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Posts tagged ‘Van Der Graaf Generator’

Fifty Year Friday: December 1970

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band

Though, almost fifty years ago, days after Christmas, I ended up buying George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and skipped purchasing this John Lennon album, my next door neighbor did buy it. He was sixteen and I was fifteen years of age. On first listening, I followed the lyrics more carefully than the music, and to me the album was not only unusually personal but somewhat bleak and cynical with an undertone of bitterness. Musically intimate, it was perfect for secluded listening, and the quality of the songs supported both repeated, concentrated listening or putting it on as background while reading or doing schoolwork. Quite a gem. A gem I appreciate even more today. This album was recorded after Lennon and Ono had gone through primal scream therapy and listening to in 2020, I can now more readily relate to Lennon’s viewpoint and his personal pain. I also appreciate the production quality of the album more, though I remember even almost fifty years later being impressed by the double tracking of his vocals on songs like “Hold On”, the simplicity and intimacy of Lennon’s acoustic guitar and vocal presence of “Working Class Hero”, and the beauty of tracks like “Love” and “Look at Me”, the latter similar to Lennon’s Julia on the Beatles’ White album. In the 1980s, no longer a student but successfully self-employed, I made sure I had my own copy of this album, but I must admit that listening to it again in 2020, I appreciate it more than ever.

Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band

We also saw the Yoko One companion album in the stores and eyed it multiple times but the consensus on the street was to avoid it completely. Finally, sometime in 1971, I found someone that had it in their collection and listened to a part of it, looking for any trace of a recognizable song, and not finding it in the first few minutes, even after lifting and repositioning the needles on each track of side one, I abandoned any interest.

That is — until now — and now listening to it in full, after having many hours of accumulated listening to Webern, Cecil Taylor, Xenakis, Crumb, John Cage and a wide range of even less popularly acclaimed music, find it to be quite good. Two bonus elements for me: John Lennon’s guitar and, more impressively, the Ornette Coleman quartet’s contributions on the first track of side two, “AOS” with Yoko Ono’s vocals often merging in quite effectively. Also of note is the quirky “Touch Me” which seems to perfect for deterring any innate tendencies for tactile contact. All in all a solid soundscape experience.

Robert Wyatt: End of an Ear

Released on December 4, 1970, and recorded between Soft Machine’s third and fourth albums, Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear is another challenging listening experience, not easily classified as either jazz-rock, jazz or progressive-rock. Wyatt drums with abandon and provides wordless vocals, sometimes altered in speed and thus also pitch. It’s borderline chaotic, and yet reassuringly musical.

Captain Beefheart: Lick My Decals Off

Leaving both the Robert Wyatt and Yoko Ono albums in the dust, is Captain Beefheart’s wild and unconventional Lick My Decals Off. The first track, “Lick My Decals Off“, though purportedly a statement encouraging consumers, in Beefheart’s words, to “get rid of the labels”, and to evaluate the musical content itself, is clearly a song on tongue-based pleasuring with “lick” (and possibly the “dec” part of “decals”) being the operative message here. The rest of the album is as wild and unbridled with ample use of complex meters and rhythms. The opposite of music to relax or sleep to, this is music to fully wake most mortal listeners up!

Van Der Graaf Generator: H to He, Who Am the Only One

Equally adventurous as these aforementioned albums, with an abundance of complexity, yet, comparatively, “easy listening music” to the Ono and Beefheart albums, is Van Der Graf Generator’s cryptically named third album, H to He, Who Am the Only One, referencing the transformation of hydrogens atoms into a single, inert, alone and isolated helium atom — a metaphor, whether appropriate or not, for the theme of isolation that is so effectively represented in the music and lyrics of this brilliantly realized and remarkable album.

King Crimson: Lizard

I remember purchasing King Crimson’s Lizard shortly after acquiring the classic album In the Court of the Crimson King, expecting something similar. Unlike their second album, In the Wake of Poseiden, which I had not yet acquired and eventually had to special order, Lizard was very different with no songs matching the colorful vitality of “21st Century Schizoid Man” or “The Court of the Crimson King” or even the simple melodic beauty of “I Talk to the Wind” or “Moonchild.” Nonetheless, the music was instantly intriguing and engaging — and by the second or third listening, I fully accepted it, as well as the distinctly differences in contributions from drummer Andrew McCullough (quite talented by with a far different approach than Micheal Giles) and saxophonist Mel Collins, both of which make this album particularly special — and the replacement of Greg Lake (after his departure to ELP) with bassist and vocalist Gordon Haskell. Robert Fripp, as always, deserves particular acknowledgment, providing memorable acoustic and electric guitar as well as some mellotron and organ.

