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Posts tagged ‘Rock’

Fifty Year Friday: Joni Mitchell; Song to a Seagull

joni song seagull

Working in coffee houses and folk clubs, first in Toronto and then in the states, Roberta Joan Anderson, or simply Joni Anderson, and then later Joni Mitchell (taking her new surname as a result of a brief marriage from 1965-1967 to a Michigan folk-singer) begin getting attention for her song writing skills as more established artists with recording contracts begin to cover her songs.  First there was folksinger Tom Rush recording  “Urge for Going”, after Rush presented it to Judy Collins, who was not interested, then country singer George Hamilton IV placing it on the country charts for 21 weeks with it peaking at the number seven spot.  Then Buffy Sainte-Marie  recorded “The Circle Game”) and Dave Van Ronk recorded “Both Sides Now”, followed by Judy Collins recording that same song and another on her 1967 Wildflowers album with “Both Sides Now” being a major hit, by far Collins’ biggest hit, peaking at 8 on the pop charts, and 3 on the adult contemporary charts.

Joni’s own chance at commercial recordings came with David Crosby hearing her in a club in Florida and then convincing Reprise records to record Mitchell as a folk-rock artist.  David took ownership of production, basically taking a more-or-less hands-off approach except for the well-intended mistake of having Joni sing into the open grand piano, forcing the removal of high frequencies in final production, resulting in a lower fidelity album.

With this very first Joni Mitchell album, we have a collection of songs all written by creating the music first and then adding the lyrics, and yet fitting them together in such a way so that neither is diluted. There are no major hits on this album, put there are a number of gems, the most sparkling is “Marcie”, which is representative of Joni Mitchell’s amazing ability to craft effective and meaningful words to align with her music. This is not the strongest or best selling of Joni’s many albums, but it is one no lover of music or lyrics should mistakenly ignore.  It is with this very album that Joni Mitchell begins the climb to her current legendary status, and becomes worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence of earlier 20th Century greats like Cole Porter, writing music with a recognizable identity and a level of merit that earnestly invites repeated attentive listenings.

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Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Joni Mitchell.

Side One: I Came to the City

#

Title

Length

1

“I Had a King”

3:37

2.

“Michael from Mountains”

3:41

3.

“Night in the City”

2:30

4.

“Marcie”

4:35

5.

“Nathan La Franeer”

3:18

Side 2: Out of the City and Down to the Seaside

#

Title

Length

6.

“Sisotowbell Lane”

4:05

7.

“The Dawntreader”

5:04

8.

“The Pirate of Penance”

2:44

9.

“Song to a Seagull”

3:51

10.

“Cactus Tree”

4:35

Personnel

  • Joni Mitchell – guitar, piano, vocals, artwork for album cover
  • Stephen Stills – bass on “Night in the City”
Technical
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Seventy Year Saturday: 1947

With the world recovering from the worst war ever, World War II, and the cold war just starting, 1947 was a year of many musical landmarks.

In classical music, there are new operas by Benjamin Britten (Albert Herring),  Gian Carlo Menotti (The Telephone) Francis Poulenc (Les mamelles de Tiresias), and Virgil Thomson (The Mother of Us All.)  Sergei Prokofiev completes his  6th Symphony (Op. 111) reflecting the tragedies of World War II, and condemned by the Soviet government for its modernism. Arnold Schoenberg completes  A Survivor from Warsawthe grim story of a holocaust survivor during his ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp.  Other notable works composed in 1947 include the following completed compositions:  Samuel Barber – Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Vagn Holmboe – Symphony No. 6, Aram Khachaturian – 3rd SymphonyWitold Lutosławski – Symphony No. 1, Heitor Villa-Lobos – String Quartet No. 11William Walton – String Quartet in A minor —  and  Edgard Varèse – unfinished work, Tuning Up, a parody of the orchestra tuning process before the start of a concert.

