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Fifty Year Friday: July 1971

Gentle Giant: Acquiring The Taste

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.

Fifty Year Friday: March 1971

Jethro Tull: Aqualung

Later today, on youtube.com, Ian Anderson discusses each track of Aqualung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpH_WkjC_Yk

Sometime in the midst of the shimmering and wonderful Southern California summer of 1971, my next door neighbor brought over his latest album purchase. I supposed I was predisposed to like the music just from the confident manner in which he handed the album over to me, but I was hardly prepared for the overall excellence and originality of the material. That day he and I sat and listened to this album, my eyes following the lyrics written on the LP inner sleeve, is something I still vividly remember, and, hopefully, be with me for many years going forward.

The first track, the title track, opens up with the now famous isolated, tonally ambiguous, deeply-voiced electric guitar fragment — a riff faithfully foreshadowing the opening melodic phrase (“sitting on a park bench”) — it is but two seconds in length, and repeated before a short percussion utterance pulls in the vocals in dramatic fashion. This material is then layered with additional instruments creating drama and momentum. It is that dramatic quality, that musical and lyrical story telling, that leaves an immediate impression on the listener and, for me, left a locked-in, seemingly ever-lasting memory of listening to that entire album for the first time fifty years ago today.

“Aqualung”, the track, is the classic example of FM album rock with is deviation from standard popular song forms, more mimicking a short classical tone poem where the beginning theme, really an introduction of sorts, is not repeated after its initial use until brought back at the end, separated by distinctly contrasting and somewhat related material in terms of chords and tempo change.

The next track, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, continues the larger-than-life musical experience initiated by the opening track. With its reference again to the Aqualung character, this second track sets up the listener to expect that the album itself is a concept album where the individual tracks support and build up an unfolding story. However, as I continued through that first side fifty years ago, immersed in the amazing music, I was on the look out for, at a subordinate level to listening at the music, hints in the lyrics of some related storyline in the subsequent third, fourth and even fifth tracks on that first side — but eventually and inevitably concluded that there was nothing to relate to those first two tracks, and so by the sixth track I abandoned looking for a unifying concept.

The second side starts much the same implying a relationship between the first two tracks — however, for side two the remaining tracks seem to prove out some loose but unifying concept with these various side two tracks seemingly tied together with reflections on organized religion and social morality and responsibility. Musically, there is no discernible (as far as I can hear) thematic material shared between any track, another reason to set aside the premise that the entire album is any kind of a concept album. What is clear, though, is that the music is innovative, well-thought out and of lasting merit. Fifty years ago, listening to this album, it was clearly one of the best rock albums I had ever heard, and though I didn’t consider at that time its enduring impact on music lovers, I would do so a few year later when I was in college and promoting the idea of a course that would treat such music as the classical music of the 1970s — music more vital and relevant than the so-called modern classical music that was than currently being identified as part of the current classical music canon in academic circles.

Jimi Hendrix: Cry of Love

Prior to his death, Jimi Hendrix was working on this fourth studio album in 1970, with some of the music performed during a thirty-two performance tour in the summer of 1970. Following his death on September 18, 1970, several partially mixed tracks were selected and finalized by drummer Mitch Mitchell and producer Eddie Kramer for inclusion on the new album, omitting two particularly strong tracks, “Dolly Dagger” and “Room Full of Mirrors” for later inclusion on a future album. This was the first Hendrix album I bought, and I found the music readily accessible and some of the lyrics particularly creative. It’s great to listen to this again for the first time in at least forty years and I admit I appreciate the guitar work much better than I did in 1971. Overall, an excellent, easily-accessible and musically sparkling album.

