Fifty years ago, 1972 was coming to a close with the usual releases of albums in November and December coinciding with the holidays. One of the best out of the very best of those albums, was Gentle Giant’s fourth album, Octopus, named for the eight “opuses” included in the album. Appropriate, for sure, as all eight tracks are worthy of bearing that often historically and musically important designation. The instrumentation is richly diverse with Gary Green providing his usual impressive electric guitar work, Welsh drummer John Weathers replacing the injured Malcom Mortimore, on drums, and providing bongos, varispeed cymbals, and some enduringly memorable xylophone, Kerry Minnear on acoustic piano, electric piano, the renaissance-era regal (organ), electric organ, moog, mellotron, clavinet, vibraphone, other percussion, cello and, of course, lead and backing vocals, Ray Shulman on bass guitar, acoustic violin and viola, electric violin, acoustic guitar, percussion, and vocals, Derek Shulman on sax and lead vocals, and Phil Shulman. in his last studio appearance with his brothers, on tenor and baritone sax, trumpet, mellophone and lead and backing vocals.
The album opens up softly and intimately with Kerry Minnear’s “The Advent of Panurge” with interlaced vocals (I believe Minnear and Phil Shulman) followed by a hard-rock interlude that includes the classical technique (Haydn, Beethoven) of compacting a repeated motif to create heightened tension and energy leading into a temporary vocal handoff to the more dramatic Derek Shulman, then vocals becoming intimate again with Phil, then a short mystical section, returning to the opening melody with the stretto-like compressive technique followed with a strong ending with Derek again on vocals.
The second track, Minnear’s “Raconteur Troubadour” takes us back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, before exploring an Elgar-like melody, that moves into a more twentieth century feel with trumpet before another verse and chorus of the main melody ending with a repeated motif slowly unwinding the work to a stop.
Ray Shulman’s “A Cry for Everyone”, takes us into harder progressive rock mode, with Derek on vocals, and some brief flamboyant moog garnishes followed by some more instrumental including that unique Gentle Giant “stride” style (see Fifty Year Friday: July 1971), interrupted with some more moog flourishes, returning to a third verse of the main melody, and concluding with a brief coda.
The first side ends with Minnear’s contrapuntally clever “Knots”, which sets excerpts from R.D. Laing’s psychological-themed poetry of the same name. Besides a mix of Renaissance and prog imitative counterpoint, hocketing, and some additional madrigal-like Renaissance handling of the words and musical material there is a contrasting, more contemporary, prog-rock, second theme, Weathers mirthful xylophone interlude, an instrumental transformation of the earlier material prepping for and then interlaced with the return of the original material followed by a repeat of the secondary theme ending the piece. Whew! What an exciting four minutes of music seemingly covering as much ground as covered by some lesser prog-rocks groups on much lengthier tracks!
Side two is equally strong, opening with Ray Shulman’s instrumental “The Boys in the Band” reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s best material of the early seventies. The next track is Minnear’s Renaissance-like “Dog’s Life, “a backhanded tribute” to the band’s roadies with the regal providing a shawm-sounding whine, complemented nicely by Ray’s and Kerry’s string playing. The third track on the album is Minnear’s beautifully sensitive and reflective “Think of Me with Kindness” as good as any ballad ever penned in the 1970s. The second side ends strongly with Ray Shulman’s epic “River”. which while under six minutes, is much like “Knots” in that it seems to cover enough musical ground for take up the better part of a single side of an LP.
The production, for 1972, is good enough to differentiate the various parts and provide a crisp, relatively undistorted listening experience, the performances are energetic and expressive, and the music itself is unusually distinctive with compelling melodies and motives that have a level of adventurousness, playfulness, and durability that creates a substantial listening experience the very first time or even after a dozen. Impressively, this was a group that could deliver this material live very effectively, with all the studio wizardry translating without any loss of intensity into live performances. Though most rock critics at the time couldn’t or wouldn’t even try to appreciate the singular music on this album, the music still lives on, embraced generation after generation by music lovers the world over.
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso
Influenced by the emergence of a multitude of English Progressive rock groups, a number of talented musicians came together in various locations throughout Italy to provide their own contributions to the ever increasing riches of the progressive rock canon. In Rome, classical trained pianist Vittorio Nocenzio, having studied composition, organ performance, and ethnomusicology, and written songs for Italian folk singer Gabriella Ferri, formed Banco Del Mutuo Soccorse (Bank of Mutual Assistance) in 1969 with his brother, Gianni, also skilled on keyboards, and former members of two other rock bands, Fiori Di Campo and Le Esperienze including the vocally captivating tenor, Francesco Di Giacomo, who would provide a Puccini-like drama and intensity to the band’s recordings and concerts. The talented group played festivals before recording their first album, a particularly strong debut that incorporates stylistic elements from both progressive rock and early twentieth century classical music.
Despite the multitude if influences, the material is identifiably Italian, especially in some of the melodic phrases and in the character of their exuberant playing. Particularly impressive are the second track, “R.I.P. (Requiescant in Pace)”, and the fourth track “Metamorfosi.” Side two includes the 18 minute “Il Giardino del Mago” and ends with an animated tarantella-like piece simply titled “Traccia” (track.)
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso: Darwin
Banco’s second album, released near the end of 1972, builds on the excellence exhibited in their first album, improving on it with a cohesiveness and establishment of a consistency of style. The album starts off with the magnificent opening of L’Evoluzione, a dramatic 14 minute work rich, beautiful, and epic in impact that effectively sets the tone for this concept album. The second track, “La Conquista Della Posizione Eretta” (‘The Attainment Of The Standing Position”) begins with a extended and compelling instrumental section that brings to mind the survival struggles of prehistoric life including growls that settles into a reflective lyrical section narrating the advantages of standing upright.
