Flailing, booming, bozos, clunky, heavy-handed, savage, imposingly gothic edge, 5/5 stars, A grade, C grade, lively, ambitious, almost entirely successful, impressive musicianship, deliberately archaic, daunting talents…
By its nature, rock music is subject to impassioned stances taken by fans and critics, and perhaps no sub-genre elicits stronger opinions than prog. One of the most successful prog bands, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, released their eponymous debut 50 years ago today, and the responses from critics as seen above illustrate the wide variation of views on the genre as a whole, not just this record.
Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer entered the studio in July 1970 having yet to play on stage together. Sessions lasted three months, and the competed album contained six tracks over 41 minutes, including three instrumentals and arrangements of classical works by the likes of Bartók, Janácek, and J.S. Bach. It reached number four on the U.K. album chart, and 18 on the Billboard 200 in the U.S. The single Lucky Man/Knife-Edge climbed to 48 in the U.S., and as such are the best known songs on the album.
But tracks like the keyboard-drenched Barbarian (a rather audacious opener for a debut record), Greg Lake’s jazz-inflected Take a Pebble, and Tank, which features Emerson on clavinet and Moog, also make this an enjoyable album. Some of the keyboard adventures of late Emerson, himself classically trained, get to be a bit much for me – specifically the pipe organ (same goes for Neil Young) – but it doesn’t dissuade me from listening ELP one bit.
I see myself as a music fan, period, and don’t subscribe to all-encompassing maxims about any musical classification. Sometimes I want to hear “bloated” prog bands, other times The Clash or Hüsker Dü hit the spot. I’d rather not limit myself. I couldn’t if I tried, actually.
November 1970 was quite a significant month in the world of album releases, and today the train rolls on with the second of four major solo releases from the members of CSNY after Déjà Vu’s release the previous March. Stephen Stills relocated to England to put some distance between himself and the drama emanating from the group, moving into Ringo’s old residence in Surrey. While there, he established musical connections and wrote a bunch of songs which he recorded primarily in London in the first half of 1970 between CSNY tours. His somewhat eclectic and fantastic Stephen Stills was released on this day 50 years ago.
Though he crossed the Atlantic to get away from it all, and while this is 100% solo Stills in terms of songwriting, by the time the album was finished he’d enlisted the help of a number of A-Listers including the names Hendrix, Clapton, Starr, Crosby, Nash, Sebastian, Mama Cass, Booker T., Rita Coolidge, and others. The songs on the LP are personal in nature and hint at his relationships in CSNY as well as his unsteady romantic involvement with Coolidge, the latter symbolized by the giraffe on the album cover photo taken by Henry Diltz (Stills and Coolidge either bought the stuffed animal together or she bought it for him). By the time of its release, she had left Stills for Nash, putting a temporary nail in CSNY’s coffin. And what of that odd cover? AllMusic refers to it as an understatement, that judging by the cover one might think the album is full of gentle, introspective singer/songwriter material, only to hear a “seamless” blend of folk, blues, hard rock, and gospel.
Contemporary reviews ranged from tepid with its “undefined” or “elusive” qualities, to fantastic, such as AllMusic’s retrospective description as a “jaw-dropping experience, the musical equal to Crosby, Stills & Nash or Déjà Vu.” I tend to hear it as a little of both, though not elusive in a negative way. Stephen Stills starts out with a bang. The theme of his anthem to free love might be dated, but the song is a classic in which he uses the chorus to full effect. By the end of side one we’ve heard signature guitar licks from Jimi Hendrix (who would pass before the album’s release, and who it’s dedicated to) on the funky Old Times Good Times, and Eric Clapton on Go Back Home. My other favorites include the quieter Do for the Others, the spirited Sit Yourself Down, and the CSNY concert staple, Black Queen.
Looking at it through the lens of 2020, perhaps the only thing the album suffers from is the fact that there were other great albums released in 1970, namely Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which came out just a couple weeks later. (And to tie them together, it’s interesting that Stills borrowed the phrase “love the one you’re with” from Billy Preston, who also tutored Harrison in the ways of gospel music George used on My Sweet Lord. Was there ever a time of more cross-pollination in music than around 1970?) Stephen Stills reached number three on the U.S. Billboard album chart, and eight in the U.K., and was fueled by singles Love the One You’re With b/w To A Flame and Sit Yourself Down b/w We AreNot Helpless. This is Stills at or near the peak of his powers, and it gets better for me with each listen.
