A Farewell to Kings by Rush

A Farewell to Kings by Rush

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A Farewell to Kings by RushA Farewell To Kings is the fifth studio album by Rush. It follows 2112, the band’s initial commercial breakthrough in 1976 (check out our Review of 2112). With A Farewell To Kings, the band decided to get even more complex, particularly by employing the first of a two-part concept which would be split over two albums. Although this concept would not be as coherent or as cohesive as that in 2112, it still makes for a very unique and entertaining listen. This first part of “Cygnus X-1” closes the album and speaks of space explorers whose ship is swallowed by a black hole. The theme continues on the next album, 1978’s Hemispheres, with a side long second part that is far more philosophical, speaking of the analytical versus artistic sides of the human brain in a fictional battle between Greek gods. So in essence, although their titles seem to hold nothing in common, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres appear to be forever linked.

The remainder of each of these two albums is downright excellent. In fact, if one were to combine the first side of …Kings with the second side of Hemispheres, the result may just be the best Rush album ever. But they are separate entities, so we will focus on A Farewell to Kings because it is a breakthrough. It is the first time Moog synthesizers, played by bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, are included. The album was also rare in that it was the only one to be recorded off the continent, at Rockfield Studios in Wales, UK.

A Farewell to Kings would become Rush’s first US Gold-selling album, undoubtedly fueled by the success of its predecessor. The band’s songwriting and musical approach got ever more complex, led by the complex lyrics of Neil Peart and the diversity of guitar motifs by Alex Lifeson as well as the great rhythm patterns of both Lee and Peart.

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A Farewell to Kings by Rush
Released: September 1, 1977 (A&M)
Produced by: Rush & Terry Brown
Recorded: Rockford Studios, Wales, UK, June 1977
Side One Side Two
A Farewell to Kings
Xanadu
Closer To the Heart
Cinderella Man
Madrigal
Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage
Group Musicians
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Keybords, Bass Pedals
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Bass Pedals
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion

The classical guitar intro to the opening title song is excellent, offering a medieval backdrop including the sounds of actual birds chirping. The bass, electric guitar, and drums then crash in with gusto, letting you know that this is Rush and they are musically at their prime. an odd-timed bridge part starts with Lee and Peart and climaxes with a bass and guitar duel lead rudiment section, which is fantastic. Lyrically, the song is a metaphor of a crumbling Kingdom as an allegory of society as a whole. The lyrics also seem to indicate that this will be the first album where they move away from the Ayn Randian world view which was present on earlier album.

“Xanadu” is based on Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s eighteenth century poem, where the narrator describes searching for a mythical place where one can find immortality. The tranquil beginning brings to mind farmers working in a field, or near a monastery in a slow intro of nearly two minutes. Then the guitar and wind effects pick up before the drums come in like a storm rolling across the fields. Since there are no words here, it seems the meaning can literally be whatever you want it to be, and this helps paint a mental picture in the listener’s mind. It then breaks into a sharp and direct riff with strong guitar, bass, and cowbell-accented drums. Lyrically, the first verse is the singer contemplating how great it would be to find Xanadu. Then the protagonist sets out on his journey to actually find this mythical place and, by the 3rd verse, the listener finds that he has spent the last thousand years trapped in it’s pleasure dome. The message here is the danger of obsession, and the real irony is that he is that even heavens can become hells if you lose your freedom.

“Held within the Pleasuredome / Decreed by Kubla Khan
To taste my bitter triumph / as a mad immortal man
Nevermore shall I return / Escape these caves of ice
For I have dined on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise…”

The song comes full circle with a calm outtro. “Xanadu”, which marks Rush’s clear foray into program music, is renowned as one of Rush’s finest extended pieces. Live performances of the song require each member to utilize an array of instruments to replicate the studio recording.

“Closer to the Heart” is the first Rush song to have an external co-writer, Peter Talbot. It became the band’s first “hit single” during the Christmas season of 1977 and still receives a substantial amount of radio play. Lyrically, the song continues the almost anti-2112, altruistic message, making it kind of a let down after the majesty of “Xanadu”. It does have a nice bridge after the second verse, which is just enough to give it the edge of a legitimate Rush song and Lifeson’s guitar is quite memorable throughout.

The album’s second side begins with “Cinderella Man”, based on Frank Capra’s 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which is about a man who inherits a great deal of money and then is thought mad when he starts spending it to help the poor. Musically, the song is excellent with Lee’s bass really standing out through the whole song up to and including the wild and funky bridge where he shines brightest. Lee is also the sole writer of this song, one of the latest tracks to not be a band effort with Peart’s lyrics. “Madrigal” is less inspiring, almost unfinished. On the surface it is a very simple love song, but putting it on this album with more complex and epic songs makes it look a bit pathetic musically and lyrically. There is a nice combination of acoustic and electric guitar, keys and bass but barely any real drumming by Peart and it seems to end way too soon, make it one of the oddest songs in the Rush collection.

The album concludes with “Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage”. One night I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth and this song came on and I quite literally was scared by Alex Lifeson’s vocoder intro. It freaked the hell out of me! The intro section really evokes the depth and darkness of space with its introduction and spooky synth sounds. This adventure song evokes many literary and science fiction themes, with an apparent doomy ending as the ship is sucked into the black hole (although this turns drastically in the sequel on the next album). The pounding music seems to pain the image of a force pulling faster and faster as the ship is sucked closer and closer to the black hole, while the lyric; “every nerve is torn apart” paints a really freaky ending to the protagonist’s fate. Musically, this eleven minute epic is not quite as excellent as the other pieces during the era.

In a sense, I think the altruistic A Farewell to Kings was constructed as a counterpart (not complement) to self-interest theme of 2112, with Hemispheres being the balancing act between the two. In this sense, it is important to own all three albums in order to get the full effect of late seventies Rush.

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Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

Even In the Quietest Moments by Supertramp

Even In the Quietest Moments
by Supertramp

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Even In the Quietest Moments by Supertramp Even In the Quietest Moments was the third of four consecutive great albums produced by Supertramp in the mid to late seventies. However, this album was unique in many ways especially musically. The album includes a couple of acoustic-fueled songs by co-songwriter and vocalist Roger Hodgson, both of which would climb the pop charts. Released three years after the band’s art-rock breakthrough, Crime Of the Century, and two years prior to their popular smash, Breakfast In America, 1977’s Even In the Quietest Moments acts as a nice bridge between two corners of the band’s evolving sound.

Supertramp alternated between two distinct singers and songwriters. Hodgson has a high-pitched, child-like voice which contrasts sharply with Rick Davies, who has a more distinctly masculine, baritone voice. Still, it all seemed to work well through their career as they constructed distinct music that was elegant, witty, obscure and entertaining. This album is laid out with each taking alternate turns with the seven tracks, starting with Hodgson, whose four songs included the most popular, recognizable, and accessible. Still, Davies’ three contributions are the glue which holds the album together and makes it a very interesting piece for the critical listener.

