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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?

Fifty Year Friday: January 1970

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Chicago:  Chicago

For most of us in our teens, 1970 was filled with many memorable and important musical moments.  Out of the hundreds which expanded my musical appreciation greatly, three stand out. The first (the last of these three) occurred in December of 1970: the Beethoven all day, one-dollar, open seating, 10 AM to 10 PM, Bicentennial Beethoven Birthday Concert at the L.A. Music Center. Attending a school Advanced Placement English all-day field trip, I first heard live chamber music, including the Beethoven Octet in E-flat major for pairs of clarinets, oboes, bassoons and french horns  — providing a kaleidoscope of remarkably distinct timbres — interacting yet maintaining separateness and distinctness and as brilliantly clear as the decorative icing on a cake but as substantial as the actual cake ingredients underneath that icing.  When the school bus was ready to leave that afternoon, I unsuccessfully tried to arrange transportation.  I had originally come to the concert that day as one who liked and enjoyed classical music, and left as one who couldn’t be without it.

The second of the three most important musical events of 1970 for me was the acquisition of King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King.  This was the heaviest music I had yet heard and I heartily shared it with my friends that were willing to accept such adventurous and different music.  The album definitely contributed to my developing the preference, tastes, and sensibilities for the numerous progressive rock albums that would late follow and, because the album included Greg Lake, it was ultimately responsible for my purchasing of yet-to-be-in-existence Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums.

The third of these three most important musical memories was initiated by my next door neighbor bringing over his newly purchased “Chicago” double album (nowadays referred to as Chicago II), but really the first Chicago album to us at the time as we were yet unaware of the first Chicago Transit Authority album.)  I recorded that “Chicago” album on my tape deck with a copy of Abbey Road and played those two albums over and over during the summer of 1970 while reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. When I  stayed with my aunt and uncle during part of the summer of 1971, I talked my cousin, a talented snare drummer in a drum and bugle corp, into purchasing the 2 LP album and it soon was the main soundtrack to my multi-week visit there.

I usually avoid ranking albums,  but it would be difficult to not acknowledge that this album is one of the very best pop/rock albums of 1970s as well as the last fifty years.  The entire album is a cohesive work, best listened to attentively from start to finish and comparable to other complete works like novels or symphonies.  Unlike most albums before, during ,and afterwards, there is not one minute of filler material, everything on the album is indispensable and contributes to the remarkably high quality of the completed work.

Tracks

1. Movin’ In (James Pankow) – 4:06 Lead singer: Terry Kath
2. The Road (Terry Kath) – 3:10 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
3. Poem for the People (Robert Lamm) – 5:31 Lead singer: Robert Lamm
4. In the Country (Kath) – 6:34 Lead singers: Terry Kath and Peter Cetera
5. Wake Up Sunshine (Lamm) – 2:29 Lead singers: Robert Lamm and Peter Cetera
6. Make Me Smile – 4:40 Lead singer: Terry Kath
7. So Much to Say, So Much to Give – 1:12 Lead singer: Robert Lamm
8. Anxiety’s Moment – 1:01 Instrumental
9. West Virginia Fantasies – 1:34 Instrumental
10. Colour My World – 3:01 Lead singer: Terry Kath
11. To Be Free – 1:15 Instrumental
12. Now More Than Ever – 1:26 Lead singer: Terry Kath
13. Fancy Colours (Lamm) – 5:10 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
14. 25 or 6 to 4 (Lamm) – 4:50 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
15. Prelude (Kath, Peter Matz) – 1:10 Instrumental
16. A.M. Mourning (Kath, Matz) – 2:05 Instrumental
17. P.M. Mourning (Kath, Matz) – 1:58 Instrumental
18. Memories Of Love (Kath) – 3:59 Lead singer: Terry Kath
19. 1st Movement (Lamm) – 2:33 Lead singer: Terry Kath
20. 2nd Movement (Lamm, Walter Parazaider) – 3:41 Instrumental
21. 3rd Movement (Lamm, Kath) – 3:19 Lead singer: Terry Kath
22. 4th Movement (Lamm) – 0:51 Lead singer: Terry Kath
23. Where Do We Go From Here” (Peter Cetera) – 2:49 Lead singer: Peter Cetera
Chicago

