Please read Part I and the introduction to Part II for a little context. We are exploring the year 1970 in rock, and I have written about the more mainstream trends in Parts I & II. Here we will consider some of the more experimental side of rock in 1970, and what it meant for the future.
Rock Scratches Acid
Whatever it is that makes an album "psychedelic," quite a few bands had enough of it to get themselves classified that way in 1970. It would not be long before "neo-" would have to be attached to such efforts, but at this time The Beach Boys, Blue Cheer, The Byrds, The Edgar Broughton Band, Fairfield Parlour, It's A Beautiful Day, Jefferson Starship, Love, Pretty Things, Procol Harum, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Shocking Blue, and Sid Barrett were all in some way trying to carry on the culture of sixties rock. There were feints in this direction from Led Zeppelin, Spooky Tooth, Blues Image, and others as well.
That's all very well, but it is clear that this form of rock was past its prime. The Beach Boys Sunflower is no Pet Sounds, or even Today!; Starship somehow flew well below Airplane's jetstream; and even bands like It's A Beautiful Day, Love, and Pretty Things had passed their psychedelic heydays. That leaves one to appreciate what was still alive and kicking all the more. Status Quo released their third album as they transitioned towards hard rock, but Ma Kelly's Greasy Spoon still has a foot in the psychedelic sound that made them famous with "Pictures of Matchstick Men." (They would go on to release thirty more albums -- so far -- as a hard rock band, and set records for charting albums and singles in the U.K.)
The Amboy Dukes should not be a psychedelic band, due to the presence of one member who is hardly associated with flower power hippies; nonetheless, Marriage on the Rocks/Rock Bottom offers trippy sounds and an excerpt from Bartok's 2nd String Quartet -- not exactly what you'd expect from an early Ted Nugent effort. (It does contain the song "Get Yer Guns," setting the sights for the double-barreled guitar on the cover of Weekend Warriors and his dubious status as one of the original "Second Amendment people" -- a cause that Grand Funk's Mark Farner would also sign on to in 1976 with "Don't Let 'Em Take Your Gun".)
The trailing off of acid rock is probably the single most important factor in the feeling that something grand, something that made the sixties a pinnacle in popular music, was gone, to the great regret of those who had grown up on it. This fact alone was enough to put everything new in a bad light, at least temporarily. But clichéd as it sounds, nothing that great lasts forever, or even very long. Classical music critics railed at Wagner, Liszt and Tchaikovsky too; who needed that kind of noise after Beethoven and Schubert? Once a certain medium has been perfected, once giant monuments like Sgt. Pepper, Surrealistic Pillow, Pet Sounds, Disraeli Gears, Live Dead, and Axis: Bold as Love have been erected, it feels like time to move on. The last thing any band would want to be accused of is a tired effort to mimic those achievements (though there would be plenty of that in years to come). We had no choice but to let it go. It wasn't the death of rock, but it was a melancholy moment that has in some ways shaped our lives. It was also what cleared the path for Dark Side of the Moon and Born to Run and all the later work at that level. None of that could have happened if rock musicians were still trying to sound like The Beatles. The permanent legacy of acid rock is manifold: that it is still enjoyed after more than half a century, by audiences both old and new; that it paved the wave for much of what came after it; and that its progeny continue to seed the airwaves with relevant new music, as Tame Impala and other neo-psychedelic bands have demonstrated.
Art rock: Erasing the Lines
"Art rock" is a catch-all term for the unclassifiable efforts of artists who just don't give a pluck what you think they should be doing. All you can say is that it should not clearly be some other brand of rock, though some of it might also be classified as "garage rock." The Velvet Underground, who almost seem like a pop band compared with some of the other entries in this category, released Loaded, their final album with Lou Reed; and it is all but the first Lou Reed album as well. He wrote all the songs on it, including the rock classics "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll". It was perhaps the last stand of sixties rock, but also a hint that creative energy still flowed, as Reed would certainly show in his subsequent work. John Cale too took off in a solo direction, as did members of Soft Machine, with Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt each releasing challenging albums that ranged from free form or aleatoric compositions to something approaching standard songwriting. David Bowie gave us The Man Who Sold the World, neither one of his best nor most popular albums, but one that continued to demonstrate an unusually serious artistic vision.
Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, followed up his noted Trout Mask Replica with the even beefier Lick My Decals Off, Baby, an album that simply knows no limits, verbal or musical. His pal Frank Zappa delivered the avant-garde effort Weasels Ripped My Flesh, which only in the final tracks devolves into something like ordinary songs. (In one of his typical chameleon turns, he followed it with Chunga's Revenge, an album of just slightly offbeat jazz, blues and rock songs.) If Weasels was not exactly surprising from Zappa, arty folk rocker Tim Buckley went in for a large helping of Cathy Berberian-inspired vocal gymnastics on Starsailor. (If you recognize Berberian's name and are not a fan of avant-garde classical music it might be due to Steely Dan's mention of her in "Your Gold Teeth" on Countdown to Ecstasy.) I will discuss Starsailor at more length later on; here I merely want to note the breadth it suggests for the experimental in popular music at this time.
In fact, there was so much classical avant-garde about that the line between that and serious rock composition was being challenged again and again. Building on the earlier experimental efforts by the serial school of Arnold Schoenberg and Americans like Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse, a raft of new composers -- Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Gyorgy Ligeti, Krzysztof Pendercki and Luciano Berio, for instance -- were acquiring popular audiences through concerts in less formal settings, the use of electronics that directly intersected with rock technology, and the use of their compositions in popular films, dance and other media. Self-taught composers like Harry Partch and Moondog built their own instruments, and acquired cult status with younger musicians, sometimes living the semi-vagrant life of street musicians.
Rock artists had shown an interest in this trend at least since 1967, and if John Lennon's "Number Nine" was not enough of a sign that it would make its way into the albums themselves, Zappa (who was influenced by Varèse in particular) and Canterbury groups like Soft Machine ensured that there was no longer any doubt about it. In 1969 the members of Spooky Tooth had teamed up with French composer Pierre Henry to produce Ceremony, and in spite of disclaimers by the band, who didn't want it released under their name, much of it is a paradigmatic merger of two apparently incompatible musical genres. The efforts of Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt in this direction were also directly inspired by the lively European-American avant-garde classical scene. This was to continue for quite awhile; for example, U.K. teen idol Scott Walker released a traditional solo album in 1970, but much later on re-invented himself as an avant-garde musician.
If you don't happen to like these forays into classical experimentation and atonality, you can hold 1970 in contempt for pushing it forward. I was an amateur musician at that time and had no dog in the game; later I was trained as a classical composer and also played in a rock band, so I had two. I still tend to be agnostic about the hybrid form, but I much prefer to hear creative new classical ideas make inroads into rock than to hear bombastic electronic reproductions (or imitations) of more traditional classical pieces, as ELP and a long list of other bands offered. You can knock "Cans and Brahms" off of Yes's Fragile as far as I'm concerned, but I'm fine with the excursions of Weasels, Ceremony, or Starsailor. In any case, it didn't kill rock and roll, which somehow still managed to produce artists as diverse and revolutionary as Steely Dan, Sex Pistols, Kate Bush, and Nirvana. Let a hundred flowers bloom, as a certain Chinese revolutionary once said; it can only infuse the music with new ideas, which still have to survive in the hearts of artists and the popular music market.
Wheels of Progress
Caravan is said to have coined the term "progressive rock" in the notes on their debut album in 1968, though I have never seen a good definition of it, nor of the even looser "proto-progressive" that can include almost anything before prog that's not straight pop. If the trend had been moving along in huffs and puffs before 1970, the offerings that year did a lot to get it over the mountain. By February there were prog or proto-prog releases from Van der Graaf Generator, The Strawbs, and Atomic Rooster, later to be joined by work from Quartermass, Barclay James Harvest, Hawkwind, if, Egg, Curved Air, and Colosseum. Among the Canterbury tales were Soft Machine and Caravan, as well as the previously mentioned ex-Soft Machine composers Wyatt and Ayers. And these were just the lesser-known prog bands.
