Genre: Space Rock, Psychedelic Rock
Preceded by: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Followed by: More (1969)
Related to: not available yet
Before: a psychedelic rock band fronted by Syd Barett, having released a couple of successful singles and a more than decent debut album. After: an ambitious rock act, featuring David Gilmour and packed with ever growing ambitions. Struggling with exuberance before, turning vinyl into gold afterwards and threatened to end up in its own shadow towards the end. This is a key album, the only album with Barett as well as Gilmour, a personal favorite, but above all: a beautiful Floyd album, merging great melodies with foggy instrumental parts without drowning in its own sound. As if the title could already foresee what would happen during the early seventies, this would remain the best preserved secret of the band.
Although Roger Waters went to the same high school as Syd Barett, and although Gilmour was hanging around in his neighborhood, he laid down the ground works for Pink Floyd together with Nick Mason and Richard Wright after they met (1962) at the school of architecture. Together with three other guys they played in a band named ‘Sigma 6’. As was made clear later, Waters was already not such a great fan of schools back then and he dropped out after one year, just like Mason. Wright apparently just didn’t show any interest at all in architecture and switched to the London College of Music. Not a bad decision at all, as was also made clear later.
The three of them initially kept playing together, till they are joined by Syd Barett (1964) after the departure of some other members. The younger childhood friend from Waters had meanwhile become an art student, fascinated by work from The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Barett’s star within the band quickly rises, as singer as well as lead guitarist, and when the band starts to grow towards its definite form, it changes its name to The Pink Floyd Sound in 1965. The Sound is dropped the next year and the four of them start performing in London’s underground clubs, where their long instrumental improvisations (avoiding to repeat themselves with their limited repertoire) were supported by surreal light effects. It was told that this new band played psychedelic music, which was not at all generally appreciated. Luckily for them, 1967 was within reach.
The rock scene turned upside down right from the start of this year by the massive booming of psychedelic bands, and on the very day the Monterey Pop Festival kicks off on the American West Coast, Pink Floyd releases its second (after ‘Arnold Layne’) single: ‘See Emily Play’. The debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn follows in August, being successful in their home country. The support tour in the US however is no success at all, due to many practical troubles and the mental downfall of Barett, set in already during the recordings of Piper. Nevertheless, the band would ultimately play at San Francisco’s famous Winterland in November, after Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company.
On their return in the UK in December, Barett’s state of mind has further deteriorated and the band decides to add a fifth band member in case Barett can no longer perform properly: David Gilmour. He would initially become the second guitarist while Barett would stay connected with the band as non-performing songwriter, Brian Wilson-style. However, Barett left the band permanently in March and the four of them remained. Lots of material for the second album was already recorded at that point, resulting in A Saucerful of Secrets being the only Floyd-album with Waters, Gilmour, Mason, Wright ánd Barett.
With Barett gone as the bands main songwriter, the time had come for Waters to take things over. As this new Supreme Being he opens the album with ‘Let There Be More Light’. This track immediately draws your attention to the album, with an opening bass riff that originated from ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ but sounds (especially with the adding of the threatening organ in the background) like an anachronistic piece of techno music from the late sixties. However, when the drums fall in, you know you’re somewhere up high, lost in the cosmos and in the middle of this ultimate space rock song. The lyrics and music reveal that Waters is still inspired by Barett (and, apparently, some concept album by The Beatles; For there revealed in glowing robes – Was Lucy in the sky?) during his early songwriting, while new member Gilmour is also introduced. He takes on the lead vocals during the chorus and more important, he plays his first Floyd solo towards the end of the song, in that characteristic style we would get used to later on.
It’s up to the other new songwriter next, Richard Wright, presenting a song that was an outtake from Piper: ‘Remember a Day’. As we are used from him, the lyrics mainly deal with childhood memories, but because of the albums’ context it feels like we’re looking down from above to witness those young children playing. Might sound mellow or even poppy at first, but as a matter of fact it’s a real showcase for the drums (ironically played by producer Norman Smith instead of Mason on this track), giving this song a haunting groove from the moment they set in. That’s why Wright basically doesn’t need any guitars here, with Gilmour also being absent (Barett would have played acoustic and slide guitar but it’s barely noticeable). Great song.
The third song was the first one that was recorded for the album: ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’. This is the only Floyd song on which all five members play, although the guitars are quite overruled by drums and organ again. However, there’s only one guy completely defining this song: writer Roger Waters. Of course there’s the awesome bass playing, proving that it’s possible to create an entire song with this instrument as long as the guy who plays it is haughty enough to believe it. But the secret power of this song is without any doubt Water’s threatening whispering, in a style Thom Yorke would later apply to some Radiohead songs.
It’s followed by another Waters song, closing side one: ‘Corporal Clegg’. As the title already might presume, it’s also his first of many song dealing with war (inspired by Waters’ father, who died during World War II). The lyrics tell about this Corporal Clegg, a soldier suffering from shell-shock and losing his leg, while the music drenches the song in sarcasm by using a kazoo (played by Gilmour and once invented by… Thaddeus Von Clegg) in the second part. And in fact, apart from the solo on the opening track, this is the first song on which the guitar really shines.
