It’s here. If you had the smarts to pre-order, then it’s probably in the mail already. And if you didn’t, it’ll soon be sold out. Of course we’re talking about 7 & 7 Is, the seven single box set of classic West Coast psychedelia, as re-envisioned by the cream of modern psilocybic warlords; a package whose eminence, and imminence, have occupied this column’s attention for six past articles - and is now sensibly approaching its end.
The Gathering Grey, Bevis Frond, the Chemistry Set, the Seventh Ring of Saturn,Black Tempest and Sendelica have already swum by... and we have the Higher State to come, because if a box is called "seven," then it must include eight. For now, though, here come King Penguin, and in amidst a fish-bucket full of flightless bird puns, King Penguin’s Bill Sweeney cannot resist.
“Asked to be part of Fruits de Mer multi-disc American pysch set, King Penguin had to stay close to the nest. It had to be the Byrds, and we went right for their soul with ‘She Don't Care About Time,’ from their mystical genius Gene Clark.”
Except, it wasn’t a pun after all. Reforming their old high school band Grey Matter, New Yorkers Sweeney, Lanny Sichel and Gary Moran originally reunited to contribute to a Gene Clark Internet fan club project, the album Here Without You: A Tribute to Gene Clark. Immediately, matters gelled. “Just as they did years earlier,” Sweeney enthuses, “Lanny and Gary combined to produce the most thrilling harmonies I had ever experienced on a local level. Ray Lambiase produced and added keyboards and electronic drums as we multi tracked in my living room. I had not played my bass in so long I had to take lessons.”
Two songs “Gypsy Rider” and “The True One” graced the finished album, but meantime another former bandmate, guitarist-turned-drummer Bill Intemann was set to join.... and another Gene Clark buff, as Sweeney explains. “Our seldom stated but always present motto was ‘as Bob Dylan was to the Byrds, Gene Clark is to King Penguin’." So, when the band was first presented with the opportunity to record for Fruits de Mer... for the Keep Off The Grass compilation... they chose a Chris Hillman number, "Thoughts And Words."
Since then, King Penguin have become one of the label’s stalwarts. They can be heard on the Hollies and Pretty Things tributes; their own “Cedar Hill” composition is on The Crabs Sell Out compilation...
... and now they’re back, and back with the Byrds. "She Don't Care About Time" is another Gene Clark number and - as Sweeney says - while Clark's "Eight Miles High" “might have seemed the logical selection for a psychedelic series, Fruits de Mer has never been about the obvious, and ‘She Don't Care’ has its own mysteries.
“It was not on any of the Byrds' original albums, instead hiding beneath their huge single ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’ As such, it was a windfall for Clark, perhaps leading to jealousies that made the Tambourine Man the first member of a band to leave a popular group. The song itself is ‘out on the edge of time,’ with Gene's already cosmic wordplay. And from somewhere known only to the then Jim McGuinn, a 12-string Rickenbacker rings out with the climatic theme of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,’ a work so inspirational it has been offered that Bach must have had divine guidance. The same has been said of Gene Clark.
“Still, as wonderful as it all is, Clarkophiles long sought an alternative take, one that is more about the author. The original is rushed, and David Crosby harmonizes on almost every phrase. There was a yearning for one that was more about Gene, a closer connection. Sadly that opportunity was missed when Clark turned the song into a dirge on his final release Firebyrd."
So the Penguin’s quest was quite simple. “To attempt to fill that gap, to create the solo version the composer never quite managed. Throughout we emphasize the classical with layered, shimmering strings. Gary Moran's voice is alone out there on the edge of time and Lanny Sichel's Rick rides the signature swell to a harmonic reward....”
And if all that is not enough for you... “by the way,” says Sweeney, “there is B-side and it is by far the more far out on this psych single. Roger McGuinn is known as interpreter and arranger but he has written some classics and ‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ might be his best. It addresses the cosmic influences that have fueled the Byrds as they pioneered folk-rock, raga-rock, country-rock and the many offshoots. Through it all, McGuinn is the only constant there's bit of this sea shanty/Hindu hymn in everything he does.”
But whereas the Byrds’ original is sweet and sparse, the Penguin “decided to overload it with every trick in the mystical book.” Electric sitar and tamboura from Sichel, tablas, doumbek and zils courtesy of percussionist Tom Cabrera... it’s as wild and esoteric as it sounds, a magnificent reminder of a moment in time when every great record sounded like this, and every great Byrds record was as good as things got.
From start to finish, 7 & 7 Is lives up to those same gleaming standards. But this particular platter might just be one of the few that exceed them.