At Folsum Prison by Johnny Cash

At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

Buy At Folsom Prison

At Folsum Prison by Johnny CashClassic Rock Review only covers studio albums, not compilations or live albums. But there will be one exception to this rule – At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash. This totally unique and legendary record, by one of the legendary founders of rock and Americana, may be the most honest album of all time. The album was recorded in one day at Folsom State Prison in California, where Cash performed two nearly identical shows during the morning and afternoon of January 13, 1968, with 15 tracks chosen for the album. We mentioned this during our Feature on Live Albums, when we proclaimed the studio album exclusivity. But again, this is an exception due to the artist and its place in time.

Cash had the concept of recording an album live in a prison since he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he finally got the go-ahead in 1967 from Columbia Records and producer Bob Johnston. Still, Cash mainly financed the project himself. Accompanying Cash on stage were “The Tennessee Three”; guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, who had worked with Cash since he moved to Memphis in 1954, and drummer W.S. Holland. The performers rehearsed for days, an uncommon occurrence for them, and were even visited by California governor Ronald Reagan during a rehearsal.

A few of the songs recorded but not released on the original album were the country waltz and farmer’s lament “Busted” and “Joe Bean”, a song about a prisoner falsely accused who faces a hanging on his birthday. “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” is a theatrical song, written by Cash and his future wife June Carter, from the 1963 album Blood, Sweat, and Tears. With metallic hammer sounds throughout, this recording  suffers from too many tempo changes (which is probably why it was ultimately left off the album).

Cash himself was no stranger to run-ins with the law. Having struggled with drugs and alcohol, he was arrested several times in the late fifties and early sixties. Although he never served a prison sentence, these incidents helped cultivate his outlaw image which he embraced throughout his career. Still, Cash credits this album and the ensuing fame as helping turn his life around.


At Folsum Prison by Johnny Cash
Released: May, 1968 (Columbia)
Produced by: Bob Johnston
Recorded: Live at Folsom State Prison, January 13, 1968
Side One Side Two
Folsom Prison Blues
Dark As a Dungeon
I Still Miss Someone
Cocaine Blues
25 Minutes to Go
Orange Blossom Special
The Long Black Veil
Send a Picture of Mother
The Wall
Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog
Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart
Jackson
Give My Love to Rose
I Got Stripes
Green, Green Grass of Home
Greystone Chapel
Primary Musicians
Johnny Cash – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Harmonica
Luther Perkins – Guitars
June Carter – Vocals
Marshall Grant – Bass
W.S. Holland – Drums

The performances actually began with performances by Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers, who also joined Cash during the latter part of the performance. A prison MC encouraged the prisoners to “respond” to Cash’s performance, but also made personal announcements for prisoners (by number) when they had a visitor, making this all the more real. Cash breaks right into his performance with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” before breaking into “Folsom Prison Blues”. Cash was inspired to write this after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison while serving in the Air Force in West Germany. While it wasn’t a big hit originally, this live version became a Top 40 pop hit in 1968 and topped the Country charts.

Many of the remaining  songs on the album fit well with prison, sorrow, and longing for freedom. Merle Travis’s “Dark As a Dungeon” is a slow,  country waltz about Appalachian coal miners, while “I Still Miss Someone” is a short and sweet song with melodic vocals, written by Cash and his nephew Roy Cash Jr. Red Arnall’s “Cocaine Blues” is perhaps the most intense and exciting part of the first side, with the music again employing the famous “train” rhythm and fast shuffle throughout with the two note bass line of Grant, never really deviating until the very end.
 
Johnny Cash on stage at Folsom Prison
 
Shel Silverstein’s “25 Minutes to Go” is a countdown to execution, performed very similar (albeit inverse) to Cash’s famous flood song “Five Feet High and Rising” with a few key changes for effect. On this song, Cash sells the desperation well with lyrics like;

Well I’m waiting for the pardon that well set me free, with 9 more minutes to go, but this ain’t the movies so forget about me, 8 more minutes to go…”

On the traditional fiddle song “Orange Blossom Special”, Cash plays harmonica and sings all the parts in this frantic and breathless song with great drum rolls by Holland.

Cash then performed several ballads and folk songs solo, with just his acoustic guitar. “The Long Black Veil” is a haunting folk song, with haunting but beautiful vocals by Cash, which tell a story about a man falsely accused but refuses to provide an alibi in order to save the honor of his best friend’s wife. “Send a Picture of Mother” is a Johnny Cash original and pure folk song which shows that Cash’s originals are still the best songs in this collection. Harlan Howard’s “The Wall” is a song about escaping prison;

Well, the warden walked by and said son don’t try, I’d hate to see you fall, well, there is no doubt, they’re carry you out if you ever touch that wall…”

…lyrics to which Cash comments “they’re mean bastards, aren’t they?” A couple of novelty songs from his album Everybody Loves A Nut follow, “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog” and “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”, adding comic relief to the show.

June Carter and the Tennessee Three bring the level back up with the recent hit from 1967, “Jackson”, one of the highlights of the second side. The album then concludes with a quartet of songs specifically about prison. “Give My Love to Rose” is a Cash original in the traditional tragic country form about a prisoner and his lament of not seeing his wife and son. This has a much larger chord set than most Cash songs, with guitarist Luther Perkins doing a great job with the subtle changes. “I Got Stripes” gets back to the upbeat train rhythm, while Curly Putman’s popular worldwide sixties tune “Green, Green Grass of Home” features the Statler Brothers and June Carter returning to the stage.

The album concludes with “Greystone Chapel”, an original composed by Glen Sherley, who was then an inmate at Folsom. Sherley made a recording of the song and passed it on to a pastor who regularly visited inmates at Folsom, who then got it to Cash. The inclusion of this song solidifies the authenticity of the album and its intent.

At Folsom Prison reached the Top 20 in several countries and really revitalized Cash’s career, with several of his earliest recordings making a popular comeback in subsequent years. Cash would record two more live albums at prisons; San Quentin in California in 1969 and Österåker Prison in Sweden in 1972. He also soon took on the persona of “The Man in Black” to show his solidarity with all the downtrodden.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things

SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things

Buy S.F. Sorrow

SF Sorrow by The Pretty ThingsWith their fourth overall album released in late 1968, The Pretty Things produced what was arguably the first true rock opera called SF Sorrow. The album was based on a short story by guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Phil May, which tells the tragic story of the fictional Sebastian F. Sorrow, who grows increasingly mad and disillusioned as the story (and album) moves forward. Band members and some critics have claimed SF Sorrow was a major influence on The Who’s Tommy (released the following year) although Pete Townshend has claimed it had no influence on his writing. In any case, the eclectic styles of rock by The Pretty Things seemed to have a big influence on several later artists.

Named after a Bo Diddley song from 1955, The Pretty Things evolved from a group called Little Boy Blue, which featured Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and guitarist Dick Taylor. All three joined Brian Jones’ and Ian Stewart’s band, called “Rollin’ Stones”, but Taylor quit after a few months to study at art school. Here he joined up with May and manager Bryan Morrison to form the original incarnation of The Pretty Things. Through 1964 and 1965, the group had a handful hit singles in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and some European countries, but they never broke though in the United States. By the end of 1967, there had been much personnel turnover and the newest incarnation of The Pretty Things entered Abbey Road studios to start their most ambitious album.

Recorded over a full year and produced by Norman Smith, the album sessions featured two tracks which were omitted and instead released as a single in February 1968, “Talking About the Good Times” and “Walking Through My Dreams”. The following month, drummer Skip Alan suddenly quit the band and was replaced by Twink from the recently defunct band, Tomorrow. Songs on the album have a nice blend of rock, folk, blues, and psychedelic elements with innovative arrangements. However, the production and mastering techniques contain a lack of focus make it sound a bit dated and inaccessible for all but the most seasoned listener.


