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Fifty Year Friday: Nashville Skyline, Songs From A Room, Nazz Nazz

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BOB DYLAN: NASHVILLE SKYLINE

“Oh me, oh my,
Love that country pie.”

— Bob Dylan

Especially with singer songwriters, its’ fun to speculate which came first: the lyrics or the music.  Bob Dylan’s 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding” appears to be a well-crafted set of poems that then are set to music.  Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline appears to be a set of music compositions, with lyrics added afterwords.  Adding the words later, creates a task much more difficult for the lyricist role of the singer songwriter, particularly if the music does not emerge from a set of chord progressions, but comes from the heart — a melody that one hears with or without its associated chords, that then one must fully form into a song.  I am particularly amazed at the results of lyricist Lorenz Hart who was able to write such excellent lyrics to completed Richard Rogers songs.

However, writing great music to preexisting lyrics seems to be an almost impossible feat. As impressed as I am at the quality of Hart’s lyrics to fit into preexisting music, I am even more amazed at the quality of music that Richard Rogers was able to provide when he switched to working with Oscar Hammerstein, a lyricists whose method of creation was to first write the lyrics, handing those finished lyrics to the composer who then had to create appropriate music for those words.

So, I am not surprised that Dylan, who is not the quality of composer as Richard Rogers, comes up short musically sometimes when creating music to fit his own existing poetry as is the general case with the “John Wesley Harding” album.

Note that I may be completely wrong with this thesis, but I believe that with Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, released on April 9, 1969, several of the songs were written first with lyrics added.  “Nashville Skyline Rag” was a rare instrumental by Dylan and gives us a clear example of Dylan writing music without preexisting lyrics, but I believe this is also the case with songs like “To Be Alone With You”” I Threw it All Away”, and “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  Unlike the previous album, Nashville Skyline is not a series of songs with verses and no choruses but a collection of traditional,  fairly catchy and easily singable tunes.  The music sounds more natural, and comes across as the primary content — another indicator that the lyrics are there for the music and not the music being created to support existing poetry.

But an additional reason for my assertion that the music came first, is the generally simple quality of the lyrics. On scrutiny, this is a rather weak argument when one considers that not only most of the music, but the associated words are totally in alignment with expected character of late 1960’s country music, and so one could argue that Dylan once again wrote the lyrics first to get the level of authenticity needed for the project and rose to the task of fitting natural, catchy, country music to those lyrics. Either way Dylan deserves praise for the final product and his amazing adaptability.

He also deserves particular praise for the number of musical and lyrical cliches he was able to fit into a short twenty-seven minute album, given there is nothing inherently wrong with cliches: to quote Nicolas Slonimsky, one of the great musicologists of the twentieth century defending a particularly cliche in classical music, “yes, its a cliche, but it’s a good cliche!”   Musically, we find heavy reliance on common country music chord progressions and melodic patterns, but it is the lyrical cliches that interest me even more. For example, the entire content of the third song, “To Be Alone with You” is almost entirely crafted from cliches:

“To be alone with you,
Just you and me,
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through;
Everything is always right
When I’m alone with you.

“To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away;
It only goes to show
That while life’s pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I’m alone with you.”

“They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love;
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you’re always what I’m thinkin’ of.
I wish the night were here
Bringin’ me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms.

“I’ll always thank the Lord
When my workin’ day is through —
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you”

And so it goes for the rest of the album with such often-used phrases as

“I treated her like a fool”, “in the palm of my hand”, “I threw it all away”. “Love … makes the world go ’round”, “stole my heart away”. “love to spend the night”. “future looks so bright”. “girl is out of sight”. “loved her just the same”. “And I love her so”. “you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen”. “You can have your cake and eat it too”. “tonight no light will shine on me”. “lost the only pal I had”. “I just could not be what she wanted me to be”. “I thought that she’d be true”. “what a woman in love would do”. “I didn’t mean to see her go”. “tell me that it isn’t true”, “They say that you’ve been seen with some other man”. “he’s tall, dark and handsome”. “It hurts me all over”, “all I want is your word”, “you better come through”, “I’m countin’ on you”. “playin’ ’til the break of day”. “that ain’t no lie”, “got nothin’ on me”, “Throw my troubles out the door”, “it was more than I could do”. “your love comes on so strong”, “I’ve waited all day long”, “Is it really any wonder”, “You cast your spell and I went under“, “I find it so difficult to leave.”

One has to conclude, even if  reluctantly, that there is a genius at work here, and whether the lyrics came first or were cleverly fitted into the music, it’s impressive how all these cliches were incorporated into these few songs.

