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Fifty Year Friday: The Pretty Things, S.F. Sorrow; Led Zeppelin

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Pretty Things: S.F. Sorrow

Recorded from November 1967 to September 1968 in Abbey Road Studios, The Pretty Thing’s S.F. Sorrow, initially largely ignored but now generally considered a classic, was released in the UK in December 1968, and then not released in the U.S. until the middle of 1969.  Panned by the Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs as an “ultra-pretentious” concept album, the album received limited attention for years. Its poor reception and lack of sales precipitated founder and lead guitarist into leaving the band for a period of nearly a decade.

There seems to be many contributing factors to the album’s commercial failure: the lack of promotion, the late release of the album in the States (coming out after, rather than before, The Who’s superior, more opera-like concept album, Tommy), bad reviews, and the dark, despondent subject matter, allegorical and tragic, with its primary character named Sebastian Sorrow.  Also, heavily influenced by the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers and “Fool on the Hill”,  its musical language is that of the psychedelic rock of late 1967 and 1968, now losing much of its mass popularity.  By the time of the album’s release, the major proponents, adherents, and imitators of psychedelic rock were moving on to hard rock, progressive rock, or heavy metal.  These and other reasons caused the album to be pretty much ignored until reissued by Edsel records in the late 1980s on vinyl and then on CD in the early 1990s.

I purchased a S.F. Sorrow CD around 1992 and set it aside for some time, coming back to it recently, taking the time to appreciate what it had to offer and its historical significance — not so important as an early concept album — remember Nirvana’s 1967 album as well as other concept albums, including Sgt. Peppers, Days of Future Passed, and The Who Sell Out preceding it — but as one of the last carefully-crafted psychedelic albums of the sixties — and one that looks forward towards hard rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal — three of the most prevailing, and commercially viable, offshoots of the psychedelic rock era.

The Beatles’ influence, particularly from Sgt Peppers and singles like “Fool on the Hill”, is strong — the second track borrows elements from “Norwegian Wood” through “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the third track, “I am the Walrus” and “Good Morning” — yet, this is an album that incorporates and absorbs those influences more than mimics.

More to the point, is the quality of the album which starts out strong and builds to the end without weakness or filler; even the somewhat musique-concrete “Well of Destiny” (possibly influenced by the transitional section of “Day in the Life” ) serving its purpose in the musical narrative.  The arrangements, variety, and appropriateness of instrumentation further elevates the quality of the album, and in fact are usually of greater interest than the melodic/harmonic content of the songs themselves. (Perhaps the best song on the album, is the most simply arranged one, the poignant, “Loneliest Person”)

Though this album is very much a product of  1967 and 1968 sensibilities and styles, there are passages and techniques that anticipate other works of 1969 and the early seventies.  One can hear hints at later music from the Beatles-influenced Electric Light Orchestra (especially in “Trust”) and Badfinger to Benefit-era Jethro Tull (“Private Sorrow”) to the Who’s Tommy (“The Journey” and the intro to “Old Man Going”) to Queen.  The most remarkable similarity is to the heavy metal, bass-dominated style of Black Sabbath in “Old Man Going”  which also includes a short hard-rock electric guitar.

The CD release includes some notable bonus tracks, including “Defecting Grey” , a commercially unsuccessful single from this time period.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side One

1. “S.F. Sorrow Is Born” Phil May, Dick Taylor, Wally Waller 3:12
2. “Bracelets of Fingers” May, Taylor, Waller 3:41
3. “She Says Good Morning” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 3:23
4. “Private Sorrow” May, Taylor, Waller, Jon Povey 3:51
5. “Balloon Burning” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:51
6. “Death” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink 3:05

Side Two

7. “Baron Saturday” May, Taylor, Waller 4:01
8. “The Journey” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 2:46
9. “I See You” May, Taylor, Waller 3:56
10. “Well of Destiny” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink, Norman Smith 1:46
11. “Trust” May, Taylor, Waller 2:49
12. “Old Man Going” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey, Twink 3:09
13. “Loneliest Person” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 1:29
Bonus tracks

14. “Defecting Grey” May, Taylor, Waller 4:27
15. “Mr. Evasion” May, Taylor, Waller, Twink 3:26
16. “Talkin’ About the Good Times” May, Taylor, Waller 3:41
17. “Walking Through My Dreams” May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:35
18. “Private Sorrow” (Single version) May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:50
19. “Balloon Burning” (Single version) May, Taylor, Waller, Povey 3:45
20. “Defecting Grey” (Acetate recording) May, Taylor, Waller 5:10

