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.
Released in November of 1972, this is the first of Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s string of excellent albums. The music ranges from pop to rock to folk-rock to jazz-based rock with engaging and intelligent chord progressions and a healthy use of minor seventh and ninth chords.
THE EDGAR WINTER GROUP: THEY ONLY COME OUT AT NIGHT
Skillfully produced by Rick Derringer, this is Edgar Winter’s most solid album with a number of songs that for the rest of 1972 and early into 1973 found a prominent place on AM radio, FM radio, at high school parties, or in the repertoire of high school dance bands. “Hangin’ Around”, “Free Ride”, “We All Had a Real Good Time” and the instrumental “Frankenstein” are hard rock classics that have effectively captured and preserved the spirit of early seventies hard rock, providing, today, an effortless means for us to travel back in time fifty years ago.
LOU REED: TRANSFORMER
Released on November 8, 1972, Lou Reed’s Transformer excels at creating a level of nonchalance and casualness that was more reminiscent of the beat movement of the 1950s than typical of an early 70’s rock album. Aided by David Bowie, Mick Ronson and Trever Bolder and elegantly produced by Bowie and Ronson, this album, along with the success of its glam, transexual and sometimes banned single, “Walk on the Wild Side”, brought Lou Reed out of the shadows of the Underground and into the commercial spotlight. The album is considered a classic by many and has had substantial influence on many Indie Rock artists that came later.
WAR: THE WORLD IS A GHETTO
War’s fifth studio album, released around November of 1972, opens with the once relentlessly-played AM single, “Cisco Kid”, which though annoying for those of us that heard it in spring of 1973 played through third-rate speakers of a school bus for multiple weeks almost every morning on our ride to school, was a welcome relief from the equally often-played, but far less bearable “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ol’ Oak Tree.” That said, now hearing “Cisco Kid” on a first-class audio set up almost fifty years later, the quality of performance and the arrangement almost make up for the melodic and harmonic mediocrity of the track. More importantly though, the rest of the album is quite good, starting with the infectious, funky “Where was You At” and the effervescent jazz-infused 13 1/2 minute “City Country City” instrumental on side one and the three tracks on side two including the soulfully reflective “Four Cornered Room”, and the beautifully funk-infused, “The World is a Ghetto.” This was not only War’s most commercially successful album, but the best selling album for the year 1973 holding the number one position for two weeks in February 1973 and staying on the Billboard 200 for a total of 68 weeks.
JONI MITCHELL: FOR THE ROSES
Released in November of 1972 between two of her most artistically and commercially successful albums, 1971’s Blue and 1974’s Spark and Court, the excellent For the Roses brims over with wonderful melodic phrases, remarkable piano lines, and beautiful acoustic guitar and an appropriate amount of harmonica, bass, percussion, winds and strings — always at the right places!
CAN: EGE BAMYASI
Can’s highly influential album, Ege Bamyasi, with the name apparently inspired from the label of a container of canned okra of Turkish origin also meant for German consumption of these “okra pods”, takes a detour from the previous no-holds-barred and even more influential Tago Mago, with an often more structured (via editing in some cases) and relatively more contained set of compositions. Not readily available in the US, I purchased this album in a German record store in 1978, and listened to it once before shelving it for several decades. It’s great to come back and revisit it and find there is much more here than I thought — and to discover the influence it has had on music since my original purchase, with Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and the band Spoon all having been much more serious fans of the album and reaping music influences from it. Truly fortunate to revisit the album and able to enjoy it on a much better audio set up than I had in 1978.
Uriah Heep, Moody Blues, Carly Simon, Hawkwind, and Barclay James Harvest
Other notable albums from November 1972 include Uriah Heep’s semi-progressive Magician’s Birthday with a memorable Moog synthesizer solo from Ken Hensley on “Sweet Loraine” (reaching the 91st spot on the Billboard Hot 100) and a more expansive title track concluding the album, Hawkwind’s third studio album, Doremi Fasol Latido, stylistic different than their previous albums but still quality, engaging space-rock, Carly Simon’s No Secrets with two well-known tracks, the number one hit “You’re So Vain”, and less commercially successful but equally appealing “The Right Thing to Do”, the richly arranged, orchestrated Barclay James Harvest, Baby James Harvest, a mix of straight rock (“Thank You”) and more progressive tracks (“Summer Soldier”, “Moonwater”), and Moody Blues’ eighth album (last of the highly regarded string of seven classic album) which had two commercially successful singles, “Isn’t Life Strange” and “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”, which spurred increased interest in their previous work resulting in the re-release of the beautifully haunting single version of the “The Night”, titled “Nights in White Satin”, which did much better the second time around, getting more attention and airplay than any of the music on the Seventh Sojourn album.
From the opening set of the choral-like, other-worldly, mellotron-intro of carefully constructed chords — initially over a “pedal-point” (a sustained bass note), followed by a short set of chromatic modulations, the tone of this epic classic album is established and sustained through out the next magnificent fifty minutes of one of the most appealing rock albums of the last sixty years.
The music is epic, dramatically supporting some pretty impressive lyrics, with the first track, “Watcher of The Skies”, a sci-fi narrative from an alien visitor’s somber, almost jaded, perspective regarding the remnants of a vanished earth civilization, followed by the more lyrically but equally potent and allegorical “Time Table”. “Get “Him Em Out By Friday” also time travels, from 1972 to 2012, and effectively mixes upbeat rhythms and shifting meters into moments of Dickensian commentary, starting with shifts between 6/4 and 4/4, with a heavily triplet-based 4/4 section into a more reflective, slower 6/4 section with some the return of a modified original A section with some 7/4 bars and an appropriately reflective coda. This is followed by another epic track, the amazing “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” with an acoustic guitar and flute opening section and its sense of substantial narrative, proportion, and consequence far exceeding its limited five minute and forty-five seconds of actually clock time. Of particularly musical note is Tony Bank’s mixed-meter keyboard solo, perhaps either celebrating the use of the name he had initially suggested for the band (Can-Utility and the Coastliners, a name Peter Gabriel reportedly summarily rejected, understandably), or letting off a little steam for the band, instead, being ultimately named “Genesis.” Seriously, though, this composition a true work of art, anticipating both Banks’ “Firth of Fifth” on Selling Englandby the Pound and his “One for the Vine” on Wind and Wuthering.
Side two opens with Steve Hackett’s elegantly simple guitar solo, followed by the masterpiece of the Genesis catalogue, the twenty-three minute “Supper’s Ready.” Though its seven-section make-up indicates a piecing together of individual songs into a common thematical framework, the overall effect is that of a single cohesive work, much in the way that the second side of the Beatles Abbey Road works together, except that “Supper’s Ready” is more integrated and reuses material to create an effective sonata-like form. Though too difficult, and hopefully totally unnecessary, to pick one single composition to make the case that classical music was an unbroken continuum to the present that included the best works of the best rock bands, this work has to be considered as deserving top consideration for making that case.
Miles Davis: On the Corner
Eschewing and yet incorporating contemporaneous offerings in jazz, jazz fusion, rock, progressive rock, minimalism, and funk, Miles creates yet another landmark album with On The Corners as representative of the spiritual-industrial meld of the early 1970s as anything yet released or yet to come. Few critics even began to know what to make of the work, and the record-buying public, which had sent Miles’ previous album up to the 7th spot, were mostly absent at the cash registers, with On the Corner peaking at 156.
The album, though foundationally based on the familiar musical components of its time, was yet so alien to many when it came out on October 11, 1972, primarily due to the resulting originality of the approach. Overall, Miles and team took on the same type of challenges that were tackled by such German progressive rock groups such as Can, but due to significantly better musicianship and a more focused vision, created a superior and eventually more influential product.
Henry Franklin: The Skipper
One of the lesser known albums of 1972 by one of the lesser known artists on one of the lesser known record labels, bassist Henry Franklin’s debut album, The Skipper, is well worth any effort to hunt down, with such ultimate acquisition being readily achievable due to the reissuing of the Black Jazz record catalog by Real Gone Music. Thank-you, Real Gone Music!
