Genre: Latin Rock, Jazz Rock
Preceded by: Santana (1969)
Followed by: Santana III (1971)
Related to: not available yet
The border between Mexico and the USA is an interesting phenomenon. It’s the border with the most legal passages in the world. Besides, it’s probably also the border with the most illegal passages worldwide. Whatever the exact numbers are, Mexico as well as the US are both benefited somehow by this flow of immigrants. Cheap manpower is needed in the US, while the money transfers in the other direction are needed to support the Mexican economy. Carlos Santana was one of those numerous Mexicans crossing this border when moving from Tijuana to San Francisco and although I have no clue about his support of the Mexican economy, I do know he enriched the US and the rest of the world with Abraxas.
In this hippie capital of America, young Carlos was a live witness of the arising flower power culture. This led him to discovering different kind of musical genres, thereby slowly creating his own musical melting pot. In a time and at a place where a dozen bands a day were founded (with another dozen breaking up again), it was no surprise that Carlos himself was discovered one day. However, each of these discoveries in those days came with a legend, so here we go: Carlos was discovered while substituting the guitar player of an improvised band (composed by members of different bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead), that was replacing an intoxicated Paul Butterfield.
Carlos quickly formed his own first band shortly afterwards: the Santana Blues Band (1967). He recruited David Brown from California on bass and Gregg Rolie (the original singer of Journey later on) from Seattle on keyboards and lead vocals. Some replacements and additions on drums and percussion were passed through before the band was shaped that would shine on the legendary Woodstock stage. It really stood out on this line up filled with psychedelic and folk rock bands, thanks to the Latin percussion setup consisting of congas, timbales and bongos. The eccentric combination of the rhythms that these instruments were able to produce together with Carlos’ traditional blues rock riffs made their performance a huge success; the Mexican immigrant was conquering America.
The band’s first and self-eponymous album (1969) was released as a logical outcome of this break-through and became a great success in Carlos’ new homeland. Does that mean that it was all good news for the band at that point? Certainly not, as the tensions within the group were following the success. The percussionists were dealing with personal issues and on top of that Rolie and Santana were having different views on which direction to continue with the band. Rolie wanted to emphasize the hard (blues) rock roots of the band, while Santana wanted to widen the jazzy sound. However, before the original Woodstock line-up would fall apart, it released two more parts of a legendary trilogy: Abraxas and Santana III.
Abraxas kicks off with ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’ (written by conga player Mike Carabello). This track is in the end nothing more than the intro of what’s about to come, but an intro can hardly sound more perfect. With the album sleeve in my hands I’m slowly leaving the world I’m laying in while I’m sinking in this Fata Morgana of mystical sounds. Calmed at first by the wind chimes, but being startled suddenly by the crying beasts that are rising from Santana’s guitar. Aware of the danger but still a little uncomfortable because of this strange world I’m entering, I’m starting to hear some identifiable sounds. This is one of Fleetwood Mac’s early hits I’m listening to: ‘Black Magic Woman’, written by Peter Green. However, this version (sung by Rolie) has transformed the original blues rock song in an esoteric epos, thanks to the adding of versatile percussion, the mix with ‘Gypsy Queen’ and of course the enchanting guitar licks of the master himself.
I’m completely under the spell of this album now and another familiar composition has reached me when I recognize ‘Oye Como Va’ from the legendary Tito Puente. But instead of the flute and a brass section I’m overwhelmed by a striking combo of Greg Rolie’s pumping organ and Santana’s dancing guitar riff, interchanged by the Latin vocals. By adding these rock and blues elements to this song, Santana was laying the groundworks for Latin rock. But how about Santana’s own writing skills? Just when I’m reaching for the album sleeve to find about this, ‘Incident at Neshabur’ starts to play. Carlos wrote this song together with Alberto Gianquinto, which turned out to be a gem. Starting with a strong portion of jazz fusion, the song immediately grips you at your throat, strengthening this grip with a sequence of rhythm changes. The song keeps growing and growing with one solo after another, before releasing you with a relaxing outro. Time to take a breath now, before turning the record over.
