The late sixties is arguably the most famous and fecund time in the history of popular music. Just think about all the legends who started their careers, and how many legendary albums they created, which have influenced everything that came after. There’s never been anything like it, and probably never will be again. It was a confluence of circumstances, styles, even geopolitics, that created a perfect storm for youth creativity.
As a music fan I’m sure several hundred of these albums are in my collection, some well known, others not so much. So here’s the first of a series of posts highlighting my faves.
Yes, yes, we all hate disco. But if we know anything, we also know that the Bee Gees, a supremely talented group of bros., made rich, exquisite pop long before going all tight-panted and squeally in the mid-seventies. All the early pop albums are good, Cucumber Castle, Trafalgar, etc., but this thing is on a whole other level. Odessa is a sprawling double album with not ONE dud on it. Not one. Along the way the band tackles symphonic pop (which hadn’t even been officially invented yet, though The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed launched it) in “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)” and “I Laugh in Your Face“, and symphonic instrumentals, country rock in “Marley Purt Drive”, pure pop on songs like “Lamplight“, and each song is beautifully sung by Robin or Barry, supported by elegant strings and heavenly harmonies. The symphonic stuff like the title track is especially impressive, well-structured and and dramatic, and when Robin takes flight on such songs as the absolutely transcendent “Lamplight”, I often conclude that this may be the best album of the late sixties — full stop. All I can say is that a better melodic pop group you could never find. After this, Robin left the band for a while due to tensions within. If they’d never recorded another note, you can bet this album would be legendary. It should be.
For such a famous group, the Airplane is pretty spotty on disk, in my opinion. Obviously they were spending a lot (i.e. most) of their time stoned and sloppy, but it wasn’t just that; the contrast between the smoothness of Marty Balin and the braying edginess of Grace Slick (not to mention Paul Kantner’s deadpan and determined politicizing) led to awkwardness as often as it did genius. However, on this album it’s almost all genius. The apocalyptic album art is matched in tone by the constant feedback shrieks of Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar work, and the songs have a truly revolutionary tautness, anger and energy that overcomes the sloppiness of the vocals (Balin and Slick often seemed to be trying to drown each other out). Songs like the sly, weirdly sexy Heinlein-influenced “Triad“, the dreamy pop (Balin at his best) of “Share a Little Joke” and the spooky, poignant acid-folk of “Lather” contrast with the raging title track, which starts angry then ends with a section of dirge-like resignation, like they already know the sixties dream is a mirage, and the truly frightening end-of-days jam of “House at Pooneil Corner”. At their best, the Airplane members sounded like a deadly intellectual wrecking crew trying to tear down the myth of the American dream. At their worst, they just sounded high. This album leans heavily toward the former trait.
Buckley is justly famous for three things: 1) The incredible variety of music he produced in his restless and short career 2) His astonishing (genuinely) multi-octave range and 3) being the father of the overhyped Jeff, who died before he could realize his own potential to any significant degree. Just before trying out crazy avant-garde jazz (which was followed by a final very strange period of commercial funk), and giving up very contemporary and financially viable high-quality folk-rock, in the interim Tim made this absolutely lovely, dreamy album of lazy jazz-folk with guitarist Lee Underwood and bassist John Miller in tow, as well as vibes from David Friedman and congas from Carter Collins. Buckley gamely strums his 12-string and his voice swoops and glides over simple but heartfelt sentiments; he could be singing the phone book for all it matters, with a voice like that. The songs are long and are allowed to stretch out. The lyrics are mostly of their time, hippy-dippy but enchanting somehow, especially on “Strange Feelin‘”, the lengthy, hypnotic “Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)” (which has ocean waves underpinning it), and the mournful “Dream Letter” (which is about his son, I think). By the time you reach the lovely personal concluding message of “Sing a Song for You”, you are truly blissed out by all this sun-kissed, elegant beauty. Definitely one of the best albums of the decade.
