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Fifty Year Friday: Spirit

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Randy California, born Randy Wolfe, was a native Calfornian, born in Los Angeles, but when his step-dad, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy  (the gentleman with the bald head in the left upper portion of their first album cover; a drummer that played gigs with Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Lee Konitz and was a founding member of  Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) had some work lined up in New York City, the family moved to an apartment complex in Queens in 1966.  Randy soon met Jimi Hendrix and then played with Hendrix that very summer  as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.   It was while they were playing together, that Hendrix started calling Randy Wolfe, “Randy California” and another Randy in the band, Randy Palmer, “Randy Texas.”

Randy Wolfe took the “Randy California” name back west, forming Red Roosters with his step-dad, a band that eventually evolved into “Spirits Rebellious” and then just Spirit. Randy was sixteen years old. Besides Randy and Ed, Spirit included composer, keyboard player and lead vocalist, Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes on bass and backing vocals, (who later played with Ferguson in Jo Jo Gunne in the early 1970s, Firefall in the late 1970’s and Heart in the 1980s.) and John Locke (who later joined Nazareth in the 1980’s) also on keyboards. Randy was still sixteen when Spirit’s first album, “Spirit”, was released on January 22, 1968.

None of the songs on Spirit’s debut album are typical pop songs, most having more of an jazz or a psychedelic or progressive rock ethos, with a prevailing ABA form with the B section being a instrumental, partly improvisational section providing contrast to the more traditional song-like A section. The last track, “Elijah”, due to its extended length, stretches out the ABA concept to a rondo-like form (ABACADAEA) with improvised passages between the recurring theme.

All the tracks on the album are notable, with 9 of the 11  songs written or co-written by Ferguson.  “Elijah” was written by John Locke;  Randy California wrote one of the tracks, “Taurus”, a well-written, nicely arranged instrumental following the Andes/Ferguson song, “Mechanical World”, the only track with single status on the album.

“Taurus” opens up with a orchestral introduction that floats into a soft, relaxing two-part theme which is played twice (this not being one of the tracks with ABA form on the album.)  The striking part of the first half of the theme is its similarity to Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven.”  The casual listener may very well consider that Zeppelin borrowed Taurus for that beautiful guitar intro in “Stairway”, particularly if  that listener is aware that Zeppelin opened for Spirit in several 1968 concerts, that Zeppelin included material from the first track of the same Spirit album, “Fresh Garbage” in a medley they performed live, that Page is on record as stating that he had owned several Spirit albums, and that there are over a dozen noteworthy cases of  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “borrowing without credit” material from other artists.

So similar is the connection between “Taurus” and “Stairway” that ultimately in 2014, the estate of Randy California brought a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. Randy California had drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, at the age of only 45, when swimming into the ocean to save his twelve-year old son from a rip current.  Though giving up his life in the effort, Randy managed to push his son to safety.  Now seventeen years after his death, lawyers for his estate planned to get a co-writing credit for Randy on “Stairway to Heaven.”

Unfortunately, the judge would not allow the jury to hear side-by-side comparisons of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, he only allowed the performance of the two songs on keyboard by a hired musician using as the source the registered sheet music  from the Library of Congress, music that differed from the final version on the recordings. Also ruled inadmissible were expert witnesses that were lined up to talk about sixteen instances of Jimmy Page’s past use of uncredited material, the judge ruling that any past plagiarism, alleged or actual, was not relevant to this particular case in question.  Adding to this was the odd approach and personality of the prosecuting attorney for the California estate, who quickly exasperated the judge and who scored important points for the defense when questioning Page about his being influenced by the Disney/Mary Poppins song ” Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

The jury ruled in favor of the defense, and certainly there are notable differences in the two passages: the “Stairway” melody goes to A at the end of the first chord and then on to B of the next chord while “Taurus”, less remarkably, descends to A and then G#.  If they jury had heard actual recordings, its seems almost certain they would have ruled otherwise.

Personally, I am glad to have both songs as part of our musical legacy and understand how easy it is to come up with the descending chromatic chord progression used in these two songs — something anyone could accidentally discover in the course of composing by hitting sequentially descending notes for their bass line.  I am also sympathetic to how common it is to put together a song based on something one had heard a long time ago and unintentionally brought into their composing process as so clearly happened with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” — just an unintended revisiting of “She’s So Fine.”  In the case with “Taurus”, it seems Jimmy Page had heard that song several times, forgotten about it, started to play with the chord progressions and went in the direction of a recreation of something close to what his subconscious mind was already familiar with.  In my view, a living Randy California wasn’t particularly interested in who got credit, but his descendants, perhaps needing or wanting money, had a greater interest in assignment of authorship.

