I usually don’t mention live albums, but Yessongs is an important exception due to its effectiveness in capturing the live side of Yes while in their prime. Better sonically than most live albums of the early seventies, Yessongs permanently documents, for existing and future music lovers, the band’s interplay and improvisation and how they made their music come to life on stage.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Released at the end of May 1973, over two and a half years after the impressive All Things Must Pass, it is evident that quality was much more important to George Harrison then quantity of releases. Each track is perfect, with not a weak moment in the entire album, making this one of Harrison’s best albums as well as one of the finest solo albums ever released by any of the Beatles.
Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
Paul Simon balances commercially attractive material with some real solid compositions on this critically acclaimed album. Though I may skip the very first track or stop the album before I get to the very last track, there is no way I will ever skip hearing Simon’s timeless classic, “American Tune”, which surprisingly gained traction on AM, as the third single of the album — and now listening fifty years later, I do find that I am more accepting of those first two singles, and more appreciative of the other songs on the album, such as “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” and “Learn How to Fall”, particularly as I include consideration of lyrics rather than just engaging with the music. I may still prefer Mr. Simon’s work from the Simon and Garfunkel days, but even a finicky musical curmudgeon like myself has to acknowledge the high quality of this album.
Gong: Flying Teapot
Released on May 25, 1973, Gong’s Flying Teapot is one of those rare rock albums that masterfully blends humor, whimsy, and an apparently casual irreverence with disciplined, artful, musical craft — incorporating a range of musical styles in doing so. This is the first of a set of three concept albums about Zero the Hero, the Good Witch Yoni, and the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong, as indicated on the cover with the alternative title of “Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1.”
Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells
Released on May 25, 1971, this was nineteen-year old Mike Oldfield’s first album, and the reason behind Richard Branford creation of Virgin Music, and the very first album released by that label.
If ever there was a labor of love primarily by one person, this album has to qualify. Oldfield spent countless hours on recording, instrument selection, adjusting musical material, and overdubbing to deliver an album that initially no record company was interested in, ultimately becoming one of the most commercially successful albums in the UK in 1974. Part of the reason for the record’s success was the catchy 15/4 opening minimalistic theme/ostinato which then became inextricably associated with 1973’s highly successful movie the Exorcist after that material was used both in the movie and as part of the closing credits. It’s association with that movie aside, the album is a musical treat from beginning to end, covering a variety and range of sonic territory and musical mood, yet effectively coming together as a single artistic expression and experience.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Head to the Sky
Though Earth, Wind & Fire on Head to Sky, released around May 1973, move away from jazz to a more commercial sound, that sound is solid, keeping elements of jazz, and more heavily incorporating soul, funk, and other R & B elements as well as sitar and Latin elements. The standout track for me, maybe predictably, is their mostly jazz-based take on Brazilian composer, Edu Lobo’s Zanzibar.
Tower of Power: Tower of Power; Carpenters: Now and Then
Additional albums released in May of 1973 include Tower of Power tastefully arranged, self-titled third album, which include the reflective analysis of “What is Hip”, candidly pointing out the ironic pitfalls of being hip for the sake of being hip and the Carpenters’ fifth studio album, with Karen Carpenter’s seemingly effortless, velvety voice, the distinctly recognizable Carpenters’ signature harmonies, and an eighteen-minute, early sixties medley on side two.
As one might expect, there were a few albums that missed out on a more commercially favorable pre-holiday release and ended up being released in January 1972 with both January and February being relatively lean months in rock album releases compared to any given month in the last half of 1971. Fortunately, there were some notable jazz releases including a jazz classic by Charles Mingus!
Charles Mingus: Let My Children Hear Music
Mingus gives it everything he has in this album: complex, profound, majestic, modern, accessible and often elegant compositions, a large jazz orchestra, excellent arrangements (in partnership with Sy Johnson and others), and top-notch execution of his ideas. The music is a feast from the first to last track, with the current CD of this containing a bonus track. Note that this music was partly edited by Teo Macero, but I am not aware of any release of the original unedited material. If you know of such, please comment. ALBUM LINER NOTES
Hugh Masekela: Home is Where the Music Is
In 1972, I was not yet purchasing or listening to albums by either Hugh Masekela or Archie Shepp, so even if my memory was much better than it is today, I wouldn’t have a clue when these albums actually hit the record store bins, but as both albums were recorded in January of 1972, please allow me to include them in this month’s celebration of the music of January 1972.
