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Archive for the ‘1970’ Category

Fifty Year Friday: November 1970

If you were creating a bracket for “Top Sixteen” best months for rock album releases, November of 1970 would not only be included but possibly end up as the winner depending on the diversity of your musical taste in the many rock genres of the early 1970s. For me, it is a particularly special month with debut albums by two of my all-time favorite rock groups, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and notably, not rock nor prog nor jazz, the release of Joshua Rifkin’s first Scott Joplin album.

Joshua Rifkin: Scott Joplin Piano Rags

Started in the mid-sixties, Nonesuch Records was a budget classical label — and when I mean budget, this applied to both the price and the quality of the pressings, which generally had more than their share of vinyl surface noise. However, with focus on releasing lesser known music and generally solid, if not exceptional performances, Nonesuch releases were not only welcome by individual music record buyers but by record libraries, both community and college/university libraries. Music ranged from Medieval and Renaissance to Mannheim school composers to Berwald to Charles Ives to contemporary composers with electronic music by Subotnick and a 2 LP guide to electronic music. Nonesuch also launched the Explorer series which included music from India, Bulgaria and Japan. And then, in November of 1970, Nonesuch kicked off the ragtime revival by releasing Joshua Rifkin’s performances of the well-known “Maple Leaf Rag” and seven additional Scott Joplin gems, including “The Entertainer” which was eventually showcased in 1973 as the theme to the movie, The Sting.

What makes this album special is the care and musical attention Rifkin administers to each work, taking “The Entertainer”, for example, at a sensitive strolling tempo and stretching the lilting “Magnetic Rag” to over five minutes. Ragtime was now revived: not hurried through at a breakneck speed like some quirky novelty, but treated with the same respect as Chopin or Debussy — with record stores across Southern California generally filing this ragtime album in the classical music section. Fortunately Nonesuch and Joshua Rifkin were awarded for their efforts, with this album becoming the first Nonesuch album to sell one million copies.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman

With his fourth album, Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Steven’s finely tunes the simplicity of his music and lyrics to create his very best work: an album without weakness or a moment of filler material. Two tracks, back to back on side one, are two of his very best ever: “Wild World”, which received plenty of FM airplay, and “Sad Lisa.”

David Bowie: Man Whole Sold the World

Whereas Tea for the Tillerman is an album of musical and lyrical transparent simplicity, David Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World, released in the U.S. on November 4, 1970, is a work of layered complexities. And though there is no apparent unity in the songs, it provides a musical experience approaching an art-music song cycle. I hadn’t heard this album in at least forty-five years and was not expecting it to provide much more than a trip down memory lane. I was also expecting it to be uneven with sections lacking in compelling musical interest. I was completely wrong and had underestimated the instrumental ingredients applied to each and every song on the album. To what degree producer Tony Viscounti deserves credit for the final product, I can only guess, but Bowie’s selection of him for a band member along with guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey provided a solid framework for a varied and multi-faceted album.

This album also provides a more modern version of David Bowie: one where he starts to develop the persona and vocal characteristics that were perfected for Ziggy Stardust. Unlike most British rock singers up to this point, Bowie doesn’t shy away from emphasizing and exaggerating his English accent. That first step, provides an effective starting point for the idiosyncratic pitch, timbre, and inflection traits that became such an easily recognizable trademark in Bowie’s vocals. And in the midst of all the musical freshness, boldness, and complexity are lively lyrics as in same-sex encounter of “The Width of a Circle.” (Yes, with the seventies there was less interference by record executives around “appropriate content”, now allowing tracks like Steppenwolf 7’s (another album released in November of 1970) “Ball Crusher.”

There is great musical variety throughout Man Who Sold the World from the effortlessly accessible T-Rex-influenced “Black Country Rock” to the hard-rock “Running Gun Blues” to more lyrical works like “After All” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” The album sold poorly in the U.S. and was pretty much forgotten until the solid success of Ziggy Stardust sparked a strong interest in earlier Bowie albums. The originally-intended cover created for the album, the comic-book like artwork of a man carrying a rifle against a backdrop of buildings and an open caption (for which the proposed multi-meaning content of “roll up your sleeves and show us your arms” was rejected and thus, by default, a blank caption bubble) was not to Bowie’s taste and he chose instead to have the cover shown above. Such a cover was determined unacceptable for U.S. release and the original artwork of the cowboy and blank caption bubble was used — shown below. The later U.S. release, after Ziggy became popular, used the cover shown below that.

Kinks: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

Where Bowie represents the leading edge of London modernity, Ray Davies and the Kinks continue to represent more conservative values. Here we have another representation of the hard-working working-class culture extended into an album length-theme on the hard-working working-class-band-making-the-big-time contrasted against the greedy representatives of the record industry.

And yet, it is Ray Davies and the Kink’s “Lola”, not Bowie’s “Width of the Circle” that disintegrated conservative AM radio constraints. Sure Bowie was relatively unknown and the Kinks were long-time rock fixtures, but it was the ambiguity of “Lola” that allowed it to slip on to the pop-music airwaves; and that same ambiguity enhanced the overall coolness of the song and contributed to its popularity, particularly one of the coolest lyrics in rock: “Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola.” Ironically, the BBC forced the Kinks to overdub one word — but it was related to BBC’s policy on product promotion: Ray Davies was forced to overdub “Coca” with “Cherry” on the single-version of the song to avoid any semblance of advertising “Coca Cola.

Lola is the most notable song on this strong album, but there isn’t a bad track. Dave Davies provides two songs on this album including the beautiful ballad “Strangers”, which musically and lyrically is one of the most heartwarming songs in the Kink’s catalog, a sentimental tribute to the bond of two brothers. His other song, “Rats”, rocks hard and relentlessly pushes forward musically and lyrically. And of course, we have Ray Davies “back to nature” Apeman — catchy and quirky.

I had always wondered about the “Part One” in the title. Well, it turns out that this was originally planned as a double album, but the Kink’s released what they had with plans for a follow-up that never happened, despite indications that they had started on sequel material. At any rate, Part One stands perfectly well on its own, and works well as a concept album about the rise of an English rock band, having a number of biographical elements, and an abundance of musical charm.

Velvet Underground: Loaded

Based on direction from Atlantic Records, the Velvet Underground’s fourth album, Loaded, released November 1970, was primarily focused on including material suitable for singles with six of the ten songs in the 2 1/2 minute to 4 minute range. However, the album provided not even one single that created any kind of dent in either the UK or US charts, and the album itself also had little commercial success making no advance into the Billboard 200.

The combination of strong lyrics and easily assimilable music from the forlorn “Who loves the sun”, the classic “Sweet Jane”, to the autobiographical “Rock & Roll” to the album’s final and longest track “Oh! Sweet Nothin'” have served this album well with it’s influence on other bands and albums, including its apparent influence on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and the album’s steady long-term increase in popularity. So much so, that there was a 2-CD release of the album in 1997 and a six-CD release in 2015. At least check out the bonus tracks via CD or a streaming service. One of the unreleased tracks, “Ride Into the Sun”, seems like it would have been perfect to have closed out the original LP.

Ike and Tina Turner: Workin’ Together

Some albums are soooo good that one doesn’t know where to start in praising them. However, in the case of “Workin’ Together”, a suitable follow-up title to their previous album, “Come Together”, one has to start and end with Tina Turner. She sings with incredible variety and virtuosity on this album, performing at the level of a top-tier jazz instrumentalist, a feat rarely accomplished except by such legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Pay particular attention to the melodic expression of her vocals on “The Way you Love Me” and “You Can Have It.” Then there’s the delight and energy of her rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Get Back” elevating it to Hall of Fame level. The instrumentation and arrangements on the album are excellent and one gets many bonuses like the intriguing piano solo on a revisited version of Jessie Hill’s 1960-hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and Alline Bullock’s (older sister of Tina Turner) leading-edge, hard swinging example of 1970 funk, “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeter” which was put on the B side of the single of the album’s best known number, “Proud Mary.” So it’s easy to start any retrospective reflection on this classic album by focusing on Tina Turner’s contributions, understanding all the other work involved and realized so exceptionally well by Ike Turner, The Kings of Rhythm, and the Ikettes, but ultimately coming back to the most important factor, the contributions of Tina Turner.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Emerson Lake and Palmer

On November 20, 1970 (with no corresponding U.S. release until early in 1971) Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their self-titled first album. Even more heavily classically influenced than Emerson’s work with the Nice, the album was a delight for both fans of the revered and historically-important acoustic piano and the new, and not-yet-fully exploited Moog synthesizer. The other two members of Emerson’s newly formed trio, providing their own significant contributions, were Greg Lake, previously of King Crimson, and impressively-skilled relatively young drummer Carl Palmer previously with the Atomic Rooster.

The album opens most vigorously with a formidable arrangement of Bela Bartok’s solo piano piece “Allegro Barbaro”, transformed to fit the trio capabilities so impressively that anyone with any uncertainty about when progressive rock had truly proceeded beyond the psychedelic rock/ proto-prog stage, would have to concede that it happened at least with the release of this album. The reworking of the Bartok’s piano work into a prog-rock work is so complete and seamless that anyone not previously familiar with the work would have little reason not to identify this as some original masterpiece reflecting the aesthetics of the group and the turbulent times of the start of the 1970s. So passionately and comprehensively realized is the arrangement and performance that I consider it an indisputable improvement over the superb original.

Greg Lake provides the main melody and lyrics for the next track, “Take a Pebble” as he does for the more well-know final track, “Lucky Man.” In the instrumental section of “Take A Pebble”, Lake strums through a reflective guitar passage that effectively compliments Emerson’s extended solo piano work. The third track is an arrangement of the first movement of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Once again we have an arrangement so complete it seems original, particularly with Lake’s and Fraser’s lyrics used in transforming the opening brass fanfare theme into a verse and then that material transformed further and more remotely into a chorus/bridge. The three main notes then are used as the basis for an instrumental interlude that then gives way to a Bach passage on a organ with a return to the verse and an synthetic sonic explosion (replaced in the remastered version with the original coda.)

The second side opens up with formidable Emerson composition “Three Fates”. The first represented Fate, Clotho, is realized on the Royal Festival Hall’s grand pipe organ, the second Fate, Lachesis, is realized as a grand piano solo and then the third fate, Atropos, after a brief return to the pipe organ, is launched in scintillating syncopated 7/8 with the piece wrapped up with an another synthetic explosion possibly representing the cutting of the thread.

“Tank” proceeds at full steam, a perfect platform for Carl Palmer, starting off as a trio featuring a sparkling clavinet and then after Palmer and Emerson trading twos and a brief transitional passage includes one of the most engaging and musical drum solos of 1970s rock followed by an musical onslaught that features exhilarating Moog synthesizer work by Emerson.

The album ends with Lake’s “Lucky Man” very much in the folk-rock vein with solid acoustic, electric and bass work from Lake and then the electrically charged Moog to end the song and the album. Released as a single, “Lucky Man” mostly got its airplay on FM and in Europe until picking up some traction in 1971 on AM radio and then again in 1973. Interestingly, this is the one song that did the best, commercially (and financially through royalties) for ELP — this simple four-chord (I, V, ii, vi) based song Greg Lake wrote around the age of 12. This 1970 realization of a pretty solid and easily accessible song eventually provided relatively wide appeal, something that, despite their progressive focus, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were also able to achieve as a trio in the following years after the release of this excellent album.

