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Archive for April, 2019

Fifty Year Friday: Chicago Transit Authority

“Only the beginning, only just the start.”  Robert Lamm, from “Beginnings.”

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Chicago Transit Authority

Formed in Chicago in 1967, originally named the Big Sound and incorporating three horn players, a drummer, and guitarist Terry Kath, this band of talented individuals was coaxed to pick up and move to L.A. by the independent producer James Williams Guercio in 1968. Guercio provided a new name, “Chicago Transit Authority”, and ensured them of attractive gigs including the opening show at the Whisky A Go Go. Soon the group started recording their first album in January 1969, the self-titled double record set that was released on April 28. 1969.

Like many people, I didn’t hear this album until after hearing their second album.  My next neighbor first bought their second, one of the great masterpieces of 1970’s rock, and then went back and purchased their first, this generally strong eponymous Chicago Transit Authority.  Their first album, then, became a means of being able to hear additional material by the group that had released that classic double Chicago album, the group’s name change prompted by the threat of legal action by the mass transit operator for that extreme northeast section of Illinois bordering Lake Michigan, the original Chicago Transit Authority.

I am sure I would have been much more impressed by this first album, if I had heard it before their second, for it’s a fine album on its own, and the second best album of their entire catalog.  Terry Kath’s guitar work is creative and full of life, and his voice is that of a jazz or R&B singer. Robert Lamm’s  compositions, with the exception of “South California Purples”, which is a spruced up blues number, burst out with energy and sparkle and are as good as anything in rock music at that time.  The performances by the rest of the band are all excellent, and the brass arrangements, primarily by trombonist James Pankow, are effective and focused.

And yet, after Guercio arranged for CBS west coast executives to hear the band at the Whiskey, the execs were not impressed.  A second attempt by Guercio to convince the west coast CBS “brass” to sign Chicago Transit Authority met with similar results: no interest, no deal. Guercio then finally cut a demo at a small independent studio that he circulated around to others outside of CBS, and soon, when CBS Clive Davis found out, he overruled the West Coast and the band signed with CBS’s Columbia label.

With a wealth of material to record, and wishing to create a serious product, the band insisted on making a double album.  When Columbia heard about this, they would only go along on one condition: the band must give up a percentage of their royalties for a double LP.  The band agreed, and the first debut rock double album since Frank Zappa and the Mother of Inventions’ “Freak Out” was released.

Of the four sides of this album, the first two are far the strongest, with the first song composed by Terry Kath and the remaining by Robert Lamm, followed by a more exploratory third side and then a generally strong side four.  “Free Form Guitar” on side three may not be the most accessible track, but it displays Kath’s mastery of the guitar, and help provide a fuller picture of why Hendrix purportedly told Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider, “The horns are like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.” While “Free Form Guitar” provides indisputable evidence of Kath’s, imagination, control, and technique, other tracks on the album, particularly the first and last tracks, convincingly showcase Kath’s musicality and artistry.  Throughout the musicianship is excellence, and the combination of strong material and strong execution makes this one of the best debut rock albums ever.

Up to this point, many would consider the Beatles the most substantial of all the 1960s pop groups, but with 1969 comes a new upsurging of talent: bands that were, to some degree or other, influenced by the Beatles, but also heavily influenced by jazz and classical music — bands that could make music equal to or surpassing the works of the Beatles.  Chicago is one of the first of such rock groups, a progressive jazz-rock group, at least initially, that produced a first and then a second album that will be listened to, like the best of the Beatles’ albums, long into the future not only by music lovers like us but by our children and the generations that follow.

 

Track listing 

LP 1
1. Introduction (6:35) (Kath)
2. Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (4:35) (Lamm)
3. Beginnings (7:54) (Lamm)
4. Questions 67 and 68 (5:03) (Kath)
5. Listen (3:22) (Lamm)
6. Poem 58 (8:35) (Lamm)

LP 2
7. Free Form Guitar (6:47) (Kath)
8. South California Purples (6:11) (Lamm)
9. I’m A Man (7:43) (Steve WinwoodJimmy Miller)
10. Prologue (August 29, 1968) (0:58) (James William Guercio)
11. Someday (August 29, 1968) (4:11) (Pankow)
12. Liberation (14:38) (Pankow)

Production

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Fifty Year Friday: Uncle Meat, With a Little Help from My Friends, On the Threshold of a Dream

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The Mothers of Invention: Uncle Meat

Frank Zappa continues to challenge the boundaries of commercial music, producing an audio collage of breathtakingly fresh music, snippets of musique concrète, and dialogue from his unfunded movie.

