I usually don’t mention live albums, but Yessongs is an important exception due to its effectiveness in capturing the live side of Yes while in their prime. Better sonically than most live albums of the early seventies, Yessongs permanently documents, for existing and future music lovers, the band’s interplay and improvisation and how they made their music come to life on stage.
George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Released at the end of May 1973, over two and a half years after the impressive All Things Must Pass, it is evident that quality was much more important to George Harrison then quantity of releases. Each track is perfect, with not a weak moment in the entire album, making this one of Harrison’s best albums as well as one of the finest solo albums ever released by any of the Beatles.
Paul Simon: There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
Paul Simon balances commercially attractive material with some real solid compositions on this critically acclaimed album. Though I may skip the very first track or stop the album before I get to the very last track, there is no way I will ever skip hearing Simon’s timeless classic, “American Tune”, which surprisingly gained traction on AM, as the third single of the album — and now listening fifty years later, I do find that I am more accepting of those first two singles, and more appreciative of the other songs on the album, such as “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” and “Learn How to Fall”, particularly as I include consideration of lyrics rather than just engaging with the music. I may still prefer Mr. Simon’s work from the Simon and Garfunkel days, but even a finicky musical curmudgeon like myself has to acknowledge the high quality of this album.
Gong: Flying Teapot
Released on May 25, 1973, Gong’s Flying Teapot is one of those rare rock albums that masterfully blends humor, whimsy, and an apparently casual irreverence with disciplined, artful, musical craft — incorporating a range of musical styles in doing so. This is the first of a set of three concept albums about Zero the Hero, the Good Witch Yoni, and the Pot Head Pixies from the Planet Gong, as indicated on the cover with the alternative title of “Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1.”
Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells
Released on May 25, 1971, this was nineteen-year old Mike Oldfield’s first album, and the reason behind Richard Branford creation of Virgin Music, and the very first album released by that label.
If ever there was a labor of love primarily by one person, this album has to qualify. Oldfield spent countless hours on recording, instrument selection, adjusting musical material, and overdubbing to deliver an album that initially no record company was interested in, ultimately becoming one of the most commercially successful albums in the UK in 1974. Part of the reason for the record’s success was the catchy 15/4 opening minimalistic theme/ostinato which then became inextricably associated with 1973’s highly successful movie the Exorcist after that material was used both in the movie and as part of the closing credits. It’s association with that movie aside, the album is a musical treat from beginning to end, covering a variety and range of sonic territory and musical mood, yet effectively coming together as a single artistic expression and experience.
Earth, Wind & Fire: Head to the Sky
Though Earth, Wind & Fire on Head to Sky, released around May 1973, move away from jazz to a more commercial sound, that sound is solid, keeping elements of jazz, and more heavily incorporating soul, funk, and other R & B elements as well as sitar and Latin elements. The standout track for me, maybe predictably, is their mostly jazz-based take on Brazilian composer, Edu Lobo’s Zanzibar.
Tower of Power: Tower of Power; Carpenters: Now and Then
Additional albums released in May of 1973 include Tower of Power tastefully arranged, self-titled third album, which include the reflective analysis of “What is Hip”, candidly pointing out the ironic pitfalls of being hip for the sake of being hip and the Carpenters’ fifth studio album, with Karen Carpenter’s seemingly effortless, velvety voice, the distinctly recognizable Carpenters’ signature harmonies, and an eighteen-minute, early sixties medley on side two.
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.
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 YEARS AGO: The concert was recorded and would be released on 3 LPs on December 20, 1971. The inclusion of Bangla Dhun on side one was the highlight for me and I have been a fan of classical Indian music since.
Though not one of my favorite albums, one has to give credit where credit due and there are a number of reasons to recommend this often blues-based, somewhat historic album.
The first is the earthy and relatively respectful rendition of Robert Wilkins”Prodigal Son.” Is that Mick Jagger on vocals? Hard to believe…
The second is Nicki Hopkins on piano.
The third is the mournful “No Expectations.”
The fourth is the bluegrass/country-blues “Dear Doctor.”
The fifth is the anthem-like “Salt of the Earth” replete with a chorus.
The sixth is the Keith Richards application of his chance-discovery of the already existing technique of five-string “open G” tuning, basically removing or avoiding the low sixth string, with the five strings tuned G-D-G-B-D (aligning with the overtone series of G-G-D-G-B-D) and in the case of Richards, and others to follow, using a sliding three-fingered guitar technique.
The sixth is the stretching of the then-current record-industry norms with songs with lyrics like “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Parachute Woman”. and “Stray Cat Blues”, the last two, perhaps even more offensive now in the context of political correctness than in 1968.
