Posts Tagged ‘Classic Albums’

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

The cover to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures is both immediately familiar and entirely mysterious — much like the music within. The only album from the band to be released during frontman Ian Curtis’ lifetime, he undeniably drives their debut, whether with an aggressive isolation or a hand reaching out hopefully. But that’s not to say this is a one-man show. The rest of Joy Division do their fair share of heavy lifting, producing cavernous, eerie sets to surround his tortured mental explorations. A touchstone for post-punk, new wave, electronic music, and indie as a whole, Unknown Pleasures feels like listening to the deep breaths and mumbled self-analysis of an astronaut as he drifts out into space.

There’s a reason 1979’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is the altar at which so many worship. This is the calling card of the gesamtkunstwerk that is/was Joy Division, those four spindly young dudes studiously engaged in pushing the post-punk envelope further than it had gone before. 

‘Unknown Pleasures’ is known for being gloomy or even depressing. While you can definitely make the case for this, the words that more readily spring to mind are “elegance” or “grandeur”. The rhythms here are propulsive but never excessive; guitars and bass wind tightly around the song structures; the vocals are too dynamic to venture into true melancholy as they do with an Elliott Smith or Grouper. 

You have to remember that Joy Division were forged in punk. Famously, the band’s members were among the crowd at the The Sex Pistols’ Lesser Free Trade Hall gig – Morrissey, Mark E Smith, Factory Records’ head honcho Tony Wilson and Buzzcocks were also there. Joy Division’s scratchy punk energy, best captured on the ‘Ideal For Living’ EP, was tempered by Martin Hannett’s experimental recording and production techniques to create something completely distinctive-sounding for this debut LP. From the indie-disco pump and thrust of opener ‘Disorder’ to the stentorian ‘Day Of The Lords’, the energetic ‘She’s Lost Control’ to the faded elegance of closer ‘I Remember Nothing’ – if ‘Unknown Pleasures’ isn’t iconic, then nothing is.

If one album summed up the mood of 1971 in 45 minutes, it was Sly & the Family Stone‘s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Dark, druggy and depressing as hell, the fifth album by the San Francisco group led by multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone was the recorded equivalent of a gut punch to a nation already knocked senseless by war overseas and social unrest at home.
Almost exactly a year before “There’s a Riot Goin’ On‘s” release in November 1971, Sly & the Family Stone put out their massively popular “Greatest Hits” record, which collected singles and deep cuts from 1968 and 1969. The dozen tracks wrapped up the brief history of one of R&B’s best crossover bands, chronicling a dizzying couple of years that yielded some of the era’s most enduring songs.
But anyone expecting a second sunshine-kissed greatest-hits volume in a few years was most likely side-lined by the despairing tones crawling throughout “There’s a Riot Goin’ On“. Originally titled “Africa Talks to You“, and recorded partly in response to Marvin Gaye‘s sociopolitical “What’s Going On” (another era-defining album released in 1971), the album was a moody, murky indictment of the United States at the turn of the decade.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On” is a striking example of a pathfinder taking a road, both musically and personally, that tests every relationship to the brink and beyond to a place and time where tumult is inevitable and damage is dealt harshest of all to the protagonist at the centre of it.

The cover art, featuring an American flag with suns replacing the familiar stars, says it all: Blood-red stripes offset the remaining black and white.
It wasn’t an easy record to listen to then, and it’s still tough to get through at times now. But Sly & the Family Stone never made a more significant album. It’s their masterpiece, but it’s also one of music’s most harrowing and desolate works, and one that reflected the turmoil going on within Sly Stone.
After Sly & the Family Stone’s rousing Woodstock performance, their leader became unreliable. He missed shows. He missed album deadlines (prompting the release of “Greatest Hits“). He became more and more paranoid. He moved to Los Angeles. He joined the Black Panthers, who urged him to drop the white members of his multi-racial group. And he started to take more and more drugs, which clouded his mind and, to an extent, his creativity.
When he was able to get it together, he didn’t like what he saw, particularly the end of civil-rights activism and the dark pall cast on the final years of the ’60s. So he made an album about it, replacing his band’s usual psychedelic pop and funk with a deeper, sleepier version muddled with gut-churning bass rumbles, mumbled lyrics and a sense that there was a violent revolution brewing, but only if its leader didn’t nod off first.

But the groundwork for this new blueprint of soul and funk lies in its predecessor “Stand” and, more importantly perhaps, the success it brought with it. Released in 1969 after three solid, if unspectacularly performing albums, it reached #12 Top 200, whereas none of the previous three albums had broken the top 100. Part of its success can be attributed to a moment that goes down as one of the most important in 20th Century musical history: the Woodstock Festival

When Sly and the Family Stone took the stage at 3.30am on Sunday August 17th, 1969, their lives and careers changed forever. Almost knee deep in mud and worn low by the ravages of a weekend of intoxicating substances and little sleep, the crowd was revitalized by the surging, infectious performance the band gave—a lengthy, exultant “I Want To Take You Higher” lit the touch paper and the band never looked back. In fact, it was a palpable moment of realization for those involved, as well as those in the crowd. Larry Graham, the slap bass innovator, recounted in later years the fact that the band fully grasped their potential and realized what the awesome power of the fully operational group could attain.

But the savage irony of that realization is that the seeds were sown at that moment for the gradual dissolution of the group. For with success, came money and, somewhat inevitably, distractions. It may be a tale oft-told but it remains true—no one prepares you for success and all the trappings it brings. The distractions that afflicted Sly Stone in particular are well documented—for him it was cocaine and PCP that were his escape. Scanning through the interviews he gave to journalists in the early 1970s (which were few and far between), each and every single one of them makes mention of his cocaine habit.

Sly Stone missed 26 of the 80 planned shows, but things may not have been quite so straightforward. For all that the drugs would inevitably contribute to the problem, there was the idea that some form of scam was being run by those around the group. If Stone was waylaid by someone, resulting in a missed show, it was alleged that that person got a split of the resulting financial payoff Stone was obliged to produce. When he was interviewed by David Letterman in 1983, he addressed the issue head on: “There’s no way to make three gigs in one night, if you only know about one.”

Stone used The Plant Studios in Sausalito and the loft of his Bel-Air mansion but with one added curiosity. Sly also owned a Winnebago that was fitted out (somewhat chaotically) with recording equipment that added to the places Stone could hide himself away and create what would become Riot. It was a solitary endeavor for the most part though, something that was made possible by the advent of the most basic of drum machines. 

The Maestro Rhythm King MRK2 had preset patterns that he would use in a new, exciting way as Greg Errico (a real human drummer!) grudgingly testifies in Kaliss’ book:  “The machine. . . was a lounge instrument that the guy at the bar at the Holiday Inn might have used.


Stone worked on the album, mostly by himself, throughout 1970 and 1971. Many of his vocals were recorded in his bedroom, with a drum machine driving the beat. The other members of the group later overdubbed their parts. And Stone himself overdubbed even more on top of that. The result was a mix so thick and muddy that it perfectly suited the album’s themes of disillusionment and despair.

There were the internal band tensions that had been present since almost day one. Larry Graham and Sly tussled numerous times as the former challenged Stone’s authority. There were also rumours of Graham having affairs with Rose (Sly’s sister) and Sharon (Sly’s brother Freddie’s wife)—hardly a cocktail for healthy relationships and dynamic musical brotherhood. The upshot of all that was that Graham barely appeared on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On“, instead bass parts were played by either Stone himself or Rustee Alan who was more in line with James Jamerson’s luxuriously smooth bass playing than Graham’s newly minted slap bass techniques that had contributed so memorably to “Stand’s” success.
From the opening “Luv n’ Haight” — one of the few songs here that doesn’t sound like a 45 played at 33 1/3 — to the closing “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” a gloomy, seven-minute reworking of Sly & the Family Stone’s 1969 No. 1 hit “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” There’s a Riot Goin’ On plays out like a drug-induced nightmare that’s a simultaneous end to the ’60s and the start of an equally tumultuous decade. The title track, which closes out Side One, runs 0:00, erasing all time and space from the record.

