Thursday, 16 July 2009

I’m going to get this out of the way early: Abbey Road is not my choice for 1969. While it has some good songs (“Octopus’s Garden,” “Come Together,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer;” it just doesn’t strike me as strong of an album as some of their others. If you ask me, their best albums came out before I was born. 1968’s the The White Album was great, with many memorable songs, but 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night has some of the sweetest, most touching tracks; “If I Fell,” “And I Love Her,” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” being personal favorites.

It was also the last year they performed together in public.

But I’m not here to talk about the Beatles illustrious career, nor years past. I’m here to delve into the music of 1969 and my favorite album for the year.

Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut album was released; Vickie Jones was arrested after a concert performance where she did a spot-on impersonation of Aretha Franklin (DO NOT mess with the Queen); The Who’s rock opera, Tommy made its debut; Chicago released their first album; Eric Burdon & War formed; Brian Jones died; Elvis Presley returns to live performance with shows in Vegas; the Jackson 5 make their album debut; Mott the Hoople, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, The Doobie Brothers, and Judas Priest all form. And if that isn’t enough, we can’t forget those three little days in August: Woodstock.

1969 gave us what was quite possibly the first super-group: Blind Faith. While you can’t deny the potential in bringing Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Ginger Baker together, their singular, self-titled album just doesn’t have anything that truly stuck with me after hearing it. There’s nothing there that I look back and think “I’ve got to hear that again.”

Genesis released their first album, “From Genesis to Revelation” in 1969. Many regard their early work, while Peter Gabriel was in the band, their best work. However I think my favorite of theirs came later, in the Phil Collins years, even though I think Collins ruined the band in the end. Peter Gabriel did better work as a solo act, so Genesis doesn’t get the nod this year.

The Jackson 5 released their first album, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5. It’s got a couple good songs, but it was largely cover songs and was kind of a disappointment for me. ABC is a much better album, so I’ll hold out for that.

I have to note Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, if only for the songs “Everyday People” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” Both classics and that I can never get enough of.

For me the best album of the year is In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson. It was their debut album, and is probably the strongest album ever to come out of the progressive rock genre. My favorite rock guitarist, Adrian Belew, didn’t join King Crimson until later, but I won’t hold that against the album.

All of that said, how can I pick a mere album, a single recording, as the most influential music event of 1969. Clearly that honor must go to Woodstock.

Surprised? Really?

Woodstock was, quite possibly, the single greatest concert event ever. With a lineup including Janis Joplin, CNSY, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Johnny Winter (with Edgar!), Richie Havens, and the Grateful Dead, how can you go wrong? And that’s only half of the bands that were there. Even Sha-Na-Na was there!

OK, so the Sha-Na-Na thing might be pushing it a tiny bit. <grin>

Even the list of who didn’t show up is big: Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson didn’t like hippies), The Doors (Jim Morrison didn’t like large outdoor venues), Led Zeppelin (they didn’t want to be “just another band” on the bill), Bob Dylan (his son was sick – and there were too many hippies outside his house), among others.

There was rain, skinny dipping, mud, storms, more nakedness, free love, and a couple songs thrown in for good measure.

The original plan was for 50,000 people on 300 acres, but the Wallkill town board declined to issue the necessary permits. A little finagling and they were able to rent 600 acres from Mr. Yasgur. Somewhere along the line it grew to nearly 200,000 people, but some 500,000 showed up. Half a million people!

For its time, the engineering requirements were off the charts. 16 loudspeaker arrays, some of which were over 6 feet tall and weighed more than a half-ton. 2000 amps coming from 3 generators behind the stage to power it all.

I could go on, but so many before me have done so much better. I don’t know that anything will ever come close to those 3 days of peace, love, and music in the summer of ’69.

Tuesday, 06 January 2009

It’s been a while since I posted an installment of My Life In Music. Since I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff lately, and finishing up some old ones, I thought it was high time for the next chapter: 1968.

1968 brought us the formation of Yes, Rush, The Carpenters, Led Zeppelin. Warren Zevon also started his musical career that year, and we saw Janis Joplin start her solo career after parting ways with Big Brother & the Holding Company. The Monkees ended their TV run after 58 episodes, the Beatles formed their record company, Apple Corps, Ltd., Gibson Guitar patented the Flying V design,and the musical Hair launched on Broadway.

