Sunday, February 17, 2019

June 1970 - Hendrix's 'Band of Gypsys' album reviewed by Melody Maker

The final album released by Jimi Hendrix in his lifetime was the live record 'Band of Gypsys'. Recorded on New Year's Eve 1969/70 at the Fillmore East in New York, the record showcased new material reflecting a more mature and soulful Hendrix, backed by his old army friend Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums and vocals.

Jimi had lost a bit of momentum after the release of his masterpiece album Electric Ladyland in 1968. With Chas Chandler and Noel Redding both having departed during the EL sessions, which they saw as indulgent and directionless, Hendrix put a random bunch of musicians together for his performance at Woodstock in August 1969. They were loosely billed as "Gypsy Sun and Rainbows" and Hendrix referred to them as “just a band of gypsies”.

Hendrix’s business affairs were complicated by the fact he was contracted to provide an album to a former manager, Ed Chalpin and his company PPX Enterprises. With Cox and Miles now in tow, Hendrix was encouraged by his current manager Mike Jeffrey to work on  material that could be used to settle the contract with Chalpin. 

Just 'Hendrix' - the contractual obligation honoured
Buddy Miles had played on the Electric Ladyland two-part track "Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Raining, Still Dreaming" and the Band of Gypsies material reflected this slightly more funky approach, though with less of the humour and lightness evident on EL. 

Bill Graham booked Hendrix to appear at the Fillmore over New Year’s and plans were made to record the shows. The recordings were not perfect. Hendrix had problems with mild feedback and he admitted himself he was out of tune on some numbers. Nonetheless, his playing is still remarkable and the album's standout track, ‘Machine Gun’, bears all the hallmarks of his iconic performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. 

Hendrix dedicated the song "to all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York, oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam". The combination of Hendrix’s guitar and Miles rat-a-tat-tat drums give the track a haunting power that few other rock artists could get close to at that time. 

Advert in the UK music press for the forthcoming album, three months late in the UK
The contractual obligation nature of Band of Gypsys cast an unhappy shade over the whole episode, but the album was well-received for the most part on release in March 1969 in the US. It became his best-selling album since his debut ‘Are You Experienced’. The ongoing dispute between Chalpin and Hendrix’s management meant that the album wasn’t released in the UK until June 1969.

Following the release of Band of Gypsys, plans were made to take it on the road, but it didn’t last long. A concert at Madison Square Garden on January 28 1970, ended prematurely after just two numbers. 

Observers at the show, including other performers such as Johnny Winter, commented on  how down and detached Hendrix appeared. There were a lot of rumours about the effect drugs were having on him. There were also tensions between Hendrix and Miles, with the latter refusing to play second fiddle. Whatever the truth, the band dissolved right then and Hendrix was encouraged to reconvene the Experience, with Cox on bass replacing Redding. 

What we have left is a reminder that on his day, Jimi Hendrix was still way ahead of everyone else in terms of imagination on the guitar. That he couldn’t sustain the high quality he established from 1967 onwards is perhaps not surprising.

Melody Maker's reviewer Chris Welch noted that Hendrix's playing is at times restrained and even "old-fashioned". But he still has "a sense of drama that gives an eerie slightly menacing mood to his performance".

Here's a clip containing interviews and footage of the band playing "Who Knows", the first track of the album:

The gatefold inside cover of the original north American release of Band of Gypsys

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell interview from 1974

Joni Mitchell's sixth album, 'Court and Spark' was released 45 years ago. I recently unearthed this interview from the US pop magazine 'Raves', which appeared in June 1974. In it, Joni talks about the evolution of her songwriting craft and her ongoing sense of loneliness.

The interviewer paints Joni as a tragic Garbo-like figure who had retreated from the LA music scene for some time, only recently re-emerging with her new album and a tour that took in a series of dates in London.

Joni had changed and indicated she had undergone "a painful transition" - "I was too close to my own work," she said. She took to the psychiatrist's couch - "I was practically catatonic," but that provided no solution.

She found some answers in the writing of German novelist Hermann Hesse. As she skimmed the book 'Narcissus and Goldmund' she ran across a passage in which Narcissus the priest does not reproach Goldmund for his lack of insight into himself. Instead, he advises him to 'get his life in focus'.

Travel also broadened her mind and ultimately she "gained a perspective and distance on most of my songs."

She emerges, said the reviewer, "as a talented entertainer, rather than the emotional registrar of experiences."

Court and Spark marked the beginning of the most musically fulfilling period of her career. The confidence shines through in the performances from the London shows.

Joni embraced the opportunity of working with talented jazz players like Tom Scott, John Guerin and Robben Ford.