Produced by Supertramp, the band employed famed engineer Geoff Emerick, who had worked on much of the Beatles recordings. The album was mainly recorded at Caribou Ranch Studios, a converted barn in a remote area of Northern Colorado. The cover photo of a snow covered piano was taken outside near the studio.

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Even In the Quietest Moments by Supertramp
Released: April, 1977 (A&M)
Produced by: Supertramp
Recorded: Caribou Ranch, Nederland, CO & Record Plant, Los Angeles, CA
December 1976 – January 1977
Side One Side Two
Give a Little Bit
Lover Boy
Even In the Quietest Moments
Downstream
Babaji
From Now On
The Fool’s Overture
Band Musicians
Roger Hodgson – Guitars, Keybords, Vocals
Rick Davies – Piano, Vocals
John Helliwell – Saxophone, Clarinet, Melodica
Dougie Thomson – Bass
Bob Siebenberg – Drums, Percussion

Roger Hodgson’s songs include the title song with a picked acoustic guitar line that paints a deep rural scene. This is nicely accented by the melodica of John Helliwell and later by the other instruments as the song gradually builds to add more intensity and vocal parts. The song, which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, is a beautiful journey to a simple place where the noise of life is filtered out and the purest emotions take center stage. It is hard to tell if this is simply a love song, a spiritual song or a combination of both.

On the second side of the album are the Indian-yoga influenced “Babaji”, a strange anthem true Supertramp fans may enjoy but may be more difficult for the novice listener, and the epic closer “Fools Overture”. A long instrumental intro complete with sound collage starts this song, with the vocals not beginning until 5 ½ minutes in. The song tells of World War II, particularly The Battle of Britain and Winston Churchill; in a reflective way;

“History recalls how great the fall can be
While everybody’s sleeping, the boats put out to sea…
Too late the prophets cry, the island’s sinking let’s take to the sky…”

In all, the song is over ten minutes long and, despite its length and parts that seem unfocused, it was a Minor hit for the band commercially.

Give a Little Bit singleWith a hook that never seems to go out of style, the folksy, acoustic pop song “Give a Little Bit” kicks off this album in a fresh and upbeat (albeit deceptive) way. After a verse and chorus with just Hodgson and his 12-string, the perfect rhythm and tempo of bassist Dougie Thomson and drummer Bob Siebenberg provide the engine that pulls the song through some nice deviations. While the song seems simple on the surface, these subtle changes give it a more epic and edgy feel, especially during the coda. The song reached #15 on the Billboard charts was included in the first Supeman movie in 1978.

Davies contributions to the album are less accessible on the surface, but much more deeply rewarding overall. “Lover Boy” is almost like a show tune but with an edge. It has a bouncy intro hook and return line but then deviates off into a more surreal tangent with a slow and methodical piano riff that sells the drama with a gradual buildup. Just as the song appears to be completed with a fadeout, it re-emerges for a stronger, more rock-oriented conclusion. “Downstream” is a very simply arranged and romantic piano song that nicely ends the first side.

Davies tour de force, not just on this album but probably for his entire career is, “From Now On”. It is a bittersweet, almost melancholy song about the mundane routines of life but it never feels abrasive or excruciating. With an excellent, linear progression that goes through some interesting vocal and instrumental parts, the song concludes with a more uplifting coda section. It kind of feels like emerging from a good cry to a more optimistic feeling.

With the fairly good success of Even In the Quietest Moments and its hit songs, Supertramp set themselves up for their blockbuster commercial breakthrough, which would be the absolute peak of their success. The band would fade after Hodgson’s departure in 1983, but all seemed to have a good perspective on fame and how it fits into the bigger picture. When asked about the constant complaints of certain musicians in a recent interview, Davies simply put it; “We live a life of privilege, we should never forget it, really.”

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

Animals by Pink Floyd

Animals by Pink Floyd

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Animals by Pink Floyd One of the more underrated classic albums, Pink Floyd‘s Animals is set up like an epic movie with three self-contained sub-chapters and sub-plots that somehow all tie together in the end. This latter fact is all the more remarkable when you consider that two of the three extended tracks were actually re-made versions of songs that were excluded from the band’s previous album, Wish You Were Here. The “concept” for the album was constructed by bassist and chief songwriter, Roger Waters, who used farm animals as analogies to represent differing personality types, much in the same fashion as fellow Englishman George Orwell used in his literary classic Animal Farm.

Beyond the lyrical content, the album is also very unique musically. It is the most hard-rock oriented of any Pink Floyd album of the era and is the last to have extended instrumental sections and 10-minute-plus tracks. In a sense it is a bridge between the total group albums of the past and the Waters-centric albums that dominated from the late seventies until Waters departure in 1984. Although Waters had written a large part of the band’s material on previous albums, guitarist David Gilmour had been the primary vocalist since replacing original member Syd Barrett in 1968. With Animals, the proverbial “torch” was passed as Gilmour only shared partial vocals on one song while Waters sang lead everywhere else.

The album’s theme was a reaction to the state of rock music just as the new, raw genre of punk began to explode in London. Part of requirements of this simplistic new movement was to rally against artists of longevity and Pink Floyd was a frequent target of such ire. Despite this, some members of the band welcomed this new movement as a return to the underground scene from which the band had grown.

Animals was, by most accounts, a very stressful album for most of the band, as each was focused on personnel or other interests with the exception of Waters, who happily took the reigns and molded the album in his image. Despite this, it is the band’s most sonically rewarding effort outside of The Dark Side of the Moon and consistently ranks near the top of the pack for the most avid Pink Floyd fans. Although this is not for the casual listener, for the true music lover, there is a very appealing “oddness” to this album which keeps its sound fresh through the decades.

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Animals by Pink Floyd
Released: January 23, 1977 (Columbia)
Produced by: Pink Floyd
Recorded: Britannia Row Studios, London, April-December 1976
Side One Side Two
Pigs On the Wing (Part 1)
Dogs
Pigs (3 Different Ones)
Sheep
Pigs On the Wing (Part 2)
Band Musicians
David Gilmour – Guitars, Vocals
Roger Waters – Bass, Vocals
Richard Wright – Piano, Keyboards
Nick Mason – Drums

In 1974, Pink Floyd embarked on the “Wish You Were Here” tour, playing new material in advance of the 1975 album of the same name. Two of the songs played during that tour were ultimately left off that album and later re-written for Animals. One of these was a jazzy acoustic piece by Gilmour called “You Gotta Be Crazy” that was slowed down with re-written lyrics and renamed “Dogs”.

