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Fifty Year Friday: June 1970 Part Two

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Soft Machine: Third

On June 6, Soft Machine released their third album, a two-LP set recorded in April and June of that year — one of the best early progressive rock albums — with each side containing a single selection, and each selection distinct in approach and content.  This is not music for the casual listener — it requires attentive listening to fully reveal the variety of musical wealth contained on each side.  Though heavily influenced by jazz, free-jazz, and contemporary electronic classical music, its foundation is solidly Canterbury-scene progressive rock, even if that scene was still being defined at that time, with a large contribution of that definition from this album.

The first side is a mix of mostly live material and some studio content with some creative mixing and overlaying, particularly at the end of the track, which effectively brings the colorful musical narrative to a close.  Side two is more along the lines of Frank Zappa’s style of progressive jazz-rock and though less introspective and intriguing then side one, is very accessible and animated, providing that cathartic surge when gets from an invigorating progressive rock instrumental.

Side three is a typical Robert Wyatt brimming over with his atypical songwriting. The work is filled with an assortment of Wyatt melodies artfully reduced to a unified whole that narrates what may be real-life-based reflections on a recent “convenient” relationship while conveniently staying in New York state. Side four is another adventurous instrumental with a dramatic synthesizer introduction that perhaps had an influence on the introduction to Yes’s Close to The Edge.

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Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud

Alice Coltrane provides a brilliant album of post-bop modern structured jazz that includes some free jazz elements, leaning overall towards a more traditional post-bop experience, with each track having a distinct character and style.

The title track, “Ptah, the El Daoud” (Ptah, the beloved) is named after the Egyptian god that existed at the very beginning of existence (way before the internet) and created the universe, also, it seems, on the hook to ensure that universe’s ongoing maintenance. Ptah was particularly associated with craftsmen, architects, and other creative types. As Alice states in the liner notes, her intent with this track was to express the concept of spiritual purification.  Ron Carter opens up the work, followed by Alice on piano and drummer Ben Riley, immediately joined by a pair of saxophones: Joe Henderson playing on the left side of the stereo field and Pharoah Sanders on the right.  The music is march-like, representing the quest for purification — in the words of Alice Coltrane,  “the march on to purgatory, rather than a series of changes a person might go through.” Henderson and Sanders provide somewhat free, exploratory soloing, but the music is kept on its given path primarily through Coltrane’s piano work supported by allied bass and drums.

“Turiya and Ramakrishna”, is a soulful bluesy piano-led work accompanied by bass and drums. The Turiya in the title is a Sanskrit word that in Hindu philosophy represents pure consciousness — the consciousness that occurs whether sleeping soundly, dreaming or waking. Ramakrishna was a nineteenth-century Hindu mystic revered for his spiritual ecstasies, and his message of love and individual religious devotion.  Though the inspiration for the work originates from India, the music is solidly American jazz, intimate in nature and scope as if spontaneously created during the last set inside a dark, intimate nightclub with just a few devoted and spellbound listeners left to enjoy the final music of the last hour of the extended evening.

On the third track, Alice switches to harp, and Henderson and Sanders are on flutes for an evocative work titled “Blue Nile”, a magical seven minutes of ethereal, impressionistic jazz.  The final track, “Mantra” at sixteen and a half minutes ends side two providing an uplifting and exploratory listening experience that comes closer to free jazz than the first track, but yet with a strong sense of structure and purpose culminating in a rich musical encounter true to the overall spiritual tone of the entire album.

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Grateful Dead: Workingman’s Dead

Grateful Dead releases the classic Workingman’s Dead, an album more representative of Kentucky than northern California, with the music being a mostly acoustic mix of bluegrass, country-ragtime, blues, and country-rock,  performed lovingly and with sparkling energy.

Bob Dylan: Self Portrait

Bob Dylan released Self Portrait, a two-LP album, an album I noticed over and over in people’s record collections at the various parties I attended. It sold pretty well, reaching number 4 on the Billboard album chart at going gold. I,  myself, was tempted to buy it on a number of occasions, as I really liked the cover.  For whatever reason, I never did, and to this day, have not yet heard it in its entirety.  I guess it’s clear I am not a big Dylan fan. To each their own, I suppose.

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Rare Earth: Ecology

The same might be said about the Rare Earth laudably-titled Ecology album, also released in June 1970. Although I don’t think I ever saw this album in anyone’s record collection (as the case with the Dylan Self Portrait album), there was a high likelihood that I probably would have never ever listened to it — and from 1970 to a few days ago, never did.  The difference in me making the extra effort to stream it and listen carefully to it was that I got to see Rare Earth live.  They were the opening act for the 1974 California Jam, but their performance was disregarded by many in the audience and those still arriving — if there were any still arriving — my friend and I were so close to the front we paid little attention to what was behind us. For my own part, I sat and attentively listened to and watched Rare Earth, contently enjoying the performance despite distractions.  So, I thought it appropriate to make the effort to stream the Ecology album and see what I thought of it fifty years after it had been released.  And just as I was pleasantly surprised with Rare Earth’s performance at the California Jam, I find Ecology to be better than expected.  Though rated only three stars by allmusic.com, it is a well-produced album by a talented group of musicians.  Highlights are mostly the Tom Baird songs plus the interesting lyrics to John Persh’s “Nice Place to Visit” (“but you wouldn’t want to live here”)  — a lament about the narrator’s habit of visiting brothels — the lyrics available here: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/rareearth/niceplacetovisit.html.

Rod Stewart: Gasoline Alley

If you are Rod Stewart fan, you may wish to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of Gasoline Alley, released today, June 12, 1970. Despite Rod’s limited vocal range, and rough voice, and his habit or limitation of usually singing with limited tonal variety, there is something appealing about his song delivery.  In this album, he is supported by most of the Faces band members and some additional musicians.  This is mostly an acoustic album, and the playing and production are top-notch.

In part three for June 1970 (hopefully, next Friday) I will cover some additional albums, including some fine folk-rock albums, and any others I might have missed.  Who knows, maybe I will take the time to stream the Bob Dylan album!

 

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: November 1969 including David Bowie and Almendra

Somos seres humanos
Sin saber lo que es hoy un ser humano
(We are human beings, without knowing today what a human being is.)