Nico: Desertshore

Nico’s releases her third solo album, Desertshore. Under half an hour, there is not a wasted microsecond on the entire album. “Janitor of Lunancy” begins the album with a richly-dark bleakness. The harmonium provides both a mystic droning and forward harmonic motion supporting Nico’s low-register vocals from underneath. “The Falconer” starts in similar fashion but John Cale soon joins in a piano, providing a smattering of light that opens up and broadens the music’s scope. The third track, “My Only Child”, for Nico’s eight-year old son, is a beautifully sung, mostly a cappella gem with Nico providing some additional chorale-like vocals and John Cale providing a few minimal brushworks of instrumental punctuation on the high-register of the French horn including the opening note of the work.

Side two begins with violin and harmonium and again provides a bleakness of musical landscape on which rests Nico’s vocals. Whereas the music of “Janitor of Lunancy” might be likened to a hot, dry Bulgarian plain in early August, “Abscheid” more closely resembles a cold, desolate Scottish lowland in the darkness of a January morning. The next track, “Afraid”, ironically is more musically and lyrically hopeful. Mutterlein, an ode either specifically to Nico’s mother or mothers in general is austere and heartfelt. Almost Schubertian, this work was performed almost 28 years later at Nico’s funeral after her tragic death from a cerebral hemorrhage.

The album ends with the moderate paced, but doggedly forward-driving “All That is My Own”, beautiful and distinctive. Altogether Desertshore is the equivalent of a cohesive song cycle with commendable vocals and praiseworthy compositions from one of the more notable, but often overlooked, singer-songwriters of this era.

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Vashthi Bunyan: Just Another Diamond Day

A singer-songwriter even more overlooked than Nico was Vashthi Bunyan, whose 1970 album, Just Another Diamond Day, recorded in November and December 1969 and released in December 1970, sold so poorly that Bunyan would stop recording and performing and not make another album until 2005. Thankfully, the album gained attention during the rise of the small-label Indie rock artists, when it’s simplicity and musical honesty was more fully appreciated.

Colosseum: Daughter of Time, If: If2

Additional albums of note for December 1970 include Colosseum’s Daughter of Time, and If’s second album, the fine jazz-rock If2.

Beethoven

On December 16, 1970, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in the Los Angeles Music Center hosted the monumental 12-hour Beethoven Marathon for Beethoven‘s 200th birthday celebration. Those of us in Advanced Placement English at my high school were lucky enough to be bussed to the event. Admission was $1 and we had to leave before evening, but I got to hear several hours of great music including the Beethoven Octet! I was so taken by the piece, I tried to stay for the evening performances, but as I didn’t have a ride arranged back to Orange County, I had to leave with the rest of my classmates. Nonetheless the music I did hear left a lasting impression still remembered today. Classical music on recordings falls far short of a good live performance, and I was very fortunate to hear so many fine performances fifty years ago.

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Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven

Fifty Year Friday: February 1970

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Van der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other

Recorded in December 1969, and released in February 1970,  The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other was the first true VDGG album (the first, the Aerosol Grey Machine was closer to a Peter Hammill album with VDGG personnel and was originally intended to be released under Hammill’s name) and their only album to make a dent on the UK charts, peaking at number 47, and staying on the charts for an almost immeasurable two  weeks.  It also received some critical aclaim, including London’s Time Out magazine heralding it is the strongest album the writer had heard in a long time.  The lyrics from Peter Hammill are excellent, even better than on the Aerosol Grey Machine, and the music nothing short of timeless — and in the same league as King Crimson’s classic In the Court of the Crimson King.  And like In the Court of the Crimson King it is considered by most prog rock fans as an unequivocal example of early progressive rock — not proto-prog, psychedelic rock or hard rock, but truly progressive rock.

One can completely lose themselves when listening to this album — this is music which demands attention of and absorbs the listener as almost effectively and as inexorably as a Beethoven symphony.  The VDGG’s performance and use of instruments provides both a level of unpretentious sophistication and focused unity normally associated with orchestral music. We can track the maturation of Peter Hammill not only as a composer and songwriter but as a vocalist as he shows greater expression and naturalness than on the previous album.  One can reasonably speculate this is probably the album where David Bowie first started to be influenced by Peter Hammill, an influence that Bowie may have never publicly acknowledged but one can begin to hear tinges of  starting with Bowie’s third album, The Man Who Sold The World, recorded in April and May of 1970.

I had no awareness of Peter Hammill or Van Der Graaf Generator in 1970 or even 1971. It wasn’t until I saw Pawn Hearts on sale around 1973 and purchased that album (solely based on the price and the album cover) that I first heard this magnificent band and their amazing music.  Soon I purchased all Peter Hammill and VDGG’s earlier albums, including this true masterpiece, The Least We can Do Is Wave to Each Other.

