Fifty Year Friday: February 1970
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.
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.
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.