The shifting of rock’s tectonic plates in 1970 continued this day 50 years ago with the fourth studio release by the Velvet Underground, Loaded. In a year that gave us legendary swan songs by Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles despite their respective disintegrating songwriting partnerships, the finale from the second phase of VU shows us once again that great music can be created despite discord. While technically not the final VU album, it was the last one to include Lou Reed, who left the group prior to the album’s release. John Cale had departed after White Light/White Heat.
Loaded is an outstanding album arising from multiple streams of conflict within the band, from Doug Yule’s increasing role to bad feelings between Sterling Morrison and Reed over Cale’s departure. Additionally, drummer Moe Tucker was on maternity leave, her duties assumed by three session players including Yule’s brother Billy. Finally, Atlantic wanted an album loaded with hits, hence the double entendre in the title. Despite Reed’s pop leanings, he was not pleased with edits made in the name of shorter, radio-friendly songs. These factors led some purists to think of Loaded as something other than a “real” VU album. The group would finally dissolve after their next release in 1973. There was also plenty of controversy after Loaded’s release. Among other song edits not authorized by Reed (this is disputed by Yule) was the “heavenly wine and roses” bridge on Sweet Jane, which I didn’t even know about until I heard Cowboy Junkies’ version in 1990. It was restored on later releases. Also, it took legal proceedings for songwriting credits to be restored to Reed after the initial release credited the entire band.
I’ve always liked the Velvets, but don’t consider myself a hardcore fan, whatever that may look like. This includes some of the heavier, avant-garde contributions of John Cale. I came to Loaded well after becoming familiar with the previous three albums, and as a result it’s not an album that usually comes to mind as being among my favorites from 1970. But it never fails that when I listen to it I have an “Oh yeah, that is one of the best” epiphany. I love a well-crafted pop song like anyone else, and there’s no shortage of them with its singles including WhoLoves the Sun, Sweet Jane, Rock & Roll, and Head Held High. The B-side Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ is also one of my favorites. Simply put, it’s a very accessible album, which is not something I normally associate with this band. Yet despite the radio promotion the album didn’t chart. As is often the case, retrospective reviews have been quite kind, as they should be.
11/15/70: Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir
Van Morrison’s fourth studio album, His Band and the Street Choir, was released half a century ago today. It was recorded over two sessions in New York’s A & R Studios in the first half of 1970, and released less than a year after Moondance. By the time the album reached stores, it had been renamed from Virgo’s Fool without Morrison’s consent. Despite the overall long term success of Street Choir, which peaked at 32 on the Billboard chart and 18 on the U.K. album chart, Morrison has expressed displeasure with seemingly everything to do with the album. He originally intended to record it a cappella – hence the “Street Choir,” but ultimately abandoned the idea when he became dissatisfied with the result.
Critics noted the songwriting is a bit simpler than on the previous two albums, and that the tracks are more R&B inspired with only hints of folk. But simpler isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as there is an element of joy in these songs with minimal overdubbing which were inspired by the likes of James Brown. Singles from the album included the gospel-inflected Call Me Up in Dreamland, plus Blue Money and Domino, the latter being the most successful single of Morrison’s career. Some of the songs on Street Choir were originally intended for the Astral Weeks and Moondance albums, which Morrison rearranged for the personnel on this release. These include I’ve Been Working and Domino, his tribute to Fats Domino. Other lyrics were inspired by his marriage, such as in I’ll Be Your Lover, Too, Call Me Upin Dreamland, and Sweet Jannie.
By almost anyone’s standard, His Band and the Street Choir could be a career-making album. This is a good album with a couple of strong singles. Highlights for me include the soulful Crazy Face, I’ve Been Working, the whimsical Blue Money, and album closer Street Choir. I prefer the live version of Domino on 1974’s Too Late to Stop Now to the studio original. Perhaps I’ve heard it too many times. But in the context of the creative streak Van Morrison was on at the time, this album just isn’t as interesting to me overall as those preceding and following it. I’m more of an Astral Weeks/St. Dominic’s Preview/Veedon Fleece kind of guy, though I’m certainly not turning my nose up at Street Choir. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted in his 2015 review in Pitchfork, the album is “all about the rough and tumble joy of living,” and Van the Man did it well enough for this to be considered a classic.