Recorded from September 1967 to September 1968 and released on April, 21, 1969, Uncle Meat is a particularly colorful album on a number of levels besides just the colorful dialogue included.  Zappa aggressively and artfully deploys twelve-track recording and speed alterations to affect the timbre and character of voices and instruments, creating a clearly contemporary work not possible just a few years earlier.

This is album is a barrel-full-of-monkeys fun to listen to with the highlights including the title theme, Ian Underwood’s keyboards and sax contributions, “Mr. Green Genes”, and the King Kong tracks on side four of the original LP.

 

Joe_Cocker-With_a_Little_Help_from_My_Friends_(album_cover)

Joe Cocker: With a Little Help from My Friends

In 1969 and in the early seventies, I not only unsympathetically and almost unequivocally dismissed any version of a Beatles song not performed by the Beatles, but its accurate to say that I generally formed a dim view of any performer making such an attempt.  And so my first impression of Joe Cocker was particularly negative when I heard his version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” on AM radio and later saw Cocker perform on television.

Wisdom and time has helped me overcome this teenage bias, and as a musically mature adult, I actually respect anyone with enough nerve (or even recklessness) to do a cover of one of the Beatles classics.  If they do it well, that is, they deserve my respect; looking back on Cocker’s rendition of one of the last of McCartney and Lennon’s true collaboration’s, “With A Little Help From My Friends”, and comparing it against Ringo’s vocals, I must admit that Cocker and his backing musicians pull this off pretty nicely.

In fact, the whole album is pretty good, with some original tracks along with a diverse set of covers including the well-known and often recorded 1926 composition, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” as well as a couple of Dylan covers.  Cocker and back-up singers team up with musicians as capable and as well respected as Albert Lee, Jimmy Page and Stevie Winwood, taking Cocker’s debut album as high as the thirty-fifth spot on the billboard chart.

 

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The Moody Blues continue with their signature style of music crafting an album that encompasses elements of the past, present and future:  “To Share Our Love” harkens back to 1966 British Beat music, “Send Me No Wine” is country rock with an English accent, and “The Voyage” is an exploration into the territory of progressive rock.

Recorded in the first two months of 1969, and released in the UK in April of 1969  and in the US in May of 1969, On the Threshold of a Dream quickly reached the number one spot on the UK album charts by May 4, 1969, staying there for a couple of weeks.  There are some that would profess this to be the first progressive rock album to claim the number one spot, but to my mind that distinction either belongs to the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt Pepper’s album or ELP’s 1971 Tarkus, depending on how stringently one defines progressive rock.  That said, it is a tribute to British taste how well this album did, particularly since its best mark on the US charts was the twentieth spot occurring the week of July 26, 1969.

Though the Moody Blues is not one of my favorite bands, and one that I rarely listen to today, I am always impressed by their dreamy, evocative artistry that unfailingly creates a consistent, though often varied, mood — an enveloping, trademark mood providing a generally calming, mystical musical palette distinct from that of other bands of that era.  Pay particular attention to the ethereal flute and oboe provided by Ray Thomas and the cello and mellotron contributions from Pinder, Hayward and Lodge.

Track listing  [From Wikipedia]

Side A

#

Title

Writer(s)

Lead vocals

Length

1.

In the Beginning Graeme Edge Hayward, Pinder, Edge (narration)

2:08

2.

Lovely to See You Justin Hayward Hayward

2:35

3.

Dear Diary Ray Thomas Thomas

3:56

4.

Send Me No Wine John Lodge Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, Pinder

2:20

5.

To Share Our Love Lodge Pinder

2:54

6.

So Deep Within You Mike Pinder Pinder

3:07

Side B

 #

Title

Writer(s)

Lead vocals

Length

1.

Never Comes the Day Hayward Hayward

4:43

2.

Lazy Day Thomas Thomas

2:43

3.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Hayward, Thomas Hayward

3:29

4.

The Dream Edge Pinder (narration)

0:57

5.

Have You Heard (Part 1) Pinder Pinder

1:30

6.

“The Voyage” Pinder  

3:58

7.

Have You Heard (Part 2) Pinder Pinder

2:32

The Moody Blues Personnel

Justin Hayward – vocals, guitars, cello, mellotron on “Never Comes the Day”
John Lodge – vocals, bass guitar, cello, double bass
Ray Thomas – vocals, harmonica, flute, tambourine, oboe, piccolo
Graeme Edge – rums, percussion, vocals, EMS VCS 3
Mike Pinder – vocals, mellotron, Hammond organ, piano, cello

Fifty Year Friday: Nashville Skyline, Songs From A Room, Nazz Nazz

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BOB DYLAN: NASHVILLE SKYLINE

“Oh me, oh my,
Love that country pie.”

