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Fifty Year Friday: May 1972

1972 was the year I started taking piano lessons in order to be able to write down all the original tunes that had started popping into my head around 1970. I never developed an ear good enough to play either my tunes or other people’s melodies impromptu, but it did give me enough foundation so I could pick out melodies after some work. It also gave me a greater appreciation of the great spectrum of music, current and past, available to people like me living in an industrialized, freedom-tolerant country with access to the variety of record stores, concerts and radio stations present in 1972 Southern California.

Uriah Heep: Demons and Wizards; Elton John: Honky Chateau

Two of the many albums released in May 1972, which I purchased shortly after their release included Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards and Elton John’s Honky Chateau. I recorded both on a portable battery-powered tape recorder to have music for the immediately upcoming summer vacation trips, but never much took a liking to Honky Chateau (resulting in me not purchasing Elton’s next album.) Demon and Wizards was better musically, and though not as notably baroque in feel as their previous album, there was still some impressive keyboard work and invigorating instrumental passages.

Rolling Stones: Exile On Main Street

Since I could now drive, I started going to school dances, and was exposed to some of the classic dance numbers on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, which was recorded in sessions from 1970, 1971 and 1972 and released on May 12, 1972. I never considered myself much of a Stones fan, but I loved dancing to “Tumbling Dice”, and particularly “Happy”, when some local band would play them (along with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”) at either our own high school gymnasium or at the college across the street or our local junior college. Exile is doted on by rock critics, and though it is a pretty good album, maybe the Stone’s best album next to “Between the Buttons”, and though we have Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston on keyboards and the creative magic of Mick Taylor and Keith Richards, this is an album more suited for secondary listening, such as driving or party music, as opposed to serious, concentrated listening as appropriate to the very best Yes, Jethro Tull, Genesis or Gentle Giant albums.

Caravan: Water Lily; Wishbone Ash: Argus

In terms of rock albums that do compel serious, concentrated listening, two releases from May 1972 fall into this category: Wishbone’s Ash’s Argus, which peaked near the end of May at number 3 in the UK top ten albums, and Caravan’s Waterloo Lily.

Ornette Coleman: Science Fiction, Skies Of America

My first exposure to Ornette Coleman was from the Columbia Records 2 LP “The Progressives” album, made available around 1973 as one of several give-a-way selections (something like 5 or 10 records for $1) to join the Columbia House Columbia Records Club. This was also my first exposure to Weather Report, Soft Machine, Charles Mingus, Don Ellis, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans (with George Russell), Matching Mole, and Gentle Giant. Gentle Giant garnered the plurality of my attention, mandating me to immediately purchase their 1972 Octopus album, but the Ornette Coleman track was a bit beyond my reach and my reality. However, around 1976, when Columbia Records issued a 2 for 1 (two for the price of one) LP of Coleman’s Science Fiction album and Skies of America album and at a price of $3.99, I considered that enticing price enough incentive to start my jazz record library, and I got my first in-depth experience with free-jazz, though I was well-prepared with the amount of twentieth century classical music I had been exposed to as a music major in college. After navigating through Xenakis, Stockhausen and Boulez, music by Ornette Coleman was now more accessible.

Science Fiction was recorded in 1971 and released in 1972 and is my favorite of the two albums. It is bold, unbridled and inventive. The album starts off with the ethereal and relatively tranquil “What Reason Could I give”, with Asha Puthil’s vocals essential in establishing the freshness and almost futuristic characteristics of this first track, and nicely setting up the overall listening experience for the entire album. “Civilization Day” provides a metallic, edgy contrast to the opening with an amazing pocket trumpet solo from Don Cherry. The third track of the album provides a softer and more open sound prior to the more aggressive fourth and fifth tracks, with the sixth track, “All My Life”, a beautiful love song with a remarkable sinuous melody and vocals handled handsomely by Puthil. The seventh track, “Law Years”, includes a compelling solo from Charlie Haden on bass, and the last track, “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” includes a terrific drum solo from Ed Blackwell immediately followed by Coleman on alto over effective support from Blackwell and Haydn, followed by Cherry, then Cherry and Coleman together with the return of the opening theme dramatically ending the album.