— Almendra

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On Nov 14, 1969,  Philips released David Bowie’s second album in the UK, originally titled “David Bowie.” Mercury released the album in the US as “Man of Words/Man of Music” which was re-released by RCA in 1972 as “Space Oddity” after the success of the Ziggy Stardust album. Whereas Bowie’s very first album sounds like he is intentionally imitating Anthony Newley and includes mostly songs of limited musical and lyrical depth, this second album raises the level of artistry considerably, bringing together a few easily accessible songs with several more carefully crafted, more reflective numbers.  Perhaps Bowie’s break up with his deeply-loved girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale contributed toward a decided shift to a more personal artistry.  Bowie thought of her as a soulmate and suffered deeply from the end of their relationship — two songs on this album are clearly about her: “An Occasional Dream” and “Letter to Hermione” — both providing an insight into the impact of the loss.

With the exception of the second track, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, a clear homage to Bob Dylan, Bowie is mostly his own artist on this album,  produced mainly by Tony Visconti, who also plays bass.  One track, the single “Space Oddity”, which Bowie wrote after seeing Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Oddity”, was produced by Gus Dudgeon and climbed up to the number 5 position on UK charts, though in the U.S. it did not fare any better than the 124th spot.  The general US AM listener would not be exposed to it until 1973 when it reached the 5th position and then again, in 1975 when it made the #1 spot and seemed to be played unceasingly.

The album includes Rick Wakeman on mellotron and harpsichord and Gus Dudgeon on cello.  It will be another year before Bowie works with Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey and another year after that until Trevor Bolder is added on bass. Though there are many better albums to follow, this may be the most personal and the one closest to reflecting the native-state David Bowie as opposed to Bowie the mastery of multiple external personnas and styles.

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In November of 1969, Colosseum release their second album, Valentyne Suite, which did fairly well in the UK, reaching number 15 on the UK album charts.  The highlight of the album is Dave Greenslade’s contributions, both as a performer on keyboards and as a composer on the first two sections of the three movement Valentyne Suite.  Interestingly the original version of the suite was included in the 1969 US release of Colosseum’s previous album “Those Who Are About to Die Salute You”, which is a combination of the first and second UK albums.   For the UK version of the second album, the original third part of the suite, “Theme Three, Beware the Ides of March”, co-written by Greenslade, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Jon Hiseman and Tony Reeves is replaced by “The Grass is Always Greener”  co-written by Heckstall-Smith and Hiseman, since “Beware the Ides of March” had previously appeared on the first album.  The suite works in either configuration and provides a strong ending to both the UK version of the second album and the US version of “Those Who Are About to Die Salute You, which is a mix of tracks from both the first and second UK albums.

Other November 1969 albums include Steve Miller’s Your Saving Grace and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers, both albums including Nicky Hopkins on keyboards. Volunteers is the more significant album historically and musically, containing both strong language and strong political content.

Steppenwolf’s Monster, also released in November 1969, starts with a similarly strong political message. recounting how “Like good Christians some would burn the witches;
later some got slaves to gather riches.” and “While we bullied, stole and bought a homeland, we began the slaughter of the red man”, and warning of the inevitable transformation into a monstrous beast with cities turned into jungles, strangling corruption, and the costly Vietnam war.

Moody Blues released To Our Children’s Children’s Children on November 21, 1969 with the first track “Higher and Higher” and the general thematic direction of the album inspired by the Moon Landing.  The album continues to distill the Moody Blues identifiable sound with tracks melting into each other.  The album reached number #2 in the UK and #14 in the US.

Amidst a number of other November 1969 albums, many of them debut studio albums like those by the Allman Brothers and Mott the Hoople, Rod Stewart releases his first album, around 32 minutes of music including Ronnie Wood on guitar and Keith Emerson on organ on  “I Wouldn’t Ever Change a Thing”

Humble Pie’s second album, the appropriately named Town and Country, released November 1969, provides an attractive balance of acoustic and electric guitar work with some Wurlitzer piano.  The album contains a good measure of country-rock, two strong Peter Frampton songs, and Steve Marriot’s particularly evocative, mood-setting, “Silver Tongue.”

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Kevin Ayers released his debut album, “Joy of a Toy”, in November of 1969 — a slightly tongue in cheek, intentionally laid back and understated set of songs that look forward to indie rock of the 1980s as much as an distillation of Soft Machine, sixties rock, show tunes, pop and early progressive rock.  Even though the lyrics range in quality, the nature of the music and Ayers delivery always make the words work well with the music. The opening instrumental sets the appropriate mood, followed by the wry “Town Feeling” with effective oboe and then “Clarietta Rag” which sounds a bit too much like “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”;  a variety of songs follow, some having  that identifiable “Canterbury” sound, some like “Religious Experience” which seems more spur of the moment composition and performance, and includes an appearance from Syd Barrett.  Perhaps the best tune is “Lady Rachel” with a mysterious oboe introduction nicely setting the mood as well  as the the colorful orchestration and the judicious use of  a chromatically-raised augmented chord in the chorus.  Musicians include Robert Wyatt, Michael Ratledge and Hugh Hopper from Soft Machine as well as David Bedford on piano and mellotron and Paul Buckmaster on cello. All in all an under-the-radar album (at that time and now), that had better material and more an influence on music than generally given credit for.

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Argentina bands, as with bands from other Latin American countries, mostly were imitative or cover bands for most of the sixties.  This “Nueva Ola” style, represented by local bands (having English names), though popular enough and providing live music, couldn’t compete in terms of record sales with new music from U.S. and Britain, and eventually the “Rock en Español” musical movement produced bands like Los Gatos and Almendra.

Led by songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, Luis Alberto Spinetta, Almendra released their first album, the self-titled Almendra, on November 29, 1969.  How much this influenced future progressive rock bands in South America, Spain and Italy is not clear, but the album, like Spanish and Italian music to follow, incorporated folk music together with jazz, pop and rock elements.

The album opens with their earlier released, and successful single (in Argentina), “Muchacha (ojos de papel)”, a modern art song with beautiful melody and lyrics over Spinetta’s acoustic guitar. Another highlight on the album is Spinetta’s “Figuración” which alternates between a gorgeous folk-like melody and a rock section anticipating future Italian prog-rock groups like PFM. This is followed by the upbeat and partly Beatles-like “Ana no Duerme.”

Side two opens up with reflective, acoustic folk-like “Fermin”, followed by the equally graceful “Plegaria para un niño dormido” and the multi-thematic “A estos hombres tristes.”  Bass guitarist contributes the jazzy, almost Brazilian-like “Que el viento borró tus manos.”  The poignant and elegant “Laura Va”, with harps, strings and woodwinds provides a graceful and satisfying end to one of the best albums of 1969.