Amon Duul II: Tanz der Lemminge (Dance of the Lemmings)

Sometime around March 1971, Amon Duul II released this eclectic, musically multi-dimensional album. I picked it up from my local record store in the used record bin around 1972 or 1973 little knowing what kind of music it contained. This was my introduction to non-repetitive, so-called “Krautrock. Though I found this too far out on the jam-rock, psychedelic spectrum when I first got it, after later having been exposed to lots of hours of free jazz and modern classical, the music became not only accessible but quite impressive. The first side, written primarily by guitarist/vocalist/violinist Chris Karrer mixes folk-rock influences with a progressive and psychedelic rock mindset, with imaginative acoustic and electric elements. The diversity of incorporated styles works well with no particular given style dominating. The second side, written by guitarist and vocalist John Weinzierl, is another exploration of musical diversity with more emphasis on hard rock, rock-blues and eastern elements including some admirable sitar from Bavarian sitarist Al Gromer (later Al Gromer Khan), some electric violin from Karrer, and some tape-based and electronic sound effects possibly from keyboardist Falk Rogner. The third and fourth side are music created for a soundtrack of a relatively obscure West German Film, Chamsin, based on Friedrich Schiller’s lyrical tragedy, The Bride of Messina. Though this second LP is not as strong or coherent (particularly the fourth side) as the first LP, it works better as sound imagery than traditional or more predictable listening music.

Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

Recorded in 1970 Nick Drake released his second musically impressive but commercially unsuccessful album, in March 6, 1971. The album is delightfully accessible with straight forward, quality musicianship from Drake, John Cale on viola and keyboards, Chris McGregor on piano, and other contributors including quality production from Joe Boyd and beautiful arrangements primarily by Robert Kirby and one arrangement from John Cale. Nick pokes into the marginally uncomfortable areas of “would of, should of” in some of the lyrics, with “One of These Things First” being particularly resonant for anyone that only half-tried in a relationship, later regretting the lack of engagement or commitment and “Poor Boy” an intriguing study in self-pity and self-contempt. Musically, “At the Chime of the City Clock”, “Fly” and “Poor Boy” are particular gems.

Fifty Year Friday: January 1971

Chicago: Chicago III

Based on my regard for the first two albums, when I saw the third Chicago album in the stores in early 1971, I purchased it without hesitation, even prior to hearing a single track. Not sure if I used some leftover Christmas money or a portion of the minimum wage I received for working at the school cafeteria, serving beverages to my fellow high school classmates including my fellow sophomores, but a large percentage of whatever I had in my wallet was tendered for this 2 LP set.

My next-door neighbor usually purchased the best albums, and I took some pride in anticipating I would be the one playing this for him the first time just as he had given me the gift of hearing those two first Chicago albums the first time. I also looked forward to writing my cousin in Oregon a letter proclaiming how good this third double album of this group I had introduced her to.

The only problem: this album fell far short of their landmark second album. I wasn’t expecting something as good, of course — though, I was hoping — but I hadn’t considered that this album would be several notches below. I tried hard to like it and at first comforted myself into believing that I would grow much fonder after multiple listenings, but by the fourth and fifth time through all four sides, I was no more fond of the album than the first time.

I eventually played the album to my next-door neighbor who, though not particularly impressed by the music, wasn’t deterred from later purchasing their four LP live album and their next studio album, the single disc Chicago V. I did write my cousin, but indicated my general lack of enthusiasm over the album in my barely legible handwriting that I sealed up and sent off through the mail. I listened to the album perhaps a total of six or seven times and shelved it — forever.

Now this is not a bad album — not even close. It lacks the coherence and the vitalness of subject matter of the second Chicago album with an unfocused diversity of songwriting and performance styles and non-topical songs like “Hour in the Shower.” It is neither epic or monumental, nor does it even hint at being such. The upside is that it still sounds like the same band as before and there are many notable moments of Chicago’s trademark brass-imbued sound and their signature-style of arranging and tasteful use of jazz chords. I definitely enjoyed listening to it again, fifty years later, and enjoyed that significant amount of musical passages that show off the same strengths of the group as the previous albums. When will I likely listen to it again? With the almost countless number of other musical choices available now and in the future, perhaps I may not ever do so.

