soundstreamsunday #107: “Dada Was Here” by the Soft Machine

softmachine1Given his breadth of tastes, it’s reasonable to think that Jimi Hendrix‘s invitation to the Soft Machine to support him on his tour of the States in 1968 was a calculated act of subversion, upending the guitar god cult and the power trio temple he’d built along with Cream.  The group was an underground darling, the French loved them, and although a rock trio — guitarist Daevid Allen’s departure in 1967 didn’t seem to faze them — they operated on a different kind of wattage, preferring the lower registers of distorto bass (Kevin Ayers, then Hugh Hopper) and organ (Mike Ratledge), beasts that closed in around Robert Wyatt’s peerless drumming.  What lyrics they used tended towards the surreal, either in delivery or meaning, as opposed to the era’s psychedelicisms, and along with their monster chops betrayed the members’ schooling.  They would come to be regarded as the core of the Canterbury Scene, even as they rejected the notion of any such thing, and while key to the development of progressive rock in Britain, their first records, with Wyatt, are diverse affairs defying categorization (hence, doubtless, their influence).  As the band drifted away from jazz experimentation in a rock setting and increasingly towards a watered jazz fusion — its more powerful form they certainly helped to invent — their power diminished.

But for a while, dada was there, and “Dada Was Here,” from 1969’s Volume 2, is an exact explanation of prime Soft Machine, working freely and with a wry, concealed grin.  Sung in Spanish, it is a series of queries with the inevitable answer of i-don’t-know, backed with a breezy post-bop (fuzz) bass, piano, and typical outta-this-world drumming.  There’s a hint of autumn to it, of turning leaves and melting clocks, and in that parallel world where things are as they could be and we appreciate grasp equaling reach, it’s a hit record.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #106: “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” by Cream

Cream1A worthwhile imaginary history: Eric Clapton doesn’t leave the Yardbirds in March 1965. He stays, compromised but successful, and the band’s psych-garage boilerplate “For Your Love” is the first in a clutch of similar vocal-fronted hits that eventually morph the band into a second string Moody Blues.  Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page never join the band, thus there is no Jeff Beck Group (thus no Rod Stewart, no Faces), and no Led Zeppelin. Clapton’s presence in the Yardbirds corks those possible future bottles. And, of course, there’s no Cream, and as such possibly no Jethro Tull or Black Sabbath, and, most definitely, no Mountain. There’s an argument here against Hendrix as well….

Such are Great Man theories of alternate history. Easily corruptible, but fun as thought experiments, and this one makes as much sense as any. Cream’s influence on rock is so profound, their catalog so fundamental, that their absence would have set transatlantic rock down a very different path. Cream backgrounds and informs every subsequent in-unison bass’n’guitar heavy hook (read: stoner rock), every song where a tom-obsessed drummer plays a rhythmic lead, every power trio, and every rock-based long form live jam (growing out of the “rave ups” that made the Yardbirds the scenemakers they were in Clapton’s day).  Even if you’re not a huge fan of Eric Clapton — and I’m not — and you could create similar wouldnahappened scenarios with his Cream co-pilots (and geniuses in their own right) Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, it was Clapton who was the tortured searcher, who saw the productive warring of Baker and Bruce as a positive, and was the driver of Cream with its wheels of fire, perpetually in a state of just passing through.

When they issued their last proper album in August 1968, Cream were so popular that their twin LP swan song went platinum, the first double rock album to do so.  Its studio disc summed in spirit Cream’s first two efforts, Fresh Cream (1966) and Disraeli Gears (1967), while the live disc showcased Cream’s already legendary, and loud, performance prowess, and the tensions banked therein:  it’s a sly joke when at the end of their cover of Robert Johnson‘s Crossroads — a song still played on rock radio 50 years after its recording — we hear Jack Bruce say, “Eric Clapton, please, for vocals.”  Yes, Clapton’s vocals were integral to Cream even as they were secondary to Bruce’s, but it’s his guitar playing that’s the thing, never more so than on “Crossroads,” and Bruce’s toast could just as easily be a wheedling needle as props.  It’s as if Bruce was continuing a conversation that moments before he was playing on his bass: whaddya got, and where else can you go?

