Such Sweet Blindness

And, just for the heck of it, here’s an engaging song from the 5th Dimension, who were generally pretty engaging, and somewhat more adventurous than they probably got credit for in their ’60s heyday. They were never rock stars, they were considered a grown-up, R&B-flavored pop act. But their teaming with eccentric singer-songwriter Laura Nyro was as successful as more talked-about and less unexpected pairings, like Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb.

Nyro had a knack for writing songs that were irresistible to performers but very hard to actually, you know, perform. Poke around YouTube for various versions of “Stoney End.” It’s a deeply unhappy song, but with an irresistible chorus that seems to make women long to sing it, and then find it’s very much more difficult to get around than it seemed. It’s rangy, but a lot of singers could deal with that. It’s that the lyrics — intentionally — don’t quite fit neatly into the melody, so both diction and phrasing require great care if it’s going to make any sense, musically or emotionally. And if a singer doesn’t make the dynamic shifts and just belts the whole thing, it mutates into a hunk of shouty ’70s gospel pop. Yet “Stoney End” has been recorded again and again, defeating nearly all who attempt it, up to and including Barbra Streisand, whose brassy, inexpressive take on it is probably the best known version. (But this young woman does rather a fine job of it.)

But that’s not the song I’m talking about. “Stoney End,” with its intimations of self-destruction, was much too dark for 5th D, even as they were recording Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and others. Including this:

Good lookin’ link for the e-mail people. Join them!

The video’s a little goofy, but it kind of suits the song. “Sweet Blindness” is typically all-over-the-place, but the 5th Dimension had a very effective approach to this tough tune: They, and producer Bones Howe, just ganged up on it. Marilyn McCoo and lead singer Florence LaRue cheerfully ham it up together on “Let’s go down by the grapevine/Drink my daddy’s wiiine/Get happy,” and when they’re not singing unison, they’re trading solo lines in a dual attack. They bounce through a heavily reverbed chorus sort of section (I guess it’s the chorus, but this is decidedly not a conventionally built song), backed up by the men singing baritone and a bounding, joyous bass, and this is what they’re so happy about:

Oh, sweet blindness
A little magic,
A little kindness
Oh, sweet blindness
All over me

Then they trade lines:
Florence: Four leafs on a clover
I’m just a bit of a shade hung over

Marilyn: Come on, baby, do a slow float
You’re a good-looking’ riverboat

Everyone: Ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me?

Later, in the “wine of wonder” and “gin mill spirit” sections, starting about 2:30 on the clip, the men begin trading phrases in a complex break for an effect that is something like a gospel choir, except not (my musical vocabulary is impressive, I know). The song has a fine energy throughout, speeding up and slowing drunkenly down, with that R&B bass dancing by itself over big band horns and a barroom piano and high hat.

“Sweet Blindness” throws a lot out there, and Howe and the singers throw it all back and more, making a satisfying record, though too long and perhaps too odd to be a very big hit (it reached No. 13 in 1968). The only thing to which I take exception is the deliberately cheesy piano tinking at the very end, followed by an entirely superfluous blast of Ricky Ricardo-esque horns. I can see how, having gotten so far in, it might have been a struggle to find a way out, but still, that is so very literal-minded and jokey that I think it steps on the mood.

So I guess this is about happy drunkenness (or other chemical enhancement) and youthful rebellion and youthful love (there is very likely also a religious subtext, which I am ignoring because I like this song so much), but it’s a willful blindness, and there’s a little “protest too much” vibe going on here, just maybe. But isn’t it fun while it lasts?

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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