Much has been written about the beauty of autumn, its welcome arrival after the summer as a reminder that all things come to an end, only to be reborn again a few months hence. Autumn 1970, however, proved to be a most cruel season for American rock, and sadly, in this case there could be no rebirth.
All three of the above pictured artists died during one 31-day stretch at the age of 27, helping to usher the “27 Club” into its sad spot in popular culture. The first to go was Alan Wilson on September 3. Blues scholar, guitarist, vocalist, and co-founder of Canned Heat, Wilson’s utterly distinctive vocal style was most prominently showcased in the Heat’s songs “On The Road Again” and especially “Going Up The Country”, which became an unofficial anthem of Woodstock due to the band’s performance of the song at the festival. Wilson was found dead behind bandmate Bob Hite’s home in L.A.’s Topanga Canyon, from acute barbiturate intoxication. Suicide was suspected due to Wilson’s recent battle with depression, but has never been confirmed.
Jimi Hendrix, meanwhile, had retreated to London with his girlfriend, Monika Dannemann. His drug use had escalated recently, and when he arrived at a jam session at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on the invitation of his friend Eric Burdon, he was not allowed to play due to his evident disorientation. Hendrix returned the following night and was able to play, but it would be his last public performance. He had taken amphetamines on the evening of September 17, and in an effort to sleep, he was believed to have taken nine of Dannemann’s sleeping pills. His cause of death the following day at the age of 27 was blamed on “inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication”. Hendrix was buried in Renton, Washington, close to his mother’s grave.
Janis Joplin’s career seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Recording sessions for her new album, Pearl, were nearly complete, and her new band Full Tilt Boogie was gelling nicely. Thus her failure to appear at the studio on October 4 was a cause for concern. Joplin’s road manager dropped by the hotel in Hollywood where she was staying, to find her dead on the floor beside the bed. The cause of death was declared to be a heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol, and was deemed accidental since other customers of her usual dealer had overdosed the same week on the dealer’s unusually potent product. A truly inauspicious end for one of the first ladies of rock, taken too soon. Joplin was cremated, and her ashes scattered from the air over the Pacific Ocean.
“Doom” is the best descriptor of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, opening as it does with the heavy, plodding, foreboding riff of “War Pigs” melded with the droning wails of an air raid siren. Originally entitled “Walpurgis”, Geezer Butler’s lyrics spoke, in most timely fashion, to the evil of those in power sending young men off to die on foreign fields. The title track, thrown together hurriedly on top of Tony Iommi’s famous chugging riff in order to fill out the album, would become the band’s signature song and their only UK top ten single. And speaking of riffs, “Iron Man” arguably had them all beat, a tale of a time traveler who returns with warnings of the coming apocalypse. “Hand of Doom” conjures images of US soldiers returning home, having turned to heroin to numb themselves to their horrible reality. No more of Lou Reed’s near-ode to the drug from three short years earlier; on the contrary, Sabbath’s reference, like everything else in their ouevre, is a darker, more dangerous beast. In the fall of 1970, with the carnage in southeast Asia escalating and spreading and the Summer of Love a distant memory (particularly for four working class lads from economically ravaged northern England), Paranoid stood as a statement on the times, while building on its now legendary predecessor to become a bona fide classic of heavy metal.
Meanwhile, there was still a bit of time left for a few more latter-day unabashedly hippie anthems. One was the Guess Who’s “Share The Land” from the album of the same name. In this iteration it was my fellow crazy Canucks expressing hopeful longings for us all to “one day live together” – a dream that died a little bit more with each passing day. Steve Miller and Co. tried the same on Number 5 with “Industrial Military Complex Hex” and “Jackson-Kent Blues”, as did Tim Buckley on Starsailor with the very avant garde track “Monterey” that had nothing in common with the Animals’ song of the same name and which was, improbably, even too weird to be trippy. Another shot at clinging to the fading past was “Revival”, the opener from Idlewild South, the Allman Brothers Band’s sophomore disc, with its upbeat, catchy insistence that “love is everywhere” and that “we’re in a revolution”. The rest of the album, largely recorded live in the studio to capture the band’s loose jam band chemistry, features their signature bluesy twang, most notably on the oft-covered “Midnight Rider”. Though commercial success continued to elude the Allmans for the time being, their live performances were garnering more and more attention, notably from the likes of Eric Clapton. More on that shortly.