The first song of side 2, ‘Se A Cabo’, immediately kicks us back into the album. It’s another fast song, but a lot shorter this time. Written by conga and timbales player Chepito Areas, it may be no surprise that the percussion is taking control of this song. But let’s not stray off too much, as the best song of the album is waiting for us: ‘Mother’s Daughter’. Maybe not that well-known as some songs on Side 1, as it doesn’t have that typical latin rock sound many people associate with Santana. But the real hard rock roots of the band are to be heard right here (clearly a song written by Rolie), with the vocals, guitar, bass, organ and drums forming a great combo.
Variation is one of the secret powers of this album, tremendously illustrated by the way ‘Mother’s Daughter’ is followed by ‘Samba Pa Ti’, another song that was written by Santana and another latin rock classic. By far the slowest song of the album, completely instrumental and obviously dominated by the guitar playing of Sir Carlos. Over to another Rolie song then with ‘Hope You’re Feeling Better’, which was the third single of the album after ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Oyo Como Va’. The song illustrates once more the great rock ‘n roll voice of Gregg Rolie, who opens the song himself with a great organ intro. The guitar playing is more raw than on the rest of the album, making this song a last highlight. Sure, there’s one more track left, ‘El Nicoya’, but this is in fact the most disappointing part of the album. After such a great intro, you might also expect some more inspiration in bringing it to a conclusion.
Abraxas knocked Cosmo’s Factory from #1 in the US, to be replaced at its turn (temporarily) by Led Zeppelin III. As pointed out already in this review, this success was mainly due to the fact that it contains so much variation without becoming an incoherent collection of musical genres. The smooth transitions between different genres give this album a very mature character, especially for a band that only just had its break-through and had to release its second album. Let’s finish with a quote from the album’s back cover, a line from Herman Hesse’s book Demian, that explains where the band got the name for the album from (the painting was used as album cover), and which is meanwhile also applicable to the album itself:
“We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas….”
Genre: Country Folk
Preceded by: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
Followed by: Harvest (1972)
Related to: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Déjà-Vu
Last time I spoke about the influence of a certain Neil Young on the music of My Morning Jacket. Neil Young is a man who used to rear chickens to sell their eggs when he was just a boy. Neil Young is the man Martin Scorsese had to re-edit his rockumentary ‘The Last Waltz‘ (about the goodbye concert of American group The Band) for, to get rid of the cocaine that was hanging from Neil’s nose during his performance. But above all, Neil Young is the man who delivered some of the most classic albums in music history.
Young was born in Canada where he became interested in pop music as a teenager and started to perform as a singer-songwriter in 1960, at the age of 15, after dropping out high school. During the early sixties, influenced by Bob Dylan, Young discovered that he also had a talent for writing beautiful folk songs. So in 1966, he left Canada and took off to Los Angeles, the place to be at that point for everyone with a guitar and some good songs. After meeting Stephen Stills, they founded the band Buffalo Springfield together. That band would fall apart after only two albums caused to high tensions between the band members, especially between Stills and Young. Where did we hear that before? Right, Young would join Stills again in 1969 for the super group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, another group that was condemned to a short existence.
But during those years in between, Young had already released two solo albums. In 1968 he debuted as a solo artist with the self-titled album Neil Young, including one of his well-known songs: ‘The Loner’. But Young apparently wasn’t such a loner after all, as he arranged a new backing band for his second album (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, 1969): Crazy Horse. This new combination resulted in some lengthy jams with that typical guitar sound Young was developing at that moment. Young considered Crazy Horse as ‘his Rolling Stones’, just like he saw Crosby, Stills & Nash (who he joined shortly afterward) as ‘his Beatles’, . They claimed worldwide fame with Déjà-Vu, broke up again and Mister Young was now ready for his international break-through as a solo-artist, trying to combine Crazy Horse and CSN on his next album: After the Gold Rush.
How to accomplish this better than letting Crazy Horse jam with you on a couple of tracks, inviting Stephen Stills to do some backing vocals and CSNY band member Greg Reeves to play the bass? The result is a stunning classic album, mainly consisting of country folk songs, a genre that originated in the early sixties, when folk artists started more and more to reinterpret old country songs, in this way establishing an hybridization of folk music with country music. As one characteristic of the genre is the presence of thoughtful and personal lyrics, this album is the perfect representative.
