Fifty Year Friday: May 1971
Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was released on May 21, 1971, but prior to that, around the end of February 1971, the calmest, most relaxed single of the 1970s yet ever heard by my ears on top 40 AM radio, started receiving airplay displacing the previous smoothest single of the earliest part of that year, “Black Magic Woman”. Now firmly only a fan of FM, my only exposure to AM radio was on the school bus — about a 25 minute ride into school and about a 35 minute ride on the late bus back home. By the middle of March of 1970, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was likely to be played once, and sometimes twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon during my daily travel on the bus. With annoying songs like The Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple”, Dawn’s “Knock Three Times”, and other mediocre bubblegum or pop tunes, the inclusion of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, far removed from the commercial template of most of the songs in the Top 40 of that time, into the AM playlist was like being given access to water in a scorching desert.
How appropriate that this gem leads off Marvin Gaye’s must heralded album, proving both the name and the essence for the entire album, almost by itself asserting the concept of the entire album, which rightfully and fittingly lines up perfectly and unconditionally with the ethos and character of that first track creating a concept album addressing peace, love, ecologic responsibilities, justice and injustice, and the rights and preciousness of all, adults and children.
Recorded in August through October of 1970, and released in 1971, Joe Zawinul’s fifth studio album (as a leader) continues the musical trailblazing of Miles Davis’s masterpiece, In a Silent Way. There is in fact, an amazing version of this Zawinul composition on the album, glimmering with a full rainbow of beauty, the pairing of Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul on keyboards and the lyrically lucid and spiritual melodic leadership by trumpet-great Woody Shaw.
The entire album provides a musical retreat, unfolding with the beauty of an uncompromised, unexplored nature reserve. Graced by so many fine musicians, and some creative engineering including some tape manipulation, editing, and praiseworthy aural balancing, the album provides all that is necessary for an immersive musical outing fully contained within the short span of about thirty-six minutes.
Weather Report: Weather Report
A few months after finishing recording his eponymous fifth album, Joe Zawinul teamed up with Wayne Shorter, Miroslav Vitouš, and multiple percussionists for the first Weather Report album released on May 12, 1971. The album embraces much of the creative forces present in Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but moves into new territory also with rhythmically propulsive tracks like “Umbrellas” and “Seventh Arrow” as well as the atmospheric track “Orange Lady” which provides a leisurely, reflective weave from a spectrum of beautiful coordinated musical musings and the shimmering “Waterfall.”
Paul and Linda McCartney: Ram
While my sister was accompanying my maternal grandmother on an ocean cruise for the summer of 1971, I journeyed from Southern California up to Salem, Oregon accompanying my paternal grandparents on a nearly twenty-four Trailways bus trip to spend a couple of weeks with my cousins, aunt and uncle, fishing, introducing my older cousin to the classic Chicago II album, taping drum and bugle practices on a cheap, bottom-of-the barrel cassette recorder and generally having the time of my life.
When driven to the newly open Lancaster shopping mall by my older cousin and her friends, I stumbled into what may be commonplace today, but was a novelty at that time, a record store in a indoor shopping mall — the indoor shopping mall being also a relatively new concept, with the Lancaster mall (now the Willamette Town Center) opened shortly before my arrival.
A moment or two after entering the record store, the store manager changed records, putting the newly arrived second McCartney album, Ram (released a few weeks earlier on May 17, 1971) on the store turntable. The first track, “Too Many People” was immediately recognizable as it was getting airplay on both FM and AM. While my cousin and friends wended their way through the multiple other retailers in the mall, I camped out in the record store, listening to the entire first side including the previously familiar “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, pulled away by them for a few minutes, and then eventually returning to finish up side two and, to my delight, an unexpected replay of the entire album, or at least side one, as I was eventually whisked away by my cousin and friends to somewhere else. Later on my return to the mall, perhaps a week later, I got to hear most of side two, including the final track, “The Back Seat of My Car.”
Upon my return to Southern California, my good friend, fellow cross-country runner, co-worker at the school cafeteria, and next door neighbor, the one that had introduced my to Chicago, had already purchased Ram, and I promptly recorded it on to my reel-to-reel. I was already in love with the album, and played it several times before eventually tiring of it and moving on to something else. It’s a pleasure to listen to it again after all these years, and even though back in 1971 my cousin may have thought the music to be somewhat silly and certainly not in the same league as Chicago’s second album, I still love the simple, engaging, and buoyantly upbeat music that permeates this album.
The Carpenters: Carpenters
On May 14, 1971, The Carpenters released their third album with meticulous soft-pop arrangements by Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter’s trademark vocals. It is not as special as an album as their previous Close To You album, but their performances are beyond reproach even if not all the selected material matches that of Close To You. As the Carpenters moved to Downey, California a few months before my parents moved our family to Orange County, I honor my hometown connection to them and that adds to the fondness I have for their music. Add to this that my Oregon older cousin liked them, even when she dismissed McCartney’s second solo album, and that my spouse, the love of my life, is a big Karen Carpenters fan, I think I will always enjoy listening to their music with an ongoing emotional connection that is in addition to my appreciation of their musical merits.
John Entwistle: Smash your head against the wall; Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners; Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story
Like George Harrison, John Entwistle did not have an abundance of support to get his bandmates to include his compositions on their albums, so his first solo album, Smash you head against the wall, released during May of 1971, contains many of these “rejected” compositions. One recurring trait in Entwistle’s works is the use of chromatic passages as famously represented in years earlier in “Boris the Spider” and his darkly-tinged humor as represented in the opening track of this debut album, “My Size.”
Graham Nash is one of the most underappreciated songwriters of the sixties and seventies, so its always a joy to listen to his songs whether on Hollies albums, CSN and CSNY albums or his solo albums. This is a wonderful album brimming with catchy melodies including songs like “Military Madness” and “Chicago.”
Though I don’t think of myself as much of a Rod Stewart fan, I took an immediately liking to “Every Picture Tells a Story”, Rod Stewart’s third solo album, released on May 28, 1971. There is an authenticity to his delivery throughout this album and the strongest tracks are certainly among Rod’s best efforts.