From the lush bluesy soundscapes of the American South we move to the lush Latin soundscapes of Abraxas, Santana’s second offering. I confess that I can’t listen to “Oye Como Va” anymore without picturing The Dude and Walter driving around L.A. in the former’s car with the absent windshield. But hey, that’s in part the point of music: it sometimes connects you to an experience, an image or a moment in time that sticks in the mental craw of the idiosyncratic you. In the case of “Oye Como Va”, I submit that as high praise. And speaking of which, it was a slightly goofy experience next listening to Bob Dylan’s New Morning, released less than a month after Abraxas, and hearing “The Man In Me” and its latter-day conjured images of bowling and discussions about fuckin’ rugs that really tied rooms together, man. Can another CCR album be too far behind? (Nope, December ’70, in fact.)
The highly anticipated Led Zeppelin III polarized critics and audiences from the first listen. Opening with the Viking raiding party-esque “Immigrant Song”, much of the rest of the album represented a shift towards more acoustic numbers, due in part to fatigue from the band’s exhausting writing-and-recording-while-touring regimen from the last album. Credit/blame can also be laid at the door of the famously rustic Welsh cottage of Bron-Yr-Aur, where much of the album was written. Still, songs like the reworked traditional “Gallows Pole” and the band-composed song of lost love “Tangerine” are memorable as solid examples of their skill and versatility. The overall critical meh the album received would jade the band somewhat, while simultaneously serving to propel them to their greatest creative peak just over a year later.
UFO combined Sabbath’s detuning and hard riffing with prog’s echo and spacey twang, and put the result on their debut, UFO1. They never got the critical or popular recognition that their fellow British proto-metalists got, but the seeds of heavy metal are on display throughout the album, with vocalist Phil Mogg doing a decent Plant impression (especially on “Boogie”) over Mick Bolton’s slabs of guitar sludge.
Speaking of which, The Man Who Sold The World marked an evolution for David Bowie thanks, in part, to the beginning of his lengthy association with guitarist Mick Ronson. Thanks to that, the album shed its predecessors’ more acoustic sounds and embraced guitar riffs, kicking off Bowie’s first gilded age, ushering in his persona of ambiguous sexuality, and inspiring NME to retrospectively note that “this is where the story really starts.”
With Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneyground, Volume One, the Kinks took their exploration of British society (The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and its decline (Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)) into a semi-indictment of the recording industry. The titular “Lola” became one of their best known songs with its maybe-yes, maybe-no encounter with a transvestite in a nation whose long history of drag shows always lurked beneath its staid surface. “Apeman”, meanwhile, tells of the narrator hoping to avoid a world beset by overpopulation and the nuclear threat and finding a quiet distant shore. And the slightly obvious “Got To Be Free” starts the album with a snippet and ends it with the full track.
Seriously, who puts out a triple album as their debut? An artist with a fuck of a lot to say and who’s stayed quiet for far too long, that’s who. With All Things Must Pass, George Harrison’s first official solo album, the Quiet One shed his moniker and announced his official emancipation from the Beatles. That such was the album’s intention was pretty hard to miss, really, starting with the jacket featuring Harrison sitting on a country lawn surrounded by exactly four reclining garden gnomes. Tracks like “Wah-Wah” (“I’m thinking of you, and all the things that we used to do… You made me such a big star, being there at the right time”) and “Run of the Mill” (“everyone has a choice when to or not to raise their voices”) made the sentiment clearer still. And the legendary “My Sweet Lord” depicted Harrison’s search for spirituality, seeking to connect the Christianity of his youth with his newfound interest in Indian mysticism. The recording process was challenging for a number of reasons; Harrison’s mom was dying and producer Phil Spector was erratic. But the talent roster was beyond compare: old bandmate Ringo, Ginger Baker, Bobby Keys, Dave Mason, Billy Preston, Gary Wright, Phil Collins, Peter Frampton, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Eric Clapton (whose unrequited infatuation with Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd was leading him gradually into heroin addiction as a means of assuaging his guilt).