SF Sorrow by The Petty Things
Released: December, 1968 (Columbia)
Produced by: Norman Smith
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, London, 1967-1968
Side One Side Two
SF Sorrow Is Born
Bracelets of Fingers
She Says Good Morning
Private Sorrow
Balloon Burning
Death
Baron Saturday
The Journey
I See You
Well of Destiny
Trust
Old Man Going
Loneliest Person
Band Musicians
Phil May – Vocals
Dick Taylor – Guitars, Vocals
John Povey – Organ, Sitar, Vocals
Wally Allen – Bass, Wind Instruments, Piano, Vocals
Skip Alan – Drums
John Charles Alder – Drums

The songs on SF Sorrow, run sequentially with the story line of the protagonist from birth to death. In many instances, the songs start with an excellent groove or rock riff only to later dissolve into unnecessary embellishments, which tend to take away from the overall vibe. The opener, “S.F. Sorrow is Born” starts with the bent acoustic notes in the introduction and a very strong rhythm, driven by bassist Wally Allen, before a short middle section adds some very short flourishes of horns, strings, and mellotron. “Bracelets of Fingers” was the first track recorded in November 1967, featuring a vocal harmonies intro before rock verses with marching drum beats and an ever-present wah-wah guitar by Taylor. The story tells of Sorrow’s childhood and adolescence in Britain until it ends abruptly when he needs to get a job at the “Misery factory”. The only bright spot in his life is the pretty girl across the street, focused on in the song “She Says Good Morning”. With a harmonized guitar riff to start, this is harder and heavier than anything thus far on the album, almost proto-punk for the 1960s.

An acoustic riff and underlying march beneath a plethora of instruments, make “Private Sorrow” a very entertaining listen. Here the story follows Sorrow to war (World War I), which he survives and eventually moves to America. He sends for his unnamed sweetheart and she arrives on a zeppelin (Hindenburg) which bursts into flames in “Balloon Burning”. The closer of the first side, “Death”, contains a doomy and haunting, yet excellent riff, like a twisted blues song. In between the very British verses, the riff holds together this excellent tune, which features a sitar lead by John Povey and haunting background vocal choruses.

While side one contains the forward-moving story, side two focuses on the post-mordem, psychedelic horrors which plague the protagonist Sorrow. “Baron Saturday” is well ahead of its time with the vocal effects which sound like they could have come a decade later. Povey’s choppy piano during the choruses indicate that this could have been a big radio hit and is a definite classic in spite over-the-top, slightly off beat percussion ensemble in the unnecessary mid-section. “The Journey” contains acoustic with overlaid electric guitars, sounding like it has a definite George Harrison influence and does well before an unfortunate psychedelic outro.
“I See You” has a bass and drum roll with slowly strummed guitar doubled by distorted electric and a haunting – vocal chorus, along with Taylor’s most intense lead guitar on album. May’s vocals sell the overall intensity of this song excellently.

The short sound collage of “Well of Destiny” starts an awkward second side medley, continuing with the piano song “Trust”, which contains great vocal rhythm throughout. “Old Man Going” is a rocker which sounds like a preview of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, with strong acoustic, sharp electric, high pitched-vocals, and sound effects spread throughout. Thematically, the story takes its final tragic turn as Sorrow is driven into a dark mental seclusion. The short, minute and a half “Loneliest Person” closes the album as a short acoustic ballad, solidifying the melancholy and unhappy ending, where Sorrow identifies himself as “the loneliest person in the world.”

This dark nature of the album’s content along with lack of label support, and being overshadowed by concurrent British releases such as the Beatles’ White Album, led to SF Sorrow becoming a mainly forgotten masterpiece from the late 1960s. The band only attempted to play the concept album live once in the next thirty years and by 1969 Taylor left the group, because of disillusionment over the commercial failure of this album.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

Waiting For the Sun by The Doors

Waiting For the Sun by The Doors

Buy Waiting For the Sun

Waiting For the Sun by The DoorsThe Doors third album, Waiting For the Sun, is probably the weakest of their six original studio albums. Lead vocalist and lyricist Jim Morrison admitted that he was not the top of his game in 1968, being less of a prolific reader and writer in 1968 after the group’s rise to rock stardom the previous year. All that being said, this album still contains some brilliant moments during its short thirty-three minute duration, including some which help define the group’s strong legacy. Released in July 1968 when the group was (arguably) at the height of their sixties popularity, Waiting for the Sun the band’s first and only number one album in the US and their initial breakthrough album in the UK.

Departing from The Doors’ first two albums, which were similar in structure and dark mood and contained strong extended pieces to finish up the album, Waiting For the Sun contains a lighter sound on several tracks. This is a bit ironic because the original plans for this album included the side-long epic track “Celebration of the Lizard”, which was composed as a series of poems by Morrison over improvised music in sections, along with other more structured “sub songs”. However, producer Paul Rothchild and the other band members rejected all but a small part of the original studio piece. Still, the lyrics for the piece were published inside the gatefold jacket of the original vinyl LP. The band did perform “Celebration of the Lizard” in its entirety live and an advanced version of the piece appeared on the band’s 1970  album, Absolutely Live.

Also omitted from the album was it’s title track “Waiting for the Sun”, as the band felt it was unfinished. This track would later be included on the 1970 studio album Morrison Hotel. This song was one where keyboardist Ray Manzarek displayed his distorted new organ sound, as he transitioned from the Vox Continental used on the band’s earliest material.


Waiting For the Sun by The Doors
Released: July 11, 1968 (Elektra)
Produced by: Paul Rothchild
Recorded: Los Angeles, February-May, 1968
Side One Side Two
Hello, I Love You
Love Street
Not to Touch the Earth
Summer’s Almost Gone
Wintertime Love
The Unknown Soldier
Spanish Caravan
My Wild Love
We Could Be So Good Together
Yes, The River Knows
Five To One
Band Musicians
Jim Morrison – Lead Vocals, Percussion
Robbie Krieger – Guitars, Vocals
Ray Manzarak – Piano, Organ, Vocals
John Densmore – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

With the omission of certain planned tracks, The Doors had to dip back into their archives for material. “Hello, I Love You” was one of Morrison’s earliest compositions, dating back to 1965. The infinite buzz by guitarist Robbie Krieger and the groovy sixties sound, brought the band from the edge of darkness to the center of pop with this number one song, which sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. However, this light song was not without controversy, as several critics pointed out the main vocal melody is dangerously similar to The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”. Further, Morrison grew to loathe this song to the point where Manzarak was forced to frequently sing lead vocals when it was performed live.

Through the rest of album the songs vacillate wildly. “Love Street” is a deceptively clever ballad, which starts sounding like an airy show tune but contains some hardcore rock elements underneath. This Baroque pop song with fine piano and organ originated as a poem by Morrison about the street he lived on in Laurel Canyon, CA with his girlfriend Pamela Courson. The most pointed lyric came from watching local hippies walking by to visit the corner store across the street from their residence;

I see you live on Love Street, there’s the store where the creatures meet. I wonder what they do in there?”

The only section of “Celebration of the Lizard” to make it on the album, “Not to Touch the Earth” is almost out of a dramatic movie scene. The bass line and overall rhythm continuously gets more intense, mirroring Morrison’s vocals. The opening lyrics come directly from subchapters in The Golden Bough by James Frazer with the rest being opaque poetry which is open to interpretation. Drummer John Densmore offers timely fills and a tight beat to hold the thrilling chaos all together.

“Summer’s Almost Gone” is another tune re-born from the group’s earliest days. The descending bass/keyboard riff reminds one of much of the repetitive material from Strange Days, albeit with some underlying honky-tonk piano by Manzarek and bottle-neck slide guitar by Krieger for variety. “Wintertime Love” goes in the opposite direction (both musically and seasonally). This short and upbeat European waltz is good composition with melodic vocals by Morrison and great bass by session man Douglas Lubahn, who provided bass for much of the album.

“The Unknown Soldier” is an intentionally controversial song, examining the Vietnam War and how it was viewed on television back in the United States. Complete with mysterious and eerie organ sounds in the verses and a literal march towards execution in the middle of the song, the Doors produced one of the most unusual and complex tracks of their career. The song then erupts into a climactic and celebratory coda, which envisions a victorious end of war. While the single and its promotional video were banned from much mainstream media, the song still managed to find its way into the Top 40.

Side two of Waiting For the Sun begins with “Spanish Caravan”, highlighted by some fantastic flamenco guitar by Krieger through the first verse and chorus, one of the most accomplished musical sequences in the Doors collection. The eventual turn electric is like a preview of the later genre of progressive rock, making this short piece an overall forgotten classic. Contrarily, “My Wild Love” may be the worst Doors song ever. A Morrison-inspired group chant, this unfortunate experiment should have been shelved for some later rarities collections. “We Can Be So Good Together” is upbeat and fun and sounds like it could have been every bit as successful as “Hello, I Love You” commercially. The song was recorded during the sessions for Strange Days and even appeared on an early track listings for that album.