In jazz, bebop artists continue to gain the attention of listeners, Thelonious Monk, at age thirty, records several masterpieces for Blue Note including Ruby My Dear, Off Minor, Well You Needn’t, In Walked Bud (a tribute to Bud Powell, based on the chord progressions of Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies”), and the incredible ‘Round About Midnight.  Wardell Grey and Dexter Gordon record The Chase, and Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards record The Duel. Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis record several sides together under various names (Charlie Parker All Stars, Miles Davis All Stars, Original Charlie Parker Quintet) in combination with various other musicians such as Bud Powell, Duke Jordan, John Lewis, and J.J. Johnson.  Parker also records tracks with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro,  Howard McGhee, saxophonists Wardell Gray, Shorty Rogers, pianists Erroll Garner, Dodo Marmarosa, Russ Freeman, guitarist Barney Kessel,  bassist Red Callender,  and others, leaving some incredible recordings for future generations to marvel over.

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For those that were around New York City to catch live music, they could see the aforementioned Miles Davis All-Stars at the Savoy, Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall with his big band, and The Count Basie Orchestra at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City or at the Strand Theater in Lakewood, New Jersey, supporting Billie Holiday.

For musical theater lovers in London in 1947, Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin) opened at the Coliseum on June 7 and ran for 1304 performances and Oklahoma! (Rodgers & Hammerstein) opened at the Theatre Royal on April 29 and ran for 1543 performances.

Of the many babies born in 1947, notable future rock composers and musicians include David Bowie and folk singer Sandy Denny, born in January, Derek Shulman and John Weathers of Gentle Giant born in February, Elton John in March, Steve Howe and Iggy Pop in April,  Ronnie Wood, Mick Fleetwood and Mickey Finn (T.Rex) in June, Brian May (Queen), Arlo Guthrie, Peter Banks (Yes, Flash), Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Carlos Santana in July, Ian Anderson in July, Marc Bolan and Meat Loaf in September,  Bob Weir (Grateful Dead) and Laura Nyro in September, Greg Lake and Joe Walsh in November and Gregg Allman, Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) and Burton Cummings in December.

In movies, we have the timeless Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, as well as The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant and Loretta Lynn and It Happened on Fifth Avenue.

The next few years would bring major changes all over the world. Fortunately that world as it was in 1947 has been well documented in records, movies and books.

 

Fifty Year Friday: The Who Sell Out

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“Power pop is what we play—what the Small Faces used to play, and the kind of pop the Beach Boys played in the days of ‘Fun, Fun, Fun‘ which I preferred.” Pete Townshend (1967)

Somewhere in the mid sixties, rock and roll was replaced with rock.  The rock and roll music of the fifties, primarily based on blues and variations of blues chord sequences, slowly was overshadowed by music that was more message and substance oriented. The Beach Boys classic “Fun, Fun, Fun”, and the 1967 masterwork “Good Vibrations” is clearly Rock and Roll. The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is clearly rock.  I don’t recall the year, but sometime in the late sixties, I started correcting my dad when he referred to rock music as “rock ‘n roll” — I disdained Rock and Roll as a relic and lower form of music,  and loved Rock for its broad musical diversity and, for the best of it, it’s reach beyond dance music to serious listening music.

The Who, part of the British Invasion, deviated from what was pretty much a rock and roll group in 1965, opening their first album “My Generation” with “Out in the Street” immediately followed with James Brown’s “I Dont’ Mind” and songs like “The Good’s Gone”,  “La-L-La Lies”, “Please, Please, Please”, “It’s Not True”,  and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man. ” However, like the Beatles, there were significant forays into a newer musical expression as hinted in “A Legal Matter” and in the instrumental “Ox.” By their second album, we get true rock pieces like John Entwistle’s classic “Boris the Spider.  By the third album, “The Who Sell Out”, an imaginative concept album that includes commercials interspersed throughout, mocking the format of commercial radio stations, The Who are a seasoned rock group writing and performing rock compositions, making use of such “power pop” chord progressions, modulations, and power chords (chords structures found in earlier Who songs such as”My Generation” and “Boris the Spider” — chords that just have the root and fifth — this not only omits the note that provides the major or minor quality of a traditional triad, but produces a simpler harmonic footprint producing an especially powerful effect when played loudly) that create a sound that is easily identifiable as the sound of The Who.  This is not the power pop of rock and roll, but power pop that is part of the new rock music movement.

