1967, Part One – Take It And Run With It

 

jimi-hendrix-guitar-on-fire-monterey-live-1967

After reviewing 1966 in my previous post, I was struck very quickly by the sheer volume of music released in ’67. As in, more than twice as many rock albums as the year before. For the sake of my own endurance and everybody else’s interest, I decided I’m gonna have to break this sucker in half.

The year blew out of the gate with The Doors’ release of their debut on January 4. It says something about an album that it can start as a hit, then become a classic, and then thedoorsthedoorsalbumcoverdescend into the realm of somewhat overplayed cliché, and still be worth a regular listen. From “Break On Through”‘s (usually) edited exhortation to get high, to “Alabama Song”‘s paean to getting shitfaced, to the iconic organ pyrotechnics on “Light My Fire”, to a blues nod via Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man”, to foundational Oedipal trance music pioneer “The End”, the album marked a pretty blistering intro to the year, while giving a hat tip to the lurking darkness of events outside the music scene.

The Rolling Stones kicked off the year with Between the Buttons, which has been described as the first step of their brief foray into psychedelia, but those sounds are hard to find here. Instead the album seems to be crafted from British music hall influences and infused with lyrics rather blatantly, for the era at least, about sex (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”). So shockingly blatant that Jagger, through much obvious onscreen eye-rolling, neutered the lyrics down to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for the band’s Ed Sullivan Show appearance on January 15. The Youngbloods’ debut that same month featured their iconic version of “Get Together”, which became an anthem for the Summer of Love. While the band’s attempts at the blues weren’t terribly strong, as folk rock trying to appeal to people’s better nature, it was well executed.

Okay…. The Monkees. My familiarity with them at the time I embarked on this project was minimal; I never watched the TV show except in the odd snippet here and there as a kid in the Eighties, I knew the same couple of songs everybody knows, and I pretty much viewed them as just a manufactured TV band and nothing more. However, some good-natured folks online convinced me to at least re-frame my perspective on Davy Jones & Co., specifically to the acknowledgment that while they started as a manufactured TV band, they at least had the wherewithal to evolve past that early incarnation. Having gone back and listened to their earliest albums, the early perception certainly wasn’t easy to shake (though “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” from their debut is kind of funny). In my last post I mentioned the welcome decline of vapid mid-60s pop of the kind Herman’s Hermits were still spewing out in ’66, and I submit that, initially at least, the Monkees took up that mantle stateside and milked it for a few more years. Which I suppose raises a question: is there a legitimate place, at least in a turbulent era like the second half of the Sixties, for non-challenging, catchy, upbeat pop rock? Probably, but does the presence of massive corporate backing negate any of the positive? Again, probably. In any event, while their May ’67 release Headquarters admittedly came off as more mature and noticeably less cartoonish (the band were actually starting to write their own songs and play their own instruments by that point), it still felt to me as though it was just re-treading the same ground the Beatles had already trod and left behind a few years earlier. At least “Shades Of Grey”, a requiem for moral clarity, expresses something more than the usual panting puppy love. And the Mickey Dolenz-composed “Randy Scouse Git” manages to be cheeky, oblique and fairly clever, working a Beatles reference (“the four kings of EMI”) into the lyrics and a British synonym for “horny” into the title.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow gave the era two of its obvious classics – one a paean to finding interpersonal connections, the other a guide to Wonderland. But it was perhapssurrealistic-pillow at its most socially critical with “Plastic Fantastic Lover” – a commentary on the pervasive negativity of TV as a medium. Or an ode to a vibrator. Or both.

I mentioned in my last post that Donovan and the Hollies seemed to be taking a Renaissance Faire approach to folk rock in their 1966 releases; I guess this was actually sort of a thing, since The Byrds’ February ’67 offering Younger Than Yesterday featured a song called “Renaissance Fair”, though it doesn’t sound anything like what you might imagine Renaissance Faire music sounds like. In “So You Want To Be A Rock’N’Roll Star” they bit the hand that was feeding them, acknowledging that it’s all fake and plastic and controlled by corporations, but damn if they didn’t go along with it anyway. Hypocrisy? Or world weary honesty? Both and either in measures, though it’s been said that the mainstream pop audience had basically forgotten about The Byrds by 1967. Coming out when it did, it contains the obligatory nonsensical weirdness (“C.T.A. – 102”), but also pleas for love and trust heralding the late 60s/early 70s country rock genre (“Time Between”). And there’s something about “Everybody’s Been Burned” that suggests Led Zeppelin’s more folkie offerings.

