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Fifty Year Friday: September 1970

Lot’s of great albums released during 1970 and September was one of several notable months. About this time in 1970, I started listening to music with headphones. Our small living room was such that the two stereo speakers were poorly situated for optimal stereo, and so the headphones revealed a common characteristic of many of these albums — this was not the Stereo of the mid 1960s anymore. Stereo was now creating sound stages, some realistic, particularly with classical music recordings, and some surreleastic as with so many rock albums. The pleasure of listening to albums like Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Jesus Christ Superstar increased measurably when the room was dark: the sense of sound borrowed attention-resources from the sense of sight. To this day, whether it is Bartok’s Night Music, Debussy musical imagery, Billie Holiday’s Verve-era vocals, Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um, the primal combination of Gezzer Butler bass and Toni Iomma’s guitar or a classic angular progressive rock album like Gentle Giant’s Free Hand, I remember the lesson from 1970, turn off the lights, extinguish all extraneous thoughts and make the music your entire and exclusive environment.

Andrew Webber and Tim Lloyd Rice:

Jesus Christ Superstar

Several months after The Who’s Tommy hit the FM radio stations, a more controversial album starting getting attention. It was also a rock opera, though more like a tradtional cast recording than Tommy, with different individuals on each part. My go-to radio station for new albums, KPPC-FM, announced that they would be playing the entire album from start to finish. I recorded the broadcast on reel to reel, with the broadcast’s less than perfect reception, and then repeatedly listened to the resultant recording on headphones through a wall of static. Thankfully, Christmas soon came and on Christmas day I received Superstar, as we colloquially referred to the album, as a Christmas present along with the complete Handel’s Messiah Oratorio, which I had also requested, and which my mom found it much harder to find than Superstar, now present at every record store. (I had also asked for the entire Tchaikovsky 1812, convinced that if there was an 1812 Overture, which I had, there must be a corresponding opera. Of course, no such gift could be purchased.)

I immediately transferred the two LPs of Superstar to tape, so as not to wear out the LPs, as I had done with the 1812 overture and my copy of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. The sound, recorded at the fastest speed available on my tape deck, on the highest quaility tape I had, was just indescribable, particuarly on relatively good headphones. I would sit on the floor close to my tape deck, following the lyrics initially, and then later abosorbing the compositional and instrumental richness of the album.

My grandmother, the more religious one, approved of my interest and commented that this was how music sounded back at the time of Christ, though I was old enough to realize this was way before her time. Yet, there seemed to be undeniable truth in this assertion, and part of this was the inclusion and incorporation of dissonance, and the use of the diminished chord, that standby of silent movie soundtracks to represent the bad guys — and hints of older modes and scales. This is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s masterpiece. That the composer of works like the earlier Joseph and the Amazon Technicolor Dreamcoat and the later Starlight Express, rose to this level of musical excellence may be challenging to explain, but it occured and this album was evidence.

Black Sabbath: Paranoid

That this larger than life work, the 20th century rock equivalent of a Wagner opera scene, was purchased for $2.99 at K-mart, took me a while to get over. I remember vividly, the first time I encountered the first Black Sabbath album being listened to on a cheap turntable plugged into a building outlet by some high school freshmen druggie-types, or at least academic poor-achievers (we won’t say failures as they had three more years of high school ahead) — and I remember being intrigued by the poorly reproduced but seemingly substantial music. And I vividly remember purchasing Paranoid at K-mart, taking it home and sitting in front of the stereo on a barstool borrowed from the kitchen counter. But what was most vivid about all encounters with Black Sabbath, even including seeing them up close and live at California Jam, was the first listening to Paranoid and the darkness, obscurity and obliqueness of the music.

