Rock on Record

Adventures in Mega-Rock: Festival albums after Woodstock

I am likely to live out the rest of my days forever fascinated and repelled by the idea that millions of young folks once trudged off to over-populated music festivals to hear various rock ‘n’ roll legends in conditions that ranged from beatific sunshine and starry nights to suffocating humidity and apocalyptic rainstorms yielding vast mud fields. Of course, they still do if you count pre-Covid gatherings like Coachella and Glastonbury.

I was a little too young for the original wave of iconic rock festivals and by the time I came of age the business model was superstar bands playing in sports arenas and second-tier groups gigging at theaters. I was never destined to be one of those peeps rising in unison to say, cheer on Richie Havens at Woodstock or to complain to a film crew that the authorities don’t like me because of my long hair or because “I smoke a little shit.” But then again, I never took an unwanted mud bath or had to thumb home two hundred miles because I was short on “bread.”


The Allman Bros. Band at Atlanta Pop

These contemplations took hold recently when I finally secured a copy of The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies fifty years after its 1971 release. As a young teen I eyed this whopping three-LP set the way a Little League pitcher may have seen Bob Gibson. It covered the summer-of-1970 Atlanta Pop Festival (sides 1 & 2) and the gargantuan Isle of Wight affair in the UK (sides 3-6). The names of the fourteen artists featured were center-aligned on the cover (Hendrix! Sly Stone! Allman Bros.!) but this was a little rich for my blood and my wallet at the time. Festival burnout was setting in post-Altamont and “First Great Rock Festivals” never came near the stature of the 3-LP Woodstock set (or even the double album follow-up Woodstock 2) and it came to be a curio relegated to the “Various Artists” used-record bins.

The second Atlanta Pop Festival was not in the city. After various official roadblocks (not least of all from Georgia’s then-governor, the infamous reactionary Lester Maddox) it was moved way out to pasture in the little town of Byron, where a couple of hundred thousand kids gathered in a sun-baked soybean field, for the 4th of July event where temps reached just over 100 degrees. The album kicks off with Johnny Winter doing “Mean Mistreater,” the sort of emphatic blooze-rock that was a key genre at the time and which is well represented on TFGRFOTS. But so to is the stylistic hop-scotching of these huge events. We get a couple of nice country-rock numbers by Poco (the romantic “Kind Woman” and the up-tempo instrumental “Grand Junction”) and the groovy soul of the Chambers Brothers. Next up are favorites sons the Allman Brothers. The Macon GA stalwarts do “Statesboro Blues” and the proverbial “Whippen Post” (sic) though neither version matches up to the ones on their landmark At Fillmore East, also released in ’71.

The real acid test (literally and figuratively) of this six-sided foray comes at the end of the Atlanta disc with the 19-minute indulgence that is Mountain’s take on the T-Bone Walker blues standard “Stormy Monday.” I love Leslie West and the gang but this is not their finest moment. Mountain may have preferred the steamroller method when it came to their decibel-cranking concerts, but they could be ingenious as well (just check out the multi-sectional joyride that is the 25-minute live side of their Flowers of Evil album). Here you get a pro-forma jam where the usual Leslie West/Felix Pappalardi guitar-bass interplay is pushed along by Corky Laing’s rat-a-tat drumming, but it never gets to that next level. The crowd seem to enjoy it and these lengthy excursions (both musical and geographical) were part of the scene then. To get a pair of eyes on the ’70 Atlanta Pop Festival, check out the 2015 concert doc Jimi Hendrix: Electric Church. It begins and ends with 10-15 minute segments about the event and in the middle you get an uninterrupted (and most excellent) one hour set of what amounts to a best-of-Hendrix show, complete with 4th of July fireworks.

Jimi would also appear at the Isle of Wight festival off the coast of southern England a month later. Despite the logistics (ferry-access only) some 600,000 made it to the island for the tumultuous five-day festival. There is a full documentary of this third annual Wight festival, Murray Lerner’s essential Message to Love, which due to money issues was not released until 1997. In my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey I wrote about how the film shows how a happening that was supposed to be an English Woodstock descended into “chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.” French anarchists and freeloading freaks unwilling or unable to pay the three pounds sterling entrance fee tried to knock down the corrugated fencing erected by the youngish promoters who thought they were onto a good thing but took a financial beating (hence the delay in the release of Lerner’s commissioned film).


I miss all the fun! Part of the crowd at the 1970 Isle of Wight.

Peter Goddard, in the Wight liner notes here, compared the festival to a “medieval joust up-dated and passed through a time loop. An interviewed fan in the film used a similar metaphor, describing a “feudal court scene” with the rock stars as royalty, the groupies as courtiers and the audience as serfs. When it boiled down to the music, though, there was a lot less to grouse about. Jimi Hendrix was headlining again and though people who were in the know at that time said it wasn’t his best show, there’s a lot to like in his 15-minute segment here, esp. his razor-edge soloing on “Power to Love” and a wild take on “Foxy Lady.” Ten Years After, not to be outdone by Mountain, offer up there own 19-minute warhorse with far better results. Anyone familiar with the group’s 1973 live album will recognize their version of Al Kooper’s “I Can’t Keep from Crying” with its extended speed-freak guitar workout by Alvin Lee and its little side excursions into “Cat’s Squirrel” and the “Peter Gunn” theme. Despite the pyrotechnics preceding it, Procol Harum’s stately “A Salty Dog” comes off well.


Great excerpt of TYA’s above-mentioned jam from the Murray Lerner film “Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970”

Sly and the Family Stone, who like TYA had a big boost from Woodstock film and record, do a morale-boosting medley of “Stand!” and “You Can Make it if You Try.” The restive crowd that is so evident in Lerner’s documentary spills into the record via the poorly-received appearance from Oxford-educated cowpoke Kris Kristofferson. Tensions between fans and promoters were peaking and seemingly taken out on cocky Kris, who tries to win back the crowd with the coy redneck parody “Blame it on the Stones.” In the film, he is seen waving dismissively while exiting before finishing “Me and Bobby McGee.” Faring better in the singer-songwriter department are David Bromberg with a tender “Mr. Bojangles” and Leonard Cohen. The bard of Montreal gives an unusually empathetic vocal on the jaunty “Tonight Will be Fine.”

That leaves Miles Davis to close out Side Six with a 17-minute bracing jazz-fusion outburst titled here as “Call it Anything.” That was probably Miles’ wily wit at work given the free-flowing improvisations of the trumpeting legend who was at a career peak and crossing over to a rock audience at the time. We know that from the 2011 CD release of Bitches Brew Live that this track compromises the last half of his allotted time (the whole 35-minute set is on the CD) and consists of a wired and inspired clutch of compositions centered around “Spanish Key.” His band consisted of both Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Gary Bartz on sax, Dave Holland on bass, drummer Jack DeJohnette and percussionist Airto Moreira. Whew.

Peter Goddard, towards the end of his liner notes, opines that the age of the great rock festival was “kaput” despite the promise of the more to come in the title. I wouldn’t own The First Great Rock Festivals of the Seventies for many years to come although in 1972 I bought a discounted copy of Mar-y-Sol, a double LP from a Puerto Rican festival from the same year. Its line-up was typical of the eclectic roster of artists so typical of these outside multi-day events, which would continue, great or not. Everyone from Jonathan Edwards to the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Afro-rockers Osibisa were featured. And the age of the various-artist mega-rock album was not over either. By the end of 1971 we had George Harrison & Friends with the 3-LP benefit album Concert for Bangla-Desh. Other triple-deckers included 1972’s Fillmore: The Last Days, where the Bay Area’s finest congregated to mark the closing of Bill Graham’s fabled ballroom the Fillmore West, and the dreaded No Nukes from 1979. (John Hall, anyone?).


Gong’s side-filler from the Glastonbury Fayre triple album. You’re welcome!

