Jesus Christ Superstar “Original Soundtrack” (1970)

    As we close out 1970, we look at one last album released in 1970 that has been included on the list as it is the number one selling album of 1971.  Yet another album that was in my parent’s early 1970s record collection, today’s selection is the original soundtrack album to the rock opera turned Broadway musical turned film production, “Jesus Christ Superstar”.  I have always had a passing knowledge of this music at best, and am glad I took the time to learn more about it.  Focusing on the last week of the life of Christ, leading up to his trial and crucifixion, it is a pop culture interpretation of this segment in the New Testament.

     Unable to secure funding for an actual musical show to begin with, this musical was created by two theater legends, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  That pedigree alone got my attention.   What also surprised me greatly when listening to this album was who they had singing some of the main roles.  Jesus Christ was actually performed by Ian Gillan, who at the same time was the lead singer of Deep Purple.  Yes, from “Smoke On The Water” to walking on water, quite the dual career for Mr. Gillan.  Mary Magdalene’s role was sung by Yvonne Elliman, who would rise to fame again later in the 1970s singing “If I Can’t Have You” on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack album. 

     After listening to this album twice, musically I can see why it was popular.  Several of the songs are pretty catchy, in the vane of a rock-based musical theater manner that is intended to grow on you.  Aside from the very recognizable “Overture” and main theme of the show, other songs I appreciated the most included “What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing, Mystifying”, “Hosanna”, “The Temple”, and “Everything’s Alright”.

     Culturally and historically, I can easily see why this entire project to include the subsequent show and film were so popular.  In the early 1970s, the “hippie” rock culture continued to look for answers on their quest for peace in the turmoil of civil strife and the Vietnam War, and the safety and idealistic legacy of the Christian faith gave many a safe space to blend their teachings on Christianity and their innate family values and background with their modern love for rock and roll and anti-establishment fashion and rhetoric.  Who better to represent the aspiration for love and peace than one of the world’s most celebrated religious figures?  I’ll let others debate that, but the connotation and association of these two seemingly opposite worlds appears pretty natural to me.  It was definitely an interesting listen, if slightly on the long side, but given it’s long and successful run across many venues worldwide, it is an important piece of performance art history.

Vashti Bunyan “Just Another Diamond Day” (1970)

    Tonight we have recommendation number three from my son, as I allotted him ten picks on my list of albums.  Today’s selection is “Just Another Diamond Day”, by a relatively unknown British female folk singer named Vashti Bunyan.

      I can certainly attest to the fact that prior to today, I had never heard of, or heard from Ms. Bunyan.  This album was recorded as she was working to establish herself, with some assistance from the Rolling Stones’ manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham.  In a tale somewhat similar to the fable of American folk-rock artist Sixto Rodriguez, the album was initially a commercial flop, to the point where she effectively retired from professional music.  Over the course of time, more and more people discovered this album and it ultimately became highly sought after as a musical piece and collector’s item.  She eventually resumed her career, both as a recording artist and performer, many years after this initial album.

     The album is a soft and gentle listen, her voice is easy to listen to and on the upper end of the range, not unlike Joni Mitchell.  None of the songs really jumped out to me above the rest, although “Lily Pond” is recognizable as yet another deployment of the melody we know better as “ABC” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.  The musical accompaniment is soft guitar by Bunyan, and also includes other musicians on piano, organ, fiddle, mandolin, recorder and banjo for a classic country folk sound.

     Like this experiment as a whole, and in thanks in part to the diverse tastes of my son, I listened to a quality album I would have likely never otherwise heard, and I would encourage you to do the same.  It’s good Sunday morning music, or late evening music, like it is now as I finish my writing for today.  Goodnight all, and goodnight Vashti Bunyan.