Fifty Year Friday: Monster Movie, The Stooges, Stand Up

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Can: Monster Movie

Launching the genre of progressive rock that is sometimes called Krautrock, German Space Rock, or perhaps most appropriately Kosmische MusikMonster Movie was recorded in July 1969 and released one month later in August of 1969.  It’s Kosmische Musik rhythmic drive is present on the very first track which opens up with a high pitch space age electronic lead-in (an effect later more prevalent after the introduction of electronic sequencers), followed by driving drums, and repetitive bass and electric guitar riffs — all elements refined further by later German “cosmic music” bands.  The seemingly anomalous vocalist, is American Malcom Mooney, who lends a ranting, free-spirt to the otherwise organized and precise forward driving sound of the band.

Keyboardist Irmin Schmidt and Danzig/Gdańsk-born bassist Holger Czukay studied composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit played with European Free Jazz proponent, Manfred Schoof and guitarist Michael Karoli had both classical (violin, cello) and jazz backgrounds. Vocalist and sculptor, Malcom Mooney, became friends with Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay shortly after he moved to Germany and joined the first iteration of the band named “Inner Space.”  It was Mooney who suggested a new name, “The Can”, which was later shortened to just “Can.”  At some point later, an English newspaper article incorrectly suggested that “CAN” stood for “Communism, Anarchism and Nihilism” and this was soon adopted by drummer Liebezeit.

There is certainly a sense of Anarchism and Nihilism in this first album, as well as a communal performance mindset.  There is also some great music, making this one of the classic rock albums of 1969.  The first track, “Father Cannot Yell”, not only has historic importance as early space rock, but exemplifies the cosmic, time-stretching intersection between space rock, free-jazz, and 1950 and 1960’s “experimental/avant/garde” “classical” music . The second track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary”, is pure West Coast psychedelia, sounding more Haight Ashbury than Köln, Germany. The third track breaks into punk territory and flirts with New Wave elements with Mooney as effective as any punk vocalist. The fourth track, “Yoo Doo Right” takes up the entire side two at a little over twenty minutes melding blues-rock with Stockhausen at the Kosmische Rock level with a little extra musical nihilism and proto-punk thrown in for good measure. All in all we have a very different album than the usual recorded fare of the time — music that is influenced by early Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground but also unquestionably provides its own influences for upcoming bands.

Can

 

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The Stooges: The Stooges

Those following this column may have noted my omission of MC5’s first released album, their live album, Kick Out the Jams.  I bought Kick Out the Jams as a used album around 1971 for about 50 cents but never took a liking to it.  I never much listened to another Michigan-based group, The  Stooges.  I have to say in all honesty,  I particularly made an effort to stay clear of them when Robert Hillburn, lead rock music critic for the Los Angeles Times, started to gush and effuse about them. Though there were many things Mr. Hilburn got right about music, he had an egregious blind spot, or deaf ear, when it came to progressive rock. Born in 1939, and enamored with the American Rock and Roll stars of the mid 1950s and seemingly more comfortable with the basics of rock and I-IV-V chord progressions than the more exploratory side of music, he absolutely hated progressive rock, and that was enough for me to discount his reviews from that point on.  When he unabashedly praised Iggy Pop and the Stooges for their primitive approach, while Hilburn was also trashing albums by Jethro Tull and Yes, that was enough for me to stop reading Hilburn’s reviews and lose any interest in ever listening to Iggy Pop or his “Stooges.”

However, this July, when looking over the calendar of albums released in August of 1969, I noticed that August 5, 1969, was the release of the first Stooges album.  I had listened once again to MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” earlier this year in trying to decide if I would include that album in a February post for Fifty Year Friday, but it just didn’t spark my interest.  The music didn’t impress me and I didn’t even see more than a marginal connection between MC5 and later punk bands, a connection often emphasized by those examining the history of punk rock. For me, the most evident connection was a lack of instrumental skill.

So when I gave the first “The Stooges” album a spin, I expected little of interest.  And though the music didn’t send me into fits of musical pleasure, it had its moments.

The Stooges had basically five songs when Elektra (looking to expand their currently small cache of non-folk rock groups) signed The Stooges — partly based on input from MC5 regarding how loud The Stooges played.   For live performance, the group basically filled in extra time by jamming, but as this wouldn’t work for the album.  Iggy and the  Stooges assured Elektra they had more material, and then quickly, perhaps in a few hours, came up with four more numbers, three of which where included in the album on side two: “Real Cool Time”, “Not Right” and “Little Doll.”

The Stooges first album was generally panned by a wide range of critics.  Interestingly Robert Hilburn, avoided reviewing this first album. Another L.A. Times contributor, John Mendelssohn,  did,  and wrote the following: “Had I not the unpleasant experience of bearing [sic] The MC5’s “Kick Out the James” [sic] several months ago, I could say “The Stooges” was the worst rock album of the year. It’s unquestionably the second worst, featuring as it does several whiny, adolescently repulsive and barely distinguishable street-punk anthems and hypnotically boring 10 minute chant “We Will Fall.” (Sunday L.A. Times, December 7, 1969)

Note Mendelssohn’s prophetically uses “punk” in his review, a term that would soon be applied to marginally talented garage rock bands, and then later used for a specific style of music as performed by groups like the Sex Pistols and The Ramones.  One could make the case that the Stooges are truly a punk rock group, the first, as opposed to just being a loud, erratic, three-chord garage rock band like the MC5.  Not considering the Stooges lead singer’s live performance presence and antics, there are elements in this first album that reflect the ethos of punk rock as exemplified by tracks like “1969” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, a punk rock song title if there every was one.  Add to this that guitar work of Ron Asheton and a couple of actually interesting songs on the album (“Anne” and to a lesser degree “We Will Fall”) and we have something more here than an album that deserved to be widely dismissed by the rock critics of the time.  Supporting this contention is all the praise heaped upon this album in later years including the inclusion of this is the 185th best album of all time on the 2003 Rolling Stones “Greatest 500 Albums of All time.”  I won’t rate this as being one of the top 500 or even top 5000 albums of all time, but I wouldn’t say this is the second worst album of 1969 either.

