Posts Tagged ‘Mountain’

Bruce Springsteen says he learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than he ever learned in school. I’m grateful to have graduated from a much better school system than the one Bruce was stuck in. I learned more in 3 minutes in any class at Somerset High, Somerset, Massachusetts (Go Raiders!) than I ever learned from Deep Purple, Three Dog Night, or Tommy James & The Shondells. But Springsteen was right to emphasize 3 minutes, and not just because “a 4-minute record, baby” doesn’t scan as well and anyway is too reminiscent of a 4-minute mile.

Three-minute records (which I take to mean 3:01 to 3:59) are still the bread and butter of popular music, even though the format they were created for, the 45rpm, no longer exists. This length gives you enough time to sink into a song but not enough time to drown. (In general. There are 2-minute songs that drag and 4-minute songs that fly. Anything by Coldplay is automatically too long.)

I’m guessing that most of the music I listen to (and you, too) is in the 3-minute range, with the next group following at 4:01 to 4:59, followed by 5 minutes, 6 minutes, etc. The number of recorded pop songs longer than 10 minutes thins out quickly, and for every triumph past that mark (The Door’s “The End,” David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” Love and Rockets’ “Body and Soul”) you trip over something like Mountains’ live version of their own “Nantucket Sleighride,” which weighs in at a hard-to-overlook 17:34.

I can only assume that back in 1972 the band performed their masterwork behind a screen of chicken wire to protect them from volleys of beer bottles. “Nantucket Sleighride” is a symphony as imagined by a quartet of metal-munching hippie delinquents. “Nantucket Sleighride” goes on so long that is has themes, movements, fugues, moods, tempos, lyrics, tides, a guitar imitating a triangle, a tugboat yearning for its mate, and what I think are wet blankets fired from a circus cannon.

The boys in Mountain, who did their best to out-bloat Wagner, produced a song that will never be included in any list of the 1 million songs you should listen to before the universe explodes. However, I took a lot of drugs to this album, Sludge Hammer*, and thanks to the miracle of nostalgia and disjointed synapses I still find “Nantucket Sleighride” to be audacious and irresistible.

What happens to pop music after 17 minutes and 34 seconds? That way lies “Tubular Bells,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, prog rock, Yes, Rick Wakeman of Yes, Phish, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, probably Yes again, motels, money, murder, madness, and today’s special guests, The Allman Brothers Band.**

The Allmans’ Eat a Peach (1972) is generally thought to be the band’s high point, though not by this critic. Give me the economy of Brothers and Sisters (1973) any day. I don’t care that Eat a Peach has all those live tracks because that’s where the problem is: “Mountain Jam,” which is not only 33 minutes and 41 agonizing seconds long, it was inspired by Donovan. Apparently, it’s impossible to keep Donovan out of a music blog these days.

I was bludgeoned by “Mountain Jam” at an Allman Brothers concert in 1975 and I didn’t even get a lousy T-shirt. The Allmans in those days packed enough amplification to sterilize everyone not wearing lead dirndls. I didn’t wear my dirndl that night and now you know why I’ve never had kids. Somewhere around the halfway point of “Mountain Jam,” my mind floated away and I could no longer hear the music. All I could do was stare at the band. If I had gone to a Bangles concert in 1985 and they had played a 33-minute version of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” I’m sure I would’ve lost containment then, too. But at least I would’ve been staring at The Bangles. The Allmans, even when they were flush with youth, were not stareable.

“Mountain Jam” makes the Allmans’ 22-minute “Whipping Post” from their At Fillmore East live set sound like a model of musical frugality. When I was 16 I thought the crescendo of “Whipping Post” was rock’s answer to the 1812 Overture. Now I just hear it as everyone barking at everyone else.

Is it possible to produce a 15-minutes-or-more recording that won’t put people to sleep or send them to their Kindles to read another chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey? Probably not, but one interesting attempt that I know of is The Byrds’ 16-minute go at their iconic “Eight Miles High,” from the album Untitled/Unissued (1970). It’s focused, it’s well-played, it crosses the line into jazz, and if I’d gone to that concert instead of to the Allmans’ I’d have 16 kids today. Oh, wait.

Reader challenge: I can’t think of any particularly lengthy songs (say 12-15 minutes or longer) after about 1990. If you can, please enlighten me. I have a hypothesis that song lengths have decreased since the hippie era, at least at the long end, but I need data. Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler are disqualified. Come on, people, let’s move like we have a purpose!

* OK, the real name was Live (The Road Goes Ever On).

** Special D just raised her hand and asked where Pink Floyd is on this list, but I don’t see the point of her question.

Queen: Greatest Hits
1994
Queen

I am never in the mood for Queen. There is no time of the day or night, no day of the week, no season in which I would choose to listen to Queen. This isn’t because I hate them; I don’t. They’re literate, which means a lot here at the Bureau. They use adjectives that are uncommon in a rock song (“warily”) and when the situation demands it they can concoct their own (“belladonic”). I’m just unmoved by their music.

