Great Radio Controversy by Tesla

Great Radio Controversy by Tesla

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Great Radio Controversy by TeslaThe group Tesla never quite fit within any definitive genre box, which may have ultimately prevented the Northern California band from reaching their critical or commercial potential. In the 1980s they were a “hair band” that was a few steps ahead of the norm back then. In the 1990s they were too focused and upbeat to get swept up in the “grunge” wave. In between they bridged the gap with 1989’s Great Radio Controversy, their most highly renowned album. While riddled with more than its share of eighties “heavy metal” caricature, there is material on this album with soul and musicianship which few new releases touched at that time.

Formed in 1982 and originally named City Kidd, the group renamed themselves Tesla after inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, during the recording of their first album, Mechanical Resonance. The band’s signature sound was forged by lead vocalist Jeff Keith along with guitarists Frank Hannon and Tommy Skeoch.

Produced by the team of Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, The Great Radio Controversy contains mainly big-sounding production methods in line with 1980s pop-metal, but also reaches back to more authentic and earthy methods. The album was produced at Bearsville Studio outside of Woodstock, NY, a studio originally built by Bob Dylan’s manager.


Great Radio Controversy by Tesla
Released: February 1, 1989 (Geffen)
Produced by: Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero
Recorded: Bearsville Studio, New York, 1988
Track Listing Group Musicians
Hang Tough
Lady Luck
Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)
Be a Man
Lazy Days, Crazy Nights
Did It for the Money
Yesterdaze Gone
Makin’ Magic
The Way It Is
Flight to Nowhere
Love Song
Paradise
Party’s Over
Jeff Keith – Lead Vocals
Frank Hannon – Guitars, Piano, Organ
Tommy Skeoch – Guitars
Brian Wheat – Bass
Troy Luccketta – Drums

Great Radio Controversy by Tesla

 

While the songs early on are somewhat standard, the album does improve as it progresses. Co-written by bassist Brian Wheat, “Hang Tough” starts with his mechanical bass pattern before the twin guitars come in for a harmonized riff and later return for a decent dual guitar solo. “Lady Luck” follows with some rich vocal harmonies before “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)” breaks in with the driving rhythm guitar of Skeoch. A simple yet rewarding song, this third is cut by bluesy breaks in between the verses.

“Be a Man” starts with a long, bluesy slide intro before the slow riffing brings the song into its proper context. The pure rocker “Lazy Days, Crazy Nights” is a notch above most tracks on the early half of the album, with a dark and determined feeling overall along with a decent vocal hook. The album continues to get stronger with “Did It for the Money”, which creatively meanders before finding its footing, which is pretty solid and strong. “Yesterdaze Gone” displays Tesla at their heaviest, almost true heavy metal in beat but firmly down in the arena rock vocally, along with a pretty wild mid section guitar lead with harmonies so rich it almost sounds like a synth envelope.

“The Way It Is” was co-written by drummer Troy Luccketta and is one of the highlights of album as well as Tesla’s career. The moody acoustic intro and verse eventually gives way to the strong yet deep choruses. The song’s bridge and outro bring the song to a whole new level sonically as repetition works well with theme and musical backing and Keith’s vocals are at their absolute zenith during “The Way It Is”.

Tesla in 1989

“Love Song” is nearly as impressive, being perhaps the best power ballad ever. This uni-directional song is driven by the beautiful guitar motifs of Hannon. Commencing with a complex acoustic intro before moving towards the joyful strummed electric riff that introduces the song proper. The song is complete and melodic to the end without a wasted note or moment. “Paradise” is another fine song that contains a sad acoustic intro to a love song with a distinctly different feel than the song titled “Love Song”. Keith’s vocals pick up the pace while the music remains low key in the mid section prior to a funk-influenced alternate section which follows. The closing track,”Party’s Over” tries to end the album with a rock anthem, but falls just a bit short.

Great Radio Controversy reached the Top 20 of the American album charts and spawned three Top 40 hits on the Mainstream Rock chart. In 1990, Tesla maintained their commercial momentum with the live Five Man Acoustical Jam before returning to the studio the following year with Psychotic Supper.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1989 albums.

 

Pump by Aerosmith

Pump by Aerosmith

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Pump by AerosmithThe second distinct phase of Aerosmith‘s fame hit full stride in 1989 with the release of Pump, the band’s tenth overall studio album and their third release since reuniting in 1985. And much like their third overall release Toys In the Attack back in 1975, this album was a tremendous commercial success. Pump sold over seven million copies, is the only Aerosmith album to score three Top 10 singles on the Billboard pop chart, and became the fourth bestselling album overall for the year 1990. The album is also notable within the Aerosmith collection for its inclusion of a variety of instrumental interludes which precede several of the album tracks, adding a sense of diversity to the mix.

However, the overall musical quality of Pump is more mixed than its impressive commercial accolades may indicate. This was the second of three sequential studio albums with producer Bruce Fairbairn, which were all recorded in Vancouver, BC, Canada. All of these albums employed an overt attempt to further commercialize the band, with hook-heavy material trumping Aerosmith’s strong tradition of more raw and improvised-style, heavy, blues rock. On the bright side, guitarist Brad Whitford explained that the album title was a celebration of how “pumped up” the group was to kick their various substance abuse habbits, and this was especially evident in lead vocalist Steven Tyler, who put forth his greatest effort of his long career.

The group spent of the bulk of the winter of 1988-89 working on this album, first getting together to rehearse in December 1988 near their homes in Massachusetts and then migrating across the continent to the studio in Vancouver in Early 1989. Nearly 20 songs were written, with Fairborn splitting these compositions into “A” and “B” lists as far as “single” consideration. A few of the tracks not included on Pump were the later 1997 hit “Hole In My Soul” and the country-flavored “Sedona Sunrise”, which was later included on the 2006 compilation Devil’s Got a New Disguise.


