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.
Genre: Blues Rock, Hard Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Led Zeppelin II (1969)
It’s January 1969 and The Beatles are digging their way through the Get Back-sessions. During a little break they are talking about a new album that Jimmy Page has produced. ‘Wasn’t he the one who was in the Yardbirds?’, asks George Harrison. The Yardbirds was the favorite band of Jimi Hendrix when he brought together blues rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock on his 1967 debut with the Experience. Two years later, Page has his own band, releasing their own album. ‘With a kid called John Bonham on drums. He is unbelievable.’, according to the rattling Fab Four.
Later that year, this new band called Led Zeppelin would release their classic hard rock album Led Zeppelin II, which would knock The Beatles’ Abbey Road from #1. But what about their bluesy debut album? And what about this band in general?
The Yardbirds were falling apart in 1968 with Jeff Beck forming his own band (The Jeff Beck Group) and bass player Chris Dreja becoming a photographer. However, they still had some contractual obligations for a tour in Scandinavia. So remaining member Jimmy Page decided to bring in singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, two members from Band of Joy, and complete the tour as The New Yardbirds. Some guy called John Paul Jones contacted the band himself to become the new bass player. They performed in Denmark for the first time together and completed the tour successfully.
Shortly after the tour, the band began to record their first album, consisting of songs they had played during their live gigs. It was recorded in a very short time period, with Page covering all the costs. But Dreja forced the new band to change its name, as they were only allowed to use ‘The New Yardbirds’ for their final tour. This is how Led Zeppelin was born, choosing an image of the famous burning Hindenburg (the former pride of nazi Germany), a ‘lead zeppelin’, for the album cover. The album would contain a heavy blues rock sound (including some covers of traditional American blues songs), combined with some extreme guitar-driven and riff-based hard rock sound, just like Hendrix did two years earlier.
Sure thing is that the traditional blues is better represented on this album, most notably with the Willie Dixon covers ‘You Shook Me’ and ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’. The first one has a typical slowly lingering blues beat, with a very cool instrumental part in the middle of the song where a screaming Plant is continually echoing Page’s guitar sounds. The song caused a dispute with Page’s former buddy Jeff Beck, as he had recorded the same song some months before. The other Dixon song is also a typical blues rock song, with a jazzy drum and bass combo, filled up by a plonking Page. A little less bluesy is the ballad ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ (about an unfaithful girl), which is instead characterized by a beautiful organ intro by Jones and a sing-along chorus.
The hard rock songs on the album are easily to distinguish by their higher pace. One of them is the fantastic opener ‘Good Times Bad Times’. I still consider this one of the best opening songs ever: the intro with the guitar and cymbals combo, the bass loop in the bridge, the guitar solo, the rocking kick-drum: from the very start of this debut you can hear what kind of geniuses those instrumentalists actually are. This is even taken one level higher on my favorite Zep track and one of my all-time rock favorites overall: ‘Dazed and Confused’. There’s the thrilling bass intro, the absolute superb drumming from Bonzo, the haunting middle part where Plant’s voice serves as a fourth instrument, and then… a huge instrumental explosion with Bonzo’s drumming seeming to chase Page’s solo like a mad dog, an absolute rock masterpiece. Especially those kind of songs show that Led Zeppelin probably was the best group of rock instrumentalists ever having played together. A last song of this kind is ‘Communication Breakdown’, a very uptempo song with again a fast drum and bass section, it even reminds you of a punk song.
The three other songs can not really be placed in one or another category. Sure, closing song ‘How Many More Times’ kinda sounds like a blues song, but it’s best known for the fantastic bolero rhythm, which pushes the song along in a very bombastic way, another favorite. ‘Black Mountain Side’ to the contrary is a kind of strange song on a Zep record. It’s an instrumental, with Page on a steel-string guitar and a guest appearance on tabla to give the song its eastern character. Those sounds will return in several songs on later albums. The same goes for ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, which is as mystic as some famous songs on for example Zep’s fourth album. It’s basically a duet between Plant’s voice and Page’s acoustic guitar, but the strange balance between calmness and anger makes this song a real gem.
After Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin would continue to make high quality and very successful albums, incorporating folk en Celtic music influences, becoming the absolute number one rock act of the seventies. The band disbanded in 1980 following the death of Bonham and was described by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as being ‘as influential in the seventies as The Beatles were in the prior decade’. So if you still haven’t heard a song of those guys, start with one of those first two albums because they will kick you in the face like an angry gnu.