November 1970: Paul Kantner & Jefferson Starship – Blows Against the Empire
Where do we go from here? Chaos or community? -from Hijack, side 2 track 2
Fifty years ago this month saw one of the more unique releases of the era, Paul Kantner’s concept album Blows Against the Empire. Technically, it’s credited as Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship, though it shouldn’t be confused with the band of that name which didn’t officially form until four years later. It’s also not the Jefferson Airplane, who were still together but experiencing inevitable internal strife on the downward slope of their run. Grace Slick does add vocals and piano throughout, and Jack Casady plays bass on two tracks.
Blows Against the Empire is counterculture science fiction set in a future where the hippie generation is able to unite, steal a starship, and create their Utopia in another solar system. It’s in the anti-military, anti-government (even California’s then-governor Reagan is called out), anti-conventional society, “back to the land” spirit, only the land is on a distant planet where babies grow on trees. Another element of the story is the allegory of relationships and childbirth, which symbolize Kantner’s romantic relationship at the time with Grace Slick, who would give birth to their daughter China the following year. The album was nominated for a Hugo, a literary award for best science fiction or fantasy work in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation.
The album was recorded in San Francisco during the summer and fall of ’70 utilizing a number of Bay Area musicians including members of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane. David Crosby and Graham Nash also participated, and many of these musicians assisted Crosby with his solo debut which he recorded at the same time and location. This “shifting supergroup” was informally known as PERRO, or The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra.
From a musical standpoint, the tracks are built around Slick’s piano with plenty of vocal harmonizing between Kantner and her. In that regard it’s not far from sounding like the Airplane. An exception is The Baby Tree, featuring only Kantner’s vocal and Jerry Garcia’s banjo. My favorite songs here are heavy on piano and acoustic guitar with just the right touches of electric guitar, such as A Child is Coming (feat. David Crosby), Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? (feat. Crosby & Garcia), and Starship (feat. Jerry Garcia). That said, there’s plenty to keep me interested throughout.
Thematically, the album contains many counterculture clichés in a tidy 33 1/3 rpm album. To the cynical among us, maybe even to the point of being a parody of itself. But by the end of 1970 the dream was fading, and disillusionment was creeping into a lot of the music. This album almost sounds like one last grasp at an alternative way of being, and in a way it’s unsettlingly relevant 50 years later. Even in an era of relative artistic freedom and experimentation, Blows Against the Empire stands out as a spacy oddity. Not Trout Mask Replica odd, but out there nonetheless. And I like it.
Wave goodbye to Amerika, say hello to the garden. -from Let’s Go Together
Power pop progenitors Badfinger released their third album, No Dice, on this day in 1970. It was their second under the Badfinger moniker, their first album being under their original name The Iveys. It was also their first album to include guitarist Joey Molland.
No Dice is the work of a band with enormous promise, and shows them on the verge of a breakthrough if in fact this wasn’t good enough to be the one to put them over the top. The album featured one single, the standout No Matter What, and another track that would become one of the biggest hits of all time when covered by Harry Nilsson, Without You. The group was really beginning to establish itself as a musical force with great songwriting and lead and harmony vocals spread amongst the quartet. As with their patrons from Liverpool, they also showed versatility in music styles, from crunchy rockers like the opener, I Can’t Take It, to ballads such as Without You, and catchy singalongs including Blodwyn.
The story of Badfinger is a sad and cautionary tale, but for a period of three or four years they created some great music which stands on its own merit. With their follow up to No Dice a year later they would punch their ticket to rock immortality.
11/9/70: Derek & the Dominos – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs
Music is an emotional experience, and that is what imprints itself on the soul. And I think for me, any great art is art which communicates human emotion. – Greg Lake
The circumstances surrounding the creation of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, which turns 50 today, are well known. It’s part of rock ‘n’ roll lore. The songs on this double album were fueled by Eric Clapton’s unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, a.k.a. Layla, who happened to be married to his best friend George Harrison. A strong dose of disillusionment with his career at the turn of the decade only increased Clapton’s angst. Add to that a group of fellow musicians in the studio who tended to live on the edge – and substances, lots of substances – and the results could’ve gone either way. What it became, for many fans and critics, was Eric Clapton’s musical peak.
