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Fifty Year Friday: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; United States of America


Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We’re Only in It for the Money

In the summer of 1969 my family drove up to the San Francisco to take a cruise to Alaska on the Princess Cruise Line Ship,  MS Italia, and visited with my Aunt and then dropped me off for most of the day to visit with my cousin who was rooming with two or three other college students.  As typical, there the living room was the shared area, and it was well-stocked with a stereo system and dozens of LPs.  Several of them were recent recordings of Baroque music, this being the era of the baroque revival where driving around San Francisco one can find multiple FM stations playing mostly baroque music with works of not only J.S. Bach and Telemann, but seemingly dozens of Italian Baroque composers with names like Torelli, Tartini, Tortellini, Samartini, Scarlatti, Spumoni,  and on and on. So though my natural instinct was to dive into the treasures of Baroque music stacked around the stereo and against the sides of the speakers, my attention was redirected by an album that looked like Sgt. Peppers, but clearly was not.

“My roommate is a big Frank Zappa fan”, explained my cousin. “He’s got all the albums.”

That is, all the albums up to the summer of 1969.  And so I started with “We’re Only In It For the Money”, intrigued and yet mostly thrown off balance for much of side one and, to a lesser extent side two, but comforted by having the lyrics printed on the back.   Then putting on “Reuben and the Jets”, I was even more puzzled, abandoning it at the end of the first side, going on to the next Zappa album, and then ultimately shifting to one of the many Baroque albums I had initially neglected.

A few weeks later, during my first semester in college, I was able to explore Zappa’s early catalog at my own pace, and appreciated better the musicianship, music, and unconventional point of view, though not particularly embracing the sarcastically, disparaging tone and the interspersed droppings of scatology that were as much a Zappa trademark as the predictably unpredictable musical discontinuity and divergent shifts. I would not become a Zappa fan until Hot Rats, but was still able to enjoy and laugh at these early albums, particularly Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only it For the Money. 

So Fifty Years later, I am not yet ready pronounce, We’re Only it For the Money as a masterpiece of Western music, but can unequivocally state that it is a work of genius and something everyone should hear, if not just for purely musical reasons, for both musical and historical purposes.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Frank Zappa.

Side One





Are You Hung Up?



Who Needs the Peace Corps?



“Concentration Moon”



“Mom & Dad”



“Telephone Conversation”



“Bow Tie Daddy”



“Harry, You’re a Beast”



What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?



Absolutely Free



“Flower Punk[11]



“Hot Poop”


Side Two





“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music”



Let’s Make the Water Turn Black



“The Idiot Bastard Son”



“Lonely Little Girl” (“It’s His Voice on the Radio”)



Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance



“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise)”



“Mother People”



“The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”


Total length:


united states of america

The United States of America: The United States of America

Two days after We’re Only in It for the Money was released on March, 4, 1968, another unconventional and relatively radical rock album was released, the work of Joseph Byrd, other band members including vocalist Dorthy Moskowitz, and producer David Robinson.

I first heard this band in my first semester in college in 1973 as part of Music History 251, when the track “Garden of Earthly Delights” was played on the classroom’s barely adequate stereo as part of the listening example included in the course workbook. I was impressed but when looking for that record that weekend could not find it in even the larger chain record stores and so forgot about it until years later when it became available again through reissue.

The first track, “The American Metaphysical Circus”, opens up much in the spirit of Charles Ives with competing marching bands, a piano playing “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” and a calliope.  But going beyond Ives is the electronic effects — no Moog synthesizer, this was beyond the financial means of the group — but creatively generated effects from more basic sound wave generation equipment.

More obvious than the Ives’ influence here, is the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ influence.  The lyrics of that first track hearkens back to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” — at least in the first verse:

“At precisely 8:05, 
Doctor Frederick von Meyer
Will attempt his famous dive
Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire.”

However as the song progresses the lyrics darken:

“In the center of the ring
They are torturing a bear
And although he cannot sing
They can make him whistle Londonderry Air”

And then political:

“And the price is right
The cost of one admission is your mind.

“We shall shortly institute
A syncopation of fear
While it’s painful, it will suit
Many customers whose appetites are queer.”

