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Fifty Year Friday: April 1970

GENTLE GIANT: THREE FRIENDS

Released on April 14, 1972, Three Friends is Gentle Giant’s third album and their first self produced album, and takes a musical direction quite different from the previous two, with the music coalesced around the thematic concept of three schoolmates and the different directions they take. Whereas the music of the previous album generally flows and evades concrete musical borders, owing much to medieval and renaissance musical sensibilities, the music of Three Friends is distinctly of the twentieth century with repeated musical cells and patterns, occurrences of syncopation, and both subtle and more strongly emphasized meter changes — all taken together, form the initial characteristics of an identifiable Gentle Giant style that would become more prevalent in their fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth albums.

The first track, the prologue, starts off in 3/4, appropriate for the concept of “three friends”, then shifts into 4/4 in preparation for the lyrics and then ends in mostly 3/4 with a few apparent meter changes for the ending. The high register synthesizer, like the wispiness of memory, adds to the overall effect of detailed stereo separation. The interlaced vocals continues with the next track, “School Days”, which brings to mind that back and forth playfulness of school children, with some more shuffling of the time signature and then a brief dark middle interlude that shifts into 4/4 for the “remember” section which includes Ray Shulman’s son providing age-appropriate vocals against uncle Phil Shulmans grown-up vocals. After a jazzy vibraphone solo from Kerry Minnear, there are some more meter changes and the the reflection on past school days quietly ends.

Each of the next three tracks focuses on one of the three friends. “Working All Day” is the stoic pronouncement of the manual laborer, voiced appropriately by Derek Shulman, who matter of factly accepts his fate with “no regrets” in mostly straight 4/4 common time. Notable is the introduction, a free multi-voiced, contrapuntal, synthesizer part, that, through the magic of magnetic type, slowly (and seamlessly) grinds down to the plodding working class tempo of the opening theme. Near the end of the piece, in the recap of that initial “working all day” theme, we get a few bars of what I call the Gentle Giant “stride” style (see Fifty Year Friday: July 1971), a “keep on trucking” era type of passage, that appears about twenty-seconds before the end of the song.  

“Peel the Paint” showcases, lyrically, Phil Shulman, light and airy with “free from the start”, then Derek with an anguished “peel the paint”, “nothing’s been learned”, and musically, the two sides of the artist — the aesthetic highs and the tortured lows — with the “peel the paint”, “same old savage beast”, and “nothing’s been learned, no, nothing at all” section relying heavily on the use of the “devil of music” (“diabolus in musica”), the tritone, and a guitar solo that starts out tormented and appears to flop into a drunken-like stupor with the piece ending with a recap of “nothing’s been learned.”

The third track covers the final friend, the lad that made the “big time”, reflecting on the material advantages of success, in a mostly 12/8 meter with some shorter bars for typical Gentle Giant variety. The album ends with “Three Friends” redeploying material from the prologue, including use of both 3/4 and 4/4 meters. The album, though maybe not delivering the most profound concept or realization of that concept, succeeds musically, and with its ample occurrence of 4/4, 2/4 and 12/8 rhythms, makes wonderful driving music. I would also suggest listening to it with visual cues — perhaps something like “light speakers” — devices that bundle different colors of strings of Christmas lights with each color associated to a band of audio frequencies and placed behind a semi-transparent plastic to create dazzling color effects coordinated with the music.’

Overcast: The Approaching Storm

Recorded in a series of contentious sessions in January 1972, made even more difficult by equipment issues and studio logistic headaches (with the band unpleasantly mired in the resulting red tape spawned by recent ownership changes at the La Brea recording studios), Overcast’s fifth album, The Approaching Storm, saw the light of day on the first of April, 1972.

Shifting tentatively from the basic blues and blues-rock formula that had provided their only hit, “Better Yet”, the band, led by the urging of classically trained keyboardist Trevor Stuart (see Fifty Year Friday: Overcast, With a Chance of Showers) explored more complex musical avenues, incorporating a range of influences from the The Who’s recent 1971 album, Who’s Next to the Yes’s Fragile album — though clearly, David Amato was no Keith Moon or Bill Bruford, and Douglas Brandt was no John Entwistle or Chris Squire.

The first side starts with the title track, with heavy bass and darkly-tinged doom-laced lyrics contrasted with pleas for optimism (“No room for grooming this looming, mushrooming doom and gloom”), followed by “Cognitive Unconsciousness” with its bagpipe-like synthesizer passage, and then “Decidedly Dangerous”, which merges into “Disaster Part One: Recognized, Resisted, Realized”, which effectively ends the first side.

Side Two opens with “Disaster Part Two: Reality” with stabbing marimba-like effects from the synthesizer and concludes with the dramatic and stormy, fifteen-minute, “Crystal Palace Workshop”, which leans heavily on Stuarts multi-track use of moog synthesizer and Bill Fortney’s heavily arpeggiated and intermittently apocalyptic electric guitar.

David Crosby & Graham Nash: David Crosby & Graham Nash; Stephen Stills: Manassas; Jim Croce: You Don’t Mess Around with Jim; Procol Harum: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Additional albums released in April of 1972 include the first Crosby/Graham album, with an exquisite balance between the well-crafted Nash compositions and the mellower Crosby tunes crowned by Nash’s timeless gem “Immigration Man”. the Stephen Stills two LP Manassas with its individually themed LP sides, Jim Croce’s breakout commercial album, You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, with its quality arrangements, well-recorded acoustic guitar and the elegantly-wrought classic, “Time in a Bottle”, and Procol Harum’s best selling album recorded live with full orchestra.

Fifty Year Friday: Overcast, With a Chance of Showers

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Overcast: With A Chance of Showers

Trevor Stuart arrived in the United States at the age of fifteen in 1965 when his mother,  accepted a teaching post at Pierce College — Dr. Catherine Stuart becoming only the third female mathematics professor at a California college.  Trevor’s father, an electrical engineer and sometimes studio pianist, stayed in London, for several months, eventually joining Trevor and Catherine after getting landing a job as production engineer at Capitol records.

Like his mother and father, Trevor had received classical piano lessons starting at an early age, and around the middle of 1968, started getting uncredited work on an occasional rock or pop album as well as providing piano and electric organ for small ensembles recorded by Jazzco, a Muzak-like provider of  commercial background music. It was late 1968 when Trevor Stuart and Overcast singer and guitarist Bill Fortney first met while standing in line at the Troubadour club, when Fortney bemoaned the lack of success in finding a suitable replacement for guitarist Greg Paulson, who, convinced that Overcast best days were behind them, had taken a full time position at the Orange County Kimberly-Clark paper products plant.

Stuart asked a few questions about this band he had never heard of and then gave it no more thought until January 1969 when he noticed an entry for Overcast in the recording schedule at the La Brea Recording Studios immediately after a session he was sitting in on.  He stayed around to say hello to Fortney; the Overcast leader had arrived with Douglas Brandt and David Amato and it was clear that Fortney was a bit distracted.  It turned out that David Amato had broken up with Claire Stanston who, along with tenor saxophonist Rick Stephenson, would help fill in the void for guitarist Greg Paulson.  It was bad enough that Stanston didn’t want any thing whatsoever to do with Amato, but this was compounded with Rick Stephenson immediately taking an interest in Claire and determining that time spent with Overcast could hardly compare to any anticipated time spent with Claire.

It was at this point that Stuart allegedly said he would have a go at it, informing a surprised Overcast that he could play keyboards and could quickly pick up tunes, particularly if Overcast would call out the chords if the music got tricky.

Fortunately, there wasn’t anything particularly tricky in Overcast’s current set of tunes and within the next three sessions,  Overcast had laid down their second album, recorded on January 11, 17 and 18, 1969 and released on the first of April of that year.

