Deep Digs: The Poppy Family – Which Way You Goin’ Billy? (London Recordings, 1969)

Deep Digs: The Poppy Family – Which Way You Goin’ Billy? (London Recordings, 1969)

By: Kaelen Bell | Art by: Michael Rancic

In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. This month writer Kaelen Bell revisits the radio pop-warping psychedelia of the Poppy Family’s Which Way You Goin’ Billy?

Thumbing through thrift shop stacks or your stoner uncle’s record crates, coming across Which Way You Goin’ Billy? might not elicit much interest. At first glance, the Poppy Family’s 1969 debut is another piece of dusty basement ephemera, a camp record from a camp band lost to the winds of time. Pull the vinyl from the sleeve, however, and you’ll find a piece of Canadian music history, a rare and fundamental record whose memory still sprouts quietly in the small, strange cracks of the world.

Born in Saskatoon and raised in the Fraser Valley, Susan Pesklevits was 17 when she met Terry Jacks in 1966 on the set of teen program Let’s Go, the Vancouver spinoff of Toronto’s Alex Trebek-hosted Music Hop. The two had already found small success individually, Pesklevits as a teen performer on national programs and with her trio the Eternal Triangle, and Jacks with his high school band the Chessmen, who scored a handful of Vancouver-area hits in the early ’60s. It would be a year after their on-set meeting that Pesklevits recruited Jacks for a performance in Hope, BC. Eventually the one-off became a string of shows, Pesklevits married Terry and became Susan Jacks, and the duo recruited lead guitarist Craig McCaw and started writing songs as Powerline.

The trio would start going by the name the Poppy Family sometime in late 1967. As a symbol of wartime remembrance, pharmaceutical destruction, and eternal sleep, the technicolour dream world flower was a fittingly complicated name for a band that bent radio pop innocence to the plane of eerie psychedelia. But they wouldn’t truly become the Poppy Family until the arrival of tabla player Satwant Singh. A student of Hindustani classical legend Alla Rakha with an interest in exploring Western music, Singh was the group’s secret weapon, elevating their folk-pop sound to a realm of coruscating fantasy.

Produced and primarily written by Terry Jacks and released on London Recordings in 1969, Which Way You Goin’ Billy? oscillates between pop heartache and hallucination. Its songs are driven by innocent fixations on love, clouds, shadows, and the mind that seems always on the verge of curdling into a bad trip. When it finally does, on side A closer “There’s No Blood in Bone,” it feels a bit put-on. Four introspective flower children peering eyes half-closed into the abyss, “There’s No Blood in Bone” is a fascinating detour: a band typically lit in gentle white now suddenly cast in buzzing red. The song emits a metallic heat—Susan’s hand-manipulated vocal introduction gives way to corrosive organ and guitar tones that swarm like gnats.

Released two years after 1967’s Summer of Love, Which Way You Goin’ Billy? glistens with some of Haight-Ashbury’s anti-establishment, revolutionary fervor. “What Can the Matter Be” grapples with race, industrialism, pre-war-on-drugs criminalization, and puritanism. Yet the band sound more at home in the space just before the shadows, where Terry’s sunny melodies and Susan’s luminous voice keep their intrinsic darkness at arm’s length. It’s the trick of the creepy doll or overly polite child, an unnerving sense of spoil beneath the pleasant veneer. 

Sonically, the record feels delightfully in flux. Horn-dotted country-pop opener “That’s Where I Went Wrong” is a world away from the creeping delirium of “Shadows on My Walls,” the sound of a band figuring themselves out in real time. The black heart of Which Way You Goin’ Billy? pumps in “You Took My Moonlight Away,” where the foursome’s brew of ’60s pop and Hindustani-inspired psychedelia concentrates into something briefly, subtly transcendent. Cascades of strings, McCaw’s hazy sitar, and Singh’s rolling tabla are cast like twinkling stars, pulled and stretched across an expanse of inky black. “You Took My Moonlight Away” is the record’s sleeper hit, but Which Way You Goin’ Billy? had real ones too. The band’s weird little star gradually expanded as the album’s title track went #1 in Canada and Ireland, spending several weeks on the charts. But with nascent fame came complication.

At a time when modern thresholds for appropriation were crossed with wide-eyed abandon, Susan’s occasional saris or fringed moccasin boots were worn in stark contrast with her reassuring whiteness. The foursome’s music sounded something like genuine cultural synergy. But the collaborative magic the Poppy Family uncovered on their debut would soon curdle; Terry gradually phased out Singh and McCaw, and the two were relegated to side-players before eventually leaving in 1970. Of the band’s various televised performances still available on YouTube, McCaw is featured only three times and Singh just twice. The band’s second and final record, 1971’s Poppy Seeds, was recorded by Susan and Terry with a revolving door of session players, a muted outing compared to the twisted majesty of their debut.

After effectively dismantling the band, Terry Jacks went #1 again in 1973 with his treacly rendition of “Seasons in the Sun,” an English adaptation of Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond” that was originally intended for the Beach Boys. Susan would garner a string of modest hits with her solo records, including the timeless road-song “Anna Marie,” from 1975’s Dream; the single stands tall alongside the Poppy Family’s best work. Singh went on to teach tabla and play with McCaw long after the Family’s dissolution, and the band’s four-year run eventually became a hazy footnote.

Which Way You Goin’ Billy? remains out of print in its original form, but the Poppy Family still cross over to our side from time to time, reuniting briefly in 2014 for a series of festival performances and interviews without Terry. “Of Cities and Escape” and “What Can the Matter Be” are sampled prominently on Deltron 3030’s “Madness” and “Things You Can Do,” respectively, while 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog sees Jim Carrey dancing through his laboratory to Poppy Seeds‘ “Where Evil Grows.” The physical legacy of Which Way You Goin’ Billy? may now be relegated to dusty basement relic and crate-digger collectable, but it always felt incorporeal anyway, a blur of pollen or a red star’s distant glow, a small and strange record whose power lives beyond the things we can touch.