The artist formerly known as Ricky Nelson had been moving his career into what became known as country-rock, as one of the forerunners of the style, for some years by 1972. On albums like Rick Sings Nelson and Rudy The Fifth, Rick Nelson showed how far he had progressed since his days as a teen idol.
But Rick and his Stone Canyon Band found real validation that year, not just because the single ‘Garden Party’ climbed all the way to No. 6 on the Hot 100, his biggest hit in nearly nine years — but because it was about how he walked off stage when some of his audience made it clear they were still expecting to hear his original hits. Then on 9 December, the album of the same name made the Billboard chart, on its way to a new year peak at No. 32 — again, his best showing since Rick Nelson Sings For You reached No. 14 in 1964.
Nelson had been undergoing his reinvention since the mid-1960s, and made the top 40 with his group on a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me,’ a top 40 single in early 1970. On that single, his band included Randy Meisner, soon to be a founding member of the Eagles. ‘Easy To Be Free’ made a mid-chart showing later that year. But the ‘Garden Party’ single was the real breakthrough, sending a clear message about his musical direction and determination.
The lyric was a real life reflection of how the now long-haired Nelson had played the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival concert at Madison Square Garden in October 1971, on a bill with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell. He met with a hostile reception for his new sound, especially when he performed the Rolling Stones’ ‘Country Honk,’ the C&W-flavoured version of their ‘Honky Tonk Women’ hit, to fans who were expecting ‘Poor Little Fool’ and ‘Stood Up.’ He ended up leaving the stage.
“I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends,” wrote Rick. “A chance to share old memories and play our songs again/When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name/No one recognised me, I didn’t look the same.” The lyric also contained entertaining references to some of those present, including “Yoko and her walrus,” Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and “Mr. Hughes,” aka George Harrison, who sometimes travelled as Howard Hughes.
The chorus of the song had Rick in defiant mood but also singing a catchy, harmonised country-rock melody: “But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well/You see, you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” Rick did just that and found a whole new audience by sticking to his guns.
‘Garden Party’ is on Rick Nelson’s album of the same name, which can be bought here.
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