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Posts tagged ‘Progressive Rock’

Fifty Year Friday: Ultimate Spinach

Ultimate Spinach - Behold and See002

There are those that believe that everything is determined, and that no matter how many times something is played out, the same result will occur.  Such a belief may be based on fatalism, or the predictability of Newtonian physics, or the belief that there is no self-determinism and that people are stimulus-response machines and that once set in motion, all resultant activity can theoretically be modeled, given all the initial data points.

There are those that believe that every moment holds countless possibilities, some vastly different, some imperceptibly so, with any given result leading to another countless set of possibilities each leading to their own potential result leading to more possibilities.  Some believe there is self-determinism and that our choices are not predicted solely on past events and current physical and mental factors.  Some believe that we ourselves are not part of the universe we appear to be in, and so can effectively can cause changes to that universe through the exercise of free choice. Some reach out to their understanding of quantum physics to support a belief in uncertainty and unpredictability.  Some go as far as to speculate that there are infinite or nearly infinite universes with each universe having been the result of the cumulative consequences of each and every outcome from each and every previously emergent outcome prior to that.

If we go with this last worldview, or rather universe-view, there are no doubt trillions upon trillions upon trillions of universes similar to ours where the first Ultimate Spinach album sold well, benefiting from the Newsweek January 1968 article that was part of the full-out publicity assault by MGM’s Alan Lorber to establish an identity for Boston-based psychedelic bands like Ultimate Spinach, Eden’s Children, Beacon Street Union, Puff, Quill, and Orpheus.  Though this attempt at creating an identity similar to that of the bands associated to the “San Francisco Sound” worked initially as evidenced by the considerable attention resulting from the Newsweek article, which certainly fueled sales of the first Ultimate Spinach album, there was the inevitable backlash by a handful of music critics, including a prominent Boston rock critic, whose general claim was this was a blatant establishment-based marketing ploy and that there was no characteristic sound of these Boston bands and that the informed consumer should completely discount such commercially motivated hype.  Wall Street Journal joined in the pile-up chiding the publicity effort in their arcticle “The Selling Of A New Sound”, followed by Rolling Stone which stereotyped this purportedly non-existent Boss Town Sound as ” “pretentious,” “derivative,” and “boring’ — terms that would also later be used in the arsenal of the “informed” and elite “anti-elite” music critics against progressive rock.

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Other media outlets weighed in on the topic of the legitimacy of the claim of a Boss Town Sound including Crawdaddy and Playboy. In Alan Lober’s words in an article published in Goldmine in 1992 “the snowball became an avalanche. It was now more trendy to talk “Boston Sound” than to hear it. In retrospect, it was hard to believe that something which had received so much media coverage could fail to become a commercial success.”

Yet, amidst all of this, that first Ultimate Spinach album was relatively successful commercially, staying on the Billboard album chart for 36 weeks and peaking at position 34.  It was also quite good, being easily accessible, fresh, upbeat and generally adventurous incorporating elements of jazz, classical, psychedelia and world music into a primarily contemporary rock style.

So, successfully swimming against the current of some not so-well meaning rock critics, providing an accessible, contemporary sound with plenty of potential for further development and exploration, and then, in August 1968, releasing a second album, Behold & See, more mature, better constructed, and stronger than the first, there was no real reason for Ultimate Spinach not to remain in the spotlight and have ever increasing album sales.

Except that Ian Bruce-Douglas got fed up.  He got fed up with the mechanics of the record industry and the resulting loss of his musical independence and authority, he got fed up with  producer Alan Lorber, and he got fed up with the with the various personal conflicts occurring within the band. Then frustrated to the extreme, he simply walked away from his own band.  With no group to tour in order to promote the new album, and without marketing or live shows, the second album stalled at number 198 on the Billboard top 200 album chart.  Without their leader and composer, the remaining band attempted a third album, which had a different sound and sold even more poorly than the second album.

