Lou Christie revisits his stunning 1971 concept album 'Paint America Love'
Lou Christie's "Lighthouse" from "Paint America Love"
He’ll rightly be forever known for such immortal 1960s rock ‘n’ roll hits as “Lightnin’ Strikes” and “Two Faces Have I,” but Lou Christie had plenty of other hits, most notably “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” the pop classic introduced by Jeanette MacDonald in the 1930 film Monte Carlo and revived by Christie in 1973 before its standout use in the 1988 movie hit Rain Man.
Still, there remains much of interest in Christie’s less familiar catalog, particularly, in light of current events, his 1971 album Paint America Love. Christie himself is promoting renewed interest in it via his It Should Have Been a Hit website, which showcases a new old recording every couple weeks or so, all unknown or under-recognized gems.
His sixth album, Paint America Love was released on Buddha Records, two years after the label released I’m Gonna Make You Mine, an album containing his 1969 Top 10 titletrack hit. It was both personal and positive, while offering topical perspectives of the America of 1971—one not at all unlike the one of today.
“It was totally a concept album,” says Christie of Paint America Love, characterizing it as his response not only to the troubled era it came out of, but to the changing pop radio and album formats of that time.
“It was getting away from AM pop and going to [less mainstream album-oriented] FM radio, so there was an artistic element in taking a step back and no longer chasing a two-minute pop hit, and I had to fight Buddha over it. They wanted a hit single, but the world was rapidly changing, and Paint America Love was a product of the time—along the lines of [the Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds or [The Beatles’] Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They weren’t just little poppy records, and I felt I had to stay contemporary and show that I could write something different and creatively far-reaching, too.”
Indeed, Paint America Love was a far cry from Christie’s preceding sounds, though most of it was written by him and his late, longtime collaborator Twyla Herbert, with Tony Romeo, who wrote “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” (and other hits including The Cowsills’ “Indian Lake” and the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”), penning two tracks, “Waco” and “The Best Way to See America.”
Lou Christie and Twyla Herbert
Rather than the intense productions of Christie’s hits, Paint America Love offered lush and lively orchestrations, burnished by the contributions of two classical piano players.
“Twyla and I went into the studio with some really talented people to record a totally different kind of record than what we had done in the past,” Christie says on his It Should Have Been a Hit site. “One of those talented people was our arranger Ron Frangipane. We left the studio feeling the music clicked on all cylinders, and the three of us felt that we had achieved what we set out to accomplish: to tell the story of what America was going through in those days of change.”
Christie recalls receiving a laudatory letter from none other than legendary composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“He said the album was so brilliant that he couldn’t believe that I, a ‘pop star,’ made it!” says Christie, who like the future John Mellencamp--who originally recorded as John Cougar and then John Cougar Mellencamp--included his real surname Sacco in releasing Paint America Love as Lou Christie Sacco.
“That’s how good I thought the record was, too,” Christie continues. “I wanted to get down to a more realistic thing--instead of just being an 8x10 glossy or someone in tight pants with a big bulge! I loved the name ‘Sacco’—my name—and was trying to do real things, which is also why I turned down ‘beach party’ movies after Frankie [Avalon] and Annette [Funicello] had done them. That whole thing was over by then, just like the Top 10 ballad. So I followed my own instinct, and got back to being as real as I am, which I’d worked on being my whole life.”
The Paint America Love tracks that have already been featured on It Should Have Been a Hit include “Chuckie Wagon,” a nostalgic song about “growing up and learning to navigate the long winding roads between here and there”--specifically in the beat-up 1932 Ford Model A pickup named Chuckie Wagon after Christie’s father’s “surrogate son.”
“We rode it around Dad’s farm--and traveled the world in our minds,” says Christie, adding, “That was my escape until I found music.”
“Paper Song” is an engaging tune about his love of “organic” paper—as opposed to plastic. “The Best Way to See America,” much like “Chuckie Wagon,” “revisits that special place in our hearts that we call home. With all that’s happening in America right now, I think it’s a good reason to take a step back in time.”
Likewise, “Waco” relates a cross-country trip by two young guys in the ’60s “trying to find themselves” a la Midnight Cowboy. The hymn-like “Look Out the Window,” adds Christie, “sums up what a lot of us are feeling and going through in these uncertain times: ‘people crying in the streets with broken hearts and tangled feet.’”
As for the gospel-like anthem “Lighthouse,” the title intentionally rhymes with "White House."
“‘Turn on the Lighthouse, yeah, baby! And maybe they’ll get the message, that peace is gonna come and we’re gonna walk as one,” says Christie, reciting key lyrics from the song. While his proposed line about electing a black president (“Turn on the lighthouse..sable in the White House”) was deemed “too threatening for some people at the record company,” other words express the desire to “place the country on its knees, save the earth from man’s disease,” evoking in words, theme and genre Laura Nyro’s 1968 single “Save the Country.”
“It’s almost Southern Baptist, black church, born-again—trying to encompass everyone,” says Christie. “Laura Nyro, Bobby Darin, the Four Tops, and even Bobby Vee--everyone was trying to be more realistic. There were too many problems in the world--fighting damn wars and all that bulls**t. It was just horrible.”
So tonight Christie is featuring the Paint America Love album track “Lighthouse” on It Should Have Been a Hit.
“The album got incredible reviews,” he says, “but ‘Waco’ got banned on the radio because of the line ‘Six more brownies til you get to Ontario!’ They said it was drug-related, but it was all about love. The times sure have changed, haven't they?”
In that respect, indeed, but in so many others that make Paint America Love so contemporary and relevant, not really.
“People have been responding to it, because it’s what our generation was about, and the kind of music that moved our generation,” says Christie, pausing before returning to the present: “Why can’t our generation get rid of this guy?”
And he expresses sorrow over Ron Frangipane’s death in April from coronavirus.
“He worked with the greats, like John Lennon, Janis Ian, Diana Ross, Melanie and more, and fronted his own project, too--Ron Frangipane and His Orchestra,” says Christie. “He’ll be missed, but hopefully remembered every time Paint America Love is played.”
"Paint America Love"