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Fifty Year Friday: March 1971

Jethro Tull: Aqualung

Later today, on youtube.com, Ian Anderson discusses each track of Aqualung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpH_WkjC_Yk

Sometime in the midst of the shimmering and wonderful Southern California summer of 1971, my next door neighbor brought over his latest album purchase. I supposed I was predisposed to like the music just from the confident manner in which he handed the album over to me, but I was hardly prepared for the overall excellence and originality of the material. That day he and I sat and listened to this album, my eyes following the lyrics written on the LP inner sleeve, is something I still vividly remember, and, hopefully, be with me for many years going forward.

The first track, the title track, opens up with the now famous isolated, tonally ambiguous, deeply-voiced electric guitar fragment — a riff faithfully foreshadowing the opening melodic phrase (“sitting on a park bench”) — it is but two seconds in length, and repeated before a short percussion utterance pulls in the vocals in dramatic fashion. This material is then layered with additional instruments creating drama and momentum. It is that dramatic quality, that musical and lyrical story telling, that leaves an immediate impression on the listener and, for me, left a locked-in, seemingly ever-lasting memory of listening to that entire album for the first time fifty years ago today.

“Aqualung”, the track, is the classic example of FM album rock with is deviation from standard popular song forms, more mimicking a short classical tone poem where the beginning theme, really an introduction of sorts, is not repeated after its initial use until brought back at the end, separated by distinctly contrasting and somewhat related material in terms of chords and tempo change.

The next track, “Cross-Eyed Mary”, continues the larger-than-life musical experience initiated by the opening track. With its reference again to the Aqualung character, this second track sets up the listener to expect that the album itself is a concept album where the individual tracks support and build up an unfolding story. However, as I continued through that first side fifty years ago, immersed in the amazing music, I was on the look out for, at a subordinate level to listening at the music, hints in the lyrics of some related storyline in the subsequent third, fourth and even fifth tracks on that first side — but eventually and inevitably concluded that there was nothing to relate to those first two tracks, and so by the sixth track I abandoned looking for a unifying concept.

The second side starts much the same implying a relationship between the first two tracks — however, for side two the remaining tracks seem to prove out some loose but unifying concept with these various side two tracks seemingly tied together with reflections on organized religion and social morality and responsibility. Musically, there is no discernible (as far as I can hear) thematic material shared between any track, another reason to set aside the premise that the entire album is any kind of a concept album. What is clear, though, is that the music is innovative, well-thought out and of lasting merit. Fifty years ago, listening to this album, it was clearly one of the best rock albums I had ever heard, and though I didn’t consider at that time its enduring impact on music lovers, I would do so a few year later when I was in college and promoting the idea of a course that would treat such music as the classical music of the 1970s — music more vital and relevant than the so-called modern classical music that was than currently being identified as part of the current classical music canon in academic circles.

Jimi Hendrix: Cry of Love

Prior to his death, Jimi Hendrix was working on this fourth studio album in 1970, with some of the music performed during a thirty-two performance tour in the summer of 1970. Following his death on September 18, 1970, several partially mixed tracks were selected and finalized by drummer Mitch Mitchell and producer Eddie Kramer for inclusion on the new album, omitting two particularly strong tracks, “Dolly Dagger” and “Room Full of Mirrors” for later inclusion on a future album. This was the first Hendrix album I bought, and I found the music readily accessible and some of the lyrics particularly creative. It’s great to listen to this again for the first time in at least forty years and I admit I appreciate the guitar work much better than I did in 1971. Overall, an excellent, easily-accessible and musically sparkling album.

Amon Duul II: Tanz der Lemminge (Dance of the Lemmings)

Sometime around March 1971, Amon Duul II released this eclectic, musically multi-dimensional album. I picked it up from my local record store in the used record bin around 1972 or 1973 little knowing what kind of music it contained. This was my introduction to non-repetitive, so-called “Krautrock. Though I found this too far out on the jam-rock, psychedelic spectrum when I first got it, after later having been exposed to lots of hours of free jazz and modern classical, the music became not only accessible but quite impressive. The first side, written primarily by guitarist/vocalist/violinist Chris Karrer mixes folk-rock influences with a progressive and psychedelic rock mindset, with imaginative acoustic and electric elements. The diversity of incorporated styles works well with no particular given style dominating. The second side, written by guitarist and vocalist John Weinzierl, is another exploration of musical diversity with more emphasis on hard rock, rock-blues and eastern elements including some admirable sitar from Bavarian sitarist Al Gromer (later Al Gromer Khan), some electric violin from Karrer, and some tape-based and electronic sound effects possibly from keyboardist Falk Rogner. The third and fourth side are music created for a soundtrack of a relatively obscure West German Film, Chamsin, based on Friedrich Schiller’s lyrical tragedy, The Bride of Messina. Though this second LP is not as strong or coherent (particularly the fourth side) as the first LP, it works better as sound imagery than traditional or more predictable listening music.

Nick Drake: Bryter Layter

Recorded in 1970 Nick Drake released his second musically impressive but commercially unsuccessful album, in March 6, 1971. The album is delightfully accessible with straight forward, quality musicianship from Drake, John Cale on viola and keyboards, Chris McGregor on piano, and other contributors including quality production from Joe Boyd and beautiful arrangements primarily by Robert Kirby and one arrangement from John Cale. Nick pokes into the marginally uncomfortable areas of “would of, should of” in some of the lyrics, with “One of These Things First” being particularly resonant for anyone that only half-tried in a relationship, later regretting the lack of engagement or commitment and “Poor Boy” an intriguing study in self-pity and self-contempt. Musically, “At the Chime of the City Clock”, “Fly” and “Poor Boy” are particular gems.

