Sunday, September 12, 2010

Secret History: 1969

While recognizably great bands (the Beatles, the Stones, The Who) were busy making great albums (wow, didn't I say we were spoiled?) some other folks did it, too:

After two studio albums and another one that was a mix of live and studio recordings, The Grateful Dead finally break down and say What the hell, we're better live anyway, let's just do a live album. And "Live Dead" now works better on a single CD now because the first three vinyl sides should have run together anyway. They manage to spend over twenty minutes on "Dark Star" without ever seeming like they're noodling around. They improve on the studio version of "St. Stephen", and blow the roof off with "The Eleven" and "Turn on Your Love Light". Put that guy Garcia on your handy "Great Guitar Player" cheat sheet.

The Velvet Underground's self-titled
third album is quiet, but not mellow. Tuneful, but not pretty. Lou Reed proves that he's not a one shot wonder, writing more great, if sometimes chilling, songs. Very, very worthwhile.

How do you top "Music From Big Pink", a record lots of people thought changed the course of rock and roll? The Band's answer is the make a better one. I actually like their self-titled second album - the brown one - more than "Big Pink". There's less hype. Less Dylan, too. It's more melodic and more fun. It delivers - song after song after freaking song. My favorite? Once you get past the obvious classics, you still can uncover treasures like "Rocking Chair" and "Whispering Pines". I have to sit down!

Gram Parsons had crashed into the Byrd's and they would never be the same. After he leaves, he takes a couple of pieces with him to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, and proceeds to make "The Gilded Palace of Sin", simply one of the greatest country records ever. (Okay, I don't really know that. Sue me. Warning, geezer moment approaching. It's way more real than what passes for country music these days. See, I told you.) Anyway, back to Gram. What the hell else is he going to do? You just wait.

The Beatles went out in a blaze of thunder and grand philosophical statement with "The End", the finale of Abbey Road. We and the Stones finally figure out that "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at the end of "Let it Bleed". But after those two, my next favorite end of the sixties/end of album moment is "Pilgrim's Promise" which ends Procol Harums's "A Salty Dog". The first part of this song is pretty, with admittedly hackneyed lyrics, but then, just when you might say, oh, that's nice, it breaks into a snappy and yet stately piano theme with haunting wordless vocal. Perfect. The rest is merely excellent.

Way back in the sixties, most British pop singers were happy to just crank out variations of their first hit over and over again. And most of them were right to do so. Not Dusty Springfield. She somehow gets it into her head that she can sing soul music, and ends up doing a fine job of it, too. "Dusty in Memphis" contains
the hit "Son of a Preacher Man", but don't miss "Don't Forget About Me" – yet another unknown Carole King classic. Even Randy Newman makes an appearance or two. It's way better than anyone had a right to expect.

Meanwhile, Miles Davis is getting tired of watching all these young white people making money hand over fist making pop music, while he was merely reinventing jazz every couple of years. So on "In a Silent Way" he decides to cash in and adds an electric guitar and organ. It's still not rock yet, but it is one of the most accessible records you could ever get. It even flirts a bit with muzak but never quite gets there. And then, before you know it, woosh! It's gone.

When a group as great as Creedence Clearwater Revival can quietly make great record after great record, you know you must be living through some kind of Renaissance (take that, DaVinci!). On "Green River", John Fogerty's songwriting just keeps getting better and better, and the band is just as tight and rocking as a rock and roll band can be.


The Weirdness

Captain Beefheart is an acquired taste, to say the least. His double album "Trout Mask Replica" is his big statement, if you will. It's not quite the weirdest record I've ever gotten, but it's up there. It sure caught my then five year-old's attention. Supposedly a blank slate at her age, she still commented on it. ("Dad, those horns are kind of …loud".) With song titles like "Neon Meat Dream of A Octafish", "Hair Pie" and "Pachuca Cadaver" and music to match, you get the idea. But like gangrene, he grows on you. The spoken word "The Dust Blows Forward" is pure poetry, and you've just got to hear his "Moonlight in Vermont".


A Bang and a Whimper:

So that was it. With August comes Woodstock but by December, it's Altamont. And little did we know it, but for all intents and purposes, the Beatles were no more. (There was this great new song – "I Want You Back" - by a new Motown act the Jackson Five, though…). We were on our own now.

On a more personal (i.e., pathetic) note, instead of wildly celebrating like I thought a twelve year should, I passed the New Year sitting miserably in a relative's house, watching "The Joe Franklin Show", the so-boring-it's-hypnotic late night talk show. Not exactly the end of the decade, or era, I was counting on…

No comments: