Posts Tagged ‘Sins of the ’70s Week’

Machine Head
Deep Purple
1972

The biggest sin of “Sins of the ’70s Week” was the sin of omission. I forgot Deep Purple! Yeah, yeah, yeah, the freaks said/man those cats could really swing (“Space Truckin’ ”). Some of these songs do have a sort of big-band swing to them, but most of them are having a bad night in Suck City. Jon Lord’s organ sometimes sounds like a harpsichord. So does Richie Blackmore’s guitar. And yet this band has a good claim on the invention of heavy metal.

I loved this album and spent many hours tormenting my parents with it. These days I smile as each song begins but after a couple of minutes I want them to end. I have no patience with the berserk Bee-Gees falsettos, the alleged lyrics, and the solos, which are always Blackmore first, then Lord, unless they decide to mix it up and have Lord go first, then Blackmore. (Improv jazz bands that always give you the tenor sax solo followed by the trumpet solo followed by the piano solo, or the piano solo followed by the tenor sax solo followed by the trumpet solo, make me feel like Ricardo Montalban as Kahn. I grow fatigued.)

Of course you can’t discuss Deep Purple without tripping over “Smoke on the Water.” Duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-DUH-DUH, duh-duh-DUH, DUH-DUH. It’s slow, it’s turgid, it takes forever to end. It’s like building blocks for beginning guitarists. You can’t get to “Stairway to Heaven” without first mastering “Smoke on the Water.”

“Smoke on the Water” is also a rarity among rock songs in that it reports on an incident that happened to the entire band. You don’t get a lot of journalism in this genre. If you’re paying attention to Deep Purple’s lyrics you’re in trouble, but while forcing myself to pay attention this evening I was surprised by the stripped-down Hemingway ending:

We ended up at the Grand Hotel.
It was empty cold and bare.
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside,
making our music there.
With a few red lights, a few old beds,
we made a place to sweat.
No matter what we get out of this,
I know, I know we’ll never forget
smoke on the water
and fire in the sky.

In the 1940s, legendary editor Maxwell Perkins said that there will always be a new class of sophomores who will discover Thomas Wolfe and be entranced by him. There will always be a new class of middle-schoolers who will discover “Smoke on the Water” and be entranced by the damn thing. This year at our chess club, one of my middle-school girls told her BFF, “I just heard the most awesome song.” I asked her what it was and she handed me an earbud and pressed Play. Duh-duh-DUH, duh-duh-DUH-DUH, duh-duh-DUH, DUH-DUH.

Longest instrumental lead in a song that actually has words
Here’s something else about Deep Purple. In this contest I just dreamed up, they smash their puny human opponents with “Lazy.” “Lazy” begins with a jazzy riff that doesn’t open the door for the singer until 4:22, daringly late for a song that ends at 7:22.

First runner-up: Boston, “Foreplay/Long Time,” Boston (1976)
Boston owes a lot to Deep Purple’s influence (check out “Never Before” on Machine Head). “Foreplay/Long Time” is almost exactly the same length as “Lazy” (7:47), but Boston only strings us along until 2:45, when the singer enters and declares that he has to keep moving along so he can keep chasing that dream. Tough luck, honey, I can’t stay and commit to a healthy relationship.

Second runner-up: The B-52s, “Planet Claire,” The B-52s (1979)
And we’re still in the ’70s. Fred Schneider doesn’t start singing until the band has run through all of their outer-space sounds at the 2:30 mark. The song ends two minutes later. (The Foo Fighters do a cover of “Planet Claire” that clearly show this song’s debt to the Peter Gunn theme.)

Worth mentioning: Love and Rockets, “Body and Soul,” Hot Trip to Heaven (1994)
The actual singing begins at 2:20, but throughout the song a woman sighs suggestively every four seconds. “Body and Soul” runs a mesmerizing 14:14 and, as the reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes at Allmusic.com, “they [Love and Rockets] sound like they’re trying to figure out what the hell is going on.”

Note: As you can see from the comments on this post, the first and second finishers are actually Mike Oldfield for “Tubular Bells” and Pink Floyd for “Shine on You Crazy Diamond (Parts 1-5).”