It’s a fitting summation of the album, because nothing else sounded like it at the time. All these years later, it remains one of the most distinctive records ever made. It confused a lot of people then, and it still does. But the success of the single “Family Affair,” which hit No. 1, drove the LP to the top of the album chart.
It would be the group’s last No. 1s, though they did manage to make one more great album, 1973’s Fresh, before Stone couldn’t keep it together anymore. There’s a Riot Goin’ On touched just about everyone who heard it. Jazz got darker and funkier, funk got darker and deeper, R&B got weirder and druggier and rock ‘n’ roll got more adventurous and complicated (the Rolling Stones, for one, were influenced by the murky production enough to bury Exile on Main St. in a similar mix).

It seems almost beyond comprehension that the group’s biggest song would come from this album, but “Family Affair” hit #1 on the charts and stayed there for three weeks. Recorded with Billy Preston on electric piano and Bobby Womack on rhythm guitar, it buried Sly’s guitar in the mix and featured his singing in an entirely different register. Gone were the urgent gospel-like vocals of previous years and in its place came a guttural, underplayed vocal that mirrored the gloomy approach to recording and the overall feel of the album.

The other singles released from the album were “Runnin’ Away” and “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” both of which did pretty well

The music on “Riot” is funky, very funky, but it is of a totally different ilk to the funk others offered. Take James Brown’s work of the time with his new line-up that included Bootsy and Catfish Collins. Their brand of funk was expansive, punchy and dancing to it meant the chance to use huge movements—spins, pirouettes and leaping splits; arms and legs flung as extensively as possible. But it is hard to imagine those same movements in response to the deep, gloopy funk of “Riot“. Here the funk is wearing a strait jacket—the movements it provokes are limited in scope and scale, instead the neck bears the brunt of the groove.

Hawkwind In Search Of Space album cover web optimised 820

Happy 50th anniversary to “In Search of Space”, the first masterpiece of Hawkwind originally released on 8th October 1971. Hawkwind’s debut album is one of the first full length “Space Rock” albums, but they mastered that art by the time of this sophomore album. The band went on to release the classics like Doremi Fasol Latido (1972), Space Ritual (1973), Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974)

A bold step forward for Hawkwind, their second album, ‘In Search Of Space” laid the groundwork for the landmark track ‘Silver Machine.’ It’s hard to imagine the world of rock’n’roll without Hawkwind’s presence. The pioneering London space-rockers have now endured for five decades, and have a string of classic albums under their belt, among them “In Search Of Space” and “Warrior On The Edge Of Time“. While guitarist/vocalist Dave Brock has remained the only constant, legendary figures such as Ginger Baker, sci-fi/fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and Motörhead founder Lemmy have all passed through its ranks.

Even now, the band’s detractors still dismiss them as merely a “hippie” aberration, but while this seemingly invincible outfit will forever be associated with the UK’s free-festival circuit, in reality their music has embraced everything from prog-rock to psychedelia and heavy metal. Later LPs, such as 1992’s Electric Teepee, even flirted with genres as disparate as ambient and techno.

To date, Hawkwind has recorded almost 30 studio LPs for both major labels (Charisma, Bronze, Active/RCA) and independent imprints (Flicknife, EBS). Yet while the band remains a going concern, most long-term supporters would argue that their career-defining discs emerged from their fruitful tenure with their initial sponsors, Liberty/United Artists, between 1970 and 1975.

Released in August 1970 and co-produced by former Pretty Things guitarist Dick Taylor, Hawkwind’s eponymous debut was book-ended by two folk-flavoured tracks, “Hurry On Sundown” and “Hall Of Mirrors,” but it was dominated by a lengthy free-form, psych-prog jam which was edited down, in Can-like fashion, into shorter individual selections.

Hawkwind was a volatile outfit at the best of times and their initial line-up disintegrated soon after their debut. The original nucleus of Brock, sax/flute maestro Nik Turner, drummer Terry Ollis and synth player Dik Mik remained, but guitarist Hugh Lloyd Langton quit; ex-Amon Düül II bassist Dave Anderson replaced Thomas Crimble, and the band’s soundman, Del Dettmar, stepped in as an additional synth/electronics manipulator.

This line-up recorded the band’s celebrated sophomore release, In Search Of Space. First issued in October ’71 and compiled from sessions overseen by former Jimi Hendrix/Small Faces engineer George Chkiantz at London’s Olympic Studios, the album was a bold step forward from Hawkwind’s debut. Arguably,  The album opens with the mind-numbing galactic haze of “You Shouldn’t Do That,” a spooky little 15-minute excursion that warps, throbs, and swirls with Dik Mik’s “audio generator” and the steady drum pace of Terry Ollis. Then comes the ominous whispering of the title, set to the pulsating waves of Dave Brock’s guitar and Turner’s alto sax, with Dettmar’s synth work laying the foundation. Wonderfully setting the tone, “You Shouldn’t Do That” improvisational looseness and rhythmic fusion smoothly open up the album into the realm of Hawkwind. The peculiarity never ceases, as but Brock and Co. also excelled on the intergalactic blues-rock of “You Know You’re Only Dreaming” and “We Took the Wrong Steps Years Ago” delves even deeper into obscurity, sometimes emanating with the familiar jangle of the guitar which then has its acquaintance overshadowed by the waft of the keyboard. Just as laced the succinct, acid-addled “Master Of The Universe’ with Nuggets-esque proto-punk energy, chugs and rolls with a foreboding rhythm, “Adjust Me” retaliates with its moaning verse and tonal fluctuations fading into oblivion. The ground breaking sound which Hawkwind achieved on “In Search of Space” helped to open up a whole new avenue of progressive rock. The track “You Shouldn’t Do That,” wherein the band locked into a super-hypnotic motorik groove.

Designed by future Stiff Records/Elvis Costello artist Barney Bubbles, “In Search Of Space” came housed in a spectacular interlocking die-cut sleeve which unfolded into the shape of a hawk, and came accompanied by a 24-page book, the sci-fi-flavored The Hawkwind Log, conceived by the band’s long-term associate, poet Robert Calvert. Successfully feeding the era’s discerning heads, the LP climbed to No.18 in the UK, it won Hawkwind a gold disc, and laid the groundwork for their UK Top 10 hit, June ’72’s “Silver Machine,” which featured a commanding vocal from new recruit Lemmy.

King Crimson’s “Discipline” is an adventurous, experimental and ground-breaking collection from one of rock’s truly singular bands, By the dawn of the 80s, punk had rock music to its foundations. So much so that even one-time prog rockers were streamlining their sound/approach. King Crimson were one such band, as evidenced by 1981’s exceptional “Discipline”. 

When leader/guitarist Robert Fripp decided to form a ‘new Crimson’ band, overindulgences were trimmed and replaced with a sound heavy on rhythm and experimentation. A chance meeting would shape the rest of the line-up. 

“I met Robert Fripp one night in New York, at a club called the Bottom Line,” remembers singer/ guitarist Adrian Belew. “I was playing with David Bowie at the time [1979/1980] and [we] went to see Steve Reich. When the lights came up, Robert was at the table next to us. So I went over, and he wrote his hotel number on my arm. We had coffee, and got to know each other. 

“In nineteen-eighty I started with the Talking Heads, and when they arrived in England I got a call from Robert saying: ‘I’m starting a new band with [drummer] Bill Bruford and myself. Would you like to be a part of it?’ I jumped at the chance.” 

After an extended hiatus and just as prog’s first decade ended, Fripp got behind the wheel for another series of remarkable efforts. Retaining Bruford and recruiting agile bassist Tony Levin, it was the audacious decision to employ a second guitarist (Adrian Belew, who also handled vocal duties) that gives this collective its characteristic sound. Fripp’s exposure to new wave, complemented by an increasingly globe-ranging palette, alongside Belew’s supple support, results in material that is challenging yet concise. On songs like “The Sheltering Sky” Fripp incorporates virtually every trick in his arsenal, creating something that integrates multiple source-points (African, Indian, and Western). The title track is like a business card for the new decade: Fripp asked a lot of his audience, but he’s always asked more of himself.