The second side opens up with the casual, jazzy “Danza Dei Grandi Rettili”. The next track, “Cento Mani E Cento Occhi” opens up in frenzied contrast to the cooler preceding track, not only making use of some of the musical language elements of Ginastera and Bartok, but covering a wide range of progressive rock musical expressiveness in unremittent 4/4 time with the appropriate use of accents for inescapable forward momentum. The third track, “750,000 Anni Fa … L’Amore?” seemingly channels Puccini for its amorous expressiveness achieved with a expressive piano accompaniment to Giacomo passionate vocals and as well utilizing the moog synthesizer for a dramatic middle section. “Misere Alla Historia” (badly translated as “History’s Lament”) provides musical reflection on the lost/dead civilizations with the warning/observation of “Ma… Quanta vita ha ancora il tuo intelletto se dietro a te scompare la tua razza” “But… How much life does your intellect still have if your people disappear behind you.” The album ends with additional reflection, ironically set in 3/4 time, “Ed ora io domando tempo al tempo ed egli mi risponde…non ne ho!” (“And Now I Ask Time for More Time and He Answers Me…I Don’t Have Any!”) bringing the album to an indisputable close, fully covering the saga of human evolution from early, undeveloped life to its apparent, overwrought and unavoidable finish.
Released on April 14, 1972, Three Friends is Gentle Giant’s third album and their first self produced album, and takes a musical direction quite different from the previous two, with the music coalesced around the thematic concept of three schoolmates and the different directions they take. Whereas the music of the previous album generally flows and evades concrete musical borders, owing much to medieval and renaissance musical sensibilities, the music of Three Friends is distinctly of the twentieth century with repeated musical cells and patterns, occurrences of syncopation, and both subtle and more strongly emphasized meter changes — all taken together, form the initial characteristics of an identifiable Gentle Giant style that would become more prevalent in their fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth albums.
The first track, the prologue, starts off in 3/4, appropriate for the concept of “three friends”, then shifts into 4/4 in preparation for the lyrics and then ends in mostly 3/4 with a few apparent meter changes for the ending. The high register synthesizer, like the wispiness of memory, adds to the overall effect of detailed stereo separation. The interlaced vocals continues with the next track, “School Days”, which brings to mind that back and forth playfulness of school children, with some more shuffling of the time signature and then a brief dark middle interlude that shifts into 4/4 for the “remember” section which includes Ray Shulman’s son providing age-appropriate vocals against uncle Phil Shulmans grown-up vocals. After a jazzy vibraphone solo from Kerry Minnear, there are some more meter changes and the the reflection on past school days quietly ends.
Each of the next three tracks focuses on one of the three friends. “Working All Day” is the stoic pronouncement of the manual laborer, voiced appropriately by Derek Shulman, who matter of factly accepts his fate with “no regrets” in mostly straight 4/4 common time. Notable is the introduction, a free multi-voiced, contrapuntal, synthesizer part, that, through the magic of magnetic type, slowly (and seamlessly) grinds down to the plodding working class tempo of the opening theme. Near the end of the piece, in the recap of that initial “working all day” theme, we get a few bars of what I call the Gentle Giant “stride” style (see Fifty Year Friday: July 1971), a “keep on trucking” era type of passage, that appears about twenty-seconds before the end of the song.
“Peel the Paint” showcases, lyrically, Phil Shulman, light and airy with “free from the start”, then Derek with an anguished “peel the paint”, “nothing’s been learned”, and musically, the two sides of the artist — the aesthetic highs and the tortured lows — with the “peel the paint”, “same old savage beast”, and “nothing’s been learned, no, nothing at all” section relying heavily on the use of the “devil of music” (“diabolus in musica”), the tritone, and a guitar solo that starts out tormented and appears to flop into a drunken-like stupor with the piece ending with a recap of “nothing’s been learned.”
The third track covers the final friend, the lad that made the “big time”, reflecting on the material advantages of success, in a mostly 12/8 meter with some shorter bars for typical Gentle Giant variety. The album ends with “Three Friends” redeploying material from the prologue, including use of both 3/4 and 4/4 meters. The album, though maybe not delivering the most profound concept or realization of that concept, succeeds musically, and with its ample occurrence of 4/4, 2/4 and 12/8 rhythms, makes wonderful driving music. I would also suggest listening to it with visual cues — perhaps something like “light speakers” — devices that bundle different colors of strings of Christmas lights with each color associated to a band of audio frequencies and placed behind a semi-transparent plastic to create dazzling color effects coordinated with the music.’
Overcast: The Approaching Storm
Recorded in a series of contentious sessions in January 1972, made even more difficult by equipment issues and studio logistic headaches (with the band unpleasantly mired in the resulting red tape spawned by recent ownership changes at the La Brea recording studios), Overcast’s fifth album, The Approaching Storm, saw the light of day on the first of April, 1972.
Shifting tentatively from the basic blues and blues-rock formula that had provided their only hit, “Better Yet”, the band, led by the urging of classically trained keyboardist Trevor Stuart (see Fifty Year Friday: Overcast, With a Chance of Showers) explored more complex musical avenues, incorporating a range of influences from the The Who’s recent 1971 album, Who’s Next to the Yes’s Fragile album — though clearly, David Amato was no Keith Moon or Bill Bruford, and Douglas Brandt was no John Entwistle or Chris Squire.
The first side starts with the title track, with heavy bass and darkly-tinged doom-laced lyrics contrasted with pleas for optimism (“No room for grooming this looming, mushrooming doom and gloom”), followed by “Cognitive Unconsciousness” with its bagpipe-like synthesizer passage, and then “Decidedly Dangerous”, which merges into “Disaster Part One: Recognized, Resisted, Realized”, which effectively ends the first side.