And such goes much of the album with decidedly left-wing, if not communist-inspired viewpoints (one track is titled “Love Song for the Dead Ché”), embedded into adventurous, well-crafted music.   This album, the group’s only offering (they broke up shortly after the release) is sometimes mentioned as a forerunner to progressive rock. For anyone interested in building up a collection of more exploratory and ambitious 1968 “rock” music, it is worth the trouble to track this album down — and it is a suitable companion for We’re Only in It for the Money next time you have ninety minutes set aside for some uninterrupted listening of some of the more progressive and unusual music from 1968.

Side One




“The American Metaphysical Circus” (Joseph Byrd)



Hard Coming Love” (Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz)



“Cloud Song” (Byrd, Moskowitz)



“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Byrd, Moskowitz)



“I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar”

(Byrd, Moskowitz)


Side Two




“Where Is Yesterday” (Gordon Marron, Ed Bogas, Moskowitz)



“Coming Down” (Byrd, Moskowitz)



“Love Song for the Dead Ché” (Byrd)



“Stranded in Time” (Marron, Bogas)



“The American Way of Love”

  1. “Metaphor for an Older Man” (Byrd)
  2. “California Good-Time Music” (Byrd)
  3. “Love Is All” (Byrd, Moskowitz, Rand Forbes, Craig Woodson, Marron)”



The band

Additional musicians

  • Ed Bogas – occasional organ, piano, calliope

Technical staff

  • Glen Kolotkin, Arthur Kendy – remixer
  • Richard Durrett – instrument design engineer
  • David Diller – engineer
  • David Rubinson – producer

Fifty Year Friday: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession

laura a 2 41uT5mOnVoL._SY355_

“I’m not interested in conventional limitations when it comes to my songwriting” — Laura Nyro (Liner Notes to Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro <1997>)

Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, the second album of Lauro Nyro, released March 3, 1968, was as distinct as any album of 1968, eschewing formula-based songs and enriched with personal, intimate lyrics fitted into soulful, boundary-free music.  Here the music is first: this is not a work of a singer-songwriter that set poetry to music, but a musician, who wrote music that was poetry.  The words may not qualify for any Nobel prizes, but they melodically fit into the contour of the music more perfectly and naturally than that of any 1960’s pop, folk or rock singer-songwriter before her. This music flows naturally, sometimes with effortlessly applied tempo shifts and alterations, and at no point do the lyrics ever get in the way of the musical content, but instead, either get unconditionally absorbed or are truly music themselves.

And in the midst of an era (1967-1968) of some of the most creative and unconventional, but commercially successful music ever captured in recording studios, we have an album of music that is as fiercely independent as anything by Frank Zappa, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Al Kooper, Velvet Underground, The Doors, or The Jefferson Airplane.

This album, though, was not a notable commercial success, reaching no further than the 181st position (“181” is not a typo) on the Billboard pop album chart. Yet, the reach was there in influencing other singer-songwriters that were to make their own impacts shortly after this, or even much later, including Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Elton John, Kate Bush, Melissa Manchester, Joanna Newsome, Tori Amos. and many, many more.  In fact, so influential is this album, that listening to it today, it sounds more like a product of the early 1970s than just about any rock, pop, or folk album that I can think of that was recorded and released in 1968.  (Please challenge me in the comments, if you feel otherwise.)

Listening to this work on Youtube or via a streaming service, undercuts the high production and sound quality.  Best to listen to this in LP, CD or SACD format. A CD of Eli and the Thirteenth Confession with three bonus tracks is available at online retailers for around $5.00, a bargain difficult to pass up.  However, if you can find a copy of the Audio Fidelity SACD release, that is the one to get, as the sound is exceptional.

On a personal note, I prefer Laura Nyro’s original renditions over any covers of her works I have heard through the years. It’s great that her songs received greater airplay and were exposed to a larger audience, with the accompanying economic benefits for the composer, but aren’t the originals more complete and satisfying?  In this original version of “Eli’s Coming” we get no hint of the darker nature inherent in the lyrics (Eli representing something beyond just a heartthrob or hearbreaker, but perhaps, heartache, loss, disappointment, or defeat) — instead we get gospel-hysteria celebration, not of the coming of Christ, but of the coming of Eli, that one guy that is currently everything and unquestionably inspires both submission and devotion.

