November 1970 – Paul Kantner & the Evolution of the Airplane

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.

Paul Kantner - Wikipedia

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.

I'd Love to Turn You On #124 – Paul Kantner – Blows Against The Empire |  Twist and Shout

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.

Grace Slick With Paul Kantner: The Rolling Stone Interview - Rolling Stone

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.

Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra | Psychedelicized

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

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Mau Mau (Amerikon)
  2. The Baby Tree
  3. Let’s Go Together
  4. A Child is Coming

Side Two:

  1. Sunrise
  2. Hijack
  3. Home
  4. Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?
  5. XM
  6. Starship

-Stephen

https://www.allmusic.com/album/blows-against-the-empire-mw0000024441

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

September 23 – Listen How it Goes, My Rhythm: Abraxas at 50

9/23/70: Santana – Abraxas

We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it “Abraxas”…. – from the Hermann Hesse book, Demian.

There are examples throughout all music genres of bands or individual artists who get into a groove where they can do no wrong in the studio, on stage, or both. In 1970, Latin/blues/jazz/rock fusion band Santana was one such group. It had been just over a year since their breakout performance at Woodstock, followed by the release of their self-titled debut album a couple of weeks after the festival. Santana’s followup was recorded with the same lineup over a period of two weeks in the spring of 1970, and Abraxas was released on this date 50 years ago. It reached the top of the Billboard album chart in the U.S. while featuring three prominent instrumental tracks.

Santana On 'Black Magic Woman,' A Pioneering Cultural Mashup : NPR

The star singles from the album were covers: Black Magic Woman (Fleetwood Mac) reached number four in the U.S. (after leaving Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green derived significant royalty income from Santana’s version), and Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va hit number thirteen. But after many years and many plays, the tracks that keep me coming back are the non-hits, such as the instrumentals Incident at Neshabur with its heavy jazz inflection, and Samba Pa Ti. Carlos’s inspiration for this song was a heavily drinking saxophone busker outside his NYC hotel window. Two of my other favorites were written and sung by keyboardist Gregg Rolie, Mother’s Daughter and Hope You’re Feeling Better. The former maintains much of the Latin flavor of the rest of the album, while the latter features more of a straight forward rock sound. Carlos’s searing guitar licks are the common denominator along with Rolie’s vocals.

Santana - Hope You're Feeling Better - 8/18/1970 - Tanglewood (Official) -  YouTube

While the first three Santana albums have been stuffed into the classic rock pigeon hole over the years, this band perhaps more than anyone carved out a unique niche. The Latin rhythms which form the backbone of Santana’s music just feel good to listen to, and the band must’ve felt an immense sense of freedom when playing it. It could be a bitter cold winter day, but with Abraxas playing it’s always sunny and 75. For many including me, this continued into their lesser known (commercially speaking) fourth album, Caravanserai, before Carlos shifted into a different but also very interesting phase of his career.

Though Carlos and the Latin element of these albums understandably garner the most attention, I feel Gregg Rolie doesn’t receive the praise he deserves. Maybe he has and I’m just not aware. However, it’s no coincidence that Santana and later Journey (who he co-founded with Neal Schon, who also played on the third Santana album) were markedly different bands after his departure. His vocals and signature Hammond B3 were crucial ingredients to both.

rolie

Bonus Blurbs:

  • Oye Como Va, translated to English, means listen how it goes, my rhythm.
  • The album was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2016.
  • The album cover art is a painting titled Annunciation, by Mati Klarwein. His distinctive style would be found on later albums by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Gregg Allman.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Singing Winds
  2. Crying Beasts
  3. Oye Como Va
  4. Incident at Neshabur

Side Two:

  1. Se Acabó
  2. Mother’s Daughter
  3. Samba Pa Ti
  4. Hope You’re Feeling Better
  5. El Nicoya

-Stephen

https://ultimateclassicrock.com/santana-abraxas/

https://www.allmusic.com/album/abraxas-mw0000191745

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

June 3 – Soft Machine’s Third & Musical Comfort Zones

6/3/70: Soft Machine – Third

Today we’ve reached the 50th anniversary of the release of one of those albums. I can honestly say I enjoy Soft Machine’s four composition double album Third, but for the life of me I don’t know how to write specifically about it. That tends to be the case for me with prog. If I haven’t made it clear, I’m not a musician, trained or otherwise. The more technical the music, the more difficult it is for me to express myself. If I tried to offer a serious critique of an album such as Third beyond basic perceptions, likes/dislikes, it would quickly become obvious that I’m out of my depth by fans who have known this album for many years and are knowledgeable about this music – underground, prog, the Canterbury scene, jazz, fusion, etc. – from a technical standpoint. But this is such a unique and visionary record that I can’t just relegate it to my end of the month odds ‘n ends roundup. So, what can I say about it? I think what I can express is an appreciation for the overall artistic vision, effort and musicianship itself that went into creating it.

Soft Machine - Wikipedia

It’s an admiration that keeps me veering out of my comfort zone and onto different musical rabbit trails and listening with fascination for what goes into creating. That “what” is something I can only understand as beginning as a seed in someone’s mind and/or heart and expanding from there. Sometimes that seed is in the form of a dream, such as what began in McCartney’s brain as Scrambled Eggs and ended up as Yesterday. Other times it’s an idea an artist walks around with for years after the initial inspiration. Sometimes the end result misses the mark, subjectively speaking, other times it works perfectly – even if only to the artist who created it. For me, it can be the songwriting gifts of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, or the highly trained musicianship of bands who met while studying music in college, such as Chicago or Dream Theater. It’s present in the sometimes chaotic world of Zappa and the short-lived brilliance of Syd Barrett, and even though it has yet to click with me, it’s all over Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Don Van Vliet actually thought through every bit of that album and almost drove his band to insanity trying get it on tape precisely according to what he heard in his head. It’s also in what seems like the simplest country blues from the Mississippi Delta. And on and on.

Captain Beefheart - Live In Kansas City - 1974 - Past Daily ...

I took the plunge with Third a few short years ago, and I like it more and more with each listen. Having it on as housecleaning music or while sitting on the patio doesn’t work for me. I have to set aside time to sit down with headphones on and listen. The instrumentation and production are complex and highly experimental. For example, the opening track, Facelift, consists of sections of different live performances, sometimes sped up, sometimes slowed down. It’s noisy and distorted in places before calming into a flute solo by Lyn Dobson, and ultimately ending in a collage of backwards loops. The second track, Slightly All the Time, is actually broken down into three separate instrumental sections. The third track, Moon in June, is the one I still struggle through due to the seemingly halfhearted vocal (the only vocal on the entire album) that lasts the first nine minutes. I’m just not sure what the point of it is. Perhaps I  should listen to the wispy lyrics a little closer. The song does contain some really cool bass and violin work, otherwise the first half sounds like a studio run-through prior to an actual recording before it really takes off for the next ten minutes.

Luna Kafé e-zine - Soft Machine: Moon In June

The final track, Out-Bloody-Rageous, is my favorite along with Facelift.  It goes in directions that remind me of the Grateful Dead’s Drums/Space segments. I settle into listening, get into the groove of it all, then without realizing when it happened they’d moved into something very different. But it’s still the same track, just ten minutes later. The final 3:20 reminds me of  Pink Floyd’s On the Run from Dark Side of the Moon, still almost three years in the future. Despite the occasional chaos, the overall interplay among band members Mike Ratledge (piano, organ), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums), and Elton Dean (saxophone) – from whom Reg Dwight derived half his stage name – is remarkably balanced. There’s a lot of room in the four tracks for them to spread out.

ロスジェネたちの音楽夜話 第84話 Soft Machine 『Live In 1970 ...

It would be easy to say there are elements on Third I’ve heard on early King Crimson albums, but it’s true. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as well. But isn’t this what we do when trying to become familiar with or understand something new to us? We look to other works to try and make sense of it. Any fans of Soft Machine, I’d appreciate suggestions on where to go next with this band. I’ll have more to say about musical comfort zones in tomorrow’s post. Thanks for reading.

Tracklist

Side One: Facelift

Side Two: Slightly All the Time

Side Three: Moon in June

Side Four: Out-Bloody-Rageous

-Stephen

Porcupine Tree, ‘Fear of a Blank Planet’ (2007)

https://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/review/635/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_(Soft_Machine_album)#Original_edition