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Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Recorded in December 1969, and released in February 1970,  The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was the first true VDGG album (the first, the Aerosol Grey Machine was closer to a Peter Hammill album with VDGG personnel and was originally intended to be released under Hammill’s name) and their only album to make a dent on the UK charts, peaking at number 47, and staying on the charts for an almost immeasurable two  weeks.  It also received some critical aclaim, including London’s Time Out magazine heralding it is the strongest album the writer had heard in a long time.  The lyrics from Peter Hammill are excellent, even better than on the Aerosol Grey Machine, and the music nothing short of timeless — and in the same league as King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King.  And like In the Court of the Crimson King it is considered by most prog rock fans as an unequivocal example of early progressive rock — not proto-prog, psychedelic rock or hard rock, but truly progressive rock.

One can completely lose themselves when listening to this album — this is music which demands attention of and absorbs the listener as almost effectively and as inexorably as a Beethoven symphony.  The VDGG’s performance and use of instruments provides both a level of unpretentious sophistication and focused unity normally associated with orchestral music. We can track the maturation of Peter Hammill not only as a composer and songwriter but as a vocalist as he shows greater expression and naturalness than on the previous album.  One can reasonably speculate this is probably the album where David Bowie first started to be influenced by Peter Hammill, an influence that Bowie may have never publicly acknowledged but one can begin to hear tinges of  starting with Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, recorded in April and May of 1970.

I had no awareness of Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator in 1970 or even 1971. It wasn’t until I saw Pawn Hearts on sale around 1973 and purchased that album (solely based on the price and the album cover) that I first heard this magnificent band and their amazing music.  Soon I purchased all Peter Hammill and VDGG’s earlier albums, including this true masterpiece, The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other.

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Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

Whereas, VDGG’s second album is indisputably one of the first progressive rock albums, Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album, recorded in October 1969 and appropriately released on Friday the 13th, February 1970 is often considered one of the first heavy metal albums.  Like the VDGG album it is symphonic in nature, with a readily identifiable musical style and handling of non-traditional pop/rock subject matter. Both use grimly Cimerian album and song titles: The VDGG album title is based on the quote “We’re all awash in a sea of blood  and the least we can do is wave to each other” with “Darkness” the title of the initial track;  the Black Sabbath title, band name and opening track is, of course, is associated to heretics’ and witches’ black  masses (often evil and devil worshipping gatherings or ceremonies) held on the Sabbath.  Interestingly, both albums begin with ominous sounds of the stormy side of nature and an impending sense of utmost darkness.) Like the VDGG album Black Sabbath provides an early example for an entire genre.  Commercially, the reception of these two albums were quite different, with the Black Sabbath album climbing to number 8 on the UK charts and staying on US album charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. And initially, the critical reception was very different, also — where the VDGG album was praised, the Black Sabbath album was basically ridiculed — critic Robert Christgau describing their first album as “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter — bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.”

Although the initial reaction of Sabbath’s debut album was pretty negative, later evaluations have generally been more positive, with it now being ranked as number 243 of Rolling Stone’s 2012 revision of the 500 Greatest albums of all time — a list that does not include a single entry for VDGG, Peter Hammill, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, ELP, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Area, PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Laura Nyro, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy,  Larry Young, Cannonball Adderly, Grant Green, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristiano, Weather Report, The Mahavishu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Chicago (to include the Chicago “II” album) as well as any  compilations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Nat King Cole Trio, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Django, Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Lightning Hopkins, despite inclusion of other compilations and greatest hits albums. (I know this isn’t the post for this, but how can you include two Frank Sinatra entries in a greatest recordings list and not include a single mention of Billie Holiday? And why only U.S., U.K., and Canadian bands?  Does Europe, South America, the Middle East,  Asia and Africa not record music worthy of inclusion in a list of top 500 albums? )

This 1970 Black Sabbath album was recorded in one day, and mixed in a single subsequent session. The single session constraint actually worked out okay, as the entire album was comprised of material Black Sabbath had been performing live — this enabled them to basically play as they had been playing to real audiences without intricate overdubs or musical layering.  And yet, despite this, the album sounds more fully developed and coherent than most of the hard rock or heavy psychedelic rock released previously.

The satanic images are not only in the lyrics but inherent and arguably fundamental to the music itself.  Sabbath guitarist, and primary composer, Tony Iommi repurposes the ominous, hostile theme of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets to set the sinister tone for the entire album. Much is made of the use of tritone which is more overt in Iommi’s handling of the theme, but the minor third and ornamental minor second are even more germane to the Black Sabbath sound which is particularly distinct due to the Geezer Butler’s bass and Iommi’s deep ostinato guitar lines that provide a primal foundational simplicity and unavoidably recognizable trademark for the band’s raw, underworldly sound.  Though not the 243rd best album ever made, it is a strong debut and garnered an immediate fan base to provide ongoing support for Black Sabbath for many years.

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Atomic Rooster: Atomic Rooster

Recorded in December 1969 and January 1970 and released in the UK on February 1970, Atomic Rooster’s first album is a mixture of early progressive, psychedelic, and hard-rock.  Vincent Crane provides the compositions and quality keyboards and the album includes an extended drum solo from Carl Palmer.

The album was not released in the U.S. (until several years later) and only available as an import.  The album was released in Australia where the original album cover art was deemed inappropriate (this is a rooster — and a fowl!) and replaced with a substitute cover.

James Taylor: Sweet Baby James

Recorded in December 1969 and released in February 1970, Sweet Baby James has a mix of high quality and direct, intimate simplicity that has made it a classic.  It includes one of the best straightforward pop-folk songs ever composed: “Fire and Rain.”

Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Funkadelic, Morrison Hotel

Other albums of note released in February 1970 include Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention Burnt Weenie Sandwich with material recorded in the late sixties, Funkadelic’s first album, Funkadelic and the Door’s Morrison Hotel.  George Clinton’s group Funkadelic is particularly notable for its meld of funk, soul and psychedelic rock and this first album also seamlessly incorporates African-American traditional-folk music including field shouts and blues, trailblazing the way for many future soul-funk-rock albums. Interestingly Robert Christgau, who so scathingly panned the first Black Sabbath album and the Sweet Baby James album, also trashed this important album.

 

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Chicago:  Chicago

For most of us in our teens, 1970 was filled with many memorable and important musical moments.  Out of the hundreds which expanded my musical appreciation greatly, three stand out. The first (the last of these three) occurred in December of 1970: the Beethoven all day, one-dollar, open seating, 10 AM to 10 PM, Bicentennial Beethoven Birthday Concert at the L.A. Music Center. Attending a school Advanced Placement English all-day field trip, I first heard live chamber music, including the Beethoven Octet in E-flat major for pairs of clarinets, oboes, bassoons and french horns  — providing a kaleidoscope of remarkably distinct timbres — interacting yet maintaining separateness and distinctness and as brilliantly clear as the decorative icing on a cake but as substantial as the actual cake ingredients underneath that icing.  When the school bus was ready to leave that afternoon, I unsuccessfully tried to arrange transportation.  I had originally come to the concert that day as one who liked and enjoyed classical music, and left as one who couldn’t be without it.

The second of the three most important musical events of 1970 for me was the acquisition of King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King.  This was the heaviest music I had yet heard and I heartily shared it with my friends that were willing to accept such adventurous and different music.  The album definitely contributed to my developing the preference, tastes, and sensibilities for the numerous progressive rock albums that would late follow and, because the album included Greg Lake, it was ultimately responsible for my purchasing of yet-to-be-in-existence Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums.

The third of these three most important musical memories was initiated by my next door neighbor bringing over his newly purchased “Chicago” double album (nowadays referred to as Chicago II), but really the first Chicago album to us at the time as we were yet unaware of the first Chicago Transit Authority album.)  I recorded that “Chicago” album on my tape deck with a copy of Abbey Road and played those two albums over and over during the summer of 1970 while reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. When I  stayed with my aunt and uncle during part of the summer of 1971, I talked my cousin, a talented snare drummer in a drum and bugle corp, into purchasing the 2 LP album and it soon was the main soundtrack to my multi-week visit there.

I usually avoid ranking albums,  but it would be difficult to not acknowledge that this album is one of the very best pop/rock albums of 1970s as well as the last fifty years.  The entire album is a cohesive work, best listened to attentively from start to finish and comparable to other complete works like novels or symphonies.  Unlike most albums before, during ,and afterwards, there is not one minute of filler material, everything on the album is indispensable and contributes to the remarkably high quality of the completed work.

Tracks

1. Movin’ In (James Pankow) – 4:06 Lead singer: Terry Kath
2. The Road (Terry Kath) – 3:10 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
3. Poem for the People (Robert Lamm) – 5:31 Lead singer: Robert Lamm
4. In the Country (Kath) – 6:34 Lead singers: Terry Kath and Peter Cetera
5. Wake Up Sunshine (Lamm) – 2:29 Lead singers: Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera
6. Make Me Smile – 4:40 Lead singer: Terry Kath
7. So Much to Say, So Much to Give – 1:12 Lead singer: Robert Lamm
8. Anxiety’s Moment – 1:01 Instrumental
9. West Virginia Fantasies – 1:34 Instrumental
10. Colour My World – 3:01 Lead singer: Terry Kath
11. To Be Free – 1:15 Instrumental
12. Now More Than Ever – 1:26 Lead singer: Terry Kath
13. Fancy Colours (Lamm) – 5:10 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
14. 25 or 6 to 4 (Lamm) – 4:50 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
15. Prelude (Kath, Peter Matz) – 1:10 Instrumental
16. A.M. Mourning (Kath, Matz) – 2:05 Instrumental
17. P.M. Mourning (Kath, Matz) – 1:58 Instrumental
18. Memories Of Love (Kath) – 3:59 Lead singer: Terry Kath
19. 1st Movement (Lamm) – 2:33 Lead singer: Terry Kath
20. 2nd Movement (Lamm, Walter Parazaider) – 3:41 Instrumental
21. 3rd Movement (Lamm, Kath) – 3:19 Lead singer: Terry Kath
22. 4th Movement (Lamm) – 0:51 Lead singer: Terry Kath
23. Where Do We Go From Here” (Peter Cetera) – 2:49 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
Chicago

Peter Cetera – Bass, Vocals
Terry Kath – Guitar, Vocals
Robert Lamm – Keyboard, Vocals
Lee Loughnane – Trumpet, Vocals
James Pankow – Trombone
Walter Parazaider – Woodwinds, Vocals
Danny Seraphine – Drums

BOTW

Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Bridge Over Troubled Water was the first album I bought within a few days after it was released. (A year or two after that, buying albums as soon as they came out would become a common purchasing pattern.)  My sister had previously purchased each and every Simon and Garfunkel album, and probably would have bought this one, but I spotted it at the local K-mart and grabbed it without question.  Taking it home and then playing it attentively, I was a bit disappointed as I was expecting that this would be even better than their previously album, Bookends.  I was still pretty naive, even for a 15-year-old, and I assumed that artists got better with each and ever attempt.  It had seemed that way with Simon and Garfunkel, as Bookends was better than Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme which was better than the Sounds of Silence album which was definitely better than Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.  Wasn’t it natural that this new album, Bridge Over Troubled Water would be their best so far?  I had a lot to learn, and I would soon learn that pop and rock artists peak — often with their third or fourth album  — sometimes even peaking with their second album. (I learned this indisputably when I bought the Chicago III album, my jaw dropping down close to the floor as I had expected the same improvement from the CTA album [first Chicago album] to the Chicago II album to occur from the Chicago II to the Chicago III — it was very unfitting, and perhaps, in my mind at that time, unethical of them to turn out such an inferior product to Chicago II)

I listened to  Bridge Over Troubled Water a few times, trying to  sort out  what was the best songs — I liked “Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Song for the Asking” the best and considered “Bye Bye Love” and, to a lesser degree, “El Cóndor Pasa” to be filler. (Yes, “El Cóndor Pasa” isn’t that bad, but i would much rather have it replaced with a strong Paul Simon composition — which I was expecting the album to be overflowing with.)