Side two opens with the title track, a twelve minutes lasting instrumental that was compiled from several separate pieces, composed by Waters, Wright, Gilmour and Mason. According to Waters, it’s the musical translation of a battlefield, including the setup, the actual battle, the view of the dead afterwards and, in the end, the mourning. Again, it are the drums and the piano (+organ) that claim the leading role here. Nick Mason even shows that the drums can perfectly take over the role of the guitar when it comes down to soloing, if this instrument is played brilliantly. Meanwhile, Wright pounds the keys out of his piano with his fists, as can be seen on the legendary Pompeii recording. Some minutes later he switches to his church organ, and creates this mystical atmosphere on a part that might be considered a dress rehearsal for ‘Echoes’. To sum up: listening this song evokes more subterranean imagery than successively watching the entire Indiana Jones collection.
Over to Wright’s second contribution then, lyrically not differing very much from the first one. If one track must be called the least one on this album, it must perhaps be ‘See-Saw’. It sounds kind of peaceful all along and surely can help you falling asleep quietly, and maybe that’s why it was called ‘The Most Boring Song I’ve Ever Heard Bar Two’ on the recording sheet. Throughout the entire song you can ask yourself whether if it’s a charming dream or a sad condolence.
The final secret to discover is ‘Jugband Blues’, the only song out there written and sung by Barett. It was already recorded before Floyd’s trip to the US and Barett must already have known that he would soon (have to) leave the band. The Salvation Army band was added on his insistence, and initially he just wanted them to play whatever they wanted, independent from the rest of the group. Was he maybe inspired by Dylan’s opening track on Blonde on Blonde or is it a little naïve to presume that there still was some memory left at that point? Whatever the answer might be, if there was ever made a song that literally translates somebody’s mental state of mind into music, it must be this one, displaying total schizophrenia between lyrics and instrumentation. That’s why it deserves its spot on this album as a worthy clincher, with Barett seeming to drench his goodbye speech to the group in black humor and irony: I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, I’ll do my loving in the winter.
Altough Barett is represented by only one song on A Saucerful of Secrets, his songwriting still echoed in the first experiments of Waters and Wright. In this way they didn’t break completely with the band’s roots, something that would more or less happen on following albums. This new approach is already announced by the title track, which was a collaboration between the four members who would form the band from now on. That band would exceed their limits in many ways during the following years, but on almost every next album you can find something that points back to A Saucerful of Secrets. Enjoy.
Genre: Folk Jazz Soul
Preceded by: Blowin’ Your Mind! (1967)
Followed by: Moondance (1970)
Related to: Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde
Let’s get back to the roots of folk jazz soul. Oh wait, there is of course not such a thing. It’s something I was obliged to make up because it’s impossible and dishonorable to fit this album in one kind of musical genre, like folk (which folk?), blue-eyed soul (or even worse and sinister: white soul) or Jazz Fusion (although that would have been very fashionable).
Van Morrison was born in Belfast a couple of weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the starting point of a promising musical career as well as the Cold War. Nature (Morrison’s mother was a singer during her youth) and nurture (Morrison’s father possessing an elaborate record collection) did their job and Van already discovered a lot of musical styles at a young age, among others the blues and soul from Lead Belly and Solomon Burke. This triggered him to found his own band at the age of twelve: The Sputniks, called after the Russian rocket that was launched in October ’57. Music already had the upper hand over other interests at that point: did we see Dylan quitting university as a novice earlier, Morrison already dropped out of secondary school in 1960.
A lot of other bands (in which he sang, played guitar, sax and occasionally even drums and bass; who dares to state that Van Morrison is just a good singer?) followed, which he combined with being a part-time window cleaner. With one of these bands, as a true Cold War-kid, he toured along US Army bases in Britain and Germany to perform. At the age of 19 things are becoming more professional when he compiles the band Them back in Belfast, although this would always remain more of a live project than a studio group, thanks to Morrison’s frenzied creations on stage, for example during their hit single ‘Gloria’. This considerably contrasted with the nagging and cynical way they behaved in public life (interviews, television performances), which reminds of Dylan again, during his Blonde on Blonde period.
Them broke up, but Morrison signed a new contract with their producer to pursue a solo career. While he thought they were recording a number of singles (in New York, where the recordings for Blonde on Blonde led to nothing for Dylan), a solo debut album was suddenly released behind his back in 1967. Next to the fact that most of the tracks weren’t worthy to be released (although it delivered Morrison his biggest hit single: ‘Brown Eyed Girl’), the repugnant album cover still makes Blowin’ Your Mind! a poisoned debut.
This debut and especially this relationship with his producer initially kept following Morrison like a dark shadow. The producer died, his widow kept Morrison responsible for that and even tried to get him expelled from the States. These problems were solved by marrying his girlfriend at that time and delivering 31 songs about ringworms to get rid of his contractual obligations, after which he moved to Warner Bros. On this label, when the Tet Offensive in Vietnam comes to an end and The Troubles start in Morrison’s native country, he recorded his second and first ‘real’ album: Astral Weeks. This album, as we extend the comparison with Dylan, might be considered a noteworthy attempt to equate the enigmaticness of Blonde on Blonde. Van Morrison is 23 years old then.
