January 29-30 – Steppenwolf, Velvet Underground

The final days of January gave us two influential rock albums.  One touched a nerve with the 60’s generation fairly quickly, while the other was initially accepted with a mostly exclusive audience before gaining wide acclaim in later years.  Steppenwolf’s self-titled debut and The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat are prime examples of how, despite what the parents of Baby Boomers might’ve claimed, all rock and roll does not sound the same.

January 29:  Steppenwolf – Steppenwolf

One of the more iconic rock vocals belongs to founding member John Kay.  As a small child in 1949, Kay and his mother escaped Soviet occupied East Germany and resettled in West Germany until 1958 when they moved to Canada where Steppenwolf was formed in 1967.  The songs on this successful debut are straight forward guitar driven tracks.  Two of them, Born to Be Wild and The Pusher, had their Counter Culture status cemented a year later when featured in the film, Easy Rider.

And now another installment of True Music Confessions:  Until I purchased a copy of the Easy Rider soundtrack a few years ago, I had no idea that Hoyt Axton was an accomplished songwriter who wrote The Pusher as well as a number of other well-known songs, e.g., Joy to the World.  I had only ever heard him sing in a Busch Beer commercial back in the 80’s and then in an appearance on WKRP in Cincinnati that I watched in syndication.  He certainly didn’t seem like much of a Counter Culture personality, but more of a bumpkin.  It turned out bumpkins could also be hippified.

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Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Sookie Sookie
  2. Everybody’s Next One
  3. Berry Rides Again
  4. Hoochie Coochie Man
  5. Born to be Wild
  6. Your Wall’s Too High

Side Two:

  1. Desperation
  2. The Pusher
  3. A Girl I Knew
  4. Take What You Need
  5. The Ostrich

 

January 30:  The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

I feel somewhat awkward trying to write about the Velvets.  Perhaps they represent to me the limit I’m willing to go to in terms of avant-garde music/art.  I like them.  I know they’re influential.  Yet I’ve not listened to them much beyond a compilation I own.  At least not as much as I “should” have.  I was never cool enough.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another band whose work was so disregarded in its time, yet so revered in later years.  Groups today wouldn’t be given a second or third chance by record companies if they charted as low as the Velvets did.

I listen to plenty of music with dark, bleak themes by troubled writers and musicians, but I don’t think it gets much bleaker than this.  But it’s fantastic.  The fuzzy distortion, Mo Tucker’s minimalist, tribalistic drumming, Lou Reed’s monotone singing, John Cale’s electric viola, organ playing, and spoken word lyrics – it’s all so hypnotic.  Just listen to the epic Sister RayWhite Light/White Heat is their second album, and was recorded in two days sans Nico’s vocals or Andy Warhol’s production.  It was also their last album of new material to feature John Cale.  Listen at your own risk; you may just wake up in some filth strewn Bronx alley trying to hit your mainline sideways.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. White Light/White Heat
  2. The Gift
  3. Lady Godiva’s Operation
  4. Here She Comes Now

Side Two:

  1. I Heard Her Call My Name
  2. Sister Ray

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Light/White_Heat

-Stephen

 

January 22 – Lady Soul, Spirit, Dr. John

January 22, 1968 gave us a three course meal with very distinct flavors:  soul, jazz-rock, and a batch of psychedelic New Orleans gumbo.

Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

The beauty amidst the world’s chaos continued on this day with the release of Aretha Franklin’s classic, Lady Soul, one of three great albums to come out on this date.  This one may be the most beloved of the three, and one of the most enduring of 1968 to this day.  Clocking in at 28:41, it’s very short but very sweet.  There’s not a weak song in the bunch, which includes a couple of her biggest hits. This music just leaves you feeling good.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Chain of Fools
  2. Money Won’t Change You
  3. People Get Ready
  4. Niki Hoeky
  5. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman

Side Two:

  1. (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
  2. Good to Me As I Am to You
  3. Come Back Baby
  4. Groovin’
  5. Ain’t No Way

 

Spirit – Spirit

January 22 also saw the release of the self-titled debut from the band Spirit.  While their most famous song would come along later in 1968, they immediately carved their own niche into the rock music world with elements of progressive rock as well as jazz incorporated into their songs on this album, due in large part to drummer Ed Cassidy.  Cassidy himself was a bit of an oddity in rock at the time with his “Mr. Clean” shaved head, but more so because he was a couple of decades older than anyone else in the band and had played with such jazz luminaries as Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk.  He was also the stepfather of founding member Randy California, who had briefly played with Jimi Hendrix prior to the latter’s rise to fame.  Another founding member was vocalist Jay Ferguson, who later found brief acclaim in the 1970’s pop world with the song Thunder Island.