Paranoid is often credited as the first true heavy metal album, though certainly all the elements in Paranoid are there to some degree in their first album. However, while the first album was basically a recording of a live set, the second album is of higher sonic and musical quality. Though all four band members are given songwriting credit, for the most part the music on this album was written by Tony Iomma, with lyrics provided by Geezer Butler. To classify this music as simply heavy metal ignores the unique musicl style of Iomma — a darkest violet, and yes, satanic-like sound, built on short basic and strongly diatonic phrases that fit together like lego blocks. The sound is readily identifiable, and works effectively at a slow tempo, as in the opening moments of War Pigs that start the ablum, or at a faster tempo as taken in the second track, Paranoid. I have never heard Black Sabbath labelled as a progressive rock band, and some of that may be due to the primal nature of thir muscianship and Iomma’s compositions, but for me, I see no reason why the music itself isn’t classified as progressive rock. It certainly was a progressive sound in 1970 and when I picked it up in 1971 when it hit record stores in the U.S. And today fifty years later, it still holds its own, tarnished slightly in terms of freshness by the subsequent Black Sabbath albums that sometimes recycled the building blocks that made this such a unique sound and the many less-distinctive and creative imitators that followed. There is nothing in the rock catalog that has both the somatic and metabolic magnetic impact as “Iron Man”, and excluding the very best canonical prog rock albums, there are few musical statements that show the boldness, consistency, and durability of “Paranoid.”

Atomic Rooster:

Death Walks Behind You

If the William Blake bestial  Nebuchadnezzar album cover didn’t entice you to immediately purchase the Atomic Rooster Death Walks Behind You, hearing that dark descending four note chromatic bass line that permeates the title track or the quirky, keyboard-bejewelled “Tomorrow Night” might have. Unfortunately, being on Elektra, there was slight chance of someone in the U.S. seeing this album stocked in most record stores in 1970, and unless you lived in the L.A. or the Bay area, it’s not likely you would have heard any portion of this album on FM radio, until the success of ELP prompted many to check the back catalog of Atomic Roster. Nonetheless, this ablum, with Carl Palmer now replaced with Paul Hammond on drums, and Vincent Crane and John Du Cann raising their level of creative partnership, this is not only the best Atomic Rooster album, but a fine, at times joyful and playful, at times dark and shadowy, heavy metal, progressive hard rock album. Whereas no band ever imitated Black Sabbath effectively, the style of hard rock exemplified in Death Walks Behind You, a style with its roots in earlier hard rock English pre-metal bands such as Cream, was successfully incorporated by a number of bands of the early seventies.

Caravan:

If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You

Another high quality progressive album, released in the UK on September 4, 1970, and also difficult to find in the U.S. until later in the seventies, was Caravan’s second album. Providing a diverse range of progressive rock, Canterbury scene rock and English Jazz rock (with its inclusion of saxophonist Jimmy Hastings), this is an album that endears itself upon repeated listenings.

Neil Young:

After the Gold Rush

Full of unerringly good music and lyrics that range from near-nonsense and obliquely obscure to shamelessly unaffected and nakedly transparent, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, is one the finest if not the very best of his long, productive and meaningful career. Southern Man is a case in point where the music and lyrics are beyond any criticisms, or need for critique, but the rest of the original compositions are each worthy of special attention. Neil Young is a master at combining musical and lyrical simplicty to get through one’s superficial emotional barriers as exemplfied in “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” It is the Neil Young magic that turns a basically musically and poetically flimsy and somewhat monotonous song into exquisitely simple high art, something also accomplished with the less emotional “When You Dance I Can Really Love” and the entire contents of his subsequent album, “Harvest.” The most memorable song on After the Gold Rush, is the title track with its seemingly deeply profound, but if you believe later Neil Young interviews, somewhat meaningless, lyrics. I prefer to think that Young is being more modest than accurate, for even if there was no particularly deep intent in the lyrics they fit so well with the music that they deserve some praise. But the most incredible feature of this work, at least for me, is that with every listening it always seems to be of epic length, even though it only clocks in at only 3 3/4 minutes.

Santana: Abraxas

Released on September 23, 1970, Abraxas is another special album. Despite an initial lack of attention and acceptance from many in the music press, the attention the band garnered from the Woodstock film, the success of the “Evil Ways” single, and the striking cover soon propelled this album to number one on the album charts making the album a staple in many early 1970s record collections. This is another one of those albums you turn down (or off) the lights to listen to. The opening track is dramatic and provides an imposing and remarkable beginning to an amazing, whirlwind musical experience.

If: If

Though often labelled as jazz-rock, this first of several albums by If, released in September 1970 is as much British progressive rock as it is jazz-rock. Similar in some respects to early Jethro Tull and Genesis, the musicianship is solid and the music is engaging. I picked this album up when it came out after reading a postive review of it in the L.A Times, expecting that it might be similar to Chicago or Blood, Sweat and Tears, and didn’t fully appreciate if for what it was, mostly listening to it as background while studying or reading. Listening to it again, almost fifty years later, I much better appreciate it’s abundant qualities and strengths.