 

“I don’t think any of us knew we were creating something so unusual,” Belew says. “But now that I look back, it’s easy to see – every one of us had new technology. I was the first to have a guitar synthesiser, and Robert was probably the second. Tony had the Chapman Stick, which no one had used before, and Bill was fooling with electronic drums. So you had these four monkeys in a cage together with new toys. Something was bound to happen.”  Something did indeed happen. With funky workout “Elephant Talk”, ambient soundscapes (Sheltering Sky), tranquil moments (Matte Kudasai) and controlled freak-outs (Thela Hun Ginjeet, Indiscipline), 1981’s Discipline sounded like nothing before it. 

 

An interesting occurrence developed during sessions for Thela Hun Ginjeet. Belew remembers it vividly: “John Lennon had been killed, and he was my hero. So I tried to write a lyric about being molested with a gun on the streets of a city. I tried to think of phrases, as though it was an interview on the street after the occurrence. 

“We were in a part of London that was a dangerous area, but I didn’t know that. I had a tape recorder, and Robert said: ‘If you want to get realistic sounds, why don’t you walk around on the street and say your lines?’

“I walked down one of the streets, and there was illegal gambling going on by a group of Rastafarian guys – pretty tough-looking. And they’d gathered around me. They thought I was an undercover policeman. They were about to kill me! At one point the ‘leader’ grabbed my tape recorder and played back what I had just been saying: ‘He had a gun!’ [laughs] The guy freaked out. ‘What gun?!’ They finally let me go, I’m not sure why. 

“I went back to the studio. I was so shook up, and I ran into the control room and was telling Robert the story. Meanwhile, he had whispered to the engineer to record it, and that’s what you hear on the record.” 

Although Discipline wasn’t a big hit, it re-established King Crimson, and touched a legion of young musicians. Says Belew: “It certainly wasn’t a record that your average person would know, but it had an affect on Primus, Tool, Trent Reznor and so many people. That record affected the way they saw music. And for me, that’s even better than saying we had a big hit record.”

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Blondie didn’t just leap with 1978’s “Parallel Lines”; they went into hyperdrive. As one of the early progenitors of the highly influential NYC punk scene, singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein ditched the grime and grit and embraced what would become their own signature brand of glossy power pop and disco-tinged new wave — you know, the stuff that wound up shaping the next decade. “Heart of Glass”, the album’s state-of-the-art third single, was a total game-changer for the outfit, welding European electronica with Harry’s natural falsetto.

When Blondie went into New York’s famed Record Plant studios in June 1978 they were allocated 6 months to record their third studio album. Six weeks later, producer Mike Chapman deemed the job done and Parallel Lines was born.

Following on from their punk-meets-new-wave sound, Parallel Lines was a more focused and deliberate effort than their previous two albums, despite the band’s best efforts to achieve otherwise. With the central focus of Chapman behind the boards, he led the band to push themselves musically and at times beyond their own musical abilities. The result was an album that came to define pure post-punk pop. And Blondie’s days as a charmed underground group out of New York were numbered, as a larger world would open up to them on the heels of its release.

When Blondie started work on their third album, Parallel Lines, in the summer of 1978, they were an under-the-radar New Wave band with a nostalgic bent toward the girl-group sounds of the ’60s. They were in an entirely different position when they began recording their next album, “Eat to the Beat, less than a year later.  Kicking off with the rocking stalking anthem of “Hanging on the Telephone” (a Jack Lee cover) Debbie Harry delivers her strongest vocals to date, inhabiting the song with a sweet yet dangerous delivery.

Harry’s persona grows with the uber catchy “One Way or Another” with its signature guitar hook and sweet boppy beat that underscores the threat and menace on display in the lyrics. the obsessed jilted lover, Harry was taunting and preening with jealousy like a pro. With every line, Harry grows in strength and showcases the power needed to front an all-male band in the late ‘70s (and be taken seriously). Completing the opening trio of pop perfection, the band shifts gears with the lovelorn promise of “Picture This.” Amidst swirling guitar riffs and a classic backbeat by drummer Clem Burke, the song mixes early rock nostalgia with a burning sexuality and does so while still remaining sugary sweet.

After its release in fall 1978, Parallel Lines shot up the charts, reaching No. 1 in the U.K. and the Top 10 in the U.S. thanks to the powerhouse appeal of the single “Heart of Glass,” which went to No. 1 across the planet, including the U.S. The song added another influence to the band’s range of musical styles. So, when the six-member Blondie, led by singer Debbie Harry, entered the studio in their hometown of New York City as spring turned to summer in 1979, they pretty much followed the template of the record that rocketed them to stardom the previous year. That meant some New Wave, a little pop, a throwback or two to their punk roots and, of course, more disco. And then they took it even further.

Harry, who co-wrote eight of the new album’s songs, was thrust into the spotlight following “Parallel Lines” success. She became the focal point of the group and was often characterized by unknowing Top 40 fans as a solo artist named Blondie. Even though their publicity department stressed the issue — going as far as declaring “Blondie is a band” in press releases — getting casual music fans who knew them from only “Heart of Glass” to acknowledge there were five other people making the music was often an uphill battle.

This musical growth is evident on the modern torch song of “Fade Away and Radiate,” the pulsing driven beat of “I Know But I Don’t Know” with its borderline psychedelic melody, and the urgent rock swing of “11:59.”

Even the album’s filler songs such as “Just Go Away” and “Will Anything Happen” rival the hits on other band’s albums of the era. And then there’s the bouncy pop of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” and “Sunday Girl” that present a softer, more playful side to Blondie’s sound, But the game changer of the album, and for the band, was the soon to be disco anthem “Heart of Glass.” To a bubbling drum machine and strutting open hi-hat beat, the production on “Heart of Glass” is flawless. From the soft and subtle (at first) blipping synth line and slow sweeps, Blondie boldly stepped from the grimy stages of New York’s clubs to the dance floors of thriving discos.

Loved, and also hated, for producing a “disco” song, Blondie held fast to their belief of writing a great song befitting of the pop and r&b influences that appeared—perhaps less obviously—in their earlier recordings. Parallel Lines is the album of a band (somewhat reluctantly) finding its sound. It became the album that sprang them forward and launched them onto the world stage, and would form the blueprint for their subsequent efforts. It remains a perfect encapsulation of Blondie in their prime, focused on superior songcraft and musicianship. Whilst producer Chapman may have pushed them to beyond their creative breaking point, the result ensured an album that stands the test of time.

When they reconvened in the studio to make Eat to the Beat, Blondie were still working hard on that band dynamic. All six members contributed songs to the album in one form or another and, along with returning producer Mike Chapman, were determined to not rest on Parallel Lines’ laurels. Eat to the Beat sounds like a follow-up, but not a sequel. And that’s no small achievement.

From the start, Blondie didn’t quite fit in with the punk groups they were often associated with. They were poppier and more melodic. And they didn’t seem like they wanted to save the world — or burn it down, for that matter. So the disco explosion that was “Heart of Glass” sounded natural, an effortless offshoot from their downtown art-punk roots. A small step, but an integral part of Blondie’s story. As producer Chapman noted in the album’s 2001 reissue, tensions were high during the recording, stemming from increased drug use among various members. But Harry also began to assume more control, outlining a vision for the album that included the usual mix of pop, punk, disco, New Wave and even R&B-inflected songs.

beachboys

Some time in the spring of 1966, Al Kooper, a musician who’d recently supplied the signature organ riff to Bob Dylan’s ground breaking track “Like a Rolling Stone,” was invited to Brian Wilson’s home to hear some new Beach Boys music, an album called “Pet Sounds”, still a few weeks away from release. “He played it for me,” remembers Kooper, “and then he played it again, which did not bother me. Little did I know that it would receive more plays than anything else in my house for the rest of my life. It’s still my favourite album. Brian was in a world of music that no one else dwelled in.”

