It was a Friday night in 1981 and two roommates were working out their differences after a round of take-your-turn record spinning.
“The Clash are boring,” declared the first. “All they sing about are policemen and helmets.”
“No, Bruce Springsteen is boring,” replied roommate #2. “All he sings about is cars and darkness.”
Defending one’s own favorite musical artist by dissing the other’s idol may be reductive but it’s also instructive. If you don’t like a certain band, the easiest way to make your case is to over-emphasize the most emblematic thing about them. And there is added incentive to go this route when one is confronted with those traits at critical mass: the album sides on the turntable that long- ago night were from the Clash’s new 3-disc behemoth Sandinista! and Bruce’s double-bagger from the year before, The River.
Springsteen’s star had been steadily rising since his debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. some seven years previous. His reputation as an eloquent but unfancy voice of the regular guys and gals of middle America. The River was his break-out success, his first #1 album (beating the iconic Born to Run which hit #3) and it sported his first Top Ten single in the hook-heavy “Hungry Heart.” It also inspired a harsh critical reaction in some circles, which reminds me of my roommates’ exchange.
Let’s face it: “All he sings about is cars and darkness…” and throw in lonely highways and ex-lovers and hard-knock working class predicaments.
Now it was professional rock scribes throwing the brickbats. Over in the UK (where The River reached #2) Julie Burchill from New Musical Express sniffed “This is great music for people who’ve wasted their youth to sit around drinking beer and wasting the rest of their lives to.” Stateside, I never forgot the lead article in the Creem magazine review section (headline: “Born to Stall”) by the esteemed Billy Altman.
He wrote then that Springsteen “is still spinning his wheels in the same narrow-minded world view… unable or uninterested” to see beyond the “horrible quagmire” of his subjects’ lives. Faced with a 20-song double LP to contend with, Altman probably decided he didn’t like the record as soon as he looked at the cover and saw the somber expression of our flannel-shirted bard of the Jersey Shore.
But if one listens closely, a much more nuanced experience is unfolding. On the opening “The Ties That Bind,” backed by jangly guitars and the insistent rhythmic push of his trusty E Street Band, the Boss confronts the issue of dead-end lives as usual, but with a compassion that his legions of fans know on an instinctual level: “We’re running now, but we will stand in time/To face the ties that bind.”
And for nearly every gloom-and-doom song there is an upbeat one to match it, big-night-out anthems like “I’m a Rocker” and “Out in the Streets” or skirt-chasers like “Sherry Darling” and “Crush on You.”
At heart, Springsteen is an old soul. He was a tenacious and ambitious escapee from the small-town bondage he so often portrayed, reportedly never taking a proper job to incentivize making it as a musician. But he did not scorn what he got away from and remained a consistent empath, even in the face of exasperation or ridicule. A certain amount of that was directed at the melodramatic hardships depicted in The River’s title song. The hipster critics may have cringed at lines like “Lately there ain’t been much work/On account of the economy” without caring to understand that’s exactly how the song’s luckless narrator would say it.
For my money, the better ballad (and keynote to the entire album) is the heart-rending “Independence Day” which directly references the famously contentious relationship that Springsteen had with his father, who toiled for many years in his hometown Nescafe plant. In his recent memoir and one-man Broadway show, he said he understood early on that (as the song says) “all boys must run away.” Then he admits, “What I didn’t understand was his depression.” But Bruce (who has also struggled with the malady) would come to understand and remain that way. It is a bond he has forged with America’s heartland, a mythic place that is too often lightly considered. Long may he keep his engines running.
The Byrds’ place in the pop music pantheon is secure. Their folk-rock innovations of the mid to late Sixties have reverberated all the way to the present, informing genres like college rock and Americana. Their popularization of Bob Dylan’s music, and psychedelic excursions like “Eight Miles High,” were to play a big part in broadening the scope of musical and lyrical content in that decade.
Recent music documentaries have solidified the Byrds’ status: the poster for 2019’s “Echo in the Canyon,” hosted by Bob’s son Jakob Dylan, features the iconic 12-string Rickenbacker of head Byrd Roger McGuinn that conjured their famous (and much imitated) jangly guitar sound.
By the end of the Sixties, the Byrds were coming out of a long transitional period. Vital founding members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had flown the coop (if you will), migrating to solo projects or forming other groups in the expanding L.A. music scene. By 1970 they had settled on a quartet with McQuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin. One big difference of this group was its more muscular sound. For the first time perhaps, the Byrds were a true concert attraction and so was fitting that for the band’s first double album, sides one and two were live recordings.
The album kicks off impressively with “Lover of the Bayou,” a new song by McQuinn and NY-based songwriter and stage director Jacques Levy that was part of a proposed musical they were working on at the time (more on that shortly). This ain’t your kid sister’s Byrds. The atmosphere is edgy, the guitars use distortion and the rhythm section is more muscular. McQuinn sings in a gruff voice that is unfamiliar but fitting for this somewhat menacing 1st person tale of a backwater baddie who “cooked the bat in a gumbo pan/and drank the blood from a rusty can.” He may also be a gun-runner but since the play was never produced we may never find out. What is certain is that this high-powered lineup, esp. considering Clarence White’s standout lead guitar, is tailor made for the louder and more ritualized concert experience taking shape at that time.
The rest of side one covers more familiar ground. There are two Dylan covers (“Positively 4th Street” and their famous “Mr. Tambourine Man”), an electrified hoedown (“Nashville West”), and savvy re-readings of “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” All are spiritedly performed and appreciated by the audience at the two New York City gigs where they were taped. But for many the real high point came when they flipped the record over and were presented with a 16-minute jam based on “Eight Miles High.” Nobody would mistake the Byrds for the Allman Brothers Band when it came to improvisational excursions, but this jam cooks.
The listener is pulled in with a fade-up and McQuinn plays that 4-note intro motif, one of the most memorable signifying sounds of the acid-rock era, and launches into a double-down version of his famous splintered Rickenbacker solo, the band already in high gear. White follows with a torrid solo of his own and gives way to a combined bass/drum solo which, contrary to popular expectations, is a highlight of the piece. Famed rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, was all over this track, describing a “fine series of taut dervish interplays” and suggested that more music like this would return the Byrds to the “rock vanguard.” The intensity of this jam in fact feels like a classic bebop improv (McQuinn says his “Eight Miles” solo was inspired by John Coltrane). The whole band comes back together to build it to a climax before suddenly singing the song’s first verse (much to the crowd’s delight) and steer it straight to the big rock ending it deserves.