Jackson Five: Third &

Allman Brothers Band: Idlewild South

There are two other albums released in September of 1970 that require a brief mention. The first is the Jackson Five album, their third album, simply titled Third. As I was starting my sophemore year in school, the biggest slam one could throw (“dis” in modern parlance) at someone was either they were a freshman, or worse, they were a freshman and put on a Jackson Five album when they went home. Nothing was more uncool musically. And yet, when riding on the bus, one couldn’t avoid (and very embarrassing, and something I would never admit until now too old to care about being cool) liking the music. So it was with “I’ll Be There” which I heard over and over again. I never listened to any Jackson Five album until recently — but now listening to them as I go through the timeline of albums that are celebrating their fiftieth year of existence. Of course, it helps that I am married to someone that was a fan of Michael Jackson when growing up.

The other album I must mention is the Allman Brothers Band’s Idlewild South album, released September 23, 1970. Although often pigeonholed as an early Southern Rock album, or even as Southern Blues-Rock, it is so much more. The opening incorporates jazz elements and anticpates groups like Dixie Dregs. Yes, when the vocals start, the music becomes more conventional and less interesting — until the next instrumental excursion. And basically, that is the strength of this album: it’s instrumental passages.

Fifty Year Friday: Woodstock and August 1969

Wide-angle overall of huge crowd facingWoodstock: Aug 16-18

The history of people gathering together to hear others play music is almost as old as people gathering together to play music — both going back to prehistoric times.

And there were many older people in 1969, those of the “Great” generation and those of the so-called “Silent” generation, that would have identified “Woodstock” as just another prehistoric-type gathering to listen to primitive music.

Woodstock wasn’t the first multi-day music festival.   The Greeks had multi-day festivals where music played an important role.  In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there were music festival that included a competitive element as portrayed in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner himself started the famous Bayreuth Festival in 1876, and though the first year was a financial disaster, it was a significant historical achievement with Russian attendee, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, writing “Something has taken place at Bayreuth which our grandchildren and their children will still remember.”

And so we can say the same about Woodstock.

There were many earlier multi-day rock events including the three-day Trips Festival in 1966, the two-day Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in June 1967, the three-day Monterey Pop Festival from June 16 to June 18 in 1967, the Northern California Folk Rock Festival in May 1968, the two-day Newport Pop Festival in early August 1968, which had over 100,000 paid attendees, the two-day Isle of Wight Festival on August 31 and September 1, 1968, the two-day San Francisco Pop Festival on October 26 and 27, the two-day Los Angeles Pop Festival on December 22 and 23, the three-day Miami Pop Festival on December 28-30, several large, multi-day festivals in the first seven months of 1969 including the July 25-27 Seattle Pop Festival, and the three-day, attended by over 100,000, Atlantic City Pop Festival on August 1-3.

But Woodstock was one of a kind.  It was the peak of such gatherings — both a musical and social event the likes of which had never occurred before and has yet to occur again.

It was further celebrated and immortalized by the Warner Brothers movie, Woodstock, which came out in March 1970 — a important documentary that other studios had no interest in funding, and that, with its box office success, saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy.

I had not even heard of Woodstock when my father, one evening in April 1970, while my sister and mom were attending some a Job Daughters or Eastern Star related meeting, took me to see a movie about music he personally had no interest in or no particular affection for. At fourteen, I was just along for the ride, so to speak, and would have accompanied my dad to any movie he chose.  Fortunately he chose Woodstock.

And what I saw were the myriad and complex vestiges of sixties mixing with, and more significantly, fueling the new music and culture of the upcoming 1970s — I was watching a document foreshadowing the world I would soon more fully engage and participate in.  Outside of sometimes reminding me of the importance of being considerate of others and sensitive to other people feelings, taking me to movies was the closest my dad ever came to explaining the facts of life or teaching me about what life would be like as an older teenager or young adult.  Woodstock, even in just its movie reincarnation, provided exposure to curse words, skinning dipping, drugs, and most of all some really timeless music.

