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Fifty Year Friday: The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Axis: Bold as Love”

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Recorded in May and June 1967, and released in December 1967, composer, lyricist and guitarist, Jimi Hendrix shows a stunning amount of development since the recordings sessions (October 1966 through April 1966) of the first album, “Are You Experienced?”

The opening of the first track of “Axis: Bold as Love” borders on the puerile, yet to the rescue with the entrance of Hendrix’s guitar at the thirty-three second mark, we are assured of the exceptional.  Based on just the contents of the last eighty seconds of this first track, one can effortlessly make the case that Hendrix says far more in this one brief passage than can be found in Stockhausen’s entire “Hymen” (covered here in an earlier post.)

From there on, this album neatly blends the accessible with cutting edge guitar work and effective “interactiveness” (“interaction” is too weak of a word to use here) between bass, drums and Hendrix guitar.  With “Up From the Skies” we get a more relaxed, self-confident Hendrix on vocals than on the previous album, but still with more advanced and interesting instrumental passage work, indicative of much of his work in his later albums.  “Spanish Castle Magic” picks up musically from where “Foxy Lady” left off. Notable here is the bass/drums musical punctuation which becomes such a prevalent device in progressive rock and heavy metal (particularly Led Zeppelin which Hendrix purportedly never much cared for,  considering them excess baggage — a group that stole from others.  The closest to a direct Hendrix quote on this topic, attributed by Keith Altham and published in Melody Maker, shortly after Hendrix’s death in September 1970, was “I don’t think much of Led Zeppelin—I don’t think much of them. Jimmy Page is a good guitar player.”)

The album continues with “Spanish Castle Magic”, which again shows a more developed and innovative approach then the first album’s excellent “Fire”, including Hendrix adding a backward guitar track  Though the next two songs,  “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Ain’t No Telling” are not particularly musically interesting, the arrangement adds enough life to make them solid dance selections.  And, as consistent through this album, Hendrix lyrics and guitar work take these works well above the ordinary.

“Little Wing”, a beautiful ballad, and “If Six Was Nine” are classics.  “You’ve Got Me Floating” is a positive and upbeat diversion, with Graham Nash and Move band members providing the back-up vocals in the chorus. Introduced with backward guitar, “Castles Made of Sand” provides us with another reflective Hendrix ballad. The next song, “She’s So Fine”, is written by bassist Noel Redding, and is a prototypical English rock song, with a Who-like chorus, and some interesting guitar from Hendrix. The Hendrix guitar solo at the end is just enough to provide justification for its inclusion.

“One Rainy Wish” starts out ballad-like in 3/4 (with a 4/4 and 5/4 measure added to enhance a dreamy introduction), lushful and soulful, then modulates into a heavy metal exuberant 4/4 chorus and then back to the A section with a fade out coda. “Little Miss Lover” includes Hendrix use of a wah-wah pedal, an effect that would be adapted by countless rock guitarists later on.

A craftsman and perfectionist, Hendrix and his vision for this album was somewhat compromised with the objective of producer Chas Chandler, which basically was to get to the final take as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Thankfully, the final track, “Bold As Love” (with lyrics openly confessing that the negative emotions are, unfortunately, as capable of being as bold as love, and limiting us in giving and receiving love) was not rushed — with at least twenty-seven takes, and four different endings tried. The song starts off, casually, then shifts to an anthem-like chorus, with the effective interplay between the verse and chorus — the chorus triumphant, celebrating victoriously, and apparently ending the piece — but instead rather providing the embers for an Olympian coda, which rises like that mythical Phoenix, accompanied by mellotron and transcendental guitar, to provide a majestic finale to a song and an album unlike any other released in 1967.

One may be tempted to ask how musical history would have been different if Chas Chandler had produced “Sgt. Peppers” and George Martin had produced “Axis: Bold as Love.”  But like all such silly speculation (what if Lekeu age 24, had lived as long as Schubert, age 31, and Schubert had lived as long as Mozart, 35,  and Mozart had lived as long as Chopin 39, and Chopin had lived as long as Beethoven, 56, and Beethoven had lived as long as Stravinsky, 88) time is much better spent listening to those musical masterpieces left to us by the musical masters of their time.   “Axis: Bold as Love” is one of those masterpieces.

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Fifty Year Friday: Far Out 1967, Part Two

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If one is looking to highlight the best representation of “Far Out” in jazz music, one may very well settle with placing the spotlight on musician and philosopher Sun Ra, more formally known as Le Sony’r Ra.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama in May 1914 with the more mundane name of “Herman Poole Blount”, and early on nicknamed “Sonny”, Sun Ra was a precocious and highly intelligent child soon writing his own compositions at the age of twelve as well as exhibiting good sight reading skills and piano technique.  Living in Birmingham,  he was able to hear many famous bands and jazz artists including Fletcher HendersonDuke Ellington, and Fats Waller.  It is said that Sun Ra, much like other gifted musicians like Wolfgang Mozart, had the ability to hear a single performance (in this case a big band performance) and then later accurately transcribe the music that had played.  He attended college for a year on a scholarship as a music education major, but dropped out: according to Sun Ra this being due to an extra-terrestrial  experience as initiated by aliens.

In Sun Ra’s own words: “They wanted me to go to outer space with them. They were looking for somebody who had that type of mind. They said it was quite dangerous because you had to have the perfect discipline. I’d have to go up with no part of my body touching outside of the beam….It looked like a giant spotlight shining down on me, and I call it ‘transmolecularization’ — my whole body was changed into something else…. I call that an energy transformation because I wasn’t in human form. I thought I was there, but I could see through myself.

“Then I landed on a planet I identified as Saturn. First thing I saw was something like … a long rail of a railroad track coming out of the sky, … then I  found myself in a huge stadium, and I was sitting up in the last row, in the dark… They called my name, and I didn’t move. They called me name again, and I still didn’t answer. Then all at once they teleported me, and I was down on that stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [my college music teacher training] because there was going to be great trouble in schools. There was going to be trouble in every part of life….”

After leaving college, Sun Ra formed his own band, “The Sonny Blount Orchestra”, with intense rehearsals only surpassed by Sun Ra’s own committment to music. When drafted in 1942, Sun Ra declared himself a conscientious objector, ultimately ending up performing alternative civilian service, assigned to forestry work during the day and played the piano at night.

In 1945 he moved to Chicago, part of the wave of migration of American slave descendants from the south to the north and got a job arranging for Fletcher Henderson in 1946. He also had work accompanying Billie Holiday and played in a trio with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and violinist Stuff Smith.