— Bob Dylan

Especially with singer songwriters, its’ fun to speculate which came first: the lyrics or the music.  Bob Dylan’s 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding” appears to be a well-crafted set of poems that then are set to music.  Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline appears to be a set of music compositions, with lyrics added afterwords.  Adding the words later, creates a task much more difficult for the lyricist role of the singer songwriter, particularly if the music does not emerge from a set of chord progressions, but comes from the heart — a melody that one hears with or without its associated chords, that then one must fully form into a song.  I am particularly amazed at the results of lyricist Lorenz Hart who was able to write such excellent lyrics to completed Richard Rogers songs.

However, writing great music to preexisting lyrics seems to be an almost impossible feat. As impressed as I am at the quality of Hart’s lyrics to fit into preexisting music, I am even more amazed at the quality of music that Richard Rogers was able to provide when he switched to working with Oscar Hammerstein, a lyricists whose method of creation was to first write the lyrics, handing those finished lyrics to the composer who then had to create appropriate music for those words.

So, I am not surprised that Dylan, who is not the quality of composer as Richard Rogers, comes up short musically sometimes when creating music to fit his own existing poetry as is the general case with the “John Wesley Harding” album.

Note that I may be completely wrong with this thesis, but I believe that with Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, released on April 9, 1969, several of the songs were written first with lyrics added.  “Nashville Skyline Rag” was a rare instrumental by Dylan and gives us a clear example of Dylan writing music without preexisting lyrics, but I believe this is also the case with songs like “To Be Alone With You”” I Threw it All Away”, and “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  Unlike the previous album, Nashville Skyline is not a series of songs with verses and no choruses but a collection of traditional,  fairly catchy and easily singable tunes.  The music sounds more natural, and comes across as the primary content — another indicator that the lyrics are there for the music and not the music being created to support existing poetry.

But an additional reason for my assertion that the music came first, is the generally simple quality of the lyrics. On scrutiny, this is a rather weak argument when one considers that not only most of the music, but the associated words are totally in alignment with expected character of late 1960’s country music, and so one could argue that Dylan once again wrote the lyrics first to get the level of authenticity needed for the project and rose to the task of fitting natural, catchy, country music to those lyrics. Either way Dylan deserves praise for the final product and his amazing adaptability.

He also deserves particular praise for the number of musical and lyrical cliches he was able to fit into a short twenty-seven minute album, given there is nothing inherently wrong with cliches: to quote Nicolas Slonimsky, one of the great musicologists of the twentieth century defending a particularly cliche in classical music, “yes, its a cliche, but it’s a good cliche!”   Musically, we find heavy reliance on common country music chord progressions and melodic patterns, but it is the lyrical cliches that interest me even more. For example, the entire content of the third song, “To Be Alone with You” is almost entirely crafted from cliches:

“To be alone with you,
Just you and me,
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through;
Everything is always right
When I’m alone with you.

“To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away;
It only goes to show
That while life’s pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I’m alone with you.”

“They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love;
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you’re always what I’m thinkin’ of.
I wish the night were here
Bringin’ me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms.

“I’ll always thank the Lord
When my workin’ day is through —
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you”

And so it goes for the rest of the album with such often-used phrases as

“I treated her like a fool”, “in the palm of my hand”, “I threw it all away”. “Love … makes the world go ’round”, “stole my heart away”. “love to spend the night”. “future looks so bright”. “girl is out of sight”. “loved her just the same”. “And I love her so”. “you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen”. “You can have your cake and eat it too”. “tonight no light will shine on me”. “lost the only pal I had”. “I just could not be what she wanted me to be”. “I thought that she’d be true”. “what a woman in love would do”. “I didn’t mean to see her go”. “tell me that it isn’t true”, “They say that you’ve been seen with some other man”. “he’s tall, dark and handsome”. “It hurts me all over”, “all I want is your word”, “you better come through”, “I’m countin’ on you”. “playin’ ’til the break of day”. “that ain’t no lie”, “got nothin’ on me”, “Throw my troubles out the door”, “it was more than I could do”. “your love comes on so strong”, “I’ve waited all day long”, “Is it really any wonder”, “You cast your spell and I went under“, “I find it so difficult to leave.”

One has to conclude, even if  reluctantly, that there is a genius at work here, and whether the lyrics came first or were cleverly fitted into the music, it’s impressive how all these cliches were incorporated into these few songs.