The Stooges

  • Iggy Pop (credited as “Iggy Stooge”) – vocals, handclaps
  • Dave Alexander – bass guitar, handclaps
  • Ron Asheton – guitar, backing vocals, handclaps
  • Scott Asheton – drums, handclaps

Additional personnel

  • John Cale – piano, sleigh bell on “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, viola on “We Will Fall”, production

 

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Jethro Tull: Stand Up

Released on 25 July 1969 in  the U.K. and in late September in the U.S., Stand Up is more than just an interesting document of the Jethro Tull transitioning from blues-rock to a folk-rock/hard-rock/progressive rock band, it is one of the finest gems of 1969 rock music.

I am generally not enthusiastic about the blues-rock genre, but this album starts off with one of the most exquisitely rendered blues-rock numbers of all time,  “A New Day Yesterday”. compellingly mixing harmonica, electric bass, electric guitar, percussion, and Ian Anderson’s vocals into fresh, vital, bass-punctuated pre-progressive rock music with a brief yet naturally placed flute solo in the middle — all of this in an under-three-minute track.

“Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square” takes us into early folk-prog territory, simple chords with a colorful arrangement creating interest; this is followed by Anderson’s arrangement of Bach’s Bourrée from the E minor Lute suite, a track that got some air play on the then cutting-edge FM album oriented radio stations that were became more prominent with the early seventies.

There’s really not one weak track on this album.  More importantly, there are some real classics here, like “Look Into The Sun” and “We Used to Know.” Primary credit must be given to the song writing skills and arranging skills of Ian Anderson, but bassist Glen Cornick also contributed to the arrangements, as did, to a lesser extent, guitarist Martin Barre. Arranger, and later on, Jethro Tull keyboardist, David/Dee Palmer, student of Richard Rodney Bennett when student at the Royal Academy of Music, also contributed, and particularly shines in the strings included in “Reasons for Waiting.”

This is one of the must listen albums of 1969.

Jethro Tull

  • Ian Anderson – vocals, flute, acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, piano, mandolin, balalaika, mouth organ, production
  • Martin Lancelot Barre – electric guitar, additional flute (on tracks 2 and 9)
  • Glenn Cornick – bass guitar (all tracks but 5 and 7)
  • Clive Bunker – drums, percussion

 

Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free

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Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking

Released on July 3, 1969, Unhalfbricking is Fairport Convention’s third album, continuing their evolution towards a mostly English Folk music style despite inclusion of three unreleased Dylan songs.  Elements of progressive rock abound, due to the acoustic guitar work of Richard Thompson and use of organ, harpsichord, electric dulcimers, violin and the eleven minute “A Sailor’s Life” with it’s instrumental second half. Sandy Denny’s expansively liberated vocals, her deft handling of the melodic line, and the subtleties in the arranging contribute to a finely finished aura that envelops the album.

The album includes two Sandy Denny compositions, including  the deeply insightful “Autopsy”, and the widely praised “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?“, previously recorded two years earlier with the Strawbs, and performed with a more relaxed pace, greater freedom, and more maturity on Unhalfbricking,

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Nick Drake: Five Leaves Free

Fifty years later, it seems natural to look back and feel some level of loss for the music that never was — the music that never was because of the tragic and premature loss of such resonant artists as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. It’s doesn’t help to reflect that general lack of commercial attention probably contributed to the depression that brought about Denny’s and Drake’s deaths.  However, such speculation is called into question upon consideration of artists whose stardom-level status similarly contributed to their shortened lives.

Whereas Sandy Denny at least got attention and opportunities from other, more prominent artists, Nick Drake was pretty much ignored not only up until 1974 when he died of an overdose of his anti-depressant medicine, possibly intentional, but also pretty much until the late 1980s.

Though barely twenty years old when he started to record Five Leaves Free in July of 1968, and though excited at the prospect of having an album, Drake’s life was already full of darkness and depression, as clear from the lyrics of the songs. His level of musicianship was impressive: he effortlessly sings and plays complex guitar passages artfully and effectively in real time with strings or other musicians as opposed to coming back later to dub the guitar work.  Though the recording sessions were rushed  (using downtime available courtesy of Fairport Convention) and the production and arrangements were not to Drake’s liking, by June of 1969, one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the sixties was completed and released to the public on July 3, 1969. Unfortunately, the critics generally cared little for the album, and very few purchased it.  People like myself would never hear of Nick Drake until many years later.

It seems unimaginable today that this album was ignored for so long.  The quality of the music and the lyrics are undeniable, and the production is generally quite good.  Joe Boyd, a George Martin fan and the producer of this album, had a vision of leveraging all studio resources to provide a integral sound, whereas Drake wanted a simpler, more organic approach.  Boyd wanted an established arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson to provide the orchestration.  However, upon hearing Hewson’s attempts with Drake’s music, neither Boyd or Drake felt that such arrangements were suitable. Drake suggested they go with one of his friends at Cambridge University, music student Robert Kirby, who had previously arranged some of Drake’s music.  Though Boyd was initially reluctant to go with someone so unknown, lacking in credentials, and so inexperienced, after getting Kirby in the studio and hearing what he could do, Boyd settled upon Kirby for all the arrangements except one, “River Man” which, for whatever reason, was arranged by professional music director, arranger and composer, Harry Robertson.  Oddly, though Robertson is a skilled arranger, this is the weakest arrangement on the album. Perhaps it was just that Robertson didn’t have the personal familiarity with either Drake or his music that Kirby did.  Perhaps it was a matter of lack of attention to the depth of the lyrics and music.  Perhaps even Kirby would not have done the song justice. It’s not that this is one of those rare songs that works best left in bleakest, most natural state of single guitar and voice, the inclusion of the strings is a workable idea, its just that the particularly arrangement deployed lacks a true connection to Drake’s message. Nonetheless the song still works well, even if not as well as if it had been recorded with just Drake’s guitar and voice.  The composition is in 5/4 time — five beats to the measure, creating a slightly surreal effect. It’s not a jazzy 5/4 like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme song, but a flowing, natural 5/4 composition further enhanced by the relationship between the minor and major chord choices.

It’s fair to say that as particularly special as “River Man” is as a song, all the songs on this album are finely crafted compositions. How this album was initially overlooked by critics but now fully embraced by them is just one of those recurring oddities in the music world  — and often later attributed to the music being ahead of its time. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Yes, the music is timeless and seemingly perfectly suited to the Shoegaze era of the late 1980s and 1990s, but it also fits in nicely with contemporary work of many of the other singer songwriters of 1969.  And there is nothing difficult or elusive in either the relatively simple lyrics, or Drake’s personal and distinctive,  yet easily accessible songs.

