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Archive for the ‘Progressive Rock’ Category

Fifty Year Friday: The Canterbury Scene: Soft Machine and Caravan first albums

Establishing the starting point of progressive rock is a hopeless cause since elements of progressive rock appear in bits in pieces long before a general progressive rock style.  The best one can do is try establish the earliest date of the first progressive rock group. Some might argue that such an “earliest date” is established by the formation of the Wilde Flowers, a group of jazz-leaning musicians that took a crack at British Rock and Roll in 1964 and developed a more-or-less accessible, and even partly danceable style of music that foreshadows the music of the Canterbury scene — easily enough explained by the members of the Wilde Flowers all taking prominent roles in these later groups. Though no albums were recorded, we have a set of demos that have been released on CD and are currently available on You Tube.  Keep in mind that these were demos and not particularly representative of Wilde Flower live performances, which included some jazz-based improvisation.

Though I prefer to keep my distance from the term “progressive rock” as a label for a style of music, I support a concept of progressive rock representing the pushing of boundaries of status-quo music and breaking free of the constraints of commercial expectations, particularly when commercially successful as in the case of songs like the Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  This means that any rock music, whether by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Zombies or some other group from the mid or late sixties that goes past the minimal expectations of pop/rock to explore the passageways that naturally and unnaturally twist and spiral out into Robert Frost’s road not taken.  This is also why I am hesitant to consider some of the “neo-progressive” rock bands as notably progressive — such a use of the “progressive” label creates the ironic condition when applied to today’s musicians, of being indicative of a lack of progressiveness as they are trying to recreate an older style as opposed to pushing out to new territories. However, that said, quality and excellence is a more welcome and appealing feature in any music over progressiveness for the sake of sounding or being progressive. I will more readily listen to the post-romantic British symphony composers of the early twentieth century over many of their contemporary atonal composers.

The Wilde Flowers

Band members included, at various times:

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The Soft Machine: The Soft Machine

The Soft Machine, named after the 1961 novel by William S. Burroughs (titled based on the nature of the human body) started as a quartet in 1966 that included Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers from the Wilde Flowers, and classically-trained keyboardist Mike Ratledge and guitarist Daevid Allen from the free-jazz group Daevid Allen Trio. Following a European tour in August 1967, Allen, an Australian, was refused re-entry into Britain due to a previous overstay on an earlier visit.  Allen returned to Paris, to later form the group Gong, leaving Soft Machine a trio. On the first Soft Machine album we also have  Brian Hopper and Hugh Hopper, prior members of The Wilde Flowers, appearing in the writing credits.

This first Soft Machine album is a mixture of psychedelic rock and jazz elements as in tracks like “Joy of a Toy”, based on “Joy to The World” and sounding more like early space rock than Christmas music. Robert Wyatt makes up for any shortcomings as a vocalist with his contributions on drums.

Interestingly, the post of this first Soft Machine album on YouTube (link) has a Dislike to Like ratio of .0257 in the same ballpark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers (link) ratio of .0254 — compare that to the Beatles’ Abbey Road ratio of .15 (link) or Gentle Giant’s Free Hand of .030 (link)

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Hope for Happiness” Kevin AyersMike RatledgeBrian Hopper 4:21
2. Joy of a Toy Ayers, Ratledge 2:49
3. “Hope for Happiness (Reprise)” Ayers, Ratledge, B. Hopper 1:38
4. “Why Am I So Short?” Ratledge, Ayers, Hugh Hopper 1:39
5. “So Boot If At All” Ayers, Ratledge, Robert Wyatt 7:25
6. “A Certain Kind” H. Hopper 4:11
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. “Save Yourself” Wyatt 2:26
8. “Priscilla” Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 1:03
9. “Lullabye Letter” Ayers 4:32
10. “We Did It Again” Ayers 3:46
11. “Plus Belle qu’une Poubelle” Ayers 1:03
12. “Why Are We Sleeping?” Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 5:30
13. “Box 25/4 Lid” Ratledge, H. Hopper 0:49

The Soft Machine

Additional personnel

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Caravan: Caravan

Also made up of band members from The Wilde Flower (Pye Hastings, David and Richard Sinclair, and drummer Richard Coughlan), Caravan started up in 1968 and released their first album about the same time as Soft Machine’s first album.  This would be the first British group signed to Verve records, the famed American Jazz label founded in 1956 by Norman Granz that not only carried the most jazz titles in their catalog of any label, but also was home to Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground.

