I first heard “Hair” as a teenager, because an aunt had the original Broadway cast recording on vinyl. I had no idea what the story was about, and didn’t care — I just loved the songs.
Since then I’ve listened to “Hair” more than all my other cast albums put together, and possibly more than any other record, period. I’ve listened to it on headphones at home and on road trips, tinny car speakers straining at high volume. I’ve listened to it in order and on shuffle. I’ve listened to it in while deep in absorbed concentration and while yelling back the best lines.
Why it’s on repeat
“Hair” is often said, somewhat accusingly, to be stuck in the 1960s. But while it certainly is of that time, the show is also outside of it, transcending the decades thanks to its evocation of timeless themes of repression and liberation, anger and joy. The score is intricately crafted yet feels instinctive, reactive, passionate.
“Hair” works so beautifully because it’s a bit of a freak accident, resulting as it did from the unlikely meeting of Galt MacDermot, a seemingly strait-laced Canadian-born composer who played jazz with interpolations of African music, with the lyricists and book writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who came from the East Village’s wild theater scene.
Maybe it’s this conflagration that makes “Hair” such a fabulous quilt of sounds and influences crammed into tight numbers (most are between 2 and 3 minutes, many under one). Rock, pop, folk, soul — everything is in there. “I Believe in Love” feels as if it’s just walked out of the Brill Building; the horns on “Colored Spade” are straight out of Stax, not Tin Pan Alley; “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” is an ecstatic cry that’s pure gospel.
Every time I listen to the album on headphones, I discover new details. The rhythm section alone, which was sourced from the jazz world, is a treasure trove of inventivity: The bassist Jimmy Lewis, who played in the Count Basie Orchestra and with King Curtis, came up with intoxicating lines (just listen to his work on “White Boys”) and feels telepathically locked with drummer Idris Muhammad.
Rado and Ragni also nailed a punchy lyrical style, delighting in the percussive, almost sexual rhythm of words: “They’ll be gaga at the go-go when they see me in my toga” from the title song, or the rat-tat-tat of “Ain’t Got No (Reprise),” which may well be the most brutal list song to ever hit Broadway.
“Hair” is, at heart, a brilliant pop record. It was the last Broadway cast album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, in 1969 (“Hamilton” peaked at No. 3). That recording is my go-to one, but the songs are so sturdily built that they withstand almost any treatment, from the magnificently incandescent (Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life”) to the awesomely preposterous (101 Strings’ easy-listening title track). “Hair,” then as now, is a pure expression of American popular music.