Perhaps a week to ten days after purchasing, I had started to hear the title track on the radio.  Yes, that was reassuring, but it did get a bit trying to hear it over and over.  Then the same occurred with “Cecilia.”  I had already played the album over a dozen times, so didn’t need those songs filling the airwaves, but nonetheless, was happy for Simon and Garfunkel to get all the attention and resulting benefits from the constant exposure for those few months. Overall this album is their most commercial effort, and not surprisingly their most successful.  It is also pretty good — especially “Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Song for the Asking.”

Tracks

Side One
1. Bridge Over Troubled Water (Paul Simon) 4:52
2. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) (Jorge Milchberg / Daniel Alomía Robles / Paul Simon) 3:06
3. Cecilia (Paul Simon) 2:55
4. Keep the Customer Satisfied (Simon) 2:33
5. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright (Simon) 3:41

Side Two
1. The Boxer (Simon) 5:08
2. Baby Driver (Simon) 3:15
3. The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon)
4. Why Don’t You Write Me (Simon) 2:45
5. Bye Bye Love (Boudleaux Bryant / Felice Bryant)
6. Song for the Asking (Simon) 01:39

Personnel

Paul Simon – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion
Art Garfunkel – lead vocals, percussion
Los Incas – Peruvian instruments
Joe Osborn – bass guitar
Larry Knechtel – piano, organ, Fender Rhodes
Fred Carter Jr. – acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Pete Drake – Dobro, pedal steel guitar[40]
Hal Blaine – drums, percussion
Jimmie Haskell and Ernie Freeman – strings
Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff & Alan Rubin – brass
Buddy Harman – percussion
Bob Moore – double bass
Charlie McCoy – bass harmonica
Roy Halee – engineer and co-producer

Somos seres humanos
Sin saber lo que es hoy un ser humano
(We are human beings, without knowing today what a human being is.)

— Almendra

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On Nov 14, 1969,  Philips released David Bowie’s second album in the UK, originally titled “David Bowie.” Mercury released the album in the US as “Man of Words/Man of Music” which was re-released by RCA in 1972 as “Space Oddity” after the success of the Ziggy Stardust album. Whereas Bowie’s very first album sounds like he is intentionally imitating Anthony Newley and includes mostly songs of limited musical and lyrical depth, this second album raises the level of artistry considerably, bringing together a few easily accessible songs with several more carefully crafted, more reflective numbers.  Perhaps Bowie’s break up with his deeply-loved girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale contributed toward a decided shift to a more personal artistry.  Bowie thought of her as a soulmate and suffered deeply from the end of their relationship — two songs on this album are clearly about her: “An Occasional Dream” and “Letter to Hermione” — both providing an insight into the impact of the loss.

With the exception of the second track, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, a clear homage to Bob Dylan, Bowie is mostly his own artist on this album,  produced mainly by Tony Visconti, who also plays bass.  One track, the single “Space Oddity”, which Bowie wrote after seeing Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Oddity”, was produced by Gus Dudgeon and climbed up to the number 5 position on UK charts, though in the U.S. it did not fare any better than the 124th spot.  The general US AM listener would not be exposed to it until 1973 when it reached the 5th position and then again, in 1975 when it made the #1 spot and seemed to be played unceasingly.

The album includes Rick Wakeman on mellotron and harpsichord and Gus Dudgeon on cello.  It will be another year before Bowie works with Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey and another year after that until Trevor Bolder is added on bass. Though there are many better albums to follow, this may be the most personal and the one closest to reflecting the native-state David Bowie as opposed to Bowie the mastery of multiple external personnas and styles.

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In November of 1969, Colosseum release their second album, Valentyne Suite, which did fairly well in the UK, reaching number 15 on the UK album charts.  The highlight of the album is Dave Greenslade’s contributions, both as a performer on keyboards and as a composer on the first two sections of the three movement Valentyne Suite.  Interestingly the original version of the suite was included in the 1969 US release of Colosseum’s previous album “Those Who Are About to Die Salute You”, which is a combination of the first and second UK albums.   For the UK version of the second album, the original third part of the suite, “Theme Three, Beware the Ides of March”, co-written by Greenslade, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Jon Hiseman and Tony Reeves is replaced by “The Grass is Always Greener”  co-written by Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman, since “Beware the Ides of March” had previously appeared on the first album.  The suite works in either configuration and provides a strong ending to both the UK version of the second album and the US version of “Those Who Are About to Die Salute You, which is a mix of tracks from both the first and second UK albums.

Other November 1969 albums include Steve Miller’s Your Saving Grace and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, both albums including Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. Volunteers is the more significant album historically and musically, containing both strong language and strong political content.

Steppenwolf’s Monster, also released in November 1969, starts with a similarly strong political message. recounting how “Like good Christians some would burn the witches;
later some got slaves to gather riches.” and “While we bullied, stole and bought a homeland, we began the slaughter of the red man”, and warning of the inevitable transformation into a monstrous beast with cities turned into jungles, strangling corruption, and the costly Vietnam war.