UltimateS2a

Now if you buy into the multi-universe concept, and concede that there are easily quadrillion to the quintillionth universes that all have this same second Ultimate Spinach album, “Behold & See”, then it is conceivable, that in at least one, or perhaps even two, universes, the Boston music scene was allowed to more naturally flourish, that Ian Bruce-Douglas was able to overcome his initial disgust and dissatisfaction with the immense personal and individual ego challenges, the insensitivity of his record company, and the conflicts between he and his producer — and thus successfully promote through live concerts the second album, continue with the creation of a third and then have that fourth break-out album.  However, this may be pushing the envelop of the possible just a bit too much.  Perhaps there is limited upside to any group named “Ultimate Spinach.”  Or perhaps the personality that provided the music and lyrics for these first two albums, inherently would inevitably be constrained by the idiosyncratic demands of the music industry.   One hesitates to speculate about how much great music was lost because talents like Ian Bruce-Douglas were not able to cope with the realities and frustrations of the commercial music industry.

So even if there are not universes in which there are additional albums by the Bruce-Douglas led Ultimate Spinach, one can at least enjoy these two that are available. For those looking for early progressive rock, they will find many items that they can check off their list of prog characteristics: exotic or non-traditional rock instruments (theremin, acoustic sitar, electric sitar, vibraphone, recorder), angular rhythms and syncopation, an overall conceptual unity present in the two albums,  (anti-war, anti-conformist with references to Sartre in the first, and the theme of achieving transcendent awareness and freedom of thought in the second), imitative counterpoint, classical music reference (J.S. Bach incorporated into the final track of the first album), layered production techniques, interesting instrumental passages or completely instrumental tracks, and for bonus points, a single, visionary leader, who in this case was Ian Bruce-Douglas, who wrote the music and lyrics for the entirety of those first two albums.  Also, as noted earlier, the musical press referred to Ultimate Spinach as “pretentious” — an epithet worn as a badge of honor by many of the progressive groups of the early seventies. (Remember Gentle Giant’s compilation album, “Pretentious for the Sake of it?”)

And if you don’t much care for progressive rock, but like the more melodic psychedelic music of the late 1960’s, or just interested in hearing a bit of the “Boss Town Sound”, these two albums are available on CD, on vinyl, through streaming services, or even youtube as if they are deserving of more respect today than ever before.

And one last note directed at those musical critics that said there was no actual “Boss Town Sound”– history now seems to say otherwise with even once-antagonistic magazines like Rolling Stone conceding in 1988, in its “Rock of Ages” encyclopedia, the existence of such a musical movement.  Unfortunately, the time frame of that movement was ridiculously short, with the lack of commercial success causing most of these Boston-based psychedelic bands to break up by 1969 — yet I have to believe that, in this universe at least, if not in countless other universes, these Boston bands left something of lasting value, both in terms of influencing other, sometimes younger, musicians at the time that carried on, and in the case of the most popular of these bands, The Ultimate Spinach, left us music we can still listen to and enjoy today.

Track listing of Behold & See [from Wikipedia]

Side one

  1. “Gilded Lamp of the Cosmos” – 2:30
  2. “Visions of Your Reality” – 5:49
  3. “Jazz Thing” – 8:20
  4. “Mind Flowers” – 9:38

Side two

  1. “Where You’re At” – 3:10
  2. “Suite: Genesis of Beauty (In Four Parts)” – 9:56
  3. “Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse” – 5:50
  4. “Fragmentary March of Green” – 6:51

Personnel

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Fifty Year Friday: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention; United States of America

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Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention: We’re Only in It for the Money

In the summer of 1969 my family drove up to the San Francisco to take a cruise to Alaska on the Princess Cruise Line Ship,  MS Italia, and visited with my Aunt and then dropped me off for most of the day to visit with my cousin who was rooming with two or three other college students.  As typical, there the living room was the shared area, and it was well-stocked with a stereo system and dozens of LPs.  Several of them were recent recordings of Baroque music, this being the era of the baroque revival where driving around San Francisco one can find multiple FM stations playing mostly baroque music with works of not only J.S. Bach and Telemann, but seemingly dozens of Italian Baroque composers with names like Torelli, Tartini, Tortellini, Samartini, Scarlatti, Spumoni,  and on and on. So though my natural instinct was to dive into the treasures of Baroque music stacked around the stereo and against the sides of the speakers, my attention was redirected by an album that looked like Sgt. Peppers, but clearly was not.

“My roommate is a big Frank Zappa fan”, explained my cousin. “He’s got all the albums.”

