The Poppy Family

TrackAlbum
Free From The CityWhich Way You Goin' Billy?
Beyond The CloudsWhich Way You Goin' Billy?
Happy IslandWhich Way You Goin' Billy?
Which Way You Goin' Billy?Which Way You Goin' Billy?
Shadows On My WallWhich Way You Goin' Billy?
Tryin'Poppy Seeds
I'll See You TherePoppy Seeds
I Was Wonderin'Poppy Seeds
Where Evil GrowsPoppy Seeds
Winter MilkPoppy Seeds

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Contributor: Brian Greene

Terry Jacks’ tearjerker ballad Seasons In The Sun dominated radio airwaves and home record players in 1973/4. But scant few of the song’s many admirers were likely aware that before he hit it big as a solo artist with that single, Jacks had been in a band with his then wife, Susan. That act, The Poppy Family, had a hit record of their own in ’69 with the similarly weepy yet not nearly as cheesy Which Way You Goin’ Billy?. But the band came and went very quickly, were all but forgotten by ’74, and have been little remembered since. And this is a shame, as they were brilliant exemplars of soft psych sounds, and an act with an interesting story.

Susan Jacks is a gifted vocalist (not to mention a raving beauty) who had been singing for audiences for years before she met Terry. For info on Susan’s pre- and post-Poppy Family career, as well as her thoughts on the band, see my interview with her for Scram Magazine, here.

She became acquainted with the guitar-playing Terry around their joint stomping grounds of Vancouver, British Columbia, and at one point asked him to provide instrumental accompaniment for a gig she had singing at an Elks Lodge. Clearly that performance went well, as the two were soon enough wedded and part of a band that also featured sitar/guitar work from Craig McCaw and tablas and other percussion efforts via Satwant Singh.

The quartet’s debut album, named after the single, Which Way You Goin’ Billy?, is memorable if not simply for its cover image. Between Susan’s groovy red pantsuit and the guys’ urbanite hairstyles and clothing, their image as represented on that jacket is something the members of Deee-Lite might have used as a reference point when decking themselves out in the early 90s. (My article on the back-story behind that cover appears in Shindig! magazine #19, Nov-Dec 2010.) But the record is far from merely a throwaway album that happens to possess a striking and kitschy cover. It is one of the best psychedelic soft rock albums in existence. Susan’s rich vocals, Terry’s crack songwriting, the Eastern instrumentation laid down by McCaw and Singh, and an overall feel of youthful yearning and a gentle questioning of the world around them … put all of that together and what you have is a stone classic of trippy bubblegum sounds. And a hit single no less. The warped pop majesty of Happy Island and Shadows On My Wall, the plaintive wonder of Beyond The Clouds, the get-away-from-it-all existential lament of Free From The City … it’s just about a perfect record.

But then things started getting weird. By the time of their follow-up album, Poppy Seeds (1971), McCaw and Singh had been inexplicably let go. Terry and Susan were the only real band members now on a record that is strong yet a bit of a head-scratcher. They left the sound they’d established via their debut behind to a great extent, in favor of a more Country & Western feel. They covered a Merle Haggard tune and some of their originals now were such that they were more fitting for performance at the Grand Ole Opry than on the stage of a groovy youth club. These are not complaints, just observations. To my mind Poppy Seeds is not the monster that Which Way You Goin’ Billy? is, but is still a minor classic and, in my opinion, one of the best records anyone made in ’71. It’s just that I find it hard to understand how the band hoped to maintain the audience they’d built up with that first album, when the sound was so different now. Regardless of all that, Poppy Seeds contains one of their best moments of twisted pop in Where Evil Grows, and one of Susan’s finest vocal deliveries in the achingly beautiful Winter Milk.

If the band’s shift in personnel and sound between their two albums is strange enough, things became even more difficult to follow over their next set of moves. Terry and Susan, now divorcing yet still recording together, made two albums in 1973 but labeled them as solo efforts, one for each of them. Susan’s I Thought Of You Again record is excellent, not quite up to the quality level of either Poppy Family release but not all that far behind. Terry’s recording included Seasons In The Sun and we know what became of that.

If you’re keen and you’ve got deep pockets, seek out vinyl editions of the two Poppy Family albums. But, really, if you get the A Good Thing Lost compilation, you will have all their best songs on one CD.

 

Poppy Family Songbook

 

Susan Jacks official website

Terry Jacks discography

Brian Greene interviews Susan Jacks for Scram Magazine

The Poppy Family biography (iTunes)

Brian Greene writes about music and popular culture here.

TopperPost #308

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