Even if one is able to somehow dismiss the first first two Nice albums or the first Soft Machine album as qualifying as fitting into the progressive rock genre classification (once again, I am making a distinction between between being considered progressive rock music and being classified under the prog-rock label), it is much more difficult to dismiss this first Caravan album. It is unfortunate that the balance and mixing of this album is dodgy at best, but the music more than compensates for this otherwise serious failing.

“Place of My Own” with its alternation between the dreaminess of impressionism and the insistent forward progress of a march creates a whole organic work of four minutes that is comparable in substance to a similar length classical or jazz track. With liberal use of keyboard arpeggios and emphasis on the instrumental section over the lyrics, Caravan creates an overall mood and character to the entire work giving it is own identity as effectively as bands like Yes and Genesis would do to many of their songs on their early albums.  This is followed by the Indian-influenced instrumental, “Ride”, the effective forward-moving and sometimes beautiful “Love Song with Flute”, and the quirky, mostly psychedelic Cecil Rons. ” However, the most notable piece is the nine-minute “Where but for Caravan Would I” which is co-written by Caravan and Brian Hopper (who also co-authored some of the tracks on the first Soft Machine album.)  It is epic in nature,  starting off with a relatively simple section, repeated, that modulates to a short contrasting section that quickly returns to the original section again before breaking out into a furious instrumental section dominated by organ that again returns to the original key and the altered and more intense original theme, which is followed by a more complex rhythmical section that nicely functions as the coda to bring the work to a satisfying and complete conclusion.  This is a template for the prototypical prog-rock track, laid bare without any unnecessary frills or complications, something easily grasped and enjoyed, and available to be copied with endless variation and development.  Yes, later groups would move well beyond this, but Caravan provides the necessary starting point — and though it may not so much have influenced other groups as much as it was just an instance of the parallel development of the post-psychedelic rock groups that got their start at the end of the late sixties, it is as an impressive example of the relentless nature of this new music to carve out its own language and means of expression from the available languages and expressions readily available in the diverse music of that time.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks credited to Sinclair, Hastings, Coughlan & Sinclair except “Where but for Caravan Would I?” which is written by Sinclair, Hastings, Coughlan, Sinclair and Brian Hopper.

Side One

#

Title

Length

1.

“Place of My Own”

4:00

2.

“Ride”

3:41

3.

“Policeman”

2:45

4.

“Love Song with Flute”

4:09

5.

“Cecil Rons”

4:05

Side Two

#

Title

Length

1.

“Magic Man”

4:01

2.

“Grandma’s Lawn”

3:23

3.

“Where but for Caravan Would I?”

9:01

Caravan

  • Pye Hastings – lead vocals (side 1: 1-2, 4), co-lead vocals (side 1: 5 & side 2: 1, 3), guitars, bass guitar
  • Richard Sinclair – lead vocals (side 1: 3 & side 2: 2), co-lead vocals (side 1: 5 & side 2: 1, 3), bass guitar, guitar
  • Dave Sinclair – organ, piano
  • Richard Coughlan – drums

 

Side Note:

Interestingly, the post of this first Soft Machine album on YouTube (link) has a Dislike to Like ratio of .0257 in the same ballpark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers (link) ratio of .0254 — compare that to the Beatles’ Abbey Road ratio of .15 (link) or Gentle Giant’s Free Hand of .030 (link)  

Caravan’s first album Dislike to Like Ratio on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bt1inf8CRnE&list=PLALZtwXPtUFKvbI7h8Fc5CdqRYoI_qyyd) is .0028 — or 356 likes to only one Dislike — rather unheard of in youtube land.

