I absolutely love Hair, the famous 1967 hippy themed musical, by Galt McDermot and Gerome Ragni. I think I must have heard the soundtrack in utero. The dates fit completely, because I was born in June 1969 and the Hair phenomenon hit the French scene a bit later than Broadway. My parents saw the stage show at Manchester Opera House round about then too (and yes, the Mancunians got the nude scene too).
I remember a cassette tape lying around in my Dad’s car for ages, which was something of an incongruity, because to say that he hasn’t generally embraced popular music would be an understatement. And I remember listening to it mostly on a vinyl LP (I remember the two heads design on the sleeve and that it was somewhat pompously called The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical), a version which was the original Broadway show soundtrack, rather than what must have been the film soundtrack on Dad’s cassette, which I subsequently nicked. By the time I had started earning money and stopped pinching a few books off my parents’ shelves and the odd LP or cassette, I was onto CDs, and mini CDs for a while (they provided a medium for essential home-made compilations, after CDs supplanted tapes), before everything gave way to mp3 files, which is what I currently listen to Hair on.
Yes, I still listen to it. When I was 17, my school year was basically a cramming course, preparing the students in the so-called “prépa” classes to take exams for business schools (part of the “grandes écoles” thing in France). I was doodling the words of Aquarius, and my neighbour completed the couple of blanks I had left. A year-long friendship ensued with Syvlain, who was envious I’d written them down from memory, whereas he had learnt them from the songbook. I in turn was envious of his ability to play some of the songs on the saxophone. Discovering our respective linguistic and musical skills happily occupied a whole maths lesson. The following year, we went our separate ways. Wonderful internet tells me that as well as his day job, Sylvain is currently the conductor for a long-established amateur orchestra; perhaps he’ll get them to play Three Five Zero Zero one day.
I’ve seen the stage show twice, once in Germany, once in Paris, and loved it both times. I also really like the 1979 Roman Polanski film. (The famous cassette must have been bought around that time, so that I got another dose of the music about ten years after I had heard it first. A bit like a vaccination booster really).
***Spoiler alert from here on in***
Astonishingly, I have on occasion found myself in the position of having to defend Hair. I can’t deny it’s a product of its time. I’m pretty sure that, hating gangs and cliques as I have always done, I would have been on the sidelines of the hippy movement, if I’d been born in 1948 rather than in 1969 or 1968 more to the point: “What is about 1968 that makes you so damn superior?” is the starting lyric to I got life, which is when one of the show’s key characters, Berger, starts dancing on tables. But I could safely enjoy its freshness and fun when it was already firmly in the “historical” category.
OK, so even though I am not a musicologist by any stretch of the imagination, I can tell that the score is not particularly sophisticated. Shakespeare it ain’t either, although the Bard kindly provides some lines in What a piece of work is man. And, today, I’d jib at a songwriter describing black men’s attractiveness in terms of their “liqorice lips like candy”, and “chocolate flavored treats”. But how can you not melt, when listening to be Easy to be hard, how can you not find Frank Mills oh so sweet, and how can you not join in Let the sunshine in a stirring and let’s-all-hug-together-round-his-grave groove.
The worst thing I know about Hair is that a French version of the stage is what launched Julien Clerc in his singing career (among his many sins is a particularly trite song called Hélène, argh). Ah well, it’s a bit like Bob Geldof being responsible for some truly dire 80s pop songs after Do they know it’s Christmas of Band Aid fame was copied around the world. Galt and Gerome, you’re forgiven, and then some.