Moody Blues released To Our Children’s Children’s Children on November 21, 1969 with the first track “Higher and Higher” and the general thematic direction of the album inspired by the Moon Landing.  The album continues to distill the Moody Blues identifiable sound with tracks melting into each other.  The album reached number #2 in the UK and #14 in the US.

Amidst a number of other November 1969 albums, many of them debut studio albums like those by the Allman Brothers and Mott the Hoople, Rod Stewart releases his first album, around 32 minutes of music including Ronnie Wood on guitar and Keith Emerson on organ on  “I Wouldn’t Ever Change a Thing”

Humble Pie’s second album, the appropriately named Town and Country, released November 1969, provides an attractive balance of acoustic and electric guitar work with some Wurlitzer piano.  The album contains a good measure of country-rock, two strong Peter Frampton songs, and Steve Marriot’s particularly evocative, mood-setting, “Silver Tongue.”

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Kevin Ayers released his debut album, “Joy of a Toy”, in November of 1969 — a slightly tongue in cheek, intentionally laid back and understated set of songs that look forward to indie rock of the 1980s as much as an distillation of Soft Machine, sixties rock, show tunes, pop and early progressive rock.  Even though the lyrics range in quality, the nature of the music and Ayers delivery always make the words work well with the music. The opening instrumental sets the appropriate mood, followed by the wry “Town Feeling” with effective oboe and then “Clarietta Rag” which sounds a bit too much like “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”;  a variety of songs follow, some having  that identifiable “Canterbury” sound, some like “Religious Experience” which seems more spur of the moment composition and performance, and includes an appearance from Syd Barrett.  Perhaps the best tune is “Lady Rachel” with a mysterious oboe introduction nicely setting the mood as well  as the the colorful orchestration and the judicious use of  a chromatically-raised augmented chord in the chorus.  Musicians include Robert Wyatt, Michael Ratledge and Hugh Hopper from Soft Machine as well as David Bedford on piano and mellotron and Paul Buckmaster on cello. All in all an under-the-radar album (at that time and now), that had better material and more an influence on music than generally given credit for.

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Argentina bands, as with bands from other Latin American countries, mostly were imitative or cover bands for most of the sixties.  This “Nueva Ola” style, represented by local bands (having English names), though popular enough and providing live music, couldn’t compete in terms of record sales with new music from U.S. and Britain, and eventually the “Rock en Español” musical movement produced bands like Los Gatos and Almendra.

Led by songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Almendra released their first album, the self-titled Almendra, on November 29, 1969.  How much this influenced future progressive rock bands in South America, Spain and Italy is not clear, but the album, like Spanish and Italian music to follow, incorporated folk music together with jazz, pop and rock elements.

The album opens with their earlier released, and successful single (in Argentina), “Muchacha (ojos de papel)”, a modern art song with beautiful melody and lyrics over Spinetta’s acoustic guitar. Another highlight on the album is Spinetta’s “Figuración” which alternates between a gorgeous folk-like melody and a rock section anticipating future Italian prog-rock groups like PFM. This is followed by the upbeat and partly Beatles-like “Ana no Duerme.”

Side two opens up with reflective, acoustic folk-like “Fermin”, followed by the equally graceful “Plegaria para un niño dormido” and the multi-thematic “A estos hombres tristes.”  Bass guitarist contributes the jazzy, almost Brazilian-like “Que el viento borró tus manos.”  The poignant and elegant “Laura Va”, with harps, strings and woodwinds provides a graceful and satisfying end to one of the best albums of 1969.

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Spirit: Clear

Spirit probably would have made the big time if they had played at Woodstock as planned, possibly right before Hendrix and his band played the festival’s last set. As it was, the band ended up going on a a multi-venue promotional tour. To make matters worse, lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Randy California  who had previously played with Jimi Hendrix for three months (it was Hendrix that give the originally named “Randy Wolfe” the new last name of California to distinguish him from Randy Palmer whom Hendrix named “Randy Texas”) and drummer/singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson begin to have differences of opinions on the style and direction of the band.  In the middle of all of this,  Spirit released their third studio album, Clear, an album with elements of early prog, blues-rock and psychedelic rock.  “Dark Eyed Woman” is probably the best known track, but the album contains two quality instrumentals on side two and has generally good, though not world-changing, material overall and some quality guitar work from Randy California.

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Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II

On October 22, 1969, Led Zeppelin released their second studio album, more polished and musically interesting than their first and a undeniable success commercially, reaching #1 on the charts in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain, Denmark, and Holland. Included is “Whole Lotta Love”, “Living Loving Maid”, the passionate ballad, “Thank You”, and “Moby Dick” which features a drum solo that always brought to my imagination the virtuosic dribbling of a basketball. Though Led Zeppelin would get even better, this is a pretty good album, full of energy, life, and creativity.

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The Turtles: Turtle Soup

While newer groups are making significant commercial inroads, some older groups are winding down.  The Turtles released their last of five albums, an album very much in the style of the late sixties, closer to 1967 or even 1966 than late 1969.  That said, this is a fairly decent album with some good acoustic guitar work on the first side. Also of interest, is that the album is produced by The Kink’s Ray Davies, and one can hear this in several songs such as in the opening of “The House on The Hill.”  The most interesting composition is “John and Julie”  which includes added strings that enhance the qualities of the song. The one track on the album to get any notable airplay is “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” which shares a few too many similarities with their 1968 hit, “Elenore” — such blatant mimicking of a previous hit, though, is not new for the Turtles, whose 1965 single, “Let Me Be”, followed almost immediately after the success of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, sounding suspiciously similar.

