Moody Blues – Top 10

  • Question
  • Emily’s Song
  • The Story in Your Eyes
  • Nights in White Satin
  • I Know You’re Out There Somewhere
  • Your Wildest Dreams
  • Lazy Day
  • Floating
  • The Balance

 

The Seventies

I had been reflecting on eulogizing the 1970s as the greatest decade for music in the Rock Era, or perhaps the last century, when I heard the very modern musician who records as St. Vincent tell James Corden that the inspiration for her new album was the period from 1970 to ’75.  Looking more closely at the decade’s discography, I realized that she was more astute than I. 

Until 1968 I collected singles on my Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was the spring of my senior year in college that a record-club offer lured me into purchasing my first three albums: Buffalo Springfield, Bee Gees’ First and The Percy Sledge Way. Then I was off to North Africa with the Peace Corps for two years. When I returned, there had been a revolution, not least in popular music, where FM stations with diverse playlists had superseded AM Top 40. Following Bob Dylan’s breakthrough example, songs could be any length, about any subject, sung by any voice. The music scene was about to explode with creativity, and I was ready to start buying records. Which I did.
When we moved from Minnesota in 2013 I donated my entire record collection, first to my friend Mike Bennes from the museum and the leftovers to the Deephaven Library, but the memory of each album cover lingers fondly. In the essay that follows I will focus on records I once owned, each listed in boldface followed by a favorite cut. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my taste, or that I was going to law school and had the time and need for music; but look at the names that follow and try to tell me that the early ‘70s wasn’t a Golden Age, if not the Golden Age, of rock’n’roll.

Singer/Songwriters
I don’t know when I bought The Circle Game (’68) by Tom Rush, whether it was before or after Africa, but it was the perfect transition from the Cambridge coffee-house folk scene of the Sixties to the Singer/Songwriter Era of the Seventies. On it, Rush sang three songs by Joni Mitchell, including the classic title number, two by James Taylor, one by Jackson Browne and two by Rush himself, including the haunting “No Regrets.” Although Rush never reached the same heights as a songwriter, the others soon came to define an era.

In fact, I could end any debate about the significance of the early ‘70s before it begins by simply listing the long-running artists who came to prominence then, notably Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Neil Young, David Bowie, Van Morrison, James Taylor. Their styles and songs differed, but they all had in common that they wrote their own songs. The Tin Pan Alley era was over; the songwriting teams of Goffin/King, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Leiber/Stoller were passé. Dylan’s example prevailed: you wrote your own songs and sang them yourself.

Billy Joel’s Piano Man was released in ’73 and remains his masterpiece. In addition to the title track, “Captain Jack” and “Ballad of Billy the Kid” were instant classics. My love of this album caused me to look back and find Joel’s initial album, Cold Spring Harbor (’71 “She’s Got A Way”), which, in its innocence, was almost as good.

Jackson Browne was a precocious songwriter, known first to me as the co-writer, with Glenn Frey, of the Eagles’ first hit, “Take It Easy” (’72). I fell in love with his debut album, Jackson Browne [a/k/a Saturate Before Using](’72, “Doctor, My Eyes”), and have followed his work with pleasure ever since. For Everyman (’73 “These Days”) was a slight letdown, although it provides great concert material, but Late For the Sky (’74 “For A Dancer”) remains one of the all-time great records.

I knew Neil Young, vaguely, as a member of Buffalo Springfield, but his solo singer/songwriter career launched for good with After the Gold Rush (’70 “Southern Man”) and solidified with Harvest (’72 “Heart of Gold”). More than 40 albums later it’s still going.

I admit to not being a James Taylor groupie, but he was of a piece with the sensitive singer/songwriters of the day: Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Carole King, David Crosby, et al. I was introduced to Sweet Baby James (’70) in Beirut and did buy One Man Dog (’72) and Walking Man (’74).