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Fifty Year Friday: Spirit, Pentangle

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Spirit: The Family That Plays Together

In November 1968, Spirit follows up their impressive first album with an even stronger and more polished second album, again produced by Lou Adler with arrangements by Marty Paich.

The album starts out with Randy California’s rock classic “I Got A Line On You Babe”, first released as a single a couple of months prior to availability of the album, achieving some airplay on FM radio before later becoming a modest hit on AM.  Full of energy and unstoppable enthusiasm with a aggressive, celebratory guitar work, it represents youthful romantic optimism reversing the viewpoint of that classic Kink’s song “You Really Got Me” but sharing many musical and emotional qualities.

“It Shall Be” is evocatively sensual with flute and wordless vocals alternating in A-B-A-B-A form with a more down-to-earth B section. This is followed by a set of three semi-psychedelic songs by Jay Ferguson, and a country-like tune, “Darlin’ If” composed by Randy California

Side two opens up strongly with “It’s All the Same,” a mixture between psychedelic and early seventies rock, including a brief, relatively uninteresting drum solo in the middle.  The second track, is Caifornia’s “Jewish”, a short but expressive modal-melody pre-progressive track with Hebrew lyrics.  The album ends with with three more Jay Ferguson tracks, each with its distinct identity but all three incorporating elements of the psychedelic era of songwriting;  note the intriguing guitar work in the not-always-so-consistently-interesting last track, “Aren’t You Glad.”

Bonus tracks are available on the CD, including the artful, ambient instrumental, “Fog” and two other instrumentals by keyboardist John Locke as well as Ferguson’s sweeping,  gothically dark “Now or Anywhere.” 

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1.I Got a Line on YouRandy California2:39
2.“It Shall Be”
3:24
3.“Poor Richard”Jay Ferguson2:31
4.“Silky Sam”Ferguson4:57
5.“Drunkard”Ferguson2:27
6.“Darlin’ If”California3:37
Side two
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
7.“It’s All the Same”
4:41
8.“Jewish”California3:23
9.“Dream Within a Dream”Ferguson3:13
10.“She Smiles”Ferguson2:30
11.“Aren’t You Glad”Ferguson5:25

1996 reissue bonus tracks
No.TitleWriter(s)Length
12.“Fog”
  • Locke
  • Cassidy
2:23
13.“So Little to Say”Ferguson2:58
14.“Mellow Fellow”Locke3:46
15.“Now or Anywhere”Ferguson4:20
16.“Space Chile”Locke6:25

Spirit

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Pentangle: Sweet Child

This fine double album, one LP from a live concert in June 1968, and the other from 1968 studio recordings, sparkles with precise, consistently clearly articulated acoustic and vocal passages that nicely blend folk, rock, jazz and classical renaissance elements to provide an engaging audio and musical experience.  Highlights of the live LP include Danny Thompson’s rendition of Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song, the group’s interesting take on Mingus’s homage to legendary Lester Young, “Good Bye, Pork Pie”, and the medley of three renaissance dances. Highlights of the studio LP include the immersive contrapuntal “Three Part Thing”, Jaqui McShee’s rendition of “Sovay”, the jazzy Brubeck-like instrumental “In Time”, the bluesy “I’ve Got a Feeling”, the classic folksy “The Trees They Do Grow High” and the final track of side two, “Hole in the Coal.”  Throughout the four sides the interplay between the two guitars and bass is exceptional.  Additional tracks are available on CD that were not on the original two LP Set.

Wikipedia Track Listing

 

Pentangle

Fifty Year Friday: The Nice

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The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis

In November of 1968, The Nice release their second album, furthering their advance into progressive rock as initiated in their first album.

With the guitarist, David O’List, no longer part of the group (either dropped from the group or left on his own depending on whose side of the story is being represented), The Nice auditioned replacement guitarists, including Steve Howe.  Evidently this would have worked out, except for Howe having second thoughts a week later.  And so, the band moved on without a replacement guitarist, with a line up more like a traditional piano jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), then a rock group, providing the blueprint for the keyboard-dominated progressive rock group (with occasional augmentation by orchestra as in the case with this second Nice album.)