The album starts with the typical country sound of ‘Tell Me Why’. It’s just Neil and his acoustic guitar, till the backing vocals kick in, giving this opening track a little more weight. You can guess after the meaning of the song for yourself. The second track is my personal favorite, also being the title track. The first times I heard it, it sounded to me like a demure antithesis of John Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’, with all kind of psychedelic lyrics. But Young is in fact warning us about what we’re doing to our environment, accompanied by a piano and a flugelhorn, which delivers a fantastic bridge in the middle of the song. Thom Yorke also covered this song solo during Radiohead‘s concerts in 2003, fading it into ‘Everything in Its Right Place’.
What follows is the first of four piano ballads that are on the album. Somehow they all have in common that they combine often melancholic lyrics with cheerful compositions, featuring a young Nils Lofgren (later on to become a member of Bruce Springsteen‘s E-Street Band) on piano. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ are both great songs, as they show us Young as a fantastic songwriter. The first one has this very recognizable lyrics, about how life’s simple before you fall in love. You’re not extremely happy, but everything’s just OK. Of course does love make you feel great, like you never felt before, but that same love is also the only thing that’s able to completely destroy you. The second one is a little more cryptic, but comes down to this: the world is a joke, I (Neil) know it, you know it, but don’t let this bring you down. Stay hopeful, because another attitude won’t help you any further.
The other two ballads, ‘I Believe in You’ and ‘Birds’, are both love songs (about doubts and goodbyes), which don’t really jump out among the other songs. Fitting in the same category is ‘Oh Lonesome Me’, a cover from the original song by country musician Don Gibson. Young turned this song into a beautiful lament about a dumped man, starting with an harmonica intro and with backing vocals contributed by Stephen Stills.
However, After the Gold Rush would never have become a classic album without the two songs where Young is joined by Crazy Horse, together jamming like on stage. First there’s of course ‘Southern Man’, one of Young’s most famous songs. This is the track that made me listen to the album more than once and in that way this song made me discover the other tracks out there. Don’t search for an intro, because there isn’t one: Young and the band immediately kick off with an upbeat piano and electric guitars. During the song Young condemns the racism in the American South, asking himself when the southern man is going to pay back the black people for treating them like slaves. The other grooves are to be heard on the heavily amplified ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’. This song also has this upbeat rhythm and a nice bassline, with the band having an awesome jam towards the end, including a nice solo from Young.
The remaining songs are ‘Till the Morning Comes’ and ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’, both about one and a half minute long. The first one is, according to my interpretation of the lyrics, about a guy who is only waiting till the morning comes. The other one is an easy going little country song, which closes the album perfectly.
In the years following After the Gold Rush, Neil Young would first reach it’s highest commercial peak on his next album Harvest, containing his only number one hit, ‘Heart of Gold’. Then followed the so-called Ditch trilogy, full of songs drenched in depression, and many many more albums till today. Young succeeded to create a different sound on every one of them, making his discography as eclectic as a Captain Beefheart song. But the best starting point to discover this man’s work must be After the Gold Rush. Take your time, give the album an extra chance if necessary, but never, never force yourself to like it.
Genre: Folk Rock, Soft Rock
Preceded by: Mona Bone Jakon (1970)
Followed by: Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
Related to: not available yet
Another album from 1970, as it might have become clear that the period between 1967 and 1972 is my favorite era in pop history. Back then, singer-songwriters still made music you didn’t just smoothly fell asleep to. One of the greatest of his generation was Steven Demetre Georgiou, inspired by John Lennon and Paul Simon (who had just broke up with their respective groups) and with an exceptional talent for great melodies.
Because he realized no American would buy music from some guy called Georgiou, he adopted the stage name Cat Stevens. Stevens was an English art student who liked playing piano and guitar. In the early seventies he would suddenly claim world fame after releasing three very successful albums: Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman (both 1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). Of all three albums (on which Stevens created the artwork himself), Tea for the Tillerman would become most famous.