You can check out the video below for a good explanation of how these two songs are similar (and differ) in their sharing of the passage in question. If you have any thoughts on this Spirit album, or thoughts on the similarities of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” please don’t hesitate comment.  Also what are some of your favorite albums from 1968?  I know one of mine is still a few months away from being fifty years old, and plan to discuss that if I even if I have lost all my remaining, exceedingly patient readers by then.

 

Click her for track listing [from Wikipedia]

 

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Fifty Year Friday: Acid Rock, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

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Anyone that has unquestioning faith in the definitions in dictionaries, only needs to look up the entry Heavy Metal.

Webster defines Heavy Metal as follows: “Loud and harsh sounding rock music with a strong beat; lyrics usually involve violent or fantastic imagery.”

Merriam Webster defines Heavy Metal as : “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.”

Dictionary.com defines it as “Aggressive and heavily amplified rock music, commonly performed by groups that wear spectacular or bizarre costumes.”

Oxford Dictionary: “A type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantastic imagery.”

Cambridge Dictionary: “A style of rock music with a strong beat, played very loudly using electric guitars.”

McMillan Dictionary “A type of loud rock music that developed in the 1970s, played on drums and electric guitars.”

Collins provides this definition: “Heavy metal is a type of hard rock (they define hard rock as “a type of very loud rock music with a fast beat.”) characterized by violent, shouted lyrics.”

Since heavy metal bands’ songs, particularly their instrumentals, don’t always have violent lyrics and the band’s vocalists usually sing rather than shout the lyrics (except for some specific subgenres such as Thrash and Metalcore), this brings into question the trustworthiness of the Collins definition.  We can also question McMillan’s and Cambridge’s definitions requiring electric guitars as there are a few lesser known groups that don’t include guitar and given the capabilities of electronic keyboards, there is no technical or musical reason why a heavy metal band requires a guitarist to competently and effectively play heavy metal.

If one considers heavy metal as a style of music, than lyrics and costumes become additive, and thus the Webster and dictionary.com definitions are problematic. Merriam Webster’s  “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.” is the most inclusive definition, overly-inclusive by a wide margin, and embraces many songs of hard rock, techno, 1980’s dance bands, progressive rock, jazz-rock, and on and on.

And what about ballads? Many well-known heavy metal bands often include one ballad on their albums, some of these songs being poignant, plaintive or wistfully reflective.  These songs are neither loud nor harsh and though sometimes they are in fairly strict  tempo, the beat is rarely the dominating component.

Given these definitions we don’t have a chance of identifying when the first heavy metal songs were written or what was the first heavy metal bands.

And if we go with various self-proclaimed experts on heavy metal we encounter a variety of viewpoints with many conflicts — some consider Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin heavy metal, others indicate they are not even close but are just hard rock groups. Some require heavy metal bands to have complex, classically-influenced musical material, but there is a problem with such a characterization when examining some of the groups or songs in various top 10 lists including this Rolling Stones’ readers’ poll of the top 10 metal bands of all time.   It seems that if heavy metal has a definition, it should come from the fans and musicians.

So without a guiding definition, and having experienced first hand the evolution that took place from the early British Invasion rock groups through the advent of psychedelic rock, acid rock, hard rock, progressive rock and what are the first somewhat-agreed-upon (but far from consensus) heavy metal bands, I think I am as unqualified as anyone else to make a few observations.

We noted in an earlier post that “Hapshash and the Coloured Coat” included the term “heavy metal kids” in their 1967 album.  This did not have anything to do with music but was borrowed from William Burroughs 1961 novel The Soft Machine’s describing the character Uranian Willy as “the Heavy Metal Kid” — a reference to the final stage of drug addiction, which in Burroughs’ words “is not so much vegetable as mineral.”

It’s also necessary to put into context the term “heavy metal thunder” used in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” written by Mars Bonfire. Mars (Dennis Edmonton, born Dennis Eugene McCrohan) originally wrote this song as a ballad, perhaps when he was with the Sparrows, the group that more-or-less evolved into Steppenwolf in 1967.  Steppenwolf, now without Mars as a band member, modified and recorded the song as an up-tempo rocker, but without any intent for the phrase “heavy metal thunder” to reference any genre of music. (“I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racing with the wind, and the feeling that I’m under.)

