In a nutshell, the debut album. It's considered a hippie classic, somewhat on the fringe of psychedelia, and deservedly so. It starts with the cover art... the beautiful woman in a puffy cloud sky, wind gently breezing by as the young lady white bird considers flying off the mountaintop she stands on. That feel is carried on by the music, featuring David LaFlamme playing violin (an instrument I'd never heard in the context of a rock band), joined by wife Linda on keyboards (lots of Hammond! Yay!), Pattie Santos on vocals, Hal Wagenet on guitar, Mitchell Holman on bass and Val Fuentes on drums. The album opens with the band's signature song; I remember it took me probably two hours to hear the album's forty one minutes of music that first day, since I kept picking up the needle and playing "White Bird" over and over again (bet I wasn't the only one!). The rest of the album is nearly as awesome, from the longing flow of "Hot Summer Day" through the gritty "Wasted Union Blues" and into the side-one closer, "Girl With No Eyes" (my second favorite track on the album). Side two gave me arguably my first introduction into what would decades later be called World Music, which I dearly love. The trilogy of tunes, "Bombay Calling," "Bulgaria" and "Time Is" incorporated hints of exotica into their hippie ramblings, the likes of which I had never heard before. "Bombay" had a melody line so haunting that Deep Purple would later incorporate it as the theme to their classic track "Child In Time," from the Deep Purple In Rock album. It's as haunting to me now as it's ever been, and I can fully understand why another band would want to borrow it for their own use. "Bulgaria" is as moody and mysterious as the land it is named for, segueing into the delightful closing track, where all of us aspiring young hippies learned that "time is too long for those who grieve, time is too short for those that laugh... but for those who love... time... time...time..." It honestly doesn't natter how kitschy the lyrics sound to me now; they were revelatory to me then, the work of a poet to my ears, and the music, with its keyboard driven accelerated mayhem, was a perfect backdrop to the sentiment. It all made sense to me, and the album in its entirety was a slice of perfection. I knew right away that the 4,166 times I listened to it within the first week of owning it would not be the last. It's another of the multimedia classics of my life, having owned it on vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD and now various format digital files... and sometimes, if I'm having a difficult day, I can still play the album and let myself get lost in the bittersweet beauty of "White Bird," still hoping she will fly before she dies.
Maybe not so much bad as "just not as good," but IABD never hit the heights they did with their debut. It happens a lot; there's an old saying that you have twenty years to imagine and write your debut, but six months for the follow-up, and that probably gets a lot harder when you hit a grand slam on your very first at-bat. Coupled with some of the standard band problems (in-fighting and bickering), personnel changes, the rigors of the road and serious, serious lawsuit issues (see The Ugly), it's probably understandable that none of the rest of the band's output could match the standard they set for themselves. The second album, Marrying Maiden, was pretty good and features a couple of tracks that were "good enough" to be considered alongside the debut (most notably to my ears "Soapstone Mountain"), but by the time the third album, Choice Quality Stuff/Anytime was released, it became obvious to even my very young ears that the band peaked early. Again, there's a few good tracks, and if I take the second and third albums and pull my favorite tracks from them, I wind up with a decent album's worth of material... though if that "fantasy album" had been the IABD debut, I doubt it would have sparked the devotion the real debut did. Only while I was researching the band and their history for this post did I learn that there was a lot of personal turmoil within the band during the recording of the third album, and in fact it carries two titles because it's essentially two different versions of the band. We got a half album from each band. The fourth album was a live album, and most of my life I've tended to discount live albums. For me, a concert is an event, more specifically a once-in-my-lifetyime event, and I generally find that it's better heard once in context, live and with all the trappings, and then best left to memory. The album, of course, features a pretty good version of "White Bird," but it's not as good as the original, and when I wanna hear "White Bird," I wanna hear it done right! It's A Beautiful Day... Today was the swan song, and by this time, the band had lost all their charm and charisma (and most of their original members). I guess I should make the effort to go back and give it another listen; perhaps time will be kind to it, but for a band for which I felt such passion for so long, I cannot recall even one song title from the last album. It's better to burn out than fade away, I've heard, but IABD seemingly did both.