Peter Cetera – Bass, Vocals
Terry Kath – Guitar, Vocals
Robert Lamm – Keyboard, Vocals
Lee Loughnane – Trumpet, Vocals
James Pankow – Trombone
Walter Parazaider – Woodwinds, Vocals
Danny Seraphine – Drums

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Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Bridge Over Troubled Water was the first album I bought within a few days after it was released. (A year or two after that, buying albums as soon as they came out would become a common purchasing pattern.)  My sister had previously purchased each and every Simon and Garfunkel album, and probably would have bought this one, but I spotted it at the local K-mart and grabbed it without question.  Taking it home and then playing it attentively, I was a bit disappointed as I was expecting that this would be even better than their previously album, Bookends.  I was still pretty naive, even for a 15-year-old, and I assumed that artists got better with each and ever attempt.  It had seemed that way with Simon and Garfunkel, as Bookends was better than Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme which was better than the Sounds of Silence album which was definitely better than Wednesday Morning, 3 AM.  Wasn’t it natural that this new album, Bridge Over Troubled Water would be their best so far?  I had a lot to learn, and I would soon learn that pop and rock artists peak — often with their third or fourth album  — sometimes even peaking with their second album. (I learned this indisputably when I bought the Chicago III album, my jaw dropping down close to the floor as I had expected the same improvement from the CTA album [first Chicago album] to the Chicago II album to occur from the Chicago II to the Chicago III — it was very unfitting, and perhaps, in my mind at that time, unethical of them to turn out such an inferior product to Chicago II)

I listened to  Bridge Over Troubled Water a few times, trying to  sort out  what was the best songs — I liked “Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Song for the Asking” the best and considered “Bye Bye Love” and, to a lesser degree, “El Cóndor Pasa” to be filler. (Yes, “El Cóndor Pasa” isn’t that bad, but i would much rather have it replaced with a strong Paul Simon composition — which I was expecting the album to be overflowing with.)

Perhaps a week to ten days after purchasing, I had started to hear the title track on the radio.  Yes, that was reassuring, but it did get a bit trying to hear it over and over.  Then the same occurred with “Cecilia.”  I had already played the album over a dozen times, so didn’t need those songs filling the airwaves, but nonetheless, was happy for Simon and Garfunkel to get all the attention and resulting benefits from the constant exposure for those few months. Overall this album is their most commercial effort, and not surprisingly their most successful.  It is also pretty good — especially “Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Song for the Asking.”

Tracks

Side One
1. Bridge Over Troubled Water (Paul Simon) 4:52
2. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) (Jorge Milchberg / Daniel Alomía Robles / Paul Simon) 3:06
3. Cecilia (Paul Simon) 2:55
4. Keep the Customer Satisfied (Simon) 2:33
5. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright (Simon) 3:41

Side Two
1. The Boxer (Simon) 5:08
2. Baby Driver (Simon) 3:15
3. The Only Living Boy in New York (Simon)
4. Why Don’t You Write Me (Simon) 2:45
5. Bye Bye Love (Boudleaux Bryant / Felice Bryant)
6. Song for the Asking (Simon) 01:39

Personnel

Paul Simon – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, percussion
Art Garfunkel – lead vocals, percussion
Los Incas – Peruvian instruments
Joe Osborn – bass guitar
Larry Knechtel – piano, organ, Fender Rhodes
Fred Carter Jr. – acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Pete Drake – Dobro, pedal steel guitar[40]
Hal Blaine – drums, percussion
Jimmie Haskell and Ernie Freeman – strings
Jon Faddis, Randy Brecker, Lew Soloff & Alan Rubin – brass
Buddy Harman – percussion
Bob Moore – double bass
Charlie McCoy – bass harmonica
Roy Halee – engineer and co-producer

Fifty Year Friday: Monster Movie, The Stooges, Stand Up

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Can: Monster Movie

Launching the genre of progressive rock that is sometimes called Krautrock, German Space Rock, or perhaps most appropriately Kosmische MusikMonster Movie was recorded in July 1969 and released one month later in August of 1969.  It’s Kosmische Musik rhythmic drive is present on the very first track which opens up with a high pitch space age electronic lead-in (an effect later more prevalent after the introduction of electronic sequencers), followed by driving drums, and repetitive bass and electric guitar riffs — all elements refined further by later German “cosmic music” bands.  The seemingly anomalous vocalist, is American Malcom Mooney, who lends a ranting, free-spirt to the otherwise organized and precise forward driving sound of the band.

Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and Danzig/Gdańsk-born bassist Holger Czukay studied composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit played with European Free Jazz proponent, Manfred Schoof and guitarist Michael Karoli had both classical (violin, cello) and jazz backgrounds. Vocalist and sculptor, Malcom Mooney, became friends with Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay shortly after he moved to Germany and joined the first iteration of the band named “Inner Space.”  It was Mooney who suggested a new name, “The Can”, which was later shortened to just “Can.”  At some point later, an English newspaper article incorrectly suggested that “CAN” stood for “Communism, Anarchism and Nihilism” and this was soon adopted by drummer Liebezeit.

There is certainly a sense of Anarchism and Nihilism in this first album, as well as a communal performance mindset.  There is also some great music, making this one of the classic rock albums of 1969.  The first track, “Father Cannot Yell”, not only has historic importance as early space rock, but exemplifies the cosmic, time-stretching intersection between space rock, free-jazz, and 1950 and 1960’s “experimental/avant/garde” “classical” music . The second track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary”, is pure West Coast psychedelia, sounding more Haight Ashbury than Köln, Germany. The third track breaks into punk territory and flirts with New Wave elements with Mooney as effective as any punk vocalist. The fourth track, “Yoo Doo Right” takes up the entire side two at a little over twenty minutes melding blues-rock with Stockhausen at the Kosmische Rock level with a little extra musical nihilism and proto-punk thrown in for good measure. All in all we have a very different album than the usual recorded fare of the time — music that is influenced by early Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground but also unquestionably provides its own influences for upcoming bands.

Can

 

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The Stooges: The Stooges

Those following this column may have noted my omission of MC5’s first released album, their live album, Kick Out the Jams.  I bought Kick Out the Jams as a used album around 1971 for about 50 cents but never took a liking to it.  I never much listened to another Michigan-based group, The  Stooges.  I have to say in all honesty,  I particularly made an effort to stay clear of them when Robert Hillburn, lead rock music critic for the Los Angeles Times, started to gush and effuse about them. Though there were many things Mr. Hilburn got right about music, he had an egregious blind spot, or deaf ear, when it came to progressive rock. Born in 1939, and enamored with the American Rock and Roll stars of the mid 1950s and seemingly more comfortable with the basics of rock and I-IV-V chord progressions than the more exploratory side of music, he absolutely hated progressive rock, and that was enough for me to discount his reviews from that point on.  When he unabashedly praised Iggy Pop and the Stooges for their primitive approach, while Hilburn was also trashing albums by Jethro Tull and Yes, that was enough for me to stop reading Hilburn’s reviews and lose any interest in ever listening to Iggy Pop or his “Stooges.”

However, this July, when looking over the calendar of albums released in August of 1969, I noticed that August 5, 1969, was the release of the first Stooges album.  I had listened once again to MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” earlier this year in trying to decide if I would include that album in a February post for Fifty Year Friday, but it just didn’t spark my interest.  The music didn’t impress me and I didn’t even see more than a marginal connection between MC5 and later punk bands, a connection often emphasized by those examining the history of punk rock. For me, the most evident connection was a lack of instrumental skill.

So when I gave the first “The Stooges” album a spin, I expected little of interest.  And though the music didn’t send me into fits of musical pleasure, it had its moments.

The Stooges had basically five songs when Elektra (looking to expand their currently small cache of non-folk rock groups) signed The Stooges — partly based on input from MC5 regarding how loud The Stooges played.   For live performance, the group basically filled in extra time by jamming, but as this wouldn’t work for the album.  Iggy and the  Stooges assured Elektra they had more material, and then quickly, perhaps in a few hours, came up with four more numbers, three of which where included in the album on side two: “Real Cool Time”, “Not Right” and “Little Doll.”

