This was written for the rock opera Hair
, where it became an anthem for young people who grew their hair out and protested the US government. In the book By the Time We Got to Woodstock: The Great Rock 'n' Roll Revolution of 1969
, Bruce Pollock writes:
Among the many people calling the publisher in 1968 for a lock of Hair's mystique was the L.A. producer Bones Howe, who'd been working with the 5th Dimension since engineering "Up-Up and Away
" for their first album in 1967. He'd produced hits for the Turtles ("It Ain't Me Babe
") and the Association ("Windy
"); he'd been a personal guest of Lou Adler at the Monterey Pop Festival where he was perhaps the only West Coast guy in attendance to appreciate Laura Nyro's gruesome performance. Later he delivered Laura's "Stoned Soul Picnic" to the 5th Dimension, for which it was their biggest R&B hit. He was shuttling back and forth between his home in L.A. and the studio in New York working on the vocals for the Stoned Soul Picnic album when the group told him they wanted to do "Aquarius."
"The thing that bothered me about it was that there'd been other releases of 'Aquarius,'" said Bones, "and none had done anything, so I was concerned about what we would do that would be any different. I went to see the show and there's a place where they do "The Flesh Failures" and at the end of the song is just a three bar repeated thing of 'Let the sunshine in' where Ragni was swinging across the stage on a chandelier and there was all kinds of craziness going on. That really stayed with me and I came out of the theater saying, I wonder if I could stick that on the end of 'Aquarius' and make that the ending. So I went back to the hotel and I called the publisher. I mean you don't mess with the music from a Broadway show. I started my professional career in 1956 and I knew a lot about what you can and what you can't do with songs. I said, look the 5th Dimension would like to record 'Aquarius,' but I'd like to make it a medley and I'd like to use the last three bars of 'The Flesh Failures' and I don't want to do it without permission. So he said okay, you can go ahead and do it."
The next problem was to go ahead and do it. "The record was plotted in the fall of '68 and more or less finished in January of '69," Bones said. "I had to do a lot of work with my vocal arranger, Bob Alsivar. Because they couldn't sing both songs in the same key, we had to do a modulation; we figured out how I was going to do the instrumental arrangement so we could change keys. The record itself is the result of a conglomeration of things. I began as a jazz musician and I know the standard repertoire pretty well. I kept thinking about a song called 'Lost in the Stars' and trying to find something to give you that kind of impression. I described it to Bill Holman and he wrote that beautiful woodwinds and strings part that's in the intro. We did the track in L.A. and the vocals in Las Vegas where the 5th Dimension were opening for Frank Sinatra. We were working in that studio in Las Vegas where you used to have to stop when the train went by. Once when we were doing practice runs while the train passed Billy started that riff at the end 'oh let the sunshine…' so I said, wait, let me put that on a separate track at the end. There were a lot of happy accidents making the record."
That the Age of Aquarius (harmony, understanding, sympathy, trust, mystic crystals, revelations) announced to mainstream America by the song had already irrevocably given way to Richard Nixon's vision of law and order troubled Bones Howe not in the least. "I was in my thirties then; I was never part of that culture," he said. "But I made records they liked. I spent my life in the studio. Sometimes I went to the Trip and the Crescendo and all of those places on Sunset Strip because I worked with so many of those people. I was the engineer on 'Eve of Destruction' when the Mamas and Papas came to sing backup vocals. I was there the first night they were there and did their first three albums."