Today there are various DVDs and on-demand streaming sources of video and audio that cover the music played at Woodstock and capture interviews of musicians and attendees.   I think its appropriate to celebrate this anniversary by watching the original movie or the extended version — or just listening to some of the audio from this landmark event.  Appreciate any comments on this topic!

Albums for the rest of August 1969

For the most part, by August of  1969, the sixties were wrapping up and the seventies were off to the races.

There were a number of musicians and groups that were symbols of the sixties that now had to make the transition to the seventies or fold trying.  Those that more-or-less folded, including Donovan, as mentioned in last week’s post, and groups like the Association, who released their fifth album in August 1969, the first of two Association albums that didn’t have a charting single, would be long remembered for their contributions in the sixties, but not recognized as a part of the seventies.

While other groups were declining, wrapping up, or dissolving, there were many new groups — with three genres becoming more and more prevalent: hard rock groups, which would evolve mainly into metal, progressive rock, and hard rock blues bands; the folk and country rock groups, which would often, in the case of some folk rock bands, get more progressive and complex, or with some country rock bands, develop a harder edge to their music or become more acoustic or folk-oriented; the blues rock bands, which depending on their musical sophistication usually evolved into metal, hard rock, jazz-rock, or more prog rock bands.  On top of this the Motown sound of the sixties was generally replaced with funk, soulful rock with the heart and soul of the Tamla/Motown set of record labels (including Tamla, Motown, Miracle/Gordy, VIP, Soul) shifting from Detroit to Los Angeles.

The shift from the sixties to the seventies was marked by the formation of super groups – — top musicians from different bands getting together as was the case earlier with Crosby, Stills, and Nash which released their album in May of 1969, and Blind Faith and The Hollies, both of which released their albums in August of 1969.

Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood formed Blind Faith with Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. The Blind Faith album, with its controversial original cover, which Eric Clapton fought for by stipulating their would be no album without that cover of the topless prepubescent strawberry blonde suggestively holding a Concord-like aircraft , and which cover was predictably replaced when initially released in the U.S. and Canada, is foundationally a blues rock album, with some particularly engaging writing by Steve Winwood and overall quality playing from Clapton, Winwood, Gretch and Baker.  Half of the album, side two, is an extended jam number which particularly showcases Eric Clapton.

Steve Marriot of the Small Faces and Peter Frampton of the Herd formed the Hollies.  Their first album, As Safe As Yesterday Is, released in early August of 1969, is a mixture of blues rock, jam rock, and some good solid songs. particularly the title song, “As Safe As Yesterday Is”, by Peter Frampton.  This style of British rock-blues looked forward to the blues and guitar oriented rock of the early seventies and contained few vestiges of the original British Invasion sound.

Ten Years After, who also played at Woodstock, was an English blues rock band  releasing their third studio album, Ssssh in August of 1969.  However by this third album Alvin Lee’s impressive guitar style had more of a seventies’ sound and his writing style likewise as was the the general hard-rock rhythmic drive of drummer Ric Lee and bassist Leo Lyons as well as the blues-rock sound of classical trained keyboard player Chick Churchill.  Ssssh, outsold the previous two albums and got as high as the twentieth position on the US Billboard Album Charts.

Mick Abrams, the guitarist on the first Jethro Tull album, leaving apparently from differences with Ian Anderson on the musical direction of Jethro Tull, had formed the band British Blues Band Blodwyn Pig.  Incorporating the reed work of Jack Lancaster and including elements of jazz-rock as exemplified by the track, ““The Modern Alchemist”,  the album reached number 9 on the UK charts. Again we have a solid, British Blues album, very much forging the way into the start of the seventies.

David Brown Plays With Santana At Woodstock

In America, starting in 1966, Carlos Santana led a Bay-Area-based live-concert jam band, Santana. Santana’s first album, recorded in May 1969 and released at the end of August, 1969, incorporated some actual songs in order to be commercially friendly — but as to be expected from this type of jam band, the album is mostly instrumental.  One of songs on the album, “Evil Ways”, caught on in a big way reaching #9 on the charts sometime in March 1970. With the combination of the heavy airplay of “Evil Way” and their appearance at Woodstock and in the film, their first album eventually climbed up to number 4 on the US Billboard Album Charts.  While “Evil Ways” received incessant airplay on AM, FM radio stations played other cuts of the Santana album.

