Paper Cup

5th Dimension , Soul City SCR-760, 1967, #32 Pop

You may be inclined to lump 5th Dimension into the “soft rock” category, Their outfits matched, and tended toward leisure suits with flared pants. They did at least one cornball variety special with lame skits and showbiz guests. They sang a little more legit than edgy. Their rock wasn’t rockin’; their soul wasn’t soulful.

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock.

But they went beyond soft rock: They all were great singers and always had interesting harmonies, inventive arrangements. As coverers and not songwriters, they made some very good choices of songwriters to cover, notably Laura Nyro, but also Bacharach & David, and Jimmy Webb, composer of my favorite 5D song, “Paper Cup,” as well as their first hit, “Up, Up and Away.”

“Paper Cup,” in fact, comes from The Magic Garden, a collection of Jimmy Webb songs the group issued in ’67 as its second album. The song is the best sort of ear candy, very bright and upbeat, with unison singing breaking up into harmonies and echoes. It’s quintessential sunshine pop, and it far outshines the rest of the album, which—OK—may be rock of the somewhat soft sort. (The other songs include the sappy, drippy “The Worst That Could Happen,” which was a hit for Brooklyn Bridge. Now there—there is a soft rock group.)

Perhaps I’m just a little too sensitive about the term soft rock. About twenty years ago, my stepdaughter Alicia put a call in to Super-Psychic Sylvia Browne. For $50, Sylvia herself would get on the phone and spend a few minutes discussing the caller’s problem, and would throw in a quick answer to one question about three other family members. The question Alicia asked Sylvia Browne on my behalf was, “Will my stepdad ever make it in music?” Sylvia’s immediate response: “Yes, he’s going to have a successful career in music playing soft rock.” Great, thanks a bunch, Sylvia. My wife took to calling me Soft Rock Steve.

A singer friend named Gary recently recruited me to form a duo, which he called Timeless. Hundreds of music acts must’ve already used that name before us, but it seemed to fit, and it’s not like we were aiming for any notoriety. We did a mix of songs from the thirties through the seventies. It was American Songbook swingy numbers, some doo-wop, some country. We did have several of those ‘70s songs some like to call soft rock in our repertoire, but it was really just a small fraction of the list.

We had been doing a weekly gig at a café for a few weeks when we got booked at a club, a listening place that wanted to promote our appearance with a poster. Gary put one together and forwarded it for my OK. I opened the PDF, and there it was across the top: “Enjoy the soft rock stylings of Timeless.” Oh boy. Not only were we soft-rockers, but we had “stylings.” I diplomatically responded to Gary that for a lot of people our age, soft rock is a pejorative term, a putdown. Sigh, Now I really am Soft Rock Steve.

Soft Rock. It’s an oxymoron. Rock’s gone a lot of directions since Chuck Berry and friends formalized it, but when it has gone soft, it has become something other than rock. Chuck Berry would never play soft rock. Even in his eighties, his rock was not soft. (Of course, “My Ding-a-Ling” didn’t rock, softly or otherwise. But it was a novelty number, an aberration in the Chuck Berry canon, albeit his only #1 hit.)

There’s rock music, and then there’s the soft stuff—easy listening, countrypolitan, mellow sounds, adult contemporary. Soft or rock, but not soft and rock.

Before the psychic hotline call and since, I’ve played many kinds of music, but for the most part managed to avoid the type of MOR stuff that is referred to as soft rock. (Also managed to avoid “having a successful career in music.”) But I have occasionally, as I listened to 5th Dimension’s “Paper Cup” or “Puppet Man,” fantasized about getting a few music pals together, getting matching bright-colored outfits, and harmonizing a la 5th Dimension.

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