The studio half kicks off with “Chestnut Mare,” another song co-written with Levy. Their planned musical, a resetting of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” in the American West which, via an anagram, was to be called “Gene Tryp.” This likely would have been a highlight, it’s a radiant country-rock rondo about a cowboy’s pursuit of a wild horse. With its talking verses, soaring chorus and shimmering guitar fills, its more cinematic than stage bound esp. in the song’s mesmeric middle section, highlighted by the two of them magically floating above a “bottomless canyon.” The sparkling sound (“as clear as a Viewmaster slide of the Big Sur pine cliffs,” Bangs noted) harkened back to the Byrds’ 1965-68 heyday. “Chestnut Mare” became an American FM favorite and a Top 20 hit in the U.K.
The other two McQuinn-Levy numbers seem to look back ruefully on that period. “All the Things” (“I want today are all the things I wasted on the way”) and “Just a Season” have a distinct end-of-Sixties vibe while going for the classic sound of past hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The last verse is a real kicker:
“Shouting crowds and mummer’s shrouds and people going crazy Always said what was in their heads it surely was amazing I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar It really wasn’t hard to be a star.”
Most of rest of the studio tracks are fair to pretty good and all band members get a chance to sing and write. The material is fine but I think they suffer somewhat from being too casually performed and/or too inconsistently produced (behind the boards were longtime band associates Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson). Gene Parson’s “Yesterday’s Train” could have been a cool bonus track from the Band, Clarence White’s dolorous vocal on the cover of Little Feat’s 18-wheel tragedy “Truck Stop Girl” is truly poignant, and the lyrics of the gritty ecological blues “Hungry Planet” should have been required reading from Day One.
(Untitled) concludes with Skip Battin’s cryptic “Well Come Back Home.” Clocking in at 7:40, it’s the longest studio track the Byrds’ ever recorded, and one of the strangest as well. Battin wrote it about a high-school friend who was killed in Vietnam, but the lyric never mentions the war. The tone is both elegiac and assuring, playing off the subtle difference between “well come back home” and “welcome back home.” About half-way thru, the song shifts into an Oriental timbre and, on a bed of chiming guitars and Parson’s tireless drum fills, the “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of Nichiren Buddhism starts up. In continues in various bizarre iterations as the music’s momentum builds and rides the song right off the end of the record.
Music fans who appreciate a band willing to stretch out and try new things would appreciate the idiosyncrasies of an album like this. While Lester Bangs (who was an astute critic as well as a celebrated loose cannon) acknowledged the Byrds’ taste for experimentation, also opined that it was to try and “rejuvenate a beloved but declining institution.” He wasn’t wrong; this line-up stayed together for two more albums and, after a so-so reunion record with the original line-up, the Byrds were no more. The sound they pioneered would be streamlined (stripped down for parts, some may say) by bands like the Eagles and Pure Prairie League. But as I said up top, the positive impact of their legacy can be seen all around, starting with the appropriately titled Time Between, the 1989 tribute album featuring such talented admirers as Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Dinosaur Jr., Thin White Rope, the Chills and Miracle Legion.
Chicago’s career trajectory as a band is the equivalent of that guy you knew in college who was a bit of a hotshot and always there making his presence known at the biggest parties and campus demonstrations. When you catch up with him decades later you find he has moved to the most strait-laced town in your state, where he has ended up on the board of selectmen, voting down a new skateboard park or marijuana dispensary. Oh, how I kid the guys in Chicago. When this rock-group-with-horns busted out big-time from the Windy City, they were a septet known for their musical experimentation and leftie politics. But less than a decade later, on the cusp of the Reagan era, they were safe-as-milk mainstays of the Soft Rock category.
Yet the band’s keen pop sensibilities were already much in evidence on their dauntless debut, a double album released in April of 1969. Here, three Top 40 Billboard singles were in the mix along with the esoteric touches and long jams common to that period.
Chicago Transit Authority (which was then the band’s name until the actual CTA threatened legal action) opens with a lively mission statement called “Introduction” which is written and sung by guitarist Terry Kath. “Sit back and let us groove/And let us work on you, yeah,” cajoles the husky-voiced Kath and indeed the song’s arrangement follows what would become a tried-and-true formula they would develop with their producer James William Guercio. After a couple verses, the song takes off into an extended, multivariate instrumental section led off with by the horn section. This trio (Walter Parazaifer on sax, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and James Pankow on trombone) gave the group a jazzy cosmopolitan sheen that proved to have strong appeal. They yield to a solo by Kath, often the band’s ace-in-the hole, before coming back strong for a final verse where Terry notes on how they “turned around the mood/We hope it struck you different/And hope you feel moved.”
Well, something worked as the album’s next three songs were all hit singles and were all written and sung by keyboardist Robert Lamm. The original side one is filled out by “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings” both featuring strong melodies and vibrant playing. Listeners on the AM side may have been hearing these longish numbers in edited form as the piano prelude in the former song and the two-minute percussion outro in the latter were excised for the Casey Kasem crowd.
The hits keep on coming at the start of side two with “Questions 67 and 68,” with lead singing shared with bassist Peter Cetera. The song is also notable for the supple, momentum-driving drum fills of Danny Seraphine, who has never really gotten his full due as one of classic-rock’s great stickmen. From here on out, though, your results may vary. There is one more chart entry, a vigorous cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man,” curiously released two years later as a double-sided single with “Questions 67 and 68.” Future adult-contemporary crooner Cetera helps out here with a muscular bass line and swapping out macho lead vocals with Lamm and Kath. But things also get pretty self-indulgent over the final two sides, starting with the seven-minute “Free Form Guitar.”
Terry Kath, who tragically died of an accidental gunshot to the head in 1978, was a major talent (and reputedly one of Jimi Hendrix’ favorite guitarists) but I’m not sure what justified this fingernails-on-blackboard exercise in musique concrete. But considering that Guercio devotes a whole paragraph to it in his immodest liner notes, I’m willing to shift the blame. It’s esp. confounding since “FFG” is bookended by two songs that showcase Kath’s torrid soloing within amenable blues-rock contexts: “Poem 58” and “South California Purples.”
After touching on the events of the previous year’s turbulent Democratic Convention in their hometown with “Someday” (with the inclusion of “The whole world is watching!” chant), the album ends with a brash free-form instrumental (credited to Pankow) called “Liberation” that clocks in at a healthy 15:41. While nowadays this jam may only appeal to Terry Kath completists and the odd speed freak, it does show a band willing to think big and take chances.
This spirit carried on to the next two albums (also double disc affairs) where adventurous compositions sat cheek by jowl with accessible rockin’ hits like “Make Me Smile” and “25 or 6 to 4.” Not content with three doubles, they upped the ante with the four-LP At Carnegie Hall, a lavishly-packaged and rather self-congratulatory box that only featured one new song. Their first single disc was 1972’s Chicago V (fans would become used to the Roman numerals and the band’s persistent curlicue logo) and what, for me, was an early red-flag on the song “Dialogue.” Although written by Robert Lamm, the song features a back-and-forth between a concerned college student (Kath) and a hedonistic friend (Peter Cetera, tellingly) that comes down on the side of complacency (“If you had my outlook, your feelings would be numb,” is Peter’s crowning comment). OK, maybe I’m reading too much into it, and Chicago did have a fistful of attractive hits on thru the mid-70s, like “Saturday in the Park” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day.”