The Doors

“Yes, The River Knows” is a beautiful, poetic love ballad with moody piano, in the same vein as “The Crystal Ship” from their debut. The superb picked electric guitar phrases by Krieger, accompanied by Manzarak’s classical piano and Morrison at his most melodic, really show the range of the Doors musically. The album closer “Five to One” is a thumping anthem which marks its place in time while leaving more questions than it answers (Is it a love song? Sex song? Song about murder? Revolution? Social commentary?). Part of the song (“Your ballroom days are over baby/Night is drawing near/Shadows of the evening/crawl across the years”), was seemingly lifted from the 19th-century hymnal and bedtime rhyme “Now the Day is Over”, while some say Morrison was possibly referring to a Dylan Thomas story in another part of the song. In any case, this proto-heavy metal track is an ode to brute force and a Doors classic.

To date, Waiting For the Sun has sold over 7 million copies worldwide, a phenomenal blockbuster for most groups. While the album was critically panned upon its release, the stronger parts of the record held up well over time, especially for those who enjoy the band’s diversity.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

Steppenwolf and The Second 1968 albums

Steppenwolf and The Second by Steppenwolf

Buy Steppenwolf
Buy The Second

Steppenwolf and The Second 1968 albumsSteppenwolf arrived on the rock scene like a storm in 1968 and released their first two albums, which produced their most indelible classics which persist to this day, that year. Their debut, Steppenwolf, was released in January 1968 and included two songs made world famous by their eventual inclusion in the cult film Easy Rider in 1969, along with two more radio hits. The follow-up album, simply titled The Second, was released towards the end of 1968 and includes another smash hit along with a long rock medley on its second side. Both albums were produced by Gabriel Mekler and recorded in a Los Angeles studio between the extensive touring by the band.

Steppenwolf was formed out of the ashes of sixties group The Sparrows in 1967, led by vocalist John Kay along with brothers Jerry and Dennis Edmonton. The name was suggested by Mekler and was inspired by the novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse. Jerry Edmonton stayed on board as drummer of Steppenwolf while Dennis adopted the pen name Mars Bonfire and chose a strictly songwriting affiliation with the new group.

Entering the studio well rehearsed, Steppenwolf released a surprisingly strong debut with a hard rock motif and populist themes built on classic blues. The resulting music is raw and powerful with distorted trade-offs between guitarist Michael Monarch and organist Goldy McJohn and the tight rhythms by Edmonton and bassist Rushton Moreve.


Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Released: January, 1968 (ABC Dunhill)
Produced by: Gabriel Meckler
Recorded: American Recording Co. Studio, Studio City, CA, Fall 1967
Side One Side Two
Sookie Sookie
Everybody’s Next One
Berry Rides Again
Hootchie Kootchie Man
Born to Be Wild
Your Wall’s Too High
Desperation
The Pusher
A Girl I Knew
Take What You Need
The Ostrich
The Second by Steppenwolf
Released: October, 1968 (ABC Dunhill)
Produced by: Gabriel Meckler
Recorded: American Recording Co. Studio, Studio City, CA, Summer 1968
Side One Side Two
Faster than the Speed of Life
Tighten Up Your Wig
None of Your Doing
Spiritual Fantasy
Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam
28
Magic Carpet Ride
Disappointment Number
Lost and Found By Trial and Error
Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie
Resurrection
Reflections
Band Musicians (Both Albums)
John Kay – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Harmonica
Michael Monrach – Guitars
Goldy McJohn – Piano, Keyboards
Rushton Morave – Bass
Jerry Edmonton – Drums

The first two singles released from Steppenwolf were “A Girl I Knew” and the opening track “Sookie Sookie”. Written by R&B artists Don Covay and Steve Cropper, “Sookie Sookie” is almost like almost a soul or Motown track arranged to a heavy late sixties rock beat and methodical guitar riff. “A Girl I Knew” was co-written by Morgan Cavett and contains a very English sounding harpsichord with Kay mimicking the mood in the lead vocals during short intro before song breaks into a driving, sixties hipster beat with a bouncing organ riff by McJohn.

Other songs on the debut album find the group experimenting with various sub-genres. On “Everybody’s Next One” an acoustic piano gives way to full electric arrangement as this progressive song moves through several sections in its short duration of less than three minutes. One of the prominant riffs would later be “borrowed” by The Doors for their 1970 song “You Make Me Real”. “Berry Rides Again” is old time rock and roll through and through as an obvious tribute to Chuck Berry with the piano really standing out on top of the mix. The band’s rendition of the Willie Dixon / Muddy Waters classic “Hootchie Kootchie Man” features the guitars slowly working out before falling into the most standard of blues riffs in an original and entertaining version of this well-healed classic. “Your Wall’s Too High” is more blues , but a bit more up-tempo with some rock riffs and bouncy sections mixed in.

The band’s most famous song, “Born to Be Wild”, was composed by Mars Bonfire and features a tight beat under the distorted guitars, with just the right amount of organ chops to make it interesting. Drummer Edmonton is the truly unsung hero of this song, holding together tightly an otherwise loose arrangement and supplying a great drum fill into second verse and perfect rolls later in the track. Due to its inclusion during the opening scene of Easy Rider, it is often tied to bikers in popular culture and the song is also the first to coin the term “heavy metal”, which would be attributed to various heavy rock styles for the next four and a half decades and counting. The third single off their 1968 debut, “Born to Be Wild” would become Steppenwolf’s most successful single, reaching #2 on the U.S. pop charts.

The other song from the debut later included on Easy Rider, “The Pusher” is a consistent blues song by Hoyt Axton, built around four chords, squeezed out through the intro guitar riff. Later, Monrach provides long descents into the guitar leads, make it interesting despite the lack of true variety. Kay takes his vocals to another level during the various “God Damn” wails on this amazingly frank and candid look at the darker side of drugs at a time when it was “cool” for rock bands to celebrate such use. This is one of the few songs retained by the group from their Sparrow days.

Side two of Steppenwolf includes a handful of other strong tracks. A beautifully constructed orchestra of melodic noise leads into the bluesy “Desperation” with constant tension between the sustained organ and distorted guitar chords throughout along with moving vocal melodies. “Take What You Need” contains an upbeat, driving piano beat and whining guitar overlay along with animated bass and drumming. “The Ostrich” is bluesy with a “Hand Jive” beat heavy with floor toms. A really good closer for the debut album with the late flaw of a good jam breaking down into an awkward, out of tune improv to finish things up.

Steppenwolf’s follow-up album, The Second, embraces more bombastic hard rock, psychedelia, and blues with more refined production and songwriting techniques. This is really a mixed blessing as some songs really bring out the finer points of composition while others are just plain filler. Unfortunately,
“Faster than the Speed of Life”, the opening track penned by Mars Bonfire is the latter with weak harmonies and uninspired guitar licks.

Fortunately, The Second does improve from there. “Tighten Up Your Wig” is a grittier and bluesier tune than the opener with a cool good harmonica lead by Kay and subtle instrumentation licks. “None of Your Doing” starts with a penny whistle organ and English folk style acoustic for a single line in each verse before the rocking kicks in with slight restraint. “Spiritual Fantasy” contains a slide acoustic guitar and strings throughout in a waltz-like ballad. This song is interesting because it is so different than anything else, but it does seem like the musicians struggle to keep time throughout. Meckler’s “Twenty Eight” almost has a surfer vibe in an intentional reach towards pop.

“Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” fades in with bass riff and great sounding guitars playing interesting riffs. The music is measured and excellent throughout, perfectly accenting the lyrics in this pro-marijuana message which acts as a reciprocal to “The Pusher” on the first album;

Well it’s evil, wicked, mean and nasty, don’t step on the grass Sam and it will ruin our fair country, don’t be such an ass, Sam…”

“Magic Carpet Ride” was co-written by bassist Moreve, starting as a psychedelic form with guitar feedback. It then breaks into the simplest of riffs with good vocal melody to carry the song. The original track is asymmetrical, with the actual “magic carpet ride” happening through various sound effects above the tense funk jam before the tension is released with a short outro chorus. Released as the lead single from that album, it peaked at #3 on the US pop charts making it the band’s second-biggest hit.

