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Fifty Year Friday: December 1970

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band

Though, almost fifty years ago, days after Christmas, I ended up buying George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and skipped purchasing this John Lennon album, my next door neighbor did buy it. He was sixteen and I was fifteen years of age. On first listening, I followed the lyrics more carefully than the music, and to me the album was not only unusually personal but somewhat bleak and cynical with an undertone of bitterness. Musically intimate, it was perfect for secluded listening, and the quality of the songs supported both repeated, concentrated listening or putting it on as background while reading or doing schoolwork. Quite a gem. A gem I appreciate even more today. This album was recorded after Lennon and Ono had gone through primal scream therapy and listening to in 2020, I can now more readily relate to Lennon’s viewpoint and his personal pain. I also appreciate the production quality of the album more, though I remember even almost fifty years later being impressed by the double tracking of his vocals on songs like “Hold On”, the simplicity and intimacy of Lennon’s acoustic guitar and vocal presence of “Working Class Hero”, and the beauty of tracks like “Love” and “Look at Me”, the latter similar to Lennon’s Julia on the Beatles’ White album. In the 1980s, no longer a student but successfully self-employed, I made sure I had my own copy of this album, but I must admit that listening to it again in 2020, I appreciate it more than ever.

Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band

We also saw the Yoko One companion album in the stores and eyed it multiple times but the consensus on the street was to avoid it completely. Finally, sometime in 1971, I found someone that had it in their collection and listened to a part of it, looking for any trace of a recognizable song, and not finding it in the first few minutes, even after lifting and repositioning the needles on each track of side one, I abandoned any interest.

That is — until now — and now listening to it in full, after having many hours of accumulated listening to Webern, Cecil Taylor, Xenakis, Crumb, John Cage and a wide range of even less popularly acclaimed music, find it to be quite good. Two bonus elements for me: John Lennon’s guitar and, more impressively, the Ornette Coleman quartet’s contributions on the first track of side two, “AOS” with Yoko Ono’s vocals often merging in quite effectively. Also of note is the quirky “Touch Me” which seems to perfect for deterring any innate tendencies for tactile contact. All in all a solid soundscape experience.

Robert Wyatt: End of an Ear

Released on December 4, 1970, and recorded between Soft Machine’s third and fourth albums, Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear is another challenging listening experience, not easily classified as either jazz-rock, jazz or progressive-rock. Wyatt drums with abandon and provides wordless vocals, sometimes altered in speed and thus also pitch. It’s borderline chaotic, and yet reassuringly musical.

Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off

Leaving both the Robert Wyatt and Yoko Ono albums in the dust, is Captain Beefheart’s wild and unconventional Lick My Decals Off. The first track, “Lick My Decals Off“, though purportedly a statement encouraging consumers, in Beefheart’s words, to “get rid of the labels”, and to evaluate the musical content itself, is clearly a song on tongue-based pleasuring with “lick” (and possibly the “dec” part of “decals”) being the operative message here. The rest of the album is as wild and unbridled with ample use of complex meters and rhythms. The opposite of music to relax or sleep to, this is music to fully wake most mortal listeners up!

Van Der Graaf Generator: H to He, Who Am the Only One

Equally adventurous as these aforementioned albums, with an abundance of complexity, yet, comparatively, “easy listening music” to the Ono and Beefheart albums, is Van Der Graf Generator’s cryptically named third album, H to He, Who Am the Only One, referencing the transformation of hydrogens atoms into a single, inert, alone and isolated helium atom — a metaphor, whether appropriate or not, for the theme of isolation that is so effectively represented in the music and lyrics of this brilliantly realized and remarkable album.

King Crimson: Lizard

I remember purchasing King Crimson’s Lizard shortly after acquiring the classic album In the Court of the Crimson King, expecting something similar. Unlike their second album, In the Wake of Poseiden, which I had not yet acquired and eventually had to special order, Lizard was very different with no songs matching the colorful vitality of “21st Century Schizoid Man” or “The Court of the Crimson King” or even the simple melodic beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” or “Moonchild.” Nonetheless, the music was instantly intriguing and engaging — and by the second or third listening, I fully accepted it, as well as the distinctly differences in contributions from drummer Andrew McCullough (quite talented by with a far different approach than Micheal Giles) and saxophonist Mel Collins, both of which make this album particularly special — and the replacement of Greg Lake (after his departure to ELP) with bassist and vocalist Gordon Haskell. Robert Fripp, as always, deserves particular acknowledgment, providing memorable acoustic and electric guitar as well as some mellotron and organ.