Recorded in London in January 1972, Hugh Masakela’s Home is Where the Music Is is a 2LP set with some of the finest, broadly commercially-oriented jazz of the early seventies that there is. The album boasts all original material with not a single interpretation of a pop song (contrast this to Masakela’s 1970 Reconstruction album which includes tunes by Paul McCartney [Beatles-era], Joni Mitchell, and Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland) and yet is as contemporary as anything put out by Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chase or several other of the jazz-rock outfits of the late sixties and early seventies — and more importantly — far surpassing most of those type of efforts in quality and distinctiveness. Each track is fully realized with the shortest at around 5 1/2 minutes and the longest around 10 1/2 minutes. The playing is exceptional, engaging, and aesthetically fulfilling.
Archie Shepp: Attica Blues
Though well known for his modern jazz masterpieces like the avant-garde Fire, his abilities to reach a broader music-consuming audience are successfully deployed, with both style and impressive vigor, in what should have been an album as popular as contemporaneous releases by groups like Sly and the Family Stone. This is a large-scale effort with over twenty-five musicians (including brass, reeds, strings, backing vocalists, and electric instruments) and two narrators that successfully balances soul, funk, jazz and rock elements. Despite its strong points, there is some weakness in the poetry and the vocal rendition provided by Cal Massey’s young daughter — but more than making up for any weak areas of the release is the penultimate track on the album, Cal Massey’s fine tribute, “Good-Bye Sweet Pops,” to the great Louis Armstrong who had recently died from a heart attack in July of 1971.
Annette Peacock: I’m the One
Released in January of 1972, Annette Peacock’s debut album is yet another early 1972 album that successfully brings together disparate musical elements performed by a larger ensemble. Peacock and team effectively incorporated blues, jazz, rock, free-jazz, classical avant-garde, trace elements of funk and soul, and a extensive use of Robert Moog’s moog synthesizer to create a complete and impressive musically satisfying work. Notable, historically, was Peacock’s use of the synthesizer to modulate and alter vocal input via microphone plugged into the synthesizer. She also deserves credit for her overall and varied use of the synthesizer instrumentally as well as the wide range of vocal expression she uses, some of which anticipates music of later decades.
Univeria Zekt: The Unnamables
Released in January of 1972, Magma provisionally assumes the name Univeria Zekt to temporarily step away from their newly created narrative of the Kobaïan universe in order to, perhaps, provide a diversion to existing fans or, possibly, to attract new fans. The album is solidly progressive rock with heavy jazz and some jazz-rock influences, with a musical style significantly different (particularly on the first side) from the darker, neo-primal style of the two preceding Magma albums, which constructed a formidable genre of music, termed Zeuhl — a style of music created to be reflective and representative of the music of the fictitious Kobaïa. Those not able to get enough of early Magma, but also open to embracing this detour into a more jazz-influenced sound (closer perhaps to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, or Return Forever) should also acquire this one-of-a-kind album under the Univeria Zekt name.
Paul Simon: Paul Simon
Paul Simon’s first solo album, post-Simon & Garfunkel, did well commercially, with three singles making it on to the Billboard charts, “Mother and Child Reunion”, a reggae-influenced number with the title inspired by the Chinese chicken and egg soup dish he noticed listed on a Chinese restaurant menu in New York, the upbeat “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, and “Duncan”, my favorite track on the album, reminiscent of music he was writing in the late sixties.
Blue Öyster Cult, Jerry Garcia, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix
Additional albums include the dark, debut Blue Öyster Cult album with its gratuitous and influential use of an umlaut (a feature to gain common adoption by later Heavy Metal band names such as Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe, and even the fictional Spın̈al Tap), Jerry Garcia’s Garcia, Captain Beefheart’s relatively traditional and bluesy Spotlight Kid, as well as a posthumous album of Jimi Hendrix live material from 1969 and 1970, Hendrix in The West.