Franklin’s plays both acoustic and electric bass, writing most of the music on the album, with Bill Henderson on electric piano contributing one of his own compositions joined by Charles Owens on soprano and tenor sax and Oscar Brashear both of which provide the vital contributions that make this album a neglected classic.
Doug Carn: Spirit of the New Land
This is the second of four albums that Doug Carn released on the Black Jazz record label. Accessible and topical, this jazz concept album brims with amazing work from both keyboardist Doug Carn, Charles Tolliver on flugelhorn, reed player George Harper and Carn’s wife, Jean Carn, on vocals with notable contributions from Earl McIntrye on tuba and Garnett Brown on trombone.
The Awakening: Hear, Sense and Feel
The Awakening released their first album on the Black Jazz label, providing an excellent set of jazz-rock/jazz-fusion instrumentals bookended by a brief introductory recitation and final poetic coda. The music is slightly reminiscent of some of the Chicago’s instrumental passages from their first two albums with a hint of early 1970’s McCoy Tyner. Of particular note is the keyboardist, Ken Chaney, who composes the opening instrumental following his wife’s opening introduction. In general quite good, with “Jupiter” being a particularly strong track. For those that like no-nonsense early 70s jazz and jazz-rock, this is worth the effort of tracking down. Available from Real Gone Music as are all the Black Jazz late sixties and early seventies catalog.
Keith Jarrett: Expectations
Taking his core quartet that included Dewey Redman (now known as the “American Quartet”) (Jarrett, saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Paul Motian), Jarret adds Sam Brown on guitar and Airto Moreira on percussion and drums, along with some strings and brass arrangements to create a ambitious, relatively eclectic two record set that unfortunately for Columbia records, was the last one under that label, simply due to Columbia suddenly dropping Jarrett during the its sweeping commercially-driven jazz purge, something that appears to be one of those historic money-driven record label decisions that ended up being a fiscal mistake.
The album is a bit uneven with Jarrett basically redefining “free jazz” to mean “freedom in playing a range of styles” but the overall final result is a strong album with side four being the best.
Released on October 11, 1972, Caravanserai was quickly embraced by the same audience inescapably attracted to progressive rock as well as enthusiastically embraced by a substantial number of fusion fans. Though nowhere as commercially successful as the previous two albums (the president of Columbia Records after hearing the tapes for Caravanserai, told Santana he was committing “career suicide”), the album is an artistic gem, a work that can be listened to repeatedly with various spectra of pleasure.
Stevie Wonder: Talking Book
Released on October 27, 1972, Mr. Wonder exceeds the level of professionalism, artistry, creativity on the previous album, displaying flawless judgement and execution as composer, musician and producer. Artistically, the albums opens strong with the timeless love song, “You are the Sunshine of My Life” followed by a strong first side and then an even stronger second side made up of five classic tracks that starts with “Superstition”, followed by “Big Brother”, the subtly impressionistic “Blame It on the Sun”, the Latin-jazz-influenced “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”, and then perfectly concluded with my favorite work on the album, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”.
Missed mentioning this earlier this year, but better late than never! Released around January 1972, this incredible album combines jazz, pop and rock elements in an invigorating blend with effective use of synthesizers. Annette’s vocals may have influenced David Bowie’s vocal approach starting with Ziggy Stardust. This is one of the great albums of 1972!
McCoy Tyner: Sahara
Also missed this fine album last month! Recorded in January 1972, and released around July 1972, the album covers fusion-like territory but with all acoustic instruments. Tyner is a tsunami on piano and the first track is one of the finest of 1972. This first track then is followed by a mesmerizing, technically incredible piano solo and an adventurous, sometimes sizzling, sometimes reflective Japanese-flavored work where Tyner exchanges keyboards for koto, Sonny Fortune exchanges saxophone for flute, and bassist Calvin Hill appears to play an eastern flute-like instrument. The next track, “Rebirth”, explodes with a drum solo and then Tyner’s steamrolling piano taking no prisoners, with Fortune unleashing a blistering, often high-register alto sax solo — incredible execution nearly beyond belief. Side Two is taken up with the title track, Sahara, not my favorite of the album, perhaps because of some shrillness from the eastern reed instruments, yet it attempts to encompass epic scope and has some incredible passages.
Julius Hemphill: Dogon A.D.
Named after the Dogon in West Africa, recorded in St. Louis in February 1972 and released in limited quantities on Julian Hemphill’s own Mbari label and later made more widely available, this was Hemphill’s first commercial recording. Though labelled as “three lengthy avant-garde explorations” the music is structured and accessible with musical influences from the African continent.
The Kinks: Everybody’s in Show-biz
This two LP set includes studio material from spring of 1972 on the first two sides and live material from Carnegie Hall recorded on March 2nd and 3rd. Ray Davies continues his deviation from standard rock with strong influence from the Neo-music-hall material of twentieth-century London. The first LP loosely addresses the concept of show-biz fame and touring with the upbeat “Here Comes Yet Another Day” energetically opening up side one. The album closes with “Celluloid Heroes” (which got significant airplay on FM radio) with Ray Davies’ thoughtful and well-crafted lyrics providing a wistful close to that first LP.
Gil Scott-Heron: Free Will
Though not as strong as Gil Scott Heron’s previous (second) album, this album has more historical importance. His first album (recorded in a studio with a live audience) is sometimes referred to as proto-rap, but more accurately it is emotive, fairly well-written poetry read to sparse musical accompaniment, not so different than beat-era poetry readings, with some differences in rhythmic elements as well as subject matter and vocabulary. It is the second side of this third album, Free Will, that more clearly anticipates rap music with Heron providing better rehearsed and more effective, more rhythmically-enhanced delivery of his poetry. For stronger music, refer to his second album, Pieces of a Man, but if the object of exploring is to hunt for what may be the first traces of rap on LP, start here.
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.
Looking back fifty years, one can identify a number of months in the early 1970s, particularly those approaching the end of year, whose bounty of riches border on the spectacular. Such is the case with November 1971, which I could easily argue is the very best month of releases in the entire history of the Long Playing record — and going beyond that, extending also into the digital (CD and streaming) age.
Besides highlighting some of the more outstanding releases of November 1971, I also have included a few albums I had missed mentioning earlier — albums released in 1971, but before November. That certainly gives us a lot to cover, but whether fortunately or unfortunately for you, the reader, my time to do blog writing is extremely limited — and this month, I have almost no bandwidth. I am going to be challenged to just list my favorite albums, let alone say anything of substance. However, as regular readers can attest, I rarely say anything substantial in this column anyway (thankfully the music stands on its own) and I do my best to say a few words of no special consequence in my limited time. I certainly can’t, wouldn’t and have no reason to fault any reader that prefers to just quickly glance at what albums are mentioned, which by itself justifies my effort and is as much as I expect and actually have any reason to expect. That said, I am going to see how much I can tackle before the last friday of the month arrives, and as I always have done, post whatever I have, whether readable or not.
It’s also important to note the increasing prevalence of synthesizers in so many albums of this time period. Ever since hearing Switched on Bach around 1969, I developed an undeniable affection for the thrilling portamento and the more blatantly artificial wave forms produced by keyboard synthesizers. In November of 1971, we get several classic albums that place the synthesizer in a very prominent role.
Yes releases their fourth (and finest up to that date) studio album on November 26, 1971. Rick Wakeman has been added to replace Tony Kaye, further raising the potential of the group — potential that was immediately realized starting with this fourth album, Fragile, a classic from the day it was available in record stores — and classic, not just in the sense of being of highest merit and quality, but in terms of stylistic characteristics such as direct, concise, clearly defined, and finely balanced components as well as an elegant use of contrast — both in mood and musical dynamics. The music avoids excesses and, with a couple of minor exceptions, is economical, avoiding the kind of excessive repetition so prevalent in most rock music.