The significance of the inclusion of the last four musicians would become very clear that same month. Clapton was continuing the evolution he’d begun after the end of Cream, which had led him through Blind Faith, a few spins of Music From Big Pink, and through his associations with Delaney & Bonnie and Harrison. The result was the tuneful, soulful, mournful blues rock of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs in partnership with Radle, Whitlock and Gordon under the nom de plume Derek & The Dominos, with Duane Allman guesting on lead and slide guitar on most of the tracks. In fact, that’s a tad dismissive of Allman; early in the recording process for Layla in Miami, the band went to check out an Allman Brothers gig at Clapton’s request, after which Skydog asked Clapton if he could drop by and watch them record. Clapton one-upped him, telling him to bring his guitar and fucking play with them on the album. Supposedly the two held an all-night jam session immediately after, just two guitar virtuosos who had found each other, with Clapton coming to describe the tragically ill-fated Allman as “the musical brother I’d never had but wished I did.”
It’s tough to pick the standouts on an achievement like Layla, but for me, they’re easily “Keep On Growing”, “Anyday” with Allman throwing out wicked slide and Gordon’s drums wrapping everything in warm (if that’s even possible), slightly muted rhythm, and of course the title track, in which Clapton laid bare his aforementioned (then-) unrequited infatuation.
The early evolution of heavy metal has always included a few dubious or arguable entries, but from the first listen, New York-based trio Sir Lord Baltimore’s inclusion is well deserved. In late 1970, these guys were some of the heaviest, squealiest riff-bashers out there. They weren’t as doom-laden as Sabbath or as virtuosic as Zeppelin, but goddamn, did their stuff blast messy sludge out of your speakers. And a 1971 review in Creem applied the term “heavy metal” to refer to the band’s style of music, one of the first times that was ever done. In terms of highlights from their debut album Kingdom Come, check out opener “Master Heartache”, “Helium Head (I Got a Love) and the title track for prime examples of these unjustly overlooked heavy metal pioneers’ version of feedback-laden bass and guitar skronk.
Pendulum, CCR’s second album of the year, signified a change in the band’s direction. Firstly it incorporated more saxophone and keyboards than ever heard before on a Creedence album. Secondly, it would be the last with Tom Fogerty, whose longstanding animosity between him and brother John would result in his departure from the band at the end of recording. While not as well-known as the wall-to-wall classic that was Cosmo’s Factory, Pendulum would still throw off two classic tracks: “Hey Tonight” and “Have You Ever Seen The Rain”.
Intensive primal therapy with Yoko following the end of the Beatles finally gave John Lennon his catharsis in record form: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Thus the disc was bookended by his feelings of abandonment/grief surrounding his parents (“Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead”), encasing his cynical reflections on religion and patriotism but still leaving room scattered throughout for his exhortation of love as the highest power – indeed, the only thing he believes in, not even the Beatles (“God”). But it’s on “Working Class Hero” that Lennon powerfully eviscerates class structure and all its bullshit, reminding the listener that “there’s room at the top, they’re telling you still/ But first, you must learn how to smile as you kill/ If you want to be like all the folks on the hill.”
As a wrap-up to this post, we can turn to Syd Barrett, late of Pink Floyd. His second album, Barrett, would also be his last. Ex-bandmates David Gilmour and Richard Wright helped out on production/bass and keyboard, respectively. However, the recording process was difficult and Syd eratic: Wright characterized the sessions as “going to the studio and trying to get him to sing.” Rolling Stone would refer to both of Barrett’s solo albums as “entrancing”, but for the musician himself, the industry and his participation in it were winding down. He played a couple of live gigs in the year or so after its release, but an attempt by manager Peter Jenner to get him back in the studio in 1974 would result in some recordings but no finished album. He returned to Cambridge and faded into obscurity, until his death in 2006.