Gordon Lightfoot was already a singer/songwriter in the Sixties, but he hit his peak in the Seventies with three lovely albums: Sit Down, Young Stranger (’70 “If You Could Read My Mind”); Don Quixote (’72 “The Patriot’s Dream”) and Sundown (’74 “Carefree Highway”).

Because his career has gone on so long, it’s hard to think of Bruce Springsteen in this cohort. Also, for many fans their appreciation began with Born to Run and the simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers in 1975. I was, however, immediately taken with Greetings from Asbury Park (’73 “Blinded By the Light”), when the rock press, incidentally, was hailing him as “the next Bob Dylan,” presumably because of his jumbling lyrics.

And while Dylan himself made his name in the Sixties, he released seven records from ’70 to ’75, including New Morning (’70 “If Not for You”) and Blood On the Tracks (’75 “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”), which I have often considered my all-time favorite album.

The Brits
From my perch in North Africa I could tune in British radio and, consequently, caught singles by both Elton John (“Border Song”) and David Bowie (“Space Oddity”) probably before either was big in the States. When I got home I snapped up every Elton John album as they came out, more than one per year. Elton John (’70 “Your Song), Madman Across the Water (’71 “Tiny Dancer”) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (’73 “Candle in the Wind”) were favorites.

David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (’71 “Changes”) so wowed me that I went to Carnegie Hall the next year when he toured Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (’72 “Starman”). Bowie had great songs in years that followed, but never as good an album.

I didn’t connect with early Van Morrison (specifically his critically acclaimed Astral Weeks), but still consider Moondance (’70 “Crazy Love”) one of the five best albums ever made. None of the five albums that followed in the next three years approached that height, but I spent time with His Band and the Street Choir (’71 “Domino”) and St. Dominic’s Preview (’72).

In contrast, I was mesmerized by everything put out by Cat Stevens in these years, and there was a lot. Mona Bone Jakon (’70 “Lady D’Arbanville”) was followed by the great Tea for the Tillerman (’70 “Father and Son”), then Teaser and the Firecat (’71 “Moonshadow”).

Single Disc-ers
While the above artists had multiple discs in my collection, others spoke to me through only one record.

Lou Reed’s Transformer (’72) was his most (only?) accessible album and featured his signature song, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Don McLean’s Tapestry (’70 “Castles in the Air”) was sweet and soulful, preceding “American Pie.” After departing CSN&Y, Graham Nash brought out Songs for Beginners (’71 “Military Madness”). In a different genre, although just as much a singer/songwriter, Stevie Wonder hooked me with Innervisions (’73 “Living for the City”).

Women
A subset of Singer/Songwriters for an obvious, or maybe no obvious, reason:

Joni Mitchell’s Blue (’71 “Carey”) is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest albums of all time. Carole King’s Tapestry (’71 “It’s Too Late”) ranks not far behind. In that same year Carly Simon released Anticipation (’71), a year before her classic “You’re So Vain.” Much later and very different but at the edge of this era, Patti Smith’s Horses (’75) blew me away on record and in person at Lincoln Center.

Progressive Rock
Picking up, perhaps, from Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life,” British groups explored symphony backing, extended tracks and general studio grandiloquence. The Moody Blues, my favorites, broke through with A Question of Balance (’70) and peaked in Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (’71 “The Story in Your Eyes”). Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (’72) filled both record sides with one continuous piece of music. The Yes Album (’71 “I’ve Seen All Good People”) was made up of songs that could go on forever. John Barleycorn Must Die (’70) by Traffic was a prelude to The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (’71) with its almost 12-minute title cut. The culmination of the genre, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (’73 “Us and Them”), famously and deservedly spent 736 weeks on the Billboard chart.

Rock Groups
While individual artists were putting their stamp on the era, there were still the more traditional ensembles of guitars, drums and keyboard that, while not unique, gave depth to this era of rock.