Gentle Giant: Gentle Giant

Gentle Giant’s self-titled first album was released in the UK on November 22, 1970. (It was not released in the U.S. until several years later.) Though far short of their next six albums, there is a lot of strong musical content on the album.

Gentle Giant, was formed by the Shulman brothers, Derek, Phil and Ray, after the demise of their previous group, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Bringing along their previous drummer, they auditioned several candidates for keyboards, apparently one of them Elton John, and auditioned candidates for the lead guitarist. The keyboardist would be Kerry Minnear, their most important and distinctive acquisition due to his compositional contributions. They also did well in landing semi-professional blues guitarist Gary Green, who was one of the more underrated guitarists of the seventies.

This first album starts and ends with some weaknesses including some silly lyrics in the opening track and the penultimate track (the last track is a brief instrumental, a short rendition of “God Save the Queen.”) The same goes with some of the music on those tracks, but when one sets that aside, the album goes beyond providing musical insight into the future Gentle Giant, delivering an album that is pretty good for its own sake.

First off, one must acknowledge that this album is not much more than a collection of well-executed, intriguing songs with no apparent attempt a unifying the album or providing musical continuity beyond a recurring synthesizer motive (derived from the third song) that sneaks its way back between later tracks.

The first track may be the weakest, and even cringe-worthy, but Minnear’s organ work is exemplary, Ray Shulman’s bass work is admirably accomplished, the band’s playing is remarkably tight (all instruments are played by the band members including the featured trumpet), and both the incorporation and the execution of the time signature changes maintains listener-interest throughout. The instrumental passage in the middle is the highlight, presaging later work, and includes a fine choral-like section. The return to the main theme may be somewhat predictable, but it sets up the perfect contrast for the intro of the second track.

That second track, “Funny Ways”, is arguably the finest song in the set. The opening strummed guitar, cello, and violin give away to guitar and vocals and then the perfectly-placed pizzicato violin. Once again, it is Gentle Giant playing all the instruments — as always the case for their albums. The chorus is short but noteworthy displaying Gentle Giant’s penchant for musically supporting the text, with “My ways are strange” preceded by a g-minor-seventh motif with equivalent chord changes on the underlying bass notes and gives quickly to another verse and the accompanying strings. This then is followed by a return of the chorus and a contrasting sort of bridge-like section that provides opportunity for one of Gentle Giant’s most notable trademarks, the use of short-phrase repetition — a short, often quirky fragment that is played four times often with subtle changes underneath. Gary Green provides front-and-center electric guitar with accompanying trumpet punctuation until a return to the verse which winds the song down nicely, eschewing any chorus repeat. Fortunately for their fans that attended live performances, this song was included in their concerts up through their eighth album.

The third track, “Alucard”, starts with an upbeat bebop-based approach that is followed by a short motivic interplay that uses the time-tested centuries-old technique of shortening a repeated musical phrase, an oft-used Gentle Giant trademark. Minnear lets loose with synthesizer at full-power, followed by a tasteful dramatic section that evolves into a moog-lead sequence that I always think of as the Gentle Giant “stride style” — not because it resembles stride music in any-way, but it sounds like a giant striding over an open field, the upward pitch movement of the sequence creating an illusion of forward momentum and quickening speed. Several more bars are spent on the previous instrumental material, with a development section from quiet to loud, peaceful to aggressive, magically returning to the “stride” motif, calming down again, with repetition ever a component, followed by a return to the dramatic surreal vocal section and then the stride motif once again, with a brief rock representation of pointillism and a return to the main instrumental theme with synthesizer. The song then dramatically (and tidily) ends with a Gentle Giant flavored classical-style authentic cadence. All-in-all a pretty wow experience — only surpassed in inaugural albums by King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”

This then, strangely and appropriately enough, is followed by the Beatlesque “Isn’t Quiet and Cold” with Ray Shulman providing a perfect alternation of pizzicato and bowed violin. There are no strange detours here — it’s all very straightforward and beautiful — with Minnear’s hard-mallet xylophone solo being particularly engaging. This ends side one.

Side two opens up with a similar tone to the last track on side one, again sounding Beatlesque. But GG is more adventurous here — after stating the song in full (two and a half minutes), they tiptoe into development territory taking a bass countermelody from earlier and briefly exposing it with a hint of the sinister, then a quieting down, revisiting it with new material — a bridge in a sense — and showing off Derek Shulman’s signature glissando vocal-style and Gary Green’s outspoken guitar commentary. The shimmering of a gong takes us to a contrasting section of mostly reverberated percussion and some piano quoting Liszt — one of only two classical music quotes in all of GG’s studio albums (the other being a retrograde quote of Stravinsky in their last album), which then eventually gives away to the recap of the original song. This is by a wide margin the longest studio track Giant ever recorded — for a prog-rock group it’s remarkable to note that their longest song is well under ten minutes — this in the prog-rock decade where single sides and even albums were sometimes a single piece.

The album ends relatively weakly with the partly hard rock “Why Not” including a pleasant, contrasting Kerry Minnear middle section with Phil Shuman on tenor recorder and then some solid electric guitar work, and an unremarkable though pleasant-enough treatment of “God Save the Queen.” Album is produced by Tony Visconti.

And yet despite weaknesses this is an album full of notable melodic and transitory material that promises much for future albums — with those albums eventually meeting and exceeding that promise. This, in itself, makes this first album more than a collection of varied songs, but a historical artifact providing insight into the later works.

Curved Air: Air Conditioning

Recorded in July of 1970 and released in November of 1970, Curved Air’s debut album, Air Conditioning, did very well in the UK (#8.) Their name is based on the title of Terry Riley’s composition, “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” The band has some superficial similarities to the American Jefferson Airplane partly due to Sonia Kristina’s dark, evocative voice and partly due to hard rock, folk-rock and psychedelic rock components in the music. Add to this Darryl Way’s violin, Francis Monkman’s guitar work and keyboards and the skilled way each song is realized and the result is a distinct, progressive, and somewhat symphonic sound. The best known song is “It Happened One Day”, which received some FM radio airplay and was included in an 1971 Warner Bros Loss Leader album. It opens side one which includes the wispy “Screw”, the Donovan-inspired “Blind Man” and the Vivaldi-inspired “Vivaldi” with relentless multi-tracked electric violin followed by a Vivaldi-like cadenza that evolves into a multi-part, feedback-based cadenza-like section, then a free-form Hendrix-like section eventually reprising the original theme with heightened intensity and closing with a brief coda.

The dramatic “Hide and Seek” decisively starts the second side, is every bit as impressive anything on side one, and is followed by the upbeat and syncopated Propositions. “Situations” in A-B-A form includes a notable (also a-b-a structured) middle section that starts with an airy, floating vocal passage, followed by a guitar dominated section with a return to the “a” section and then, of course, returning to the main “A” section. The album ends with a hyped-up recap of “Vivaldi” aptly named “Vivaldi with Cannons.”

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

With all the enticing albums on the shelves at the big retail record stores (the Warehouse in Southern California, particularly), Christmas time of 1970 was particularly memorable. There was Jesus Christ Superstar and so many other tempting musical wonders on display with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, released on November 27th, and All Things Must Pass looked the most tempting of all — a triple record set that promised ample listening material. Immediately upon release, the album received notable air play on the FM album-oriented stations and there was no hesitation for me to purchase it after Christmas with my available extra money I had received on Christmas Day.

The album starts off relaxed, with the Harrison/Dylan collaboration, “I’d Have You Anytime” setting the mood with its tranquil first verse — a mood that I associate with the album to this day. This is not loud in-your-face hard rock, but an acquired taste: subtle and reflective full of special moments like the Clapton guitar solo on the first track. It’s not accurate to say every song is a gem, but the many strong songs function to bring the rest of the album into balance, making it a delight to either sit down and listen studiously to or put on as background music. Now, when I reference the “album” I mean the first two LPs. The third, I have always viewed as a bonus album — a pastiche of jam numbers that after initial listening when I first bought the album set, received only occasional playing, and mostly when I engaged in some other activity, like homework or reading. Listening again to this third LP this week, I find it still does not pull me in any notable way, but those first two LPs are as magical as when I first listened to the album during the last days of Christmas vacation 1970.

Badfinger: No Dice

As mentioned, I had extra cash post-Christmas in 1970/1971 and previously impressed by Badfinger’s music in the movie Magic Christian and their rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Come and Get it” as well as a recent review I had read that compared them to the Beatles, I bought “No Dice.” I found it a little Beatlesque — but not in the Abbey Road or White Album sense, but in the “Old Brown Shoe”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, and “Ballad of John and Yoko” sense — only not as good. Yet it was still a pretty good album, at least to listen to half-a-dozen or so times and put it away for almost 50 years. Listening to it again, the best tracks, like “No Matter What”, “Without You”, “We’re For the Dark,” make the album a worthwhile listen even if a few of the weaker tracks approach the dull side.

Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

I immediately fell in love with “Layla” the first time I heard it on FM radio, hearing it as two songs, which is what it was, spliced together. Derek and the Dominos were formed by guitarist Eric Clapton and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock in the summer of 1970 to play mostly music created by them earlier that year. Added to the band were Jim Gordon on drums (first choice was Jim Keltner who was unavailable) and Carl Radle on bass with appearances from Duane Allman and Dave Mason. The album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, a 2LP set, was released on November 9, 1970 and received mixed reviews, some very negative. Outside of “Layla” and the catchy part of “Tell the Truth”, the rest of the album fails to spark any strong interest for me despite several tries. The musicianship is strong but most of the songs are just run of the mill, mostly anchored in I IV and V chords with mostly ordinary rhythms and melodies and limited metric and harmonic contrasts. Even the inclusion of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” doesn’t work for me as, really, the original is so much more full of life and energy. Nonetheless the album is worth having just for “Layla.”

Grateful Dead: American Beauty

Grateful Dead released their fifth studio album, and second of 1970, with American Beauty, an appealing, heartfelt work that many fans rank as either their best or at least their second best studio album to the earlier Workingman’s Dead. The Dead incorporate the bluegrass musical ethos better than any other rock group. Though I generally shy away from most country music and most country-rock, I am strongly attracted to bluegrass, and love listening to live bluegrass bands, particular in their home settings in states like Kentucky or West Virginia. So even though this Grateful Dead album is far from authentic bluegrass, and may lack the passion and ardor of the finest bluegrass music, it captures and incorporates enough of that bluegrass spirit to enrich and elevate the album. “Candyman”, the final track of the first side, is a great example of how the group starts with blues-like lyrics and a pretty traditional country musical framework and by using the right chord changes, some yearning steel-guitar work, leisurely electric organ, and properly placed supporting choir-like vocals makes the song a special experience.

