Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of yet another of those incredible non-album Beatles singles, Hey Jude b/w Revolution. So much was happening at this time (when wasn’t this the case with the Beatles?): They were still a couple of months away from completing what would come to be known as the White Album. They were up to their ears with Apple business and searching for direction after the death of manager Brian Epstein the summer before. They had been burned by critics (and perhaps by their own hubris) with the ill-fated Magical MysteryTour film. Personal and artistic differences among them were beginning to come to a head. But they were the Fab Four, so they just kept moving. And look what they gave us…
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills
So many of these albums from ’68 seem to have some unique angle on the claim of being among the most important in rock history, and Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company, released this day 50 years ago, is no exception. It was the band’s second album, and the last one to feature Janis Joplin’s soulful, desperate, wailing blues vocals.
The band had emerged in 1965 in the same San Francisco psychedelic music scene which produced the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane. They were already established in the Bay Area as a progressive instrumental jam band and house band at the Avalon Ballroom when Joplin, a Texan from Port Arthur, made her way west and auditioned with them. She made her live debut with the group at the Avalon in June of 1966, and their eponymous debut album was released in August of the following year just after their (her) breakout performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. It would take months of legal wrangling for the group to extract itself from its contract with Mainstream Records for their move to Columbia, which is why it took another full year for this follow-up release.
Cheap Thrills was originally intended to be a proper live album to showcase the energetic, raw sound of the band and Joplin’s vocal, but attempts to achieve good recordings on the band’s spring ’68 tour proved fruitless. They were a little too loud and raw, and audiences outside of California didn’t quite know what to make of them, especially Janis. So, with producer John Simon, they did the next best thing: record a “live” album in the studio by adding live audience sound effects. Their cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Ball and Chain was the only true live recording on the record, taken from the Fillmore West. But whereas faux, doctored (or “Frankensteined”) recordings cheapened some live recordings in the 70’s (retrospectively speaking), I think it works great in this instance. And it starts with Bill Graham’s “live” introduction: “Four gentlemen and one great, great broad: Big Brother and the Holding Company…”
Of the album’s seven tracks, three were covers: the aforementioned Ball and Chain, Erma Franklin’s Piece of My Heart which ended side one and became the band’s signature song, and Gershwin’s Summertime. Janis made all of them her songs. In a 50th anniversary retrospective in Rolling Stone, Jordan Runtagh notes “Joplin’s mournful version of Gershwin’s Summertime seems only to underscore the shift in mood from the Summer of Love to the Summer of Violence that greeted the album. A week after its release, police would beat up demonstrators at Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. A month later, Joplin and Big Brother parted ways for good.” The album also features the Joplin-penned acoustic blues, Turtle Blues, and Sam Andrew’s cool psychedelic guitar work on Oh, Sweet Mary.
The group pushed the envelope with Columbia. The original title of the album was to be Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills, and the cover was to feature the group together in bed, naked. Needless to say, the ideas were vetoed by the suits. Instead, the cover was drawn by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. By the end of the year, Cheap Thrills sold almost a million copies and spent eight weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. A month later, urged on by her manager Albert Grossman, Janis submitted notice to the band that she was moving on. Big Brother and the Holding Company had given her a start, but there’s no doubt who the star was, and she needed better musicians to get where she wanted to go.
As for reviews of the record, it’s kind of the same story that pervades rock music from the era: Contemporary reviews were all over the place from “not a well-produced, good rock and roll recording” to “it not only gets Janis’s voice down, it also does justice to her always-underrated and ever-improving musicians.” And retrospectively, it’s considered a masterpiece. The album’s aspects that were considered negative by some at the time of its release – its messiness and the gravelly onslaught of Joplin’s vocals – are of course now considered crucial elements of its psychedelic glory.