A year before the Beatles Abbey Road, Steppenwolf had a multi-song second side medley in similar form. “Disappointment Number (Unknown)” contains slide blues guitar and a really sparse and laid back arrangement before it finally gives way to the full band with fine bass, drums, and honky-tonk piano by McJohn. Later it unexpectedly breaks out of blues riff and ends slightly with live bar sound before it quickly segues directly to “Lost and Found By Trial and Error” as a continuation blues song moving through several new forms with the guitars sounding sharp and fine. The jam continues with organ taking lead through the instrumental “Hodge, Podge, Strained Through a Leslie”, which leads to the intense climax of “Resurrection” as the extended arc piece gets closer to conclusion with the theme “Shake Your Money Maker” repeated until rudiments complete the jam part. The short “after” piece “Reflections” is some soft Baroque with heavy reverb.

Steppenwolf reached #6 on the Rock Albums charts, while The Second later climbed to #3 on the same chart. Steppenwolf continued to have success through the early 1970s and has gone on to sell more than 25 million records worldwide. The band initially broke up in 1972 but have reformed several times through the decades with various lineups behind John Kay, who is the only original member to remain with the band since its inception.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

Music From Big Pink by The Band

Music From Big Pink by The Band

Buy Music From Big Pink

Music From Big Pink by The BandAfter a decade of touring as a backing group for other artists, The Band released an incredible debut with Music from Big Pink in 1968. By blending their vast influences of country, Gospel, rock, folk, and R&B into strong compositions, influenced and helped along by Bob Dylan, the group forged an album with an honest, laid-back feel, which sharply broke with the current trends of over-the-top psychedelic rock. The album’s title stems from a (pink) house near Woodstock, NY, where several band members lived while they wrote and rehearsed material for this album. While many demo tapes were recorded there, the actual recording of the album, produced by John Simon took place in studios in New York City and Los Angeles. Concurrently, much of the Dylan-fronted material was recorded and eventually released as The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan in 1975.

The group’s originator was drummer Levon Helm, from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta, who formed the rockabilly group The Hawks with front-man Ronnie Hawkins in the late fifties. In 1958, the group migrated to Ontario, Canada, which had a growing market for music from the American South, and toured clubs up there for many years. Along the way, Canadian natives Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manual, and Garth Hudson joined up at various points. When Hawkins took time off, the rest of the band continued to play club dates and soon migrated more towards the blues stylistically. In 1964, the group split from Hawkins and released a few singles as Levon and the Hawks with Helm on lead vocals. When Bob Dylan went “electric” in 1965, he enlisted The Band as his backing group, and they toured the world through 1966. However, Dylan suffered a near fatal motorcycle accident and was unable to tour for nearly a year. He retreated to the Catskill town of Woodstock and the Band decided to join him, taking a long deserved break from touring to try their hand at writing their own music.

With this brand new endeavor, The Band made a consorted effort to produce the most “legitimate” songs possible. This philosophy also extended the adaptation of the simple name “The Band”. While Dylan composed three of the eleven album tracks and there was one cover, Manuel and Robertson split most of the rest of the songwriting duties, later admitting they were students of Dylan’s various approaches to composing. Dylan also did the cover illustration for the album.


Music From Big Pink by The Band
Released: July 1, 1968 (Capitol)
Produced by: John Simon
Recorded: New York and Los Angeles, 1968
Side One Side Two
Tears of Rage
To Kingdom Come
In a Station
Caledonia Mission
The Weight
We Can Talk
Long Black Veil
Chest Fever
Lonesome Suzie
This Wheel’s on Fire
I Shall Be Released
Band Musicians
Robbie Robertson – Guitars, Vocals
Richard Manuel – Piano, Keyboards, Drums, Vocals
Garth Hudson – Piano, Organ, Clavinet, Saxophone
Rick Danko – Bass, Fiddle, Vocals
Levon Helm – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

With a “how slow can you go?” tempo, the opener “Tears of Rage” is full of deliberate anguish. Co-written by Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel, the song has a strong Biblical underlying theme, examining a relationship between parents and daughter. A version of this song with Dylan on lead vocal and the Band backing him was included on The Basement Tapes. “To Kingdom Come” is Robertson’s debut as a songwriter and contains more upbeat, sixties-style music with harmonized vocals and a great bass by Danko throughout, gluing together the slight bursts of musical motifs. The worst part of this fine song is that it ends too quickly, fading out during an interesting guitar lead by Robertson.

Manuel’s “In a Station” returns to the bluesy ballad with topical keyboards and slightly interesting guitar interludes. Written and sung by Robertson, the fine “Caledonia Mission” starts as a ballad but progresses to an interesting, jazzy number with strong horns throughout.

The most famous song on the album is “The Weight”, an iconic music marker in the history of rock n’ roll. A significant influenced on American popular music the lyrics return to Biblical settings, with fictional characters playing the modern day protagonists. Over time becoming one of The Band’s best known songs, it failed to reach the Top 40 when released as a single in 1968, although subsequent cover versions did much better for various artists. Robertson sites the movies of Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel as well as his initial visit to the Mississippi Delta as influences for the song, although Helm later claimed several member of the band had a part in writing the lyrics.

The Band in 1968

Side two of the original LP starts off with the funky “We Can Talk”, with Manuel, Helm, and Danko taking turns on vocals. “Long Black Veil” is an Americana cover, written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill, and contains a fine acoustic guitar and prevalent electric piano. “Chest Fever” starts with Hudson’s calm but catchy organ riff, topped by Manuel’s rock piano and Danko’s bass. Soon to become a fan favorite, this may be the closest to traditional hard rock that they get on this album.

“Lonesome Suzie” is a ballad with Manuel crooning above Hudson’s soulful organ and Robertson’s calmly picked guitars. “This Wheel’s on Fire” is a good solid track co-written by Dylan and Danko, featuring high-pitched harmonies, and a country-tinged backing. Dylan also composed the closer “I Shall Be Released”, which drips with melancholy and depth. Led by Richard Manuel’s haunting tenor vocals above gently stroked piano and acoustic, this is a real template for future power ballads. With more connotations of redemption, the song stands as a classic “prison song”. One of his unrecorded gems, Dylan later recorded his own impromptu version of the song, included on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. II.

Although not a great commercial hit, Music from Big Pink came as a big surprise to music insiders, with many established rock musicians siting it as an immediate influence. An eponymous follow-up album made of unfinished songs from these sessions was recorded and released in 1969 to near equal acclaim.

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

The Beatles (white album)

The Beatles

Buy The Beatles

The Beatles (white album)In 1968, The Beatles released their only double studio album, an eponymous release commonly referred to as The White Album. Despite the official title which emphasized group identity, the actual recordings were segmented and increasingly individualized based on the original composer of each tune.  Much of this was due to dissent and inner turmoil in which members openly objected to certain tunes. In fact, all four members of the group play together on barely half of the album’s 30 tracks and producer George Martin later admitted he advocated for a “very good single album” in lieu of including so many marginal individualized tracks. Thematically, the White Album was a complete withdrawal from The Beatles 1967 albums, retreating from the lush and vivid colorful themes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour with a plain white sleeve (save for the band’s name discreetly embossed) to pair with the most simple of titles. This was also the first release by the group on their independent label, Apple Records.

Even with 30 tracks, the album omitted much potential material. Several songs started during the five months of recording were later included on Abbey Road and several solo albums by the members and the group opted to release the tracks “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” (two of the most popular songs ever by the Beatles) as a pre-release single than include them on the White Album. With such a large amount of tracks, the album contains an eclectic mix of songs from wide musical genres, including folk, country , avant-garde, classical and chamber music, and British dance-hall music. The Beatles only slightly continued their psychedelic leanings from 1967 but spent much more effort returning to basic rock and blues of their earlier years. Such diversity on a single album was largely unprecedented in 1968 and seemed to bring equal measures of praise and criticism from fans and critics over the years. Still, The Beatles was a phenomenal commercial success, reaching number one on both side of the Atlantic and selling well over 10 million copies worldwide.

Many of the songs originated in Rishikesh, India while the band was collectively on a Transcendental Meditation retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the spring of 1968. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney used the time to write songs in earnest and would frequently meet to discuss song ideas (even though this was in contrast to the meditation “course”). Theses songs were composed on acoustic guitar, the only Western instrument available during their Indian visit. Once back in England, the group gathered at George Harrison‘s home to hash out the close to forty new compositions and make preliminary plans for recording. The sessions for The White Album were the first on which the band used 8-track recording, starting with “Hey Jude” at Trident Studios in central London before returning to Abbey Road Studios once EMI installed their own 8-track machine.