John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers’ A Hard Road headed somewhat in a more ethereal direction (“The Super-Natural”, e.g.) in this, their first disc following Eric Clapton’s departure. Either as nod to the vibe of the times, or the temporary influence of future Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and John McVie. Meanwhile, The Mamas and the Papas’ album Delivery included the bizarre yet fascinating self-referential history tale “Creeque Alley” – and then only two tracks later, a pointless and flaccid cover of “Twist and Shout”. I’m sorry, but after 1963 that song’s vocals need John Lennon with a bad cold, or at least a rough equivalent. Nothing else will do.

A word like “ethereal”, which I promiscuously threw out a minute ago, doesn’t do justice to The Velvet Underground And Nico. The Andy Warhol-produced freshman outing by Lou velvet_underground_and_nicoReed, John Cale and friends sold poorly on its release and was almost totally overlooked critically until about a decade later. And it’s clear why in retrospect: March ’67 was just plain too early, and the Western world’s still relative stodginess wouldn’t permit airplay of songs obviously about scoring dope (“Waiting For The Man”), sadomasochism (“Venus In Furs”), or heroin (duh). I mean, when a highly descriptive song about IV drug use can suck in a needlephobe like me, even after making me squirm a bit due to the whole needle thing, that’s a powerful elixir indeed. “European Son” ends with a small preview, eight years early, of Reed’s unlistenable Metal Machine Music. Brian Eno said years later that, while the album only sold a few thousand copies in the beginning, “everyone who bought one of those copies started a band.” Which is a pretty damned great compliment, particularly compared to our current age of manufactured bullshit. Maybe on some future post I should actually try to develop some kind of comprehensive list of those bands that were started in its wake. Because I’m obsessive like that.

Speaking of which, I mentioned in my 1966 post that rock was starting to become art and vice versa. Certainly that was true by 1967 with Andy Warhol’s influence on the Velvet Underground’s work. But more literally, 1967 saw the breakthrough emergence of album jackets as objets d’art. In ’66, other than the 13th Floor Elevators and the Mothers of Invention, album covers tended towards the straightforward, adorned simply with images of the band members.  And while that pattern did persist into 1967, to some degree, Sgt. Pepper would set a new pattern that the Stones and Country Joe and the Fish would copy in the second half of the year.

I was in a kind of shitty headspace when I listened to the Grateful Dead’s debut, released in March ’67 (admittedly my first major exposure to the Dead). I initially had trouble grateful_dead_-_the_grateful_deadgetting anything out of it, or at least anything worth saying. So, to cheat and rely on words cribbed from online somewhere (and I promise to edit and credit if I subsequently dig up the info), “the Dead took the music of the past − blues, country, folk, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, experimental and even classical music – and gave it a psychedelic twist that made it all sound fresh again.” Lots of variety, though with one exception they hadn’t yet found their jam band niche quite yet. Several of the tracks are covers, one being “Morning Dew”, a nuclear post-apocalyptic folk song written by Bonnie Dobson in 1961, nestled among some decent blues covers. I’ve felt for awhile that the Dead are a band I’ve neglected, so I’m hoping that will get remedied as this project goes on. We’ll see.

Donovan’s Mellow Yellow has what’s best described as a lilting, meandering rhythm with a bluesy jazz feel most exemplified by tracks like “The Observation” and “Bleak City Woman”. The famous title track’s pacing and vibe turn up in snatches in the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”, and was itself borrowed a bit from “Yellow Submarine” (whose lyrics Donovan supposedly had a small part in writing). But for me, I just can’t shake the song’s association with a butter commercial from the Eighties. Fuck you, corporate overlords.