Side Two opens with “Disaster Part Two: Reality” with stabbing marimba-like effects from the synthesizer and concludes with the dramatic and stormy, fifteen-minute, “Crystal Palace Workshop”, which leans heavily on Stuarts multi-track use of moog synthesizer and Bill Fortney’s heavily arpeggiated and intermittently apocalyptic electric guitar.
David Crosby & Graham Nash: David Crosby & Graham Nash; Stephen Stills: Manassas; Jim Croce: You Don’t Mess Around with Jim; Procol Harum: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Additional albums released in April of 1972 include the first Crosby/Graham album, with an exquisite balance between the well-crafted Nash compositions and the mellower Crosby tunes crowned by Nash’s timeless gem “Immigration Man”. the Stephen Stills two LP Manassas with its individually themed LP sides, Jim Croce’s breakout commercial album, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, with its quality arrangements, well-recorded acoustic guitar and the elegantly-wrought classic, “Time in a Bottle”, and Procol Harum’s best selling album recorded live with full orchestra.
Released on July 16, 1971 by the Vertigo record label, this second Gentle Giant, despite the apparently horrible cover (the worse prog-rock cover ever or a tongue-in-cheek expression of the kissing up that goes on to record execs and commercial demands?) and the presumptuous and cringe-worthy title, far surpasses their first effort in consistency and creating a unified musical statement while still showing a diversity in compositional techniques and arrangement/instrumentation. It is in the prevalence of the reuse and transformation of identifiable musical motifs that Gentle Giant shares common ground with some bebop artists (for example, Charlie Parker) and so many of the twentieth and nineteenth century so-called “classical” or “serious” composers. What set Gentle Giant apart from most other prog-groups was that their primary composer, Kerry Minnear, was fully trained in classical music having just received his degree in music composition from the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in 1970. We can speculate about whether he read such books as the indispensable 1961 treatise on motific reuse, Rudolf Reti’s The Thematic Process in Music (US 1951; UK 1961), but even if he had not, his familiarity with medieval, renaissance and early twentieth century compositions would have exposed him to how composers expertly handled music cells and motifs.
Putting aside the compositional tightness and cohesiveness of the eight individual tracks and the general cohesiveness of the album as a whole, one just has to take delight in the overall strength of the music, the lack of any filler material (with the possible exception of portions of the last track), and the beauty of some of the melodies, particularly “Pantagruel’s Nativity”, “Edge of Twilight”, the haunting “Moon is Down”, and the softer instrumental passages of the heavier songs on the album like “Wreck.” Notable is the prevalence of Kerry Minnear vocals, indicative of the often gentle nature of the material — with Derek Shulman vocals effectively complementing the harder rock passages. We also get the first example of what I call the “Gentle Giant stride”, for lack of a more appropriate term, due to it reminding me, rhythmically and musically, of deliberately lengthened and extended fast-paced walking steps — this occurs after the initiation of Gary Green;s guitar solo in “The House, The Street, The Room” at the 2:47 mark, with drums and bass providing the foundation for the continuation of Green’s angular yet expressive guitar-work. Another noteworthy often-used Gentle Giant compositional technique, is the use of a musical sequence comprised of a short, quadruply-repeated, rhythmically-catchy motif that creates forward drive and tension (and used extensively in their next album, “Three Friends”) and in this album occurs in “The Moon Is Down” at the 2:11 mark. Also notable is the penultimate track on the album, particularly its use of plucked and bowed viola, viola, and cello and wah-wah guitar for musical and extra-musical effect (the imitation of the meow of a cat.) “Plain Truth”, somewhat musically weaker and less interesting than the previous tracks, closes out this first in a string of half a dozen near-perfect, fully musically unified, must-have Gentle Giant albums
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality
Also released by the Vertigo record label (Warner Brothers in the U.S.), on July 21, 1971, though not nearly as fulfilling or musically nutritious as the Gentle Giant second album, this third Black Sabbath, Masters of Reality is one of the three best Black Sabbath albums, well-executed, creative and brimming with elevated yet disciplined energy. Toni Iommi, Black Sabbath’s main creative musical force, not only gives us the typical extroverted Black Sabbath heavy metal, bass-and-guitar-driven numbers but two fine introspective guitar compositions, “Embryo” and “Orchid” and the reflective “Solitude”, with Iommi also playing piano and flute, providing welcome contrast to the longer, heavier works. There may be a limited amount number of times those heavier works can be listened to, but certainly they stand up to repeated playings when driving down the road, exercising, dancing or otherwise shaking up an aging body.
Peter Hammill: Fool’s Mate
Fool’s Mate is Peter Hammill’s first solo album, filled with various, unrelated songs that were either not considered as appropriate Van Der Graaf Generator material, or were not written with VDGG in mind. Nonetheless the full VDGG lineup (Hugh Banton, David Jackson and Guy Evans) is here, and is further, supplemented by guitarist Robert Fripp on half the tracks and former VDGG bassist Nic Potter also on six of the twelve tracks. The music ranges from catchy and upbeat “Happy”, and “Sunshine” to the introspective and even heartbreakingly dark and gloomy, with the most indispensible gem being the timeless “Vision”, one the best love songs of the entire seventies.
Guess Who: So Long, Bannatyne
Also released in July 1971, the Guess Who’s succulently dissonant So Long, Bannatyne — the album sharing the title of one of the songs that reflect the guitarist Kurt Winter’s move from the Bannatyne Apartments on Bannatyne Avenue in central Winnipeg to the Chevrier district a few miles south.
