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Fifty Year Friday: December 1971

David Bowie: Hunky Dory

Bowie’s fourth studio album, released Dec. 17, 1971, is a bit of a hodge-podge collection of generally strong tracks, some of which harken back to his English Music Hall influences, and one (“Queen Bitch”) near the end of side two, that foreshadows his Ziggy Stardust album, personna, and musical styles.

The album is peppered with optimism and several upbeat numbers, leading off with Bowie’s invigorating “Changes” with Rick Wakeman on piano, Bowie’s artful handling of tempo contrasts and meter changes, and a reflective Bowie sax solo that wraps up his finest song to date. This is followed by another expertly arranged, well-crafted song, deftly executed with appropriate vocal expression by Bowie with verses and chorus particularly well matched. Other fine songs include “Life on Mars”, “Kooks”, “Fill Your Heart”, “Andy Warhol” and “Queen Bitch.” The combination of Bowie’s expressive and varied vocals, the high quality of music, and the excellent arrangements and performances, make this a particularly notable leap forward in Bowie’s soon-to-be explosive career.

George Harrison & Friends: Concert for Bangladesh

There is so much to like about this important document of music and charity, released on December 20, 1971, consolidated from two concerts, one afternoon, one evening, at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971. Not only a laudable effort to raise money for the horrific situation in Bangladesh at that time, but it notably provided the inspiration and motivation for other charity concerts that would follow.

The six-sided LP album (with the last side being relatively short) not only contains eight compositions and performances showcasing George Harrison, with support from Eric Clapton, a horn section and a number of other talented performers, but also a side of performances from Bob Dylan, as well as single performances from Billy Preston, Ringo Starr (on Ringo’s George Harrison aided composition, “It Don’t Come Easy”) and Leon Russell. Also, importantly, side one contains a partial performance of a beautifully performed dhun by Ravi Shankar on sitar, Ali Akbar on sarod, Kamala Chakravarty on tambura, and Alla Rakha on tabla. For many of us, this was our first exposure to Hindustani classical music, and helped provide a surge of interest in Ravi Shankar and Hindustani music, at a time when world music was achieving more and more exposure and popularity.

Carole King: Music

In December 1971, Carole King followed up her incredibly successful Tapestry with another fine album. She brings back artists like James Taylor on guitar (also providing magical mix on vocals with King on “Some Kind of Wonderful”) and Curtis Amy on tenor sax with additional artists added like Ernie Watts and Buddy Collette. All songs are classic Carole King with “It’s Going to Take Some Time” being especially notable, as well as Amy’s solo on the title track, “Music.”

King Crimson: Islands

Recorded in October of 1971 and released on December 3, 1971, I first saw Islands in the first Orange County Warehouse record store a couple of weeks prior to Christmas. Rather than the more intriguing cover provided for the UK market (shown above), it was a simple cover, mostly white with representations of islands — the cover based on a painting by King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield. I purchased this with some classical music on the Supraphon label, all at a nice price, and anxiously awaited being able to listen to it at home later that day.

My initial reaction to the album was deep disappointment. I had expectations based on their previous albums, one of which, their second album, I had to special order just to get a copy, one damaged in transit, but which I never thought of not purchasing when it came in, despite the superficial cover damage, as I couldn’t wait to hear the music. And I couldn’t wait to hear the music of this, their fourth studio album, but when played, from the first few minutes, it was clear that there was little in common with their previous albums.

My money was not easily obtained, my source for it hourly wages during early morning and lunch hours at our high school cafeteria, a job I enjoyed, serving soft drinks to an endless supply of the many beautiful young ladies at our high school, and able to comfortably socialize with fellow students, many of whom I otherwise would have been strangers with. So I didn’t put the album away and move on to something else. I played it repeatedly, and not only due to the money involved (which was only $2.99, and so not a major setback), but because I sensed an excellence throughout the album. No, it wasn’t the driving progressive music of prior King Crimson albums –it was more cerebral, reflective and ambient, but it still had a coherence and attractiveness, and after about five more listenings, I embraced the album, still the least favorite of my first four King Crimson albums, and an album that wouldn’t hold up to the next three Crimson studio albums to follow, but one I considered well worth the money and then some.

Electric Light Orchestra: Electric Light Orchestra

Recorded around the same time that the core ELO personnel, Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan, were recording the last Move album, Message From the Country (covered in October’s Fifty Year Friday) this first ELO album was released in the UK in December of 1971 but not released in the US until for months later, in March of 1972. Soon the first track, the incredible and irresistable “10538 Overture” got FM airplay, followed with its release as a single in the UK. I don’t believe it ever got any airplay in the U.S. on AM, but other music on the album continued to get FM exposure. Whereas their last Move album was mostly traditional rock (if any rock in 1971 can truly be labelled as such), this first ELO is more orchestral and progressive in nature, with a definite upbeat popular slant.

America: America

Many know America from the single from this album, the incredibly monotonous “Horse With No Name” (not inappropriately, though, as the music supports the lyrics effectively. Overall, this first album, released at the end of 1971 in the UK and then in 1972 in the U.S., is quite good, with a wealth of acoustic guitar, with musical similarities that would appeal to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fans, and with several good tracks, including “Rainy Day” and the Badfinger-like ballad “I Need You.”