The dense, thick battle lines of Cream’s live show were the Mr. Hyde to their studio work, where interpretations of electric blues standards sat next to original songwriting cutting directly to proto-prog poetics, the product of Bruce and his songwriting partner, Pete Brown.  The combination of forms made for a catalog that could put “Spoonful” or “Outside Woman Blues” or “Born Under a Bad Sign” back to back with weirdly beautiful non-blues like “I Feel Free” or “World of Pain” or “Those Were the Days.”  These last were intrigue, fanciful psychedelic flights, for the young Clapton, the blues purist whose work would never again be so adventurous or influential as with Cream, his traditionalism reconstructed by the Band’s Music from Big Pink (July 1968), which left him awestruck.  Playing go-between for Bruce and Baker, in the wake of Big Pink, must have seemed an almighty chore whose fruit was withering.

Of artfully told lost love, “Deserted Cities of the Heart” is Cream ’68 in full studio flight, a richer sound afforded by rapidly advancing recording technology (although still short of the breathtaking step Led Zeppelin would make just months later on their first album) and the psychedelic mood further defined by producer Felix Pappalardi, whose string contributions add dynamic breadth and sweep to the dramatics and roadmap his work with Mountain.  Three versions here: the original studio recording, with its dark and perfumed paisley fully intact; the original live version pulled from the same set of songs the band used to put together Wheels of Fire‘s live disc (and which appeared on Live Cream II in 1972); and its last incarnation, from 2005’s reunion show, before things turned bad again between Bruce and Baker and Clapton got bored, containing an interesting energy, as Bruce brings the goods in the wake of his liver transplant, and Clapton and Baker play with a subtle restraint retooling the song’s psychedelia towards a jazzier, bluesier roll.  The spark is still clear, igniting the air, and we fall to our knees thankful that Clapton left the Yardbirds.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #105: “Light My Fire” by the Doors

doors3The Doors built its finest work around straight-ahead rock’n’roll, adding a whirling, baroque jazz samba momentum from the alchemy of keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore, all schooled in the post-bop cool permeating, by the mid-1960s, the many stripes of a blossoming California pop music scene.  Jim Morrison brought the goods of fame, an impassioned thunderhead vocal whether singing his own lyrics or Krieger’s (the band’s most successful writer), and a hip pin-up beauty boosting the band’s pop darling status.  (There is great irony here, as the New York Factory crowd crowed over Morrison’s veneer — with appropriate Warhol-esque fascination — and Morrison himself did everything he could to make and then deface his pretty boy shell, revealing the rot within, in one of rock’s most infamous stories of self-creation/immolation.)  At the core of Elektra’s push to advance American rock in the wake of the British Invasion, the Doors — along with label mates Love, the Stooges, and the MC5 — subverted from within, using their musicianship and Morrison’s undeniable charisma to chart a course for a freedom in pop music that contained the seeds of both progressive rock and punk.  In this they were like the Velvet Underground, although their east coast analogue never achieved anywhere near the popular impact of the Doors (V.U.’s influence notwithstanding).

Of their six studio albums with Morrison, all of which have their strengths, the self-titled debut is the Doors’ most cohesive LP.  Released in the first days of 1967, it counterpointed the hippie cheer of the Sgt. Pepper era, playing to rock’s shadowy furies and heavily influenced by the day-glo punk creep of Love, a band greatly admired by Morrison and which, although still months away from its masterpiece Forever Changes, had already taken the dive into the seamy pop noir that Los Angeles inspired in those who saw desperation in greater relief the brighter the sun shone.  It was a darkness with extreme definition, fascinating to both Arthur Lee and Jim Morrison, and the Doors came out of the gate startlingly fully formed in concept and execution, with Manzarek’s keys and Krieger’s unusual, flamenco/finger-style guitar conjuring a smooth jazz carnie ride driven by Densmore’s muscular but lithe drumming.  Nothing else sounded remotely close to the Doors, thanks in large part too to producer Paul Rothschild and engineer Bruce Botnick, who used the studio as if they were recording a jazz group, attaining a clean, lively separation absent from the period’s rock recordings.  Chalk this up to Elektra’s genius and artist-first philosophy.

