Song of the Week – “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” (from Hair)
Jun 2013 19

It’s time once again for the Song of the Week, where I get really excited about a few minutes of music and point out to you why it’s worth carrying on about.

This week we’re going to investigate a tune from the first of the great (and, some would posit, the greatest of all) rock musicals: Hair.  It’s a landmark piece that has come to be one of the definitive artistic legacies of the 1960s (along with Sgt. Pepper and such like).  And while the show is very much a period piece, its depiction of a society that objects more fiercely to long hair and sex than to prejudice and violence has only become more chilling in the present day, when the radical ’60s are all too often reduced to a vapid cartoon in our popular culture.

Few songs can shatter the shallow, free-love party perception of the Swinging ’60s like “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” a song whose title comes from either “morale-boosting” reports of the ever-increasing number of Viet Cong killed by Our Boys, or the number of troops that began the US offensive in Vietnam.

(If you’re interested in the details, as well as in the Alan Ginsberg poem that inspired the lyrics, check this article out.)

“Three-Five-Zero-Zero’s” marriage of lyrics and music makes it one of the most unsettling and terrifying songs I’ve ever heard in my life, and that’s including all the time I spent listening to Korn when I was 15. Have a listen and see for yourself:

From Hair: The New Broadway Cast Recording released 2009
Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot

1968’s original Broadway cast recording is a Grammy-winning classic, but the version of “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” that I’m focusing on is from the 2009 Broadway revival.  One could make an argument that the original version has an authenticity in the vocal performances (many cast members were picked right off the streets from real-life hippie “tribes”) that the highly trained, generationally-removed vocalists in the revival can’t match.  Though we can squabble over that for awhile (I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section), there can be no argument about the musicianship on the 2009 version — the original may have actually been recorded in the late 60s, but the rhythm section on this recording displays a staggering mastery of the jazz-flecked funk-rock grooves that galvanize the score to Hair.  I spent about a week and a half marveling at how good the playing was before I looked up the musicians and realized that two of them are (as far as session musicians go) quite well known.

On bass, we have Wilbur “Bad” Bascomb, who laid it down on the soundtrack to the 1979 film of Hair as well as Jeff Beck’s Wired album.  On drums, it’s Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, one of the most recorded drummers in the world.  He’s done sessions with everyone from Aretha to Sinatra to James Brown to Steely Dan to Dizzy Gellespie.  Bernard Purdie is so awesome he has a beat named after him — the “Purdie Shuffle,” which has been copped by drummers as legendary as Jeff Porcaro and John Bonham.

In addition to the thousands of other credits between them, Bascomb and Purdie have since the 1970s been the rhythm section for Hair composer Galt MacDermot’s New Pulse Jazz Band.  With these two and the rest of the orchestra, there’s an understanding of how to make seemingly simple music ebb and pulse where, in the hands of less dynamic musicians, it could sound flat and lifeless.  As will become apparent when we dig into the content of this tune, this will be very important.

On to the main event:

The song takes place in the show’s second act, during an extended acid trip sequence where main character Claude must confront his imminent draft.  Though he is a central member of the anti-war Tribe, he is shaken by the prospect of burning his draft card, as part of him still feels American and yearns for the approval of his parents and country.

Following a series of bizarre hallucinations about American history and violence, our song emerges from the sounds of explosions and gunfire with a fanfare of sorts: a series of Jimi Hendrix-style guitar dive-bombs and feedback, evoking his famous, war-torn rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” (which, when the production made its Broadway debut in 1968, was still a year away).  The rhythm section enters, and we’re grooving — midtempo, tense, dark.  In mere seconds, even before we hear any lyrics, you feel anxiety and a sense of foreboding.  You’re being dragged into a battle you don’t understand.  Hear those snare drum backbeats rattling like gunshots?  We’re entering a war zone.

Then you’re in it: “ripped open by metal explosion.”  From the get-go, the lyrics are a collection of images of violence and suffering.  Much like the larger structure of the show, the words paint a picture and set a scene rather than take you from a clear point A to point B.  The delivery of the lines (by varying cast members) is, as one would expect from singing actors, in line with the content: try to tell me you don’t feel the “shrapnel” at the 30 second mark.