The Turtles’ Happy Together includes the famous titular summer track, but it’s joined on the album by “The Walking Song” – something of an indictment of the establishment, more than one might expect from a simple pop tune, even in that era. Meanwhile, the Electric Prunes’ self-titled debut plays in parts like a sonic inspiration for The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” (“Are You Lovin’ Me More (But Enjoying It Less)”, in particular), before shifting direction into some truly weird autoharp accompaniment on “Sold To The Highest Bidder.” The album showcased little of the band’s own compositions, relying instead on songs by Nancie Mantz and Annette Tucker, which generated echo and reverb-soaked tracks like the ones referenced above, but also some bizarre dips into Roaring Twenties music hall piano-and-muted-trumpet stuff. If nothing else, there was some seriously impressive variety at work there.

The Blues Magoos’ Electric Coloring Book rode the gamut between vaguely faithful blues electric_comic_booksounds and psychedelia. Some odd attempts at humour (“Intermission”, “That’s All Folks”) laced with vocals later adopted by Johnny Rotten, plus a bit of pre-punk punk in “Take My Love”, in which “Peppy” Castro exhorts his paramour to “take my love and shove it up your heart.”

Electric Music For The Mind And Body by Country Joe and the Fish was one of the first psychedelic offerings from the San Francisco scene, creating lush acid-infused soundscapes (“Section 43”, e.g.) leaning heavily on electric organ. “Superbird” offers the Sixties’ first direct musical criticism of US Cold War policy, proposing to send Lyndon Johnson back to his Texas ranch. Clearly the genre was starting to move forward from simple pleas for peace and harmony, to something more revolutionary.

It’s very easy to surrender to hagiography when it comes to Jimi Hendrix. It doesn’t help that the story of his rise to prominence has the character of a great epic rock legend, particularly his first meeting with Eric Clapton at a Cream gig in London on September 30, 1966 at which Hendrix’s request to jam led to him blowing Cream off their own stage and dethroning Clapton as “God”. The Experience’s first album, Are You Experienced, released are_you_experienced_-_us_cover-editin May ’67, displayed Hendrix’s guitar pyrotechnics most effectively on “Third Stone From The Sun”, easily one of the most drenched-in-the-Sixties tracks on an album that was already replete with them. The US edition kicked off with “Purple Haze”, introducing a new, previously unheard guitar tone possibility to popular music from the moment of the opening riff, taking the inherent grunginess of Cream’s electric British blues and somehow making it darker and heavier. It’s not every album that grabs the course of musical history by the neck and pulls it in another direction, but that was The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut.

The Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free proceeds through a half dozen “songs” of unremitting weirdness about vegetables and plastic people and shit that almost caused me to give up on the whole album. Fortunately with “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin”, the Mothers mercifully switch gears and throw us some lively-paced skillful electric jazz. “Why Don’tcha Do Me Right?” chucks some grungy distorted guitar into the mix, and then it’s right back to the experimental.

Any discussion of the history of popular music, and particularly that of 1967, has to pause and acknowledge the June 1 dividing line between pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the post-Sgt. Pepper period (i.e. everything in the almost half-century since). While it’s never been my favourite Beatles album (I’m more partial to Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album), its legacy is impossible to ignore: picking up from the album-as-the-artwork roots laid down by the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention, Ringo, George and the other two, freed from the rigours of touring, let their creative juices flow, went in sgt-_peppers_lonely_hearts_club_bandwhatever direction they cared to in the name of creating a standout musical work, and influenced an entire medium. It’s retrospectively strange to think that, in the lead-up to Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles’ popularity appeared to be waning in America at least, following the “we’re bigger than Jesus” controversy and the rash of half-full concerts in its wake. Perhaps the Beatles were one of the first groups to actually be granted a full-on “second act” – a rare feat not just in music, but in fame generally. Paul McCartney has spoken reverentially of seeing Jimi Hendrix perform the album’s title track, this time drenched in his trademark feedback, at London’s Bag O’ Nails Club only three days after its release – one icon-in-the-making’s immediate standing O to four other icons in recognition of what they’d just produced. There’s really little point in my commenting on individual songs, except to say that the final piano chord that draws “A Day In The Life” and the album to a close is probably the greatest put-THAT-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it moment in the history of recorded music. For that, I will allow myself to gush a little bit.