Stevens already released some singles in 1966 (featuring John-Paul Jones on bass before he joined Led Zeppelin), with the first album following in 1967. But in 1969 he suddenly ended up in the hospital after contracting tuberculosis, fighting against death. During his recovery, his perspective on life and spirituality changed. He started to meditate, to read about other religions and became a vegetarian. And also: he wrote like forty songs which would appear on his following albums. First on Mona Bone Jakon, with the hit single ‘Lady D’Arbanville’. Next was Tea for the Tillerman, mixing lyrics of ordinary life situations and spiritual questions with great folk rock melodies.
Songs that were heavily influenced by Stevens’ stay in the hospital are ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ (obviously), ‘On the Road to Find Out’ (find one’s self through personal experiences and religion, with really awesome vocals) and ‘Sad Lisa’ (about a girl nearing the point of depression). The opening song of the album, ‘Where Do the Children Play?’, has a broader perspective, contemplating the challenges mankind has to cope with during the beginning of the seventies: war, poverty, ecological trouble,… . While coping with these challenges we tend to forget primary needs.
The only single of the album was ‘Wild World’, which was kind of a sequel to ‘Lady D’Arbanville’, as it describes Cat’s goodbye words to his departing lover, Patty D’Arbanville. The combination of Stevens’ voice and guitar beautifully awakes the sad feeling of leaving. A song a little more mysterious is ‘Into White’, which I still don’t really get. It’s about some organically built house with plants and animals inside, but it also says you have to be aware of violence, and in the end everything is ’emptied into white’. Find out for yourself where this is all about.
However, my absolute favorite of this album is ‘Father and Son’. The song tells a dialogue between a father and his son (surprise), with the son explaining that he wants to leave to seek his own destiny. The father (echoed by Stevens with a lower voice) doesn’t understand this desire. The American band Flaming Lips released a song very similar (musically as well as lyrically) to it in 2002, ‘Fight Test’, and were therefore charged with a lawsuit. Flaming Lips singer Wayne Coyne expressed he had no intentions to steal the song, he just liked it very much, and he granted Stevens half of the royalties for the song.
The album is closed actually by the title track, a very short song which was used for the closing credits by the creators of the hilarious British sitcom Extras. Stevens himself made some more albums in the seventies before converting to Islam in 1977, adopting his new name ‘Yusuf Islam’ from then on. He left the music scene two years later and only returned in 2006. However, he never reached the same heights again as on Tea for the Tillerman, telling us with it’s ethical lyrics and smooth melodies that you better enjoy life now, before it’s too late.
Genre: Folk Rock
Preceded by: Bookends (1968)
Followed by: –
Related to: Paul Simon – Graceland
Today we return to 1970, the year Déjà Vu was released. We also return to quarreling band members and vocal harmonies, because not only The Beatles broke up in 1970, so did their American contemporaries of the sixties, Simon & Garfunkel. But before they did, they delivered the world a last pièce de résistance with Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel met each other in primary school while growing up in the state of New York. The first group they formed was labeled with the artistic name ‘Tom & Jerry’. It was not until 1965 that they acquired world fame with their monster hit ‘The Sound of Silence’ as Simon & Garfunkel. Other albums and singles followed, until they recorded their fifth and final album Bridge Over Troubled Water, after which they broke up. Garfunkel was pursuing an acting career at that point, starring in the movie ‘Catch-22’. Remarkable detail: the role that was assigned to Simon was completely erased from the original script.
Bridge Over Troubled Water (on which Simon wrote all the songs except the covers ‘El Condor Pasa’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’), was named after the opening track which became a rock classic. Especially the piano work of Larry Knechtel, band member of Westcoast group Bread and session musician for amongst others The Beach Boys and The Mamas & the Papas, is outstanding. However, this track is not at all representative for the album, which contains very cheerful tracks like ‘El Condor Pasa’, ‘Cecilia’ and ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied’.
‘El Condor Pasa’ was based on traditional Andean folk tunes, brought together in a full-fledged song by the Peruvian Daniel Robles. Simon picked it up and made it the most famous western song featuring panpipes. It’s followed by ‘Cecilia’, and whether it’s about some lover or a songwriter’s block, it’s a real earwig. The trilogy of joy is completed by ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied’, one of my personal favorites.
