David Laflamme doesn’t want you to buy his classic psychedelic album, “It’s a Beautiful Day.”
Not that the CD can be found on any old record store shelf. Decades of lawsuits and hostility have combined to send this FM staple underground, with prices for “It’s a Beautiful Day” currently topping out at about $100 on online retail sites.
A curious fate for an album so ubiquitous in the dimming of the hippie era, soaring on the wings of its famous opener, “White Bird.”
The singer/violinist Laflamme, in fact, has said he doesn’t even like playing “White Bird.” But he dislikes Matthew Katz a whole lot more.
Katz was the San Francisco music manager behind Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and Laflamme’s group, It’s a Beautiful Day. Decades of litigation followed Katz’s hippie era machinations, with the careers of Moby Grape and Beautiful Day basically destroyed by the resulting nastiness. There’s lots to be read online about these epic legal bummers … but we hear the music calling.
“It’s a Beautiful Day” plays rough here and there, but for the most part it’s psychedelic lite, a 4 a.m. chill. The forward-looking touches of world music ring true enough these days. The LP’s influence no doubt extended as far as Dead Can Dance (and its demon spawn). Yet the overwrought singing, awkward classical musical interludes and hippy-dippy lyrics betray the work’s 1960s roots. In any case, the album has been going in and out of style over the past 40 years.
The band It’s a Beautiful Day was a late bloomer out of the psychedelic boomtown that was San Francisco. Laflamme was there at the beginning of West Coast psychedelia, a fixture on the hippy scene. The former symphony orchestra violinist played with all of the heavy Bay area bands. He helped form Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, bringing echoes of the great Stéphane Grappelli to the acoustic band’s mix of gypsy jazz, swing and roots music.
Laflamme’s own band was formed in San Francisco in the summer of love, but got its start in Seattle, playing a residency at the Encore Ballroom, at Katz’s insistence. The song “White Bird” came out of these days, when the band had little but a place to stay — the attic of an old Victorian mansion.
“We were like caged birds in that attic,” Laflamme says. “We had no money, no transportation, the weather was miserable.”
The “White Bird” line “the leaves blow across the long black road to the darkened sky and its rage” came from the view Laflamme and his (first) wife Linda had looking out the window.
After returning to SF, the band got its break opening for Cream on its Farewell tour. The year later, Laflamme and co. etched their music onto vinyl.
The debut album “It’s a Beautiful Day” was released on Columbia in 1969. While neither the album nor the single, “White Bird,” were smash hits, the records performed respectably and their popularity grew over the decade. “White Bird,” sung by Laflamme and Pattie Santos, became an FM radio staple (and cliche).
“White Bird” and “Hot Summer Day” open the album with a mid-tempo groove that holds up beautifully for the most part, but the songs do suffer from some dated passages. Sonically, both songs offer mystery and revelation.
It’s hard to hear “White Bird” with new ears, but notice how Laflamme keeps his powder dry, introducing his bowed violin only at the 1:35 mark. The Spanish/Django guitar gives the song a sophistication rare for the time.
“Hot Summer Day” features lovely call-and-response vocals, with Santos and Laflamme both evoking the vocals of Martin Balin. Linda’s B-3 organ provides the undercurrent. An understated bit of wah-wah reminds us we’re in psychedelic waters.
Alas, “Wasted Union Blues” and “Girl With No Eyes” kill the buzz — the former a crappy heavy rocker and the latter a baroque piddle with harpsichord. With better songs here, “It’s a Beautiful Day” could have been a masterpiece.
The heart of the matter can be found on side 2, in the “Eastern” trilogy.
The wordless “Bombay Calling” proves exotic and rhythmically sophisticated. Seemingly effortless, it’s a Lear Jet flyby of a foreign land. (This was the song copped by Deep Purple for “Child in Time.”)
If “Bombay” evokes the bustle and spirit of India, then the song into which it fades, “Bulgaria,” brings us to the darker places. Laflamme and Santos finally find their own way as a vocal team on this ghostly track, singing as if in trances — setting aside the Jefferson Airplane template.
Then we’re galloping off to “Time Is,” a 10-minute freakout and showcase for the band that recalls Zappa and, well, “Time Has Come Today.” Unfortunately there’s a ’60s drum solo and a line about “even flowers must die” but the song gets back on track before wrapping this outstanding trilogy in a heart-stopping flash.