FIFTY YEARS AGO: The concert was recorded and would be released on 3 LPs on December 20, 1971. The inclusion of Bangla Dhun on side one was the highlight for me and I have been a fan of classical Indian music since.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus
After being so successful on taking a chance on King Crimson’s first album, based solely on the album cover, I became more adventurous and shortly after Tarkus was released around June 14, 1971, it showed up at our local K-Mart, the same K-Mart where I had purchased the King Crimson album. And purchasing on primarily album cover cosmetics, I bought my first ELP album, Tarkus, along with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. My dad had recently purchased a quality pair of headphones, and that evening I pulled up a chair in front of the amplifier and listened to both albums, mesmerized by the distinct sound of each, and pleasantly surprised that the “Lake” in “Emerson, Lake and Palmer” was the Greg Lake from the first King Crimson album.
I vividly recall the opening of the first track, “Eruption” with its dramatic opening crescendo and the unusual meter (3/8+2/8) established by the drums and bass with Emerson’s angular organ line, the short shift in meter (3/4), returning to the original organ line and then another shift (4/4) with the majestic horn-like moog synthesizer fanfare section. At that time I had no idea of the many meter shifts I was hearing (5/8, 3/4, 5/8, 4/4, 5/8, 7/8, 9/16, 2/4, etc.) but underneath those headphones, it was clear I was in the middle the musical equivalent of a volcanic eruption as depicted in the inner sleeve (see modern CD insert below.)
The entire first side absorbed my entire attention. This was music distinctly different from anything and created its own world — as fantastical as any imagined battle between the mythical creatures of the inner surface of the opened album — and then some. I had limited experience with listening to Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky — and none yet with Bartok and Ginastera — but clearly this was at the same level — a modern masterpiece of music.
Side two was more a collection of songs, bookended by two somewhat weaker tracks, with substantial material in the middle. It was side one that kept me coming back to this album, and displaced my prior favorite group, KIng Crimson, with this new band. Of course, I bought the previously ELP album, then all the Nice albums I could find, with Emerson, the keyboard player, now being my favorite living musician.
The album is far from perfect — but that is true with all of ELP’s output; what matters here is that the quality of side one has few rivals in either rock music or progressive rock music. The lyrics are a bit hit and miss and can simply be viewed as falling far short of supporting the music or, if one uses their imaginative skills, leveraging the Tarkus storyline depicted in the inside cover as some allegory for the more common battles of life. Either way, Greg Lake’s contributions here are not primarily the lyrics but his musical contributions including the battlefield melody, similar to Lake’s Epitaph melody for King Crimson. Lake seems to furnish the more traditional elements of rock music and melody to provide a balance and contrast which serves as an appropriate offset for the more aggressive and idiosyncratic instrumental passages. This is the magic of group efforts, whether progressive rock bands, traditional rock bands, jazz ensembles, and so on — one can get a level of diversity rarely provided by a single composer or musician. The lone composer has made many invaluable contributions to music, but our age also includes many stellar collaborative efforts — including side one of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus — a timeless classic of music.
Todd Rundgren: Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren
Released on June 24, 1971, Todd Rundgren’s solo second album is pretty much Todd going it alone, writing all the music, being very attentive to every aspect of the arrangements, and playing all instruments that he could, allowing additional personnel on bass and percussion with himself on everything else. Though no track quite matches “We Got to Get You a Woman” from the prior album, the quality is consistently high, with “A Long Time, a Long Way to Go”, “Boat on the Charles”, “Be Nice to Me” being particularly memorable.
Joni Mitchell: Blue
This album sounds as vital today as fifty years. The music is great, the performance intimate, the sound quality excellent, even by today’s standards and the lyrics are personal, heartfelt, of high merit, and flawlessly fit with the music. This should be in every music lover’s collection.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears 4
It’s quite something that after fifty years, most commercial planes don’t fly any faster, personal car travel across country is pretty much the same, at the same speed with no improvement in dining or scenary, and the sound quality of recorded music is on balance, not significantly better — at least nothing close to the progress made in the first six decades of the twentieth century. By 1971, the sound quality of rock, jazz and classical albums were generally quite good with a diverse use of stereophonic capabilities, judicious layering of multiple tracks and the presentation of a sound stage, whether realistic or not, that was engaging and provided the foundation for meaningful musical entertainment. The sound on the three previous albums and this one may be far from perfect but they deliver a presence that fully engages one with the musical product – and provides a level of presence not much different than modern releases — and sometimes better.