This sorta folk duo (which at other times was a trio and sometimes even a quartet) of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson was the psychedelic era personified: two world-travelling, raggedy super-hippies who learned to get by on a ton of instruments, brought them all home, and made a conscious decision to break all musical rules with them. Their zany inventiveness is so mind-boggling that we can even overlook the fact that neither of them could sing very well at all. Like, at all. Williamson’s shrill Celtic croon is the more pleasant voice, usually. Some of their albums are just too messy for my liking, such as The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, the most famous one. This album is far more coherent and contains most of the duo’s best songs: the surreal imagery and enchanting melodic variations of “Koeeoaddi There“, the unusually delicate, melodic, and sensitive “Nightfall”, “Witch’s Hat” and “The Water Song“, and the amusing music hall pastiche of “The Minotaur’s Song”. There are also other places where the album falls flat on its face (the mostly toneless, long “A Very Cellular Song”), but no one can deny that these cats were as individual as they come. Mind expansion was their game, and these surrealist ditties, rendered with all them gimbri, oud, shehnai and hammered dulcimers, probably blew many’s the mind, with or without the help of drugs.
Before helping invent (well, mostly inventing) British folk-rock, Fairport was the UK’s answer to Jefferson Airplane, at least structurally: genius lead axeman (Richard Thompson), supremely melodic lady and man singers (Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews), and a brooding mastermind behind it all (Ashley Hutchings). Their sound was very US-folk-rock oriented and a little psychedelic. Not original at all, but the individual talents shining through is what makes this albums special. Most people seem to prefer to praise the following album, Unhalfbricking, because it contains some early Thompson- and Denny-composed classics, but since that album’s also about half Bob Dylan covers, I declare this to be superior. It contains the first hints of the Brit-folk-rock/acid-folk sound (“Fotheringay“, “She Moved Through The Fair”, “Nottamun Town”), but also some rousing folk-rockers (“No Man’s Land“, “Tale in Hard Time”) and some gently beautiful low-key psych-pop (“Book Song“, Joni Mitchell’s “Eastern Rain”). Matthews and Denny’s harmonies are one major draw, the other being the developing talents of Thompson on six strings, but also there is just a hazy, reverby, otherworldly feel to the production that other Fairport albums of the period lack. More than just a flower-power artefact, this album contains some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear.
The Pentangle was maybe the first British “supergroup”, albeit more of a folk/jazz supergroup than a rock one. But due to a presence of a rhythm section (a crack one, too, with legends Terry Cox and double bassist Danny Thompson), they can also be credited with almost inventing British folk-rock (later perfected by Fairport Convention). Guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourn were legends on the British folk scene, and with the addition of the bell-like tones of Jacqui McShee, something special was born. This, the band’s best known album, combines jazzy/bluesy songs with solemn readings of traditional songs, aside from the unusual foray into pop with “Light Flight”. That’s a fun tune with a very odd beat, but the psychedelic tones of “Once I Had a Sweetheart” (with Renbourn on sitar) and “Lyke-Wake Dirge“, as well as the groovy shuffle of “Springtime Promises“, are more appealing to me. Jansch and Renbourn aren’t the best vocalists, but McShee anchors the proceedings nicely. The songs don’t rock, but they sure swing, and the instrumental prowess is breathtaking, particularly Jansch and Renbourn’s aggressive acoustic guitar stylings, which involved a lot of string snapping and heavy plucking. I think this album might even have made a chart appearance.
Kaleidoscope should probably be best known as the origin of legendary guitarist David Lindley, who went on to great success with his albums and with soundtracks. But this band had its own superb merits, and was in fact ahead of its time, like The Fugs were, being kind of pre-San Francisco but extremely trippy. This album should really be considered one of the most ground-breaking rock records of all time. While George Harrison was still tuning up his sitar, multi-instrumentalist Solomon Feldthouse was already expertly plucking away on Middle Eastern instruments. On this album it makes for a crazy brew of beat pop with spacy psych and world music, as well as a nutty take on Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and the scary bluegrass of “Oh Death”, as well as some nice psych-pop like Chris Darrow’s “If the Night“. Highlights include the apocalyptic anti-war song “Keep Your Mind Open“, which out-Airplanes anything the Airplane ever did in that regard, and the frenetic Arab Rawk of “Egyptian Gardens“. There’s just a feeling of radicalism and experimentation about this crazily eclectic album that is very inspiring and refreshing, even fifty-some-odd years later.