Right from the jump, “Dogs” is something unique and off the tracks even for the vast Pink Floyd catalog. With that progression of odd acoustic chords by Gilmour and just the right touch of organ and synth effects by keyboardist Richard Wright, the layered music builds with ever greater intensity as it progresses through the first three verses. When the first guitar lead breaks in, it is clear that this is a Gilmour signature song, with the slow progressions through the first instrumental break being one of the best Pink Floyd jam ever. The biting and cynical lyrics are a concoction the philosophies of Machiavelli, Sol Alinsky, and Vito Corleone, and offer no counter-weight in the pursuit of pure power. At about 8½ minutes in, there is a long synth and “dog barking” section, which I used to consider filler but have to appreciate in my old age, especially when you consider how completely transformed the song is on the other side. Waters is now singing and, even though the acoustic is strumming the same exact chords, the music contains a completely different vibe.

“Dogs” is also a back link from the future song “Hey You” on The Wall, with the whole concept of the bad blood “stone” being revisited in that song which introduces the concept of that album. With the outro “who was…” section that concludes this 17-minute piece, Waters borrows from the famous Alan Ginsberg poem “Howl” as he goes off into a tangent about himself in what is like a window into The Wall.

“Sheep” is the other track that dates back to the 1974 tour, when it was a mainly instrumental piece called “Raving and Drooling”. It is a driving, synth-heavy piece with a wild effect on Water’s voice trailing the verse lines. The lyrics are at once violent and scolding;

“Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well-trodden corridors into the valley of steel…”

The ten-plus-minute song contains a middle section which harkens back to “Dogs” by reviving the “stone” theme and effect before it progresses into a bizarre section that includes a re-written bible quote spoken by drummer Nick Mason through a heavy vocoder. It then bursts out into the climatic third verse where the “sheep” level their revenge against the “dogs”.

Animals is considered by many to be nihilistic, while others point to the two short pieces that bookend the album as an optimistic “wrapper” of hope. “Pigs On the Wing” is pure acoustic folk, like a slowed down Bob Dylan tune but with distinct vocals of Roger Waters. It was recorded as a single song with a guitar lead between the verses by the band’s touring second guitarist Snowy White. But in what turns out to be a rather shrewd and cunning move, Waters split the song into two parts of nearly equal length, omitting the guitar lead and also significantly increasing his album royalties as they were on a per-song basis. This move was deeply objected to by Gilmour who actually received half the royalties from his 17-minute piece “Dogs” than Waters received from this split song that was less than 3 minutes in total.

Pink Floyd, 1977

Not to be confused with “Pigs on the Wing”, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is the third major piece on the album. Musically is where this song really shines, especially the array of key parts performed by Wright along with the sharp, biting guitar crunches and cool sound effects throughout. The song also includes the world’s first and only “pig lead” as Gilmour using a talk box for some great effects during a long instrumental section. Lyrically, Waters takes aim at those with wealth and power, in what is really an updated version of “Us and Them” but with full concentration on the “Them”.

Following the release of Animals, the band embarked on their biggest tour to date, labeled the “In the Flesh” tour. This tour was Pink Floyd’s first experience with playing in large stadiums and they found themselves uncomfortable in such settings and much internal squabbling ensued. The tour also set the scene and setting for the story in the next album The Wall. That album would become vastly popular with a mainstream audience, something Animals would not achieve. Even so, Animals is a great album and totally unique among its rock n roll contemporaries.

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1977 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.

1976 Album of the Year

Boston

1976 Album of the Year

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Boston 1976 debut albumAlthough portrayed as a true “band”, Boston was really pretty much a solo project by engineer Tom Scholz. An M.I.T. graduate then working for Polaroid, Sholz built a home studio in Massachusetts in the early 1970s and began experimenting with innovative sounds and developing songs. Sholz formed a band called Mother’s Milk with singer Brad Delp and guitarist Barry Goudreau , but was soon unsatisfied with the live sound and disbanded the band in order to concentrate on the studio work (although Delp continued as the primary vocalist). A perfectionist, Scholz worked on the demos for about seven years, frequently submitting tapes to record labels only to be rejected. Finally, in 1975 Sholz got the attention of Epic Records who signed Sholz and Delp under a few conditions. They had to perform a live audition, which meant that a full band had to be assembled. Also, Epic refused Sholz’s request to use his demo tapes from home, insisting that all material come from a “professional studio”. It appeared the entire album had to be re-recorded and seven years of work scrapped.

However, Scholz found an ally in producer John Boylan, who had the makeshift “band” doing sessions at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles while Sholz was back in Massachusetts finalizing his demos and transferring them to a professional, 24-track format. It was a very elaborate (and Expensive) diversion, but in the end it was well worth it. Aside from Delp’s vocals and most of the drum tracks, very little of the recordings from Capitol Studios was used in the final mix of the Boston album, which is all the more incredible when you consider the absolutely innovative nature of the album’s sound.

Arriving in August 1976, Boston resurrected the classic rock format which seemed to be giving way to the new, divergent genres of punk rock and disco. Scholz’s innovative use of self-designed equipment would be reproduced and replicated throughout the subsequent years, especially the 1980s. While the fusion of hard rock with delicate motifs and layered melodies and harmonics had been done in the past by artists like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Yes, and The James Gang, it was mastered by Boston.

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Boston by Boston
Released: August 25, 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: John Boylan & Tom Scholz
Recorded: Foxglove Studios, Watertown, MA, October 1975 – April 1976
Side One Side Two
More Than a Feeling
Peace of Mind
Foreplay
Long Time
Rock and Roll Band
Smokin’
Hitch a Ride
Something About You
Let Me Take You Home Tonight
Band Musicians
Brad Delp – All Vocals, Acoustic Guitars
Tom Scholz – Guitars, Keys, Bass
Barry Goudreau – Guitars
Sib Hashian – Drums

If there is any any flaw in the Boston album it is that they got the sides wrong. While each side works well as a cohesive unit, the album should have started with side two, with the introductory “Rock and Roll Band”, and worked its way up to the fantastic side one, closing with “Long Time”. In this spirit, I’ve decided to review the second side first.

“Rock and Roll Band” is an ironic song in that Boston never really was a “band” before the production of this album. The project started just with Sholz, Delp, and drummer Jim Masdea trying to recreate the recordings that Sholz was recording, but never really reaching any point of notoriety live. Masdea, who left shortly before the Sholz and Delp were signed to Epic, did perform the drums on this track but none others. When the record label insisted on a full band doing a live audition of the material, Sholz enlisted the rest of the players and the “band” was formed.