This final studio album, though, did not mean an end for the Turtles, for their very best songs reflected the sixties so well, that they were not quickly forgotten — this is particularly true of their best song, and only number one hit, “Happy Together.”

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Pink Floyd: Ummagumma

Released on October 25, 1969 in the U.K. and in early November in the U.S., Ummagumma (pronounced “OOH-ma GOO-ma”) is a two record set, the first LP containing material recorded live in April and May 1969 and the second an interesting collection of individual contributions, both in terms of authorship and performance, from the band.  The first side is an indispensable document of 1969 Pink Floyd live, performing some of their earlier psychedelic space-rock classics, and serves as the main attraction of the album.  The second LP which showcases each band member’s individual efforts, has its moments, but clearly the group is much better together than as isolated soloists. Nonetheless, this set of solo offerings on the second LP is still more interesting than most avant-garde and exploratory music of its time.

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Renaissance: Renaissance

The first iteration of the newly formed band, Renaissance, formed by two former Yardbird band members, Keith Reif and Jim McCarty, released their very first album in October 1969. From the start, with John Hawken’s classically-influenced piano, the listener knows this is a special album. Reif and McCarty had tired of the heavier rock sound of the Yardbirds and were looking to blend folk, rock and classical elements — and classically-trained Hawken was a perfect fit for their vision.  Most of the material is has a fresh, progressive tone to it, effectively mixing rock, jazz, folk, pop and classical elements including incorporation of material from Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.

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Pentangle: Basket of Light

Released on October 26, 1968, this is the most commercially successful album for Pentangle and one of their best.  It opens with a Brubeck-like “Light Flight” with its off kilter meter of 5/8 and 7/8 with a 6 beat middle section. Quite the composition, it was the theme for the BBC’s “Take Three Girls” about three young woman in hip and swinging 1969 (to 1971) London.

The rest of the album is a mix of rearranged folk songs and new compositions, all performed beautifully and artfully on acoustic instruments with lead vocals distributed between Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn.   A good album to start with if you haven’t devoted much time listening to Pentangle or wish to enjoy some quality English Folk Rock.

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First my apologies for last week’s post which was posted half-finished.  I thought I had scheduled it for late Friday, but discovered the incomplete post was published  Friday morning.  It must have read like I was on hallucinogenic drugs!

More importantly thank you for continuing to visit this blog.  It has been very busy for me lately, and I am sure the quality of the writing has suffered as I have such a short window to write and proofread.  Thanks for continuing to visit and read. I welcome any suggestions on improving these posts given the limited time I have right now to write them.

Will eventually delete this post after a few weeks or more, but will certainly take any comments about improving this blog to heart.

” When you want to hear where music is going in the future, you put on a King Crimson album.”  – Bill Bruford, 1995

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King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King

There is no album that I quite look back on with the same pride of purchasing as King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” None of my friends had previously ever heard of the band and many of them were seriously impressed when they listened to it on my dad’s stereo or even on a cassette copy I made for them. Quite simply there was no other music available that was even remotely similar to the sound of this first Crimson album.

Released on October 10, 1969 (and purchased by me about a year later in 1970), some may debate if this was or was not the very first progressive rock album chronologically, but in my mind, it’s the first in terms of overall rank and importance.  It incorporated jazz and hard rock elements into a refinement of the hard rock, soft rock and psychedelic rock music that had been available prior to October 1969.

The album opens up with “21st Century Schizoid Man” — and it sounded back in those very early seventies as if the music did belong to the 21st Century.  I had never heard any rock harder edged than this — music that makes Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith easy listening or  adult contemporary.

The contrast between the psychotically intense “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the languidly melodic, cool and relaxed “I Talk to the Wind” that follows, with its beautiful flute accompaniment, is comparable, yet different in scale, to the contrasting nature of the opening Sonata Allegro movement of a classical symphony and the following Adagio or Andante.  “Epitaph” which then contrasts effectively with the second track, successfully concludes the first side of the LP.

The second side seems to start afresh, with the soft and sensuous “Moonchild” which, to a musically uneducated fifteen year old (such as I was when I bought the album) sounded like undisciplined musical “noodling” to fill in some time on the second side.  When I recorded it on tape or cassette, I would leave this instrumental section out.  Today, I can listen to this “jam” section and now relate why there was a reference to “Surrey With The Fringe on Top” (that this was jazz influenced if not directly inspired by Miles Davis and John Coltrane) as well as enjoy this music as a listening experience.  Would the album had been better off with a strong composition replacing this jam section? — I still think so today, though not as strongly as I did when a freshman in high school.  That said, all is forgiven with the return of the original melody and then the beginning of the classic title song that ends the album as effectively as a final movement of a symphonic work. Taken together, “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the closing “In the Court of the Crimson King” even without anything in between, made this album a masterpiece — with the other material being subordinate to the first and final track much like the inner movements in a classical era (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven) symphony.  Despite its influence on other later bands and their music, and the evolution of rock  over the years, the album still sounds fresh and original, and much like long-lasting love,  remains wonderful, relevant and something to be particularly thankful for.

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Arzarchel: Arzarchel

Arzarchel was an alternate name for Uriel, before Uriel became Egg, a name change brought about be record executives discomfort with the phonetic quality of the name of Uriel, and to hide the identity of Uriel/Egg which had now signed with Decca but had the opportunity to record for the much smaller Zackariya Enterprises.  The album, recorded in June 1969 and released sometime later in 1969, not only renamed the band, but the band members: Simon Sasparella, Njerogi Gategaka, Basil Dowling and Sam Lee-Uff were the unusual names credited in place of the actual artists — guitarist and vocalist Steve Hillage, bassist and vocalist Mont Campbell,  drummer Clive Brooks, and keyboardist Dave Stewart.  Hillage, only 17, had left Uriel for college, but was up for the one-day recording session that may have started as a bit of a lark, bit ended up as a quality album.