And how can one not marvel at Nyro’s vocal delivery, her effective melodic range, extensive tone-color range, and finely-varied emotional range?  As a singer-songwriter, she excels at both the songwriting and singing roles.

And on a more important personal note, my thoughts go to anyone at war with cancer or the families that have suffered a loss from cancer.  I have a friend whose sister was overtaken by ovarian cancer, the same insidious disease that ended the life of both Laura Nyro and her mother at the age of 49. As I type this, my thoughts are with my friend and her family. Medicine is making substantial progress against various forms of cancer, and we all hope we see more progress made more rapidly than ever. Having a healthy lifestyle may reduce the risk of some or even all types of cancer, but it does not eliminate that risk.  Please consider joining me in making a donation to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (90% of your donation is directed to scientific research) or another worthy  organization, such as the Cancer Research Institute whose funding assisted in the development of  the HPV vaccine, which can help prevent some types of cervical cancer.


Track Listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Laura Nyro.

Side one




1. “Luckie” 3:00
2. “Lu” 2:44
3. Sweet Blindness 2:37
4. “Poverty Train” 4:16
5. “Lonely Women” 3:32
6. Eli’s Comin’ 3:58

Side two




7. “Timer” 3:22
8. Stoned Soul Picnic 3:47
9. “Emmie” 4:20
10. “Woman’s Blues” 3:46
11. “Once It Was Alright Now (Farmer Joe)” 2:58
12. “December’s Boudoir” 5:05
13. “The Confession” 2:50


Fifty Year Friday: Pete Seeger, Mason Williams, Roy Harper

Mason Williams

Many of us that grew up in the sixties wouldn’t miss a chance to watch the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour on Sunday night from 1967 to its censor-driven cancellation in 1969.  The show was musically noteworthy for including rock and musical groups that the other variety shows were uncomfortable with (including Cream, Harry Belafonte, The Doors, The Who, Buffalo Springfield, The Cast of Hair, The Jefferson Airplane, and Steppenwolf) , and ending the national blacklisting of Pete Seeger on February 25, 1968. Other musical guests were the Electric Prunes, George Harrison,  Donovan, The Byrds, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, Ike and Tina Turner, and the Julliard String Quartet.

Mason Williams was the head writer for the show and was often responsible for the incorporating of younger talent into the writing staff, including Rob Reiner, Bob Einstein Carl Gottlieb, and Steve Martin, who even made an on-camera appearance.

Mason made several on-camera appearances, most notably for his composition, “Classical Gas”, which became a hit single.  “Classical Gas,” originally titled “Classical Gasoline”, appears on Mason Williams’ Warner Brothers album, The Mason Williams Phonograph Record, and is by far the stand out track, a classic rendition of a clearly timeless work.

During 1968 there was a pronounced divide, perhaps greater than any time in Western Music history, between the music the younger generation embraced and what their parents and grandparents found acceptable.  “Classical Gas”  bridged that gap,  topping the easy listening charts as well as holding the number two spot on the pop charts for two consecutive weeks wedged between hits by The Doors and The Fifth Dimension.

Check out the following two videos:  “Classical Gas” set to a video of the greatest art works, and Mason Williams spot on the Smother Brothers addressing censorship.


Roy Harper: Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith


Released either in late 1967 or early 1968 (I really cannot find an exact date for this), is Roy Harper’s second album.  Notable is Harper’s compelling guitar work, unusual lyrics, crafted melodies and the blending of Harper’s guitar with orchestra.   Looking back in time, this is a weaker album than the first one, “Sophisticated Beggar”, but the reality is very few people purchased that first album when it had originally been released. Fortunately, a representative from Columbia Records did hear that first album, and signed Roy Harper for this second one. Better albums will follow, but one can find much of interest, particularly the first track, “Freak Street.”  This Columbia produced album served to provide a wider audience to Harper who would have an influence over many other artists including Ian Anderson, Joanna Newsom, Jimmy Page and Al Stewart.