Every time I listen to Astral Weeks, this fact keeps captivating me. I know I’m listening to a guy who just turned 23, but what I hear is an Artist who is singing his poetry with the voice of a man who has half his lifetime behind him. The accompanying instrumentation seems to be worked out in every smallest detail by this Artist, who is recording his absolute magnum opus after so many years of hard work and isolation. I hear a bass performance that tries to pull this heavenly voice back to the earth, while a playful guitar and flute are maneuvering in between.
The fascination for Astral Weeks reaches another level when discovering the real circumstances in which this sound was born. Morrison’s new producer arranged a group of session musicians for this new album, all having a musical background in jazz. Those musicians indicated that the collaboration with Morrison (not much of a jazz fan at that point) was very inconvenient without many words being interchanged. Morrison would just enter the studio, introduce the songs on his guitar and tell the musicians to play it however they felt like playing it. After the job was done, Morrison highly praised their contribution to the album. No wonder, after hearing his voice dancing throughout the instrumentation and vice versa, the ultimate proof that musical chemistry doesn’t require any words.
Stop, and imagine yourself as a fly on the wall of that studio while Astral Weeks is being created.
The album opens with the title track, with the acoustic guitar paving the way for Morrison’s beautiful vocal performance, including very interesting lyrics. Those lyrics, dealing with spiritual rebirth, are supported by a flute and violin in the background, altogether making this a good album opener, introducing you into the themes of this album. After we are reborn, we’re lying next to our loved one on ‘Beside You’. It makes clear that this album is some sort of song cycle, with the tracks flowing seamlessly into each other. Morrison is basically singing just another love story, but one that is told by means of some great expressionistic imagery. This song (on which the flautist was never identified!) is a real showcase for Jay Berliner and his classical guitar playing, sounding like he’s been playing with Morrison for years and personally adding the greatest details to this painting.
Stand up, start wandering and feel the dew on one of my favorites: ‘Sweet Thing’. This love ballad (addressing more a feeling than a person in particular) kicks off with a sweet, slow acoustic guitar & bass combo. The tempo is raised after the drum’s hi-hat is introduced, and from that point you can see the singer parading, with the flute fluttering like birds around his head. When the strings are ultimately added, you can hear the chemistry between band and singer at its highest point. Side one is subsequently closed with ‘Cyprus Avenue’, a song that reached a legendary status thanks to Morrison’s live performances . It was the traditional closer of the show, as can be heard on his famous live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now (1974), being the only Astral Weeks track on this album. While the music (including overdubbed strings and harpsichord) doesn’t really stand out in my opinion, it are the lyrics that really shine here. Morrison sings a story about his Belfast adolescence and despite using some stream-of-consciousness, it remains very recognizable; about the power of attraction of places that are nearby, but differing very much of the neighborhood where you grew up yourself.
Side two opens with a rather short track, ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’. It really differs from the other songs as the up-tempo playing drums and the adding of a horns section gives this song a very jazzy character. Therefore it’s being much criticized because of not fitting within the album’s context. Sure, it looks like a song from his following album Moondance, but does it therefore sound any less emotional? Moreover, give it a shot not to sing along with Van’s vocal punches during the chorus. Next is a true gem: ‘Madame George’. This is an absolutely stunning song considering the circumstances in which the album was recorded. While it was Berliner tangoing with Morrison on ‘Beside You’, it’s now time for bassist Richard Davis to shine and to lead Morrison throughout this song. A string quartet adds to the classical chamber-sound here, while Van fills this chamber with his fantastic images without having to worry about any relation between them. Get on the train.
Can it go any better from here? Yes, one more time when ‘Ballerina’ sets in. Morrison wrote this song already in 1966 while touring in San Francisco with Them. It’s an amazing song, with perhaps his best vocal performance on the entire album. He really pulls you into this story from the very first lines and the grip only gets tighter towards the end, till the last pirouette fades out of your thoughts. At last, Astral Weeks is closed by ‘Slim Slow Slider’. It was also the song that was last added after being shortened many times, sounding very gloomy. Not standing out, but closing this astral trip in an apposite way: with death and Morrison smacking on his guitar.
Meanwhile Astral Weeks has reached double the age of Morrison when he made it, and still remains one of the absolute best albums of all time. Not possible to rank this album in any specific genre, it’s recommended to anybody interested in just music in general. Enjoy.
Genre: (Folk) Rock
Preceded by: White Light/White Heat (1968)
Followed by: Loaded (1970)
Related to: Lou Reed – Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal
While speaking about Lou Reed’s great live album before, it was already mentioned how the Velvet Underground overwhelmed me when hearing their debut album for the first time, some 40 years after it was released. Noteworthy of course, but not something completely unique. What was unique, was the fact that this occurred again with the two following albums; I embraced White Light/White Heat as well as The Velvet Underground from the first time I heard them and cherished them as some of the best records ever made. Not something evident in view of the huge contrast between those two albums, but revealing a lot about this band’s versatility.
On the second of March 1942, Lou Reed was born in New York. Exactly one week later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a Welsh woman named Margaret Davies gave birth to her son John Cale. The first one completed his artistic education at university in June 1964, the latter organized his first concert on the sixth of July that year in London, where he studied at that time. The two met for the first time later that year when Cale moves to New York, as he was supposed to study classical music there. However, Cale was quickly enticed from his study books by the enchanting drones that came out of some guy’s guitar, playing a song called ‘Heroin’.