Let’s start with Who’s Next (’71) by the Who, which featured two of the all-time great rock anthems: “Won’t Be Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley.” The Eagles established country rock with their first two albums: Eagles (’72 “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and Desperado (’73 “Tequila Sunrise”). In the same genre, New Riders of the Purple Sage recounted The Adventures of Panama Red (’73 “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy”). Fleetwood Mac came on the scene with Bare Trees (’72 “Sentimental Lady). The Kinks charmed me with their idiosyncratic numbers, from Lola Versus the Powerman (‘70 “Strangers”) to Everybody’s In Show-Biz (’72 “Celluloid Heroes”) and Preservation Act I (’73). The Morning After (’71 “Looking For A Love”) introduced me to the J. Geils Band.

What I Missed
Despite buying a lot of records and having pretty broad taste, there were important albums I didn’t collect that should be mentioned in evaluating the greatness of this musical period. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (’71) is the most recent Greatest Album in Rolling Stone’s decennial poll. Led Zeppelin IV (’71) featured “Stairway to Heaven,” arguably the greatest rock song. The same year saw Sly & the Family Stone’s “There’s A Riot Goin’ On” (’71 “Family Affair”). The Rolling Stones put out their highest-rated album, “Exile on Main St.” (’72 “Tumbling Dice”). The title track of John Lennon’s “Imagine” (’71) is one of the greatest songs ever. And who knows what else I missed or am missing.

In Conclusion
It’s not just that so many powerful, lyrical, memorable voices came to public attention in these pivotal years (1970-73, in particular). For the most part, these voices, while they continued putting out records, never reached the same heights. Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Elton John, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and these others seem timeless in retrospect, but in fact their magic all stems from around 1971. Fifty years later, I feel I was there when they arrived, and we’ve been companions ever since.

                                                                    

She & Him; Brett Dennen

Took flyers on back-to-back live shows by singers I’d heard, but not seen: She & Him at the Arlington, Brett Dennen at the Lobero. “She” is Zooey Deschanel, and from  “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”  her voice was shrill and over-mic’ed, unpleasant to listen to from the seventh row. As there was nothing going on besides her voice, it became a long night very early. M. Ward, the “Him” of the team, played a jazzy guitar accompaniment but remained in the shadow. Not as much as the background singers and musicians, who were 20 feet behind Zooey and poorly. She ran though a collection of Christmas standards listlessly, perhaps recognizing that Christmas was still a long 23 days away. After a short on-stage interlude that passed for conversation, She & Him shifted to their “catalogue,” which was bouncier and seemingly of greater interest to the performers. The voice was still hard to take, which was a problem, as Zooey’s voice, and persona as a chanteuse, is all that was on sale. Perhaps to avoid unfavorable comparison, the opening act, comedian Pete Lee, didn’t sing at all.

The opening act at the Lobero managed to top Zooey for loud and shrill, and since she didn’t believe in melody either we waited out her set on the plaza. Brett Dennen, finally, came on with some personality, and the vocal Lobero audience kept a fun conversation going. He played by himself, which muted some of his songs, but his lyrics were clear, his tunes catchy and his rhythms engagingly syncopated. I like the three or four songs they play on the radio, and they sounded good live. Everything he sang was at least “good,” although there was little that made me want to go home and start streaming. Mostly, I enjoyed his engaged storytelling; and the fact that he lives in Ventura and had a lot of friends in the crowd made it a pleasantly relaxed evening.