Al Kooper is not alone in his assessment. Mojo magazine has named Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ 11th album, the greatest LP of all time and Rolling Stone placed it at number two in its original top 500 list, just behind Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Conceived, written, produced and arranged by Wilson, with lyrics primarily by advertising copywriter Tony Asher – with whom Wilson had never previously collaborated – Pet Sounds was released by Capitol Records on May 16th, 1966, more than a half-century ago. Its impact has only swelled over the years and it was celebrated in 2016 by Capitol via Pet Sounds (50th Anniversary Collectors Edition), a box set housing four CDs and a Blu-ray audio disc. The package, which both reprises and expands upon The Pet Sounds Sessions, released 20+ years ago, includes the original album in stereo and mono, various other mixes, session outtakes and previously unreleased live recordings. It provides deep insight into the making of a landmark recording.

While much of the box set’ may appeal only to diehard fans and audiophiles, the original 13-track album, which features such Beach Boys classics as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No,” continues to find new fans. A key recurring plot point in 2015’s Brian Wilson biopic,Love & Mercy, revolved around the heady, intense Los Angeles sessions for the album, the creative genius directing the ace studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew while butting up against the other group members, who, the film alleges, felt that his new compositions were not representative of their trademark, best-selling sound. Those oft-repeated qualms, say Beach Boys Mike Love and Al Jardine, never existed.

Adds Love, “One thing I’ve been quoted as saying was, ‘Don’t fuck with the formula.’ But I never said that! It’s the most famous thing I said that I never said. First of all, I named the album. Second, all of us – Carl [Wilson], Al, Bruce, myself – all worked really hard on the harmonies. Pet Sounds is awesome for so many reasons. It was a big leap from where we were,” says Jardine. “We’d been out on tour for a long time [minus Brian, who’d stopped traveling with the band in 1964 to concentrate on writing and recording, his place in the road band taken by new recruit Bruce Johnston]. There was a lot of adjustment. But it wasn’t that we didn’t want to do it.”

Not all Beach Boys fans did initially fall for it though. On its release, Pet Sounds, despite garnering raves from the nascent rock press, It was a lesser performance than most of their previous albums, among them 1965’s Beach Boys Party! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights). Whether or not Brian Wilson and the other Beach Boys felt they’d created a defining work, Capitol Records balked, its executives complaining that the new music – much of it lush, soft, ambitious and introspective, Brian’s response to the Beatles’ new, more sophisticated direction on Rubber Soul – was too far removed from the music the public had come to expect from them.

“We played the album for Karl Engemann, the A&R [artists and repertoire] guy at Capitol responsible for the Beach Boys,” says Love, “and he listened and said, ‘Gee, guys, that’s great, but couldn’t we get something more like “California Girls” or “I Get Around” or “Fun, Fun, Fun”?’” The label’s solution was to tack on to the end of the album’s first side the group’s most recent hit single,  “Sloop John B.” Stylistically, it seemed at odds with Wilson and Asher’s more reflective compositions, among them “That’s Not Me,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Here Today,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” “You Still Believe In Me” and the achingly beautiful, Carl Wilson-sung “God Only Knows,” a romantic gem that Paul McCartney has cited as one of his favourite ever songs. The album also included two instrumentals, a head-scratcher to the company brass who’d only seen the Beach Boys as a vocal group.

“It didn’t meet their expectations so they took Pet Sounds off the market and quickly put out a best-of album that took the wind out of our sails,” says Jardine. “We really didn’t have a chance to exploit it or perform it.

Brian raised the bar with Pet Sounds,” says Jardine. “People play off that ingeniousness that he has. He hears things and phrases things in a way that you wouldn’t expect.”

For Brian Wilson, who turned 78 on June 20th, 2020, the album represents part of a continuum, the latest development in his evolution as an artist. By the time Pet Sounds was released he was deeply involved in perfecting his next masterpiece, the single “Good Vibrations,” which he’d hoped to include on the album but continued to fine-tune for months. “I decided to experiment with a new kind of music,” Wilson said. “I was young and creative and we really did good. I’m glad that people still like the album.

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Steely Dan’s records were pristine to the point where you could eat off their glistening surfaces. They were never as sharp or as focused as they are on ‘Aja,’ their 1977 hit that balances cool jazz with timeless pop appeal. Band leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker have been criticized for their coldness. But on ‘Aja,’ they reveal a warm, beating heart beneath that steely exterior.

One of the many signature qualities of this album is that it is impeccably produced, a fact that has garnered both praise and condemnation. Admittedly, I’ve always found it silly to criticize a band for being too proficient at their job. Becker, Fagen and crew ease you into Aja with “Black Cow,” a song about a man who grows fed up with his lover’s pill addiction and continuous infidelity. You have to appreciate that the beauty of Steely Dan’s music is found in  its sonic flawlessness enveloping sharp and intelligent lyrics.

Ian Dury once said of this album, “Well, Aja’s got a sound that lifts your heart up… and it’s the most consistent up-full, heart-warming…even though, it is a classic L.A. kinda sound. You wouldn’t think it was recorded anywhere else in the world.

The title track is the antithesis of what should be on a rock album. Then again, is this a rock album? The nearly eight-minute opus has been described by Donald Fagen as being about “tranquility that can come of a quiet relationship with a beautiful woman.”

These people are too fancy, they’re too sophisticated,” William S. Burroughs said of Steely Dan in 1977. “They’re doing too many things at once in a song.” Burroughs, who had no personal connection to the band, had been asked to comment on Aja, Steely Dan’s new record, because co-founder Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had named themselves after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” the surreal dildo featured in Burroughs’ most notorious novel Naked Lunch. His comment embodied a common-man criticism made about Steely Dan by their detractors: The unit, who stated their claim in the pop sphere with clean, blues-steeped singles like 1972’s “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” had gradually but consistently ceased to resemble a meat-and-potatoes rock band, instead spiraling off into groovier, jazz-inspired pop experimentalism.

‘Aja’ (1977): “Aja”

The eight-minute title song to Steely Dan’s best-selling album brilliantly combines jazz and rock. But even the fiery interplay between drummer Steve Gadd and saxophonist Wayne Shorter was more the product of studio wizardry than in-studio camaraderie. Gadd recorded his titanic drum fills live — and, he’s said, in one surprising take no less — with the rest of the legendarily picky members of Steely Dan. Shorter was brought in later and taped his answering solo over their already completed parts. At this point, that had become the norm, rather than the exception. Aja ended up taking a year and half to record, with studio expenses piling up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “We overdubbed a lot of the overdubs over,” Becker joked with Cameron Crowe in 1977, and he wasn’t really kidding. Still, the extended sessions allowed Fagen and Becker to explore entirely new corners of the their self-taught musical minds. The result is a moment like “I run to you” on “Aja,” where the song seems to come totally unmoored.

The effect heightened as Fagen and Becker systematically fired all of their band’s other members, and replaced them with industry-standard jazz, soul, and blues musicians. They stopped touring; the songs’ narratives and jokes became more acidic and obscure. Rolling Stone’s review of 1976’s sprawling, sinister The Royal Scam summarized the feelings of the band’s skeptics and newfound admirers alike, that they would “eventually produce the Finnegan’s Wake of rock.” On the day Aja came out, Walter Becker told Cameron Crowe that he was empathetic toward the concerns, but also uninterested in compromise: “These days most pop critics, you know, are mainly interested in the amount of energy that is…obvious on the record. People who are mainly Rolling Stones fans and people who like punk rock, stuff like that… a lot of them aren’t interested at all in what we have to do.”