Pump by Aerosmith
Released: September 12, 1989 (Geffen)
Produced by: Bruce Fairbairn
Recorded: Little Mountain Sound Studio, Vancouver, BC, February–June 1989
Track Listing Group Musicians
Young Lust
F.I.N.E.
Love In An Elevator
Monkey On My Back
Janie’s Got a Gun
The Other Side
My Girl
Don’t Get Mad, Get Even
Voodoo Medicine Man
What It Takes
Steven Tyler – Lead Vocals, Keyboards, Harmonica
Joe Perry – Guitars, Vocals
Brad Whitford – Guitars
Tom Hamilton – Bass, Vocals
Joey Kramer – Drums
 
Pump by Aerosmith

 

Pump commences with a super-sexed triology of tunes filled with not-so-subtle innuendos, almost to the point of absurdity. Tyler later admitted this was almost over-compensation for all the years of fame they spent wasted and disinterested in sex. The Opener “Young Lust” is simple and cheap, yet not terribly trite. Co-written by lead guitarist Joe Perry and hired hand Jim Vallance, this is a strong and frenzied number that, if nothing else, proves the group was not going “adult contemporary” as the 1980s wound down. A fairly impressive drum solo by Joey Kramer bridges into the follow-up “F.I.N.E.” This second song is much more melodic and original than the opener, closer to seventies-era Aerosmith in approach and dynamics. The expert use of both guitarists with distinct rock textures act as a canvas for Tyler’s strong vocals. The song’s title is an acronym for “Fucked Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”, coining a Hollywood catch-phrase for the nineties, with the only real drawback of “F.I.N.E.” being a few lame attempts at comedic lines.

“Love In an Elevator” begins with a female spoken-word intro known as “Going Down” while the song proper is pure Tyler and Perry, following each other in riff and melody. The verses contain some anthemic chanting in the spirit of Def Leppard and Perry’s mult-part lead is somewhat interesting with odd backing sound motifs thrown in during this extended mid section, including some backwards-masking and vocal harmonization this continues in the outtro with some trumpets by Fairbairn. Released as a single, the song peaked at number 5 on the Billboard pop chart. “Monkey on My Back” starts with Perry’s slow but heavy, bluesy slide guitar. This song’s overall feel is messy and distant, much like material from 1977’s Draw the Line, which gives it a bit of nostalgic touch, while scorning the excess of those old days with it’s telling of the consequences of heavy drug use.

Bass player Tom Hamilton, an oft-forgotten member of Aerosmith, co-wrote the classic “Janie’s Got a Gun”, which brought the group their first and only Grammy award. This masterpiece of arrangement and production is a true rock classic with beautiful sonic breezes coming from all directions – from the bouncy, high-pitched bass riff and slamming percussive effect of the verses, to the masterful use of keyboards and strings to the storybook passages of distinct song sections. The song tackles serious subject matter in a tackful and creative manner and it solidifies Aerosmith as a notch above most rock bands in their class. While there is little guitar presence (for such a guitar-centric group), “Janie’s Got a Gun” is certainly in the top echelon of pieces through their multi-decade career.

Aerosmith 1989

Many of the musical interludes on Pump were done by Randy Raine-Reusch, with his most impressive being the “Dulcimer Stomp” intro to “The Other Side”. Another Top 40 single, the song proper contains a nice arrangement of horns, harmonized vocals and plenty of pop hooks, while economically using guitars, with just small and subtle bits of riffing. The real weak spot of the album follows in the next trio of songs. “My Girl” contains very little substance or soul, while “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even” has a decent bluesy beginning before it abruptly screams into something totally uninteresting. co-written by Whitford, “Voodoo Medicine Man” seems to make an attempt at something dramatic and deep, but this ultimately doesn’t amount to much beyond the opening verse and the somewhat interesting mid section.

“What It Takes” really salvages the latter part of this album, by returning to the group’s mid seventies practice of performing a power ballad to conclude their albums. Co-wriiten by long time collaborator Desmond Child, Aerosmith perfects the song type they invented a decade and a half earlier, with their secret being more “power” than “ballad”, exuding all the emotion without resorting to any lame, sappy maneuvers. Fairborn’s generous use of accordion and Perry’s interesting pre-bridge guitar lead is only trumped by the song’s outro, the best moment on the album. True performance magic in the fantastic, improvised vocals by Tyler show the true heights of the singer’s talent. While “Janie Got a Gun” is the creative masterpiece which ended the original side one, “What It Takes” is the performance masterpiece to end Pump on the highest of notes.

With the greatest commercial success of their career, Aerosmith found a whole new audience and used this as an opportunity to tour and release a couple compilation albums in the early nineties. Their next studio release would not come until 1993 with the album Get a Grip.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.
 

The End of the Innocence by Don Henley

The End of the Innocence by Don Henley

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The End of the Innocence by Don HenleyThe End of the Innocence was Don Henley‘s best selling solo album and his lone solo release in the 16 year span between 1984 and 2000. A pure pop effort, the album spawned seven singles with six of those reaching the Top Ten of the Mainstream Rock charts and the title song reaching the Top Ten on the Billboard pop chart. The End of the Innocence expands on Henley’s extraordinary talent for composing, which dates back to the Eagles debut album, and moves firmly into the adult contemporary realm. While the sound of the album has remnants of 1980s slick, Henley’s enlistment of six co-producers, gives The End of the Innocence enough diversity to make it interesting.

Taking five years to compose and refine material for a follow-up, Henley relished in the success of his blockbuster 1984 album Building the Perfect Beast. Taking this time also gave him the time to gather some compositional, performance, and production talent for his next effort.

Among his collaborators on the album are Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, musical journeyman Bruce Hornsby, and Danny Kortchmar, part of California’s “mellow mafia”, who worked with Jackson Brown, Linda Ronstadt, and Warren Zevon among others. The result is an overall high quality album, albeit uneven. When the songs are good, they are very good, profound, rewarding, and indelible. On the flip side is the cheap eighties filler which, unfortunately, there is quite a bit of between the fine tracks. Still, there is little doubt that Henley was shooting for something big on this album to solidify his legacy in rock, and there is no doubt he achieved that goal.


The End of the Innocence by Don Henley
Released: June 27 1989 (Geffen)
Produced by: Don Henley, Mike Campbell, John Corey, Bruce Hornsby, Danny Kortchmar, Greg Ladanyi, & Stan Lynch
Recorded: 1988-1989
Track Listing Primary Musicians
The End of the Innocence
How Bad Do You Want It?
I Will Not Go Quietly
The Last Worthless Evening
New York Minute
Shangri-La
Little Tin God
Gimme What You Got
If Dirt Were Dollars
The Heart of the Matter
Don Henley – Lead Vocals, Drums
Mike Campbell – Guitars, Keyboards
Bob Glaub – Bass
Stanley Jordan – Guitars, Drums, VocalsThe End of the Innocence by Don Henley

 

The End of the Innocence is bookmarked by two of its finest tracks. “The Heart of the Matter” closes and solidifies the album with a perfect tone and tenor and great melody and hook. The wise and mature lyrics about “forgiveness” wash away the bitter taste of some earlier tracks. These lyrics are accompanied by fine musical motifs, from the opening twangy guitar riff through the many rooms of pleasant melody and sonic bliss. “The Heart of the Matter” was co-written by Campbell, and sometimes-Eagles contributor J.D. Souther and reached the Top 20 with significant airplay. The opening title track was co-written by Hornsby and features his deliberate, choppy piano style backing Henley’s melancholy driven melody. This is pure, calm, adult-oriented music with lyrics about the the shattering of childhood simplicity. with low-key yet tremendously effective vocals. “The End of the Innocence” also features an outstanding soprano sax lead by Wayne Shorter which adds to the overall mood of longing for redemption.