Boston

“Smokin” was originally written by Brad Delp as a piece called “Shakin” and contains an upbeat grove in the same vein as Grand Funk though topped off by the unmistakable sound of Boston. A long jam in the middle is dominated by Sholz’s organ work and the steady, consistent drumming of Sib Hashian. “Hitch a Ride” is a beautiful ballad and a true classic by Boston. It is first dominated by the acoustic guitar through the verses under the restrained vocals by Delp. A peculiar yet entertaining organ lead comes after the second chorus, but the long ending featuring a double-tracked electric guitar lead may is the real treat. It may be one of the finest guitar leads ever performed. The song’s meaning has long been in dispute. With lyrics like –

“Life is like the coldest winter, people freeze the tears I cry”

and –

“Gonna hitch a ride, head for the other side, leave it all behind, never change my mind…freedom on my mind, carry me away for the last time”

Some may be led to believe that this beautiful song is actually about taking one’s life, especially in light of Delp’s suicide in 2007 (although Delp did not write the song).

Closing out the second side, the album’s final two tracks are the closest to standard pop songs with standard subject matter. “Something About You”, although a fine song by any standard, is the closest thing to a throwaway song on this album as it is nothing spectacular compared to the rest of the material on the album. “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” is much better, a true pop song with the highest production value. It has a beautiful arrangement among the acoustic, electric, and organ parts and a very melodic bridge with a counter-melody. It all wraps up with an upbeat, revival-like coda section that fades to the end.

With a rather unique fade in which only serves to add more mystique to the song, “More Than a Feeling” the first song on the first album, is the greatest song Boston would ever create. It is a perfect rock song in many ways, beginning with a pleasant acoustic folk riff that launches into an incredible rock riff linked by a short, space age guitar lead previewing the fantastic harmonized electric guitar of Tom Sholz. The most fantastic item in this department store full of ear candy, Sholz would go on to patten this sound with the development of the Rockman. In “More Than a Feeling”, the guitar lead is played over a quite complex yet totally melodic progression, with the final note seems to sustain into infinity under the vocals of Brad Delp vocals in the final chorus. The song itself took five years for Sholz to perfect and his diligence sure paid off.

An acoustic intro betrays the hard rocking tenor of “Peace of Mind”, a commentary on work/life balance. Here Delp’s harmonies shine brightest through the choruses and there is also some great bass by Sholz, proving his talents on yet another instrument. On “Foreplay”, the album’s oldest piece, Sholz plays the organ and clavichord in a space age instrumental consisting of rapid triplet arpeggios played on a Hammond M3 organ. All “effects” were performed on guitar by Sholz, as the band swears that not a single synthesizer was used on the album. “Long Time” is the perfect closing song, starting with a great lead guitar which pierces through the very basic rhythm by the organ and bass as the song kicks in and accents each verse nicely. The choruses switch up and are dominated by a strummed acoustic guitar and what sounds like an electronic hand clap. But even with this radical departure, the song flows perfectly from one section to the other.

Boston became the most successful debut ever by an artist and remained so for over a decade, selling a million albums in less than three months and nine times that figure over its first decade. The band would put out a similarly-styled follow-up with Don’t Look Back two years later, but Sholz felt that effort was “rushed” and it did not fare nearly as well critically nor commercially. In reality, Boston would be that unique super nova by the band which could never be replicated. It was also the rare piece that was extremely excellent, extremely popular, and has held up over the decades, and that is what makes it Classic Rock Review‘s album of the year for 1976.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Hotel California by The Eagles

Hotel California by The Eagles

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Hotel California by The EaglesWhether it was done intentionally or not, Hotel California came pretty close to being a true concept album by The Eagles. The songs each loosely share the themes of paradise lost or squandered and the album is bookmarked by geographical locations of such. As the band’s fifth album, it was transitional in several ways including music and personnel wise. Guitarist Bernie Leadon, a strong influence on the band’s country sound of the early years was replaced by funk-rock guitarist Joe Walsh, who had previously fronted the groups James Gang and Barnstorm. As a result, the band’s sound got a bit heavier while never abandoning its mainstream pop sensibilities.

The album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had produced the Eagles previous two albums as well as several albums by Joe Walsh and the James Gang. Szymczyk was noted for laboriously experimenting until he found the right “sound” in each artist, as the producer possessed no musical talent or training, just extraordinary listening skills. The band took 18 months between releases of their previous album One of These Night and Hotel California, with eight of those months in the studio recording.

Thematically, members of the Eagles have described the album as a metaphor for the perceived decline of America. The band’s lead singer, songwriter, and drummer Don Henley said that because it was the bicentennial year and the “Eagle” is the symbol of our country, they felt obliged to make some kind of artistic statement. He explained how they used California as a microcosm of the whole United States, with comments on the nature of success and the attraction of excess, and an extremely pessimistic history of America.

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Hotel California by The Eagles
Released: December 8, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: Bill Szymczyk
Recorded: Criteria Studios, Miami & Record Plant, L.A., March-October 1976
Side One Side Two
Hotel California
New Kid In Town
Life In the Fast Lane
Wasted Time
Wasted Time (Reprise)
Victim of Love
Pretty Maids All In the Row
Try and Love Again
The Last Resort
Band Musicians
Glenn Frey – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Joe Walsh – Guitars, Keyboards, Vocals
Don Felder – Guitars, Vocals
Randy Meisner – Bass, Guitarron, Vocals
Don Henley – Drums, Vocals

While the lyrical content of the album is up for debate, the true beauty of Hotel California is the sound, much of which was unlike anything the Eagles had done before. The opening theme song starts with long acoustic/electric intro, which was originally introduced to the band by lead guitarist Don Felder as an instrumental piece. This acts as a dramatic overture before the song kicks in with a quasi-Caribbean rhythm and beat with the first verse and the cryptic, yet intriguing, storytelling lyrics. However, the real treat that makes this song a bonafide classic are the dual electric guitars by Walsh and Felder, which float above the lyric stinging electric melodies throughout the verse and chorus, and take center stage with the long, dual guitar lead to close the song.

To this day, many of the unique terms and phases used in the song’s lyric are debated as to their exact meaning or intent. These include “colitas”, “this could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, “wine” referred to as a “spirit” (which it is not), “steely knives”, and the key phase of the song – “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

After this unique artistic masterpiece, the band serves up a couple of songs which both went on to be big hits, one in the country-rock style of the past, and one in the heavier rock style of the future. “New Kid In Town” is probably the greatest country rock song ever (if there ever really was such a genre) It has some great chord structure, a beautiful mix of instrumentation, and more great guitar by Don Felder, although much less subtle than on the title song. Co-written by J.D. Souther and sung by Glenn Frey, the song ascends keys in the third verse and then finds a smooth passage back before the outtro, in a piece of musical mastery. “Life In the Fast Lane” features a heavy guitar riff and lead by Joe Walsh, with lyrics that are a bit edgy. It uses the driving analogy for a drug and danger fueled lifestyle and contains a great hook with an almost-disco beat. The nice flanged section after last chorus gives the song an edgy, new-wave feel that makes the sound quite advanced for 1976.