Yes went into the studio with four finished compositions which make up most of the album. All of these four tracks received some FM airplay, and a slimmed down version of “Roundabout” received significant AM airplay peaking at 13. For the remaining portion of the album each band member contributed their own solo works, with Wakeman’s condensation of the Brahms quasi-scherzo from the 4th symphony, Anderson’s “We Have Heaven” and Bruford’s “Five Per Cent for Nothing” all being distinctly original. With the exception of Howe’s “Mood for a Day” and Squire’s “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)”, both still excellent and contribute to the stunning impact of the album, but which are slightly overextended through repetition of material, this album approaches perfection, achieving a level of musical distinction equal to the very best rock albums of all time.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Pictures at an Exhibition
Recorded in March of 1971 and released in November of 1971, this exuberantly energetic live album captures Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s concert rendition of Modest Mussorgsky’s classic piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. Already in love with ELP’s first two albums, this would have been an album I would have purchased on sight. However, it was my next door neighbor that sighted it first, bought it immediately, and brought it over for me to listen to and record on my reel to reel for future listening. At that point, cash-constrained as most sixteen-year olds, I was content to listen on that 3 3/4 IPS (inches per second) copy of the album over and over again until college when I finally bought my own LP copy of it.
Prior to this recording, most people knew of Mussorgsky’s great work from Maurice Ravel’s orchestral version. Ravel is one of the great composers of the first part of the twentieth century, and very skilled at orchestration with a number of his own compositions, originally written for piano, then very effectively scored for an orchestra. He had worked with Stravinsky on a performance version of Mussorgsky’s unfinished opera, Khovanshchina, and thus very well prepared in 1922 to tackle Pictures. The result was an excellent work, but was clearly Ravel’s own vision and interpretation — the original, which deftly represents both the viewer of the gallery and his mood and perceptions of the objects on display, is quite different from Ravel’s interpretation, with the original piano composition having a darker and more inward perspective. Ravel is focused on creating a grand work with its own identity, bringing to the table his own compositional and cultural mindsets and not particularly beholden to the mood and intent of the original. That doesn’t mean that this final orchestrated version is any less worthy of being enjoyed because it isn’t particularly faithful to the spirit or personality and attitude of the original — it just means it should be listened to and enjoyed on its own terms. The same pretty much applies to ELP’s version, which not only “orchestrates” the original piano work with modern rock trio (keyboards, bass, drums) but also adds vocals and new material.
Of course, the piece starts off with the promenade theme, played very simply by Emerson but with the grandeur that a real organ, the organ used at Newcastle City Hall (the venue for the live recording), can provide. The first picture follows, “Gnome”, with Palmer’s staccato and perfectly punctuated percussion dancing with Lake’s bass, providing the appropriate dramatic setting for the eventual entrance of Emerson’s moog synthesizer — making clear this is not Ravel’s concert hall Pictures. This, then, is the final catalyst to fully engage the listener into the magic and ferocity of this post-Ravel, prog-rock version of Pictures. The album ends with ELP’s take on Kim Fowleys’ take on Tchaikovsky’s “March” from his Nutcracker Ballet.
It’s worth noting that ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition was at one point considered more appropriate as a Nonesuch Records label release due to its classical origins. It might have also been part of a 2 LP set with Trilogy (ELP’s subsequent album), except that public demand, particularly after the concert recording was played on WNEW-FM (New York), convinced the Atlantic execs to release it sooner, and as its own album.
Genesis: Nursery Cryme
Released November 12, 1971, this already highly creative and musically skilled group adds world-class drummer, Phil Collins. Though Nursery Cryme is not at the level of sound quality as Yes’s Fragile or quite as impressive in terms of focused musical content, this is a nuanced, highly crafted album that starts off incredibly strong with “Musical Box” and includes Genesis’s first masterwork, “The Attack of the Giant Hogweed.”
Traffic: The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
This classic fifth studio album was a staple of FM AOR (album-oriented radio) stations, with “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” getting most of the airplay, but the rest of the album getting some time also. In fact, I am pretty sure this was the second rock album I heard played in full on FM radio (the first being Webber and Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, which was played in its entirety in very late October or very early November of 1970.)
Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin IV
On November 8, 1971, Atlantic Records releases Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece, the unnamed, untitled fourth album. Atlantic internally catalogued it as Four Symbols and The Fourth Album. We used to call it “Zofo” from the first of those four symbols on the LP label. People smarter than us, or people from England who were more used to lines crossing through lower case “s”s than those of us in Orange County, California, would just as incorrectly call it “Zoso” since the designer of the symbols, guitarist Jimmy Page had not intended for these four symbols to represent anything rather than the four band members of Led Zeppelin.
Now I admit, I would rather listen to the guitar craft of Jimi Hendrix, or the two guitarists I mention later in this blog post, John McLaughlin and George Benson, or a number of other guitarists such as Django Reinhardt, Eddie Lang, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Grant Green, Tal Farlow, Gary Green, Steve Howe, Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett, Andrés Segovia — as well as a number of others — however, I still enjoy every moment of Jimmy Page captured on this album, a unquestionably skilled and creative guitarist at the world class level.
In fact, I pretty much enjoy every moment on this album — one of those musical treasure chests of the early 1970s. It may not generally be labelled as progressive rock, but it really is, from the focused abstraction of rock and roll in “Black Dog” to the refined distillation of rock and roll in “Rock and Roll”, to the epic “The Battle of Evermore” with its gorgeous acoustic guitar, to the bouncy, again abstract, “Misty Mountain Hop” and the frenzied and contrastingly uplifting “Four Sticks”, to the best work of the album, “Stairway to Heaven”, possibly consciously or unconsciously influenced by Spirit’s “Taurus” (Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit for Spirit’s 1968 U.S. tour) but nonetheless a definite improvement over the alleged original. Though I may be a bit more advanced in my musical tastes today, I vividly remember listening to this album on headphones almost fifty years ago, the album borrowed from my next-door neighbor who purchased it in late November or December of 1971, and being totally swept away by the impact of the entire album.
Sly and the Family Stone: There’s a Riot Going On
Released on the first of November, 1971, created by Sly Stone during the depths of his stratospheric-recreational drug abuse, this is a masterpiece not only to be taken very seriously musically and artistically but even more seriously historically.
The album starts of with the incredible “Luv N’ Haight”, a psychedelicized, celebratory blues-based number, underpinned by lyrics that could either be interpreted as also celebratory (“Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move”) or subtly dark (“As I grow up, I’m growing down and when I’m lost, I know I will be found.”) The lyrics for the second track provide the same type of ambiguity (“Just like a baby everything is new” and “Just like a baby sometimes I cry. Just like a baby I can feel it when you lie to me.’), and though open to a wide range of interpretation, appear to be referring to rebirth or re-awakening, though not clear if from some spiritual rebirth or transformation, or from drugs or trauma. The third track seemingly unsubstantial with simple lyrics that still get to the heart of songwriting (“My weapon is my pen and the frame of mind I’m in) is one of the most sampled songs ever.
The fourth track, “Family Affair”, one of the highlights of the album, was played substantially on AM radio starting in early November 1971, and went over my head both musically and lyrically, excused to some degree by only hearing it on the shoddy speakers of our school bus that took us over to our high school. In terms of lyrics, it is open to interpretation, but I think the interpretation is clear when one embraces the two apparent co-existing meanings: commentary on nature versus nurture (the disadvantages of being in a disadvantaged family unit) and family bonds. Underscoring these meanings is the understated arrangement (I believe Freddie Stone on guitar, Billy Preston on keyboards, and bass and drums) and assignment of vocals to just Sly and his sister Rose, particularly inviting us to connect “One child grows up to be somebody that just loves to learn and another child grows up to be somebody you’d just love to burn” to Rose and Sly, respectively. This is followed by the bleak “Africa Talks to You” (“Timber, all fall down”) with its eventual complex instrumental interplay, which contrasts sharply with the simpler music of the previous track. The first side ends with an absent track (or a track of zero length, if you prefer), “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” — a very clever commentary which Sly intended to simply indicate that since he didn’t like riots, there was no corresponding song. The second side continues with more excellent music, including the infectious “(You Caught Me) Smilin’ — once again apparently intentionally ambiguous as to whether it is statement against or for drug usage: “You caught me smilin’ again, hangin’ loose, ’cause you ain’t used to seeing me turnin’ on, ha ha” and “I ain’t down. I’ll be around to carry on!” Is this ironic and sarcastic or in praise of the release that drugs provide?
