One of the more intriguing pop groups springing out of the early '60s folk boom was Spanky and Our Gang. Legend has it the original members met during an informal jam session while stranded in Florida during a hurricane, and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane eventually convinced some of the jammers to join her in Chicago and form a group. It didn't take too long performing around the city before they were signed to Mercury, busting onto the charts in the summer of 1967 with "Sunday Will Never Be the Same." The group would have a lot of success over the next year and a half or so, until disbanding for a variety of reasons in 1969.
A self-titled debut album rushed out in the wake of their first hit was a not entirely coherent mix of the breezy, orchestrated pop of their first few hit singles, some vaudeville and humor (including a "commercial" for pot), but did provide the eclectic template refined much more successfully on their follow-ups. One track particularly showed the direction the band would shortly take -- a cover of "Five Definitions of Love" by jazz pianist/vocalese singer Bob Dorough, featuring a complex vocal arrangement taking full advantage of the band's harmonies. Dorough would co-produce and arrange the band's follow-up albums with Stuart Scharf, and their participation coincided with a step forward musically for the group.
Even better, though, is their third album. The packaging, designed to look like a 45 sleeve, is probably at least partly responsible for the unwieldy title, Without Rhyme or Reason/Anything You Choose. The band takes the concept of careful sequencing used on their previous album and really runs with it this time, as the songs on both sides segue from one to the next by crossfades, incidental recordings or other short interlude pieces, making each side somewhat like the self-contained halves of a single. In fact, I've never actually known which side of the album is supposed to be played first; the sides are labeled "A" and "1," and it works equally well starting with either side.
The band also made excellent use of late '60s advances in the recording process to often separate their six-part harmony vocals in various ways, carefully layered and woven in among the instruments. With the group's usual skewed sense of humor, there's even a song specifically showcasing the way much the album is mixed: "Leopard Skin Phones." Overall, the attention to detail in the mix and the crisp audio quality makes the album stand out in comparison to many of its contemporaries. It's easily one of the best headphone albums of the decade, overcoming even the crackly sounding vinyl often used by Mercury in the era. Technical trickery only goes so far, though; without the careful arrangements and excellent songs -- this time mostly written by various aggregations of Scharf, Dorough and the band -- there would be nothing there for the engineer to work with.
By the time the album hit stores in early 1969, the group was essentially already disbanded, following the death of guitarist Malcolm Hale, the defection of drummer John Seiter to The Turtles, and group namesake McFarlane's decision to start a family and get off the road. Mercury gamely tried to keep selling records for a couple more years, releasing a number of excellent singles from the album, a greatest hits compilation and a live album recorded in the band's early days.
While there was a mid-'70s reunion album, it's much more of a standard pop album than anything that had come before. In some ways, the true torch-carrier for the clever and catchy music of Spanky and Our Gang turned out to be producer Bob Dorough, who was one of the primary songwriters and voices behind the Schoolhouse Rock! concept. (Mercury, 1969; available as part of the Hip-O Select Complete Mercury Recordings CD box set)