Sippin’ on Some Champagne Soul

A short bit about a young music geek and The 5th Dimension.

The 5th Dimension, a little sterner than usual… (pic found here)

Even in the 1960s, The 5th Dimension was probably not considered a cool band. I say “probably,” as I wasn’t even born until the mid-1980s and can only make an educated guess. They had several hits (specifically from ‘67 to ‘70) but those were all on the AM Pop charts, where they had to compete with Monkees, Carpenters, a whole Partridge Family, and heaps of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Basically bubblegum of the oooohhh la-la-na-na variety, the alternative provided by the record companies for those who wanted their psychedelia softer and without all those damn hippies.

Even without being compared to the rock music of the time, I’m certain the 5th Dimension — a predominately African-American group — looked even cornier when compared to the soul music coming out then. The Stax roster in Memphis got grittier as they helped lay down the roots for funk, while Motown became more politically in tune with the changing atmosphere, best characterized by songs like “Ball of Confusion” and “Psychedelic Shack” by The Temptations. When placed next to these styles, Billy, Marilyn, Florence, Ron, and Lamonte mostly churned out a chirpy Broadway-inspired L.A. kind of Diet Soul. It’s been dubbed over the years as “champagne soul,” an appropriate name given the light crisp sweet bubbly nature of the sound [1]. It’s kind of hard to imagine somebody like Huey Newton or Angela Davis telling somebody to put Up, Up, and Away on the turntable.

What’s even weirder to imagine, though, is the thought of a chunky white ten-year-old living outside of D.C. in ’96 deciding that their Greatest Hits on Earth should be the very first CD in his eventual 200-plus collection. Yet it’s not that weird, for I drank the champagne soul myself and my relationship with music couldn’t have been more interesting (or rather weird at times) during the past twenty years.

Thinking back on that time, I began actually revisiting this album a few days before typing this up, after not listening to it for several years. Especially since I went back in asking myself “Does this even hold up?” I found at 30 that it was goofy and frothy and all that, but holy smokes, it was still great! Or rather “great!” in the sense that it did what it was designed to do: calm the nerves and take you away from your troubles for a half hour.

While calming me into a groove, it also gave me a sense of nostalgia. Not the current Buzzfeed-style nostalgia (“Hey, remember these things from the 90s?” [2]) but in the original definition where a sense of melancholy hits while reminiscing on your past. In the first few bars of “(Last Night) I Didn’t Get Any Sleep Last Night,” the track that opens the album, I remembered exactly why I bought the CD when I was ten. Even with far cooler albums coming out around that time, [3] the music on my radar was not the hits of my time but the ones from when my parents were ten themselves. That connection makes me more appreciative while listening to it these days.

Growing up in the mid-90s, I wasn’t as influenced by MTV and modern rock and R&B stations like the other kids. The station my family turned into during most of our car rides was WBIG, which played “oldies” then instead of its current classic rock format. A steady diet of old-fashioned rock n’ roll and soul music from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s influenced my taste since I was around five, so it made sense that I’d be attracted to something so clearly of that era yet so damn kitschy when I got to hear it. I had absorbed my parent’s actual nostalgia and somehow made it my own.

Looking back on it, that first CD was important in many ways for what would follow it during my teens and twenties. It was in that span of time that my love of all music built up a large (and at times cumbersome) library of various artists and movements and I had ultimately fashioned myself into an amateur music historian. By having those golden sounds of yesteryear impressed on me at an early age, I already knew the foundations that gave us everything else in pop music. From rock n’ roll to EDM, I’ve been able to trace all the players, causes, events, and effects so vital to our modern sound. It was there in that innocuous choice of sipping the champagne soul, a style requiring proper chilling to make sure the bubbles still pop to excite but not all heavy enough to be “important,” that I was able to kick-start a passion that stays with me today.

End Notes

[1] This is also fitting in context to an anecdote I once heard about P-Funk mastermind George Clinton describing another group in the 1970s as putting a “bowtie on the funk.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find either the quote or the exact group he was describing while writing this essay. If I recall, it was either Chic or the groups at Philadelphia International he was talking about.

[2] Oh I do — I grew up through the whole decade and can say that it wasn’t that great…

[3] “Like what?” you might ask. Well, here’s a quick survey who was releasing classic albums from 1995 to 1997: Beck, 2Pac, Björk, Blur, Pulp, Notorious B.I.G., Supergrass, Weezer, Portishead, a whole bunch of others…

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