One personal note: “Lay, Lady, Lay” was repeatedly played on AM radio, over and over, starting in July 1969.  I cringed every time it came on. I was fourteen, and this is second worse traumatic experience for me that year — the worst was having to hear The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” on the radio, relentlessly repeated with the resumption of the school year that September. What an ordeal! A poor, suffering, helpless fourteen-year-old freshman high school student being subjected to the one song that most exemplified (and historically defined) bubble-gum pop music — and subjected to such inane music and lyrics every morning and every afternoon on the school bus ride.  “Lay, Lady, Lay” was a welcome relief in comparison.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Bob Dylan – guitar, harmonica, keyboards, vocals
Norman Blake – guitar, dobro
Kenneth A. Buttrey – drums
Johnny Cash – vocals on “Girl from North Country”
Fred Carter Jr. – guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, guitar
Pete Drake – pedal steel guitar
Marshall Grant – bass guitar on “Girl from North Country”
W. S. Holland – drums on “Girl from North Country”
Charlie McCoy – guitar, harmonica
Bob Wilson – organ, piano
Bob Wootton – electric guitar on “Girl from North Country”

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LEONARD COHEN: SONGS FROM A ROOM

Released on April 7, 1969, Leonard Cohen’s second album Songs from a Room, did well on the US Charts (peaking at 63) and impressively in the UK (getting as high as second spot on the UK charts.)  This seems to be another one of those singer-songwriter album which has songs that are based on poetry set to music rather than lyrics devised to fit the music.

The most amazing song, on a relatively strong album, is the powerfully compelling “Story of Isaac”, basically an anti-Vietnam song, set within the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It’s message extends much more broadly, and the song unfolds first as a narrative and then as a commentary.  “A scheme” such as capitalism or communism poorly compares to a divine vision, and if what Abraham did is clearly inappropriate, how much more so is sending our youth off to fight politically-motivated wars?  Or to kill off the promise of future generations by reckless consumption of our planet’s precious resources?  One has to be astonished at how artfully and convincingly Cohen has crafted his message.

Cohen delivers intimate, personal songs from his room that can fully enjoyed when we provide undivided attention to the music emanating from the speakers in front of us in our rooms.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Leonard Cohen – vocals, classical guitar
Ron Cornelius – acoustic and electric guitar
Bubba Fowler – banjo, bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar

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THE NAZZ: NAZZ NAZZ

Todd Rundgren and The Nazz, released their second album, “Nazz Nazz” on April 7, 1969.  This was effectively their last album, originally intended as a double album, with some of the music held back and then later released as “Nazz III” by SGC Records coinciding with Todd Rundgren’s blossoming solo career starting to provide a commercial audience for these earlier tracks.

The diversity of this album is remarkable.  There are two solid blues numbers, “Kiddie Boy” and “Featherbedding Lover”, a fine-blues based hard rock number “Hang on Paul”, sounding as it would almost fit into the Beatles’ White Album, the melodic “Gonna Cry Today”, the richly euphonic “Letters Don’t Count” with its glass harmonic intro and coda and its layered vocals, the heavy “Under The Ice”, the confusingly psychedelic “Meridian Leeward”, and the artfully composed “A Beautiful Song.”   One hears not only influences from The Beatles, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach, but Todd’s own singular voice in all the compositions (particularly in the melodies and harmonic modulations), the arrangements, and the overall production. In addition we have Rundgren’s distinct guitar work and his general lyrical competency which sometimes rises to be as profound and effective as anything by the more renown singer songwriters of the sixties. Case in point is this verse from “Gonna Cry Today”

“Are you turned off by my lack of composure?
Please excuse my state, it’s just that I know
Your gonna take away something that I never had
But I thought was mine.”

which is perfectly understated, identifying the essence of not only romantic loss but loss in general.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written by Todd Rundgren.

Side one

  1. “Forget All About It” – 3:15
  2. “Not Wrong Long” – 2:30
  3. “Rain Rider” – 3:52
  4. “Gonna Cry Today” – 3:15
  5. “Meridian Leeward” – 3:20
  6. “Under the Ice” – 5:40

Side two

  1. “Hang on Paul” – 2:42
  2. “Kiddie Boy” – 3:30
  3. “Featherbedding Lover” – 2:47
  4. “Letters Don’t Count” – 3:25
  5. “A Beautiful Song” – 11:15

Nazz

Robert “Stewkey” Antoni – vocals
Thom Mooney – drums, vocals
Todd Rundgren – guitar, keyboards, horn arrangements, string arrangements, vocals
Carson Van Osten – bass, vocals

 

 

 

 

 

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Fifty Year Friday: Singer/Songwriters; Additional Groups and Artists

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Singer/Songwriters

2017 is soon coming to a close, and so must our fifty year anniversary reflection on 1967.  If we had started these posts earlier in 1967, instead of starting mid-year, we could have highlighted many more albums.  Those we chose were personal favorites. Some of those not included are also worth noting.