Released on July 16, 1971 by the Vertigo record label, this second Gentle Giant, despite the apparently horrible cover (the worse prog-rock cover ever or a tongue-in-cheek expression of the kissing up that goes on to record execs and commercial demands?) and the presumptuous and cringe-worthy title, far surpasses their first effort in consistency and creating a unified musical statement while still showing a diversity in compositional techniques and arrangement/instrumentation. It is in the prevalence of the reuse and transformation of identifiable musical motifs that Gentle Giant shares common ground with some bebop artists (for example, Charlie Parker) and so many of the twentieth and nineteenth century so-called “classical” or “serious” composers. What set Gentle Giant apart from most other prog-groups was that their primary composer, Kerry Minnear, was fully trained in classical music having just received his degree in music composition from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in 1970. We can speculate about whether he read such books as the indispensable 1961 treatise on motific reuse, Rudolf Reti’s The Thematic Process in Music (US 1951; UK 1961), but even if he had not, his familiarity with medieval, renaissance and early twentieth century compositions would have exposed him to how composers expertly handled music cells and motifs.
Putting aside the compositional tightness and cohesiveness of the eight individual tracks and the general cohesiveness of the album as a whole, one just has to take delight in the overall strength of the music, the lack of any filler material (with the possible exception of portions of the last track), and the beauty of some of the melodies, particularly “Pantagruel’s Nativity”, “Edge of Twilight”, the haunting “Moon is Down”, and the softer instrumental passages of the heavier songs on the album like “Wreck.” Notable is the prevalence of Kerry Minnear vocals, indicative of the often gentle nature of the material — with Derek Shulman vocals effectively complementing the harder rock passages. We also get the first example of what I call the “Gentle Giant stride”, for lack of a more appropriate term, due to it reminding me, rhythmically and musically, of deliberately lengthened and extended fast-paced walking steps — this occurs after the initiation of Gary Green;s guitar solo in “The House, The Street, The Room” at the 2:47 mark, with drums and bass providing the foundation for the continuation of Green’s angular yet expressive guitar-work. Another noteworthy often-used Gentle Giant compositional technique, is the use of a musical sequence comprised of a short, quadruply-repeated, rhythmically-catchy motif that creates forward drive and tension (and used extensively in their next album, “Three Friends”) and in this album occurs in “The Moon Is Down” at the 2:11 mark. Also notable is the penultimate track on the album, particularly its use of plucked and bowed viola, viola, and cello and wah-wah guitar for musical and extra-musical effect (the imitation of the meow of a cat.) “Plain Truth”, somewhat musically weaker and less interesting than the previous tracks, closes out this first in a string of half a dozen near-perfect, fully musically unified, must-have Gentle Giant albums
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality
Also released by the Vertigo record label (Warner Brothers in the U.S.), on July 21, 1971, though not nearly as fulfilling or musically nutritious as the Gentle Giant second album, this third Black Sabbath, Masters of Reality is one of the three best Black Sabbath albums, well-executed, creative and brimming with elevated yet disciplined energy. Toni Iommi, Black Sabbath’s main creative musical force, not only gives us the typical extroverted Black Sabbath heavy metal, bass-and-guitar-driven numbers but two fine introspective guitar compositions, “Embryo” and “Orchid” and the reflective “Solitude”, with Iommi also playing piano and flute, providing welcome contrast to the longer, heavier works. There may be a limited amount number of times those heavier works can be listened to, but certainly they stand up to repeated playings when driving down the road, exercising, dancing or otherwise shaking up an aging body.
Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate
Fool’s Mate is Peter Hammill’s first solo album, filled with various, unrelated songs that were either not considered as appropriate Van Der Graaf Generator material, or were not written with VDGG in mind. Nonetheless the full VDGG lineup (Hugh Banton, David Jackson and Guy Evans) is here, and is further, supplemented by guitarist Robert Fripp on half the tracks and former VDGG bassist Nic Potter also on six of the twelve tracks. The music ranges from catchy and upbeat “Happy”, and “Sunshine” to the introspective and even heartbreakingly dark and gloomy, with the most indispensible gem being the timeless “Vision”, one the best love songs of the entire seventies.
Guess Who: So Long, Bannatyne
Also released in July 1971, the Guess Who’s succulently dissonant So Long, Bannatyne — the album sharing the title of one of the songs that reflect the guitarist Kurt Winter’s move from the Bannatyne Apartments on Bannatyne Avenue in central Winnipeg to the Chevrier district a few miles south.