Only true aficionados of the psychedelic era (or people who were around back then) have really taken the time to enjoy this album. This San Francisco group made a couple of albums, starting with this one. Their hook was that while they did have a capable lead guitarist in Hal Wagenet, they also had David LaFlamme, rightly billed as “Hendrix of the violin”, in their midst. That dude sure knew how to wring rock drama out of that bow. He also sang nice baritone lead vocals in tandem with lady singer Patty Santos. This debut album is a bit of relic of its time in that it sounds very, very 1969; peace n’ love sentiments spill out all over the place, some early phasing effects, soaring choruses; very utopian and Age of Aquarius. But that violin playing is really swell, and the tunes are very good. “White Bird“, the best known song, has to be the ultimate late sixties anthem. The other highlight is the heavy, Eastern-influenced “Bombay Calling“, a fine example of early prog-rock if I ever heard one. It’s also worth noting that Deep Purple nicked that song’s melody for their own “Child in Time”. True story.
Many people believe that prog-rock started right here. While that’s debatable, there’s no doubt that this was a big step down the road. You see, there’s no “and roll” with this rock. This is influenced more by Coltrane and Bartok than by Chuck Berry. It’s actually a kind of uneven album, containing frenetic proto-jazz-metal “21st Century Schizoid Man“, dramatic (and depressing) symphonic rock (“Epitaph“), psychedelic jazz folk (“I Talk to the Wind“) and experimental jazz (a particular section of “Moonchild”). I could sort of do without most of side 2, most of the time (though the mood does sometimes strike me to enjoy it), but there’s no doubt that this is incredibly ambitious music, stunningly well-realized. And that’s not to mention other highlights of its quality, like Robert Fripp’s incredible fast guitar picking and Greg Lake’s choirboy pipes, and of course the somehow very distinctive rhythm section. Even the nutty album cover can be viewed as something of a game-changer; this is not a challenge of “straight”, conservative culture — it’s already on the other side, building the new alien society. It’s music from another world. Oh, and yeah. The Mellotron. Oh, the Mellotron. You’ll never hear better heavenly ‘tron than that on “Epitaph”, which alone should be enough to get you to listen. But then if you’re here, you probably already have.
A longtime favourite of mine, this album became sort of a lost unappreciated Byrds album until finding recognition much later. It is, in fact, the band’s only true, 100% psychedelic album, with earlier ones being more pop with some acid influences (Fifth Dimension). After this album, Gram Parsons joined and together they invented country-rock, which is great, but man, this particular record is some trip. A big collection of short songs, it is, like the Fairport album, drenched in reverby, spectral goodness. The trio of Hillman, Clarke and McGuinn (and Crosby, who left before it was out, as well as a brief re-appearance from Gene Clark) smother every song in rich, layered Sunshine Pop harmony vocals and fuzzy guitar solos. The lyrical themes are spacy (“Dolphin’s Smile“, “Change Is Now“, which has one of the trippiest guitar solos of the psych era) and occasionally rootsy and thus presaging the future change of direction (“Old John Robertson”, “Get to You”), but the roots stuff is very space-cowboy rather than Clarence White. There are a lot of songs on this album, and every one is a classic, none more so, though, than the almost unbearably pretty take on Goffin/King’s “Goin’ Back“. And the Moogy science fiction closer, “Space Odyssey”, is a real trip. Never again would McGuinn show his weird side quite so nakely, which is a shame. I think I like this album best because it has a true sense of identity; it’s the place where the folk-rockiness of the Byrds sound met with psychedelic music most consistently and with the strongest set of tunes to offer.