The original first side of the album includes a few pure eighties rockers that could be mistaken for cheesy movie soundtracks. After a strong percussion intro, “How Bad Do You Want It” is driven by a sax riff with synth decor and simple rhythms. The straight-forward melody and catchy hook is accompanied by background vocals by many including Sheryl Crow. “I Will Not Go Quietly” has some blues-based guitar riffing but is mainly rock-oriented with simple, hard rock drum beats up front. This song also kind of awkwardly features Axl Rose on backing vocals.

The middle of the album contains a couple more fine tracks. “The Last Worthless Evening” has acoustic with electric overtones reminiscent of Eagles. This stellar – musical mix and production to compliment Henley’s excellent vocals, perhaps his best on the album. The harmonized hook in the bridge brings this song , co-written by John Corey, to the next level. Like a classic movie score with high strings and a club piano out front, “New York Minute” arrives as the album’s most unique and interesting track. The song proper features a fine electric piano by Toto member David Paich along with another great sax solo by Shorter.

The remainder of the album contains songs of lesser quality which have not held up over time. “Shangri-La” starts with a semi-interesting percussive intro before it breaks into a lame attempt at a dance song. “Little Tin God” contains a reggae beat and is a little better than the rest of the filler, due to the great middle high-pitch bend synth solo. “Gimme What You Got” features a pleasant melody and good guitar textures but quickly gets old as it progresses. “If Dirt Were Dollars” has a good bluesy acoustic by Campbell throughout, but the lyrics and delivery are cheap (“as dirt”) as it is trite, preachy, and hard to get through. It is tracks like these that keep The End of the Innocence from being an absolute classic.

Still, the album sold over 6 million copies in the United States alone and won Henley his second Grammy award for Best male Vocalist in 1990. With various Eagles reunions through the 1990s. it would be another 11 years until Henley released his next solo album, Inside Job in 2000.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

1989 Images

 

Presto by Rush

Presto by Rush

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Presto by RushFor all the musical complexity that Rush has shown over the years, it is absolutely amazing how much they can do with simplicity. On Presto, their thirteenth studio album released in late 1989, the classic rock trio showed such masterful efficiency like never before or since. As lead vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee stated, “We wanted Presto to be more of a singer’s album, and I think you’ll notice that the arrangements musically support the vocals.” Produced by Rupert Hine, the album is also unique in some of its arrangement techniques, such as the inclusion of piano arpeggios (a first) and backing vocals by guitarist Alex Lifeson (a rarity).

In a way, it seemed like, for a good part of the 1980s, Rush was chasing the sound that they finally caught on Presto. It may be the point where the band started embracing their past and abandoned their silly technology-based notions of 1980s music. That being said, the group did pen an occasional gem during this three album (1984’s Grace Under Pressure, 1985’s Power Windows, and 1987’s Hold Your Fire) foray into synth pop. The problem was the lack of vigor and consistency on those albums, which they were finally able accomplished on this album.

Presto was the band’s first album with Atlantic Records, after their long association with Mercury Records. In kind, the album feels like a fresh start on many levels, including lyrically. Drummer and lyricist Neil Peart provided more experience-based lyrics which were given the ability stand out more than in most past Rush projects, due to the methodical arrangements. Peart also admitted that he took a looser approach to the lyrical content than on other Rush albums, with the songs “many threads” but with no “manifesto”. Rush also chose to remain close to home when recording this album, mimicking their frequent practice from the early years.


Presto by Rush
Released: November 21, 1989 (Anthem)
Produced by: Rupert Hine & Rush
Recorded: Le Studio, Morin Heights, Quebec, June-August 1989
Track Listing Group Musicians
Show Don’t Tell
Chain Lightning
The Pass
War Paint
Scars
Presto
Superconductor
Anagram (for Mongo)
Red Tide
Hand Over Fist
Available Light
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Keyboards
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Vocals
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion

Presto by Rush

 

While Presto is enjoyable throughout, there is no doubt that this album is a bit top-heavy with much of the finest material coming early on in the album’s sequence. “Show Don’t Tell” begins with a signature is the opening rudimental riff sequence, which harkens back to the groups excellent 1970s material. Lee plays a funky and bouncy bass throughout, including
a mid-section jam with a short bass lead. The verses and chorus hook are less classic Rush than 1980s Rush on this song which reached #1 on the U.S. Mainstream Rock Tracks Chart, however the song overall reaches a nice balance between the two worlds. And from here, the album only gets stronger.

“Chain Lightning” employs a unique hipster riff with exciting motion, like moving through a superhero sequence through verse and pre-chorus. A short but potent guitar lead by Lifeson complements the fantastic bass throughout and the rich vocal effects actually work well during the choruses. “The Pass” is simply a masterpiece and lyrically, one of Peart’s best ever efforts. Musically, the mood is captured with the pulse of simple, chorded bass notes that prove counterpart to the melody. There is a feeling of an emotional journey throughout as the second verse changes up the backing rhythm and Lifeson’s slow brewing guitar lead in the mid-section is backed by Peart’s drumming with expert efficiency and precision. Stated by the group on multiple occasions as one of their all-time favorites, the true highlight of “The Pass” is the potent lyric right from the top;

Proud swagger out of the schoolyard, waiting for the world’s applause / rebel without a conscience, martyr without a cause / static on your frequency, electric storms in your veins / raging at unreachable glory, straining at invisible chains…”

Rolling in like a hard rock song, “War Paint” soon becomes much more complex as it builds through the verses and choruses. The subtle musical passages are again masterful on this song, as this may well be Rush’s perfect 80s-era pop song. Lyrically, Peart uses a military allegory to describe perceived beauty and romantic courting, almost like different take on “Cinema Show” by Genesis. The heavy and climatic third verse precedes Lifeson’s best lead on the album, as the final lyrical turn calls for the “war paint” to “paint the mirror black”.