John Craigie/Chris Pureka

I took a flyer on two artists I had not heard of, based on the Lobero’s description and my faith in the Lobero’s scheduler. Indeed, John Craigie has a dedicated fan base that filled the auditorium; and although most were likely unfamiliar with the opener, also from Portland, they provided the best music of the evening. If I had to describe their respective styles, I would say Pureka was a direct descendant of Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers character played by Oscar Isaac back in 20013, and Craigie reminded me of Todd Snider, with songs that had just as much bite if a bit less musicality. Craigie’s website is subtitled, “Humorous storytelling, serious folk,” and certainly more minutes were spent doing stand-up generally and talking about the genesis of the next song than it took to actually play it. His manner was engaging and you laughed even when he wasn’t terribly funny or original. It was a good time. He deprecated his music and his guitar-playing, and afterward it was hard to think of anything I wanted to add to my Apple library. He didn’t play my favorite song from his most recent album, “Nomads.”
Pureka had a strong voice, catchy melodies and worked nice harmonies with Andy, their guitar accompanist. We could have been in Laurel Canyon in the mid-70s and fit right in. I tried to place Pukela’s voice, which was sharp but sweet, and seemed a notch or two above tenor but below alto. It wasn’t until Craigie referred to Pureka as “she” that I had any suspicion I hadn’t been watching a man. Wikipedia later informed me that Pureka “identifies as genderqueer,” a new term to me, but it certainly captures the non-gender-identity that they are apparently seeking. Whether man, woman or genderqueer, they played lovely throwback music of the moment.

The Wallflowers

Jakob Dylan was frustrated that the Lobero crowd was responding appreciatively but politely to his group, the Wallflowers. “We’re a rock’n’roll band!,” he pleaded. Finally, before launching into “One Headlight,” his biggest, if not only, hit, he pointedly commented, “It must be awfully tiring just sitting in those seats,” and on cue the crowd rose as one and started gyrating along with the music, and we stayed on our feet for one more song and two encores. Was it masks that kept the excitement level down, the mature age of the audience, the stately character of the theater, or the good-but-not-great quality of the music? When the Wallflowers’ appearance in Santa Barbara was first advertised, I bought a ticket and started listening to their new album, ” Exit Wounds,” which I thought surprisingly good. “Surprising,” because it had been 25 years since their breakthrough album, “Bringing Down the Horse,” and I hadn’t heard or thought much about them since then. One-third of their concert featured songs from “Exit Wounds,” including my favorites, of the album and of the night: “Roots and Wings,” “The Dive Bar in My Heart,” “I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up),” “I Hear the Ocean (When I Wanna Hear Trains),” although the harmony of Shelby Lynne that lights up the record was missing from the performance. It was good rock’n’roll, but it didn’t bring back enough memories or cause enough chills. And Dylan himself seemed stuck in an off-base persona–not really Bob, but not really something different. I guess in the end, the audience was a reflection of his enthusiasm.
The opening act was a band called Ragged Glory, which, I learned from the program, reconvenes once a year to recreate Neil Young’s songs from 1969-79–”Hello Cowgirl in the Sand,” etc. I loved their songs, although they never matched the originals; but what I loved most was the fact that here in 2021, musicians were paying homage to music, my music, from a half-century ago. Two days later I was back at the Lobero for music from 55 years ago, and it was quite a contrast. Jan and Dean’s Beach Party featured 81-year-old Dean Torrence (Jan having died) and four replacement/studio musicians who, we were told, regularly play with the Beach Boys’ various touring groups. This was strictly an “oldies” show, with canned patter, rote performances and more repetition than conviction. The songs–more Beach Boys than Jan and Dean, as was appropriate, with a couple of strays–were of course memorable; but the quality of play and lack of inspiration or imagination left a lot to be desired. They made me appreciate Ragged Glory, who tried to make it their own, not just copy what someone else had done.

The “little phrase”

There is a famous “little phrase” in a sonata by the composer/family friend Vinteuil that becomes the anthem of Swann’s love for Odette, and this musical reference pops up at various times in Proust’s chronicle. Reading, one can only imagine the shape of this phrase. Easier to recognize is the phenomenon of a snippet of song that takes on a larger-than-life role in one’s musical library. My library, of course, is made up of rock songs, not sonatas. For me, the equivalent of the little phrase is the passage – maybe six or seven notes – that comes near the end of a song that makes me hold my breath in anticipation. If I am with someone when the song plays on the radio, I will say, in effect, “Quiet, please. Let me just concentrate on this brief bit.” As I think of them, or happen to hear them, I will list the little phrases that continue to thrill me, recognizing that it will be impossible – just as it was for Proust – to convey the sound I am citing.