This fourth BS&T album is musically as good as their previous three (an opinion at odds with general consensus, of course), with strong instrumental contributions from regulars Steve Katz, Dick Halligan, Fred Lipsius, Lew Soloff and Chuck Winfield and the addition of trombonist Dave Bargeron who also impressively handles tuba and baritone horn responsibilities. The joy here is in the beauty and magnificence of the brass arrangements and performances and the strong production that effectively brings out the qualities of those arrangements.
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was released on May 21, 1971, but prior to that, around the end of February 1971, the calmest, most relaxed single of the 1970s yet ever heard by my ears on top 40 AM radio, started receiving airplay displacing the previous smoothest single of the earliest part of that year, “Black Magic Woman”. Now firmly only a fan of FM, my only exposure to AM radio was on the school bus — about a 25 minute ride into school and about a 35 minute ride on the late bus back home. By the middle of March of 1970, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was likely to be played once, and sometimes twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon during my daily travel on the bus. With annoying songs like The Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple”, Dawn’s “Knock Three Times”, and other mediocre bubblegum or pop tunes, the inclusion of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, far removed from the commercial template of most of the songs in the Top 40 of that time, into the AM playlist was like being given access to water in a scorching desert.
How appropriate that this gem leads off Marvin Gaye’s must heralded album, proving both the name and the essence for the entire album, almost by itself asserting the concept of the entire album, which rightfully and fittingly lines up perfectly and unconditionally with the ethos and character of that first track creating a concept album addressing peace, love, ecologic responsibilities, justice and injustice, and the rights and preciousness of all, adults and children.
Recorded in August through October of 1970, and released in 1971, Joe Zawinul’s fifth studio album (as a leader) continues the musical trailblazing of Miles Davis’s masterpiece, In a Silent Way. There is in fact, an amazing version of this Zawinul composition on the album, glimmering with a full rainbow of beauty, the pairing of Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul on keyboards and the lyrically lucid and spiritual melodic leadership by trumpet-great Woody Shaw.
The entire album provides a musical retreat, unfolding with the beauty of an uncompromised, unexplored nature reserve. Graced by so many fine musicians, and some creative engineering including some tape manipulation, editing, and praiseworthy aural balancing, the album provides all that is necessary for an immersive musical outing fully contained within the short span of about thirty-six minutes.
Weather Report: Weather Report
A few months after finishing recording his eponymous fifth album, Joe Zawinul teamed up with Wayne Shorter, Miroslav Vitouš, and multiple percussionists for the first Weather Report album released on May 12, 1971. The album embraces much of the creative forces present in Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but moves into new territory also with rhythmically propulsive tracks like “Umbrellas” and “Seventh Arrow” as well as the atmospheric track “Orange Lady” which provides a leisurely, reflective weave from a spectrum of beautiful coordinated musical musings and the shimmering “Waterfall.”
Paul and Linda McCartney: Ram
While my sister was accompanying my maternal grandmother on an ocean cruise for the summer of 1971, I journeyed from Southern California up to Salem, Oregon accompanying my paternal grandparents on a nearly twenty-four Trailways bus trip to spend a couple of weeks with my cousins, aunt and uncle, fishing, introducing my older cousin to the classic Chicago II album, taping drum and bugle practices on a cheap, bottom-of-the barrel cassette recorder and generally having the time of my life.
When driven to the newly open Lancaster shopping mall by my older cousin and her friends, I stumbled into what may be commonplace today, but was a novelty at that time, a record store in a indoor shopping mall — the indoor shopping mall being also a relatively new concept, with the Lancaster mall (now the Willamette Town Center) opened shortly before my arrival.