Link to track list

Fifty Year Friday: David Axelrod, Electric Prunes and Mass in F Minor


In 1967, the previously unknown, recently formed, L.A. band, The Electric Prunes, grabbed public recognition with the quintessential psychedelic top 40 hit,  Annette Tucker’s and lyricist Nancie Mantz’s “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Soon the Prunes were guests on TV, miming performances to their big hit, and touring the country.

in 1968, the band’s manager Lenny Poncher, their producer Dave Hassinger, and the Reprise Records  management, determined  that the Electric Prunes would record some type of concept album from material provided by producer/composer/arranger David Axelrod.  Axelrod was given the freedom to compose whatever he thought most appropriate, with the hopes of furthering the Prunes’ name recognition.

The final material composed by Axelrod, a psychedelic setting of the Latin Mass, with sections crafted for appropriate freely-expressive, acid-rock improvisation, ultimately required the band to be augmented by studio musicians.  Also, since the band was as much of a commodity (producer Dave Hassinger owned the rights to the name at that time) as individual members, this particular formation of Electric Prunes would soon be replaced by other musicians.

However, we did get a rather interesting, if less than stellar, concept album — a rock mass, a couple of years after Vince Guaraldi’s Jazz mass (see below) and three years before Leonard’s Bernstein’s mass (originally intended to be a modern setting of a traditional mass, but ultimately realized as a stage work.)

Though uneven, this Electric Prune’s Mass in F Minor is worth listening to.  It uses an abbreviated form of the mass, but still has the major sections. The Kyrie Eleison is later included in the film Easy Rider.  The Credo and Agnus Dei are the most interesting. Though most music historians would not classify this as progressive rock, this is, for 1968,  a musically progressive setting of the mass.  Also, this album should get a nod for being a concept album, including symphonic instruments, and some notable guitar work.  One can check out a lower quality audio version on youtube:



Fifty Year Friday: Spirit



Randy California, born Randy Wolfe, was a native Calfornian, born in Los Angeles, but when his step-dad, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy  (the gentleman with the bald head in the left upper portion of their first album cover; a drummer that played gigs with Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Lee Konitz and was a founding member of  Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) had some work lined up in New York City, the family moved to an apartment complex in Queens in 1966.  Randy soon met Jimi Hendrix and then played with Hendrix that very summer  as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.   It was while they were playing together, that Hendrix started calling Randy Wolfe, “Randy California” and another Randy in the band, Randy Palmer, “Randy Texas.”

Randy Wolfe took the “Randy California” name back west, forming Red Roosters with his step-dad, a band that eventually evolved into “Spirits Rebellious” and then just Spirit. Randy was sixteen years old. Besides Randy and Ed, Spirit included composer, keyboard player and lead vocalist, Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes on bass and backing vocals, (who later played with Ferguson in Jo Jo Gunne in the early 1970s, Firefall in the late 1970’s and Heart in the 1980s.) and John Locke (who later joined Nazareth in the 1980’s) also on keyboards. Randy was still sixteen when Spirit’s first album, “Spirit”, was released on January 22, 1968.

None of the songs on Spirit’s debut album are typical pop songs, most having more of an jazz or a psychedelic or progressive rock ethos, with a prevailing ABA form with the B section being a instrumental, partly improvisational section providing contrast to the more traditional song-like A section. The last track, “Elijah”, due to its extended length, stretches out the ABA concept to a rondo-like form (ABACADAEA) with improvised passages between the recurring theme.

All the tracks on the album are notable, with 9 of the 11  songs written or co-written by Ferguson.  “Elijah” was written by John Locke;  Randy California wrote one of the tracks, “Taurus”, a well-written, nicely arranged instrumental following the Andes/Ferguson song, “Mechanical World”, the only track with single status on the album.

“Taurus” opens up with a orchestral introduction that floats into a soft, relaxing two-part theme which is played twice (this not being one of the tracks with ABA form on the album.)  The striking part of the first half of the theme is its similarity to Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven.”  The casual listener may very well consider that Zeppelin borrowed Taurus for that beautiful guitar intro in “Stairway”, particularly if  that listener is aware that Zeppelin opened for Spirit in several 1968 concerts, that Zeppelin included material from the first track of the same Spirit album, “Fresh Garbage” in a medley they performed live, that Page is on record as stating that he had owned several Spirit albums, and that there are over a dozen noteworthy cases of  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “borrowing without credit” material from other artists.

