This is not the first cast recording of Hair but it is the first Broadway cast recording (I think) and, more importantly, it was the hit, it’s the version that hit #1 in 1968 – the last Broadway cast album to do so, according to Wikipedia – and sold millions of copies. So whether or not it truly is the definitive recorded version of the songs of Hair, it is the most successful. Hence why I decided to listen to it.
But there’s a problem for my experience of this record. That problem stems from two related things:
- The first is the ubiquity of “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine” and “The Flesh Failures,” all of which have been covered many times, often in very successful versions, so I’ve been exposed to what you might call “more professional” versions of these songs.
- The second related thing is that I grew up with oldies radio and I have heard some of these other versions, as a child, many many times. (So many times I couldn’t tell you, as a couple of these were ubiquitous on oldies radio in the 1980s.) So hearing earlier, rougher versions is weird. Also, my favourite female rock singer, Julie Driscoll, has covered the shit out of parts of Hair, again making it hard for me to hear these earlier versions in the proper light.
But I’m going to try to give this its fair shake anyway:
I can imagine the shock this musical caused. It is basically everything American conservatives think is wrong with liberal America in general and the ’60s in particular rolled up into a neat little musical play. I think this is likely what at least some conservatives think of when they think of the ’60s, and they imagine that this is entirely serious and, worse, these people are still coming for their country. (They almost won!!! Thank God for Reagan and the Bushes.) For this alone, I think it’s notable and worth listening to. (Unfortunately I think at least some of it is likely lost on the people it’s trying to win over, which is problematic.)
But there’s a big problem, at least when listening to this with no reference to the actual theatrical production, and that is the plot. Is there one? It sure doesn’t feel like there’s much of one. I hope there is more in the actual musical, because it feels like a series of songs designed to piss off parents/conservatives, some of which are pretty dumb – particularly any of the songs that just recite initials, which feel extraordinarily lazy to someone like me who didn’t live through the birth of the ear of common acronyms.
But it’s still impressive that it exists, and it was a very daring thing to do. So it’s a landmark, even if you can find better versions of the best songs elsewhere. (Listen to Julie Driscoll’s versions of these songs, dammit!)