During the lengthy sessions from May through October 1968 much internal conflict began, group members later pinpointed this as the beginning of their ultimate breakup. Frustrated with his diminished role on several tracks, drummer Ringo Starr quit the band for a brief time, leaving McCartney as the drummer on a couple of tracks. These were also the first Beatles sessions where wives and girlfriends frequently attended, most notably Lennon’s future wive Yoko Ono, who was constant presence at the sessions. As a result of the tension McCartney and Lennon would often record in separate studios at Abbey Road (there were three), each using different engineers. The turmoil of these sessions extended beyond the band members. Engineer Geoff Emerick, who had worked on several albums with the Beatles, abruptly quit and announced he would no longer work with the band and even George Martin took an unannounced holiday midway through the sessions, leaving the group to scramble for an interim producer. In the end, however, Lennon. McCartney, and Martin got together for a 24-hour session to mix, master, and sequence the White Album.


The Beatles by The Beatles
Released: November 22, 1968 (Apple)
Produced by: George Martin
Recorded: EMI and Trident Studios, London, May-October, 1968
Side One Side Two
Back In the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness Is a Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
I’m So Tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Don’t Pass Me By
Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
I Will
Julia
Side Three Side Four
Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide…
…Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Long, Long, Long
Revolution 1
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night
Group Musicians
John Lennon – Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica, Saxophone, Vocals
Paul McCartney – Bass, Guitars, Keyboards, Drums, Flugelhorn, Vocals
George Harrison – Guitars, Organ, Percussion, Vocals
Ringo Starr – Drums, Percussion, Piano, Vocals

McCartney played drums on the first two tracks of The Beatles. The opener “Back in the USSR” commences with jet aircraft effects and breaks into an upbeat rocker, combining elements of earlier Beatles and Beach Boys songs. In fact, Mike Love of the Beach Boys also attended the retreat in Rishikesh and he encouraged McCartney to “talk about the girls all around Russia” when Paul told him of his idea to write a song called “Back in the USSR” as a homage to Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”. Although no tracks from The White Album were initially released as singles, “Back in the USSR” was released by Parlophone as a single in the UK in 1976, eight years later. “Dear Prudence” arrives like an awakening or a drawing out, with the hypnotically picked, rotating guitars by Lennon. The subject of this song is Prudence Farrow, part of the Rishikesh entourage, who became so serious about her meditation that she rarely came out of the cottage she was living in, prompting others to enlist Lennon to try and make sure she came out more often. Towards the end of the song is a good rock jam which previews some of the finer moments on the album.

“Glass Onion” contains lyrics and music that acts as an epilogue to Magical Mystery Tour. Like a psychedelic trip through the past year, the lyrics call out earlier Beatles songs by name with provocative lyrics to fans such as; “Well here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul”, which Lennon later dismissed as having no deeper meaning. On the gibberish front, McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” may contain sophomoric lyrics, but this song shines for its pure sonic quality, starting with McCartney’s vocals which sound like nothing else he had (or has) done. Thematically, this infectiously fun song is an expression of the pure joy of everyday, ordinary life. While Lennon, openly detested this song in its original, reggae-influenced form, the band spent many sessions reworking it towards its finished form.

George HarrisonAfter the filler experimental piece “Wild Honey Pie”, a flamenco guitar phrase introduces “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Like a kids song gone rogue, the song mocks a guy in Maharishi’s meditation camp who took break from meditation to go hunting tigers. Recorded later in the album sessions, “Bungalow Bill” features Yoko Ono singing co-lead vocals for a single line, the only female lead vocal in the Beatles library. Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the best moment on the album. With a great piano intro and chord structure, the song features a pulsating rhythm beneath the profound vocals of Harrison and wild guitar  by guest Eric Clapton. Inspiration for the song came from reading the I Ching which prompted Harrison to experiment by writing a song based on the first words he saw upon opening a random book. Those words were “gently weeps” and he immediately began writing the song, although many of his verses were later omitted. The presence of Clapton also served to temporarily alleviate the studio tension, as the band members were on their best behavior during his time in the studio.

The fantastic first side concludes with Lennon’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, an asymmetrical mini suite, which moves several sections rapidly, each becoming more anthemic and rocking. Lennon claims the title came from the cover of a gun magazine that George Martin showed him. and it has been cited by both McCartney and Harrison as one of their favorites on the White Album.

Paul McCartney“Martha My Dear” begins with a great piano through intro, soon accompanied by orchestration and a very slight thumping rock section during the middle of the bridge. McCartney is the only Beatle to appear on this track (written about his English sheepdog), which includes nice brass and string arrangements by Martin. “I’m So Tired” is another short masterpiece by Lennon with very emotive vocals masterfully adjusted for differing effects. A direct, first-person account of a sleepless night in India, the unabashed examination of his own fragile state of mind, previews later solo work by Lennon such as Plastic Ono Band. Back to McCartney, with the solo recording of “Blackbird”, a beautiful acoustic solo piece with music based on J.S. Bach’s “Bourrée”. The hypnotizing acoustic, double-tracked vocals and tapping percussion and the guitar make for a pretty and inspirational tune with lyrics inspired by the Civil Rights struggle.

“Piggies” is a Baroque influenced song by Harrison as social commentary on the class system. Originally written in 1966 at his parents’ home, Harrison’s mother provided the line “What they need’s a damn good whacking” while Lennon contributed the line “clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.” The predominant harpsichord is accompanied by a string quartet, produced by Chris Thomas in Martin’s absence. Ringo Starr“Rocky Raccoon” is a Western saloon type folk song with McCartney on consistent acoustic and lead vocals, Lennon providing harmonica and harmonium, and George Martin adding the nice honky-tonk piano breaks. An actual collaboration between McCartney and Lennon, this storytelling song originated during a three man acoustic jam with folk singer Donovan on retreat in India. “Don’t Pass Me By” is the first composition credited to Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) and would have made for a good Ringo Starr solo track. Starr also provides an interesting tack piano, accompanied by great bluegrass fiddle playing by guest Jack Fallon. The song was a #1 hit in Denmark in April 1969.

Following his frivolous, minute and a half “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”, McCartney provides the retro feeling “I Will”. With much nod towards early Beatles, this song contains a unique arrangement with vocal bass and unconvential percussion. Although simple and short, “I Will” took 67 takes to record. Lennon’s solo ballad “Julia” is a finger-picking acoustic song written for his mother Julia Lennon, who died in car accident when John was 17 years old. The fun celebration rocker “Birthday” starts the album’s third side. One of the rare tracks written in the studio, the song features a catchy blues progression guitar riff augmented by choppy piano.

This third side is where some of the White Album’s weaker spots come to the fore. “Yer Blues” is one of these, as an almost-annoying blues tune with the only redeeming quality being the slight middle jam section that is unfortunately cut short by a return to the repetitive verse. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” is another marginal song by Lennon, albeit a little more interesting due to its frantic rocking style, complete with groovy late sixties guitars and rudiments. in between these is the pleasant folk diddy “Mother Nature’s Son” by McCartney, the best song on this side. This song completely captures the intended mood with great acoustic riffs and horns ensemble musically and inspired lyrics based on a lecture by the Maharishi. McCartney recorded it “live”, singing and playing acoustic guitar simultaneously with overdubs done later.

John LennonThe four Beatles left India at different times and with different opinions of the Maharishi. Lennon, a t one point a “true believer”, ultimately became the most jaded by the experience and expressed this brilliantly on the song “Sexy Sadie”. starting with an interesting reverbed piano, the song is arranged in manner frequently used by the group Queen a decade later, with lush backing vocal choruses, other parts laden with effects, and a lead guitar lying sharply above the mix. “Helter Skelter” is a style piece, with little substance by McCartney, in a deliberate effort to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible. Still, this became one of the most famous (or infamous) on the album following the Manson family murder spree and its use as title for the subsequent book. After the 18th take, Ringo Starr flung his drum sticks across the studio and screamed, “I got blisters on me fingers!”, included on the stereo mix of the song. Harrison’s “Long, Long, Long” completes side three as a cross between jazz waltz, folk, and psychedelia with good underlying riffs and great drum interludes, but not very cohesive overall. With the topical organ this track sounds like it may have been influenced by Pink Floyd.