The two formed some bands together, before deciding to start performing as The Velvet Underground in 1965, together with Sterling Morrison on guitar and Angus MacLise on drums. If not for that book about the sixties’ secret subculture the band was named after, it could have easily been The Primitives, The Warlocks or The Falling Spikes. The final line-up was reached right on their first gig, as MacLise (considering that performance a sellout) was replaced by Maureen Tucker.
However, it only really started to go somewhere after pop art guru Andy Warhol became their manager, giving his new band carte blanche concerning their sound. Although, carte blanche? That was without taking into account the presence of German model Nico, who (on Warhol’s persistence) sang along on their debut album, with the meaningful title: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). The ever important second album followed early ’68, and Reed & Cale (Nico was meanwhile exiled) succeeded to astonish another time on White Light/White Heat. The fragile beauty that was an essential part of the debut had disappeared, but noise was given its dignity.
That the third album would once again sound different, was already predicted by the departure of John Cale from the band later that year, being replaced on bass by Doug Yule. However, that the electric powertrips would be almost entirely replaced by a gentle, melodic rock sound still was, to say the least, astounding. Rarely did a band ever make such an abrupt switch concerning its characterizing sound without losing a single fraction of its quality. Let’s go.
The bands new style as well as its new member is immediately introduced on the first track, ‘Candy Says’. Yule takes the lead vocals in this song, about the trans woman Candy Darling. She played in some of Warhol’s movies and would remain a source of inspiration for Reed on later occasions, as the second verse of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on Transformer shows. A soft, slumbering guitar guides Yule, while the percussion is reduced to a minimum. When the needle moves over to the second track, the variation between the two sorts of songs on this album becomes clear. ‘What Goes On’ is a terrific straight forward rock song, on which that classic, pushing, Velvet guitar sound kicks in again. It’s a true gem, as the song contains one of the best instrumental combo’s ever with the rhythm guitars and the organ (Yule) constantly building towards a great peak at the end of the song.
The opener of side 2 (‘Beginning to See the Light’) is a similar song, but sounds like a light version of the former. This makes it the most poppy song on the album, although ‘What Goes On’ was picked as the album’s only single. As most earwigs that seduce you to listen to a full album, it’s the first song that loses its glow after having accomplished its duty. Another song that jumps out is the penultimate one: ‘The Murder Mystery’, the only track on the album that points back to the avant-garde sound of the previous albums. It’s a very eccentric but intriguing piece thanks to the interchanging between the vocals (Reed/Morrison during the ‘verses’, Tucker/Yule during the ‘chorus’) and the bewitching instrumentation (notice the organ again). Hidden beauty.
The rest of the album consists of six soft ballads, often enriched by a folk rock accent. Three of them complete side 1, beginning with ‘Some Kinda Love’. It opens with a duet between guitar and bass while you can already hear Reed impatiently catching a breath in the background. Overall it sounds like a light melodic rock song, if not for the continuously pumping bass and interesting lyrics. However, on such a rich album it’s one of the ‘least’ songs. It’s followed by ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, a song of absolute beauty. Reed really shines here with extremely fragile vocals, only accompanied by another slumbering melodic guitar and a tambourine in the background. The song is said to be dedicated to Reed’s first love, Shelley Albin, but more important the centerpiece of the album shows Reed as a genius songwriter. Side 1 is closed by ‘Jesus’, with the writer of ‘Heroin’ and ‘The Black Angel’s Death Song’ now begging Jesus for help. The sophisticated soft sound is still there, but because of its place on the album it’s completely overshadowed by its predecessor.
Another personal favorite is ‘I’m Set Free’, which must be one of the key songs in Reed’s oeuvre. The reason is that it reminds of the Velvet’s debut and is at the same time a forerunner of Reed’s solo career (most notably Transformer). It builds up slowly (Tucker demonstrates her skills here with a simple but essential rhythm) towards this typical peak in the middle, featuring a nice guitar solo. What’s left are two short songs, around two minutes long. First one is ‘That’s the Story of My Life’, with another typical folk tune and even a Beatles sounding guitar solo in the middle. The other one is ‘After Hours’, on which Tucker takes the lead vocals. It was obviously inspiring for Meg White, who would contribute similar songs to some White Stripes albums later on. Here, it fits perfectly as closing song.
The Velvet Underground is an album that profited from the growing role of Lou Reed and his expressive songwriting after the departure of the bands co-founder. It would become the third part of an impressive trilogy, on which the band showed it could handle a lot of different styles. One more album (Loaded) would follow and although it was not bad at all, Reed left the band before it was even released as it was completely edited (to get airplay) without his consent. However, in your search for pureness in rock music, one of those first three albums is your best bet.
Preceded by: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
Followed by: John Wesley Harding (1967)
1963, Bob Dylan is being proclaimed as the artistic leader of the protest movement that stands up against the establishment. From that moment on, he and his music have showed a tendency of not wanting to be understood any longer. Tired of being launched as the pioneer of a social movement or musical trend every time people thought they had comprehended Dylan and his songs. The faith of an artist who is assigned with visionary powers by his followers.