Five Discs, “I Remember” – a seven-note bass doo-wop following the line, “Tell me baby, where can I be found.” [1:26]
Marshall Tucker Band, “I Heard It In a Love Song” – the phrase, “I was born a wrangler and a rambler and I guess I always will.” [4:12]
Hall & Oates, “She’s Gone” – after fits and starts, fits and starts, a key-changing crescendo builds up to a keening “she’s go-o-o-o-o-o-o-ne, oh why?” [4:35]
Wilco – “Impossible Germany” – almost three minutes into a noodling instrumental coda, an exhilarating three-cord progression resolves the tension. Have I heard this phrase elsewhere, or just from its brief introduction two minutes earlier? [5:17]
Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run” – you know where this is going, right: “1-2-3-4.” [3:03]
John Mellencamp, “The Authority Song” – “Kick it in” brings back the orchestra and energy after a pulsating drum hiatus. [2:44]
Sensations, “Let Me In” – only reason to listen to this oldie is for the five-note progression at the very end, after the last “do-wee-oop-we-ooo.” [2:50?]

 

J.D. Souther

J.D. Souther’s songs are all pretty sad, and you almost felt sorry for his life, too, after hearing him in solo concert at the Lobero last night. He frequently name-checked artists more successful than he, while mentioning that he was a music teacher, could read music, could play a song in any key. When someone allegedly asked Glenn Frey why J.D. wasn’t more famous, Glenn said, “John David keeps giving away his best songs.” Whenever he played a song made famous by the Eagles, he would preface or postscript it by saying it was on “the best-selling album of all time.” He also bragged about “Faithless Love” – a song I’d never heard – as one that was covered by many artists but sung best by Linda Ronstadt, who was living with him when he wrote it.

Someone suggested maybe he was drunk. I didn’t think of that, and never having seen J.D. drunk or sober wouldn’t know. He did repeat one story and couldn’t remember whether he had played a song already. He started the set by playing four songs straight, without pause or comment, which would have been a good way to get into the swing of the show if he was impaired. And he didn’t take the stage until 8:15, which is unusual for the Lobero. Still, in all, I quite enjoyed the evening. I could hear his lyrics and the songs, with one exception, were mellow, even when not overtly sad. The lone rocker was from his Eagles catalogue: “(There’s Gonna Be a) Heartache Tonight” – not an especially good song. His other contributions were also relatively minor additions to the canon of Eagles’ greatest hits, although I do love “The Sad Cafe.” When I checked the writing credits for J.D.’s songs, I noted that not once was he given sole credit. Don Henley and Glenn Frey were also credited as co-writers, as was Bob Seger once and Joe Walsh. Perhaps they added arrangements or perhaps, like his career, J.D.’s contribution stayed in the background while others soared.        2/27/20

Session Musician All-Stars

The Immediate Family was formed in 2018 by four of the best, and best-known, session musicians from the ’70s: guitarists and a drummer who played behind Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carole King, various Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Phil Collins, on and on. I knew the names Waddy Wachtel, Danny Kortchmar and Russ Kunkel, although I couldn’t have recognized a one; and the liner notes said that bass player Leland Sklar, an unfamiliar name, had played on roughly 2,600 albums. Rounding out the group was a relative youngster, Tom Petty look-alike Steve Postell. Age, however, does not seem to have diminished their rock’n’roll chops, which were on full display in two  45-minute sets at the Lobero last night (4/2/19).

One unusual feature of the group was the absence of a keyboard or, for that matter, any instrument beyond one set of drums and four guitars. The guitar playing, especially by Wachtel, was masterful, and every song had a great rock’n’roll beat, you can’t lose it. Wachtel, Kortchmar and Postell were all quite competent singers; it always impresses me that a great instrumentalist can also sing so well. I’m also impressed when I find out that a beautiful woman is  a great actress – there’s no reason the two should go together – but here there was no trifecta of leading man looks. I even wondered if Wachtel’s strange looks had kept him from a solo career of his own.