There’s even a three-bagger form the 1971 Glastonbury Festival, called Glastonbury Fayre (an accompanying film of the same name is worth seeking out). This six-sider is rare and bound to test the patience of even the hardiest mega-rock aficionado. It boasted songs ranging from 16 to 23 minutes from Mighty Baby (“A Blanket in My Muesli’), The Pink Fairies (“Uncle Harry’s Last Freak-Out”), Edgar Broughton Band (“Out Demons Out” and Daevid Allen & Gong with the immortal “Glad Stoned Buried Fielding Flash and Fresh Fest Footprint in My Memory.” I don’t know if any of those works would have made much sense away from the Glastonbury grounds, where the pot was plentiful and there was plenty of room for twirly freeform dancing in the days before the event exploded in popularity.
But like they say nowadays, “Go big or go home.” Luckily, we can also go virtually exploring into the far-off fields of adventurous rock exploration. Go big and stay home, to save yourself the unwanted mud-caked blue jeans and acid hangover.
–Rick Ouellette
Leave a message in the comments section if you are interested in getting a discounted copy of my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty Year Cinematic Journey”

R&R Hall of Fame Goes Glam: T. Rex and the Twilight of the Guitar Epoch

I like to say that the real Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the one in each fan’s heart. Still, it’s kind of fun to moan and groan each year around this time about who didn’t get in vis a vis who did etc. It’s also nice to celebrate “one of ours” when they do get voted in. And for me and many others, this year it’s T. Rex that will be hailed. Marc Bolan’s iconic glam-rock band had a string of eleven Top Ten U.K. hits in the early Seventies (including four chart-toppers), achieving near-Beatlemania stardom in their native land. In the U.S. they cracked the Top 40 only once (“Bang a Gong” at #10) but their delayed-effect influence was widespread. Bolan’s androgynous sex appeal, catchy guitar riffs and surreal wordplay were inspirational to scores of New Wave bands and other artists ranging from Prince to Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Oh sure, Marc could seem a bit twee, use too many sports-car metaphors and be a little too enamored of his own stardom. But in an age of prog-rock indulgences and long guitar solos by scraggly hippies, his style and his concise and catchy 3-minute glam-rock gems pointed a way forward. Tragically, he died in a car crash in 1977, just as he was connecting with the oncoming punk/new wave movement to which he would a considerable inspiration. One of my T. Rex favorites “Ballrooms of Mars.” This glossy but haunted ballad with its Alan Freed call-out and reference to that darkest of nightimes when “monsters call out the names of men.” Bolan’s lyrics could be chock full of bizzare non sequiturs, but he was often more astute than given credit for.


Here, the studio version of “Ballrooms of Mars” is set to a slideshow of the group in their heyday.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of Fame’s opaque process of nominating and inducting artists is the bane of rock fans the world over. (There is fan voting but it only counts as one ballot). The HOF museum itself may be located in the heartland city of Cleveland where legendary DJ Mr. Freed first coined the term rock & roll, but the people running the show are the coastal elites of Big Media, headed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Though Wenner is said to be stepping down from that role this year, the induction process is bound to stay largely intact.

In my circles, where the pioneers of a harder rock style are held in high esteem, the failure of nominees Motorhead and the MC5 to get in this year is the cause of righteous grumbling. And not without reason. Future metal warlord Lemmy Kilmister hitchhiked to Liverpool to see the Beatles at the Cavern club and roadied for Jimi Hendrix before himself becoming an icon for future decibel-crunchers. The guys in MC5, indignant about police and National Guard misconduct during the late Sixties unrest in their hometown of Detroit, started a rock & roll riot of their own. These are stories that are intrinsic to rock’s legacy of rebellion and dogged individualism. I have nothing against new inductee Whitney Houston, who was a helluva singer, but the gradual expansion to other genres like soul-pop and rap—while admirable for its inclusivity—is diluting the core mission.


This stripped-down version of “Metal Guru” appeared on the second CD of the deluxe version of ‘The Slider.’

Bolan was a self-made superstar in an age when ingenious self-invention still stood a chance. He springboarded from the elfin folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, added a reliable rhythm section of bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend while retaining the services of percussionist/sidekick Mickey Finn. Atop it all, Bolan rode high with his charismatic vocals, earworm riffs and stabbing guitar leads. It was a combo that, under their leader’s single-minded determination, decisively grabbed one of the brass rings on the mad merry-go-round of the pop music industry. Whether he was dancing ‘neath the “Mambo Sun,” being a “Jeepster” for his baby’s love, hanging with his main man “Telegram Sam” or affirming that “Life’s a Gas” (while prophetically wondering if it was going to last), Marc Bolann did it with an elan that hasn’t faded in the forty-plus years since his passing.

As a sidenote, one article about this year’s HOF class pointed out that, among the new inductees, only T. Rex and the Doobie Bros. had drummers as core members. The current predominance of programmed beats, AutoTune vocals and closed-shop cabal of songwriters seems to indicate that rock music’s guitar-bass-drums DNA may soon be a thing of the past. But a Hall of Fame is a thing of the past by its very nature. There are tons of worthy artists out there who have been left out so far, starting with the two bands I mentioned above and Thin Lizzy to boot. Maybe it’s time for the bigwigs to hit the brakes on this trend and dance awhile with those that brung ’em.

Make Mine a Double #14: The Prog Years, Part One

This series on rock history’s prominent double albums has shown time and again that the four-sided album (or two-disc CD) is the chosen platform for some of popular music’s most ambitious projects. That is not always the case: a band may have a backlog of unrelated songs or chose to package a studio record and a live one together. But just as often it can be a case of a confident group or solo artist in a self-defined peak, pushing their conceptual prerogatives to the limit. This latter possibility is more likely in the lofty dominion of progressive. Oft-maligned and often misunderstood, these bands, as a longform outgrowth of the psychedelic era, tended to fantasy concepts and extended, often complex, instrumental arrangements. As drummer Bill Buford put it, recalling the time he joined up with King Crimson: “I knew this was not going to be three chords and a pint of Guinness.”

So there will be plenty of ambitious undertakings to review, yet it is interesting to note the changed dynamic of these types of outfits releasing epic works. Back in the Seventies, titles like Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Genesis) and The Wall (Pink Floyd) were major releases into the general rock canon. More recently, we have the “neo-prog” groups sometimes releasing several double albums and since, in this Internet age, they are marketing more directly to fans, flying under the radar of most music fans. We’ll look at both kinds since the Prog Years really run from the late Sixties to the present.

Tales from Topographic Oceans—Yes (1973)

The idea that a “lengthy footnote” from a book called Autobiography of a Yogi would inspire one to write an 80-minute song cycle is about as far away as you can get from rock ‘n’ roll’s “let’s party” birthright without sneaking up on it from the other side. But those were the times. The ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford got married in March 1973 and at the reception Yes singer Jon Anderson was told about Paramahansa Yogananda’s famed memoir by King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir. Anderson, like many others of the era, was inspired by Eastern spiritualism. Before a month had passed, he and guitarist Steve Howe were writing the esoteric lyrics. After months of painstaking composing, rehearsing and recording this veritable War and Peace of rock was released in December of that year. (A detail of Roger Dean’s handsome artwork on the cover is seen above).

Like Tolstoy’s epic book, Tales from Topographic Oceans would prove rough sledding even for some pre-disposed to like it. Side one (dauntingly titled “The Revealing Science of God”) starts with a Buddhist-like chant that draws us up from the primeval ocean and resolves into a heraldic 3-note guitar figure. It then unfolds like much of TFTO. It’s a lush instrumental sound that builds up from reflective stanzas of Anderson’s questing poetics through several segueing sections before building to a soaring climax. These up-tempo sections were a highlight for many, led by the galloping rhythm section of bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, over which would ride Howe’s nervy lead guitar or Rick Wakeman’s bounteous synth fills. To my ears, this plan of attack works best on the exalted second side (“The Remembering”) and while sides three and four (“The Ancient” and “Ritual”) may get a bit bogged down in instrumental excesses, both resolve beautifully: with Howe’s classical acoustic guitar and the stand-alone ballad “Leaves of Green” in the former and the gentle, piano-led paen to home and hearth that closes the album.

As was often the case in progressive rock’s heyday, many of the critics were unabashed in their unkindness and Tales from Topographic Oceans remains a wedge issue to this day with fans in online discussions. But in a 2016 interview, Steve Howe looked back on Tales as “a wonderful project where we went to the end of the earth to do it. There was often a feeling that disaster was about to strike, but we got there in the end.” (In fact, dissension during recording prompted Rick Wakeman after the supporting tour). It could be a sublime listening experience in the days of real stereos and inexpensive weed, dropping the needle on your favorite side. In concert, where the album was played front-to-back in 1974, it could be a patience tester even for the die-hards (sample stage patter: “We’d like to carry on with side three”). It was a long march to the “Roundabout” encore. Circling back to TFTO now—-standing on “hills of long-forgotten yesterdays”—-as the lyrics would have it, it feels like an experiential marvel. In an age of digital dissipation and global polarization, the plea for a spiritual evolution to dispel “cast-iron leaders” and “warland seekers” is a balm. Our common humanity succeeding against all the corrupting forces of the world may sound naive, but it’s also intrinsic to the nature of all good people. When they sing the musical question, “Ours the story, shall we carry on?” the answer is easy: Yes.

Grade: A
Iconic Prog Element: Every good 20-minute song needs a subtitle. From side one to four they are: Dance of the Dawn, High the Memory, Giants Under the Sun and Nous Sommes du Soleil.