Besides admiring the artistic merit of the album, it’s worth considering its historical impact. Though there are plenty examples of funky music and elements of funk before Riot (a common pet name for this album), this really is the first modern funk album, influencing many artists of all backgrounds and musical leanings. It also is substantially the first hip hop album — not in terms of musical style, of course, but in terms of narrative and borderline-obsessive personal reflection. And, I will boldly, if not controversially venture, that if we remove this album from the historical river, that the currents of disco would have been perceivably altered — maybe for the worse, if that’s conceivably possible. It worth noting, that many critics did not get this album at all when it came out, including our local Southern California L.A. Times music critic who generally was befuddled by, or more often shied away from (handing the review to another staff writer), any music with any level of complexity. Now fortunately, just about all music critics are in unison when acknowledging both the artistic and historical merit of this fine album.
With the increasing interest in World music, particularly that from the Caribbean and West Africa, conditions were receptive for a jazz-influenced, musically compelling, Afro-beat group of four Ghanaian-English musicians and three Caribbean musicians. Osibisa’s first album, released in the first half of 1971, made its entry into the Billboard 200 the first week of July, 1971 at position 105, climbing up to position 55 by mid-August. The rhythm section is incredible (remember their inclusion on Uriah Heep’s title track of Look At Yourself) with the dedicated drummer supplemented by other members of the group as appropriate. Instruments include assorted percussion, flute, saxophones, trumpet, flugelhorn, organ, piano, guitar, bass guitar and some vocals. Album is both technically impressive, and musically vibrant, filling in the checkboxes for world music aficionados and progheads alike.
The second album, released in late 1971, has a similar Roger Dean album cover to the first, and the band members are the same (with the exception of an appearance of the “Osibisa choir” which provides an additional uplifting, spiritual to the third track, Roland Kirk’s “Spirits Up Above”), yet the quality is noticeably different — better engineering, less spontaneous but now exquisitely polished, and leaning more towards American jazz and even English progressive and psychedelic rock with less of a West African and Caribbean feel — even containing some American funk (“Move On”.) Though this album fell short of the previous album’s climb up the Billboard charts (only 66 compared to 55) it is even better than the first, perhaps with a greater appeal to a broad audience, particularly with the anthem, title-track, “Woyaya” being covered by Art Garfunkel and The 5th Dimensions and used as the theme for a Ghanaian television show from 1972 to 1981.
Though less musically stylistically diverse than Osibisa, Assagai’s first album is a enjoyable blend of African folk, African rock, and African jazz elements. The group consists of band members on cornet, alto sax, tenor sax, and drummer — all from South Africa — and an electric guitarist and an bass guitarist from Nigeria, with some additional piano possibly from the alto sax player, Dudu Pukwana. Album is mostly original material by the guitarist, Fred Coker, with one composition by Dudu Pukwana, one collaboration between Coker and Jade Warrior guitarist, Tony Duhig, as a well as a cover of Jade Warrior’s “Telephone Girl” (from their first album) and Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude.” Of all the various covers of Hey Jude I know of, this is one of the best, relatively brief at under 4 minutes, and infused with a rich tapestry of Afro-beat seasonings.
Jade Warrior: Jade Warrior
(One of the albums I previously missed covering in Fifty Year Friday.) In 1970, Vertigo signed Jade Warrior primarily due to Mother Mistro, the production company for both Assagai and Jade Warrior, insisting that Vertigo couldn’t sign Assagai, a group coveted by Vertigo for their commercial potential (based on Osibisa relative success) without also signing Jade Warrior. Vertigo, though, had made up their collective mind that Jade Warrior had very little commercial potential and so didn’t put in any real effort promoting Jade Warrior’s first album, Jade Warrior, released sometime in the first part of 1971. Interestingly, Assagai would release a total of two albums, both on Vertigo, while Jade Warrior would release well over a dozen with the first three on Vertigo, and the next four on Island Records.
Even if this first album was not particularly commercially appealing, it was musically so, opening up with the beautiful “Traveller” with its simple acoustic beginning, its majestic middle section, and its quiet ending followed by the more aggressive, mostly pentatonic “A Prenormal Day at Brighton” providing a good representation at Jade Warrior’s balancing act between hard progressive rock (“warrior” portion of the group’s name) and soft worldly folk rock (“jade”), sometimes with emphasis on acoustic guitar and flute with some additional, non-traditional percussion and sometimes more in a rock idiom with the electric guitar in the forefront. Overall a fine eclectic album that still sounds great today.
Jade Warrior: Released
With their second album, Jade Warrior shifts away from a world music vibe to focus more on hard rock, jazz rock and progressive rock elements, adding two new members, Dave Conners (sax, flute) and Allan Price (drums) to the pre-existing trio.
Ash Ra Tempel: Ash Ra Tempel
Another album I missed mentioning, released around June of 1971, is the classic first album of Ash Ra Tempel, one of the finest German space rock albums, a style often referred to asKosmische Musik (cosmic music.) We have a single composition on each side, improvisations similar to what one could expect during a live performance. The first side is adventurous, extroverted and like a peril-filled voyage through outer space, starting gently and then encountering the more unpredictable moments of cosmic exploration. The second side is calmer, introverted and reflective, like a journey through spiritual innerspace. Overall, far above one of the best musical adventures of space rock, each of these two tracks compelling and creating an unfolding, meaningful soundscape.
Strawbs: From the Witchwood
And yet another album I missed earlier, the Strawb’s Witchwood starts off pretty much as folk music, by the third track is it full-throttle prog rock. This is Rick Wakeman’s last album for the Strawbs, and his keyboards raises the album up the scale of musical excellence including an effective organ intro for “The Hangman and the Papist.” Overall there are some similarities with Genesis’s Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot, both of which were recorded after From the Witchwood was released.
Le Orme: Collage
Le Orme’s first album, recorded in 1968 and released in 1969 was effectively an early prog rock album, with an album title of Ad Gloriam, an opening track named “Introduzione”, a closing track titled “Conclusione” and many of the lyrical and the Italian rock equivalent of the bel canto elements that would become identifiers of the Italian Prog rock style. With their second album, Collage, released sometime in 1971, they shift to full prog mode, reducing the group to a ELP-like trio, quoting the classics (or at least Scarlatti’s K. 380 sonata, a piece I heard over and over from piano student performances during my university years), and exploring the more aggressive and bombastic aspects of early Italian prog but not abandoning the lyrical or expressive components.
Man: Do You Like It Here Now, Are You Settling In?
Man released their fourth and strongest album so far on November 1971. Though a bit uneven, the musicianship is consistently strong with some ear-catching instrumental interplay such as that on “All Good Clean Fun” and “Many are Called, But Few Get Up” that further increases the impact of the album.
Elton John: Madman Across the Water
Another fourth studio album released, this time by an increasingly popular Elton John. Though Madman didn’t climb quite as high on the Billboard charts as Tumbleweed Connection (number 8 vs number 5) and the airplay provided “Tiny Dancer” couldn’t match “Your Song”, the prevalence of Elton John albums in personal collections was steadily growing. Paul Buckmasters arrangements are applied in full force on this album, and though the album falls short of Tumbleweed Connection, and was a general disappointment for me when I purchased it in late November, shortly after its November 5, 1971 release date, the album not only brims over with those strong Buckmaster arrangements and that strong musicianship from Elton, but from the contributions from a wide range of musicians including Rick Wakeman, Davey Johnstone, Chris Spedding, Herbie Flowers, David Glover and more. I listened to it about half a dozen times in very late 1971 and early 1972 and put it aside until just this week. It’s great to hear it on a much better stereo to appreciate the finer points, but still, it is likely I will again set it aside — good music, for sure, but still so much music I need to listen to!