And then there is Lennon’s “Revolution”. Originally, a single ten-minute piece comprised of a song proper and an improvised coda, the first part of the song was edited out as “Revolution 1”, a slow acoustic blues number with “shooby-do-wah” vocals and added horns. However, most of the Beatles were unhappy with this version, so a heavier, more upbeat version of “Revolution” was recorded and released as the B-side of the “Hey Jude” single. Still, Lennon wanted to return to the earlier recording and fought to have “Revolution 1” included on the White Album as well as re-record the avant-garde sound collage as the track “Revolution 9”, using the last six minutes of the original recording as a starting point. With numerous sound effects, tape loops, and overdubs, and virtually no musical melody, the eight and a half minute track is the longest track that the Beatles officially released. McCartney was against including this song on the album and Beatles fans have debated its merits for four and a half decades. In any case, it was a dissatisfying “tour de force” for this otherwise fine musical collection.

The Beatles was quickly followed up by Yellow Submarine less than two months later in January 1969. By then the band had already moved on to their next project, which was eventually released as Let It Be. Despite the unevenness of the music, the controversial inclusions, and the utter lack of promotion, the album became a classic. As McCartney later unapologetically put it, “it’s the bloody Beatles White Album!”

~

1968 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1968 albums.

 

1978 Album of the Year

Van Halen

1978 Album of the Year

Buy Van Halen’s Debut Album

Van Halen 1978 debut albumVan Halen‘s debut album is a pedal-to-the-metal hard rocker with a distinct approach that thundered onto the scene in early 1978. This self-titled album continues to rank among the top debuts of all time and makes appearances on other straight-up rock album lists. While not particularly original musically, Van Halen was completely original sonically. This was due to the jaw dropping speed and flair guitar work of Eddie Van Halen. With a noted lack of blues-based licks, which were replaced by a furious placement of picked, crunched, and hammered notes, Van Halen’s leads, solos, and riffs are the most indelible moments on a very memorable album. Forged in the fresh shadow of punk rock, the Van Halen sound showed that musical talent can be every bit as fresh, energetic, and bombastic. With this innovative record which sounds every bit as fresh 35 years after its release, Van Halen has risen to become Classic Rock Review’s album of the year for 1978.

Van Halen was formed in Southern California in 1972 by the brothers that give the band its name – guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex Van Halen. Born in the Netherlands, the Van Halen brothers were the sons of jazz musician Jan Van Halen and were “forced” to study classical piano at very young ages. When the brothers began playing rock and roll, Alex was actually on guitar and Eddie was on drums.  But once Alex heard his younger brother pick up the guitar and play more naturally, he forced him to switch instruments and took over as drummer. In 1974, the group rented a sound system from David Lee Roth and soon invited him to join as lead vocalist. Roth was the son of a renowned eye surgeon, who had considerable wealth and was the nephew of Manny Roth, who built and owned the New York establishment Cafe Wha?, which featured performers such like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Roth possessed an in-your-face charisma that demanded attention (like a true frontman should). While not considered a particularly accomplished crooner, his yelps and screams fit perfectly within the high-energy sound of the group.

Soon after Roth joined,  the band decided to replace their current bass player with Michael Anthony, bassist and lead vocalist from a rival band called “Snake”, who impressed the Van Halen brothers during an all-night jam session. In subsequent years, the group played everything from backyard parties on a flatbed truck to some of the most famous night clubs on the Sunset Strip. They forged what Roth calls a “girl-friendliness” to heavy rock. In the summer of 1976, Gene Simmons of Kiss saw Van Halen perform and offered to produce a high end demo tape for the group. After a few recordings in Los Angeles and New York, Simmons opted out of the arrangement after the group declined his suggestion to change their name to “Daddy Longlegs” and Kiss management told Simmons that they had “no chance of making it”.

In mid-1977,  Ted Templeman of Warner Bros. Records saw the group perform in Hollywood and was so impressed that he scored Van Halen a recording contract within a week (although the group now laments that this contract was not financially favorable to the members who ended up owing money by the end of 1978). Templeman produced the debut album at Sunset Sound Recorders over a three week period in the Fall of 1977. All of the tracks were recorded with minimal over-dubbing and a simple musical set-up was used to give the record a “live” feel. After the sessions, the group returned to playing small venues in Southern California until the album was released in early 1978.


Van Halen by Van Halen
Released: February 10, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Ted Templeman
Recorded: Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood, CA, September – October 1977
Side One Side Two
Runnin’ with the Devil
Eruption
You Really Got Me
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
I’m the One
Jamie’s Cryin’
Atomic Punk
Feel Your Love Tonight
Little Dreamer
Ice Cream Man
On Fire
Band Musicians
David Lee Roth – Lead Vocals
Eddie Van Halen – Guitars, Vocals
Michael Anthony – Bass, Vocals
Alex Van Halen – Drums, Percussion

The album is made of nine original compositions, credited to all four band members, along with two re-interpreted covers. Drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony drive the opener “Runnin’ with the Devil”, which arrives like an alien visitor and then comes off heavier than it actually is in reality. It is down-and-dirty but short of hedonistic and got its lyrical inspiration from the Ohio Players song “Runnin’ from the Devil”. While released as a single, it failed to chart in 1978 but has  become a classic rock radio staple and still a signature tune of Van Halen.

The instrumental “Eruption” contains some of the best 100 seconds of guitar ever recorded. This masterpiece by Eddie Van Halen was not intended for the debut album but was overheard by Templeman as Eddie was rehearsing it for a club date and he decided to include it on the album. The piece is the first to feature Van Halen’s custom two-handed finger-tapping technique which had not been perfected by any other player to that date (but went “viral” among guitarists in the eighties). Played on his custom Frankenstrat with a custom array of effect units and vintage tube amps, the piece has been named the 2nd greatest guitar solo ever by Guitar World magazine. “Eruption” works as a perfect lead-in to the kinks cover “You Really Got Me”, the lone charting “hit” from this album. You Really Got Me singleThis may be one of the very few remakes that actually best the original, which is saying something since the 1964 tune by Ray Davies is a bona fide classic which features a young session player named Jimmy Page. But Van Halen takes this simple, two and a half minute piece, and brings it to a fevered level of excitement with Eddie performing riffs within riffs, Roth adding vocal ad-lib screams in the chorus, and the post solo guitar dribble leading to a unique mid section with sound effects by both. The song became the lone Top 40 single from Van Halen.

Although very repetitive, “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is an extremely entertaining song which borders on being a Van Halen-flavored punk epic, especially with closing “Hey! Hey! Hey!” chant. Unlike the totally feel-good “You Really Got Me”, this has a much darker feel, especially with the deep bridge lyrics;

“I’ve been to the edge and there I stood and looked down, you know I’ve lost a lot of friends there baby, ain’t got time to mess around…”

“Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” displays the effortless expression of the band, which replaces the pretension and self-consciousness of many of their late seventies peers. The hyper-blues shuffle of “I’m the One”, which highlights the entertaining showmanship of the band. With dynamics which range from the monstrous rhythmic surge to the later a cappella do-wop section, “I’m The One” is an underrated gem, which concludes the fantastic first side of the album.

Although not nearly as memorable, the second side of Van Halen does contain its share of high moments. “Jamie’s Cryin'” and “Feel Your Love Tonight” shows that the band definitely can play pop rock anthems. These two tracks share similar memorable riffs and catchy harmonized choruses and they both sound like they should have been bigger radio hits. Sandwiched between the two is “Atomic Punk”, an almost experimental song with intro guitar effects giving way to theatrical verses. However, this song’s title may be more provocative than the overall tune is actually substantive and the disorganized return after the guitar lead appears to be one of the few faux pas of the recording.

Van Halen

“Little Dreamer” is the finest tune on side two and may be the one true band effort on Van Halen. Eddie comes down to Earth with a standard riff and more subtle theatrics while the rest of the group steps forward as Michael Anthony’s bouncing bass contrasts yet compliments Alex Van Halen’s steady drum beat and Roth’s actual singing is at its finest on this record. “Little Dreamer” also offers a preview of some of the more substantive music featured on upcoming albums Van Halen II and Women and Children First. “Ice Cream Man” is cover from Chicago blues artist John Brim, which features David Lee Roth solo on acoustic guitar and vocals for a couple of turns before it finally breaks into a full-fledged rocker, ala Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, the most forgettable song on the album is the finale “On Fire”, making for the only true weak spot on this incredible debut. While Eddie’s guitars are still impressive, the overall vibe makes really feels more like weak, hair-band material from a future Van Halen clone.

