Cat Stevens released his fourth studio album on this day 50 years ago. Tea for the Tillerman was his second release that year, with Mono Bone Jakon released the previous April. The album was recorded over three months in the middle of 1970, with Father and Son and Wild World issued as singles, the latter reaching #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 while becoming an enduring classic. Wild World has also been covered by a number of artists. Just two months ago, Stevens/Yusuf released a new version of the album titled Tea for the Tillerman 2.
Five of the songs on the album were featured on the 1972 soundtrack to the movie Harold and Maude (not all the songs issued on the soundtrack were in the film), the other half originating on Mona Bone Jakon. The album has garnered classic status in the world of music critics despite the typical “someone pee’d in my Cornflakes” contemporary take by Robert Christgau, who found it monotonous at the time. To me, this album represents the second in a trilogy of fantastic albums, with Teaser and the Firecat following in 1971.
Stevens may have had his internal struggles with the limelight, but you wouldn’t know it simply by listening to these songs. The album is the epitome of what was good about the singer/songwriter era. They are songs that transcend the years. If they were relatable in 1970, then they can touch nerves in 2020. I certainly don’t limit myself on when I listen to Tea for the Tillerman, but I think of it as Sunday morning music. And if it’s raining, all the better.
I’m participating in an album draft with nine other bloggers, organized by Hanspostcard. There were ten initial rounds, and this is my final selection of four bonus rounds which have covered soundtracks, compilations, music-related movies, and now box sets, with draft order determined randomly by round.
With my final desert island draft pick I’m sharing this rabbit trail off my personal memory lane as a nod to my oft-mentioned older brothers who got me started on my journey in music when I was still in diapers. Thanks brudduhs.
The four LP Superstars of the 70’s box set, released by Warner Bros. in 1973, represents an odd case in my music listening life. My older brothers owned it, but I have little memory of them playing it. I can see it in my mind’s eye resting flat on the musty indoor/outdoor carpet in our somewhat finished basement underneath their stereo stand. I’d pull it out from time to time out of curiosity but was probably nine or ten years old before I started to recognize many of the names (other than Roberta Flack, whose albums my mom played upstairs on her Motorola console, and Judy Collins because I’d seen her on Sesame Street).
As much as I learned about music from my brothers, they weren’t really into most of the artists included in this set until they were older, at least not enough to spend after school part-time job paychecks on individual albums by the likes of Black Sabbath or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. One of them recently told me, looking back, that they kind of cherry picked the songs they liked, but otherwise they tended to think of it as one of those “As Seen on TV” types of releases. And it may have been just that.
When my interest in music from the era other than the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Elton was beginning to take off in the mid-1980s, I copied most of the songs from Superstars of the 70’s onto cassette. To my surprise, there were some snaps, crackles, pops, and even a skip or two. Evidently it had been spun a few times over the years after all! Yet while giving it a listen when trying to decide which songs to tape, I still wasn’t familiar with some of them, such as the Byrds’ version of Cowgirl in the Sand (which was actually a new track from their ill-fated reunion album that came out about the same time as this release) and the post-Morrison Doors’ Tightrope Ride.
By no means is this the box set that I’ve listened to the most over the years. Retrospectives by Clapton, Dylan, Bruce, and others top that list. But as it turned out, the songs in this collection – which has now probably spent way too many North Texas summers in my brother’s attic to be playable – formed a cornerstone or two of the foundation of my music tastes going forward.
A1 – Alice Cooper – School’s Out A2 – Seals & Crofts – Summer Breeze A3 – Beach Boys – Surf’s Up A4 – Randy Newman – Sail Away A5 – Judy Collins – Both Sides Now A6 – The Doors – Tightrope Ride B1 – The Bee Gees – Lonely Days B2 – James Taylor – Fire & Rain B3 – The Grateful Dead – Truckin’ B4 – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway – Where Is The Love B5 – Stephen Stills – Love The One You’re With B6 – Yes – Roundabout C1 – The Doors – Light My Fire C2 – Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit C3 – CSN – Marrakesh Express C4 – Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze C5 – The Bee Gees – To Love Somebody C6 – The Kinks – Lola D1 – Carly Simon – Anticipation D2 – The Guess Who – American Woman D3 – Todd Rundgren – We Gotta Get You A Woman D4 – America – Ventura Highway D5 – Jo Jo Gunne – Run, Run, Run D6 – Rolling Stones – Tumbling Dice E1 – Otis Redding – (Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay E2 – Deep Purple – Hush E3 – Gordon Lightfoot – If You Could Read My Mind E4 – Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face E5 – Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady E6 – Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love F1 – Eagles – Take It Easy F2 – America – A Horse With No Name F3 – The Byrds – Cowgirl In The Sand F4 – Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi F5 – The Guess Who – These Eyes F6 – Van Morrison – Domino F7 – Judy Collins – Amazing Grace G1 – Doobie Brothers – Listen To The Music G2 – Joni Mitchell – Woodstock G3 – Wilson Pickett – In The Midnight Hour G4 – Arlo Guthrie – City Of New Orleans G5 – Jackson Browne – Doctor My Eyes G6 – Black Sabbath – Paranoid H1 – Allman Brothers Band – One Way Out H2 – Aretha Franklin – (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman H3 – Faces – Stay With Me H4 – Graham Nash – Chicago H5 – Rolling Stones – Happy H6 – Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Lucky Man
I’m participating in an album draft with nine other bloggers, organized by Hanspostcard. There will be ten rounds, with draft order determined randomly by round. With the first pick in round four, I’ve selected the first Joni Mitchell album I ever owned.