In 1952, Sun Ra forms a “space trio” and changes his name to “Le Sony’r Ra” — the trio later becoming an orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, as he starts to simply refers to himself as Sun Ra.  In 1957, he and his friend and business manager, Alton Abraham, establish the “Le Saturn Records” label, perhaps the first African-American record label. From 1957-1966, album after album is released, with well over one hundred albums recorded during Sun Ra’s career.  Sun Ra’s catalog displays a wide range of musical styles.  Some notable titles include the 1957 release, “Super-Sonic Jazz” with some particularly unusual albums in the mid-sixties, including not only his free-jazz or more exotic material, but even more accessible albums like  “Impressions Of a Patch Of Blue” with Walt Dickerson, and the Sun Ra Blues Project’s “Batman and Robin”, both from 1966.

Less accessible, and one of his furthest-out albums, is his LP, “Strange Strings”, recorded in 1966 and released in 1967.

The first track “Worlds Approaching”, is brilliant — one of those original works that defy categorization: structured, somewhat tonal, dramatic, and ablaze with intensity and energy. This is music that might have really come from Outer Space!

The second track of the first side “Strings Strage, and the entire second side, “Strange Strings”,  share common ground with some of the “concert hall” aleatoric music (music that incorporates elements of chance) of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Basically, after assembling the widest and wildest variety of string instruments  including UkulelesMandolinsKotosKoras, Pipas and any other string instruments that could be located, supplemented by a sheet of metal, and miked “sun columns” (golden metal tubes with rubber bottoms), Sun Ra assembled his orchestra, the Sun Ra Arkestra, distributed the instruments, and told his musicians: “You’re playing from ignorance–it’s an exercise in ignorance. We’re going to play what you don’t know and what you don’t know is huge”, both acknowledging their lack of training and experience in playing these instruments and instructing them to perform music representing their general metaphysical ignorance.

It’s clearly music that would be more interesting to experience live than on an LP or CD.  It’s noteworthy that these are talented musicians, experienced in free jazz expression, and guided during the performance by some direction from their leader. It’s also particularly interesting that no effort was made to tune these instruments and so the result is extreme microtonal free jazz.

From a historical perspective, it’s important to acknowledge Sun Ra’s role in Afrofuturism and in asserting his own and others’ civil rights.   Groundbreaking individuals like Sun Ra and George Russell extended the role of the African-American jazz musician from on-demand performers to innovators, thought leaders and philosophy- artists.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

12″ Vinyl

All songs by Sun Ra
Side A:

  1. “Worlds Approaching”
  2. “Strings Strange”

Side B:

  1. “Strange Strings”

Musicians

  • Sun Ra – electric piano, lightning drum, timpani, squeaky door, strings
  • Marshall Allen – oboe, alto saxophone, strings
  • John Gilmore – tenor saxophone, strings
  • Danny Davis – flute, alto saxophone, strings
  • Pat Patrick – flute, baritone saxophone, strings
  • Robert Cummings – bass clarinet, strings
  • Ali Hassan – trombone, strings
  • Ronnie Boykins: bass viol
  • Clifford Jarvis – timpani, percussion
  • James Jacson – log drums, strings
  • Carl Nimrod – strings
  • Art Jenkins – space voice, strings

One of the leading modern composers during the 1960s and 1970s, Karlheinz Stockhausen is one of the fifty-plus people displayed on the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s cover, and the only musician or composer on the landmark cover besides the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

One of his most notable works, is “Hymnen”, a nod to various national anthems (it is divided into four “Regions” each corresponding to a national anthem) and was first performed on November 30, 1967. It must be a challenging work to listen to live; it is long and comes across as somewhat random: it is particularly challenging to listen to a recorded version.  The work consists of a recorded backdrop (tape) which the musicians interact with by improvising and following scored cues provided by the composer.  It is claimed to be a masterpiece by some, but like many of the products of this period created by Stockhausen and his fellow composers, it relies heavily on what the listener brings to the experience.  In a concert hall, with one being part of a seated (captive) audience, one is much more likely to engage with the music than if one puts on an LP or CD of this work.  For me, it’s hard to listen to more than twenty or thirty minutes without feeling compelled to switch to something else, particularly when having a fairly large music library of more accessible music.

Hymnen

Hymnen Recordings

  • youtube (Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik. Deutsche Grammophon DG 2707039 (2LPs). Reissued on CD as part of Stockhausen Complete Edition 10)
  • BBC Broadcast 2009  and 2016
  • Ausstrahlungen: Andere Welten: 50 Jahre Neue Musik in NRW. Koch / Schwann 2-5037-0 (2 CDs). Includes Hymnen: Dritte Region mit Orchester Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Köln conducted by Peter Eötvös (recorded 1979)
  • Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik; Hymnen Elektronische und Konkrete Musik mit SolistenAloys Kontarsky (piano), Alfred Ailings and Rolf Gehlhaar (amplified tamtam), Johannes G. Fritsch (electric viola), Harald Bojé (electronium). Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 10 A-B-C-D (4 CDs)
  • Hymnen Elektronische Musik mit Orchester. Gürzenich-Orchester der Stadt Köln, conducted by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen Complete Edition: Compact Disc 47.

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There’s no shortage of far-out pop/rock albums in 1967.  In May 1967, Elektra records releases this narrative concept album (poems read over and integrated into a musical background) of twelve tracks — one for each of the signs of the Zodiac.  Like the the Sun Ra album and Stockhausen’s “Hymnen”, this work benefits from being played in a dark room or with one’s eye’s closed, however, in this case, the producers of this work made sure to include the instructions “Must be Played in the Dark” on the back of the album — and one is well advised to follow such instructions.

From its air-raid like opening to its tranquil conclusion, this album is exploration of 1967 psychedelia, far out, but within convenient reach of most listeners. Notable is the presence of the moog synthesizer, electronic keyboards, sitar, and jazz musician Bud Shank  on bass flute, all in support sixties-styled melodiously cool lyrics read in the most mellow delivery possible. The tracks vary in tone and style and are generally quite interesting  including the more progressive sections of music found in tracks like “Scorpio” with its heavy percussion, dark suspenseful bass line and mixed meter passages and the adventurous “Sagittarius” (also laden with interesting percussion work and a playful mixed meter riff.) One can make the case for this as being both the first rock concept album (it precedes Nirvana “The Story of Simon Simopath by a couple of months) and the first progressive rock album (coming out several months before “Days of Future Passed” and apparently a few days before “Sgt. Peppers.”)  To what degree this adventurous “Zodiac Cosmic Sounds” influences later concept albums, such as The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” which covers times of the day as opposed to Zodiac signs, is something I invite speculation on. Feel free to muse about this on your own time or in the comments section of this post.

Anyone who prides themselves on understanding the history of progressive rock should consider this album to be required listening. Lyrics are available here.  Album currently not in print, but available used from multiple sources and youtube.

