I’ve been a fan of Chad and Jeremy’s The Ark for some time. I discovered the album after hearing “Rest in Peace,” from their previous release (1967’s Of Cabbages and Kings), on the radio. The song is a rambling opus about a headstone engraver who takes a jaundiced view of his charges (“His time on earth, what was it worth when all is said and done? / Here lies John—we’re rather glad he’s gone”). The duo had flown pretty much under my radar till then—though I’m old enough to remember Catwoman stealing their voices on an early Batman—being eclipsed not only by more-famous British Invaders, but even such lesser lights as Peter and Gordon and Freddie and the Dreamers.
Hearing “Rest in Peace” was one of those I-always-thought-those-guys-were-lame-but-they-sound-just-like-what-every-band-is-trying-to-do-right-now moments. Unashamedly pretty melodies. Humor and sophistication. Folky acoustic guitars. Unison singing. Actually kind of…gentle. But fiercely creative. Taking a song down any garden path it might want to follow, and somehow guiding it home at dusk. Anathema to Steve Albini, no doubt—and not a moment too soon.
I scarfed up a vinyl copy of Cabbages (still easy to find—many copies minted, few sold), enjoyed it mightily, and with some difficulty, finally scored a CD of The Ark, available then only as a Japanese import. I was truly unprepared for the wonders of the latter, especially since C and J had been critical flogging-boys for so long. In its sheer herding of unlikely opposites into an impossible-to-imagine unity, it rivaled other contemporary benchmarks: Forever Changes, Head, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Like the first of those, its evocative, acoustic-based tunes are supported by tasteful arrangements (courtesy of California legends Gary Usher and Curt Boettcher, along with Chad) that owe as much to easy listening as to psychedelia. Like the second, it never takes itself too seriously; the duo are amused at their own celebrity, and are not afraid to be seen having fun. Like the last, it partakes of the excesses of its era but remains so ineffably British—so dry and whimsical—that hippie millennialism can never budge its essential down-to-earthness.
Chad still seems bitter about the dismal reception accorded The Ark, and who can blame him? Apparently the session’s producers, assuming they had a blank check, spent a little too lavishly and alienated Columbia execs. (Usher was fired.) C and J’s audience was probably unready to be dragged into the post-Pepper era. Would a hipper label have offered nurture instead of neglect? Perhaps.
At any rate, after two LPs that left their fans baffled, Chad and Jeremy were over, never even having made it out of the ’60s. Jeremy pursued acting, with some success; Chad continued to perform, arrange, and produce (even landing a gig as musical director of the Smothers Brothers’ TV show).
Fast-forward to October 2008. I first heard word of a reunion from my friend George’s wife, who insisted that George and I go as a “date.” So we made the trek to the Cutting Room on a balmy Friday eve. What to expect? The crowd gave some pause: Let’s just say they made us feel young, and that’s no mean feat.
The good news: These guys sound as good as they ever did; they are pristine performers, still in fine voice. The really good news: They didn’t slight the psychedelic end of their career. I sat stunned through perfect acoustic renditions of “Progress Suite,” “Pipe Dream,” and “The Ark.” (They also perform “Rest in Peace” occasionally.) The show was structured as a capsule history of the duo, the songs interspersed with wry sketches of key points along the road. The fondness of the two for each other, for the audience, and even for showbiz itself, felt real. Jeremy is the more sober one: He’ll begin an anecdote and Chad will interrupt with zingers that border on the cynical. During an encore, people began shouting out titles, and Chad responded by bellowing, “No requests! This isn’t a cruise, for God’s sake.” Beautiful.
Secure in themselves, they can Chad-and-Jeremize virtually anything without embarassment: Their laid-back reading of “Purple Haze” (!) had a charm all its own, as did their not-very-faithful “I’ll Be Back.”
Clearly they have re-embraced the acoustic aesthetic: two guys, two voices, two guitars (and the occasional piano or mandolin), no ornamentation. C and J seem to like it that way, still being somewhat aggrieved at the insensitivity of their producers. One result is a new CD (Ark-eology) of some of their best songs, re-recorded without overdubs.
It seems as if the duo is finally enjoying the kind of career they should have had in the first place: They’re making good money (not always the case back in the day), they’re controlling their own recordings and the pace of their touring, and their fans have caught up to them.
The words of Batman ring true through the years: “Fans…you have our assurance that the voices of Chad and Jeremy will be restored before another sun sets on Gotham City!”
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.