Genre: Hard Rock, Glam Rock
Preceded by: Berlin (1973)
Followed by: Sally Can’t Dance (1974)
Related to: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground
Not many albums out there that ravished me immediately from the start, but The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967) from the same band and singer was one of them. The droning guitars and the strange, fascinating lyrics made this album incomparable to any other album I knew at that moment. It didn’t take long before I started to explore all other works of the band, and I loved it without an exception. However, it somehow took me way more time to appreciate the solo work from one of its main members: Lou Reed.
Reed comes from Brooklyn, New York, where he met his Velvet partner John Cale (bass guitar and other instruments) in 1964. Cale liked Reed’s guitar playing, as he heard him playing ‘Heroin’, one of the songs that would appear on the debut album (mentioned above) of the band those guys would soon form together with Sterling Morrison (guitar) and Maureen Tucker (drums). As a band they quickly drew the attention of pop art guru Andy Warhol, who added his protégé Nico (a German fashion model and singer) to the line-up. The resistance of Reed against this change resulted in the title of the debut album.
The Velvet Underground would continue to make albums with that revolutionary sound on it, as would Reed do as a solo artist. But in fact there’s no better way to run over these most successful years of this man than by listening to his magnificent live album from 1974: Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal. The original version of this album contains five songs stemming from different periods of his career, all performed in a blazin’ glam/hard rock set at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music (New York). Just like artists as David Bowie and Roxy Music, Reed was in the middle of his androgynous period back then, wearing leather clothes and nailed leashes and having his face greasepainted. But above all: Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal would become his best-selling album.
The album kicks off with a delicious, elaborate guitar intro. After only one minute you will already catch yourself playing the air guitar as if you were Reed himself. After a while you will recognize the tones of ‘Sweet Jane’, one of the Velvet’s greatest hits, from the album Loaded (1970). Reed was the only songwriter on this album (Cale had already left the band) and would leave the band before the album was even released. The goal of this album was already to get some airplay on the radio, but it turned out to be even completely edited without the consent of Reed. Maybe this is the reason that Reed chose two songs from the album and played them in adjusted style, with ‘Sweet Jane’ being a real hard rocker here.
After this 8 minute opener Reed continues with a pumping glam rock version of ‘Heroin’, adding 6 minutes to the original 7 minutes track on The Velvet’s debut. As the title more or less predicts, this song is about the use and misuse of heroin. As Reed did on more songs on this album that handle with themes like drugs and sadomasochism, he gives an objective description without taking a moral position on the subject. The song is also live still characterized by its phenomenal (gradual) increase in tempo till it reaches a tearing crescendo.
On side B we proceed to the second Velvet album White Light/White Heat with the eponymous track. Nico is meanwhile exiled from the band and they continue to make ‘songs’ about controversial themes like travesty and trans sexuality. The band also keeps searching for ways to renew their sound, well portrayed for example by the song ‘The Gift’, which contains the recital of a short story told by John Cale on the left speaker channel while an instrumental rock song is played at the same time on the right channel. The song played here by Reed is the fast, aggressive opener of the album, about the sensations provided by the use of methamphetamine.
What follows is the only track from one of Reed’s solo albums: ‘Lady Day’, which is the second track from his third solo record Berlin. Reed had his break-through as a solo artist with his second album Transformer. A great role on this album was foreseen for Mick Ronson, the guitarist of David Bowie, as co-producer (next to Bowie himself) and session musician. It brought Reed lots of international success, but he wasn’t fulfilled with this. That’s why he declined to make another album with Bowie, followed by the release of Berlin as follow-up to Transformer. This album is a kind of concept album about a drug addicted couple from Berlin, characterized by its heavily orchestrated parts and contributions by top musicians like Jack Bruce (Cream) on bass and Steve Winwood (Traffic, Blind Faith) on organ and harmonium). ‘Lady Day’ is told from the prospective of Jim, one of the characters on the album. He tells us about his concern about the fact that he’s losing control over the life of his girlfriend Caroline, who’s going on a razzle in the obscure Berlin bars.
The final track is another extended (10 minutes) version from a former Velvet hit: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. The song is also from the album Loaded and is a true ode to rock music. Reeds tells the story of a girl named Jenny whose life was saved by Rock and Roll, in a version full of improvisational guitar licks. During this track you really can’t keep sitting still and you absolutely have to grab your air guitar for the last time before throwing it in the delirious crowd.
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: Psychedelic Rock, Hard Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
Let’s have another walk through the treasure chamber of 1967. Pete Townshend and Jeff Beck were turning guitar players into absolute stars and Clapton was God. But suddenly a black American lands in the UK and asks the white rock scene: Are You Experienced ?