It is the liberal use of dissonance and jazz-related elements that sets the album apart from earlier Guess Who albums, making this their overall best album, despite most rock critics opinions to the contrary. Whether its “Going A Little Crazy” with its jarring, dissonant recurring ostinato, the jaunty “Grey Day” with Burton’s scat singing, his dissonant jazz-based piano accompaniment and subsequent piano solo, followed by Winter’s jazzy acoustic guitar solo, or the subtly bitter “Sour Suite”, many of the songs here are neither typical pop or Guess Who songs. Strings are also used for appropriate enhancement and both Burton Cumming’s vocals and piano are at their best throughout the album, with piano nicely supporting Greg Leskiw’s banjo and vocals on “One Divided.”
Isaac Hayes: Shaft, Moody Blues: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Joan Baez: Blessed Are…, Deep Purple: Fireball
Other notable albums include the classic Isaac Hayes 2 LP Shaft, the almost impressionistic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour from The Moody Blues, Joan Baez’s two LPs and one 33 1/3 45 Blessed Are… album, and the hard-to-categorize and somewhat uneven, but mostly danceable (at least at the time), Deep Purple’s Fireball. I still remember hearing the song, Shaft in 1971 on the bus to and from school and impressed by its larger than life sound even through those somewhat shoddy school-bus speakers.
If you were creating a bracket for “Top Sixteen” best months for rock album releases, November of 1970 would not only be included but possibly end up as the winner depending on the diversity of your musical taste in the many rock genres of the early 1970s. For me, it is a particularly special month with debut albums by two of my all-time favorite rock groups, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and notably, not rock nor prog nor jazz, the release of Joshua Rifkin’s first Scott Joplin album.
Joshua Rifkin: Scott Joplin Piano Rags
Started in the mid-sixties, Nonesuch Records was a budget classical label — and when I mean budget, this applied to both the price and the quality of the pressings, which generally had more than their share of vinyl surface noise. However, with focus on releasing lesser known music and generally solid, if not exceptional performances, Nonesuch releases were not only welcome by individual music record buyers but by record libraries, both community and college/university libraries. Music ranged from Medieval and Renaissance to Mannheim school composers to Berwald to Charles Ives to contemporary composers with electronic music by Subotnick and a 2 LP guide to electronic music. Nonesuch also launched the Explorer series which included music from India, Bulgaria and Japan. And then, in November of 1970, Nonesuch kicked off the ragtime revival by releasing Joshua Rifkin’s performances of the well-known “Maple Leaf Rag” and seven additional Scott Joplin gems, including “The Entertainer” which was eventually showcased in 1973 as the theme to the movie, The Sting.
What makes this album special is the care and musical attention Rifkin administers to each work, taking “The Entertainer”, for example, at a sensitive strolling tempo and stretching the lilting “Magnetic Rag” to over five minutes. Ragtime was now revived: not hurried through at a breakneck speed like some quirky novelty, but treated with the same respect as Chopin or Debussy — with record stores across Southern California generally filing this ragtime album in the classical music section. Fortunately Nonesuch and Joshua Rifkin were awarded for their efforts, with this album becoming the first Nonesuch album to sell one million copies.
Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman
With his fourth album, Tea for the Tillerman, Cat Steven’s finely tunes the simplicity of his music and lyrics to create his very best work: an album without weakness or a moment of filler material. Two tracks, back to back on side one, are two of his very best ever: “Wild World”, which received plenty of FM airplay, and “Sad Lisa.”
David Bowie: Man Whole Sold the World
Whereas Tea for the Tillerman is an album of musical and lyrical transparent simplicity, David Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World, released in the U.S. on November 4, 1970, is a work of layered complexities. And though there is no apparent unity in the songs, it provides a musical experience approaching an art-music song cycle. I hadn’t heard this album in at least forty-five years and was not expecting it to provide much more than a trip down memory lane. I was also expecting it to be uneven with sections lacking in compelling musical interest. I was completely wrong and had underestimated the instrumental ingredients applied to each and every song on the album. To what degree producer Tony Viscounti deserves credit for the final product, I can only guess, but Bowie’s selection of him for a band member along with guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey provided a solid framework for a varied and multi-faceted album.
This album also provides a more modern version of David Bowie: one where he starts to develop the persona and vocal characteristics that were perfected for Ziggy Stardust. Unlike most British rock singers up to this point, Bowie doesn’t shy away from emphasizing and exaggerating his English accent. That first step, provides an effective starting point for the idiosyncratic pitch, timbre, and inflection traits that became such an easily recognizable trademark in Bowie’s vocals. And in the midst of all the musical freshness, boldness, and complexity are lively lyrics as in same-sex encounter of “The Width of a Circle.” (Yes, with the seventies there was less interference by record executives around “appropriate content”, now allowing tracks like Steppenwolf 7’s (another album released in November of 1970) “Ball Crusher.”
There is great musical variety throughout Man Who Sold the World from the effortlessly accessible T-Rex-influenced “Black Country Rock” to the hard-rock “Running Gun Blues” to more lyrical works like “After All” and “The Man Who Sold the World.” The album sold poorly in the U.S. and was pretty much forgotten until the solid success of Ziggy Stardust sparked a strong interest in earlier Bowie albums. The originally-intended cover created for the album, the comic-book like artwork of a man carrying a rifle against a backdrop of buildings and an open caption (for which the proposed multi-meaning content of “roll up your sleeves and show us your arms” was rejected and thus, by default, a blank caption bubble) was not to Bowie’s taste and he chose instead to have the cover shown above. Such a cover was determined unacceptable for U.S. release and the original artwork of the cowboy and blank caption bubble was used — shown below. The later U.S. release, after Ziggy became popular, used the cover shown below that.