Personnel

The Pretty Things

  • Phil May – vocals
  • Dick Taylor – lead guitar, vocals
  • Wally Waller – bass, guitar, vocals, wind instruments, piano
  • Jon Povey – organ, sitar, Mellotron, percussion, vocals
  • Skip Alan – drums (on some tracks, quit during recording)
  • Twink – drums (on some tracks, replaced Alan), vocals

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson

Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin

With the semantic essence of heavy metal captured in the group’s name, its hard to dispute that Led Zeppelin forged a new path down the nascent arena of hard rock and heavy metal. With a name remarkably similar to Iron Butterfly, and a similar, but more promising, blues-based musical DNA, we have the beginnings of what would soon be the quintessential hard rock group influencing predecessors like Free to countless successors like Aerosmith, Metallica, Queen, Alice Kooper, Guns N’ Roses and countless emulators that never landed a major recording contract.

From the opening guitar and drums in the opening track, “Good Times, Bad Times”, there is a focus, crispness and intensity not present in many of the blues-based rock albums immediately preceding this one.  My first experience with this album was when my next door neighbor brought it over for me to capture on my reel-to-reel tape deck for my own, limited music library.  Based on my friend’s direction, I recorded the tracks he thought worth putting on tape, securing the more accessible tracks, like”Good Times, Bad Times”,  “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” and “Communication Breakdown” but leaving out a couple I would not listen to again for decades — the last two tracks of side two.  Fortunately, since my friend had fairly good taste, we recorded all of side one, including the mysteriously dark and heavy, “Dazed and Confused”, a well-written composition, starting with, and repeating, a chromatically-descending chord sequence. Though credited to Jimmy Page on the album, the work is mostly based on a song by the same name on a 1967 album by Jake Holmes, which the Yardbirds (a group that included Jimmy Page for a while) had originally “borrowed.”  If you haven’t heard the Jake Holmes version, do yourself a favor and take the time to listen to it below.

Side Two of Led Zeppelin starts with a majestic organ solo by John Paul Jones as part of the captivating beginning of “Your Time Is Gonna  Time.” Unfortunately, the verse is much stronger than a weak, almost annoying, chorus that detracts from the rest of the work.

The next track, one which we also recorded for my repeated listening pleasure was “Black Mountain Side” based on an arrangement of the Irish folk song “Down by Blackwaterside” taught to Jimmy Page by Al Stewart.  This is followed by “Communication Breakdown”, later to become an AM radio hit.  For me, this title always brings to mind that famous phase in Cool Hand Luke — “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

The last two tracks are probably what my friend would have referred to as the band just jamming, but listening to these again, I appreciate the quality musicianship and the  overall mood.  That said, I can’t particularly bemoan not having grown up with these two tracks as part of the musical soundtrack of my high school years (1969-1973.)

Though I have mixed feelings about this album, which has many strong points, but is certainly guilty of not properly crediting others, a common enough practice in the Renaissance and Baroque days of music, but not so acceptable in the late 1960s,  I would pick this in an instant over contemporary albums by Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly.  Do I regularly, or, on average, once-a-decade listen to this? Not really; I find the later Led Zeppelin albums more appealing — and I pretty much don’t listen to those due to all the more interesting jazz, rock and classical music that contends for my limited listening time.  However, that said, prior to posting this Fifty Year Friday entry, I did truly enjoy listening to this first “L-Zep” (modern transformation of their name) once again (and then a second time), forty-nine and a half years later after first hearing all of it, and  making a copy of it for my own use, just as Jimmy Page had made a copy of both “Dazed and Confused” and “Down by Blackwaterside” for Led Zeppelin’s own use on their very first album.

No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. Good Times Bad Times 2:46
2. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You

 

6:42
3. You Shook Me 6:28
4. Dazed and Confused Page, inspired by Jake Holmes[c] 6:28
 

Side two

No. Title Writer(s) Length
5. “Your Time Is Gonna Come”
  • Page
  • Jones
4:34
6. Black Mountain Side” (instrumental) Page 2:12
7. Communication Breakdown
  • Page
  • Jones
  • Bonham
2:30
8. I Can’t Quit You Baby Dixon 4:42
9. How Many More Times
  • Page
  • Jones
  • Bonham
8:27

 

Led Zeppelin

Additional personnel

 

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Fifty Year Friday: Spirit

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Randy California, born Randy Wolfe, was a native Calfornian, born in Los Angeles, but when his step-dad, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy  (the gentleman with the bald head in the left upper portion of their first album cover; a drummer that played gigs with Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Roland Kirk, and Lee Konitz and was a founding member of  Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder) had some work lined up in New York City, the family moved to an apartment complex in Queens in 1966.  Randy soon met Jimi Hendrix and then played with Hendrix that very summer  as a member of Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.   It was while they were playing together, that Hendrix started calling Randy Wolfe, “Randy California” and another Randy in the band, Randy Palmer, “Randy Texas.”