The first track, “Daddy, Where Did I Come From”,  seems like a throwaway novelty number, but much like the ensuing second and third tracks, has a distinct charm and quirkiness that elevates it above the commonplace. Note the peppy piano intro by Keith Emerson as well as the brief baroque-like organ passage, the ensuing unbridled electric organ accompaniment, and the spoken dialogue as the dad.

The second track, “Little Arabella” includes vocals from Keith Emerson at around the 1:37 mark. The third track, the fanfare-like”Happy Freuds”, has Keith on lead vocals and though mostly a simple upbeat pop number, has both charm and substance.

Keith Emerson’s dominance continues with the keyboard-dominated realization of Sibelius’s Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite.  The main theme works better in its original version, but Emerson’s improvisation and development of the theme — and short detour from the theme — provide the essence of this interpretation.

The title track takes up the length of the second side, including orchestra backup — at least at points.  It is not so much a coherent whole as a stitchwork that includes a dramatic Keith Emerson prelude orchestrated by Robert Stewart, a four minute drum solo, the main “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with Jackson on vocals,  followed by a jazzy instrumental diversion, a third section with an Emerson intro that dives into the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg, pitting Emerson’s more excursive inclinations against the orchestra’s more faithful script,  followed by a restatement of the “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with more jazz-like trio work and the prelude material serving as a coda.

All in all a pretty good album that delivers quality, variety and some impressive trio passages.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All songs written by Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, except where noted.

Side one

  1. “Daddy, Where Did I Come From” – 3:44
  2. “Little Arabella” – 4:18
  3. “Happy Freuds” – 3:25
  4. “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite” (Sibelius) – 8:57
  5. “Don Edito el Gruva” (Emerson, Jackson, Brian Davison) – 0:13

Side two

  1. “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” – 19:20
  • “Prelude” (Emerson) – 1:49
  • “1st Movement – Awakening” (Davison) – 4:01
  • “2nd Movement – Realisation” (Jackson, David O’List, Emerson) – 4:54
  • “3rd Movement – Acceptance “Brandenburger”” (J.S.Bach, Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 4:23
  • “4th Movement – Denial” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 3:23
  • “Coda – Extension to the Big Note” (Emerson) – 0:46
The Nice

 

Fifty Year Friday: George Harrison, Wonderwall Music

 

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Released in Great Britain on November 1, 2018, George Harrison’s soundtrack to the mod, psychedelic film about a late middle-aged lab scientist that expands his professional interest in watching the domestic life of microbes under a microscope to watching his neighbors through a hole in the wall. Wonderwall Music is both the first solo Beatles album (if one doesn’t count George Martin/Paul McCartney’s The Family Way soundtrack which is basically various Martin arrangements of a single McCartney tune, “Love in the Open Air’) and the very first Apples-label album.

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Harrison had no experience, of course, composing soundtracks, but with guidance from director Joe Massot and assistance from classical trained pianist and Ravi Shankar composition pupil,  John Barham , Harrison produces an effective soundtrack that works quite well as standalone music encompassing multiple styles from classical Indian music to English Music Hall pseudo-ragtime to contemporary rock.  With limited dialogue and a strong focus on visuals over story, there is plenty of opportunity in the movie for musical passages, so much so, that the album doesn’t contain all the musical material present in the film.

In terms of sales, this soundtrack album was not very successful in the UK, but it did much better in the U.S. peaking at 49 on the Billboard album chart.  Critical review has been mixed during both initial evaluations and re-evaluations of the album, but the music is generally strong with some notable tracks and the general critical trend has been towards greater appreciation as time has gone by.

The music was recorded in sessions in London and Bombay, Harrison having determined from the watching the assigned sections of film, stopwatch in hand, the exact length required for the music and working with the musicians to create appropriate material to match the assigned scenes.  The titles are appropriately named so that it is fairly easy to remember which part of the movie each particular track was for.