The album opens strikingly, and aligning with it’s wanton-commercialism concept, with a jingle followed by John “Speedy” Keen’s (a friend of Who main songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend) “Armenia, City in the Sky” — starting out much like a radio ad, lyrically, with “If you’re troubled and you can’t relax” but soon followed with more mind-altering-like lyrics and with a 1967 psychedelic and imaginatively crafted arrangement including backwards french horn bursts and various guitar effects.

“Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand” is both melodically appealing and lyrically bold (“Mary-Anne with the shaky hands — what they’ve done to a man, those shaky hands.”) Musically, “Odorono” is even more notable, forging towards the musical style perfected on their next album and yet done as a deodorant jingle.  If one doubts the genius of Pete Townshend to align music and lyrics without compromising either, this is prima facie evidence of his capabilities, as is the track that follows: “Tattoo” a tune that could work very well as jingle for the Tattoo industry.

“Our Love Was” is an ethereal gem, maintaining energy and vibrancy to the end, with Entwistle’s French Horn providing just one of many elements that make this arrangement special.

The Who’s 1967 hit, and arguably the best song of the album, if not of Townshend’s career, is “I Can See for Miles”, punctuated perfectly by Keith Moon’s drums and cymbals.

The second side, is also excellent and includes  “I Can’t Reach You”, “Relax”,  Entwistle’s chromatically-flavored, organ-accompanied “Silas Stingy”,  the beautiful “Sunrise” and the Who’s second miniature rock opera, “”Rael (1 and 2)”, even shorter than their first mini-rock opera, “”A Quick One, While He’s Away” on their previous album.

Released in the UK in December 1967 and the US on Jan 7th, 1968, some of the musical techniques employed in “The Who Sell Out” will be more fully explored in their 1969 full-length rock opera,  “Tommy”, which also further develops  musical material in the songs “Sunrise” and “Rael.”  Though this album was only marginally successful in the US when first released, climbing no higher than the 48th spot on the Billboard album chart, perhaps due to its unusual jingle-based concept, it is one of the best albums of 1967, music that should be explored by those looking to better understand the history of rock (as opposed to  rock and roll) or just looking for some well written, enjoyable power pop music.

Track listing and song credits

Last week’s Fifty Year Friday

 

 

Fifty Year Friday: Love “Forever Changes”

This is an album that was pretty much ignored in November of 1967 when released on the Elektra label.  This is the third and final album of a Los Angeles based group called “Love”, though this really is mostly the work of Arthur Lee, singer/songwriter/guitarist, with a couple of songs contributed by Bryan MacLean, another member of the group, the rhythm guitarist, who provides leads vocals on compositions.

From the start, with it’s acoustic opening, there is an intimacy to the album with its well-crafted and fresh-sounding arrangements.  There are elements of the west-coast rock sound of 1967, folk-rock, and interestingly, English rock:  it shares some characteristics found in the 1967 Moody Blue’s “Days of Future Passed”, Genesis’ 1969 album “Genesis to Revelation” as well as sharing some stylistic traits with The Who and The Kinks.  That said, this is an original, very much non-derivative album that holds up well under repeated playings.

Hailed by some as one of the great masterpieces of 1967, this is an album that anyone that loves late sixties rock or loves what is often called “proto-prog” should check out, even if it doesn’t end up being one of your top 10 or even top 40 albums of 1967.