 

The power trio of guitar, bass, and drums emerged in rock ’n’ roll in the late 1960s. The pioneers were The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad. Their guitarists, Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Mark Farner, were like the great New York centerfielders of the 1950s. Hendrix was Willie Mays. Clapton was Mickey Mantle. And Farner was – Duke Snyder?

No, sorry, that’s where the comparison breaks down. The Duke’s talents were pitched below Mantle’s and Mays’, but he was still an exceptional ballplayer for many years. You can compare his best years to his colleagues and his stats suffer only because they were gods and he wasn’t. No way does Mark Farner belong in the same league as Hendrix and Clapton. (To be fair, that’s a league you can fit in one bus.)

But Farner performed a vital function the other two couldn’t. If you formed a band in 1967 or 1971, how could you hope to grow up to be Hendrix or Clapton? But Mark Farner – he made it sound easy, or at least he made it sound as if anyone could do that. (And they did. Bad Company, Mountain, Foghat, AC/DC, Bon Jovi…there’s a long list.)

Grand Funk Railroad (they shortened the name later in the ’70s, then re-enlarged it) started out playing hard, heavy, messy rock with really stupid lyrics. Their first two albums are like ’60s garage rock recorded 100 times louder. Grand Funk never rose to the level of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, or Van Halen, but they filled auditoriums for years – particularly in Omaha, where they met those “four young chiquitas” they poignantly describe in their super explosive smash hit explosion, “We’re An American Band.”

The album I liked was Closer to Home (1970), with their signature song, “I’m Your Captain.” Playing the record this evening after all these decades makes me realize that by 1970 they were losing their way. This is the album where they abandoned their basic formula and brought in keyboards, strings, and ocean noises. Artists should be free to experiment but these boys weren’t artists, they were making party music – sort of a smash-mouth equivalent of K.C. & The Sunshine Band.

Yes, Closer to Home sold a bunch of copies, and We’re An American Band (1973) sold even more. They deserved the money – they were sincere and they toured constantly. But their true selves were back there in the beginning: On Time (1969) and Grand Funk (1970). The songs were mostly crud (“Heartbreaker” is a phenomenal hard-blues workout) and I can barely bring myself to pay attention to the lyrics, but just listen to a track or two. Anybody could do that.

Bonus: I give Grand Funk points for the first known use of “dudes” in a pop song, in “We’re An American Band”:
They said, ‘Come on dudes, let’s get it on!’
And we proceeded to tear that hotel down

Psych! No bonus: I’m deducting those points for recording the lite-rock hit “Some Kind of Wonderful” and for covering Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Yes, I know that “loco” is train-related but did we really need our heavy-metal forefathers recording songs you could skip rope to?

Thus ends “Sins of the ’70s Week”
I considered putting The Bee-Gees on trial, but I will never apologize for disco.

A railroad runs through it
After all the steam I’ve generated in this blog about my novel, you may be wondering why I haven’t issued any bulletins in awhile. I had some derailments this winter but I believe I’m almost right on the rails. That’s enough transportation metaphors. I’ll report back when I’ve hit my next milestone, and thank you for your patience…or indifference…or maybe you were just enjoying the silence!

Meanwhile: Here’s my latest video. That makes two, and that means I have a channel.

 

Normally, when I take a particular band as my subject I listen to their music while I write. This installment of “Sins of the ’70s Week” is an exception. Our guest band this evening is Chicago, but after listening to a few tracks from Chicago Transit Authority (1969) and skipping desperately to Chicago II (1970) I felt that I was about to lose molecular containment.

Right now I’m listening to a disc from 1979: Jackrabbit Slim by the singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. Forbert sings a mash-up of folk, country, and Americana. (He’s Canadian, so I should call that North Americana.) I hear him as a happier version of Gram Parsons, who was glum, or of Elvis Costello, who started out angry and still strikes me as grumpy. I would also rate him approximately 1,000 times more literate than anyone in Chicago, the band that gave us the following thoughts, from “(I’ve Been) Searching So Long”:

I’ve been searching
So long
To find an answer
Now I know my life has meaning
Whoah whoah

When I was in high school I loved Chicago (the two albums I mentioned above). To try to understand why I did, I must first consider the case against them.