Upon release, it didn’t go well. Many critics thought the heavier guitar songs lacked focus while the more mellow tracks were boring. Initially it was a commercial and critical disappointment, failing to chart in the U.K. and stalling at 16 on the Billboard album chart. A significant reason for its early commercial struggle was that Derek & the Dominos was an outgrowth of Eric Clapton’s desire to eschew the hype machine which propelled the two previous groups he’d been involved with, Cream and Blind Faith. His participation in the Delaney & Bonnie tour stoked his desire to just be one of the guys in a band. Even the album cover, a painting titled La Fille au Bouquet which reminded Eric of Pattie, excludes any mention of the band or title. This, too, hindered the public from catching on.
Skip ahead a few years and it’s more widely praised as one of the greatest rock albums as it should be for its outpouring of emotion and sometimes raw but stellar musicianship, especially the slide guitar work of late addition to the group, Duane Allman. Of Layla’s 14 songs, nine were original. Of those, six were cowritten by Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the latter with sole credit on the closing track. The only song that took time to grow on me was Clapton’s anthemic rendition of Little Wing, but it didn’t take many listens. I hear this album as one emotionally charged outburst. Perhaps it’s a cop out to say there are no weak links, but that’s how I hear it. Eric and Duane’s tandem guitars and Eric and Whitlock’s combined vocals reach fever pitch every time.
Their take on Bill Broonzy’s Key to the Highway, which started as a jam that producer Tom Dowd decided to record – hence the fade in – finds Eric fittingly slurring the lyrics as he and Allman trade guitar licks. Even the quieter I Am Yours, with Jim Gordon’s gentle tabla playing along with Allman’s slide guitar, stays on theme as the record rolls along to its crescendo, Layla, with its famous piano coda composed and played by Gordon. Following that is Whitlock’s album closer, Thorn Tree in the Garden. For a number of years I heard this track as a somber but gentle come down after Clapton and Allman’s orgy of guitars. Then I learned the story behind it. Whitlock had recently moved to California from Macon, GA, and was living in a house with a number of others. His cat and dog were familiar friends of the stranger in a strange land, but he was told he had to get rid of his pets. While Bobby was taking his cat to Delaney Bramlett’s to live, one of his housemates had his dog “done away with.” The garden represents Bobby’s pets, while the heartless housemate was the thorn. It’s gut wrenching, and that’s how Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs ends.
There weren’t many happy endings associated with this album. Jim Gordon would battle schizophrenia before murdering his mother. Carl Radle passed away in 1980 at 37 due to the effects of substance abuse. Duane Allman was lost in a motorcycle accident less than a year after Layla was released. His work with the Allman Brothers Band made him a legend, but his involvement on this album was by no means a frivolous side project. Layla wouldn’t have been what it is without him. Not even close. Bobby Whitlock recorded a couple of strong albums in the immediate aftermath, and he continues to record and perform. He lives in Austin, TX.
Remarkably, Clapton’s friendship with Harrison was not a casualty. Perhaps only on the mountaintop of 1970 rock star celebrity inhabited by free spirits and spiritual seekers could a friendship survive such drama. As George can be heard somewhat cavalierly saying during an interview clip on Scorcese’s Living in the Material World doc, “I’d rather she be with him than some dope.”
So, is Layla Eric Clapton’s peak? In my view, he went on to record a number of fantastic albums which would have more than cemented his place among the greats even if the 1960’s never happened. He would experience more personal anguish which he shared in his music. He is, after all, a blues man. But this 50 year old album is hard to beat for its raw emotion, incredible musicianship, and lack of slickness. Clapton, Whitlock, and Allman caught lightning in a bottle. It’s one of those things that couldn’t be repeated.
David Bowie’s third studio album was released 50 years ago today, and it is widely considered the opening salvo of his classic period. Producer Tony Visconti was brought in to corral Bowie’s various styles into more of a cohesive sound. This was to be done by shifting Bowie from a purely solo artist to incorporating a band, including Mick Ronson on guitar and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who would soon be core members of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars.
The Man Who Sold the World represents a shift from the more acoustic folk of the previous album to a heavier rock/blues rock sound. Yet the acoustic guitars quite audible in the mix, lending to its recognizeable early 70’s Bowie sound. The original title of the album was Metropolist, after Friz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis film, but was changed by Mercury without asking Bowie, and the initial album cover on the U.S. release featured a cartoon cowboy in front of an asylum. Bowie had it changed for the U.K. release in April 1971. Despite positive contemporary reviews, the album was initially a commercial failure but was quickly reassessed after the breakthrough with Ziggy Stardust a couple years later.