Skies of America, recorded in April of 1972, and released in May of 1972, fell short of what it could have been. Coleman’s writing for orchestra provides an effective foundation for an added jazz combo to improvise in appropriate places on top of the basic composition, however contractual constraints with the UK’s musician’s union resulted in Coleman having to do replace his intended “concertino” with a single soloist, himself. In addition, not the entire work was included on the album due to the time limitations of a single LP, possibly compromising the both the fullness and unity of the work — I say possibly, as I don’t believe there is any release with the entire work — I am not even sure the entire composition was recorded by the LSO during the April 1972 sessions.

That said, the album is still quite good, even with the LSO’s playing likely to have benefitted from additional rehearsal time. Coleman is in top form, and as expected, fully able to appropriately execute the underlying intention and vision of his work. The last track, “Sunday in America”, is as American as music by Aaron Copland, starting out reflective and embracing individuality, disparity, and unfettered freedom to dramatically end the movement and effectively close out the forty-minute work.

Weather Report: Live in Tokyo, I Sing the Body Electric

Perhaps a bit more accessible and commercially serviceable to Columbia Records was Weather Report’s part-studio-based, part live album, I Sing the Body Electric, released on May 26, 1972 in states. The live material is a subset of the “Live in Tokyo” 2 LP album released on May 1, 1972 in Japan, and shortly thereafter available as an import in the US, and then much later, like the second decade of the 21st century, available as a two CD set.

Randy Newman: Sail Away

On May 23, 1972, Randy Newman and Reprise records released Sail Away, Newman’s strongest album up to that time, including some of Newman’s songs that had been previously recorded by other artists and some newer material — or at least new to the public. Though not a commercial blockbuster, the album did make it into the Billboard 200, peaking at position 163. Sometime in late 1972 or 1973, I remember Newman appearing on TV and then in 1973, when, as a senior in high school, I took a Music History 100 class from cellist Terry King at the college across the street from my high school. Mr. King shared that he had played cello on this album (as well as cello on Carole King’s Tapestry) and he played a cut from the Sail Away album. Later in 1973, I saw Newman live, just him and piano, at the junior college, performing many of the songs on this album for an interested but relatively small audience. Though, I love the orchestration on this album, nothing quite brings out the sardonic wit and implied cynicism and irony of these songs as Newman tackling them live in the intimate setting of a small auditorium, in his individually, almost conspicuously, relaxed, offhand manner.

Fifty Year Friday: May 1971

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was released on May 21, 1971, but prior to that, around the end of February 1971, the calmest, most relaxed single of the 1970s yet ever heard by my ears on top 40 AM radio, started receiving airplay displacing the previous smoothest single of the earliest part of that year, “Black Magic Woman”. Now firmly only a fan of FM, my only exposure to AM radio was on the school bus — about a 25 minute ride into school and about a 35 minute ride on the late bus back home. By the middle of March of 1970, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was likely to be played once, and sometimes twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon during my daily travel on the bus. With annoying songs like The Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple”, Dawn’s “Knock Three Times”, and other mediocre bubblegum or pop tunes, the inclusion of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, far removed from the commercial template of most of the songs in the Top 40 of that time, into the AM playlist was like being given access to water in a scorching desert.

How appropriate that this gem leads off Marvin Gaye’s must heralded album, proving both the name and the essence for the entire album, almost by itself asserting the concept of the entire album, which rightfully and fittingly lines up perfectly and unconditionally with the ethos and character of that first track creating a concept album addressing peace, love, ecologic responsibilities, justice and injustice, and the rights and preciousness of all, adults and children.

Zawinul: Zawinul

Recorded in August through October of 1970, and released in 1971, Joe Zawinul’s fifth studio album (as a leader) continues the musical trailblazing of Miles Davis’s masterpiece, In a Silent Way. There is in fact, an amazing version of this Zawinul composition on the album, glimmering with a full rainbow of beauty, the pairing of Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul on keyboards and the lyrically lucid and spiritual melodic leadership by trumpet-great Woody Shaw.

The entire album provides a musical retreat, unfolding with the beauty of an uncompromised, unexplored nature reserve. Graced by so many fine musicians, and some creative engineering including some tape manipulation, editing, and praiseworthy aural balancing, the album provides all that is necessary for an immersive musical outing fully contained within the short span of about thirty-six minutes.