I didn’t know much about this band when I picked up a copy of Mojo Magazine 15 or so years ago with a Roots of Led Zeppelin sampler CD attached, and Spirit’s Fresh Garbage was one of the songs.  I came to discover that Zeppelin had in fact opened shows for Spirit early on and were known to hang out side stage and listen to Spirit’s sets after their own.  In recent years one song from this first album, Taurus, made the news when Mark Andes, the only other living original member of the band besides Ferguson, sued Jimmy Page for copyright infringement on behalf of Randy California due to the similarity between a portion of Taurus and Stairway to Heaven (recorded two years later), but lost.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Fresh Garbage
  2. Uncle Jack
  3. Mechanical World
  4. Taurus
  5. Girl in Your Eye
  6. Straight Arrow

Side Two:

  1. Topanga Windows
  2. Gramophone Man
  3. Water Woman
  4. The Great Canyon Fire in General
  5. Elijah

Does the riff at about :43 in the following song sound familiar?

 

Dr. John – Gris-Gris

Somehow I only discovered this album in recent days (at one time I owned his 1994 album, Television), and I’m actually a little embarrassed to type that because it’s so good.  Swampy, funky, definitely not mainstream, this is the debut album of Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), and it’s also the first example of a nice side benefit of this little hobby of mine:  the opportunity to discover albums I’d never heard of, and to give others that I’d not paid much attention to a more critical listen.  If you’re so inclined, grab a sixer of Abita and dial-up this album late some warm, rainy night and enjoy.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
  2. Danse Kalinda Ba Doom
  3. Mama Roux
  4. Danse Fambeaux

Side Two

  1. Croker Courtbullion
  2. Jump Sturdy
  3. I Walk on Guilded Splinters

Another reason to like Dr. John:  He was the inspiration for the Muppet character Dr. Teeth.

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-Stephen

 

January 21, Pt. 2 – Simon & Garfunkel, Canned Heat

Simon and Garfunkel – The Graduate (Soundtrack)

My LP collection, when I last saw it, was not very impressive.  My first albums as a child were hand-me-downs from my brothers when they replaced worn out and scratched copies of Beatles and Elton John records (What?  I’m part of the reason they were worn out and scratched?).  To this day, there are certain songs I hear on CD or the radio, and I expect it to skip at a certain point in the song.  As I got older, I received LPs for birthday and Christmas gifts, and I purchased a handful during adolescence.  But I mostly bought cassettes.  I’ve since replaced all the Beatles albums on CD (twice), and all the Elton.  I never did replace those KISS albums.  My first exposure to Bob Marley was the greatest hits LP Legend, which I bought in 1986 out of curiosity after repeatedly coming across his name in various publications, namely Rolling Stone, discussing the late, great Rastafarian.  (Keep in mind I grew up in flyover USA, and I just wasn’t exposed to a lot of this stuff at a younger age.)  I owned most of the early U2 and REM LPs, a Hendrix hits album here, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack or a random Windham Hill sampler record there, and that’s about it.  All told, I owned maybe 50 pieces of vinyl, give or take.  Not much, but I wish I still had it.  And it’s my own fault I don’t.  I took for granted that it would be in its last known location when I was ready to lug it to Texas.  When I thought to do it, it was gone.  Que sera sera