The first track, “Microbes” is used at the start of the film as background to the routine activity of microorganisms being observed under microscope and showcases the shenai, a double-reed instrument, similar to the oboe.  The second track, “Red Lady Too” is particular notable for its progressive-rock-like arpeggios, suspensions and chord changes and provides a representative example of how each track in the album is a miniature musical movement in a larger suite. The short length of the compositions require a brevity of expression, so instead of having 35 minute ragas, we get short Indian classical compositions, like the one-minute third track, “Tabla and Pakajav” and the four-minute fourth track, “In the Park.”

“Drilling a Home” shows Harrison’s sense of humor, and is very much like the music used for British pantomime television comedy sketches. This is followed by another dualing-shenai composition, “Guru Vandana”, followed by a particular impressive Mellotron and Harmonium duet, showing off Harrison’s sensitivity for the subtle. Next we have Eric Claption featured on guitar in “Ski-ing”, then “Gat Kirwani” featuring sarod, sitar and tabla, followed by one of the best compositions on the album,  the final track of side one, the thoughtfully crafted ambient/Hindi/instrumental/musique-concrete collage, “Dream Scene”, preceding Lennon’s Revolution and saying so much more in so much less time.

Side Two opens up with the strumming of Harrison’s acoustic guitar on a composition reminiscent of The Beatles’ instrumental, “Flying” on Magical Mystery Tour, followed by a sarod love duet, “Love Scene” and a lamenting shenai on “Crying. “Cowboy Music” was written for the scene of the neighbor’s boyfriend on rocking horse”, and is followed by another composition featuring shenai, “Fantasy Sequins.”  “On the Bed”, like a rock fanfare for the opening credits of a movie or a leading-edge BBC TV show, is followed by the masterfully brief, yet totally complete, “Glass Box” featuring sitar and tabla. The album closes with the reflective, “Wonderwall to Be Here”,  a short instrumental that any prog-band would be proud of, and the mystical “Singing Om” with harmonium and Hindustani bamboo flute.

At this time in the late sixties, there were more and more rock albums out that included lengthened tracks, with repeated verses and choruses that added little except to extend the length of an inherently two or three minute song to five or six minutes. In contrast, what we have here with Wonderwall Music is an album mostly of miniature-length compositions, with even the few longer ones, being skillfully compacted musical poems.  Much better than allmusic.com’s and the Rolling Stones Album Guide ratings of 2 1/2 stars, this is why one should only rely on their own sensibilities in determining the merit of the great music of the late sixties.

All selections written by George Harrison.

Side one

  1. “Microbes” – 3:42
  2. “Red Lady Too” – 1:56
  3. “Tabla and Pakavaj” – 1:05
  4. “In the Park” – 4:08
  5. “Drilling a Home” – 3:08
  6. “Guru Vandana” – 1:05
  7. “Greasy Legs” – 1:28
  8. “Ski-ing” – 1:50
  9. “Gat Kirwani” – 1:15
  10. Dream Scene” – 5:26

Side two

  1. “Party Seacombe” – 4:34
  2. “Love Scene” – 4:17
  3. “Crying” – 1:15
  4. “Cowboy Music” – 1:29
  5. “Fantasy Sequins” – 1:50
  6. “On the Bed” – 2:22
  7. “Glass Box” – 1:05
  8. “Wonderwall to Be Here” – 1:25
  9. “Singing Om” – 1:54

 

For those interested in the movie, it can currently be viewed on at youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2e3HeBgHKE

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: Jethro Tull, This Was; Traffic, Traffic

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Jethro Tull: This Was

Though basically a blues album with some elements of jazz and classical, this first album by Jethro Tull is one of the very best of the many late 1960’s rock-blues album from either Britain or North America.  Though not rated highly by progressive rock fans or more traditional media reviewers like allmusic.com or Record Collector and panned as “aimless and disorganized” by Rolling Stone, the music is of high quality, generally timeless, and always brings pleasure to me though I may one listen to it once or twice in any given decade.

