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100 Albums: "Hair: The Original Broadway Musical Soundtrack"

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni, and James Rado
Title: Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
Released: 1968
Genre: rock musical


Every now and then a musical captures the zeitgeist of a generation--at least, the zeitgeist of that generation's starving New York art scene. For the late 60's, that musical was Hair, a ground-breaking succès de scandale that depicted the burgeoning hippie movement in all of its racially-integrated, free-loving, drug-taking, war-protesting glory. It gained notoriety--and is likely best remembered--for its nude scene, but it was a significant cultural phenomenon for its time, running on broadway a full year before the era-defining event that was Woodstock. The soundtrack spawned a number of major radio hits that have been subsequently covered. It helped launch the careers of Meat Loaf, Melba Moore, Diane Keaton, and Tim Curry, amongst others. It tells the story of Claude, nominal leader of "the tribe" who has been drafted and is torn between continuing on penniless with his principles and his draft-card-burning contemporaries, or caving in to pressures from his conservative parents and joining the army. And that's pretty much the story. It's worth reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia just for the staging of the acid trip that takes up much of Act II just so you can get an idea of how bonkers the show was.

Though it's called the first "rock musical" it borrows a lot musically from funk. The guitar tone through much of the recording wouldn't feel out of place on a disco record. The bass from Jimmy Lewis is incredible. As is common for musicals, the mid-range instruments are pulled back to make room for the vocals, so the bass is prominent and it's a lot of fun to listen to. Lyrically, the songs are intentionally provocative, celebrating sex acts, drugs, race, etc. Most of the songs in Act I are little more than vignettes, like the song Sodomy which has this to say: "Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty. Father, why do these words sound so nasty?" And... that's half the lyrics of that song right there. The most famous songs from the show are Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In, which would be immortalized by The Fifth Dimension--although I hate that they drop the first two thirds of The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In) and just repeat the chorus ad nauseam. It's easy to pick out the radio songs because they have tighter performances and cleaner mastering. Easy To Be Hard would go on to be a hit for Three Dog Night.

Some of the best songs are the ones that deliberately stoke race. Colored Spade has a black man going through a litany of "slang" words for "black" which is entirely made up of racial slurs before he settles on "President of the United States of Love". White Boys is a parody of the Supremes that is an absolute show-stopper. Abie Babie has a black woman reciting the Gettysburg Address as though it were an MLK speech, the whole time being distracted by the doo-wop singers backing her up. When someone pretends to shoot her, her response is "Bang? Shit, I ain't dyin' for no white man." It's a bold statement from one of the earlier Broadway shows to feature a fully integrated cast. Then there are the smaller, quiet songs like Good Morning Starshine, which was sung on Sesame Street, or Frank Mills, which I used to sing to my boys as a lullaby.

It's fun, it's rollicking, it's brash, it's messy, it's controversial, and it's occasionally filthy. Oh, and there are multiple passages from Shakespeare woven into the lyrics. A treat for the whole family, really.

Further Listening: They made a movie in the late 70s that makes some pretty big alterations to the story and disco-fies most of the music. Not recommended. In 1967 there was an off-Broadway version of the show that had a soundtrack release but it might as well have been a different show. The show had a recent revival on Broadway which gave us a new soundtrack, but I haven't listened to that one yet. Could be worthwhile.

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