Instead of the Rolling Stones or punk rock, Aja was deliberately intellectualist pop music that appealed easily to music-school types and jazz fans–chops-y rock music that helped “legitimize” the genre. Becker and Fagen’s songs, charted out across six or seven sheets normally, prized and necessitated technical musicianship. They used horns as expressive, exalted instruments in rock songs, not just padding or blunt, skronking deus ex machinas. But the record’s appeal extended well beyond the ranks of any subgenre of snobs. Standard-issue rock listeners, after all, indulged in elaborate, preciously-conceived, and strange things in the 1970s, a decade which yielded four Top 10 albums for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Years later, Aja is still Steely Dan’s commercial triumph. It was their only record to sell over a million copies, spawned three Top 40 singles—”Peg” hit No. 11—and stayed on the charts for well over a year, peaking at No. 3. In 1977, the music industry was at the apex of LP sales and mammoth recording budgets. In the year-and-a-half Fagen and Becker spent making Aja, the Dan would push their studio expenses into the hundreds of thousands, all while not playing live. On its 20th anniversary, Becker would chalk Aja’s success over past Steely Dan ventures up to the right-place-right-time factor: “That was a particular time when people were just selling lots of records.” They assumed, he said, that “‘we’re gonna sell three times as many records as we would have two years before.’”

To just chalk it up to a general market uptick, though, would be to sell the unique, subversive appeal of the re-minted Dan of Aja way short. Today, Aja still stands as the crucial microcosm of Becker and Fagen’s artistry, and as one of the most inventive blockbuster rock albums of its decade.

‘Peg’

“Peg,” which is the most well-known track on the album, is in a class by itself. It’s also the song that took forever to complete. The band went through seven studio guitarists to find the right sound on the guitar solo before settling on Jay Graydon’s version. Detractors will point to this fact as not letting a moment happen organically, but I would argue that it made a good song great. Having Fagen’s lead vocal mix with Michael McDonald singing background made it even better. “Peg” is the middle point of Aja and ensures that the album has already exceeded expectations before you even listen to the latter half. The interesting thing about this song is that Becker did not play bass on it. Those duties were handed to veteran session player Chuck Rainey.

‘Home at Last’

From: ‘Aja’ (1977)Donald Fagen once called this Steely Dan drinking song a “blues for Odysseus.” As such, it’s only appropriate that the hero in ‘Home at Last’ would be served “smooth retsina,” a Greek resinated wine, during his stay in paradise. Contrary to the track’s title, he can’t stay – “it’s just the calm before the storm.” Maybe he can take a bottle to go.

‘Black Cow’

From: ‘Aja’ (1977)Could it be that there’s a drink referenced in a Steely Dan song that doesn’t contain alcohol? Nothing’s for certain, but ‘Black Cow’’s titular beverage could be a simple coke float or a more adult version of the beverage. I guess it depends on what one finds most comforting during a break-up: “It’s over now / drink your big black cow / and get out of here.”

‘Deacon Blues’

This ‘Aja’ classic romances the idea of being a jazz musician toiling in obscurity – something that might have seemed appealing as Becker and Fagen became more famous throughout the ’70s. ‘Deacon Blues’ concocts the appropriate cocktail for this: get a cool name, learn to play an instrument, refuse to compromise, “Drink Scotch whisky all night long and die behind the wheel.” Wow. Sounds great, doesn’t it? (Kids, really, don’t try this at home.)“They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose / They call Alabama the Crimson Tide / Call me Deacon Blues.” There are song lyrics that make you scream, “Damn, I wish I wrote that.” A prime example are the lyrics to “Deacon Blues,” one of those songs that’s easily quotable and just stays with you forever. The name “Deacon” was influenced by Hall of Fame football player Deacon Jones. Fagen and Becker’s ode to underdogs clocks in at 7:36, but feels like a four-minute song that you wished lasted longer. Fagen’s inspiration came from his thought that “if a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide,’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.” It may the coolest nod to geeks that I know of.

During the making of Aja, the Dan were well-settled into retirement from live performance. Fans had gotten used to the band’s new, faceless new image. Over the months they spent fashioning the album, a suite of 7 songs about lust, wanderlust, delusions, and the destructive effects of American Dream, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker methodically reimagined the sound of their studio-assembled ensemble. It was not a dramatic repositioning. Steely Dan had been mostly made up of session musicians since 1974’s Katy Lied, and their songs had already featured plenty of weird chords and prodigious horn solos. But there was nothing like a big, rollicking rock’n’roll single on Ajano “Kid Charlemagne,” no “My Old School,” and certainly no fucking “Reelin’ in the Years.” Guitars provided auxiliary punctuation and effects-less solos rather than the brunt of the song; a stew of acoustic piano and electric keyboards, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, were at the warm center of the mix. Aja’s sound was a direct offshoot from jazz and fusion, steeped in its harmonic language, as well as that of turn-of-the-century modernist classical music (Debussy and Stravinsky, especially).

The particular musical syntax on Aja was in many ways uniquely Dan’s, however, the misbegotten result of Becker and Fagen’s own self-taught musical education. Their chordal sense was central to the issue: The complex changes left the average rock listeners’ ear out in the cold, pointing toward whole new keys for choruses and away from easy resolution. Moments like “I run to you” on Aja’s title track leave one totally adrift for clues as to where the song will move; elsewhere, there are deceptive instrumental flourishes, like the mystical Rhodes-and-guitar fanfare that introduces “Deacon Blues.” Fagen and Becker voiced chords so unusually that theory-heads refer to a specific “Steely Dan chord” (or “mu major chord”): a substitution for the typical primary (or tonic) chord featuring an added 9th rubbing up against the major 3rd. Harmonies like these pop up everywhere on Aja, imbuing its songs with sophisticated, decidedly un-rock’n’roll atmosphere.

Steely Dan’s <i>Aja</i>: Remembering the Band’s Trailblazing Moment 40 Years Later

But Becker and Fagen also borrowed plenty from contemporary pop music, despite their general dismissiveness of it. Plenty of why Aja was so successful–and spawned actual hit singles–came from its emulation of the backbone of American R&B and soul of the time. They hired players that had defined the sound of records by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Quincy Jones, as well as virtuoso jazz soloists (Larry Carlton, Victor Feldman, saxophone luminary and Miles/Weather Report alum Wayne Shorter). The most time-consuming sessions would be devoted to the lock-groove-based tunes, the ones that wouldn’t be too out-of-place next to disco on a playlist: “Peg,” the warped blues of “Josie,” the lascivious “I Got the News.” Fagen and Becker’s obsession with precision backbeats would become a more empirically insane compulsion during the more troubled sessions for 1980’s Gaucho, with some interference from a custom-designed drum machine called “Wendel.”

Decades later, Becker admitted just how much of this had to do with disco. “They had all these records that were just whack-whack, so perfect, the beat never fluctuated, and we didn’t see why we couldn’t have that too, except playing this incredibly complicated music, and the drummer would go and play a great fill or something and come exactly back at the perfect beat at the same tempo, you know?” he told GQ UK in 2014. “It seemed like a good idea.”

Much gets made of how obsessively Fagen and Becker would plot parts for musicians, but many of Aja’s best and most famous were defined by their players’ independent innovations. As bass player Chuck Rainey recalled in the Steely Dan biography Reelin’ in the Years, Fagen and Becker had specifically told him not to slap his bass during the sessions for “Peg.” Rainey responded by turning his back to the control room and slapping away. Fagen and Becker liked the sound, despite their prejudices, and Rainey went on to slap again on “Josie.”

Then there was Bernard Purdie, one of soul music’s most inimitable drum stylists, whotold the story of taking control of the direction of the recording of “Home at Last” himself in the Classic Albums episode on Aja. “They already told me that they didn’t want a shuffle. They didn’t want the Motown, they didn’t want the Chicago,” Purdie explained. “But they weren’t sure how and what they wanted, but they did want halftime. And I said ‘Fine, let me do the Purdie Shuffle.’” It was precisely what Fagen and Becker hadn’t asked for, until they heard it. Purdie would go on to use the same beat on one of the Dan’s greatest singles, Gaucho’s “Babylon Sisters.”