That is, all the albums up to the summer of 1969.  And so I started with “We’re Only In It For the Money”, intrigued and yet mostly thrown off balance for much of side one and, to a lesser extent side two, but comforted by having the lyrics printed on the back.   Then putting on “Reuben and the Jets”, I was even more puzzled, abandoning it at the end of the first side, going on to the next Zappa album, and then ultimately shifting to one of the many Baroque albums I had initially neglected.

A few weeks later, during my first semester in college, I was able to explore Zappa’s early catalog at my own pace, and appreciated better the musicianship, music, and unconventional point of view, though not particularly embracing the sarcastically, disparaging tone and the interspersed droppings of scatology that were as much a Zappa trademark as the predictably unpredictable musical discontinuity and divergent shifts. I would not become a Zappa fan until Hot Rats, but was still able to enjoy and laugh at these early albums, particularly Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only it For the Money. 

So Fifty Years later, I am not yet ready pronounce, We’re Only it For the Money as a masterpiece of Western music, but can unequivocally state that it is a work of genius and something everyone should hear, if not just for purely musical reasons, for both musical and historical purposes.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Frank Zappa.

Side One

#

Title

Length

1.

Are You Hung Up?

1:23

2.

Who Needs the Peace Corps?

2:34

3.

“Concentration Moon”

2:22

4.

“Mom & Dad”

2:16

5.

“Telephone Conversation”

0:48

6.

“Bow Tie Daddy”

0:33

7.

“Harry, You’re a Beast”

1:22

8.

What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?

1:03

9.

Absolutely Free

3:24

10.

“Flower Punk[11]

3:03

11.

“Hot Poop”

0:26

Side Two

 #

Title

Length

1.

“Nasal Retentive Calliope Music”

2:03

2.

Let’s Make the Water Turn Black

2:01

3.

“The Idiot Bastard Son”

3:18

4.

“Lonely Little Girl” (“It’s His Voice on the Radio”)

1:09

5.

Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance

1:35

6.

“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise)”

0:57

7.

“Mother People”

2:32

8.

“The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny”

6:25

Total length:

39:15

united states of america

The United States of America: The United States of America

Two days after We’re Only in It for the Money was released on March, 4, 1968, another unconventional and relatively radical rock album was released, the work of Joseph Byrd, other band members including vocalist Dorthy Moskowitz, and producer David Robinson.

I first heard this band in my first semester in college in 1973 as part of Music History 251, when the track “Garden of Earthly Delights” was played on the classroom’s barely adequate stereo as part of the listening example included in the course workbook. I was impressed but when looking for that record that weekend could not find it in even the larger chain record stores and so forgot about it until years later when it became available again through reissue.

The first track, “The American Metaphysical Circus”, opens up much in the spirit of Charles Ives with competing marching bands, a piano playing “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” and a calliope.  But going beyond Ives is the electronic effects — no Moog synthesizer, this was beyond the financial means of the group — but creatively generated effects from more basic sound wave generation equipment.

More obvious than the Ives’ influence here, is the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers’ influence.  The lyrics of that first track hearkens back to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” — at least in the first verse:

“At precisely 8:05, 
Doctor Frederick von Meyer
Will attempt his famous dive
Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire.”

However as the song progresses the lyrics darken:

“In the center of the ring
They are torturing a bear
And although he cannot sing
They can make him whistle Londonderry Air”

And then political:

“And the price is right
The cost of one admission is your mind.

“We shall shortly institute
A syncopation of fear
While it’s painful, it will suit
Many customers whose appetites are queer.”

And such goes much of the album with decidedly left-wing, if not communist-inspired viewpoints (one track is titled “Love Song for the Dead Ché”), embedded into adventurous, well-crafted music.   This album, the group’s only offering (they broke up shortly after the release) is sometimes mentioned as a forerunner to progressive rock. For anyone interested in building up a collection of more exploratory and ambitious 1968 “rock” music, it is worth the trouble to track this album down — and it is a suitable companion for We’re Only in It for the Money next time you have ninety minutes set aside for some uninterrupted listening of some of the more progressive and unusual music from 1968.

Side One

Title

Length

1.

