GOLD: 50 Years of The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion

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The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion

Released July, 1967 on Elektra Records

Incredible String Band were a couple of Scottish folkies who got their start wanting to be Donovan and Bob Dylan and ended up being mainstays of the lysergic road of the Hippie Trail.  Their 1966 self-titled debut showed the former as being big influences; this follow-up included a number of then-exotic instruments (sitar, gimbri, mandolin, etc.) that were incorporated in such a blissful way that “psychedelic folk” leads it’s long, bizarre trail directly back to it.  If 1967 was indeed the fabled Summer Of Love, then The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion is the most Love-y album of that summer.  This is meant in two senses.  In the first sense, 5000 Spirits is pretty much the epitome of psych-folk, which was the driving soundtrack of the naked, wild, flower-dancing hippie children of 1967.  In the second sense, it is also the epitome of the more teeth-grinding aspects of that era; it’s overly fey in spots, cutesy beyond credibility (“The Hedgehog’s Song”), incorporates blues music without really understanding the grinding poverty that underpinned the blues (“No Sleep Blues”, “Blues For The Muse”), and plays fast and loose with the era’s regrettable love for freewheeling, womanizing men (“The First Girl I Loved”). There’s little wonder, then, that Paul McCartney called it his favourite album of 1967.  Still, as far as documents of a decade’s music go, there’s few records that sum up the 1960s quite as well as 5000 Spirits.

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GOLD: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Released June 2nd, 1967 on Capitol Records (May 26th on Parlophone Records in the UK)

RYM:  #22

BestEverAlbums:  #5

Listen, I’m not as much of a fan of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as you are.

People – critics and fans – have often talked about it as being the best album ever made.  It’s Boomer nonsense.  It’s a good album, to be sure, but it’s not even the best Beatles album.  It’s not even in the top five.  The official Beatles Power Ranking is:  The Beatles, Revolver, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be, Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Help!, A Hard Day’s Night, With The Beatles, and finally the rather leaden Beatles For Sale rounding everything out.  So without any further ado, let’s discuss The Beatles’ 8th best album.

Many consider it the first Album – rock as art.  It’s a very early version of a concept album (although I think The Who and A Quick One beats it) and it was the first album to include the lyrics, which got under a lot of people’s skin at the time as it made music purists think that these upstart mop-top boy-banders were trying to be something more than they were.  Even though I’m not a superfan of this record, it’s obvious from historical and technical context that those purists were wrong.  By 1967 The Beatles had long since ceased performing live; their last performance, at Candlestick Park in August of 1966, capped off a hellish final tour that found them chased, prodded, manhandled, and, in the American South, shot at and threatened with death.  Revolver had been released in the midst of that tour, and during it’s recording process the band discovered that the studio was far more fun than getting shot at by American white nationalists.  As a result, they abandoned performing for screaming teenagers in venues where they couldn’t even hear themselves play and fell full-on into making technical magic with “fifth Beatle” producer George Martin.

Technically, for the time, Sgt Pepper’s is a masterpiece.  Recorded using 4-track machines even though 8-tracks were available at the time, Martin and the band forged new ground in creative use of 4-track recording to get the sounds that you hear on the record.  A lot of tracks were mixed down onto a single track and then used to record more tracks, to create a huge array of overdubbed tracks that form the backbone of the dense sounds that can be heard throughout.  Many of the techniques that I and a myriad of other producers, amateur and professional, use today have their birth during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions:  dynamic range compression, double-tracking, signal limiters, varispeed recording, and of course the term “flanger”, which came out of a joke made by Martin about Lennon’s double-tracked vocals.  In terms of physical recording techniques, the use of close-miking on Ringo Starr’s drums on the title track also became standard practice, and the use of crossfading between tracks instead of the usual hard-stop was pioneered here and became a regular occurrence on popular albums from 1967 onward.

Musically, the album is less of a success.  The title track (and it’s reprise late in the album) is a stellar bit of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft, and “With A Little Help From My Friends” is good fun (although the Joe Cocker cover is much better).  “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has become a standby anthem for the drug counterculture but it seems in retrospect lightweight, a forced spray of psychedelia that seems more like a copycat gesture than it does a genuine integration into what the band’s contemporaries were doing.  “Getting Better” suffers from the same problem as many McCartney compositions of the era:  it’s too jaunty by half, as though the man were swaying back and forth at his piano, pounding the keys while the rest of the band plays in the background, bored stiff.  It’s also a distressingly bourgeois song:  who has to admit it’s getting better, Paul?  The poor, who were still struggling to provide in the middle of the so-called Summer Of Love?  The young Americans, who were being sent off to die in droves in the jungle?  George Harrison, who was getting ignored by the barreling Lennon-McCartney machine and was thinking of just heading back to India and staying there?  The jury is still out.