This kind of rock music has come in for severe criticism as "orchestral," "technical," "over-produced," "keyboard-driven" (horrors!) and in general, not really rock at all but some highbrow deviation. According to the popular mythology, punk and heavy metal came along to revive rock and deep six prog within the decade. My feeling is we should not get too distracted by all this noise. What prog did was burst the form of the 3-minute, radio-friendly pop song, expand the sonic possibilities of rock instrumentation, exploit electronics that were soon to become standard equipment, and give the entire medium new air to breathe.
The Moody Blues, early out of the starting gate with the orchestral suite on their 1967 Days of Future Past, released A Question of Balance in 1970. From this album Alison Steele, the DJ usually credited with bringing progressive rock to mass audiences, adapted part of "Dawning Is the Day" as theme music. King Crimson, far from silent after 1969's stunning In the Court of the Crimson King, came up with two sets, In the Wake of Poseidon (which was in some ways a reboot of Court) in May, and Lizard in December. Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, with its almost entirely instrumental first side, did as much as any album to create the prog-rock brand.
New prog efforts were a dime a dozen now. Time and a Word, the new album from Yes, was a kind of proto-prog statement, but one that gave much evidence of the expanding harmonic and technical vocabulary that would become the band's signature, and it lacked nothing in great songwriting. Emerson Lake and Palmer debuted with ELP, still a prog classic, while Gentle Giant and Supertramp each released their eponymous first albums. Genesis produced Trespass, sometimes considered their first prog album. Jethro Tull, a three-legged animal with a foot in prog, one in Scottish folk music and another in basic hard rock, released Benefit, where one could hear the distant rumblings of their more proggy later efforts like Aqualung, Thick As a Brick and Minstrel in the Gallery.
Together, these bands put out a series of albums in the 1970s that together constitute an essential component of what we mean by "rock" today. Their efforts, for the most part, veered away from the purely experimental, the lengthy electronic and orchestral suites, and managed to deliver highly listenable and emotionally powerful music, displaying instrumental prowess and technical wizardry without losing the thread of inherent musicality. No matter what I liked earlier, later, or at the same time, without Dark Side of the Moon, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, Close to the Edge, Starless and Bible Black, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Thick As a Brick, and several lesser known prog efforts (Nektar's Remember the Future, Gentle Giant's A Free Hand) rock would seem to me a different and significantly less exciting form of music. It would be, roughly, like classical music without the late romantic, which is to say, music inhibited from exploring the limits of what it can do. The best of prog rock is comparable to the quality of the best popular music in the 1960s.
The argument against prog, as I have always seen it, to the extent that it has any validity at all, applies not to those bands, nor to the more challenging Canterbury groups, but to later efforts that came off more and more as spiritually empty imitations of the genre. That, in short, defines what I always held to be a more serious decline of rock's core: the later seventies efforts of Kansas, Rush, Toto, Styx, Journey, Steve Miller, Gary Wright, and others not worth mentioning. To implicate the artistry of a Robert Fripp, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman, Ian Anderson, Roger Waters or Peter Gabriel on the basis of what prog devolved into seems to me a terrible mistake. Marx, correcting Hegel's claim that great historical figures always appear twice, added "the second time as farce." Not much more needs to be said about late-'70s prog.
Soul Is Saved
What has come to be called "R&B" was more commonly known as soul music at this time, and nearly all of it was in some way connected with the Motown label or its offshoots. Throughout the 1960s it had been generally oriented toward hit singles, and many of the most famous performers were singers only, with instruments played by the studio musicians collectively known as the Funk Brothers. In this they were comparable to a lot of early white rock groups, including the Beach Boys, whose album instrumentals were often filled in by studio musicians like the Wrecking Crew, or, in England, by the ubiquitous future members of Led Zeppelin. Soul music could be rather formulaic, but as pop formulas go, Motown teams like Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, were among the best ever.