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Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All lyrics written by Jacques Wilson

  1. “Aries – The Fire-Fighter” – 3:17
  2. “Taurus – The Voluptuary” – 3:38
  3. “Gemini – The Cool Eye” – 2:50
  4. “Cancer – The Moon Child” – 3:27
  5. “Leo – The Lord of Lights” – 2:30
  6. “Virgo – The Perpetual Perfectionist” – 3:05
  7. “Libra – The Flower Child” – 3:28
  8. “Scorpio – The Passionate Hero” – 2:51
  9. “Sagittarius – The Versatile Daredevil” – 2:06
  10. “Capricorn – The Uncapricious Climber” – 3:30
  11. “Aquarius – The Lover of Life” – 3:45
  12. “Pisces – The Peace Piper” – 3:19

Personnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When drafted

Fifty Year Friday: Velvet Underground “The Velvet Underground & Nico”; Nico “Chelsea Girl”

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I am having second thoughts about posting these album reviews of music of 1967 — fifty years ago.

One: it’s not easy to write reviews about music: to describe music in words is an impossible activity, and at best one ends up describing their reactions to the music, which, really, is self-centered, possibly narcissistic, and either self-indulgent or masochistic (writing music reviews can be very painful as one recognizes that keystrokes being captured by WordPress fall immeasurably short of the sound waves that are captured by audio recording devices.)

Two: shouldn’t I be writing about recent album releases? To write reviews about albums already accepted as established classics doesn’t help generate income for the musicians (if they are still alive), encourage them to create more music, or provide the service of bringing  previously ignored music or musicians to people’s attention.

Three: there are others out there writing music reviews that get less visitors than this blog, and yet their reviews are better, more interesting and more informative. When I have visited such blogs, I am shocked to see posts that range from being hours old to months old without a single like or comment.  What keeps them going?

And so I take the time to ask myself, am I providing anything of value to my reader or, if not to my reader, is there anything that I get out of this?  And I really don’t know at this point if any single one of my reviews has caused someone to listen to music they would otherwise have missed out on.  But I do know, once I take the time to reflect on it, that I do get something out all of this: knowing that I need to write something, I am listening to this music differently than I normally would. I am not only listening intently, but with the need to find something I can communicate out to someone else.

During much of my regular music listening, I listen seriously, and I direct my attention directly on the music. I am seated.  I am not dancing, driving, cooking, or watching sports with the sound turned down.  I am a human receiver, trying to absorb and enjoy as much of the music as possible. When I listen to music I am planning to write about, I am no longer in receiver mode, but in explorer mode.  I am looking for places to pitch a tent, clues for sources of water, tracks of game in the vicinity, evidence of past occupants or current inhabitants.  I am reaching out, straining my eyes to see the distance, taking notes mentally; I normally don’t do any of these things when I am listening for enjoyment.

And so knowing that I must write about what I am listening to changes the listening experience.  If it is a digital source, I might even pause, rewind and replay. I find myself looking for strengths and weaknesses in the music instead of taking it on it’s own terms. It’s like the difference between dating someone for the enjoyment of their company and dating to determine an appropriate life partner.

And there is the selection of material.  When I listen for enjoyment, I pick something I am in the mood for, or something I just bought, or something that will provide a unique experience.  When I am writing a post about one of the best albums of 1967, the selection process is limited to that year, and I have to find something that is pretty good and that others will enjoy.  When listening, I ask myself, is this album good enough to mention as a “Fifty Year Friday” album, and if the answer is no, the album has served it’s purpose as a candidate and either I tolerantly listen to the end, or I stop and put on something else.

And to select an album, I review all potential choices: albums in my collection I have heard dozens of times, both as an dedicated listener and as background to other activities, as well as albums that I purchased, and never played — or played the first track — or continued past the first track but made secondary while reading liner notes, reading a book, or doing something else.

And so we come to this Velvet Underground album. I know this is a good group: a very important group in its place in the history of music.  And I was a fan of Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album, at least marginally, having heard it a few times in 1973 and 1974. And so, back in the early 1990’s, when I would buy a few dozen CDs every month, mostly jazz and classical, I saw this in the local mega-bookstore bin,  and not having a single Velvet Undergound CD, and knowing this was supposedly a good one, I immediately bought  it with a few dozen other CDs.  When I got home, this CD had to compete with a previously purchased 18 CD set of Nat King Cole, a Chet Baker CD, the complete Bill Holiday on Verve, a 6 CD T-Bone Walker set, a Captain Beefheart CD and several new classical CDs. Neither the Velvet Underground nor the Captain Beefheart won  me over after the first couple of tracks, so I set them aside, meaning to listen to them soon, but never doing so.

But now, in 2017, looking for worthwhile albums from 1967, I select this previously neglected CD, and listen to it with full attention. And to my surprise, it is a musical treasure.

If Sgt. Pepper’s is the first example of progressive rock, “The Velvet Underground & Nico” is the first example of Art-Rock, at least that I know of.  I am not always a fan of so-called Art Rock — it can get on my nerves, but like the genre, free-jazz, when it is done right, it is great — when it is just an excuse for lack of structure, vision, content, it is like so much of the so-called classical “Avant-Garde” (neither classical or particularly innovative) of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s — a waste of valuable listening time.

This album, though, has direction, intensity, texture, form, structure.  There is a sense that there is a canvas with dimensions in space and time that is being systematically addressed with points, dabs, strokes, shades, groupings and contrasts.

“Sunday Morning” is the last song recorded for the album, but it makes sense for it to open the album as it is most accessible and apparently disarmingly innocent of all the songs.  The celesta provides a music-box like introduction, to a peaceful, tranquil tune with lyrics that belie the musical serenity:

“Sunday morning
And I’m falling
I’ve got a feeling
I don’t want to know”

This is a song that could have gotten substantial airplay.  Perhaps it didn’t due to the contrast between the pleasantly serene melody and the disheartening lyrics. Perhaps it didn’t because of Lou Reed’s distinct half-spoken and sometimes imperfect intonation. Or perhaps there were commercial reasons or lack of the necessary behind-the-scenes connections.

The musically bucolic first track is contrasted with a rough, repetitive, blues based “Waiting for the Man.” The lyrics are again bleak, portraying a New York City heroin addict, looking to score from his dealer.

Since music is generally my main focus, let’s get the lyrics out of way.  Lou Reed’s writing is direct, brutally honest, and of its time.  These are not the clever, playful, roundabout lyrics we find in most of the more socially-relevant music of the time. This is a much more accurate, even painful, representation of reality.  Lou Reed connects with life’s realities  rather than just observes or comments on life:

“I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, one, two, five
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I’m waiting for my man

“Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown?
Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?
Oh pardon me sir, it’s the furthest from my mind
I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine
I’m waiting for my man”

The music here is frantic, with hints of barrelhouse piano transformed into a pounding commentary on withdrawal and drug dependency.  This is not pleasant music.   This is musical drama.