“Fixing A Hole” suffers a similar fate, in that it’s a McCartney song that feels a little too knowing; there’s a good song in there, but the decision to play it in a sort of stiff half-time renders it more wooden than it should be.  The production is top-notch, but the structure itself is lacking.  “She’s Leaving Home” manages to right the ship, with a classic Lennon/McCartney combo melody that takes “Eleanor Rigby” to a new level.  Unfortunately, Side One doesn’t end there; it ends instead with Lennon’s second fey kaleidoscope-psychedelia composition, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, which revels in Edwardian pomp without saying much of anything (see David Bowie’s first album for more like this).  Side Two doesn’t start off much better.  Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You Without You”, is a faux-raga obsessed with India that substitutes foreign exotica for psychedelic trippiness.  It’s a decent enough attempt at trying to break the mold (especially for a class act songwriter who was growing bored with Beatles-as-usual) but it’s woefully out of place on the record, and it seems like an unnecessary expansion on something they’d already perfected (“Tomorrow Never Knows”).  “When I’m Sixty Four” is the nadir of the album, the worst of McCartney’s Vaudeville-inspired jaunty bullshit; it was reportedly written in McCartney’s teen years, when the band was still pumping out amphetamine-fueled rock ‘n’ roll in Germany, and it probably should have been buried there.  “Lovely Rita” is better, but still has that same goddamn bourgeois bounce that features Paul trying to out-jolly everyone in England with a vengeance.  “Good Morning Good Morning” is the return of the slightly more sober John Lennon, and although it’s a bit hamfisted it’s also a righteous bit of rock ‘n’ roll.  The “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise is top-notch, and “A Day In The Life” is of course one of the band’s all-time great songs.

In a sense, Sgt. Pepper’s was a rough draft for what the band would go on to do with Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles.  As an alleged concept album it’s mostly a failure.  The “military band” idea that spurred the recordings only shows up twice, and the rest of it bears no resemblance to the concept whatsoever.  Instead, it’s a collection of bold experiments by a band that knew they wouldn’t have to perform these songs live.  It builds on the studio techniques they started playing with on Revolver, but the songs on Revolver are much stronger.  It’s an interesting junction point in the band’s career, but not for the usual Rolling Stone cover-story reasons; it represents the moment that their ambition outstripped their actual abilities, a problem that would be quickly rectified over the following three years.  1968’s The Beatles would be the perfection of what they tried to work out here, although Sgt. Pepper’s would be the key album of the Summer Of Love, such as it was, so in terms of eventual influence they’re equal.  In the end, though, regardless of any of the problems or artistic over-steppings that occurs on the album, “A Day In The Life” is one of the best songs ever written and is worth the price of admission all on it’s own.

Gold: 50 Years of Surrealistic Pillow

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Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

Released February 1st, 1967 on RCA Victor

BestEverAlbums: #314

RYM:  #476

The heads have known for a lot longer than fifty years what Grace Slick sang about on “White Rabbit”:  “Remember what the Doormouse said / feed your head.”  It had never been put in such a way that defined an entire generational ethos.  The song – the Jefferson Airplane as a whole – embodies the sound of San Francisco in the fabled Summer Of Love, 1967.  There were many other albums that came out of the same place at the same time, but few nail the period quite as well as Surrealistic Pillow.

 

This is psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, full stop.  There’s the garage sounds that were lifted raw and steaming from the Nuggets era: “Go To Her”, “She Has Funny Cars”, and “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” go full out in competition with the Electric Prunes or the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.  The Beatles get nods on “My Best Friend” and “D.C.B.A.-25”, although the Beatles themselves would soon switch gears into a different direction entirely.  “How Do You Feel”, “Today”, and “Comin’ Back To Me” mirror the gentle influence of the bohemian folk scene.  Three of the final four songs play with the strong blues influence of the time:  “In The Morning” kicks out a languid swamp jam, driven by harp and and a deep underlying groove; “J.P.P. Mc Step B. Blues” built itself on an acoustic blues riff that was endemic to San Francisco at the time – it’s vibe would be replicated later in the year by Love; “Come Back Baby” modeled itself on the speed and hard-edged riffing of English bands like Cream.