Kinks: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One
Where Bowie represents the leading edge of London modernity, Ray Davies and the Kinks continue to represent more conservative values. Here we have another representation of the hard-working working-class culture extended into an album length-theme on the hard-working working-class-band-making-the-big-time contrasted against the greedy representatives of the record industry.
And yet, it is Ray Davies and the Kink’s “Lola”, not Bowie’s “Width of the Circle” that disintegrated conservative AM radio constraints. Sure Bowie was relatively unknown and the Kinks were long-time rock fixtures, but it was the ambiguity of “Lola” that allowed it to slip on to the pop-music airwaves; and that same ambiguity enhanced the overall coolness of the song and contributed to its popularity, particularly one of the coolest lyrics in rock: “Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola.” Ironically, the BBC forced the Kinks to overdub one word — but it was related to BBC’s policy on product promotion: Ray Davies was forced to overdub “Coca” with “Cherry” on the single-version of the song to avoid any semblance of advertising “Coca Cola.
Lola is the most notable song on this strong album, but there isn’t a bad track. Dave Davies provides two songs on this album including the beautiful ballad “Strangers”, which musically and lyrically is one of the most heartwarming songs in the Kink’s catalog, a sentimental tribute to the bond of two brothers. His other song, “Rats”, rocks hard and relentlessly pushes forward musically and lyrically. And of course, we have Ray Davies “back to nature” Apeman — catchy and quirky.
I had always wondered about the “Part One” in the title. Well, it turns out that this was originally planned as a double album, but the Kink’s released what they had with plans for a follow-up that never happened, despite indications that they had started on sequel material. At any rate, Part One stands perfectly well on its own, and works well as a concept album about the rise of an English rock band, having a number of biographical elements, and an abundance of musical charm.
Velvet Underground: Loaded
Based on direction from Atlantic Records, the Velvet Underground’s fourth album, Loaded, released November 1970, was primarily focused on including material suitable for singles with six of the ten songs in the 2 1/2 minute to 4 minute range. However, the album provided not even one single that created any kind of dent in either the UK or US charts, and the album itself also had little commercial success making no advance into the Billboard 200.
The combination of strong lyrics and easily assimilable music from the forlorn “Who loves the sun”, the classic “Sweet Jane”, to the autobiographical “Rock & Roll” to the album’s final and longest track “Oh! Sweet Nothin'” have served this album well with it’s influence on other bands and albums, including its apparent influence on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and the album’s steady long-term increase in popularity. So much so, that there was a 2-CD release of the album in 1997 and a six-CD release in 2015. At least check out the bonus tracks via CD or a streaming service. One of the unreleased tracks, “Ride Into the Sun”, seems like it would have been perfect to have closed out the original LP.
Ike and Tina Turner: Workin’ Together
Some albums are soooo good that one doesn’t know where to start in praising them. However, in the case of “Workin’ Together”, a suitable follow-up title to their previous album, “Come Together”, one has to start and end with Tina Turner. She sings with incredible variety and virtuosity on this album, performing at the level of a top-tier jazz instrumentalist, a feat rarely accomplished except by such legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Pay particular attention to the melodic expression of her vocals on “The Way you Love Me” and “You Can Have It.” Then there’s the delight and energy of her rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Get Back” elevating it to Hall of Fame level. The instrumentation and arrangements on the album are excellent and one gets many bonuses like the intriguing piano solo on a revisited version of Jessie Hill’s 1960-hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and Alline Bullock’s (older sister of Tina Turner) leading-edge, hard swinging example of 1970 funk, “Funkier Than a Mosquita’s Tweeter” which was put on the B side of the single of the album’s best known number, “Proud Mary.” So it’s easy to start any retrospective reflection on this classic album by focusing on Tina Turner’s contributions, understanding all the other work involved and realized so exceptionally well by Ike Turner, The Kings of Rhythm, and the Ikettes, but ultimately coming back to the most important factor, the contributions of Tina Turner.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Emerson Lake and Palmer
On November 20, 1970 (with no corresponding U.S. release until early in 1971) Emerson, Lake and Palmer released their self-titled first album. Even more heavily classically influenced than Emerson’s work with the Nice, the album was a delight for both fans of the revered and historically-important acoustic piano and the new, and not-yet-fully exploited Moog synthesizer. The other two members of Emerson’s newly formed trio, providing their own significant contributions, were Greg Lake, previously of King Crimson, and impressively-skilled relatively young drummer Carl Palmer previously with the Atomic Rooster.
The album opens most vigorously with a formidable arrangement of Bela Bartok’s solo piano piece “Allegro Barbaro”, transformed to fit the trio capabilities so impressively that anyone with any uncertainty about when progressive rock had truly proceeded beyond the psychedelic rock/ proto-prog stage, would have to concede that it happened at least with the release of this album. The reworking of the Bartok’s piano work into a prog-rock work is so complete and seamless that anyone not previously familiar with the work would have little reason not to identify this as some original masterpiece reflecting the aesthetics of the group and the turbulent times of the start of the 1970s. So passionately and comprehensively realized is the arrangement and performance that I consider it an indisputable improvement over the superb original.
Greg Lake provides the main melody and lyrics for the next track, “Take a Pebble” as he does for the more well-know final track, “Lucky Man.” In the instrumental section of “Take A Pebble”, Lake strums through a reflective guitar passage that effectively compliments Emerson’s extended solo piano work. The third track is an arrangement of the first movement of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Once again we have an arrangement so complete it seems original, particularly with Lake’s and Fraser’s lyrics used in transforming the opening brass fanfare theme into a verse and then that material transformed further and more remotely into a chorus/bridge. The three main notes then are used as the basis for an instrumental interlude that then gives way to a Bach passage on a organ with a return to the verse and an synthetic sonic explosion (replaced in the remastered version with the original coda.)
