The World Turned Upside Down, Part IV



If the first three parts of this short history of 1970 did not get you excited about its Golden Anniversary, consider a 50th anniversary survey 10 years from now (or a 40th anniversary today). It would be quite a dismal affair: seventies bands singing their swan songs, punk giving up the ghost, and New Wave not quite soup yet. There really was very little to get excited about in 1980. Notable albums were few and far between: there was David Bowie's Scary Monsters, Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police, the B52's Wild Planet, and a few others. Bruce Springsteen had his first #1 album with The River, as did Kate Bush with Never for Ever; in both cases, your present critic judges their success to be due primarily to a hit song ("Hungry Heart," and "Babooshka," respectively) rather than the overall quality of the albums. (Bush squeezed two other UK top 20 singles out of Never For Ever; none of the three charted in the U.S.)  Without a serious doubt, the best album of the year was by a former Beatle and his wife. Double Fantasy has only grown on me over the years, including Yoko's songs. But what you won't find in 1980 is a wealth of great efforts in a variety of styles, a long list of songs that ring in your head after 40 years, or anything that greatly expanded the boundaries of rock. Next to it, 1970 looks like the Bicentennial fireworks.

I'll have little to say about 1990. Little. To. Say. How little? It featured decent albums from Luka Bloom, Suzanne Vega, Midnight Oil, and The Replacements. I'm done.

Here's the truth: 1970 was so rich that it took this 10,000-word essay to cover just the best of it (and a little of the worst). Many albums I have said little or nothing about have devoted followings: metal fans may still wax eloquent about Uriah Heep's ...Very 'Eavy ...Very 'Umble; Randy Newman's 12 songs still gets kudos from fans of his style of music; and Todd Rundgren followers have hardly forgotten Runt. There's too much, for too many kinds of audiences, to capture the full depth of 1970 in music.

Instead, what I'm going to offer you now is a list of ten albums that are not on most people's mental playlist, but perhaps should be. Among the hundreds of albums released that year, these recordings give a sense of the breadth and depth of the era, and help support an alternate narrative to the one that sees music going to the dogs until it was saved by punk rock. These albums at least deserve a place in the regular rotation of adventurous college stations, because they offer a compelling set of songs that thumb their noses at commercial radio; yet most of them have been marginalized to the point where they are known only to those with a special interest in some subgenre or other. No guarantee that you will fall in love with any of them; all I claim is that, with an open mind for the new and different, they will sound fresh, creative, and worth the time and effort to get to know them. All of them are available on Spotify, YouTube or both. The list is not meant to be in exact order of preference or quality; I find all the albums on it to be brilliant in their own way.

1. if - if 2

One day in 1970 or very close to it, I was lying in bed at home in New York listening to an FM radio station, and the DJ quietly announced a song called "Shadows and Echoes" from a new album "if 2". I have heard the song only rarely since then, and the album even more rarely than that, but the impression it made that first time will go to the grave with me. I was mesmerized at a song so beautifully unsettling, so hauntingly moving, that it just opens up a space inside your brain as if it had always been there. It's hard to think of a comparison; maybe Pink Floyd's "Us and Them," or the Moody Blues' "Are You Sitting Comfortably?". This impression has only been strengthened by repeated listenings; moreover, the quality of the entire album reasserts itself in ever stronger terms. "Your City Is Falling," the opening track, is not only the first in a line of urban destruction nightmares (Blue Oyster Cult, "Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll;" The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone;" Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Cities in Dust") but a terrific song that sets the tone for an album equally steeped in rock and jazz. There are only six tracks, and each one is noteworthy. I don't know why the album isn't more famous; among the several fine jazzrock albums this year it is one of the most original, with songwriting, instrumental and vocal performances throughout at a very high level.

2. Spirit - Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus

If you know Spirit it is probably as the LA band that sued Led Zeppelin for royalties based on the rough similarity between Jimmy Page's fingerstyle progression at the beginning of "Stairway to Heaven" and a song of Spirit's that they claim he heard them perform. An ill-motivated grab for millions of dollars in royalties if you ask me. But don't let that stop you from exploring their music, beginning with this fascinating album. Aside from a variety of well-written and brilliantly performed songs, it may be the first rock album centered on environmental themes. "It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong" repeats the chorus of "Nature's Way," and that portentous claim is echoed throughout the album. It is endlessly creative, careening wildly along every available rock avenue, from basic pop/rock ("Animal Zoo," "Rougher Road") to hard rock ("Morning Will Come"), folk ("Life Has Just Begun") and jazz influences, plus unusual art-rock touches that give the album its standing as a "proto-prog" masterpiece. There's plenty of guitar virtuosity from Randy California (who, for you trivia buffs, began his career as the other guitarist in Jimi Hendrix's first band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames); it is not gratuitous riffing but well-integrated with the music, especially when it leans in a jazz direction. Humor is seamlessly sewn into both the music and vocals, giving the set an appealing sort of facetiousness, reminiscent of some of 10cc's tongue-in-cheek recordings a few years later. In short, there's a lot to chew on here, and most of it has a very pleasant aftertaste.