Into the Electric Castle—Ayreon (1998)

Are you a lover of classic prog looking for something of more recent vintage? Ayreon, my wayward son. Musical mastermind Arjen Lucassen formed his group project around 1994, in order to “fill a need to create rock operas.” (progarchives.com) The Dutch multi-instrumentalist and vocalist turned out to be an amazingly ambitious songwriter and conceptualist and ever since then he has fulfilled his musical and lyrical visions with an ever-evolving cast of singers and players. His first (but certainly not last) double album is proudly called “A Space Opera” on its front cover. Many classic rock operas, from Tommy on down, tend to be diffuse in their plotting but not this baby. Into the Electric Castle, like most Ayreon albums, has a tightly structured storyline and a cast of characters each voiced by a different guest vocalist. A group of eight archetypes (Knight, Highlander, Barbarian, Roman, Futureman etc.) are led into another dimension by a forbidding deity, in a test of human progress vs. self-destruction. It is melodic, esoteric and ultimately poignant. Ayreon’s prog-metal sound is tempered by a classic 70s flavor with Lucassen dishing out plenty of mini-Moog and mellotron stylings along with his usual stellar guitar and bass work.

Iconic Prog Element: The godfather of Dutch art-rock, Focus frontman Thijs van Leer, shows up to play flute on several tracks.
Grade: A-


Focus III (1973)

Speaking of Focus, the Amsterdam-based quartet had been making a splash in Europe since 1969 (and in the U.S. with their #9 single “Hocus Pocus”) and by the key prog year of 1973 were ready for a twin killing with their third album. The band was a mostly instrumental outfit, with a keen compositional sense that included elements of rock, jazz, folk and classical, sometimes accompanied by the yodeling and scat singing of their ostensible leader, keyboardist/flautist Thijs van Leer. Acclaimed guitarist Jan Akkerman, who could both shred like a demon and pluck a lute like an angel, was also a key component. This was also the classic line-up with the talented rhythm section of bassist Bert Ruiter and drummer Pierre van der Linden, so they could hardly go wrong. The best known song on Focus III is the exuberant “Sylvia” as good a piece of chamber pop that you’re ever likely to hear and their biggest Continental hit, though it stalled out at #89 in the States. Elsewhere, the group show their knack for jaunty workouts like “Carnival Fugue” and “Round Goes the Gossip” as well as for lovely acoustic miniatures, represented here by “Love Remembered” and “Elspeth of Nottingham.” The middle of the album does get a bit long-winded with jam-band marathons, though there are no shortage of highlights mixed in, esp. Akkerman’s searing leads and van Leer’s punchy Hammond organ solo on “Anonymous II.” Focus III would go gold in the U.S., maintaining the band’s American foothold on prog’s momentum waned in the late Seventies.

Grade: B+
Iconic Prog Element: The 27-minute “Anonymous II” is so long it takes up all of side three before spilling onto side four.


Works, Volume 1—Emerson, Lake and Palmer (1977)

Everything Emerson, Lake and Palmer did was big. Their top-selling records featured grandiose fantasy themes and their stage act showcased a revolving drum kit, a piano spinning end over end thirty feet above the stage (with pianist aboard) and dazzling pyrotechnic displays. But by 1977, having spent the better part of a decade coming across as triumphant warriors, ELP were in danger of being conquered by their own egos. Only hubris combined with internal dissension could produce an LP like Works , Volume 1, essentially three twenty minute solo records followed by a side featuring the “band.” Emerson’s contribution is a fully scored piano concerto. Although there is plenty of impressive work on the ivories here, an orchestrated concerto would prove to be an impossibly hard sell to all but the group’s most hardcore fans. In a similar vein, the insertion of an orchestra on drummer Carl Palmer’s “Tank,” a vigorous instrumental showpiece first heard on the group’s maiden album, gave the re-make a distinctly watered-down feel. Past ELP albums were known for having one track devoted to the radio-friendly balladry of singer/bassist/guitarist Greg. Lake. With a whole side of contributions here the results, typified by the gauzy single “C’est La Vie”, are listenable enough but don’t nearly match the artistic and commercial success of past hits like “Lucky Man” and “From the Beginning.”

On side four the guys revert to old ways on two extended cuts. First with one of the amped-up classical adaptations that always worked well for them and here the honoree (some might say “victim”) is Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” ELP return to their typically exotic subject for the mini-epic “Pirates,” akin to Procol Harum on steroids. By 1977, with punk rock well and truly arrived, critical opinion of the band hit an all-time low (“Works, but only as a Frisbee,” was Creem magazine’s take) though it still made #12 in the States. Yes, there was a Works Vol. 2, a considerably more concise single album released later that year. But after 1978’s unfortunate Love Beach, ELP broke up and only re-surfaced after classic rock became institutionalized in the Nineties.

Grade: C
Iconic Prog Element: Let’s just say “Piano Concerto No. 1”


Sounds Like This—Nektar (1973)

Nektar were a group of Englishman originally based in Hamburg, led by guitarist-lead singer Roye Albrighton. They established their acid-rock bonafides with a way-out live show; their liquid lightshow guy was a full-time member. A first album in 1971 was called Journey To the Center of the Eye and the second one was suggestively titled A Tab in the Ocean, both were marked by sci-fi themes and lengthy compositions. Nektar gathered in the studio in October ’72 with the rather odd notion of simulating a live show in the studio, complete with improvisational jams. Dissatisfied with much of the results, they went back for a partial do-over in early ’73. They ended up with a double LP where the stretching out (three tracks in the 12-14 minute range) alternated with a clutch of progressive pop songs of more traditional length.

The album opens with its strongest track. “Good Day” should have been a hit in a fair world, with its filigreed guitar hooks and a dramatic buildup to an optimistic sing-along chorus. “New Day Dawning” follows in a similar winning style but side one closes with a hard-rock boogie called “What Ya Gonna Do” which is about as original as its title. From there, the album alternates between jams that sound more like their heavy-hitting contemporaries like Deep Purple or Mountain and the more written-out shorter material, like the ballad “Wings.” I prefer the latter, but the longer cuts are a fun listen. Albrighton was not really known as a guitar-hero type but he certainly is one here, ripping off any number of screaming leads on solo-heavy workouts like “1-2-3-4” (keyboardist Allan Freeman also shines here). In retrospect, Sounds Like This seems like a “let your hair down” diversion and Nektar would revert to form later in 1973 with the accomplished concept album Remember the Future, that gave them their biggest U.S. success (#19). That was short-lived but the group stayed popular in Europe and, despite a few sabbaticals, they continue to record and perform, even after Roye Albrighton’s passing in 2016.

Grade: B-
Iconic Prog Element: Halfway through “New Day Dawning” the band seamlessly shifts into the first verse of “Norwegian Wood” just because they can.


The Astonishing—Dream Theater (2016)

The Long Island-based Dream Theater are one of those prolific and restlessly creative groups that have emerged from the neo-progressive and prog metal movements of the last thirty years or so. (The Flower Kings and Big Big Train are two others that come quickly to mind). This 130-minute behemoth was their second double concept album, coming a full fourteen years after the first, 2002’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. True to its title, that album explored various states of psychological struggles over the course of a half-dozen tracks—one of which, at 42 minutes, took up the whole second disc. Still, the relatively tight focus of Six Degrees stands in sharp contrast to the operatic sci-fi sprawl that is The Astonishing. The cover art shows a squadron of robotic orbs hovering over a futuristic city. After the “Dystopian Overture” we learn that in a distant future music, while not said to be explicitly banned, is something that people have “no time for” anymore. Instead, the orbs (called NOMACS) beam down their dissonant playlist of bleeps, blurps and technological babble. But if there is any oppression here in futureland (how much is not clear) it is challenged by the emergence of Gabriel whose messianic status seems based on the fact that he’s the only left who can carry a tune.

If you detect a note of skepticism here, go to the head of the class. The band’s synopsis of The Astonishing runs a full six paragraphs, but just listening to the album it’s hard to discern any storyline at all. Almost every song is based around general platitudes that could easily make up an album of unrelated tracks. Lead singer James LaBrie has a great set of pipes but lacks the versatility to spread them over several different characters. Before long we are getting sub-Andrew Lloyd Weber “showstoppers” like the soapy “Chosen” (“Against all hope we found a way/And it is all because she trusted me”). It’s too bad—Dream Theater founder-guitarist-lyricist John Petrucci has all the chops and ambitions in the world and the music here is played expertly but without much personal distinction. Yet the band has pulled off this kind of thing before and may well again in the future. The Astonishing, however, hardly lives up to its title: it’s all reach and no grasp.

Grade: C-
Iconic Prog Element: The NOMACS get five brief tracks all to themselves and are often more interesting than the human characters.

Follow this blog and you’ll be notified when Part 2 of this post comes out. Featured will be 2-disc bad boys from Soft Machine, Can, Mike Oldfield, the Flower Kings and others. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

Stairway to Purgatory: Greta van Fleet in an age where baby boomers still walk the earth

Back in 1971-72 when I was still in my early teens, there was a guy named Bob Hegarty who did an FM freeform-style radio show on a small station in Danvers, Mass. He also wrote about rock music for a weekly arts-and-entertainment paper called North of Boston. I semi-idolized this guy. His radio show was pretty awesome: he was spinning all the great stuff of the era: the Who, the Stones, Cream, Bowie, Hendrix, Tull etc. as well as some blues and jazz. I was probably one of his younger fans and would call in a request almost every week and always be included in his roll call of regular listeners that he would read off at the end of the show: I was the proverbial “Rick from Peabody.” His weekly record reviews in NOB were erudite and free-wheeling. He liked all the stuff that I was getting into at the time with one big exception: to him, Led Zeppelin were a no-go zone.