 

Then there are the singles.  “Somebody To Love”, benefits from a harrowing vocal take from Grace Slick and a crisp, relentless backbeat.  There’s always been a kind of unsettling quality to the song, but Jim Carrey’s manic karaoke take on it in The Cable Guy brings that creepy vibe to the next level.  “White Rabbit”, of course, brings us right back around again to the beginning:  San Francisco, 1967.  Turn on, tune in, drop out.  Wear a flower in your hair.  Where do these lovely visions come from?  Why does my head feel so light?  Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.

The Sonics – This Is The Sonics

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The Sonics – This Is The Sonics

The last time Tacoma, WA band The Sonics were recording music, the Beatles were just discovering sitars and LSD.  This is a band old enough to have its members shipped off to Vietnam, which saxophonist Rob Lind actually did.  The others found jobs or went to college; the actual band was dead by 1968, although the in-name-only touring band would continue until 1980.  They became retroactively famous for tracks like “Maintaining My Cool” (which was featured on one of the Nuggets comps) and “The Witch”; their name has been bandied about every time screeching garage rock is making a new name for itself – 1977, 2001, the San Francisco psych-garage scene.

With such continued interest, and a revival in the original band playing live, a new album was perhaps inevitable.  Reunion albums are always a chancy thing – for every No Cities To Love there are a thousand Indie Cindys.  This Is The Sonics, though, is the real deal – this is an album that sounds as though no time at all has passed in the intervening forty years.  Despite the advanced age of the players – they’re all over 70 now – there is no compromise to be found here.  The Sonics are playing garage rock the only way they know how – fast, lewd, distorted, and shot through with dirty blues and early, primal rock and roll.  The material threatens to feel dated but never does, and the deciding factor is absolutely the volcanic force with which the band plays, a force that should send half the San Fran scene back to their scuzzy garages to regroup.

When The Music’s Over, Turn Out The Lights

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Ray Manzarek died today at the age of 74, following a long battle with bile duct cancer.  He founded the Doors with Jim Morrison on a beach outside of L.A. – they’d discussed forming a band in the white hot L.A. rock ‘n’ roll scene of the mid-60s, and when Morrison showed up on the beach with the words to “Crystal Ship” it became a reality.  Manzarek described himself as the least intelligent person in the Doors (apparently everyone had tested at higher IQs than he did, including his then-wife).  Despite the handicap of being the only smart guy in a room full of geniuses, he managed to be arguably the most talented.  Pulling double duty as keyboard player and bassist, Manzarek created a twisting, serpentine sound that exemplified the increasingly tripped-out end of the Psychedelic Sixties and set a standard for keyboard playing in pop bands that has been chased ever since.  His influence became especially felt in the early Eighties, as waves of keyboard-flashing synth-pop bands took his ideas and ran with them.  Bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Cure, would simply not exist if not for his jazz-inflected passages, and his experimentation with the early Moog synths pushed the envelope that the prog bands would pick up as the Seventies wore on.

So let’s play some Doors; I haven’t properly done so in nearly a decade.  When these songs get scratched into your soul, you don’t need to play them.  They’re already there.  It’s a sharing culture now, though, so here.  Let’s share.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foxygen – “We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace And Magic”

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foxygen-21st-century-ambassadors

Foxygen is the result of a love for Sixties psychedelic troubadour rock filtered through a fine David Bowie mesh.  Their third album is at once highly derivative and yet wholly original.  Taken from the aspect of being an album solidly rooted in the 1960s, it is highly inventive, and stands alongside the bands it references as an equal, not a clone.  None of the band members were alive when this sort of music was made, nor were they living during the waves of bands that referenced those bands.  Nevertheless, they hit every mark with style and aplomb, whether it’s evoking Dylan on “No Destruction”, referencing Sgt. Peppers on their own intro, or shapeshifting Lennon with Seventies glam on the three-part “Shuggie”.  The album is perfect to play around aging hippies; they get all misty-eyed and start talking about their favourite parts of the Sixties.  Meanwhile, it’ll also get your local hipsters into a serious groove, getting the jump started in whatever espresso cafe or bookstore/bar you happen to be happening in.  If they aren’t into it by the time that thrilling run in the first part of “On Blue Mountain” comes around, they weren’t worth the plaid anyway.  Dress like a fop, smoke some pot, and guzzle cheap wine like it were going out of style:  the band doesn’t just suggest that you do so, it demands it.

Final Mark:  A