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Posts tagged ‘Progressive Rock’

Fifty Year Friday: The Canterbury Scene: Soft Machine and Caravan first albums

Establishing the starting point of progressive rock is a hopeless cause since elements of progressive rock appear in bits in pieces long before a general progressive rock style.  The best one can do is try establish the earliest date of the first progressive rock group. Some might argue that such an “earliest date” is established by the formation of the Wilde Flowers, a group of jazz-leaning musicians that took a crack at British Rock and Roll in 1964 and developed a more-or-less accessible, and even partly danceable style of music that foreshadows the music of the Canterbury scene — easily enough explained by the members of the Wilde Flowers all taking prominent roles in these later groups. Though no albums were recorded, we have a set of demos that have been released on CD and are currently available on You Tube.  Keep in mind that these were demos and not particularly representative of Wilde Flower live performances, which included some jazz-based improvisation.

Though I prefer to keep my distance from the term “progressive rock” as a label for a style of music, I support a concept of progressive rock representing the pushing of boundaries of status-quo music and breaking free of the constraints of commercial expectations, particularly when commercially successful as in the case of songs like the Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  This means that any rock music, whether by the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Zombies or some other group from the mid or late sixties that goes past the minimal expectations of pop/rock to explore the passageways that naturally and unnaturally twist and spiral out into Robert Frost’s road not taken.  This is also why I am hesitant to consider some of the “neo-progressive” rock bands as notably progressive — such a use of the “progressive” label creates the ironic condition when applied to today’s musicians, of being indicative of a lack of progressiveness as they are trying to recreate an older style as opposed to pushing out to new territories. However, that said, quality and excellence is a more welcome and appealing feature in any music over progressiveness for the sake of sounding or being progressive. I will more readily listen to the post-romantic British symphony composers of the early twentieth century over many of their contemporary atonal composers.

The Wilde Flowers

Band members included, at various times:

softm1MI0001896961

The Soft Machine: The Soft Machine

The Soft Machine, named after the 1961 novel by William S. Burroughs (titled based on the nature of the human body) started as a quartet in 1966 that included Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers from the Wilde Flowers, and classically-trained keyboardist Mike Ratledge and guitarist Daevid Allen from the free-jazz group Daevid Allen Trio. Following a European tour in August 1967, Allen, an Australian, was refused re-entry into Britain due to a previous overstay on an earlier visit.  Allen returned to Paris, to later form the group Gong, leaving Soft Machine a trio. On the first Soft Machine album we also have  Brian Hopper and Hugh Hopper, prior members of The Wilde Flowers, appearing in the writing credits.

This first Soft Machine album is a mixture of psychedelic rock and jazz elements as in tracks like “Joy of a Toy”, based on “Joy to The World” and sounding more like early space rock than Christmas music. Robert Wyatt makes up for any shortcomings as a vocalist with his contributions on drums.

Interestingly, the post of this first Soft Machine album on YouTube (link) has a Dislike to Like ratio of .0257 in the same ballpark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers (link) ratio of .0254 — compare that to the Beatles’ Abbey Road ratio of .15 (link) or Gentle Giant’s Free Hand of .030 (link)

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one
No. Title Writer(s) Length
1. “Hope for Happiness” Kevin AyersMike RatledgeBrian Hopper 4:21
2. Joy of a Toy Ayers, Ratledge 2:49
3. “Hope for Happiness (Reprise)” Ayers, Ratledge, B. Hopper 1:38
4. “Why Am I So Short?” Ratledge, Ayers, Hugh Hopper 1:39
5. “So Boot If At All” Ayers, Ratledge, Robert Wyatt 7:25
6. “A Certain Kind” H. Hopper 4:11
Side two
No. Title Writer(s) Length
7. “Save Yourself” Wyatt 2:26
8. “Priscilla” Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 1:03
9. “Lullabye Letter” Ayers 4:32
10. “We Did It Again” Ayers 3:46
11. “Plus Belle qu’une Poubelle” Ayers 1:03
12. “Why Are We Sleeping?” Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 5:30
13. “Box 25/4 Lid” Ratledge, H. Hopper 0:49

The Soft Machine

Additional personnel

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Caravan: Caravan

Also made up of band members from The Wilde Flower (Pye Hastings, David and Richard Sinclair, and drummer Richard Coughlan), Caravan started up in 1968 and released their first album about the same time as Soft Machine’s first album.  This would be the first British group signed to Verve records, the famed American Jazz label founded in 1956 by Norman Granz that not only carried the most jazz titles in their catalog of any label, but also was home to Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground.