A moment or two after entering the record store, the store manager changed records, putting the newly arrived second McCartney album, Ram (released a few weeks earlier on May 17, 1971) on the store turntable. The first track, “Too Many People” was immediately recognizable as it was getting airplay on both FM and AM. While my cousin and friends wended their way through the multiple other retailers in the mall, I camped out in the record store, listening to the entire first side including the previously familiar “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, pulled away by them for a few minutes, and then eventually returning to finish up side two and, to my delight, an unexpected replay of the entire album, or at least side one, as I was eventually whisked away by my cousin and friends to somewhere else. Later on my return to the mall, perhaps a week later, I got to hear most of side two, including the final track, “The Back Seat of My Car.”
Upon my return to Southern California, my good friend, fellow cross-country runner, co-worker at the school cafeteria, and next door neighbor, the one that had introduced my to Chicago, had already purchased Ram, and I promptly recorded it on to my reel-to-reel. I was already in love with the album, and played it several times before eventually tiring of it and moving on to something else. It’s a pleasure to listen to it again after all these years, and even though back in 1971 my cousin may have thought the music to be somewhat silly and certainly not in the same league as Chicago’s second album, I still love the simple, engaging, and buoyantly upbeat music that permeates this album.
The Carpenters: Carpenters
On May 14, 1971, The Carpenters released their third album with meticulous soft-pop arrangements by Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter’s trademark vocals. It is not as special as an album as their previous Close To You album, but their performances are beyond reproach even if not all the selected material matches that of Close To You. As the Carpenters moved to Downey, California a few months before my parents moved our family to Orange County, I honor my hometown connection to them and that adds to the fondness I have for their music. Add to this that my Oregon older cousin liked them, even when she dismissed McCartney’s second solo album, and that my spouse, the love of my life, is a big Karen Carpenters fan, I think I will always enjoy listening to their music with an ongoing emotional connection that is in addition to my appreciation of their musical merits.
John Entwistle: Smash your head against the wall; Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners; Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story
Like George Harrison, John Entwistle did not have an abundance of support to get his bandmates to include his compositions on their albums, so his first solo album, Smash you head against the wall, released during May of 1971, contains many of these “rejected” compositions. One recurring trait in Entwistle’s works is the use of chromatic passages as famously represented in years earlier in “Boris the Spider” and his darkly-tinged humor as represented in the opening track of this debut album, “My Size.”
Graham Nash is one of the most underappreciated songwriters of the sixties and seventies, so its always a joy to listen to his songs whether on Hollies albums, CSN and CSNY albums or his solo albums. This is a wonderful album brimming with catchy melodies including songs like “Military Madness” and “Chicago.”
Though I don’t think of myself as much of a Rod Stewart fan, I took an immediately liking to “Every Picture Tells a Story”, Rod Stewart’s third solo album, released on May 28, 1971. There is an authenticity to his delivery throughout this album and the strongest tracks are certainly among Rod’s best efforts.
Caravan: In the Land of Grey and Pink
Caravan releases their third album, In the Land of Grey and Pink, on April 8,1971. Richard Sinclair takes a more prominent role providing three of the four songs on side one with his cousin, keyboardist Richard Sinclair, providing much of the music and compositions for side two.
Though not particularly popular upon its release, and difficult to spot in any record store in the U.S. in 1971, over time the album has gotten more attention, eventually achieving gold status. This third album, notably better than the previous two Caravan albums, particularly benefits from Richard Hitchock’s contributions as the producer (the same person who would produce Genesis’s Foxtrot the next year), the relatively generous studio time allocated, and the work ethic and level of creativity of the musicians.
The album opens with the sounds of trombone and percussion that begin Richard Sinclair’s “Golf Girl”, a playful homage to the woman Richard would shortly marry, followed by the initially reflective and more exploratory “Winter Wine.” The Pye Hastings composition that follows, “Love to Love You” is more pop than progressive but benefits nicely from contributions on flute by Pye’s brother Jimmy Hastings. The final track, the title track written by Richard Sinclair, provides a strong close to side one with notable contributions on keyboards from Dave Sinclair.