The band kicked off the show with Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” – a song that Jackson Browne interestingly covered at his show last summer – which introduced their set of half originals, half covers, although they pointed out that they were actually “covering” songs they themselves had written. Unfortunately, although I longed to hear familiar tunes, the songs Kortchmar had penned for Don Henley were not my favorites: Dirty Laundry, All She Wants to Do Is Dance, New York Minute and something from the Perfect Beast. Ditto a James Taylor number, Machine Gun Kelly. My two favorite numbers were original compositions: High-Maintenance Girlfriend and Not That Kind of Guy.

Still, it was great to see old-timers doing what they love: rocking. I wonder and worry, once again, will this music die when our generation is gone?

Beach Boys 2018

I risked my rock’n’roll cred by attending a concert by Mike Love’s Beach Boys at the Granada Theater last Friday (9/21/18). Although not actually billed as such, the tour seemed at least a commercial endeavor, at worst a vanity project, by the former lead singer, who was the only actual original Beach Boy in the nine-person ensemble. Not that a much larger contingent was possible after the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, the peculiar private journey of Brian Wilson and a history of disputes/litigation involving rights and trademarks among the survivors. Still, it was a bit tacky to watch the intermission video endlessly looping ads for Mike Love’s latest album and recent memoir. His in-concert comments included nice tributes to the deceased, but the only acknowledgements of Brian came when Mike announced he had written songs – “Good Vibrations” and “Be True to Your School” – with Brian. And Al Jardine never factored.

Love’s performing style was singularly inauthentic, incessantly pointing with bogus bonhomie at different members of the audience – the kind of thing you’d never see at the Bowl or the Lobero but seemed consistent, somehow, with the Granada. Not surprisingly, Love doesn’t have much of a voice at 77, but what was surprising was the total lack of charisma among the seven younger backup musicians, including Love’s son, Christian. It was as if Love was careful to pick plain-vanilla performers who wouldn’t upstage him. All the energy had to come from Love in front, which meant there wasn’t that much.

Montecito’s own Bruce Johnston, an almost-original Beach Boy, was stationed up front with Love, but I couldn’t hear his voice until late in the proceedings. He stood behind what looked like a toy keyboard, which he may have been playing, although someone was at a much larger keyboard behind him. He, too, was careful not to get in Love’s way, although a couple times he waved the crowd off their seats, which was welcome, if not spontaneous. All the while video of earlier Beach Boy performances played on a screen stage rear, along with shots of California surfers and some flashes of the Beatles. This was suitably nostalgic, although a bit amateurish, as the same scenes kept reappearing.

What saved the night was the Beach Boys’ incredible catalogue. No matter how sketchy Love’s lead vocals were, the backup harmonies were competent and on the more difficult numbers the other musicians did the singing.  Not counting the token song from Love’s solo album and the encore as we left of Barbara Ann, there was nary a clunker. Surf songs – Surfin’ USA, Surfin’ Safari; hot rod songs – Little Deuce Coupe, 409, Don’t Worry, Baby; ballads – Surfer Girl, God Only Knows; girl’s name songs – Help Me, Rhonda, Wendy; wistful adolescent songs – When I Grow Up to Be A Man, Wouldn’t It Be Nice – they were all there, one after another, almost nonstop.  You can hate the man, but still love the music.

 

Leon Bridges

In order to understand why he is given so much airplay on Sirius-XM’s Spectrum as well as to keep my mind open to new sounds, I went to see Leon Bridges at the Santa Barbara Bowl September 13. He is a good dancer, although no Michael Jackson or Prince (or maybe Bruno Mars), he has an appealingly gruff voice and more than adequate stage presence. His 7-piece backup band and vocalists kept the energy high and beat throbbing. The Bowl was full, appreciative and knew the songs; so it’s clear he has a following. I recognized a few numbers from the radio play, but it’s not like their melodies were any catchier in person. In short, Leon Bridges seemed to me a competent r&b performer, with nothing new or terribly exciting. I’ve seen him, but two days later can’t remember a thing.