It’s not unusual for new music to sound like reimagined versions of legendary eras of the past. The ‘60s have crept back into rock ‘n’ roll over the past few years, most recently with Portugal. The Man’s summer hit “Feel It Still.” Prior to that, Cage the Elephant’s 2015 release Tell Me I’m Pretty had heavy Vietnam-era musical influences, most recognizably on “Cold Cold Cold.” But my favorite flower child track is “Cry Baby” because of two strange instruments—the bongos and the harpsichord. These instruments throwback to one of my favorite ‘60s tunes of all time, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” and one of the most notable British Invasion songs of the decade, The Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.”
The bongos play a minor role in “Cry Baby” but are the star in “Sympathy.” In each case, the instrument makes the songs instantly catching. Mick Jagger attributed the power of the legendary 1968 tack to its Samba beat. Jagger told Rolling Stone magazine in 1995 that the song has “an undercurrent of being primitive—because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.” I never found the bongos to be sinister in “Sympathy for the Devil,” maybe on some unconscious level, but rather, I was obliged to love them because the hypnotic rhythm is undeniable.
What’s more sinister about the track is the murder associated with it—one of the most gruesomely famous moments of rock history—during their performance at the 1969 Altamont festival in northern California. The Hells Angels motorcycle gang was hired as security for $500 worth of beer. A fight broke out during “Sympathy” and later an 18-year-old black college student was stabbed and killed by one of the Angels during “Under My Thumb.”
Far less so, but still terrifying, is Eric Clapton’s haircut when he was in the Yardbirds. Bongos are also a prominent instrument in the band’s most famous song “For Your Love”—bongos and a very, very aggressive harpsichord. In “Cry Baby”, you hear the baroque instrument (that is most likely a keyboard) hit the same notes as frontman Matt Shultz when he sings “Monday you cough / Tuesday you cry / Wednesday in bed / What if you die?” Clapton would probably enjoy Cage the Elephant’s harpsichord song better than his own chart-topping track. Clapton ultimately left the successful pop group and started Cream because they weren’t bluesy enough. “For Your Love” doesn’t have a speck of blues in it, where the cherry on top of “Cry Baby” is the bluesy psych breakdown at the end.
That’s what makes “Cry Baby” (and a lot of current music) so alluring—the multitude of influences. It’s clearly ‘60s but also has the gritty blues influence of the album’s producer, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, while maintaining the band’s signature puppyish rock sound. Hopefully, we get to hear all of it when they perform at this year’s Life Is Beautiful, and who knows, maybe they’ll create their own moment that will go down in rock ‘n’ roll history.