Genre: Progressive Rock
Preceded by: This Was (1968)
Followed by: Benefit (1970)
Related to: not available yet
Old bearded men playing endless symphonic compositions and singing about all kind of mystical themes: progressive rock. A genre in music history which is praised as many times as it’s feared. I myself am a big fan; Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake &Palmer, King Crimson, Yes and even Genesis, I loved it all from the start. Somebody once asked me which ‘prog’ album I would recommend him as he wanted to learn to know the genre. The guy liked bands like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Doors,… and I could only come up with one album that could soothe the transition from that world of music into one including all the achievements of progressive rock: Stand Up.
Progressive rock originated in the late sixties, heavily influenced by psychedelic rock from the US. Bands like Procol Harum (with it’s hit ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’) and The Moody Blues (with it’s album Days of Future Passed) started to incorporate elements from classical music into their work. Other (mainly British) bands followed by going beyond the standard verse-chorus based song structures with complex instrumental ‘songs’. They frequently brought these songs together on so called concept albums, with all lyrical contributions treating a specific theme or telling stories with epic proportions.
In contrast with bands like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull didn’t have its origins in psychedelic rock but in blues rock instead and that’s exactly what makes Stand Up such an accessible prog album. Tull’s debut basically was a mediocre blues album featuring a flute. Singer Ian Anderson decided to start playing this instrument after he realized he couldn’t outbid Eric Clapton as a guitar player so he picked an instrument no rock star had played before to become the world’s best at it. Together with this new instrument he started to put in all kind of new influences into the group’s sound after taking full control of the band. He wrote all the tracks on the album, which pushed Tull in the direction of progressive rock.
The first track on the album (with awesome artwork) is the raw, bluesy ‘A New Day Yesterday’. Together with ‘Nothing Is Easy’ (track 6 on the album), these songs are juiced with some solid guitar riffs and sound like the hard rock of Cream, completed with some energetic flute loops. The album also delivered Tull’s first classic: ‘Bouree’. It’s a very jazzy reinterpretation of the classic composition ‘Bourrée in E minor’ by Bach, with Anderson’s flute replacing the piano. Also noteworthy is the delicious bass solo in the middle of the song.
The album continues with ‘Back to the Family’, a song which Anderson must have written to prove that he also had a great voice besides his capabilities as flute player. Moreover, guitarist Martin Barre performs a great solo towards the end, something he repeats in an even better way on the next track, the ballad ‘Look Into The Sun’. But just like last week’s album, the best songs are saved for the second part. ‘Fat Man’ reinvents blues by inserting eastern instruments like the sitar and the notorious balalaika. But it even gets better.
For me personally, the last three songs of the album are the best ones. The most melodic of them all is ‘We Used To Know’, on which Anderson performs the best melancholic vocals I’ve prolly ever heard. It’s chord progression and even the guitar solo in the end was used later by the Eagles for their monster hit ‘Hotel California’, as they liked the song very much while supporting Tull on their tours in the seventies. ‘Hotel California’ might have become the greatest hit, ‘We Used To Know’ is the real stuff. Make your own judgment on that one. The song gets a melancholic sequel on ‘Reasons For Waiting’, a love song which blends the acoustic guitar and the flute beautifully together.
The album doesn’t fade out after this one because you’ll be shaken completely around again by it’s final piece: ‘For A Thousand Mothers’. Anderson’s flute is more aggressive than ever on this uptempo track and just when you think the storm has ended he strikes back one more time with a solo. Certainly check out the album if you don’t know it because if you like it, there’s a lot more waiting for you.
Genre: Southern rock
Preceded by: Bayou Country (1969)
Followed by: Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)
Related to: The Band – Music From Big Pink
Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) probably is my favorite classic rock band together with The Beatles and Pink Floyd. That’s partly why it’s already the second album of this band that I write about while still exploring the ‘basics’. It’s also the second album of their famous 1969 trilogy, preceding Willy and the Poor Boys which I treated last time. Talking about trilogies: the album was succeeded by Abbey Road on top of the Billboard 200, which as we know was kicked off his throne by Led Zeppelin II.
CCR had their decisive break-thru earlier in January 1969 with their album Bayou Country and it’s monster hit single ‘Proud Mary’. But instead of getting distracted by hours lasting psychedelic jams like virtually all other Californian bands of that time, they plunged back into the studio and released the single ‘Bad Moon Rising’ a few weeks later, followed later by ‘Green River’. The rest followed in August, brought together on the album Green River.
Green River managed to refine the characterful sound of Bayou Country, opening with the title track, one of my all time Creedence favorites. Fogerty brings a passionate ode to the rural south, supported by a brilliant and simple guitar riff. ‘Green River’ by the way actually was the brand of some drink. Next track is the single’s B-side ‘Commotion’, which instead ridicules the crowded city life. Another personal favorite is ‘Tombstone Shadow’, about a man drenched in bad luck, with Fogerty’s voice being so convincing that you really start to feel bad for the guy he sings about.
