Kites were fun: The improbable career of Chris Dedrick and the Free Design

The world currently stands by, in rapt attention, as musical legends Lady Timberlake and Justin Gaga threaten to forsake social networking. (Give up their tweets? Abandon their tweets! For the love of God, Montresor!) But, unnoticed by the mainstream, a musician named Chris Dedrick gave it all up in August: tweeting, along with breathing, and the whole shooting-match — he died, is what I’m saying — and if the world responded in any fashion, it may have been to ask, “Who?”

Alas, dead Dedrick. I didn’t know him at all, even though for the past three decades he worked and lived a dozen or so miles north of my neighborhood in downtown Toronto. He was the creative force behind the Free Design, an sibling-act rock band of the late-sixties and early seventies, that defied categorization, and exemplified descriptions such as “eclectic” and “totally-way-eclectic.” The group’s one semi-hit from the Summer of Love, “Kites Are Fun,” is remembered (by me, for one) as a jazz-influenced pop oddity that became a regional chart-topper only in the Buffalo, N.Y./Toronto, Ont. radio market — a point that piques all sorts of curiosities, two generations later. Click here to hear “Kites Are Fun” by The Free Design.

Yup, in the forgotten age before every radio station on the continent echoed the same crap-music and idiotic corporatist blather, you could have records that became autonomous hits in one geographic region only. In the current climate, it’s a chore to explain how or why that ever could have been the case. However, back when WKBW-AM, the 50,000-watt clear channel flame-thrower, set the tastes for listeners in the northeastern USA and southern Ontario, the station’s program director could, and did, promote local acts, such as the Free Design of Delevan, N.Y., one more dinky village just past the Buffalo suburbs, half-an-hour south of East Aurora. The Dedricks — Chris and his bro Bruce and his sis Sandy — caught the Adirondack Trailways bus to New York City, where they recorded their LPs for Project 3 Records, under the visionary direction of label owner Enoch Light. There, too, is another time-out-of-mind story.

Hit records used to be conceived and recorded in monaural sound, and played that way on AM radio stations. You’d hear music through a single-speaker, where any intended musical subtleties were lost, as a limitation of the technology. Stereo was high-end stuff known solely by enthusiasts. Enoch Light catered to that audiophile market of well-heeled hi-fi fanciers, who were obsessed with technique and undiscerning when it came to content. By the time Brian Wilson caught the stereo bug, when he recorded “Pet Sounds”, and George Martin and the Beatles began to test the waters with “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, Enoch Light and his semi-cleverly named big band, the Light Brigade, had run through every experimental stereo effect, and then some. Their sonic achievements were lost on the teen-aged audience of hit music stations such as WKBW-AM, where listeners absorbed the big beats through cheap two-inch speakers, clasped firmly to their sweaty left ears.

Enoch was knock-knockin’ on 70 years of age when the Free Design turned up in his studio, looking like Xerox copies of the Mamas & Papas, but sounding like genuine ’50s jazz-vocal throwbacks, such as the Hi-Los, or the J’s With Jamie. Chris Dedrick wrote the songs, strange little exercises that they were. Nineteen-sixty-seven was the year pop songs contained barefaced references to dope-taking: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and so on. It would have been assumed that a song with simple, unaffected lyrics about kite-flying could only be about dropping acid, or shooting aitch, or some scandal intended to flummox straights such as AM radio program directors… and Enoch Light. Radio stations quickly banned the song from their play-lists, which was easier than trying to figure out what the lyrics meant. Looking back on the Chris Dedrick body of work, it’s safe to say that the hidden message concealed within the lyrics of Kites Are Fun is that, well, kites are fun. Dedrick knew his way around the tunesmith’s craft, and had an undeniable talent for creating children’s music with plenty of bounce — but the ability to write oblique paeans to recreational drugs was Frank Zappa’s gift, not Dedrick’s.