The second side opens up with “Ripple”, a relaxing, tonally stable, country-style, gospel-tinged ballad with its reassuring words of wisdom and then continues with a couple more Robert Hunter compositions reportedly written that same afternoon: the gentle gospel-influenced “Brokedown Palace” and the more upbeat, and more carnally-grounded “Til the Morning Comes.” The album ends with the classic “Truckin”, an anthem of attitude for the beginning of the seventies:

“Truckin’, got my chips cashed in
Keep truckin’, like the do-dah man
Together, more or less in line
Just keep truckin’ on.

“Once told me, “You’ve got to play your hand”
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
If you don’t lay ’em down.”

Spirit: 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

Released on Nov 27, 1970, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit’s fourth studio album, is another album that didn’t do particularly well when released, charting lower than their three previous efforts, but over time ended up being their best selling album going gold in 1976. The album’s first side is particularly strong with the undisputed gem being Randy California’s “Nature’s Way” which didn’t get very far up on the Billboard singles chart, but became a standard on FM radio, particularly as the environmental movement picked up steam. The second side continues with the same general energy starting with a strong instrumental by the keyboardist John Locke and a couple of quality songs by vocalist Jay Ferguson with some impressive guitar work by California on “Street Worm”, and then closing with three endearingly distinct Randy California tunes.

Minnie Ripperton: Come into My Garden

Released in November 1970, about a year after it was recorded, Minnie Ripperton’s debut solo album, Come Into My Garden, is a fine album that received little attention until her more commercially successful album was released in 1974. Minnie originally studied opera singing but eventually pursued her greater love for pop and soul music and in 1967 became a vocalist in The Rotary Connection.

In Come Into My Garden she displays her unusual upper-range vocal skills, but more impressive is her beautiful diction, phrasing and sublimely smooth vocal delivery. Her future husband (actual husband by August 1970) co-wrote some of the songs with additional material and arranging by Charles Stepney, keyboardist and songwriter of the Rotary Connection. Though “Les Fleur”, the opening track, is the most distinct and memorable song in the album, the excellent arrangements and superb execution elevate the rest of the album to delicate, graceful and sensuous musical experience.

At some point one has to wrap up a blog post even when there are many more albums to cover. There is the excellent Stephen Stills album, for example, as well as some lesser, but still notable albums like Kraftwerk’s unfettered self-titled debut and Isaac Hayes’ well-arranged To Be Continued. There is Family’s part live and part studio Anyway, Syd Barrett’s enjoyable second studio album, Barrett, Pentangle’s shimmering, though dark in subject matter, Cruel Sister, Steve Miller’s solid fifth album, titled Number 5, Tim Buckley’s brilliant, free-jazz influenced Starsailor, Laura Nyro’s excellent Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and several “Best of” albums that came out in November 1970. Certainly many of the releases, particular the “Best Of” LPs were timed to come out to be available for the holiday gift-giving season. That said, I don’t think one will find another month quite like November of 1970. At least not for classic rock.

Fifty Year Friday: October 1970

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Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III

Listening to this for the first time in decades it sure brings back many memories! Almost fifty years ago, the basketball season started, and I was selected to always get a great seat for home games and travel with the team to away games (on the team bus) to keep stats for both the JV and Varsity basketball teams. Watching the games was particularly exciting as the best player on the Varsity team was the freshman point guard, who led the team in points, assists, and sometimes, rebounds. Several times he launched a shot in the backcourt to beat the end of a quarter, and more than once he connected. Unfortunately, those baskets only counted for two points.

My next door neighbor purchased Led Zeppelin III shortly after it was released in October 1970, and I recorded his copy onto reel-to-reel tape, and it was soon after that, in the month of Novemeber, that I heard the opening track of the album on the team bus’s radio. It was always a thrill when an album one already had started to get some airplay, even if as a single on AM radio.

This album struck me as being very different than their two previous efforts. Maybe it was just the album cover, but I always considered that this album had more vitality and musical sparkle than the two previous ones. And like its album cover, with an inner rotating wheel, I found this more musically imaginative than the previous two.

Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection

Elton’s third album, and at that time, for us in the States, his second album, was released at the end of October. I remember purchasing the album in January 1971 with Christmas money and carefully following the lyrics with the music. The album is a concept album of sorts: a series of songs with lyrics about the old American West — songs about gunman, the civil war, and so on.

Elton’s music nicely support the narratives of each lyric with all nine of his songs being memorable and substantive. A tenth song, the second track of side two, was written by Leslie Duncan who provided a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and beautiful backing vocals. Gus Dudgeon is to be praised for his production, solid in every way except for the puzzling ocean background sounds added as an apparent afterthought to the Duncan song.

This, in many ways, is Elton John’s best album even though not a single song ever received AM radio play as far as I remember. The album works well as a whole, supported nicely by the visual materials on the outside and adorning the inner-sleeve lyrics. So well, that those songs that are not clearly about the West (including “Come Down in Time” and “Love Song”) get absorbed into the Western theme so seamlessly that the album retains its conceptual integrity. Musical highlights include “Come Down in Time”, “Son of Your Father” with its bouncy piano intro, “Where to Now St. Peter?” and 6 1/2 minute, piano-dominated “Burn Down the Mission” with its brief but magnificent multiple-mood middle-section instrumental.

Genesis: Trespass

Recorded in June and July of 1970 and released in the UK on October 23, 1970, Trespass far surpasses Genesis’s first album in compositional scope and quality. From the first track, we now have Genesis providing the Gabriel-era sounds that made them one of the finest progressive rock groups. The second track “White Mountain” latches on to the listener from the start, showcasing the synergy between Mike Rutherford and Ant Phillips with their distinct partnering of their twelve string acoustic guitars. This work establishes the groups successful approach to music narratives that continued long after Phillips’ departure. The album continues much at the same level of quality throughout with the final work, “The Knife”, originally titled the “The Nice” as a tribute to that early prog-rock group, and lasting up to 18 minutes in concert with extended keyboard work, but pared down to half that length on the album.

Kevin Ayers: Shooting At the Moon

Released in October 1970, Ayers’s second solo album is packed with brilliance including clever songs, gorgeous passages of the Canterbury sound, and intriguing electronics and his own approach to what was often called at the time “experimental music” — a term many composers disliked since they weren’t “experimenting” but applying their musical sensibilities and compositional skills to push conventional musical boundaries. The accessibility of the music may vary, but the quality does not, and if one is up for adventure and appreciates solid musicianship from not only Ayers, but the accompanying “Whole World Band”, which includes Mike Oldfield on bass and guitar and David Bedford on keyboards with a guest appearance by Robert Wyatt on vocals on one track, then this album will provide repeated listening pleasure.

Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother

Enlisting the arranging and composer talents of Ron Geesin for the orchestral-rich first side if the album, Atom Heart Mother outsold Pink Floyd’s previous albums, perhaps due to its intriguing Hipgnosis cover. The first side contains the title track, named by Geesin from the content of an article about an expectant UK woman with an atomic-powered pacemaker. Geesin effectively takes the band’s raw material turning into the finest orchestrated prog-rock up to that time (not including progressive, but generally not labeled prog-rock albums, like Jesus Christ Superstar.) The second side contains some interesting solo compositions by Rogers, Wright and Gilmour and then filled out by the novel “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast” — primarily a Dave Mason effort that doesn’t fully coalesce.

The Strawbs: Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios

The Strawbs “Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios” is a sparkling collection of mostly progressive folk-rock music recorded live in July 1970 at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with an extended rendition of “Where Is This Dream of Your Youth” from the first album and several songs not on their earlier albums. The highlight is the intricate acoustic guitar work and Rick Wakeman’s keyboard work on harpsichord, celeste, organ, and of course, piano. More than just a solid, enjoyable album, it’s necessary listening for anyone interested in the history of progressive rock.

Savoy Brown: Looking In

With the loss of their distinctive vocalist and talented songwriter Chris Youlden to a pursuit of a solo career and Kim Simmonds taking on more songwriting responsibilities, Savoy’s Brown sixth album, Looking In, falls short of their much better fifth album. So why do I even mention it? For that album cover, which always caught my attention when browsing through friends’ and acquaintances’ record collections. To this day it still reminds me of the artwork from the early days of Creepy magazine.

Guess Who: Share The Land

The Guess Who provides another strong album with their seventh studio effort, Share The Land, released October 5, 1970. Besides some AM hits, including the infectious “Hand Me Down World”, there is the interesting “Moan for You Joe” and a foray into authentic-sounding blues “Song of the Dog.” The lengthy last song on side two seems to function as filler material, but the rest of the album is solid.

Fifty Year Friday: September 1970

Lot’s of great albums released during 1970 and September was one of several notable months. About this time in 1970, I started listening to music with headphones. Our small living room was such that the two stereo speakers were poorly situated for optimal stereo, and so the headphones revealed a common characteristic of many of these albums — this was not the Stereo of the mid 1960s anymore. Stereo was now creating sound stages, some realistic, particularly with classical music recordings, and some surreleastic as with so many rock albums. The pleasure of listening to albums like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Jesus Christ Superstar increased measurably when the room was dark: the sense of sound borrowed attention-resources from the sense of sight. To this day, whether it is Bartok’s Night Music, Debussy musical imagery, Billie Holiday’s Verve-era vocals, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, the primal combination of Gezzer Butler bass and Toni Iomma’s guitar or a classic angular progressive rock album like Gentle Giant’s Free Hand, I remember the lesson from 1970, turn off the lights, extinguish all extraneous thoughts and make the music your entire and exclusive environment.

Andrew Webber and Tim Lloyd Rice:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Several months after The Who’s Tommy hit the FM radio stations, a more controversial album starting getting attention. It was also a rock opera, though more like a tradtional cast recording than Tommy, with different individuals on each part. My go-to radio station for new albums, KPPC-FM, announced that they would be playing the entire album from start to finish. I recorded the broadcast on reel to reel, with the broadcast’s less than perfect reception, and then repeatedly listened to the resultant recording on headphones through a wall of static. Thankfully, Christmas soon came and on Christmas day I received Superstar, as we colloquially referred to the album, as a Christmas present along with the complete Handel’s Messiah Oratorio, which I had also requested, and which my mom found it much harder to find than Superstar, now present at every record store. (I had also asked for the entire Tchaikovsky 1812, convinced that if there was an 1812 Overture, which I had, there must be a corresponding opera. Of course, no such gift could be purchased.)

I immediately transferred the two LPs of Superstar to tape, so as not to wear out the LPs, as I had done with the 1812 overture and my copy of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. The sound, recorded at the fastest speed available on my tape deck, on the highest quaility tape I had, was just indescribable, particuarly on relatively good headphones. I would sit on the floor close to my tape deck, following the lyrics initially, and then later abosorbing the compositional and instrumental richness of the album.

My grandmother, the more religious one, approved of my interest and commented that this was how music sounded back at the time of Christ, though I was old enough to realize this was way before her time. Yet, there seemed to be undeniable truth in this assertion, and part of this was the inclusion and incorporation of dissonance, and the use of the diminished chord, that standby of silent movie soundtracks to represent the bad guys — and hints of older modes and scales. This is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece. That the composer of works like the earlier Joseph and the Amazon Technicolor Dreamcoat and the later Starlight Express, rose to this level of musical excellence may be challenging to explain, but it occured and this album was evidence.