The Stooges first album was generally panned by a wide range of critics.  Interestingly Robert Hilburn, avoided reviewing this first album. Another L.A. Times contributor, John Mendelssohn,  did,  and wrote the following: “Had I not the unpleasant experience of bearing [sic] The MC5’s “Kick Out the James” [sic] several months ago, I could say “The Stooges” was the worst rock album of the year. It’s unquestionably the second worst, featuring as it does several whiny, adolescently repulsive and barely distinguishable street-punk anthems and hypnotically boring 10 minute chant “We Will Fall.” (Sunday L.A. Times, December 7, 1969)

Note Mendelssohn’s prophetically uses “punk” in his review, a term that would soon be applied to marginally talented garage rock bands, and then later used for a specific style of music as performed by groups like the Sex Pistols and The Ramones.  One could make the case that the Stooges are truly a punk rock group, the first, as opposed to just being a loud, erratic, three-chord garage rock band like the MC5.  Not considering the Stooges lead singer’s live performance presence and antics, there are elements in this first album that reflect the ethos of punk rock as exemplified by tracks like “1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a punk rock song title if there every was one.  Add to this that guitar work of Ron Asheton and a couple of actually interesting songs on the album (“Anne” and to a lesser degree “We Will Fall”) and we have something more here than an album that deserved to be widely dismissed by the rock critics of the time.  Supporting this contention is all the praise heaped upon this album in later years including the inclusion of this is the 185th best album of all time on the 2003 Rolling Stones “Greatest 500 Albums of All time.”  I won’t rate this as being one of the top 500 or even top 5000 albums of all time, but I wouldn’t say this is the second worst album of 1969 either.

The Stooges

  • Iggy Pop (credited as “Iggy Stooge”) – vocals, handclaps
  • Dave Alexander – bass guitar, handclaps
  • Ron Asheton – guitar, backing vocals, handclaps
  • Scott Asheton – drums, handclaps

Additional personnel

  • John Cale – piano, sleigh bell on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, viola on “We Will Fall”, production

 

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Jethro Tull: Stand Up

Released on 25 July 1969 in  the U.K. and in late September in the U.S., Stand Up is more than just an interesting document of the Jethro Tull transitioning from blues-rock to a folk-rock/hard-rock/progressive rock band, it is one of the finest gems of 1969 rock music.

I am generally not enthusiastic about the blues-rock genre, but this album starts off with one of the most exquisitely rendered blues-rock numbers of all time,  “A New Day Yesterday”. compellingly mixing harmonica, electric bass, electric guitar, percussion, and Ian Anderson’s vocals into fresh, vital, bass-punctuated pre-progressive rock music with a brief yet naturally placed flute solo in the middle — all of this in an under-three-minute track.

“Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square” takes us into early folk-prog territory, simple chords with a colorful arrangement creating interest; this is followed by Anderson’s arrangement of Bach’s Bourrée from the E minor Lute suite, a track that got some air play on the then cutting-edge FM album oriented radio stations that were became more prominent with the early seventies.

There’s really not one weak track on this album.  More importantly, there are some real classics here, like “Look Into The Sun” and “We Used to Know.” Primary credit must be given to the song writing skills and arranging skills of Ian Anderson, but bassist Glen Cornick also contributed to the arrangements, as did, to a lesser extent, guitarist Martin Barre. Arranger, and later on, Jethro Tull keyboardist, David/Dee Palmer, student of Richard Rodney Bennett when student at the Royal Academy of Music, also contributed, and particularly shines in the strings included in “Reasons for Waiting.”

This is one of the must listen albums of 1969.

Jethro Tull

  • Ian Anderson – vocals, flute, acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, piano, mandolin, balalaika, mouth organ, production
  • Martin Lancelot Barre – electric guitar, additional flute (on tracks 2 and 9)
  • Glenn Cornick – bass guitar (all tracks but 5 and 7)
  • Clive Bunker – drums, percussion

 

Fifty Year Friday: In A Silent Way

 

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MILES DAVIS: IN A SILENT WAY

Recorded in one session on Feb 18, 1969 as three performances, “Shhh/Peaceful”, “In A Silent Way”, “It’s About That Time”, then edited by Ted Macero (with apparently minimal input from Miles Davis) into two compositions in ABA form, one for each side, In A Silent Way, was released on July 30, 1969, peaking at number 134 on Billboard’s Top LPs chart.  The music is available today in both the edited form, which for a long time was all that listeners were familiar with, and in its original form.