3. Fanny - Fanny

The first all-female rock band to release an album on a major label (Reprise), Fanny played all their own instruments, wrote most of their own music, and opened for the likes of David Bowie, George Harrison and a long list of top acts. For those who don't look tenderly on the emerging progressive, artrock , heavy metal and jazzrock trends of the time, this is a no-nonsense album full of down-to-earth basic rock songs. That genre was hardly over; just give a listen to Fleetwood Mac's Kiln House of the same year, whose production qualities give it the aura of a 60's garage band rehearsal, with material that is basic by almost any standard (and not nearly as good as Fanny). The album features some fine keyboard work from Nickey Barclay, and an excellent cover of Cream's Badge (though Fanny would outdo this on their third album with their version of Lennon-McCartney's "Hey Bulldog"). This may not be Fanny's best album, due in part to Richard Perry's production, which tends to make the band sound like they are playing in a cardboard box. He would do much better with their next couple of projects, as well as producing a host of gold records for other artists. But the energy of the performances, the songwriting, and the band's sheer talent make this a record worth knowing. (This album is perhaps the most important oversight in Wikipedia's 1970 in Music page; another is Mandrill's first album, whose release date is given incorrectly on the album's Wikipedia page as 1971.)

4. The Move - Shazam

The Move is often known as the band that Jeff Lynne eventually transformed into the Electric Light Orchestra. But they released two albums before Lynne joined (and Carl Wayne left), the second of which was Shazam. The album's six tracks are mostly extended compositions with more than hints of prog influence, though, like the Spirit album, it is about as eclectic as a single album can get. Opening with a hard rock number, the next could be a piece of folklore from a Jethro Tull or Strawbs album; the one after that features (among other things) an extended guitar arrangement of several classical pieces in 9/8 time. The rest of the album is also laced with appealing but unusual, if not tongue-in-cheek, moments. One has to wonder if lyrics like "Fields of people / There's no such thing as a weed" are supposed to be funny, or just express the well-intended but naive optimism of the moment. Perhaps the oddest entry is the final cut, a 7 ½ minute version of Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind," which is given a treatment that brings to mind the Byrds' version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." I can't say that I think Paxton's song, beautiful in itself, is a good foundation for this heavily produced take, but the apparent sincerity of the effort offsets any sense of imbalance. In any case, you would have to have a deep prejudice against this sort of whimsical musical behavior not to find Shazam enjoyable, with some gorgeous moments. The Move released another album in 1970 -- Looking On, their first with Lynne. It suggests that the group was heading down the metal tubes with the James Gang, Black Sabbath and Mountain, but for a couple of cuts that seem to strain towards psychedelia if not prog rock -- and the fact that two albums later they were ELO.

5. Curtis Mayfield - Curtis

Listen closely to Curtis Mayfield's first solo album and you can hear the roots of two completely different directions for R&B: on the one hand, the jazz-tinged sound, conversational tone and political activism that would emerge on Marvin Gaye's era-defining What's Going On? the following year; on the other, the soaring strings and wah-wah guitar sound that hailed the beginning of disco proper on Barry White's 1973 "Love's Theme." But being a source of new trends in R&B is not even the main virtue of the album. This is just great songwriting, as the immediately recognizable "Move On Up" attests, even though it failed to chart in the U.S.. "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go" did hit #3 on the R&B charts, but who cares? Throughout the disk Mayfield uses a catchy combination of jazz, funk, Motown, spoken word and free experimentation. This is a moment in history when Mayfield, Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Quincy Jones, and a few others were defining a new kind of black music. Curtis is one of the mouths of this musical river. Put it on once, you'll play it again.

6. Seatrain - Seatrain

If you don't know who Seatrain is, or was, join the club. Although they were the first rock group I ever saw in concert (at Carnegie Hall, no less), and I owned their first album and the songbook (whose importance I will discuss in a minute) and was very familiar with their minor hit "13 Questions", I still didn't know much about anyone but violinist Richard Greene until recently. Seatrain, it turns out, was formed out of the demise of the much better-known Blues Project. That group featured some top notch musicians (including Danny Kalb, the terrific blues and folk guitarist who backed up Dylan and Phil Ochs, and who I knew for a short time many moons ago.) Greene was a first class country fiddler who had previously worked with Bill Monroe. Besides "13 Questions" and other songs, the album contains a 15-minute cut of Greene playing the hell out of a bunch of country fiddle tunes, not least the virtuoso number "Orange Blossom Special". His version of that is sometimes considered the best ever, and it is fully transcribed in the songbook. (Personally I think Vassar Clements is a match for him, but that is of course fine company to be in.) The album has another place in history, though: it was the first project produced by George Martin after the Beatles went their separate ways. Enough reasons to check it out, I think.