Side two, taken up by the single composition, “Nine Feet Underground”, is really a medley of multiple unrelated compositions nicely balanced against each other. Like side one, the band is credited for all the music, though in this case Dave Sinclair is the primary composer providing lyrics on one song and getting help on lyrics from Pye Hastings on another. Dave Sinclair’s keyboard work is particularly notable, though there are fine contributions from Pye and cousin Richard, the latter’s bass guitar work being particularly captivating.
The Nice: Elegy
After Emerson was with ELP, and Dave Jackson and Brian Davison were with their respective groups, Charisma released, in April 1971, three live tracks from a December 1969 concert at the Fillmore East plus one studio take of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” as the album Elegy. The first two tracks showcase Keith Emerson’s keyboard skills, and even if some of the piano work doesn’t rise above what the very best jazz pianists might consider merely ordinary, Emerson has a way of creating narrative-like instrumental performances that are as engaging and musically satisfying making both tracks on side one special listening experiences. On side two of the original LP we get a trio-version of The Nice performing the scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and an timeless document of the trio, with Emerson on electric organ, tackling Leonard Bernstein’s America. More modern digital releases may include two BBC radio live performances.
Elton John: 11-17-70 (or 17-11-70)
Recorded in the A & R recording studio on 52nd street in New York on November 17, 1970 for a live radio broadcast, 11-17-70 nicely captures the qualities and strengths of the original Elton John trio of Elton, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. I first heard part of the album while listening to FM radio sometime in April 1970, and quickly went out and bought the LP. This provided a nice companion to the two studio albums I had purchased in 1970, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, and also provided more emphasis on the Elton’s acoustic piano skills and Dee Murray’s electric bass. In many ways this is my favorite Elton John album, capturing this trio at its musical peak. The music was not originally intended to be released on vinyl, but the prevalence of bootleg recordings of the broadcast provided a good economic incentive to do so even though ultimately sales were hampered by competition with such bootlegs including one 2 LP set which included more content than on the 11-17-70 single LP official release. A two LP set was released in April of 2017 containing all the original recording material, though not presented in the original order of the broadcast.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: 4 Way Street
Recorded in the summer of 1970 and released on April 7, 1971, the 4 Way Street live album provides a great overview of how talented these four individuals really were as songwriters and musicians. Material includes a range of music including acoustic tracks on the first two sides of this double LP album, and electric guitar dominated tracks on all but the encore acoustic track on sides three and four. The version to get is the expanded version which includes additional tracks for each artist from the acoustic set of these 1970 performances.
With the popularity of jazz rock in its peak following top selling albums by groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, thirty-six year old fiery trumpeter Bill Chase, previously a member of Stan Kenton, Manyard Ferguson and Woody Herman Big bands, and freelancing at gigs in Las Vegas, formed an eponymous band that featured his virtuosic high register and three additional trumpet players along with keyboards, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, and vocals (vocals provided by trumpeters Ted Piercefield and Jerry Van Blair and vocalist Terry Richards.) The group’s first album, with arrangements and some compositions from Bill Chase, was recorded in late 1970 and released in April 1970. Thanks to the success and liberal airplay of “Get it On”, the album sold fairly well, climbing up to position 22 on the albums’ chart that year. The album shares similarities to Blood, Sweat and Tears second and third albums, primarily distinguished and differentiated by Bill Chase’s arrangements, compositional style and the use of four trumpets and no saxes or trombones. Bill Chase would release two more albums before his death in 1974 from a twin-engine plane crash transporting him and other musicians to a county fair in Minnesota.
Doors: LA Woman and Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers
Seemingly an artifact of an earlier era, in a year where rock had now splintered into so many genres, The Doors released their sixth studio album, L.A. Woman, on April 1971, Though having much in common with previous material, with a little more emphasis on a blues-leaning bias, the album contained the notable, somewhat minimalist and moody, almost hypnotic “Riders of the Storm” — a musical piece with more in common with German progressive rock bands than one might expect. All in all a good but not game-changing album.
