The Free Design: Silky in a Sunny Sky

In the 1960s popular music went in a number of different directions. One cheerful subgenre of pop that originated in the U.S. was known as “sunshine pop” (or sometimes “flower pop” or “twee pop”) and was characterized by intricate vocal harmonies, sophisticated production (think of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album) and upbeat warmth. In addition to the Beach Boys, some of the most popular sunshine pop bands were The Turtles (“Happy Together“), The Mamas and the Papas (“Monday, Monday“), The Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up and Away“), Harpers Bizarre (“Feelin’ Groovy“), Spanky and our Gang (“Lazy Day“), The Seekers (“Georgy Girl“) and the Association (“Windy“). A New York-based sunshine pop group of brothers and sisters called The Free Design was never as prominent as most of these bands, but they were among my favorite groups as a child, and I spent hundreds of hours listening to their albums. They were popular with professional musicians like my mother and her friends because The Free Design‘s musicianship was so strong and their compositions were often rigorous and showed evidence of classical training and technique.

Over the past decade, the music of The Free Design has seen a renaissance. One of their songs, “Love You,” appears regularly in a wonderful current ad for Delta Airlines, and has appeared in international ads for Toyota, in the charming Will Ferrell fantasy Stranger Than Fiction and as part of Showtime’s series Weeds. The syrupy sweet, lighter-than-air lyrics of “Love You” are as insubstantial as down and just as soft and appealing—here’s a sample:

Dandelion, milkweed, silky in a sunny sky
Reach out and hitch a ride and float on by
Balloons down below catching colors of the rainbow
Red, blue and yellow green, I love you

Weeds also featured the group’s song “I Found Love,” which was played on The Gilmore Girls as well. Nearly a half century after they first began recording, the group is delighting a whole new generation as part of a sunshine pop revival.

Some classify The Free Design as a “baroque pop” group since they incorporated intricate vocal harmonies and classical elements in their compositions, and they sang some melancholic ballads along with their uptempo hits such as “Kites Are Fun.” Some of their most beautiful songs, such as the heartbreakingly pretty “Don’t Turn Away” and the elegant but cynical song “The Proper Ornaments,” have a darker quality to them, and they expand into surprisingly complex vocal harmonies that certainly take them out of the sunshine pop mainstream and put them into the baroque camp. A terrific example of both their upbeat major-key sunshine pop sound and the baroque complexity of their interlacing close vocal harmonies is their song “Umbrellas.”

Their lovely but strange song “Daniel Dolphin” is an odd mixture of styles, upbeat seeming at first yet in a minor key, and while it begins as a song about a playful dolphin, it grows serious as Daniel carries away a dying old man. When Daniel returns, he is killed by those who misunderstand the reason for his journey, which turns out to have been to facilitate the old man’s reincarnation—a surprisingly arcane and dark twist from a group often mistakenly characterized as nothing but sunny.

The Free Design began as a trio of members of the Dedrick family: Chris, who wrote most of their songs, his brother Bruce and their sister Sandra. Their younger sisters Ellen and Stefanie joined the group later, but it is Sandy’s warm lead vocals that were at the heart of the group. Sandra Dedrick now lives in Ontario, Canada, where she writes poetry, songs and children’s books.

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