Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Year that Was 1970

While paying for dinner awhile back, the total came up to be $19.70 and I thought, “Cha-ching, there was some good music to be had in 1970.” And, upon doing a touch of research, was I ever right.

For example, I’ll name a handful of (should be) world-recognized classics:

The Beatles – Let it Be
Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys
Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Led Zeppelin – III
George Harrison – All Things Must Pass

Not only that, several key artists were releasing not only one, but two notable albums in that year:

Bob Dylan – New Morning & Self Portrait (Yeah, I’m not even gonna touch that one.)
Grateful Dead – American Beauty & Workingman’s Dead
Elton John – s/t & Tumbleweeds Connection
Black Sabbath – s/t & Paranoid

Below are a few others that are a bit nearer and dearer to my heart. (Sorry, Ozzy, I do love me some Sabbath, but I just wasn’t feeling it…I’ll make it up to you sometime with a stellar review of Never Say Die.)

Neil Young – After the Gold Rush: If you only own one Neil Young album, it needs to be this one. A mixed bag of country tinged folk and solo laden hard rock, it touches everything Young was about in the early part of his solo career, with an accessible perfection that makes repeat play a must. Sympathetic, plaintive, angry, sometimes preachy, this album lulls and soars, weaving in and out of peaks and valleys like an exploratory bird in flight, yet never dulling or waning in interest or texture.

Key Tracks: Tell Me Why, After the Gold Rush, Southern Man

Stooges – Fun House: Nearly ten years before “punk” there was garage rock in all of its vagaries and variations. Of the dozens, likely hundreds, of bands you never heard of in this vein, the Stooges is the one you maybe have – or at least their enigmatic front man, Iggy Pop. Their three albums are a holy trinity amongst rock purists, yet to me they didn’t really start getting it fully together until their second effort, Fun House. Iggy squeals, hollers, yelps and moans about sex, drugs and nighttime antics, over a bed of methodic, cranky and dirty rock n roll. Essentially recorded live in the studio, this is the Stooges at their purest, bringing the noise to the people the only way they know how – raw and wriggling. For a more polished pop accessibility, check out Raw Power, but for a barely contained adrenaline rush straight to hell, nothing surpasses Fun House.

Key Tracks: TV Eye, Dirt, 1970

Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir: I never much cared for Van Morrison (‘cos Brown Eyed Girl is a super lame song) until I heard I’ll Be Your Lover, Too on the Moonlight Mile soundtrack. That was enough to get me interested in picking up His Band and the Street Choir, and from there it was pretty much on. As anyone can tell you, there’s no other voice on the planet like Van’s. Distinctive, emotive, commanding, he carries his point across the airwaves and drives it straight into your heart with a gentle but confident thrust. Whether belting out his lungs to an up tempo rocker, or spilling out his soul with tales of a broken heart, you’ll be convinced of his sincerity from beginning to end.

Key Tracks: Domino (And that’s all that’s available, so you’ll just have to take my word for it…)

Kris Kristofferson – Kristofferson: As particular as I am about my rock n roll, I’m even more so about my country. (To me that genre pretty much gave up the ghost somewhere around 1980.) For my money, Kris Kristofferson is where it’s at every time. Most folks don’t realize that he wrote several country as well as rock standards, and even fewer recognize that his versions of these classics are by far superior (so suck on that, Johnny Cash). But his 1970 debut is more than a couple of hits. There’s a lot of upbeat and downtrodden times to be had – life on the road, life with the bottle, life on your last leg, life as an outcast and a deadbeat, and all kinds of heavy stuff from a Rhodes Scholar who was sweeping the floors outside the studio doors while Blonde on Blonde was being recorded. One of the original gravel-voiced talk-singers, Kristofferson held on to the grit and the grime of those early years and produced an album (actually three) of dejected country (but not necessarily western) bliss that speaks to an entire legion of “I’ve been theres.”

Key Tracks: Me and Bobby McGee, Help Me Make It Through the Night, The Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me

The Velvet Underground – Loaded: By 1970, Lou Reed’s tether was about up with the Velvet Underground. Still, he managed to churn out ten (plus) sunshine pop and straightforward rock n roll ditties in the vein he’d begun exploring with their previous self-titled album. Though the band was frayed in nearly every sense, Loaded nonetheless showcases Reed at the top of his songwriting prowess and the group never sounded more immediate, vibrant or fresh. And while the end result may be “glossy” by VU standards, Reed’s wit, sarcasm, quirky love view and seedy, drug culture, low life references of earlier, more experimental efforts are still present. Loaded also contains the band’s most well known and arguably worst songs ever (you know which ones I mean), but that shouldn’t deter you from picking it up…or rather the Fully Loaded deluxe edition with tons of bonus tracks and an “alternate” version of the album.

