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.
Today I’m celebrating the 50th anniversary of a landmark album for Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Released this day in 1970, Tumbleweed Connection was Elton’s third album, but his second in the U.S. (his 1969 debut, Empty Sky, was not released in the U.S. until 1975). Taupin’s songwriting was evolving rapidly at the turn of the decade, from the rather esoteric lyrics on the debut, to the standout singer/songwriter tracks on the eponymous second LP, to this gem with rather unlikely circumstances associated with its creation.
Tumbleweed is an extremely well-rounded album. While a few of its songs went on to be played somewhat regularly on the radio, the lone single from it was Country Comfort – in Australia and New Zealand only. But what makes the album distinctive? It’s a concept album whose themes are about the American west and Civil War south, what we almost generically refer to today as Americana, written and recorded by Englishmen who hadn’t yet set foot in the U.S. – and they nailed it. Bernie grew up on a diet of American western films, and combined with the influence of The Band, he and Elton were able to capture the zeitgeist of that era as well as anyone at the time outside of the aforementioned four Canadians and one Arkansan. Even the sepia toned photo on the album cover, despite the fact it was taken at a railway station in the U.K., captures the feel of the album.
Tumbleweed is one of those albums in my life that is A grade material from start to finish. In other words, I never listen to it for one or two tracks. This was the first release to include both drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, who do not receive the praise they deserve in my opinion for their contributions to Elton’s success up to the mid-70’s. Tumbleweed Connection was recorded in March of 1970, EJ’s legendary live U.S. debut took place in late August at L.A.’s Troubadour, the album was released on this date, and on December 1st, Elton, Nigel, and Dee played a small college auditorium in the tiny town where I was born and grew up just under three months later. They probably had a better grasp of late 19th century America than the kids in the audience they performed for who had little idea of who Elton was and no clue of what he was to become in the ensuing months.
If interested in my top 15 Elton John album rankings, you can see them here:
It must be a mark of an extraordinary band to have created such a legendary collection of albums that noncompletists like myself actually make a point of trying to like the portions of their catalog that are almost universally disliked, or at least overlooked, including by the musicians themselves. Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, released 50 years ago today, is one example.
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, this was Pink Floyd’s fifth release, and the follow up to the sprawling, disjointed double LP Ummagumma. Nick Deriso, in an ultimateclassicrock.com review, summed up the album rather concisely: “Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother marks the final signpost for a period of broad and sometimes aimless experimentation following the departure of Syd Barrett.” One result was that it was also the final Floyd album produced by Norman Smith, as the band sought more control over their recording process. Nevertheless, it became the band’s first number one album in the U.K., presumably due to their status as an an underground live act. Despite the initial commercial success, contemporary print reviews were mixed, and neither Roger Waters nor David Gilmour look back upon the album favorably.
Pink Floyd were coming into their own in terms of expecting more artistic freedom, and this is represented on the album’s jacket. The cover, designed by Hipgnosis (artist Storm Thorgerson drove out into the countryside and took a photo of the first cow he saw), is notable for being their first without their name or any photos of band members – a practice that they would continue throughout the 70’s. The band’s idea was to have a cover that didn’t reinforce their placement in any particular genre or sub-genre, such as “space rock.”
Recording presented difficulties due to restrictions placed on them at Abbey Road concerning new studio equipment, one result being that Mason and Waters had to play the entire 23 minute rhythm portion of the Atom Heart Mother suite – which consumes the entirety of side one – rather than create a loop. The suite, which I have yet to develop a taste for, is interesting for the fact that its orchestration, composed by Ron Geesin, takes the lead melody lines while the band provides the backing track – a reversal of the norm in pop/rock recording. As with Ummagumma, the second half of the album features tracks written by individual members Waters, Wright, and Gilmour before closing with the Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast suite. This latter track, with three different “segments,” is really just their roadie Alan Styles talking about and consuming his breakfast. Frankly, this is treading into John and Yoko territory.
So where does this leave us? There are undoubtedly many fans who find every second of Atom Heart Mother to be among the greatest sounds ever put on vinyl, and more power to them. This is not a very accessible album to me, yet there are elements (even on side one) that I do enjoy which keep me returning from time to time to reevaluate. The easier solution, though, was to put the first three songs from side two on a playlist with some tracks from the first five albums (though I’ve grown to really like the entire Piper…, Saucerful…, and More albums). Their next release, Meddle, was the breakthrough. With Atom HeartMother they were almost there.
Atom Heart Mother: I. Father’s Shout II. Breast Milky III. Mother Fore IV. Funky Dung V. Mind Your Throats Please VI. Remergence
Fat Old Sun
Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast: I. Rise and Shine II. Sunny Side Up III. Morning Glory
Another month of a most bizarre year has come and gone. Time to tidy up and move on…
9/4/70: Caravan – If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You
Caravan released their second album this month 50 years ago. It was received relatively well, but their next album would become their most acclaimed. I enjoy the psych/jazz blend of some of the so-called Canterbury Scene groups such as this one and Soft Machine, but it’s been an acquired taste that I’m still developing.
9/8/70: Neko Case born
Canadian born Neko Case, one of my favorite singers from the past 20-plus years, turned 50 this month. Random memory: David Letterman once introduced her as “Necko.” Ugh.
9/9/70: Macy Gray born
…and so did the great singer/songwriter/producer/actress, Ohio-born Macy Gray.
9/12/70: Carpenters – Single – We’ve Only Just Begun
A fragment of this Paul Williams/Roger Nichols written tune first appeared on a bank commercial, sung by Williams. The full song ended up spending seven weeks at number one for the Carpenters.
9/14/70: The Byrds (Untitled)
The Byrds released what really is a fantastic double album – one studio album, one live – 50 years ago this month. Their early glory years were way behind them at this point, and it’s silly to even use pronouns such as “them.” Other than McGuinn, this was an entirely different band. But they cooked, especially live, and ironically this version of the group with McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin, and Gene Parsons was together longer than any of the others. Maybe it’s only my perception as a second generation Byrds fan, but I wonder if a band name change after Chris Hillman’s departure following Sweetheart of the Rodeo would’ve given the latter years albums the attention they deserve. From the live portion, the sixteen minute Eight Miles High is a highlight, though it’s a bit of a letdown when Roger only sings the first verse when all’s said and done. Chestnut Mare is the standout from the studio sides.
9/19/70: Performance soundtrack
An interesting soundtrack to a good if somewhat dark period piece film. Names on the album include Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Mick Jagger (who stars in the film), Ry Cooder, Jack Nitzsche, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
9/23/70: Ani DiFranco born
Another important artist from the 1990’s-onward turned 50 this month.
9/25/70: Ringo – Beaucoups of Blues
Ringo released his second solo album on the 25th. His third album would be the breakthrough (with a little help from many of his friends).
September 1970: Curtis Mayfield – Curtis
Mayfield released his post-Impressions solo debut, which he produced, 50 years ago this month. It spent five weeks atop the R&B charts, and reached number 19 on the Billboard Pop albums chart.
September 1970: Johnny Winter And
The Texas blues guitarist delivered another butt-kicking album this month in 1970, his fourth studio album.