The Rolling Stones also focused more on a bluesy musical identity, providing a very strong album of more traditional but nonetheless somewhat distinct set of tracks centered around what was apparently the band’s drug culture. My first exposure to the music was from the constant repeated airplay of Brown Sugar and at a high school dance band where the band covered several of the songs on the album. The album may not be particularly complex or sophisticated, but it deserves significant praise for just being plain enjoyable. Listening to it now, in 2021 on Spotify hooked up to a high quality audio system, the album still is vital and full of honest energy. I never bought the album itself, but like many took notice when its unique album cover was first displayed in record stores. Often the zipper was pulled halfway down, done apparently, per Wikipedia, to minimalize damage the zipper would do when albums were tightly packed together for shipment, and not due to curious shoppers fiddling with the front.
Yes: The Yes Album
With addition of Steve Howe replacing Peter Banks on guitar, The Yes Album, released on February 19, 1971, is the first truly full-throttle Yes album, essential to lovers of both rock and progressive rock. The album’s first track, “Yours is No Disgrace”, unfolds much like one of those classical music gems of 19th century nationalism creating a sense of expectation of musical discovery or an exploratory musical journey, starting with Bill Bruford on drums reinforcing Chris Squire’s bass line (giving it a particular metallic edge) joined by a counter-motif from Tony Kaye on organ that shifts into the opening melodic passage soon joined by propelling, exhilarating guitar work from Steve Howe. Vocals, and a corresponding new musical section, arrive and within the first two minutes the album establishes its essential place in rock music history. Thematic contrast, thematic transformation, and thematic development are all present in the remainder of the track, but even more important the music is strikingly interesting and compelling.
The rest of the album is just as essential and compelling with Steve Howe live on solo guitar on “The Clap”, the landmark “Starship Trooper” which still gets airplay today, fifty years later, the accessible “I’ve Seen All Good People”, an edit of which received heavy AM airplay in the last three months of 1971, the bouncy and engaging “A Venture” which looks both backward and forward to their previous and their next albums, and the near-epic “Perpetual Change”, with its soaring, recurring bridge section that connects the two main melodies and the contrasting middle section with its first part a jazz-like guitar excursion and the second part another of those distinct Bruford/Squire pairings that represents one of the most identifiable aspects of the classic Yes sound. As with their next two albums, this album thrives on repeated listenings and never disappoints when revisited, whether five years later, fifteen years later, or fifty years later.
Carole King: Tapestry
Although, The Yes Album is my personal favorite, by far, of February 1971, my admiration for Carole King’s Tapestry, her second solo album, released February 10, 1971, and containing one strong track after another, is unbounded. It wasn’t so cool as a sophomore guy in high school to be a fan of artists like Carol King, Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, but thank goodness these albums were in the record collections of some of my female friends and it didn’t take much to fall in love with this music. Tapestry is possibly without equal in its commercial impact, and the resultant empowering of woman singer songwriters, garnering Grammys for Album of the Year, Song of the Year (composition), Record of the Year (single performance/production) and the category of Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Although “You’ve Got a Friend” is arguably the best composition, “So Far Away” is my personal favorite. How about you? What’s your favorite track?
Miles Davis: Tribute to Jack Johnson
In 1969, Miles Davis boldy proclaimed “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard,” and in spirit and attitude, this is definitely Miles Davis’s truest pure rock album even if it doesn’t overshadow all the rest of the fine rock albums of the 1970s. Davis is backed by talented jazz musicians, and though Davis and Teo Macero are primarily responsible for the finished product, the rock essence of the album is also largely due to the rhythm section of Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham with Jon McLaughlin on electric guitar the sum of which concretely establish the undeniable rock textures of this album. This isn’t song-oriented or prog rock, but closer to the blues-rock excursions of Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies.
For both tracks on the original LP, the chords changes are minimal, providing maximum freedom for the improvisors. Particularly interesting is side one where the piece stays in the chord E (or E7) major for the first several dozen bars with Miles making an impressive entrance playing some of the the hardest-edge trumpet imaginable. Often mentioned about this track is when McLaughlin modulates from E to B-flat (the most distant key — with tonic centers a tritone apart) and bassist Michael Henderson continues to stay in E creating an unintended but serendipitous dissonance for several bars until Miles Davis aggressively emphasizes the current key of B-flat, at which point Henderson catches up with the rest of the musicians. Macero edited the two tracks totaling around 53 minutes of music on the album from over six hours of original source music. To access the original source music one can purchase or listen to the 5 CD Complete Jack Johnson set of these sessions available on streaming services like Spotify.