Krieger’s “Light My Fire” was the band’s first great success, although its shortened radio single eviscerates its midsection, which contains one of rock’s great guitar solos and instrumental interplay that made its artists’ statement clear: this wasn’t the Wrecking Crew or session players, but a group intent on pushing limits as a band, as if that in itself meant something.  Even the simple final line — “Try to set the night on fire” — Morrison treats as life or death (to this day few singers can build towards and deliver the final utterance of a song as Morrison could).  More revolutionary for its time than it now might seem — and diminished by Oliver Stone’s clunky telling of its creation — “Light My Fire” and the first Doors record as a whole established the notion of a rock group as artistically independent from its record company, a sea change in American music in the late 1960s.  For all of the attention focused on Jim Morrison’s histrionic deterioration and Ray Manzarek’s eulogizing of the Lizard King, the Doors were a cooperative, artistic effort that continues to influence, and haunt, rock groups that hew the edge.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #104: “Frankenstein” by the Edgar Winter Group

EdgarWinterWhen psychedelia and blues came together in Cream’s quickfire trio of studio albums in the late 1960s, it created a blueprint for blues-respecting bottom-heavy rock that would rule the airwaves for at least a decade.  In their roots and early trajectories, the Winter brothers, emerging out of the heartland of Beaumont, Texas, were not unlike north Florida’s Allman brothers, both heavily influenced by Cream’s fluid use of blues, and yet Johnny and Edgar never attained the pioneer status afforded Duane and Gregg.  Johnny’s traditionalism would keep him defined (and confined) as a blues revival hotshot guitarist, which in America was radical but also too far ahead of its time (it would be Stevie Ray Vaughan who would reap those rewards further on up the road).  Edgar, a rock’n’roll survivor, still touring as of this writing, was always a crowd-pleaser with a ton of chops on keys and sax, but never really pushed beyond his pair of early 70s funky, AM-friendly, rock/pop/jazz fusion hits, “Free Ride” and “Frankenstein.”  Maybe he didn’t need to.

“Frankenstein” started out in the tradition of Cream’s “Toad” and Led Zeppelin‘s “Moby Dick,” pieces with giant riffs whose sole purpose was to surround drum solos.  It even began life entitled “Double Drum Song,” ending up with its final title (after also being called “Synthesizer Song”) as the result of the intense tape cutting that reduced its time to a length that made it palatable for radio.  It was a huge success, an inventive and striking instrumental representative of American good time rock in the early 70s.

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soundstreamsunday #103: “Every Hungry Woman” by the Allman Brothers Band

Allmans1Southern Rock’s manifesto is like no other rock album.  The Allman Brothers Band, released in November 1969, carries a hard sonic power absent from its closest temporal and spiritual brother, the Band’s Music from Big Pink (1968), and tight, sharp-cornered riffing missing from the work of the Grateful Dead, who the Allmans resembled in their two-drummer, double guitar form and in their tendency to stretch out in live performance.  Mostly, though, the group had the brothers themselves: Duane, a guitar sharpshooter whose session work had honed his chops — including a wicked slide technique — to a razor’s edge; and Gregg, whose organ playing and lyric writing demonstrated a finesse far beyond his 21 years, and whose voice was a soulful, ragged howl coming from a place of honest truth.  In an era when the integrity of white blues bands was, rightfully, beginning to be questioned, along with the plantation politics of the music industry, no one, not even Lester Bangs, argued with the Allman Brothers Band’s authenticity or the singular chords they struck, as they effortlessly crossed over into country and jazz, articulating a maturing musical vision for the American South.  That they were an integrated band was interesting (in 1969 much of Georgia, the Allman’s home base, still segregated its schools), but it was what underpinned that fact that made their music ascend: a fascination with next steps, set against a background of a changing rock vocabulary, so that every member of the band was important.  While Duane and Gregg receive much of the attention as the band’s geniuses (and they were), guitarist Dickey Betts’s influence on the band, particularly his use of the major pentatonic scale, went a long way towards defining the Southern Rock sound, while the rhythm section of Berry Oakley, Jai Johanny Johanson, and Butch Trucks provided a propulsive force but also a lithe one, booty shaking, more akin to what Carlos Santana was putting together on the west coast than anything coming out of the blues or country scenes of the time.