Of course, as a 13-year-old American male I loved them and already had Led Zeppelin IV on cassette by the time Hegarty’s review of it showed up in NOB. And it was a doozy. Bob did have nice things to say about “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” and even paid Jimmy Page a nice back-handed compliment on the latter, saying that the guitar solo on “Stairway” showed that “Page can still play his axe.” Hey, thanks! As for the rest of the LP, to him it was the same old stuff: so loud “that it doesn’t even matter what they’re playing.” In fact, by the time he got halfway thru the closer “When the Levee Breaks” Hegarty was so fed up that he wanted to take the platter off the turntable and smash it to pieces, “until I remembered I just paid FOUR BUCKS for it.” Classic. Despite my LZ fandom, this didn’t make me mad. It made me want to become a writer, too.


The Greta van Fleet of their time? Led Zeppelin raising the roof at Madison Square Garden in 1973. From the film “The Song Remains the Same”

Which brings me to Greta van Fleet. The young Michigan quartet have been the beneficiary of much press in the last year or so, much of it along the lines of them reviving the dormant genre of heavy rock. (Dormant to the hype-spinners, of course). Their guitarist has admitted he taught himself every riff off the first two Zeppelin albums and let’s just say it shows. Those two LZ albums got panned in Rolling Stone by John Mendelsohn, in prose that toggled between dismissive and sarcastic. (This is the same Rolling Stone that recently did a fawning teenybopper-style piece on GVF). Of course, a lot of that was generational (inter-generational, really). The first wave of baby-boomer rock freaks had a chip on their shoulder about Jimmy Page and Co. (a real creation of the 70s), believing the band were bulldozing the cherished blues foundation upon which rock ‘n’ roll was built, all to appeal to their younger siblings with volume and bombast. Sure, some of this is the old generational certitude that your era is better. But there is more to it now, which I will get to in a bit.

Greta van Fleet had been making a bit of a splash for months but it all came to a head when they made their high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live. Audio-wise, their first number, “Black Smoke Rising,” showed them to be a capable if derivative hard rock act. But there was one big problem: you were looking at them as well. Granted, I’m not the band’s target demographic but I find it hard to think that even today’s teenage girls would be ga-ga over their mismatched patterned cast-offs, sandals and the type of satin jackets that haven’t been in style since Blue Oyster Cult fired their first publicist. But that’s just me, I guess. Singer Josh Kiszka’s self-conscious yelping and arm-waving, not to mention the awkward and vaguely inauthentic stage moves of his two brothers (guitarist Jake and bassist Sam), bordered on self-parody, if that were possible this early in a career. When they returned later for the ballad “You’re the One” (a decent song in search of a credible singer), Josh spent most of the song posing like an eight-armed Bodhisattva with six of them missing.


GVF singer Josh Kiszka. Even the Rock & Roll Fashion Police were left speechless on viewing this.

With a band like this, acting dorky almost on purpose while riding the sonic coattails of a beloved classic-rock icon like Zeppelin, the social media backlash was as fun as one could hope for. I was too happy to pile on, dubbing them “Greta van WTF-R-U-Wearing” and clicking on the Ha-Ha icon when someone declared “Every generation gets the Led Zeppelin they deserve” or asked “Why is the singer dressed like Greg Brady’s bedroom door?” But there was also the backlash to the backlash, with people getting dubbed “haters” (does that mean nothing is open to criticism?) or just boring old farts. Apparently, some people in my age group have convinced themselves they like GVF and that’s their prerogative.


“Highway Tune,” a sort of learner’s-permit variation on Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” was one of the songs on their Grammy-winning Best Rock Album. Or as the voters probably thought of it, Only Rock Album.

But what is ignored (or,frankly, not even realized) is that standards were simply a lot higher then and many boomers have stuck to them. Fans and reviewers alike were a lot more discerning and that was for the better. Despite their exaggerations, Hegarty and Mendelsohn were not that off base in their anti-Zep attitudes. Parts of Led Zeppelin II in particular sound grating nowadays and they were taking songwriting credits that should have (and in some cases eventually did) go to the blues greats they were emulating. But they grew by leaps and bounds over the next few albums. Some people suggest using similar patience with GVF but I’m not holding my breath. We may joke about “Stairway to Heaven” (remember the guitar-shop scene in Wayne’s World?)but if they ever wrote anything with 10% of the eloquence of Robert Plant’s lyrics to that song, I would probably drop dead on the spot.

No, it doesn’t seem to be in the DNA anymore. Today, “we walk on down the road/our shadows taller than our souls” for real. In the one issue of North of Boston that I still have there is one of those State-of-the-Rock articles that were popular once. The writer, one Mike Howell, begins by stating, “The question of whether or not rock has lost its vitality is very much in the air today. Huh? This was 1972, the same year of Exile on Main St./Ziggy Stardust/The Harder They Come/Eat a Peach/Close to the Edge/Transformer etc. So now is the time to keep your own to your own. I’m not upset that Greta van Fleet won the Grammy for best album instead of what would have been my choice: Merrie Land, the stirring post-Brexit concept album by The Good, The Bad and the Queen, the group led by Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Why would I be, they don’t even reside on the same plane of existence. So if you’re looking for something young and new in rock & roll, dig a little deeper (I would suggest someone like Nashville’s All Them Witches). But the important thing is to keep thinking for yourself: in other words, to be a rock and not to roll over for the kind of bargain-basement hype that is Greta van Fleet.

Make Mine a Double #10: The Damned’s “Black Album” (1980)

(An occasional series delving into the wild and woolly world of rock music’s notable double albums)

Give the Damned their due. They spearheaded England’s punk revolution, releasing the scene’s first single (“New Rose”) in October of 1976, and had an LP out the following February, months before London’s famously raucous Jubilee summer. While news of this upheaval was still being absorbed across the Atlantic, they were racking up another milestone by being the first such band to play in the States. And in a movement brimming with maverick characters, the Damned were no slouches—featuring a bassist who went by the name Captain Sensible but was known to perform in a tutu, a drummer dubbed Rat Scabies who wasn’t afraid to leave his seat behind the kit to scrap with audience members and Dave Vanian (as in Transylvanian), the lead singer who transitioned into the music business from his previous job as a gravedigger.

In the early days with original guitarist/songwriter Brian James, the sound was archetypal—full of buzzsaw guitars, turbo-charged drumming and declamatory vocals on songs with signifying titles like “Problem Child”, “Feel the Pain” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.” Although both intense and irreverent, the Damned never gained the socio-political cache of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. By 1980, they had slipped from the head of the pack (even referred to as “the Darned” by waggish record-rater Robert Christgau), fated to cut their own peculiar, semi-famous course. Hence The Black Album, their fourth LP, cheekily recalls the Fab Four’s sprawling 1968 classic as a reference point for their own double disc.


The Damned, circa 1980

There were two strong sides of conventional-length songs, an impressive 17-minute epic named “Curtain Call” that pointed the way towards the Damned’s imminent proto Goth-rock sound and a fourth side of early favorites performed live in-studio for a group of fan clubbers. They are quick out of the gate with rallying rocker “Wait for the Blackout” with Scabies’ dynamic drumming and some great Townshend-esque guitar flourishes by Sensible, who moved up to six-string (and keyboards) after Brian James’ departure while Paul Grey ably took over the bass duties. The opener also conveys the Damned’s increasing tendency to be champions of all things nocturnal with Vanian’s invocation of “the darkness (that) holds a power that you won’t find in the day.” Sure, there are a few of the witty, up tempo bursts of energy that were a punk-era calling card (“Drinking About My Baby”, “Lively Arts”, “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That”) and others like the Sensibly-sung “Silly Kids Games” that showed the band’s classicist side: in the spirit of mid-Sixties Who or Kinks, using a chipper tune to deliver serious lyric concerns—in this case, the core absurdity of avarice.