David Amato, once again suggested the title for the album, and this time Elektra acquiesced.  However, they weren’t too keen on Amato’s suggestion for the cover of “With a Chance of Showers” — a photo of a bikini-clad model in the shower.  Neither did they go for Amato’s suggestion of a photo shoot of the band in bathing suits in the Fullerton Junior College Locker Room showers — with or without accompanying bikini-clad models.  Brandt suggested reusing the same album cover used for the first album, but with the new title added, and though this was also rejected by Elektra, a similarly looking cover, but of a somewhat lower quality, was quickly created at the last moment.

Also occurring at the last moment was Elektra’s decision to not include the song, “Better Yet”, later released on their third album, due to its lyrics which included lines like “Is there anything you’d rather get than your sugar daddy’s red corvette’ and “Am I better, better, better yet, am I better than a cigarette?” causing the band to quickly come up with “Huntington Beach Baby Blues.”  Notably, also added in that January 18th recording session, was Stuart’s psychedelic-rock version of the chord progression of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, with title based on Thelonious Monk’s own version of that same tune titled “In Walked Bud.”  Not censored, were any of the lyrics in “The Hallway Episode”, which included in the chorus,  “I can see, you and me, doing what we want in the hallway.”  The ideas of photo shoots with scantily clad models, as well as the lyrics in “Better Yet” and “The Hallway Episode”, all same quite tame by today’s standards,  would soon become commonplace starting in the 1970s — but for now, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention excepted, this was still 1969 and Overcast was just another local band trying to make the big time by any means available, quietly giving in to the judgment of a randomly assigned Elektra representative regarding what was appropriate and what was not.  That would soon change with the poor sales of this second album and Elektra’s lack of interest in funding a third album.

all tracks written by Bill Fortney and Douglas Brandt except where noted.

Side A

No.

Title

Length

1.

“Sand, Wind, Water and You”

5:10

2.

“Chemistry with Kimberly”

3:22

3.

“Choice Decisions Left Alone”

3:50

4.

“Huntington Beach Baby Blues” (Fortney, Brandt, Amato, Stuart)

3:43

5.

“Pancake Breakfast”

4:47

Side B

No.

Title

Length

6.

“Another message for the masses”

7:02

7.

“The Hallway Episode”

3:15

8.

“Sheila Said”

4:50

9.

“Twentieth Century Overload”

3:43

10.

“In Walked Mud” (Trevor Stuart)

3:03

Personnel

Overcast

  • Bill Fortney – guitar, lead vocals
  • Douglas Brandt – bass guitar, vocals
  • Trevor Stuart, hammond organ, electric piano
  • David Amato, drums

Fifty Year Friday: Overcast

Overcast1

This debut album by the Southern California group, Overcast, recorded in January of 1968, and released prematurely on April 1, 1968 prior to any marketing effort or activity, due to a simple clerical mistake, sold less than 800 copies, many of which were purchased by family, friends and, even though they were given several gratis copies, band members themselves.  It was first re-released in 1989 as a CD and later pressed on 180 gram vinyl as a limited edition LP; one can also find one or more tracks included in various compilations and box sets.

Bill Fortney was born in Whittier, California, and moved to La Mirada in 1959 at the age of 11, learning guitar from his uncle, who being intermittently unemployed, lived on and off with his sister, Bill’s mother, and her family, giving guitar and piano lessons to neighborhood children and, on occasion, playing studio gigs recording unaccredited guitar work for technically deficient rock guitarists or providing short passages of  acoustic or electric guitar for lower budget movie soundtracks.  The young nephew never took a liking to the piano, there was none in the Fortney home, but, instead, Bill spent hours upon hours playing all three of his uncle’s guitars until his father bought him an inexpensive nylon-stringed acoustic guitar for his 15th birthday and then a second-hand scarlet-red Vox Clubman electric guitar for his 17th birthday.