From here, the album becomes a bit weaker, while still staying well beyond the threshold of listen-ability. “Scars” has an interesting synth/percussion intro but is really quite hollow beyond that, fueled almost entirely by Peart’s lyrics and rhythms (both influenced by Africa). The album’s title song, “Presto” is a bit frustrating in the sense that it never seems to deliver on it’s own promise. A nice, driving acoustic throughout the verses is interrupted by a disjointed arrangement which tends to make the song lose momentum every time it feels like its about to hit its stride. “Superconductor” is built on simple rock riffs with lyrics that somewhat harken back to material on Signals and a very interesting, synth-fueled ballroom-waltz-like middle section, but falls into mediocrity beyond that.

The true highlight of the latter part of the album is “Anagram (for Mongo)”. This sounds like the kind of song that Rush was supposed to write in their new, sophisticated 1980s form all along. The driving pad-topped intro gives way to pure rock verses with Lifeson’s muted electric riffing, and then the chorus is lighter but beautifully melodic with Lee’s vocals. But the true genius of the song is the incredibly profound wordplay by Peart, who fused together multiple word puzzles (in the form of anagrams) into a coherent and melodic rock song. This leads the listener from room to room of philosophical observances and absurd contradictions, all while playing with words in a most cleaver way. Modern Rock Review listed “Analog (for Mongo)” as the #1 Great Forgotten Rush song.

Rush, rock paper scissors

The final three songs on Presto are almost experiments in sound, each with a strong piano presence. The dystopian “Red Tide” starts with a piano arpeggio and synth motifs, which are a little over the top for Rush. The song does pick up pace a bit in third verse but then unwisely falls back opening riff. “Hand Over Fist” contains a light and funky guitar riff which is soon dissolved in more textured beats and lyrics. This song has a fun lyrical configuration and hook, but not too much musically. “Available Light” closes the album as a moody track with slow, deliberate beat and minimalist piano chords which build in intensity through the chorus progression. This is another track which shows much promise but never quite delivers, making for a somewhat anticlimactic end to this fine album.

Despite the fact that it is rarely listed in the upper echelon of Rush albums, Presto is still a fresh and excellent listen a quarter century after its release. While reaching the Top 20 on the album charts, it did not fare much better commercially than its predecessor Hold Your Fire, but it was a definite symbol, as Rush entered the 1990s, that their sound and direction of the 1980s was about to be left behind.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

 

Journeyman by Eric Clapton

Journeyman by Eric Clapton

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Journeyman by Eric ClaptonThe 1980s seemed to have been a time for old time rockers to make incredible (albeit short) comebacks after several years in the wilderness. This was case with Paul Simon’s Graceland, the Grateful Dead’s In the Dark, and the many members of Traveling Wilburys with their fantastic 1988 debut album. In the case of Eric Clapton, he never really went away, releasing four studio albums earlier in the 1980s along with several live and compilation albums. Still, by the very end of the decade he had faded from the top level of popular music until his late 1989 release of Journeyman, which propelled “slow hand” right back to the top.

The 1980s were also troubling times personally for Clapton, as he developed a heroin addiction and admitted that he was an alcoholic. Reluctant to clean up, Clapton became suicidal and is quoted as saying, “the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead.” While struggling through recovery, Clapton performed on Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’ debut solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking as well as worked on two Phil Collins produced albums Behind the Sun and August. In 1987, Clapton remade “After Midnight” as a promotional track for Michelob beer and in 1988 he released his four-album box set Crossroads, which primed him for a big comeback.

Clapton did not compose much of the material on Journeyman himself, only collaborating on two of the twelve songs. He instead focused on performing (both on guitars and vocals) a handful of blues covers, a few more contemporary songs, and several new originals which were written by long-time collaborator Jerry Williams. There are also many cameos by fellow major-label artists, making the album an interesting mix of styles and genres. Produced by Jill Dell’Abate & Russ Titelman, the album’s sound fused eighties rhythms with overloaded, blues-era guitar textures, a method at least partially borrowed from 1980s-era ZZ Top material.


Journeyman by Eric Clapton
Released: November 18, 1989 (Reprise)
Produced by: Jill Dell’Abate & Russ Titelman
Recorded: 1989
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Pretending
Anything for Your Love
Bad Love
Running on Faith
Hard Times
Hound Dog
No Alibis
Run So Far
Old Love
Breaking Point
Lead Me On
Before You Accuse Me
Eric Clapton – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Dobro
Nathan East – Bass, Vocals
Jim Keltner – Drums, Percussion
 
Journeyman by Eric Clapton

 

Clapton’s vocals are quite distinct on this album, perhaps as good as any during his long career. This is evident on Williams “Pretending”, the album’s opening song which shot to the top of the rock charts. The song starts with very short boogie-woogie piano before breaking into a synth arpeggio topped with exquisite guitar licks and a very good chorus melody. The song’s highlight is the great outro where the intensity increases perfectly and the bluesy guitar smokes in superb splendor.

“Anything for Your Love” contains consistent and interesting percussion by drummer Jim Keltner, who provides the song’s deliberate pace which makes it at once relaxing and full of tension – a rare quality. “Bad Love” was co-written by Clapton and Mick Jones and begins with a synth part which works as a bedding for another fantastic guitar riff which sets the pace for what would become Clapton’s last #1 song. Featuring Collins on drums and harmony vocals, “Bad Love” features a middle bridge riff which makes the song an interesting listen.

“Running on Faith” has an eighties era beat but a definite retro feel everywhere else. This excellent ballad with good chord structures climaxes during the uplifting coda with a Gospel-like chorus. “Hard Times” was written by Ray Charles and mimics his club-style blues dominated by piano with accents of lead guitar and horns and a very impressive vocal effort by Clapton. The most regrettable moment on the album is the unwise cover of the classic “Hound Dog”, which takes away from album overall.

The second side begins with another Williams-penned pop song, “No Alibis” – perhaps the poppiest song on the album. Still, it has a nice, steady, deliberate approach to it and good harmonies featuring Chaka Khan and Daryl Hall. “Run So Far” was written by George Harrison and features the former Beatle on guitar and harmony vocals, while “Old Love” is a collaboration between Clapton and Robert Cray. This long, bluesy ballad, has earnest, dual guitars throughout the long coda. This is followed by “Breaking Point”, which was co-written Marty Grebb, the former keyboardist of the 1960s group The Buckinghams.

“Lead Me On” is the real highlight of the latter part of the album. It was written by Cecil and Linda Womack (of the group Lomack   Lomack) and features fine performances by both on this song. Linda provides co-lead vocals while Cecil plays acoustic guitar to accompany the nice electric piano and subtle electric riffs. An overall production highlight, the song is a tad bit more upbeat at the very end and shows Clapton’s versatility to enter different genres. The album concludes with “Before You Accuse Me”, a pure blue-eyed blues rendition of a 1957 Bo Diddley classic. This version is great sounding and catchy, while not very original overall.