Black Sabbath: Paranoid

That this larger than life work, the 20th century rock equivalent of a Wagner opera scene, was purchased for $2.99 at K-mart, took me a while to get over. I remember vividly, the first time I encountered the first Black Sabbath album being listened to on a cheap turntable plugged into a building outlet by some high school freshmen druggie-types, or at least academic poor-achievers (we won’t say failures as they had three more years of high school ahead) — and I remember being intrigued by the poorly reproduced but seemingly substantial music. And I vividly remember purchasing Paranoid at K-mart, taking it home and sitting in front of the stereo on a barstool borrowed from the kitchen counter. But what was most vivid about all encounters with Black Sabbath, even including seeing them up close and live at California Jam, was the first listening to Paranoid and the darkness, obscurity and obliqueness of the music.

Paranoid is often credited as the first true heavy metal album, though certainly all the elements in Paranoid are there to some degree in their first album. However, while the first album was basically a recording of a live set, the second album is of higher sonic and musical quality. Though all four band members are given songwriting credit, for the most part the music on this album was written by Tony Iomma, with lyrics provided by Geezer Butler. To classify this music as simply heavy metal ignores the unique musicl style of Iomma — a darkest violet, and yes, satanic-like sound, built on short basic and strongly diatonic phrases that fit together like lego blocks. The sound is readily identifiable, and works effectively at a slow tempo, as in the opening moments of War Pigs that start the ablum, or at a faster tempo as taken in the second track, Paranoid. I have never heard Black Sabbath labelled as a progressive rock band, and some of that may be due to the primal nature of thir muscianship and Iomma’s compositions, but for me, I see no reason why the music itself isn’t classified as progressive rock. It certainly was a progressive sound in 1970 and when I picked it up in 1971 when it hit record stores in the U.S. And today fifty years later, it still holds its own, tarnished slightly in terms of freshness by the subsequent Black Sabbath albums that sometimes recycled the building blocks that made this such a unique sound and the many less-distinctive and creative imitators that followed. There is nothing in the rock catalog that has both the somatic and metabolic magnetic impact as “Iron Man”, and excluding the very best canonical prog rock albums, there are few musical statements that show the boldness, consistency, and durability of “Paranoid.”

Atomic Rooster:

Death Walks Behind You

If the William Blake bestial  Nebuchadnezzar album cover didn’t entice you to immediately purchase the Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You, hearing that dark descending four note chromatic bass line that permeates the title track or the quirky, keyboard-bejewelled “Tomorrow Night” might have. Unfortunately, being on Elektra, there was slight chance of someone in the U.S. seeing this album stocked in most record stores in 1970, and unless you lived in the L.A. or the Bay area, it’s not likely you would have heard any portion of this album on FM radio, until the success of ELP prompted many to check the back catalog of Atomic Roster. Nonetheless, this ablum, with Carl Palmer now replaced with Paul Hammond on drums, and Vincent Crane and John Du Cann raising their level of creative partnership, this is not only the best Atomic Rooster album, but a fine, at times joyful and playful, at times dark and shadowy, heavy metal, progressive hard rock album. Whereas no band ever imitated Black Sabbath effectively, the style of hard rock exemplified in Death Walks Behind You, a style with its roots in earlier hard rock English pre-metal bands such as Cream, was successfully incorporated by a number of bands of the early seventies.

Caravan:

If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You

Another high quality progressive album, released in the UK on September 4, 1970, and also difficult to find in the U.S. until later in the seventies, was Caravan’s second album. Providing a diverse range of progressive rock, Canterbury scene rock and English Jazz rock (with its inclusion of saxophonist Jimmy Hastings), this is an album that endears itself upon repeated listenings.

Neil Young:

After the Gold Rush

Full of unerringly good music and lyrics that range from near-nonsense and obliquely obscure to shamelessly unaffected and nakedly transparent, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, is one the finest if not the very best of his long, productive and meaningful career. Southern Man is a case in point where the music and lyrics are beyond any criticisms, or need for critique, but the rest of the original compositions are each worthy of special attention. Neil Young is a master at combining musical and lyrical simplicty to get through one’s superficial emotional barriers as exemplfied in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” It is the Neil Young magic that turns a basically musically and poetically flimsy and somewhat monotonous song into exquisitely simple high art, something also accomplished with the less emotional “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and the entire contents of his subsequent album, “Harvest.” The most memorable song on After the Gold Rush, is the title track with its seemingly deeply profound, but if you believe later Neil Young interviews, somewhat meaningless, lyrics. I prefer to think that Young is being more modest than accurate, for even if there was no particularly deep intent in the lyrics they fit so well with the music that they deserve some praise. But the most incredible feature of this work, at least for me, is that with every listening it always seems to be of epic length, even though it only clocks in at only 3 3/4 minutes.

Santana: Abraxas

Released on September 23, 1970, Abraxas is another special album. Despite an initial lack of attention and acceptance from many in the music press, the attention the band garnered from the Woodstock film, the success of the “Evil Ways” single, and the striking cover soon propelled this album to number one on the album charts making the album a staple in many early 1970s record collections. This is another one of those albums you turn down (or off) the lights to listen to. The opening track is dramatic and provides an imposing and remarkable beginning to an amazing, whirlwind musical experience.

If: If

Though often labelled as jazz-rock, this first of several albums by If, released in September 1970 is as much British progressive rock as it is jazz-rock. Similar in some respects to early Jethro Tull and Genesis, the musicianship is solid and the music is engaging. I picked this album up when it came out after reading a postive review of it in the L.A Times, expecting that it might be similar to Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears, and didn’t fully appreciate if for what it was, mostly listening to it as background while studying or reading. Listening to it again, almost fifty years later, I much better appreciate it’s abundant qualities and strengths.

Jackson Five: Third &

Allman Brothers Band: Idlewild South

There are two other albums released in September of 1970 that require a brief mention. The first is the Jackson Five album, their third album, simply titled Third. As I was starting my sophemore year in school, the biggest slam one could throw (“dis” in modern parlance) at someone was either they were a freshman, or worse, they were a freshman and put on a Jackson Five album when they went home. Nothing was more uncool musically. And yet, when riding on the bus, one couldn’t avoid (and very embarrassing, and something I would never admit until now too old to care about being cool) liking the music. So it was with “I’ll Be There” which I heard over and over again. I never listened to any Jackson Five album until recently — but now listening to them as I go through the timeline of albums that are celebrating their fiftieth year of existence. Of course, it helps that I am married to someone that was a fan of Michael Jackson when growing up.

The other album I must mention is the Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South album, released September 23, 1970. Although often pigeonholed as an early Southern Rock album, or even as Southern Blues-Rock, it is so much more. The opening incorporates jazz elements and anticpates groups like Dixie Dregs. Yes, when the vocals start, the music becomes more conventional and less interesting — until the next instrumental excursion. And basically, that is the strength of this album: it’s instrumental passages.

Fifty Year Friday: July 2020

July of 1970 continues the 1970 theme of musical diversity with progressive rock, hard rock, blues rock, country rock, funk, folk-rock,  jazz-based rock, and even early punk rock! Traffic 1

Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die

With the July 1, 1970 release of John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic provides an excellent jazz-based partly progressive rock album with the first side being particularly strong.  Having disbanded in 1968, with Steve Winwood and Dave Mason pursuing their individual musical interests, the band reformed without Dave Mason for this Winwood-dominated album.  Highlights include the upbeat jazzy instrumental “Glad”, “Freedom Riders”, the progressive English rock styled “Empty Pages” and the wonderfully arranged and executed acoustic-folk “John Barleycorn.”  One of the finest albums of 1970.

Dave Mason

Dave Mason: Alone Together

Dave Mason, formerly of Traffic, released “Alone Together”, named for this being a solo album with support from numerous fine musicians including Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Jim Keltner and Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi.  The album is all original material (all from Dave Mason with some collaboration with Capaldi on the last track) with leading towards country and folk rock.  Highlights include the song “Couldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” and the 2/4 ballad with its 3/4 verse “World in Changes’, the dreamy “Sad and Deep As You”

Full House

Fairport Convention: Full House

Fairport Convention, now without Sandy Denny releases their fifth folk-rock, Full House, the first with only male vocals.  Half of the album’s eight tracks are originals with three well-arranged traditional numbers. “Dirty Linen” bounds into progressive rock territory as, to a lesser extent does the more traditional  “Flatback Caper.”  “Sloth” is also notable for its change of moods and styles, its epic tone condensed into a little over nine minutes, and Dave Swarbrick’s (violin) and Richard Thompson’s (guitar) virtuosic soloing.

Supertramp_-_Supertramp

Supertramp: Supertramp

Supertramp releases their self-titled debut album, on July 14, 1970, an early progressive rock album with a hint of pop sensibility and emphasis on beautiful melodies, similar in some ways to the second and third Genesis albums released later that year and in 1971.  Despite the music being instantly appealing and the generally high quality of the compositions, this first Supertramp album was not initially released in the U.S. and garnered limited sales in the U.K.  Recommended for fans of early progressive rock, but maybe not for fans of the more famous Supertramp albums.

FST

Firesign Theatre: Don’t Crush  That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers

Firesign Theater started the on-air antics in 1966 on the L.A. radio station, KPFK-FM, on the far left side of the dial. KPFK-FM was based in North Hollywood and its signal (when being listened to in North Orange County, where I lived) was generally weak.  A station with an interesting history (license withheld in 1962 for an investigation into possible affiliation with the Communistic Party and being closely associated with the first Renaissance Fair in 1963 which raised funds for the station) it was a great place to hear a variety of music. Despite its unreliable and never totally acceptable reception, this was one of my favorite radio stations from the late sixties through the mid-seventies, listening to album rock, folk music,  and comedy often through a curtain of varying levels of static and sometimes intruding signals from neighboring stations.

Soon after their initial appearances on KPFK’s radio “Radio Free Oz”,  Firesign Theater was signed in 1967 to Columbia records releasing their first spoken comedy album in 1968, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, followed by How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All in 1969.  Soon my two of my friends from my neighborhood would imitate and quote lines from their first four albums, of which the third, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, was released on July 22, 1970.  The title slyly refers to the admonition of not crushing the last bit of a marijuana cigarette but using the roach clip — with the narrative of the album centered around their character, George Tirebiter, and his watching of late night TV. The band, or comedy troupe if you prefer, studied the production techniques of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and effectively applied them to Don’t Crush That Dwarf taking advantage of the binaural soundstage available for a stereo LP.

Though the album is ultimately more style than substance, it is often considered their best album, and their fast-paced, ironic delivery and influence on other comedy groups earned Firesign Theatre the nickname, “The Beatles of Comedy.”

Yes TIme and a Word

Yes: Time and a Word

Though not without flaws, the gem of July 1970, was Yes’s Time and a Word, receiving as low of a rating by allmusic.com as any in this post with only two of five possible stars.  Yes was still in formation mode, with Peter Banks yet to be replaced by Steve Howe due to Banks’ tendency to improvise not only in concert but during studio rehearsals and sessions, shying away from playing a complete set-in-stone repeatable, memorized part — clearly, this improvisation mindset was acceptable for psychedelic rock or many proto-prog bands, but not what Jon Anderson envisioned as something that would align with a tightly-organized, critically composed set of material.