But for many folks, especially rock geeks, the wheels came of the bus following the death of Terry Kath in early 1978. Although several original members remained, the band dabbled in disco but mostly became known for Peter Cetera’s treacly romantic numbers, which were indistinguishable from many other power ballads of the time from the likes of REO Speedwagon and Foreigner. Granted, this trend started before Kath’s passing (“If You Leave Me Now”) but steadily tracked downward with cliched love-song rhymes and sterile 80s production values featuring lots of electric piano. If you need examples, check out “Loser with a Broken Heart”, “Stay the Night” (don’t miss the absurd video!), and culminating in 1984’s mind-numbing “Hard Habit to Break” (from Chicago 17 if you’re keeping track). Cetera, probably miffed at having to share the profits at this point, left for a solo career shortly after.
Am I being too hard here? Chicago was not the only band from that era whose politics now seem like a fashion and whose target audience shifted from hard rock buffs to lovesick teenage girls and divorced single moms for whom songs like “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was the purest poetry. You’re supposed to get more comfortable as you get older and for Chicago that meant hitting the summer-shed tour circuit with other mellowed-out acts like the Doobie Brothers, who started life as a de facto Hell’s Angels house band. So, to tweak the analogy I started with, Chicago Transit Authority is like that old hell-raising high-school buddy that you see again for the first time at your classes’ fortieth reunion. When you ask him what has been up to since then, he replies “nothing much.”
Early on in career that spanned the years 1981-2011, Sonic Youth earned their spot as one of America’s quintessential modern rock bands and are almost the very definition of what became known as postpunk. Their three principal members, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon, migrated to New York City and found their musical footing (and each other) as the mid to late-70s CBGB heyday was ending. They got their start in the noisy No Wave scene that followed and made their first recordings on a small label started by experimental composer Glen Branca, with whom both Moore and Ranaldo had played. Shirttails and a certain ironic detachment replaced the torn apparel and sneering attitudes of the early punk days. All three wrote and sang and the two guitarists were brash but studied sound architects while Gordon gave the group undeniable sex appeal. Sonic Youth remained fiercely independent even after their aggressive sound was tempered with the more conventional pop attributes that theoretically meant a larger fan base. They stuck with smaller indie labels right through to this, their fifth full-length album. Daydream Nation is the magnum opus of both their own career and of the downtown scene that spawned them. It is widely considered the band’s conceptual peak even though there would be many fruitful years to follow.
The impressive breadth of this double disc derives from a combination of a group writing spree and encouragement to commit to vinyl (and to cassette and CD, the late 1980s being the transitional era of formats) the extended noise rock jams and feedback frenzies that were long part of their live show. From its hand-to-mouth beginnings, SY could now book three weeks of studio time in advance, co-producing with noted hip-hop engineer Nick Sansano. Daydream Nation opens with the seven-minute anthem “Teenage Riot,” its most well-known number and a favorite of college radio back in the day. After eighty seconds of free-floating guitar notes and Gordon whispering sweet nothings to the listener, it kicks into gear with a relentless forward motion that carries all the way to the finish line. “Teenage Riot” is a call-to-arms directed at bored young people that in one way harkens back to the totemic songs of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers albeit with an updated snarky attitude (“You come running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue”) and the attenuated values of a seen-it-all age (“It’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head/Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed”). Typical of the band’s singing, Thurston Moore delivers all this with a voice that rarely exceeds conversational volume—but when it comes to the instrumental work it’s a different kettle of fish. Halfway through the next number, “Silver Rocket,” there is a sudden eruption of overamplified six-string carnage before the determined full trot from drummer Steve Shelley’s snare kit pulls the tune back from the chaos.
Sonic Youth 1988. “You WILL like our ‘overamplified six-string carnage,'” insists Thurston Moore.
The rest of the album pretty much follows the same pattern. Razor’s edge punk riffing holds sway on a collection of mosh-worthy rockers that are often punctuated by atonal outbursts or gentler ambient passages, often as the prelude or postscript to a song. Many of feature the alternative tunings and effects favored by Moore and Ranaldo and beloved by guitar geeks not beholden to the blues-based model. There are several worthy additions to the Kim Gordon catalog of sultry/tough come-ons (in real life she and Moore had been married for four years), most notably on “Kissability” and “’Cross the Breeze”. Suffice to say when she sings, “Let’s go walking on the water/come all the way, please” it will sound as much of a challenge as an invitation.
Lee Ranaldo contributes three tracks including album highlight “Hey Joni”, a cock-eyed tribute to band fave Joni Mitchell. Although Ranaldo’s abstracted lyrics are a bit hard to get the measure of (“The time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now we can’t think twice”) the intrigue over its subject’s transformation from Woodstock-era songbird to brittle iconoclast shows the SY’s keen sense of pop history. As if to underline it, there are also a couple of double-album gambits: a brief bit of musique concrete called “Providence” (Moore’s piano recorded on a Walkmen overlaid by a deadpan voice mail left by ex-Minutemen Mike Watt) and the closing 14-minute “Trilogy.” But no prog pretensions here when a three-parter means a patented Thurston Moore night-on-the-tiles raver, more dissonance and a Kim Gordon ditty called “Eliminator Jr.” Then Daydream Nation ends in mid-squall, as if no further concession to its own gravitas was needed.
Kim Gordon center stage as SY play CBGB in 1988.
The acclaim greeted DN may not have exactly resulted in sales that would warrant chart placement, but the increased stature of the band eased the move to David Geffen’s DCG label for the 1990 follow-up Goo. That yielded the signature smash “Kool Thing” whose alluring video was an MTV staple. Through the 90s the cult status of Sonic Youth grew from its base of late baby boomers (like themselves) to include many of the kids who hit their twenties just in time for the grunge scene. Daydream Nation started appearing on numerous all-time best-of lists as the group stuck to its guns like true believers of the rock continuum. As middle age approached, Moore and Gordon repaired from lower Manhattan to the calmer (but still hip) hinterlands of Northampton, Mass. By 2002, their daughter appeared on the cover of late-career highlight Murray Street. Although the couple (along with Sonic Youth) split up in 2011, the various members have kept their irons in the fire with other bands, solo records and (in the case of Kim Gordon) a high-profile memoir. Daydream Nation will likely continue to be a noise-rock touchstone as long as there are teenagers who need to riot.
The big duality of the 1960s was the great aesthetic leaps made in music, film and other artistic fields, countered by the social and political upheavals of the time. Of course, the former often fed off the latter but there was also just a lot of great escapist entertainment. Then came 1968, a year marked by escalation of the Vietnam War, assassinations, violent clashes between police and political demonstrators and the election of the divisive Richard Nixon to the U.S. presidency.