Sneaking under the radar somewhat (and overshadowed completely by his subsequent work) was David Bowie’s debut. While I may be the only one who thought he was singing “sell me a goat” on the second song, the album is entirely self-composed eclectic pop. While it wasn’t totally suggestive of his future direction, clearly his talent was on display from the start. Notable standouts include “We Are Hungry Men” with its bizarre references to mandatory abortions and threats to “eat you”, and “Join The Gang”‘s somewhat subversive attack on the very idea of pop groups.

Moby Grape’s eponymous debut out of San Francisco follows the path blazed by the Byrds, and points in the direction of country rock and particularly the “California Sound” that would come to prominence in the 70s. “Indifference” plays like a Doobie Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd hybrid, a few years early. For a band that usually gets characterized as a classic case of what could have been (management disputes, bad business decisions), it’s remarkable how tight and sophisticated their compositions are.

June 16-18 marked the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, which tends to get overshadowed in the popular memory by the much larger Woodstock two years later, but which showcased a slew of artists in the process of bringing about the change in music they were effecting. The notables included Eric Burdon and the Animals (sufficiently inspired to release the successful “Monterey” as a single a few months later), Simon & Garfunkel, Canned Heat, Big Brother and the Holding Company (Janis Joplin’s first large-scale public performance), Country Joe and the Fish, the Butterfield Blues Band, Moby Grape, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead, Ravi Shankar, and the first major US appearances of The Who and Jimi Hendrix. It proved an especially pivotal event for The Who, granting them the opportunity to become the preeminent British rock act for the next two years with the Stones off the road temporarily and the Beatles off the road permanently. As for Hendrix, well… rock legends are in part made by waiting in the wings watching Pete Townshend and Keith Moon destroy their equipment, then introducing yourself to America by marching onto the stage, playing a blistering set, and setting your guitar on fire. 49 years ago, today.

The Small Faces all but abandoned blues influences on their confusingly entitled (second, and second with the same title) album Small Faces, saving up enough chits in the popular memory to later become an influence on the 90s Britpop movement. The Hollies, the_hollies_evolution_albumcovermeanwhile, delivered the aptly named Evolution, marking a partial shift from pop to psychedelia (“Heading For A Fall”) and the adoption of some grungy guitar behind their trademark harmonies (most notably on “Have You Ever Loved Somebody?”).

Late Sixties festival regulars Canned Heat released their self-titled debut in July, shortly after their appearance at Monterey Pop. The disc was a highly faithful collection of blues standards, with the band dusting off offerings by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon in a bid to reintroduce authentic blues to the west coast audience. Meanwhile, the Young Rascals’ album Groovin’ saw them enter blue-eyed soul territory mostly wholeheartedly, with several songs of doubt and rejected romantic overtures but one finger still in rock (“You Better Run”).

With Little Games, the Yardbirds unknowingly lit the spark for one of the great thrusts of rock evolution, adding Jimmy Page to the lineup on lead guitar following Jeff Beck’s departure (and featuring John Paul Jones on bass on a few tracks). The album saw them embrace psychedelia on “Glimpses” and borrow a bit of the Jefferson Airplane-esque ylittlegamessampling of children’s stories (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor”). Page even served up a preview of things to come on “White Summer”, which would frequently show up in setlists in future years with his next band, briefly named The New Yardbirds.

I’m not at all sure how to classify the Bee Gees, or if they fit into this story more than tangentially. Their album 1st includes a mix of pop and rock with a bit of psychedelia, but I can’t offer much more insight except to say that, if anything, their sound evokes the Hollies on their first album, with a smattering of Sgt. Pepper-esque eccentricity and variety.

The Shadows’ album Jigsaw is a bit of a contradiction. Side two suggests the easy listening stuff the band’s dads might have listened to in the evening over whiskey sours or whatever the hell the middle aged drank then. Side one, conversely, plays like psychedelic surf rock, so exactly what the nascent Summer of Love called for. Guitars laden with wah-wah and a bit of grunge, with absolutely minimal vocals… not too challenging, but perfect for getting high and just chilling the fuck out.

The Summer of Love, half over by this point, would soon be brought to an end both through a conscious effort by its proponents and by surrounding circumstances, but that’s for the next post…

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