The seventh is the historical impact of this record, setting the tone, whether we like it or not, for how future bands would approach traditional blues and country music (like the music found on pre-WWII 78s) and songs about Satan and groupies.
This work veers away from the accelerating trend of greater complexity and sophistication, taking a U-turn towards simplification. It really is a collection of the basics of music, some as simple and crude as the album cover the Stones had originally intended for the album. My apologies if I offend anyone by using the original LP cover that I associate with this album instead of the one prevalent on the CD reissues.
Recorded in 1967, while Stevie Wonder was still 17, this ninth studio album, released December 8, 1968, after Wonder was eighteen years old, is really the work of a mature adult artist. Though Wonder only is credited as a co-author for the eight selections that lists his name, one can distinctly hear the composer of the early seventies albums. Besides the developing compositional skills, we have strong vocals and quality harmonica and keyboard work .
“The House on the Hill” (Lawrence Brown, Berry Gordy, Allen Story) 2:36
James Taylor: James Taylor
There is always something reassuringly soothing in James Taylor’s voice. Like so many baby boomers, my first exposure to Taylor was his second album, Sweet Baby James, which my next door neighbor loaned my in 1970.
This first album, released December 6, 1968, and on the new, but short-lived, Beatles’ Apple label, which signed Taylor after Apple label A&R director Peter Asher (friend of Paul McCartney, brother of Paul’s girlfriend from 1963 to 1968, and member of the British group Peter and Gordon, which had recorded several of McCartney’s songs including their #1 hit, “A World Without Love“) had heard a forty-five minute demo tape Taylor had sent into to the new label.
Overall this is an amazingly strong debut, and rivals or surpasses the quality of later Taylor albums, with the exception of the second one, which has the wonderfully transcendent “Fire and Rain. Beatles fans should note that George Harrison and Paul McCartney make guest appearances on “Carolina on My Mind” and jazz fans should note Freddie Redd’s keyboard contributions.
Besides James Taylor’s simple, home-spun, relaxed vocals, and his quality song-writing, there are some sophisticated instrumental introductions written by arranger Richard Anthony Hewson that are worth mentioning, whether they are an integral part of the track, as with “Sunshine Sunshine” or seem more like they were added after the final take of the song. Yes, they don’t effectively assist in creating a single artistic identity to the album, or even bring out the best in the inherent nature of these James Taylor compositions, but both the handful of introductions and the arrangements have merit and add interest to the album, bringing an additional dimension to the final work.
If you have not heard this album, its worth the effort to check it out, particularly with the number of strong songs, the fine acoustic guitar work and other instrumentation, the quality of the arrangements and production, and the sterling sound quality (for 1968), partly as a result of the entire album having been recorded at Trident studio in England, at that time a state-of-the-art studio, using some of the session time that was previously booked by the Beatles.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
All songs written by James Taylor unless otherwise noted. Times are from the original Apple LP vinyl label.
Though the first BS&T album, a work of love from Al Kooper, includes jazz instruments, this second album really begins the era of what is commonly called “jazz-rock”, a genre quite different than jazz fusion or rock-influenced jazz. Later adherents to this style, more or less, included American groups like Chicago and Chase, the Canadian band Lighthouse, and the British group If.
This second album (produced by James William Guercio at the same time he was producing the Chicago Transit Authority album) left the generally more critically admired, Al Kooper first BS&T album in the dust, commercially,selling millions of copies and by March of 1969 taking the top US album chart spot away from Glen Campbell, twice until the Hair soundtrack displaced both for a bit, with the BS&T album again rising to the #1 spot for four more weeks in late July and August.
The album provided three top five singles, Laura Nyro’s “When I Die”, Fred Lispius’s arrangement of fellow-BS&T-band member and lead singer David Clayton Thomas’s “Spinning Wheel” and the Al Kooper’s arrangement of Brenda Halloway’s modestly successful single, “You Made Me So Very Happy”.
The album is yet another 1968 that includes music by a classical composer. In this case, this album starts out with an abridged, but tasteful arrangement of two of the three pieces of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopédies.” For many listeners, including myself, this was one of the highlights of the album, and was my first introduction to Eric Satie.
This is followed by BS&T’s extended version of Traffic’s “Smiling Phases”, with its traditional jazz piano trio middle section and then the evocative Dick Halligan arrangement of Steve Katz tune “Sometime in Winter.” Next is “More and More”, which, as a thirteen-year old, was my favorite track on the album, with its fierce brass and drums.
Also, leaving an impression on me was the last track of the first side, Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” As I had not heard the original version, or any Billie Holiday recordings, I made the mistake of considering this the reference version of the song. (What kind of society would make it possible for the vast majority of Baby Boomers to have no knowledge of Billie Holiday until the release of the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues”?)
