Band members Related acts
line up 1 ()
- Jimmie Haskell (aka Sheridan Pearlman) (RIP 2016) --
- Max Buda --
- Merry Clayton -- backing vocals
- Denny Doherty -- vocals
- Ron Edgar --
- Michael Fennelly --
- Clydie King -- backing vocals
- Jimmie Witherspoon -- vocals
- John Wonderling --
- Big Wanda and the Wombats
- none known
Rating: 2 stars **
Title: California '99
Country/State: New York, New York
Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+
Comments: gatefold sleeve with US poster
Catalog ID: --
Once again I fell victim to the allure of an album I knew absolutely nothing about. The gatefold sleeve was interesting enough, but initially I couldn't even figure out who the recording artist was. Luckily the name Jimmie Haskell was found on the album seam.
So it turns out 1971's "California '99" (subtitled "A Thematic Fairytale") was the product of the late arranger Jimmie Haskell. Prior to his death in February 2016, over some sixty years Haskell had built an impressive career. As a composer and arranger he worked with dozens of acts including Ricky Nelson, Bpbbie Gentry, Elvis Presley, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Blondie, Cheryl Crow and Simon and Garfunkel. He scored dozens of television series television movies and films, worked on numerous Broadway shows, along the way winning a couple of Grammies and an Emmy.
Based on a story written by Tom Gamache, Haskell somehow decided it would be a good idea to transfer the story to a rock opera. I've never read the source story, but the "California '99" plotline apparently had something to do with the United States declaring bankruptcy at which point all laws are eliminated. The country is renamed "California" and the other 49 States become countries with cities becoming districts. With the exception of "snoring contests" sports are made illegal. Due to food shortages Americans find themselves forced to eat insects that are raised on cannabis (which apparently starts to grow well throughout the Midwest). Throw in other plotlines that see Florida turn into a desert, California suffer a massive earthquake that sinks a substantial part of the inner state and a race war that further divide the country with the former Washington D.C. renamed "Kingdom" while San Clemente becomes the West Coast Capitol. Seriously, I'm not making any of this up. Against this background the narration followed young man trying to find his way through this "life program" in this new world where individualism seems to have been crushed in favor of a nasty "big brother" environment rife with central planning and other evils. A big chunk of the plot seems to have something to do with the character rejecting a military life in favor of "love as a burden" where he has a two year period to love three women at the same time (those woman being Claudia, Jessica Stone and Barbara). If he fails, he ends up in the military.
Bill Syzmczyk was saddled with the responsibility of producing the resulting dystopian mess into a coherent music concept. Helping him out were the likes of Merry Clayton, Denny Doherty, Clydie King, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Witherspoon (you'll notice many of them were signed to ABC/Dunhill). Large segments of the album were taken up by Haskell's orchestration and spoken word narratives seemingly meant to carry the plotline forward (but merely confusing the listener). It's always reminded me a bit of a Firesign Theatre collection. Along with spoken word narration and orchestrated segments the album included three seemingly random covers - The Band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' (Jimmy Witherspoon on lead vocals), Denny Doherty covering The Millennium's 'To Claudia On Thursday' and and instrumental cover of Pete Townshend's 'The Underture'. The album was rounded out by a couple of Haskell originals featuring Joe Walsh on vocals and guitar ('Jessica Stone' and 'California Fairy Tale'). No, none of it made much sense. Speculation on my part, but I can see where copious quantities of illicit substances might have been an inspiration for the album. Similarly, imbuing the same substances might have made the plotline clearer or at least made the album more fun to hear. Straight and sober it was a mess, though it seems to have had a major impact on Syzmczyk who subsequently relocated to Colorado forming the short-lived Tumbleweed record label.
The album's attracted a small group of dedicated fans. I'm not one of them. The plotline was a fractured mess; the Haskell originals were little more than throwaway film scores and the covers were pleasant, if unnecessary.
'99" track listing:
1.) Overture (instrumental) (Jimmie Haskell) - 4:28 rating: ** stars
The album started out with a somewhat anonymous slice of orchestration. There wasn't any wrong with the music, rather it was just kind of diverse and unfocused, though about three minutes in the tune began to remind me of a Mike Oldfield tune.
2.) Apprpopoulisberg (instrumental) (Jimmie Haskell) - 4:13 rating: ** stars
The first half of the song was a spoken word segment that was largely incomprehensible, though part of the plot had the main character looking for a female partner. He apparently had a thing for Greek women which may explain why when the music started it sounded like something out of a Greek film. For some reason it briefly flipped into Cajun territory, before going back to Greek roots. I have no idea what the random shouted names had to do with the plotline. I also have no idea how to pronounce 'Appopopoulisberg'
3.) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (J.R. Robinson) - 3:01 rating: *** stars
The first real song, a cover of The band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' featured blues man Jimmy Witherspoon on lead vocals. Merry Clayton and Clydie King were on backing vocals. I have no idea what a song about the Civil War had to do with this plot and while it was better than anything that had come before, Witherspoon's performance paled next to the original. Again, the narrative having something to do with time and "The Great Snore Festival" just left me confused. The credit was mistaken - it should be J.R. Robertson.
4.) To Claudia On Thursday (Joey Stec - Michael Fennelly) - 3:13 rating: **** stars
Next in the barrel was The Mama and the Papa's singer Denny Doherty ... Who knows where the idea arose to cover The Millennium's 'To Claudia On Thursday', but bless Doherty's soul for delivering the album's most conventional and enjoyable performance. Amazing how we cling to known quantities like melody and conventional lyrics. Bless you Joey Stec and Michael Fennelly for writing the song.
1a.) Intro (instrumental) (Jimmie Haskell) - 0:21 rating: ** stars
The brief 'Intro' spotlighted some earlier synthesizer moves.
1b Prelude (instrumental) (D Rhodes - Ron Edgar) - 2:53 rating: ** stars
'Prelude' continued in the same vein, with a bit
2.) Jessica Stone (Bill Syzmczyk - John Wonderlin) - 5:04 rating: *** stars
'Jessica Stone' started out as another narrative before the track detoured into a lysergic ballad with a strained Joe Walsh vocal. Admittedly his guitar solo was nice.
3.) California Fairy Tale (Jimmie Haskell - Bill Syzmczyk) - 2:53 rating: *** stars
And just when you thought it couldn't get weirder, along came 'California Fairy Tale'. While brief, the musical section of the song featured a pretty Joe Walsh ballad. The mid-song narrative section was a jumble of plotline threads that underscored what a mess everything had become. Ah, the beauty of central planning?
4,) Barbara (Jimmie Haskell) - 3:23 rating: ** stars
Stop resisting - there's more to life than love. That apparently translated into a "military program" and life as a soldier. Was just me, or did Barbara sound like an airline stewardess?
5.) Underture (instrumental) (Pete Townshend) - 2:56
Yeah, the album closed with a cover of Pete Townshend's 'Underture'. The arrangement wasn't that different from the "Tommy" original.
The album packaging included an oversized "California" map. Showing a rather bleak future including a major realignment of the California interior, the Marijuana and Insect Corridor and the Florida Desert, it was as interesting as the music. You also got an alternate US history covering the timeframe 1975 to 1998.
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