One personal note: “Lay, Lady, Lay” was repeatedly played on AM radio, over and over, starting in July 1969.  I cringed every time it came on. I was fourteen, and this is second worse traumatic experience for me that year — the worst was having to hear The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” on the radio, relentlessly repeated with the resumption of the school year that September. What an ordeal! A poor, suffering, helpless fourteen-year-old freshman high school student being subjected to the one song that most exemplified (and historically defined) bubble-gum pop music — and subjected to such inane music and lyrics every morning and every afternoon on the school bus ride.  “Lay, Lady, Lay” was a welcome relief in comparison.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Bob Dylan – guitar, harmonica, keyboards, vocals
Norman Blake – guitar, dobro
Kenneth A. Buttrey – drums
Johnny Cash – vocals on “Girl from North Country”
Fred Carter Jr. – guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, guitar
Pete Drake – pedal steel guitar
Marshall Grant – bass guitar on “Girl from North Country”
W. S. Holland – drums on “Girl from North Country”
Charlie McCoy – guitar, harmonica
Bob Wilson – organ, piano
Bob Wootton – electric guitar on “Girl from North Country”

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LEONARD COHEN: SONGS FROM A ROOM

Released on April 7, 1969, Leonard Cohen’s second album Songs from a Room, did well on the US Charts (peaking at 63) and impressively in the UK (getting as high as second spot on the UK charts.)  This seems to be another one of those singer-songwriter album which has songs that are based on poetry set to music rather than lyrics devised to fit the music.

The most amazing song, on a relatively strong album, is the powerfully compelling “Story of Isaac”, basically an anti-Vietnam song, set within the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It’s message extends much more broadly, and the song unfolds first as a narrative and then as a commentary.  “A scheme” such as capitalism or communism poorly compares to a divine vision, and if what Abraham did is clearly inappropriate, how much more so is sending our youth off to fight politically-motivated wars?  Or to kill off the promise of future generations by reckless consumption of our planet’s precious resources?  One has to be astonished at how artfully and convincingly Cohen has crafted his message.

Cohen delivers intimate, personal songs from his room that can fully enjoyed when we provide undivided attention to the music emanating from the speakers in front of us in our rooms.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Leonard Cohen – vocals, classical guitar
Ron Cornelius – acoustic and electric guitar
Bubba Fowler – banjo, bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar

nazz2

THE NAZZ: NAZZ NAZZ

Todd Rundgren and The Nazz, released their second album, “Nazz Nazz” on April 7, 1969.  This was effectively their last album, originally intended as a double album, with some of the music held back and then later released as “Nazz III” by SGC Records coinciding with Todd Rundgren’s blossoming solo career starting to provide a commercial audience for these earlier tracks.

The diversity of this album is remarkable.  There are two solid blues numbers, “Kiddie Boy” and “Featherbedding Lover”, a fine-blues based hard rock number “Hang on Paul”, sounding as it would almost fit into the Beatles’ White Album, the melodic “Gonna Cry Today”, the richly euphonic “Letters Don’t Count” with its glass harmonic intro and coda and its layered vocals, the heavy “Under The Ice”, the confusingly psychedelic “Meridian Leeward”, and the artfully composed “A Beautiful Song.”   One hears not only influences from The Beatles, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach, but Todd’s own singular voice in all the compositions (particularly in the melodies and harmonic modulations), the arrangements, and the overall production. In addition we have Rundgren’s distinct guitar work and his general lyrical competency which sometimes rises to be as profound and effective as anything by the more renown singer songwriters of the sixties. Case in point is this verse from “Gonna Cry Today”

“Are you turned off by my lack of composure?
Please excuse my state, it’s just that I know
Your gonna take away something that I never had
But I thought was mine.”

which is perfectly understated, identifying the essence of not only romantic loss but loss in general.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written by Todd Rundgren.

Side one

  1. “Forget All About It” – 3:15
  2. “Not Wrong Long” – 2:30
  3. “Rain Rider” – 3:52
  4. “Gonna Cry Today” – 3:15
  5. “Meridian Leeward” – 3:20
  6. “Under the Ice” – 5:40

Side two

  1. “Hang on Paul” – 2:42
  2. “Kiddie Boy” – 3:30
  3. “Featherbedding Lover” – 2:47
  4. “Letters Don’t Count” – 3:25
  5. “A Beautiful Song” – 11:15

Nazz

Robert “Stewkey” Antoni – vocals
Thom Mooney – drums, vocals
Todd Rundgren – guitar, keyboards, horn arrangements, string arrangements, vocals
Carson Van Osten – bass, vocals

 

 

 

 

 

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