And so we reach the final part of our Summer of Love trilogy. Three songs. Thirteen weeks. One summer that (kind of) changed the world. The psychedelic weirdness of Procol Harum, The Beatles going for a full-on hippy love-in, and now this. An ode to the city where it all started.
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), by Scott McKenzie (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 9th August – 6th September 1967
If you’re going, To San Francisco, Be sure to wear, Some flowers in your hair… The music is acoustic: folky and wistful… Very 1965 – already sounding a little old-fashioned in mid-’67. Something’s going ‘ting’. Somebody’s clapping their hands. In the streets, Of San Francisco, Gentle people, With flowers in their hair… (Apparently all the references to ‘flowers’ and ‘gentle people’ were added to make hippies sound less frightening!)
The singer, Scott McKenzie, also sounds as if he’s from another time, a little old-fashioned. Kind of clipped and proper. A bit square, if we’re being honest, like he’s chronicling the scenes in the parks of San Francisco, an observer rather than a partaker. I dunno, I’m left slightly underwhelmed. For the ‘unofficial anthem of the flower-power movement’ I’d have expected something a little more revolutionary…
But, you know, it’s a cute song. I like it. I knew it, as most people do, as a chorus in the back of my mind. And the most interesting bit comes in the middle-eight, when McKenzie breaks the fourth wall and explicitly references the counter-culture movement: All across the nation, Such a strange vibration, People in motion… There’s a whole generation, With a new explanation… The beat here is spikier, more urgent. It sounds almost like a rallying call.
I’ve been to San Francisco twice. Once as a kid, and once just last summer. When one night, in the heart of downtown, a guy walked past us bellowing this very song out at the top of his lungs. San Fran being San Fran, he wasn’t oddest oddball we’d seen that day, or even that evening. But I liked the fact that the song was still there, still an anthem of the city fifty years on. And there is something about San Francisco, still, even if downtown is full of meth addicts and Haight-Ashbury is now a bit of a tourist trap. Something in the air that suggests that it could start a revolution again, if it wanted to…
I’m still not sure if Scott McKenzie himself was much of a hippy. He had quite long hair, but then everybody did in the sixties… What I do know is that he is a near perfect example of a one-hit wonder: his only other charting single in the UK reached #50. He was something of a journeyman singer-songwriter, even in 1967, having been in doo-wop and folk bands since the start of the decade. Post ‘San Francisco’, he performed with The Mamas and the Papas, and co-wrote The Beach Boys’ eighties hit ‘Kokomo’. He passed away in 2012.
So that’s that for the Summer of Love. Three game-changing #1 singles: one timeless, one crazy, and one pretty nice. Up next, we slip right back into the easy-listening mulch that has made up so much of 1967. But let’s not think about that just yet. Let’s focus instead on the fact that this is only the 3rd chart-topper to reference a city, after Jimmy Young’s ‘The Man From Laramie’ in 1955, and Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People of Paris’ back in 1956. If we extend that to ‘places’, we could include The Song from ‘Moulin Rouge’, and, at a bit of a push, ‘The Garden of Eden’… Worth noting, though, as it’s not a common topic for #1 hits…
My Spotify playlist, for your pleasure: