The squeaky-clean Mike Curb Congregation offered a safe musical alternative to the tumultuous culture wars of the first psychedelic era.
The bargain bin can be a low-risk gateway to rediscovered music. It can also be an inexpensive history lesson in the guise of a children’s record. Look at the smiling gingerbread man on the cover of this dollar-bin special: would you ever imagine that the creative force behind this cheerful yet strangely unsettling image was a one-time Lieutenant Governor of California?
Curb served under Governor Jerry Brown from 1979 to 1983, but long before that, when he was 19, he formed his first record company, a precursor to the Curb Records label that to this day boasts a roster of successful country music artists. In the nomenclature of the ’60s, when Curb formed his own vocal group, the musician-record executive was decidedly square.
The squeaky-clean Mike Curb Congregation offered a safe musical alternative to the tumultuous culture wars of the first psychedelic era. This made for occasionally strange juxtapositions. The anonymous, vanilla vocal group lacked anything potentially offensive and were likewise bereft of any distinctive personality. The results could be chilling: these innocuous automatons lend an eerie frisson to their 1970 version of folk singer Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine”: “I will never love you/ The cost of love’s too dear/ But though I’ll never love you/ I’ll stay with you one year/ And we’ll sing in the sunshine.” It sends a mixed message to the kids indeed.
“We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” isn’t on the album Sweet Gingerbread Man, but the title track alone is worthy of long form exegesis. On the surface, it’s a sweet bubble-gum love song : “Can’t think about rainy weather now/ I’ve finally got myself together now.” This irrepressible optimism quickly goes down a lasciviously suggestive primrose path: ”I’m twirlin’ a cane made of peppermint/ Uh huh/ Uh huh / Nice sticky hands, sticky peppermint/ Uh huh/ Uh huh.”
Parents in 1970 who bought this album for their children assuming it was perfectly harmless may have started to feel concern at the first salacious rhythms of “Uh huh.” By the time the song concludes with “All tasty and tan/ Sweet gingerbread man,” they most likely ripped the album off the record player and hurled it against the wall, smashing its candy-coated evil to bits.
Still, it’s a fairly irresistible song, and the Congregation’s arrangements of other popular hits are in some cases harder rocking than the originals. Even harder than the Beatles. Of course, their choice of Beatles covers include “Let it Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” If the Congregation’s renditions feature drum parts that are louder and much less sensitive than Ringo’s, that’s not Ringo’s fault.
The album includes versions of inspirational numbers like “Bringing in the Sheaves” and inspirational pop like a surprisingly fuzz-toned “Spirit in the Sky.” Modern readers may be astonished that this album included two hit singles: the title cut made the adult contemporary chart and “Burning Bridges,” the theme to the Clint Eastwood movie Kelly’s Heroes, was a Top 40 pop hit in 1971.
Many “Mad Men” viewers were too young to remember the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign when it was brand new. Sweet Gingerbread Man is like an album performed entirely by that commercial vocal group, featuring muzaky versions of benign pop hits like “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, alongside inspirational numbers and that oddly suggestive title track. It’s saccharine music that flies in the face of aesthetic integrity – and I kind of love it. The Mike Curb Congregation made a handful of other albums, and the few I’ve heard have at least one strangely compelling cut. Dig around the bargain long enough and you should find a copy of Come Together, which does include “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” It was easily worth a dollar to me; while I can’t guarantee it would be worth a dollar to you for its music, students of history may find that a small price to pay for a look inside the mind of a former Lieutenant Governor of California.