Nico: Desertshore

Nico’s releases her third solo album, Desertshore. Under half an hour, there is not a wasted microsecond on the entire album. “Janitor of Lunancy” begins the album with a richly-dark bleakness. The harmonium provides both a mystic droning and forward harmonic motion supporting Nico’s low-register vocals from underneath. “The Falconer” starts in similar fashion but John Cale soon joins in a piano, providing a smattering of light that opens up and broadens the music’s scope. The third track, “My Only Child”, for Nico’s eight-year old son, is a beautifully sung, mostly a cappella gem with Nico providing some additional chorale-like vocals and John Cale providing a few minimal brushworks of instrumental punctuation on the high-register of the French horn including the opening note of the work.

Side two begins with violin and harmonium and again provides a bleakness of musical landscape on which rests Nico’s vocals. Whereas the music of “Janitor of Lunancy” might be likened to a hot, dry Bulgarian plain in early August, “Abscheid” more closely resembles a cold, desolate Scottish lowland in the darkness of a January morning. The next track, “Afraid”, ironically is more musically and lyrically hopeful. Mutterlein, an ode either specifically to Nico’s mother or mothers in general is austere and heartfelt. Almost Schubertian, this work was performed almost 28 years later at Nico’s funeral after her tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage.

The album ends with the moderate paced, but doggedly forward-driving “All That is My Own”, beautiful and distinctive. Altogether Desertshore is the equivalent of a cohesive song cycle with commendable vocals and praiseworthy compositions from one of the more notable, but often overlooked, singer-songwriters of this era.

Rainbow River

Vashthi Bunyan: Just Another Diamond Day

A singer-songwriter even more overlooked than Nico was Vashthi Bunyan, whose 1970 album, Just Another Diamond Day, recorded in November and December 1969 and released in December 1970, sold so poorly that Bunyan would stop recording and performing and not make another album until 2005. Thankfully, the album gained attention during the rise of the small-label Indie rock artists, when it’s simplicity and musical honesty was more fully appreciated.

Colosseum: Daughter of Time, If: If2

Additional albums of note for December 1970 include Colosseum’s Daughter of Time, and If’s second album, the fine jazz-rock If2.

Beethoven

On December 16, 1970, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in the Los Angeles Music Center hosted the monumental 12-hour Beethoven Marathon for Beethoven‘s 200th birthday celebration. Those of us in Advanced Placement English at my high school were lucky enough to be bussed to the event. Admission was $1 and we had to leave before evening, but I got to hear several hours of great music including the Beethoven Octet! I was so taken by the piece, I tried to stay for the evening performances, but as I didn’t have a ride arranged back to Orange County, I had to leave with the rest of my classmates. Nonetheless the music I did hear left a lasting impression still remembered today. Classical music on recordings falls far short of a good live performance, and I was very fortunate to hear so many fine performances fifty years ago.

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Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven

Fifty Year Friday: May 1970

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Quatermass: Quatermass

Released in May of 1970, Quatermass’s first and final album, named after the band, sold poorly and, outside of prog-rock circles, is little known about today.

Quatermass was a trio with a talented composer/keyboardist J. Peter Robinson, similar in some ways to Dave Greenslade, a skillful composer/bassist/vocalist John Gustafson, and drummer, Mick Underwood who had turned down a chance to be the drummer for Jimmy Page’s new band, Led Zeppelin, in order to be part of the heavier sounding “Episode Six”, which would eventually include Robinson and Gustafson who, along with Underwood, would eventually leave Episode Six to form Quatermass.

