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