One thing I do enjoy about Queen is that you can arrange their song titles to tell stories:

Fail Whale
It’s a Hard Life
I’m Going Slightly Mad
I Want to Break Free
I Want It All
Fight From the Inside
Keep Yourself Alive
Don’t Stop Me Now
Another One Bites the Dust

Get a Room
Get Down, Make Love
Spread Your Wings
We Will Rock You
Sheer Heart Attack
Sleeping on the Sidewalk

Placing them within the context of their ’70s contemporaries, Queen is less pompous than Yes, wittier than King Crimson, looser than Traffic, warmer than Pink Floyd, better dressed than Mountain, hipper than The Grateful Dead, kinkier than Steely Dan, nastier than Carole King, more electrifying than War, and smarter than Grand Funk Railroad, though that one is easy. My dog is smarter than Grand Funk Railroad. Queen could toast and eat Bread and wash them down with ELO without missing a beat. They are the Monitor to Black Sabbath’s Merrimack. They are not just superior to Chicago, they make Chicago look like Fall River, Massachusetts. Their song about women with overlarge derrieres is AC/DC with metaphors and flashbacks. AC/DC can barely manage a point of view. And their song about murder, the nature of reality, and Galileo made Wayne’s World possible.

Queen was obviously a respectable unit, but this is music, not quantum mechanics. If you could explain art you wouldn’t need misinformed critics like me. Honk if you love David Bowie.

My hippie friends want to know why I don’t write about their music. The reason I don’t write about hippie music is quite simple really and that reason is that I have so far been unable to explain what it is.

To give you some idea of what I’m up against in this investigation, consider the following. Does hippie music include folksingers like John Prine and Bob Dylan? Does it include pop-country hybrids like The Byrds and Bob Dylan? Does it include wild-haired rockers like Mountain and Bob Dylan? Does it include people who were just passing through hippiedom, like The Beatles and Bob Dylan? Does it include psychedelic mind-trippers like The Electric Prunes and – no, I can’t make that one work.

Where do you file Quicksilver Messenger Service, except under Crud?

In Search of the Lost Chord
What then is this entry in the continuing annals of Run-DMSteve about? It’s certainly not about to make me a lot of money. What I intend to do is take you step-by-step through the rigorous scientific process by which I discovered that the long-sought definition of hippie music has once again dodged up a side street.

The first thing to do in any successful project is to sweep everything you don’t want to deal with under the rug. So I began by declaring that hippie music is music produced by bands that existed in the 1960s. This yielded a sold historic footing and liberated me from having to think about Phish or Blues Traveler.

To further winnow the field, I decided that hippie bands had to have staying power. If they’d played together for at least a decade or two, they were in. If their principal members had died in the early innings, they were out.

(If we posit the existence of a rock ’n’ roll heaven, I’m sure they enjoy musical performances by an adverbial intensifier of a band. But until we can download an alternate-universe app, we’ll never know what Janis, Jimi, Jim, and their peers might have accomplished. Though I can easily picture Jimi playing Wilson Pickett in The Commitments.)

I eliminated The Allman Brothers because Greg married Cher. Black Sabbath I eliminated just for being.

Finally, I considered the fans. A hippie band should come equipped with its own cult. Did our candidates have fans who routinely spent the summer following them around? Did these fans leave their jobs, if they had jobs, to go to 12 concerts in six cities in two weeks in one chartreuse microbus? Were they following their heroes around in 1970, 1990, and maybe even 2010?

There were only two bands I could think of that met these requirements: The Grateful Dead and The Moody Blues.

This is not my idea of a good time, but at least they’re better than Procul Harum.

Blues for Allah
To keep things simple, let’s refer to both bands in the past tense, even though 60% of the Moodies are still on the road and threatening to visit your hometown.

I confess that during an early adolescent period, when I was pretending to read Herman Hesse, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed was the most profound musical document I knew. And at a later adolescent period, when I wore my hair down to my belt, The Dead’s American Beauty spoke of my yearning to get back to the land. An odd yearning, given that I’d grown up in suburbia.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of The Dead or The Moody Blues, except to switch stations when the local Classic Rock outlet wheels them out of the morgue. But once I had them under the electron microscope, I discovered some unexpected relationships:

Fig. 1: Sugar magnolia vs. white satin

  1. The Moody Blues experimented with classical music.
  2. The Grateful Dead experimented with disco.
  3. The Grateful Dead rode a train.
  4. The Moody Blues rode a see-saw.
  5. The Grateful Dead had trouble capturing their concert performance in the studio.
  6. The Moody Blues had trouble capturing their studio performance in concert.
  7. Band members left The Moody Blues by resigning.
  8. Band members left The Grateful Dead by dying.
  9. The Grateful Dead were fronted by a charismatic man.
  10. The Moody Blues were five guys with feathered hair.
  11. The Grateful Dead released Aoxomoxoa in 1969. The Moody Blues have nothing to match this, but Pink Floyd does: Ummagumma, released the same year. Which makes me wonder if The Dead and Floyd were actually the same gang of idiots.

Bummer. The only thing this list demonstrates is the astounding diversity of the hippie biomass. I’ll keep working on this problem, even though the budget compromise that has kept the government open has shut off my funding. Someday, I vow, the world will know what exactly hippie music is. Until then, tenere a autotrasporto (keep on truckin’)!