Meanwhile, drum prodigy Steve Gadd foiled the duo’s plans for the day by running down the intricate title track of Aja in just one take. For the most muso-focused listener, his epic, virtuosic solo in the instrumental middle of the song is the beating heart of the album, layered over with chunky horn charts from arranger Tom Scott and alien synthesizer atmosphere (an anomaly for a Becker/Fagen recording at the time.)

Like their hero Duke Ellington, Fagen and Becker needed the identity of individual soloists to create their finished canvas, but within quite specific and refined structural limits. The duo was not as good with people as Ellington, but they didn’t have to be. From the safety of the studio booth, they could just say “try it again” as much as they needed, and scrap the solos they didn’t like after the fact. According to Reelin’ in the Years, the band’s career-long producer Gary Katz would break the disappointment to the players by talking to them about baseball, before dropping the news that their solo—which the person had spent hours trying to hammer out—would not make the record. When it came to the prospect planning a live tour behind Aja, they got as far as rehearsals, but ultimately backed down.

“We had 4,000 dollars worth of musicians in the room, guys who wouldn’t go out on the road for Miles Davis, literally, and they were committed to doing this,” Fagen explained. “And we both left the room together and said, ‘What do you say, you wanna can it?’ And we both said ‘Yeah’ without thinking twice.”

Once you get to “Home at Last” and “Josie,” you realize that something truly special happened during the recording of Aja. A rock band named Steely Dan made a jazz album that masqueraded as a rock album, and the results are glorious. A smartly crafted, well-produced album does not equate to selling out or being soft. Their sound may not be for everybody, but it works for me.

Aja, despite its detractors, is one hell of an album that demands not just one play, but multiple spins. Aja makes you think. It compels you to listen again and again, as you continually uncover new elements and flourishes you hadn’t heard before. Great albums make you want to come back for more. And Aja is a great album.

Aja was one of the only records Becker and Fagen ever made that they would speak about with real pride. (Less than a year after Gaucho’s release, they would characterize it as a “sideways” move; Fagen admitted, “It’s possible that we took a few steps backward with this album.”) Today, Aja remains the extreme of their modernistic progress, a place they could not effectively move forward from or visit again, except when running down its songs on reunion tours two decades later.

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Aerosmith hit their stride on their third album, perfecting the nasty guitar licks and powerhouse performances they were honing onstage almost every single night. They carried this momentum to their next record, ‘Rocks,’ but ‘Toys in the Attic’ is the one album that defines Aerosmith in all their sleazy rock ‘n’ roll glory. “Aerosmith” was a different band when we started the third album. They’d been playing Get Your Wings on the road for a year and had become better players – different. It showed in the riffs that Joe [Perry] and Brad [Whitford] brought back from the road for the next album. “Toys in the Attic” was a much more sophisticated record than the other stuff they’d done.”

Aerosmith got off to a solid start with their debut album and avoided the sophomore jinx with their second. They truly took off when their third album arrived on April 8th, 1975.

“Toys in the Attic” found the group working to maintain its rock audience while making another bid for the crossover success that, to that point, had continued to flit just out of reach. Reconvening at the Record Plant in New York City during the early winter months of the year, the band members were under the gun in terms of delivering new material — but after years of live performance, they were now better prepared than ever.

Perhaps the most ambitious recording on the album is “You See Me Crying”, a complex piano ballad that was heavily orchestrated. Jack Douglas brought in a symphony orchestra for the song, which was conducted by Mike Mainieri. The song itself was written by Tyler and outside collaborator Don Solomon. Some of the band members became frustrated with the song, which took a long time to complete, due to the many complex drum and guitar parts. The band’s label, Columbia Records, was nonetheless very impressed with the song and the recording process.

“Toys” was the first record where we had to write everything pretty, much from scratch,” guitarist Joe Perry said. “And also, we had to do it after having been on the road for a while. And, though we were still playing a lot of gigs, we took a couple months off to make this record. So this was our first real studio record. And we would write a lot of the material in the studio. So we’d rehearse them and then go into the studio in the morning with a couple of guitar riffs, and we’d build all these songs out of them.”

Crediting an offhand remark from producer Jack Douglas during the Get Your Wings sessions with sending him into an emotional tailspin, bassist Tom Hamilton admitted in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith that the band’s ability to, as Perry put it, “could afford better dope” allowed him to embark on a cocaine-fuelled practice regimen in order to impress Douglas when they started Toys in the Attic. “When we started Toys, I felt better about my playing for once,” said Hamilton. “It was up to this higher level where the rest of the band had already progressed.”

Hamilton’s increased confidence and instrumental dexterity paid off in the studio, leading to the bass line for future Toys in the Attic classic track “Sweet Emotion,” among other things. But the band members weren’t entirely starting from scratch. All their touring helped road-test some of the new material, Perry later noted, saying that “We had an idea of what songs were working for us live at that point, and so we kind of had an idea of what direction we wanted the songs to go in. We knew we wanted to play some uptempo songs, some shuffle songs and some blues rock. But though we knew what kind of songs we wanted, we didn’t really know how it was going to turn out.”

Acknowledging the building pressure on Aerosmith to deliver a hit, Perry also openly credited producer Douglas with accentuating the band’s strengths and encouraging them to deliver their best songs and performances. “Jack really helped us a lot in that department,” noted Perry. “He really became the sixth member of the band and taught us how to do it.”

As far as singer Steven Tyler was concerned, whatever pressure the band might have been feeling was decidedly secondary to his growing belief that Aerosmith could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the greats.

“I knew we’d made it,” he wrote in Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir. “I was the kid who put my initials in the rock ’cause I wanted the aliens to know I was there. It’s a statement of longevity. The record will be played long after you’re dead. Our records would be up there in the attic, too, with the things that you loved and never wanted to forget. And to me, Aerosmith was becoming that. I knew how the Beatles, the Animals and the Kinks did it — with lyrics and titles. I saw reason and rhyme in all the lunacy that we were concocting.”

Looking back, it isn’t hard to see why Tyler was so confident. Toys in the Attic marked a quantum leap forward for Aerosmith, in terms of writing as well as performance, and the band’s artistic growth was soon matched by a sales boom: Toys soared to No. 11 on the chart, sending “Sweet Emotion” into the Top 40 and “Walk This Way” all the way to No. 10 — their biggest hit to that point.

“Walk This Way” starts with a two-measure drum beat intro by Joey Kramer, followed by the well-known guitar riff by Perry. The song proceeds with the main riff made famous by Perry and Brad Whitford on guitar with Tom Hamilton on an early 1960s Fender Jazz bass. The song continues with rapid-fire lyrics by Steven Tyler. The song originated in December 1974 during a sound check when Aerosmith was opening for the Guess Who in Honolulu, Hawaii. During the sound check, Perry was “fooling around with riffs and thinking about the Meters”, a group guitarist Jeff Beck had turned him on to. Loving “their riffy New Orleans funk, especially ‘Cissy Strut’ and ‘People Say'”, he asked the drummer “to lay down something flat with a groove on the drums.”The guitar riff to what would become “Walk This Way” just “came off [his] hands

Saying it evolved from a riff he had “in the back of my mind” that arose out of a desire to write “something funky,” Perry recalled “Walk This Way” evolving slowly, from that first guitar part to a demo in progress that producer Jack Douglas helped nudge across the finish line after a viewing of Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein.

There was this one scene where one of the movie characters says ‘walk this way,'”said Perry . “Jack began fooling around with that line and did this imitation of it from the movie, and so it became a great title for the song. Then Steven went ahead and wrote the eventual lyrics.”

“Walk This Way” launched Aerosmith firmly into the ranks of crossover rock acts, and they continued to broaden their fan base as they pounded the arena circuit as a headliner and/or opening act alongside a growing list of artists that included Ted Nugent, Foghat and REO Speedwagon. They’d score even bigger hits later in their career, but Toys in the Attic marked the point of no return, setting them up for the superstar status they continue to enjoy.