Lou Reed is sometimes flat, and occasionally here or there sharp, but, thankfully, he wavers more like a gymnast maintaining equilibrium on the balance beam, his pitch violations compensated by his confident and appropriate delivery of the text which unfailingly communicates the intrinsic meaning and essence inherent in the words. Not the case with Nico.  At the insistence of Andy Warhol, Nico was added to the band to perform lead vocals on a few of the tracks as well as some backing vocals.  On the third track of the album, the wistful ballad, “Femme Fatale”, the combination of being out of tune and lack of consistent expression erode her voice’s timbral strengths inviting one to consider how much better the album would have been with Lou Reed replacing her lead vocal assignments.

It is with “Venus in Furs” that this album takes off into another musical sphere.  Not only is the focus on the substance, with a given mood and direction deftly and often roughly crafted for each track, but we get a range of music styles — some of that immediate time period and some hinting at the near future.

One can identify the influences in this album: Bob Dylan, blues, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, free jazz (Lou was a fan of Cecil Taylor), classical avant garde, modernism and experimental music (Cale studied with Humphrey Searle, and after coming to the U.S, had ties to Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and La Monte Young), British Invasion, British Skiffle, Indian and eastern music (note the drone and guitar in “Venus in Furs”), and possibly the New York Hypnotic School.  More to the point are the many hints and foreshadowings of future styles of music including minimalism, psychedelic, glam rock, art rock, progressive rock, punk, goth, and grunge.  I will take bets on Velvet Underground having influenced Peter Hamill, David Bowie, PJ Harvey and groups like the Residents (at least a little), Explosions in the Sky, Sex Pistols, Joy Division, U2, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, R.E.M. and countless others.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Lou Reed except where noted.

Side A
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. Sunday Morning Lou Reed, John Cale 2:54
2. I’m Waiting for the Man 4:39
3. Femme Fatale 2:38
4. Venus in Furs 5:12
5. Run Run Run 4:22
6. All Tomorrow’s Parties 6:00
Side B
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. Heroin 7:12
8. There She Goes Again 2:41
9. I’ll Be Your Mirror 2:14
10. The Black Angel’s Death Song Lou Reed, John Cale 3:11
11. European Son Reed, Cale, Sterling MorrisonMaureen Tucker 7:46

Personnel

On the original album:

Production

  • Andy Warhol – producer
  • Tom Wilson – post-production supervisor, “Sunday Morning” producer
  • Ami Hadami (credited as Omi Haden) – T.T.G. Studios engineer
  • Gary Kellgren – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • Norman Dolph – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • John Licata – Scepter Studios engineer (uncredited)
  • Gene Radice – post-production editor, remixer
  • David Greene – post-production editor, remixer

For those that want to hear additional Lou Reed compositions from this time period, they can listen to “Chelsea Girl”, Nico’s solo album recorded in 1966 after “Velvet Underground & Nico”, and released in October 1967. The name of the album is a reference to Andy Warhol‘s 1966 film Chelsea Girls, in which Nico starred and includes a Lou Read composition of that same name. Besides Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison making contributions, we also get two Jackson Browne compositions and his guitar on five of the tracks. Jackson Browne was providing back up for Nico’s small venue performances in 1966, and romantically involved with her until 1968.

Nico’s vocals are slightly better than on the Velvet Underground album, but there are still serious problems with pitch and in providing appropriate emotional delivery of the lyrics.  The string arrangements, instrumental backing, and strength of the compositions help alleviate some of Nico’s performance shortcomings.

 

 

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

Side A

  1. “The Fairest of the Seasons” (Jackson Browne, Gregory Copeland) – 4:06
  2. These Days” (Jackson Browne) – 3:30
  3. “Little Sister” (John CaleLou Reed) – 4:22
  4. “Winter Song” (John Cale) – 3:17
  5. “It Was a Pleasure Then” (Lou Reed, John Cale, Christa Päffgen) – 8:02

Side B

  1. Chelsea Girls” (Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison) – 7:22
  2. I’ll Keep It With Mine” (Bob Dylan) – 3:17 Note: this song was recorded by Dylan in 1965 but remained unreleased on any of his own albums until the 1985 Biograph set.
  3. “Somewhere There’s a Feather” (Jackson Browne) – 2:16
  4. “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” (Lou Reed) – 5:07
  5. “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce” (Tim Hardin) – 3:45

Personnel

Technical

Fifty Year Friday: The Doors “The Doors”

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“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till  he sees all things through narrow
chinks of his cavern.” William Blake from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

The Doors formed in 1965, in Los Angeles, signing in 1966 with folk-music label, Elektra, after Columbia failed to secure a producer for their first album.  Their name was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s book “The Doors of Perception”, which recounts Huxley’s mescaline experiences and borrows its title from the William Blake poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”  This first album of theirs was released in January of 1967.

The album opens up with a promise, premise and pronouncement to “Break On Through to the Other Side.”  This first track, as do many on the album,  opens up in layer by layer (instrument by instrument) with John Densmore ‘s drums, staggered bass in first the left (guitar bass line) and then right channel (keyboard bass line), Jim Morrison’s vocals, Robby Krieger‘s  guitar and eventually Ray Manzarek‘s organ setting a standard of expectation for the rest of the album. Less than 2 1/2 minutes, the track is over — just the right length — leaving the listener hungry for more.

This album, in general, is dark, emphatic, reflective, well-thought out and a precursor to later American heavy metal (Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, and to some degree even bands like Blue Oyster Cult.)  Much of the music is blues-based, some adhering closely to that foundation (“Back Door Man”), some straying quite far but keeping the essence of the three chord pattern (“Soul Kitchen”) and some seemingly far removed but yet still with a blues essence. Within this wide range, all of this music has a freshness and originality to it, sometimes provided by Kreiger’s distillation of late sixties guitar, sometimes by Manzarek’s often ornate keyboards and sometimes from the overall arrangement.

Not enough can be said about “Break On Through to the Other Side”, and so I will say no more.

“Soul Kitchen” is a sexy, bouncy bluesy piece, with what was in 1967 pretty explicit lyrics. “The Crystal Ship” is lyrical, dramatic, intimate and in a minor key with a mystically evocative keyboard section.  “Twentieth Century Fox” is a clever title, not about a movie studio, but of course, to the “fashionably lean” “queen of cool” in-control modern woman well described in the lyrics:

“No tears, no fears,
No ruined years, no clocks;
She’s a twentieth century fox, oh yeah!”

The fifth track, “Alabama Song” is from the Kurt Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny ( Bertolt Brecht lyrics) and I suspect the lion’s share of arrangement credit goes to Manzarek who plays the zither-like marxophone and keyboards. Note that nearly ever-present, oompah-oompah, ironic lilt — the essence of which resurfaces in at least a couple of 1970’s English progressive rock albums.