Accessible and personal does not exclude universal as in the case of “Day is Done” with its poetic representation of the inevitable finality of any given life.  Here, as in all the Kirby arrangements, the strings appropriately support the essence and character of the song amplifying its impact and effect.   “Fruit Tree” also addresses the nature of life but focuses on fame and the underappreciated artist, eerily predictive of Drake’s own life and legacy:

“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” 

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Fifty Year Friday: Trout Mask Replica, Brave New World

Trout Mask Replica

“I don’t know anything about music.”  Don Glen Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart)

Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica

Recorded from August 1968 to March 1969 and released on June 16. 1969, Trout Mask Replica is a double album for the ages whether you might love it or hate it — and for most people, it’s rather easy to hate.  Far different from Captain Beefheart’s previous album,  Safe As Milk (which though partly confined within a traditional blues framework and ethos, provides many imaginative moments and approaches), Trout Mask Replica breaks into territory no artist has yet covered on record:  it’s been called out as the musical equivalent of rusty barbwire, and it certainly is as about as far away from easy listening as music gets.  But careful, focused, not-so-easy listening reveals the complexity in a large portion of music on the album which includes complex polyrhythms and polytonality.

Yes, there is a lot of non-musical content on the album — Frank Zappa produced this gem and granted total artistic freedom to Captain Beefheart and his band, so one doesn’t get continuous, highly refined music.  Instead one gets pockets — and the treasures here are in the instrumental accompaniment and interludes.  It’s been said that Captain Beefheart’s voice makes Tom Waits sound like Julie Andrews, that’s true, and the engineering of the album emphasizes these vocals as does their general lack of alignment with the backing instrumentation. It has been alleged that the lack of synchronization was due to Beefheart’s not wanting to wear headphones during recording, which resulted in him becoming hopelessly dependent on his own sense of time and on the immediate sonic reverberations of the studio.

Though there are people that will swear that the main value of this album is to drive away unwanted visitors, its influence on many musicians is indisputable.  Bands or individuals reportedly influenced include Henry Cow, The Residents (clearly), The Clash, Tom Waits, The Sex Pistols, Velvet Underground, The Little Feat and myriad others.  For me, the repeated polyrhythmic motifs anticipate Gentle Giant, King Crimson and some of the more aggressive math rock bands.   If you don’t like this album immediately, try it again, clearing away any possibility of distractions, as well as any expectations, taking the music and non-musical elements for what they are — rejoicing in the unusual, and what most would consider weird, amalgam of musical freedom and musical discipline.

rack listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Don Van Vliet and arranged by John French.

Side One
 # Title Length
1. “Frownland” 1:41
2. “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back” 1:53
3. “Dachau Blues” 2:21
4. “Ella Guru” 2:26
5. “Hair Pie: Bake 1” 4:58
6. Moonlight on Vermont 3:59
Side Two
# Title Length
7. “Pachuco Cadaver” 4:40
8. “Bill’s Corpse” 1:48
9. “Sweet Sweet Bulbs” 2:21
10. “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish” 2:25
11. “China Pig” 4:02
12. “My Human Gets Me Blues” 2:46
13. “Dali’s Car” 1:26
Side Three
 # Title Length
14. “Hair Pie: Bake 2” 2:23
15. “Pena” 2:33
16. “Well” 2:07
17. “When Big Joan Sets Up” 5:18
18. “Fallin’ Ditch” 2:08
19. “Sugar ‘n Spikes” 2:30
20. “Ant Man Bee” 3:57
Side Four
 # Title Length
21. “Orange Claw Hammer” 3:34
22. “Wild Life” 3:09
23. “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” 1:40
24. “Hobo Chang Ba” 2:02
25. “The Blimp (Mousetrapreplica)” 2:04
26. “Steal Softly thru Snow” 2:18
27. “Old Fart at Play” 1:51
28. “Veteran’s Day Poppy” 4:31
Total length: 78:51

Personnel

Musicians

Additional personnel

  • Doug Moon – acoustic guitar on “China Pig”
  • Gary “Magic” Marker – bass guitar on “Moonlight on Vermont” and “Veteran’s Day Poppy” (uncredited)
  • Roy Estrada – bass guitar on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Arthur Tripp III – drums and percussion on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Don Preston – piano on “The Blimp” (uncredited)
  • Ian Underwood – alto saxophone on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Bunk Gardner – tenor saxophone on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Buzz Gardner – trumpet on “The Blimp” (uncredited/inaudible)
  • Frank Zappa – speaking voice on “Pena” and “The Blimp” (uncredited); engineer (uncredited); producer
  • Richard “Dick” Kunc – speaking voice on “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” (uncredited); engineer

Brave New World

Steve Miller Band: Brave New World 

Also released on June 16, Steve Miller and his band’s Brave New World and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s Trout Mask Replica are as far apart musically as composers such as Muzio Clementi and Harry Partch.   Brave New World may display less overt, convention-defying courage than Trout Mask Replica, but the musicianship is solid and Steve Miller’s vocals flexibly fit the songs whether those vocals are reassuring and comforting as with the dreamy evocative “Seasons” or appropriately bluesy as on the Hendrix-like “Got Love “Cause You Need It.” Of course, the hit of this album, is “Space Cowboy” which borrows the ostinato-like chromatic blues riff from Lady Madonna, possibly with Paul McCartney’s blessing who jams (under the psuedonym, “Paul Ramon”,) with Steve Miller on another track on this album, “My Dark Hour.”

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

“Brave New World” Steve Miller

3:27

2.

“Celebration Song” Miller, Ben Sidran

2:33

3.

“Can’t You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat” Tim Davis

2:30

4.

“Got Love ‘Cause You Need It” Miller, Sidran

2:28

5.

“Kow Kow” Miller

4:28

Side two

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

6.

“Seasons” Miller, Sidran

3:50

7.

“Space Cowboy” Miller, Sidran

4:55

8.

“LT’s Midnight Dream” Lonnie Turner

2:33

9.

“My Dark Hour” Miller

3:07

Total length:

29:52

Personnel

Additional personnel

 

Fifty Year Friday: Extrapolation, More, Audience

 

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John McLaughlin: Extrapolation

Recorded on January 18, 1969 and released later that year, this very well could be the first true fusion album.  The electric guitar of one of the finest electric guitarists in the generation after Grant Green and Jim Hall (how is it John McLaughlin is listed only at 68 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list and Grant Green and Jim Hall are not on the list?) is featured prominently and emphatically throughout along with English sax jazz musician, John Surman, who incorporates his free-jazz experience seamlessly within the scope of the album’s intent.