“At the end of Toys, I had become a different player and Aerosmith was probably a different band,” Hamilton said in Walk This Way. “We knew this album would launch the band like a missile. I’d written two of the songs and finally was able to feel like I wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. It was an incredible time.”

“This was the year it all changed for us,” Tyler wrote in his memoir. “The album got good reviews and people started taking us more seriously — about fucking time!” But for Perry, Toys in the Attic’s success wasn’t necessarily a sign that Aerosmith had made it; instead, he seemed to feel a responsibility to try harder than ever.

“I wonder if I’m doing it right. If I’m actually contributing. Are we doing something good, or are we just followers?” Perry told Creem. “I don’t know. We can go the BTO route, be a really commercial band, do the road trip. But to satisfy my own artistic needs, I wonder if the things I write … maybe I’m not getting better on guitar. Maybe I’m no better than your average guitar player. But I’ll tell you — if I find out after a year or so more that I’m not improving, I’ll just quit touring and work on my cars.”

Unhalfbricking front

1969 was a roller-coaster year for Folk Rock band Fairport Convention. In January of that year they released their second album “What We Did On Our Holidays”, the first one to feature singer Sandy Denny. In May they hit rock bottom with a tragedy that killed two people including one of its members. Miraculously they recovered and released the album that defines Fairport at that time, “Unhalfbricking” was released in July of 1969, several weeks after the fatal accident on the M1 that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Jeannie Franklin (“Genie the Tailor”, who designed clothes for west-coast pop and rock elites), Richard Thompson’s recent girlfriend. The event questioned the band’s resiliency, and was followed by an amazing period of recovery that gave birth to Liege and Lief. Franklin was immortalized a month later when Jack Bruce dedicated his debut solo album Songs for a Tailor to her, and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer is likely about her as well with the telling lyrics “Blue Jean Baby, L. A. lady/Seamstress for the band”.

Unhalfbricking climbed to a respectable #12 in the UK album chart, its name penned by Sandy Denny who came up with the made-up word in a game of Ghost the band was playing while traveling in their beat up van to shows. Uncharacteristic for its time, the front cover features a single photograph with no indication of the band or album name. Two people, Sandy Denny’s parents, are standing in front of their house on Arthur Road, Wimbledon. In the background we can see the band lounging in the front yard. Clever positioning of the band members’ heads, one per rectangle in the fence. 

Fairport Convention 1969

Even more uncool is the back cover with a picture of the band engaged in the domestic task of having a meal. The whole package smells of looking back at days of yore, keeping a distance from current trends. A&M Records, who distributed the band’s albums in the US, found the album cover’s concept abnormal and instead decided in a curious creative burst that the average American consumer’s palate might appreciate a photo of three dancing circus elephants with a girl dancing (balancing?) on top. Underestimating the American record buyer’s tolerance for the unknown, the band and album titles were slapped on the US album cover.

The band was going through a Bob Dylan phase at the time, resulting with three covers of his songs on the album. Dylan’s version of Million Dollar Bash, later to appear on the Basement Tapes album but at that point not yet released, The song came to the band through producer Joe Boyd’s song publishing company which had access to Dylan’s new recorded materials. The great mandolin accompaniment is courtesy of Dave Swarbrick, who made a number of excellent recordings with Martin Carthy between 1965 and 1968, and was called by Joe Boyd to guest on a number of songs on “Unhalfbricking”.

Another Dylan cover was for a relatively unknown song, If You Gotta Go, Go Now. Dylan had recorded it in 1965 for his Bringing It All Back Home album but decided not to include it in the album, instead releasing it as a single in the Netherlands in 1967. Manfred Mann covered the song soon after Dylan recorded it in 1965. Fairport Convention gave it an interesting twist by singing it in French, translated to Si Tu Dois Partir.

Fairport Convention was playing a gig at the Middle Earth and thought it would be amusing to do Dylan’s song in French Cajun style, so the band called for volunteers from the audience to help with the translation. Richard Thompson: “About three people turned up, so it was really written by committee, and consequently ended up not very Cajun, French or Dylan.” The studio version is a better attempt at the Cajun style, featuring Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, Richard Thompson on accordion and Trevor Lucas, who later formed Fotheringay with Denny, on triangle. The band was quite inventive when it came to producing interesting sounds in the studio. Joe Boyd, in his book White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s recalls: “Martin created the Cajun washboard sound for ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’ by stacking some plastic Eames chairs and running his drumsticks along them. The percussion break was supposed to feature an empty milk bottle lying on the topmost chair, but when the time came it fell and smashed on the floor. I signalled frantically to keep playing. The crash of broken glass was absolutely in time and worked perfectly, a good omen for the session.” The song was released as a single, reaching the UK singles chart, and got the band its first appearance at Top of the Pops on August 14th, 1969.

The B-side on the single Si Tu Dois Partir went unnoticed at the time but over the years became one of Richard Thompson’s favourite performance songs. It is also my favourite tune on the album, achingly sang by Sandy Denny. It is one of the first in Thompson’s career-long strike of beautiful melancholic songs, the album opener “Genesis Hall”. Thompson on the topic of the song: “Genesis Hall was the name of a building in London that was occupied by squatters. The police went in and were far too brutal in evicting the people. My father was a policeman at the time, and although he was not involved in this operation, I could see the situation from both the squatters’ and police’s points of view. This was conflicting for me, and I tried to express that.”
The August 1969 issue of the underground newspaper International Times mentions an incident that took place in the Drury Lane Bell Hotel involving police and squatters. It happened in March of that year, when Fairport Convention was in the process of recording “Unhalfbricking”:

Thompson covers the song from time to time on his live shows, giving it a fantastic acoustic version. A great example is from the first episode of the BBC Songwriter’s Circle series from 2010.
Several reasons why this song moves me: The lyrics, again so mature for a 20 year old who has not written too many songs up to that point. The sad yet somewhat detached mood in which Sandy Denny sings them. The part where the whole band is soaring with her when they sing “Oh, oh, helpless and slow”. The dual guitar work by Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol. Martin Lamble’s drumming, sadly not discussed too often, demonstrating his ability to play very interesting patterns behind the melody as if he was playing a melodic instrument. Only a month after the band finished recording the album Lamble died in that car crash. The band went through a rough period of mourning and healing and came out on the other end with the album that defines British folk rock. 

The third of the Dylan cover’s is Percy’s Song, recorded by Dylan in 1963 for his third album The Times They Are a-Changin‘. The song did not make it into the album and was released some twenty years later on the Biograph collection. The song lyrics are a futile plea to a judge to reconsider a harsh sentence given to a driver in a fatal car accident. Sandy Denny sings a beautiful harmony with Ian Matthews who had left the group after their previous album, and her interpretation is the best I know for this lesser known Dylan tune. Guitar player Simon Nicol said this of Denny’s vocal on the song: “It needs a voice like Sandy’s to get the shades of emotion across, from moodiness to compassion to outright fury. There’s not many singers can do that.”

One song on Unhalfbricking points to the direction the band would take on their next album. A Sailor’s Life is a traditional song brought to the band by Sandy Denny. The song, indexed as Roud 237 in the English Folk Dance and Song Society, was previously covered by Judy Collins on her album A Maid of Constant Sorrow in 1961 and by Martin Carthy on his second album from 1966.

Fairport Convention’s version is a milestone in British folk rock, maybe the first time a serious rock interpretation was given to an old ballad. Sheila Chandra, who was inspired by Sandy Denny’s delivery of the song and later covered it herself, found similarities to Indian music in Fairport Convention’s version: “The track is actually a microcosm of 2,000 years of Indian music – it goes from Vedic chanting on two or three notes right through to full improvisations on a fixed note scale. All in one take. The band have realized that all folk music is based upon a drone, and shares a common root. For instance, the way the violin comes in with an insistent repeat of the drone note is reminiscent of the Indian wind instrument the Shenai, and its distant relative the shawm in Irish music. It all connects.” That violin is played by Dave Swarbrick, his finest contribution to this album.