But we’re here to talk about the music itself, not the comings and goings. And there’s quite a bit to talk about.

Let’s start with The Transformed Man by William Shatner. Yes, Capt. Kirk put out an album. It was a terrible mix of Shakespeare and pop lyrics. George Cloony once cited the album as a Desert Island Album — for its motivational qualities — “If you listen to [this song], you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island.”

1968 also brought Bookends by Simon and Garfunkle. Notable for the songs “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and the unforgettable “Mrs. Robinson.”

Generally regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, The White Album from the Beatles was released that year. And who could argue? Beatles classics like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Dear Prudence,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Martha My Dear, “ “Blackbird,” “Julia,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter” were all on this one. That’s a ton of great songs, many of which are my favorite Beatles tunes. Yet it’s still not my top pick for 1968.

Now, you might think I’m about to call out Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison as my choice for 1968 Album of the Year, and with good reason. The album, recorded at Folsom Prison (funny how that works), is quite possibly the best of Cash’s career. The title song, although recorded for an earlier release, leads off this one, and the album includes Cash’s well known renditions of a couple songs “Jackson” and “Orange Blossom Special.”

But, alas, no.

For me it’s Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos (Walter, at the time). S-OB, as the title implies, contains a selection of J. S. Bach compositions performed entirely on a Moog synthesizer. While they are fairly common by today’s standards, it was a pretty rare thing in 1968. Even for one song. Even as a background instrument for a single song. To record a whole album, where it’s the only instrument, it was completely unheard of. Yet there it is.

S-OB was reviled by some, but others were excited by the virtuosity in the work and recognized it for how groundbreaking it was. The album sold far better than anyone expected, and spawned a rash of synth albums — many just copycat renditions of redone classical works.

You have to give Switched-On Bach, and Wendy Carlos, a lot of credit. If it hadn’t been for Carlos and this single album, I don’t know that we’d have any electronic music today. You simply can’t deny the influence of a single work from which an entire musical genre is born.

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

As I suspect will happen every year through this project, 1967 saw some big milestones in music. It was an important year in psychedelic rock with releases by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and more.

Several bands formed in 1967, among them Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Genesis.

1967 was the year of one of the most important concerts in music history – The Monterey Pop Festival – with the first major performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, plus the first big American appearances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The concert was huge and became a template for future music festivals, including the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

As if those firsts weren’t enough, Monterey included performances by groups like Simon & Garfunkle, The Animals, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and Grateful Dead. Truly a mix of international acts and a variety of music styles.

The Beatles didn’t do too bad in 1967, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out as part of a double A-side single (“Penny Lane” was the other half) that year as well. The song raised the bar for what a pop record should be and it’s quite possibly the single-most influential songs they ever did.

Believe it or not the Bee Gees’, widely regarded as a Disco-era act, released their first album in 1967, called Bee Gees’ 1st, a decidedly psychedelic record.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967, with the Top 40 hits “Sombody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” I’ll admit, I prefer a cover version of “White Rabbit” that Blue Man Group did many years later. It’s probably the most often cited band and album when San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury counterculture comes up in discussion.

Lest we forget genres other than rock, we’ve got a couple each by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, plus releases from Taj Majal, Willie Bobo, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King.

1967 also brought us The Doors self-titled, debut album, with classic-rock staples “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and “Light My Fire.” This may be heresy, but I’ve never been a huge Doors fan. Still, I can’t argue with their influence on rock-n-roll and The Doors is an album every well-rounded collection should include.

It’s tempting to pick Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it’s hard to know which version to choose. The US/Mexico release has several differences from the original UK version. “Red House” is on the UK release, but “Hey Joe” replaced it in the US. “Purple Haze” appears on the US version, as does “The Wind Cries Mary,” my favorite song from the album.

I’m going to have to go with The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album is a hallmark for its experimental performance sensibilities, but was largely ignored when it was released. That may have been due, in part, to it’s controversial subject matter. Open discussion of things like sexual deviancy, S&M, prostitution, and drug abuse are hard to take now, let alone in 1967.

Today it’s one of the most influential and critically lauded albums in history.

To me it’s the those very same controversial subjects that make the The Velvet Underground and Nico such an important album too. Lou Reed wrote most of the lyrics on the album, but didn’t pick the topics for shock value. Instead, they were just a logical marriage of gritty subject matter and music.