1) When Terry Kath, James Pankow, Robert Lamm, and the other Chicagoans formed their group, they called themselves The Big Thing. Great name! What compelled them to adopt Chicago Transit Authority? Did it sound more grown-up? Shortening it to Chicago when the real grown-ups at the CTA threatened to sue didn’t help. There is no personality involved in calling your group Chicago (or Boston, or Kansas). You’re just borrowing a label with its own emotional shadings, not venturing any of yours.

2) Almost all of Chicago’s hundreds of albums are double-record sets with the word “Chicago” on the cover with artsy things involving the letters and then a number. I guess this makes it easy for their fans to find their records. You might as well print covers with “Music Product” in black letters on a white background and then add the number.

3) OK, let’s get to the music. That’s what really counts. Chicago has an unsurpassed ability to write songs that are too sweet for Muppets. Exhibits A through D are “If You Leave Me Now,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Wishing You Were Here,” and “Colour My World.” Why were they using British spellings in the Midwest in 1970? Did the Brits win the War of 1812?

4) OK, let’s stay with the music. Much has been made of Chicago’s horn section, but what I often hear are a lot of held notes as in The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life.” I have much more respect for their first guitarist, the late Terry Kath, and their keyboard player, Robert Lamm. They could take a pop song and floor it.

That fourth point helps explain why at the ages of 14 and 15 I so enjoyed this band. “Beginnings,” for example, impacts like a meteor. The lyrics are easy to learn and sing and the emotions are imaginable, if not tangible, for any teenage male geek:

When I’m with you, it doesn’t matter where we are
Or what we’re doing. I’m with you, that’s all that matters

“Beginnings,” which is just short of 8 minutes, ends with 2 minutes of congas, cowbells, and guys shouting like they’re living la dolce vida. The ending didn’t mean much to me then because this self-indulgent stretch was usually cut off on the radio. Also, if you owned the LP you could turn the volume way up on your console stereo and hear an extra 30 seconds of congas and etc. that the engineers had faded out. It was like spinning Beatles records backwards to find out what happened to Paul.

Chicago sometimes broke songs into prologues, movements, and “ballets”; this seemed significant to me. The adults in my life considered my music juvenile; I could counterattack with Chicago, because they had brass instruments just like jazz players and their songs had movements so shut up. You can see how this perception would change as I got a little older.

But the final reason why I liked Chicago was because of, yes, “Colour My World.” (The formal title is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon: Colour My World”). When they played it at a school dance in 1970 it was the signal for girls and boys to pair off on the dance floor and crush themselves into each other while circling very slowly so as not to get dizzy and topple into the crushed couples nearby.

When I played “Colour My World” today, after not hearing it for almost 40 years, I was immediately up to my neck in that hormonal melting pot. I still didn’t make it to end of the song, though, and it takes up a mere 2 minutes and 39 seconds.

Chicago (the current highest-numbered album is Chicago XXXII, but there are also a few unnumbered albums) is one of those bands that are popular for reasons I don’t understand. But there’s plenty in this life I’m trying to understand. “Does anybody really know what time it is?” Chicago asked on their very first record, “time” meaning life in general. Their best metaphor.

Tomorrow, “Sins of the ’70s Week” continues with: Grand Funk Railroad! I’m your captain, yeah yeah yeah yeah.

Random Pick of the Day
Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim (1979)
This gentleman is pretty good. I haven’t listened to him since forever. The individual songs don’t stand out for me yet but I’ll listen again and try some of his other releases.

Random Pan of the Day
Chicago, Chicago 25: The Christmas Album (1998)
Panning this one is totally unfair because I refuse to listen to it, but I get paid to be unfair. Well, no, I don’t get paid, I just like to be unfair. I have an uneasy relationship with Christmas music, as I demonstrated here and here. The thought of Chicago muscling in on Mannheim Steamroller territory makes me wish for a silent night. Produced by Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan.

 

The Fleetwood Mac Military-Industrial Complex cannot be confined to a single blog post.