Though mostly psychedelic, there are elements of heavy metal and progressive rock that intertwine with the psychedelia to make this album a mix of the past, present and future.  Dave Stewart was familiar with The Nice and this is evident in various aspects of the album as well as some apparent familiarity with Pink Floyd.  The album starts off strong with the “Garden Of Earthly Delights”, followed by “Azathoth” and then the excellent instrumental, “Queen St.Gang.”  “Leg” is blues-based heavy metal tracks somewhat anticipating the sound of Black Sabbath despite the vast differences in Hillage’s vocal delivery and Ozzy Osbourne’s and the general musical approach, and raised to a level well above the ordinary with Hillage’s guitar work.

Side two has two long songs, “Clean Innocent Fun”, another blues-based number that provides an appropriate platform for organ and guitar, and “Metempsychosis” with its space rock ambiance.  Now on CD, this is more than just an album for Steve Hillage and Dave Stewart fans, but anyone wishing to experience psychedelic rock at its apex.

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Frank Zappa: Hot Rats

Recorded in July and August of 1969 and released on October 10, 1969, Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats is an amazing mix of classical, jazz and rock elements.  Only reaching #173 on the US album charts (compare this to #30 for We’re Only In This for the Money), the album did much better in the UK climbing to the #9 spot and apparently influencing musicians in both the UK and Europe.  Notable is the use of overdubs of sped up instruments — Zappa plays some bass lines, for example, which then are mixed in at double speed.  The same is true of for some of Ian Underwood’s wind passages. When I first heard “Peaches and Regalia” I thought it included a synthesizer, but no — this is Underwood on sax at double speed.

I first heard the Hot Rats album around 1970 or 1971, seeing it at my local public lending library, checking it out and then recording it to reel to reel to play repeatedly.  I had heard quite a sampling of Zappa and his Mothers of Invention albums at my cousin’s apartment in the summer of 1969, and so expected much of the same, but was blown away by the general consistency and quality of the album, an album exhibiting what I considered to be greater control and seriousness. To this day, this is my favorite Zappa album.  I never get tired of the first track “Peaches and Regalia”.  This was also my first introduction to Jean Luc Ponty who plays on the very last track, “This Must Be a Camel.”

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The Kinks: Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

On October 16, the Kinks, not deterred by the lack of commercial success of their critically acclaimed The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, release another impressive concept album, “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire.)” Long time and original Kinks bassist Peter Quaife, who had left to start Mapleoak, was replaced by John Dalton, who had filled in previously for Quaife after Quaife’s auto accident in June 1966.

The first track, “Victoria” provides an narrative context for the album.  Though the strength of the album is more in the lyrics than the music, Ray Davies certainly is adept at crafting tunes that work with those lyrics.  The music in Victoria provides a dramatic opening, with the straightforward dominant and tonic based chorus and the melodic handling of “Victoria” — rising, falling, rising, falling, rising falling, rising falling.  The lyrics provides the social setting and establishes the time effectively — at the beginning of the 20th century, after the Victorian era.

It’s quite impressive how the narrative is put together from each individual track and how the nature of each track builds up that narrative.  After providing context for the social environment, the second song drills down to the nature of that social, class-based, order at the personal level: “Yes, Sir, No, Sir.”  The third song, “Some Mother’s Song” switches to the bleakness of World War I, where Arthur loses his brother.  This followed by “Driving”, an optimistic song capturing the magic of the family outing. The album continues with songs like “Brainwashed” which comments on the oppression of the working class and their acceptance of their place, “Australia” which sounds like a promotional jingle (“Australia, the chance of a lifetime; Australia, you get what you work for”), the classic Ray Davies’ bleak ballad, “Shangri-la”, and “Mr. Churchill” which takes us into World War II.  The sharp irony of “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina” takes us into the post WWII era of consumption. “Sweet and Innocence” covers the reflective nostalgia of older age. The torch is handed to the younger generation in “Nothing to Say” which mirrors the thoughts of both Arthur and his son. The album ends with “Arthur”, an epilogue summarizing Arthur’s life.

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The Carpenters: Offering

Richard and Karen Carpenter release their first album, Offering on October 9, 1969.  The first and last tracks are the most impressive, showcasing their a capella capabilities via overdubs and Richard Carpenters solid compositional techniques.  The album also includes a fine arrangement and rendition of “Ticket To Ride” with solid vocals and interpretation from Karen Carpenter.  Being born in Downey, California, I had more affection for The Carpenters than the typical prog rock fan, but that aside, one also has to acknowledge that Karen was one of the best pop vocalists of her era.

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Moondog: Moondog

Moondog deserves a special place in musical history for both the quality of his music and as the progenitor of the minimalist movement.  His compositions transcended any single genre, bringing together classical, jazz, world/folk, pop and animated soundtrack elements into his music.  Philip Glass has written that both he and Steve Reich took Moondog’s music “very seriously and understood and appreciated it much more than what we were exposed to at Juilliard”.

Moondog released a number of 78s, than 45s and EPs of his music in the 1950s followed by several LPs including three on the Prestige label and a set of songs for children for Capitol records featuring then Broadway My Fair Lady star, Julie Andrews. Over a decade transpired before his next album, simply titled “Moondog” and produced by Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears producer James William Guercio, was released in 1969.

The combination of fine musicians and quality compositions results in music that really is more relevant, dynamic, alive, exciting and much more part of its time than anything written by the famous “academic” classical composers of the fifties and sixties. There is a variety of styles — but all of it quite distinct from other music of 1969 or earlier — some of the compositions use imitative counterpoint, some have traces of romantic, impressionism, renaissance and baroque styles and much of the compositions use what we would later identify as minimalist-repetition — one can hear the DNA that would soon be found in much of Philip Glass’s works and some of John Adams’s material.   Clearly, this music deserves much more study and listening than it gets today — for it is true mid-twentieth century music representing the vibrancy of the late 1940s up through 1969!