Clapton claims Journeyman is one of his favorite albums and, while it only reached number 16 on the Billboard charts, it went double platinum, a first in his long career. However, this new found commercial success was dampened by the horrific tragedy of Clapton’s four-year-old son dying after a fall from a window of a New York City apartment in 1991. Clapton’s grief was later captured in the song “Tears in Heaven”.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

 

Junta by Phish

Junta by Phish

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Junta by PhishOriginally released only on cassette, Junta by Phish, defies almost every convention for debut albums. The album was independently recorded and produced by the Vermont-based group but contains top-notch sound to complement the rich progressive-rock influenced epics that persist throughout the album’s lineup. Titled after the band’s first official manager, the album contains mainly nontraditional structures and arrangements based on jazz fusion and improvisation, resulting in symphonic-like epics where each member is given ample room to shine. The rare, few “basic” songs on Junta are mainly light and tend to lean towards the upbeat, funk side of the rock spectrum.

Phish was formed by guitarist Trey Anastasio, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman at the University of Vermont in 1983 and they played their first live performance at the school’s cafeteria late that year. They cut their teeth in the mid eighties playing Grateful Dead songs. In 1985, keyboardist Page McConnell joined the group, completing the band’s four-piece lineup, which persists to this day. During this era, the group distributed at least six different experimental self-titled cassettes and Anastasio went so far as to write a nine-song concept album accompanied by a written thesis called The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday.

In 1988, the band began a rigorous practice schedule, which included locking themselves in a room and jamming for hours on end to “discover” new material. Junta is a product of a couple of these sessions and was brought as one piece to the studio to be recorded in its entirety.


Junta by Phish
Released: May 8, 1989 (self-release)
Produced by: Phish
Recorded: Euphoria Sound Studios, Revere, Massachusetts, 1988
Track Listing Group Musicians
Fee
You Enjoy Myself
Esther
Golgi Apparatus
Foam
Dinner and a Movie
The Divided Sky
David Bowie
Fluffhead
Fluff’s Travels
Contact
Trey Anastasio – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Page McConnell – Piano, Vocals
Mike Gordon – Bass, Vocals
Jonathan Fishman – Drums, Trombone, Vocals
 
Junta by Phish

 

Anastasio got the bulk of compositional credit on the album, starting with the opener “Fee”, a truly excellent song with Caribbean and jazz percussive beats and tones. The soaring vocals with staccato backing vocal scats shows that, although they rarely display it, the group has some vocal chops. The first epic, “You Enjoy Myself” is in sharp contrast to the melodic opener, making its arrival one of the few really awkward moments on the album. Improvised with odd timings, the piece works into a progressive waltz, driven by the organ and piano McConnell. Then at about the midway point, an excellent guitar rips in for a few fleeting moments before the climatic funk section starts along with one word chants and a strong bass by Gordon.

“Esther” takes the album on yet another wild turn, as lyric-rich journey which changes mood from carnival to church to an ultimate tranquil tragedy of drowning. The excellent piano riffs by McConnell are reminiscent of Tony Banks during the better Genesis years and the persistent groove by Fishman throughout provides the glue for the song through its nine and a half minutes. “Golgi Apparatus” starts as definite funk jam but soon morphs into something more rock oriented, perhaps the most rock-oriented song on the album, showing the versatility of the group. The next couple of tracks tend to get a bit repetitive. “Foam”, repeats the same mechanical pattern forged by a bass riff with sharp piano notes and guitar motifs above, while “Dinner and a Movie” gets a bit mundane lyrically, but is interesting musically. This is the part of the album where you’re just waiting for a release, the whole jam thing is a bit exhausting by this point.

Then comes the most rewarding song on the album, “The Divided Sky”. This mostly instrumental, twelve-minute epic begins with a nice acoustic intro with the perfect complement of xylophone by McConnell and bass by Gordon. The intro section is cut by deep vocal harmonies where the music stops completely before returning with a totally different feel and arrangement. Here the group methodically builds towards a guitar lead before breaking down to a quiet organ motif on which a new, signature guitar riff builds the song back up. Then comes the payoff of the greatest guitar lead on the album by Anatasio and a full-fledged musical jam by the entire band through the latter part of the song. In contrast, the follow-up eleven-minute “David Bowie”, while still a great jam, pales as a follow-up to “The Divided Sky”.

“Fluffhead” starts with a fine, elongated acoustic guitar riff and honky-tonk piano and breaks into a catchy (albeit silly) hook. Combined with the instrumental part “Fluff’s Travels” (which really isn’t a separate piece), this is the longest piece on the original album, which is saying something for an album like Junta. Another good guitar lead over some very odd chords and timing also make for, perhaps, the closest to a true jazz improv. Eventually it all releases into reprise of “Fluffhead” with some Gospel-like revival singing improvisation before it dissolves into a simple, strumming acoustic riff and a winding rendition of the opening riff. The album wraps with “Contact”, the sole composition by Gordon, whose slow bass riff introduces the song. Much like the album’s opener, this closer has a Latin feel and, while lyrics are again repetitive again, but not as mundane as on other songs and the tune is more than salvaged by some nice bass motifs and a bridge with romantic lyrics.

Junta finally got wide release when Elektra Records distributed a massive two CD, two-hour release in late 1992, three and a half years after the original cassette. The newer version included three bonus tracks – “Sanity”, “Icculus”, and the twenty-five minute “Union Federal” – along with a longer version of “Contact”. In 2012, a vinyl version of the original eleven song version of Junta was released, which in a way completed this classic album’s journey to the appropriate medium.

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1989 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of 1989 albums.

 

Yer Album by the James Gang

Yer’ Album by The James Gang

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Yer Album by the James GangYer’ Album is the debut album by James Gang,  displays this power trio’s genius and raw power through the compositions but also shows  their lack of recording experience due to the various filler throughout. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, it is clear that the group looked both to the East and the West for musical inspiration. This applies to their original compositions as well as the pair of covers. With a healthy dose of British heavy rock and California folk rock topping the trio’s Southern blues-flavored core, Yer Album is a celebration of all elements of the expanding world of rock and roll and the end of the sixties.

James Gang drummer Jim Fox was a member of the band, The Outsiders, who had a national hit, “Time Won’t Let Me”, in the mid sixties. After leaving that group, Fox wanted to form a group oriented towards British rock. He recruited bassist Tom Kriss and a guitarist and keyboardist to form the original incarnation of the James Gang. After several lineup shuffles during the group’s first year, Fox was approached in 1968 by guitarist Joe Walsh who wanted to audition for the group. As the group narrowed from a five piece to a trio, Walsh assumed lead vocal duties and would eventually be their most identifiable member.