Track listing[from Wikipedia]

All tracks written by Arthur Lee, except “Alone Again Or” and “Old Man”, by Bryan MacLean.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. Alone Again Or 3:15
2. “A House Is Not a Motel” 3:25
3. “Andmoreagain” 3:15
4. “The Daily Planet” 3:25
5. “Old Man” 2:57
6. “The Red Telephone” 4:45

 

Side two
No. Title Length
1. “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale” 3:30
2. “Live and Let Live” 5:24
3. “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” 3:00
4. “Bummer in the Summer” 2:20
5. “You Set the Scene” 6:49
Total length: 42:05

Personnel

Additional musicians

  • David Angel: arranger, orchestrations
  • Strings: Robert Barene, Arnold Belnick, James Getzoff, Marshall Sosson, Darrel Terwilliger (violins); Norman Botnick (viola); Jesse Ehrlich (cello); Chuck Berghofer(string bass)
  • Horns: Bud Brisbois, Roy Caton, Ollie Mitchell (trumpets); Richard Leith (trombone)

 

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.

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Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All lyrics written by Jacques Wilson

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

Personnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When drafted

Fifty Year Friday: John Coltrane; Jefferson Airplane “Surrealistic Pillow”

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“One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.” — John Coltrane

Coltrane’s left us fifty years ago on July 27, 1967.   He played, improvised, and composed music for a number of essential albums including “Blue Train”, “Bags and Train” with Milt Jackson, “Giant Steps”, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, “My Favorite Things”, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane”, “Coltrane live at Birdland” with an incomparable version of “Afro Blue”, the one of a kind “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” album, and the classic “A Love Supreme.” Also of note is the June 1965 session (released in 1970) as the album “Transition” with the title track being essential to fans of  the music contained in a”Love Supreme.”  There is also music recorded in 1967, released years after Coltrane’s death, that could be classified as Free Jazz including “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” recorded on April 23, 1967. It’s interesting to compare a 1963 live version of “My Favorite Things” to the 1967 version:

Thank-you, Mr. John Coltrane for the all this incredible music you provided.

Twenty-six year old department store model, Grace Slick, a graduate of Palo Alto High and resident of the Bay area (San Francisco Bay area) after reading an article about one of the local bands, Jefferson Airplane, in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, went to see them live where they played regularly (“The Matrix”, a club on Fillmore Avenue) and was soon inspired to start a band, with her husband, his brother, and three others.  

This band, “The Great Society”, named after LBJ‘s set of programs to address unjust social conditions, soon opened for other more established Bay Area groups including Jefferson Airplane, and eventually attracted the attention of Columbia Records which offered them a recording contract at about the same time that the Jefferson Airplane was looking to replace their female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson.  Mrs. Anderson, an expecting mother, felt that she could no longer tour with the band and take care of a newborn and so gave notice, informing the public, on October 15, 1966 with words befitting any flower-power child: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”

Grace Slick left her band, which not being able to continue without her, disbanded, and she joined Jefferson Airplane, bringing with her two particularly notable songs: the Great Society’s lead guitarist’s medium-tempo song “Someone to Love” and her own drug-inspired composition, “White Rabbit.”

Jefferson Airplane embraced both Grace’s powerful singing and these two tunes, which they re-arranged, maybe not for the better, but certainly with greater commercial appeal.

“Surrealistic Pillow”, Jefferson’s Airplane’s second album and the first album with Grace Slick takes advantage of Grace’s high-energy vocals from the very first track, where her background vocals are of more interest than Marty Balin’s main vocals and perhaps the main melody itself. The second track, is “Somebody to Love”, played with more force and at a faster tempo than the Great Society arrangement.

This album also includes a song that Marty Balin wrote originally for Tony Bennett: “I wrote it to try to meet Tony Bennett. He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I’d write him a song. I never got to meet him, but the Airplane ended up doing it.” Jerry Garcia plays guitar on several tracks for this album including the short repetitive electric guitar phrase heard here:  


“Today” is followed by the evocative, marijuana-paced (and perhaps marijuana-influenced) Balin composition “Comin’ Back to Me.”