Van Halen initially peaked at #19 on the U.S. Albums chart and made a reappearance in 1984. By the end of the century, it was certified a Diamond album (over ten million copies sold or 20x platinum) and it made yet another appearance on the album charts in 2012 to coincide with Van Halen’s latest reunion. The band toured for nearly a year as the opening act for Black Sabbath before returning to the studio in late 1978 to record the follow-up Van Halen II, an album similar in style to their debut.

~

1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

Time Passages by Al Stewart

Time Passages by Al Stewart

Buy Time Passages

Time Passages by Al StewartTime Passages was the third of Al Stewart‘s popular late seventies albums, following Modern Times in 1975 and Year of the Cat in 1976. While all three of these albums were produced by Alan Parsons, on this one there is a minor nod towards soft rock production. Musically, Time Passages continues Stewart’s traditional blend of folk, jazz, and pop/rock, with masterful arrangements, rich sonic textures, and the top-notch production of Parsons. Lyrically, Stewart alternates between the contemporary subjects and concerns of baby boomers reaching their thirties and his distinct knack for presenting historical figures an events in graceful yet easily accessible pop song epics.

The Scottish born Stewart commenced his musical career in the mid 1960s at coffee houses in London’s Soho. Starting in 1967. He went on to release several folk albums on Columbia Records but found little mainstream success. In 1972, Stewart released Orange, a transitional album which combined songs in his confessional style with more historical themes that he would soon increasingly adopt. His 1973 release, Past, Present and Future, was the first in the United States and his popularity steadily grew throughout the rest of the decade.

During these years, Stewart began to form a proper backing band, led by guitarists Tim Renwick and Peter White. On Time Passages, Renwick provides the bulk of lead guitar while White played keyboards, accordion, and other instruments as well as co-wrote a couple of the tunes.


Time Passages by Al Stewart
Released: September, 1978 (RCA)
Produced by: Alan Parsons
Recorded: Davlen Studios, Los Angeles, June 1978
Side One Side Two
Time Passages
Valentina Way
Life In Dark Water
A Man for All Seasons
Almost Lucy
The Palace of Versailles
Timeless Skies
Song on the Radio
End of the Day
Primary Musicians
Al Stewart – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Peter White – Guitars, Keyboards
Tim Renwick – Guitars
Robin Lamble – Bass
Stuart Elliot – Drums

The album’s title song “Time Passages” is a masterpiece on the utter surreal-ness of the passage of time (as demonstrated by the “time warp” album cover). Stewart uses great imagery to accomplish this while the pleasant music adds a pleasant soft rock backing with perfect late seventies production by Parsons. Released as a single, this would become Stewart’s highest charting song ever. It reached #7 on the Billboard pop chart and also spent ten weeks at #1 on the easy listening chart, the longest stay at number one on this chart in the entire decade. “Valentina Way” starts with classical piano by Peter Robinson before abruptly entering a disco section. Despite this dated musical arrangement, the underlying song is pretty good and is musically salvaged by White’s recurring guitar lead/riff.

The first historical number is “Life in Dark Water”, a slow, moody, almost psychedelic rocker driven by the rotating lyrics and a simple, repeated four chord progression. There is some musical deviation in the middle with a short, carnival sounding verse and extended guitar lead by Renwick. The song which references the Mary Celeste, a British-American merchant ship discovered unmanned and abandoned in 1872. Although the weather was fine and her crew had been experienced seamen, the seven member crew were never seen again while the ship was found in perfect shape with personal effects and over six months’ worth of food and water on board. “A Man for All Seasons” completes the first side with a musical a mix of Phil Spector meets alt-country. With a knack for telling historical stories in effected musical means, Stewart tells the story of Sir Thomas More and Henry Plantagenet.

The second side is just as solid as the first, starting with “Almost Lucy, a country/western influenced folk song with good percussive effects throughout. The subtle backing music plays off of Stewart’s vocals perfectly, which reflect the lyrics about the sad life of a prostitute;

“And all these changing faces never bothered her at all that just existed like a back-drop or a pattern on the wall, Lucy looks like someone who is waiting for a call she knows will come but no-one else can hear at all”

Led by smooth synth run by Peter Solley at the top and between verses, “The Palace of Versailles” is another historical diddy. The interplay between Stewart’s acoustic and Renwick’s electric guitars is fantastic, with Parsons adding some orchestral strings towards the end, giving this an epic feel and increasing the continental elegance at the core of this work. The acoustic “Timeless Skies” has a sparse arrangement with White subtly adding some accordion and mandolin as the song progresses.

“Song on the Radio” is the other “radio song” from Time Passages, peaking in the Top 30, despite its lengthy six and a half minute duration (it is interesting that the two “hits” are also the two longest songs on the album). Featuring the distinct alto saxophone of Phil Kenzie, this song may first present itself as pure pop on the surface, but it really has much deeper meaning and connotations lyrically. The closer “End of the Day” was written mainly by Peter White and is mostly instrumental, spending more than half of its duration in a prolonged instrumental introduction before a single, extended verse concludes the album. Soft and jazzy, this pleasant song is an effective way to leave listeners wanting for more.

Time Passages peaked at #10 on the charts and continues to be held as one of his finer albums. Stewart’s pop success continued into the early 1980s until his career slowly lost steam in subsequent years.

~

1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

Infinity by Journey

Infinity by Journey

Buy Infinity

Infinity by JourneyThe classic lineup of Journey came together for the album Infinity, released in 1978. Although this was the fourth overall album for the group that had been together since 1973, it was the first to feature lead vocalist and iconic front man Steve Perry. With his smooth tenor voice and apparent ability to traverse keys at will, Perry ushered in a new era of pop accessibility for Journey. the album was produced by Roy Thomas Baker, who had worked with such rock legends as The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who, Nazareth, and Queen. Baker said he aimed for a layered sound approach, complete with harmonized lead guitars, similar to his work with Queen in the mid seventies.

Journey was formed as a professional jazz/fusion “backing band” built by former Santana manager Herbie Herbert, originally called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section. Guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie were also recent Santana members and they were surrounded by a number of musical lineups through the early years of the group, eventually settling on bassist Ross Valory and drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Journey released three albums in three years with none achieving significant sales. Schon, Valory, and Dunbar took singing lessons in an attempt to add vocal harmonies to Rolie’s lead and even brought in a temporary front man, Robert Fleischman in 1977 to transition to a more popular style.

Perry had achieved moderate success with California bands, Ice and Alien Project, but was on the verge of giving up music when Herbert heard a demo of Perry in Alien Project. Perry was brought on tour and eventually replaced Fleischman permanently in late 1977. With a new contract with Columbia Records, the band set out to make a cohesive and popular record.


Infinity by Journey
Released: January 20, 1978 (Columbia)
Produced by: Roy Thomas Baker
Recorded: His Master’s Wheels Studio, San Francisco, October-December 1977
Side One Side Two
Lights
Feeling That Way
Anytime
Lă Do Dā
Patiently
Wheel In the Sky
Somethin’ To Hide
Winds of March
Can Do
Opened the Door
Primary Musicians
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Gregg Rollie – Keyboards, Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars
Ross Valory – Bass
Aynsley Dunbar – Drums, Percussion

The geographical ballad “Lights” (which can still regularly be heard at San Francisco Giants baseball games) leads things off on Infinity. The complete ode to their home “city by the bay”, was actually written by Perry about Los Angeles before he joined the band. Although originally just a very minor hit, which reached #68 on the charts, the song became more popular over the years to the point where it is now one of Journey’s most easily recognizable songs.

Greg Rollie takes the lead vocal mic on the next two tracks. On “Feeling That Way” he duets with Perry, on a pleasantly moody track with an eighties moderate rock feel. The first incarnation of the song was an instrumental intended for the group’s third album Next, but was left off that album. When Perry joined the band, he helped add a chorus with Rolie adding the verse lyrics. “Anytime” features Rollie solo on lead vocals. This song was co-written by Robert Fleischman during his short time with the group and was released as a single from the album.