I first heard this album in my mid/late 1980s teens, and it stuck immediately. I can honestly say my reaction to it was much like what I read contemporary reactions were like: I’d never heard anything like Janis Joplin. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t supposed to be. I discovered Hendrix around the same time, and somehow felt the two of them communicated the blues in such amazing and unique ways that my small Midwest town brain just couldn’t articulate. They both found mass audiences, but did so without compromising who they were. Janis Joplin: a white woman emerging out of nowhere Texas to become not only one of the best female blues singers, but one of the best blues singers ever, period. Alas, no matter how much we may wonder “What if?,” Janis, along with Jimi, Jim, and others, was a shooting star who was going to burn out. She recorded two albums as a solo artist (the second a posthumous release) before checking out, but Cheap Thrills is where her star shines the brightest. The music world could sure use another Janis right about now.
Some interesting factoids about the album can be found here.
That loud sound you hear is the thunder of White Room, the opening track of Wheels of Fire, that quintessential 1968 double album by power trio Cream, released 50 years ago today. From here, the record twists and turns in many directions in the studio, from other solid originals penned by bassist Jack Bruce and writing partner Peter Brown such as Politician, As You Said, and Deserted Cities of the Heart, to heavy blues covers of Howlin’ Wolf (Sitting on Top of the World) and Albert King (Born Under a Bad Sign), as well as Ginger Baker’s somewhat bizarre spoken word Press Rat and Warthog. And that’s only the first record, subtitled In the Studio.
The second album of the set, Live at the Fillmore (named as such despite the fact that three of its four songs were recorded at the Winterland Ballroom), features Cream’s live exploits, showcasing Clapton’s blistering guitar work on the Robert Johnson classic Crossroads and the excessive 16 minute drum solo madness of Ginger Baker on Toad. Despite the fact that Cream were coming apart at the seams, Wheels of Fire displays the band at their peak, both in the studio and on stage. It became the first platinum selling double album, and rose to #1 in the US and #3 in the UK with White Room (reaching #6) and Crossroads as singles which continue to endure as radio staples.
The group, with producer Felix Pappalardi, began work in recording studios in the summer (London) and fall (NYC) of ’67. However, due to Cream’s relentless touring schedule they had difficulty achieving a solid album, so they returned to the studio in January and February of ’68. It was then they decided to order a mobile recording studio to be delivered to the Fillmore West and Winterland Ballroom to record six live performances and make it a double album. The unused material from those shows would comprise the later Live Cream and Live Cream Volume II releases.
For most of the albums I celebrate in these pages, I read through both contemporary and latter day reviews in order to glean some perspective. But more often than not I come away with an eyebrow raised at what I perceive to be the arrogance of critics who look for any reason to lambast an artist. Maybe that’s Professional Music Critiquing 101: counterbalance record company hype. Maybe I’m just ignorant of how this works. Yet here we are, 50 years on, and if you liked this music 20-50 years ago, chances are you still do. I certainly do.
But Jann Wenner in his 1968 critique in Rolling Stone (see link below for the full, embarrassing review) heard White Room as nothing more than a carbon copy of Tales of Brave Ulysses and couldn’t imagine why they chose to repeat it. I’ll grant that there are similarities, but how was that anything new to rock or blues music? He also suggested it was “unfortunate” that they recorded the contemporary blues hit, Born Under a Bad Sign because, he wrote, Jack Bruce didn’t have a good voice for blues. He also wrote that his harmonica playing was “amateurish.” Wenner did like the live Crossroads, Spoonful, and oddly enough, Toad (a “fine number”), and somehow concluded that the album “will be a monster” despite his misgivings which outweigh his praises.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine in his AllMusic review describes Wheels of Fire as a “dense, unwieldy double album.” He continues:
…it’s sprawling and scattered, at once awesome in its achievement and maddening in how it falls just short of greatness. It misses its goal not because one LP works and the other doesn’t, but because both the live and studio sets suffer from strikingly similar flaws, deriving from the constant power struggle between the trio.