For rock musicians, recognized to be in the vanguard of the era’s youth movement, it was time to stand up and be counted. And so it was for the New York-based Rascals, who had recently dropped the “Young” from their band name. They had spent the previous few years as top-line hitmakers who combined infectious blue-eyed soul with progressive pop values. The AM radios of the day were often graced by their presence, from party anthems like “Good Lovin’” and “Mustang Sally” to sweet summery treats like “Groovin’” and “It’s a Beautiful Morning.”
NEW YORK CITY – JUNE 28: (L-R) Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati and Gene Cornish of The Rascals attend Martin Luther King Jr. Benefit Concert on June 28, 1968 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage) *** Local Caption *** Felix Cavaliere, Dino Danelli, Eddie Brigati;Gene Cornish
But the spring of 1968 was not the time of escapism. In the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the band (vocalist Eddie Brigati, keyboardist-singer Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish and drummer Dino Danelli) released “People Got to Be Free” a song that sounded both sobering and uplifting in its aspirational optimism. It became one of the hallmark songs of that era, staying at #1 for five weeks that summer and eventually selling some four million copies worldwide. Soon, the Rascals were in the studio for the follow-up album named Freedom Suite, released in March of ’69. It was a lushly packaged double-decker album that would pair up two sides of more conventional tunes with a second record of instrumental numbers.
It was a curious volume, perhaps an effort by the group to be taken more seriously as album artists at a time when rock’s horizons were broadening. Freedom Suite starts out strikingly with “America the Beautiful.” Not exactly the patriotic standard—though they do quote it and give credit to the original composers—but a reworked version that gives voice to the inequalities and injustices that have smeared that sunny vision. After a symphonic stating of the theme and Danelli’s drummer-boy snare work, the tune takes on a ragtime feel as Cavaliere sings of how a nation he loves has strayed, esp. noting the failings of the War on Poverty from an Establishment for whom “the dollar bill is as far as they can see.” This kind of social commentary is echoed on several other songs. Most notable is the remarkable “Look Around” whose uplifting melody (a Rascals specialty) is tempered by woke lyrics (“hate and fear got ten million votes this year”) and sound effects of sirens, gunfire and marching soldiers. But typically for Cavaliere and Brigati, who penned this and were the group’s primary writers, the emphasis is on working towards positive outcomes and the song ends with a burst of children’s laughter.
This positivity shines brightest on “People Got to Be Free,” included here towards the end of side two. “If there’s a man who is down and needs a helping hand/All it takes is you to understand and/To pull him through,” the song gently implores, while its memorable chorus promises a “lovely, lovely world” if only everyone could practice this golden rule. Interestingly, the song was only partly inspired by the MLK assassination that spring. Around the same time the group’s van broke down in rural Florida, leading them to be hassled for being no-good long-haired hippies, a la “Easy Rider”. And so it goes.
Elsewhere on Freedom Suite, the Rascals revert to old ways with Eddie Brigati cutting a rug and proclaiming “Any Dance’ll Do” and Felix going full soul-revue on “Baby I’m Blue.” Guitarist Gene Cornish also contributes two tunes and really shines on the nostalgic waltz-like number that recalls a time when “Love Was So Easy to Give.” The second disc is a whole other ball of wax. The guys did have bona fide jazz influences and experience in high-profile house bands, three of them having played with Joey Dee and the Starliters at the famous Peppermint Lounge in Times Square. But the stretching out here (two of the three cuts here clock in a way over ten minutes) could have used more focus. In fact, “Boom” was a 13-minute Danelli drum solo, without even the benefit of an opening and closing band theme. Dino was a legit jazzbo, having played with Lionel Hampton and Red Allen, and the playing is great but this is pretty indulgent even by late Sixties standards. The full band is present for the sidelong “Cute” which works better. There are fine solos by Cavaliere on organ and Cornish’s needling lead guitar, and a drum-and percussion workout (with Brigati on congas) that could have replaced “Boom” altogether.
This double album would prove a tough sell for casual fans, many of whom already owned the #1 single from several months before. Freedom Suite peaked at #17 (and at #40 on the R&B chart) but slipped away not long after and two additional singles from it cracked the Top 40 but not by much. The Rascals continued making high-quality music but without the commercial success they were used to. In 1971, after the departure of Brigati and Cornish, a new line-up put out another double LP (Peaceful World) that continued, with the help of greats like Ron Carter, Alice Coltrane and Pepper Adams, with the jazz explorations and sometimes fantastically so, as on the 21-minute title track.
Shortly after the release of Freedom Suite, Felix Cavalier told Billboard magazine, “We don’t believe in violence and we don’t believe in utter passivity. We want to point out a middle road to satisfy both extremes and solve the problems.” Worthy sentiments in our current American era, one that is so divisive that the current president makes Mr. Nixon look like Mr. Rogers (almost). The Rascals legacy of affirmation and compassion, mainly carried on by oldies radio and CD re-issues, got a big boost starting in 2012 with the “Once Upon a Dream” reunion concert and multimedia show that featured all four original members. Produced by “Little Steven” Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, it brought the group’s good vibes and useful messaging into a 21st century that sorely needs it.
In the broadest sense, Joni Mitchell’s career can be broken down into three parts. From her debut album in 1968 through to her commercial high-water mark with 1974’s Court and Spark, she was one of pop music’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Her soulful insights into the complex nature of modern relationships where free love and feminism intersected were treasured by lyric sheet-devouring fans and fellow performers alike, her songs eagerly covered by everyone from Judy Collins to Nazareth. Likened to a “Nordic princess” by Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller, the Canadian-born Mitchell also stood out as a flaxen-haired beauty and muse of the age, feted in song by paramours like Graham Nash and James Taylor, as well as by admirers like Led Zeppelin. Since 1980, in the wake of changing musical fashions, Mitchell has been more figurehead than superstar, releasing an album about every three years (until 2007) while navigating the twists and turns of a compelling personal history. In between was a fascinating transitional time where she hoped to keep her public while branching out from her folk-rock base, delving into jazz, ethnic rhythms and more ambitious narrative structures.
Smack dab in the middle of this 1975-79 period came this high-sailing double LP. Caught between possessive audience expectations and the higher critical standards of the time, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was widely dismissed upon its release, although her hardcore fan base was still large enough to make it go gold, Mitchell’s last album to do so.
An unsavory aspect of the “Don Juan” album is that Mitchell posed in blackface for the cover. I didn’t even realize this until decades after the record’s release and I bet I’m not the only one.