Even if one is able to somehow dismiss the first first two Nice albums or the first Soft Machine album as qualifying as fitting into the progressive rock genre classification (once again, I am making a distinction between between being considered progressive rock music and being classified under the prog-rock label), it is much more difficult to dismiss this first Caravan album. It is unfortunate that the balance and mixing of this album is dodgy at best, but the music more than compensates for this otherwise serious failing.

“Place of My Own” with its alternation between the dreaminess of impressionism and the insistent forward progress of a march creates a whole organic work of four minutes that is comparable in substance to a similar length classical or jazz track. With liberal use of keyboard arpeggios and emphasis on the instrumental section over the lyrics, Caravan creates an overall mood and character to the entire work giving it is own identity as effectively as bands like Yes and Genesis would do to many of their songs on their early albums.  This is followed by the Indian-influenced instrumental, “Ride”, the effective forward-moving and sometimes beautiful “Love Song with Flute”, and the quirky, mostly psychedelic Cecil Rons. ” However, the most notable piece is the nine-minute “Where but for Caravan Would I” which is co-written by Caravan and Brian Hopper (who also co-authored some of the tracks on the first Soft Machine album.)  It is epic in nature,  starting off with a relatively simple section, repeated, that modulates to a short contrasting section that quickly returns to the original section again before breaking out into a furious instrumental section dominated by organ that again returns to the original key and the altered and more intense original theme, which is followed by a more complex rhythmical section that nicely functions as the coda to bring the work to a satisfying and complete conclusion.  This is a template for the prototypical prog-rock track, laid bare without any unnecessary frills or complications, something easily grasped and enjoyed, and available to be copied with endless variation and development.  Yes, later groups would move well beyond this, but Caravan provides the necessary starting point — and though it may not so much have influenced other groups as much as it was just an instance of the parallel development of the post-psychedelic rock groups that got their start at the end of the late sixties, it is as an impressive example of the relentless nature of this new music to carve out its own language and means of expression from the available languages and expressions readily available in the diverse music of that time.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks credited to Sinclair, Hastings, Coughlan & Sinclair except “Where but for Caravan Would I?” which is written by Sinclair, Hastings, Coughlan, Sinclair and Brian Hopper.

Side One

#

Title

Length

1.

“Place of My Own”

4:00

2.

“Ride”

3:41

3.

“Policeman”

2:45

4.

“Love Song with Flute”

4:09

5.

“Cecil Rons”

4:05

Side Two

#

Title

Length

1.

“Magic Man”

4:01

2.

“Grandma’s Lawn”

3:23

3.

“Where but for Caravan Would I?”

9:01

Caravan

  • Pye Hastings – lead vocals (side 1: 1-2, 4), co-lead vocals (side 1: 5 & side 2: 1, 3), guitars, bass guitar
  • Richard Sinclair – lead vocals (side 1: 3 & side 2: 2), co-lead vocals (side 1: 5 & side 2: 1, 3), bass guitar, guitar
  • Dave Sinclair – organ, piano
  • Richard Coughlan – drums

 

Side Note:

Interestingly, the post of this first Soft Machine album on YouTube (link) has a Dislike to Like ratio of .0257 in the same ballpark of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers (link) ratio of .0254 — compare that to the Beatles’ Abbey Road ratio of .15 (link) or Gentle Giant’s Free Hand of .030 (link)  

Caravan’s first album Dislike to Like Ratio on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bt1inf8CRnE&list=PLALZtwXPtUFKvbI7h8Fc5CdqRYoI_qyyd) is .0028 — or 356 likes to only one Dislike — rather unheard of in youtube land.

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Fifty Year Friday: The Nice

The Nice ALVB.jpeg

The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis

In November of 1968, The Nice release their second album, furthering their advance into progressive rock as initiated in their first album.

With the guitarist, David O’List, no longer part of the group (either dropped from the group or left on his own depending on whose side of the story is being represented), The Nice auditioned replacement guitarists, including Steve Howe.  Evidently this would have worked out, except for Howe having second thoughts a week later.  And so, the band moved on without a replacement guitarist, with a line up more like a traditional piano jazz trio (piano, bass and drums), then a rock group, providing the blueprint for the keyboard-dominated progressive rock group (with occasional augmentation by orchestra as in the case with this second Nice album.)

The first track, “Daddy, Where Did I Come From”,  seems like a throwaway novelty number, but much like the ensuing second and third tracks, has a distinct charm and quirkiness that elevates it above the commonplace. Note the peppy piano intro by Keith Emerson as well as the brief baroque-like organ passage, the ensuing unbridled electric organ accompaniment, and the spoken dialogue as the dad.

The second track, “Little Arabella” includes vocals from Keith Emerson at around the 1:37 mark. The third track, the fanfare-like”Happy Freuds”, has Keith on lead vocals and though mostly a simple upbeat pop number, has both charm and substance.