One LP in my collection that I always thought was interesting but didn’t fully appreciate at a younger age was the original copy of the soundtrack to The Graduate, released this day 50 years ago, which I absconded with from my mom’s collection.  I can still see the clean, barely played, thick vinyl, and the sturdy jacket which was its home.  It still had the original shrink-wrap on it, for crying out loud.  But at 15 I didn’t care much for the instrumental music by Dave Grusin mixed in with the Simon and Garfunkel songs.  It was easier to just listen to one of their “regular” albums.  Having watched The Graduate movie (which was released in December of ’67) for the umpteenth time the other night, I can now say I do enjoy the instrumentals just as I do those from the original soundtracks to A Hard Day’s Night and Help.  Not so much as individual pieces, but because of their importance to the films which I’ve loved for so long.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. The Sound of Silence
  2. The Singleman Party Foxtrot
  3. Mrs. Robinson (version 1)
  4. Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha
  5. Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Interlude)
  6. On the Strip
  7. April Come She Will
  8. The Folks

Side Two:

  1. Scarborough Fair/Canticle
  2. A Great Effect
  3. The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine
  4. Whew
  5. Mrs. Robinson (version 2)
  6. The Sound of Silence

There’s so much trivia surrounding this film that I won’t bother getting into it, other than to mention my surprise to learn the other day that Anne Bancroft, a.k.a. Mrs. Robinson, was only 35 years old when that movie was made.  Dustin Hoffman, the young, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, was 29.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate

 

Canned Heat – Boogie with Canned Heat

In my “January 21, Pt. 1” post I mentioned a vague interconnectedness of important historical events and pop culture.  What I’m referring to, as it relates to these posts, is the fact that soldiers in Vietnam, or the Resistance in Prague and many other places around the globe, listened to much of this music for a respite, for inspiration, or both.  To some extent it has been glorified in films over the years, but I’ve yet to see a documentary or read an account that debunked it in the least.  Sadly, much of the music was divided along racial lines in the military at the time.  In 2018 it’s hard to imagine James Brown or The Temptations as music for “those” people, while “these” people listened to the Doors, the Stones, or Johnny Cash.  It’s all such great music.  If ever there was a band that crossed those lines, it was Canned Heat.

When Canned Heat were at the peak of their power in the late 60’s/early 70’s, there may not have been a more fun band to hear live.  There were no costumes or stage antics, just great rockin’ blues n’ boogie.  Nothing pretentious about them.  See their performance at Woodstock, for example.  Boogie with Canned Heat, also released this day, and its followup later in the year, gave us some of the most quintessential Woodstock-era music.  But remember kids, SPEED KILLS!

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Evil Woman
  2. My Crime
  3. On the Road Again
  4. World in a Jug
  5. Turpentine Moan
  6. Whiskey Headed Woman No. 2

Side Two:

  1. Amphetamine Annie
  2. An Owl Song
  3. Marie Laveau
  4. Fried Hockey Boogie

-Stephen

 

January 21, Pt. 1 – The Siege of Khe Sanh

The Siege of Khe Sanh – January 21 – July 9

Significant events take place every day all over the planet, and sometimes it takes years to notice that multiple notable things happened on the same day, and that at least in some small way they are interconnected.  Some may be serious occurrences with major geopolitical significance, while others might be in the realm of the trivial.  In no way am I trying to compare events where lives were at stake with anything happening in pop culture, but it is fascinating to me to look at it as one big stew decades on.  I don’t know how else to put it.  January 21st – 22nd is the first snippet from 1968 that shows both the beauty and the madness that would play out for the rest of the year, at least as pertains to the theme of my posts.  First, the madness.

The U.S. Marines had landed at Da Nang, Vietnam almost three years earlier, and for that entire time Americans had been lied to by the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – not about all the individual battles the Americans had won, because there’s no doubt the troops on the ground did their jobs regardless of what one may feel about the war – but about what the objective was (other than to stop the commie domino) and whether they were going about it in a realistic manner in the long run.  And when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began their siege on this Marine outpost near the DMZ on this date, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war.

The Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately broke the siege of the base in April 1968, and it was subsequently evacuated and dismantled after thousands were killed and wounded with the U.S. claiming it was no longer of strategic importance.  Khe Sanh came to be seen as a symbol of the futility of the U.S. mission:  Hold a piece of ground at any cost for no rational reason other than to not lose it, maintain said ground, then abandon it once the battle was over.  In this case, LBJ did not want Khe Sanh to be his Dien Bien Phu.  The U.S. “won” the battle, yet something larger was looming just a few days later.