No matter whether it was his role as protest singer in the early sixties or his innovative contributions to the so called genre of folk rock a few years later, Dylan always seemed to have the feeling that others wanted to make a stooge of him and started to agitate against this in an almost paranoid way. This side of Dylan was magnificently illustrated by Cate Blanchett in the film I’m Not There. It was this Dylan that released an enigmatic album in 1966 on which he did everything not to be understood for one time. But even if you don’t try to decipher everything The Singer tries to tell you in mysterious ways, there still remains a lot of beauty on Blonde on Blonde.
Only 54 years after being founded in the state of Minnesota, Hibbing already welcomed its most prominent resident to date: Robert Zimmerman. As the descendant of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Lithuania he entertained his local high school by playing rock ‘n roll covers before moving to the states’ capital (Minneapolis) to subscribe to university. Folk music entered his life, and it must have generated more attention than his classes at that point, as he quit university toward the end of his first year (May 1960) to move to New York. There, in the neighborhood of Greenwich Village, he performs in some local clubs before being picked up by a record label. A self-eponymous debut album (1962) follows, containing mainly folk traditionals and not having a lot of success.
Dylan crosses the Atlantic for the first time to visit London before his second album follows in 1963: The Freewheelin’. Writing his own compositions now and many of his songs being interpreted as protest songs, it brings him his first success in times of the Cuban missile crisis and the civil rights movement. Especially his performance (with Joan Baez) during the Great March on Washington (with Martin Luther King speaking his famous words) delivered him his status as the guy with the scruffy jeans who kicked against the establishment. This already changes after the murder of John F. Kennedy and his 1964 release The Times They Are a-Changin’ and definitely on his fourth album later that year, with the meaningful title Another Side of Bob Dylan. Dylan’s star rises fast subsequently, when he transforms from a protest songwriter to the absolute folk rock star.
This of course starts with the release of Bringing It All Back Home (1965), on which Dylan goes electric on side 1, and was immediately fortified with his performance that summer at the Newport Folk Festival, backed by the electric sound of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band members. Only one month later Dylan presents the world his next album, the legendary Highway 61 Revisited (1965) , featuring the same ‘electric crew’. Problem for Dylan was that some of those guys preferred to stay with the Blues Band instead of touring to promote this new album. So Dylan searched for other musicians and ended up with guys from Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band The Hawks. Those guys would later form some kind of genius group called The Band, after some of them contributed to Dylans’ brilliant seventh: Blonde on Blonde, one of the first double albums in rock history.
Recordings for the album started in New York, where Hawks drummer Levon Helm already dropped out as he was tired of playing in a backing group. With Helm replaced by Bobby Gregg (responsible for the opening snare drum on ‘Like A Rolling Stone’) and with amongst others Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko in support, the recordings proceeded but none of the recorded material could count on Dylans’ satisfaction. It was only after moving to a studio in Nashville and adding some local session musicians that the album started to grow towards its ultimate versatility.
When you start playing the album, you may wonder how the faces of music critics must have looked like while listening to the first song, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’. The former ‘protest songwriter’ states he wouldn’t feel so all alone if everybody would get stoned, supported by a brass band going berserk. The song was avoided by a number of radio stations and you can hear Dylan having a laugh about it on the song itself. The other enigmatic track on side 1 is ‘Visions of Johanna’, which is generally highly praised by those same critics. This song doesn’t really stand out in my opinion, but of course I didn’t spend hours of research to decipher its lyrics. The third song that perfectly fits into this category is the closing song of the album: ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. This track entirely fills up side 4 and seems to be about his wife Sara, which was confirmed by Dylan on the Desire song ‘Sara’ 10 years later. What Dylan could not have presumed, is that the track ultimately convinced Roger Waters that it’s possible to fill entire LP sides with only one song.
Did folk (rock) disappear on Dylans’ seventh? Not completely, as at least 1,5 of such songs can be found. ‘4th Time Around’ definitely is one. Although the lyrics are again slightly drenched in absurdity, the classic finger-picking guitar sounds familiar. Decide for yourself whether this familiarity stems from Dylans’ earlier works or from The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’. The other track is ‘One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)’, which was the first song being recorded for the album. It’s a very good one, with recognizable lyrics and a prominent role for the keyboards-guitar combo, leading the great crescendos every time the chorus is about to set in.
The album however never lets itself categorize in some kind of subgenre. This is immediately clear on track two (‘Pledging My Time’), with the pure blues kicking in. The harmonica almost sounds as plaintive as Dylans’ voice here and Robertson does a great job here by adding his bluesy guitar sound. ‘Temporary Like Achilles’ is another great blues song, with typical lyrics about some guy being left behind by his lover. However, it’s the piano here (played by Hargus Robbins) that claims his role as guide of Dylan’s excellent wailing throughout the song. Also on side 3 is ‘Obviously 5 Believers’, an awesome song on which Robertson really shines. It sticks out compared to the two aforementioned songs because of its uptempo style but it finds its match in two other uptempo songs on the album: ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ and ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)’.
The first one serves another portion of prosaic lyrics with several sexual references, driven by a repeating keyboard riff. However, this song lasts a little too long in my opinion. The second one certainly does not suffer from this handicap. It was used a lot of times by Dylan as the opening song on live gigs, for example on Before The Flood together with The Band. Problem here: once you’ve heard one of those live versions with a screaming Dylan, the studio version doesn’t suffice anymore.