The results, in her next album, would blow away any notion that she was just a confessional singer/songwriter. But that's another story, told here:

Here's an excerpt from the London concerts with Tom Scott and the LA Express:
see also:
Joni Mitchell in the 70s - Court and Spark 

Monday, November 5, 2018

March 1973 - 'Dark Side of the Moon' enters the charts

The UK pop charts from March 1973. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon makes its first appearance in the album chart. It stayed there for the next 10 years, but apparently it never made it to Number 1.

The singles chart is the usual mix of the cool and the seriously uncool. The notable aspect is the high proportion of soul artists, including Roberta Flack, the Detroit Emeralds, Timmy Thomas, Jimmy Helms, the O'Jays and Gladys Knight.

The albums list contains quite a few all-time classics, including Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, Moving Waves by Focus, Holland by the Beach Boys and Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

February 1970 - Bowie in obscurity, Mick Ronson joins Michael Chapman

Michael Chapman's album Fully Qualified Survivor had just been released on Harvest. It featured some classic Mick Ronson guitar, instantly recognisable as the sound Ronson would soon deliver on David Bowie's album, 'The Man Who Sold The World'. But at this point, it would be hard to say who was the more successful of the two, Bowie or Ronson.

David was at this point involved in his Arts Lab project, and a long way (another two years) from seeing any more commercial success after his lone hit 'Space Oddity' in 1969. Mick Ronson, on the other hand, was being picked up by various emerging artists including Michael Chapman and Elton John.

Here is Ronson to the fore on this track from FQS, 'Stranger in the Room

The common denominator between Chapman and Elton was producer Gus Dudgeon. Gus was so impressed with Ronson's playing on Fully Qualified Survivor, he recommended Elton John check him out for his forthcoming album 'Madman Across The Water'. Ronson did record some guitar for that record, but it wasn't included in the original vinyl release. It didn't see the light of day until a much later CD version of the Madman album included extra tracks, including the version with Ronson's guitar part.

Here it is:

Meanwhile, as the above page from the Melody Maker of the time shows, on Tuesday this week, Bowie was doing a gig at the White Bear pub in Hounslow!

Here's some rare footage of Michael Chapman, live in Paris in 1970, with Rick Kemp on bass and Richie Dharma on drums - both of whom are mentioned in the item about Chapman teaming up with Ronson in the MM cutting, under 'Folk News'.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Heyday of the NME

There's a been a lot of talk this week about the closure of the NME's print edition - the end of an era and all that. In his Guardian obituary for the music paper, Alex Petridis reckoned the NME had umpteen “golden eras” which he said usually had less to do with the quality of the writing "than whether or not you were 17 or 18 when you were reading it".|

That's true-ish, but really, the legend of the NME as the cool, trend-setting weekly bible for music fans, was formed in the first half of the 1970s, which was really a hangover from the late 60s. It was a wild and often chaotic paper in those days, informed by the underground press vibe of Oz and IT, that had spawned some of the NME's own writers including Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent.

It was the first break with the formal traditions of music writing, passed down through the jazz age in the 50s and the still formal and respectful pop journalism of the 60s. The more anarchic style of the NME's new brand of hacks made star names out of maverick characters like CSM, Nick Kent, Mick Farren and Ian MacDonald.
They were given as much space as they wanted and used the opportunity to write think pieces about relatively obscure artists. Kent's long elegy to Nick Drake soon after the singer's death, was a landmark in UK rock journalism, influenced no doubt by the kind of intelligent analysis they had seen in Rolling Stone.

The central storyline of Kent's 1975 three-part series on Brian Wilson, 'The Last Beach Movie', was the collapse of the Beach Boys' 'Smile' project. It was the first time most of us had heard any details about the album Wilson was forced to abort in 1967 and Kent's detailed account was rightly acclaimed.

This was also a time when the market was clearly divided between pop and rock, albums and singles, US and UK - two very distinct music markets in those days. America was still a foreign land in those pre-cheap transatlantic travel days. The NME writers schooled us ordinary folk in the different music coming out of New York, Detroit, LA and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the thinking freak's rock critic, Ian MacDonald, a Cambridge drop-out, was writing feature length pieces about Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan and Sparks - expanding our consciousness and daring us to go along for the ride. Ian Mac was the guy that turned me on to all these artists and more.

It wasn't all ground-breaking though; much of the rest of the NME was throwaway - entertaining that Thursday when it hit the streets but not meant to last. Nonetheless it was a reflection of the time. Rock had yet to become an 'industry'. The lunatics were still running the asylum. The Lone Groover, Tony Benyon's stoned cartoon character, was emblematic of the long-haired freak scene, a hangover from the sixties that persisted until the advent of punk. The NME's album reviews were often wildly funny, but often dismissive - and downright wrong - about albums and artists whose work is now justly revered. From Bowie to Joni to Marley and even the early punk scene - there are individual examples where the NME's writers didn't get it right.