1967 provide of wealth of albums by singer songwriters from Arlo Guthrie and his  captivating “Alice’s Restaurant” album to Van Dyke Parks first album, “Song Cycle.”

Warner Brothers Records hired Van Dyke Parks with high hopes based on his previous work with Harper’s Bizarre, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, and Paul Revere & the Raiders, and then spared no costs for Parks to record his album — racking up session hours and using a full orchestra.  When “Song Cycle” was played for the president of Warner Bros. Records, his reaction was apparent confusion: “Song Cycle?  Okay — where are the songs, then?” The label didn’t release the album until December 1967, a year after it was recorded, until, as the story goes, Jac Holzman of Elektra records offered to buy if from Warner Bros.   Once released, it’s sales where less than expected, and prompted Warner Bros.  to run full page newspaper and magazine advertisements that said they “lost $35,509 on ‘the album of the year’ (dammit)” and offered owners of the album the chance to send in their worn-out LPs of “Song Cycle” in exchange for two new copies, so one could be passed on to a friend.

Harry Nilsson authors his second album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, originally intended to be titled after Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, which is a mix of Nilsson songs and several covers including two Lennon/McCartney songs. Nilsson’s droll lyrics and musical arrangements provide character to a well-executed and produced album.  The album includes the definitive version of Nilsson’s “Without Her”, sparsely arranged with flute, electric bass, strummed guitar and cello. The album fared better in Canada then in the US, eventually catching the attention of  Beatles publicist Derek Taylor who sent copies to the Beatles.  Purportedly, John Lennon listened to the album over and over again, playing it back to back for a total of 36 consecutive hours.

1967 provided the release of two Bob Dylan albums, Dylan’s eighth studio album “John Wesley Harding”, an album filled with songs that appear were written first as poetry and then Dylan added music to them, and a greatest hits album compiling classic Dylan songs from his first seven albums.  For many of us, born between 1954 and 1960  this was our first exposure to Dylan besides what was played on AM radio.

Also for many of us born in that mid to late fifties time frame, the great North American singer songwriter of our time was not American Bob Dylan, but Canadian Roberta Joan “Joni” Mitchell.  At this time, Joni had not recorded an album but, after moving to the U.S. and performing in various clubs, was gaining attention from these performances and in several of her songs that more established artists recorded.

The most notable 1967 Joni Mitchell song, was recorded by Judy Collins on her 1967 album Wildflowers album (released in 1968.)  This song, “Both Sides Now”, would reach #8 on the U.S. pop singles, making it Judy Collins biggest hit and being the most contributing fact to the Wildflowers album peaking at the number 5 best selling album on December 1968.

Laura Nyro  released her debut album,  More Than a New Discovery Recorded in 1966, initially released in 1967, and then reissued in 1969 and again in 1973, this album showcases Nyro’s songwriting skill and versatility with many of the songs being covered by other artists, including “And When I Die” (Blood Sweat and Tears), Wedding Bell Blues” and “Blowin’ Away” (The Fifth Dimension), and “Stoney End” (Barbara Streisand.)

Recorded in 1966 and early 1967 the Deram label releases Cat Stevens’ first album,  Matthew and Son The album makes the UK Top 10, and has several successful singles. Later that year,  Stevens records New Masters which is released in December 1967, and sells significantly less copies than the first album.

Also in 1967, Tim Buckley released his second album, his most popular and generally most acclaimed album, Goodbye and Hello.   Tim Hardin released his second album,  simply titled Tim Hardin 2.  Leonard Cohen’s releases his first album, the captivating and engaging Songs of Leonard Cohen, after Judy Collins’ recording of his song “Suzanne” brought Cohen to the attention of legendary record producer  John Hammond. Cohen’s debut album begins with “Suzanne” and includes several fairly profound songs like “The Stranger Song”, “Sisters of Mercy”, and “Stories of the Street” as well as the well known “So Long, Marianne” referencing his close companion, Marianne Ihlen.

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Additional Notable Albums of 1967

The Beach Boys release two excellent albums, Smiley Smile and Wild Honey.  