So similar is the connection between “Taurus” and “Stairway” that ultimately in 2014, the estate of Randy California brought a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. Randy California had drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, at the age of only 45, when swimming into the ocean to save his twelve-year old son from a rip current.  Though giving up his life in the effort, Randy managed to push his son to safety.  Now seventeen years after his death, lawyers for his estate planned to get a co-writing credit for Randy on “Stairway to Heaven.”

Unfortunately, the judge would not allow the jury to hear side-by-side comparisons of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, he only allowed the performance of the two songs on keyboard by a hired musician using as the source the registered sheet music  from the Library of Congress, music that differed from the final version on the recordings. Also ruled inadmissible were expert witnesses that were lined up to talk about sixteen instances of Jimmy Page’s past use of uncredited material, the judge ruling that any past plagiarism, alleged or actual, was not relevant to this particular case in question.  Adding to this was the odd approach and personality of the prosecuting attorney for the California estate, who quickly exasperated the judge and who scored important points for the defense when questioning Page about his being influenced by the Disney/Mary Poppins song ” Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

The jury ruled in favor of the defense, and certainly there are notable differences in the two passages: the “Stairway” melody goes to A at the end of the first chord and then on to B of the next chord while “Taurus”, less remarkably, descends to A and then G#.  If they jury had heard actual recordings, its seems almost certain they would have ruled otherwise.

Personally, I am glad to have both songs as part of our musical legacy and understand how easy it is to come up with the descending chromatic chord progression used in these two songs — something anyone could accidentally discover in the course of composing by hitting sequentially descending notes for their bass line.  I am also sympathetic to how common it is to put together a song based on something one had heard a long time ago and unintentionally brought into their composing process as so clearly happened with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” — just an unintended revisiting of “She’s So Fine.”  In the case with “Taurus”, it seems Jimmy Page had heard that song several times, forgotten about it, started to play with the chord progressions and went in the direction of a recreation of something close to what his subconscious mind was already familiar with.  In my view, a living Randy California wasn’t particularly interested in who got credit, but his descendants, perhaps needing or wanting money, had a greater interest in assignment of authorship.

You can check out the video below for a good explanation of how these two songs are similar (and differ) in their sharing of the passage in question. If you have any thoughts on this Spirit album, or thoughts on the similarities of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” please don’t hesitate comment.  Also what are some of your favorite albums from 1968?  I know one of mine is still a few months away from being fifty years old, and plan to discuss that if I even if I have lost all my remaining, exceedingly patient readers by then.


Click her for track listing [from Wikipedia]


Fifty Year Friday: Acid Rock, Hard Rock and Heavy Metal


Anyone that has unquestioning faith in the definitions in dictionaries, only needs to look up the entry Heavy Metal.

Webster defines Heavy Metal as follows: “Loud and harsh sounding rock music with a strong beat; lyrics usually involve violent or fantastic imagery.”

Merriam Webster defines Heavy Metal as : “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.”

Dictionary.com defines it as “Aggressive and heavily amplified rock music, commonly performed by groups that wear spectacular or bizarre costumes.”

Oxford Dictionary: “A type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantastic imagery.”

Cambridge Dictionary: “A style of rock music with a strong beat, played very loudly using electric guitars.”

McMillan Dictionary “A type of loud rock music that developed in the 1970s, played on drums and electric guitars.”

Collins provides this definition: “Heavy metal is a type of hard rock (they define hard rock as “a type of very loud rock music with a fast beat.”) characterized by violent, shouted lyrics.”

Since heavy metal bands’ songs, particularly their instrumentals, don’t always have violent lyrics and the band’s vocalists usually sing rather than shout the lyrics (except for some specific subgenres such as Thrash and Metalcore), this brings into question the trustworthiness of the Collins definition.  We can also question McMillan’s and Cambridge’s definitions requiring electric guitars as there are a few lesser known groups that don’t include guitar and given the capabilities of electronic keyboards, there is no technical or musical reason why a heavy metal band requires a guitarist to competently and effectively play heavy metal.

If one considers heavy metal as a style of music, than lyrics and costumes become additive, and thus the Webster and dictionary.com definitions are problematic. Merriam Webster’s  “Energetic and highly amplified electronic rock music having a hard beat.” is the most inclusive definition, overly-inclusive by a wide margin, and embraces many songs of hard rock, techno, 1980’s dance bands, progressive rock, jazz-rock, and on and on.