The stylistic “excesses” of DJRD did not materialize out of thin air. A vocalist, wordsmith and musician of uncommon and uncompromising talents, Mitchell’s adventuresome streak was already evident on her #2 hit Court and Spark with the elaborate time signatures of “Car on the Hill” and the verbose bebop of “Twisted.” By the following year she recorded “The Jungle Line”, a nearly unclassifiable mix of emphatic Burundi drumming, buzzing Moog synthesizers and lyrics suggesting global cultural interconnectedness and 1976’s Hejira was a sophisticated series of jazz-tinged tone poems inspired by a cross-country drive. But it looked like a case of ambition gone awry when Don Juan ushers itself in with the signifying “Overture” as Mitchell sets a stark mood with several alternately-tuned acoustic guitars while bassist Jaco Pastorius eventually enters with a coiling flurry of notes. This sound is as intriguing as it must have been befuddling for many fans at the time. Pastorius, the celebrated four-string master from Weather Report, would be the main collaborator for this album’s often-sparse soundscapes. But the material is not as unapproachable as was once claimed. This is still Joni Mitchell, the famous “romantic freelancer” as termed by critic Timothy Crouse, and the remainder of side one shows it. As ever, she’s stepping out and open to fresh discovery (“Cotton Ave.”) and wrestling with the possibilities of new love, taking forms both anxious (trying to coax a Mr. Mystery out of his shell in “Talk to Me”) and hopeful (the open-hearted “Jericho,” reprised from 1974’s live double Miles of Aisles).
Four decades removed from the bad press (the headline of Creem magazine’s write-up was “Don Juan Says He Doesn’t Know You”) most of this album proves to be a pretty appealing listen. At 59 minutes, DJRD its not time demanding and it gradually reveals its charms, even if they are sometimes held out at arm’s length. The glittering/tawdry Miami Beach vignette “Otis and Marlena” is a top-notch example of Mitchell’s descriptive powers (“the street lights fade away/on louvered blocks in sea green air”) and if the seven-minute percussion instrumental that follows seems a world away from “Both Sides Now” it doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. The heady rush of words on the title track proves that Joni can still write with the best of them, even the vintage Dylan that it resembles. The 34 year-old Mitchell is taking stock (“Last night the ghost of my old ideals/Reran on channel five”) of both her life and her artistic image, flatly stating, “There is danger and education in living out such a reckless lifestyle.” These sentiments, and the hint of retreat from her jet-setting aura, also run through Don Juan’s magnum opus, the sixteen-minute “Paprika Plains.” On either side of its long Aaron Copeland-channeling middle section, writ large for orchestra and Mitchell’s emphatic piano, are lyrics where our ambivalent heroine cinematically steps out on a balcony to escape a “stifling” high-society affair, the better to dwell on the simpler times of her childhood on the Canadian prairie. “I take my sharpest fingernail and slash the globe to see/Below me, vast Paprika plains”, Mitchell sings, before the daydream dissipates and she’s obliged to head back inside.
But it wasn’t really Mitchell’s choice to leave the party that was her long run of popular and critical success. A proud, headstrong artist who was stung by the reception afforded this ambitious album, she soldiered on with an unusual collaboration with jazz giant Charles Mingus before the onset of semi-obscurity. Mass audience openness to pop innovation that had started around 1967 had now waned but Joni, who had long railed against the machinations of the music industry, remained true to her unpredictable imperatives and causes. In her footsteps followed the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Joanna Newsom and countless others. Later years brought challenges to Mitchell beyond the romantic arena that she had chronicled so acutely. Since the 1990s she has acknowledged her health problems, has established a relationship with her adult daughter (who she gave birth to in 1965 but then gave up for adoption) and lent her voice to issues like environmental awareness. The future cares of later life seem to inform the closing moments of this intriguing and peculiar album. “In my dreams we fly” she sings as if about her generation’s heyday, but then notes that to make it over the long stretch of a lifetime, “we’ll have to row a little harder.”
The sessions that produced this landmark double-album by Miles Davis, released fifty years ago this week, began precisely one day after the Woodstock festival concluded. On August 19, 1969 at 10 AM—exactly 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix concluded the events in upstate New York with his legendary set—the 43 year-old Davis and his talented cast of young sidemen shuffled into Studio B at Columbia Records down in Manhattan to start work on Bitches Brew.
The timing has a nice symbolic ring to it. Bitches Brew has always been seen as a touchstone recording that fused the worlds of modern jazz and heavy rock. Actually, Miles had been leading up to this magnum opus with the four studio albums he released in 1968 and ’69, especially In a Silent Way and Miles in the Sky. Electric instruments and groove-like jams became more predominant and the players he had under his wing (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and others) would all become key players in the jazz-rock “fusion” genre that took flight in the Seventies.
Bitches Brew even today sounds adventuresome in an almost eccentric way. Many jazz purists were skeptical or downright hostile, rock fans were more welcoming. Weaned on the improv excursions of Cream and Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies, they helped get the album up to #35 on the Billboard pop charts. Over time, of course, it would be generally recognized as a masterwork. But not classic in the sense that Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue is viewed. The more traditional Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, while it took Brew thirty-four years to go platinum.
Thanks to this ten year-old issue of Jazz Times for many of the anecdotes in this post.
The 20-minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” takes up all of the old side one. It kicks off with a steady cymbal-riding rhythm, plus the brooding bass clarinet of Bernie Maupin and the whirling keyboards of no less than three electric pianos, played by Zawinul, Corea and Larry Young. Davis enters the picture at 2:30 with a trumpet solo that grows in volume and burns with intensity—a far cry from the cool and controlled tone he was once known for. Here he is blowing his horn over two sets of crashing drums (Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White) and the fevered conga slaps of Don Alias. At around seven minutes, John McLaughlin makes his presence known with some nervy electric guitar fills before the piece slips into a trippy section marked by Miles’ echoed trumpet.
That brief passage is an early indication (at least for the layman’s ears) of one of Bitches Brew central features: the use of editing and loops to mold a finished product from the extended sessions where producer Teo Macero let the tapes keep rolling (he an Miles would piece together the finished product later). This use of the recording studio as an “instrument” had been popular in rock music at least since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper but was pretty unusual (even controversial) for jazz, where an organic group effort would work in unison for a best take.
As Davis leads “Pharaoh’s Dance” to its dynamic conclusion with some sharp staccato runs, you get the full sense of just how big this post-bop wall of sound is. This track features three horn players, three keyboardists, two drummer, two percussionists and both acoustic and electric bass. The rest of the LP features the same massing of players, a clear departure from be-bop’s quartet and quintet conventions.