Lighthouse: One Fine Morning
The Canadian jazz-rock group, Lighthouse, released their fourth and most commercially successful album, One Fine Morning, sometime in 1971, possibly around July or August of 1971. (Yes, another one I missed earlier.) The album is less pop and more solidly jazz-rock than their previous ones, with a number of strong tracks, including the opening track, “Love of a Woman”, “Sing, Sing, Sing” (Not related to the Benny Goodman classic), and the title track, “One Fine Morning”, which debuted on the Billboard 100 in the second week of September at position 75 and eventually ascended to the 24th spot. Plenty of good jazz-rock here with some more traditional rock content. Instrumentation includes trombone, saxophone, flute, trumpet and viola as well as guitar, piano and vibes.
Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame
Formed in the summer of 1971, Mahavishnu recorded their first album in August of 1971, with Columbia releasing it on November 3, 1971. This album is a clear and unquestionable masterpiece combining jazz and progressive rock elements. John McLaughlin wrote all compositions on the album, and selected the band members from an international pool of talent (Czech-born Jan Hammer on keyboards, Panama-born Billy Cobham on drums, classically-trained American violinist Jerry Goodman when French violinist Jean Luc Ponty was not available due to immigration-related regulations, and Irish-born bassist and former McLaughlin bandmate from The Brian Auger Group.)
Miles Davis: Live-Evil
A bountiful 2 LP set of musical wonders with formidable front and back covers by artist Mati Klarwein (Santana’s Abraxis, Osibisa’s Heads, and of course, Bitches Brew) with the album containing both live material recorded on December 19, 1970 and studio material much earlier that year with the release date of the album on November 17,1971. The front and back cover are two sides of the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness (or perhaps more appropriate, beauty and anti-beauty) with the front headlining “MILES DAVIS LIVE” and the back proclaiming the reverse, or mirror image, as if seen from the other side of the album, “SELIM SIVAD EVIL.”
The fifteen minutes, four tracks, of studio material is rich, diverse and suitable for hours of exploration. Particularly interesting are the Hermeto Pascoal compositions with “Nem Um Talvez” being my favorite. For keyboard fans, it’s a real treat to get Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea all at once.
The real treasure is the live material. Gary Bartz is great on both soprano and alto sax and the “electric” trumpet with wah-wah is a perfect vehicle for Miles Davis’s creativity and expressiveness. Jack DeJohnette is fantastic and creates magic with everyone, particularly Airto Moreira, Michael Henderson and Keith Jarrett. And then there is John McLaughlin, who shines in this material as much as in that first Mahavishnu Orchestra album.
It’s honestly a bit of a mess the way the live material is presented here due to the Ted Macero edits, perhaps well enough intended, but really throwing a wrench into the continuity and flow of the original performances. The best bet is to stream or pick up the 6 CDs of The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 to hear not only the original material used for this the bulk of this 2 LP Live-Evil release (edited from the sets that John McLaughlin sat in and represented in the fifth and sixth CDs) but the material for the earlier sets on the first four CDs.
George Benson: Beyond the Blue Horizon
Any list of more than the twenty greatest electric guitarists that doesn’t have George Benson gets immediately discounted. He’s really is up there with the greats in terms of guitar technique and taste. This album may be casually classified as traditional post-bop jazz, but with two to three electric instruments on each track and Jack Dejohnette on drums, this is as much jazz fusion as any other albums of its time. Benson fares particularly well with his interaction with Hammond organist Clarence Palmer and DeJohnette is his usual incredible self. Ron Carter provides strong acoustic bass on track one, a particularly engaging rendition of Miles Davis’s “So What”, with funk and fusion elements from both Palmer and Benson. On track 2, “The Gentle Rain”, and track 3, “All Clear”, we have Carter on electric cello far exceeding the effectiveness and expressivity of at least 95% of contemporaneous rock guitarists. The third, fourth and fifth tracks are all Benson compositions with “Ode to a Kudu” relaxing and lyrical, and “Somewhere in the East” pushing out to more progressive and world music territory with a couple of additional percussionists added.
Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi
Another album I missed mentioning, released around March 1971, is Herbie Hancock’s second of his series of three Warner Brother albums, Mwandishi. It is yet another album that dedicates an entire LP side to one track, with the first side containing two contrasting works, the first of which, “Ostinato”, is an imaginative execution of improvising over an repetitively deployed musical pattern and brimming with that special class of rhythmically displaced jazz-funk championed by Herbie Hancock with Eddie Henderson shining on trumpet and Hancock on Fender Rhodes piano. The second track is true to its name, “You’ll Know When You Get There”, musically evocative of the sensation of being on leisurely journey, casually extended — the flute solo fitting in very nicely with the overall mood. The last track, taking up the second side, also provides music befitting it’s title, “Wandering Spirit Song”, with a strong Julian Priester trombone presence that carries into the free jazz section giving us a rough ABA form. Hancock provides compelling contributions on electric piano.
Kinks: Muswell Hillbillies
Released November 24, 1971, is the Kinks fourth (or fifth, if one counts the soundtrack album, Percy) concept album. Musically, there are no stand out tracks, but as a cohesive whole and faithfulness to the overall concept, the album works very well creating an overall experience that transcends the lack of memorable musical content, relying on the more memorable imagery, the well-crafted lyrics, Ray Davies’s distinct characters, Ray Davies’s vocal delivery to convey their viewpoints, and the generally creative and strong musicianship that lifts the more ordinary musical material.
Billy Preston: I Wrote a Simple Song
Released on November 8, 1971, I Wrote a Simple Song, is Billy Preston’s sixth studio album with Preston no longer on the Apple label but now with A & M. A soulful and rhymically lively album, it far exceeds allmusic.com’s two star rating, surpassing in quality most of the albums that allmusic.com rates as three or four stars. With some arrangements courtesy of Quincy Jones, George Harrison on guitar, and Preston’s expansive presence on piano, organ and vocals this album is a true joy to listen to.
John Martyn: Bless The Weather
Released in November, 1971, John Martyn delivers a very strong acoustic folk-rock album. Though I focus much more on music then lyrics, I’m still rather taken by the sentiment of the lyrics of “Let the Good Things Come” particularly lines like “I wish I had walked down, every road I ever set my eyes upon” and “I wish you could get through, to every face and every friend I ever knew.” Album is excellently engineered with quality musicianship. Strongest tracks include the jazz-tinged “Walk to the Water”, “Back Down the River”, and the sparkling instrumental, “Glistening Glyndebourne.”
Faces: A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse
Though perhaps my least favorite album mentioned in this post, despite ubiquitous presence in college dorm-room record collections during the early seventies, this third Faces album, A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse, released Nov. 17, 1971, is better than the previous two, partly due to Gus Dudgeon’s involvement and partly due to its shorter length, but mostly due to the exceptional last track, “That’s All You Need” and Ronny Wood’s near-historic guitar work on that same composition, and, to a lesser extent, Wood’s playing on “Stay with Me”, a song with such overtly sexist lyrics that current public sensibilities would probably exclude it from release today. Also worth noting is the brilliant and effective punctuation provided by use of the steel drum on “That’s All You Need.” Rod Stewart vocals are generally good, particularly on “Stay With Me” and “That’s All you Need”, and particularly when compared with the Ronnie Lane lead vocals on three of the album’s nine tracks.
Kevin Ayers: Whatevershebringswesing; Laura Nyro: Gonna Take a Miracle; War: All Day Music; Carly Simon: Anticipation; Isaac Hayes: Black Moses; Status Quo: Dog of Two Head; Happy End: Kazemachi Roman; Alice Cooper: Killer; Sweet: Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be; Humble Pie: Performance Rockin’ at the Fillmore; Earth, Wind and Fire: The Need of Love; Harry Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson; Billy Joel: Cold Spring Harbor; Barclay James: Barclay James Harvest and Other Short Stories; Mott the Hoople: Brain Capers; Steppenwolf: For Ladies Only; David Axelrod: Rock Messiah
Clearly not enough time to cover all the good and great albums released in November 1971!!! Allow me to continue to stretch your patience and mention a few more.
