Marching Backward to the Music – Leon, Jimi, Ginger, and Past-Due Homework

I was not frequently absent from school when I was a child. However, when I did miss school because of an illness, I tended to make it count. As in three or four days in a row. Not that I was always sick the entire time. I just didn’t want to go back once I’d settled into a cozy routine of morning cartoons and the afternoon B-movie on the independent channel before the usual after school lineup of reruns. There was a price to pay, however. By the third day or so my mom would return from work having visited my teacher at some point during the day and bestow upon me the dreaded stack of makeup schoolwork. What does that little anecdote have to do with my blog?

Time For Homework. Unhappy Nice Serious Boy Sitting At The Desk ...

Well, I’ve had some spells of absenteeism from this hobby over the past year. But unlike grade school, it really bothers me looking back at the album release 50th anniversaries I’ve missed. It’s as if I’ve disrespected these artists by not celebrating their albums properly. Indeed, it gets a little strange between my ears at times. Anyhoo, looking back at my notes from March and April there are a few albums I’d like to belatedly acknowledge as we move forward over the next month or two (and does anyone really know or care what month it is anymore?). Some titles I’ll address individually, others in clusters. Starting now.

3/23/70 (April 24 U.K.): Leon Russell – Leon Russell

Leon’s solo debut was a classic out of the gate. It contains the oft-covered A Song for You, as well as Delta Lady. He also had a little help on the album from a cast of A-listers including Harrison, Starr, Jagger, Clapton, and too many others to list (see wiki link at the bottom). Leon Russell and the following two albums in this post all represent, in my mind, a shift in rock music around this time whereby artists were breaking free of stylistic constraints. Leon was a prolific songwriter and gifted musician, and like his friends Delaney and Bonnie he blended southern gospel elements, blues, and rock into a unique sound that his English musician friends fit right into.

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3/25/70: Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsies

Like many of my generation (X) who became Jimi Hendrix fans, it was due to his famous three studio albums augmented by whatever film we could view of the man, either in the Woodstock and Monterey documentaries or on VH1 (remember when VH1 was presented as sort of an MTV for Baby Boomers?). When I explored Jimi’s other commercially available music at the time (early 90’s) it was obvious he had been broadening his musical horizons before his death. Cry of Love and Band of Gypsies were in my collection, but they weren’t played often. It took a few more years and perhaps a little more musical maturity on my part to “get it.” Now I enjoy First Rays of the New Rising Sun (comprising most of the first three posthumous Hendrix releases) and the funk/R&B fused rock of Band of Gypsies as much as any of the original three. If only he’d lived long enough to make that album with Miles Davis.

A photo of Jimi Hendrix playing guitar

3/30/70: Ginger Baker’s Air Force – Ginger Baker’s Air Force

And now for something…completely different. On January 15, 1970, Ginger Baker assembled an eclectic group of musicians for a sold-out performance of Afro/jazz/rock fusion at the Royal Albert Hall. Band members included early Baker influences Graham Bond and Phil Seamen, plus Winwood, Gretch, and Wood of Traffic, post-Moody Blues/pre-Wings Denny Laine, and Remi Kabaka, who would also add flavors of Afro-fusion to music by other British music luminaries of the era. Critics, of course, hated the subsequent album, Ginger Baker’s Air Force. They aren’t too fond of albums produced by drummers, as they tend to be heavily, uh, drummer-centric. I find it to be an interesting and listenable album. Unfortunately I’m limited to listens on YouTube, as the CD issue readily available for purchase these days is a vinyl rip, and a poor one at that. (A better quality release from ’98 containing both Air Force albums and a solo Baker album currently goes for $144 on Amazon – no thanks.) One of these days I’ll have my turntable set up again and I’ll find a used vinyl copy. One of these days.

Ginger Baker's Air Force-album cover.jpg

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Russell_(album)

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger_Baker%27s_Air_Force_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ginger_Baker%27s_Air_Force

 

February 5 – Cream’s Sayonara

Cream – Goodbye

By the time Cream’s finale was released on this day 50 years ago, the group had been disbanded for just under two months. There was nothing sudden about it; it had been announce prior to the release of their previous album, Wheels of Fire, that they would split after a forthcoming farewell tour. As with that previous record, Cream would utilize live recordings mixed with studio tracks on their final release.

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The first three tracks on Goodbye were taken from their performance at L.A.’s Forum near the end of that tour in October 1968, while each member contributed a new song to be recorded in the studio to fill out the album. The release spawned one single, Badge, which reached number 18 in the UK and 60 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The song was co-written by L’Angelo Misterioso, a.k.a. George Harrison, who misread Clapton’s writing of the word “bridge” on Clapton’s then-untitled song while working across a table from him. As Harrison would later describe it, an intoxicated Ringo Starr then walked into the room talking about swans in the park. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a beloved classic rock song was written!

Contemporary reviews were mostly positive, though the production was criticized by some. Yeah, those live tracks are loud. But Cream was a loud, distortion drenched band on stage. And by the end, Baker and Bruce were at each other’s throats while all three were playing over each other in live performances. To which I say, so what? It’s part of who they were, as well as a factor in their dissolution. They were a combination of a really good studio band who brought the thunder live, and when it was done, it was done. Within a few months Jack Bruce would release his first solo album, Songs for a Tailor, while Clapton and Baker would team with Steve Winwood and Ric Grech in Blind Faith. Then along came the 70’s…

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. I’m So Glad
  2. Politician

Side Two:

  1. Sitting on Top of the World
  2. Badge
  3. Doing That Scrapyard Thing
  4. What a Bringdown

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye_(Cream_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badge_(song)

August 9 – When Cream Rose to the Top

Cream – Wheels of Fire

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.

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Clapton, Baker, and Bruce

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.

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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.

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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.

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Jann Wenner

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).

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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.  

©Art Kane_Cream_1_1968.JPG

Tracklist:

Side One (In the Studio):

  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing the Time
  4. As You Said

Side Two:

  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

Side Three (Live @ Winterland & the Fillmore West):

  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful

Side Four:

  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cream_(band)

http://ultimateclassicrock.com/cream-wheels-of-fire/

https://www.allmusic.com/album/wheels-of-fire-mw0000189640

https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/wheels-of-fire-95827/

-Stephen