ABC Records staff producer Bill Szymczyk was assigned to the group, a serendipitous move that began a long professional relationship between Szymczyk and Walsh. Szymczyk would go on to produce all three of the James Gang’s albums which Walsh played on as well as many of his solo albums through the 1970s and later albums by the pop group the Eagles, which Walsh joined in 1976. But long before the group was posthumously dubbed “Joe Walsh’s James Gang”, they were a legitimate power trio, with each given their own space to jam and demonstrate their musical chops.


Yer’ Album by James Gang
Released: March, 1969 (ABC Records)
Produced by: Bill Szymczyk
Recorded: The Hit Factory, New York City, January 1969
Side One Side Two
Introduction
Take a Look Around
Funk #48
Bluebird
Lost Woman
Stone Rap
Collage
I Don’t Have the Time
Wrapcity in English
Fred
Stop
Group Musicians
Joy Walsh – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Piano
Tom Kriss – Bass, Flute
Jim Fox – Drums, Percussion

First the frivolous and annoying. In the grooves of the at the ends of each side of the original LPs were the infinite spoken messages, “Turn me over” and “Play me again”. Such antics also pertained to the opening tracks of each side. “Introduction” starts the first side with an improvised string quartet which cross-fades to a strummed acoustic riff which then roughly dissolves into the first proper song. It is a bit ironic that the first proper song by a group featuring a guitar legend like Joe Walsh is so keyboard dominated as “Take a Look Around”. The verses and chorus are dominated by an out-front organ and a piano holding the back end, all built on calm textures and acid rock ambiance. The song is strong on melody and mellow throughout with the middle section cut by a slow but piercing electric guitar lead, which returns again in the outro with a fuller arrangement. After this song is an odd, but interesting, section with competing spoken words and phrases.

“Funk #48” contains the simplest of grooves and lyrics in the simplest of songs, albeit still very entertaining and a great contrast from the previous song. Szymczyk commented that the song started as a sound check warm-up riff but quickly developed into the funk/rock groove, driven by the rhythm section of Kriss and Fox. The second half of the first side contains a couple of extended renditions of contemporary covers. Starting with a grandiose intro of piano and strings and interrupted by wild guitar interludes, the group eventually kicks into a rock-oriented version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird”. After a few verses, the song slowly meanders into a middle jam with exquisite drumming by Fox and texture-based guitar phrases by Walsh. The Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman” provides an extended showcase for each musician, particularly bassist Tom Kriss, who starts his showcase with a hyper-riff on bass and provides, perhaps, one of the most extensive bass solos in rock history. Most of this nine minute is an extended jam where each member leaves it completely out on the floor, especially the rhythm players, as the entire jam is much more than self-indulgence, it builds in tension and intensity throughout.

Side Two starts with more ambient noise, in the totally annoying “Stone Rap” before the beautiful, moody, and dark “Collage”, co-written by Patrick Cullie. This track could be the theme song for the entire album, as it truly is a collage of musical styles. The calmly strummed acoustic is accented by poignant but moody bass and strong drums and later some high strings and slight electric guitar join the mix. Overall, the tune is a real sonic treat and is original like no other. “I Don’t Have the Time” sounds (early) Deep Purple influenced as it is fast paced heavy rock, dominated by guitar overdubs and a furious drum beat, all while Walsh’s vocals carry an even keel, keeping the whole song grounded.

The final filler piece, “Wrapcity in English” goes back to the piano and string quartet with a melancholy, minor note and not quite as frivolous as the rest of the filler on the album. “Fred” is one of the odder songs on this oddest of albums. The organ returns (although not as much presence as on “Take a Look Around”) and first two verses have long and deliberate vocal lines for a somewhat psychedelic effect. In contrast, the middle bridge features an upbeat jazz/rock section with harmonized guitars. The twelve minute “Stop” feels like the most natural song for the band on the album – a totally legitimate power trio jam, which seems like it will never actually “Stop”. A great track for jam-band enthusiasts, especially those who lean towards the heavy rock/blues side, the group provides a parting shot to show the great promise for the future.

However, Yer’ Album would be the one and only album to feature these three together, as bassist Tom Kriss departed from the group by the end of 1969, making this a true capture of lightning in a bottle.

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1969 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.

Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks

Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)
by The Kinks

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Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The KinksAlthough The Kinks were part of the first wave of British artists to break through following the Beatles, they were never really considered to be directly influenced by the Fab Four. However, to listen to the Kinks 1969 album ,Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), is to hear some of the finer elements of their more famous British counterparts, performed in parallel time. All that being said, this concept album is truly unique and excellent in its own right, exploring many genres of English and American music. In fact, the album may have been their finest overall output during the 1960s.

The album was born out of an unfinished television play, partially developed by novelist Julian Mitchell in January 1969. Kinks front man Ray Davies composed an accompanying soundtrack, with a plot which roughly revolved around a fictional character based on Davies’ own brother-in-law. The songs explore about a hundred years of English history through the eyes of one this fictional character.

Although the group was in the midst of their finest work, development took place during a period of turmoil. Their previous album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society ,was a commercial disappointment and founding bassist Pete Quaife abruptly quit to form a new group and was replaced by John Dalton. Recording for the album began in May 1969, with Davies as producer and chief composer. Guitarist Dave Davies did write a track which was used as a B-side of a single, while also releasing his debut solo album during the year. By July, the album was ready for release but was delayed as production of the television play developed with a planned broadcast of late September. However, problems got progressively worse and the show was cancelled at the last minute when financial backing fell through.


Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of British Empire) by The Kinks
Released: October 10, 1969 (Pye)
Produced by: Ray Davies
Recorded: Pye Studios, London, May–July 1969
Side One Side Two
Victoria
Yes Sir, No Sir
Some Mother’s Son
Drivin’
Brainwashed
Australia
Shangri-La
Mr. Churchill Says
She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina
Young and Innocent Days
Nothing to Say
Arthur
Group Musicians
Ray Davies – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Dave Davies – Guitars, Vocals
John Dalton – Bass, Vocals
Mick Avory – Drums, Percussion

While most songs on Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) are under four minutes in duration, they are very richly arranged as Ray Davies packs more into short songs than any other top-level composer. The driving rhythm and orchestra of guitars lay the foundation of “Victoria”, with an intro which sneaks up until hitting full rock and roll throws. A great melody and hook with subtle moments of extravagance (such as the sparse horn arrangement and background hysterical laughter) gave this pop song some chart and radio success.