To me, that power struggle was a major part of what made Cream great, as well as the main reason they unravelled almost as quickly as they began. And, perhaps that’s the type of information people like Wenner didn’t have in 1968. They were young, ego-maniacal, substance abusing, brilliant musicians at or near their creative peaks. They made loud, urgent, volatile, indulgent music, and there was no way they were going to maintain that level of output (the old animosity between Bruce and Baker would even quickly resurface during their brief but highly lucrative 2005 reunion).
They had decided to split during the studio recording sessions that spring and held on for a farewell album and tour the following year. But Wheels of Fire, along with another “sprawling and scattered” double album by a well-known quartet later that November, captures the essence of 1968 through rock and blues music as well as or better than anyone else – at least to someone like me born after the fact who can only view it through the lens of history.
Side One (In the Studio):
Sitting on Top of the World
Passing the Time
As You Said
Pressed Rat and Warthog
Those Were the Days
Born Under a Bad Sign
Deserted Cities of the Heart
Side Three (Live @ Winterland & the Fillmore West):
Today we’re celebrating the Golden Anniversary of an early standard-bearer in the hard rock/metal genre. Truth, the debut for the Jeff Beck Group, is one of those albums you might put on when you arrive home from work on a Friday, crank the volume, and just hope that the neighbors like it, because they’re going to hear it. Blistering music for a blistering time of year. The original lineup included Beck on guitars, Ronnie Wood on bass, Micky Waller on drums, and then-consummate front man (where have you gone?) Rod Stewart on vocals. But they had more than a little help from their friends on this blues based recording.
Truth is mostly comprised of covers, beginning with the opening track Shapes of Things, which is a tune from Beck’s previous stop, the Yardbirds. The album is also a continuation of the love affair English guitarists were having with Chicago blues; even the “originals” (credited to “Jeffrey Rod,” i.e. Beck and Stewart) are reworked Buddy Guy and B.B. King songs. But the direction in which Beck took them was more aligned with Hendrix and Cream (and the simmering but as-yet-unheard Zeppelin).
My favorite track is the instrumental Beck’s Bolero, which features a very interesting lineup: Besides Beck on guitar, Nicky Hopkins plays piano, John Paul Jones is on bass, Jimmy Page (uncredited) plays 12-string electric guitar, and Keith Moon (credited as “You Know Who” for contractual reasons) is on the skins. It was also Page who wrote the song. (Jones, Hopkins, and Moon also play on other tracks.)
Musician, band leader, engineer, A&R man, and music critic extraordinaire Al Kooper (whose name may end up gracing these pages more than anyone else, at least for 1968) shared his two very different opinions of the band in his September 1968 review in Rolling Stone, after first hearing the Jeff Beck Group live early on prior to listening to the album:
It was an unnerving experience to hear the Beck group. I had to leave after three numbers. The band was blowing changes, the bass player was losing time, Beck was uncomfortably and bitingly over-volumed, the singer was doing deep knee-bends holding the mike stand like a dumbbell (original, but so what.) It didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense to me.
But his evaluation of the record is much more positive:
As a group they swing like mad on this record. It remains to be seen what will happen to them in person. I hope the public is honest enough to make them work out.
Bruce Eder points out in his AllMusic review that Truth was “a triumph — a number 15 album in America, astoundingly good for a band that had been utterly unknown in the U.S. just six months earlier — and a very improbable success.”
And, given that the group’s follow-up album (Beck-Ola) a year later is a brief 30 minutes long, you could probably go ahead and squeeze it in as well during Friday evening cocktail hour for the full Jeff Beck Group experience before the neighbors call the cops.
Shapes of Things
Let Me Love You
You Shook Me
Ol’ Man River
Rock My Plimsoul
Blues De Luxe
I Ain’t Superstitious
Here’s a Jeff Beck Group show at Louann’s in Dallas, July 19, 1968 (the club is long gone, but was just a couple of blocks from where I’m presently employed):
It’s time to wrap up another month. July was a big month for major releases, but there are plenty more to come in the back half of 1968. This project has been a lot of fun so far, and I hope I’ve been doing these releases justice. Here are some other noteworthy July ’68 releases and events before we head into the grind of August:
7/5 Tyrannosaurus Rex – My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair…But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows
This was the debut of Marc Bolan’s band, yet to be called simply T. Rex. As often seems to be the case, retrospective reviews of the album are kinder than the originals.
