The Posies’ second album, 1990’s Dear 23 (which received the reissue treatment last month) was the sound of a band coming into its own. In fact, it was the first real “band” Posies album; their first, Failure, largely a duo work by leaders Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer.
Dear 23 was a rich, textured collection of songs capped by “Flood of Sunshine,” an epic and dramatic track which shifts from soothing mellow melodies to soaring electric guitar pyrotechnics. You wouldn’t be alone if, hearing it, you were reminded of another song. Led Zeppelin’s 1969 “Thank You,” specifically, which was found on Led Zeppelin II.
The similarities between the two tracks are striking. But, does that make “Flood of Sunshine” less of a song? Or is it possible to take a pre-existing song and use it as a blueprint for a new one? A difficult question, and one that probably has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
Looking at (and listening to) “Thank You” and “Sunshine” a little more closely, I think “Sunshine” is successful as its own piece despite its obvious inspiration.
To begin, we need to understand that the Posies have never tried to hide where their song came from. Stringfellow writes in the liner notes for Posies box set At Least, At Last “…a very straightforward and, I think, sweet love song written when I was in high school. About someone who didn’t exist of course. Suspiciously similar to ‘Thank You’ by Led Zeppelin, an innocent poaching exploited to maximum yield.” One can picture him, as a typical music-obsessed high school student, but without a lot of songwriting experience, modeling his early work after stuff he was listening to (and every high schooler listens to Led Zeppelin at some point.)
The song started as a synthesizer-based track (available on the new reissue) and was played with his pre-Posies band Genetic Defect (a classic band name if there ever was one). After teaming up with Auer to form the Posies, Auer took the song and reworked and added to it, making it what it became. One suspects Auer was also very familiar with Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” as the dynamics in both songs continue to be similar, with an organ intro and outro, plus an extended guitar solo – which is something Zeppelin would often do when playing the song in concert.
Yet, “Flood of Sunshine” takes the epic guitar solo to another level with not one, but two frenetic, building workouts. Made all the more striking by being on an album not filled with a lot of rock guitar heroics. Dear 23 is largely a jangly power pop album, more rooted in the 60s than in 70s guitar heroes or “classic rock” – or Led Zeppelin, for that matter.
Both songs were written when their authors were in their teens (Plant may have been 20) though “Thank You”’s lyrics are arguably more “high schooly.” Call me a cynic, but the lyrics can be a bit saccharine and cliched in parts (“If the sun refused to shine / I would still be loving you, “… “And so today my world it smiles / Your hand in mine we walk the miles”) but there’s no doubt that they’re heartfelt in the way Plant sings them. Paired with the tender melody, gentle acoustic guitar and triumphant/inspired middle section (echoing the “inspiration” line) the words are given even more weight. He wrote the words to “Thank You” as a declaration of eternal love for his then-wife Maureen.The song was resurrected for the Plant/Page No Quarter reunion in 1995, long after Plant and Maureen had divorced, giving it a new life separate from its specific subject matter.
Though Stringfellow didn’t have a specific person in mind, the sentiments are not too different, though more abstract. “Mountains crumble” in “Thank You,” while “kingdoms and cathedrals” crumble in “Sunshine” but overall Stringfellow’s lyrics are more impressionistic, with lines such as “all the sounds combine into the same and I hear you.”
It can be tempting to add layers of meaning the author may never have intended. Back in 1990, Stringfellow said in the press kit for Dear 23: “It could be about the search for freedom, being able to go anywhere you want. But, I was 15 years old and the title’s from a chapter heading in a book for English class [The Scarlett Letter, according to the reissue liner notes] so it’s probably about being free enough that I didn’t have to read that book.” Yet, I think we can safely say there’s more going on here than just escaping English class.
“Thank You” is a song of gratitude and of being ‘lost in love’ (cue Air Supply…or maybe not….) as is “Sunshine,” where Stringfellow is thankful for the sunshine that she (even if “she” is a fantasy) brings him in darkness and night.
Two landmark songs, separated by a small degree. Its a fine line between “maximum yield” and falling on your face. Not many songs can be so closely tied to and inspired by another and not sound like a slavish copy. “Flood of Sunshine,” to my ears, is one of the rare ones that achieves it.