In November of 1971, both Status Quo and Alice Cooper provided hard rocking albums with Alice Cooper’s Killer containing the classic hard rock hit, “Under My Wheels.” Harry Nilsson released Nilsson Schmilsson, his most commercially successful album opening with the upbeat and bouncy “Gotta Get Up” and a hit cover of Badfinger’s “Without You.” Sweet released their debut album, Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be, but it is more sugary bubblegum pop than glam rock, with glam rock becoming more popular and prevalent in 1972. Billy Joel’s first album, Cold Spring Harbor, with two strong tracks to start the album, was a sonic disaster with the album being unfathomably mastered as a faster speed, raising Billy Joel’s vocal range and timbre and causing all the music to sound rushed. Very puzzling how it got out the door as it clearly is sped up. The remix from 1983 also has issues, truncating the end of the strongest track. “You Can Make Me Free” and, apparently, not quite slowing down the music to the proper speed and pitch.
My friend that lived next door had two brothers, also my good and treasured friends, but not as close in musical preferences. One of them, the youngest of the three boys in the family and born 9 days earlier than I, was a fan of Moody Blues, CSN/CSN&Y (collectively and individually), and Humble Pie, and though I was glad to record his and one of his friend’s Moody Blues and CSN&Y-related albums, I never much took to Humble Pie, and though I never borrowed Humble Pie’s Rockin’ At The Filmore, I did get to hear it when visiting, and even when relistening to it almost half a century later, I have to admit that I still don’t take to either the music or the musicianship. Another album not on my favorite’s list is David Axelrod’s Rock Messiah. Because it is a mix between classical, rock, jazz, I would have bought it when it first came out, except for a scathing review of it in the L.A. Times. Nonetheless, a few years later, when I had ample spending money from teaching piano lessons and consulting at the computer lab, I did purchase it, and found it had its moments but only listened to it once — listening to it again, it doesn’t particularly resonant — overall, not wildly bold, creative, or innovative and nothing that entreats one to listen to it once again.
Laura Nyro released her fifth album, quite soulful and expressive and exclusively covers, each and every one imbued with Nyro’s finely detailed and exquisitely crafted interpretation — plus the addition of Labelle! Kevin Ayers released his third solo album, whatevershebringswesing, full of creativity and generally within the fairly wide progressive rock boundaries, with orchestrations, great musicianship (fellow Gong band members, if you consider Ayers an honorary member of Gong), and a wide range of vocal contributions from Ayers, including a commendable Vincent Price impersonation on the appropriately spooky “Song from the Bottom of a Well.”
It’s really worth recapping how lucky music lovers were in 1971, with all these great releases in November 1971. At this point there was not only great rock, progressive rock, and new jazz coming out, but we also had the latest revival of ragtime picking up steam, the emphasis on original performance practices in classical music, the ever-increasing popularity of baroque music and the corresponding issuing of recordings of a wider range of baroque composers. Beethoven’s 200th birthday in 1970 brought new recordings of Beethoven and one’s choices and access to riches in the public and university libraries was greater than ever. Living in the greater Los Angeles area provided a wealth of variety on FM radio with two full time classical stations, readily available jazz music, folk music from Eastern Europe on Sundays, and full albums played on some of the FM rock stations. And, contrary to the predictions of some of the adults of older generations, this new music of the late sixties and early seventies was not a transient fad or flash in the pan, but was lasting, enduring music — music that generations today still listen to via streaming, or in some rare cases, by purchasing original or re-issued LPs. Today’s easy accessibility of the music of all eras means that I don’t very often reach back into the catalog of the music of the 1960s and 1970s, but when I do, there is always plenty to enjoy!
At the end of 1970, I awaited the availability of John Lennon’s first album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) with a sense of mystery and associated anticipation, however when it was time for the release of the second album, Imagine, it almost seemed like just another standard record industry release, particularly as I heard the single before the album, and because in this case it wasn’t my adventurous neighbor that first bought the album, but my more musically conservative older sister. Maybe I took less of an interest, initially, due to those factors, but it didn’t stop me from playing it as soon as she had purchased it.
Without the consistency of the songs of the first album and the personal poetic connection of that album — and without anything quite equal in charm to “Love” or as striking as “Working Class Hero”, Imagine was somewhat of a disappointment for me. I had already heard the title track, and found “How do you Sleep?” somewhat petty with a palatable undertone of bitterness. The album didn’t hold together as well as the previous one, but still there was much to like overall, including the music and lyrics to “Gimme Some Truth.” Of course, once one got over the initial overexposure of the title track from AM radio, it was clear what a strong song it truly was. Notable, also, are the musical performances, particularly Nicki Hopkins excellent piano work, both electric, acoustic, and modified acoustic (thumbtacks?) George Harrison provides memorable guitar contributions with Lennon also playing basic, yet fully appropriate, piano for the two best songs, “Imagine” and “Oh My Love.” In fact, part of the perfection of those two songs is the simple, honest nature of the piano part.
T. Rex: Electric Warrior
In the last part of 1971, we continue to see the steady evolution towards commercialism in many, initially relatively-non-commercial bands. Tyrannosaurus Rex shortens their name to T. Rex for their 1970, still mostly folk-rock acoustic-based album, but with the 1971 Electric Warrior, producer Tony Viscounti’s and composer/singer/guitarist Marc Bolan’s emphasis is more on rock, with a general simplification of the music — and even the lyrics with obvious shift from the misty, somewhat vague mythological references towards more common rock lyrics as in their big hit “Get It On” (commonly referred to as “Bang A Gong, Get it On”)
But as the earlier music of this group, particularly when still named “Tyrannosaurus Rex”, sauntered and casually strolled through blues-based folksy material, this album rocks forward full throttle, with much more animated tracks like “Jeepster” and “Rip Off.” It may not hold up to repeated listenings as well as their 1970 album, A Beard of Stars, but it was more fun to play loudly in the car when driving around at night. And whereas the earlier music languished in terms of building a large listener base, the new T. Rex sound ended up influencing numerous bands, most of which never would land a recording contract, but also some more well-known entries in pop music from punk rockers like the Ramones, hybrid glam/punk rockers like the New York Dolls, and later Indie groups like Joy Division, The Smiths and the Pixies.
Curved Air: Second Album
Released On September 9, 1971, Curved Air’s second album is bubbling over with a silky spider’s web of musical ideas and creative energy. The sound quality and mixing of the original LP falls short of the music and musicianship itself, however, a remastered edition was released around 2018.
This is an album in two parts, the first side with musical material composed mostly by Darryl Way and the lyrics written by Sonja Kristina and the second the more rhythmically driven material of Francis Monkman. Both sides are excellent, with ample examples of compounded or changing time signatures, some colorful contributions from the EMS VCS 3 synthesizer, and the floating, ethereal vocals of Sonja Kristina.
Uriah Heep: Look at Yourself
In September 1971, Uriah Heep released their third and strongest album, the heavy-metal, partly-progressive Look At Yourself. I took a chance on the album as part of the promotional incentive for starting a membership in a mail-based record club, and loved the album’s heavy-metal deployment of bass, guitar, organ and drums. I particularly like the Baroque-like beginning of “July Morning” which starts with organ, with guitar soon layered on top and the use of terraced dynamics and texture for the subsequent vocals.
Santana: Santana III
Satana releases their third album sometime in September of 1971. Like their previous, second album, Abraxas, it climbed the album charts to the top position, with two tracks gettings significant airplay on AM and FM radio. Incorporating Latin, rock, and jazz influences, the album’s strength, at least for me, is fully revealed on side two with the last four tracks which sound as fresh and vital as they were in 1971.
Though, almost fifty years ago, days after Christmas, I ended up buying George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and skipped purchasing this John Lennon album, my next door neighbor did buy it. He was sixteen and I was fifteen years of age. On first listening, I followed the lyrics more carefully than the music, and to me the album was not only unusually personal but somewhat bleak and cynical with an undertone of bitterness. Musically intimate, it was perfect for secluded listening, and the quality of the songs supported both repeated, concentrated listening or putting it on as background while reading or doing schoolwork. Quite a gem. A gem I appreciate even more today. This album was recorded after Lennon and Ono had gone through primal scream therapy and listening to in 2020, I can now more readily relate to Lennon’s viewpoint and his personal pain. I also appreciate the production quality of the album more, though I remember even almost fifty years later being impressed by the double tracking of his vocals on songs like “Hold On”, the simplicity and intimacy of Lennon’s acoustic guitar and vocal presence of “Working Class Hero”, and the beauty of tracks like “Love” and “Look at Me”, the latter similar to Lennon’s Julia on the Beatles’ White album. In the 1980s, no longer a student but successfully self-employed, I made sure I had my own copy of this album, but I must admit that listening to it again in 2020, I appreciate it more than ever.
Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band
We also saw the Yoko One companion album in the stores and eyed it multiple times but the consensus on the street was to avoid it completely. Finally, sometime in 1971, I found someone that had it in their collection and listened to a part of it, looking for any trace of a recognizable song, and not finding it in the first few minutes, even after lifting and repositioning the needles on each track of side one, I abandoned any interest.
That is — until now — and now listening to it in full, after having many hours of accumulated listening to Webern, Cecil Taylor, Xenakis, Crumb, John Cage and a wide range of even less popularly acclaimed music, find it to be quite good. Two bonus elements for me: John Lennon’s guitar and, more impressively, the Ornette Coleman quartet’s contributions on the first track of side two, “AOS” with Yoko Ono’s vocals often merging in quite effectively. Also of note is the quirky “Touch Me” which seems to perfect for deterring any innate tendencies for tactile contact. All in all a solid soundscape experience.
Robert Wyatt: End of an Ear
Released on December 4, 1970, and recorded between Soft Machine’s third and fourth albums, Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear is another challenging listening experience, not easily classified as either jazz-rock, jazz or progressive-rock. Wyatt drums with abandon and provides wordless vocals, sometimes altered in speed and thus also pitch. It’s borderline chaotic, and yet reassuringly musical.
Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off
Leaving both the Robert Wyatt and Yoko Ono albums in the dust, is Captain Beefheart’s wild and unconventional Lick My Decals Off. The first track, “Lick My Decals Off“, though purportedly a statement encouraging consumers, in Beefheart’s words, to “get rid of the labels”, and to evaluate the musical content itself, is clearly a song on tongue-based pleasuring with “lick” (and possibly the “dec” part of “decals”) being the operative message here. The rest of the album is as wild and unbridled with ample use of complex meters and rhythms. The opposite of music to relax or sleep to, this is music to fully wake most mortal listeners up!
Van Der Graaf Generator: H to He, Who Am the Only One
Equally adventurous as these aforementioned albums, with an abundance of complexity, yet, comparatively, “easy listening music” to the Ono and Beefheart albums, is Van Der Graf Generator’s cryptically named third album, H to He, Who Am the Only One, referencing the transformation of hydrogens atoms into a single, inert, alone and isolated helium atom — a metaphor, whether appropriate or not, for the theme of isolation that is so effectively represented in the music and lyrics of this brilliantly realized and remarkable album.
King Crimson: Lizard
I remember purchasing King Crimson’s Lizard shortly after acquiring the classic album In the Court of the Crimson King, expecting something similar. Unlike their second album, In the Wake of Poseiden, which I had not yet acquired and eventually had to special order, Lizard was very different with no songs matching the colorful vitality of “21st Century Schizoid Man” or “The Court of the Crimson King” or even the simple melodic beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” or “Moonchild.” Nonetheless, the music was instantly intriguing and engaging — and by the second or third listening, I fully accepted it, as well as the distinctly differences in contributions from drummer Andrew McCullough (quite talented by with a far different approach than Micheal Giles) and saxophonist Mel Collins, both of which make this album particularly special — and the replacement of Greg Lake (after his departure to ELP) with bassist and vocalist Gordon Haskell. Robert Fripp, as always, deserves particular acknowledgment, providing memorable acoustic and electric guitar as well as some mellotron and organ.
Nico’s releases her third solo album, Desertshore. Under half an hour, there is not a wasted microsecond on the entire album. “Janitor of Lunancy” begins the album with a richly-dark bleakness. The harmonium provides both a mystic droning and forward harmonic motion supporting Nico’s low-register vocals from underneath. “The Falconer” starts in similar fashion but John Cale soon joins in a piano, providing a smattering of light that opens up and broadens the music’s scope. The third track, “My Only Child”, for Nico’s eight-year old son, is a beautifully sung, mostly a cappella gem with Nico providing some additional chorale-like vocals and John Cale providing a few minimal brushworks of instrumental punctuation on the high-register of the French horn including the opening note of the work.
Side two begins with violin and harmonium and again provides a bleakness of musical landscape on which rests Nico’s vocals. Whereas the music of “Janitor of Lunancy” might be likened to a hot, dry Bulgarian plain in early August, “Abscheid” more closely resembles a cold, desolate Scottish lowland in the darkness of a January morning. The next track, “Afraid”, ironically is more musically and lyrically hopeful. Mutterlein, an ode either specifically to Nico’s mother or mothers in general is austere and heartfelt. Almost Schubertian, this work was performed almost 28 years later at Nico’s funeral after her tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage.
The album ends with the moderate paced, but doggedly forward-driving “All That is My Own”, beautiful and distinctive. Altogether Desertshore is the equivalent of a cohesive song cycle with commendable vocals and praiseworthy compositions from one of the more notable, but often overlooked, singer-songwriters of this era.
Vashthi Bunyan: Just Another Diamond Day
A singer-songwriter even more overlooked than Nico was Vashthi Bunyan, whose 1970 album, Just Another Diamond Day, recorded in November and December 1969 and released in December 1970, sold so poorly that Bunyan would stop recording and performing and not make another album until 2005. Thankfully, the album gained attention during the rise of the small-label Indie rock artists, when it’s simplicity and musical honesty was more fully appreciated.
Colosseum: Daughter of Time, If: If2
Additional albums of note for December 1970 include Colosseum’s Daughter of Time, and If’s second album, the fine jazz-rock If2.
On December 16, 1970, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in the Los Angeles Music Center hosted the monumental 12-hour Beethoven Marathon for Beethoven‘s 200th birthday celebration. Those of us in Advanced Placement English at my high school were lucky enough to be bussed to the event. Admission was $1 and we had to leave before evening, but I got to hear several hours of great music including the Beethoven Octet! I was so taken by the piece, I tried to stay for the evening performances, but as I didn’t have a ride arranged back to Orange County, I had to leave with the rest of my classmates. Nonetheless the music I did hear left a lasting impression still remembered today. Classical music on recordings falls far short of a good live performance, and I was very fortunate to hear so many fine performances fifty years ago.
Lot’s of great albums released during 1970 and September was one of several notable months. About this time in 1970, I started listening to music with headphones. Our small living room was such that the two stereo speakers were poorly situated for optimal stereo, and so the headphones revealed a common characteristic of many of these albums — this was not the Stereo of the mid 1960s anymore. Stereo was now creating sound stages, some realistic, particularly with classical music recordings, and some surreleastic as with so many rock albums. The pleasure of listening to albums like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Jesus Christ Superstar increased measurably when the room was dark: the sense of sound borrowed attention-resources from the sense of sight. To this day, whether it is Bartok’s Night Music, Debussy musical imagery, Billie Holiday’s Verve-era vocals, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, the primal combination of Gezzer Butler bass and Toni Iomma’s guitar or a classic angular progressive rock album like Gentle Giant’s Free Hand, I remember the lesson from 1970, turn off the lights, extinguish all extraneous thoughts and make the music your entire and exclusive environment.
Andrew Webber and Tim Lloyd Rice:
Jesus Christ Superstar
Several months after The Who’s Tommy hit the FM radio stations, a more controversial album starting getting attention. It was also a rock opera, though more like a tradtional cast recording than Tommy, with different individuals on each part. My go-to radio station for new albums, KPPC-FM, announced that they would be playing the entire album from start to finish. I recorded the broadcast on reel to reel, with the broadcast’s less than perfect reception, and then repeatedly listened to the resultant recording on headphones through a wall of static. Thankfully, Christmas soon came and on Christmas day I received Superstar, as we colloquially referred to the album, as a Christmas present along with the complete Handel’s Messiah Oratorio, which I had also requested, and which my mom found it much harder to find than Superstar, now present at every record store. (I had also asked for the entire Tchaikovsky 1812, convinced that if there was an 1812 Overture, which I had, there must be a corresponding opera. Of course, no such gift could be purchased.)