Around 1968, Peter Green wrote a song called “Black Magic Woman.” When I was a teenager we referred to this song as “Black Magic Marker.” You can find it on Fleetwood Mac’s English Rose album (1969). It’s good; it sounds like a tango in Jamaica.

It’s so good that two years later Carlos Santana decided to cover it. Rather than stop where Green stopped, Santana upped the ante by appending the instrumental “Gypsy Queen” by the Hungarian jazz guitarist Gàbor Szabó. I’ve heard Santana’s “Black Magic Woman” a million times, and it still knocks me down with its sinuous organ, furious guitar, and its roots in blues, jazz, and the folk music of two continents.

“Gypsy Queen” appears on Szabó’s 1966 album Spellbinder. Szabó was a pretty fair guitarist. Unfortunately, his interpretations of the pop standards of the day are uninteresting. When he tries to sing, as he does on Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” things get worse.

But three of his original compositions on this disc more than make up for this problem: “Gypsy Queen,” “Cheetah,” and the title track. They’re sufficiently awesome to overwhelm “It Was a Very Good Year,” “My Foolish Heart,” and the bang bang song. I rate it a Buy.

OK, that’s it for Fleetwood Mac. I’m not going to deal with Stevie Nicks and her scarves. Tomorrow, Chicago for sure. Spoiler alert: “25 or 6 to 4” is the singer’s estimate of how many minutes remain before 4 o’clock, 25 or 26. The song appeared in 1970 and the digital wristwatch was patented in 1970. The composer, Robert Lamm, just got in under the wire on this one.

Who wears cheetah?
Many thanks to Loyal Reader Orin who sends word of the 2014 updating of Frank Zappa’s “Valley Girl.” Here then are The Chainsmokers with their haunting, heart-breaking “#SELFIE.” They definitely bought all their Instagram followers.

Random Pick of the Day
Fruit Bats, Mouthfuls (2003)
This band starts where the quieter tracks on The White Album end. The album is often too quiet for me, though never Cowboy Junkies quiet. The closer, “When U Love Somebody,” is a jewel.

Random Pan of the Day
Iggy Pop, Party (1981)
Party is so bad you have to get EPA approval before you can play it. Iggy, trying to cash in on the New Wave, crashes into a guard rail. His covers are inept (“Time Won’t Let Me” is gruesome) and his originals are unlistenable. Except for “Bang Bang” – now that’s good. Perhaps it escaped from another album. Sadly, this record was a footnote while it was being recorded.

 

Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac
Various artists
2014

Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were hard-working members of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. When they decided to form their own band (everyone who worked for John Mayall in the 1960s formed his own band), they discovered that their true skills were not playing the drums and the bass, respectively. The one thing they did better than anything was finding talent.

They started off by recruiting guitarist Peter Green. Peter Green is one of our unsung Jewish guitar heroes, the guy who was hired to replace Eric Clapton when Clapton left the Blues Breakers to form Cream. (What a résumé entry: “Replaced Eric Clapton while maintaining band productivity.”)

Green took Fleetwood Mac in a blues-rock direction, naturally, but Fleetwood and McVie were looking for something more lucrative. They got rid of Green and hired two singer-songwriters, Robert Welch and Christine Perfect, who began the band’s transition from blues to pop. (Perfect later married McVie.)

Fleetwood and McVie eventually ditched Welch and brought in two more singer-songwriters, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. That, as Ruk the android declared on a memorable episode of classic Star Trek, was the equation. In the mid-’70s there was no band bigger than Fleetwood Mac. Everywhere I went, everyone seemed to have Fleetwood Mac (1975) and Rumours (1977) in the plastic crates that held their records. I owned Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. Yes, it’s true. I spent money on Fleetwood Mac records, I didn’t change stations when Fleetwood Mac songs came on the radio, and I put coins in jukeboxes so I could hear really dumb stuff like “Monday Morning” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” You can understand why I’m a snob today. I have much to atone for.

(In 1992, the Clintons used “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” as their campaign theme song. Fleetwood Mac immediately reformed and went on tour. I will never forgive the Clintons for this.)