The marching drum of Mick Avory introduces “Yes Sir, No Sir”. A song of cynicism, glazed with humor in the tradition of the novel Catch 22, Ray Davies’ vocals seem intentionally flat in order to portray a sense of meek obedience through the opening verses. The song then breaks into different sections with many horns with much packed into to this three minutes and forty-five seconds song. “Some Mother’s Son” continues the anti-war/anti-military theme but in a more melodramatic and haunting fashion. With heavy use of harpsichord and strings and melancholy vocals, Davies does a masterful job of tugging on heartstrings

While loosely continuing the anti-war theme, “Drivin'” does so in a Beatle-esque, happy-go-lucky theme that is more about escaping the worries of the day. The good, upbeat song with strong bass and rich background vocals was the first song recorded for the album and should have been a big hit for the band at the end of the sixties. “Brainwashed” is a song which takes another venture musically, with pure sixties hip, heavy rock instrumentation, and just the right amount of brass. The bass of newcomer Dalton really shines on this riff-driven rocker that is a precursor to punk. The first side concludes with the extended track “Australia”, which is put together almost like a commercial, albeit with much sarcasm. A cocktail jazz rhythm during first verses with cool piano mixture and high-pitched bass eventually gives way to some changes before settling into a calm jam which persists through the second half of the tune.

The second side begins with “Shangri-La”, a definitive British folk song and the best overall song on the album. Starting with a picked acoustic guitar and later harpsichord before climaxing with the intense chorus hook, “Shangri-La” is an in-depth look at middle class aspirations, lyrically. The bridge section adds more intensity with strong rhythms and horns and forceful vocals before dissolving back into the final verse, which includes great drum accents by Avory. This is one of those songs that seeps in slowly but ultimately makes an indelible mark.

The middle of side two contains the weakest material on the album, although not totally terrible. “Mr. Churchill Says” is a rock blues song about World War II era Britain during the first verses. Air raid sirens divide the song with a pure old-time rock jam section following. Some tacky chanting rap near the end of song is quite annoying as it obscures an otherwise fine percussion section. “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina” is another harpsichord-driven ballad, almost like an English children’s nursery song, while “Young and Innocent Days” starts as a gentle acoustic folk song but, like most songs on this album, builds in intensity. That song ends with nice, gentle acoustic guitar outro and contains lyrical nostalgia like;

I wish my eyes could only see everything exactly as it used to be

The album ends very strong with a couple of very good rockers. “Nothing to Say” is almost like a counterpart to “Yes Sir, No Sir” on the first side, a very good rock rhythm topped with fine piano and slide guitar by the Davies brothers. The title song “Arthur” has almost Southern guitar riffs with an upbeat country rhythm through verses. Again, there are pleasant sonic surprises around every corner and, although this song does not vary much through its five and a half minute duration, it never gets bogged down by predictability. In the end, the lyrics sum up the entire plot line of the album, retelling the story of Arthur Morgan.
Arthur was met with almost unanimous acclaim upon release. It received generous coverage in the US rock press

Although Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) only reached number 50 on the charts in the UK (and number 105 in the US), it was their highest charting position since 1965 and set up the commercial success of their 1970 album, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround. More importantly to us future rock fans is the excellent music itself, which is ultimately all that matters.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.

The Allman Brothers Band 1969 debut album

The Allman Brothers Band

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The Allman Brothers Band 1969 debut albumAs a group that became known for their live performances, The Allman Brothers Band did put out a handful of excellent studio albums. The first of these was their self-titled debut which fused blues, soul, and jazz into a potent rock and roll mixture. The album was produced by Adrian Barber with the original compositions written by lead vocalist and keyboardist Gregg Allman and features the inventive lead guitar work of Duanne Allman. Led by the brothers that gave the group its name along with a rich ensemble of six talented musicians, The Allman Brothers broke new ground in the very fertile music year of 1969.

Originating from the coast of Florida, the brothers Allman formed many groups through the 1960s. Starting with The Escorts in 1963, when the brothers were in their mid-teens, they went on to form the Allman Joys in 1965 and Hour Glass in 1967. Finally, The Allman Brothers Band was formed as the fourth incarnation of an Allman led group. Dickey Betts was enlisted as a second lead guitarist along with bassist Berry Oakley and the twin drummer/percussionists of Butch Trucks and Johanny “Jaimoe” Johnson.

After forming in early 1969, the group worked out their sound by playing throughout the South and building a dedicated audience. They also migrated their base from Jacksonville, Florida to Macon, Georgia during this time, as illustrated by the album cover photo at Mercer college. Once they worked out a record deal, the Allman Brothers recorded their debut album in New York City in September 1969.


The Allman Brothers Band by The Allman Brothers Band
Released: November 4, 1969 (Atco)
Produced by: Adrian Barber
Recorded: Atlantic Recording Studios, New York, September 1969
Side One Side Two
Don’t Want You No More
It’s Not My Cross to Bear
Black Hearted Woman
Trouble No More
Every Hungry Woman
Dreams
Whipping Post
Group Musicians
Gregg Allman – Lead Vocals, Keyboards
Duane Allman – Guitars, Vocals
Dickey Betts – Lead Guitars
Berry Oakley – Bass, Vocals
Butch Trucks – Drums
Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson – Drums, Percussion

Perhaps an odd selection for the opening track of a debut album, the Spencer Davis Group instrumental cover “Don’t Want You No More” takes the lead.  The track thunders in through a rudimentary first section with excellent drum beats by the duo drummers of Trucks and Johanson, and acts as a perfect overture and intro to the weeping blues of “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”. The most striking thing about this tune isthe soulful vocal by Gregg Allman in the type of intense blues rock which would soon be echoed by Led Zeppelin, especially on 1970’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You”.

With a joyous intro riff with odd timing in rhythm, “Black Hearted Woman” may be the quintessential Allman Brothers composition from this album. While the verses are funk/rock in nature, the song is the most rock-oriented song with catchy riffs, a cool percussion section, and vocal wailing to match the guitars. After a false ending, the song gets even more frantic for the final 30 seconds. “Trouble No More” ends the first side with the second and final cover song, originally recorded by Muddy Waters in 1955. It starts with straight-up drum beat and contains acoustic and electric guitar interplay between Duanne Allman and Dickey Betts throughout, which works to bring the blues standard into the stratosphere.