The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that I have consciously gone back to find as my musical interests grew more varied. I’ve always thought of them as an early punk group, but no matter how you slice it the importance of this album and it’s influence on so many to come along later is cannot be denied.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

1966 is not a year that I remember in the least – not politically, not culturally, not musically – I was born late in the year. My only thoughts were napping, eating, and pooping.

Still, this was an interesting year for music. And since I was born in 1966, it serves as a place to start. Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Johnny Cash and a host of others released albums that year.

What surprised me most, however, was Booker T and the MG’s had an album that year. I always thought they started recently but, as it turns out, the band was formed in 1962. The were largely a group of studio musicians from Stax Records.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that they’re still playing; after all, Dylan and the Rolling Stones are still around. But for some reason they strike me as big names, where Booker T. and the MG’s comes off as a much smaller group that, for some untold reason, wouldn’t still be around.

The Beatles released two albums in 1966: Revolver, and Yesterday and Today. Both albums spawned spawned several remarkable, classic tunes: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Taxman,” and of course “Yellow Submarine” from Revolver and “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “Yesterday,” and “Day Tripper” from Yesterday and Today. All great songs, but still neither is my favorite album from that year.

The Monkees put out their first album in 1966. Despite having its roots in a television show, it went #1 in the US and topped the UK charts. “Last Train to Clarksville” was a #1 single that I remember having as a scratchy 45 at one point. I played the heck out of that song and never missed the show when it was out in syndication.

Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy each had albums in 1966. Nancy, most notably Boots, which brought us the unmistakable, spectacular “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” I bought a Nancy Sinatra best-of CD a couple years ago just so I could have that song.

Still, with all that great music, and more from the likes of Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Buffalo Springfield, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, The Animals – too many to mention, there’s one more that clearly tops them all.

Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

Pet Sounds was their ninth studio album and it changed the face of pop music. It’s even credited with influencing The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!

The album has several seminal Beach Boys songs. Tunes that are instantly recognizable, that snap you back to a simpler time (if you’re of a certain age) or just make you feel good.

Right off the top Pet Sounds starts with one of my favorite Beach Boys songs: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” With its many layers of harmonies and upbeat sound, it expresses some of the impatience of youth and how you have to wait for what you truly want.

Even though it’s a cover of a traditional West Indies folk song, “Sloop John B.” will always be a Beach Boys tune to me. It is unmistakably summer. I play it during the winter as a sort of talisman to ward off the doldrums and hopefully bring the sunny days back more quickly. Also, I always wonder how many people have named their boats after this one song.

“Let’s Go Away for Awhile” is a brilliant instrumental song, almost orchestral in its nature. You can hear the strings, saxophone, piano, vibes, and I think an oboe in there.

Sophisticated for its time, “God Only Knows” is, in my mind, the best song off Pet Sounds. The depth of the harmonies and easy complexity of the melody make it stand out. It’s a gorgeous love song that basically says “You make me what I am.”

Although just a smattering, Pet Sounds is truly a classic. I come back to it often and it really did define pop music for many years. It’s truly a must for any music collection.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Most people come into their own, musically speaking, in their teens. It typically starts with a variation of what their parents listen to, then evolves based on what is popular among their friends. Sure, occasionally we’ll want to know more about the influences of our favorite bands, but that often just leads to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Clapton, and not much else.

How often do we really go back and consider what came before?

Although I turned 13 in 1979, it wasn’t until MTV was launched nearly two years later that music really hit me. Prior to that, it was mostly stuff my parents liked: Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Anne Murray, Crystal Gale… You get the idea. MTV and music videos brought new wave, funk, and ROCK to the table. It was an experience that forever changed the way I listened to the world.

What came before the 80’s? Who influenced the musicians I grew to love and even still listen to? Sure there have been forays into older music. A penchant for jazz and swing. The occasional dip into classical music. Even a late appreciation for the Beatles and Bob Dylan. But what came before?

So I decided to take a look back; starting with 1966, the year I was born, and possibly rediscover my musical roots. The intent is more than just a list of my favorite album from each year. Along the way I’ll offer thoughts on what makes each one my favorite and perhaps some commentary about other releases from the same year.

I’ll begin with 1966 tomorrow.

† Yes, the M in MTV stands for music. They did actually play music at one time.