There are several other notable albums including Soft Machine’s jazz-based first all-instrumental fourth album, Fourth, Egg’s mostly instrumental, often-engaging, and always progressive The Polite Force with its wonderful mixed-meter second track “Contrasong” and exploratory, also mixed meter, second side with “Long Piece No.3” parts one, three, and four being particularly notable, Earth, Wind & Fire’s self-titled positive-vibe, love-infused first album, Rita Coolidge’s self-titled debut album, Barbra Streisand’s first foray to engage a younger, hipper audience, Stoney End, Carly Simon’s first album, Carly Simon, and David Crosby’s distinctly Crosby-like debut solo album, If I Could Remember My Name.
John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band
Though, almost fifty years ago, days after Christmas, I ended up buying George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and skipped purchasing this John Lennon album, my next door neighbor did buy it. He was sixteen and I was fifteen years of age. On first listening, I followed the lyrics more carefully than the music, and to me the album was not only unusually personal but somewhat bleak and cynical with an undertone of bitterness. Musically intimate, it was perfect for secluded listening, and the quality of the songs supported both repeated, concentrated listening or putting it on as background while reading or doing schoolwork. Quite a gem. A gem I appreciate even more today. This album was recorded after Lennon and Ono had gone through primal scream therapy and listening to in 2020, I can now more readily relate to Lennon’s viewpoint and his personal pain. I also appreciate the production quality of the album more, though I remember even almost fifty years later being impressed by the double tracking of his vocals on songs like “Hold On”, the simplicity and intimacy of Lennon’s acoustic guitar and vocal presence of “Working Class Hero”, and the beauty of tracks like “Love” and “Look at Me”, the latter similar to Lennon’s Julia on the Beatles’ White album. In the 1980s, no longer a student but successfully self-employed, I made sure I had my own copy of this album, but I must admit that listening to it again in 2020, I appreciate it more than ever.
Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band
We also saw the Yoko One companion album in the stores and eyed it multiple times but the consensus on the street was to avoid it completely. Finally, sometime in 1971, I found someone that had it in their collection and listened to a part of it, looking for any trace of a recognizable song, and not finding it in the first few minutes, even after lifting and repositioning the needles on each track of side one, I abandoned any interest.
That is — until now — and now listening to it in full, after having many hours of accumulated listening to Webern, Cecil Taylor, Xenakis, Crumb, John Cage and a wide range of even less popularly acclaimed music, find it to be quite good. Two bonus elements for me: John Lennon’s guitar and, more impressively, the Ornette Coleman quartet’s contributions on the first track of side two, “AOS” with Yoko Ono’s vocals often merging in quite effectively. Also of note is the quirky “Touch Me” which seems to perfect for deterring any innate tendencies for tactile contact. All in all a solid soundscape experience.
Robert Wyatt: End of an Ear
Released on December 4, 1970, and recorded between Soft Machine’s third and fourth albums, Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear is another challenging listening experience, not easily classified as either jazz-rock, jazz or progressive-rock. Wyatt drums with abandon and provides wordless vocals, sometimes altered in speed and thus also pitch. It’s borderline chaotic, and yet reassuringly musical.
Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off
Leaving both the Robert Wyatt and Yoko Ono albums in the dust, is Captain Beefheart’s wild and unconventional Lick My Decals Off. The first track, “Lick My Decals Off“, though purportedly a statement encouraging consumers, in Beefheart’s words, to “get rid of the labels”, and to evaluate the musical content itself, is clearly a song on tongue-based pleasuring with “lick” (and possibly the “dec” part of “decals”) being the operative message here. The rest of the album is as wild and unbridled with ample use of complex meters and rhythms. The opposite of music to relax or sleep to, this is music to fully wake most mortal listeners up!