Key Tracks: Who Loves the Sun, Head Held High, Train Round the Bend

John Cale – Vintage Violence: While his aforementioned and former band was falling apart, ex-Velvets bassist John Cale was busy launching a solo career. Though certainly the most avant-garde member of the Velvet Underground, Cale’s solo efforts were often as not more “standard” rock outings. His debut, Vintage Violence, kicked things off nicely. By his own admission these are basic songs, never intending to challenge the listener or the musical world (the VU’s Sister Ray, and his role in its creation, was enough of that and more). A classically trained multi-instrumentalist, Cale was only trying something that was different for him, and that was simple pop. The result is an even, seamless album of steady rockers and thoughtful ballads that doesn’t grab you as quickly as later releases, but after a few listens will definitely have you humming some random melody and realizing you’ve just got to put that wax on again.

Key Tracks: Gideon’s Bible, Adelaide, Please

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs/Barrett: Want to hear a guy going insane via music? You don’t? Well then don’t listen to these two albums released in early and late 1970 respectively. And I know comments like that concerning Syd Barret are rather cliché, but if half of the legend is true, then The Madcap Laughs is the documented proof. A good three fourths or more of the album isn’t so bad. In fact, this is simply a looser, leaner, more delicate take on the same quirky sound Barrett fleshed out with Pink Floyd on their first album and surrounding singles. I mean who really knows what he’s talking about, but it’s clever and catchy and in the late 60s, who knew what anyone was talking about? And though Dark Globe has a certain despair, it could almost be passed off as breathless, drunken whimsy, fitting in nicely with a batch of songs that are odd, energetic and often fun. And then somewhere around Feel the good times sorta fall apart and you realize he’s serious about all of this, with lines like, “You feel me, away, far too empty, oh so alone…I want to go home.” And then there’s the mis-take/do over of If It’s in You when you actually hear his voice break and then the subsequent frustrated, embarrassed, apologetic explanation. It’s just too personal, too real for us to be checking in (Gilmour should be flogged for keeping, much less releasing that take). Meanwhile, Barrett, recorded sporadically over the year, is admittedly more polished (thanks to session musicians/studio magic), but even more obvious testament to Syd’s mental decline. And though there are a couple or so playful, "childhood innocence" outings that hearken back to the early days of his brilliance, for every upbeat smiler, there are two bleak rants (even if the music is laughing) where he’s admitting he’s off track and not even trying to scramble back on again. Syd realized his time was limited, but he was putting on a brave face nonetheless, trying to hold on to his vision even as things around him grew darker. For the most part he succeeded.

Key Tracks – The Madcap Laughs: No Good Trying, Here I Go, Octopus

Key Tracks – Barrett: Love Song, Gigilo Aunt, Waving My Arms in the Air

The Doors – Morrison Hotel: For the Doors this is a back to the basics as well as a back to roots album. So essentially, it’s blues heavy. And that’s a good thing, especially in contrast to their previous album, the “experimental” and extremely stiff Soft Parade. Like its predecessor, this album tends to get overlooked in the Doors cannon, especially when compared to the debut, the hits garnered from Strange Days and Waiting for the Sun and the posthumous overindulgence of L.A. Woman. But if an artist is around long enough (and the Doors just barely made it), there’s always one lost gem, and Morrison Hotel is just that. Simply stated, it rocks in a relentless way that a) insists that the band was ready for a comeback and b) proves they’d never really left in the first place (only taken a slight detour). From the motor rev kick start of Roadhouse Blues, the album churns and chugs along, rarely slowing down for a pit stop, and even then keeping the engine (that is to say the tension) idling and the foot never far from the gas pedal. Morrison is in good voice and his lyrics, though less bizarre, are just as descriptive as before. And of course the three-pronged juggernaut of Krieger, Manzarek and Densmore provide the muscled instrumentation necessary to carry the weighty vision (and ego) of the Lizard King. Perhaps not as classic as the debut or weirdly ambitious as Strange Days, Morrison Hotel catches the Doors in a more clear-cut, but no less creative, and therefore appealing, streak.

Key Tracks: Waiting for the Sun, You Make Me Real, Maggie M’Gill

***As a sidebar, an album I’ve been interested in hearing for years is Frank Sinatra’s 1970 concept album, Watertown. And the only person I know who’s heard it enough to comment is Greg. So how about it?

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