But collectively they had great taste, as the 1974 Top 100 albums demonstrates. Every single one of those 100 albums remains a classic, which I suppose goes to support the idea that the period up to 1975 was the classic era for rock and roll.

No doubting that things changed from '77 onwards, and if truth be told, the NME's writers were as blindsided by the new wave as any of the other music mags. For a time though, in the first half of that decade, they created the lasting legend of the NME. The rebelliousness was now led by the musicians themselves, and arguably that's just another form of PR. But the legend of an NME full of edgy, exciting music writing allowed it to remain in business way beyond any of the other music papers of the time. Melody Maker and Sounds went the way of the dinosaurs. Smash Hits was wildly successful for 20 years but was closed in 2006. It's a wonder the NME lasted as long as it did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bowie - "It's a Drive-In Saturday"

Other-worldly. In the early 1970s, David Bowie really was that rock hero from another planet, the starman waiting in the sky. His words and music sparked the imagination of a new generation of pop fans. The images from the Ziggy Stardust period in 1972 and '73 show an artist taking the early stylings of Glam Rock established by T. Rex and Slade to a whole different level. The front cover of the Ziggy Stardust album plays up the other-worldliness perfectly, as if Bowie had just fallen to earth. And this advert for his 1973 single 'Drive-in Saturday' plays on the other-worldly persona; a cleverly cultivated image and a perfect complement to the music. Drive-in Saturday  is one of the stand-out tracks on the 'Aladdin Sane' album and, for some fans it is one of Bowie's greatest songs. Its setting is a futuristic world where people have forgotten how to make love. When he played the song live soon after he wrote it, Bowie said, "This is after a catastrophe of some kind, and some people are living on the streets and some people are living in domes, and they borrow from one another and try to learn how to pick up the pieces."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Kansas - why 'Leftoverture' is their masterpiece album

Kansas may just be the ugliest band in the world. Not hip or trendy in any way, but if you can put that aside and you have an appreciation for progressive rock, read on.

To put my interest in context, 1977 was a schizophrenic year. My old concert tickets show that I saw Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, but I also saw the Clash and the Sex Pistols. In the middle of all that, in the summer of ‘77, I went to America for the first time and stayed with a family in the heart of Long Island, New York. I had met the girl when she came over on a school exchange trip. We bonded over a shared appreciation of Boston’s first album.

The other music she and her friends listened to was Aerosmith (Toys In The Attic), Foghat Live, Frampton Comes Alive, Rumours (you couldn’t get away from it) and Leftoverture by Kansas, which contained their big hit at the time, 'Carry On Wayward Son'. Some of it has stayed with me. In fact all of it, except Foghat.

Leftoverture has great songs, some intricate but not too complex arrangements, with just the right mix of guitar and keyboards to keep the whole thing interesting. It was on pretty constant rotation in my bedroom in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to see them live at Hammersmith in 1978 too, playing the set you can hear on the live album from that time 'Two For The Show'.

Kansas have recently released a 40th anniversary 'Leftoverture' concert CD, with a second CD of other classic material. It's probably not the best starting point, but it does at least highlight their prog credentials, including as it does many of their long-form compositions. This incarnation of Kansas contains only two original members out of six – drummer Phil Ehart and rhythm guitarist Rich Williams. Leader and songwriter Kerry Livgren left many years ago, while more recent departures include singer and keyboard man Steve Walsh, along with singer and violinist Robbie Steinhardt.

So, the first thing anyone familiar with the originals will have to get over is the change of singer. Vocals are now handled mainly by new keyboardist Ronnie Platt, supported by bassist Billy Greer. Platt can carry a tune, but prog singing requires a certain delivery to match the ostentation of the music. Steve Walsh had that in spades. A song like Journey from Mariabronn, from the first Kansas album, is one of their most successful compositions, made especially effective by Walsh’s impassioned delivery. Platt, while he hits the notes, can’t convey the drama in the same way.
This clip of JFM is a little fuzzy but it's the real thing. Early Kansas in all their prog pomp
Listening to ‘Journey from Mariabronn’ again on this disc, I’m reminded they did some really good long-form compositions that mark them out as the best of the few US bands that could be compared with their UK prog peers. Those who bought the Best of Kansas because they liked 'Carry On…' and 'Dust In The Wind' probably missed that point, which is why Kansas get lumped in with the pomp rock bands like Boston and Styx.
Here's 'Icarus - Wings of Steel'

I had hoped for a large dollop of nostalgia listening to them play Leftoverture, which takes up disc 2. It was OK, but I felt I was listening to a tribute band. If you don’t have the originals, this is not the place to start. Get a copy of Leftoverture and the original live album, Two For The Show. And if you want to investigate further, the albums either side of Leftoverture – Song For America and Point of Know Return, as well as the first album – are worth checking out.