John Wood, who was the principal sound engineer in the studio, recalls the recording of the song: “Richard and Sandy came in and said ‘we really think we can only do this once’. They already got Dave Swarbrick in to play on it. We put Sandy in a vocal booth (she had an awful cold that day too) and everybody else in a big semicircle. When you want to cut that sort of track, its not easy for people to work if its all sectioned off, so it was very open and that was it, one take, done. No overdubs.” Dave Swarbrick was given no specific instructions as to what to play on the song other than to just come in when the singing stops. He had fond memories from the session as well: “Sandy had a great band to soar over and a great bunch of musicians who were sympathetic. Richard and Sandy worked closely together. Richard was awesome, of course. That should be his middle name. But the band was cohesive and so special, the chemistry worked and the line-up was sensational.”

I have two favourite songs on this album, and one of them is Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” Denny wrote the song early in her career with the original title The Ballad Of Time. She was not yet 20 years of age when she wrote the mature lyrics about the passage of time. She sang it during her short stint with the Strawbs in 1967. Judy Collins gave the song an interpretation in 1968 on her album of the same name and as a B-side on her single Both Sides Now.
The song became one of Denny’s most enduring and beloved songs, and in 2007 it was voted by BBC Radio 2 listeners as their favourite folk rock track of all time. It was the last song to be recorded for Unhalfbricking, and the last drummer Martin Lamble would ever record with the band.

The album was recorded in the early months of 1969 at Sound Techniques and Olympic Studios in London. Sound Techniques was a go-to studio for many great psychedelic, rock and folk British acts of the time, including Nick Drake (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter), Incredible String Band (The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion), Jethro Tull (This Was), John Martyn (Solid Air), Pentangle (Cruel Sister), Pink Floyd (Arnold Layne), Steeleye Span (Parcel Of Rogues) and Fairport alumni Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. John Wood assembled a roster of first-class musicians who acted as the house band for a great variety of recording sessions. Not surprisingly, many of them were associated with Fairport Convention, including Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway on drums, Danny Thompson, Dave Pegg and Pat Donaldson on bass, Richard Thompson, Jerry Donahue and Simon Nicol on guitars.

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When Steve Winwood entered the studio in February 1970, time and technology were poised for his graduation from front man in a rock band to full-fledged solo artist. At 21, the Birmingham native was already a seasoned veteran who had played pub gigs at 8, taken center stage with the Spencer Davis Group at 15 and helped pioneer rock’s progressive wing with Traffic before joining Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Blind Faith. His soul-drenched vocals had reaped hits for all three groups, while his frontline prowess on organ and piano were matched by solid chops as a guitarist, bassist and percussionist. The evolution of multi-track studio recording would enable him to roll his own songs by layering instrumental performances as a one-man band.

Accompanying him to his first sessions was producer and Island Records A&R director Guy Stevens, whose confidence in Winwood was assured by the artist’s role in establishing Island as a preeminent British independent label. Founded in 1958 by Chris Blackwell, Island’s growth relied upon Blackwell’s embrace of Jamaican music, nurtured from his childhood on the island. While promoting his first major hit act, ska pioneer Millie Small, Blackwell witnessed the Spencer Davis Group at a Birmingham television taping and saw a fresh direction in its teenage lead singer and organist.

“He was really the cornerstone of Island Records,” Blackwell would later assert. “He’s a musical genius and because he was with Island all the other talent really wanted to be with Island.” Island’s founder would bankroll Winwood’s departure to form Traffic and would prove an ardent supporter for decades to come.

Blackwell and Stevens were confident that Winwood was ready to stand alone and suggested an album title, Mad Shadows. Initial studio sessions followed the original one-man band premise for the first completed song, “Stranger to Himself.” Written by Winwood with lyrics from Traffic’s Jim Capaldi, the track featured Winwood on piano, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums and percussion. His instincts as an arranger had already been honed extensively with Traffic, enabling him to craft a satisfying dialogue between guitars and keyboards, anchored by in-the-pocket bass and drums.

Next up was “Every Mother’s Son,” with Winwood again covering keyboards, guitars and bass, and Capaldi sitting in on drums and percussion. If producer Stevens was happy with the results, however, Steve Winwood chafed at the isolation of self-contained performances. With Capaldi onboard as drummer and vocal partner, Winwood invited fellow Traffic alumnus Chris Wood to join in on reeds, percussion and organ, effectively reuniting the core trio that had been Traffic’s more durable configuration during an initial two-year run in which guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Dave Mason had proven a fickle partner in his on-again, off-again ties to the band.

At this juncture, Stevens departed the project, presumably on good terms, while taking the tentative album title with him, which he would recycle for Mott the Hoople’s second album, produced and released that same year. Blackwell, meanwhile, stepped in as nominal co-producer while clearly allowing Winwood to retain a dominant role in shaping the material, which still showcased his versatility while reveling in the trio’s interplay. That focus was punctuated by “Glad,” a Winwood instrumental that would open the album with a full-throttle keyboard romp reflecting his enduring affection for jazz and R&B in a hard-driving, uptempo workout with echoes of ’60s soul jazz classics from Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Les McCann as Winwood traded rippling piano flourishes against textured Hammond B-3 organ. Wood’s tenor sax deepens the groove and adds a prescient funk element by using a wah-wah pedal to electronically mute his horn lines.

Apart from the saxophone and flute parts that signified Traffic’s jazz elements, Wood also brought the band vital exposure to material it might otherwise have missed. Winwood would credit the reed player with turning them on to jazz, world music and classical pieces that opened their ears to new directions, but for this album, Wood’s gift would come from deep British roots—the renascent interest in British folk music that emerged during the ’60s. Wood’s interest in the movement had led him to the Watersons’ a cappella recording of “John Barleycorn,” a ballad that can be traced to its earliest Scottish incarnations in the 16th century, its title character linked both to pagan Anglo-Saxon myths and a personification of the hardy grain used in producing whiskey.

Traffic’s arrangement of the song jettisons keyboards, electric guitars and bass in favour of a haunting lattice work of acoustic guitar, flute and spare hand percussion. Winwood’s vocal is by turns hushed and mournful as he presents the allegorical fate of its title protagonist “ploughed,” “sown” and “harrowed in” by efforts to kill him. As men continue to harvest, dry, mill and process their victim, they carry him toward reincarnation and revenge—by the song’s end, “little sir John with his nut-brown bowl proved the strongest man at last,” mortal men now dependent on its distilled  essence.

Winwood’s delicate performance was both dark and sardonic, ancient in its source yet timely in its allusion to addiction—an inevitable nod to a countercultural subculture which Traffic had once romanticized with a psychedelic palette. With its timeless minor-keyed melody, spare setting and Winwood’s pure English vocal intonation, the track is the album’s most distinctive, yet Traffic would otherwise revert to its prior jazz, blues and rock influences, leaving a deeper excavation of British folk rock for Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Incredible String Band and other homeland folk-rock pioneers to explore. It’s fascinating to contemplate how Traffic’s stature as a major rock act might have elevated and influenced Britain’s spin on fusing folk tradition with rock innovation had Winwood and his partners committed more fully to the style.

As Traffic’s lyricist, Capaldi alternates between emotional impressionism and oblique romantic salutes, the latter yielding the album’s lone single, “Empty Pages,” released only in the U.S. By the time of the album’s early July 1970 release, the rise of FM radio and rock’s evolving focus on albums over singles vindicated the trio’s disinterest in mainstream single hits, eventually carrying John Barleycorn Must Die to No5 on Billboard’s album chart, the highest position in the band’s career.

Critics were more divided over the album’s emphasis on loose-limbed jamming, with Robert Christgau complaining that Mason’s exit had weakened their songcraft, leaving them to depend on Winwood’s “feckless improvised rock.” Fans, however, were kinder: Beyond its album chart ranking, John Barleycorn Must Die would earn gold record status, teeing up the band for even greater success with The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys the following year.