7/7The Yardbirds final show took place at the College of Technology in Luton, Bedfordshire, supported by the Linton Grae Sound. Within weeks, Jimmy Page would assemble the New Yardbirds, a.k.a., Led Zeppelin.
7/19 Family – Music in a Doll’s House
Another debut, this one by the English progressive rock band Family. Family is one of those bands I feel I should know more about by now, but I really don’t (other than Ric Grech’s involvement). They’re on my mental list of perhaps unjustly undercelebrated prog bands to check out, which also includes the likes of Gentle Giant and Soft Machine. For an excellent critique of this album, check out fellow blogger Zumpoem’s write-up.
7/22 Merle Haggard – Single: Mama Tried
The title track and first single from his new album released three months later, Mama Tried became a beloved country song and a cornerstone of Haggard’s career. Though not purely autobiographical, it is based on his time as an inmate at San Quentin. It reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart as well as #1 in Canada. It won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance” on March 23, 2016, just 14 days before Haggard’s death. The track has been covered by other artists many times. My favorite cover is the Grateful Dead’s. They performed the song live over 300 times.
This record seems to have defied the odds with how good it is. Contract obligation albums have often not been the best representation of rock groups, and in the case of Buffalo Springfield, they had already gone their separate ways by the time this one was released. The tracks had been recorded months earlier in late ’67-early ’68. But producer Jim Messina, who also played bass and sang on a couple of songs, pulled a very good swan song album out of the void of participation by the others.
The other side of the coin for Last Time Around, released 50 years ago today, is that it is really more of a collection of solo songs. The opening track, On the Way Home, is the only song with all five original members participating. The lyrics to one of the tracks, The Hour of Not Quite Rain, were actually written by a fan who won a radio station contest, something that seems more fitting for a Monkees bio. And even that’s an enjoyable listen to my ears. The upbeat Latin flavored Uno Mundo, one of five Stills penned songs, features a rather dark lyric for such a happy sounding song: Uno Mundo/Asia is screaming/Africa seething/America bleating/just the same. Stills took a bit of a hit with critics, who wrote that his contributions weren’t up to his standard. I don’t hear it that way; his other songs, Pretty Girl Why, Four Days Gone, Special Care (with Buddy Miles on drums), and Questions (which he later revived for on the CSN&Y song Carry On) are all fantastic tracks.
It was the mercurial Neil Young whose participation was next to nil on this project. Despite this, the two tracks he did write for the album went on to be classics: I Am a Child and On the Way Home (the latter sung by Richie Furay on the album, though my favorite rendition is with Neil on vocals). The closing track is Furay’s Kind Woman, a ballad for his wife who he is still married to today. It’s a nice, peaceful ending to a tumultuous three years for a very heavily ego-driven band.
The album could be looked at as an embarrassment of riches considering how much great music they recorded on the first two albums and knowing where they were headed in the immediate future: Furay and Messina would form Poco, the very influential early country-rock band, Neil would record his first solo record before rejoining Stills, along with Crosby and Nash, on their second album. And Stills, before joining CSN and a mere two days before Last Time Around was released, would have his name featured on a highly acclaimed blues rock album with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield (which I wrote about here).
On the Way Home
It’s So Hard to Wait
Pretty Girl Why
Four Days Gone
Carefree Country Day
The Hour of Not Quite Rain
I Am a Child
A very solid bio of the band is For What It’s Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield (2004). It was written by respected music history writer John Einarson with Richie Furay. It seems like a pretty even-handed account of their story, and is bolstered by Furay, who appears to have been the most level-headed member of the group.