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The moment a shell exploded in an ammo dump in front of Marines defending their post at Khe Sanh.

I visited Vietnam in 2000 with my father, stepmother, and two brothers.  Within an hour I knew I would go back again some day, and I did two years later.  On that second trip I visited many places I didn’t see the first time around, including Khe Sanh.  I’ll never forget how quiet and still it was looking down onto that plateau from a nearby hilltop, with the lonesome clatter from the bell on a cow at the base of the hill being the only sound breaking the silence.

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Spoils of war left at Khe Sanh
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The Khe Sanh plateau in 2002
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A piece of sandbag I found at Camp Carroll, an artillery base and former site of the 3rd Marine Regiment just a short country drive down Hwy 9 from Khe Sanh.  It’s actually a common item to find to this day, along with live ordnance.

And speaking of the Sound of Silence…

-Stephen

January 16 – Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum My Ear Drummum

Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum

A late 60’s San Francisco mainstay, Blue Cheer were heavy metal pioneers.  Along with Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, they proved that a group only needs three members and a large stack of very loud amplifiers to get its point across.  Blue Cheer, named after a variety of LSD created by chemist and Grateful Dead friend Owsley Stanley, made its point loud and clear when it erupted on this day in 1968 with Vincebus Eruptum.  

My first exposure to this band probably wasn’t until the late 1980’s while watching My Generation hosted by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits on VH1.  The quality of some of the music on film from the 1960’s was so bad (much of the material worth watching has been restored in recent years) that watching a clip of Blue Cheer lip-syncing on American Bandstand didn’t inspire me to explore their music further.  Had I, as a sixteen year old, purchased a copy of Vincebus Eruptum and played it on my not-so-great-stereo (but better than VH1), I might be sitting here in 2018 writing that, for at least a brief moment, they blew Hendrix, Cream, and The Who out of the water whether I believed it deep down or not.  And they may have.  Instead, I finally picked up the album on CD a couple of years ago in a futile last-ditch attempt to stave off middle age.  Yes, I bought this album as a result of a minor mid-life crisis, but also to see what I had missed out on all this time.  I listened to it one time and filed it away, feeling somewhat silly even though I dug it.  It’s almost as if my home was too clean and the beer in my fridge too expensive to listen to this album.  Not Zeppelin or Deep Purple, but specifically this.

With the impending release anniversary I popped the disc in last night and listened through headphones.  I enjoyed it more this time and it will probably be played more often going forward, but this morning my left ear hurts.  It could be that I slept on it awkwardly, but I think I know the real reason:  This album is blisteringly loud whether the volume is turned up or not.  There’s no avoiding it.  (My copy being on CD as opposed to vinyl probably doesn’t help.)  It opens with their most well-known song, a cover of the Eddie Cochran classic, Summertime Blues, and rolls on from there for 32 short but incendiary minutes.  I don’t think I could handle more than 32 minutes of this music in one sitting, just as I feel about AC/DC.  I like it, but after a few minutes it kind of hurts my whole body.  I cannot fathom what it must’ve been like to stand in front of their stack of amps at the Avalon Ballroom.

1/18/18

Postscript:  It seems that the reason my body was aching had less to do with the sonics of this album and more to do with the onset of the flu, which has had me knocked semi-conscious for three and a half days.  I’m awake now, though.  Must be all that rustling I hear coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Summertime Blues
  2. Rock Me Baby
  3. Doctor Please

Side Two:

  1. Out of Focus
  2. Parchment Farm
  3. Second Time Around

 

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-Stephen

January 15 – Three Byrds (and a Horse)

The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Some bands and individual performers can become pigeon-holed by their sound and/or image over a relatively brief period of time.  MTV certainly played a role in that in the 1980’s, as to this day many non-fans assume Bob Dylan still sings in the nasally tone that they only heard, albeit many times, on his contribution to We Are the World, and Bruce Springsteen to them probably still wears a red bandanna and a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off.  Dylan’s singing voice has probably been through nine or ten distinct incarnations over the years, with at least three different phases since U.S.A. for Africa, and Bruce has added to his playing and singing style a few times and traded the bandanna for a hair piece long ago.  Another such band that many have one impression of, thanks to soul-sucking commercial Classic Rock and Oldies radio formats,  is The Byrds.