Not much needs to be said about “Light My Fire”, thanks goodness, for words poorly can capture the spirit of this song, it’s historic, seamlessly interwoven blend of jazz, baroque and rock elements, and its influence on early metal and early progressive rock bands.

“Back Door Man” is pure blues, written by  Willie Dixon and previously known for the 1960 Howlin’ Wolf version.  “Back Door” is a prominent reference in earlier blues music and refers to sneaking in the back door of a house when the unsuspecting husband is at work or out and about.

“I Looked at You” is another song that starts by adding layers.  It is almost a prototypical mid-sixties go-go dance number until that first brief detour (modulation at “cause it’s too late”), quickly shifting back to its initial state (“we’re on our way and we can’t turn back”) with a wonderful go-go style organ that follows. Here again we have a hint of baroque music embedded in what is essentially sixties pop.

“End of Night”, a soothing minor/modal ballad in the midst of more stormy tracks,  begins with a hint of spooky, Bartok-like nacht-musik into a leisurely blend of guitar and Morrison vocals.

“Take It as It Comes” starts with no introduction, appropriate to both the title and opening words of “Time to live.” It starts of with a e minor seventh chord which effectively creates the drive and resulting uplift for the next section (modulation to A minor at “Take it easy, baby. Take it as it comes”) and the short baroque-like organ solo.  A second ornate organ solo is followed by more vocals from Morrison (“Go real slow. You like it more and more. Take it as it comes. Specialize in havin’ fun”) and a quick, final flourish to end.

“The End” attempts to rise up to the height of the opening track, and would come very close, with its tender opening and exotic, Indian-influenced (voiced by guitar), expansive instrumental section.  The trouble is that after a few minutes, Morrison’s mumbling detracts from otherwise meditative, highly spiritual music.  Granted, Morrison is reaching for the furthest corners of personal discovery, but the track would have worked better if he stopped after the melancholic exposition:

“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes, again”

which sets up the remaining instrumental exploration and inner-reflection nicely.

That said, this Morrison self-indulgence is only a minor weakness and doesn’t detract from the excellence and revolutionary nature of this album. When we talk about drugs, sex, and rock and roll, this album encompasses all three: from the name of the band, to the surprisingly suggestive lyrics (common enough for blues, but not so common for the mass media of 1967), to the self-assertive, unapologetic, counter-culture music.

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TRACKS

(From Wikipedia)

All tracks written by the Doors (Jim MorrisonRay ManzarekRobby Krieger, and John Densmore), except where noted.

All tracks written by the Doors (Jim MorrisonRay ManzarekRobby Krieger, and John Densmore), except where noted.

Side A
No. Title Length
1. Break On Through (To the Other Side) 2:29
2. “Soul Kitchen” 3:35
3. The Crystal Ship 2:34
4. “Twentieth Century Fox” 2:33
5. Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” (writers: Bertolt BrechtKurt Weill) 3:20
6. Light My Fire 7:06
Side B
No. Title Length
7. Back Door Man” (writers: Willie Dixon) 3:34
8. “I Looked at You” 2:22
9. “End of the Night” 2:52
10. “Take It as It Comes” 2:23
11. The End 11:41

Fifty Year Friday: The Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced”

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One of my fondest memories of my first year of college was listening in the library’s music listening room in the fall of 1973 with my first-semester girlfriend (and my continuing lifelong friend since sixth grade) to Zappa’s “We’re Only in it for the Money” and this very first Jimi Hendrix album.

A week earlier, I had listened to “Are You Experienced” for the very first time in that same library but on headphones. I had previously bought two Hendrix albums in high school, “Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge”, and was curious how this compared to those two albums and “Electric Ladyland”, all three of which I thought highly of.  I remember studying the album cover of “Are You Experienced”, front and back, before putting the LP on the no-frills turntable and then donning the mediocre, highly uncomfortable library headphones. The first track was “Purple Haze”, and though primitive in comparison to songs on “Cry of Love”, captured me completely. The lyrics lacked the imagery and imagination of later Hendrix lyrics and the sound over those cheap library headphones sounded rough and muddy, but the forceful and potent guitar-riff introduction was as magical as a Wagner leitmotif: a compelling opening to any album, effectively locking any exit from the listening room door until the end of side two.

That first overall impression of this album was not entirely positive.  I missed the studio slickness and more sophisticated lyrics of the later albums, and found the music to be dated, a relic of the drug-crazed, psychedelic late sixties. Nonetheless, I was certainly impressed enough to want to share with my on-campus and off-campus friend a week later as we checked out this album and were able to grab one of the two listening rooms that had speakers, and also, a room where we could stretch out a bit and listen to this much as at home, except for the “No food allowed” sign and the narrow window in the door to allow us to be observed by passerbys.

Until a few days ago, I hadn’t heard this album since college, so in preparation to write a blog post on this work, I got out a previously unheard high-quality vinyl German pressing (let’s not discuss how many vinyl records I have collected that I have not yet listened to or how they, along with way too many CDs,  have taken up the better portion of two bedrooms) and, without looking at the contents, started to listen to it from beginning to end.

“That’s old age and memory,” I thought, as “Foxy Lady” danced out of the loudspeakers. I picked up the cover and, noticed even more to my surprise, that “Purple Haze” was missing from side 1 and side 2.  Yes, indeed, my memory is going bad, but it’s not hallucinogenic! As patience is a virtue of old age, I continued listening, noticing the absence of “Hey Joe” and “The Wind Cries Mary” and the addition of tracks I had never remembered hearing in my life: first “Can You See Me”  and then “Remember” on side two. These two new tunes were indeed an unexpected and rather rewarding discovery, but as soon as the album was over, not owning a CD of this to compare, I went to the internet and found the different listing of tracks for the North American version and the UK/European version. Relieved, now, that I still had a few weeks more until onset of dementia, I obtained a standard 16 bit redbook CD which had all the tracks from both albums and a few bonus tracks.

Glad to be able to listen again to the original album I knew, but with seriously better audio than in the library music room, I was taken back through time with that introductory riff of “Purple Haze” – clearly the only way to introduce Hendrix’s first album.

This is a modern blues song — and I mean modern!  The whole album, even the one track not written by Hendrix (“Hey Joe”) strays varying distances away from traditional blues, yet shares 99.9 % of the DNA. Like a blues song, or Chopin’s or Beethoven’s funeral marches, “Purple Haze” is slow paced, inevitable and unstoppable.  Hendrix creates tension with his approach to fingering, chord voicings, use of controlled distortion, his overall guitar technique, and emphatically pushing out the boundaries of comfort and predictability.  The spirit of the music is assisted ably by Noel Redding’s bass (including passing tones between root notes and various rhythmic subtleties) and Mitch Mitchell’s driving, energetic, yet calculatingly controlled drumming.