The second side opens up with formidable Emerson composition “Three Fates”. The first represented Fate, Clotho, is realized on the Royal Festival Hall’s grand pipe organ, the second Fate, Lachesis, is realized as a grand piano solo and then the third fate, Atropos, after a brief return to the pipe organ, is launched in scintillating syncopated 7/8 with the piece wrapped up with an another synthetic explosion possibly representing the cutting of the thread.
“Tank” proceeds at full steam, a perfect platform for Carl Palmer, starting off as a trio featuring a sparkling clavinet and then after Palmer and Emerson trading twos and a brief transitional passage includes one of the most engaging and musical drum solos of 1970s rock followed by an musical onslaught that features exhilarating Moog synthesizer work by Emerson.
The album ends with Lake’s “Lucky Man” very much in the folk-rock vein with solid acoustic, electric and bass work from Lake and then the electrically charged Moog to end the song and the album. Released as a single, “Lucky Man” mostly got its airplay on FM and in Europe until picking up some traction in 1971 on AM radio and then again in 1973. Interestingly, this is the one song that did the best, commercially (and financially through royalties) for ELP — this simple four-chord (I, V, ii, vi) based song Greg Lake wrote around the age of 12. This 1970 realization of a pretty solid and easily accessible song eventually provided relatively wide appeal, something that, despite their progressive focus, Emerson, Lake and Palmer were also able to achieve as a trio in the following years after the release of this excellent album.
Gentle Giant: Gentle Giant
Gentle Giant’s self-titled first album was released in the UK on November 22, 1970. (It was not released in the U.S. until several years later.) Though far short of their next six albums, there is a lot of strong musical content on the album.
Gentle Giant, was formed by the Shulman brothers, Derek, Phil and Ray, after the demise of their previous group, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound. Bringing along their previous drummer, they auditioned several candidates for keyboards, apparently one of them Elton John, and auditioned candidates for the lead guitarist. The keyboardist would be Kerry Minnear, their most important and distinctive acquisition due to his compositional contributions. They also did well in landing semi-professional blues guitarist Gary Green, who was one of the more underrated guitarists of the seventies.
This first album starts and ends with some weaknesses including some silly lyrics in the opening track and the penultimate track (the last track is a brief instrumental, a short rendition of “God Save the Queen.”) The same goes with some of the music on those tracks, but when one sets that aside, the album goes beyond providing musical insight into the future Gentle Giant, delivering an album that is pretty good for its own sake.
First off, one must acknowledge that this album is not much more than a collection of well-executed, intriguing songs with no apparent attempt a unifying the album or providing musical continuity beyond a recurring synthesizer motive (derived from the third song) that sneaks its way back between later tracks.
The first track may be the weakest, and even cringe-worthy, but Minnear’s organ work is exemplary, Ray Shulman’s bass work is admirably accomplished, the band’s playing is remarkably tight (all instruments are played by the band members including the featured trumpet), and both the incorporation and the execution of the time signature changes maintains listener-interest throughout. The instrumental passage in the middle is the highlight, presaging later work, and includes a fine choral-like section. The return to the main theme may be somewhat predictable, but it sets up the perfect contrast for the intro of the second track.
That second track, “Funny Ways”, is arguably the finest song in the set. The opening strummed guitar, cello, and violin give away to guitar and vocals and then the perfectly-placed pizzicato violin. Once again, it is Gentle Giant playing all the instruments — as always the case for their albums. The chorus is short but noteworthy displaying Gentle Giant’s penchant for musically supporting the text, with “My ways are strange” preceded by a g-minor-seventh motif with equivalent chord changes on the underlying bass notes and gives quickly to another verse and the accompanying strings. This then is followed by a return of the chorus and a contrasting sort of bridge-like section that provides opportunity for one of Gentle Giant’s most notable trademarks, the use of short-phrase repetition — a short, often quirky fragment that is played four times often with subtle changes underneath. Gary Green provides front-and-center electric guitar with accompanying trumpet punctuation until a return to the verse which winds the song down nicely, eschewing any chorus repeat. Fortunately for their fans that attended live performances, this song was included in their concerts up through their eighth album.
The third track, “Alucard”, starts with an upbeat bebop-based approach that is followed by a short motivic interplay that uses the time-tested centuries-old technique of shortening a repeated musical phrase, an oft-used Gentle Giant trademark. Minnear lets loose with synthesizer at full-power, followed by a tasteful dramatic section that evolves into a moog-lead sequence that I always think of as the Gentle Giant “stride style” — not because it resembles stride music in any-way, but it sounds like a giant striding over an open field, the upward pitch movement of the sequence creating an illusion of forward momentum and quickening speed. Several more bars are spent on the previous instrumental material, with a development section from quiet to loud, peaceful to aggressive, magically returning to the “stride” motif, calming down again, with repetition ever a component, followed by a return to the dramatic surreal vocal section and then the stride motif once again, with a brief rock representation of pointillism and a return to the main instrumental theme with synthesizer. The song then dramatically (and tidily) ends with a Gentle Giant flavored classical-style authentic cadence. All-in-all a pretty wow experience — only surpassed in inaugural albums by King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
This then, strangely and appropriately enough, is followed by the Beatlesque “Isn’t Quiet and Cold” with Ray Shulman providing a perfect alternation of pizzicato and bowed violin. There are no strange detours here — it’s all very straightforward and beautiful — with Minnear’s hard-mallet xylophone solo being particularly engaging. This ends side one.