It’s little surprise, though—for a group that named themselves after the 1960 creep-out classic Village of the Damned and that featured a lead singer who looked like he wandered in off the set of Dark Shadows—that their more cinematic and macabre side would begin to take precedence. This more melodic bent, marked by Vanian’s newfound crooning vocal style, is heard to great effect on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“I try to be true, he tries to be cruel/I’ll hold you gently, but he’ll smother you”) and “13th Floor Vendetta”,” with their acoustic guitar and keyboard shadings. The band itself grumbled a bit about Han Zimmer’s booming overproduction on the otherwise astute “The History of the World (Part One),” even though they are listed as co-producers, but no such complaints can befall the side-filling “Curtain Call”, where the group went balls-out to stake a new course that had more in common with the art-rock show-offs that the unschooled punks were rebelling against not long before. Its doomy minor-key ambience is perfect for Vanian to take center stage in a benchmark performance that directly or indirectly informed the subsequent legions of a darkly-clad and black-fingernailed subculture (“We’re coming up from the deep, the lizard sheds its skin/Night obliterates the day, and all the fun begins”). The long interior instrumental section also excels, especially a shivery, suspended passage that feels like getting lost in the woods before a piercing violin splits the fog and the Captain’s fright-film keyboards and nervy guitar solo summon back Vanian for the conclusion (“Tragedy, love all lie within/Each player takes his chance to play/And lives to fight another day”). “I like the fact that we push things a bit,” Sensible said later, dismissing the flak that “Curtain Call” caught from some of his contemporaries. (”They can bog off.”)

Despite something of a career setback in the years after The Black Album, this individualistic streak stood them in good stead in the decades (yes, decades) that followed. By the mid-80s, established as Goth-rock pioneers, The Damned scored hits with tunes like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Eloise,” with its strange Brian Wilson-meets-Bela-Lugosi vibe. They may not have “made it stinking rich/straight up there without a hitch” as they once ironically predicted on “Machine Gun Etiquette” (re-titled on the live side here as “Second Time Around”). But onward they skulked into the new millenium with Vanian as the constant member, always joined by either Scabies or Sensible if not both. On their 35th anniversary tour in 2011 they were even doing a 25-minute bog-off medley of “Therapy” and “Curtain Call”. Live to fight another day, indeed.


The Damned on stage today. Original members Capt. Sensible on left and Dave Vanian, middle.<

Make Mine a Double #9: Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” (1978)

“I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you/though perhaps I may not be happy/This is what you want, so I’ve conceded.” Musical dedications and poison pen songs are well-established pop conventions but it’s doubtful anyone else combined the two with such chutzpah as Marvin Gaye did in 1978 with the divorce-themed concept album that began with those lines. While in the legal process of ending his marital union with Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy for whom he recorded, the financially and psychologically troubled Gaye was ordered to funnel much of the proceeds of his next album to his wife and son as part of the settlement. Gaye resisted his initial temptation to toss off a “lazy” record. Instead he dug in his heels and crafted a highly personal and idiosyncratic exploration of his failed marriage—some of the lyrics could have been lifted from the pages of a court deposition—and “wedded” it to some of the strongest instrumental tracks of his later career. Here, My Dear is not the easiest record to warm up to. It initially sold well enough to his loyal fan base (peaking at #4 on the soul charts and at #26 on the pop) but likely left a lot of bemused listeners in its wake. Originally derided by many critics as self-indulgent, its reputation has improved over time as a fascinating (if troubling) late chapter in the rocky life and times of one of R&B’s most beloved singers.


Marvin and Anna Gordy in happier times (I’m assuming).

Gaye met Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, soon after he signed on with her brother in the early days of Motown. By the singer’s own account, she lit a fire under a promising but underachieving young talent. They were together through Gaye’s remarkable string of over twenty major hit songs in the Sixties, either on solo records or with duet partners like Tami Terrell or Mary Wells. But as the decade turned and Gaye reached new artistic heights with What’s Going On, a landmark album of black social protest, the marriage had hit the skids. After the table-setting title track of Here, My Dear, Gaye proceeds with his highly-personalized dissection on the second song with “I Met a Little Girl”, a bittersweet recalling of love’s early bloom that abruptly jumps ahead to 1976’s very public falling out. This is directly followed by “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Gaye is so locked into his lyrical quest to get at what went wrong that he doesn’t get around to the titular refrain until the song has nearly exhausted its six-minute running time) and “Anger” (an candid internal conversation where he strives to overcome his inner demons and “reach that wiser age”).

For Gaye, that last task always would prove a tough one. Raised in Washington, D.C. by a strict and domineering minister father, the higher aspirations of a Christian faith were pitted against an abusive home environment. The effects of this would appear to carry over into his tumultuous adult relationships, both personal and professional. Typically, Gaye doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life often resembled a lurid soap opera (“What I can’t understand is if you love me/How could you turn me into the police?”) and while he may vent about his wife’s expensive tastes inflating the alimony (“You’ve got a flair for style and you’re styling all the while”) he does not ignore his own exorbitant drug habit. With this much blame to go around, the atmosphere can become a bit oppressive but Gaye takes a recess from the musical divorce court of his own making for three consecutive tunes halfway through. Here’s a return of the more altruistic Marvin of the early 70s with the thoughtful yearning of “Sparrow” and the dogged self-encouragement of “Time to Get It Together”. And “Everybody Needs Love,” with its quiet-storm instrumental vibe and buttery vocal overdubs, could have been the hit song that Here, My Dear needed. But the only single released from it, the entertaining “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” did not fare well. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic-sounding soul jams that filled most of these four sides. With its slinky bass line, trebly rhythm guitar and Gaye’s own fulsome synthesizer fills, it suggests that the man was familiar with the jaunty sci-fi funk of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. In this escapist fantasy, Gaye may be liberated by time travel, getting down with a new lover on his “space bed,” but the cold reality of his tangled affairs on the home planet soon come creeping back.

A review of Here, My Dear would not be complete without mentioning the exceptional (if suitably downbeat) cover art. Painter Michael Bryan had done album sleeves for the likes John Lennon, Rod Stewart and Bootsy Collins and his idea of incorporating Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss was met with approval by Gaye (“Put me in a toga”). The singer solemnly stands aside the iconic couple whose image is repeated on the back—this time they’ve caught fire inside the ruins of a columned courtyard while another statue, a grinning beast, sits on a pedestal bearing the legend “Pain and Divorce.” That’s only half of it. The inner gatefold shows a man’s hand giving over a token-sized LP to a woman’s hand above a Monopoly-like game board. Below her hand are gobs of cash, a house and a Cadillac. The male hand presides over a piano, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a single dollar bill. Ouch!


A 1978 TV commercial for the album gets you up close and personal with Michael Bryan’s distinctive artwork.

In this tangled web of personal grievances and court orders, Here, My Dear was fated to be a flop. First off, if Berry Gordy was unenthusiastic about What’s Going On (and still professed to not understand it even after it became a worldwide smash) what was he going to do with a double album that all but declared open season on his own sister? Secondly, Gaye seemed to lose interest in the record once he got it off his chest, while Anna Gordy (perhaps paradoxically) pondered an invasion-of-piracy lawsuit to stop the LP that was mandated to make her hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial sales spike, Here, My Dear died on the vine and was quickly out of print. A couple of years later, his brief second marriage to Janis Hunter (the inspiration for “Let’s Get it On” as well as this record’s “Falling in Love Again”) also hit the rocks. Dogged by the scourge of a hard drug habit and pursued by the IRS (he owed a fortune in back taxes) he relocated to Belgium and recorded his final big hit, the sublime “Sexual Healing.” But the old demons quickly caught up with him on his return to the States and, a day before what would have been his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a domestic dispute, the last terrible chapter in a life filled with destructive personal relationships.

Make Mine a Double is an ongoing series that explores the wild and woolly world of rock’s most notable double album’s. Up next: “Layla.”

Make Mine a Double #7: The Kinks’ “Everybody’s in Showbiz” (1972)

“God Save the Kinks” read the buttons and the wall graffiti of a long-ago age. Few other bands earned such a loyal and dogged fan base or needed as much saving (if only from themselves) as did the group from North London led by singer-writer Ray Davies and his lead-guitarist brother Dave. Bursting onto the scene in 1964 with their world-beating power chord prototype “You Really Got Me,” the Kinks went on to produce an impressive string of hits in their homeland while morphing from beat-heavy rockers into piquant social commentators. But the group became almost as well known for their intense in-fighting as they were for songs like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Days,” considered among the most beautiful in the pop cannon. During that late Sixties creative peak, the band were all but forgotten in America while they waited out a four-year ban imposed by the American Federation of Musicians after a rancorous1965 tour. Everybody’s in Showbiz was a sort of culmination of their early 70s stateside comeback that started with the #5 hit “Lola” and carried through to this double album. One disc captured their current live act with a Carnegie Hall concert excerpt while the studio half pondered life on the road and negotiated the tricky intersection of celebrity and identity and featured “Celluloid Heroes,” the latest “Kink Klassic” and one of their first explicitly American-themed tunes.