Be that as it may, the song sounded unlike any other that season, even when experienced through a static-etched radio signal skimming Lake Ontario. Big things were expected from the Free Design, which resource-strapped Project 3 Records would never be able to facilitate. Each of the six LPs released by Light sunk the band into further obscurity. It was all over by 1972, after a one-time-only performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic. Chris Dedrick embarked on a solo career. His first record on his own was also his last, and it went unreleased for a remarkable 28 years.

Under those frustrating circumstances, some musicians high-tailed it to Marrakesh, Mill Valley or Montparnasse, to await inspiration. Chris Dedrick, child of upstate New York, just caught another short bus-ride, to Toronto, city of Marshall McLuhan, Harvey’s hamburgers, and the blink-and-you-missed-it Yorkville Scene. Dedrick became one of a stream of spiritual pilgrims turning up on the doorstep of one Kenneth G. Mills, the New Brunswick-born savant, who had been a piano prodigy, and became an all-purpose New Age seer. Under Mills’ sway, the Free Design morphed into the Star-Scape Singers, a touring choral group of 10 performers. Dedrick found additional work composing soundtracks for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ad agencies, and local film projects.

Yet, just as the Free Design were en direct route to being forgotten, Kites Are Fun went into heavy rotation on the venerable Toronto radio station, CKEY-AM, which was broadcasting a distinctive blend of elevator music, novelty nonsense, and oddball compositions by CKEY’s own program director, Gene Kirby, performed by the Gene Kirby Singers. Kites Are Fun, now safely claimable as Canadian Content and cleared for airplay by government regulators, blended seamlessly with Roger Whittaker’s overly mellow pap, Tommy Ambrose’s rhythm-free noodling, Gene McLelland’s depressive moaning, and Kirby’s detuned Caribbean-modelled shanties, “11.57 a Day” and “Montego Bay.”

This ineffable CKEY Sound summed up the soundtrack of Toronto in the mid-1970s: slow, smug, dreary beyond belief. I’d meet my friend David Perry for beers at a dive on Dupont Street, near the CKEY studios, where the great Kirby, both a figurative and literal giant, would cross the street to spend afternoons drinking his lunch. CKEY’s playlist was more than enough justification for packing up my dufflebag and moving west, vowing never to return. I snuck back, but went away again, as soon as the coast seemed clear, only to return for seeming keeps. Perry left and stayed gone, washing up in Japan and later Belgium. Chris Dedrick stayed rooted in Toronto, throughout, making his music, proximitous to his mentor, Mills, who died in ‘04.

The Free Design was rediscovered late in the 1990s, by small numbers of Gen X’ers, whose digital music players revealed layers of aural intricacies obscured when the recordings were first released. The UK alt-music band Stereolab appropriated the title, The Free Design, for a 1999 EP. Tribute web sites sprung up, and the old tunes were reissued in audiophile editions. Dedrick reformed the band in 2001, and produced “Cosmic Peekaboo”, a CD of uninteresting new material. I bought it online from Amazon, and played it once. I wouldn’t describe it as eclectic, but I’ll admit that it was pretty — pretty dull. CKEY might once have embraced that style of schlock, but they switched formats years ago, and the old 590 frequency now offers round-the-clock laments from the public about the always-pathetic state of the Maple Leafs.

In short, the world has moved on, and this ain’t the Summer of Love. Even Dedrick’s adopted hometown of Toronto, so square and stultifying in the ‘70s, has become the kind of place where street cops don’t hesitate to rip the prosthetic limbs from peaceable middle-aged amputees, evidently just because they feel like it. In other words, Toronto has become just like everywhere else. You can go ahead and take Dedrick’s advice and fly a kite, if you want, but probably you’re better off not attracting the attention.

Dedrick’s death reminds us that Kites Are Fun, still good, clean, innocent fun — but just try to get little Jordan or Jamal away from his Xbox or Wii long enough to put one in his chubby little lunch-hooks. You know exactly what’s going to happen. The kid is going to stare at you again, like you’re some crazy relic from another time.

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