The remaining four songs are all to be found on the second side of the album, together forming the core of Blonde on Blonde. We might even go one step further and call this one of the best vinyl sides ever made, close to The Beatles’ Abbey Road Side 2. It opens with ‘I Want You’, by far the most poppy song out there. This is due to the fact that the music as well as the lyrics both outshine in simplicity, in deep contrast with the rest of the album. Although Dylan summons an elaborate list of characters during the song, similar to a light version of The Band’s ‘The Weight’, he addresses himself to the simple ‘you-person’ during the chorus, contributing to the songs accessibility. What follows is ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, the absolute highlight of the album. This track was rearranged numerous times (musically as well as lyrically) by Dylan during the recordings, till obtaining this optimal result. The chorus becomes a real earwig after hearing it a few times and the flawless guitar playing makes you forget about the tracks’ seven minutes length. Amazing.
The party continues on the next track (‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’), without any doubt the best guitar song on the album. Although Dylan plays the intro, it’s Robertson taking over after that. On top of that the lyrics are kind of hilarious and will pop into your head again whenever you notice another fashion victim on the streets. Side two concludes with one of Dylans’ best known songs: ‘Just Like a Woman’. This track is also closely investigated by a number of music professors and according to their research this song is about Edie Sedgwick. Or Joan Baez. Or maybe another woman. In this way it’s kind of representative for the entire album: unsolvable and inexhaustibly intriguing.
A concert tour to promote the album followed after its release, where Dylan was backed by The Hawks. Deeply exhausted by this tour, Dylan finally found some rest after his motorcycle accident by withdrawing to the basement of Big Pink with The Hawks. This accident was also surrounded by rumours and theories, as it would have been made up to escape from the music scene for a while. Like with so many other things, probably nobody except Dylan can ever confirm this. Let’s keep it that way.
Genre: Psychedelic Rock, Acid Rock
Preceded by: Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
Followed by: Crown of Creation (1968)
Related to: not available yet
A wild time it sure must have been, those final years of the sixties. In mainstream culture those wild times are mostly associated with Woodstock, but this event in fact took place two years after the one and only year that can fully identify itself with the declared ideals of peace, love and music. 1967, a year that has meanwhile acquired a glorious reputation in pop music’s historiography. A year about which, when you didn’t witness it yourself, you can only fantasize and presume. It helps of course to actually read this history to give shape to these thoughts, but a picture, or in this case ‘a sound’ is worth a thousand words. No other band succeeds better to offer you this sound than the one described here, so hop on the Jefferson Airplane one more time and lets fly to 1967.
It’s a wild time, I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet. Another lyric from ‘Wild Tyme (H)’, fifth track on Airplane’s third studio album: After Bathing at Baxter’s. It’s January14th 1967 (ten days after The Doors opened pop music’s bumper year with their debut album) and people around San Francisco are gathering in the Golden Gate Park. To change faces, to question everything about their environment (especially authority) and to do new things. To raise consciousness in the first place, encouraged by performing poets, psychology professors and bestselling novelists and supported by underground chemists. The music is provided by local bands like Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. We’re flying a first time over the crowd with this track from Paul Kantner. Together with Grace Slick and Marty Balin he fills in the fantastic vocal harmonies here, all three chased by Jorma Kaukonen’s (soloing) guitar. It all builds up to this great apotheosis: And it’s new, and it’s new, and it’s oh, so new! I see changes, changes, all around me are changes!
February 1967, the Airplane releases its second studio album: Surrealistic Pillow . Although it were the two songs that female vocalist Grace Slick brought along to her new band that launched this album to great success, Marty Balin was the principal songwriter on this breaktrough album. He founded the band two years before by gathering some talented fellow folk musicians around him, but here on Baxter’s there’s only one song of his signature left: the beautiful ‘Young Girl Sunday Blues’. Echoes of Pillow still can be heard on this song, as it might remind of ‘3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds’. Interesting about this track is the combination of the totally laid-back lyrics (‘I walk beside you laughing and I’m high, don’t try to touch me with words’) with another great uptempo guitar performance by Kaukonen. Balin is vocally backed by Kantner here, while Slick is left out. Again, this song builds up to a liberating conclusion: Ah! Come into my mind, let yourself wander free and easy.
The dwindling role of Balin within the group indicates a new trail the band started to follow after Pillow, with Paul Kantner impersonating this definite conversion from the bands folk roots to harder and pure psychedelic rock. Of course this evolution was caused by some developments in the music scene, as Hendrix turned the world upside down with his blasting debut album in May while a growing number of people were travelling to San Francisco to plunge themselves into the psychedelic subculture and the proclaimed ‘Summer of Love’. This summer reaches its peak at June 16th(two weeks after The Beatles introduce Sgt. Pepper’s to the world from over the ocean), when the three day Monterey Pop Festival kicks off.
Airplane performs as headliner on the second day, and closes its set with ‘The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil’, one of Kantner songs and the opener of Baxter’s. The title refers to two sources of inspiration for Kantner, that is A.A. Milne’s books of Winnie the Pooh and folk artist Fred Neil. Some of the lyrics are borrowed from Milne’s poetry, whose childhood images are mixed with delicate questions like ‘Will the moon still hang in the sky when I’m high, when I die?’. This results in an anthem where the fabulous harmonies (from Paul, Marty, Grace and Jorma) are once more combined with a catchy guitar riff, even adding a bass solo here. It directly flows over (the album is classified into five suites but is in fact one big psychedelic medley) to ‘A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly’, a track from drummer Spencer Dryden. It’s some kind of audio collage that reminds of Frank Zappa’s work and it shows that it’s possible to limit such collections of sounds to exactly 100 seconds, contrary to what John Lennon would do one year later.