The first Byrds album I ever “owned” was their original Greatest Hits that I pirated in 1985 onto cassette from my Uncle Chris’s original 1967 vinyl.  I’m fairly certain it’s out in the garage with my other tapes that I continue to hold onto for posterity, and for those Grateful Dead soundboards my friend Mitch gave me years ago.  But that hits album is the epitome of the early Byrds that is assumed by many to be the one and only Byrds sound:  Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker playing Dylan covers.  While I love that music, the band evolved remarkably over its lifespan, and I consider The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released January 15, 1968, to be a fascinating shift that took a stunning leap with their next album later in the year.

For the heavy hitters in music, 1968 seems to have been a psychedelic hangover of sorts that inspired them to branch out, or at least “return to roots,” while many of the others were still playing catch-up in a commercially paisley world.  Though Dylan didn’t release an official LP that year, he was cloistered in Upstate New York recording stripped down “weird America” music (to steal writer and critic Greil Marcus’s term) with The Band.  The Stones stepped forward and backward all at once with straight forward rock and blues on their followup to Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles were all over the place on their upcoming double LP release.  While this Byrds record is still considered “psychedelic” and McGuinn’s jingle-jangle guitar is very present, the band integrates hints of country music with a steel pedal, pop (the opening track, Artificial Energy, reminds me of Devol, the studio group  that recorded incidental music for TV shows such as The Brady Bunch, but in a good way), and electronic music with the introduction of a Moog synthesizer into an overall more laid back, sometimes pastoral, sound.  The themes include Vietnam, peace, love, freedom, ecology, and outer space.  Far out, man.

Another theme that might have been considered far out and was put to tape but not the final LP song lineup was found in David Crosby’s Triad, which the band subsequently gave to the Jefferson Airplane to record and which Crosby would go on to include in CSNY live sets.  The Byrds’ version finally ended up on the album’s remaster almost thirty years later.  Crosby’s anger over this song about a ménage à trois being considered too risqué for inclusion, along with his increasingly unbearable personality, caused him to be fired during the album’s recording.  Drummer Michael Clarke had quit briefly before this, due in part to disputes with Croz, only to return after the latter was fired.  Clarke was then let go after recording was completed.  Founding member Gene Clark (from my home state of Missouri), who had quit the group in 1966, returned for three weeks before quitting again.  Despite all the group upheaval (i.e., drugs and ego) and the various styles and instrumentation introduced, this is a very cohesive album which stands on its own merits fifty years on without a major hit to anchor it.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Artificial Energy
  2. Goin’ Back
  3. Natural Harmony
  4. Draft Morning
  5. Wasn’t Born to Follow
  6. Get to You

Side Two:

  1. Change is Now
  2. Old John Robertson
  3. Tribal Gathering
  4. Dolphin’s Smile
  5. Space Odyssey

Fun with Album Covers:

The location of the group photo on the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers is in Topanga Canyon, L.A.  The horse in the photo was thought to represent the recently fired David Crosby, although perhaps the wrong end of the horse.  It’s also the scene of another album photo shoot – for Linda Ronstadt – the following year.  Today it appears to be a renovated guest house next to a rather posh Topanga spread.

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http://www.popspotsnyc.com/the_byrds/

-Stephen

 

January 8 – Otis Redding

Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

I’m only a few days in, and I’m already going to employ one of those words that will be difficult to avoid overusing as I move through 1968:  timeless.  You could say that about a lot of Otis Redding’s work in his way too brief life and career, but (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, released 50 years ago today, just never gets old.  Co-written by Stax Records producer and Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, the lyrics came together the previous August while Redding was renting a houseboat in Sausalito, CA (hence the song’s theme) shortly after his historic appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His final work on the song was on December 7, 1967.  Three days later Redding perished in a plane crash outside Madison, WI.  It became the first posthumous single to reach number one in the U.S.

On a personal note, this song was included on a Best of Atlantic Records LP box set my brothers owned.  As a result, to this day whenever I hear it on the radio, I think Hush by Deep Purple will come on next.  I hate it when that happens.

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-Stephen