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Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

Whereas, VDGG’s second album is indisputably one of the first progressive rock albums, Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album, recorded in October 1969 and appropriately released on Friday the 13th, February 1970 is often considered one of the first heavy metal albums.  Like the VDGG album it is symphonic in nature, with a readily identifiable musical style and handling of non-traditional pop/rock subject matter. Both use grimly Cimerian album and song titles: The VDGG album title is based on the quote “We’re all awash in a sea of blood  and the least we can do is wave to each other” with “Darkness” the title of the initial track;  the Black Sabbath title, band name and opening track is, of course, is associated to heretics’ and witches’ black  masses (often evil and devil worshipping gatherings or ceremonies) held on the Sabbath.  Interestingly, both albums begin with ominous sounds of the stormy side of nature and an impending sense of utmost darkness.) Like the VDGG album Black Sabbath provides an early example for an entire genre.  Commercially, the reception of these two albums were quite different, with the Black Sabbath album climbing to number 8 on the UK charts and staying on US album charts for over a year, selling over a million copies. And initially, the critical reception was very different, also — where the VDGG album was praised, the Black Sabbath album was basically ridiculed — critic Robert Christgau describing their first album as “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter — bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.”

Although the initial reaction of Sabbath’s debut album was pretty negative, later evaluations have generally been more positive, with it now being ranked as number 243 of Rolling Stone’s 2012 revision of the 500 Greatest albums of all time — a list that does not include a single entry for VDGG, Peter Hammill, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Yes, ELP, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Area, PFM, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Laura Nyro, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderly, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy,  Larry Young, Cannonball Adderly, Grant Green, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Art Blakey, Lennie Tristiano, Weather Report, The Mahavishu Orchestra, Return To Forever, Chicago (to include the Chicago “II” album) as well as any  compilations of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Nat King Cole Trio, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Django, Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker or Lightning Hopkins, despite inclusion of other compilations and greatest hits albums. (I know this isn’t the post for this, but how can you include two Frank Sinatra entries in a greatest recordings list and not include a single mention of Billie Holiday? And why only U.S., U.K., and Canadian bands?  Does Europe, South America, the Middle East,  Asia and Africa not record music worthy of inclusion in a list of top 500 albums? )

This 1970 Black Sabbath album was recorded in one day, and mixed in a single subsequent session. The single session constraint actually worked out okay, as the entire album was comprised of material Black Sabbath had been performing live — this enabled them to basically play as they had been playing to real audiences without intricate overdubs or musical layering.  And yet, despite this, the album sounds more fully developed and coherent than most of the hard rock or heavy psychedelic rock released previously.

The satanic images are not only in the lyrics but inherent and arguably fundamental to the music itself.  Sabbath guitarist, and primary composer, Tony Iommi repurposes the ominous, hostile theme of Gustav Holst’s “Mars” from The Planets to set the sinister tone for the entire album. Much is made of the use of tritone which is more overt in Iommi’s handling of the theme, but the minor third and ornamental minor second are even more germane to the Black Sabbath sound which is particularly distinct due to the Geezer Butler’s bass and Iommi’s deep ostinato guitar lines that provide a primal foundational simplicity and unavoidably recognizable trademark for the band’s raw, underworldly sound.  Though not the 243rd best album ever made, it is a strong debut and garnered an immediate fan base to provide ongoing support for Black Sabbath for many years.

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Atomic Rooster: Atomic Rooster

Recorded in December 1969 and January 1970 and released in the UK on February 1970, Atomic Rooster’s first album is a mixture of early progressive, psychedelic, and hard-rock.  Vincent Crane provides the compositions and quality keyboards and the album includes an extended drum solo from Carl Palmer.

The album was not released in the U.S. (until several years later) and only available as an import.  The album was released in Australia where the original album cover art was deemed inappropriate (this is a rooster — and a fowl!) and replaced with a substitute cover.

James Taylor: Sweet Baby James

Recorded in December 1969 and released in February 1970, Sweet Baby James has a mix of high quality and direct, intimate simplicity that has made it a classic.  It includes one of the best straightforward pop-folk songs ever composed: “Fire and Rain.”

Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Funkadelic, Morrison Hotel

Other albums of note released in February 1970 include Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention Burnt Weenie Sandwich with material recorded in the late sixties, Funkadelic’s first album, Funkadelic and the Door’s Morrison Hotel.  George Clinton’s group Funkadelic is particularly notable for its meld of funk, soul and psychedelic rock and this first album also seamlessly incorporates African-American traditional-folk music including field shouts and blues, trailblazing the way for many future soul-funk-rock albums. Interestingly Robert Christgau, who so scathingly panned the first Black Sabbath album and the Sweet Baby James album, also trashed this important album.

 

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