Ray Davies, as the compassionate, ornery and nostalgia-prone leader, had guided the band into adopting a quintessentially English persona, often based on music-hall traditions and a yearning for a pre-industrial age. But as with most British bands, the oversized aura of America’s musical heritage (and vast legions of rock-loving youths) was alluring and inescapable. A couple of years of touring the States was enough to remove the Kinks from the splendid isolation that produced obscure masterworks like Village Green Preservation Society, prompting a new set of lyrical concerns on this album’s studio tracks. Showbiz opens with the restless rocker “Here Comes Yet Another Day” the umpteenth song of that era describing the downside of hectic touring schedules even though Ray can employ his unique descriptive wit to describe just how bad it can get (“no time to comb my hair or even change my underwear”). The theme continues with “Maximum Consumption” wherein the modern musician is likened to a machine-like “high-grade performer” fueled by roadside cuisine—cataloged right down to the anchovies on the pizza and the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. We’re enlightened to the dubious thrills of “Motorway” living (“never thought I’d travel so far to work”) and go backstage to meet the hangers-on and industry types in “Unreal Reality.” Even Dave, in his sole songwriting contribution here, taps into the same paradox, acknowledging the anonymity sitting just below the surface of stardom in “You Don’t Know My Name.”

The above material, while enjoyable enough, paled in comparison to the group’s recent work and the unfashionable vaudevillian atmosphere (they recently added an old-timey horn section) was just enough to save them from any more mass adulation to contend with. But luckily the studio set also contained a couple of saving graces. The tender depiction of the star qualities of everyday people and the fragile personalities of Hollywood icons in “Celluloid Heroes” was the type of ruminative songwriting that would elevate the group’s status in years to come. At that time, however, RCA didn’t even release it as a single (due in part to its six-minute length) opting instead for the droll utopian escape of “Supersonic Rocket Ship”.


Ray and Dave in action in the early Seventies.

Just as affecting as “Celluloid Heroes,” and more of a revelation for casual fans, is “Sitting in My Hotel.” Like the former song’s view of Hollywood Blvd. as a place where “success walks hand in hand with failure,” here Davies takes stock of the trappings of fame built around the phrase “if my friends could see me now.” They would what? Be green with envy? No, “they would laugh” and say “it’s not really me.” The fancy limo waiting to take the group to the concert is likened to a “chauffeur-driven jam jar” and the posh seventh-floor suite is merely an outpost from which to gaze down at the sensible everyday world and daydream about sunlit June afternoons in the countryside. With its wistful verses and soaring choruses, “Sitting in My Hotel” is one of the more honest and fully realized looks at this age-old subject. It remains especially relevant in an age where even an ignominious turn in the spotlight—being a contestant on a condescending reality TV show, say—has been fetishized beyond all hope.

Given all this ambivalence to fame and life on the road, one might expect a perfunctory live disc but the Kinks come roaring out the gate with a fully-invested performance, notably on the opener “Top of the Pops.” Powered by the double-time drumming of founding member Mick Avory and Dave’s crunching chords and feedback-laced solos, Ray embraces the vicissitudes of impending success with the right mix of ego and bemusement (“I might even end up a rock and roll god/It might turn into a steady job”). Much had been made of the Kinks’ checkered past onstage (especially in John Mendelsohn’s liner notes to the Kink Kronikles compilation, also released in 1972) with the members’ unstable personal chemistry and supposed inebriation being at issue. But here the band is finding its feet (maybe literally) with an act that mixed high-energy rock with snippets of Ray’s innate Cockney theatricality. By this time the band was a must-see item for the counterculture cognoscenti of the Left and Right coasts and the boys didn’t disappoint. The front row of this Carnegie Hall date featured a number of New York’s famous drag queens (Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County among them) that Ray plays up to with fey repartee and snippets of show tunes like “Mr. Wonderful” and “Baby Face.” He gets the whole crowd howling in response to the dramatic re-figuring of “Alcohol,” gloriously milking the woeful gin-soaked tale about the downfall of a middle-class executive as he goes from a life of “prominence and position” to passed out on Skid Row in three easy verses. If the live half of Showbiz has any problem is that it’s top-heavy with several tracks from Muswell Hillbillies, the critically lauded album from the year before. It’s good stuff, but not the smattering of past classics that newbies to the Kinks camp may have hoped for.


The old demon alcohol claims another victim.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Everybody’s in Showbiz touched off a much-debated phase of the Kinks’ career marked by a series of full-blown theatrical productions. While the Preservation, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace shows are fondly remembered by the hardcore fan base that saw them, it seemed the mixed reception these works received were set to forever relegate the band to cult status. But after signing to Clive Davis’ Arista Records in 1977 and agreeing to a more streamlined approach, the Kinks finally got the arena-sized audiences of their old contemporaries like the Stones and the Who. By that time, many of the lovable quirks of this album were very much part of their concert routine, including rapturous readings of “Celluloid Heroes” and the “Day-O” chants and “Lola” sing-alongs that debuted here. It was “God Save the Kinks” for a whole new generation and a run that lasted until the Davies brothers dissolved the family firm in 1996.

Make Mine a Double #6: Grand Funk’s “Mark, Don & Mel” (1972)

What separates the names Mark, Don and Mel from those of say, Moses, Cleopatra and Napoleon when it comes to their relative significance in world history? Apparently not much. That’s at least what you would think if you took at face value the shameless audacity of the liner notes to this Grand Funk Railroad compilation album released in 1972. Written by their then-manager Terry Knight, this proclamation, pictured as written on a parchment scroll (!!), was the last salvo in a monomaniacal hype campaign that pitted him in a three-year war of words with America’s rock music press. That Messrs. Farner, Brewer and Schacher should find fame and fortune in the rock and roll business would probably have sat better with the critics if it had just been left at that. The hard-working and hirsute power trio from economically distressed Flint, Michigan was not the most imaginative or technically proficient band to ever come down the chute. But they busted their tails in their emerging arena-tour economy and their manic stage show earned them a large, and largely blue-collar, following. But by constantly stating Grand Funk’s real value in terms of the Most Albums Sold or Quickest Sell Outs practically ensured a backlash by a music press that Knight claimed to be the enemy of the people. The divisive nature of this episode in pop history has some interesting parallels to the socio-political climate that we are dealing with in the U.S. today.


Terry Knight got Capitol Records to fork over $100,000 for this colossal Times Square billboard of Mel, Don and Mark (from left to right).

For this 3-year period, Grand Funk was statistically the #1 band in the USA. During this time, Terry Knight’s leadership was marked by extreme self-absorption, intellectual vacancy, shady business dealings, a distinct persecution complex and the demonization of a press corps who called him out for appealing to the baser instincts of a demographic that had felt neglected. Gee, sound familiar? To get at the full story, let us wind back the parchment scroll a little bit. Knight, who hailed from the Flint area like the three guys he was fated to manage, began his career as a radio DJ but after burning a few bridges in that field tried his hand as a singer in the mid-Sixties. The result was Terry Knight and the Pack, who scored a few regional hits. The biggest of these was his histrionic version of the oft-covered “I (Who Have Nothing).” But soon Knight left performing to concentrate on the business side of things. Some of the Pack people, which now included guitarist Mark Farner and drummer Don Brewer, continued on the club circuit. But a dubious wintertime booking on Cape Cod left them stranded after a major blizzard in Feb. of 1969 (I remember that one well, having grown up on the North Shore of Massachusetts). Fed up, they phoned up Knight and asked him if he would manage them. Knight, who was several years older than Farner and Brewer agreed, so long as they agreed to do exactly as he told them. Mel Schacher, formerly of ? and the Mysterians was added on bass and a record deal with Capitol (for whom Knight was working) was quickly hammered out. Under their new moniker, based on the Midwest’s Grand Trunk Railroad that passes thru Flint, they released their first album, On Time, that August.

But the record, with Knight’s less-than-auspicious production values, sounded a bit tinny—more like heavy aluminum than metal. The first single off it (“Time Machine,” which also kicks off this compilation) was the type of bare-bones blues rock that was decidedly aimed at a lower common denominator in these peak years of Hendrix-Clapton-Who-Stones etc. The critics pounced, decrying this “regressive rock” that was like catnip to an early-teen demographic. These were the hippies’ younger siblings, perusing the record sections of countless department stores and anxious to start attending big concerts. It was an emerging market and Terry Knight was all over it. Under his strict directions, the trio gave a balls-to-the-wall performance at thundering volume every night. Finesse was sacrificed at the altar of frenzy. A nice studio track like “Into the Sun” (included on MD&M) had an instrumental intro whose soundscape was more reminiscent of progressive than regressive rock but on the double Live Album it was extended to twice its original six-minute length and culminated in an ear-splitting crescendo of guitar feedback, the part of the show where the ever-shirtless Farner was obliged to hump his guitar a la Hendrix. The kiddies were sent into a tizzy just as they were during Don Brewer’s earlier 7-minute drum solo, judging from the noise level of howling fans.