Michigan, which had provided the MC5 and The Stooges, provided yet another hard-edged, blues-based rock band with Grand Funk Railroad. Though the level of musicianship was not at the level of English groups like Blind Faith, The Hollies, Ten Years After, or Blodwyn Pig it was clearly an improvement over MC5.  The first album, On Time, released in August of 1969, was also much better received by rock critics.   Grand Funk was a natural seventies arena rock band, so much so that Rolling Stone writer David Fricke later declared “You cannot talk about rock in the 1970s without talking about Grand Funk Railroad!”  And though an intelligent musically-oriented discussion of seventies rock music certainly wouldn’t suffer from an omission of Grand Funk (as they were more commonly called by fans), they were one of the few early seventies hard rock bands that managed to successfully steer away from what some considered the contaminating influence of progressive rock — staying mostly true to the vision of a generic, relentlessly devoid of any traces of self-awareness, hard rock.

Stevie Wonder, did not play at Woodstock, but continued to mature as a musician and composer, releasing My Cherie Amour on August 29, 1969. Wonder would become one of the most important voices of the 1970s, but for the most part My Cherie Amour is still a sixties album. The biggest hit was the title track, “My Cherie Amour”, a tune originally written by Stevie for his girlfriend as “Oh, My Marsha” when he was a student at the Michigan School for the Blind and then recorded in 1967.  Reaching #4 on the U.S. Billboard Singles chart, the song is relatively simple, instantly accessible and charmingly a product of the sixties.  “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”, also recorded back in 1967, reached number #7 in the US and #2 in the UK.

Love also was making the transition from the sixties to the seventies. To start with, Arthur Lee, the primary creative force behind Forever Changes, dismissed all the previous members of Love after the departure talented songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Brian MacLean had left.  The new album, Four Sails, released in either August or September was a disappointment to fans expecting an extension of the melodically-rich, proto-prog sound of Forever ChangesFour Sail starts off promising enough, with the first track “August”, propelling forward with impressive contrapuntal interplay between the two guitars and the bass.  The next track though, pulls the listener back into the sixties as does “I’m With You” with its similarities to the quintessentially sixties “Feeling Groovy” and “Robert Montgomery” with its similarities to “Eleanor Rigby.” Overall, the album is supported by some strong, seventies-style guitar work, but it does not match the quality of the earlier Forever Changes album, and it garnered even less commercial and critical attention.

Another album bypassed by most consumers and critics alike, selling less than a total of 20,000 copies in 1969 and 1970, was Boz Scaggs solo album, simply titled “Boz Scaggs”, recorded after his departure from the Steve Miller Band and released in August 1969. This is mostly a country music album, but it smoothly incorporates elements of blues, folk, soul and gospel. One could make the case that this album is the most seventies album of all the late sixties albums as it effectively incorporates horns, and background singers into a polished presentation that is as much about style and appearance as substance.  Fortunately, there is also real substance to the songs. Scaggs own compositions are generally based on traditional country laments (unrequited love, being taken for granted, unappreciated, leaving because unappreciated, and abandonment.)  The covers Scaggs chooses are wisely selected and fill out the full county/blues spectrum with “Look What I Got” (I found someone else, so there — but it could/should have been you.”) and and “Waiting for a Train” and “Loan Me A Dime” covering down and out territory.  The album ends with a final country song, Scaggs and keyboardist Barry Becket’s “Sweet Release” that balances desolation with the promise of solace.  This strong and powerful ballad is reminiscent of Procol Harum and anticipates the country-rock sound of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connections.  Overall Scaggs gives us one of the first seventies-style Americana albums, simple, effective, and liberated from the influence of the musical influences of the British Invasion. Once Boz made it big, the album was reissued and belatedly charted in 1976.

August was a busy month for releases, and with albums like Miles  Davis’s In a Silent Way, Nick Drake’s “Five Leave’s Left”, Yes’s first album, Yes, Jethro Tull’s “Stand Up”, Santana’s first album, Santana, and Can’s “Monster Movie”,  now in the hands of many listeners by the end of August, 1969, it seems appropriate to note that this was the beginning of the seventies, calendar mechanics and formalities ignored — and it you were to bring such silly technicalities up, my reply would certainly be typical seventies jargon — “screw that!”

 

 

 

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