What is striking about either the edited or original form, is the original style of both the music and the musical approach to structure and form that was deployed.  The album version differs considerably than the original takes.  For “Shhh”/”Peaceful” the original starts off with a whole-tone sort of motif (with traces of the flat-second Dorian mode) on which the entire work unfolds.  There is this amazing guitar work from McLaughlin and a brief but luxuriantly melodic Davis/Shorter passage.  All of this is dropped from the album version, which begins with the initial statement of another theme from the original take (about ninety seconds) followed with the restatement of this theme that occurs during the last four and a half minutes of the original, then followed with earlier material.  Whereas the original is multi-thematic and provides more contrast, the album version is more mono-thematic and ambient in nature.  It is basically in A B A form, resembling the Sonata form found in Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven era music, with the middle section analogous to a development section.

On the second side of the album, Teo Maceo continues to aggressively edit the original music, once again creating an ABA structure by taking the group’s performance of Davis’s simplified version of Zawinul’s “In A Silent Way” for the A section and using Davis and Zawinul’s collaborative “It’s about That Time” as the B section.  The results provides us with an impressionistic A section, and a quasi-bluesy, slightly funky B section, with a perfect repeat (as it is just a copy) of the original A section.

Though a transitional style for Davis, this landmark ambient jazz album would have considerable influence on many styles of music in the next few years ranging from other jazz or jazz-ambient artists to a subset of progressive rock groups, particularly several of the so-called Kraut-rock bands including Can, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Amon Duul II, to Brian Eno to a number of New Age artists to even several modern “classical music” composers.  It’s tempting to debate the artistic pros and cons and the artistic merit of the original music versus the final edited album, but it was that final edited album that was the sole source of this music for musicians and music lovers during the last five months of 1969, all of the seventies, the eighties and the nineties.   Commercial music is often notable for its externally enforced limitations, but in 1969 in particular, music markedly stood out for its bold exploration outside of established boundaries, with In A Silent Way being one of the best examples of music liberated and unencumbered from the realm of retail-driven mechanical patterns and formulas, purposefully, yet seemingly spontaneously, creating a new and unconfined expanse of musical expression.

Side One

“Shhh”/”Peaceful” (Miles Davis)  18:16

Side Two

“In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time” (Joe Zawinul, Miles Davis)  19:52

Musicians

 

Fifty Year Friday: Men on the Moon, Yes, Larry Coryell

“That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong

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Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, television gave us nearly front row seats as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin each made an appearance on what is still today, the most distant theatrical stage ever occupied by human performers, while above, circling around 60 miles above them, was their ride home.  It was such an extraordinary event that there are individuals and semi-organized clusters of people that deny that this amazing technical performance, this greatest non-musical show of all time, ever even happened.  Did Keith Emerson’s piano rotate around at the California Jam in 1974?  Could one see some of the jazz greats of all time at the Hermosa Beach Lighthouse Café throughout the early and mid seventies? Did Elton John dress up in something akin to a large sequined chicken suit as part of his performance at the Fabulous Forum in 1974? Could one, without more than an hour in line, get an up close seat in 1978 to see Peter Hammill at the Trouboudor perform “A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers” or a seat in the front three rows to see Gentle Giant perform their very last U.S. concert at the Roxy in 1980?  All these things, as unbelievable as they may seem, actually happened!

And rock was reaching new heights, proving its relevance beyond dance music, beyond catchy three minute pop songs tailored for car radios.

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Yes: Yes

Recorded in Spring of 1969 and released on July 25, 1969, the world heard the very first Yes album.  Their first studio effort is indeed impressive and immediately identifiable by its sound as both progressive rock and, more relevantly and significantly, a Yes album!  Authored primarily by Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, we already have that recognizable, identifiable Yes style from their compositions and collaborations, Peter Banks pre-Howe guitar work, Tony Kaye’s keyboards, and Bill Bruford’s percussion work, influenced by such cosmic musical giants as Art Blakey and Max Roach.

Most of us baby boomer progressive rock fans, first heard Yes in the 1970s, initially from either their third album, The Yes Album, or their fourth album, Fragile.  The reality was that most of us music lovers usually started with the third or fourth album of a number of the so-called progressive rock groups — and as we had some spending money, we invariably went back and purchased earlier albums of groups like Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Genesis or Yes — even after knowing (after the first back catalog purchase or two) that the albums would not be as good as the later albums. The fact was that even those earlier albums were still good enough and provided further insight and material from some of the finest bands outside of the jazz universe — but maybe not so completely outside of jazz  as one might think:  the jazz influences were indeed there for many of these musicians in these bands. And worth noting, so was the classical music influence.