Titled “This Was” as if it was a retrospective evaluation of a group that had already made a name for themselves as opposed to one just starting out, it’s eerily ironic to look back and how appropriate the title has become.  In a span of a few years, Jethro Tull went from a ad-hoc, little-known group that had produced this low-budget album (estimated as costing about 1200 British pounds or under $3000) to one of the more commercially popular groups of the 1970s.  Looking back at a point in time in the mid 1970’s, the music on this first album contrasts very sharply with the Jethro Tull that was then getting solid airplay on AM and FM radio and had  a 1974 gold album (“War Child) that made it to number two on the pop album charts. Interestingly, during this time, Rolling Stone remained consistently negative in their reviews of the band, admonishing potential album buyers: “Remember: Tull rhymes with dull.” 

And though I find their 1974 commercially-successful single “Bungle in the Jungle” as awkwardly embarrassing as the first time I heard it on the airwaves, the music on this earlier, first album demonstrates consistent good taste and makes one proud to be a Jethro Tull and Ian Anderson fan.  Enjoy this moment fixed in time, for this was Jethro Tull in 1968!

Track Listing from Wikipedia

Jethro Tull

Additional musicians

 

Traffic_(album)

 

Traffic: Traffic

Though not at the overall level of excellence and creativity as their first album, this self-titled second album has its share of moments drawing upon a variety of influences including country, jazz, and soul. Notable is Winwood’s piano, Wood’s flute and sax passages and Mason’s guitar as well as the general quality of the arrangements. Mason’s  “Feelin’ Alright?” is provided with a thoughtful, well-crafted arrangement that brings out the inherent poignancy in the lyrics.  Side two of the album is the strongest with the second, third and fourth tracks the highlight of the album.

Track listing from Wikipedia

Traffic

with:

Fifty Year Friday: Jefferson Airplane and HP Lovecraft

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Jefferson’s Airplane Fourth studio album, released sometime in September of 1968, continues their expansion of San Francisco folk-flavored psychedelic rock, with a mostly denser, darker and more spontaneous, jam-rock-enriched sound.

Grace Slick scores big again, starting from the instant the needle hits the vinyl with her composition “Lather”, which though inspired by her fellow bandmate, and bedmate, drummer Spencer Dryden, turning thirty, also has been crafted to have a more poignant message about an intellectually disabled adult named Lather:

“Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys…

“He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
Is it true that I’m no longer young?
And the children call him famous,
what the old men call insane,
And sometimes he’s so nameless,
That he hardly knows which game to play…
Which words to say…
And I should have told him, “No, you’re not old.”
And I should have let him go on…smiling…babywide.”

Another impressive track on this first side is Slick’s rendition of David Crosby’s “Triad” with Crosby on guitar.  The Byrds had recorded the work for inclusion on the final Byrds album with Crosby, The Notorious Byrd Brothers,  and for whatever reasons (conjectured explanations range from the nature of the lyrics to the quality of the song to internal band politics and ego-clashes), the Byrds dropped it’s inclusion.  Perhaps this was for the best, as not only was their no hesitation on the Airplane’s part to record this, but Slick on an album of material otherwise written by the band, but the change of the gender of the personna makes the lyrics work out even better.

The rest of the album is generally heavier, rockier and with a more complex sound with the final song covering the nuclear demise of the earth — the Jefferson Airplane are still producing commercially-in-demand and modern, cutting-edge material, with this album having made it as high as the sixth spot on the Billboard album chart.

Jefferson Airplane {from Wikipedia}

Additional musicians

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With a very promising well crafted first album, featuring haunting, distinct, yet harmonious vocals between co-founders George Edwards and classically-trained Dave Michaels, thoughtfully arranged compositions and a sophisticated approach to psychedelic folk-rock that included timpani, harpsichord, piccolo, renaissance recorder, saxophones, clarinet, french horn, tuba, trombone and vibes, H. P. Lovecraft, named after the American horror-fiction writer, recorded their second album in the summer of 1968, releasing it in September of 1968 with no special title, simply called “H P Lovecraft II” with  a small “II”as seen in the album cover above.