Fifty Year Friday: Unhalfbricking, Five Leaves Free

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Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking

Released on July 3, 1969, Unhalfbricking is Fairport Convention’s third album, continuing their evolution towards a mostly English Folk music style despite inclusion of three unreleased Dylan songs.  Elements of progressive rock abound, due to the acoustic guitar work of Richard Thompson and use of organ, harpsichord, electric dulcimers, violin and the eleven minute “A Sailor’s Life” with it’s instrumental second half. Sandy Denny’s expansively liberated vocals, her deft handling of the melodic line, and the subtleties in the arranging contribute to a finely finished aura that envelops the album.

The album includes two Sandy Denny compositions, including  the deeply insightful “Autopsy”, and the widely praised “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?“, previously recorded two years earlier with the Strawbs, and performed with a more relaxed pace, greater freedom, and more maturity on Unhalfbricking,

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Nick Drake: Five Leaves Free

Fifty years later, it seems natural to look back and feel some level of loss for the music that never was — the music that never was because of the tragic and premature loss of such resonant artists as Sandy Denny and Nick Drake. It’s doesn’t help to reflect that general lack of commercial attention probably contributed to the depression that brought about Denny’s and Drake’s deaths.  However, such speculation is called into question upon consideration of artists whose stardom-level status similarly contributed to their shortened lives.

Whereas Sandy Denny at least got attention and opportunities from other, more prominent artists, Nick Drake was pretty much ignored not only up until 1974 when he died of an overdose of his anti-depressant medicine, possibly intentional, but also pretty much until the late 1980s.

Though barely twenty years old when he started to record Five Leaves Free in July of 1968, and though excited at the prospect of having an album, Drake’s life was already full of darkness and depression, as clear from the lyrics of the songs. His level of musicianship was impressive: he effortlessly sings and plays complex guitar passages artfully and effectively in real time with strings or other musicians as opposed to coming back later to dub the guitar work.  Though the recording sessions were rushed  (using downtime available courtesy of Fairport Convention) and the production and arrangements were not to Drake’s liking, by June of 1969, one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the sixties was completed and released to the public on July 3, 1969. Unfortunately, the critics generally cared little for the album, and very few purchased it.  People like myself would never hear of Nick Drake until many years later.

It seems unimaginable today that this album was ignored for so long.  The quality of the music and the lyrics are undeniable, and the production is generally quite good.  Joe Boyd, a George Martin fan and the producer of this album, had a vision of leveraging all studio resources to provide a integral sound, whereas Drake wanted a simpler, more organic approach.  Boyd wanted an established arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson to provide the orchestration.  However, upon hearing Hewson’s attempts with Drake’s music, neither Boyd or Drake felt that such arrangements were suitable. Drake suggested they go with one of his friends at Cambridge University, music student Robert Kirby, who had previously arranged some of Drake’s music.  Though Boyd was initially reluctant to go with someone so unknown, lacking in credentials, and so inexperienced, after getting Kirby in the studio and hearing what he could do, Boyd settled upon Kirby for all the arrangements except one, “River Man” which, for whatever reason, was arranged by professional music director, arranger and composer, Harry Robertson.  Oddly, though Robertson is a skilled arranger, this is the weakest arrangement on the album. Perhaps it was just that Robertson didn’t have the personal familiarity with either Drake or his music that Kirby did.  Perhaps it was a matter of lack of attention to the depth of the lyrics and music.  Perhaps even Kirby would not have done the song justice. It’s not that this is one of those rare songs that works best left in bleakest, most natural state of single guitar and voice, the inclusion of the strings is a workable idea, its just that the particularly arrangement deployed lacks a true connection to Drake’s message. Nonetheless the song still works well, even if not as well as if it had been recorded with just Drake’s guitar and voice.  The composition is in 5/4 time — five beats to the measure, creating a slightly surreal effect. It’s not a jazzy 5/4 like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Lalo Schifrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme song, but a flowing, natural 5/4 composition further enhanced by the relationship between the minor and major chord choices.

It’s fair to say that as particularly special as “River Man” is as a song, all the songs on this album are finely crafted compositions. How this album was initially overlooked by critics but now fully embraced by them is just one of those recurring oddities in the music world  — and often later attributed to the music being ahead of its time. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Yes, the music is timeless and seemingly perfectly suited to the Shoegaze era of the late 1980s and 1990s, but it also fits in nicely with contemporary work of many of the other singer songwriters of 1969.  And there is nothing difficult or elusive in either the relatively simple lyrics, or Drake’s personal and distinctive,  yet easily accessible songs.

Accessible and personal does not exclude universal as in the case of “Day is Done” with its poetic representation of the inevitable finality of any given life.  Here, as in all the Kirby arrangements, the strings appropriately support the essence and character of the song amplifying its impact and effect.   “Fruit Tree” also addresses the nature of life but focuses on fame and the underappreciated artist, eerily predictive of Drake’s own life and legacy:

“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” 

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