In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Here we have a fascinating case study of what happens when youth-culture revolutions meet mass-culture consumption habits. There’s no cadre of sinister entertainment executives sitting around and trying to figure out how to make money off of youthful rebellion while defanging that rebellion’s efforts — or, if there is, then those executives don’t actually know what they’re doing. Things like “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” happen gradually, and mostly by accident. Events have to line up exactly right for a song like that to take over the way that it did. But this kind of thing does happen. It happens over and over and over.
“Aquarius” and “The Flesh Failures” (which most of us know as “Let The Sunshine In”) are two songs from the countercultural musical Hair. The play is the story of New York City bohemian kids who experiment in sex and drugs and who resist the Vietnam draft. In its time, the play was considered a shocking groundbreaker; it used nudity and drugs and the American flag in casually transgressive ways. Hair was also a genuine and organic expression of rebellion; the two writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, were actors who were writing mostly about their own lives. And yet Hair was a big hit. It started out off-Broadway, at the downtown theater Joe’s Pub, in 1967. The next year, it moved to Broadway. It toured North America and Europe, and it became a movie in 1979.
The 5th Dimension, meanwhile, were an LA vocal group who’d already made a few hits. They were showbiz types, not countercultural insurrectionists. Members of the 5th Dimension had studied music in college, and they’d worked with people like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles. As a group, they specialized in chirpy, uplifting studio-pop. All five members were black, and they could do little R&B runs and flourishes, but they seldom relied on that skill, and they definitely didn’t make soul. Instead, their version of pop music was bright and shiny and professional, and not even in that appealing-to-white-people Motown way.
The 5th Dimension’s earlier hits were basically show tunes that didn’t have musicals attached. Those songs radiate a chipper optimism that registers, at least to me, as a pure irritant. “Up, Up And Away,” which peaked at #7 in 1967, would’ve been a 3, and I’d give a 4 to their take on Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic,” which got to #3 in 1968.
The possibly-apocryphal legend of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” is the Billy Davis, Jr., the 5th Dimension’s leader, had left his wallet in a New York taxi. The person who returned his wallet had something to do with Hair, and he’d invited them to see the show. The members of the group had loved “Aquarius,” the play’s introductory song, and they’d told Bones Howe, their producer, that they wanted to record it. Howe wasn’t sure how he’d turn it into a full song, so he took a few bars from “The Flesh Failures,” another of the show’s tunes, and he smashed them together, turning them into a medley even though he didn’t think they fit too well. The Wrecking Crew recorded the song’s instrumental in Los Angeles, while the singers recorded their part in Las Vegas, where they were performing at the time. All five singers crowded around two microphones.
In a way, “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” is an ideal vehicle for the 5th Dimension’s bouncy, idealistic smiles-everywhere pop music. It’s a purely optimistic song, one that’s all about how we’re moving into a new astrological era where humans will suddenly start to love and understand each other. In their harmonic giddiness, they sound like cult members, glassy-eyed converts to some whole new way of cosmic thinking. Depending on how you feel about the ideas in Hair, that might fit. Beyond the sci-fi tones of that opening flute, the big, brash instrumental doesn’t have much to do with the psychedelic acid rock that the Hair characters probably would’ve been hearing. But it does have plenty to do with showtunes, and that is, after all, what these songs are.
And yet the 5th Dimension’s version of this song has the effect of turning the day’s seismic youth-culture shifts into pure kitsch. It loses all the anger and most of the idealism behind these concepts, leaving only the goofy stuff about “mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation.” The flower-child kids of the ’60s apparently liked the song; the crowd at Woodstock that summer turned it into a big singalong even though the 5th Dimension weren’t there to perform it. So maybe it played differently during that era. (Hair definitely hit some kind of zeitgeist; the Cowsills’ version of “Hair” peaked at #2 behind “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” It would’ve been a 5.) But listening to “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” now, it sounds like a TV ad that tries to appeal to millennials by forcing jokes about Instagram and avocado toast. It sounds like minimization.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” that Kill Donut, the one-off collaboration of the noise-rock bands Killdozer and Alice Donut, released in 1996:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mos Def’s 2004 track “Sunshine,” for which producer Kanye West sampled Melba Moore’s 1970 version of “The Flesh Failures (Let The Sunshine In)”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here, of course, is the glorious finale of the 2005 movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which the entire cast sings “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” peaked at #2 behind “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In.” It’s a 10. Here it is: