Seeing that this year marked the 50th anniversary of a certain influential song — one of the ’60s most unique that still resonates famously, and infamously, in popular music — thought to give the tune, and it’s most favored cover, a shout-out. As songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote about his MacArthur Park creation, which was published in Q magazine:
“It’s clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that. OK, it may be far out there, and a bit incomprehensible, but I wrote the song at a time in the late 1960s when surrealistic lyrics were the order of the day.”
Over the years, have heard more than a few with either unreserved admiration or outright disdain toward Webb’s eccentric tune. For my friend and fellow blogger, Sammy Juliano, it’s his “…favorite pop song of the rock era“. For others, less so1. In point of fact, the song came in at #3 on Rolling Stone‘s Reader Poll for The Worst Songs of the Sixties, yet the magazine editorialized the finding:
“Yes, it’s a little stupid that he uses the analogy of a cake out in the rain to describe his ruined relationship, but it’s not a terrible song.”
The story behind its successful release partly due to the British movie/stage actor, Sir Richard Harris, who “sung” it as the revolutionary music era crested that decade. Still, with its ever-present quirks, the number retains a distinct “charm”, as it were. Harris, post his successful Camelot run, cajoled Webb, and a number of the Wrecking Crew, to join him in making a record. What turned out as the most unlikely hit single of 1968. And it’d be one The Association didn’t want to touch2.
For all that, the song had an impact.
The ever-changing pop music by mid-’68 took a remarkable turn in the aftermath of the political slayings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr, to say nothing of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Both resulted in growing unrest on college campuses, with a conscious-raising by-product on our listening habits. The rise of “underground” FM in major markets3 with their stereo separation and “extended cuts”, made AM radio, with its three-minute song and monaural sound limitations, passé.
As noted by the late- and great Charlie Tuna, “Once KHJ went on it,” Tuna said, “everyone else went on it.”
Thus, MacArthur Park, with Harris’ theatrical rendering, became the critical mass for DJs looking to make up the lost step, especially the local ones4. Keenly, since it more than double the length of most pop songs, AM radio programmers thought it way too long. Yet, Webb refused to cut it down. Inasmuch FM had no problem with the tune, within a week local radio station “…KHJ broke its own rules and added all seven minutes and twenty-one seconds of it anyway.”5. We haven’t been the same since.
Like it or not, MacArthur Park reverberated across time and repertoires. The song likely covered by a couple hundred artists, with Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton, and a number of jazz artists giving the tune formidable instrumentals, to say nothing of contemporary singers of various eras. From country music singer Waylon Jennings to the Chairman of the Board himself, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, even The Four Tops baritone, Levi Stubbs, lent his soulful chops to a cut of it.
Despite the myriad versions, my heart lay with the most popular of them all, Donna Summer‘s energetic summation in the other pivotal year of 1978. “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five’?” Check that, you were going to castigate me about a Disco song, right? Something I’ve railed on in the past. It’s a distinction without a difference in this case, primarily for this American singer, songwriter, and actress. She still pulls me in whenever I listen to her.
Admittedly, “Disco” has gotten a bad rap over the years. Personally, was enticed like so many who grew up during the ’60s and survived the ’70s with its “four-on-the-floor” beats, syncopated bass lines, dramatic strings, and electric instrumentality. Just got tired of the vacuous formulations some producers threw at listeners and dancers flocking to the discotheques. Those who knew and used the genre’s African/Latino roots to parry and innovate never exhausted their welcome.
Think the Bee Gees, Gloria Gaynor, Thelma Houston, Chic, and of course, the late-Donna Summer.
There’s a reason this topped the charts in ’78, bettering Richard Harris original’s high-water marks of #2 [Billboard’s Hot 100, U.S.] and #4 [UK] a decade earlier. Summer’s faithful Italian producer Giorgio Moroder led off by quoting Webb’s beautifully languid harpsichord start with his keyboard variant and gave old-timers’ a tinge of recall. Then, Donna’s haunting vocal bathed in with a gender change in more ways than one, building in volume as only a singer of her stature could6 before its sea change:
Spring was never waiting for us, dear It ran one step ahead As we followed in the dance Between the parted pages and were pressed In love's hot, fevered iron Like a striped pair of pants MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark All the sweet, green icing flowing down Someone left the cake out in the rain I don't think that I can take it 'Cause it took so long to bake it And I'll never have that recipe again Oh no!
Her “A-ha!” moment, at this juncture, raised Jimmy Webb’s psychedelically poetic lover’s lament to a defiant exegesis few attain. An epic uptempo medley whirling about as the tumultuous ’70s was kicking everybody in the teeth. Many of us needed a lift, and Donna delivered as only she could. Whenever I listen to this, her exclamation at this point with MacArthur Park7 still packs a wallop. “…from baroque ballad to disco showstopper”8, it jettisons whatever lethargy from of these old bones.
Whatever you think about either, both versions raised something within us, as well as the bar9.
- “In 1992, Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry asked his readers to send in their pick for the single worst song ever released. The majority of Barry’s readers selected this as the worst song ever, both in terms of “Worst Lyrics” and “Worst Overall Song”.” ~ Wikipedia ↩
- “…a 22-minute cantata in the summer of 1967 that ended with a seven-minute coda called “MacArthur Park.” He offered it to Bones Howe, who produced The Association, for possible inclusion on the group’s fourth LP. Howe loved it, but the group did not want to give up half the album for Webb’s project, so they rejected it.” ↩
- Locally, KMET and KLOS in Los Angeles, KSAN in S.F., and WNEW in NYC. ↩
- MacArthur Park being a real location here in L.A., a scenic recreational park in the Westlake neighborhood and a site for a number of movies (Killer Bait, Volcano, Training Day, Drive, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and others). ↩
- The Wrecking Crew – The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman, page 214. ↩
- With all deference to Sir Richard’s delivery, that is. ↩
- Donna Summer would repeat Richard Harris’ mistaken lyric of MacArthur‘s Park, which Webb tried in vain to correct when recording the tune. ↩
- Red Bull Music Academy Daily ↩
- Harris’ 1968 hit broke the time barrier for pop song and others took note. George Martin admitted to Jimmy Webb that “Hey Jude” was only allowed to run over seven minutes because of the success of “MacArthur Park”. And Donna’s version put out both short (3:59) and long (8:27) cuts to vinyl and radio, which helped its success. ↩