Sunday, October 17, 2010

Secret History: 1970

In January 1970, well meaning but silly people were asking “Are the Sixties over?”. I know. I was one of them. And smart asses were answering “Technically, yes.” The real question was whether it mattered or not.

So the prior decade had barely ended, and everyone was already prepared to engage in sixties nostalgia. But it’s years like 1970 that make me question the need. Putting aside the obvious choices for great albums, like “Plastic Ono Band”, “After the Goldrush” and “Moondance”, we’ve still got:

The Velvet Underground are getting tired of making great music and not such great money, so they set out to make “Loaded”, their fourth, and most accessible record. Link. They partly succeed, making accessible music, even if nobody accessed it, except for “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane”. So Lou Reed upped and left, and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT! I hope you’re happy.

Meanwhile on the West coast, the The Grateful Dead have decided to completely reinvent themselves with “Workingman's Dead”. Anyone who had just gotten over the electric mayhem of “Live/Dead” must have been shocked to hear the acoustic guitars and harmony of “Uncle John’s Band”. And over the course of the album, the Dead prove that this is no fluke, and with the help of lyricist Robert Hunter, practically invent Americana. Okay, the Band got there first, but the Dead were their worthy counterparts. I hated “Casey Jones” when I first heard it on the radio, where it just sounded slow and repetitive. But now, hearing it the end of this record, it sounds like a summing up of past and present. I don’t know how “Black Peter” managed to not become a classic. (Love those death songs!) This record has some of the best songwriting of the era.

Having just finished throwing jazz into an uproar with “Bitches Brew”, Miles Davis settles down into simply making a great record. With John McLaughlin on guitar, playing rock and roll, “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” is the record I think Miles was trying to make in the first place. It’s shorter and more to the point. And I’ll take it over “Bitches Brew” any day.

On “Five Leaves Left” - Nick Drake’s first album - a gentle soul distinguishes himself from the other singer-songwriters by his use of (non-syrupy) strings and the occasional jazz chord. And not emoting too much. What a relief after hearing Jackson Browne always telling us how miserable he was. (A hundred times better than Kenny Rankin, too.) Brits have more class than that. But then they die.

While they’re not white hot like on some prior records Creedence Clearwater Revival still make their next to last album “Pendulum" pretty great. Hidden away on it are the heartrending "Hideaway" and "Just a Thought", two of my favorite John Fogerty songs. And believe it or not, it’s nearly all over.

For a very short time after leaving Traffic, Dave Mason managed to avoid sounding like a lounge act. Luckily a tape recorder was on, and “Alone Together” is one of those AOR solo albums that is well worth the time. (My vinyl looks like vomit, by the way. How about yours?) Dave never quite got it this together again, alone or otherwise, even if he did make more money. The guitar playing is effortless, and I love the intermix of acoustic and electric. But it was all downhill from here.

It might seem that David Bowie could never resist a gimmick, but if you catch him early enough – pre- Ziggy Stardust let’s say - he’s satisfied just writing great songs. “Hunky Dory” is proof. (link) Jump in.
The critical consensus on Paul Kantner’s “Blows Against the Empire” is that it sucks, but I disagree. The lyrics are pretty weak, but Jerry Garcia brings the guitar, and David Crosby manages to not be a complete jackass. Ok, so Paul’s politics sound a bit dated. I still like the toons.

Before fame, but with several classics, Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon” isn’t quite on par with her very best, but it’s definitely worthwhile. For several songs, Joni manages to avoid her feared vocal swoops and leaps, as well as the background chorus’s reverent “oooohhhs” and “ahhhs”. She starts off with “Monday Morgantown” “For Free”, “Conversation” and the title song, and all I can say is Wow! And I’m not being ironic. She’s combining great melody, words and voice, and appears unstoppable. Then things bog down a bit with a few songs that involve DJs, priests and Graham Nash, in descending order. But Joni has a big ending planned for us, with “Woodstock”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, and “Circle Game”.

I should hate the slick “Time Passages”, but I love it. I should hate the slicker “Year of the Cat”, but I just don’t care. And I wouldn’t blame you for hating Al Stewart’s “Love Chronicles”, which came way before either of them, but I don’t think you will. The highlight is the nearly side long title song about a young man's sexual coming of age. By the way, that’s Jimmy Page on guitar, I guess in case that Zeppelin thing doesn’t work out for him. This album can also be found as part of the double disc “The Early Years”, which has many other great early moments.

Randy Newman pioneered the “so hateful you’ve got to like him” style of songwriting, and “12 Songs” is as unsentimental as it gets, featuring stalkers, racists and perverts. The best line comes early: “I’ll talk to strangers if I want to, I’m a stranger, too.” This is the most rock and roll – as opposed to rock - of Randy’s records, and very strong stuff. It’s also one of his best. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And what the hell was going on with the Dead, anyway? Not content to put out one great album this year, they follow up with “American Beauty”, and suddenly, they’re songwriters. And singers, too! (Okay, not really.) Even Phil Lesh, whose “Box of Rain” is one of the most beautiful songs of the decade. If “American Beauty” is not quite as great as "Workingman's Dead", that's just fine with me. How many records are? My mom - not a Dead head, in case you were wondering - freely offered her approval of "Ripple", but "Broke Down Palace" is even better.

With Dolly Parton being such a “character” now, it’s hard to remember how way back when, she was one of the great singer-songwriters in country music. “The Best of Dolly Parton” (1970) is the proof, in the form of ten nearly perfect songs from the late sixties. Another master of melody with a soaring voice, her stories hold you to the end. What a beautiful soul.

So you see the world didn’t come to an end, musically or otherwise, when the sixties ended. But, as you can see from the abovementioned records, it became a little harder to find great music.

When I see a documentary from the seventies, the hair styles and fashion tend to make me, and I’ll bet you, want to run screaming from the room. And yet, while I would never suggest that Sixties music didn’t burn very brightly, I still admire the steady glow of the music of the Seventies.

More to come.

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