The group, against Banks’ and Tony Kaye’s preference, incorporated orchestration into this album, significantly reducing both Banks and Kaye’s contributions.  The orchestration, judiciously used, usually works, particularly on the two covers, the first of which is Richie Haven’s “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” which opens dynamically with Kaye’s Hammond organ quickly followed by driving strings giving way to the full band and includes orchestration on the theme of the movie “Big Country” that is used prior to a return to the beginning material, followed by a snippet of musical development and then the return of the main material. The second cover track is Stephen Stills ‘Everydays” which opens up with bluesy organ and a dash of strings, with a thoughtful wistful treatment that includes pizzicato strings and a hard rock section showcasing Peter Banks on guitar and, Tony Kaye on organ, some orchestra contributions, and a brief, but well-integrated reference to Bach’s “Jesu.Joy of Man’s Desiring” from Banks.

The original material works well, even with intonation issues from the strings and Jon Anderson on “Clear Days.”  “Then” and “Astral Traveller” solidly stand out as does the bass work of Chris Squire which is mixed so that it stands out palpably throughout the album.  One may notice the similarity of some of the instrumental episodes to what we will hear later in Peter Banks’ next group, Flash, as well in later Yes albums.  Though those later Yes albums, at least the next three, would be notably superior to this one, any prog-rock fan would be remiss not to have heard Time and a Word on a good audio system, multiple times.

Credence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo’s Factory

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CCR hits their commercial and musical peak with the release of their fifth album, ‘Cosmo’s Factory”, the title a reference to drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford’s name for the warehouse they practiced regularly at, like workers working in a factory. The album has some fine originals by John Fogerty and some rock and roll covers all adding up to an album grown from American roots.  I remember visiting my cousins once in the early seventies and when my older of the two cousins mentioned she was going to purchase a new album or two, her dad sympathetically entreated her for “no more Credence Clearwater” and the daughter readily, and actually most heartily, agreed. Perhaps she was tired of them, or perhaps having this album in her collection she really didn’t need any of their later albums.

For me, this is not the type of music I am particularly attracted to, though I admire the passion of the playing on this album and the craftsmanship of the original numbers, particularly the four hits on this album, “Travelin’ Band”, the evocative, plaintive, “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, “Up Around the Bend”, and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” as well as their rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which also received ample airplay in an abbreviated single version. If you want true American rock, or more specifically earthy, swamp rock, or an album that reflects the shift that many late sixties bands took away from psychedelic influences towards blues, rock and roll roots and country-rock, this album, reaching number one on US, Canada and UK charts almost half a century ago, and generally highly rated by traditional rock critics, certainly would be a good place to start.

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Osmium and other albums released in July 1970

In other music, George Clinton and associates release two unconventional albums in July 1970. The first is the Parliaments’ debut, “Osmium”, brimming with a variety of musical styles centered around a foundational psychedelic soul sound with a healthy sprinkling of humor.  George Clinton and Ruth Copeland provide most of the musical material. highlights include Ruth Copeland’s “The Silent Boatman”, use of bagpipes, and a cover of Phil Trim’s original “Oh Lord, Why Lord” for the Spanish rock group Los-Pop Tops, which is possibly the first pop song to be based on Pachelbel’s canon. The second album is Funkadelic’s “Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow”, which is even more adventurous, rich in funk and psychedelic rock elements with some solid guitar work and no scarcity of imagination or creativity.

Also included in the July 1970 releases is another early punk album by Iggy Pop and The Stooges, “Fun House”, exhibiting something closer to musicianship than their first effort. Humble Pie provides a solid album with the third album, Humble Pie, with album cover by Aubrey Beardsley.  Spooky Tooth release The Last Puff which was for a while seemed like their last album until Mike Harrison reformed the group in 1973 with all new band members, except himself.  Perhaps the best-known track from this album is their cover of John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” handled similarly to the better known Joe Cocker treatment of “A Little Help From My Friends.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: June 2020 Part 3

parachute

Pretty Things: Parachute

Though the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow is now accepted as a rock classic, upon its original release at the end of 1968, it suffered so poorly from proper promotion and distribution, that it provided little reason for the band to continue.  Continue they did, but it would be without lead guitarist, vocalist and significant creative contributor, Dick Taylor as well as their drummer, Twink (a.k.a. John Alder, and then later Mohammed Abdullah.)

Surprisingly, their next album, Parachute, released 18 months later in July 1970  was arguably even better than S.F Sorrow. Unfortunately, it received little recognition in the ensuing months and for some inexplicable reason gets little attention today. Heavily influenced by the Beatles, and perhaps a strong influencer of albums like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Flash’s Out of Our Hands, Parachute flows musically so well, one is tempted to assume it is a concept album. Though not the case based on lyrics, as far as I can sort out, it is a cohesive collection of songs, ordered and presented to achieve a singularity. More importantly, the music is compelling, engaging and a treat to listen to!

runt

Runt/Todd Rundgren: Runt

Although later releases include Todd Rundgren’s name on the front cover, the original Ampex release is simply titled Runt after the name of the band which included Todd Rundgren and Tony and Hunt Sales, sons of the pie-in-the-face comedian Soupy Sales. Other musicians are added for a few of the tracks, but this is mostly Todd Rundgren’s effort, authoring all compositions, providing all vocals and arrangements and playing guitar, keyboards and other instruments. The album barely reached up to 185 on the Billboard album chart, but later provided the single “We Gotta Get You a Woman”, which helped provided much needed attention to a quality artist. The strong points here are the ballads like “Believe in Me”, “Once Burned”, the semi-ballad “We Got To Get You a Woman” (note difference in the title between album track and single) and the more progressive rock tracks like “I’m in the Clique” with its jazz overtones,  “There Are No Words”, and “Birthday Carol.”

Blood, Sweat and Tears: 3

Blood, Sweat and Tears released their third album, but with not enough focus on original music and covers like “Fire and Rain” not contributing anything beyond the superior original versions , the album falls short of its promise. There is still the recognizable BS&T sound, and the album has some strong moments here and there, particularly David Clayton-Thomas’s “Lucretia MacEvil,” but those moments maybe account for eight to ten minutes of the forty-two minute album.  In retrospect, this album marks the decline in the original rock-based jazz-rock era — with Chicago soon to follow with a disappointing third album and a subsequent transformation to a pop-rock outfit.

yeti

Kosmische Musik

Komische Musik, translated to Cosmic Music, continues to develop in Germany with still heavy psychedelic and avante-garde classical influences from artists like Karlheinz Stochhausen.

Amon Düül II: Yeti

In April 1970, Amon Düül II , released almost a template for Komische Musik, the sixty-eight minute, two LP Yeti album which brings together various elements of psychedelic rock, hard rock, jam rock, space rock, sung and spoken vocals with traces of opera, blues, folk, jazz. and Dylan-like vocals on the first track of the first side.  As is often the case with German Cosmic Rock, the music is propelled forward with a relentless dramatic tension that increases until the end, aided by Chris Karrer’s resolutely persistent violin. The second track on the first side starts calmly, contrasting clearly with the climaxed first track and builds to its finish, providing a perfect example of the sweeping, narrative strengths of the best Komische Musik all within the span of 3 minutes! Side two contains several songs with the first anticipating punk and new age, the second initially more progressive-folk in nature, transforming more into psychedelic and hard rock , the third combining hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock, the fourth, an all-out aural assault with notable Hendrix, heavy metal and punk-rock elements stewed together with an underlying space-rock forward motion, and the the fifth refreshingly a little more laid back and open with a repetitious bass and drum foundation.  Side three is particularly impressive with its 18 minute title-track track improvisation, followed by additional improvisation on side four ending with the most reflective track, “Sandoz in the Rain”

Tangerine Dream: Electronic Meditation

In June of 1970, Tangerine Dream released their debut album, Electronic Meditation, a compilation of electronic-manipulated music and free-psychedelic “rock”,  also influenced by Stockhausen’s and other contemporary avant-garde and electronic art music, and possibly influenced by both American and German free jazz.   The best (and longest) track “Journey Through a Burning Brain,” contains concrete glimpses of the future Tangerine Dream (including the use of a mostly persistent, mechanized-like obligato that propels the work forward), and as the title indicates takes the listener on a journey, leaving it to the judgment of the listener if this is closer to an actual journey through geographic territory, or some imaginary exploration — perhaps exploring that “burning brain” in the title.

fire and water

Free: Fire and Water

Free released their third studio album on June 1970.  My sister bought this album after hearing “It’s Alright Now” countless times on the AM radio.  Though the song has appeal, it’s repetitiveness is more troubling with each playing. Fortunately, there is more to this album than that.  The first two tracks on side one are two of the best examples of rock-based equivalents to early blues, with strong lyrics and performed with authentic pathos. What follows, may be of lower quality, but certainly it was good enough to take the album to number two on the UK album charts and number seventeen on the US charts.

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Diana Ross: Diana Ross

After eighteen albums with the Supremes, Diana Ross releases her first solo album. Her nuanced vocals are indeed several levels above those of most of the more basic vocalists we find in rock (remember Rod Stewart from last week’s Fifty-Year Friday?)

Though “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was her big hit on this album, “Reach Out and Touch” also fared well as a single. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” not only confirmed that Ross was a major solo artist outside of the Supremes, but it, as well as the rest of the album, especially “You’re All I Need To Get By” provide a wealth of evidence of both her singing and narrative acting skills.   The album provided the first step to superstar status — in 1971 she would have her own own one-hour television special (okay 40 minutes not counting commercials) and in 1972 command the lead role of Bille Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues in 1972, rising above a flawed screenplay to get an Academy Award nominiation.

fotheringay

Fotheringay: Fotheringay

Three fine folk albums are also released in 1970.  The best of which the short-lived Sandy Denny group, Fotheringay.  Sandy Denny contributes several well-written, elegantly crafted compositions to the album with beautiful, refined lead vocals on most tracks.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait

Steeleye Span’s Hark! The Village Wait is mostly traditional English folk music with a more modern folk-rock accent.  With both Maddy Prior and Gay Woods contributing to vocals, a range of string instruments including banjo, electric dulcimer, violin, mandolin, mandola, autoharp, electric guitar and bass guitar, and excellent musicianship this is an impressive and enjoyable debut album.

It’s a Beautiful Day: Marrying Maiden

Back in  America, San Francisco-based It’s a Beautiful Day, released their second studio album, Marrying Maiden. It has that distinctive, haunting, ethereal “Its a Beautiful Day” sound,  abandoning the psychedelic elements of the first album to provide a more relaxed pastoral-folk listening experience.

I did listen to the Dylan Self-Portrait album (finally after all these years) from start to finish and that has some folk elements as well as blues, bluegrass and country elements. For me, the best track is Dylan’s “Woogie Boogie.” This is definitely one of those albums it is best to stream before considering purchasing.  I also listened to the entire Grand Funk “Closer to Home” album for the first time, an album that made it up to the sixth sport on the Billboard’s album chart — my only prior exposure to it being a cassette tape that I heard a portion of and hearing the title track on the FM radio once or twice.  I think that’s the limit of what I will venture to say about this album.

