In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: In honor of SXSW, songs about the music industry.
By 1969, the New York sunshine-pop act The Free Design had released two albums and a string of singles, and all the band had to show for that effort was a handful of well-received TV appearances and one minor regional hit (1967’s “Kites Are Fun”). So on album number three, Heaven/Earth, Free Design frontman Chris Dedrick briefly set aside his usual lyrics about pretty days and happy vibes, and wrote a song about his group’s predicament. One of the most talked-about movies of 1968 was 2001: A Space Odyssey, a mind-blowing vision of a nigh-inconceivable future. With “2002: A Hit Song,” Dedrick imagined something that at the time, to him, seemed even more far-fetched.
Sonically, “2002” resembles nearly every other Free Design song. It’s airy and upbeat, with an arrangement that emphasizes the harmonies of Dedrick and his bandmates (who were mostly his siblings). The Free Design was like an east coast adjunct of California pop combos The Association, The 5th Dimension, and The Mamas And The Papas, but with lyrics more in line with the burgeoning “bubblegum” movement, and instrumentation the wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of The Anita Kerr Singers’ easy-listening albums. They were simultaneously freakier and squarer than any other young band trying to make the charts at the time.
That quirkiness is the best explanation for the oddity that is “2002: A Hit Song.” Beginning with a little studio trickery courtesy of engineer Phil Ramone (later the go-to producer for Billy Joel and Paul Simon), the speeded-up voices of the Dedricks sing hello to DJs and “teenyboppers,” before launching into a pitch for the song itself. The Free Design insists that “2002” is unique, fast-paced, well-promoted, and sung “with reckless abandon,” which means there’s no way it won’t be a “hit hit hit.” The band then tacks on a twist ending, admitting that all their previous songs were equally catchy, but failed anyway.
It’s rare for any mainstream-minded pop act—let alone one as positive as The Free Design—to spend as much time and effort as the Dedricks did to write and record the musical equivalent of a petulant eye-roll. Weirdly though, the song’s timetable for success wasn’t that far off. By the mid-1990s, alt-rock heroes Stereolab and Cornelius started touting the beauty and originality of The Free Design’s music. Then a series of reissues and licensing deals brought the songs to an audience that had never heard anything like it. The teenyboppers and DJs of 1969 might not have been interested. The music geeks of 2002 were keen.