So even though this first Yes album isn’t up to the standards of their third album, The Yes Album or Fragile, it still is Yes, and the music is captivating and engaging. It’s way too easy for those of us used to the later Yes to find fault with this album, but if we just listen to this in the context of it’s own time, when jazz, rock, and classical styles were first intermingling, its remarkable nature reveals itself.

The album opens up with “Beyond and Before” from Squires, Banks and Anderson’s previous band, Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.  Even at this early point in time the music sounds clearly the work of Chris Squire with co-authoring credits (perhaps the words) for Clive Bailey, the guitarist and vocalist of Mabel Greer’s Toyshop.    The bass/drums pairing of Squire and Bill Bruford and vocal combination of Squire and Jon Anderson establishes the framework of a style that would become unmistakably a feature of the Yes sound. The music is not as polished as later Yes, but is clearly a different sound distinct from anything else being released, and Peter Bank’s guitar work is representative in both it’s uniqueness and its sometimes rough edges.

There are two covers on this album: the second track on side one is of the Byrds  “I See You” and the second track on side two is of the Beatles “Every Little Thing”, both absorbed and incorporated into Yes’s own sound.

The other five tracks are Yes originals, ranging from good to borderline excellent.  Also recorded during these sessions is the amazing cover of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story, which is included as a bonus track on some CD reissues, or in most of the many Yes anthology albums.

Yes

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Larry Coryell: Lady Coryell

One of the earliest, if not the earliest true jazz-fusion albums, Lady Coryell features the complex, multi-track layers of  Larry Coryell’s  jazz and rock guitar polyphony.  Joined by drummer Bob Moses from Coryell’s earlier psychedelic, rough-edged jazz-rock group, “The Free Spirits”, the album moves away from the more British-rock influenced style of the earlier Free Spirits’ Out of Sight and Sound into a more convincing blend of rock and jazz.  Coryell sings, less than exquisitely, on most of the tracks, but his guitar and bass guitar work is beyond reproach.  Jimmy Garrison provides acoustic bass on track seven, and Elvin Jones provides drumming on tracks 7 and 9.

Personnel

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free

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Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking

Released on July 3, 1969, Unhalfbricking is Fairport Convention’s third album, continuing their evolution towards a mostly English Folk music style despite inclusion of three unreleased Dylan songs.  Elements of progressive rock abound, due to the acoustic guitar work of Richard Thompson and use of organ, harpsichord, electric dulcimers, violin and the eleven minute “A Sailor’s Life” with it’s instrumental second half. Sandy Denny’s expansively liberated vocals, her deft handling of the melodic line, and the subtleties in the arranging contribute to a finely finished aura that envelops the album.

The album includes two Sandy Denny compositions, including  the deeply insightful “Autopsy”, and the widely praised “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?“, previously recorded two years earlier with the Strawbs, and performed with a more relaxed pace, greater freedom, and more maturity on Unhalfbricking,

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Nick Drake: Five Leaves Free

Fifty years later, it seems natural to look back and feel some level of loss for the music that never was — the music that never was because of the tragic and premature loss of such resonant artists as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. It’s doesn’t help to reflect that general lack of commercial attention probably contributed to the depression that brought about Denny’s and Drake’s deaths.  However, such speculation is called into question upon consideration of artists whose stardom-level status similarly contributed to their shortened lives.

Whereas Sandy Denny at least got attention and opportunities from other, more prominent artists, Nick Drake was pretty much ignored not only up until 1974 when he died of an overdose of his anti-depressant medicine, possibly intentional, but also pretty much until the late 1980s.

Though barely twenty years old when he started to record Five Leaves Free in July of 1968, and though excited at the prospect of having an album, Drake’s life was already full of darkness and depression, as clear from the lyrics of the songs. His level of musicianship was impressive: he effortlessly sings and plays complex guitar passages artfully and effectively in real time with strings or other musicians as opposed to coming back later to dub the guitar work.  Though the recording sessions were rushed  (using downtime available courtesy of Fairport Convention) and the production and arrangements were not to Drake’s liking, by June of 1969, one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the sixties was completed and released to the public on July 3, 1969. Unfortunately, the critics generally cared little for the album, and very few purchased it.  People like myself would never hear of Nick Drake until many years later.

