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: Folk Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)
The Byrds are called a source of inspiration for several bands a number of times here, and I’ve declared that it’s time for one of their own albums now: Mr. Tambourine Man. Just like with The Doors, the sublime debut album is the perfect starting point in this case. It’s an absolute must-have for all Beatles-fans out there, as this album is the missing link between Bob Dylan (which is covered four times) and The Beatles, being the American forerunner of Rubber Soul.
The Byrds formed in Los Angeles about a year before releasing their first album. It all started when core members Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark started to perform together in California, mainly covering early Beatles songs. They originally played in different folk bands, just like David Crosby, who joined them a little later. They called themselves The Jet Set and tried to mix this traditional folk music with the sound of the then emerging British Invasion bands. This resulted eventually in the band’s distinct trademark: the wonderful vocal harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby combined with McGuinn’s jangly Rickenbacher guitar. Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke were recruited on bass an drums respectively, they changed their name to The Byrds and defined the new genre of ‘folk rock’ with the album Mr. Tambourine Man.
The album opens of course with the famous title track, one of the four Dylan covers. However, the song immediately introduces you to that specific Byrds-sound, with the typical guitar intro followed by the vocal harmonies of the chorus instead of a first verse. McGuinn is the only Byrd playing an instrument here, as the rest of the band was not yet adapted to each other at the moment of recording. You can ask yourself what Dylan exactly wanted to tell with the lyrics, but Mcguinn turned them into a kind of psychedelic prayer. The other Dylan song on side 1 is ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’. Dylan would have written it about a gypsy girl he once saw, but the remarkable thing about his song for me is that McGuinn sounds like the perfect mix of Dylan’s and John Lennon’s voices here.
Other Dylan compositions on side 2 are ‘All I Really Want to Do’ (b-side of the single ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’) and ‘Chimes of Freedom’. The latter one is the longest track on the album, on which McGuinn shows another good effort to match his voice with the one of the original songwriter while singing about a lightning storm. This was the last song of the album to be recorded as Crosby initially refused to sing on it, wanting to leave the recording studio. After being physically forced to stay they recorded the song after all, luckily for us, as the harmonies are really awesome on this track.
So what is this, some kind of release of a Dylan coverband? Certainly not, this thing has way more to offer you. Listen for example to ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, one of the songs from Gene Clark (who was the band’s primary songwriter) and for me personally the ultimate Byrds song. It’s an upbeat song, very Beatlesque and with the geniusly added word ‘probably’ into the line ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’. Talking about Beatles, listen to ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ and ask yourself where George Harrison got that sweet guitar riff from ‘If I Needed Someone’.
And there’s more. You can already hear on this album how The Byrds would evolve later on the sixties. ‘Here Without You’ lyrically is a kind of love song, but reminds me of the group’s later psychedelic anthem ‘Eight Miles High’ with it’s typical intro. On side 2 there are two similar songs: ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, sounding like Jefferson Airplane would do a few years later, and ‘It’s No Use’, with that British Invasion ingredient. The last two songs are covers again, ‘Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe’ even adds a little fifties rock ‘n roll to the album and ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is a reinterpretation of Vera Lynn’s classic war song.
In the years following Mr. Tambourine Man The Byrds (with Roger McGuinn being the only consistent member) would release another number of excellent albums in the genres of psychedelic rock and country, but on this one they define the genre ‘folk rock’ for the first time in rock history. Besides, it’s a great example of how bands were propelling themselves to unique heights by continuously influencing each other. It’s well known that Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds in reaction to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, but those guys were inspired themselves by an American band that once originated as… a Beatles coverband.
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.
Genre: Folk Rock
Preceded by: Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
Followed by: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
You have to start somewhere, so somewhere must be Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of America’s most influential musicians of all time and influenced many many musicians all over the world. Especially this album marks a turning point in rock history.
Back in 1965, Dylan was known as a very successful folk artist. But at that point he decided he didn’t want this to be for the rest of his life and exchanged his acoustic guitar for an electric one on the A side of the album Bringing It All Back Home. He completed this transition on his next album: Highway 61 Revisited.
The name of the album was derived from one of North America’s great highways. This road had a special meaning for Dylan, as it connected his birthplace Minnesota with places in the south like Memphis and New Orleans. It were those places where some of Dylan’s heroes like Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters came from.
What makes this album a perfect starting point is it’s ‘revolutionary’ character which had a great influence on a lot of other music to be discussed here later on. Not only the transition to electric rock, but also for example the introduction of songs lasting longer than three minutes. Every song lasts about 5-6 minutes and the epic final track ‘Desolation Row’ even lasts 11 minutes. On top, the songs are not mainly about love anymore and they don’t have the traditional sing along choruses which were standard those days. Last but not least, the emphasis on this album lies on the lyrics, not the voice which sings them. That’s by the way the main reason that Jimi Hendrix started to sing after all: if Dylan could sing, Hendrix could at least give it a try.
Hendrix even covered the famous opening track of the album: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. This track in particular avoids all traditional themes of a pop song, expressing resentment and revenge instead. This song was even listed number ONE on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, could you imagine a better start for your discovery? Enjoy the album!