Eagles in 1976

The first side ends with “Wasted Time”, a song that may be the perfect barroom ballad speaking of broken relationships. The song is very slow and measured, with great vocals by Henley. However, the orchestral reprise of the song which opens up the second side of the album is, in fact, “wasted time” as it adds absolutely nothing to the album. This short foray is mercifully disrupted by the hard rocker “Victim of Love”, a song which proves that the Eagles can do more with two chords than any other band ever. This song was recorded live in the studio and contains a great descend into a slide solo by Joe Walsh.

Walsh’s only songwriting and lead vocal effort is “Pretty Maids All In a Row”, which is not a very strong representation of his talents. It is a piano ballad, surprising by Walsh with Felder playing the lead guitar role. “Try and Love Again” was written and sung by bassist Randy Meisner, who has that strange kind of voice which gives songs a cool edge, such on his “Take It To the Limit” on the previous album. Hotel California would be Meisner’s last album with the band, as he decided to return to his native Nebraska in order to be with his family.

The album concludes with Henley’s “The Last Resort”, which bookends the “Hotel California” theme nicely on one hand, but is kind of the anti-Hotel California on another hand. Where that classic song is poetic and leaves much room for interpretation, this one is preachy with lyrics that are a bit bigoted, racist, elitist, and yet self-loathing, taking away from the otherwise beautiful melody and score. All that being said, the song does include some profound lyrics;

“There is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
You call something paradise, kiss it goodbye…”

Hotel California would be the absolute pinnacle of the The Eagles’ career, selling more than any other of their multiple successes and being considered high up on several “all time” lists. The band went on to record one more studio album, The Long Run, which took even longer to create. Although that album was also a smash hit, it contributed greatly to the tensions that ultimately broke up the band in 1980.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

1976_Kiss Destroyer

Destroyer by Kiss

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Destroyer by KissOn the brink of mainstream success, glam rock band Kiss set out to create a serious studio album by enlisting Alice Cooper’s producer Bob Ezrin. In producing the band’s fourth album, Destroyer, Ezrin added richer production and instrumentation with some outside musicians to the band’s base, party-rock sound. As none of the band members had any formal musical training or knew much musical theory, Ezrin ran the sessions like a classroom, explaining theory along the way and scolding any band member who deviated from specific directions, something Kiss would later refer to as “musical boot camp”. The result was the most successful album to date, following the modest success of the the first three studio albums, and the launching of Kiss into super-stardom through the late 1970s and beyond.

The group was formed in 1972, when guitarist/vocalist Paul Stanley and bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons stumbled upon an Ad placed by veteran New York drummer Peter Criss. Criss had previously played in a band called “Lips”, to which Stanley evolved into the name “Kiss”. Starting as a trio, the group played hard rock covers and eventually injected original material as well as their trademark stage costumes. After three studio albums with modest success, Kiss released a very successful live album in late 1975 called Alive!, which sought to capture the live energy of their concerts.

For the production of Destroyer, rather than try to recreate a concert setting on this studio album, Ezrin went the opposite route and made what is perhaps the most experimental album in the Kiss catalog. Not everyone was on board with this, as lead guitarist Ace Frehley (who joined the group as a fourth member in 1974) caused much friction to the point where he was threatened to be replaced and then relented. Virtually no one was on board with the inclusion of the orchestra to back “Beth”, with the exception of Criss, who wrote song and sang lead. This song, of course became a smash hit for the band and opened up their music to whole new audiences.

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Destroyer by Kiss
Released: March 15, 1976 (Casablanca)
Produced by: Bob Ezrin
Recorded: Electric Lady & Record Plant, New York, Sep 1975- Feb 1976
Side One Side Two
Detroit Rock City
King of the Night Time World
God of Thunder
Great Expectations
Flaming Youth
Sweet Pain
Shout It Out Loud
Beth
Do You Love Me?
Rock and Roll Party
Group Musicians
Paul Stanley – Rhythm Guitars, Vocals
Ace Frehley – Lead Guitars, Vocals
Gene Simmons – Bass, Vocals
Peter Criss – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

The album’s opener, “Detroit Rock City” includes news reports and other sound effects overlaying a hard rock song with dramatic lyrics written by Stanley and inspired by a real life story where a fan was killed in a car crash while hurrying to get to a Kiss concert. “King Of the Night” follows, but is of far less quality, almost a caricature of a pretentious rock song by players with minimal skill. “God Of Thunder” features vocals by Simmons and over the years came to be known as his theme song, even though it was actually written by Stanley.

One can definitely hear the Alice Cooper influence on “Great Expectations”, which uses a Beethoven piece in the intro before breaking into a decent but haunting rock song. “Flaming Youth” is a piece orchestrated by Ezrin from three separate songs written by Frehley, Simmons, and Stanley. Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner played the guitar lead on this track as well as on “Sweet Pain”, another mediocre, formulaic song that opens the album’s second side.

“Shout It Out Loud” was strongly influenced by the band’s label Casablanca Records, who insisted that the band create another “rock anthem” in the same vein as “Rock and Roll All Nite” from the previous album. While the song was popular and eventually became a regular concert staple on the oldies circuit, it was not nearly as successful as its predecessor.

Peter Criss’s “Beth” was written several years earlier when he was in the band Chelsea, with the lyrics coming nearly verbatim from a bandmate’s phone conversation with a clingy girlfriend (who he called “Beck”, short for Becky) as the band was rehearsing. Criss was the only band member to actual perform in the song, singing with his raspy voice which strongly contrasted the piano and strings by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which Ezrin brought in to back the track. “Beth” was originally the B-side of the “Detroit Rock City” and later released as a single of its own, peaking at #7 on the Billboard singles chart in September 1976, the group’s first Top 10 song. It was a last-minute addition to the album as Simmons and Stanley strongly objected because it was not a typical Kiss song.

Kiss in 1976

“Do You Love Me?” is the last real song on the album with an almost hip-hop drum beat, funky bass, and a good guitar during the bridge. The lyrics question how much adoration is for the man versus the rock star in the situations the band members were starting to experience. It also acts as a bit of a prediction as stardom was just starting to befall the New York band behind the white makeup.

In less than a year following Destroyer, two more highly successful studio albums were released, Rock and Roll Over in November 1976, and Love Gun in 1977. This was followed by a second popular live album (Alive II) and a whole plethora of touring, marketing and media successes that made Kiss one of the top earning bands of the decade.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Dreamboat Annie by Heart

Dreamboat Annie by Heart

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Dreamboat Annie by HeartHeart, originally labeled the “female Led Zeppelin,” had an impressive debut with Dreamboat Annie. The album was appropriately released on Valentine’s Day in 1976. Produced by Mike Flicker, the album has a simple and direct sound that accentuates the rock dynamics within the instruments and vocals. The Seattle based band recorded the album in Vancouver and first released it in Canada only in 1975 on the Mushroom Records label, which at the time did not have a U.S. distribution system. But, due to heavy sales and radio play in Canada, Mushroom expanded to the U.S. solely to promote Heart, starting in Seattle and then working city by city through the United States, as the band’s popularity spread. The ultimate goal was to land a national distribution contract, but soon relations between the band and Mushroom deteriorated due to questionable ads. The result was Dreamboat Annie never quite reaching the heights that it legitimately deserved as a top-notch rock album with an original approach until the 1980s when Mushroom went out of business and Capitol Records picked up distribution of the early Heart material.