Side two opens up with a similar tone to the last track on side one, again sounding Beatlesque. But GG is more adventurous here — after stating the song in full (two and a half minutes), they tiptoe into development territory taking a bass countermelody from earlier and briefly exposing it with a hint of the sinister, then a quieting down, revisiting it with new material — a bridge in a sense — and showing off Derek Shulman’s signature glissando vocal-style and Gary Green’s outspoken guitar commentary. The shimmering of a gong takes us to a contrasting section of mostly reverberated percussion and some piano quoting Liszt — one of only two classical music quotes in all of GG’s studio albums (the other being a retrograde quote of Stravinsky in their last album), which then eventually gives away to the recap of the original song. This is by a wide margin the longest studio track Giant ever recorded — for a prog-rock group it’s remarkable to note that their longest song is well under ten minutes — this in the prog-rock decade where single sides and even albums were sometimes a single piece.
The album ends relatively weakly with the partly hard rock “Why Not” including a pleasant, contrasting Kerry Minnear middle section with Phil Shuman on tenor recorder and then some solid electric guitar work, and an unremarkable though pleasant-enough treatment of “God Save the Queen.” Album is produced by Tony Visconti.
And yet despite weaknesses this is an album full of notable melodic and transitory material that promises much for future albums — with those albums eventually meeting and exceeding that promise. This, in itself, makes this first album more than a collection of varied songs, but a historical artifact providing insight into the later works.
Curved Air: Air Conditioning
Recorded in July of 1970 and released in November of 1970, Curved Air’s debut album, Air Conditioning, did very well in the UK (#8.) Their name is based on the title of Terry Riley’s composition, “A Rainbow in Curved Air.” The band has some superficial similarities to the American Jefferson Airplane partly due to Sonia Kristina’s dark, evocative voice and partly due to hard rock, folk-rock and psychedelic rock components in the music. Add to this Darryl Way’s violin, Francis Monkman’s guitar work and keyboards and the skilled way each song is realized and the result is a distinct, progressive, and somewhat symphonic sound. The best known song is “It Happened One Day”, which received some FM radio airplay and was included in an 1971 Warner Bros Loss Leader album. It opens side one which includes the wispy “Screw”, the Donovan-inspired “Blind Man” and the Vivaldi-inspired “Vivaldi” with relentless multi-tracked electric violin followed by a Vivaldi-like cadenza that evolves into a multi-part, feedback-based cadenza-like section, then a free-form Hendrix-like section eventually reprising the original theme with heightened intensity and closing with a brief coda.
The dramatic “Hide and Seek” decisively starts the second side, is every bit as impressive anything on side one, and is followed by the upbeat and syncopated Propositions. “Situations” in A-B-A form includes a notable (also a-b-a structured) middle section that starts with an airy, floating vocal passage, followed by a guitar dominated section with a return to the “a” section and then, of course, returning to the main “A” section. The album ends with a hyped-up recap of “Vivaldi” aptly named “Vivaldi with Cannons.”
George Harrison: All Things Must Pass
With all the enticing albums on the shelves at the big retail record stores (the Warehouse in Southern California, particularly), Christmas time of 1970 was particularly memorable. There was Jesus Christ Superstar and so many other tempting musical wonders on display with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, released on November 27th, and All Things Must Pass looked the most tempting of all — a triple record set that promised ample listening material. Immediately upon release, the album received notable air play on the FM album-oriented stations and there was no hesitation for me to purchase it after Christmas with my available extra money I had received on Christmas Day.
The album starts off relaxed, with the Harrison/Dylan collaboration, “I’d Have You Anytime” setting the mood with its tranquil first verse — a mood that I associate with the album to this day. This is not loud in-your-face hard rock, but an acquired taste: subtle and reflective full of special moments like the Clapton guitar solo on the first track. It’s not accurate to say every song is a gem, but the many strong songs function to bring the rest of the album into balance, making it a delight to either sit down and listen studiously to or put on as background music. Now, when I reference the “album” I mean the first two LPs. The third, I have always viewed as a bonus album — a pastiche of jam numbers that after initial listening when I first bought the album set, received only occasional playing, and mostly when I engaged in some other activity, like homework or reading. Listening again to this third LP this week, I find it still does not pull me in any notable way, but those first two LPs are as magical as when I first listened to the album during the last days of Christmas vacation 1970.
Badfinger: No Dice
As mentioned, I had extra cash post-Christmas in 1970/1971 and previously impressed by Badfinger’s music in the movie Magic Christian and their rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Come and Get it” as well as a recent review I had read that compared them to the Beatles, I bought “No Dice.” I found it a little Beatlesque — but not in the Abbey Road or White Album sense, but in the “Old Brown Shoe”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, and “Ballad of John and Yoko” sense — only not as good. Yet it was still a pretty good album, at least to listen to half-a-dozen or so times and put it away for almost 50 years. Listening to it again, the best tracks, like “No Matter What”, “Without You”, “We’re For the Dark,” make the album a worthwhile listen even if a few of the weaker tracks approach the dull side.
Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
I immediately fell in love with “Layla” the first time I heard it on FM radio, hearing it as two songs, which is what it was, spliced together. Derek and the Dominos were formed by guitarist Eric Clapton and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock in the summer of 1970 to play mostly music created by them earlier that year. Added to the band were Jim Gordon on drums (first choice was Jim Keltner who was unavailable) and Carl Radle on bass with appearances from Duane Allman and Dave Mason. The album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, a 2LP set, was released on November 9, 1970 and received mixed reviews, some very negative. Outside of “Layla” and the catchy part of “Tell the Truth”, the rest of the album fails to spark any strong interest for me despite several tries. The musicianship is strong but most of the songs are just run of the mill, mostly anchored in I IV and V chords with mostly ordinary rhythms and melodies and limited metric and harmonic contrasts. Even the inclusion of Hendrix’s “Little Wing” doesn’t work for me as, really, the original is so much more full of life and energy. Nonetheless the album is worth having just for “Layla.”