And the rhythmic support just keeps trudging forward, evoking a sort of fatalism, a sense of the inevitability of the atrocities being listed.  There’s enough build in the arrangement that you sense the forward motion (the horns and keyboards are subtle, but dig Bascomb’s upper register bass licks starting around 45 seconds, and that Hendrix imitator weaving in and out of the horn section).  Still, for the first minute and a half or so, you’re not so much running toward a cliff with abandon as you are staggering towards some invisible but almost certain doom.  “Two hundred fifty-six Viet Cong captured,” the group wails repeatedly, like it’s supposed to be good news, but you can’t shake how awful it is.  And still you trudge forward, caught up in the machine, complicit.  Maybe this analysis sounds overblown, but if you really listen, don’t you hear it?  There’s a lot of information packed into a deceptively simple structure.

At 1:25, the song makes a sudden change: not with a bang, but a whisper.  From the squealing guitar, moaning chorus, trudging beat, and thick bed of horns, we’re down to a choir of hushed voices.  Behind it, only some light drums, a little trombone, and a bass.  And it sounds… dare I say… jaunty.  What is going on?  And what is it they’re whispering, anyway?

“Prisoners in Niggertown
It’s a dirty little war
Take weapons up and begin to kill
Watch the long long armies drifting home”

Wait, what was that?

And then — boom.  There it is.  At 1:44, we’re in a full-blown, New Orleans-style jamboree.  The horn section weaves all around each other, the bass and drums dig in deep.  And listen to the chorus: the cast sounds amazing.  They’re belting it out with raw abandon, but the ensemble sound is so warm.  It pulls you in, rather than pushes you away.  The vocal riffing overtop just ices the cake (and don’t you love how the trombone duets with the soloist?  I’m not sure who the actress is, but the trombone is Vincent MacDermot, son of Galt).

It’s a celebration of racism, heavy weaponry, and high casualties.  It’s infectious.  Sublime, even.  And that’s why it’s so horrifying.

See, here’s my reading: the sound of furious bloodlust in a war that is meaningless and inescapable isn’t an angsty explosion of hard rock a la Led Zeppelin (whose “Whole Lotta Love” would often be blasted inside GI tanks).  That’s too simple, because as serious a prospect as Vietnam was, it was also, underneath it all, inescapably ridiculous.  Young men were forced to give their own lives and take countless others for a cause that was vague enough to be, to many, incomprehensible.  It’s absurd, unbearably so.  All the sacrifice starts to seem like an enormous, cosmic joke (I’m sure Alan Moore would have some words about this).  If you can’t escape,  you have to give in and embrace the bloodshed, the hatred, the disregard for humanity.  Join the parade.  How else do you cope with the insanity?  The Dixieland party captures the madness of this war so much better than the more predictable wall of drums and feedback could.

And then, as quickly as the ecstasy of violence began… with a squeal of guitar, it’s gone.  At 2:33, we’re back in a throbbing, edgy pocket.  The gunshot of the snare drum is much more distant now.  The battle subsides… the war goes on.

Parting thought #1:

I wasn’t alive in the 1960s.  I’ve never been in the military.  I’ve never lost a loved one in battle.  But if there’s a piece of music that can inspire more intense anti-war feeling, I haven’t yet heard it.

Parting thought #2:

When people talk about writing songs for musicals, the cliche is that the song must always serve the story.  Drama always wins, and something just being musically satisfying isn’t enough.  Music must move the story along, or else it is dead weight.

But in the best musical theater, music doesn’t just “serve” the story, it is inextricable from it.  One cannot exist without the other.  And though Hair doesn’t have the most traditional beginning-middle-and-end plot, this song — and countless others in this masterfully constructed, subtext-rich protest piece — is as fine an example of that as I have ever heard.

Excited?  Want more?  Well, if you’re in western New York, I’ll be doing my best Wilbur Bascomb impression in a free outdoor production in Ithaca on June 27th, 28th, and 29th.  Some of my favorite musical associates (Mandy Goldman, Jimmy Rose and Jeff Chilton from the Ego Band, Dreamt’s Aidan Boardman, and many others) will be taking part.  More details can be found here.

Hope to see you there.  It’s a dirty little war.

1 Comment

  1. Benjo says:

    Those horns, man. Wow.

    I know I’ve said this to you before, but I personally prefer the rawness of the atypical — the non-Broadway vocals. Protest is not pretty, but war is uglier, and this clip serves to illustrate this tension quite magnificently.

Leave a Reply to Benjo