It’s clear that, in terms of popular music, if the Sixties were about breaking out of the cage, the Seventies were about smashing the cage and running off in all directions. The decade would witness the death of psychedelia early on; in its place would ascend prog rock, country rock, hard rock, southern rock, glam rock, the “California Sound”, heavy metal, the songer/songwriters, and later heartland rock, funk, punk and disco. Nothing would be off limits.
But in the meantime, why not start the new decade by completely stepping back in time six or seven years? evidently asked Paul McCartney sometime in ’69 in his role as Badfinger’s producer. Pretty clear given how much their debut Magic Christian Music (named for the Peter Sellers / Ringo Starr movie which featured three of the album’s songs) manages to sound like the pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles, especially “Rock of All Ages” and the disc’s most famous track, “Come And Get It”.
Who the hell thought a bunch of small town boys from the Great White North could become one of the early Seventies’ preeminent hard rock bands, and get an invite to play the Nixon White House? Incongruous, especially given the lyric “I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need your ghetto scenes” from the title track to the Guess Who’s seminal album American Woman (which Pat Nixon asked them not to play). Couple that with the album’s other two iconic tracks, both at least partly tales of rejection of one kind or another – the iconic reworking of the previously released “No Time” with its Dear John letter-esque dismissal, and “No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature” with its get-off-me-you’re-an-asshole incident of (domestic?) bliss gone monetarily bad, and boom — the Flower Power era was clearly over. No more free love for you, buddy.
As for the MC5, their second album Back In The U.S.A. saw the rebellious Detroit rockers partly abandon the rough edges of their debut in favour of a more processed proto-punk sound strongly suggestive of the Ramones (especially “High School”) six short years later. They still had some of that oomph left, however, and they let it out in the squealing lust anthem “Looking At You”. And they weren’t beyond railing against the hypocrisies of the time (“The American Ruse”, “The Human Being Lawnmower”).
Probably nobody expected anything resembling American-style proto-funk from a band out of Glasgow, but Stone The Crows managed to pull it off on their debut with “Raining In Your Heart”. Didn’t hurt any that lead vocalist Maggie Bell managed to shake off her Scots burr and sound like a cleaner Janis Joplin, all blues and pain (especially on a reconstructed cover of the Beatles’ “Fool On The Hill”).
Many years before allegations of his disreputable conduct with his children became posthumously known, and shortly before heroin addiction would take him out of the music scene for most of the Seventies, John Phillips was using the opportunity afforded by the breakup of The Mamas and the Papas to forge a solo career. His album John Phillips (John, the Wolf King of L.A.) served largely as a love song to the titular city, with lilting, seemingly sun-kissed tracks like “Malibu People” and “Topanga Canyon” sharing space with paeans to friends and lovers (“April Anne”, “Let It Bleed, Genevieve”). Meanwhile, John Sebastian was building his own solo career away from the Lovin’ Spoonful on John R. Sebastian, a mix of rock tunes like “She’s A Lady” with some gentler folkie offerings (the lovely “How Have You Been”), with all three members of Crosby, Stills & Nash showing up as guest musicians on several tracks.
Keyboardist Rod Argent set up shop with his own outfit, Argent, following the breakup of his Summer-of-Love band the Zombies. Their self titled debut thus nicely straddled the transition from psychedelic rock to prog rock. “Schoolgirl” borrows, almost too liberally, the chord progression and basic idea from Rod’s own “Time of the Season”, but then the album heads off into uncharted territory with “Dance In The Smoke” and “Liar” (the latter becoming a hit a few years later for Three Dog Night). Not quite blues, too atmospheric and jazzy for pop, too light for hard rock… come to think of it, that’s a near-perfect description of early prog rock right there. Look at me go.
Meanwhile the road had ended for Simon & Garfunkel, who had evolved from folk musicians into the preeminent rock duo of the age. The split may or may not have been partly due to the movie Catch-22, in which Garfunkel scored a role but Simon’s was written out. Still, their swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water became a smash hit, spawning the legendary title track with Garfunkel’s soaring vocal, the Peruvian-inflected “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, the silly rhythmic “Cecilia”, and “The Boxer” with its iconic chanted coda. The duo would reunite sporadically over the years, but as with the Beatles the previous year, Seventies solo projects beckoned in the wreckage of the Sixties.