Side 2 starts with “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Second”, more for dancing then listening.  “DCBA” is relaxed and with somewhat puzzling lyrics:

“It’s time you walked away and set me free”

but later

“I take great peace in your sitting there
Searching for myself, I find a place there.”

and then in the middle of this

“Here in crystal chandelier, I’m home.
Too many days, I’ve left unstoned.
If you don’t mind happiness
Purple-pleasure fields in the sun.
Ah, don’t you know I’m runnin’ home.
Don’t you know I’m runnin’ home (to a place to you unknown? )”

“How do you feel” is one of those innocuous feel-good songs that would be comfortably at home on an album by The Mamas and Papas or The Association. “Embryonic Journey” is an excellent acoustic guitar instrumental, composed as part of a guitar workshop in Santa Clara by Jorma Kaukonen three years before he was invited to join Jefferson Airplane band by friend and fellow-classmate Paul Kantner.

The penultimate cut of the album, is the standout “White Rabbit”, rearranged musically to be succinct, focused, rhythmic and eerily similar to Ravel’s Bolero.  No concessions were made lyrically:

“One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all:
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.

“And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call:
Call Alice
When she was just small.

“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low:
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know.

“When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said:
‘Feed your head.
Feed your head.'”

I think it is at this point in time, more or less, that the commercial interests of the major music labels became more important than censorship of music with anti-establishment lyrics.   During the last eight weeks of summer, it seemed that one could not turn on Southern California AM radio without “Light My Fire” or “White Rabbit” being played at least once in any given hour. As a twelve-year old, I knew something was changing in the world around me as an older culture began to buckle under the weight of newer ideals — even if those ideals were plainly self-indulgent.

“Surrealistic Pillow” ends with a trippy, protypical Haight-Ashbury tune, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, mocking the ascendancy of the boob tube:

“Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time.

“Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You wear cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover.

“Her rattlin’ cough never shuts off
Is nothin’ but a used machine
Her aluminum finish, slightly diminished
Is the best I ever have seen.

“Cosmetic baby plugged into me
I’d never ever find another;
I realize no one’s wise
To my plastic fantastic lover.

“The electrical dust is starting to rust
Her trapezoid thermometer taste;
All the red tape is mechanical rape
Of the TV program waste.

“Data control and IBM
Science is mankind’s brother
But all I see is drainin’ me
On my plastic fantastic lover.”

Music can transcend time, be a document of its time, or both.  “Surrealistic Pillow” is indisputably an important musical document of its time. As as listener, you must decide if it transcends time. For those of us that grew up with this music, it tends to take us back in time, which, I suppose, is as valid way as any to transcend time.

Track listing (from Wikipedia)

Side one
  1. She Has Funny Cars” (Jorma KaukonenMarty Balin) – 3:14
  2. Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick) – 3:00
  3. “My Best Friend” (Skip Spence) – 3:04
  4. Today” (Balin, Paul Kantner) – 3:03
  5. Comin’ Back to Me” (Balin) – 5:23
Side two
  1. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” (Balin) – 3:45
  2. “D.C.B.A.–25” (Kantner) – 2:39
  3. “How Do You Feel” (Tom Mastin) – 3:34
  4. Embryonic Journey” (Kaukonen) – 1:55
  5. White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) – 2:32
  6. “Plastic Fantastic Lover” (Balin) – 2:39

Personnel (from Wikipedia)

  • Marty Balin – vocals, guitar, album design, lead vocals on “Today”, “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend” and “Go To Her”
  • Jack Casady – bass guitarfuzz bassrhythm guitar
  • Spencer Dryden – drumspercussion
  • Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, vocals, lead vocals on “How Do You Feel”, co-lead vocals on “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
  • Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, lead vocals on “Come Back Baby” and “In The Morning”
  • Grace Slick – vocals, piano, organrecorder, lead vocals on “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
  • Signe Toly Anderson – lead vocals on “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
  • Skip Spence – drums on “Don’t Slip Away”, “Come Up the Years”, and “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
Additional personnel

Fifty Year Friday: The Doors “The Doors”

doors_h

“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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