Next up is the alpha-dog title, another side-filler, this one at an envelope-pushing 27 minutes. The famous opening theme is a “tempo rubato” set piece with reverb-soaked electric piano and Miles’ stentorian trumpet blasts. It sounds like a clarion call from a distant planet. At the three-minute mark a groove starts up—you can hear the leader snapping his fingers in time—with clarinetist Maupin and bass guitarist Harvey Brooks kicking it in (Dave Holland plays the stand-up bass). It predictably builds up momentum in the tenacious, if occasionally disheveled, manner of this album. Miles lets rip another upper-register solo until overtaken by McLaughlin’s guitar and a return to the rubato. Another jam follows with noticeable edits until the clarion blasts return to end it.
The whole effect is bracing, radical and a little disjointed. But Bitches Brew was the was the whole package, otherworldy right from Abdul Mati Klarwein’s Nubian fantasia gatefold cover art down to the very last groove etched into the vinyl. Still, some listeners likely had jumped off the bus by this point. Donald Fagen, whose Steely Dan was a rock band informed by its love of jazz, has said that the album “was essentially a big trash-out for Miles. It sounded like he was trying for a funk record and just picked the wrong guys.” Davis also took plenty of heat at the time from his colleagues. Holland has told Jazz Times of a backstage scene at the Village Vanguard club in New York. “His older friends (were) telling him he was destroying jazz. But Miles stuck to his guns.”
That, of course, was just like Davis. He was an uncompromising, sometimes menacing, personality, whose life mission seemed to be staying one step ahead of everyone, all else be damned. His influential, forward-thinking sensibility can esp. be heard on side three’s “Spanish Key.” Here is a more straightforward avant-funk jam, the kind that would go on to inspire future R&B and hip-hop artists. It’s also a coming-attractions showcase for future fusion stars, featuring brilliant solos from saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The next track is even named for the guitarist, a piquant guitar workout that, at 4:36, is the only cut that is less than ten minutes.
The aptly-named “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a stunning 14-minute number whose smoky groove makes it initially sound like one of the LP’s more laid-back tracks. Here both Holland and Harvey Brooks take up the electric bass, Don Alias joins Jack DeJohnette on drums and Maupin’s down-low clarinet completes the rock-solid rhythm section. Miles’ skittering runs eventually build-up to an exciting (if chaotic) plateau with Corea and Joe Zawinul soloing simultaneously on electric piano before Davis re-enters with his some of his most sensuous playing on the album.
The title and first few free-floating minutes of “Sanctuary” give the impression that Bitches Brew will go out on a (relatively) reflective note. But nothing on this revelatory record is that simple and when the clattering drums enter the picture you realize that there is no easy sanctuary in this world and the abrupt ending is as enigmatic as the man would have it.
Most of the standard 2-CD editions of Bitches Brew include the excellent add-on track “Feio.” Naturally, there are a few kitchen-sink BB box sets to choose from, centered on the 40th and 50th anniversaries. One related release that I like is the one-CD Bitches Brew Live. It is split between Miles’ July 1969 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival (one month before the BB sessions) and his full August ’70 set in front of 600,000 rock fans at England’s Isle of Wight.
The career of Miles Davis took a typically unusual turn not long after Bitches Brew. Next up was the even more rockist Jack Johnson and a few similar releases. But not long after the poorly received (initially anyway) On the Corner, Miles took a five-year hiatus, saying he “couldn’t hear the music anymore.” (A typically strange but astute but Miles-ism). After his self-imposed exile, Davis retained his popularity if not his cutting-edge status; that period is perhaps most known for his crowd-pleasing versions of such pop hits as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” In concert, he still could rip it up as I witnessed when I saw him at Newport in 1989, two years before his passing. He had the hipsters in awe and many of the wine-and-cheese blanket-sitters scratching their heads, a true maverick right to the very end.
–Rick Ouellette 4/4/2020
This is #17 in my “Make Mine a Double” series. Next up: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”
More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.
If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.
Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.
In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.
Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.
Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.
From their humble beginnings as a family singing group, the Bee Gees went on to become one of the biggest selling popular music groups of all time. The three Gibb brothers reached their commercial zenith as the dominant act on the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which has sold some forty million copies worldwide. Although their early AM hits and the iconic disco workouts of Fever remain in steady rotation in various radio formats, little if anything from Odessa graces the airwaves anymore. This lushly packaged double LP hit the stores in early ’69 and although it did achieve a measure of success (#20 in the U.S., #10 in the U.K.) the album was hindered by the lack of a monster single to sustain its reputation. In fact, a dispute between two of the brothers over what song to release as a 45 caused a fissure in the band that would take a couple of years to patch up. An impressive set of progressive pop compositions beautifully sung and performed, Odessa could be a fresh discovery for those who have long extolled the virtues of the much-worshiped Pet Sounds. Like that classic album from the Beach Boys (also a family-based group) Odessa elevates a teenage art form into a sophisticated new realm without ever seeming pretentious.
“First of May” was the only single released from the double album and only got as high as #37 in the U.S.
Born on England’s Isle of Man, older brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice honed their close harmony style from an early age. Their family moved to Australia in the late Fifties but after topping the Down Under charts in 1966 with the immortal “Spicks and Specks,” the brothers headed back to England. They fell under the auspices of impresario/producer Robert Stigwood, who heavily promoted the band and helped them hone their signature style on yearning, melancholic ballads like “To Love Somebody” and “Massachusetts.”
The Bee Gees in 1969, with drummer Colin Petersen, second from right, still a full member with the Gibb Brothers.
By the end of the Sixties, with high-aiming records like Sgt. Pepper and Days of Future Past all the rage, the Bee Gees made their move. The curtain-raising title track clocks in at 7:30 and features Maurice’s Spanish guitar and solo cello by guest Paul Buckmaster. The nautical imagery and historic references presage the work of artists like Al Stewart and (much later) the Decemberists. The boys even work in a new wrinkle on their usual theme of dealing with romantic setbacks, courtesy of the eyebrow-raising refrain, “You love that vicar more than words can say.”
But with seventeen songs to work with, there is no shortage of the Bee Gees’ stock-in-trade balladry, that keening heartache delivered by the famous high-pitched voices and insistent vibrato. Because tunes like “I Laugh in Your Face”, “Sound of Love” and “Never Say Never Again,” (“You said goodbye/I declared war on Spain”) sound familiar despite their relative obscurity, Odessa sometimes seems like a template for the elegant pop songcraft of a lost era. This craft extends to the musical performance. Drummer Colin Petersen kicks into gear when the group stretches stylistically, especially on an early foray into funk at the end of “Whisper Whisper.” There’s also a fun homage to The Band (“Marley Purt Drive”) a jaunty hoedown (“Give Your Best”) and an eccentric ode to Thomas Edison.