In the mid 1970s, there were very few women who performed and recorded the assertive, Zeppelin-esque rock that Heart had developed. Lead by singer Ann Wilson and her younger sister, guitarist and songwriter Nancy Wilson, the band developed something unapologetically strong and within the realm previously exclusive to male musicians and fans. These strong yet melodic rockers made for a potent combination which would be copied in future decades but was quite unique at the time Dreamboat Annie was released. But even within this new sub-genre, Heart added some variety with ballads and folk-influenced numbers, making this album an interesting listen.

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Dreamboat Annie by Heart
Released: February 14, 1976 (Mushroom)
Produced by: Mike Flicker
Recorded: Can-Base Studios, Vancouver, July-August 1975
Side One Side Two
Magic Man
Dreamboat Annie (Fantasy Child)
Crazy On You
Soul Of the Sea
Dreamboat Annie
White Lightning and Wine
(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song
Sing Child
How Deep It Goes
Dreamboat Annie (Reprise)
Group Musicians
Ann Wilson – Lead Vocals, Flute
Nancy Wilson – Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Roger Fisher – Guitars
Howard Leese – Keyboards
Steve Fossen – Bass

The album blasts out of the gate with the popular rocker “Magic Man” with a simple, rocking beat which provides the perfect backdrop for Ann Wilson’s voice. The song contains a long mid-section with extended leads by guitarist Roger Fisher and keyboardist Howard Leese in turn, giving it a more “epic” feel beyond its melodic hook in the verse and chorus. This “epic” or “concept” structure is extended to the album itself with three different versions of the title song “Dreamboat Annie”. However, only the version which closes side one acts as true song, a fast picked folk song with layered harmonies and picked acoustic guitar and banjo. The other two kind of sound like alternate takes which were added as filler.

Probably the best song that Heart would ever record, “Crazy On You” is an absolute gem which employs all the elements that make a great rock song. It has a finger-picked acoustic intro which highlights the skills of Nancy Wilson, divergent instrumentation throughout as the acoustic makes a soft bed for the dynamic electric guitars to pierce through melodically, a good riff and hook, beautiful interludes, and a sense of mystique brought out by the chord arrangements. Once again, the dynamic and emotional vocals of Ann Wilson push the song over the top.

Heart 1976

There is a lot to like about the album, especially when you explore some of the lesser known songs. “Soul Of The Sea” is a nice guitar ballad with layered strings which contrasts with “White Lightning and Wine”, a pure, bluesy rocker, driven by the rhythm of Steve Fossen and the sultry vocals of Wilson. “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” features strummed acoustic by Nancy Wilson and some nice slide guitar by Leese, making the vibe almost country in ways, while another acoustic ballad “How Deep It Goes” features nice bass flourishes, fine synths, and good harmonies. “Sing Child” is the only group composition and really presents early Heart as a true band as it includes a guitar solo and jam in the middle along with some Ian Anderson-like flute by Ann Wilson.

Heart would go on to produce more popular albums, especially as they morphed towards being a more pop-oriented band. But Dreamboat Annie displays them at their most innovative and talented and is a most impressive debut.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

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Songs In the Key of Life by Stevie WonderThe incredibly long and ambitious Songs In the Key of Life became the tour-de-force of Stevie Wonder‘s prolific seventies. The album consisted of two LPs plus an addition four-song EP, a total 85 minutes of music from its 21 total songs. Wonder’s songs dealt with a variety of subjects many of which were the serious issues of the day and the musical performances are considered some of the best of his career. Because of its incredible length and rich arrangements, Songs In the Key of Life took a year longer than expected to complete, which made for a stressful situation between Wonder and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, especially since Gordy had just given Wonder the largest record contract in history in 1975. It was a seven-album, $37 million deal with Wonder guaranteed full artistic control, and Gordy and the world eagerly awaited the first album of this new contract to be completed.

The album was finally released at the end of September 1976, and by early October it was already number one on the Billboard Pop Albums Chart, where it stayed for thirteen consecutive weeks into 1977 and eventually became the second best-selling album of that year. Songs In the Key of Life also became the most successful Stevie Wonder album as far as charting singles, and several of the songs were even the basis for hip-hop standards decades later. The album also became Wonder’s third in four years to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, winning previously in 1974 and 1975 for Innervisions and Fulfilligness’ First Finale respectively. Wonder also won Grammys for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, Best Male Rhythm and Blues Performer, and Producer of the Year in 1977.

Although a total of 130 people worked on the album, many of the songs on the album were performed entirely by Wonder. The album took the listener through a journey of musical styles, recollections, and observations about issues ranging from childhood, first love, faith, social issues, and the downtrodden.

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Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder
Released: September 28, 1976 (Motown)
Produced by: Stevie Wonder
Recorded: Crystal Sound, L.A. & The Record Factory, New York, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Love’s In Need of Love Today
Have a Talk With God
Village Ghetto Land
Contusion
Sir Duke
I Wish
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Pastime Paradise
Summer Soft
Ordinary Pain
Side Three Side Four
Isn’t She Lovely?
Joy Inside My Tears
Black Man
Ngiculela – Es Una Historia
If It’s Magic
As
Another Star
A Something’s Extra EP
Saturn
Ebony Eyes
All Day Sucker
Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
Primary Musicians
Stevie Wonder – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards, Drums, Percussion
Michael Sembello – Guitars
Nathan Watts – Bass
Ray Pounds – Drums

When Stevie Wonder chose the title, he set an ambitious personal goal to live up to its billing. He worked with a core group of musicians laying down many of the funk-oriented tracks while independently developing several of the more innovative tracks. Although this diverse album does have amazing cohesion, the first two original sides and EP seem to be far superior to sides three and four, which are still good but far less dazzling. All that being said, side one starts with an odd sequence of songs.

“Love’s In Need of Love Today” starts with deep harmonies before breaking into an R&B ballad. Like many songs later on the album, it contains a very long outro with much vocal improvisation all the way to the end. “Have a Talk with God” is performed in total by Wonder, mostly synths with some drums and a nice lead. “Village Ghetto Land” is completely original, with orchestral parts performed on the Yamaha “dream machine” the lyrics were written by Gary Byrd, who actually recited them over the phone to Wonder minutes before he recorded the song. The fourth song, “Contusion” is actually the first to use a “band” arrangement. It is (almost) an instrumental with just some scat vocals and where Wonder really takes a backseat to the other musicians like guitarist Michael Sembello.