It seems unimaginable today that this album was ignored for so long.  The quality of the music and the lyrics are undeniable, and the production is generally quite good.  Joe Boyd, a George Martin fan and the producer of this album, had a vision of leveraging all studio resources to provide a integral sound, whereas Drake wanted a simpler, more organic approach.  Boyd wanted an established arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson to provide the orchestration.  However, upon hearing Hewson’s attempts with Drake’s music, neither Boyd or Drake felt that such arrangements were suitable. Drake suggested they go with one of his friends at Cambridge University, music student Robert Kirby, who had previously arranged some of Drake’s music.  Though Boyd was initially reluctant to go with someone so unknown, lacking in credentials, and so inexperienced, after getting Kirby in the studio and hearing what he could do, Boyd settled upon Kirby for all the arrangements except one, “River Man” which, for whatever reason, was arranged by professional music director, arranger and composer, Harry Robertson.  Oddly, though Robertson is a skilled arranger, this is the weakest arrangement on the album. Perhaps it was just that Robertson didn’t have the personal familiarity with either Drake or his music that Kirby did.  Perhaps it was a matter of lack of attention to the depth of the lyrics and music.  Perhaps even Kirby would not have done the song justice. It’s not that this is one of those rare songs that works best left in bleakest, most natural state of single guitar and voice, the inclusion of the strings is a workable idea, its just that the particularly arrangement deployed lacks a true connection to Drake’s message. Nonetheless the song still works well, even if not as well as if it had been recorded with just Drake’s guitar and voice.  The composition is in 5/4 time — five beats to the measure, creating a slightly surreal effect. It’s not a jazzy 5/4 like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme song, but a flowing, natural 5/4 composition further enhanced by the relationship between the minor and major chord choices.

It’s fair to say that as particularly special as “River Man” is as a song, all the songs on this album are finely crafted compositions. How this album was initially overlooked by critics but now fully embraced by them is just one of those recurring oddities in the music world  — and often later attributed to the music being ahead of its time. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Yes, the music is timeless and seemingly perfectly suited to the Shoegaze era of the late 1980s and 1990s, but it also fits in nicely with contemporary work of many of the other singer songwriters of 1969.  And there is nothing difficult or elusive in either the relatively simple lyrics, or Drake’s personal and distinctive,  yet easily accessible songs.

Accessible and personal does not exclude universal as in the case of “Day is Done” with its poetic representation of the inevitable finality of any given life.  Here, as in all the Kirby arrangements, the strings appropriately support the essence and character of the song amplifying its impact and effect.   “Fruit Tree” also addresses the nature of life but focuses on fame and the underappreciated artist, eerily predictive of Drake’s own life and legacy:

“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” 

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Fifty Year Friday: Trout Mask Replica, Brave New World

Trout Mask Replica

“I don’t know anything about music.”  Don Glen Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart)

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica

Recorded from August 1968 to March 1969 and released on June 16. 1969, Trout Mask Replica is a double album for the ages whether you might love it or hate it — and for most people, it’s rather easy to hate.  Far different from Captain Beefheart’s previous album,  Safe As Milk (which though partly confined within a traditional blues framework and ethos, provides many imaginative moments and approaches), Trout Mask Replica breaks into territory no artist has yet covered on record:  it’s been called out as the musical equivalent of rusty barbwire, and it certainly is as about as far away from easy listening as music gets.  But careful, focused, not-so-easy listening reveals the complexity in a large portion of music on the album which includes complex polyrhythms and polytonality.

Yes, there is a lot of non-musical content on the album — Frank Zappa produced this gem and granted total artistic freedom to Captain Beefheart and his band, so one doesn’t get continuous, highly refined music.  Instead one gets pockets — and the treasures here are in the instrumental accompaniment and interludes.  It’s been said that Captain Beefheart’s voice makes Tom Waits sound like Julie Andrews, that’s true, and the engineering of the album emphasizes these vocals as does their general lack of alignment with the backing instrumentation. It has been alleged that the lack of synchronization was due to Beefheart’s not wanting to wear headphones during recording, which resulted in him becoming hopelessly dependent on his own sense of time and on the immediate sonic reverberations of the studio.