Despite the album’s long string of top-notch lead vocals by Barry and Robin Gibb, it may be the “quiet” brother Maurice who’s the unsung star here. Playing a variety of keyboards in addition to his bass duties, he comes to the fore on the loftier second disc, his grand piano leading the way on the orchestrated instrumental “Seven Seas Symphony.” He also takes full advantage on his one vocal showcase: “Melody Fair” is maybe the loveliest tune on a record chock full of them. Despite his reputation as a stabilizing presence in the midst of two more ambitious siblings, Maurice (who died in 2003) couldn’t prevent the rift caused when Barry’s “First of May” was chosen as the single while Robin’s “Lamplight” was relegated to the b-side. Robin (who passed away in 2012) was out of sorts over the notion that his older brother was being pushed out to center stage and split for a solo career.
Maurice Gibb’s delectable “Melody Fair” gained popularity two years after its initial release when it became the de facto theme song for the movie Melody starring Tracy Hyde.
Although Barry and Maurice carried on as a duo (Cucumber Castle, anyone?) the trio eventually re-united and re-defined themselves for the Seventies, leading to an outbreak of white leisure suits, exposed chest hair and those little spoons hanging around the neck. After Saturday Night Fever the excesses of the decade caught up with the Bee Gees, as Robert Stigwood insisted that they star with Peter Frampton in a mega-movie based on the Beatles most famous album. Seized by what was reported to be a sort of collective cocaine psychosis, cast and crew turned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band into a garish and silly film musical that was universally loathed. It is worlds away from the classy accomplishments of a work like Odessa, where ambition was happily married to good instincts.
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the most beloved and critically lauded of rock albums and it’s not hard to see why. It conflates two of the form’s most cherished devices—red-hot electric guitar solos and verses filled with vivid romantic disappointment, and achieves high-water marks in each, especially on its titanic title track. Most true-blue rock fans already know that as the Sixties drew to a close Eric Clapton was deep in the throes of a hopeless infatuation with Patti Boyd, already married to his close friend George Harrison. And that by 1970 Clapton was at a career crossroads. He had made his name as one of rock’s most exalted guitar heroes not long after moving to London from his native Surrey, first with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then especially with groundbreaking power-trio Cream. But Clapton soon grew disillusioned with the lengthy (and often overblown) jamming and psychedelic left turns of the virtuosic threesome—not to mention its fractious mix of personalities.
After Cream’s famous farewell concert at the Albert Hall in November of 1968, Clapton was at a bit of a loss. Hard-wired to a belief in the overarching integrity of American blues and averse to the type of adulation that would have hippies tagging London walls with the catchphrase “Clapton is God,” he rummaged around for the right musical fit. Next up was Blind Faith and although Eric may have been musically and personally simpatico with co-leader Steve Winwood (the group also included Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech) the band collapsed under the weight of its own supergroup industry hype after only one album. By the end of 1969, Clapton was content to be a sideman with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, playing his searing lead guitar lines from sidestage while the group’s namesake married couple held the spotlight. His first, eponymous solo LP came out soon after but before this became his chosen career path, there was one more go at working within a group format. Recruiting three members of the Delaney & Bonnie touring group and settling on a band name that obscured his role as frontman, the newly christened Derek and the Dominoes repaired to Criteria Studios in Miami during the summer of 1970. Soon after arriving their producer Tom Dowd suggested they check out a hot new group from Georgia who were playing a gig nearby, a specific request from their Cream-fan lead guitarist.
“Duane should be right along.” From l to r: Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle
Even without the addition of a second guitarist of equal high standing, the Dominoes would have likely enjoyed a good measure of creative success. Clapton’s three full-time bandmates—keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon—were a highly skilled supporting cast well versed in the soulful, Southern-fried rock and gritty R&B impulses of the Delaney & Bonnie/Leon Russell/Joe Cocker axis so popular at the time. But after seeing the Allman Brothers Band in concert, a mightily impressed Clapton quickly befriended (and recruited) lead guitarist Duane Allman, adding a whole new dimension to a project with a lot of upside already. Although the Allmans, like Cream, often pushed songs past the twenty-minute mark in concert, the jazzy blues improvisations of the Macon-based outfit seemed more organic and less show-offy than the famed British trio. Allman was, according to Clapton in his 2007 autobiography, “the musical brother I never had” and this was borne out by their complementary styles. The stinging tones of Clapton’s trusty Stratocaster meshed perfectly with Allman’s distinctive bottleneck slide sound and of course there would also be the sort of scintillating, fleet-fingered dual soling that would pass into guitar-geek legend.
Allman’s inspiring presence was timely. Clapton admitted in his book to going into the Layla sessions with only a couple of originals (eventual LP opener “I Looked Away” as well as a rough draft of the title cut) and a few blues standards he was keen to cover. But the material came fast and furious over that late summer and fall until it filled four sides with some of the most passionate rock music ever recorded. “I Looked Away” opens the album with a lilting country-rock groove that belies the emotionally-fraught soundscapes ahead, but it doesn’t take long to get a taste. The one-that-got-away lyric isn’t exactly groundbreaking but the vocals, with Clapton’s tenor trading verses with the deeper and somewhat gruff voice of Whitlock, are a marvel. This gambit (nearly as crucial to Layla’s success as the Clapton-Allman alliance) was said to be in emulation of Memphis R&B greats Sam & Dave, quite plausible considering the Stax Records background of fellow Memphis native Whitlock.
One can imagine the legions of guitar-loving rock fans, in the fallout of the psychedelic Sixties, having their ears prick up to this earthy and emotionally direct new music, especially after the two great tracks that follow it. The charming alliteration of “Bell Bottom Blues” came to Clapton after Patti Boyd’s request that he buy her a pair of designer flares when he got to the States. From that we get an absolutely tortured depiction of a spurned lover so in thrall to a woman that he would “crawl across the floor” and “beg you to take me back” for just one day so as not to completely perish from the scene, complete with a delicate upper-register guitar solo so heartfelt that its highlight are the notes almost too painful to play. But self-encouragement soon follows in “Keep on Growing” with Clapton and Whitlock again singing alternating lines of love lost (and offering supportive shouts of “yeah-yeah” when it’s the other’s turn) before the hopeful chorus and a liberating instrumental finish where an army of overdubbed Erics (there’s no Duane on this and two other tracks) lead the charge with the other three in full gallop close behind. In light of the originality of these three tracks, the side one closer—a conventional cover of the blues standard “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”—can’t help but pale in comparison.
But in the “Assorted Love Songs” of these four sides, fresh approaches far outnumber the inveterate twelve-bar tendencies that once prompted Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau to dub Clapton the “master of the blues cliché,” a comment that deeply upset the guitarist, then still with Cream. The other three Clapton-Whitlock collaborations (“Keep on Growing” was the first) add new hues to the old blues, the vibrant vocal tag-teaming and lofty instrumental constructions don’t let up thru the determinedly soulful “Anyday,” the chugging rocker “Tell the Truth” (a much faster version produced by Phil Spector had been released as a single) and the tour de force “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” In this Southern-style rave-up, a near-frantic Clapton rails against romance’s age-old injustices, as well as its confusions: “Won’t you show me a place/Where I can hide my lonely face/I know you’re going to break my heart if I let you.” Most anyone with a pulse has felt at least once in their life “like a song without a name/I’ve never been the same since I met you” though it’s one of the tunes that seems most specific to Patti Boyd: “I can’t keep from singing about you.” With volume levels that could have stripped the paint off Criteria’s studio walls, Duane solos throughout the song with an intensity that is almost superhuman. When Eric joins in, the notes seems to be coming at you twenty different directions and it all ends with a decelerated, Allman’s style outro, a sweet-toned reprieve after the cathartic emotions are fully exorcised.