Randy Wolfe took the “Randy California” name back west, forming Red Roosters with his step-dad, a band that eventually evolved into “Spirits Rebellious” and then just Spirit. Randy was sixteen years old. Besides Randy and Ed, Spirit included composer, keyboard player and lead vocalist, Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes on bass and backing vocals, (who later played with Ferguson in Jo Jo Gunne in the early 1970s, Firefall in the late 1970’s and Heart in the 1980s.) and John Locke (who later joined Nazareth in the 1980’s) also on keyboards. Randy was still sixteen when Spirit’s first album, “Spirit”, was released on January 22, 1968.

None of the songs on Spirit’s debut album are typical pop songs, most having more of an jazz or a psychedelic or progressive rock ethos, with a prevailing ABA form with the B section being a instrumental, partly improvisational section providing contrast to the more traditional song-like A section. The last track, “Elijah”, due to its extended length, stretches out the ABA concept to a rondo-like form (ABACADAEA) with improvised passages between the recurring theme.

All the tracks on the album are notable, with 9 of the 11  songs written or co-written by Ferguson.  “Elijah” was written by John Locke;  Randy California wrote one of the tracks, “Taurus”, a well-written, nicely arranged instrumental following the Andes/Ferguson song, “Mechanical World”, the only track with single status on the album.

“Taurus” opens up with a orchestral introduction that floats into a soft, relaxing two-part theme which is played twice (this not being one of the tracks with ABA form on the album.)  The striking part of the first half of the theme is its similarity to Zeppelin’s
“Stairway to Heaven.”  The casual listener may very well consider that Zeppelin borrowed Taurus for that beautiful guitar intro in “Stairway”, particularly if  that listener is aware that Zeppelin opened for Spirit in several 1968 concerts, that Zeppelin included material from the first track of the same Spirit album, “Fresh Garbage” in a medley they performed live, that Page is on record as stating that he had owned several Spirit albums, and that there are over a dozen noteworthy cases of  Jimmy Page and Robert Plant “borrowing without credit” material from other artists.

So similar is the connection between “Taurus” and “Stairway” that ultimately in 2014, the estate of Randy California brought a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. Randy California had drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, at the age of only 45, when swimming into the ocean to save his twelve-year old son from a rip current.  Though giving up his life in the effort, Randy managed to push his son to safety.  Now seventeen years after his death, lawyers for his estate planned to get a co-writing credit for Randy on “Stairway to Heaven.”

Unfortunately, the judge would not allow the jury to hear side-by-side comparisons of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Instead, he only allowed the performance of the two songs on keyboard by a hired musician using as the source the registered sheet music  from the Library of Congress, music that differed from the final version on the recordings. Also ruled inadmissible were expert witnesses that were lined up to talk about sixteen instances of Jimmy Page’s past use of uncredited material, the judge ruling that any past plagiarism, alleged or actual, was not relevant to this particular case in question.  Adding to this was the odd approach and personality of the prosecuting attorney for the California estate, who quickly exasperated the judge and who scored important points for the defense when questioning Page about his being influenced by the Disney/Mary Poppins song ” Chim Chim Cher-ee”.

The jury ruled in favor of the defense, and certainly there are notable differences in the two passages: the “Stairway” melody goes to A at the end of the first chord and then on to B of the next chord while “Taurus”, less remarkably, descends to A and then G#.  If they jury had heard actual recordings, its seems almost certain they would have ruled otherwise.

Personally, I am glad to have both songs as part of our musical legacy and understand how easy it is to come up with the descending chromatic chord progression used in these two songs — something anyone could accidentally discover in the course of composing by hitting sequentially descending notes for their bass line.  I am also sympathetic to how common it is to put together a song based on something one had heard a long time ago and unintentionally brought into their composing process as so clearly happened with George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” — just an unintended revisiting of “She’s So Fine.”  In the case with “Taurus”, it seems Jimmy Page had heard that song several times, forgotten about it, started to play with the chord progressions and went in the direction of a recreation of something close to what his subconscious mind was already familiar with.  In my view, a living Randy California wasn’t particularly interested in who got credit, but his descendants, perhaps needing or wanting money, had a greater interest in assignment of authorship.

You can check out the video below for a good explanation of how these two songs are similar (and differ) in their sharing of the passage in question. If you have any thoughts on this Spirit album, or thoughts on the similarities of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” please don’t hesitate comment.  Also what are some of your favorite albums from 1968?  I know one of mine is still a few months away from being fifty years old, and plan to discuss that if I even if I have lost all my remaining, exceedingly patient readers by then.

 

Click her for track listing [from Wikipedia]

 

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