The end of ex-Pink Floyd songsmith Syd Barrett’s music career and his embrace of decades of seclusion was approaching, but in the meantime he churned out his first of two solo albums, The Madcap Laughs. He comes off like something of a British Jim Morrison (particularly, and a bit obviously, on “Love You”, a bouncy, Doors-esque song that recalls “Hello I Love You”) crossed with Sunshine Superman-era Donovan. And with the album’s frequent delving into stream-of-consciousness studio banter, well…. The Madcap Laughs, indeed.
As the Flower Power era breathed its last and the reality of its failure to find the comprehensive social foothold it sought set in, it was probably inevitable that popular music would start to mine the darker depths for new inspiration. However, none save Led Zeppelin on a few tracks had taken this exploration as far down the rabbit hole as what blasted forth from the eponymous title song on Black Sabbath’s debut, after a fade-in of rain, distant thunder and an ominously tolling bell somewhere in the distance. Released appropriately enough on Friday, February 13, the album’s unique sound was due in large part to guitarist Tony Iommi, who had lost the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand in an industrial accident as a teenager. After the necessary healing period left him in ongoing pain that his self-made custom fingertip thimbles only alleviated in part, Iommi switched to power chords for their relative simplicity, and tuned his guitar down to reduce tension on the strings. The resulting thick, sludgy, distorted riffs plus the title track’s forboding tritonic chord progression combined to produce arguably the first true heavy metal recording. Factor in drummer Bill Ward’s relentless pounding, bassist Geezer Butler’s low end and lyrics of fear and dread, and Ozzy Osbourne’s wails and shrieks, and the combination was, and remains, utterly hypnotic.
The band’s original intended direction as purveyors of bluesy jazz is in evidence on “Wicked World”, with skinsman Ward temporarily forsaking pounding for a lighter touch of cymbals and snare drum. Otherwise the heaviness is well to the fore, most notably with Lucifer tempting a woman (or man?) with sweet nothings in the cryptically-titled “N.I.B.” (a song which has been referred to as “the raucous defiling of Cream”), only to have his power dispelled most Gandalf-like by “The Wizard”. Despite a horrendous initial critical reception, the album’s influence on all the heavy music that followed has led to its reappraisal as a masterpiece.
The Doors, meanwhile, staged a comeback of sorts on the bluesier, less spacey Morrison Hotel after their critical drubbing with The Soft Parade. “Roadhouse Blues” evinces this in particular, with John Sebastian filling in on harmonica, and “Peace Frog” shows Morrison, now firmly re-ensconced as primary songwriter, at his most self-referential in the midst of some skillful, soul-inspired wah-wah guitar from Robbie Krieger, back to focusing on what he did best. The change in sound and direction was intentional; Morrison, sinking into alcoholism and beset by legal troubles stemming from his provocative onstage antics, was looking to shed his trippy-hippy Lizard King persona. And critics rewarded the band with generally excellent reviews, with Dave Marsh of Creem Magazine describing the album as “the most horrifying rock and roll I have ever heard. When they’re good, they’re simply unbeatable.” In fairness, he probably hadn’t heard Black Sabbath’s debut yet, but still.
Not being a musician myself, I can only imagine the bitter disappointment that grips an artist who’s produced an acclaimed work that somehow, incredibly, fails to resonate much with the public. (“What is wrong with these people? Fuck them all!” being the artist’s reaction I picture.) After the critical lauding but commercial failure of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison moved to upstate New York with his wife and began the work that would result in its successor, Moondance. Where Astral Weeks had focused on lengthier jazz-based compositions, this time Morrison opted for more of an accessible, catchy R&B flavour, seemingly taking influence from Music From Big Pink here and there, and this time was rewarded with acclaim by critics and the public alike. Tracks like “And It Stoned Me”, “Glad Tidings”, “Caravan” and the famous title track entered rock’s canon, though seemingly pulling double duty in a sense: some have argued that the album was a progenitor of the “album oriented rock” of the Seventies that would showcase acts like James Taylor, the Eagles and Paul McCartney, as an antidote to the post-burnout post-Sixties for those who weren’t inclined to listen to heavier stuff like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, who would find Genesis and Yes too esoteric, and who would just want to chill the fuck out in the midst of Vietnam and Watergate while still enjoying rock. VH1 editor Joe Harrington retrospectively noted the album’s popularity with “hippie couples who were settling into complacent domesticity”. Could there be a more emblematic visualization of the changing audience and the changing times than that?