In his senior year of high school, Bill hooked up with Douglas Brandt and David Amato from nearby Buena Park and played local high school dances under the band name The Blue Ravens, then The Blue Jeans, then The Ever Expanding Bright Blue Jeans,  covering everything from early Beatles and Beach Boys to singles by The Bachelors, The Marketts and the Hondells. It was during this time that Fortney and Brandt starting taking chord sequences from the various songs they had learned by ear and imposed new melodies and words to create their own songs.  These rarely went over well when played for a dance audience, but were worked and reworked until Jan 12, 1968, when The Ever Expanding Bright Blue Jeans, now named Overcast, a name change that happened shortly after watching the Doors on the Jonathan Winters show in late December 1967, with Fortney and Brandt agreeing on the need for a shorter and somewhat darker name,  had their first of two three-hour studio sessions to record their debut album, originally proposed by drummer David Amato to be titled, “With a Chance of Showers”, but changed simply to Overcast after the record label tried to get them to change the name of the band from “Overcast” to “A Chance of Showers.”

The album opens up with the bass-dominated instrumental “Weather Endeavor” which is primarily blues-based except for a psychedelic middle section in which Douglas Brandt’s friend, Rick Stephenson plays saxophone against Fortney’s wailing, Hendrix-influenced guitar. In this middle section, the band modulates from C major to D major with a ensuing mish-mash of major, minor and dominant seventh chords until a sustained half-diminished seventh-chord on B precedes a decisive return back to C major for a heavily modified A section rampant with chord substitutions.  The result, though adventurous and unusual, comes off more unfocused than artful.

This is then compensated for by the second  track,  “Action Reaction”,  which is a simple three-chord riff-based rocker, with Brandt’s bass conspicuously emphasized and borderline decent drum work from David Amato.

The third track “Break Out of Salina, Kansas”, is a two-part five-minute track with the first part containing the same chord sequences as The Door’s “Break on Through” and the second part matching the chord sequencing of The Door’s “Soul Kitchen.”

Side one closes out with “Please Plead Plea”, a sorrowful lament entreating the love interest of the song to apologize for past wrongs and beg to be taken back. Again Brandt’s bass stands out with Fortney’s electric guitar imploring and beseeching throughout.

Side two opens up with “Fifth Tuesday of March” which is similar to the Kink’s “Love me ’till the Sun Shines.” This track is followed by “Sawdust and Certainty?” with marimba and organ contributing to a song full of contrasts, the music vacillating between contending against and partnering with decidedly opaque and impenetrable lyrics.

The third song of side two is “Sampson and the Philistines” a musical sermon against giving into the establishment, cutting one’s hair and becoming blind to the evils of the military-industrial complex — especially when this is done for the sake of landing a summer job.

The fourth song, “Short Wave Radio Girl” is based on the chord sequence of the Hondell’s “Younger Girl” but faster paced and with an added section in the middle based on another local group’s work, The Parade’s 1967 hit “Sunshine Girl.”

The album ends with “Electrical Connection”, apparently an attempt to create something akin to The Door’s “Light My Fire”, though clearly falling short commercially and artistically. Claire Stanston proves effective on organ, and, once again, we have Rick Stephenson on tenor saxophone and some notable guitar work by Fortney.

All tracks written by Bill Fortney and Douglas Brandt except where noted.

Side A

No.

Title

Length

1.

“Weather Endeavor” (Fortney, Brandt, Polson, Amato, Rick Stephenson)

7:19

2.

“Action Reaction”

3:25

3.

Break Out of Salinas Kansas

5:04

4.

“Please Plea Plead”

3:51

Side B

No.

Title

Length

7.

“Fifth Tuesday of March”

2:54

8.

“Sawdust and Certainty?” (Fortney, Polson, Claire Stanston, Paul Mayer)

3:22

9.

“Sampson and the Philistines”

2:52

10.

“Short Wave Radio Girl”

4:31

11.

Electrical Connection(Fortney, Brandt, Polson, Amato, Claire Stantson, Rick Stephenson)

5:47

Personnel

Overcast

  • Bill Fortney – guitar, lead vocals
  • Douglas Brandt – bass guitar, vocals
  • Greg Polson, guitar
  • David Amato, drums

Additional Personnel

  • Rick Stephenson – tenor saxophone
  • Claire Stanston – organ, piano
  • Paul Mayer – marimba

 

 

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