It is the liberal use of dissonance and jazz-related elements that sets the album apart from earlier Guess Who albums, making this their overall best album, despite most rock critics opinions to the contrary. Whether its “Going A Little Crazy” with its jarring, dissonant recurring ostinato, the jaunty “Grey Day” with Burton’s scat singing, his dissonant jazz-based piano accompaniment and subsequent piano solo, followed by Winter’s jazzy acoustic guitar solo, or the subtly bitter “Sour Suite”, many of the songs here are neither typical pop or Guess Who songs. Strings are also used for appropriate enhancement and both Burton Cumming’s vocals and piano are at their best throughout the album, with piano nicely supporting Greg Leskiw’s banjo and vocals on “One Divided.”
Isaac Hayes: Shaft, Moody Blues: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Joan Baez: Blessed Are…, Deep Purple: Fireball
Other notable albums include the classic Isaac Hayes 2 LP Shaft, the almost impressionistic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour from The Moody Blues, Joan Baez’s two LPs and one 33 1/3 45 Blessed Are… album, and the hard-to-categorize and somewhat uneven, but mostly danceable (at least at the time), Deep Purple’s Fireball. I still remember hearing the song, Shaft in 1971 on the bus to and from school and impressed by its larger than life sound even through those somewhat shoddy school-bus speakers.
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.
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: 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: 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”
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 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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
Recorded in December 1969, and released in February 1970, The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was the first true VDGG album (the first, the Aerosol Grey Machine was closer to a Peter Hammill album with VDGG personnel and was originally intended to be released under Hammill’s name) and their only album to make a dent on the UK charts, peaking at number 47, and staying on the charts for an almost immeasurable two weeks. It also received some critical aclaim, including London’s Time Out magazine heralding it is the strongest album the writer had heard in a long time. The lyrics from Peter Hammill are excellent, even better than on the Aerosol Grey Machine, and the music nothing short of timeless — and in the same league as King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King. And like In the Court of the Crimson King it is considered by most prog rock fans as an unequivocal example of early progressive rock — not proto-prog, psychedelic rock or hard rock, but truly progressive rock.
One can completely lose themselves when listening to this album — this is music which demands attention of and absorbs the listener as almost effectively and as inexorably as a Beethoven symphony. The VDGG’s performance and use of instruments provides both a level of unpretentious sophistication and focused unity normally associated with orchestral music. We can track the maturation of Peter Hammill not only as a composer and songwriter but as a vocalist as he shows greater expression and naturalness than on the previous album. One can reasonably speculate this is probably the album where David Bowie first started to be influenced by Peter Hammill, an influence that Bowie may have never publicly acknowledged but one can begin to hear tinges of starting with Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, recorded in April and May of 1970.
I had no awareness of Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator in 1970 or even 1971. It wasn’t until I saw Pawn Hearts on sale around 1973 and purchased that album (solely based on the price and the album cover) that I first heard this magnificent band and their amazing music. Soon I purchased all Peter Hammill and VDGG’s earlier albums, including this true masterpiece, The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other.
Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath
Whereas, VDGG’s second album is indisputably one of the first progressive rock albums, Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album, recorded in October 1969 and appropriately released on Friday the 13th, February 1970 is often considered one of the first heavy metal albums. Like the VDGG album it is symphonic in nature, with a readily identifiable musical style and handling of non-traditional pop/rock subject matter. Both use grimly Cimerian album and song titles: The VDGG album title is based on the quote “We’re all awash in a sea of blood and the least we can do is wave to each other” with “Darkness” the title of the initial track; the Black Sabbath title, band name and opening track is, of course, is associated to heretics’ and witches’ black masses (often evil and devil worshipping gatherings or ceremonies) held on the Sabbath. Interestingly, both albums begin with ominous sounds of the stormy side of nature and an impending sense of utmost darkness.) Like the VDGG album Black Sabbath provides an early example for an entire genre. Commercially, the reception of these two albums were quite different, with the Black Sabbath album climbing to number 8 on the UK charts and staying on US album charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. And initially, the critical reception was very different, also — where the VDGG album was praised, the Black Sabbath album was basically ridiculed — critic Robert Christgau describing their first album as “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter — bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.”