Speaking of James Taylor, meanwhile he had mercifully kicked his youthful heroin habit but had broken both hands and both feet in a motorcycle accident, and unable to perform, had been reduced to couchsurfing at the home of friends like guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar. Somehow, however, he managed to write the songs that became his second album, Sweet Baby James, and gave a push to the burgeoning singer-songwriter genre that would cement itself into the LA landscape as another alternative to hard rock. “Steamroller” is a bluesy love song saturated, almost too literally, with the influences of the Vietnam era (“I’m a napalm bomb for you baby, guaranteed to blow your mind…”). A heavy dose of the self-referential too; “Fire and Rain” chronicles Taylor’s struggles with both addiction and recovery from the suicide of a close friend, while “Country Road”, with ex-Poco bassist Randy Meisner chipping in, paints his escape route from his crappy early home life and from the institution where he spent time getting treated for depression. “Suite for 20 G” sees Taylor at his most rocked-out (with an assist from Kootch), a stringing-together of a few unfinished songs into a cohesive whole in order, supposedly, to secure the twenty grand that Taylor was promised by his record company on delivery of the finished album. The album represented a triumph for Taylor, and now turns up on numerous lists of the best albums of all time.
Describing Frank Zappa’s work using variants of the word “weird” is getting a bit repetitive for me; I plead guilty to being a complete philistine of the avant garde. Fortunately the Mothers of Invention’s posthumous release Burnt Weeny Sandwich (released after Zappa had already broken up the band) at least featured coherent song structures. But weird and cacophonic those song structures are, the least so easily being “WPLJ” (white port lemon juice), a cover of an old Fifties song by the Four Deuces that still manages to dissolve into a miasma of rapid spoken Spanish.
What to do, though, of you can’t hang your hat on the tag “avant garde”? You probably end up putting out a record that gets derided as a load of shit. It was with that understanding in mind that I pushed play on Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, the star-studded offering from the titular not-really-a-lord-at-all which has since been high on most British critics’ lists of the worst albums of all time. Great it ain’t; Sutch sure as hell couldn’t sing well, as he supposedly admitted, but there’s a bit of proto-punk energy on display there (particularly, predictably, on “L.O.N.D.O.N.”), and frankly some of the songs would have been better with a different vocalist. But with a stable of backing musicians including Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Nicky Hopkins, Jeff Beck and Noel Redding, opening track “Wailing Sounds” comes off as a decent grungy garage band track. But commercial success would elude Sutch, and he would switch gears almost completely into politics as founder and head of Britain’s Monster Raving Loony Party.
British prog rock continued to make its early forays, filling the void left by the slow death of psychedelia. Drummer and future prog superstar Carl Palmer left his first gig, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, with keyboardist Vincent Crane to found Atomic Rooster, churning out their nearly eponymous debut Atomic Roooster with the help of vocalist/flautist/bassist/guitarist Nick Graham. As an early example of the genre it’s excellent, particularly opener “Friday the 13th” and “Winter”. However, Palmer wouldn’t stick around long, leaving a few months after the album’s release to form a trio with Keith Emerson of The Nice and King Crimson’s Greg Lake.
I’d be a bit surprised if some of the members of Kiss hadn’t been listening selectively to The Move between 1970 and 1974, if “Hello Suzie” from Shazam is any indication – it feels like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley’s “Strutter” but with much more literate lyrics. Anyway, Shazam is otherwise an eclectic, engaging mix of hard rock, prog, pop and psychedelia. The wacky “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” throws in a middle section culled from Bach’s “Jesu: Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Tea (Chinese Dance)” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, which would be dismissable as self-indulgent and pretentious were it not so joyfully bizarre. It would be but a short time before guitarist/composer Roy Wood would recruit Jeff Lynne for The Move’s next album, and only slightly longer before they would morph their project into the Electric Light Orchestra.
I mentioned that nothing was off limits by 1970, which probably explains why it was possible for anybody to release Lie: The Love And Terror Cult, a collection of songs written and performed by Charles Manson prior to his arrest and imprisonment for the Tate/LaBianca murders. Including the album here at all may strain the bounds of good taste, but I’ll address that by not passing judgment on the merits, or lack thereof, of any of the tracks except to say that Manson clearly could sing and could write songs; in light of this and his supposed charisma, it’s not surprising that Dennis Wilson saw something in him. “Sick City” is creepy and pretty fucking foreboding as a summation of his thoughts on society, and “Cease to Exist” sticks out as the aforementioned track recorded by the Beach Boys under the title “Never Learn Not To Love”.
The darkness, the creeping darkness….