And what about ballads? Many well-known heavy metal bands often include one ballad on their albums, some of these songs being poignant, plaintive or wistfully reflective.  These songs are neither loud nor harsh and though sometimes they are in fairly strict  tempo, the beat is rarely the dominating component.

Given these definitions we don’t have a chance of identifying when the first heavy metal songs were written or what was the first heavy metal bands.

And if we go with various self-proclaimed experts on heavy metal we encounter a variety of viewpoints with many conflicts — some consider Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin heavy metal, others indicate they are not even close but are just hard rock groups. Some require heavy metal bands to have complex, classically-influenced musical material, but there is a problem with such a characterization when examining some of the groups or songs in various top 10 lists including this Rolling Stones’ readers’ poll of the top 10 metal bands of all time.   It seems that if heavy metal has a definition, it should come from the fans and musicians.

So without a guiding definition, and having experienced first hand the evolution that took place from the early British Invasion rock groups through the advent of psychedelic rock, acid rock, hard rock, progressive rock and what are the first somewhat-agreed-upon (but far from consensus) heavy metal bands, I think I am as unqualified as anyone else to make a few observations.

We noted in an earlier post that “Hapshash and the Coloured Coat” included the term “heavy metal kids” in their 1967 album.  This did not have anything to do with music but was borrowed from William Burroughs 1961 novel The Soft Machine’s describing the character Uranian Willy as “the Heavy Metal Kid” — a reference to the final stage of drug addiction, which in Burroughs’ words “is not so much vegetable as mineral.”

It’s also necessary to put into context the term “heavy metal thunder” used in Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” written by Mars Bonfire. Mars (Dennis Edmonton, born Dennis Eugene McCrohan) originally wrote this song as a ballad, perhaps when he was with the Sparrows, the group that more-or-less evolved into Steppenwolf in 1967.  Steppenwolf, now without Mars as a band member, modified and recorded the song as an up-tempo rocker, but without any intent for the phrase “heavy metal thunder” to reference any genre of music. (“I like smoke and lightning, heavy metal thunder, racing with the wind, and the feeling that I’m under.)

It’s possible that the use of the term heavy metal to identify a style of music had some connection to a recognition of the appropriateness of the name of Iron Butterfly and their equally appropriately named debut album, “Heavy” — with the “heavy metal” label solidified by the unabashedly unapproved, one-upmanship upgrade of Iron Butterfly’s name by Led Zeppelin.   Or perhaps it was partly a nod to the metal strings of the electric guitar. Clearly the term “heavy” was in common use at this time and could mean either “profound” (“that’s one heavy concept, man…”), serious, or intense.  Heavy metal, when considering its original meaning and usage, can arguably be interpreted to just mean “intense rock.”  If one, even slightly, gives this definition some due, one must consider Jimi Hendrix’s first album, recorded in late 1966 and early 1967, and released in May of 1967, to have at least two heavy metal tracks with “Fire” and, what some people do acknowledge as the first heavy metal song ever, “Purple Haze.”  Cream’s second album, recorded in May 1967, includes a couple of candidates also with “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and the generally melodic, but forceful “Sunshine of Your Love.”  And there are notable heavy metal elements in the “Who Sell Out” including some of Pete Townshend’s guitar work, the use of power chords, and Keith Moon’s aggressive percussion technique.

All that said, there is no evidence that the term “heavy metal” was yet being used to refer to a style of music at the start or by the end of January 1968.  Nonetheless, we do find bands recording in 1967 that specialized or focused on a harder, more aggressive sound, some of them blues-based, some of them more inventive and capable of greater range in their harmonic vocabulary.  Generally these early bands were not very good.  This reminds me of a conversation I had with a good friend who thought little of Led Zeppelin.  “There’s a lot worse bands”, was my reply to his summarily dismissing the group.  “That’s a scary thought,” was his reply.  And, I guess, even scarier still, is that one can say that they are not too impressed by the debut albums of Californian bands Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf that were released in January of 1968, and my reply would be “there’s a lot worse albums” — and I would grant you the right to counter with “that’s a particularly scary thought” and have no more rebuttal than I had when my friend made that comment decades ago about Led Zeppelin.