As I work my way through the albums of 1968, it is really brought home to me just how diverse the music is despite being under an umbrella of “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Though the shift had already begun prior to ’68, we’re now beginning to see significant separation of artists who had the creativity and nerve to explore new sounds on their records from those who did not. Drugs and the sometimes subsequent shift to spirituality were major causes of this movement, as was the fact that a higher percentage of rock music listeners were making their way into adulthood.
The Moody Blues were part of the vanguard of groups whose music maintained little resemblance to that of just a couple of years earlier. With their third release, In Search of the Lost Chord, they were well into a string of excellent albums with their unique stamp. They were among a small number of bands including the Stones, the Who, and the Kinks who formed in the early-mid 1960s and evolved into the 1970s with quality, impactful recordings. And evolve they did. Unlike the other bands just listed, the Moody Blues forged a path into a developing sub-genre, Prog. In just two years they took an enormous leap from the blues-based rock band co-founded by the quickly departed Denny Laine to the progressive, orchestral concept album Days of Future Passed. And 50 years ago today they followed that up with another concept album, this one based on the theme of quest and discovery.
One major element of the late 60’s shift in rock music was the introduction of instruments new to the genre, including the sitar and various other Indian sounds, as well as the Mellotron. As with their previous release, these instruments were used heavily on this album. Additionally, they returned to the use of spoken word. All told, there are approximately 33 instruments played on the recording, all by the members of the band (as opposed to the addition of an orchestra). While generally received well by fans and critics, In Search of the Lost Chord doesn’t seem to be considered as strong as its predecessor. But to me, it’s a continuation of Days of Future Passed with its theme expanding outward as well as inward, from the whimsical Tuesday Afternoon and mysterious Twilight and Nights in White Satin of Daysof Future Passed to the mind bending Legend of the Mind (an ode to Timothy Leary) and the cosmic chant Om (which is revealed to be the “lost chord”) of In Search of the Lost Chord. They’re a great back to back listen on a dark, chilly day.
Not all music collaborations are created equally. Some might be better known due to the names involved, but in retrospect come up short musically. One example in my opinion is the Dylan and the Dead album. Another might be John McLaughlin’s joint effort with Carlos Santana on Love Devotion Surrender, an enjoyable listen but far from either guitarist’s best album. The widely acknowledged first “supergroup” was Blind Faith, whose eponymous album is highly regarded. But the precursor to the rumble caused by Clapton, Winwood, Baker and Grech was Super Session, released 50 years ago today. With this album we have three artists who were arguably in near peak spontaneous creative mode.
The album title is a slight misnomer, as it’s really two separate collaborations with Kooper/Bloomfield on side one and Kooper/Stills on side two. I’m not exactly breaking headline news by saying this is a significant blues rock album, as it has earned gold record status. But with so many other noteworthy releases around the same time, it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. You’ll likely never hear a track from it on classic rock radio (which is just fine with me). Al Kooper was still somewhat fresh off his brief stint as one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mike Bloomfield was about to leave the Electric Flag (having previously worked with the Butterfield Blues Band), and Stephen Stills was a free agent with the recent demise of Buffalo Springfield and participation in one of the most famous “supergroup” collaborations in his near future after spending a day with Kooper.
Kooper and Bloomfield had worked together as session musicians on Dylan’s landmark Highway 61 Revisited three years earlier as well as the latter’s fabled performance at Newport when he “went electric.” Kooper, working as an A&R man for Columbia post-B,S&T, booked two days of studio time and invited Bloomfield to jam. The songs on side one of Super Session are from the very productive first day, but when the second day rolled around, Bloomfield was a no-show. As a testament to the respect Kooper has in the music industry, he was able to ring Stephen Stills, whose contribution rounds out the album.
