September 29, 1965
“You Were on My Mind” by We Five
#1 on the Billboard Easy Listening Singles chart, September 4 – October 8, 1965
So far, this column’s journey through folk rock has focused primarily on Bob Dylan’s epochal decision to go electric, as well as trendy records by Barry McGuire and Sonny & Cher that bore obvious signs of his influence. But folk rock in 1965 wasn’t just a case of the innovators versus the copycats. There were plenty of acts who fell in the middle: legit folk groups who evolved into a more contemporary sound, perhaps guided by the Byrds and Dylan, perhaps just looking to revitalize a genre that was growing staid. These bands varied in sonic intensity, political fervor, and artistic ambition — and many dismissed the “folk rock” label altogether — but all to some degree strove to blend traditional American music with rock ‘n’ roll.
We Five fell on the milder, poppier, less political end of the spectrum, similar to an electrified Kingston Trio; in fact, guitarist/vocalist Michael Stewart’s brother John belonged to the latter group. The band typified the San Francisco sound in the pre-acid era, distinguishing themselves by featuring a female lead singer, Bev Bivens, whose vocals ran the gamut from big and brash to soft and girlish. Like many folk rockers, We Five adopted the new genre under the influence of the Beatles, specifically the sound of George Harrison’s 12-string Rickenbacker. But even after plugging in their guitars and hiring a sideman drummer, We Five maintained a bit of the something-for-everyone variety act, performing not only folk revival favorites (“Let’s Get Together,” “High Flying Bird”), but also selections from Broadway musicals and easy-listening standards like “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
In 1965, We Five debuted with “You Were on My Mind,” an AM radio-friendly cover of a song introduced a year earlier on Ian & Sylvia’s album Northern Journey. Canadian folksters Ian & Sylvia never really took to rock, but they were devoted to country music, as the shuffling rhythm and tear-in-my-beer lyrics (“I got drunk and / I got sick and / I came home again”) on their version of the song demonstrate. We Five radically re-invented “You Were on My Mind,” adding a light, danceable beat and altering Sylvia Fricker’s lyrics to fit mainstream sensibilities. These revisions ranged from changing the ironic humor of “I got some eggs and I got some beans and / I got some wounds to bind” to the more generic “I got troubles and I got worries,” to excising the reference to getting drunk and sick altogether — admittedly a tough sell for a pop audience in 1965, especially when sung by a woman.
But while We Five softened the song’s lyrical punch, they more than made up with their mounting, towering arrangement. The record starts out with a muted, skeletal drum beat, with additional elements added one or two at a time, every eight bars or so: bass and lead vocals; fleshed-out drums; flecks of electric guitar that roll out into a melodic lead; then harmony vocals, rhythm guitar, and who knows what else layering on top of each other into a surge of desperate emotion as Bevens’ voice builds from a dull murmur to a cri de coeur. For the last verse, the instrumentation briefly cuts back to a more minimalist state before erupting again in the final chorus, ending on a few ringing bars of 12-string Rickenbacker. Even without the lyrics, the dynamism tells a story in itself, starting with the narrator tersely attempting to play down her feelings, and ending as an explosion of unrestrained need.
“You Were on My Mind” seemed poised to make stars out of We Five, climbing to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Easy Listening chart. But while the group’s follow-up single, “Let’s Get Together,” cracked the Top 40, it would be their last charting single. When the original lineup of We Five dissolved in 1967, the group was already considered too square to rank alongside the harder-rocking, druggier San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service — none of whom would remotely threaten the Easy Listening charts. Yet while We Five’s commercial lifespan was brief, and lacked the revolutionary punch of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” or Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” “You Were on My Mind” did help contribute to folk rock’s commercial viability. As the missing link between Peter, Paul & Mary and Jefferson Airplane, We Five proved that the new sound could appeal not only to young rock fans, but to a variety of audiences, even those who may have never thought they’d embrace rock ‘n’ roll.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.