This second album is more progressive, but due to a demanding concert schedule, the band had little time to prepare, with the result being a less disciplined effort than the first album, but a step forward musically.  Like their namesake, the author, H. P. Lovecraft, fortune, or even decent wages, were not to be theirs. The group disbanded in 1969, with a subsequent reformation as simply “Lovecraft” and then again as “Love Craft”, but without the leadership and musical skills of George Edwards and Dave Michaels, the band had a much different sound,  lacking that other-worldly, psychedelic, borderline progressive quality of this second album.

H. P. Lovecraft {from Wikipedia}

Fifty Year Friday: Ultimate Spinach

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There are those that believe that everything is determined, and that no matter how many times something is played out, the same result will occur.  Such a belief may be based on fatalism, or the predictability of Newtonian physics, or the belief that there is no self-determinism and that people are stimulus-response machines and that once set in motion, all resultant activity can theoretically be modeled, given all the initial data points.

There are those that believe that every moment holds countless possibilities, some vastly different, some imperceptibly so, with any given result leading to another countless set of possibilities each leading to their own potential result leading to more possibilities.  Some believe there is self-determinism and that our choices are not predicted solely on past events and current physical and mental factors.  Some believe that we ourselves are not part of the universe we appear to be in, and so can effectively can cause changes to that universe through the exercise of free choice. Some reach out to their understanding of quantum physics to support a belief in uncertainty and unpredictability.  Some go as far as to speculate that there are infinite or nearly infinite universes with each universe having been the result of the cumulative consequences of each and every outcome from each and every previously emergent outcome prior to that.

If we go with this last worldview, or rather universe-view, there are no doubt trillions upon trillions upon trillions of universes similar to ours where the first Ultimate Spinach album sold well, benefiting from the Newsweek January 1968 article that was part of the full-out publicity assault by MGM’s Alan Lorber to establish an identity for Boston-based psychedelic bands like Ultimate Spinach, Eden’s Children, Beacon Street Union, Puff, Quill, and Orpheus.  Though this attempt at creating an identity similar to that of the bands associated to the “San Francisco Sound” worked initially as evidenced by the considerable attention resulting from the Newsweek article, which certainly fueled sales of the first Ultimate Spinach album, there was the inevitable backlash by a handful of music critics, including a prominent Boston rock critic, whose general claim was this was a blatant establishment-based marketing ploy and that there was no characteristic sound of these Boston bands and that the informed consumer should completely discount such commercially motivated hype.  Wall Street Journal joined in the pile-up chiding the publicity effort in their arcticle “The Selling Of A New Sound”, followed by Rolling Stone which stereotyped this purportedly non-existent Boss Town Sound as ” “pretentious,” “derivative,” and “boring’ — terms that would also later be used in the arsenal of the “informed” and elite “anti-elite” music critics against progressive rock.

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Other media outlets weighed in on the topic of the legitimacy of the claim of a Boss Town Sound including Crawdaddy and Playboy. In Alan Lober’s words in an article published in Goldmine in 1992 “the snowball became an avalanche. It was now more trendy to talk “Boston Sound” than to hear it. In retrospect, it was hard to believe that something which had received so much media coverage could fail to become a commercial success.”

Yet, amidst all of this, that first Ultimate Spinach album was relatively successful commercially, staying on the Billboard album chart for 36 weeks and peaking at position 34.  It was also quite good, being easily accessible, fresh, upbeat and generally adventurous incorporating elements of jazz, classical, psychedelia and world music into a primarily contemporary rock style.

So, successfully swimming against the current of some not so-well meaning rock critics, providing an accessible, contemporary sound with plenty of potential for further development and exploration, and then, in August 1968, releasing a second album, Behold & See, more mature, better constructed, and stronger than the first, there was no real reason for Ultimate Spinach not to remain in the spotlight and have ever increasing album sales.