“Sir Duke” finishes side one and is a true classic. The song was written in tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington, who died in 1974. Ellington had a strong influence on Wonder as a musician and he wanted to write a song acknowledging musicians he felt were important. Originally done on 16 track but later on the new 24 track recorder, “Sir Duke” is one of the great songs from the era, fresh and bold with lots of harmonized brass upfront and a fantastic vocal melody by Wonder.

The A Something’s Extra 7″ EP was included with many editions the original album and the tracks are on most CD versions. It contains four fine tracks, starting with Sembello’s “Saturn”, who got the title when he misinterpreted Wonder’s singing “Saginaw” (the town of his birth). It is a pleasant ballad with a bit of edginess and marching piano. “Ebony Eyes” is a great, upbeat boogie-woogie piano song with strong bass by Nathan Watts and drums by Wonder and really cool instrumentation in the arrangement including a talkbox, a steel guitar, and a great growling sax lead. “All Day Sucker” is another synth-driven, hyper funk song, while “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” starts kind of dramatic but eases into a nice jazz rhythm with a Fender Rhodes electric piano, topped by Wonder’s double-tracked harmonica.

Stevie Wonder I Wish singleSide two kicks off with “I Wish”, a song that is nearly impossible not to dance to at every listen. It revolves around several very complex synth and bass lines that mesh together like a funky symphony. The song was the first and most successful hit off the album, with nostalgic lyrics. “Knocks Me Off My Feet” begins with a lounge act piano until it works into a nice romantic ballad with some very interesting and intense sections.

“Pastime Paradise” is another complex art piece, which contains a reverse gong and strings from the “dream machine” that Wonder says were influenced by the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It also contains some very complex, Latin-influenced percussion with bells and two full choral groups singing completely different parts simultaneously. Yet somehow it all comes together in a beautiful and haunting piece. “Summer Soft” is a beautiful piano tune that breaks into nice ensemble with stronger instrumentation, with the end of the song going through many key changes, becoming more and more intense on each iteration until giving way to a closing organ lead by Ronnie Foster. “Ordinary Pain” finishes the fantastic second side as another very pleasant melody with a strong, thumping rhythm which turns sharply about midway through to a new-fangled funk with vocals by Shirley Brewer.

The third LP side starts with “Isn’t She Lovely?”, which would become one of Wonder’s all time popular songs. Written in celebration ofthe the birth of his daughter, Wonder incorporated sounds from home to complement the excellent piano riff, vocal melody, and sweet harmonica lead during the long outtro. “Joy Inside My Tears” contains a slow and steady drum beat played by Wonder with really subdued vocals. “Black Man” has a strong synth presence and 1980s type deep funk (in 1976), with a section of long question and answer chanting at the end.

Stevie Wonder

On the fourth side, “If It’s Magic” stands out as a unique piece containing on harp by Dorothy Ashby and vocals with a little harmonica by Wonder. “As” is an upbeat R&B ballad dominated by the chorus hook sung by background singers with Wonder improvising much of the lead vocals. “Another Star” finishes the side with an almost disco-beat above some Caribbean-influenced piano and percussion and is yet another song with a long outro of consistent riff and improvised vocals.

Songs In the Key of Life was an incredible success on all fronts and would serve as a major influence for scores artists over the coming decades. It was also the absolute apex of a very long career by Stevie Wonder.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums

Leftoverture by Kansas

Leftoverture by Kansas

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Leftoverture by KansasFor a long time I considered Kansas to be more like a sidekick act in relation to those truly talented British progressive rock bands. This was probably due, in no small part, to the weak critical reception and tepid coverage that they seem to get from the mainstream rock press, many of whom dismiss them as “corporate rock” or whatever intellectually lazy label they use to dismiss certain acts. But as I listened extensively to Leftoverture while preparing for this review, I came to realize that this band may well equal some of these acts held in higher esteem. While it is i true that they draw heavily from contemporaries like Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd, and Rush, they really have an art for mixing it up in a totally entertaining fashion. Kansas also has a knack for hitting the “sweet spot” when it comes to melody and harmony and they really make their own mark when it comes to true sonic value.

The second epiphany I had concerning the Leftoverture album was actually a question – can this be considered a religious album? There is no doubt that it is definitely philosophical, inspired and spiritual in the new-age lefty kind of way. But is it religious? If so, it may be the best type of religious album; implicit and artful with many subjects left in the form of a very good question, rather than a conclusion or directive.

Which brings us back to the critics of this album, many of which blast it for being a “concept album” without having a true concept. My statement to that is perhaps it is not a concept album at all, just a fine collection of songs with more universal themes than traditional rock and roll. These universal themes may reach beyond the typical conventions of the garden variety rock critic. Others have said the band tries to be too “arty” when they don’t have the talent to do so. To those who say this album doesn’t contain rhythm or composition, I say they simply do not like music.

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Leftoverture by Kansas
Released: October 1976 (Kirshner)
Produced by: Jeff Glixman & Kansas
Recorded: Studio In the Country, Bogalusa, LA, 1975-1976
Side One Side Two
Carry On Wayward Son
The Wall
What’s On My Mind
Miracles Out of Nowhere
Opus Insert
Questions of My Childhood
Cheyenne Anthem
Magnus Opus
Group Musicians
Steve Wash – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
Kerry Livgren – Guitars, Piano, Keyboards, Clarinet
Rich Williams – Guitars
Robby Steinhardt – Violin, Viola, Vocals
Dave Hope – Bass
Phil Ehart – Drums, Percussion

The first side on the album contains a nice mix of styles, highlighted by “The Wall”. The guitar-led intro is just fantastic and nicely switches to the baroque-inspired verse with harpsichord-like keys that are later accented by strings and thumping rhythms. This song really feels influenced by a mixture of Yes and classic Genesis, but with a more terrestrial feel especially when it comes to Walsh’s lead vocals and Livgren’s poetic lyrics which pre-empted Roger Waters by about three years;

“It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between,
All I am, and all that I would ever want be, it’s just a travesty…”

The next song “What’s On My Mind” is almost a straight-forward pop song and therefore probably the weakest song on the album artistically, but not a terrible listen. “Miracles Out of Nowhere” is much stronger, moving through many great instrumental passages with rich instrumentation including acoustic guitars, strings, synths, and piano, while almost folk during verses.

The album’s opener, “Carry On My Wayward Son”, has become the most lasting piece from Leftoverture, receiving heavy airplay through the decades. While this song is definitely pop-oriented, it still feels “epic” in many ways, from the perfect harmonies at the start, to the various passages of musical interlude, and the fine piano backing the verse and very poetic lyric. The song has been called “a sonic monolith” with its meaning still debated, from that of an ongoing theme brought forward from the previous album Masque, to the religious sentiment I touched on earlier in this article.