Judge: “Mr. blogger known as Introgroove, you are accused of musical acculturation in the first degree. How do you plead?” Me: “Guilty as charged.” We’re now into the fourth round, and I realize I could fill my top 50 – never mind 10 – desert island collection with albums from 1965-75 alone. I do have one “modern” album from the 90’s in mind for later, yet even it’s over a quarter century old. It seems strange when I think of it, but I guess I’m just an older soul. Always have been. My choice to kick off this round, for example, was released when I was not quite four months old: Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
Other than the handful of Joni’s singles I’d heard on the radio growing up – specifically Big Yellow Taxi, Raised on Robbery, Help Me, and Free Man in Paris – I didn’t know anything about her albums other than that they were held in high esteem by the omniscient scribes at Rolling Stone and MOJO. So at the age of 21 I decided to investigate for myself. I was at Streetside Records one day and ran into an older acquaintance I knew to be knowledgeable about such matters, so I asked him where I should start with Joni Mitchell. Without hesitation he said Blue. I took it home, popped it into the changer, and never looked back. At the time I was in an obsessive Dylan and Neil Young self-education mode, and her music fit my schooling perfectly. These days, I don’t try to categorize her. Especially not after gaining an appreciation for her later Hejira album.
But Blue? Almost everything I love about music from that era is encapsulated on this album: great songwriting, bare bones honest lyrics, a beautiful and unique voice, and unparalleled musicianship. Bob and probably even Neil couldn’t touch her alternate tunings (if I were still categorizing her). But it’s more than that. While the songs are mostly about Mitchell’s relationships past and then-present, some with famous musicians, others not well known, the recordings capture the mood of 1971. That is, it was a come down. Joni didn’t allot many words to political commentary, but in California she summed it up concisely: Reading the news and it sure looks bad, They won’t give peace a chance, That was just a dream some of us had… There’s a melancholy and resignation in those words and in her voice that can be found throughout the landscape of artists at the turn of the 1970’s. It wasn’t always bleak, but the 60’s hangover was hard to avoid, as in the title track: Acid, booze, and ass, Needles, guns, and grass, Lots of laughs…
As we trudge through a summer of uncertainty and discontent, Blue maintains a contemporary feel. For me there’s something visceral about Joni’s music. As much as or more than other artists whom I admire but was born too late to listen to while they were in their prime, I feel like I was there when I listen to her. It’s 1971, except I’m 23 years old. I’m lounging at some dingy outdoor cafe with a buddy who’s just returned from Vietnam, unsure of what to do with his life. Return to school? Morocco sounds better. Or maybe the roles are reversed. Then again, maybe it’s just 2020 and we’re waist-deep in our own troubled times, but thinking about it in 50 year old terms makes it seem more palatable. Either way, Mitchell’s music is deep but accessible. This and her other early albums earned Joni the well-intended accolade from various critics, “Best Female Songwriter/Musician,” which rankled her and rightly so. She’s one of the best, most innovative songwriters, singers, and musicians ever, male or female, period.
When Elton John’s eponymous album was released 50 years ago this past April, it was assumed by many in the U.S. to be his debut, not realizing his first album, 1969’s Empty Sky, hadn’t been released in America. That album wouldn’t make it to record store shelves here until 1975, at the peak of Elton mania.
With this album we hear a significant shift in Bernie Taupin’s lyric writing. While there are hints of the esoteric themes prevalent on Empty Sky such as in First Episode at Hienton and Take Me to the Pilot (a song whose meaning even Taupin has stated he has no idea of), the songs on this second release – tracks such as I Need You to Turn To, The Greatest Discovery, and the instant classic Your Song – are of the variety that listeners can relate to directly. And, the socially conscious Border Song is no less relevant today than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, Elton and Bernie dove right in to what would be loosely termed the singer/songwriter era. In addition to Gus Dudgeon’s production, the album’s immediately recognizable sound is due in large part to the string arrangements of Paul Buckmaster, who I wrote about in a recent post.
One of my favorite tracks on this album is Sixty Years On. Elton performed a powerful version of it on his 1979 Russia tour with Ray Cooper. An official album from that tour was released in recent years, but unfortunately this song was left off. As a result, it’s not in my collection.
Elton John was certified gold in February 1971 and received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012. It also spawned a few of Elton’s concert staples over the following five decades. If interested in where I ranked Elton John within his discography, see this series I did a while back.