Three more songs from Kantner are to be found on this album. First there’s ‘Martha’, which is definitely my personal favorite. It’s a ballad with combined acoustic and electric guitars, on which Kantner himself takes the lead vocals. The soothing way in which he does this, makes this song being the closest to the bands original folk roots. The song was written about a girl named Martha Wax, who must have been a teenage runaway/groupie of the band in those days. The instrumentals are less pronounced than other tracks, moving the spotlight to Kantner’s poetic excesses like: ‘Martha she keeps her heart in a broken clock and it’s waiting there for me’, supported by Slick on backing vocals. Second there’s ‘Watch Her Ride’, perhaps his least on this album. The lyrics never reach the level of ‘Martha’ and also musically this song is not that great, despite the, again, nice harmonies. So it’s kind of strange that this track was chosen as the first single of the album (without much success), although it shows at the same time that the group had turned into an album band now.
So what about Grace Slick’s songs, couldn’t she deliver another hit single like she did with ‘White Rabbit’ earlier? Not really, although ‘Two Heads’ will stick in your ears the longest when listening the album the first couple of times. Her voice reaches the same level as on those earlier hit singles, while some kind of mystical atmosphere is added this time by eastern sounds. The lyrics make use of stream of consciousness image-forming, just like her other song here. This one’s her best on the album and is called ‘rejoyce’. Did she honour Lewis Caroll earlier, now it’s time for an ode to James Joyce’s Ulysses, making use of her strong and enchanting voice again. While Jack Casady outshines here with a fast moving bass line (also noticed by Hendrix, asking him to play bass on ‘Voodoo Chile’ the following year), Slick questions societal norms in her typical prosaic way.
Unfortunately, those songs might be considered the endpoint of this trend within the band, that continued to search for louder songs on latter albums. This direction is already announced on Baxter’s with ‘The Last Wall of the Castle’, a Kaukonen song on which he takes the lead vocals for the first time. Although the lyrics are not that elevated, this is a real showcase for Kaukonen on the electric guitar. We ended up in August meanwhile, and the influence of Cream (playing at San Francisco’s Fillmore West at that time, releasing Disraeli Gears later that year) clearly can be heard on this track. Kaukonen also co-wrote ‘Spare Chaynge’ with Cassady and Dryden, a long instrumental that somehow was heralding what was going to happen with this tremendous band as Kantner, Balin and Slick are totally absent here.
It’s November 1967. The Summer of Love is officially declared over one month earlier with the ‘Death of the Hippie’ ceremony in Haight-Ashbury. After Bathing at Baxter’s is now released by Jefferson Airplane as the musical chronicle of this memorable year. Just like the peace and love-generation, the band started to disintegrate slowly after 1967. Kaukonen and Casady proceeded with their blues rock project Hot Tuna, Balin became dissatisfied with the direction the band was evolving and Dryden ended up burned out by acid and disillusioned by the events of Altamont. The band would however deliver two more good albums, Crown of Creation and Volunteers, before totally disintegrating in many dubious spin-offs.
Let’s end like the album does, as there’s still one song undiscussed here: ‘Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon’. During this closing duo track, Paul Kantner looks back at the day when it all started, with the Human Be-In in January. Being a serene song, the stage is offered to the enchanting harmonies one last time. We enter the plane and return to the Golden Gate Park to conclude our flight:
Yellow clouds rising in the lune; acid incense and balloons
People dancing everywhere; love is shouting I don’t care
Genre: Roots Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: The Band (1969)
I love albums that can take you to other places, albums that succeed to give you the opportunity to travel in space and time within one hour, without even having to move from your couch. Last time I travelled to Big Pink, which is not some new to inhabit planet from the far future. It’s also more than that big house near New York, Big Pink is that small town in the American South where The Band was playing that night.
Right after the needle touched the vinyl, the spots enlightened the stage and five genius musicians showed up, completely aware of their qualities and playing with some kind of distinguished serenity. In the back sits Levon Helm, behind his drums. He’s actually the only American in the band, being the son of a cotton farmer from Arkansas. There he joined The Hawks in 1959 before moving to Canada, where the rockabilly sound of that band was highly appreciated. There, in the environs of Ontario, Levon and singer Ronnie Hawkins recruited four Canadian musicians, all around 18-19 years old.
One of those guys was the singer of the opening track of tonight’s gig: ‘Tears of Rage’. His name is Richard Manuel, the band’s pianist but also gifted with this soulful voice (to be heard a lot more during this performance). He wrote this song together with some guy named Bob Dylan and succeeds to sing it even more desperately than Dylan did earlier on The Basement Tapes. It immediately brings you into the world of The Band, to Big Pink, where unbreakable family ties survive at all costs in a divided society.
During the second song, ‘To Kingdom Come’, the spotlight is aimed at guitar player Robbie Robertson. This song is one of the many he has written as a member of The Band, but it’s one of the rare ones on which he also performances the lead vocals. Robertson (although being the only one of them who isn’t a multi-instrumentalist) is a great shareholder of The Band’s success with his smooth guitar playing and having signed for some of the groups greatest classics. His guitar playing also sounds great on this song, which might bring you some visions of The Byrds.