The album’s second half is where I feel the true genius lies. Although, I can’t quite articulate that genus in words (something that no doubt frustrated those harsh critics). Starting with “Opus Insert” which is an absolutely brilliant song to the ears but quite baffling (due to its title) to the mind. It may be an inside joke or puzzle left to be solved, but I’ll just stick to what I can report. It is extremely entertaining, starting with an odd, interesting organ that breaks into a heavier section, very good with thumping bass by Dave Hope. It is a “carpe diem” song with nicely strummed acoustic during the chorus followed by a majestic riff of violin/viola which morphs even further into a marching sound with drum rolls behind vibraphone and piano before returning again to odd and beautiful beginning and then synth-led ending.

Before you can catch your breath “Questions of My Childhood” kicks in with a wild and upbeat intro led by synth then organ. More philosophical themes are explored around maturing and realizing you never get all the answers. A great violin lead in the outtro by string man Robby Steinhardt sits on top of the intro synths, which nicely migrate into the background. “Cheyenne Anthem” is nearly a straight-forward folk song with a message, but it seems to have a deeper, poetic meaning as the verses go on (again, religious?) –

“All our words and deeds are carried on the wind…”

Musically the song is once again brilliant, never getting bogged down by any predisposed “message”, with nice acoustic guitars and synth overtones and Jethro Tull-like folksy passages which lead to an upbeat section that sounds almost polka (although probably based on Native American tribal dance). This gives way to more Kansas-style riff before the big mid-section breaks back down to simple strummed acoustic guitars and haunting vocals in background.

Kansas in 1976

The album concludes with “Magnum Opus”, an 8½ minute piece which is nearly an instrumental save for a single verse with almost throw-away lyrics about how “rock and roll is only howling at the moon”. The song explores even more exotic sounds, starting with native-type drumming and subtle synths on the top, then moving to heavier guitars and strong rock drumming by Phil Ehart. After the single verse, the song goes into an extended jam, sometimes frenzied, that may have been influenced by Rush’s Caress of Steel, before reaching an abrupt ending to close out Leftoverture.

Kansas would build on the success of this album by cutting Point of Know Return the following year, an even more successful album commercially, which combined with Leftoverture marks the apex of the band’s career.

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.

Hejira by Joni Mitchell

Hejira by Joni Mitchell

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Hejira by Joni MitchellJoni Mitchell once said, “from time to time the river of my music needs new tributaries.” And so it was with Hejira. She slowly tilted towards a more jazz influenced sound, but in a very original way. This album may be her best overall artistically, even though mainstream critics will always echo each other in insisting that 1971’s Blue is Mitchell’s masterpiece album. No doubt that is a fine album but it is a bit too “folk” for some of us rock fans. On Hejira the sound is forged by the finger-picked electric guitars of Joni Mitchell, the odd yet pleasant bass flourishes of Jaco Pastorius, and very minimal forms of any other instrumentation. This is all the canvas beneath the poetic and pretty vocals of Mitchell, whose extraordinary talents are at their height on this album.

The title is apparently a transliteration of the Arabic word heijra, which means “journey.” This makes sense because the songs were written by Mitchell on a solo drive from Maine all the way across country to her home in Los Angeles. Having traveled solo across the country myself on a few occasions, I can relate to some of the scenery painted in these songs fueled by a bittersweet combo of restless adventure and surreal isolation. While many of the songs speak of specific places and events, the underlying theme of the album is set in the music itself. The inflections of Mitchell’s voice capture the constant motion of the road and scenery. It is the languid occupation of the driver’s seat while all the “action” takes place within the mind.

Remarkably, the album contains a healthy dose of musical diversity from these very sparse instrumental arrangements. Each song is guitar based because of the mobility of that instrument unlike Mitchell’s other primary instrument, the piano. But it is really hard to lock many of the songs into a specific genre because they are truly original. For this reason many critics employed their favorite catch-all and deemed Hejira a “jazz” album, but I don’t think this is totally accurate.

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Hejira by Joni Mitchell
Released: November, 1976 (Asylum)
Produced by: Joni Mitchell
Recorded: A&M Studios, Hollywood, CA, 1976
Side One Side Two
Coyote
Amelia
Furry Sings the Blues
A Strange Boy
Hejira
Song For Sharon
Black Crow
Blue Motel Room
Refuge of the Roads
Primary Musicians
Joni Mitchell – Lead Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars
Jaco Pastorius – Bass
Larry Carlton – Acoustic & Electric Guitars
John Guerin – Drums
Bobbye Hall – Percussion

The album begins with its strongest and most forceful song “Coyote”, with the triple sonic delights of the guitar strumming, fret-less bass, and very melodic vocals. It is clear from the start that this is nothing typical as the song turns on several dimes, never quite letting the listener relax into any specific groove. The lyrics tell of a presumed affair on one of the stops along her travels.

On the opposite end of the album, “Refuge of the Roads” contains more fantastic fretless bass by Pastorius, although this song is not quite as strong as others and kind of breaks off and whimpers with distant bass flourishes as the song (and album) concludes. “Amelia” contains a most poetic lyric and is closer to a traditional folk song than most songs on the album, but with its own share of alternate sounds. It is reminiscent of calmer folk songs by rock bands,such as “A Pillow of Winds” by Pink Floyd and “That’s the Way” by Led Zeppelin. Mitchell’s lyrics superimposed her own solo trip to that of Amelia Earhart, with a slight sense of trepidation.

“She was swallowed by the sky or by the sea
like me, she had a dream to fly…”

 
“Furry Sings the Blues” is probably the most controversial song on Hejira as it directly references (and somewhat mocks the style of) blues man Furry Lewis, who Mitchell had met the year before in Memphis. Problem is, Lewis despised the song and decried the unauthorized use of his name, at one point demanding to be paid royalties. Pastorius returns on “Black Crow”, a faster paced, tension filled song that is accented by electric overtones, while “Blue Motel Room” takes a complete turn towards a night club style, slow and bluesy jazz standard with Chuck Domanico on bass and John Guerin on drums.

Joni Mitchell portrait“Song for Sharon” is of epic length at nearly nine minutes and harkens back to the long folk pieces by Bob Dylan, as this piece focuses on the vocals and lyrics more than any other. However, it also contains a catchy swing beat and some nice female background vocals and refers to a trip to the famous Mandolin Brothers music store in Staten Island, New York. The title track, “Hejira,” is perhaps the best single example of the fantastic sound scape of this album of the same name. It features some clarinet by Abe Most, more wild bass motifs by Pastorius and a really cool picked electric riff, which gives the feeling of traveling more than anywhere else.

By the time Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded Hejira, she had already surpassed the apex of her career as far as commercial sales and critical acclaim. Consequently, the album did not sell as well as her earlier, more “radio friendly” albums. However, the test of time has shone on this album favorably and Mitchell herself believes the album to be a unique and personal gem stating, “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”

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1976 Images

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1976 albums.