June 1970, being the first month of summer, provided a bounty of new albums.  Did I leave any of your favorites out?  If so, please comment!

Fifty Year Friday: June 1970 Part Two

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Soft Machine: Third

On June 6, Soft Machine released their third album, a two-LP set recorded in April and June of that year — one of the best early progressive rock albums — with each side containing a single selection, and each selection distinct in approach and content.  This is not music for the casual listener — it requires attentive listening to fully reveal the variety of musical wealth contained on each side.  Though heavily influenced by jazz, free-jazz, and contemporary electronic classical music, its foundation is solidly Canterbury-scene progressive rock, even if that scene was still being defined at that time, with a large contribution of that definition from this album.

The first side is a mix of mostly live material and some studio content with some creative mixing and overlaying, particularly at the end of the track, which effectively brings the colorful musical narrative to a close.  Side two is more along the lines of Frank Zappa’s style of progressive jazz-rock and though less introspective and intriguing then side one, is very accessible and animated, providing that cathartic surge when gets from an invigorating progressive rock instrumental.

Side three is a typical Robert Wyatt brimming over with his atypical songwriting. The work is filled with an assortment of Wyatt melodies artfully reduced to a unified whole that narrates what may be real-life-based reflections on a recent “convenient” relationship while conveniently staying in New York state. Side four is another adventurous instrumental with a dramatic synthesizer introduction that perhaps had an influence on the introduction to Yes’s Close to The Edge.

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Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud

Alice Coltrane provides a brilliant album of post-bop modern structured jazz that includes some free jazz elements, leaning overall towards a more traditional post-bop experience, with each track having a distinct character and style.

The title track, “Ptah, the El Daoud” (Ptah, the beloved) is named after the Egyptian god that existed at the very beginning of existence (way before the internet) and created the universe, also, it seems, on the hook to ensure that universe’s ongoing maintenance. Ptah was particularly associated with craftsmen, architects, and other creative types. As Alice states in the liner notes, her intent with this track was to express the concept of spiritual purification.  Ron Carter opens up the work, followed by Alice on piano and drummer Ben Riley, immediately joined by a pair of saxophones: Joe Henderson playing on the left side of the stereo field and Pharoah Sanders on the right.  The music is march-like, representing the quest for purification — in the words of Alice Coltrane,  “the march on to purgatory, rather than a series of changes a person might go through.” Henderson and Sanders provide somewhat free, exploratory soloing, but the music is kept on its given path primarily through Coltrane’s piano work supported by allied bass and drums.

“Turiya and Ramakrishna”, is a soulful bluesy piano-led work accompanied by bass and drums. The Turiya in the title is a Sanskrit word that in Hindu philosophy represents pure consciousness — the consciousness that occurs whether sleeping soundly, dreaming or waking. Ramakrishna was a nineteenth-century Hindu mystic revered for his spiritual ecstasies, and his message of love and individual religious devotion.  Though the inspiration for the work originates from India, the music is solidly American jazz, intimate in nature and scope as if spontaneously created during the last set inside a dark, intimate nightclub with just a few devoted and spellbound listeners left to enjoy the final music of the last hour of the extended evening.

On the third track, Alice switches to harp, and Henderson and Sanders are on flutes for an evocative work titled “Blue Nile”, a magical seven minutes of ethereal, impressionistic jazz.  The final track, “Mantra” at sixteen and a half minutes ends side two providing an uplifting and exploratory listening experience that comes closer to free jazz than the first track, but yet with a strong sense of structure and purpose culminating in a rich musical encounter true to the overall spiritual tone of the entire album.

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Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead

Grateful Dead releases the classic Workingman’s Dead, an album more representative of Kentucky than northern California, with the music being a mostly acoustic mix of bluegrass, country-ragtime, blues, and country-rock,  performed lovingly and with sparkling energy.

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait

Bob Dylan released Self Portrait, a two-LP album, an album I noticed over and over in people’s record collections at the various parties I attended. It sold pretty well, reaching number 4 on the Billboard album chart at going gold. I,  myself, was tempted to buy it on a number of occasions, as I really liked the cover.  For whatever reason, I never did, and to this day, have not yet heard it in its entirety.  I guess it’s clear I am not a big Dylan fan. To each their own, I suppose.

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Rare Earth: Ecology

The same might be said about the Rare Earth laudably-titled Ecology album, also released in June 1970. Although I don’t think I ever saw this album in anyone’s record collection (as the case with the Dylan Self Portrait album), there was a high likelihood that I probably would have never ever listened to it — and from 1970 to a few days ago, never did.  The difference in me making the extra effort to stream it and listen carefully to it was that I got to see Rare Earth live.  They were the opening act for the 1974 California Jam, but their performance was disregarded by many in the audience and those still arriving — if there were any still arriving — my friend and I were so close to the front we paid little attention to what was behind us. For my own part, I sat and attentively listened to and watched Rare Earth, contently enjoying the performance despite distractions.  So, I thought it appropriate to make the effort to stream the Ecology album and see what I thought of it fifty years after it had been released.  And just as I was pleasantly surprised with Rare Earth’s performance at the California Jam, I find Ecology to be better than expected.  Though rated only three stars by allmusic.com, it is a well-produced album by a talented group of musicians.  Highlights are mostly the Tom Baird songs plus the interesting lyrics to John Persh’s “Nice Place to Visit” (“but you wouldn’t want to live here”)  — a lament about the narrator’s habit of visiting brothels — the lyrics available here: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/rareearth/niceplacetovisit.html.

Rod Stewart: Gasoline Alley

If you are Rod Stewart fan, you may wish to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of Gasoline Alley, released today, June 12, 1970. Despite Rod’s limited vocal range, and rough voice, and his habit or limitation of usually singing with limited tonal variety, there is something appealing about his song delivery.  In this album, he is supported by most of the Faces band members and some additional musicians.  This is mostly an acoustic album, and the playing and production are top-notch.

In part three for June 1970 (hopefully, next Friday) I will cover some additional albums, including some fine folk-rock albums, and any others I might have missed.  Who knows, maybe I will take the time to stream the Bob Dylan album!

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday, June 1970 Part One

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Deep Purple: Deep Purple in Rock

Fifty years ago, June 1970 was heralded in not with trumpets and trombones but with more intense screaming guitars and more repetitive and thunderous bass lines than any prior months of recorded history, whether on 78s, 33s, 45s or on magnetic tape. Yes, music would get louder, more emphatic, blusterous and even over-the-top annoying, but in June 1970,  the spigot of the fountain of the music of youth was opened up fully, the genie was released from the bottle mounted on a Harley fully armed with motivations and munitions, and the cat was not just let out of a bag, but fired from a cannon with its hair lit luminescently, waking up every previously recumbent, sleeping, and partly hypnagogic dog in the neighborhood.

The world would only be given a few more months of Jimi Hendrix, and though no single guitarist would ever match his originality and creative capabilities, the sheer volume of those stepping into the electric-music colosseum, both in headcount and decibels, would be enough to more than measurably tip the direction of the hardest and heaviest rock onward and forward.

On the very first track of Deep Purple in Rock (released on June 5th, 1970), “Speed King”, Ritchie Blackmore announces his addition to the up-to-that point comparatively staid Deep Purple, with such pitch-altering pyrotechnics that he effectively shames much of the previous decade’s incarnation of so-called mind-expanding and psychedelic music into permanent hiding with a similar level of effectivenss as computer-aided animation upstaging the assembly-line Hanna Barbara animation of the sixties. With organ, bass and drums added, the texture is as dark and thick as a Wagner full-ensemble scene stuck in an endless feedback tape loop.  Quickly this dissolves into an introspective church-like Jon Lord Organ solo with any delicacy hinted at immediately crushed by reentry of guitar, bass, drums and Ian Gillain’s banshee-styled vocals.   Amazingly,  this landmark instrumental intro was ommitted from the U.S. release of the album, victim of corporate-influenced editing.

And so with the release of this decidedly different hard rock album, Deep Purple had indisputedly arrived.  After three fine studio albums of  Lord and Blackmore exploring all styles of music within and on the borders of their capabilities, the addition of Ian Pace and Roger Glover focuses their talents to a distinctly, more blues-based, hard rock sound, influenced by Cream, Led Zeppelin and even Chuck Berry and King Crimson at the extreme —  but very distinctive and recognizable as what would soon be readily identified as the Deep Purple sound.

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Procol Harum: Home

Procol Harum (now minus Matthew Fisher) also released their fourth studio album on June 5th, 1970.  The album is a bit uneven starting off with the bluesy “Whisky Train” before getting to the more substantial, more evocative and more representative “Dead Man’s Dream.” Side two is much better with the first three tracks being commendably representative of that dark, dense Procol Harum sound that makes them so special.

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Uriah Heep: Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble

Uriah Heep’s debut album like so many debut albums seems to be a document of the band searching for their sound.  We hear influences of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Black Sabbath’s oblique foundational bass lines, as well as the trademark Uriah Heep non-lexical vocables (in other words, without words: wordless vocalizing like “oohs” and “aaahs”) and their love of riff-based repetition. This would be the first of their many albums that the critics loved to hate, but one cannot deny the creativity of the participants.   Though the lead guitarist, Mick Box, is rarely mentioned alongside peers like Ritchie Blackmore or Robin Trower, he should be — as I do so right here in this blog post, and most specifically, this sentence.

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Barclay James Harvest: Barkley James Harvest

Barclary James Harvest, assembled their name from paper slips drawn at random. Fortunately more care went into the music, with this, their very first album, released June 5, 1970, bountiful in melodically rich, almost Beatlesque (McCartney-like) material.  The last track appears to have taken a cue from Moody Blues with its recited poetry intro and orchestral content, but it goes deeper and heavier with a dark metallic hue along parallel lines at places to King Crimson’s “Epitaph.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: May 1970

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Quatermass: Quatermass

Released in May of 1970, Quatermass’s first and final album, named after the band, sold poorly and, outside of prog-rock circles, is little known about today.

Quatermass was a trio with a talented composer/keyboardist J. Peter Robinson, similar in some ways to Dave Greenslade, a skillful composer/bassist/vocalist John Gustafson, and drummer, Mick Underwood who had turned down a chance to be the drummer for Jimmy Page’s new band, Led Zeppelin, in order to be part of the heavier sounding “Episode Six”, which would eventually include Robinson and Gustafson who, along with Underwood, would eventually leave Episode Six to form Quatermass.

The Quatermass sound is a mixture of early prog and hard rock with three bluesy hard-rock tunes added by outsider Steve Hammond.  The album is bookended by the Robinson synthesizer composition, “Entropy”, followed by Hammond’s “Black Sheep of the Family” which would later be covered by Deep Purple.  “Post War Saturday Echo” mixes prog, blues and rock with a solid intro, some reflective piano followed by a progressive-rock  trio section and a more traditional finish. This is followed by the Greenslade-like ballad, “Good Lord Knows.” The next track, “Up on the Ground” anticipates later Deep Purple with a mostly hard rock veneer with early prog elements including Moog synthesizer.  “Laughin’ Tackle” provides some more strong early prog-rock with the obligatory drum solo and a wide range of colorful instrumentation. The best track, “Punting”, was not originally included on the album, but is a bonus track on currently available CDs.  Excluding the tracks by Hammond, the album is a good example of early prog-rock with some good improvisation and dynamic compositions.