And, as I remembered, these lyrics are not at the level of later Hendrix lyrics, yet still, there is a undeniable unity with the music:

“Purple haze, all in my brain;
Lately things they don’t seem the same.
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why;
Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

“Purple haze, all around;
Don’t know if I’m comin’ up or down.
Am I happy or in misery?
What ever it is, that girl put a spell on me.

“Help me
Help me,
Oh, no, no.”

For some odd reason, music critics of that time stretched and reached to make drug connections when none where evident. These lyrics are about being smitten — whether naturally or through other means, like voodoo, is open to discussion — but drugs don’t seem to be relevant here.

Musically, one could argue that drugs opened up vistas and viewpoints for composers and musicians that allowed such innovation.  Maybe there is truth here (Chopin took opium for tuberculosis, Berlioz took opium, many jazz musicians had drug encounters or severe drug dependencies) and maybe not, but one cannot create genius from drugs or elevate mediocre musicians and composers up to the next level.   One can certainly make the case that drug use ultimately works against musicians at all levels.  That said, let others more knowledgeable address this drug topic, and the impact of drugs on music, I will just delight in the amazing music handed down to us from those inspired geniuses, whether inspired divinely, materially or through some other means.

And there is much to delight in during the course of this album.   The second track, “Manic Depression” has this wild instrumental where Hendrix’s guitar climbs up by thirds (outlining E flat minor seventh chord) for four notes and then frenziedly disperses in a truly manic solo. This rising four note motif then collapses into a three-note pattern incorporated in the next verse:

“Well I think I’ll go turn myself off and a go on down.
(All the way down.)
Really ain’t no use in me hanging around.
(Oh, I gotta see you.)

“Music sweet music
I wish I could caress and a kiss, kiss;
Manic depression is a frustrating mess”

and undergoes additional transformation, collapsing into two notes and then back to four with the feedback-punctuated finish.

“Hey Joe” continues the inevitable march forward, with a joyous, celebratory instrumental interlude enhanced by the ensuing, buoyant backing vocals.

“Love or Confusion” is dominated by the guitar work and resulting drama. In contrast to all that came before “May This Be Love” is a lush ballad showing off the gentle, intimate side of Hendrix. Ending side one is the ironically initially exuberant “I Don’t Live Today”, followed with darkly, depressing passages weaving back and front, side to side.

Side two opens up with the second leisurely-paced ballad, “The Wind Cries Mary.” Hendrix’s nonchalant, conversational vocals work well here.  Nothing here is unnatural or forced, with a simple but beautiful guitar solo in the middle and a tranquil calming ending providing a momentary opportunity to catch a breath before jumping into the up tempo “Fire.”

“Fire” opens up with one of those iconic Hendrix guitar intros that foreshadow, and perhaps creates, heavy metal. Mitchell’s level of energy, creativity and collaboration is not only up to the assignment, but raises the intensity and is integral to the overall character and aesthetics.  Redding provides spurts and phrases of growling, rhythmic bass.

“Third Stone from the Sun” is a psychedelic sound painting.  It’s foundation is a lyrical, almost placid, watercolor theme mixed with half-speed spoken vocals:

“Star Fleet to scout ship, please give your position. Over.”
‘”I am in orbit around the third planet from the star called the Sun. Over”
“You mean it’s the Earth? Over.”
“Positive. it is known to have some form of intelligent species. Over”
“I think we should take a look.”

Regular speed:

“Strange beautiful grass of green with your majestic silken seas.
Your mysterious mountains, I wish to see closer.
May I land my kinky machine?”

Half-speed:

“Although your world wonders me with you majestic superior cackling hen,
Your people I do not understand, so to you I wish to put and end
And you’ll never hear surf music again.”
“That sounds like a lie to me.
Come on man, let’s go home.'”

(Not very sure of this last section and pieced it together from internet references.)

The spoken vocals are sunken deep into the texture making this a instrumental jam that flirts with some of the qualities of a sound collage, particularly at the end.

The penultimate track, “Foxy Lady”, begins with guitar crescendo metamorphosing into a sexy, provocative ostinato supporting the main melody. The highlight is the guitar solo at 1:48, yearning and screeching passionate longing with a repeat of the chorus. A forty-five second coda finishes off the piece with the diminuendo at the end providing symmetry to the opening.

There are three tracks in the European album not present in the original North American version.  The first, “Red House”, is a twelve-bar blues song.   For non-musicians, this is a standard blues form that is prevalent in blues, rock and roll, rock, and jazz to such an extent that it can be very annoying or boring to listen unless the composition has something special such as unusual melody, humorous or particularly engaging lyrics, substitution chords , stellar execution and performance, or effective, interesting solos on top of those chords. From the start, with Hendrix abstracted guitar intro, this is more than a throwaway blues song.  In this early Hendrix recording, with this common blues structure and set of standard blues chords, we can identify much of what makes Hendrix performances so engaging. The guitar work is the primary focal point for both the leisurely and experienced listener, but part of the equation to make this work includes the support from Redding on a modified rhythm guitar and Mitchell’s minimal but steady drums as well Hendrix’s direct and personable vocal delivery.   Hendrix vocals are distinctly impressive throughout his brief recorded career — not because of range, intonation, smoothness or quality of his physical vocal instrument, but because of his pacing, rhythmic delivery, warmth, directness, naturalness and conversational nature of his communication. Hendrix, in general doesn’t perform — he communicates. As once noted by Thelonious Monk to Steve Lacy, “A genius is the one most like himself.” Monk, Beethoven, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane all deserve special acknowledgment for being themselves in achieving their beyond-Mount-Everest level of genius.  Hendrix is not that far behind them.

“Can You See Me” and “Remember” certainly deserved their inclusion on the original European LP.  “Can You See Me” is a driving, upbeat number with plenty of fluid chemistry between the trio.  “Remember” is a moderately-fast paced ballad with an uplifting instrumental after the first two verses and chorus.  The two key changes in this work provide the necessary emotional momentum to maintain the listener’s interest.

The last and most significant track on both the North American and the European original albums is “Are Your Experienced.”  Backward drums and guitar immediately establish non-conformity at the same time as providing a stable foundation for the lead guitar and lyrics, and a sense of exoticness found in other mid-sixties rock albums that borrow or reference aspects of Indian Classical music.