“The American Metaphysical Circus” (Joseph Byrd)

4:56

2.

Hard Coming Love” (Byrd, Dorothy Moskowitz)

4:41

3.

“Cloud Song” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

3:18

4.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

2:39

5.

“I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar”

(Byrd, Moskowitz)

3:51

Side Two

Title

Length

6.

“Where Is Yesterday” (Gordon Marron, Ed Bogas, Moskowitz)

3:08

7.

“Coming Down” (Byrd, Moskowitz)

2:37

8.

“Love Song for the Dead Ché” (Byrd)

3:25

9.

“Stranded in Time” (Marron, Bogas)

1:49

10.

“The American Way of Love”

  1. “Metaphor for an Older Man” (Byrd)
  2. “California Good-Time Music” (Byrd)
  3. “Love Is All” (Byrd, Moskowitz, Rand Forbes, Craig Woodson, Marron)”

6:38

Personnel

The band

Additional musicians

  • Ed Bogas – occasional organ, piano, calliope

Technical staff

  • Glen Kolotkin, Arthur Kendy – remixer
  • Richard Durrett – instrument design engineer
  • David Diller – engineer
  • David Rubinson – producer

Fifty Year Friday: The Nice “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack”

Recorded around October 1967 and released sometime in 1968 between January and March (as best as I can determine), this aggressively adventurous album effectively fuses elements of psychedelia, acid rock, jazz and classical music, establishing this in many progressive rock fans’ mind as one of the first true progressive rock albums.

The first track, “Flower King of Flies” is not inherently different than early Pink Floyd, except perhaps for the level of unbridled energy present, and the second song, the title track, is basically a bubbly, upbeat pop tune, performed , once again with unusual energy and a high level of musicianship.  The third track, though, borders on the harder edged rock often provided by the early blues-based metal bands; there is rugged guitar work and precise, yet perfectly spontaneously-sounding, organ work from Keith Emerson.

It isn’t until the fourth track, a 4/4 arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s mostly 9/8 “Blue Rondo à La Turk”, dominated by the acid-rock, B3 Hammond organ work that is the centerpiece of this instrumental, that the album falls more into the progressive rock realm. Included are glissandos, a J.S. Bach toccata reference , controlled distortion, and a climatic building towards the recap (the Brubeck Rondo theme), which frenziedly finishes the last ninety seconds, maintaining a perpetual, inexhaustible torrent of energy.

“War and Peace” opens up the second side with a level of focus and direction more typical in straight-ahead jazz than expected of a sixties’ rock group. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and, perhaps, Cream, this is the closest that anyone gets to the soon-to-be-prevalent heavy metal sound in a 1967 recording, notwithstanding a quote of a Bach Brandenburg concerto.

“Tantalizing Maggie” continues along the hard-rock, nearly heavy-metal frame of mind, with a modulating, exploratory, instrumental, B section that gives way to a modified recap of the A section with classical references that finish the piece.

“Dawn” straddles the line between an avant-garde concert piece and sixties psychedelia,  with sprinkled fragments closer to free jazz and baroque classical than to rock music.

The last track, “The Cry of Eugene”, is a beautiful ballad laced with elements of both psychedelic rock and the concert hall providing a suitable close to a varied, interesting, and well-executed album.  Emerson may be the standout here, but Jackson, O’List, and Davison all contribute significantly with energy and passion.

CD versions of the original LP include additional material with some releases including alternative versions of tracks as well as Nice’s rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s America, an essential for progressive rock lovers.

LP Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

  1. “Flower King of Flies” (Keith EmersonLee Jackson) – 3:19
  2. “The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack” (Emerson, David O’List) – 2:49
  3. “Bonnie K” (Jackson, O’List) – 3:24
  4. “Rondo” (Dave Brubeck, Emerson, O’List, Brian Davison, Jackson) – 8:22

Side two

  1. “War and Peace” (Emerson, O’List, Davison, Jackson) – 5:13
  2. “Tantalising Maggie” (Emerson, Jackson) – 4:35
  3. “Dawn” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 5:17
  4. “The Cry of Eugene” (Emerson, Jackson, O’List) – 4:36

Personnel

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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.

01

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.

b

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.

door-back-album-cover-elektra

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
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