Madura: Madura

Fortunately within a short period after I had purchased the Chicago III album, I read a decent review of a debut double album from a band named Madura, produced by the same producer of the Chicago albums, James William Guercio. I saw the album in the record store, liked the name of the band, remembered the review, and took a chance. To my delight, despite this being a band of only three musicians, the album sounded like jazz-rock and in spirit and quality was closer to the second Chicago album than Chicago’s third album. I liked the weird prepared piano track that opened the album, the continuity of the music of side two, David “Hawk” Wolinski’s keyboard work, Alan DeCarlo’s similarities to Chicago’s guitarist Terry Kath, the way the group extended their sound through use of multiple tracks, and the simple beauty of the last track of the album, “Talking To Myself.”

McDonald and Giles: McDonald and Giles

There is something very special about the percussion work by Michael Giles on the first two King Crimson albums and its playful predecessor, Fripp, Giles and Giles. For anyone who enjoys, even embraces, the drum work of Andy McCulloch in King Crimson’s Lizard but still misses that cleverly-punctuated battlefield-style of M. Giles, this is a must-have album. Ian McDonald dazzles splendidly on this album playing a wide array of woodwinds, keyboards and plucked/strummed instruments that are part and parcel to the wonderful fabric of the compositions. Add to this imaginative and well executed vocals, Peter Giles on bass, Stevie Winwood on organ and piano for the first part of Suite in C, brass and strings later on in Suite in C and side two’s Birdman, which takes up that whole second side, and you have a notably adventurous, intriguing, and often exhilarating album.

Harry Nilsson: The Point!

One of my favorite people of all time is my first girlfriend. Without getting into any details of why our relationship solidified into an incredibly strong friendship, I would sometimes visit her apartment and hang out, talk with her and her friends and occasionally listen to music. During a visit around 1974, I discovered that her roommate at the time had Harry Nilsson’s The Point, an album released in either late December of 1970 or January 1971. It was mixed in with numerous other albums in the shared record bin on the floor in front of the budget component stereo in what was the equivalent of the living room of the apartment. Spotting this, and this being a record I had not heard, I put it on, and was not only charmed by the music and its child-like story, but was surprised by the inclusion of “Me and My Arrow”, a song played intermittently on the radio in the spring of 1971 and for which I had a musical weak-spot for. Three years later, even though now I was solidly a prog-rock enthusiast, I still loved upbeat pop tunes, and appreciated Nilsson’s craftsmanship, gift for songwriting, and his relaxed narration on this album with its pop-philosophy message. Interestingly, I never heard the record again, or even “Me and My Arrow” until Fifty years later when re-listening to this on Spotify. It’s an enjoyable album: it brings back great memories of that time and sometimes that is all we need from art.

Other notable albums released on January 1970

Uriah Heep’s second album, Salisbury with its orchestrated, semi-prog rock, over sixteen-minute title track on side two, was released on January 3, 1971. Ken Hensley, keyboard and my favorite composer and contributor to the group, stretches both his creativity and level of contribution making this much better than their previous album.

Booker T and the MGs top their famous 1970 Abbey Road tribute album, McLemore Avenue, with the generally funky and somatically invigorating Melting Pot notable for its energizing Booker T keyboards.

Freddie Hubbard’s Straight Life, recorded in November 1970 and released sometime in January 1971, starts off with a head fake into free-jazz territory, but then quickly establishes itself as a swinging, somewhat funky hard bop album. I have Red Clay (his previous album), and some of his other releases, but never listened to Hubbard’s Straight Life (note, Art Pepper and Jimmy Smith have later released albums with the same name) until a couple of months ago. What an omission! This is a very strong, high impact album with some stellar contributions from not only Freddie Hubbard, but also the innovative Herbie Hancock, the soulfully warm-toned Joe Henderson, George Benson, the great Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette.

