Let me be clear: By standards of the subculture as it was, Lee & Nancy were not Mod —but because the only way to define “Mod music” is thusly:
- Music played by people who self-identify with the Mod subculture
- Music widely enjoyed by people who identify with the Mod subculture
…it simply cannot be denied that Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra have gained some cred over the years. Granted, this is not without reason.
It’s argueable that in 1966, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” was kind of an ironic anthem amongst Carnaby Street girls and American youthquakers, outfitting themselves in go-go boots. Hell, one of the earliest covers was by The Artwoods (also released in ’66), and three years later, Symarip released the first altered version on Skinhead Moonstomp. Written and produced in its original version by Lee Hazlewood, and written for Nancy Sinatra, whom he suggested to sing it as if she were “a sixteen-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers” (for the curious, Nancy was twenty-six, at the time it was released), it’s clear the song has a long history not only as a traditional 1960s pop standard, but also as a kitschy favourite amongst Mods and Skinheads. It is thus only logical that, at some point in the 1980s or ’90s revivals, people would get interested in other work written by Lee Hazlewood, especially works performed with Nancy Sinatra.
It’s hard to categorise Lee Hazlewood’s music, as a whole — he wrote and performed but pop and country music, and was probably one of the first musicians to write music that would later be called “alternative country” —which pretty much seems to be a sort of catch-all phrase meaning approximately “quirky rock or pop music with a strong country or folk vibe to it” and has been applied to people and bands as diverse as Cracker, k.d. lang, Wilco, Murder By Death (???), Mumford & Sons, Amy Rigby (I highly recommend Diary of a Mod Housewife), Holly Golightly, and others. I’m pretty sure I once even saw the term applied to Elvis Costello, but I’d rather not think about that. I kind of wince at the notion of people referring to his music as “Cowboy Psychedelia”, because with possible exception of “Some Velvet Morning”, his music doesn’t really fit any kind of “psychedelic” definitions.
Well, maybe “Big Red Balloon” touches on some of those “trippy” elements, too:
While Nancy, with and without Lee, did have a steady stream of hit singles in the 1960s, most of her career was a staple of the “Beautiful Music” format radio —which today would be “Soft Adult Contemporary”, basically a middle-of-the-road, wholly inoffensive format that takes few (if any) risks, musically, and its selections are chosen to appeal to adults over thirty (in the 1960s –the current MOR formats aim to appeal to the 50+ crowd).
Upon examination of Hazlewood’s music compared to other Beautiful Music standards of the 1960s, it’s really hard to imagine how he got relegated to such a format, leaving a fair amount of his music without Nancy fairly obscure (most of his own records never charted, and if he hadn’t already been a successful songwriter, he would easily be described as an unappreciated genius.
Nancy Sinatra herself was also far from a hit factory. While she did maintain a string of char “hits”, most of these settled between numbers twenty and forty-five on any given Billboard chart for that year. The now-iconic “Sand” from the record Nancy & Lee peaked at #107 on the US Billboard, and only broke the Top 20 in Australia. The longevity of her popularity amongst the underground subcultures seems to rest on the fact that she’s one of those singers who was too cool to be square, but too square to be cool. Sure, she had a couple odd television specials, which might lead one to think that she was a major performer of the time, but keep in mind: The 1960s was before rock-n-roll was considered anything more than a gimmick, commercially. Sure, a few gutsy adverts used rhythm & blues-infused rock music in a jingle or two, but these were very few and far-between. Sure, rock music did appallingly well in the charts, when compared to traditional pop musicians, but but the corporate world was still a bunch of old men refusing to budge on anything that might make the company seem less old-fashioned.
If you’ve seen Mad Men, ignore the fact that there are all these spectacular bouffants and bullet bras, and it makes you want to go out and buy a tube of Brylcreem. Think about it and remember all the various scenes where Don Draper is practically running into walls because jackasses older then himself are still treating his successful adverts as a fluke, or how often Peggy or Pete bite their tongues because while their ideas are clearly innovative and eye-catching, some white-haired jackass in a suit doesn’t quite get it and wants them to basically make the same ad the previous agency did, only “new”, somehow. This is why Nancy Sinatra and other people who barely sold records in the 1960s got some television specials: They were young-enough and just quirky enough to appeal to teenagers, uni students, and the general under-thirty crowd; they were also considered widely “safe” and “inoffensive” enough for ma and dad and grandma, and doc boy to be entertained, as well. Her recording of the Lee Hazlewood-penned “Sugar Town” is clearly a revival of 1940s-styled post-swing vocal pop reminiscent of The Andrews Sisters or similar.
…but then, speaking of “Sugar Town”, Hazlewood often mentioned later in life that the song was about LSD —that he went to some club in Los Angeles, and these younger people had lined up some sugarcubes, and applied something to them with an eyedropper. Since he avoided drugs, he wasn’t sure what they were doing, so he asked one of them, and was told “it’s LSD, man, a real sugar town”. He claimed to have intentionally dumbed-down the song with inane lyrics so that the kids would be certain as to what it was about (even though he intentionally avoided divulging its true meaning, at the time), but adults, especially those running the record company, would be none the wiser. Though “Sugar Town” only peaked at #5 on Billboard’s main US and UK charts, it was a #1 on the US Adult Contemporary chart in 1967. A lot of his other songs could also have an intentional double meaning like that, illustrating just how clever he was, especially when compared to other artists derisively lumped into the “MOR [Middle of the Road] pop” category, named such for its apparent simplicity and inoffensiveness. While he certainly entertained the tragically kitschy pop genre of Neil Diamond and others, his aspirations as a lyricist were clearly subversive enough to rival the Factory hangers-on numbly nodding along with The Velvet Underground.
By 1977, Hazlewood retired from music for a time, and Nancy Sinatra semi-retired in the late 1970s, stating she wanted to focus on motherhood for a bit, and released a country record with Mel Tillis in 1981, being pretty much the bulk of her activity until 1995, when she jump-started a new career with a spread in Playboy at the age of 54. Nancy is still with us, but Lee passed off this mortal coil in 2007, after a brief career relaunch and several years battling cancer. Maybe they didn’t get much cred amongst the Mods and Youthquakers in the mid-1960s, but they certainly have earned it since.