It has been decades since I heard this amazing work, and with extra years came a different perspective on the lyrics.  Previously I  had assumed the experience referenced here was either drug-related or sexual, supported by the last line of the lyrics “Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful”,  but its worth considering experience on a more spiritual level — above and beyond the physical plane of corporeal existence.  Back in college, I was a bit puzzled with the phrase “have you ever been experienced.” That didn’t make sense on the surface —  for if one had previously had experience with whatever Hendrix is defining as experience, then one should still be experienced. Why is this not “have you experienced” instead of the past perfect form of “have you ever been experienced?”   Today, I see two additional angles:  “Have you ever been experienced” meaning “has someone else experienced you” and “have you ever, such as in a past life, been experienced?” The first could be sexual, but could also mean one is their essential self and not a likeness or projection of something they are pretending to be or want to be perceived as. Or it could mean “have you provided others experience”, such as a musician being experienced by their audience. This second deals with states of existence such that one could be experienced in one state (such as in one lifetime or plane of existence) and not in the other.  We can then extend this metaphysical reflection and go off in many more directions, but the simple point here is that the lyrics provide a level of interpretation appropriate to psychedelic or transcendental frameworks.

It’s also totally in keeping with the contents of this album for me to consider that the album is asking its musical contemporaries “Have you even been experienced?” Not played as background music, not listened to casually, but fully experienced across all possible dimensions.

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FROM WIKIPEDIA:

Original UK and international edition

All tracks written by Jimi Hendrix.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. Foxy Lady 3:22
2. Manic Depression 3:46
3. Red House 3:44
4. “Can You See Me” 2:35
5. “Love or Confusion” 3:17
6. I Don’t Live Today 3:58
Side two
No. Title Length
7. May This Be Love 3:14
8. Fire 2:47
9. Third Stone from the Sun 6:50
10. “Remember” 2:53
11. Are You Experienced? 4:17

Original North American edition[edit]

All tracks written by Jimi Hendrix except where noted.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. Purple Haze 2:46
2. Manic Depression 3:46
3. Hey Joe” (Billy Roberts) 3:23
4. “Love or Confusion” 3:15
5. May This Be Love 3:14
6. I Don’t Live Today 3:55
Side two
No. Title Length
7. The Wind Cries Mary 3:21
8. Fire 2:34
9. Third Stone from the Sun 6:40
10. Foxy Lady 3:15
11. Are You Experienced? 3:55

Personnel

Jimi Hendrix Experience

Additional personnel

  • The Breakaways – backing vocals on “Hey Joe”
  • Chas Chandlerproducer
  • Dave Siddle – engineering on “Manic Depression,” “Can You See Me,” “Love or Confusion,” “I Don’t Live Today,” “Fire,” “Remember,” “Hey Joe,” “Stone Free,” “Purple Haze,” “51st Anniversary,” and “The Wind Cries Mary”
  • Eddie Kramer – engineering on “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Are You Experienced?,” and “Red House”; additional engineering on “Love or Confusion,” “Fire,” “Third Stone from the Sun,” and “Highway Chile”
  • Mike Ross – engineering on “Foxy Lady,” “Red House,” and “Third Stone from the Sun”

Fifty Year Friday: The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released on May 26, 1967 in the UK and a week later in the US, this is the album that boldly launched the progressive rock era.  If you lived in the US, Canada or UK, and were old enough, it was about fifty years ago today, that you first heard “Sgt. Pepper’s” play — either on a friend’s turntable, your record player or the radio.

One year earlier, The Beach Boys had released “Pet Sounds”, an album that unquestionably influenced the Sgt. Pepper album, and which has an important place in the history of progressive rock.  From an interview with Paul McCartney:

“The early surf records…I was aware of them as a musical act, and I used to like all that, but I didn’t get deeply interested in it—it was just a real nice sound…We used to admire the singing, the high falsetto really and the very sort of ‘California’ lyrics.

“It was later…it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.”

One important McCartney takeaway from Pet Sounds, is the liberation of the bass guitar from playing just the root notes of chords. For non-musicians, a chord can be in basic (root) position, such as C E G C for a simple C major chord, with the lowest note being C, or can be in first inversion, with the lowest note on E, or in second inversion position with the lowest note being on G.  Simple pop music often sticks to the bass always playing the root note.   On “Sgt. Pepper’s” tracks like “Getting Better” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, McCartney will sometimes play the third or fifth note of that chord — or even, in a few cases, play non-chord notes creating temporary musical tension.

Other important characteristics of progressive rock present in “Sgt. Peppers” include carefully crafted arrangements, non-traditional harmonic progressions, modal scales, unusual instruments, tape-based effects and an overall character that creates an artistically unified gestalt even though individual works vary significantly in mood and compositional techniques.

Though we may perceive a unified album, this is still a collection of individual songs, with two songs originally intended for this album, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, not included. “Strawberry Fields Forever” required around fifty-five hours of studio time for completion, thus setting the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail employed for the entire Sgt. Peppers album. The mellotron, an instrument used in later progressive rock albums like King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King”, dominates the introduction to”Strawberry Fields.” The use of unusual instrument combinations and arrangements is present in most of the songs on “Sgt. Peppers.”

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The album begins with the sounds of delicately light crowd noise and a string section tuning up, just as if one were present in the concert hall for an evening at the symphony. However, this is followed with forceful electric guitar, drums, bass, and emphatic McCartney vocals with audience noise then shifting to the less restrained enthusiasm of a dance hall. This is followed by a quartet of French horns, laughter, and the re-entry of vocals and rock instruments with interspersed applause.  This first song, the title song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” transforms, without break, to the upbeat, feel-good, relatively conventional,  “With a Little Help from My Friends”; Ringo is on vocals, drums and tambourine, George Martin plays Hammond Organ, George Harrison is on lead guitar, Paul McCartney, of course, plays bass, and John Lennon and McCartney handle the chorus and supporting vocals.

The third track on side one, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, starts off with McCartney’s Bach-like broken-chord based melody and includes Harrison on tambura (a fretless, long-necked, Indian stringed instrument) with Ringo adding maracas.  “Getting Better” with its pulsating intro and hints of 3 against 2 includes George Martin on amplified pianette (a keyboard instrument that had been left in the studio from a previous recording session), playing it normally by depressing keys and with mallets striking against the strings, Harrison on tambura, and Ringo on congas.  The pentatonic-based “Fixing a Hole” includes harpsichord and “She’s Leaving Home”, with its wistful, affective lyrics and music, begins with solo harp, followed by bowed strings with strings, harp and Lennon’s supporting vocals providing that extra Beatles’ magic throughout.

Side one concludes with the studio-crafted masterpiece, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, which merges various tape tricks including snippets of tape for particular musical-based sound effects and a section of tape (running at double speed) of Martin playing runs on the Hammond Organ along with Lennon on organ and McCartney on guitar. Instruments include harmonium, piano, Hammond organ, Lowrey organ, harmonica, shaker bells as well as guitar, bass and drums.  Listen for the adventurous harmonic swirl and chromatic runs in the two instrumental passages at the one minute and two minute mark which include the sped up tape passage, use of tape snippets (at least one sample sounds reversed) and tape loops. Chromatic-based passages on a pipe organ or calliope, harkening back to Julius Fučík‘s famous “March of the Gladiators“,  have often been used to invoke images of the circus, but Martin and the Beatles take this to another level.