Nonetheless, if one accepts the dictionary definitions of Heavy Metal we do find that these three albums released in January 1968, San Francisco’s Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum (quasi-Latin which I leave open for your interpretation as the best as I can make out is something like “The eruption’s conquest”), San Diego’s Iron Butterfly’s Heavy , and L.A. area band, Steppenwolf’s Steppenwolf, qualify as either early heavy metal or a predecessor to heavy metal music.

Of these three albums, the strongest and most musical is the Iron Butterfly debut.  Unfortunately there is little of lasting interest in the self-titled Steppenwolf album, outside of the AM radio hit, “Born to Be Wild”, the respectable “Everybody’s Next One”, and the interesting, emphatic arrangement of Hoyt Axton’s “The Pusher.”  Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, mostly blues-based, also has some moments, particularly with the guitar work and drumming (which on the last track is much like a homage to how Keith Moon would sound leading a marching band.) With its rough, unbridled, and somewhat uneven musicianship,  this Blue Cheer album serves well as a case-study of 1960’s garage rock as well a foreshadowing of punk, stoner rock and grunge.

But one thing was clear, with these three albums the heavy-metal genie was out of the bottle (Geniebus Eruptum, if you will) and bands as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and later groups like Metallica, Nirvana and Dream Theater would be beneficiaries of this first wave of higher atomic-numbered, more intensive rock.

Fifty Year Friday: The Nice “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack”

Recorded around October 1967 and released sometime in 1968 between January and March (as best as I can determine), this aggressively adventurous album effectively fuses elements of psychedelia, acid rock, jazz and classical music, establishing this in many progressive rock fans’ mind as one of the first true progressive rock albums.

The first track, “Flower King of Flies” is not inherently different than early Pink Floyd, except perhaps for the level of unbridled energy present, and the second song, the title track, is basically a bubbly, upbeat pop tune, performed , once again with unusual energy and a high level of musicianship.  The third track, though, borders on the harder edged rock often provided by the early blues-based metal bands; there is rugged guitar work and precise, yet perfectly spontaneously-sounding, organ work from Keith Emerson.

It isn’t until the fourth track, a 4/4 arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s mostly 9/8 “Blue Rondo à La Turk”, dominated by the acid-rock, B3 Hammond organ work that is the centerpiece of this instrumental, that the album falls more into the progressive rock realm. Included are glissandos, a J.S. Bach toccata reference , controlled distortion, and a climatic building towards the recap (the Brubeck Rondo theme), which frenziedly finishes the last ninety seconds, maintaining a perpetual, inexhaustible torrent of energy.

“War and Peace” opens up the second side with a level of focus and direction more typical in straight-ahead jazz than expected of a sixties’ rock group. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and, perhaps, Cream, this is the closest that anyone gets to the soon-to-be-prevalent heavy metal sound in a 1967 recording, notwithstanding a quote of a Bach Brandenburg concerto.

“Tantalizing Maggie” continues along the hard-rock, nearly heavy-metal frame of mind, with a modulating, exploratory, instrumental, B section that gives way to a modified recap of the A section with classical references that finish the piece.

“Dawn” straddles the line between an avant-garde concert piece and sixties psychedelia,  with sprinkled fragments closer to free jazz and baroque classical than to rock music.

The last track, “The Cry of Eugene”, is a beautiful ballad laced with elements of both psychedelic rock and the concert hall providing a suitable close to a varied, interesting, and well-executed album.  Emerson may be the standout here, but Jackson, O’List, and Davison all contribute significantly with energy and passion.

CD versions of the original LP include additional material with some releases including alternative versions of tracks as well as Nice’s rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s America, an essential for progressive rock lovers.

LP Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

  1. “Flower King of Flies” (Keith EmersonLee Jackson) – 3:19
  2. “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack” (Emerson, David O’List) – 2:49
  3. “Bonnie K” (Jackson, O’List) – 3:24
  4. “Rondo” (Dave Brubeck, Emerson, O’List, Brian Davison, Jackson) – 8:22

Side two

  1. “War and Peace” (Emerson, O’List, Davison, Jackson) – 5:13
  2. “Tantalising Maggie” (Emerson, Jackson) – 4:35
  3. “Dawn” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 5:17
  4. “The Cry of Eugene” (Emerson, Jackson, O’List) – 4:36



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