By the early 1980s I’d shaken off Fleetwood Mac the way a dog shakes off water after a swim. I came to believe that the final word on Fleetwood Mac was sung by The Rotters in their insightful single, “Sit on My Face, Stevie Nicks.” But then I encountered this tribute CD. Once again, I’ve been proven wrong. You’d think I’d be used to it by now.

Just Tell Me That You Want Me (this terrific title is a line from one of their worst songs, “Tusk”) is a collection of talent so deep that Beck isn’t even mentioned on the cover. He’s buried in the credits. Most of the interpretations are sincere, some are quite imaginative, and only a few are duds. Just Tell Me That You Want Me scores far higher than I expected.

What’s good
You can tell who the muscle was out there because 10 of these 17 songs were written by Stevie Nicks. For my money, the finest performance is turned in by Marianne Faithfull on Nicks’ “Angel.” Ms. Faithfull can turn any fluffy pop song into the King James Bible and as usual she doesn’t disappoint. Bill Frisell, another huge talent not noted in the advertising, plays guitar. He spends the last minute and a half of the song ascending into heaven. I rate this disc a Buy for “Angel” alone.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top provides the vocals on Peter Green’s “Oh Well.” You can hear the ghost of John Lee Hooker in his growls. The New Pornographers turn Christine McVie’s “Think About Me” into a fun Beatles romp. The Crystal Ark, a band I’ve never heard of, convert Lindsey Buckingham’s unlistenable “Tusk” into something I almost like. Two names I’m learning about, Matt Sweeney and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, create a beautiful cover of Nicks’ “Storms.” St. Vincent, a name you can’t avoid hearing these days, turns “Sisters of the Moon” (Nicks again) into a hard, almost dirty rocker. I never thought I’d connect adjectives such as “hard” and “dirty” with Fleetwood Mac.

Another band I don’t know, Best Coast, was assigned Nicks’ “Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac’s signature song. Though Best Coast stays close to the original, I’m highlighting this track because their singer, Bethany Cosentino, sings like a female Johnny Cash.

Of course, you can’t discuss Fleetwood Mac without complaining about something. For one thing, the cheap paper CD holder was designed to spill the CD out of its sleeve and onto the floor of your car just as you’re changing lanes. But I have something bigger in mind.

Robert Welch: Fleetwood footnote
Robert Welch was not an unappreciated genius and I’m not launching a crusade on his behalf. In 1994 he re-recorded his Greatest Hits and managed to de-improve all of them. But he wrote the only two original Fleetwood Mac songs I still like: “Future Games” and “Bermuda Triangle,” so I feel I should say something in his defense.

“Bermuda Triangle” is the closest this band ever came to a dance number. It would’ve been a perfect song for The B-52s, who would’ve injected 10ccs of humor. (Welch believed he was warning the public about a hazard to navigation.) This song is not covered on Just Tell Me That You Want Me.

“Future Games” is. I know that not all who wander are lost, but the boys in the band were lost in the dreamy, meandering “Future Games.” Still, this 8-minute song pre-dates Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon by a year and Pink Floyd acknowledges it as an influence. With better editing (or fewer recreational drugs?), “Future Games” could’ve been one of the decade’s classics. It’s good, OK?

In their cover, MGMT sings the lyrics through a vocoder to produce a computer-like voice. An old computer. Like Matthew Broderick/Ally Sheedy WarGames old computer. Neil Young tried this in 1982 with Trans and got nowhere, and he’s a god. Even Gary Numan, who is a computer, never tried to sing like one. MGMT made a huge mistake and I’m glad this record’s producers stuck this thing at the end so it’s easy to skip.

Don’t stop thinking about Fleetwood Mac
A tribute CD should show you an old band in a new light. Just Tell Me That You Want Me, like Various Artists for the Masses, the Depeche Mode tribute, accomplishes this mission. Despite “Future Games” and a couple of other miscues (“Silver Springs” sounds as if it was recorded in the bathroom of a bus station), let me just tell you: You want this CD.

Tomorrow night, Sins of the ’70s Week continues with: Chicago. Colour my world, dudes!