This YT video of “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad” features lyrics on the screen and a fine photo montage of band members as well as Patti Boyd.
What’s amazing is that all this creative outpouring took place against an admitted background of such prodigious alcohol and hard drug intake that in our own relatively temperate age it would practically constitute a national crisis. Clapton was by now well down the road to the heroin addiction that would derail his life and career pretty much until 1974. And when the original songs ran out the covers that sat beside them were mostly first-rate as well. Their amped-up version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” may lack some of the gentler appeal of the original but the heraldic power chords, ardent vocals and Jim Gordon’s complex drum fills transform it into stirring tribute to Eric’s friend who died during the making of the album. The nine-minute take on Big Bill Bronzy’s “Key to the Highway” is more guitar-duel nirvana and the country seasoning added to Chuck Willis’ R&B stroll “It’s Too Late” made it the perfect choice to perform when the Dominoes made a well-received appearance on the Johnny Cash TV show. The best straight blues here is probably “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with Clapton’s torrid between-the-lines soloing and its relevant love-triangle lyrics that, though written by Billy Myles, seem to cut straight through to the Eric-George-Patti situation: the obsessed but conflicted narrator backs out of a potential affair with his best friend’s old lady.
Live on the Johnny Cash Show in 1971 doing “It’s Too Late.”
Patti Boyd was first seen by the greater public when, as a young London-based model, she got to play one of a group of uniformed high-school girls flirting with the Beatles on a train ride in A Hard Day’s Night. George asked her out on the set but had to wait a few days for a yes. A toothy, girl-next-door blond beauty who was never quite exotic enough for significant modeling success, Boyd was top shelf as a rock-chick muse. Married to Harrison in 1966, her husband’s deepening devotion to Eastern mysticism may have strained the relationship but they remained married until ’74 and Boyd was the inspiration for several George-penned Beatles tunes, most notably “Something.” Although Eric was convinced the couple were on the outs by the time he and Boyd met and although feelings may have been mutual, it would a long agonizing wait for him.
“What’ll you do when you get lonely/And nobody’s waiting by your side,” began the song he wrote about Boyd that he came to Miami with in an unfinished state. Although directed at the object of his desire, Clapton could just as easily be talking to himself and the mix of self-pity and admonishment in “Layla” is made even more urgent by the relentless repetition of the song’s famous signature riff, reinforced with a reputed six tracks of guitar. Tom Dowd was a key player throughout these sessions and not just for his incandescent production. He was a fatherly facilitator for the self-doubting Clapton and helped build what began as a ballad into a rock juggernaut, especially after Allman came up with the totemic seven-note figure. The missing piece of the puzzle was found when an elegiac piano piece written and played by Jim Gordon was added as the instrumental “coda” (it takes up more than half of the seven-minute running time) renowned for its aching beauty.
In the documentary film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, the late producer sits in front of his mixing board and deconstructs the song, isolating elements like Allman’s ghostly slide guitar sound and noting that both he and Clapton were playing notes that were “off the top of the instrument.” The quieter second section suggests that the spurned lover of the last four sides finally turns away from the woman who has “turned my whole world upside down” and heads off alone into the sunset (listen for Radle’s “walking” bass line) while Allman sounds his famous “bird tweets” in a majestic fade to black. But wait, there’s more. As if playing over the closing credits of a movie, LP closer “Thorn Tree in the Garden” makes for a fitting and intimate ending, a melancholic acoustic-guitar ballad by Bobby Whitlock that Dowd recorded by having the group sit around a single open mic.
Master producer Tom Dowd on the making of “Layla” from the highly-recommended documentary “Tom Dowd: The Language of Music”
If ever an album had a postscript—or, indeed, many of them—it’s Layla and Assorted Love Songs. First off, the album did well initially (#16 in the U.S.) but the title track only achieved its status as a ubiquitous radio classic after several fits and starts and re-releases over the next few years. The LP didn’t even get its own review in Rolling Stone, instead being twinned with the Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South in a write-up that betrays the higher critical standards of the day (“Bell Bottom Blues” is “filler”?!). Duane Allman, who was only able to squeeze in a few dates with the Dominoes on their subsequent tour, died in a motorcycle accident near his home in Macon less than a year after Layla’s release and a month shy of his 25th birthday. Carl Radle kept in contact with Clapton during the latter’s three-year layoff while battling drug addiction and was with him for the 461 Ocean Boulevard comeback album and tour in 1974—then succumbed to liver disease in 1980 after being unable to conquer his own substance abuse demons. Jim Gordon, the golden-touch session drummer whose voluminous list of credits ran the gamut from Bread to Frank Zappa, developed a severe case of (undiagnosed) schizophrenia and murdered his mother in 1983 in a delusional state that was discounted at trial due to changes in California law—as of January 2019 he is still serving a sixteen-years-to-life sentence. Thankfully, nothing tragic happened to Bobby Whitlock, unless one counts the fizzling-out of his Seventies solo career; he’s still in fine form whenever he resurfaces.
The only other official D&D release was this live album released in 1973, two years after the band broke up.
And what of Mr. Clapton? Everyone knows of his successful run as a solo artist and his elevation to one of rock’s elder statesmen. He got together with Patti Boyd soon after her divorce from Harrison and the two were wed in 1979, an era that produced perhaps the last well-known ode to her, the hit single “Wonderful Tonight.” But in her own autobiography called “Wonderful Today,” Boyd doesn’t pull her punches in recalling how quickly the union hit the rocks, the bottle quickly replacing the needle as Eric’s habit of choice. Her husband certainly has not denied just how far he fell during that period and the couple divorced in 1989, the final straw being Clapton fathering a child with another woman (Boyd was unable to conceive). Still, the ideal of the song she was most famous for inspiring stayed resilient: even his tepid “Unplugged” performance of “Layla” on MTV couldn’t kill it—indeed, it snagged Clapton one of the six Grammy awards he won in 1993. (Co-writer Jim Gordon shared the award but of course was not in attendance, neither was he mentioned in the acceptance speech). Many have commented over the years about the permenance of great art and its ability to rise above the many vagaries of its creators and creation and so too will Layla and Assorted Love Songs forever stand tall over the inauspicious circumstances that trail behind it.
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