The Quatermass sound is a mixture of early prog and hard rock with three bluesy hard-rock tunes added by outsider Steve Hammond.  The album is bookended by the Robinson synthesizer composition, “Entropy”, followed by Hammond’s “Black Sheep of the Family” which would later be covered by Deep Purple.  “Post War Saturday Echo” mixes prog, blues and rock with a solid intro, some reflective piano followed by a progressive-rock  trio section and a more traditional finish. This is followed by the Greenslade-like ballad, “Good Lord Knows.” The next track, “Up on the Ground” anticipates later Deep Purple with a mostly hard rock veneer with early prog elements including Moog synthesizer.  “Laughin’ Tackle” provides some more strong early prog-rock with the obligatory drum solo and a wide range of colorful instrumentation. The best track, “Punting”, was not originally included on the album, but is a bonus track on currently available CDs.  Excluding the tracks by Hammond, the album is a good example of early prog-rock with some good improvisation and dynamic compositions.

J. Peter Robinson, would ultimately become a session keyboardist working with Brand X, Morris Pert. Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and then later write music for movies and television.

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Carole King: Writer

Carole King gives us her debut album, Writer, in May 1970.  Although this album was generally neglected until Tapestry, it is a fine album with a diverse set of songs from pop to country to folk-rock including the soulful “Up on the Roof” previously sung by the Drifters in the early sixties.  Tapestry has better production, sound, and some superior compositions (“You’ve  Got a Friend”, “So Far Away”) but Writer is an album full of quality music, singing, and musicianship.

Inthewakeof poseidon

King Crimson: In the Wake of Poseidon

Released May 15, 2020, I had to go to a little extra effort to purchase King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon as I couldn’t find it in local record stores.  Fortunately, I was able to purchase by special order from the record store near our local college. It took several weeks to get,  and I checked in two or three times a week to see if it had yet come in.  When it finally did, about four weeks later, the cover was badly damaged (and to such an extent as to leave some doubt as to whether the LP itself would be in good shape.) I had a choice of requesting the album to be re-ordered or accept the damage and trust that the LP would be okay. The idea of waiting another four weeks or possibly longer for a replacement was not an option: I had to hear the album as soon as possible.  I paid the price of $5.99 as opposed to the $3.99 I would have paid for an album already in the bins, and went home.  Fortunately the LP was not at all damaged, the music was great and was very much like the first album.

In fact, playing the first side, it was suspiciously too similar to the first album.  Clearly the band, despite the loss of Ian McDonald, had intentionally decided to create a close likeness of In the Court of the Crimson King.  After a brief unaccompanied rendition on vocals by Greg Lake of “Peace”,  the rest of side one sounds like a covert transformation of the first side of the first album.  “Pictures of a City”, colorful and vigorous, sounds alarmingly close to “21st Century Schizoid Man”, which musically, is certainly something worth achieving in itself.  “Cadence and Cascade” fills the role of “I Talk to the Wind”, but like “Pictures of a City” falls shy of the original, and same with “In the Wake of Poseidon” alignment with “Epitaph.”  The music and performances are good, and worth multiple listenings, but falls short of its forerunner.

Side two is a different story. An instrumental version of Peace begins the set, followed by the catchy “Cat Food” (released as a single in the UK), and the three-part “Devil’s Triangle” which incorporates a revised version of Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War” from The Planets replete and awash with the tape-induced sounds of the mellotron.  Overall a good album that misses a few inches wide of the previous bulls-eye registered by one of the great rock albums of all time, In the Court of the Crimson King.

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Beatles: Let It Be

Recorded mostly back in January 1969, Let It Be was released on the 8th of May 1970,  about four weeks after the Beatles announced their break-up and about three weeks after McCartney had unjustly taken some of the blame for the break-up with the release of his solo album.  Let It Be always seemed like an afterthought in the Beatles catalog.  It was a simpler, more rugged, less refined, and less cohesive set of songs than their previous last six albums (omitting Yellow Submarine) and couldn’t hold up to the number of repeated listenings of those previous six albums. Nonetheless, it is still superior to most albums, opening up strong with “Two of Us” and including real gems like “Across The Universe”, “Let it Be” and the “Long and Winding Road.”  The 1960s came to an end with the last recordings of the Beatles made in 1969, and what followed was largely influenced by those same Beatles, particularly the popularity of the singer-songwriter and the thirst for imaginative and innovative music as most notably represented by the adventurous jazz-rock and progressive rock bands.

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