“Lă Do Dā” is an upbeat, pure rocker, driven almost entirely by texture, from Schon’s opening guitar effects to the long sustained vocals with electronic effects. “Patiently” was the first collaboration between Perry and Schon and soon became a fan favorite. On this delicate yet hip ballad, Schon plays an acoustic-like form on his electric guitar through the beginning verses, while the concluding full-band jam makes it all the more interesting.

The second side opens with “Wheel in the Sky”, which contains almost an upbeat country riff, especially in the interplay between Schon’s guitar and Ross Vallory’s bass. The song began its life as a poem called “Wheels in My Mind” by Diane Vallory, wife of the bassist and it reached No. 57 on the Billboard charts.
“Somethin’ to Hide” is another pleasant quasi-ballad, driven by Perry’s soaring, atmospheric vocals and Schon’s scorching fret work, along with some subtle keyboard arrangements by Rolie.

Neal’s father, jazz musician Matt Schon composed some of the fine chord structures for “Winds of March”, an arrangement would have worked well with many of the later prog metal acts. This has a love-song-like lyric but with a more somber feel from the dark piano runs to the flange effects on Dunbar’s drums, making it one of the better songs on side two. The album’s final two racks offer a slight glimpse into Journey’s future. “Can Do” is a pure upbeat rocker co-written by Perry and Ross Valory, while “Opened the Door” is the only real soft rock song on the album. Led by the synths from Rollie and more layered guitars from Schon, it is easy to see how the group laid the brickwork here for a lot of their 80s ballads.

Infinity was the first album by the group to contain tracks that received regular airplay as well as the first with charting singles. It was the first of a string hit albums, which eventually served to help Journey become one of the top rock groups in the world. While a few more changes would take place in subsequent years, starting with Herbert firing drummer Dunbar, Journey would consistently gain more popularity through the next half decade.

~

1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.

Hemispheres by Rush

Hemispheres by Rush

Buy Hemispheres

Hemispheres by RushHemispheres, the sixth studio album by Rush, was the second straight album recorded in the United Kingdom. It also contained the second half of a multi-album concept called “Cygnus X-1”, which took up the entire first side  as its title track. Musically, the group continued to use multi-movement song structures, complex rhythms and time signatures to pack this album with musical virtuosity by this trio at the very height of their talent and creativity. Lyrically, Neil Peart continued the scientific/fantasy approach of recent albums but with a decidedly philosophical bend, using a mixture of literary, factual, and fictional methods.

The music is complex and flowing with a lush production. Like the previous four studio album, Hemispheres was produced by Terry Brown. Influenced by progressive rock bands like Yes and King Crimson, the group set out to make more complex music, stretching the maximum potential of three rock musicians to be replicated in live situations. Lead vocalist and bassist Geddy Lee added Minimoog synthesizer and bass pedals to his arsenal while guitarist Alex Lifeson  experimented with classical and twelve-string guitars, often using a holder stand to easily switch between guitars live. Peart continued to add diverse percussion to his ever-growing drum set, including timpani, blocks, orchestral bells, chimes, and melodic cowbells.

Although the second half of a multi-part fantasy which starts in space but ends on Mount Olympus, the overall concept of Hemispheres is to explore and interpret human psychology via the left and right portions of the brain. This whole concept was developed by Peart who, as lyricist, had led the group to to ever greater levels of conceptual complexity since joining Rush in 1974. For their part, musical composers Lee and Lifeson, matched the ingenuity with their tightest, sharpest, and most inventive playing ever with brilliant complexity.


Hemispheres by Rush
Released: October 29, 1978 (Mercury)
Produced by: Terry Brown and Rush
Recorded: Rockfield Studios, South Wales, June–August 1978
Side One Side Two
Cygnus X-1, Book II:
Hemispheres
Circumstances
The Trees
La Villa Strangiato
Primary Musicians
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Synthesizers
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Synthesizers
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion, Synthesizers

 

While the story line isn’t as comprehensible as “2112”, the side-long suite of “Cygnus X-1, Book II: Hemispheres” is much more consistent musically. In fact, it is constructed more like a stage musical than a contemporary prog-rock piece, with the “Prelude” section acting as a true overture. starting off with slow rudiments which, for a moment, feel unsure, the music soon finds its groove, moving through seamless passages in the first three instrumental minutes. You don’t have to be a Rush fanatic to appreciate the quality rock on display here, which (like “2112 Overture”) is the most indelible part of the overall extended piece. A single verse three minutes in sets the stage for the story.

Next come the two parts which describe the two sides of Hemispheres – “Apollo (Bringer of Wisdom)” and ” Dionysus (Bringer of Love)”. These two parts are really just different verses of the same tune, with a Lifeson guitar lead representing the “the bridge of death” crossing between them. Surprisingly, there is not a bigger contrast sonically between these two contrasting characters, as Geddy Lee brilliantly has shown he could pull off in “2112”. The awkward transition into these tracks is the first real flaw of the extended piece. After abandoning the “chains of reason” in pursuit of “joy and love”, the mythical civilization faces cold, starvation, and predators, which causes caos and ultimate battle in the very theatrical climax to the piece, “Armageddon (The Battle of Heart and Mind)”. Here Lee’s voice hits the highest of registers, perhaps a bit too far for contemporary tastes, as he relates the story of aimless conflict which ensued with the confusion brought on by the awareness of Apollo and Dionysus.

Rush in 1978

Finally, comes the bridge back to the final song from A Farewell to Kings. “Cygnus X-1:Book I” was a spacey number about a guy who deliberately steers his spaceship into a black hole out of his burning curiosity to see what was on the other side. On the “Cygnus (Bringer of Balance)” echoes from that song overlaid on the long synth sounds of Lee while Peart’s lyric morphs from the philosophical to the fantasy. The protagonist from the former song was able to make the chaos suddenly cease (although it is really unclear why) and the world unites into a “single, perfect sphere” as described in the pleasant acoustic final part with its Pollyanna, Utopian vision.

The second side begins in sharp contrast with excellent, frenzied musical piece of “Circumstances”. This is Rush, the rock band, at their absolute best. Peart’s crazed but ultra-tight drumming and Lee’s thundering Rickenbacker bass provide the best rhythm section in rock and are in top form. There is very short middle section for variety, where a synth-led waltz gives way the chord-and-riff-driven jam before breaking back into one final chorus. In a way, there is more sonically packed into this less-than-four-minute piece than all of the extended, 18-minute “Hemispheres”. Further, the song has great philosophical lyrics in two languages;

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more that things change, the more they stay the same…”

The philosophy continues with “The Trees”, a parable on socialism and collectivism. Here, Lifeson takes center stage from his classical acoustic intro through the incredible movement through differing guitar textures. Like “Circumstances”, there is another mid-section which starts with some synth and percussion motifs before breaking into a full band jam, which brings the tune to a fevered conclusion with an ironic lyrical ending.

This all leads to “La Villa Strangiato”, the crowning musical achievement of Rush’s long career. The band admits that this was incredibly difficult to record, even claiming that this single track took longer than the entire album Fly By Night. At first, they were obsessed with recording the nine-minute, twelve-section track in one single take, but eventually capitulated and recorded it in three parts. The result is an analog recording with a bit of tape hiss, but this does not detract from the music one bit. Based on a dream by Lifeson, “La Villa Strangiato” (“The Strange House”) begins with half minute Spanish guitar that gives way to, perhaps, the most exciting intro in rock and roll. Like a world awakening from a long slumber, the dream flanged guitar is cut through by the underlying, three-note beat by Lee and Peart. Eventually, the tension breaks into a full band rudimentary riff offset by interludes of smooth instrumental soaring. During the complex middle section, the mood comes down a little bit, to a basic beat for Lifeson’s bluesy guitar leads (like Rush in Pink Floyd mode), again building ever so slowly towards a more intense rhythm part. Several more connecting sections ensue, including a jazzy section led by bass and drums. The music meanders and draws the listener to a lull before suddenly breaking back to the main theme as a lead-in to the outro with a sudden and abrupt ending, which leaves the audience wanting for more.

Although Hemispheres received relatively good reviews it did not fare well commercially. With great success on the horizon, this would be the last Rush studio album to fail to make the Top 10 until 1987’s Hold Your Fire, six albums in the future. The recording of five studio albums in four years, coupled with 300 gigs a year, and the shear exhaustion of making such a complex album would play a major factor in the band deciding to move towards more accessible material in the future.

~

1978 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1978 albums.