youtube) would become a life's credo?