The first composition is the Thelonious Monk sounding “Extrapolation”, setting the tone for a dynamic, musically extroverted album. Each track runs into the next, except for the side change (originally on LP, of course), creating a greater sense of mood and material continuity. The last track showcases a solo, acoustic McLaughlin, bringing a sometimes wild, but always musically accessible, stellar, and leading-edge jazz album to a thoughtful conclusion.

Album is produced by Georgian/Swiss/Italian/UK producer Giorgio Gomelsky, who also had produced and managed the Yardbirds and later worked with The Soft Machine, Gong, Magma, Bill Laswell and Laswell’s band, Material, and one of my favorite groups, Henry Cow. Album is engineered by Eddie Offord who later engineered the first four ELP albums and co-produced and engineered several of the Yes albums.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All tracks written by John McLaughlin.

Title Length
1. “Extrapolation” 2:57
2. “It’s Funny” 4:25
3. “Arjen’s Bag” 4:25
4. “Pete the Poet” 5:00
5. “This Is for Us to Share” 3:30
6. “Spectrum” 2:45
7. “Binky’s Beam” 7:05
8. “Really You Know” 4:25
9. “Two for Two” 3:35
10. “Peace Piece” 1:50

Personnel

  • John McLaughlin – guitar
  • John Surman – baritone and soprano saxophones
  • Brian Odgers – double bass
  • Tony Oxley – drums

Pink-Floyd-More

Pink Floyd: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from the film More

Pink Floyd’s first full album after Syd Barret was a movie soundtrack, More, recorded from January to May 1969, and released in the UK on June 13, 1967, a couple of weeks after the premiere of the movie More.  Though the music is meant to support the movie, and is a collection of basically unrelated tracks with a significant breadth of musical variety, the album holds together nicely, like a well-conceived sampler LP.

The music ranges from the dreamy “Cirrus Minor”, to the eerily pre-grunge-rock track, “The Nile Song”, to the exquisitely harmonically and melodically simple “Crying Song” to music that anticipates space rock and Kraut Rock. This is virtually a catalog of some of the adventurous musical styles that would become popular in the coming years.  Not hard to imagine why this is many listeners favorite Pink Floyd album.  It is hard to imagine why Allmusic.com gives this two and a half stars or Rolling Stone Album Guide gives it two stars.   More is more than just a movie soundtrack, it is an instruction manual of future musical styles.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

Side one

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

Cirrus Minor Waters

5:18

2.

The Nile Song Waters

3:26

3.

Crying Song Waters

3:33

4.

Up the Khyber” (instrumental) Mason, Wright

2:12

5.

Green Is the Colour Waters

2:58

6.

Cymbaline Waters

4:50

7.

Party Sequence” (instrumental) Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

1:07

Total length:

23:24

Side two

#

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

Main Theme” (instrumental) Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

5:27

2.

Ibiza Bar Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

3:19

3.

More Blues” (instrumental) Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

2:12

4.

Quicksilver” (instrumental) Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

7:13

5.

A Spanish Piece Gilmour

1:05

6.

Dramatic Theme” (instrumental) Waters, Wright, Gilmour, Mason

2:15

Total length:

21:32

Pink Floyd

Additional personnel
  • Lindy Mason – tin whistle (5, 7)

 

AudienceAudience (2)

Audience: Audience

Audience recorded and released their first album in 1969, though it is not easy to find out exactly when. The band formed in 1969 and within weeks after their first rehearsal they had a record deal with Polydor and were playing at the famous Ronnie Scott’s in Soho, London, also site of the 1969 premiere of the Who’s Tommy.  Polydor, though quick to sign the band, was not so efficient at promoting them or their album.  The album had insignificant sales, not helped by the puzzling album cover, a dim negative of the band members, and shortly after its release was discontinued.  Meanwhile during live performances, the band drew critical praise for their performances and material, and soon, while the backup touring band for Led Zeppelin, was signed to the Charisma label.

The first two songs on this album are unquestionably progressive rock.  The tracks that follow, though more traditional rock, are still catchy and showcased the nylon-stringed acoustic-electric (fitted with an electric pickup) classical guitar  of Howard Werth and the sax, clarinet and flute of Keith Gemmel, the latter using echo and wah-wah pedal to fill in some of the role of the traditional rock guitar.  The album is worth listening to more than once, and the musicianship and arrangements are very good.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

Unless noted, all tracks credited to Werth, Williams.[2]

Side one

  1. “Banquet” – 3:47
  2. “Poet” – 3:05
  3. “Waverley Stage Coach” (Williams) – 2:59
  4. “Riverboat Queen” – 2:57
  5. “Harlequin” – 2:35
  6. “Heaven Was an Island” – 4:18

Side two

  1. “Too Late I’m Gone” – 2:37
  2. “Maidens Cry” (Gemmell, Richardson, Werth, Williams)- 4:47
  3. “Pleasant Convalescence” – (Gemmell, Werth) – 2:30
  4. “Leave It Unsaid”
  5. “Man On Box” (Gemmell, Werth) 
  6. “House On The Hill”

Audience

 

Fifty Year Friday: Chicago Transit Authority

“Only the beginning, only just the start.”  Robert Lamm, from “Beginnings.”

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Chicago Transit Authority

Formed in Chicago in 1967, originally named the Big Sound and incorporating three horn players, a drummer, and guitarist Terry Kath, this band of talented individuals was coaxed to pick up and move to L.A. by the independent producer James Williams Guercio in 1968. Guercio provided a new name, “Chicago Transit Authority”, and ensured them of attractive gigs including the opening show at the Whisky A Go Go. Soon the group started recording their first album in January 1969, the self-titled double record set that was released on April 28. 1969.

Like many people, I didn’t hear this album until after hearing their second album.  My next neighbor first bought their second, one of the great masterpieces of 1970’s rock, and then went back and purchased their first, this generally strong eponymous Chicago Transit Authority.  Their first album, then, became a means of being able to hear additional material by the group that had released that classic double Chicago album, the group’s name change prompted by the threat of legal action by the mass transit operator for that extreme northeast section of Illinois bordering Lake Michigan, the original Chicago Transit Authority.