Keith Emerson’s dominance continues with the keyboard-dominated realization of Sibelius’s Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite.  The main theme works better in its original version, but Emerson’s improvisation and development of the theme — and short detour from the theme — provide the essence of this interpretation.

The title track takes up the length of the second side, including orchestra backup — at least at points.  It is not so much a coherent whole as a stitchwork that includes a dramatic Keith Emerson prelude orchestrated by Robert Stewart, a four minute drum solo, the main “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with Jackson on vocals,  followed by a jazzy instrumental diversion, a third section with an Emerson intro that dives into the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg, pitting Emerson’s more excursive inclinations against the orchestra’s more faithful script,  followed by a restatement of the “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” theme with more jazz-like trio work and the prelude material serving as a coda.

All in all a pretty good album that delivers quality, variety and some impressive trio passages.

Track listing [From Wikipedia]

All songs written by Keith Emerson and Lee Jackson, except where noted.

Side one

  1. “Daddy, Where Did I Come From” – 3:44
  2. “Little Arabella” – 4:18
  3. “Happy Freuds” – 3:25
  4. “Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite” (Sibelius) – 8:57
  5. “Don Edito el Gruva” (Emerson, Jackson, Brian Davison) – 0:13

Side two

  1. “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” – 19:20
  • “Prelude” (Emerson) – 1:49
  • “1st Movement – Awakening” (Davison) – 4:01
  • “2nd Movement – Realisation” (Jackson, David O’List, Emerson) – 4:54
  • “3rd Movement – Acceptance “Brandenburger”” (J.S.Bach, Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 4:23
  • “4th Movement – Denial” (Davison, Emerson, Jackson) – 3:23
  • “Coda – Extension to the Big Note” (Emerson) – 0:46
The Nice

 

Fifty Year Friday: Jefferson Airplane and HP Lovecraft

crownof creation81NdZctnSEL._SX355_

Jefferson’s Airplane Fourth studio album, released sometime in September of 1968, continues their expansion of San Francisco folk-flavored psychedelic rock, with a mostly denser, darker and more spontaneous, jam-rock-enriched sound.

Grace Slick scores big again, starting from the instant the needle hits the vinyl with her composition “Lather”, which though inspired by her fellow bandmate, and bedmate, drummer Spencer Dryden, turning thirty, also has been crafted to have a more poignant message about an intellectually disabled adult named Lather:

“Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys…

“He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
Is it true that I’m no longer young?
And the children call him famous,
what the old men call insane,
And sometimes he’s so nameless,
That he hardly knows which game to play…
Which words to say…
And I should have told him, “No, you’re not old.”
And I should have let him go on…smiling…babywide.”

Another impressive track on this first side is Slick’s rendition of David Crosby’s “Triad” with Crosby on guitar.  The Byrds had recorded the work for inclusion on the final Byrds album with Crosby, The Notorious Byrd Brothers,  and for whatever reasons (conjectured explanations range from the nature of the lyrics to the quality of the song to internal band politics and ego-clashes), the Byrds dropped it’s inclusion.  Perhaps this was for the best, as not only was their no hesitation on the Airplane’s part to record this, but Slick on an album of material otherwise written by the band, but the change of the gender of the personna makes the lyrics work out even better.

The rest of the album is generally heavier, rockier and with a more complex sound with the final song covering the nuclear demise of the earth — the Jefferson Airplane are still producing commercially-in-demand and modern, cutting-edge material, with this album having made it as high as the sixth spot on the Billboard album chart.

Jefferson Airplane {from Wikipedia}

Additional musicians

hplovecraft-2

With a very promising well crafted first album, featuring haunting, distinct, yet harmonious vocals between co-founders George Edwards and classically-trained Dave Michaels, thoughtfully arranged compositions and a sophisticated approach to psychedelic folk-rock that included timpani, harpsichord, piccolo, renaissance recorder, saxophones, clarinet, french horn, tuba, trombone and vibes, H. P. Lovecraft, named after the American horror-fiction writer, recorded their second album in the summer of 1968, releasing it in September of 1968 with no special title, simply called “H P Lovecraft II” with  a small “II”as seen in the album cover above.

This second album is more progressive, but due to a demanding concert schedule, the band had little time to prepare, with the result being a less disciplined effort than the first album, but a step forward musically.  Like their namesake, the author, H. P. Lovecraft, fortune, or even decent wages, were not to be theirs. The group disbanded in 1969, with a subsequent reformation as simply “Lovecraft” and then again as “Love Craft”, but without the leadership and musical skills of George Edwards and Dave Michaels, the band had a much different sound,  lacking that other-worldly, psychedelic, borderline progressive quality of this second album.

H. P. Lovecraft {from Wikipedia}

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.

UltimateS1

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

UltimateS2b

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

Zappa WOIIFTM_

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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