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On September 20, John Lennon met with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the Beatles’ business manager to inform them of his intent to leave: “I want a divorce! Like the one I got from [first wife] Cynthia.”

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September 1969 was also an eventful month for baseball.  The Mets initiated a serious winning streak while the Chicago Cubs was losing games and overtook the Cubbies, even getting a 4-3 victory against Card’s pitcher Steve Carlson record-breaking 19 strike-outs, nine-inning pitching. On September 22nd, Willie Mays of the San Francisco Giants became the first major league baseball player since Babe Ruth to get his 600th home run; this was in the same game against the Padres that his teammate Bobby Bonds struck out for the 178th time, breaking  an 1963 record previously held by Dave Nicholson of the Chicago White Sox.

On September 26, ABC debuted a seemingly inconsequential situation comedy about six kids, three girls and three boys, merged as a part of a marriage of two divorcees, with a dog and maid thrown for good measure. At fourteen, I avoided watching the show out of principle, but this series was a favorite of the youngest girl next of our closest neighbors, geographically and personally, a family of three older boys, all good friends to me, and three younger girls.

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But anything else that happened on September 26, or in the month of September 1969, seems culturally inconsequential to the release of the Beatles final effort before they went their own ways, their last recorded studio album, Abbey Road.  I borrowed this masterwork from one of the three boys next door in the spring of 1970 and recorded it on to my own relatively good quality reel-to-reel tape recorder along with Chicago’s second album, the two of which I listened to over and over and over while reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series.  Though more of a collection of solo Beatles songs than some of the earlier albums, the assembly and production, along with the high musical quality, made this my favorite Beatles album.

For many years, I was not particularly fond of the first track, John Lennon’s “Come Together”, seemingly a musical throwback to an earlier time.  Harmonically, this was a standard rock-and-roll chord progression, with psychedelic, wildly colorful, but also mostly incomprehensible, lyrics. Not known to me at the time was that it was written as a campaign song for Timothy O’Leary in his averted attempt to run against Ronald Reagan for Governor of California — the campaign terminated by O’Leary being arrested for possession of weed.  Also not known to me at the time, was the similarity of the song to Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.”  These facts though, probably wouldn’t have made much difference to my quickly getting tired of hearing this played every morning on the bus trip to and back from school, five days a week, from the third Monday in October 1969 to the last Friday before Christmas vacation in late December.

During this same three-month window, George Harrison’s “Something”, the second track sequentially on Abbey Road, was also played on that same bus, courtesy of the local station that our bus driver was apparently captivated with or captive to.  Due to the poor audio quality and the noise on the bus, I didn’t get to fully appreciate the nuances of either of these two songs, and so also became slightly tired of “Something” sometime by late November.  However, its important to note, that compared to the other fodder on AM radio, these two tracks were gems.  It’s hard to imagine how I survived, but during these three months, as music was shifting from the diversity of the late sixties to a more homogeneous, more similarly produced approach to singles, there were numerous musically questionable songs being played on that bus radio including Oliver’s “Jean”, the Cuff Links’ “Tracy”, Bob Dylan’s  tortuous, “Lay Lady Lay”, R.B. Greaves “Take A Letter Maria”, Mel and Tim’s “Back Field in Motion”, and worse of all, The Archies’ unimaginably simplistic and simplistically unimaginable “Sugar Sugar”, one of the most blatant and annoying bubble-gum pop songs of the era. Compared to any of these and some of the other tunes being pushed at the time, “Something” was a work of art, and “Come Together”, even for the seventy-eighth time, was a welcome relief.

But back to Abbey Road — by the time I had transferred my friend’s copy of Abbey Road to tape and started playing it over and over,  I viewed “Come Together” and “Something”, (tunes I had already been overexposed to), as a pair of preludes to an extraordinarily, exceedingly, and unexpectedly high-quality, melodically-rich album. I could read over the sound of “Come Together” and even “Something”, but when I got to the rest of the album, I would often stop reading to listen for a while, before getting back to Tolkien’s more narrative story-telling.

Now certainly as my level of musicianship has increased I have come to better appreciate “Something.”  That said, even today, it is the rest of this album, starting with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” that really resonates with me.  In the previous two tracks, we have McCartney’s bass work, which is particularly impressive on “Something.”  With this third track, we have his first composition on the album, a delightful upbeat, perfectly crafted (and performed) narrative pop tune with facile, witty lyrics nicely supporting the song.   Lennon dismissed the work as more of McCartney’s “granny” music, but the work, like Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” provides the necessary lightness and contrast needed to hold together side one of Abbey Road.  “Oh, Darling” which follows, is a seriously heartfelt, blues-based ballad and  benefits from being preceded and followed by the two lighter tracks.

Whereas Ringo’s earlier composition that appeared on the White Album, “Don’t Pass Me By” was one of the simplest realization of a straightforward blues progression, his second composition, “Octopus’s Garden” is more sophisticated, possibly aided with some direction from George Harrison.   Not only does this work well with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” to bookend McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” , but it provides the contrast for the thickness and darkness of Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” which starts off as plaintive blues-rock before diving into the depths of progressive heavy metal.  It ends suddenly, providing an unambiguous and unbreachable separation between side one and side two.

