According to Nellie McKay, the Sixties made for “the first potent reaction to the modern world as we know it.”
“People were so outraged, and outrage wasn’t a novelty,” she says. “It became co-opted. I’m reading two books by Jerry Mander: One is called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and the other is called In the Absence of the Sacred. I think they were written in the Seventies and the Nineties, respectively, but they’re still so relevant today. It talks about stuff we already know — that television is a numbing force and how if technology isn’t neutral it will always benefit the corporation and state more than the people. Nowadays, there’s very little that’s Left and Right; it’s all corporations versus citizen. When you have that amount of corporate control, especially dominating media to an unprecedented degree, it’s hard to fight that. You’re fighting an avalanche. It disempowers you.”
The reason for the Manhattan-based singer’s jump into this particular political train of thought is the March 24 release of her sixth album, My Weekly Reader, which is a collection of iconic Sixties covers like the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” and the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park.”
McKay is no stranger to turning a cover, and though hers usually run to old-soul jazz, she released an homage to Doris Day, Normal as Blueberry Pie, in 2009. Just like Mad Men, she’s moving from the New World Order of the Fifties to society’s last stand against corporate takeover, the Sixties. So, Nellie being Nellie and walking the walk of social activism, the musical wealth of that decade wasn’t the only thing to get her creative juices going.
Politics aside, the 32-year-old had a personal connection to this music. “My mother lived it. She introduced me to the music,” she says. “When I was a kid, we had an eight-track in our Volkswagen bus. She would play Blood Sweat and Tears and I would play Tommy Dorsey. There was a bit of a generation gap.”
There is one exception to the album’s Sixties-only rule: a medley of Alan Price’s “Poor People” and “Justice.” “[The medley] is actually from the early Seventies,” says McKay, “from the film O Lucky Man! [Price] gave me that tape a long time ago. Lyric-wise, the songs are representative of the Sixties: beautiful and potent.”
Still, the album isn’t all political: Herman’s Hermits’ “Mrs. Brown You Have a Lovely Daughter” is a skiffle pop ditty, which gave her a chance to break out the ukulele. (“Not that I need much excuse,” she laughs.) Her take on the Beatles’ “If I Fell” makes for an achingly pretty love song. “Geoff recorded the first one, the first time around,” McKay says of former Abbey Road Studios alum Geoff Emerick, who produced McKay’s 2003 debut and returned to her side for this project. “He knew exactly what to do, that’s for sure. We’re always begging him for [Beatles] stories.”
McKay (accidentally) augmented her longtime backing band — guitarist Cary Park, bassist Bob Glaub, and drummer David Raven — with guest appearances by Dweezil Zappa and Béla Fleck.
“At first, we recorded at Winslow Court studio, but Dweezil had a lock out there, so we couldn’t stay. I guess he heard that ‘Hungry Freaks’ was on the album,” she says of Dweezil’s dad, Frank’s, song. “He offered to play on it. That’s such a great song and he gave such a zesty, tasty solo. What luck!” As for Fleck? “Yeah, Béla Fleck was on tour and we’d known each other. He came in with about six banjos and just sat down and did it. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”
Next month, she brings her Sixties revue to Studio 54’s basement supper club, 54 Below. If McKay has her way, the five-night album release residency will be a Sixties happening beyond nostalgic tunes.
“The beauty of the Sixties is freedom,” she says. “Not in the way that the word has been co-opted. The main parts of these movements seem to have been ignored in favor of more trivial aspects. What goes unmentioned about the hippie movement is that it was largely a vegetarian movement. The civil rights movement was largely anti-war. The feminist movement was anti-pornography — that is more relevant today than ever before. This was the generation that ended a war and it was the stonedest generation. As a country and a world, I hope we can become more stoned and more peaceful. Legalization can’t come soon enough.”
Nellie McKay performs a free concert March 24 at Barnes & Noble in Tribeca at 6 p.m., and will kick off her residency at 54 Below on April 13. For ticket information, click here.
Tribute Bands Give Crowds What They Want…i.e., Songs They Know
The Budos Band Take Their Burnt Offering to Brooklyn
Sanda Weigl Transforms Park Slope’s Barbes Into a Mid-Century Gypsy Cabaret
More:Rock 'n' Roll