Fifty Year Friday: November 1970

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

Joshua Rifkin: Scott Joplin Piano Rags

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

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

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman

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

David Bowie: Man Whole Sold the World

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

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

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

Kinks: Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One

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

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

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

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

Velvet Underground: Loaded

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

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

Ike and Tina Turner: Workin’ Together

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

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Emerson Lake and Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentle Giant: Gentle Giant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curved Air: Air Conditioning

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

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

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

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

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

Badfinger: No Dice

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

Derek and the Dominos: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

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

Grateful Dead: American Beauty

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

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

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

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

Spirit: 12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

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

Minnie Ripperton: Come into My Garden

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

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

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

Fifty Year Friday: October 1970

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Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin III

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

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

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

Elton John: Tumbleweed Connection

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

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

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

Genesis: Trespass

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

Kevin Ayers: Shooting At the Moon

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

Pink Floyd: Atom Heart Mother

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

The Strawbs: Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios

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

Savoy Brown: Looking In

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

Guess Who: Share The Land

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

Fifty Year Friday: September 1970

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

Andrew Webber and Tim Lloyd Rice:

Jesus Christ Superstar

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

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

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

Black Sabbath: Paranoid

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

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

Atomic Rooster:

Death Walks Behind You

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

Caravan:

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

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

Neil Young:

After the Gold Rush

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

Santana: Abraxas

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

If: If

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

Jackson Five: Third &

Allman Brothers Band: Idlewild South

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

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

Fifty Year Friday: June 2020 Part 3

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Pretty Things: Parachute

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

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

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Runt/Todd Rundgren: Runt

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

Blood, Sweat and Tears: 3

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

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Kosmische Musik

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

Amon Düül II: Yeti

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

Tangerine Dream: Electronic Meditation

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

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Free: Fire and Water

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

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Diana Ross: Diana Ross

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

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

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Fotheringay: Fotheringay

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

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait

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

It’s a Beautiful Day: Marrying Maiden

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

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

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

Fifty Year Friday, June 1970 Part One

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Deep Purple: Deep Purple in Rock

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

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

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

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

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Procol Harum: Home

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

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Uriah Heep: Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble

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

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Barclay James Harvest: Barkley James Harvest

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

 

 

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: May 1970

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Quatermass: Quatermass

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

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

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

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

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Carole King: Writer

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

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King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon

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

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

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

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Beatles: Let It Be

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

Fifty Year Friday: February 1970

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Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Recorded in December 1969, and released in February 1970,  The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was the first true VDGG album (the first, the Aerosol Grey Machine was closer to a Peter Hammill album with VDGG personnel and was originally intended to be released under Hammill’s name) and their only album to make a dent on the UK charts, peaking at number 47, and staying on the charts for an almost immeasurable two  weeks.  It also received some critical aclaim, including London’s Time Out magazine heralding it is the strongest album the writer had heard in a long time.  The lyrics from Peter Hammill are excellent, even better than on the Aerosol Grey Machine, and the music nothing short of timeless — and in the same league as King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King.  And like In the Court of the Crimson King it is considered by most prog rock fans as an unequivocal example of early progressive rock — not proto-prog, psychedelic rock or hard rock, but truly progressive rock.

One can completely lose themselves when listening to this album — this is music which demands attention of and absorbs the listener as almost effectively and as inexorably as a Beethoven symphony.  The VDGG’s performance and use of instruments provides both a level of unpretentious sophistication and focused unity normally associated with orchestral music. We can track the maturation of Peter Hammill not only as a composer and songwriter but as a vocalist as he shows greater expression and naturalness than on the previous album.  One can reasonably speculate this is probably the album where David Bowie first started to be influenced by Peter Hammill, an influence that Bowie may have never publicly acknowledged but one can begin to hear tinges of  starting with Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, recorded in April and May of 1970.

I had no awareness of Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator in 1970 or even 1971. It wasn’t until I saw Pawn Hearts on sale around 1973 and purchased that album (solely based on the price and the album cover) that I first heard this magnificent band and their amazing music.  Soon I purchased all Peter Hammill and VDGG’s earlier albums, including this true masterpiece, The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other.