Blues — Part II has an interesting, progressive rock opening with Dick Halligan on organ, which is followed by a short brass outburst and then electric bass and drum solos as well as some flugelhorn, sax, electric guitar, and reflective, bluesy vocals. The album ends with a short reprise of Satie’s first “Gymnopédie“, providing a complete, fulfilling and distinct listening for anyone in 1968 and 1969 that had only a smattering exposure to real jazz. Just as seventh grade Physical Education introduced me to basketball, which led to my watching John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and then in 1969 West, Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers, groups like BS&T and Chicago help lead my way towards the many jazz classics recorded prior to 1968.
Track listing [from Wikipedia]
“Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie” (1st and 2nd Movements) – 2:35
Released in Great Britain on November 1, 2018, George Harrison’s soundtrack to the mod, psychedelic film about a late middle-aged lab scientist that expands his professional interest in watching the domestic life of microbes under a microscope to watching his neighbors through a hole in the wall. Wonderwall Music is both the first solo Beatles album (if one doesn’t count George Martin/Paul McCartney’s The Family Way soundtrack which is basically various Martin arrangements of a single McCartney tune, “Love in the Open Air’) and the very first Apples-label album.
Harrison had no experience, of course, composing soundtracks, but with guidance from director Joe Massot and assistance from classical trained pianist and Ravi Shankar composition pupil, John Barham , Harrison produces an effective soundtrack that works quite well as standalone music encompassing multiple styles from classical Indian music to English Music Hall pseudo-ragtime to contemporary rock. With limited dialogue and a strong focus on visuals over story, there is plenty of opportunity in the movie for musical passages, so much so, that the album doesn’t contain all the musical material present in the film.
In terms of sales, this soundtrack album was not very successful in the UK, but it did much better in the U.S. peaking at 49 on the Billboard album chart. Critical review has been mixed during both initial evaluations and re-evaluations of the album, but the music is generally strong with some notable tracks and the general critical trend has been towards greater appreciation as time has gone by.
The music was recorded in sessions in London and Bombay, Harrison having determined from the watching the assigned sections of film, stopwatch in hand, the exact length required for the music and working with the musicians to create appropriate material to match the assigned scenes. The titles are appropriately named so that it is fairly easy to remember which part of the movie each particular track was for.
The first track, “Microbes” is used at the start of the film as background to the routine activity of microorganisms being observed under microscope and showcases the shenai, a double-reed instrument, similar to the oboe. The second track, “Red Lady Too” is particular notable for its progressive-rock-like arpeggios, suspensions and chord changes and provides a representative example of how each track in the album is a miniature musical movement in a larger suite. The short length of the compositions require a brevity of expression, so instead of having 35 minute ragas, we get short Indian classical compositions, like the one-minute third track, “Tabla and Pakajav” and the four-minute fourth track, “In the Park.”
“Drilling a Home” shows Harrison’s sense of humor, and is very much like the music used for British pantomime television comedy sketches. This is followed by another dualing-shenai composition, “Guru Vandana”, followed by a particular impressive Mellotron and Harmonium duet, showing off Harrison’s sensitivity for the subtle. Next we have Eric Claption featured on guitar in “Ski-ing”, then “Gat Kirwani” featuring sarod, sitar and tabla, followed by one of the best compositions on the album, the final track of side one, the thoughtfully crafted ambient/Hindi/instrumental/musique-concrete collage, “Dream Scene”, preceding Lennon’s Revolution and saying so much more in so much less time.
Side Two opens up with the strumming of Harrison’s acoustic guitar on a composition reminiscent of The Beatles’ instrumental, “Flying” on Magical Mystery Tour, followed by a sarod love duet, “Love Scene” and a lamenting shenai on “Crying. “Cowboy Music” was written for the scene of the neighbor’s boyfriend on rocking horse”, and is followed by another composition featuring shenai, “Fantasy Sequins.” “On the Bed”, like a rock fanfare for the opening credits of a movie or a leading-edge BBC TV show, is followed by the masterfully brief, yet totally complete, “Glass Box” featuring sitar and tabla. The album closes with the reflective, “Wonderwall to Be Here”, a short instrumental that any prog-band would be proud of, and the mystical “Singing Om” with harmonium and Hindustani bamboo flute.
At this time in the late sixties, there were more and more rock albums out that included lengthened tracks, with repeated verses and choruses that added little except to extend the length of an inherently two or three minute song to five or six minutes. In contrast, what we have here with Wonderwall Music is an album mostly of miniature-length compositions, with even the few longer ones, being skillfully compacted musical poems. Much better than allmusic.com’s and the Rolling Stones Album Guide ratings of 2 1/2 stars, this is why one should only rely on their own sensibilities in determining the merit of the great music of the late sixties.