Side two of the album contains the other single ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and it’s B-side ‘Lodi’, which became a massive radio hit. The first one (Sonic Youth called an album after it in 1985) kind of differs from the traditional Creedence sound, having a typical rockabilly rhythm. Lyrically the track warns us for what’s about to come on Willy and the Poor Boys and following albums, as Fogerty sings about the danger at the times of Vietnam and Nixon. The second one is a ballad about an artist ending up in the small Californian town Lodi. Although it’s close to Fogerty’s hometown, he never visited it before writing the song and just chose it because he liked the name. Decide for yourself if you want to go there some time after having listened to the song.
The final track on the album is ‘Night Time Is the Right Time’, another remake of one of their favorite fifties songs (having covered ‘I Put a Spell on You’, ‘Susie Q’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ on earlier albums). The Nappy Brown song became a highlight of the band’s live gigs. One of those famous gigs CCR played was on Woodstock, shortly after releasing this album. It was never recorded because The Grateful Dead jammed all night long and far past schedule, but luckily the album is still there.
Top Tracks (thank God other live performances were filmed^^):
Genre: Blues Rock, Hard Rock
Preceded by: Led Zeppelin (1969)
Followed by: Led Zeppelin III (1970)
Related to: Pixies – Doolittle
Let’s stay in 1969 for one more week. This week’s album is for those who like their rock a little harder, as it’s time for one of those real rock ‘classics’: Led Zeppelin II.
The British band Led Zeppelin released their bluesy debut album the same year, after which they started touring all over North America and the UK. They used the time they had between concerts to record material for a new album, in all kind of studios over the world. That’s how Led Zeppelin II was born: while completing seven concert tours.
This situation really influenced the sound of Led Zeppelin on this album. While touring, the band played long improvised versions of ‘Dazed and Confused’ from their debut album and experimented with all kinds of riffs and solos. They brought the best parts in the studio, and riff-based songs like ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ were created, along with the drum solo dominated ‘Moby Dick’. That way, it became the loudest album of the band and with ‘Whole Lotta Love’, it had a real rock anthem.
The influence of this album was huge, as it was personally responsible for the big guitar bands revival during the late eighties and early nineties. Bands like Guns ‘n Roses tried to reinvent Led Zep, Jonny Greenwood stated that all Radiohead was trying in their early days was to play Led Zeppelin II and what about bands like Pixies and Nirvana? Listen to the alternate soft-loud approach on ‘Ramble On’ and ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ and compare them to nineties classics like ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
One more interesting thing about this album is it’s cover. The band told some guy to come up with an idea and he came up with a picture of a German Air Force Division from World War I, led by the famous Red Baron. They painted the faces of the band members on it and the album was released.
So check out those top tracks and decide whether or not to get the album. Or just listen to it one more time. For those who are not convinced: it knocked Abbey Road from #1 twice in the US.
Genre: Southern Rock
Preceded by: Green River (1969)
Followed by: Cosmo’s Factory (1970)
Related to: not available yet
Last week I spoke about the heartland rock of Springsteen, which was heavily inspired by the southern rock of the seventies. One of the big representatives of this genre and one of Springsteen’s favorite bands is the Californian formation Creedence Clearwater Revival, most of the times abbreviated as ‘CCR’.
Together with bands like Canned Heat and the Allman Brothers Band, CCR was seen as response to psychedelic and progressive rock, genres that were very dominant in the late sixties. For me, CCR was one of the first classic rock bands I discovered and still is one of my personal favorites. That’s why I highly recommend the last part of the band’s famous ‘1969 trilogy’, Bayou Country–Green River–Willy and the Poor Boys, if you want to discover classic rock. The other two parts will without any doubt follow shortly.
It’s hard to imagine nowadays that one of the big names of the music scene produces three studio albums in one year. CCR had few troubles doing this, just starting to record again shortly after the release of an album. So they did after Green River, and they came up with a great mix between blues rock and some real uptempo rock anthems.
The album starts with the brilliant sing along ‘Down on the Corner’, where the album got his name from (listen to the lyrics). Further on the album you’ll find some typical CCR-blues on tracks like ‘Cotton Fields’ (a Ledbelly cover), ‘Feelin’ Blue’ and ‘The Midnight Special’. The last one was a traditional song among prisoners in the South. The story tells that they were looking from out of their prison windows to a midnight train, which came to pick up prisoners to go home.
But the real power of the album comes from these tracks where singer John Fogerty lets his screaming guitar and his screaming voice sing together: ‘It Came Out of the Sky’ and ‘Fortunate Son’. The last one is a protest song against the Vietnam War and is still one of the few protest songs I remember with a good beat. On top of this, the album closes with the fascinating ‘Effigy’, a song which lasts over 6 minutes, a real rarity for CCR.