Side one includes three Kooper/Bloomfield originals, including their tribute to John Coltrane, His Holy Modal Majesty. This extended jam has been described by one critic as a “fun, trippy waltz” that “features the hurdy-gurdy and Eastern-influenced sound of Kooper’s electric ondioline, which has a slightly atonal and reedy timbre much like that of John Coltrane’s tenor sax.” Side two, or the “Stills side,” includes covers of Dylan (It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry), Donovan (a very unique take on Season of the Witch), and an original by session bassist (and bassist for Bloomfield’s Electric Flag) Harvey Brooks, Harvey’s Tune. Session horn players added a brassy touch (though not as featured as on albums by Electric Flag or Blood, Sweat & Tears). The album is late-60s Chicago blues with a twist. In my view, it’s also an indispensable addition to any collection of blues-based rock albums of the era.
His Holy Modal Majesty
It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
Season of the Witch
You Don’t Love Me
For those who enjoy this album, here are a couple of others I recommend:
Michael Bloomfield – Don’t Say That I Ain’t Your Man!: Essential Blues, 1964-1969
With Miles in the Sky, Miles Davis continued a very productive late-60s stretch of recording with his second quintet which included Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Herbie Hancock on piano and electric piano, Ron Carter on Bass and electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums. George Benson guested on guitar on the track, Paraphernalia. The album marked the beginning of Davis’s electric period, and is an early standout in the jazz-rock fusion genre.
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that, despite the longer rhythmic jams and the use of electric instruments, the recording is not as visionary as some of Miles’s other work at the time, and feels like more of a transitional album which is “intriguing and frustrating in equal measures.”
I’m a fan of jazz music with little more than a novice’s knowledge of the genre. My jazz collection has slowly but steadily grown over the years, and much of it is comprised of well-known standards which are obvious standouts even to a listener such as myself. With albums such as Miles in the Sky (the title a nod to the Beatles’ Lucy in the Skywith Diamonds released the year prior), I don’t feel the need to know if they’re slighty greater or lesser than their contemporaries. Its composer was a mercurial artist who did not shy away from sharing his views, and this recording was made during a very difficult year for race relations in the US. Keeping aspects such as those in mind when listening to music of any genre enhances my experience regardless of any specific knowledge I may have of the recording.
For a raw, unfiltered look at the life and work of Miles Davis, his autobiography is quite an eye opener.
Here we go with a prime example of how this little hobby of mine has opened my eyes and ears, not just to music I’ve never heard before, but to music I’m familiar with but have given short shrift to. In this case, pre-American Beauty Grateful Dead. I had no idea of the experimental degree of this, the band’s second album and first to include second drummer Mickey Hart, released on this date 50 years ago. It is comprised of multiple studio and live tracks spliced together. It is neither a live album nor a studio album per se, but not in the same vein as so many well-known live albums from the 70’s and 80’s that had their imperfections edited out in the studio, a.k.a. “Frankensteined.” This was planned madness.
I’m going to stop right here with my personal thoughts on the Dead and Anthem and turn it over to my friend Mitch, whose influence on my musical tastes I shared in Pt. 1:
I have some strong feelings about ‘Anthem.’ It was one of those rare albums of the Sixties mixed entirely to enhance hallucinations and confuse one’s senses of time, place, and space. The entire bouncing back and forth from free wheelin’ live recordings to tight studio freak sounds like the kazoos at the beginning of ‘Alligator’ leave you hungry for synesthesia. There is a sensation of being both wrapped in a comfortable LSD quilt and then being tossed airborne for your first solo mission. ‘Anthem’ crawls under your skin, finds your nerve endings and politely tugs and twitches to the Lesh powered thunder, Gracia driven lightning, Pig pulled vocals, and beatings issued from the dueling drummers Bill and Mickey, all synchronized in controlled chaos.
All in all, some say ‘Pet Sounds’ is the American ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ I disagree. The Dead nailed the Wild West insanity of the Bay without the pop perfection of ‘God Only Knows.’ This album was the beginning of weirdness for hire, inner exploration, and outer expression.
Not in a million years could I have described it better than that.