As you know, 1967 can not be seen apart from the uprising of psychedelic rock. Existing blues and folk rock bands began to use new techniques and effects which would later cause the establishment of prog and hard rock. Jimi Hendrix himself can be seen as one of the most important pioneers of this latter genre. Originally being a blues rocker, he incorporated those psychedelic elements to transform his original style to pure hard rock. That’s exactly what makes Are You Experienced such an incredible debut album, containing not only Hendrix’ blues roots, but also psychedelic effects he mastered perfectly thanks to his extreme talent as a guitar player, and the origins of hard rock.
Hendrix (as a guitarist) supported some acts like Little Richard during the mid sixties in the USA, before former Animals bass player Chas Chandler heard Hendrix perform the classic American song ‘Hey Joe’. Chandler soon became his manager and brought him to the UK, for Hendrix being the promised land as it was the native country of The Yardbirds, a band Hendrix greatly admired. Together with Hendrix, the different members of this band would later define the new genre of hard rock, as they were soon to form pioneer bands like Cream (Eric Clapton), The Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck) and Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page). So Chandler would arrange a so-called ‘power trio’ (just like Cream) for Hendrix, which formed in October 1966 and consisted besides Hendrix of former jazz drummer Mitch Mitchell and former guitarist Noel Redding, who would from now on play the bass, obviously.
In June 1969 the band would already break up again, after growing tensions between Hendrix and Redding. But during those three years the band released a magnificent trilogy of albums, being Are You Experienced (1967) – Axis: Bold as Love (1967) – Electric Ladyland (1968), all three of them ranked within the top 100 of ‘Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. A little more tragic thing about the band is that they were all found dead in their homes or some hotel room. For Hendrix of course this already happened in 1970, Redding was found dead in 2003 and Mitchell was the last man standing after passing away in 2008.
Back to 1967, when their debut was released after already launching three singles: besides ‘Hey Joe’, these were ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. This must have contributed to the success of the album (with the singles excluded, opposite to the US version, where some original album tracks like ‘Red House’ were replaced by the singles instead), reaching #2 in the UK behind Sgt. Pepper’s and staying there for 8 months. Let’s have a look at the 11 original tracks.
Like I said there’s blues rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock on this album. Far out the most bluesy song is ‘Red House’, which sounds like the early blues of Robert Johnson, intensified by Hendrix’ guitar. The song was already written by Hendrix before he joined The Experience, and has this typical blues theme of the singer which is left alone by his woman. The same goes in fact for the track ‘Remember’, the other blues rock song on the album.
Best represented is psychedelic rock, making this the most psychedelic Hendrix album. First there are the shorter ‘3 minutes’ songs, with ‘Can You See Me’ (with a noteworthy role for drummer Mitch Mitchell), ‘May This Be Love’ (sounding a little bit like Cream, with a very dreamy voice of Hendrix) and ‘Love or Confusion’. This last one is a personal favorite, with the Airplane-like distorted sounds and the delicious guitar licks and powerful voice of Hendrix. Towards the end of the album are two longer psychedelic masterpieces. ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ (the title referring to earth) is mostly an instrumental one with lots of guitar effects and Hendrix talking like some character from Star Trek. If you play this track on the LP at single speed (45 RPM), you can actually hear what’s been said. The last track on the album, also the title track, is probably my favorite. Supported by his screaming guitar, Jimi invites us on a journey, making this song a true hippie-anthem (with lyrical similarities to The Doors’ ‘Break on Through’, from their own debut album of 1967).
What’s left are those riff-based, real hard rock songs that really turned the music scene upside down. First of all the opening track, the well-known ‘Foxy Lady’. Drifted by the catchy guitar riff and the pounding drum and bass section, this is a perfect start for an album. It’s still covered now and then during live gigs by Paul McCartney, who was a big fan of Hendrix. It’s followed by ‘Manic Depression’, another very Cream-like song with a couple of nice drum solos. Alltogether, this sounds like a stormy kind of waltz, and is supposed to be ‘about a cat wishing he could make love to music’, awesome song. ‘I Don’t Live Today’ is another sweet riff-based song, referring to the chaotic life of Hendrix.
The last song left is ‘Fire’, which really shows the capacity of the total band, not Hendrix alone. For me, the label ‘power trio’ is justified best on this song: it begins with a mighty drumintro and a minimal guitar riff, before exploding into an uptempo hard rock classic, propelled by a schizophrenic drum beat and a very catchy bass line from Redding. No surprise the group often opened their live gigs with this song. It’s a pity we won’t be able to witness those powertrips anymore, but you can make up for it by having this album in your record collection.
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.