Side two opens up with Harrison’s masterpiece, “Here Come’s the Sun”, by itself enough to justify having a copy of the Abbey Road album.   This is followed by Lennon’s reworking (reversal and extension) of sequence of chord progressions of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (first movement) as the core of “Because”, providing a level of reflection and sophistication that nicely sets up the unrivaled rock medley that makes the Abbey Road album an unforgettable masterpiece.  One could have taken the numbers in this medley and extended their length, falling into the trap we find on so many rock albums, where tunes are allowed to roam unchecked trespassing their natural boundaries — but by keeping each song to its minimum duration, George Martin and the Beatles maximized the musical impact to make this sixteen-minute medley the shortest sixteen minutes in the history of rock music.  The album ends with “Her Majesty” which was originally meant as part of the medley after “Mean Mr. Mustard”, but disrupted the flow and coherence, and so was intended to be left off the album altogether.  Acting under instruction not to throw anything away, one of the engineers added “Her Majesty” to the end of the master tape, after a generous length of silence.  The Beatles, when listening to the playback lacquer that also included this “added” track, liked the effect and the track ended up included as a final “hidden” track on the album, not listed originally on the LP album cover.   Growing up, I often debated with myself whether the album should have ended, predictably, with “The End”, but today, I have little doubt of the appropriateness of this unrelated coda that adds just one additional element of artistry to this overall timeless, seemingly flawless album.

Though Abbey Road was the best album from September 1969, there are others worth noting.

Laura Nyro’s dramatically intense “New York Tendaberry” was released on September 24, 1969.  Though I never caught Laura Nyro live,  this album provides me some solace as the immediacy comes about as close as a studio album can get to a real live performance.  With one strong track after another, all stylistically and compositionally individual, this is one of the best albums of September 1969.

The Band released their second studio album, self-titled “The Band”, on Sept 22, 1969. Generally country rock, music is accessible and generally good with music mainly written by guitarist Robbie Roberson, who also engineered the album.  For the most part, the lyrics are narrative and provide an historical aspect.  Particularly notable is “The Unfaithful Servant”,  with its art-song qualities.

Fleetwood Mac released their third album, Then Play On on September 19, 1969, the last Fleetwood Mac studio album with Peter Green.  The band takes advantage of the capabilities of studio recording technology for the first time, producing a strong, polished album incorporating blues, blues-based rock,  and contemporary rock numbers including Peter Green’s reflective, leisurely-paced and melancholic “Closing My Eyes”, the understated, simple and nostalgically effective, Pink-Floyd-like “When You Say”, and Peter Green’s “Rattlesnake Shake” which lyrically harkens back to those early blues records that cover taboo topics.  Notable is Peter Green’s guitar work throughout and the overall musical variety provided by contributions from all four band members.  The UK initial release was a relatively lengthy album, and the US version dropped two tracks.  The Rhino Deluxe CD edition includes not only the two omitted tracks, but Peter Green’s 1970 masterpiece, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)” — which combines elements of psychedelic rock and early progressive rock.

The Guess Who release their fifth studio album, “Canned Wheat” sometime in September 1969. This is their strongest album to date including two radio hits, “Undun” and “Laughing”  and an early, and perhaps superior version, of “No Time” with a ear-awakening microtonal introduction.

Man releases the wittily titled 2 ozs of Plastic with a Hole in the Middle.  The album takes on a distinctly progressive tone with an incredibly strong opening instrumental track, “Prelude/The Storm”, solid evidence at how effective could the band could be at crafting and shaping larger musical statements.   Though the remaining album does not stay at this lofty level (the next track is more standard blues-rock and elements of blues and psychedelic rock dominant side two), it has its moments.

While Fleetwood Mac was able to get away with a suggestive album title and Peter Green’s more overt “Rattlesnake Shake”, an unambiguous song about male self-pleasuring, Man had some corporate censorship imposed.  Their label, perhaps not too unexpectedly for 1969, found some fault with the title of the second track on the first side, “Shit on the World”, forcing the band to rename it to the more innocuous “It Is As It Must Be.”  The title of “Spunk Rock” was also targeted, but due to miscommunication at the record executive level, it was inexplicably changed to the even less inoffensive “Spunk Box.” Re-releases of the album have kept the altered titles of “Spunk Box” and “It Is As it Must Be” thus inadvertently delivering a just and lasting subtle irony.

Al Stewart was able to dodge censorship completely on Love Chronicles with one of the first uses of the present participle form of the f word on a record released by a major label (CBS Producer Clive Davis learned of its inclusion after the release or it would have been not allowed.) Released in September 1969, the album is basically a song-cycle covering male/female relationships, some of which are clearly autobiographical including the eighteen minute title track.  The musicianship is outstanding with the 1969 line-up of Fairport Convention (minus vocalist Sandy Denny) and Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin on the title track, “Love Chronicles.”

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The Nice released their third album, simply titled “Nice”, sometime in September 1969, with the album peaking to third position on the UK album charts.  The liner notes are provided, in handwritten form, by Keith Emerson. The album’s music is filled with classical and jazz references and includes Pepper Adams on baritone sax and Joe Newman on trumpet on the last track of side one, “For Example.” Emerson writes about this session in his autobiography expressing his elation at getting Pepper Adams (who was a musician on what Emerson notes was his favorite album of all time, Thelonious Monk at Town Hall.)  Side two of The Nice was recorded at the Fillmore East on April 9 and 10 of 1969 and these two particularly compelling tracks continue the trend of incorporating jazz and classical components.  The first live track,  “Rondo” is based on Brubeck’s “Rondo Alla Turk” and includes Bach references and a reference to Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The second live track is a extended and transformed rendition of Dylan’s blues number “She Belongs to me”, and includes references to Elmer Bernstein’s theme from the Magnificent Seven, Aaron Copland’s Hoedown, and more J.S. Bach.  All the diversity and wide ranging quotations are managed coherently, producing a substantial musical experience.

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