Paraphrasing the Rolling Stone Record Guide‘s review of the Allman’s Live at Fillmore East (1971), even when the band went long form, when they jammed, there weren’t any wasted notes.  At a scant 33 minutes, the Allmans’ first album is similarly lean, a killer hard rock set that proved to be less of a template than an opening salvo (1970’s Idlewild South shows voracious growth, as does 1972’s Eat a Peach, Duane’s death notwithstanding).  While “Dreams” and “Whipping Post” are the album’s jaw-dropping closers, this is a record with no filler whatsoever.  “Every Hungry Woman” is a favorite, metal crunch up against slide guitar sirens, organ moans, and an epic swamp beast of a riff.  The dueling guitars in the solo section say more in their few seconds than many bands say across a career, and Gregg’s roar channels some deep beast that must’ve drunk from the same watering hold as Ray Charles and Charley Patton.  Inimitable.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday #102: “Kiss It Off” by Little Feat

little feat2On the other side of the 70s country rock that made the Eagles fabulously famous and rich — and drove them eventually to a dark funk that produced songs like “Those Shoes” — dwells Little Feat, emerging from the Zappa/Beefheart camp of SoCal weirdness during the same period, with funky desperate darkness fully intact from the get-go.  Theirs was an American vernacular progressive rock, full of smarts and awareness, and as led by guitarist and singer Lowell George (fired as “a favor” by Zappa, who then helped him get a Warners record contract since George was a talent, no doubt), they were the rock and roll revolution from the inside, the real throwdown at the hoedown.

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soundstreamsunday #101: “Those Shoes” by the Eagles

eagles3The dark end of late 70s rock culture makes for strange bedfellows on the weekly infinite linear mixtape.  One week after Judas Priest released Unleashed in the East in September 1979, a career milestone kickstarting broad commercial success, the Eagles issued The Long Run, a (mostly) career-ending album that took too long to make, wore on too many nerves in a group of too many egos, and while feeling generally sapped of energy was still a giant hit.  Go figure.  They were a beloved band at the end of their (Seven Bridges) road.  But while the album may not have been as strong as its predecessor, 1976’s Hotel California, pieces of it shared qualities with those other California-centric, dark star rock albums of the era, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) and Steely Dan’s Gaucho (1980).  The party goes unexpectedly wrong, and as night sets in the sparks that fly leave an even darker fringe.

The Long Run’s spark is “Those Shoes.”  As an airtight funk backs a story parallel to Judas Priest’s “Victim of Changes” — delivered with icy remove by Don Henley — Joe Walsh and Don Felder twine their talk-boxed guitars together in a dual attack as hard-hitting, in its way, as anything delivered by K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton.  It’s the swing of it, still in the late 70s a rock’n’roll staple embraced by blues to punk, country to metal, and too soon largely abandoned by the harder end of rock, that moves both songs forward.  Just as Priest’s rhythm section, with Les Binks drumming, made you pump your fist and shake your butt, when the Eagles got down to business they were masters of the hard groove.  But this is no good times, party-on disco boogie.  The song’s power is multiplied by its downer lyric, a troubling view of the predator-prey club hookup scene, ringing at once with compassion, cynical chauvinism, and studious intention.  If it’s revealing of the seamier side of the west coast lifestyle as the 70s limped to an end, in it also is the last flash of a band who commanded the era.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.