Though there are people that will swear that the main value of this album is to drive away unwanted visitors, its influence on many musicians is indisputable.  Bands or individuals reportedly influenced include Henry Cow, The Residents (clearly), The Clash, Tom Waits, The Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground, The Little Feat and myriad others.  For me, the repeated polyrhythmic motifs anticipate Gentle Giant, King Crimson and some of the more aggressive math rock bands.   If you don’t like this album immediately, try it again, clearing away any possibility of distractions, as well as any expectations, taking the music and non-musical elements for what they are — rejoicing in the unusual, and what most would consider weird, amalgam of musical freedom and musical discipline.

rack listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Don Van Vliet and arranged by John French.

Side One
 # Title Length
1. “Frownland” 1:41
2. “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back” 1:53
3. “Dachau Blues” 2:21
4. “Ella Guru” 2:26
5. “Hair Pie: Bake 1” 4:58
6. Moonlight on Vermont 3:59
Side Two
# Title Length
7. “Pachuco Cadaver” 4:40
8. “Bill’s Corpse” 1:48
9. “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” 2:21
10. “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish” 2:25
11. “China Pig” 4:02
12. “My Human Gets Me Blues” 2:46
13. “Dali’s Car” 1:26
Side Three
 # Title Length
14. “Hair Pie: Bake 2” 2:23
15. “Pena” 2:33
16. “Well” 2:07
17. “When Big Joan Sets Up” 5:18
18. “Fallin’ Ditch” 2:08
19. “Sugar ‘n Spikes” 2:30
20. “Ant Man Bee” 3:57
Side Four
 # Title Length
21. “Orange Claw Hammer” 3:34
22. “Wild Life” 3:09
23. “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” 1:40
24. “Hobo Chang Ba” 2:02
25. “The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)” 2:04
26. “Steal Softly thru Snow” 2:18
27. “Old Fart at Play” 1:51
28. “Veteran’s Day Poppy” 4:31
Total length: 78:51

Personnel

Musicians

Additional personnel

  • Doug Moon – acoustic guitar on “China Pig”
  • Gary “Magic” Marker – bass guitar on “Moonlight on Vermont” and “Veteran’s Day Poppy” (uncredited)
  • Roy Estrada – bass guitar on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Arthur Tripp III – drums and percussion on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Don Preston – piano on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Ian Underwood – alto saxophone on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Bunk Gardner – tenor saxophone on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Buzz Gardner – trumpet on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Frank Zappa – speaking voice on “Pena” and “The Blimp” (uncredited); engineer (uncredited); producer
  • Richard “Dick” Kunc – speaking voice on “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” (uncredited); engineer

Brave New World

Steve Miller Band: Brave New World 

Also released on June 16, Steve Miller and his band’s Brave New World and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica are as far apart musically as composers such as Muzio Clementi and Harry Partch.   Brave New World may display less overt, convention-defying courage than Trout Mask Replica, but the musicianship is solid and Steve Miller’s vocals flexibly fit the songs whether those vocals are reassuring and comforting as with the dreamy evocative “Seasons” or appropriately bluesy as on the Hendrix-like “Got Love “Cause You Need It.” Of course, the hit of this album, is “Space Cowboy” which borrows the ostinato-like chromatic blues riff from Lady Madonna, possibly with Paul McCartney’s blessing who jams (under the psuedonym, “Paul Ramon”,) with Steve Miller on another track on this album, “My Dark Hour.”

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

“Brave New World” Steve Miller

3:27

2.

“Celebration Song” Miller, Ben Sidran

2:33

3.

“Can’t You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat” Tim Davis

2:30

4.

“Got Love ‘Cause You Need It” Miller, Sidran

2:28

5.

“Kow Kow” Miller

4:28

Side two

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

6.

“Seasons” Miller, Sidran

3:50

7.

“Space Cowboy” Miller, Sidran

4:55

8.

“LT’s Midnight Dream” Lonnie Turner

2:33

9.

“My Dark Hour” Miller

3:07

Total length:

29:52

Personnel

Additional personnel

 

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