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Fifty Year Friday: Spirit, Led Zeppelin, Turtles, Pink Floyd, Renaissance, Pentangle

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Spirit: Clear

Spirit probably would have made the big time if they had played at Woodstock as planned, possibly right before Hendrix and his band played the festival’s last set. As it was, the band ended up going on a a multi-venue promotional tour. To make matters worse, lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Randy California  who had previously played with Jimi Hendrix for three months (it was Hendrix that give the originally named “Randy Wolfe” the new last name of California to distinguish him from Randy Palmer whom Hendrix named “Randy Texas”) and drummer/singer/songwriter Jay Ferguson begin to have differences of opinions on the style and direction of the band.  In the middle of all of this,  Spirit released their third studio album, Clear, an album with elements of early prog, blues-rock and psychedelic rock.  “Dark Eyed Woman” is probably the best known track, but the album contains two quality instrumentals on side two and has generally good, though not world-changing, material overall and some quality guitar work from Randy California.

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Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II

On October 22, 1969, Led Zeppelin released their second studio album, more polished and musically interesting than their first and a undeniable success commercially, reaching #1 on the charts in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain, Denmark, and Holland. Included is “Whole Lotta Love”, “Living Loving Maid”, the passionate ballad, “Thank You”, and “Moby Dick” which features a drum solo that always brought to my imagination the virtuosic dribbling of a basketball. Though Led Zeppelin would get even better, this is a pretty good album, full of energy, life, and creativity.

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The Turtles: Turtle Soup

While newer groups are making significant commercial inroads, some older groups are winding down.  The Turtles released their last of five albums, an album very much in the style of the late sixties, closer to 1967 or even 1966 than late 1969.  That said, this is a fairly decent album with some good acoustic guitar work on the first side. Also of interest, is that the album is produced by The Kink’s Ray Davies, and one can hear this in several songs such as in the opening of “The House on The Hill.”  The most interesting composition is “John and Julie”  which includes added strings that enhance the qualities of the song. The one track on the album to get any notable airplay is “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain” which shares a few too many similarities with their 1968 hit, “Elenore” — such blatant mimicking of a previous hit, though, is not new for the Turtles, whose 1965 single, “Let Me Be”, followed almost immediately after the success of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, sounding suspiciously similar.

This final studio album, though, did not mean an end for the Turtles, for their very best songs reflected the sixties so well, that they were not quickly forgotten — this is particularly true of their best song, and only number one hit, “Happy Together.”

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Pink Floyd: Ummagumma

Released on October 25, 1969 in the U.K. and in early November in the U.S., Ummagumma (pronounced “OOH-ma GOO-ma”) is a two record set, the first LP containing material recorded live in April and May 1969 and the second an interesting collection of individual contributions, both in terms of authorship and performance, from the band.  The first side is an indispensable document of 1969 Pink Floyd live, performing some of their earlier psychedelic space-rock classics, and serves as the main attraction of the album.  The second LP which showcases each band member’s individual efforts, has its moments, but clearly the group is much better together than as isolated soloists. Nonetheless, this set of solo offerings on the second LP is still more interesting than most avant-garde and exploratory music of its time.

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Renaissance: Renaissance

The first iteration of the newly formed band, Renaissance, formed by two former Yardbird band members, Keith Reif and Jim McCarty, released their very first album in October 1969. From the start, with John Hawken’s classically-influenced piano, the listener knows this is a special album. Reif and McCarty had tired of the heavier rock sound of the Yardbirds and were looking to blend folk, rock and classical elements — and classically-trained Hawken was a perfect fit for their vision.  Most of the material is has a fresh, progressive tone to it, effectively mixing rock, jazz, folk, pop and classical elements including incorporation of material from Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.

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Pentangle: Basket of Light

Released on October 26, 1968, this is the most commercially successful album for Pentangle and one of their best.  It opens with a Brubeck-like “Light Flight” with its off kilter meter of 5/8 and 7/8 with a 6 beat middle section. Quite the composition, it was the theme for the BBC’s “Take Three Girls” about three young woman in hip and swinging 1969 (to 1971) London.

The rest of the album is a mix of rearranged folk songs and new compositions, all performed beautifully and artfully on acoustic instruments with lead vocals distributed between Jacqui McShee, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourn.   A good album to start with if you haven’t devoted much time listening to Pentangle or wish to enjoy some quality English Folk Rock.