I immediately transferred the two LPs of Superstar to tape, so as not to wear out the LPs, as I had done with the 1812 overture and my copy of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. The sound, recorded at the fastest speed available on my tape deck, on the highest quaility tape I had, was just indescribable, particuarly on relatively good headphones. I would sit on the floor close to my tape deck, following the lyrics initially, and then later abosorbing the compositional and instrumental richness of the album.
My grandmother, the more religious one, approved of my interest and commented that this was how music sounded back at the time of Christ, though I was old enough to realize this was way before her time. Yet, there seemed to be undeniable truth in this assertion, and part of this was the inclusion and incorporation of dissonance, and the use of the diminished chord, that standby of silent movie soundtracks to represent the bad guys — and hints of older modes and scales. This is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece. That the composer of works like the earlier Joseph and the Amazon Technicolor Dreamcoat and the later Starlight Express, rose to this level of musical excellence may be challenging to explain, but it occured and this album was evidence.
Black Sabbath: Paranoid
That this larger than life work, the 20th century rock equivalent of a Wagner opera scene, was purchased for $2.99 at K-mart, took me a while to get over. I remember vividly, the first time I encountered the first Black Sabbath album being listened to on a cheap turntable plugged into a building outlet by some high school freshmen druggie-types, or at least academic poor-achievers (we won’t say failures as they had three more years of high school ahead) — and I remember being intrigued by the poorly reproduced but seemingly substantial music. And I vividly remember purchasing Paranoid at K-mart, taking it home and sitting in front of the stereo on a barstool borrowed from the kitchen counter. But what was most vivid about all encounters with Black Sabbath, even including seeing them up close and live at California Jam, was the first listening to Paranoid and the darkness, obscurity and obliqueness of the music.
Paranoid is often credited as the first true heavy metal album, though certainly all the elements in Paranoid are there to some degree in their first album. However, while the first album was basically a recording of a live set, the second album is of higher sonic and musical quality. Though all four band members are given songwriting credit, for the most part the music on this album was written by Tony Iomma, with lyrics provided by Geezer Butler. To classify this music as simply heavy metal ignores the unique musicl style of Iomma — a darkest violet, and yes, satanic-like sound, built on short basic and strongly diatonic phrases that fit together like lego blocks. The sound is readily identifiable, and works effectively at a slow tempo, as in the opening moments of War Pigs that start the ablum, or at a faster tempo as taken in the second track, Paranoid. I have never heard Black Sabbath labelled as a progressive rock band, and some of that may be due to the primal nature of thir muscianship and Iomma’s compositions, but for me, I see no reason why the music itself isn’t classified as progressive rock. It certainly was a progressive sound in 1970 and when I picked it up in 1971 when it hit record stores in the U.S. And today fifty years later, it still holds its own, tarnished slightly in terms of freshness by the subsequent Black Sabbath albums that sometimes recycled the building blocks that made this such a unique sound and the many less-distinctive and creative imitators that followed. There is nothing in the rock catalog that has both the somatic and metabolic magnetic impact as “Iron Man”, and excluding the very best canonical prog rock albums, there are few musical statements that show the boldness, consistency, and durability of “Paranoid.”
Death Walks Behind You
If the William Blake bestial Nebuchadnezzar album cover didn’t entice you to immediately purchase the Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You, hearing that dark descending four note chromatic bass line that permeates the title track or the quirky, keyboard-bejewelled “Tomorrow Night” might have. Unfortunately, being on Elektra, there was slight chance of someone in the U.S. seeing this album stocked in most record stores in 1970, and unless you lived in the L.A. or the Bay area, it’s not likely you would have heard any portion of this album on FM radio, until the success of ELP prompted many to check the back catalog of Atomic Roster. Nonetheless, this ablum, with Carl Palmer now replaced with Paul Hammond on drums, and Vincent Crane and John Du Cann raising their level of creative partnership, this is not only the best Atomic Rooster album, but a fine, at times joyful and playful, at times dark and shadowy, heavy metal, progressive hard rock album. Whereas no band ever imitated Black Sabbath effectively, the style of hard rock exemplified in Death Walks Behind You, a style with its roots in earlier hard rock English pre-metal bands such as Cream, was successfully incorporated by a number of bands of the early seventies.
If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You
Another high quality progressive album, released in the UK on September 4, 1970, and also difficult to find in the U.S. until later in the seventies, was Caravan’s second album. Providing a diverse range of progressive rock, Canterbury scene rock and English Jazz rock (with its inclusion of saxophonist Jimmy Hastings), this is an album that endears itself upon repeated listenings.
After the Gold Rush
Full of unerringly good music and lyrics that range from near-nonsense and obliquely obscure to shamelessly unaffected and nakedly transparent, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, is one the finest if not the very best of his long, productive and meaningful career. Southern Man is a case in point where the music and lyrics are beyond any criticisms, or need for critique, but the rest of the original compositions are each worthy of special attention. Neil Young is a master at combining musical and lyrical simplicty to get through one’s superficial emotional barriers as exemplfied in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” It is the Neil Young magic that turns a basically musically and poetically flimsy and somewhat monotonous song into exquisitely simple high art, something also accomplished with the less emotional “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and the entire contents of his subsequent album, “Harvest.” The most memorable song on After the Gold Rush, is the title track with its seemingly deeply profound, but if you believe later Neil Young interviews, somewhat meaningless, lyrics. I prefer to think that Young is being more modest than accurate, for even if there was no particularly deep intent in the lyrics they fit so well with the music that they deserve some praise. But the most incredible feature of this work, at least for me, is that with every listening it always seems to be of epic length, even though it only clocks in at only 3 3/4 minutes.
Released on September 23, 1970, Abraxas is another special album. Despite an initial lack of attention and acceptance from many in the music press, the attention the band garnered from the Woodstock film, the success of the “Evil Ways” single, and the striking cover soon propelled this album to number one on the album charts making the album a staple in many early 1970s record collections. This is another one of those albums you turn down (or off) the lights to listen to. The opening track is dramatic and provides an imposing and remarkable beginning to an amazing, whirlwind musical experience.
Though often labelled as jazz-rock, this first of several albums by If, released in September 1970 is as much British progressive rock as it is jazz-rock. Similar in some respects to early Jethro Tull and Genesis, the musicianship is solid and the music is engaging. I picked this album up when it came out after reading a postive review of it in the L.A Times, expecting that it might be similar to Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears, and didn’t fully appreciate if for what it was, mostly listening to it as background while studying or reading. Listening to it again, almost fifty years later, I much better appreciate it’s abundant qualities and strengths.
Jackson Five: Third &
Allman Brothers Band: Idlewild South
There are two other albums released in September of 1970 that require a brief mention. The first is the Jackson Five album, their third album, simply titled Third. As I was starting my sophemore year in school, the biggest slam one could throw (“dis” in modern parlance) at someone was either they were a freshman, or worse, they were a freshman and put on a Jackson Five album when they went home. Nothing was more uncool musically. And yet, when riding on the bus, one couldn’t avoid (and very embarrassing, and something I would never admit until now too old to care about being cool) liking the music. So it was with “I’ll Be There” which I heard over and over again. I never listened to any Jackson Five album until recently — but now listening to them as I go through the timeline of albums that are celebrating their fiftieth year of existence. Of course, it helps that I am married to someone that was a fan of Michael Jackson when growing up.
The other album I must mention is the Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South album, released September 23, 1970. Although often pigeonholed as an early Southern Rock album, or even as Southern Blues-Rock, it is so much more. The opening incorporates jazz elements and anticpates groups like Dixie Dregs. Yes, when the vocals start, the music becomes more conventional and less interesting — until the next instrumental excursion. And basically, that is the strength of this album: it’s instrumental passages.
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?