The next song is sung (and written) by Manuel again, and his voice is the only memorable thing I remembered from it as ‘In A Station’ didn’t really astonish me at other points. But this was quickly forgotten when that mysterious bass player starts to sing the following song: ‘ Caledonia Mission’. His name is Rick Danko and I become an absolute fan of his voice within his first two lines. He originates from Ukranian ancestors and thanks to his car accident The Band could not promote their debut album (1968) with a concert tour until the next year, when they were already recording their second album: The Band. The song is actually also written by Robertson, who created a strange mix of country verses and a soul chorus, where the piano adds another dimension to the song.
The Band announces to play one more song before the break and this one completely blows me away. During this short break I decide I’ve just listened to the best song that was ever written. Robertson wrote it, based on his experience as a young Canadian in his twenties, arriving at the cradle of soul, blues, rock ‘n roll and what else more: Memphis. He realized that he’d ended up in the world of Levon Helm and as a great songwriter he luckily possessed the capacity to describe his images in a marvelous and poetic way. On top of that the song was extremely suited for the voice of Helm, the total impersonation of the main character in ‘The Weight’.
The weight is carried by a visitor of the little town called Nazareth, as Robertson is of course considering this ‘new world’ a holy destination in his life. He comes here just to pass somebody’s (Miss Fanny) regards but would never have thought that this would be such a burdensome task, ending up in some bizarre experiences. He arrives there very tired and they decline to give this man a bed, just like in Luke’s story about Mary and Joseph. After Carmen has dropped off nobody less than the Devil to keep him company, he also runs into Luke himself, who is arguing with Miss Moses about joining the civil rights movement. Luke is worried about what’s going on and asks the traveler to stay so he can take care of the young Anna-Lee. His vehicle subsequently breaks down but luckily there’s good old Crazy Chester who can fix it. He’s willing to do that, on the condition that the traveler looks after his wild dog, Jack. It all gets too much for him now so he hops on the first train (cannonball) to get back to Miss Fanny. AMEN! After Levon of course personally kicks off the song (Anna-Lee, Carmen and Crazy Chester were all real characters in his life, from the town with the perfect name Turkey Scratch), the lead vocals are shared during the rest of the song with Manuel and Danko. Brilliant.
After turning the record over, The Band returns on stage and immediately my attention is drawn to the mystical fifth guy, sitting like an old wizard behind his organ while playing a delicious intro of the first song: ‘We Can Talk’. This is Garth Hudson, the classically skilled member of the band. During the first years, this guy gave music lessons to the other guys for 10 dollars a week, only to prove towards his parents that his education was not wasted by joining that band. The song itself is basically one of the most catchy ones on the album, showing another great example of mixed vocals, with Danko, Manuel (writer of the song) and Helm sharing the lead vocals again.
Another nice intro is delivered by Hudson on ‘Long Black Veil’, after which the beautiful vocals of Rick Danko follow again. This ballad (guy falsely accused of murder) is a cover and was originally written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin back in 1959. As you know The Band was prematurely built around this time, as they formed The Hawks from ’58 till ’63. They continued as Levon and the Hawks in 1964 before becoming Bob Dylan’s band the next year. As such they toured around the world, although Helm aborted halfway to go working on an oil rig for two years! After the tour Dylan moves to Woodstock in 1966 with The Band following him shortly afterwards. It was Danko who found the big pink house in the state of New York where he would live together with Manuel and Hudson.
But we don’t get time to dig further in history because I’m blown away a second time this night. Out of nothing (looking at a completely dark stage) a dramatic and bombastic organ sound rises up: this is a real showcase for Garth Hudson. The song is called ‘Chest Fever’ and is probably one of the rare Band songs that shows any kinship with psychedelic rock, which was booming around that time. It’s of course all about this pounding organ riff, being filled up with Manuel’s tearing voice (telling the classic story of a spurned man) and the distorted guitar playing by Robertson. This is a genius piece of music, which has to top the list of best tracks below even when it’s of course not the best one on the album, but ‘The Weight’ would be a little too predictable.
I need some time to recover from this and this time is offered by ‘Lonesome Suzie’, a decent ballad from Manuel which can’t really excite me. But the excitement returns when Danko starts singing ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, a song he co-wrote with Dylan. The song is stuffed with all kind of bizarre sounds, with the organ and guitar producing oriental noises. But the real strength of the song are Danko’s vocals, who seems to be in an ecstatic form of hesitation during this track. It was tonight’s last boost of energy, as the gig is closed by the peaceful ‘I Shall Be Released’, a majestic song from Dylan, sung by Manuel in a breathtaking way. With this song we all pray to be released from our sins and say goodbye to the world of Big Pink.
So in the end, what makes this album such a great record? I guess it’s the diversity as well as the connectedness of the songs. First of all, all different members of The Band are portrayed as individual musical geniuses, as each one gets his moment to shine. In this way it often reminds me of The Beatles’ Revolver . But there’s also an apparent connection between all songs at the same time, telling you the story of the people of Big Pink. Not the big house, but the towns and villages that these guys from Canada discovered after following their own Moses to the promised land.