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Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

Whereas, VDGG’s second album is indisputably one of the first progressive rock albums, Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album, recorded in October 1969 and appropriately released on Friday the 13th, February 1970 is often considered one of the first heavy metal albums.  Like the VDGG album it is symphonic in nature, with a readily identifiable musical style and handling of non-traditional pop/rock subject matter. Both use grimly Cimerian album and song titles: The VDGG album title is based on the quote “We’re all awash in a sea of blood  and the least we can do is wave to each other” with “Darkness” the title of the initial track;  the Black Sabbath title, band name and opening track is, of course, is associated to heretics’ and witches’ black  masses (often evil and devil worshipping gatherings or ceremonies) held on the Sabbath.  Interestingly, both albums begin with ominous sounds of the stormy side of nature and an impending sense of utmost darkness.) Like the VDGG album Black Sabbath provides an early example for an entire genre.  Commercially, the reception of these two albums were quite different, with the Black Sabbath album climbing to number 8 on the UK charts and staying on US album charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. And initially, the critical reception was very different, also — where the VDGG album was praised, the Black Sabbath album was basically ridiculed — critic Robert Christgau describing their first album as “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter — bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.”

Although the initial reaction of Sabbath’s debut album was pretty negative, later evaluations have generally been more positive, with it now being ranked as number 243 of Rolling Stone’s 2012 revision of the 500 Greatest albums of all time — a list that does not include a single entry for VDGG, Peter Hammill, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, ELP, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Area, PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Laura Nyro, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy,  Larry Young, Cannonball Adderly, Grant Green, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristiano, Weather Report, The Mahavishu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Chicago (to include the Chicago “II” album) as well as any  compilations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Nat King Cole Trio, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Django, Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Lightning Hopkins, despite inclusion of other compilations and greatest hits albums. (I know this isn’t the post for this, but how can you include two Frank Sinatra entries in a greatest recordings list and not include a single mention of Billie Holiday? And why only U.S., U.K., and Canadian bands?  Does Europe, South America, the Middle East,  Asia and Africa not record music worthy of inclusion in a list of top 500 albums? )

This 1970 Black Sabbath album was recorded in one day, and mixed in a single subsequent session. The single session constraint actually worked out okay, as the entire album was comprised of material Black Sabbath had been performing live — this enabled them to basically play as they had been playing to real audiences without intricate overdubs or musical layering.  And yet, despite this, the album sounds more fully developed and coherent than most of the hard rock or heavy psychedelic rock released previously.

The satanic images are not only in the lyrics but inherent and arguably fundamental to the music itself.  Sabbath guitarist, and primary composer, Tony Iommi repurposes the ominous, hostile theme of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets to set the sinister tone for the entire album. Much is made of the use of tritone which is more overt in Iommi’s handling of the theme, but the minor third and ornamental minor second are even more germane to the Black Sabbath sound which is particularly distinct due to the Geezer Butler’s bass and Iommi’s deep ostinato guitar lines that provide a primal foundational simplicity and unavoidably recognizable trademark for the band’s raw, underworldly sound.  Though not the 243rd best album ever made, it is a strong debut and garnered an immediate fan base to provide ongoing support for Black Sabbath for many years.

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Atomic Rooster: Atomic Rooster

Recorded in December 1969 and January 1970 and released in the UK on February 1970, Atomic Rooster’s first album is a mixture of early progressive, psychedelic, and hard-rock.  Vincent Crane provides the compositions and quality keyboards and the album includes an extended drum solo from Carl Palmer.

The album was not released in the U.S. (until several years later) and only available as an import.  The album was released in Australia where the original album cover art was deemed inappropriate (this is a rooster — and a fowl!) and replaced with a substitute cover.

James Taylor: Sweet Baby James

Recorded in December 1969 and released in February 1970, Sweet Baby James has a mix of high quality and direct, intimate simplicity that has made it a classic.  It includes one of the best straightforward pop-folk songs ever composed: “Fire and Rain.”

Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Funkadelic, Morrison Hotel

Other albums of note released in February 1970 include Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention Burnt Weenie Sandwich with material recorded in the late sixties, Funkadelic’s first album, Funkadelic and the Door’s Morrison Hotel.  George Clinton’s group Funkadelic is particularly notable for its meld of funk, soul and psychedelic rock and this first album also seamlessly incorporates African-American traditional-folk music including field shouts and blues, trailblazing the way for many future soul-funk-rock albums. Interestingly Robert Christgau, who so scathingly panned the first Black Sabbath album and the Sweet Baby James album, also trashed this important album.

 

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