Fifty Year Friday: Sharon Tate, Donovan and Harry Nilsson

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Fifty years ago, the world lost actress and model, Sharon Tate, and three of her friends on Aug 9, 1969.  This event put fear into celebrities and residents of Santa Monica Mountains/Beverly Hills area of West Los Angeles and Sherman Oaks.  As a 14 year kid, living forty miles away in Orange County, California, listening to the TV news on Saturday night, while my parents were away, it even sent a cold wave of fear into the deep recesses of my own inner being.  On August 11,  the LaBianca homicides were announced by the LAPD.  On August 12, the LAPD indicated the two sets of murders were not connected, making this even scarier. Eventually the same brutal murderers of both these tragic events were identified, caught, and tried with full national coverage.

It was the beginning of the ending of the innocence associated with the flower power movement.  Just as the establishment was being tarnished by the Vietnam war, The psychedelic era was now tarnished.  Just as Nixon was initiating the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam, the peak of the psychedelic era of rock music had been achieved and was now on a decline.  There is no better representation of this start of this end of this sixties musical era than the once-Dylan-copycat-turned-melodic-and-modal-modern-musical master of Flower Power music, the author of “Sunshine Superman” and “Mellow Yellow.”

Donovan: Barabajagal

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I was a big Donovan fan, amazed by his skill and range of variety as exhibited in albums like Hurdy Gurdy Man and in songs like “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and the pacifist-themed “Epistle To Dippy.” Donovan was a once-in-a-generation genius.

So, saving up my allowance, no longer relying on listening to whatever albums my sister bought, I purchased Barabajagal FOR $3.99 in late 1969 when first seeing it in the record bins in K-mart.

And I was disappointed.

Much of the music is repetitive using basic harmonies and major-scale melodies with rather silly lyrics. “Atlantis” seems to last forever, with its spoken narrative and endless chorus at the end — a shadow of what the Beatles did with “Hey Jude.”

Yet, the album was not hopeless: many top musicians appear here and there including Jeff Beck, Lesley Duncan, Madeleine Bell, Aynsley Dunbar, and one of my favorite session rock pianists, Nicky Hopkins. Moreover, it the perfect album for children particularly with tunes like “I Love My Shirt” and “Happiness Runs” and, for older listeners, has one strong, wistfully beautiful ballad, “Where She Is.”  Also worth noting is the inclusion of what can best be termed as an example of a mimicry of American post-ragtime, roaring twenties dance hall and British music hall popular tunes exemplified by songs like Geogg Stephen’s “Winchester Cathedral” and Paul McCartney’s “Honey Pie” — the last track on the album, “Pamela Jo”

One of the strongest lights of the sixties was beginning to lose it’s lustre: however, musical legends like Donovan Leitch always remain celebrated.  The remastered CD version of Barabajagal includes seven finished songs not included originally on the LP and eight quality demo tracks, several of which are far superior to the music that ended up on August 11, 1969 release of Barabajagal, so much so, that one should find of the remastered edition of Barabajagal quite satisfactory.  (Available at Amazon here.)   This is really Donovan’s last statement of the sixties as his next album, Open Road, recorded in early 1970, is without producer Mickie Most, and is a more band-oriented album than any of Donovan’s previous albums.

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Personnel [from Wikipedia]

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The following musicians played on “I Love My Shirt”, “To Susan on the West Coast Waiting”, “Atlantis” and “Pamela Jo”:

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Harry Nilsson: Harry

An album also released in August of 1969, that includes several neo-ragtime/dance hall style of music tracks is Harry Nilsson, accessible and charming “Harry.” This is not rock in any sense, but joyous and often clever pop.  Composer Bill Martin is mostly responsible for the neo-dance hall tunes, and Nilsson himself contributes several quality compositions. A couple of nicely done covers of very familiar music is included (“Mother Nature’s Son”, “Mr. Bojangles”) as well as Randy Newman’s “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

No trace of psychedelia, flower power or acid rock here.  Perhaps another early sign that the sixties are coming to a close?

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks composed by Harry Nilsson, except where noted. All tracks arranged and conducted by George Tipton (* = produced by Rick Jarrard)

“The Puppy Song” – 2:43
“Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” – 2:47
“Open Your Window” – 2:08 *
“Mother Nature’s Son” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) – 2:42
“Fairfax Rag” (Bill Martin) – 2:14
“City Life” (Bill Martin) – 2:31
“Mournin’ Glory Story” – 2:13 *
“Maybe” – 3:10
“Marchin’ Down Broadway” – 1:05 *
“I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” – 2:44
“Rainmaker” (Nilsson, Bill Martin) – 2:47
“Mr. Bojangles” (Jerry Jeff Walker) – 3:53
“Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” (Randy Newman) – 2:47

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