This was definitely not the first choice of more discerning rock fans and record reviewers, but the band certainly struck a vein. They toured early and often, building a huge base. They released five studio albums in little over two years, all of them went gold as did the live album, which I was very excited to obtain when I was thirteen—critics and parents be damned. Side Three of Mark, Don & Mel was devoted to this notorious concert document, including the track that contained the drum solo. Listening to some of the more choice cuts on Mark, Don and Mel nowadays, like their turbo-charged remake of the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out,” is a fun throwback to the elemental rock & roll joys of our youth, esp. for those of us just coming of age. For the older peeps of the music press, it was a different story. On the inner paper sleeves of this record, are re-printed articles that paint a less-than flattering portrait of the band. Sample headlines:

“Grand Funk Railroad Finks Out In Concert”
“Hot Group Gets Cold Shoulder At Home”
“E Plurbis Funk, All Others Pay Cash”

or, cutting straight to the chase:
“Grand Funk is Lousy”

It may seem strange to include these clippings in a best-of album whose manager-composed liner notes begin: “From the dawn of recorded history, stemming through the lifetimes of every man, woman and child who ever walked upon the earth, there have been but a handful whose fate it was to become known as Phenomenon.” (Dang, even Spinal Tap would be embarrassed by that). But by the time Terry Knight put pen to parchment his solipsistic reign was nearly over. The band had become more and more suspicious of why they were still on a weekly salary after all their record-breaking exploits and soon enough found the consequences of running all your publishing thru a scheming agent that had been working for the record company you signed with. He was making at least three times as much as the band members and had tied up much of their earnings in tax-shelter investments, some of which were later disallowed by the IRS.

The ugly split came about just around the time of what should have been their crowning achievement: their blockbuster 1971 show at the 55,000-capacity Shea Stadium in New York which they sold out in 72 hours despite the fact that Shea’s box-office windows were the only outlet (the Beatles took several weeks to sell out the same venue in ’65). Albert and David Maysles, the famed documentary-making brothers who were just six months removed from the release of Gimme Shelter, had been hired to make a film of the group. But for Terry Knight, it was a triumph tainted by both his bitterness at the media and the ridiculous self-aggrandizement that he projected onto his charges. (Of course, these two elements fed each other: Knight was livid when he threw a lavish press conference to announce the Shea gig and only six of the 150 invited reporters showed up).


Terry Knight in the studio. “I’m in control from now on, you hear! Now, tell me, how do you work these controls?”

In a released statement, he said that the mega-show was “the next logical step in (Grand Funk’s) now-famous not so logical nose-thumb to the media critics who have been consistently relentless in their outrage at the group’s soaring popularity.” He claimed for his clients’ the mantle of cultural revolutionaries: “An appearance of Grand Funk Railroad does not announce a musical concert. It hails a gathering of people… it is politics, that supersedes music.” Considering the decibel-soaked maelstrom of the group’s live act, deemed “obnoxiously loud” even by their own road manager, the non-believers would at least agree that GFR superseded music… in all the wrong ways.

The end came soon after, during a screening of the Maysles’ Shea footage. According to later interviews with Mark Farner, the guys were wary of Knight from the start but appreciated his music biz connections. The working stiffs touted as gold (record) plated demi-gods had had enough and confronted Knight for the books. In a fit of pique, they fired the manager a short time after, though Knight points out they were only three months away from the end of that contract and could have renegoitated then. “How stupid can you get?” he said of his ex-clients. When you’re dealing with a Terry Knight, it’s a thin line between being a demi-god and a dumb-ass.


As relations between the band and Terry Knight became frayed, funding for what could have been a fascinating film by the Maysles Brothers was cut off. This Shea Stadium clip survives.

So naturally the lawsuits started flying and Grand Funk were eventually able to buy out Knight’s interest at great cost to themselves. But they quickly recovered and in 1973, with new keyboardist Craig Frost and a real producer in tow (Todd Rundgren), they streamlined their sound and scored their first #1 single with “We’re an American Band.” By that time Knight, who had been let go by Capitol Records, was out of show biz. Although interest in GFR waned at the end of the decade (they were a uniquely Seventies “Phenomenon”) they soldiered on, sometimes with different personnel. But by the mid-Nineties they re-formed in their original trio form to make some hay on the classic-rock circuit.


Long live Mark, Don and… Dennis?? Graffiti on a Grand Trunk R.R. overpass in Flint celebrates an Eighties line-up of the city’s favorite sons.

How does the early Seventies Grand Funk craze contain early inklings of Trumplandia?

1. Play to the Base and the Fake News impulse.

Terry Knight saw the growing appeal of the hard-rock power trio and stripped it down for parts to reach as large an audience as possible without striving for aesthetic advancement. Gone were the artful touches of predecessors like Cream. They maxed out the volume and did songs that seemed expressly written to rile up a live audience. Two of these (“Are You Ready” and Footstompin’ Music”) are included on MD&M. When the music press, whose natural role it is to analyze records for potential buyers, noted this more primitive style, Knight played the Fake News card. He suggested that the critics only said that because they were jealous of the band’s (and his) materialistic success. The naysayers then got more personal in their attacks and it just escalated from there.

2. The Rightward Drift of Middle America

Until Knight started harping on the subject, the core of GFR’s fan base probably didn’t even realize it had been shortchanged by the Coastal Elites of Haight-Ashbury, Laurel Canyon and Greenwich Village. Now, this base wasn’t pandered to in the outrageously vulgar and racially-hostile way of a certain current U.S. president during the 2016 presidential campaign. The band had African-American fans and, on the surface anyway, left-of-center views. They were anti-Vietnam and pro-ecology, though songs like “People, Let’s Stop the War” and “Save the Land” didn’t offer much more than their titles. (More admirable, and more unusual for the time, was their anti-hard drug stance). But Trump’s pig-headed avarice is backwards-reflected by Knight’s silly insistence that his group’s music wasn’t nearly as important as “Mark holding his guitar over his head and saying, ‘You see this, Brothers and Sisters, you see me? I’m free. I own this stage, it’s mine and it’s yours.” This has echoes of the long-time Republican propaganda tool that has plebeians feeling like “undiscovered millionaires” and voting against their own interests and in favor of obscene tax cuts for the wealthy because they will be one of then someday, and in the process helping to turn the land of opportunity into one of chronic income inequality. It would not surprise me if a much larger percentage of Grand Funk fans of the Seventies became Trump voters than, say, people whose favorite band was Jefferson Airplane. (Some of this anti-liberal bias was not so latent: in an October ’72 interview Mel Schacher said, “One thing is sure, if McGovern gets elected, they’ll be a depression”).

3. Ignore the Flyover States at Your Own Peril

How fitting that Mark, Don and Mel hailed from Flint in the future swing state of Michigan. The town’s auto plants started closing around the same time that GFR were riding high, leaving the city (and to a greater extent, Detroit) nearly empty shells. The capitalist evacuation of southern Michigan’s dominant industry and the more recent poisoning of Flint’s water supply as a result of cost-cutting by a tax-averse Republican administration, is the stuff of dire legend. But it’s leftie documentarian (and Flint native and GFR fan) Michael Moore, that was out there in 2016 warning complacent liberals who thought there was no way that Trump could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. Hillary’s ill-advised crack that some potential Trump voters were “deplorables” must have rubbed the wrong way not only a lot of undecided voters, but chafed Moore’s working-class roots as well. The current noxious term for Middle America used by some (“flyover states”) has roots in the New Yorker’s famous cover of a Manhattanite’s view of America (a whole lot of nothing between the Hudson River and California) and even in the overstated snobbery of critic John Mendelsohn’s review of Mark, Don & Mel in a June ’72 issue of Rolling Stone, calling the music “worthless rubbish” and the group’s fans “insecure dingbats.” Sure, maybe they were people too prone to seek someone outside the accepted system to blindly idolize (ahem) but they hardly deserved that. Payback is a bitch, even when it takes over four decades to be delivered.

Sure, Grand Funk Railroad will not go down in history as the Einsteins of rock and roll. But they and their fans deserved better but for the lame-brain arrogance of their manager. He invited derision and it deflected off anyone in his orbit. Terry Knight ended up selling ads for a local newspaper in Temple, Texas where he shared an apartment with his adult daughter: it was her boyfriend that murdered Knight in 2004 after a drug argument. The lessons learned have a long reach as we find out in the Mark Farner interview below, where his magnanimity wins out over any hard feelings. So let’s take that to heart. The early Grand Funk anthem “I’m Your Captain” had a subtle anti-war theme that Michael Moore claimed was not lost on the very draft-liable young men of places like Flint, where the proportion of college deferments had to be a lot lower. As Mark repeatedly sings “I’m getting closer to my home” as if it were a mantra (enhanced by strings and oceanic sound effects) it seemed less about a returning veteran and more of a call to return to a larger American home. But over the long years since, that’s become a house ever more divided. To get back closer, it will take a little less certitude and a lot more mutual understanding from all interested parties. Are You Ready?

My latest book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic History, explores the social and musical history of youth culture through the prism of non-fiction film. To find out more, check out a 30-page excerpt at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Make Mine a Double #5: Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything (1972)

The latest in an occasional series about the wild woolly world of rock’s double albums.