Pretty Things releases their distinctly interesting, and accessible “Emotions” album, full of life and musical vibrancy with brass instruments adding further energy. Recorded in late 1966, and early 1967, it did not sell well, perhaps this was a result of ineffective distribution or marketing or perhaps the album was a bit ahead of its time, sounding more like it was recorded in 1968 or early 1969.

The first album of what many consider the first rock supergroup, Cream, sets the stage for later heavy rock bands (and by extension, heavy metal bands) with their second album, Disraeli Gears. Though there were many influences that spawned hard rock and heavy metal, Cream had a significant impact on many such younger rock musicians.

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Art (Art essential being an earlier formation of the group, Spooky Tooth), infuses rivulets of blues and wisps of psychedelia into their only album, Supernatural Fairy Tales  creating a thick-textured album, perfumed with an aroma of cannabis. Earlier to the recording of this album, several of the same musicians under the name “Hapshash and the Coloured Coat”  recorded an album earlier in 1967, titled “Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids” — this being, as far as I can tell, the first reference to “heavy metal.”

Other notable albums, many heavily psychedelic (and some incorporating elements of free jazz) were released by groups such as 13th Floor Elevators, The Aggregation, Ten Years After, AMM, Chocolate Watchband, Clear Light, Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead, Kaleidoscope, Mesmerizing Eye, Moby Grape, Orbital, Pearls Before Swine, Red Krayola (The Parable of Arable Land), Rupert’s People, Sagittarius, The Seeds, Sly and the Family Stone, Sopwith Camel, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Steppeulvene, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Animals, The Beethoven Soul, The Box, The Ceyleib People, The Easybeats, The Factory, The Fire Escape, The Freak Scene, The Incredible String Band, The Lefte Bank, The Motions, The Serpent Power, The Smoke, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, The Turtles (Happy Together), The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, The Yardbirds, Thomas Edisun’s Electric Light Bulb Band, Vanilla Fudge, and various more accessible or highly commercial groups like The Association, The Grass Roots, The Ventures, The Monkees (put together for a U.S. television series), and The Young Rascals.

This only scratches the surface.  I have not mentioned artists like Albert King (Born Under a Bad Sign), Nina Simone, Miles Davis, John Coltrane (Expression), Sam Rivers, Charles Tyler (Eastern Man Alone), Bill Dixon, Blue Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard, Gary Burton, Graham Collier, Herbie Mann, Roland Kirk, Marvin Gaye, Magic Sam, Otis Spann,  John Mayall, Miriam Makeba, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Tate, and many others, some of which I have covered in previous “Fifty Year Friday” posts: there are a number of incredible jazz albums as well as blues, rhythm and blues, and soul music albums.

Though the term progressive rock is more formerly applied to many of the more adventurous and classically influenced bands of the early 1970s, for my money 1967 was the childhood of progressive rock with the birth perhaps occurring in 1966 with Beach Boys Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Revolver and many psychedelia-tinged albums released in 1967, but recorded at the end of 1966. I challenge anyone to deny the progressiveness of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Procol Harum, Van Dyke Parks, or even groups like The Who, The Beach Boys, or The Doors.

This was a vital period in the expansion and diversification of rock music, the like of which has not been seen since.  Fortunately for us, even albums that were nearly impossible to get a hold of in 1967 are now relatively readily available, not only on CD, or in some cases freshly, pressed LPs, but also available through streaming services or on Youtube.

Most importantly, have a happy and fulfilling 2018, and don’t neglect to broadly explore the immensity of great music available to those of us alive today.

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Previous Fifty Year Friday Posts for the year 1967:

The Beatles: Sgt Peppers

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

Jimi Hendrix: Are you Experienced

Jimi Hendrix: Axis: Bold as Love

The Who: The Who Sell Out

Moody Blues: Days of  Future Passed

Byrds, Hollies and Buffalo Springfield

Love “Forever Changes”

Far Out 1967, Part One

Far Out 1967, Part Two

Nirvana “The Story of Simon Simopath; The Kinks “Something Else”

Dizzy Gillespie in 1967

Larry Young “Contrasts”; Joe Zawinul, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream”

Procol Harum “Procol Harum and The Doors “Strange Days”

Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington

Arthur Rubinstein, Pink Floyd

Marta Argerich and Carlos Paredes

David Bowie, Marc Bolan, John’s Children

John Coltrane, Jefferson Airplane

Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner

Hindustani Classical Music

The Doors: The Doors

The Velvet Underground

Aretha Franklin, Simon Dupree and the Big Sound

Mahler recordings

Rolling Stones: Between The Buttons

Jobim, Zappa, Beefheart

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