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Fifty Year Friday: February 1970

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Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Recorded in December 1969, and released in February 1970,  The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was the first true VDGG album (the first, the Aerosol Grey Machine was closer to a Peter Hammill album with VDGG personnel and was originally intended to be released under Hammill’s name) and their only album to make a dent on the UK charts, peaking at number 47, and staying on the charts for an almost immeasurable two  weeks.  It also received some critical aclaim, including London’s Time Out magazine heralding it is the strongest album the writer had heard in a long time.  The lyrics from Peter Hammill are excellent, even better than on the Aerosol Grey Machine, and the music nothing short of timeless — and in the same league as King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King.  And like In the Court of the Crimson King it is considered by most prog rock fans as an unequivocal example of early progressive rock — not proto-prog, psychedelic rock or hard rock, but truly progressive rock.

One can completely lose themselves when listening to this album — this is music which demands attention of and absorbs the listener as almost effectively and as inexorably as a Beethoven symphony.  The VDGG’s performance and use of instruments provides both a level of unpretentious sophistication and focused unity normally associated with orchestral music. We can track the maturation of Peter Hammill not only as a composer and songwriter but as a vocalist as he shows greater expression and naturalness than on the previous album.  One can reasonably speculate this is probably the album where David Bowie first started to be influenced by Peter Hammill, an influence that Bowie may have never publicly acknowledged but one can begin to hear tinges of  starting with Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, recorded in April and May of 1970.

I had no awareness of Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator in 1970 or even 1971. It wasn’t until I saw Pawn Hearts on sale around 1973 and purchased that album (solely based on the price and the album cover) that I first heard this magnificent band and their amazing music.  Soon I purchased all Peter Hammill and VDGG’s earlier albums, including this true masterpiece, The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other.

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Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

Whereas, VDGG’s second album is indisputably one of the first progressive rock albums, Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album, recorded in October 1969 and appropriately released on Friday the 13th, February 1970 is often considered one of the first heavy metal albums.  Like the VDGG album it is symphonic in nature, with a readily identifiable musical style and handling of non-traditional pop/rock subject matter. Both use grimly Cimerian album and song titles: The VDGG album title is based on the quote “We’re all awash in a sea of blood  and the least we can do is wave to each other” with “Darkness” the title of the initial track;  the Black Sabbath title, band name and opening track is, of course, is associated to heretics’ and witches’ black  masses (often evil and devil worshipping gatherings or ceremonies) held on the Sabbath.  Interestingly, both albums begin with ominous sounds of the stormy side of nature and an impending sense of utmost darkness.) Like the VDGG album Black Sabbath provides an early example for an entire genre.  Commercially, the reception of these two albums were quite different, with the Black Sabbath album climbing to number 8 on the UK charts and staying on US album charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. And initially, the critical reception was very different, also — where the VDGG album was praised, the Black Sabbath album was basically ridiculed — critic Robert Christgau describing their first album as “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter — bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.”

Although the initial reaction of Sabbath’s debut album was pretty negative, later evaluations have generally been more positive, with it now being ranked as number 243 of Rolling Stone’s 2012 revision of the 500 Greatest albums of all time — a list that does not include a single entry for VDGG, Peter Hammill, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, ELP, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Area, PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Laura Nyro, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy,  Larry Young, Cannonball Adderly, Grant Green, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristiano, Weather Report, The Mahavishu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Chicago (to include the Chicago “II” album) as well as any  compilations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Nat King Cole Trio, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Django, Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Lightning Hopkins, despite inclusion of other compilations and greatest hits albums. (I know this isn’t the post for this, but how can you include two Frank Sinatra entries in a greatest recordings list and not include a single mention of Billie Holiday? And why only U.S., U.K., and Canadian bands?  Does Europe, South America, the Middle East,  Asia and Africa not record music worthy of inclusion in a list of top 500 albums? )

This 1970 Black Sabbath album was recorded in one day, and mixed in a single subsequent session. The single session constraint actually worked out okay, as the entire album was comprised of material Black Sabbath had been performing live — this enabled them to basically play as they had been playing to real audiences without intricate overdubs or musical layering.  And yet, despite this, the album sounds more fully developed and coherent than most of the hard rock or heavy psychedelic rock released previously.

The satanic images are not only in the lyrics but inherent and arguably fundamental to the music itself.  Sabbath guitarist, and primary composer, Tony Iommi repurposes the ominous, hostile theme of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets to set the sinister tone for the entire album. Much is made of the use of tritone which is more overt in Iommi’s handling of the theme, but the minor third and ornamental minor second are even more germane to the Black Sabbath sound which is particularly distinct due to the Geezer Butler’s bass and Iommi’s deep ostinato guitar lines that provide a primal foundational simplicity and unavoidably recognizable trademark for the band’s raw, underworldly sound.  Though not the 243rd best album ever made, it is a strong debut and garnered an immediate fan base to provide ongoing support for Black Sabbath for many years.

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Atomic Rooster: Atomic Rooster

Recorded in December 1969 and January 1970 and released in the UK on February 1970, Atomic Rooster’s first album is a mixture of early progressive, psychedelic, and hard-rock.  Vincent Crane provides the compositions and quality keyboards and the album includes an extended drum solo from Carl Palmer.