7. The Stooges - Funhouse

Perhaps "under-the radar" no longer applies to an Iggy Pop album that is now recognized as a proto-punk masterpiece, but according to its Wikipedia page, "The album had sold 89,000 copies through March 2000." It's difficult to find up-to-date sales data for albums, but at #283 on Amazon's Hard Rock sales list it is well below numerous albums by lesser-known groups. On Spotify, the album's tracks seem to have generated a combined 14 million streams - about the same as a couple of individual tracks on Blue Oyster Cult's not very well-known (but similarly brilliant) first album. Those in the know, know, but most have yet to realize that this belongs in the Pantheon of rock classics. Although the search for the roots of punk rock has led critics to cite groups as diverse as Paul Revere and the Raiders, Question Mark and the Mysterians, the Velvet Underground, MC5, The Who, and T. Rex, most of this is bullshit; it's like saying that Mozart and Beethoven are the roots of Wagner. But Funhouse has the spirit, if not the pneumatic beat, of punk rock. (One can make a pretty good case that punk actually began in Michigan, rather than New York or London, since the proto-punk band Death was formed in Detroit the following year, and MC5 hearkened from there too.) The album defies efforts to define it in words: "raw," "energetic," "relentless"... what might have happened if Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison got a band together... one step beyond Sabbath and Paranoid... You've got to hear it to appreciate it. Basic rock plus some kind of nervous energy that is simultaneously manic and infectious. As for the lyrics, they seem like little more than a vehicle for the music. We can't all be Dylan, but we can't all make an album like Funhouse either.

8. Al Stewart - Zero She Flies

In case you have ever confused Al "Year of the Cat" Stewart with the author of the "Stray Cat Strut", as I have, here is a kind of subterfuge: "My Enemies Have Sweet Voices," the first cut on this album is practically a prototype of Brian Setzer's hit. That aside, if you only know Stewart for his rock hits "Year of the Cat" and "Time Passages," prepare to meet one of the great folksinger-songwriters of the late 1960s and 1970s. No sooner is that first track over than you are plunged into some of the best acoustic guitar playing of the era, including great solo fingerstyle pieces reminiscent of Pierre Bensusan and songwriting on a par with the best of Donovan in his acoustic mode, or, say, Ralph McTell. It's just a consistently gorgeous and technically impressive performance behind outstanding songwriting. It ought to be better known than it is, but it had stiff competition in the folk arena in 1970. You won't find any hit-making string arrangements or gospel choruses here, just a few tasteful background instruments occasionally. It's a real musical breath of fresh air.

9. Tommy James and the Shondells - Travelin'

Full disclosure(s): I still own a copy of this album, and their previous one (Cellophane Symphony), not to mention their 20+ song Anthology CD, which replaced the slightly shorter vinyl anthology, and the 45 of Joan Jett's "Crimson and Clover" cover, with the picture jacket. In my head I hear "Hanky Panky" as it sounded on my 9" transistor radio when I was eleven. The opening of their hit song "I Think We're Alone Now" is my ringtone. In short, I make no claim to objectivity about the group. Travelin' has a couple of minor hits, which for a change are not even the best songs on the album. It broke into the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, but I wouldn't really care if it had sold 50 copies and disappeared. In whatever they do, James and his band just bleed rock-and-roll authenticity. (Yes... more Michigan rockers.) Even their most intense forays into psychedelia have a straightforward simplicity that grabs me with the same raw energy of "Hanky Panky" or "Mony Mony." "Under-appreciated" seems like a funny term for a group with numerous Top 40 and Top 10 hits, but that is actually what they are: no one talks about them much, no one comments on James' magical melding of psychedelia with pop, no one credits their instrumental skills or inventive use of studio effects. I'm not sure what's up with that. They're great, and this, their last album, is a classic.

10. Tim Buckley - Starsailor

How did avant-garde classical vocalist Cathy Berberian end up getting a mention by Steely Dan and Tim Buckley? Did they happen to come across her 1967 recording of Beatle songs? Whatever the answer, Buckley attributed his efforts at vocal improv on Starsailor to listening to Ms. Berberian. I don't underestimate the challenges of listening to Buckley's recording - especially if you are not familiar with, say, Meredith Monk's Turtle Dreams, or Dame Edith Sitwell's Facade, or other explorations of the boundaries of female vocalization. In 1967 Buckley, age 20, released one of the most brilliant albums of the year, perhaps the decade: Goodbye and Hello consisted of accessible but very unusual folk-related material, with Dylanesque lyrics and a unique acoustic-electronic sound. But he was more intent on experimentation than mass appeal, and Starsailor was the outcome of that, with atonal instrumental jamming and vocal acrobatics that can seem quite random if you are not steeped in that sort of music. Amidst all that he planted a few more standard numbers, in particular the beautiful "Song to a Siren." Buckley is said to have considered the album his masterpiece. If you are a fan of modern classical, or jazz in the spirit of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, you may not have a problem with that characterization; if not, you will be challenged from almost the first note. I promise it won't bite. It's a unique document, at any rate.

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