Now it’s considered a crucial element of his classic early 70’s period. Everything to do with rock music was evolving so fast, and it didn’t take long for the listening public to realize how good it was. It may not be entirely innovative, but Bowie definitely put his own twist on the heavy blues rock genre. I liken it to Pink Floyd’s Meddle – a great blend of the band’s past and immediate future. Bowie has credited producer/bassist Visconti and guitarist Ronson for the album’s sonics. Bowie’s lyrics – with themes including Nietzsche, Vietnam, and man being ruled by computers – range from esoteric to dark, and border on frightening at times. The instrumental tracks to these songs, driven by Woodmansey’s drums, Visconti’s fuzzy bass, and the possibly underrated Ronson’s guitar, are relentless.
Some of the haunting vocal affectation in The Width of a Circle and the title track can also be heard on his final album, Blackstar, something I hadn’t noticed until now. Black Country Rock strongly hints at the direction he would take on his next album, Hunky Dory. She Shook Me Cold veers into Cream territory. But perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries, Bowie’s vocals make the otherwise common heavy rock sound his own. It’s hard to find any weak spots on this one.
I’ve accepted some truisms over the past couple of years pertaining to my taste in music. For example, carrying over somewhat from yesterday’s post, I can like various prog albums quite a bit without trying to become an expert on the genre and all of its sub-genres. I like what I like, in this case with a few exceptions they’re what you might call “the usual suspects.” Another realization: Gosh darn it, I like The Grateful Dead’s studio albums! I get that they’re best known as a live band, and around that one time I got to see them (I was 20) the idea of following them around for a couple weeks at a time sounded appealing. But I was late to the party and had to settle for a handful of nice soundboard tapes gifted to me by a bonafide Dead Head friend. So yeah, give me some of that Buffalo or Cornell ’77. I love it, and Donna Godchaux doesn’t even bother me anymore. But at the end of the day, my go-to’s will always be the studio work. And today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of their best, and one of the best by anyone in 1970 and beyond, American Beauty.
This release, appearing just four months after Workingman’s Dead, is considered a continuation of that sound, though with its emphasis on harmonies the album leans a little more in the folk direction of CSN than Bakersfield (though Jerry did increase his use of the pedal steel on this one). There was a good amount of cross-pollination happening with friends from CSNY, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana working or otherwise hanging out in the studio at the same time. The album also marked the first collaboration of Garcia with David Grisman, whose mandolin is heard on Friend of the Devil and Ripple. In addition to those songs, favorites of mine include Phil Lesh’s song for his father, Box of Rain, plus SugarMagnolia, ‘Till the Morning Comes, Candyman, and the warhorse Truckin’. Eight of the ten songs remained in the Dead’s live repertoire throughout their existence, while American Beauty was certified Gold in 1974 and Double Platinum in 2001.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so I’m told. I had planned to take advantage of a light month to work on what will be the busiest month I’ve had for 50th album release anniversaries in November. Instead, I didn’t even do dedicated write ups for a couple of my favorites in October. Oh well, I’ll acknowledge them now and get to work on next month’s cornucopia…
10/5/70: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III
Contemporary criticisms painted the heavier songs as noise while others said the acoustic numbers were folk rock rip-offs. Whatever. Led Zep III went straight to number one, and is one of my favorite Zeppelin albums. I tend to enjoy the acoustic tracks most on this one, and John Paul Jones shines throughout.
10/19/70: Bob Dylan – New Morning
The period of Dylan’s career from (roughly) 1967-74 tends to be glossed over by casual fans, but to me some of his best output is from that era. New Morning has quietly, almost surreptitiously, become one of my favorite Dylan albums. IfNot for You, Day of the Locusts, The Man in Me – great stuff.
10/23/70: Frank Zappa – Chunga’s Revenge
Zappa’s third solo album was released this month. It was the first to feature Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (a.k.a., Flo & Eddie) of the Turtles. It was another shift in musical direction, and was met with mixed reviews. I haven’t listened to Frank’s entire catalog including this one, but if there’s a better album than Hot Rats somebody please let me know.
10/23/70 – Genesis – Trespass
Prog. Prog, prog, prog. I’ve reached a point where I’ll give an album a listen or two and it either resonates with me or it doesn’t. There are plenty of prog albums that I like a lot, including some early ones by Genesis. Trespass, their second album, just isn’t one of them. It’s a slog for me. However, I take my first step onto the Genesis train with their next release a year later.