J. Peter Robinson, would ultimately become a session keyboardist working with Brand X, Morris Pert. Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and then later write music for movies and television.

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Carole King: Writer

Carole King gives us her debut album, Writer, in May 1970.  Although this album was generally neglected until Tapestry, it is a fine album with a diverse set of songs from pop to country to folk-rock including the soulful “Up on the Roof” previously sung by the Drifters in the early sixties.  Tapestry has better production, sound, and some superior compositions (“You’ve  Got a Friend”, “So Far Away”) but Writer is an album full of quality music, singing, and musicianship.

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King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon

Released May 15, 2020, I had to go to a little extra effort to purchase King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon as I couldn’t find it in local record stores.  Fortunately, I was able to purchase by special order from the record store near our local college. It took several weeks to get,  and I checked in two or three times a week to see if it had yet come in.  When it finally did, about four weeks later, the cover was badly damaged (and to such an extent as to leave some doubt as to whether the LP itself would be in good shape.) I had a choice of requesting the album to be re-ordered or accept the damage and trust that the LP would be okay. The idea of waiting another four weeks or possibly longer for a replacement was not an option: I had to hear the album as soon as possible.  I paid the price of $5.99 as opposed to the $3.99 I would have paid for an album already in the bins, and went home.  Fortunately the LP was not at all damaged, the music was great and was very much like the first album.

In fact, playing the first side, it was suspiciously too similar to the first album.  Clearly the band, despite the loss of Ian McDonald, had intentionally decided to create a close likeness of In the Court of the Crimson King.  After a brief unaccompanied rendition on vocals by Greg Lake of “Peace”,  the rest of side one sounds like a covert transformation of the first side of the first album.  “Pictures of a City”, colorful and vigorous, sounds alarmingly close to “21st Century Schizoid Man”, which musically, is certainly something worth achieving in itself.  “Cadence and Cascade” fills the role of “I Talk to the Wind”, but like “Pictures of a City” falls shy of the original, and same with “In the Wake of Poseidon” alignment with “Epitaph.”  The music and performances are good, and worth multiple listenings, but falls short of its forerunner.

Side two is a different story. An instrumental version of Peace begins the set, followed by the catchy “Cat Food” (released as a single in the UK), and the three-part “Devil’s Triangle” which incorporates a revised version of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War” from The Planets replete and awash with the tape-induced sounds of the mellotron.  Overall a good album that misses a few inches wide of the previous bulls-eye registered by one of the great rock albums of all time, In the Court of the Crimson King.

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Beatles: Let It Be

Recorded mostly back in January 1969, Let It Be was released on the 8th of May 1970,  about four weeks after the Beatles announced their break-up and about three weeks after McCartney had unjustly taken some of the blame for the break-up with the release of his solo album.  Let It Be always seemed like an afterthought in the Beatles catalog.  It was a simpler, more rugged, less refined, and less cohesive set of songs than their previous last six albums (omitting Yellow Submarine) and couldn’t hold up to the number of repeated listenings of those previous six albums. Nonetheless, it is still superior to most albums, opening up strong with “Two of Us” and including real gems like “Across The Universe”, “Let it Be” and the “Long and Winding Road.”  The 1960s came to an end with the last recordings of the Beatles made in 1969, and what followed was largely influenced by those same Beatles, particularly the popularity of the singer-songwriter and the thirst for imaginative and innovative music as most notably represented by the adventurous jazz-rock and progressive rock bands.

Fifty Year Friday: April 1970

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Elton John: Elton John

April 1970 continues the early seventies trend of providing strong rock/folk/pop singer songwriter albums with one of the most polished releases of early 1970, and arguably the one of most important, historically: Elton John’s second album, artfully arranged by Paul Buckmaster and produced by Gus Dudgeon.  Originally intended to be a demo of current Elton John and Bernie Taupin songs to be circulated among industry recording artists, bands, producers and execs as a means of promoting the quality and variety of John/Taupin songs available for those looking for songs to add to an album, but due to the recently increased commercial appetite for solo singer songwriter albums, the album was released commercially under Elton’s name — or Reggie Dwight’s assumed name of “Elton John” based on an inspirational combining of the names of Bluesology bandmates Elton Dean and  Long John Baldry.

Released on April 10, 1970, Elton John was relatively ignored until the single “Your Song”, the first track on the album, started getting significant airplay as a single in December 1970.  Like many others, I first bought the third album, Tumbleweed Connection in late 1970 and then purchased the Elton John album, later getting the first album (Empty Sky)  as an import as it had not been released in the U.S.  Interesting it was within a few days of purchasing the Elton John album, that I first starting hearing “Your Song” on the radio, wondering how such success would impact the next album’s quality or direction.

“Your Song’ is by far my favorite song on the album (which due to my teenage stubbornness and anti-establishment stance, might not be the case if I had been exposed to it on AM first) but this is an impressively strong album, with even my least favorite song, a tribute to the Rolling Stones country-rock style tucked away on track four of the first side (“No Shoe Strings on Louise”), being a song of some merit.  It is astonishing to consider that had this album not been released except in limited distribution as a promotional vehicle for their songwriting skills, that Elton and Bernie may have been content to have been behind-the-scene songwriters.  However, due to the quality of the arrangements, songs like “Your Song”, “Sixty Years On”, “Border Song”, “Take Me to the Pilot” and more, its hard to imagine any alternate universe where this album could have been kept under wraps for any length of time.  Today I still consider Tumbleweed Connection to be the best Elton John album, however that may be more influenced by it being the first Elton John album I bought — if I was to recommend just one Elton John album, it would be this one — especially if the tastes of the listener favored intimate or introspective singer-songwriter albums.

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Cat Stevens: Mona Bona Jakon

After a successful first album and a commercially and critically disappointing second album was followed with a near-fatal case of tuberculosis, Cat Stevens ensuing recuperation was filled with time to reflect on life and stockpile thirty to forty songs, some of which were used as material for his third album, Mona Bona Jakon.  One suspects that the realization of the merits of a simpler life is also manifested in the simplicity of the music and the arrangements on this acoustic-based album, with its transparently clear and focused guitar work, double bass, and suitable and appropriate use of strings.

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Randy Newman: 12 Songs

Also in April 1970, Randy Newman releases his second album, 12 Songs. Replacing the interesting orchestration and sometimes sympathetic characters in the songs with skilled studio musicians (including Clarence White, Ry Cooder and jazz bassist Al McKibbon) and an array of generally unpleasant and sometimes repulsive characters, Newman has refined his approach to be an all out assault of social commentary.  The music is also simpler — blatantly based on standard, cookie–cutter harmonic progressions borrowing generously from blues and country musical components.  Due to its readily accessible music  consistency of character portrayal, and twisted, ironic lyrics, the album was embraced by critics and helped further establish Randy Newman as a significant artist.

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Al Stewart: Zero She Flies

Another artist establishing a signature sound and style was Al Stewart with his release of his third album, Zero She Flies. Each song is distinct and original with “Manuscript” providing the type of historical reflection that would become more common in later Al Stewart albums.  Not included in the original album, but on CD releases as a bonus track, is the personal and reflective “News from Spain”, as good as any of the tracks on the original album.

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Paul McCartney: McCartney

Joining the list of solo singer songwriters is Paul McCartney, releasing his first solo album on the Apple label, McCartney.  Released before Let it Be, the album was accompanied with the news of the Beatles break-up and many fans incorrectly assigned the blame of the break-up to Paul or his desire to be on his own releasing solo albums of which this was the first.

Commercially successful (what Beatles fan didn’t want to get that first solo album after their break up), the album  was overall disappointing for anyone who had previously purchased Abbey Road:  many critics and fans saw this album as concrete proof of how important (okay, instrumental) George Martin was to the overall quality of all the Beatles’ catalog.  The good part was that if one came to the album expecting little (that is one of your friends let you borrow the album after telling you how bad it was), there were some worthwhile moments.  Composed of fragments, not fully-realized tunes, and the properly arranged and realized, “Maybe I’m Amazed”, one can embrace the album for the informality and glimpses of genius.  It seems clear the album had some padding to bring it up to almost 35 minutes, including two versions of one the best tunes on the album, “Junk” — both an instrumental version of “Junk” and the vocal version which seems to have lyrics added after the fact and somewhat haphazardly. I would be fine with just the instrumental version, but one has to give credit to Paul’s vocals which are always a treat to hear.  Overall, not an essential album, but it is an album that is fun to revisit every few years.

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Jethro Tull: Benefit

Jethro Tull released their third album, continuing to refine their sound adding keyboardist John Evan (though uncredited), and creating more intriguing and colorful music than ever.  Many critics were unimpressed with the often off-the-mark Rolling Stone labeling this exciting and engaging album “lame and dumb”, yet fortunately the album did well in both the UK and the States providing Jethro Tull the necessary commercial momentum.  Retrospective reviews would be much more embracing of this remarkable set of vibrant and distinctive songs.

Be sure to check out the Steven Wilson remix of Benefit, a true aural delight that includes  “Alive and Well and Living In”, which was replaced on the US version of the album with the single “Teacher.”

 

Fifty Year Friday: March 2020

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Miles Davis: Bitches Brew

It was sometime around 1971 (and maybe as early as 1970) that I first saw some promotional marketing material for a mail-based membership club called the Seven Arts Society. It wasn’t offering the usual record club membership (where one could buy 10 albums for $1 and then have to buy more albums later),  it was a one time $7 fee to a club that sold mostly books on the seven arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, drama, literature, music and photography) as well as small book-shelf friendly reproductions of sculptures.   I put it aside and didn’t think about it again, until a received another version of their promotional mailing that included a picture of the stunning cover of Miles Davis’s Bitches’ Brew.   At this point, even though I had never knowingly heard a note of Miles Davis, I took the ad very seriously and noticed that for $7 one could get membership into the Seven Arts Society that included a couple of items I wasn’t particularly interested in and two items that did capture my interest: the Miles Davis album and a 10 LP set of classical piano masterpieces.  The first thing I did was to get my father’s take on the overall legitimacy of the membership and his personal verification that there were really no strings attached, and though he advised against my signing up, he did so with limited conviction.  This step completed, I then had to decide  which was the better choice: the Miles Davis two record set or the Piano Masterpiece. I knew nothing about Miles Davis at that time, and wasn’t sure what kind of music I would be getting.  On the other hand I was developing a growing love for classical music, and this 10 LP set had one entire LP of Mozart, two LPs of Beethoven, and half a side of Tchaikovsky — composers of which I had recently been buying recordings of their symphonies.  I also knew a little bit about the other composers included as I had started casually listening to the local commercial classical AM and FM radio station., KFAC-FM. Ultimately I decided that 10 LPs were much better than 2 and figured I could buy the Miles Davis 2 LP album later.