I am sure I would have been much more impressed by this first album, if I had heard it before their second, for it’s a fine album on its own, and the second best album of their entire catalog.  Terry Kath’s guitar work is creative and full of life, and his voice is that of a jazz or R&B singer. Robert Lamm’s  compositions, with the exception of “South California Purples”, which is a spruced up blues number, burst out with energy and sparkle and are as good as anything in rock music at that time.  The performances by the rest of the band are all excellent, and the brass arrangements, primarily by trombonist James Pankow, are effective and focused.

And yet, after Guercio arranged for CBS west coast executives to hear the band at the Whiskey, the execs were not impressed.  A second attempt by Guercio to convince the west coast CBS “brass” to sign Chicago Transit Authority met with similar results: no interest, no deal. Guercio then finally cut a demo at a small independent studio that he circulated around to others outside of CBS, and soon, when CBS Clive Davis found out, he overruled the West Coast and the band signed with CBS’s Columbia label.

With a wealth of material to record, and wishing to create a serious product, the band insisted on making a double album.  When Columbia heard about this, they would only go along on one condition: the band must give up a percentage of their royalties for a double LP.  The band agreed, and the first debut rock double album since Frank Zappa and the Mother of Inventions’ “Freak Out” was released.

Of the four sides of this album, the first two are far the strongest, with the first song composed by Terry Kath and the remaining by Robert Lamm, followed by a more exploratory third side and then a generally strong side four.  “Free Form Guitar” on side three may not be the most accessible track, but it displays Kath’s mastery of the guitar, and help provide a fuller picture of why Hendrix purportedly told Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider, “The horns are like one set of lungs and your guitar player is better than me.” While “Free Form Guitar” provides indisputable evidence of Kath’s, imagination, control, and technique, other tracks on the album, particularly the first and last tracks, convincingly showcase Kath’s musicality and artistry.  Throughout the musicianship is excellence, and the combination of strong material and strong execution makes this one of the best debut rock albums ever.

Up to this point, many would consider the Beatles the most substantial of all the 1960s pop groups, but with 1969 comes a new upsurging of talent: bands that were, to some degree or other, influenced by the Beatles, but also heavily influenced by jazz and classical music — bands that could make music equal to or surpassing the works of the Beatles.  Chicago is one of the first of such rock groups, a progressive jazz-rock group, at least initially, that produced a first and then a second album that will be listened to, like the best of the Beatles’ albums, long into the future not only by music lovers like us but by our children and the generations that follow.

 

Track listing 

LP 1
1. Introduction (6:35) (Kath)
2. Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? (4:35) (Lamm)
3. Beginnings (7:54) (Lamm)
4. Questions 67 and 68 (5:03) (Kath)
5. Listen (3:22) (Lamm)
6. Poem 58 (8:35) (Lamm)

LP 2
7. Free Form Guitar (6:47) (Kath)
8. South California Purples (6:11) (Lamm)
9. I’m A Man (7:43) (Steve WinwoodJimmy Miller)
10. Prologue (August 29, 1968) (0:58) (James William Guercio)
11. Someday (August 29, 1968) (4:11) (Pankow)
12. Liberation (14:38) (Pankow)

Production

Fifty Year Friday: Uncle Meat, With a Little Help from My Friends, On the Threshold of a Dream

uncle meat

The Mothers of Invention: Uncle Meat

Frank Zappa continues to challenge the boundaries of commercial music, producing an audio collage of breathtakingly fresh music, snippets of musique concrète, and dialogue from his unfunded movie.

Recorded from September 1967 to September 1968 and released on April, 21, 1969, Uncle Meat is a particularly colorful album on a number of levels besides just the colorful dialogue included.  Zappa aggressively and artfully deploys twelve-track recording and speed alterations to affect the timbre and character of voices and instruments, creating a clearly contemporary work not possible just a few years earlier.

This is album is a barrel-full-of-monkeys fun to listen to with the highlights including the title theme, Ian Underwood’s keyboards and sax contributions, “Mr. Green Genes”, and the King Kong tracks on side four of the original LP.

 

Joe_Cocker-With_a_Little_Help_from_My_Friends_(album_cover)

Joe Cocker: With a Little Help from My Friends

In 1969 and in the early seventies, I not only unsympathetically and almost unequivocally dismissed any version of a Beatles song not performed by the Beatles, but its accurate to say that I generally formed a dim view of any performer making such an attempt.  And so my first impression of Joe Cocker was particularly negative when I heard his version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” on AM radio and later saw Cocker perform on television.

Wisdom and time has helped me overcome this teenage bias, and as a musically mature adult, I actually respect anyone with enough nerve (or even recklessness) to do a cover of one of the Beatles classics.  If they do it well, that is, they deserve my respect; looking back on Cocker’s rendition of one of the last of McCartney and Lennon’s true collaboration’s, “With A Little Help From My Friends”, and comparing it against Ringo’s vocals, I must admit that Cocker and his backing musicians pull this off pretty nicely.

In fact, the whole album is pretty good, with some original tracks along with a diverse set of covers including the well-known and often recorded 1926 composition, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” as well as a couple of Dylan covers.  Cocker and back-up singers team up with musicians as capable and as well respected as Albert Lee, Jimmy Page and Stevie Winwood, taking Cocker’s debut album as high as the thirty-fifth spot on the billboard chart.

 

threshold of a dream.jpeg

The Moody Blues continue with their signature style of music crafting an album that encompasses elements of the past, present and future:  “To Share Our Love” harkens back to 1966 British Beat music, “Send Me No Wine” is country rock with an English accent, and “The Voyage” is an exploration into the territory of progressive rock.

Recorded in the first two months of 1969, and released in the UK in April of 1969  and in the US in May of 1969, On the Threshold of a Dream quickly reached the number one spot on the UK album charts by May 4, 1969, staying there for a couple of weeks.  There are some that would profess this to be the first progressive rock album to claim the number one spot, but to my mind that distinction either belongs to the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt Pepper’s album or ELP’s 1971 Tarkus, depending on how stringently one defines progressive rock.  That said, it is a tribute to British taste how well this album did, particularly since its best mark on the US charts was the twentieth spot occurring the week of July 26, 1969.

Though the Moody Blues is not one of my favorite bands, and one that I rarely listen to today, I am always impressed by their dreamy, evocative artistry that unfailingly creates a consistent, though often varied, mood — an enveloping, trademark mood providing a generally calming, mystical musical palette distinct from that of other bands of that era.  Pay particular attention to the ethereal flute and oboe provided by Ray Thomas and the cello and mellotron contributions from Pinder, Hayward and Lodge.