Badfinger: Straight Up

For those in December 1971 and early 1972 that were not exactly thrilled with the content of Paul McCartney’s December 1971 release, Wild Life, they might possibly have found comfort in Harrison’s Bangladesh Concert album, ELO’s late-Beatle’s influenced first album, or even in Badfinger’s borderline Beatlesque Straight Up, which includes a number of good tracks, the best of which is “Day After Day” which hearkens back to the era of the Beatle’s Revolver album.

Fifty Year Friday: February 1971

Yes: The Yes Album

With addition of Steve Howe replacing Peter Banks on guitar, The Yes Album, released on February 19, 1971, is the first truly full-throttle Yes album, essential to lovers of both rock and progressive rock. The album’s first track, “Yours is No Disgrace”, unfolds much like one of those classical music gems of 19th century nationalism creating a sense of expectation of musical discovery or an exploratory musical journey, starting with Bill Bruford on drums reinforcing Chris Squire’s bass line (giving it a particular metallic edge) joined by a counter-motif from Tony Kaye on organ that shifts into the opening melodic passage soon joined by propelling, exhilarating guitar work from Steve Howe. Vocals, and a corresponding new musical section, arrive and within the first two minutes the album establishes its essential place in rock music history. Thematic contrast, thematic transformation, and thematic development are all present in the remainder of the track, but even more important the music is strikingly interesting and compelling.

The rest of the album is just as essential and compelling with Steve Howe live on solo guitar on “The Clap”, the landmark “Starship Trooper” which still gets airplay today, fifty years later, the accessible “I’ve Seen All Good People”, an edit of which received heavy AM airplay in the last three months of 1971, the bouncy and engaging “A Venture” which looks both backward and forward to their previous and their next albums, and the near-epic “Perpetual Change”, with its soaring, recurring bridge section that connects the two main melodies and the contrasting middle section with its first part a jazz-like guitar excursion and the second part another of those distinct Bruford/Squire pairings that represents one of the most identifiable aspects of the classic Yes sound. As with their next two albums, this album thrives on repeated listenings and never disappoints when revisited, whether five years later, fifteen years later, or fifty years later.

Carole King: Tapestry

Although, The Yes Album is my personal favorite, by far, of February 1971, my admiration for Carole King’s Tapestry, her second solo album, released February 10, 1971, and containing one strong track after another, is unbounded. It wasn’t so cool as a sophomore guy in high school to be a fan of artists like Carol King, Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, but thank goodness these albums were in the record collections of some of my female friends and it didn’t take much to fall in love with this music. Tapestry is possibly without equal in its commercial impact, and the resultant empowering of woman singer songwriters, garnering Grammys for Album of the Year, Song of the Year (composition), Record of the Year (single performance/production) and the category of Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Although “You’ve Got a Friend” is arguably the best composition, “So Far Away” is my personal favorite. How about you? What’s your favorite track?

Miles Davis: Tribute to Jack Johnson

In 1969, Miles Davis boldy proclaimed “I could put together the greatest rock ‘n roll band you ever heard,” and in spirit and attitude, this is definitely Miles Davis’s truest pure rock album even if it doesn’t overshadow all the rest of the fine rock albums of the 1970s. Davis is backed by talented jazz musicians, and though Davis and Teo Macero are primarily responsible for the finished product, the rock essence of the album is also largely due to the rhythm section of Michael Henderson and Billy Cobham with Jon McLaughlin on electric guitar the sum of which concretely establish the undeniable rock textures of this album. This isn’t song-oriented or prog rock, but closer to the blues-rock excursions of Hendrix and his Band of Gypsies.

For both tracks on the original LP, the chords changes are minimal, providing maximum freedom for the improvisors. Particularly interesting is side one where the piece stays in the chord E (or E7) major for the first several dozen bars with Miles making an impressive entrance playing some of the the hardest-edge trumpet imaginable. Often mentioned about this track is when McLaughlin modulates from E to B-flat (the most distant key — with tonic centers a tritone apart) and bassist Michael Henderson continues to stay in E creating an unintended but serendipitous dissonance for several bars until Miles Davis aggressively emphasizes the current key of B-flat, at which point Henderson catches up with the rest of the musicians. Macero edited the two tracks totaling around 53 minutes of music on the album from over six hours of original source music. To access the original source music one can purchase or listen to the 5 CD Complete Jack Johnson set of these sessions available on streaming services like Spotify.

There are several other notable albums including Soft Machine’s jazz-based first all-instrumental fourth album, Fourth, Egg’s mostly instrumental, often-engaging, and always progressive The Polite Force with its wonderful mixed-meter second track “Contrasong” and exploratory, also mixed meter, second side with “Long Piece No.3” parts one, three, and four being particularly notable, Earth, Wind & Fire’s self-titled positive-vibe, love-infused first album, Rita Coolidge’s self-titled debut album, Barbra Streisand’s first foray to engage a younger, hipper audience, Stoney End, Carly Simon’s first album, Carly Simon, and David Crosby’s distinctly Crosby-like debut solo album, If I Could Remember My Name.

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.

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