But 1970 was a year of change in soul music. It was the year that Diana Ross left the Supremes, that Parliament and Funkadelic became quasi-independent bands (albeit with the same members), and that Curtis Mayfield put out his first solo album after leaving the Impressions. A group of kids named the Jacksons were making hit records. It was also a year that both jazz and psychedelia made deep inroads into R&B. Not all of this was salutary, but change was in the air, and some of it was revolutionary. (That's why I chose to include soul music in this part of the series, on the more experimental side of rock.)
A list of the top soul singles of 1970 is a stunning collection of memorable songs: "Psychedelic Shack" (The Temptations), "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (Diana Ross), "Them Changes" (Buddy Miles), "One Less Bell to Answer" (the Fifth Dimension), "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You" (Wilson Pickett), "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (Dione Warwick), "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" (The Delfonics), "Rainy Night in Georgia" (Brook Benton), "Signed, Sealed, Deliver'd, I'm Yours" (Stevie Wonder), "O-ooh Child" (The Stairsteps), and "Give Me Just a Little More Time" (Chairmen of the Board). (I've ignored most remakes and releases from Greatest Hits albums.) That could be a year's worth of great cuts in itself, and nearly rivals the output of much more numerous white rock groups.
The Temptations released Psychedelic Shack, a departure from their previous sound; it contained not only the dynamite title track and a mostly spoken-word version of their later hit "It's Summer," but the powerful antiwar funk masterpiece "War," which the label refused to let them release as a single for fear of alienating conservatives in The Temptations' audience. Parliament's first album in their new incarnation as a psychedelic soul band -- and their last for four years due to contractual issues -- was originally called Osmium (later reissued under other titles) and is a good companion to The Temptations psychedelic entry. Funkadelic's first two albums were both released in 1970: the first one is a kind of wild musical party, while the second wins awards for most original song title ("Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow") and best musical impression of an acid trip (apparently they all were, throughout the recording). It could be considered an alternative rock/soul masterpiece, and has drawn high ratings from many music review sites.
There were other new sounds brewing as well: Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Quincy Jones all released albums that had little to do with the old Motown sound (or the new "Philadelphia Sound" for that matter). The differences were fairly dramatic -- freedom in instrumentation, song form, song length and expressive qualities, undermining the authority of the tambourine-backed pop single. On the other hand, Marvin Gaye's 1970 entry, That's the Way Love Is, still seems constrained by tradition. But before the year was out he had begun work on What's Going On?, which blew the roof off '60s soul and is widely considered one of the most important albums in recording history. That alone makes 1970 a critically important year in soul. Mayfield, too, was already off in dynamic new directions on his first solo LP, Curtis, a soul masterpiece that I will have more to say about it later.
And yet... and yet... the psychedelic turn and the new jazz-inflected soul may still be just minor ripples compared with the rogue wave of rap poetry unleashed as the decade flipped. The most revolutionary development, literally and musically, was that both Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets released their first albums, spoken-word efforts that included (respectively) "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "When the Revolution Comes," thereby initiating rap poetry as the sound of an angry black working class. The line to Kendrick Lamar may not exactly be straight as an arrow but with all due respect to DJs and their mixtapes, Sugarhill Gang, Marcy Playground and all that, hindsight says this is where it really started.
Reggae, too, was in full swing by 1970, but it would be a couple of years before it had a significant impact among rock audiences. After Jimmy Cliff's 1972 soundtrack for The Harder They Come and Bob Marley & the Wailers' 1973 album Burnin' reggae became a standard part of the European-American music scene.
If I have not made my point by now, I supposed it can't be made. While regrets in 1970 were natural after a decade that saw a revolution in music, and culture in general, it was not merely a good, but a truly great year for music. Much of what began then unleashed a flood of creative energy that showered the decade to come with outstanding new rock releases. Perhaps I should just issue a confident "Case closed"; but, unwilling to rest on my laurels, in Part IV I will discuss some under-the-radar masterpieces of that year, whose 50th anniversaries are well worth celebrating alongside those of Déja Vu, Layla, and the like.