While researching this piece, I got several good chuckles from "retro reviews" of the first album, especially from younger reviewers who just weren't there at the time and are taking the album completely out it's element. The reviews are generally poor, most calling it a weak album with one shining moment. A lot of people called it a terrible attempt at psychedelia, and many of the lyrics came under attack. Here's most of what I have to say about that; when I was fifteen years old and stardancing on mushrooms, sitting at midnight staring at a swimming pool whose surface water was decorated with streetlights and a gentle breeze, "Girl With No Eyes" made perfect sense to me. As I already stated, I found poetry in the interplay of the music and lyric from "Time Is." I wasn't looking for cosmic truth, I wasn't waiting for the heavens to open and offer me answers; I was enjoying great tunes with lyrics that told a shadow story where I could fill in the blanks. Nothing more, nothing less. It was a different time; if you weren't there, you can't be expected to relate to the ambiance or the language of the era. Even if you were there, you can remember it but can't hope to re-create it. Perhaps because I have those memories and heard the album when it was in regular rotation on the radio, it makes more sense, or perhaps I'm defending one of the cornerstones of my youth, but I still think the debut album from IABD stands tall and equal with most of the classics of the era.
Sorry, hip reviewer guys, but It's A Beautiful Day is a very special record. Go smugly trash something else.
Most of the ugly is centered around a man named Matthew Katz. He was the first manager of the band; he also managed San Francisco staples Moby Grape and the now-legendary Jefferson Airplane at the time. Here's what I was able to glean from my websearching.
After IABD formed (as yet unnamed) and hooked up with Katz, he discouraged them from playing in the San Francisco area, saying they weren't ready yet. Instead, he shipped them off to Seattle where he showcased them at a club he owned, which he renamed San Francisco Sound. Katz gave the band their name reportedly after hearing a young girl describing the day's weather and thinking it would be a really good name for a band. The band was cooped up in a small residence between performances with, according to David LaFlamme, no transportation and a minimal food allowance. It was during this time that they wrote their classic "White Bird," alluding to their own situation, where the "white bird must fly, or she will die."
Growing tired of the weak response they were garnering in Seattle (as well as their terrible living conditions), the band went back to San Francisco and began playing gigs they arranged for themselves, outside of Katz's knowledge. They developed enough of a following that they were asked to open for Cream in late 1968, a monumental turn of good fortune. By this time, IABD was trying to follow the lead of Jefferson Airplane and divorce themselves from the services of Katz, even though they had signed a management contract with him. (Note: Airplane was far more successful and sustained far less damage than Beautiful Day, but Moby Grape found themselves in an eternal legal limbo similar to IABD). This was when the lawsuits began. What the suits revolve around (and what has been the source of misery for IABD for decades) is the actual ownership of the name. Katz sued the band, claiming he owned the name and cash from the band for all the work he had done on their behalf. Oddly enough, in 1968, the first ruling from a judge on the suit was in favor of IABD; he awarded the rights to the name to the band, essentially saying it was the musicians and nothing else that established the reputation and goodwill of the band. Once the lawyers told the band and Columbia Records that the lawsuit had been settled favorably, they were allowed to go into the studio and record the debut album.
The accelerated trouble began after that. Once there were several band member changes, Katz re-filed the lawsuit. If the band members were what made the IABD brand, Katz argued that the current band was no longer comprised of those six members, and as such, Katz himself should be awarded ownership of the name. In 1973, he won. Since then, a myriad of suits and countersuits have been filed, but for the most part, only Katz made significant money from the name It's A Beautiful Day. Case in point: when the band's first two albums, long out of print and highly coveted by fans and collectors (along with albums by Moby Grape) were finally re-issued on compact disc, it was on the San Francisco label. Not surprisingly, that label is owned by Katz, and again the bands received none of the money. Katz defended his trademark vigorously and all across the globe; he sued record companies, clubs and even his own legal team at various times. Still, Katz eventually let his trademark ownership of the name go un-renewed, but by then (according to most of the reports I could find), by court order David LaFlamme owed Matthew Katz almost one million dollars... of which, he has reportedly paid some eighty bucks.
It's a sad story, but one that's not completely uncommon in the world of music (or most other artistic worlds, for that matter). The original lineup of It's A Beautiful Day was an excellent band of creative musicians with an interesting, occasionally unique vision and the ability to express that in the studio and on stage. Time and tide, the erosions of temper, creative differences, egos and bickering over ownerships did the band in and keeps them from all but a cursory mention when recalling the legends of the hippie era. David LaFlamme still performs, and since the trademark on IABD has expired, he can use the name again, but obviously the damage was done. A sad story indeed...
It's probably little comfort to the band, but at the very least, for those of us who did love, time... gave us one immortal album that wove itself forever into our hearts and souls.