After all the joy comes resentment part one, with ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’. Originally, Garfunkel (who had studied to become an architect) just asked Simon to write a song about the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Simon had no clue who this was, but turned the song into an announcement of the upcoming breakup with his former pal. Simon also addressed Garfunkel with the song ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’. Garfunkel went to Mexico to act in his movie, leaving Simon behind in New York, writing songs for this album.
In between this tracks is a single (‘The Boxer’) and it’s B-side (‘Baby Driver’), which were released already in 1969. ‘The Boxer’ became one of the duo’s greatest hits, despite (or maybe thanks to) the lyric-less chorus. It’s an autobiographical song, with Simon telling us he feels unfairly criticized. He temporary filled in the chorus with ‘lie-la-lie’, but never came up with replacing lyrics afterward. The penultimate ‘Bye Bye Love’ is a live recording of a song most famous in it’s Everly Brothers version, later also recorded by former Beatle George Harrison.
The duo reunited to tour again every decade since 1970, for example in 1981 with the famous concert in Central Park, entertaining over 500,000 people. Each time they play a range of songs from their last album, on which it’s crystal clear that this is a duo about to break up, but those guys decided to throw one big last party together.
Genre: Westcoast, Folk Rock
Preceded by: Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
Followed by: 4 Way Streets (live album,1971)
Last week I spoke about the Eagles’ masterpiece which predicted the end of an era. We travel back in time this week, to 1970, when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young launched Déjà Vu, marking one of the highlights of this same era. Crosby, Stills & Nash had debuted the year before with their self titled album, and on this second one they were joined by no one less than Neil Young.
In this way, ‘CSNY’ was one of the first supergroups, consisting of individual members who had been successful with their own bands before. David Crosby was one of the prominent members of The Byrds, Graham Nash was in the ‘British Invasion Group’ The Hollies and Stephen Stills and Neil Young played in Buffalo Springfield. The way they formed CSNY is an excellent example of how all musicians were intermingling in California during the seventies.
Crosby and Stills left their bands first in 1968, and started to jam together now and then. Crosby ran into Nash (who he already knew from his tour in the UK in 1966), when The Hollies were performing in California. They improvised a song with the three of them at a party at Mama Cass (Mama’s and the Papa’s) which convinced them of their vocal chemistry. Neil Young joined the trio after their first album, after he also arrived in Laurel Canyon. Just like The Eagles, CSNY were famous for their vocal harmonies, but very intricate sometimes, making Déjà Vu my personal favorite westcoast album.
The personal history of the individual members had a great influence on the recording of this album. All four of them (Nash to a lesser extent) had difficult personalities which would often lead to interpersonal problems. That’s why all songs, except for ‘Woodstock’, were recorded individually by the member who had written it, the other guys contributing what was needed from them afterwards.
Just like the CSN-debut (‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’), this album kicks off with an absolute gem full of harmonies from Stephen Stills: ‘Carry On’. It continues with ‘Teach Your Children’, one of the two Graham Nash songs on the album, the other one being ‘Our House’. The first one was inspired by a famous picture of an angry child holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park (NYC). By the way: Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead plays pedal steel guitar on this track. ‘Our House’ is about Nash’s short relationship with Joni Mitchell, with Nash’s desire for a monogamous family life in the middle of the free love era. Those were two of the three top 40 singles from the album, Joni Mitchell herself delivering the third one with ‘Woodstock’, which became the absolute anthem of the festival when it was played by CSNY there, being their first public performance with the four of them.
My personal favorite track however is ‘Almost Cut My Hair’, written by David Crosby. It’s basically a song about personal freedom and it’s a rare chance to hear Crosby sing with a very raw instead of a clear voice. Neil Young delivered the oh so typical Young songs ‘Helpless’ and ‘Country Girl’ for the album. Young had just released After the Gold Rush, and his perceptions of the wide marshlands in his home country are still prominent in this songs. Enjoy this masterpiece of musical chemistry.