The album was not released in the U.S. (until several years later) and only available as an import.  The album was released in Australia where the original album cover art was deemed inappropriate (this is a rooster — and a fowl!) and replaced with a substitute cover.

James Taylor: Sweet Baby James

Recorded in December 1969 and released in February 1970, Sweet Baby James has a mix of high quality and direct, intimate simplicity that has made it a classic.  It includes one of the best straightforward pop-folk songs ever composed: “Fire and Rain.”

Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Funkadelic, Morrison Hotel

Other albums of note released in February 1970 include Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention Burnt Weenie Sandwich with material recorded in the late sixties, Funkadelic’s first album, Funkadelic and the Door’s Morrison Hotel.  George Clinton’s group Funkadelic is particularly notable for its meld of funk, soul and psychedelic rock and this first album also seamlessly incorporates African-American traditional-folk music including field shouts and blues, trailblazing the way for many future soul-funk-rock albums. Interestingly Robert Christgau, who so scathingly panned the first Black Sabbath album and the Sweet Baby James album, also trashed this important album.

 

Fifty Year Friday: Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, and Blood Sweat & Tears

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Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet

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.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, except “Prodigal Son” by Robert Wilkins.

Side one
No.TitleLength
1.Sympathy for the Devil6:18
2.No Expectations3:56
3.Dear Doctor3:28
4.Parachute Woman2:20
5.Jigsaw Puzzle6:06
Total length:22:08
Side two
No.TitleLength
6.Street Fighting Man3:16
7.“Prodigal Son”2:51
8.Stray Cat Blues4:38
9.Factory Girl2:09
10.Salt of the Earth4:48
Total length:17:42

Personnel

The Rolling Stones

Additional personnel

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Stevie Wonder: For Once in My Life

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 .

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side One

  1. For Once in My Life” (Ron Miller, Orlando Murden) 2:48
  2. Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day” (Henry CosbySylvia Moy, Stevie Wonder) 2:45
  3. “You Met Your Match” (Lula Mae Hardaway, Don Hunter, Wonder) 2:37
  4. “I Wanna Make Her Love Me” (Henry Cosby, Hardaway, Moy, Wonder) 2:52
  5. “I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)” (Henry Cosby, Cameron Grant, Moy, Wonder) 2:56
  6. I Don’t Know Why” (Hardaway, Hunter, Paul Riser, Stevie Wonder) 2:46

Side Two

  1. Sunny” (Bobby Hebb) 4:00
  2. “I’d Be a Fool Right Now” (Cosby, Moy, Wonder) 2:54
  3. “Ain’t No Lovin'” (Hardaway, Hunter, Riser, Wonder) 2:36
  4. God Bless the Child” (Arthur Herzog Jr.Billie Holiday) 3:27
  5. “Do I Love Her” (Moy, Wonder) 2:58
  6. “The House on the Hill” (Lawrence Brown, Berry Gordy, Allen Story) 2:36

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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.

Side one
  1. “Don’t Talk Now” – 2:36
  2. “Something’s Wrong” – 3:00
  3. Knocking ‘Round the Zoo” – 3:26
  4. “Sunshine Sunshine” – 3:30
  5. “Taking It In” – 3:01
  6. Something in the Way She Moves” – 2:26
Side two
  1. Carolina in My Mind” – 3:36
  2. “Brighten Your Night With My Day” – 3:05
  3. Night Owl” – 3:38
  4. “Rainy Day Man” (Taylor, Zach Wiesner) – 3:00
  5. Circle Round the Sun” (Traditional; arranged by Taylor) – 3:24
  6. “Blues Is Just a Bad Dream” – 3:42
CD bonus tracks (2010 remaster)
  1. Sunny Skies” (Demo) – 2:12
  2. “Let Me Ride” – 3:57
  3. “Sunshine Sunshine” (Demo) – 2:51
  4. “Carolina in My Mind” (Demo) – 3:06

Personnel

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Blood Sweat & Tears: Blood, Sweat & Tears

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]

Side 1

  1. “Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie” (1st and 2nd Movements) – 2:35
  2. Smiling Phases” (Steve WinwoodJim CapaldiChris Wood) – 5:11
    • Recorded October 15, 1968
  3. “Sometimes in Winter” (Steve Katz) – 3:09
    • Recorded October 8, 1968
  4. “More and More” (Vee Pee Smith, Don Juan) – 3:04
    • Recorded October 15, 1968
  5. And When I Die” (Laura Nyro) – 4:06
    • Recorded October 22, 1968
  6. God Bless the Child” (Billie HolidayArthur Herzog Jr.) – 5:55
    • Recorded October 7, 1968

Side 2

  1. Spinning Wheel” (David Clayton-Thomas) – 4:08
    • Recorded October 9, 1968
  2. You’ve Made Me So Very Happy (Berry Gordy Jr.Brenda HollowayPatrice HollowayFrank Wilson) – 4:19
    • Recorded October 16, 1968
  3. “Blues – Part II” (Blood, Sweat & Tears) – 11:44
  4. “Variations on a Theme By Erik Satie” (1st Movement) – 1:49
    • Recorded October 9, 1968

Personnel

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