Track listing  [From Wikipedia]

Side A

#

Title

Writer(s)

Lead vocals

Length

1.

In the Beginning Graeme Edge Hayward, Pinder, Edge (narration)

2:08

2.

Lovely to See You Justin Hayward Hayward

2:35

3.

Dear Diary Ray Thomas Thomas

3:56

4.

Send Me No Wine John Lodge Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, Pinder

2:20

5.

To Share Our Love Lodge Pinder

2:54

6.

So Deep Within You Mike Pinder Pinder

3:07

Side B

 #

Title

Writer(s)

Lead vocals

Length

1.

Never Comes the Day Hayward Hayward

4:43

2.

Lazy Day Thomas Thomas

2:43

3.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Hayward, Thomas Hayward

3:29

4.

The Dream Edge Pinder (narration)

0:57

5.

Have You Heard (Part 1) Pinder Pinder

1:30

6.

“The Voyage” Pinder  

3:58

7.

Have You Heard (Part 2) Pinder Pinder

2:32

The Moody Blues Personnel

Justin Hayward – vocals, guitars, cello, mellotron on “Never Comes the Day”
John Lodge – vocals, bass guitar, cello, double bass
Ray Thomas – vocals, harmonica, flute, tambourine, oboe, piccolo
Graeme Edge – rums, percussion, vocals, EMS VCS 3
Mike Pinder – vocals, mellotron, Hammond organ, piano, cello

Fifty Year Friday: Overcast, With a Chance of Showers

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Overcast: With A Chance of Showers

Trevor Stuart arrived in the United States at the age of fifteen in 1965 when his mother,  accepted a teaching post at Pierce College — Dr. Catherine Stuart becoming only the third female mathematics professor at a California college.  Trevor’s father, an electrical engineer and sometimes studio pianist, stayed in London, for several months, eventually joining Trevor and Catherine after getting landing a job as production engineer at Capitol records.

Like his mother and father, Trevor had received classical piano lessons starting at an early age, and around the middle of 1968, started getting uncredited work on an occasional rock or pop album as well as providing piano and electric organ for small ensembles recorded by Jazzco, a Muzak-like provider of  commercial background music. It was late 1968 when Trevor Stuart and Overcast singer and guitarist Bill Fortney first met while standing in line at the Troubadour club, when Fortney bemoaned the lack of success in finding a suitable replacement for guitarist Greg Paulson, who, convinced that Overcast best days were behind them, had taken a full time position at the Orange County Kimberly-Clark paper products plant.

Stuart asked a few questions about this band he had never heard of and then gave it no more thought until January 1969 when he noticed an entry for Overcast in the recording schedule at the La Brea Recording Studios immediately after a session he was sitting in on.  He stayed around to say hello to Fortney; the Overcast leader had arrived with Douglas Brandt and David Amato and it was clear that Fortney was a bit distracted.  It turned out that David Amato had broken up with Claire Stanston who, along with tenor saxophonist Rick Stephenson, would help fill in the void for guitarist Greg Paulson.  It was bad enough that Stanston didn’t want any thing whatsoever to do with Amato, but this was compounded with Rick Stephenson immediately taking an interest in Claire and determining that time spent with Overcast could hardly compare to any anticipated time spent with Claire.

It was at this point that Stuart allegedly said he would have a go at it, informing a surprised Overcast that he could play keyboards and could quickly pick up tunes, particularly if Overcast would call out the chords if the music got tricky.

Fortunately, there wasn’t anything particularly tricky in Overcast’s current set of tunes and within the next three sessions,  Overcast had laid down their second album, recorded on January 11, 17 and 18, 1969 and released on the first of April of that year.

David Amato, once again suggested the title for the album, and this time Elektra acquiesced.  However, they weren’t too keen on Amato’s suggestion for the cover of “With a Chance of Showers” — a photo of a bikini-clad model in the shower.  Neither did they go for Amato’s suggestion of a photo shoot of the band in bathing suits in the Fullerton Junior College Locker Room showers — with or without accompanying bikini-clad models.  Brandt suggested reusing the same album cover used for the first album, but with the new title added, and though this was also rejected by Elektra, a similarly looking cover, but of a somewhat lower quality, was quickly created at the last moment.

Also occurring at the last moment was Elektra’s decision to not include the song, “Better Yet”, later released on their third album, due to its lyrics which included lines like “Is there anything you’d rather get than your sugar daddy’s red corvette’ and “Am I better, better, better yet, am I better than a cigarette?” causing the band to quickly come up with “Huntington Beach Baby Blues.”  Notably, also added in that January 18th recording session, was Stuart’s psychedelic-rock version of the chord progression of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, with title based on Thelonious Monk’s own version of that same tune titled “In Walked Bud.”  Not censored, were any of the lyrics in “The Hallway Episode”, which included in the chorus,  “I can see, you and me, doing what we want in the hallway.”  The ideas of photo shoots with scantily clad models, as well as the lyrics in “Better Yet” and “The Hallway Episode”, all same quite tame by today’s standards,  would soon become commonplace starting in the 1970s — but for now, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention excepted, this was still 1969 and Overcast was just another local band trying to make the big time by any means available, quietly giving in to the judgment of a randomly assigned Elektra representative regarding what was appropriate and what was not.  That would soon change with the poor sales of this second album and Elektra’s lack of interest in funding a third album.

all tracks written by Bill Fortney and Douglas Brandt except where noted.

Side A

No.

Title

Length

1.

“Sand, Wind, Water and You”

5:10

2.

“Chemistry with Kimberly”

3:22

3.

“Choice Decisions Left Alone”

3:50

4.

“Huntington Beach Baby Blues” (Fortney, Brandt, Amato, Stuart)

3:43

5.

“Pancake Breakfast”

4:47

Side B

No.

Title

Length

6.

“Another message for the masses”

7:02

7.

“The Hallway Episode”

3:15

8.

“Sheila Said”

4:50

9.

“Twentieth Century Overload”

3:43

10.

“In Walked Mud” (Trevor Stuart)

3:03

Personnel

Overcast

  • Bill Fortney – guitar, lead vocals
  • Douglas Brandt – bass guitar, vocals
  • Trevor Stuart, hammond organ, electric piano
  • David Amato, drums

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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