Allman Brothers Band 1969

Side two starts with “Every Hungry Woman”, a cool sixties electric rock track. After an intro slide guitar, a rock riff, meanders its way into the verses, accented by Gregg Allman’s overloaded organ sound and single guitar notes squeezed out with the urgency of a car horn. The rhythm is also excellent with the bouncy bass by Oakley and twin drummers hitting every jazz and blues button. The best overall song on the album, “Dreams” rolls in with methodical sound scape of sustained organ and savored guitar notes. It soon morphs into a high-class blues rock tune with a masterful musical interlude during the refrains with a rapid guitar rotation and matching rhythm. The long middle guitar lead starts prior to the two minute mark and takes up the bulk of the middle of the song before the group returns with another two verses divided by sections which feature a much stronger organ presence and a descending guitar riff.“Dreams” is a nice slow blues song that, at seven minutes, gives Duane some room to improvise

The album closes with “Whipping Post” and the doomy, picked bass intro which has become one of the more famous riffs in rock music. The song illustrates Gregg Allman’s travails in the music business, although he was only 21 at the time of composition. By far, this is Berry Oakley’s best performance on the album and definitely its most popular song.  The tune does tend to get melodramatic towards the end, but not to the point of tackiness. While only five minutes long on this studio version, “Whipping Post” would swell to over twenty minutes when performed live, as illustrated on the side-long epic on the 1971 live album,  At Fillmore East.

The Allman Brothers Band was in no way successful commercially, as it received little beyond the Southern region of the United States and would only peak at number 188 on the album charts. However, it set the table for the vastly more popular material of future years and established the Allman Brothers Band as a musical force.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.

Aoxomoxoa by The Grateful Dead

Aoxomoxoa by Grateful Dead

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Aoxomoxoa by The Grateful DeadAoxomoxoa is the third studio album by Grateful Dead and, perhaps, the one most dominated by lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia. Created under the working title of “Earthquake Country” (because the group wanted to create a “seismic shift” in popular music), the album’s unique name was a fabricated palindrome by lyricist Robert Hunter who co-wrote all of the songs, marking the commencement of a longtime songwriting partnership with Garcia. Aoxomoxoa was completely self-produced by the Grateful Dead and claims to be the very first recorded on a 16-track tape machine.

The Grateful Dead was formed in 1965 as a five-piece group called The Warlocks consisting of Garcia, Bob Weir on guitars and vocals, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on keyboards and harmonica, Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. They changed their name to Grateful Dead for a performance at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests in December 1965. With various influences mixed into a loose format, the group has been labeled “the Godfathers of the jam band”. Their self-titled debut album was released in March 1967 and consisted mainly of covers with only two band originals on that album. Later that year, the group added Mickey Harty as a second drummer. The second album, Anthem of the Sun was released in July 1968 and contained completely original material, with each of the (then) six band members contributing to the compositions. Keyboardist Tom Constanten joined the band in the studio to provide piano and “electronic tape” effects on Anthem of the Sun, which eventually led to his formally joining the band as a seventh member, although he would only be with the group for barely a year.

With this widely expanded lineup, one might expect rich, full, orchestral arrangements. However, Aoxomoxoa does have a strong emphasis on acoustic songs and simple arrangements, which give it a very accessible sound on most tracks. Still, the group put tremendous time, effort, and money into the production of this studio album, something they would focus much less on as their career unfolded and they became more focused on their legendary touring.


Aoxomoxoa by Grateful Dead
Released: June 20, 1969 (Warner Brothers)
Produced by: Grateful Dead
Recorded: Pacific Recording Studio, San Mateo, CA, September 1968-March 1969
Side One Side Two
St. Stephen
Dupree’s Diamond Blues
Rosemary
Doin’ That Rag
Mountains of the Moon
China Cat Sunflower
What’s Become of the Baby
Cosmic Charlie
Group Musicians
Jerry Garcia – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Bob Weir – Guitars, Vocals
Phil Lesh – Bass, Vocals
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan – Keyboards, Percussion
Tom Constanten – Keyboards
Bill Kreutzmann – Drums, Percussion
Mickey Hart – Drums, Percussion

With Garcia taking the lead on most of the recorded material, “St. Stephen” acts as an exception with some compositional work by Lesh and some strong vocals and guitars by Weir. The song feels its way around before it kicks in to proper verse and after three rapid renditions of verses, the tune enters a middle European folk section for the bridge, driven by instrumental motifs from keyboards, bass, and lead guitar. A couple of good jam sections dominate the ending sections of the song, which tell of 1st century martyr and saint of the new Christian religion. This is followed up by “Dupree’s Diamond Blues”, an entertaining carnival-like blues with ascending and descending single-note guitar riffs complimented by bouncing organ. Garcia delivers rapid vocal verses which are melodic and entertaining, built on his advanced sense of jug band songcraft.

“Rosemary” Is a short acoustic ballad with emotional, flanged vocals by Garcia. Beginning immediately with no lead-in, the lyrics are hard to decipher because of the heavy vocal treatment and, after three brief verses and a couple of bare guitar phrases, the song quickly ends. “Doin’ That Rag” contains very interesting musical arrangements and great drumming by the team of Kreutzmann and Hart. With much melody and song craft, this piece goes through various style changes rotated through the verse, post-verse and chorus along with some well-timed sudden stops and starts. “Mountains of the Moon” closes the first side with a picked acoustic rhythm topped by harpsichord. This track has a definite Baroque feel musically, but Garcia’s vocals are more blues-based and Lesh’s sparse acoustic bass provides just enough variation to make it interesting.

Grateful Dead in 1969

An odd drum roll introduces “China Cat Sunflower”, which takes a few seconds to find its groove but when it does the great complementing riffs make this one of the most indelible Dead songs ever. Here the group also provides vocal choruses which actually harmonize decently (something they fail to do on many songs in their catalogue). A very popular song among “Deadheads”, “China Cat Sunflower” was one of the most performed songs in through the decades. In contrast, “What’s Become of the Baby” is one of their most forgettable tracks. Almost monk-like chanting by Garcia throughout with well-treated vocal effects, this song almost ruins an otherwise fine album with this ridiculous eight and a half minute indulgence, which was only really meant for use with the right chemical mix. Then, like landing back to Earth with fine rock blues, “Cosmic Charlie” finishes the album with fine rudimental harmonies during the bridge section and whining lead guitars throughout. Finishing things on a high note, this song sets the band up for the type of music they would forge and make famous the in 1970, when they produced two of their most famous albums.

Aoxomoxoa was not a tremendous commercial success, as it did not receive “gold” certification until 1997, nearly three decades after its release. However, it was a critical success and held in high enough regard by the band that they completely overhauled the mix in 1972 to catch up with technical innovations.

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1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1969 albums.