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It turned out the 10 LP set was a smart purchase.  The set was in a quality box with the highest quality LPs I had ever seen. Deutsche Grammaphon produced thick, heavy, noiseless LPs.  The sound was clearly superior, even on our modest sound system, which had been very recently upgraded from a mono cabinet to a radio shack stereo turntable, amplifier and a pair (a pair!) of speakers. And even to my rather limited sensibilities, it seemed to me the orchestras and pianists were of the highest possible quality.  I started by listening to the Mozart and Beethoven, working through the 10 LPs in order, and playing the Beethoven LPs several times before getting to what I considered to be the second tier composers of the fourth LP, Schubert and Schumann,  composers I had heard little about and less of their music.   I was pleasantly surprised with Schubert’s Marche Militaire and Opus 103 Fantasy and by the delicateness and clarity of the solo piano sound.  The music sparkled  and sounded so perfect and so, well, pianistic.  Next, I was really impacted by the Schumann piece that started on that same side and continued on the second side.  A piece with both an English name, “Scenes From Childhood”  — and a German name that I couldn’t pronounce,  Kinderszenen, but now knew what it meant.  That first “scene”, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” had one of the most haunting, evocative melodies I have ever heard up to that time — the second theme, even further heightened by its harmonic, rhythmic and thematic relationships to the first, simpler, more innocent theme.  That first side of that fourth LP would get played many more times,  more than the Beethoven LPs .  However, it wouldn’t get played the most of those ten LPs.  Soon I came across the famous Chopin A-flat Polonaise (slightly familiar to me from hearing it once on the radio [hadn’t yet realized it was used in the Wizard of Oz] and promising myself that I would one day have a recording of it) on the second side of side six and Prokofiev’s Opus 11 Toccata on the tenth LP both played by Martha Argerich who along with Christoph Eschenbach who was the pianist on the Kinderszenen and Sviatoslav Richter who was the pianist on the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto became immediate favorites of mine.  By the time I had finished that tenth LP, this was my favorite LP set in my modest collection, at least until I spent $20 to buy a 21 LP set of Alfred Brendel performing Beethoven’s piano works.

Now, please note, that I had expected I would purchase the Bitches Brew LPs when I received the catalog from Seven Arts.  However, much to my surprise, it was priced at twelve dollars, more expensive than what it would be if I had purchased it at one of the newly-being-built discount mega-record stores.  So I told myself that I would purchase it later.  But time went on, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1980’s that I purchased my first Miles Davis album, Amandla and it wasn’t a few days ago that I first heard the entire Bitches Brew album from start to end.

And though it is nowhere close to Kinderszenen, Chopin’s famous A-flat Polonaise, the Prokofiev Toccata or even the Ravel Piano Concerto performed also by Martha Argerich (in that 10 LP Great Piano Masterpieces set I am still in love with), Bitches Brew is a very consequential album that makes use of sound and space much like the Miles album before it, In a Silent Way, but has a greater focus on energy, drama and drive than the more ethereal and beautiful In a Silent Way.  It combines elements of psychedelic rock with jazz and modern classical improvisation.   Along with In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew has had considerable influence on many styles of music in the next few years including rock, funk, jazz and prog-rock.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex: A Beard of Stars

At around the same time I purchased the 10 LP Great Piano Masterpieces, my dad had taken my sister and I to one of the newly opened Wherehouse record stores, the first one opened in Orange County, a car drive of about 20 to 25 minutes.  Not having much money, I bought a bargain-priced ($4.99) three-LP box of Mozart late symphonies, and some “cut out” records — records reduced in price with a corner cut out, or a small notch cut or small whole punched in the in the outer area of the cover.  The records I got were three or four LPs from the Czech Supraphon label of exotic named composers like Jiří Antonín Benda, Vojtěch Matyáš Jírovec, Václav Pichl and Václav Voříšek each priced at $1.99 — and a single cut-out LP priced priced at exactly 99 cents,  an album that did well in the UK and so was released in the US on Blue Thumb, but failed to sell and so ended up in the cut-out bin.  I had never heard of this two-person band (their name was not one to invoke confidence) and the dreary photo of a single, unknown musician on the front cover and another on the back, was not particularly appealing, but there was something appealing about the title of the album, Beard of Stars, and the track names on the jacket, the first of which was title “Prelude” with the ones following seemingly having a connection to folklore or fantasy with titles like “Pavilions of Sun, “Wind Cheetah” and “Dragon’s Ear.” What sealed the deal was a sticker on the LP indicating that there was also included inside (as a bonus!) their hit single, “Ride a White Swan”, which, like the name of the group, I had never heard of before, and, all things considered,  I figured there was no harm in taking a chance at 99 cents — money I could quickly recover working at the school cafeteria before school started and during half of my lunch period each day.

I can’t say how much I was amazed and delighted at all six of the symphonies in the Mozart box set.  Also, my sister had bought a two-record set of Puccini’s La Boheme.  I had never heard an entire opera before, and how very exciting it was to follow the English translation of the Italian as the plot of the opera unfolded accompanied by a continuous stream of drama-steeped melodies and melodic-like fragments.  The Supraphon Czech composer LPs were not as novel as the opera experience, but were quite good in terms of performance and musical content.  Then there was the Tyrannosaurus Rex Beard of Stars album, which I had pretty low expectations and much to my surprise was both intriguing and musically satisfying from the opening prelude.  There is a level of intimacy throughout each track, and I thought of these two musicians performing in a small venue or someone’s den, crosslegged on the floor.  But there is also an intensity, liveliness and forward motion to the album that propels itself through the slower tunes like the simple “Organ Blues” or the dissonant “Wind Cheetah” that ends side one.  Side two opens up with more upbeat energy with the title track, of “A Beard of Stars” which effectively serves as an instrumental prelude for side two.   It is not until the very end,  in the final moments of side two, that the tone and consistency of the album is disrupted with the closing three minutes of the last track inexplicably veering off into an rather unstructured and wild — and seemingly unrelated — electric guitar excursion by Marc Bolan.  And though a better and more cohesive ending would be welcome, all in all this is an excellent fantasy-folk rock album filled with a variety of well-crafted and laudably idiosyncratic tunes that make this my favorite T. Rex album.

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As mentioned this cut-out version also included a single hurriedly shoved into the interior of the jacket — a single, “Ride A White Swan” that held little interest for me upon first listening and held none of the charm or uniqueness of the album it came with.  “Ride A White Swan” produced by Tony Visconti (earlier Tyrannosaurus Rex including Beard of Stars, later T. Rex, David Bowie and the first Gentle Giant album ) was well received in the UK, where it peaked at the number two spot. Though a simple blues-based tune, “Ride A White Swan” is often credited as the first glam-rock song and with its success was the second step towards fame and fortune for Marc Bolan and his new percussionist, Mickey Finn — the first step towards fame being this Beard of Stars album, recorded in 1969 and released March 13, 1970, which, though it didn’t catch on in the U.S. as mentioned earlier, did pretty well in the UK.

Egg: Egg

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If Bitches Brew or Beard of Stars aren’t usually classified as progressive rock, even though they should be, Egg’s first album, Egg, released the same day as Beard of Stars, on March 13, 1970, clearly has left the late-sixties genre of psychedelic rock behind, incorporating classical and jazz elements into a rock foundation, but very differently, and less organically, than Bitches Brew.  Egg embraces one of the signature elements (excuse the pun since I am indeed referring to odd and sometimes alternating time signatures) of prog-rock to such a degree that the single that preceded the album, their first and only single, starts off with a 4/4 verse with a brief 5/4 part and then with a chorus in 7/8 with the returning verse going from 4/4 to 11/8  — all with matching lyrics that clearly call out what is happening.  The first album is equally adventurous with a progressive rock treatment (percussion and bass added à la Keith Emerson’s Nice) of Bach’s famous D minor organ Fugue as well a complete part original, part classical-based symphony taking up the entire second side.  Well, almost a complete symphony, as the third movement was dropped by the record execs due to it using material so close to the still-under-copyright “dances of the adolescent girls” section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and replaced by an alternate, stand alone composition, fitted in at the spot where the third movement was.  Fortunately, a test pressing was made and saved that included that third movement which is now available on more recent digital versions of the album.  All in all a strong debut by Egg, showcasing Dave Steward on keyboards.

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Cosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Déjà Vu

Released on March 11, 1970 Déjà Vu adds Neil Young to the Crosby, Stills and Nash lineup, providing three radio-airplay hits (Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” and Graham Nash’s “Teach Your Children Well” and “Our House”) as well as Stephen Stills “Carry On” and Neil Young’s “Helpless” and “Country Girl.”  If you are looking for a post-Beatles example of what is meant by “Classic Rock”, this album fits the bill as well as any with its strong songwriting, tightly executed harmonies, and brilliant arrangements.

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Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon

This brilliant album, filled with the 20th Century folk-pop equivalent of 19th century art songs, was released on March 2nd 1970.   The lyrics range from personal, philosophic, poignant and playful, with the music always of the highest caliber.  “Free” is one of many examples from this album of how lyrics and music come together perfectly and includes evocative cello and a brief, illustrative clarinet solo by Paul Horn.  By the time I was in college (1973), this was an album that every girlfriend of my close guy friends had in their collection and in the collection of the first young lady I moved in with as well as my close gay friend who always got the best scores on our music theory ear training tests and, then years later, two consecutive English singer-songwriter roommates (one female, one male) when I lived in England.  There is just something special about both Joni Mitchell and this album that everyone who has a more sensitive side to them should find intellectually, emotionally and musically appealing.

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Frank Sinatra: Watertown

One doesn’t usually think of concept albums and Frank Sinatra, but here we have a true concept album of the early 1970s — not a grand prog sci-fi theme, but an real-life concept with appropriate, corresponding songs about a guy whose wife leaves both him and his children.  This one tears at your heartstrings and the songs are well written and sung simply and without any bravado.  One annoying drawback is that Sinatra is dubbing his voice over the recorded orchestrations — very different than his usual method of operation of recording in real time with the musicians. And although this overdub approach detracts from the album, the album is still worth multiple listenings.

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Jimi Hendrix: Band of Gypsies

Whether live or in the studio, it seems that every moment of Jimi Hendrix on tape is priceless!  Released on March 25, 1970, this album is still as fresh as when it was recorded on January 1st, 1970. Yes, it’s far from the best Hendrix album or even the best live Hendrix, and Buddy Miles singing (and even some of his drumming) does get in the way at times.  But we get some amazing — no, some transcendental — guitar work from Hendrix on the longest track, “Machine Gun”, and side two also has its strengths with renditions of “Power of Soul” and “Message to Love.”

Also worthy of mention is Alice Cooper’s weirdly offbeat, partly Zappa-and-Captain-Beefheart influenced album, Easy Action, Rod Stewart and the Faces’ album First Step, The Temptations Psychedelic Shack, the live Delaney and Bonnie with Friends album, On Tour with  Eric Clapton, and Leon Russell’s debut self-titled album, with that classic Leon Russell gem, “A Song For You.’  There is also the live Ginger Baker’s Air Force album that I listened to once when in college and remember little of, but I heartily welcome any comments or reflections about it or any other album from March of 1970.

Which of these many and diverse, distinctive albums of March 1970 do you remember or still listen to (even if only now and then) in the 21st century?

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