Thanks to Spanky And Our Gang’s ’67 hits “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” and “Lazy Day,” the group is remembered as a mid-sixties pop sensation in the same vein as The Mamas and the Papas, but that was only one of the many flavors this Chicago-based band could concoct. Our Gang was studio-polished yet put on an entertaining act in that old-timey way, all while dazzling audiences with its display of sublime musicianship.
Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane and Malcolm McHale, the group’s principal members, spent 1962-64 as The New Wine Singers, a fantastic quintet that mixed jug band, folk, barbershop a capella, show tunes, and Irish standards. “We were eclectic as hell and loved every minute of it,” Spanky says today. “We did anything we wanted and there was a lot of cornball comedy.” “Malcolm had charisma and a rubber face that never stopped, he was right in there,” she adds.
The New Wine Singers put out a few LPs, including two live recordings, which capture the ensemble’s entertaining live show. Once that band fizzled out they formed Spanky And Our Gang. “Malcolm was such an integral part of the group,” Spanky says. “Very talented, but totally underrated, well, almost not rated at all.” Malcolm Hale wrote and arranged most of the tunes, played lead guitar, trombone, and sang. Still, since Malcolm spent every sixth weekend with the Army Reserves, the rest of the group learned to play occasional gigs without him.
Over the course of 1967 and 1968 the group placed five singles on Billboard’s Top 40 and made coveted TV appearances on the Tonight Show, the Dick Cavett Show, Hollywood Palace, and so on. Spanky And Our Gang’s most notorious gig was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where they performed “Give A Damn,” which was banned in several states for its un-kosher title (never mind that the song had a positive message; to give a damn about “your fellow man”). CBS received a flood of complaints after the show, one of which purportedly came from Richard Nixon. See, “damn” was not an appropriate word during 1968’s “family viewing hours.”
That October Malcolm Hale didn’t show up for a gig in Boise, Idaho, but the band set up his guitar amplifier on stage; they figured he might show up a little later. Mid-set, the amp screeched uncontrollably, disrupting the set. As soon as the band walked off stage they learned that Malcolm Hale was dead. The 27-year-old multi-instrumentalist had gone to bed drunk at a girlfriend’s place in Chicago (Spanky says he was quite the multi-dater), and even though the band called her to rouse him up, she refused to do so. After 28 hours of “sleep” the girlfriend discovered that he was dead. Malcolm Hale died of monoxide poisoning due to a faulty space heater. Spanky And Our Gang played the rest of the year to fulfill their obligations and called it quits. “I was devastated and cried every day for a year,” Spanky says.
The group’s hits keep popping up on various CD box sets, most recently on the three-disc Summer of Love: The Hits of 1967. To really figure them out you’ve gotta seek out their records. “It’s not about the hits. It’s about the album cuts and we had that going,” McFarlane adds.