Weather Report: Weather Report

A few months after finishing recording his eponymous fifth album, Joe Zawinul teamed up with Wayne Shorter, Miroslav Vitouš, and multiple percussionists for the first Weather Report album released on May 12, 1971. The album embraces much of the creative forces present in Silent Way and Bitches Brew, but moves into new territory also with rhythmically propulsive tracks like “Umbrellas” and “Seventh Arrow” as well as the atmospheric track “Orange Lady” which provides a leisurely, reflective weave from a spectrum of beautiful coordinated musical musings and the shimmering “Waterfall.”

Paul and Linda McCartney: Ram

While my sister was accompanying my maternal grandmother on an ocean cruise for the summer of 1971, I journeyed from Southern California up to Salem, Oregon accompanying my paternal grandparents on a nearly twenty-four Trailways bus trip to spend a couple of weeks with my cousins, aunt and uncle, fishing, introducing my older cousin to the classic Chicago II album, taping drum and bugle practices on a cheap, bottom-of-the barrel cassette recorder and generally having the time of my life.

When driven to the newly open Lancaster shopping mall by my older cousin and her friends, I stumbled into what may be commonplace today, but was a novelty at that time, a record store in a indoor shopping mall — the indoor shopping mall being also a relatively new concept, with the Lancaster mall (now the Willamette Town Center) opened shortly before my arrival.

A moment or two after entering the record store, the store manager changed records, putting the newly arrived second McCartney album, Ram (released a few weeks earlier on May 17, 1971) on the store turntable. The first track, “Too Many People” was immediately recognizable as it was getting airplay on both FM and AM. While my cousin and friends wended their way through the multiple other retailers in the mall, I camped out in the record store, listening to the entire first side including the previously familiar “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, pulled away by them for a few minutes, and then eventually returning to finish up side two and, to my delight, an unexpected replay of the entire album, or at least side one, as I was eventually whisked away by my cousin and friends to somewhere else. Later on my return to the mall, perhaps a week later, I got to hear most of side two, including the final track, “The Back Seat of My Car.”

Upon my return to Southern California, my good friend, fellow cross-country runner, co-worker at the school cafeteria, and next door neighbor, the one that had introduced my to Chicago, had already purchased Ram, and I promptly recorded it on to my reel-to-reel. I was already in love with the album, and played it several times before eventually tiring of it and moving on to something else. It’s a pleasure to listen to it again after all these years, and even though back in 1971 my cousin may have thought the music to be somewhat silly and certainly not in the same league as Chicago’s second album, I still love the simple, engaging, and buoyantly upbeat music that permeates this album.

The Carpenters: Carpenters

On May 14, 1971, The Carpenters released their third album with meticulous soft-pop arrangements by Richard Carpenter and Karen Carpenter’s trademark vocals. It is not as special as an album as their previous Close To You album, but their performances are beyond reproach even if not all the selected material matches that of Close To You. As the Carpenters moved to Downey, California a few months before my parents moved our family to Orange County, I honor my hometown connection to them and that adds to the fondness I have for their music. Add to this that my Oregon older cousin liked them, even when she dismissed McCartney’s second solo album, and that my spouse, the love of my life, is a big Karen Carpenters fan, I think I will always enjoy listening to their music with an ongoing emotional connection that is in addition to my appreciation of their musical merits.

John Entwistle: Smash your head against the wall; Graham Nash: Songs for Beginners; Rod Stewart: Every Picture Tells a Story

Like George Harrison, John Entwistle did not have an abundance of support to get his bandmates to include his compositions on their albums, so his first solo album, Smash you head against the wall, released during May of 1971, contains many of these “rejected” compositions. One recurring trait in Entwistle’s works is the use of chromatic passages as famously represented in years earlier in “Boris the Spider” and his darkly-tinged humor as represented in the opening track of this debut album, “My Size.”

Graham Nash is one of the most underappreciated songwriters of the sixties and seventies, so its always a joy to listen to his songs whether on Hollies albums, CSN and CSNY albums or his solo albums. This is a wonderful album brimming with catchy melodies including songs like “Military Madness” and “Chicago.”

Though I don’t think of myself as much of a Rod Stewart fan, I took an immediately liking to “Every Picture Tells a Story”, Rod Stewart’s third solo album, released on May 28, 1971. There is an authenticity to his delivery throughout this album and the strongest tracks are certainly among Rod’s best efforts.

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