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Arts The Enthusiast: I’m hooked on Galt MacDermot’s time-travelling hooks, from hippies to hip hop

Galt MacDermot’s first album.

I had a long-standing mild interest in and arms-length admiration of Galt MacDermot, the Canadian composer of Hair. But, since he died in December just shy of his 90th birthday, I’ve developed a full-on fascination with his strange, almost unbelievable musical career, as I’ve let myself get lost down internet (ear)wormholes listening to his lesser-known groovy songs and their unlikely echoes.

The Montreal-born son of a diplomat is best known as the composer of the 1967 musical that gave us all those great tunes, such as Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine and Easy to Be Hard that were covered by others and entered the single charts, the last time Broadway and popular music crossed paths in any significant way.

But the recent obituaries didn’t really let the sun shine in enough on the Hair-less parts of the life and work of MacDermot, an Upper Canada College grad who became an unlikely underground icon of funk, wrote a wicked score for the blaxsploitation film called Cotton Comes to Harlem, and whose jazz recordings have now been sampled by generations of hip-hop artists.

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I don’t think enough people know that MacDermot once wrote a sci-fi musical staged on Broadway that was almost entirely performed on trampolines – 1972’s Via Galactica, a famous seven-performance flop, with a score only recorded in instrumental form by soul-jazz guitarist Billy Butler.

Nor that in 1973, MacDermot composed the soundtrack for a short film about the French film designer Yves Saint-Laurent that, 23 years later, helped rapper Busta Rhymes enter the charts when it was sampled on the top-10 hit, Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check.

There should be a Heritage Minute (Hair-itage?) about how odd and oddly influential this guy’s discography is – which will become clear if you spend some time on whosampled.com going over the more than 150 times bits and pieces of his tunes have been borrowed by artists from Run-DMC to Snoop Dogg, MF Doom to Action Bronson. (As Questlove tweeted after he died: “King Galt.”)

Canadian composer Galt MacDermot, who wrote the hit musical 'Hair', provides a piano accompaniment during a rehearsal for the London show on Sept. 25, 1968.

Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images

Part of what has always appealed to me about MacDermot, besides the fact that he, as I do, springs from anglophone Montreal, is a certain pleasurable incongruity about him as a figure that is perhaps clearest in his involvement in Hair.

While American draft dodgers were pouring into Canada (and helping build our theatre scene), here was a guy who went across the border in the other direction and created a Broadway hit about draft dodgers.

And not only was it a Canadian behind the groovy sounds of the show subtitled The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, MacDermot composed them when he was 37 and married with two kids (so much for hippies not trusting anyone over 30); he spent much of his actual 20s playing the organ at Westmount Baptist Church during the day, and piano in Montreal’s lively 1950s cabaret scene at night.

His out-of-time, out-of-place cool is summed up beautifully by the picture on the back of Hair’s original cast album, where, next to the musical’s shaggy co-creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, MacDermot is seen with neat hair, wearing a white shirt and a tie. (“I grew up in Canada, where a person wears a tie to keep warm,” he joked when I asked him about this in an interview in 2006.)

As I’ve been looking into the history of MacDermot’s addictive hooks online over the past couple of months, the way his musical ideas travelled through the decades have challenged my ideas of generations and genre – and certainly the idea that Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is the only guy to seriously link musical theatre with hip hop.

Take an obscure jazzy showtune MacDermot co-wrote well before Hair that, in my ideal world, would be a Canadian standard, called Honey, Don’t Be Highbrow. It’s, believe it or not, about not getting any sexual satisfaction from the Governor-General of Canada – but it’s not just funny, it genuinely swings.

The song originates with a 1957 McGill Red and White Revue satirical show called My Fur Lady – and is sung by the Governor-General’s secretary who, as secretary characters in 1950s musicals were wont to do, is looking to seduce and marry her boss, and is disappointed by his lack of apparent ardour. “When he says let’s spend the evening by the river in a tent / the Stratford Shakespeare Festival he meant,” she sings, disappointedly.

After the jokey intro, however, the song explodes past satire with pulse-quickening blasts of brass and a sexy piano hook; while the song’s co-credited to James Domville on the old LP I have, you can hear MacDermot’s fingers all over it. (It’s also somehow ended up on YouTube, where I’m responsible for probably 10 per cent of its total listens.)

Once you’ve heard Honey, Don’t Be Highbrow a dozen times, you can hear a kind of cousin of its rolling piano riff, slowed down to a louche tempo and made funky as hell in MacDermot’s song Coffee Cold off his 1966’s album, Shapes of Rhythm – a composition that has had its own intriguing history.

It was, for instance, sampled by Handsome Boy Modelling School in a 1999 trip-hop track called The Truth featuring Roisin Murphy (that I recall listening to as an undergrad at McGill not knowing former Montrealer MacDermot’s involvement). Coffee Cold most recently resurfaced in a 2015 episode of Better Call Saul, soundtrack for a memorable scene involving an attempt to piece shredded documents back together. In 2017, the Toronto band BadBadNotGood covered it with Mike D of the Beastie Boys on the drums on his radio show.

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Coffee Cold was not, however, featured in the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Affair as The Washington Post reported when MacDermot died; a YouTube user had mashed the two up online convincingly. It seemed a fitting error: The trajectory of his songs defies conventional ideas of space and time. I’ll be listening to hear where his grooves show up next, in the past or the future.

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