On side two, “Within You, Without You”, like the earlier “Revolver” album’s “Love You Too”, invokes Indian Classical music with its use of multiple Indian instruments played by Harrison and skilled Indian musicians.  Instruments include sitar, tambura, dilruba (a fretted stringed instrument with sympathetic strings) tabla, svarmandal (multi-stringed zither-like instrument) as well as several violins, two cellos and Harrison’s acoustic guitar. Lennon, McCartney and Ringo sit this one out.

Side two continues with the English music hall influenced “When I am Sixty-Four”, written originally by McCartney on his home piano at age 15 or 16.  The original recording was in C Major but McCartney had George Martin raise this up a semitone by speeding the tape so that the song is now in the less common key of D flat.  For me, this track stands out as a relief point against the rest of the album, pairing nicely with McCartney’s “Lovely Rita”, and adding an important contrast that elevates this entire album.  Not everyone, including John Lennon supposedly, had the same opinion. Listen for the tubular bells played by Ringo and the trio of clarinets arranged by George Martin.

“Lovey Rita” starts off with upbeat guitar and typical Beatles’ backing vocals (“aaahhh”) punctuated nicely by Ringo. Listen for the return of those trademark backup vocals and drums at the 1 minute mark followed by Martin’s honky-tonk-style piano. This slightly distorted piano sound was created by applying tape to the tape capstan to create a wobbly distortion.  Also listen to the paper and combs before the vocal phrase “”When it gets dark I tow your heart away”, as well as the John Lennon coda that makes an effective transition to the crowing rooster in “Good Morning.”

John Lennon’s “Good Morning” was evidently inspired by the Kellogg’s Corn Flake Jingle (“Good morning, good morning, the best to you each morning”.)  It opens up like a march with accompanying saxophones, followed by Ringo’s heavy-step snare and continues with a marching-band ethos laced here and there with electric guitar and, at the end, animal sounds including dogs, cat, lion, trampling horses and what could very well be the start of a fox hunt, heralded by French horn.

The title track returns, creating energy midway by modulating up a whole tone from F Major to G Major, the key of the opening of “Day in the Life”, which immediately follows. If one is not convinced this album heralds in the era of progressive rock, such an assertion can easily be supported by the five and half minute (short by the average length of later progressive rock songs), multi-section “Day in the Life” with orchestra, harmonium, harp, piano, and alarm clock. Take note of the skyrocketing orchestra passage that binds Lennon’s section (ending with”But I just had to look having read the book. I’d love to turn you on.”) to McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed….”  As described in the NY Times: “Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.”

Those with CD versions of this will be missing the last track of the album: the approximately two-second-duration inner grove, which was intentionally ignored by automatic turntables and could only be played on manual turntables.  Another feature of the original UK Parlophone LP,  not evident on CDs and some US pressings, is that the tracks do not have the typical pop album separation between them and thus the surface of the record is similar to a classical record.

sgtp record

With the Beatles no longer interested in live performance appearances, part of the intent of “Sgt Peppers” was to go beyond music that could be recreated live.  The production values and layering of sound influences many later recordings, particularly of notable mention is Queen’s “Night at the Opera.”

People are certainly entitled to have differing opinions on whether “Sgt. Pepper’s” is truly a concept album.  The reprise of the title song before “Day in the Life” is not enough to automatically make this so.  The songs more or less share similar production values, but clearly are not on a single topic or share melodic or harmonic material.  Perhaps if there is a concept,  it is the general intent, as on The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” album, to produce a unified set of songs that achieve both a stylistic identity and set a standard of quality that ultimately influences other musicians. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that “Sgt. Peppers” is indeed a concept album.

If we do then agree it is a concept album, it is certainly not accurate to call this the first concept album, as Zappa’s “Freak Out” was released in 1966 and jazz had several concept albums before this including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” from 1965 and Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Time Out”.  There were actually a significant number of themed jazz and exotica albums released in the fifties and one may have to go back to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album,  “Dust Bowl Ballads” to find the first themed record album.  If one considers the medium of the “record album” as the means of recording music and the collective music as either a concept or not, then one then finds thousands upon thousands of earlier examples of concept music including Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” of 1918, Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”, Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood”), Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and WinterreiseBeethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Josef Haydn’s “Philosopher Symphony”, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and numerous operas, including Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which was first performed in 1607 and still performed today.  That’s just western music.  Concept music can be traced back to many cultures of all continents including the American Indians, many African tribes, Balinese dance-drama and music from the 6th Century operas of the Northern Qi Dynasty of China.  And, for all we know dolphins and whales may have developed concept music long before humans ever roamed the earth.  (Yes!  An opportunity to promote “The Beluga Beliefs” website.)

It’s not the concept album that puts the Beatles in good company, it is the quality of the work, a true group effort of excellence by Paul McCartney, George Martin and the rest of the Beatles.

This is music that transcends the times of the mid sixties and is appreciated now by more people than ever.  Such is how we identify great music: it stands the test of time and is accessible and appealing to people from many different cultures and backgrounds.

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TRACK LISTING (from Wikipedia)

Side one
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band McCartney 2:02
2. With a Little Help from My Friends Starr 2:44
3. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds Lennon 3:28
4. Getting Better McCartney 2:48
5. Fixing a Hole McCartney 2:36
6. She’s Leaving Home McCartney with Lennon 3:35
7. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! Lennon 2:37
Side two
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. Within You Without You Harrison 5:04
2. When I’m Sixty-Four McCartney 2:37
3. Lovely Rita McCartney 2:42
4. Good Morning Good Morning Lennon 2:41
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) Lennon, McCartney and Harrison 1:19
6. A Day in the Life Lennon and McCartney 5:39
Total length: 39:52

Track lengths and lead vocals per Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald.

Fifty Year Fridays

Stealing a page — no,  a series of pages — from fellow blogger, Rich Kamerman at kamertunesblog, the current administrator of this site will be posting a new post each Friday covering a single album from 1967.

In the meantime, check out Mr. Kamerman’s blog and these other review sites:

jazzreview.com

planethugill.com

progreport.comprogreport.com

classicalcdreview.com

musicweb-international.com

classical-cd-reviews.com

pitchfork.com

jazzviewscdreviews.weebly.com

progressivemusicplanet.comprogressivemusicplanet.com

jazzwax.com/

Please reply with any CD review sites you would like to recommend.  The more, the better!

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