Except that Ian Bruce-Douglas got fed up.  He got fed up with the mechanics of the record industry and the resulting loss of his musical independence and authority, he got fed up with  producer Alan Lorber, and he got fed up with the with the various personal conflicts occurring within the band. Then frustrated to the extreme, he simply walked away from his own band.  With no group to tour in order to promote the new album, and without marketing or live shows, the second album stalled at number 198 on the Billboard top 200 album chart.  Without their leader and composer, the remaining band attempted a third album, which had a different sound and sold even more poorly than the second album.

UltimateS2a

Now if you buy into the multi-universe concept, and concede that there are easily quadrillion to the quintillionth universes that all have this same second Ultimate Spinach album, “Behold & See”, then it is conceivable, that in at least one, or perhaps even two, universes, the Boston music scene was allowed to more naturally flourish, that Ian Bruce-Douglas was able to overcome his initial disgust and dissatisfaction with the immense personal and individual ego challenges, the insensitivity of his record company, and the conflicts between he and his producer — and thus successfully promote through live concerts the second album, continue with the creation of a third and then have that fourth break-out album.  However, this may be pushing the envelop of the possible just a bit too much.  Perhaps there is limited upside to any group named “Ultimate Spinach.”  Or perhaps the personality that provided the music and lyrics for these first two albums, inherently would inevitably be constrained by the idiosyncratic demands of the music industry.   One hesitates to speculate about how much great music was lost because talents like Ian Bruce-Douglas were not able to cope with the realities and frustrations of the commercial music industry.

So even if there are not universes in which there are additional albums by the Bruce-Douglas led Ultimate Spinach, one can at least enjoy these two that are available. For those looking for early progressive rock, they will find many items that they can check off their list of prog characteristics: exotic or non-traditional rock instruments (theremin, acoustic sitar, electric sitar, vibraphone, recorder), angular rhythms and syncopation, an overall conceptual unity present in the two albums,  (anti-war, anti-conformist with references to Sartre in the first, and the theme of achieving transcendent awareness and freedom of thought in the second), imitative counterpoint, classical music reference (J.S. Bach incorporated into the final track of the first album), layered production techniques, interesting instrumental passages or completely instrumental tracks, and for bonus points, a single, visionary leader, who in this case was Ian Bruce-Douglas, who wrote the music and lyrics for the entirety of those first two albums.  Also, as noted earlier, the musical press referred to Ultimate Spinach as “pretentious” — an epithet worn as a badge of honor by many of the progressive groups of the early seventies. (Remember Gentle Giant’s compilation album, “Pretentious for the Sake of it?”)

And if you don’t much care for progressive rock, but like the more melodic psychedelic music of the late 1960’s, or just interested in hearing a bit of the “Boss Town Sound”, these two albums are available on CD, on vinyl, through streaming services, or even youtube as if they are deserving of more respect today than ever before.

And one last note directed at those musical critics that said there was no actual “Boss Town Sound”– history now seems to say otherwise with even once-antagonistic magazines like Rolling Stone conceding in 1988, in its “Rock of Ages” encyclopedia, the existence of such a musical movement.  Unfortunately, the time frame of that movement was ridiculously short, with the lack of commercial success causing most of these Boston-based psychedelic bands to break up by 1969 — yet I have to believe that, in this universe at least, if not in countless other universes, these Boston bands left something of lasting value, both in terms of influencing other, sometimes younger, musicians at the time that carried on, and in the case of the most popular of these bands, The Ultimate Spinach, left us music we can still listen to and enjoy today.

Track listing of Behold & See [from Wikipedia]

Side one

  1. “Gilded Lamp of the Cosmos” – 2:30
  2. “Visions of Your Reality” – 5:49
  3. “Jazz Thing” – 8:20
  4. “Mind Flowers” – 9:38

Side two

  1. “Where You’re At” – 3:10
  2. “Suite: Genesis of Beauty (In Four Parts)” – 9:56
  3. “Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse” – 5:50
  4. “Fragmentary March of Green” – 6:51

Personnel

UltimateS2b

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