Although the initial reaction of Sabbath’s debut album was pretty negative, later evaluations have generally been more positive, with it now being ranked as number 243 of Rolling Stone’s 2012 revision of the 500 Greatest albums of all time — a list that does not include a single entry for VDGG, Peter Hammill, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, ELP, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Area, PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Laura Nyro, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy, Larry Young, Cannonball Adderly, Grant Green, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristiano, Weather Report, The Mahavishu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Chicago (to include the Chicago “II” album) as well as any compilations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Nat King Cole Trio, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Django, Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Lightning Hopkins, despite inclusion of other compilations and greatest hits albums. (I know this isn’t the post for this, but how can you include two Frank Sinatra entries in a greatest recordings list and not include a single mention of Billie Holiday? And why only U.S., U.K., and Canadian bands? Does Europe, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa not record music worthy of inclusion in a list of top 500 albums? )
This 1970 Black Sabbath album was recorded in one day, and mixed in a single subsequent session. The single session constraint actually worked out okay, as the entire album was comprised of material Black Sabbath had been performing live — this enabled them to basically play as they had been playing to real audiences without intricate overdubs or musical layering. And yet, despite this, the album sounds more fully developed and coherent than most of the hard rock or heavy psychedelic rock released previously.
The satanic images are not only in the lyrics but inherent and arguably fundamental to the music itself. Sabbath guitarist, and primary composer, Tony Iommi repurposes the ominous, hostile theme of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets to set the sinister tone for the entire album. Much is made of the use of tritone which is more overt in Iommi’s handling of the theme, but the minor third and ornamental minor second are even more germane to the Black Sabbath sound which is particularly distinct due to the Geezer Butler’s bass and Iommi’s deep ostinato guitar lines that provide a primal foundational simplicity and unavoidably recognizable trademark for the band’s raw, underworldly sound. Though not the 243rd best album ever made, it is a strong debut and garnered an immediate fan base to provide ongoing support for Black Sabbath for many years.
Atomic Rooster: Atomic Rooster
Recorded in December 1969 and January 1970 and released in the UK on February 1970, Atomic Rooster’s first album is a mixture of early progressive, psychedelic, and hard-rock. Vincent Crane provides the compositions and quality keyboards and the album includes an extended drum solo from Carl Palmer.
The album was not released in the U.S. (until several years later) and only available as an import. The album was released in Australia where the original album cover art was deemed inappropriate (this is a rooster — and a fowl!) and replaced with a substitute cover.
James Taylor: Sweet Baby James
Recorded in December 1969 and released in February 1970, Sweet Baby James has a mix of high quality and direct, intimate simplicity that has made it a classic. It includes one of the best straightforward pop-folk songs ever composed: “Fire and Rain.”
Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Funkadelic, Morrison Hotel
Other albums of note released in February 1970 include Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention Burnt Weenie Sandwich with material recorded in the late sixties, Funkadelic’s first album, Funkadelic and the Door’s Morrison Hotel. George Clinton’s group Funkadelic is particularly notable for its meld of funk, soul and psychedelic rock and this first album also seamlessly incorporates African-American traditional-folk music including field shouts and blues, trailblazing the way for many future soul-funk-rock albums. Interestingly Robert Christgau, who so scathingly panned the first Black Sabbath album and the Sweet Baby James album, also trashed this important album.
Pioneers of psychedelic soul and greatly influential to the course of funk and jazz-rock, San Francisco’s Sly and the Family Stone, led by composer, arranger, and producer Sly Stone releases their second solid album, Dance to the Music, on April 27, 1968. Sly’s original intent was more in the direction of psychedelic soul, but was urged by CBS’s Clive Davis to make the album pop friendly. Despite any musical compromises, Sly Stone is unwavering in emphasizing peace, love, and social harmony.
Starting as an off-Broadway music in 1967, Hair opened on Broadway on April 29, 1968 at the Biltmore Theatre in the middle of the theater district. Known for songs like “Aquarius”, “Hair”, “Easy to be Hard”, “Good Morning Starshine”, and “The Flesh Failures” aka “Let the Sun Shine In” as well as it’s nude scene (nudity onstage was legal, but only if the actors were not moving, and this restriction was appropriately incorporated as the actors undressed under a parachute-like fabric and then sang the remainder of the song motionless), this book-less musical (no story) stitches together scenes addressing topics of that day such as hair length, the Vietnam war, race and sexual freedom.
Songs [from Wikipedia]
The score had many more songs than were typical of Broadway shows of the day. Most Broadway shows had about six to ten songs per act; Hair’s total is in the thirties. This list reflects the most common Broadway lineup.