It’s possible that the use of the term heavy metal to identify a style of music had some connection to a recognition of the appropriateness of the name of Iron Butterfly and their equally appropriately named debut album, “Heavy” — with the “heavy metal” label solidified by the unabashedly unapproved, one-upmanship upgrade of Iron Butterfly’s name by Led Zeppelin.   Or perhaps it was partly a nod to the metal strings of the electric guitar. Clearly the term “heavy” was in common use at this time and could mean either “profound” (“that’s one heavy concept, man…”), serious, or intense.  Heavy metal, when considering its original meaning and usage, can arguably be interpreted to just mean “intense rock.”  If one, even slightly, gives this definition some due, one must consider Jimi Hendrix’s first album, recorded in late 1966 and early 1967, and released in May of 1967, to have at least two heavy metal tracks with “Fire” and, what some people do acknowledge as the first heavy metal song ever, “Purple Haze.”  Cream’s second album, recorded in May 1967, includes a couple of candidates also with “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and the generally melodic, but forceful “Sunshine of Your Love.”  And there are notable heavy metal elements in the “Who Sell Out” including some of Pete Townshend’s guitar work, the use of power chords, and Keith Moon’s aggressive percussion technique.

All that said, there is no evidence that the term “heavy metal” was yet being used to refer to a style of music at the start or by the end of January 1968.  Nonetheless, we do find bands recording in 1967 that specialized or focused on a harder, more aggressive sound, some of them blues-based, some of them more inventive and capable of greater range in their harmonic vocabulary.  Generally these early bands were not very good.  This reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend who thought little of Led Zeppelin.  “There’s a lot worse bands”, was my reply to his summarily dismissing the group.  “That’s a scary thought,” was his reply.  And, I guess, even scarier still, is that one can say that they are not too impressed by the debut albums of Californian bands Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf that were released in January of 1968, and my reply would be “there’s a lot worse albums” — and I would grant you the right to counter with “that’s a particularly scary thought” and have no more rebuttal than I had when my friend made that comment decades ago about Led Zeppelin.

Nonetheless, if one accepts the dictionary definitions of Heavy Metal we do find that these three albums released in January 1968, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum (quasi-Latin which I leave open for your interpretation as the best as I can make out is something like “The eruption’s conquest”), San Diego’s Iron Butterfly’s Heavy , and L.A. area band, Steppenwolf’s Steppenwolf, qualify as either early heavy metal or a predecessor to heavy metal music.

Of these three albums, the strongest and most musical is the Iron Butterfly debut.  Unfortunately there is little of lasting interest in the self-titled Steppenwolf album, outside of the AM radio hit, “Born to Be Wild”, the respectable “Everybody’s Next One”, and the interesting, emphatic arrangement of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher.”  Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, mostly blues-based, also has some moments, particularly with the guitar work and drumming (which on the last track is much like a homage to how Keith Moon would sound leading a marching band.) With its rough, unbridled, and somewhat uneven musicianship,  this Blue Cheer album serves well as a case-study of 1960’s garage rock as well a foreshadowing of punk, stoner rock and grunge.

But one thing was clear, with these three albums the heavy-metal genie was out of the bottle (Geniebus Eruptum, if you will) and bands as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and later groups like Metallica, Nirvana and Dream Theater would be beneficiaries of this first wave of higher atomic-numbered, more intensive rock.

Fifty Year Friday: The Nice “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack”

Recorded around October 1967 and released sometime in 1968 between January and March (as best as I can determine), this aggressively adventurous album effectively fuses elements of psychedelia, acid rock, jazz and classical music, establishing this in many progressive rock fans’ mind as one of the first true progressive rock albums.

The first track, “Flower King of Flies” is not inherently different than early Pink Floyd, except perhaps for the level of unbridled energy present, and the second song, the title track, is basically a bubbly, upbeat pop tune, performed , once again with unusual energy and a high level of musicianship.  The third track, though, borders on the harder edged rock often provided by the early blues-based metal bands; there is rugged guitar work and precise, yet perfectly spontaneously-sounding, organ work from Keith Emerson.

It isn’t until the fourth track, a 4/4 arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s mostly 9/8 “Blue Rondo à La Turk”, dominated by the acid-rock, B3 Hammond organ work that is the centerpiece of this instrumental, that the album falls more into the progressive rock realm. Included are glissandos, a J.S. Bach toccata reference , controlled distortion, and a climatic building towards the recap (the Brubeck Rondo theme), which frenziedly finishes the last ninety seconds, maintaining a perpetual, inexhaustible torrent of energy.

“War and Peace” opens up the second side with a level of focus and direction more typical in straight-ahead jazz than expected of a sixties’ rock group. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and, perhaps, Cream, this is the closest that anyone gets to the soon-to-be-prevalent heavy metal sound in a 1967 recording, notwithstanding a quote of a Bach Brandenburg concerto.