Todd Rundgren has got to be one of rock history’s great chameleons. He’s gone from a paisley pop wunderkind as leader of the Nazz in the late Sixties, to a sensitive piano balladeer to a guitar-slinging metalloid, prog rocker and blue-eyed soul vocalist. These phases were not necessarily in that order, and a style once adopted could return at a later date and be co-mingled with others. With Rundgren, this never seemed to be a case of following fashion or commercial expediency; he had the air of a protean craftsman, a maverick with many interests. Something/Anything? was a prodigious outpouring of his eclectic talents, Todd’s only outright gold LP. It charted three singles and helped to solidify a loyal cult following that would stick with him through all the sometimes-bewildering career diversions in the decades to come.

The loping rhythm of “I Saw the Light” kicks the album off in elegant, R&B flavored style. “If there’s a single on this album, this is it, so I put it first like at Motown,” writes Rundgren in the first of the pithy comments he prints before each song’s lyric sheet entry. Reaching #16 in May of ’72, Todd’s business acumen doesn’t hide the sensitive side that won him the better measure of his popular appeal. “I Saw the Light” unerringly gleans the first nervous, delicious moments of a romantic affair. Although side one, a self-proclaimed “bouquet of ear-catching melodies” plays to his then-current strength, the restlessness is already leaking through, whether through the frisky rocker “Wolfman Jack” or by the implication that he’s already wary of being pigeonholed as a piano balladeer—even terming the lovely “Cold Morning Light” an “accident.”

Flip the old platter over and you get the “cerebral side.” After a quick audio tour of the studio, we start with the adventurous keyboard instrumental “Breathless,” a little preview of the wild left turn Rundgren would take into progressive rock a couple of years later with his offshoot band, Utopia. Aside from playing nearly all the instruments on his double album, Rundgren also showed off the soundboard skills that would soon make him an in-demand producer. “The Night the Carousel Burnt Down” is a good case in point with its calliope rhythms and shading dissonance dovetailed with a lyric of mixed innocence and foreboding worthy of a Ray Bradbury short story. But overall, the cerebral side isn’t radically different in content from the other three, with occasional genre side trips soon yielding to Todd’s default setting—the slow or mid-tempo number with heart on sleeve and fingers on the ivories.

Side three (“the kid gets heavy”) opens loud-and-proud with “Black Maria,” a prototypical 70s blues-rocker with Rundgren’s nervy lead guitar a highlight. Though the handsome balladry continues here as well (both “One More Day” and “Torch Song” are worthy additions in this crowded category) the side’s other two tracks are album, if not career highlights. This especially goes for the single “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” as perfect a slice of impassioned power pop as was ever recorded, matching anything of the era by the likes of Badfinger and Big Star. From it’s lilting guitar intro, to a vocal that opens on an urgent moment-of-truth (“Keep your head and everything will be cool/You didn’t have to make me feel like a fool/When I try to say I feel the way that I do”) to it’s soaring chorus, it seemed to pre-figure much of the indie rock of following decades, though it only reached #93 as a single. The side closes impressively with the Hendrixesque “Little Red Lights” (a “you know what” to “you know who” Todd quips), a “Crosstown Traffic” doppelganger featuring more six-string exploits.

If there’s a hitch in Rundgren’s professionalism and organic rock ‘n’ roll instincts it’s on Something/Anything’s last quarter. Presented as a “pop operetta,” it begins at the beginning with a hilariously lo-fi snippet of what sounds like one of his first-ever performances, fronting his teenage group, Woody’s Truck Stop. The rest of the side consists of live-take cuts with an ad-hoc studio band, a confounding series of tracks that sound just like their off-color titles: “Piss Aaron”, “You Left Me Sore”, “Slut,” etc. A career on Broadway was not in the offing. Somewhere in the middle of this is Rundgren’s world-beating love song “Hello It’s Me,” a lively remake of the Nazz’s gauzy 1968 single. It became his biggest ever hit, reaching the Top Five over a year after the release of the LP.

Something/Anything itself would be a highwater mark in Rundgren’s popularity, though mere chart success could never be the sole criteria for this singular personality. After its less accessible follow-up (A Wizard, A True Star) failed to catch fire, he blasted off into outer space with Utopia, the dazzling (if esoteric) combo that initially featured three electronic keyboardists in addition to Todd’s rocket-fueled lead guitar. Side two of their debut album was a 30-minute composition, in case any teenyboppers were still hanging about. Although he continued on parallel paths with his solo work and a toned-down Utopia, Rundgren would become just as notable as a studio producer, his bright-surface production stamp benefiting albums for a next wave of artists like Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, XTC and the Psychedelic Furs. Into the 21st century the irrepressible Mr. Rundgren rolled on, still recording and touring, both as a solo act and with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, a re-formed Utopia and even as a Ric Ocasek stand-in with the New Cars. That makes the title of his classic double album sound not so much as a shrug but as a lifelong mission statement.

Make Mine A Double #3: Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” (1969)

The third entry in my series on the wild and wondrous world of rock’s double albums.
by Rick Ouellette

Pink Floyd at the end of the Sixties was very much the band in flux. In 1968, singer-guitarist and founding visionary Syd Barrett left the band and after an abbreviated solo career was hardly seen in public before his death in 2006. Barrett’s fanciful compositions had dominated their classic ’67 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but he barely appeared on the follow-up (A Saucerful of Secrets) and soon retreated from London to the group’s original home base of Cambridge. Beset by mental health problems complicated by prodigious LSD use and unwilling/unable to play the rock-star card for more than a few hands, the secluded Barrett would become one of music’s most fabled figureheads. Few at the time would have doubted the talents of his bandmates: bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright, drummer Nick Mason or guitarist David Gilmour, a boyhood friend of Barrett who joined the band shortly before Syd exited. But absent the primary writer of one of rock’s psychedelic masterworks, Pink Floyd struggled for a revised identity. After producing the soundtrack for the French hippie film More, Floyd ended the decade with the double LP Ummagumma, the type of project that would defy release today. Exploiting the era’s trend towards heavy acid jams (on its live disc) and openness to experimentation (in the studio half), Ummagumma was popular enough (#5 in the UK) to keep the band’s profile high before they hit their stride and became rock music titans with their all-world headphone classic, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

On Piper, Barrett’s delectable mix of childlike whimsy and foreboding fairytales had been balanced out by two seminal excursions into what would be called space rock. One of youth music’s first extended pieces, the nine-minute “Interstellar Overdrive” was well-explained by it’s title. The other, “Astronomy Domine”, starts the live disc in an expanded version that ably states the new line-up’s mode of attack. The increased amplification of the instrumental excursions and Roger Waters’ eerie replication of Syd’s planetary roll call emanating from “icy waters underground” upped the ante of the original for the tuned-in provincial punters in the audience. “Careful With The Axe, Eugene” is transformed into a real horror show of tension-and-release, with its stalking build-up yielding to Waters’ ungodly screaming and Gilmour’s slasher guitar work. The live disc is rounded out by “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and the title track from Saucerful, now a 13-minute ramble through a psychedelic funhouse led by Nick Mason’s propulsive drumming.

Giving each band member a half-side to go freeform in the studio was an early example of the self-important tendencies of ambitious acts, or maybe it was just lack of new material. The underrated keyboardist Richard Wright contributes “Sysyphus Parts 1-4” an effectively doomy piece of program music that depicts the hapless mythological character, usually spelled Sisyphus. He, of course, is fated to forever push the same boulder up a hill—probably the exact feeling Floyd roadies got during the mammoth tours in the decades to follow (the album’s back cover shows two of them with the band’s gear spread out on an airport runway).


Abandon ye all hope, the road crew that enters here.

David Gilmour’s folksy acoustic guitar on “The Narrow Way” prefigures what Jimmy Page soon was getting at on Led Zeppelin III and the vocal part that follows presages the musical heights later attained on “Comfortably Numb”. Nick Mason never had a songwriting credit before Ummagumma and after hearing his aimless percussion workout, one could be forgiven for wondering where the writing was in this case. The only track that sinks lower is “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” a Roger Waters’ toss-off that sounds just like its title, which should be warning enough.


Less than the sum of its “parts”?: The back of the CD 2 breaks down the multi-sectional nature of the studio disc.

Luckily, he also offers up “Grantchester Meadows,” a lovely pastoral number named after a real greensward in the band’s hometown. One of the greatest of Floyd’s lesser-known numbers, simple acoustic guitar and looped sound effects of bird tweets cushion Waters’ softly sung boyhood idyll that’s tempered by the realization that this a memory recalled from the confinement of his “city room.” The profound disatisfaction with the vicissitudes of a cold modern society, merely hinted at here, would become the primary aspect of Pink Floyd’s art in the decade to come, culminating in their other double album, 1979’s The Wall, where the confined character is not just shut off in a solitary flat, but in an enormous brick prison of his own making.

If you like the in-depth writing of rock music, both on record and on celluloid, please check out my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey now available. You can sample a 30-page excerpt by clicking on the book cover image at the top right of this page.