Van Der Graaf Generator: H to He, Who Am the Only One
Equally adventurous as these aforementioned albums, with an abundance of complexity, yet, comparatively, “easy listening music” to the Ono and Beefheart albums, is Van Der Graf Generator’s cryptically named third album, H to He, Who Am the Only One, referencing the transformation of hydrogens atoms into a single, inert, alone and isolated helium atom — a metaphor, whether appropriate or not, for the theme of isolation that is so effectively represented in the music and lyrics of this brilliantly realized and remarkable album.
King Crimson: Lizard
I remember purchasing King Crimson’s Lizard shortly after acquiring the classic album In the Court of the Crimson King, expecting something similar. Unlike their second album, In the Wake of Poseiden, which I had not yet acquired and eventually had to special order, Lizard was very different with no songs matching the colorful vitality of “21st Century Schizoid Man” or “The Court of the Crimson King” or even the simple melodic beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” or “Moonchild.” Nonetheless, the music was instantly intriguing and engaging — and by the second or third listening, I fully accepted it, as well as the distinctly differences in contributions from drummer Andrew McCullough (quite talented by with a far different approach than Micheal Giles) and saxophonist Mel Collins, both of which make this album particularly special — and the replacement of Greg Lake (after his departure to ELP) with bassist and vocalist Gordon Haskell. Robert Fripp, as always, deserves particular acknowledgment, providing memorable acoustic and electric guitar as well as some mellotron and organ.
Nico’s releases her third solo album, Desertshore. Under half an hour, there is not a wasted microsecond on the entire album. “Janitor of Lunancy” begins the album with a richly-dark bleakness. The harmonium provides both a mystic droning and forward harmonic motion supporting Nico’s low-register vocals from underneath. “The Falconer” starts in similar fashion but John Cale soon joins in a piano, providing a smattering of light that opens up and broadens the music’s scope. The third track, “My Only Child”, for Nico’s eight-year old son, is a beautifully sung, mostly a cappella gem with Nico providing some additional chorale-like vocals and John Cale providing a few minimal brushworks of instrumental punctuation on the high-register of the French horn including the opening note of the work.
Side two begins with violin and harmonium and again provides a bleakness of musical landscape on which rests Nico’s vocals. Whereas the music of “Janitor of Lunancy” might be likened to a hot, dry Bulgarian plain in early August, “Abscheid” more closely resembles a cold, desolate Scottish lowland in the darkness of a January morning. The next track, “Afraid”, ironically is more musically and lyrically hopeful. Mutterlein, an ode either specifically to Nico’s mother or mothers in general is austere and heartfelt. Almost Schubertian, this work was performed almost 28 years later at Nico’s funeral after her tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage.
The album ends with the moderate paced, but doggedly forward-driving “All That is My Own”, beautiful and distinctive. Altogether Desertshore is the equivalent of a cohesive song cycle with commendable vocals and praiseworthy compositions from one of the more notable, but often overlooked, singer-songwriters of this era.
Vashthi Bunyan: Just Another Diamond Day
A singer-songwriter even more overlooked than Nico was Vashthi Bunyan, whose 1970 album, Just Another Diamond Day, recorded in November and December 1969 and released in December 1970, sold so poorly that Bunyan would stop recording and performing and not make another album until 2005. Thankfully, the album gained attention during the rise of the small-label Indie rock artists, when it’s simplicity and musical honesty was more fully appreciated.
Colosseum: Daughter of Time, If: If2
Additional albums of note for December 1970 include Colosseum’s Daughter of Time, and If’s second album, the fine jazz-rock If2.
On December 16, 1970, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in the Los Angeles Music Center hosted the monumental 12-hour Beethoven Marathon for Beethoven‘s 200th birthday celebration. Those of us in Advanced Placement English at my high school were lucky enough to be bussed to the event. Admission was $1 and we had to leave before evening, but I got to hear several hours of great music including the Beethoven Octet! I was so taken by the piece, I tried to stay for the evening performances, but as I didn’t have a ride arranged back to Orange County, I had to leave with the rest of my classmates. Nonetheless the music I did hear left a lasting impression still remembered today. Classical music on recordings falls far short of a good live performance, and I was very fortunate to hear so many fine performances fifty years ago.