“Tantalizing Maggie” continues along the hard-rock, nearly heavy-metal frame of mind, with a modulating, exploratory, instrumental, B section that gives way to a modified recap of the A section with classical references that finish the piece.

“Dawn” straddles the line between an avant-garde concert piece and sixties psychedelia,  with sprinkled fragments closer to free jazz and baroque classical than to rock music.

The last track, “The Cry of Eugene”, is a beautiful ballad laced with elements of both psychedelic rock and the concert hall providing a suitable close to a varied, interesting, and well-executed album.  Emerson may be the standout here, but Jackson, O’List, and Davison all contribute significantly with energy and passion.

CD versions of the original LP include additional material with some releases including alternative versions of tracks as well as Nice’s rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s America, an essential for progressive rock lovers.

LP Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

  1. “Flower King of Flies” (Keith EmersonLee Jackson) – 3:19
  2. “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack” (Emerson, David O’List) – 2:49
  3. “Bonnie K” (Jackson, O’List) – 3:24
  4. “Rondo” (Dave Brubeck, Emerson, O’List, Brian Davison, Jackson) – 8:22

Side two

  1. “War and Peace” (Emerson, O’List, Davison, Jackson) – 5:13
  2. “Tantalising Maggie” (Emerson, Jackson) – 4:35
  3. “Dawn” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 5:17
  4. “The Cry of Eugene” (Emerson, Jackson, O’List) – 4:36

Personnel

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Fifty Year Friday: Jackie McLean “Demon’s Dance”

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Unlike most rock albums of 1967 and 1968, in which there is a focused effort to release the material fairly soon, perhaps partly due to the quickly changing musical landscape in pop, many jazz recording sessions of 1967, did not get released until some time later, partially due to the lack of commercial interest in jazz music at that time: the six tracks that make up Demon’s Dance was recorded in a single session on Dec. 22, 1967 and not released until October of 1970.

One can readily notice a similarity between the Demon’s Dance album cover and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew cover.  Bitches Brew was released by Columbia records on March 30, 1970, and reached the number one spot on Billboard’s best selling jazz albums  by July 18, holding that position, on and off, for the rest of 1970.  Blue Note engaged the Bitches Brew album cover artist, Marty Klarwein to provide the artwork for the album cover of Demon’s Dance,  with the eye-catching result as shown above.  (Note that this is just a portion of the original painting — shown fully below at the end of this post.)

The music here is particularly ear-catching, with Jackie Mac taking a step back from his more adventurous free-jazz persona, playing modern, sometimes modal, bebop partnered with a twenty-three year old Woody Shaw providing intense, focused, clear, and often beautifully lyrical trumpet and flugelhorn and a twenty-five year old Jack DeJohnette providing dynamic, propulsive percussion with support from LaMont Johnson on piano and Scott Holt on bass.

The three hard bop uptempo tracks, “Demon’s Dance”, full of energy and intensity and enriched with variety by McLean, Shaw and DeJohnette, “Boo Ann’s Grand”, an excellent composition by Shaw, and “Floogeh” are certainly solid, top-notch performances, but the other three tracks are exceptional.

Woody Shaw provides a cheerfully, affirmative bossa-nova-based composition, “Sweet Love of Mine” that sparkles and includes riveting soloing by McLean and Shaw.  Cal Masey, provides the one ballad of the session, “Toyland” which showcases McLean at his reflective, thoughtful best, providing warmth and tender musicality with an appropriate introspective solo by LaMont Johnson.  The album closes with Cal Masey’s particularly intriguing “Message From Trane”, a modal composition with surface similarities to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”

Both McLean and Shaw are in top form throughout the album, providing engaging solos that can be enjoyed over and again. Shaw is particularly inventive with his well-controlled, crisp, clear, solid tone that makes him one of the great jazz trumpeters of all time.  This was the last of Jackie’s twenty-one albums for Blue Note (wow!!!) and the second-to-last U.S session prior to McLean’s four year break from recording and his departure to Europe.  As far as I can tell, the next session after this, again pairing Jackie and Woody, has never been released — which, making an evaluation based on the merits of the Demon’s Dance album, is a notable loss to the music world.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All compositions by Jackie McLean except as indicated
  1. “Demon’s Dance” – 7:09
  2. “Toyland” (Cal Massey) – 5:24
  3. “Boo Ann’s Grand” (Woody Shaw) – 6:57
  4. “Sweet Love of Mine” (Shaw) – 6:04
  5. “Floogeh” – 5:23
  6. “Message From Trane” (Massey) – 5:29

Personnel

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