Grateful Dead: American Beauty
Grateful Dead released their fifth studio album, and second of 1970, with American Beauty, an appealing, heartfelt work that many fans rank as either their best or at least their second best studio album to the earlier Workingman’s Dead. The Dead incorporate the bluegrass musical ethos better than any other rock group. Though I generally shy away from most country music and most country-rock, I am strongly attracted to bluegrass, and love listening to live bluegrass bands, particular in their home settings in states like Kentucky or West Virginia. So even though this Grateful Dead album is far from authentic bluegrass, and may lack the passion and ardor of the finest bluegrass music, it captures and incorporates enough of that bluegrass spirit to enrich and elevate the album. “Candyman”, the final track of the first side, is a great example of how the group starts with blues-like lyrics and a pretty traditional country musical framework and by using the right chord changes, some yearning steel-guitar work, leisurely electric organ, and properly placed supporting choir-like vocals makes the song a special experience.
The second side opens up with “Ripple”, a relaxing, tonally stable, country-style, gospel-tinged ballad with its reassuring words of wisdom and then continues with a couple more Robert Hunter compositions reportedly written that same afternoon: the gentle gospel-influenced “Brokedown Palace” and the more upbeat, and more carnally-grounded “Til the Morning Comes.” The album ends with the classic “Truckin”, an anthem of attitude for the beginning of the seventies:
“Truckin’, got my chips cashed in Keep truckin’, like the do-dah man Together, more or less in line Just keep truckin’ on.
“Once told me, “You’ve got to play your hand” Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime If you don’t lay ’em down.”
Spirit: 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
Released on Nov 27, 1970, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, Spirit’s fourth studio album, is another album that didn’t do particularly well when released, charting lower than their three previous efforts, but over time ended up being their best selling album going gold in 1976. The album’s first side is particularly strong with the undisputed gem being Randy California’s “Nature’s Way” which didn’t get very far up on the Billboard singles chart, but became a standard on FM radio, particularly as the environmental movement picked up steam. The second side continues with the same general energy starting with a strong instrumental by the keyboardist John Locke and a couple of quality songs by vocalist Jay Ferguson with some impressive guitar work by California on “Street Worm”, and then closing with three endearingly distinct Randy California tunes.
Minnie Ripperton: Come into My Garden
Released in November 1970, about a year after it was recorded, Minnie Ripperton’s debut solo album, Come Into My Garden, is a fine album that received little attention until her more commercially successful album was released in 1974. Minnie originally studied opera singing but eventually pursued her greater love for pop and soul music and in 1967 became a vocalist in The Rotary Connection.
In Come Into My Garden she displays her unusual upper-range vocal skills, but more impressive is her beautiful diction, phrasing and sublimely smooth vocal delivery. Her future husband (actual husband by August 1970) co-wrote some of the songs with additional material and arranging by Charles Stepney, keyboardist and songwriter of the Rotary Connection. Though “Les Fleur”, the opening track, is the most distinct and memorable song in the album, the excellent arrangements and superb execution elevate the rest of the album to delicate, graceful and sensuous musical experience.
At some point one has to wrap up a blog post even when there are many more albums to cover. There is the excellent Stephen Stills album, for example, as well as some lesser, but still notable albums like Kraftwerk’s unfettered self-titled debut and Isaac Hayes’ well-arranged To Be Continued. There is Family’s part live and part studio Anyway, Syd Barrett’s enjoyable second studio album, Barrett, Pentangle’s shimmering, though dark in subject matter, Cruel Sister, Steve Miller’s solid fifth album, titled Number 5, Tim Buckley’s brilliant, free-jazz influenced Starsailor, Laura Nyro’s excellent Christmas and the Beads of Sweat and several “Best of” albums that came out in November 1970. Certainly many of the releases, particular the “Best Of” LPs were timed to come out to be available for the holiday gift-giving season. That said, I don’t think one will find another month quite like November of 1970. At least not for classic rock.
In jazz, bebop artists continue to gain the attention of listeners, Thelonious Monk, at age thirty, records several masterpieces for Blue Note including Ruby My Dear, Off Minor, Well You Needn’t, In Walked Bud (a tribute to Bud Powell, based on the chord progressions of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies”), and the incredible ‘Round About Midnight. Wardell Grey and Dexter Gordon record The Chase, and Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards record The Duel. Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davisrecord several sides together under various names (Charlie Parker All Stars, Miles Davis All Stars, Original Charlie Parker Quintet) in combination with various other musicians such as Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, John Lewis, and J.J. Johnson. Parker also records tracks with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee, saxophonists Wardell Gray, Shorty Rogers, pianists Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, Russ Freeman, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender, and others, leaving some incredible recordings for future generations to marvel over.
For those that were around New York City to catch live music, they could see the aforementioned Miles Davis All-Stars at the Savoy, Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall with his big band, and The Count Basie Orchestra at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City or at the Strand Theater in Lakewood, New Jersey, supporting Billie Holiday.
Of the many babies born in 1947, notable future rock composers and musicians include David Bowie and folk singer Sandy Denny, born in January, Derek Shulman and John Weathers of Gentle Giant born in February, Elton John in March, Steve Howe and Iggy Pop in April, Ronnie Wood, Mick Fleetwood and Mickey Finn (T.Rex) in June, Brian May (Queen), Arlo Guthrie, Peter Banks (Yes, Flash), Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Carlos Santana in July, Ian Anderson in July, Marc Bolan and Meat Loaf in September, Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) and Laura Nyro in September, Greg Lake and Joe Walsh in November and Gregg Allman, Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) and Burton Cummings in December.
In movies, we have the timeless Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, as well asThe Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant and Loretta Lynn and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.
The next few years would bring major changes all over the world. Fortunately that world as it was in 1947 has been well documented in records, movies and books.