John Lennon “Plastic Ono Band” (1970)

     From one Beatle to the next, we now have the first solo release from John Lennon post-breakup, “The Plastic Ono Band”, released shortly after George Harrison released “All Things Must Pass”.  Like George’s album, it also features Ringo Starr on drums for many of the tracks, as well as Billy Preston on keyboards.   Also, like George’s album, this album is highly regarded, rated as album #85 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     I have a lot to say about this album as a whole.  To be honest, I don’t love it.  I do find it more appealing that Paul’s first release, “McCartney”, and I also noticed that Ringo did NOT appear on Paul’s album (shocker), but I rate this one a distant second to Harrison’s solo effort from the same period.  Starting with the rating itself, which I rarely challenge, I have to acknowledge the “Lennon bias” that is resident at Rolling Stone.  Like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and a few other select artists, John Lennon pretty much walked on water for Jann Wenner and the Rolling Stone crew.  I just don’t objectively see the greatness of this album, and this comes from a big John Lennon fan.

     John Lennon was obviously a very complicated person.  He did not have a healthy relationship with his mother or father growing up, and was raised primarily by his aunt.  The pain and suffering from these relationships are on center stage on this album, and I can clearly see and hear his pain in these songs.  You can also hear his audible scar tissue from his battles with the press over topics like religion, war, his love for Yoko Ono, and the trauma of his breakup with Paul and the rest of the Beatles, to a lesser degree.  The net sum of these effects ultimately drove John into some degree of musical hibernation for many years in the mid to late 1970s.

     Specifically on this album, the emotion comes through much more so than any appealing melody.  I just find a lot of this songs to be a little too raw and don’t contain much of a hook that makes me want to listen to, other than understanding the historical context of these songs in the life of John Lennon.  It also reinforces why the Beatles were at their best as a unit, specifically John and Paul.  I find John to be too far on the extreme of contextual and aggressive, where Paul is too far on the other end of schmaltzy and cheesy.  These two opposing forces pulled each other closer to the center to make great music together, but left to their own devices, there are too many songs like “Mother” and “Well, Well, Well” that overflow with much more emotion than musicality.  There are songs I like on this album, such as “Hold On” and “Isolation”, and the blunt statement of “God” is truly significant for truly understanding John Lennon, but I think that in general, John makes better music later in his solo career when he isn’t trying so hard to prove everyone wrong with regards to his relationships with Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and the world around him.

George Harrison “All Things Must Pass” (1970)

     Two days in a row, I’m listening to albums that were in my house from an early age.  However, in this case, I’m pretty sure my parents purchased a TRIPLE album for one song.  That’s right, today we are listening to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”, his first major solo project released after the Beatles disbanded.  Highly regarded, this album is rated #368 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Subconsciously, and perhaps somewhat ignorantly, I think I went through way too much of my life thinking “My Sweet Lord” was all there was to this album.  After all, it really is a great song, blending a great melody with thoughtful and personal lyrics from George.  It is the second song on side one (of six), and is the landmark single from this album.  Not until much more recently, and once again recognized with this complete listen, that the entire album is really strong and showcases how much talent George had as a songwriter, much more so than was previously realized in the Beatles.  Several other notable tracks like “Isn’t It A Pity”, which in my opinion is just as good a song as “Something” was for the Beatles, “What Is Life”, “Let It Down”, and “If Not For You” are all long-term keepers on the playlist.  As an unexpected surprise, the entire first four sides are just one easy and pleasant listen, with much of George’s signature guitar sound.  The last two sides are mostly instrumental jams, reminiscent of the days when the Beatles were a hyped cover band playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs all night.

     Not surprisingly, many of George’s talented peers, including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, and Ginger Baker all find their way on to this album.  It makes me happy as one who roots for the underdog, to understand more fully what an accomplishment this was for George Harrison, even as he was releasing music concurrent with Paul & John.  I haven’t yet listened to John’s album that was also released in late 1970, but this is far better than “McCartney”, released earlier in the year.  It isn’t even close. 

Neil Diamond “Tap Root Manuscript” (1970)

     Being raised in a home that loved music, I was exposed to a lot of different sounds in my early years before I started forging my own path as a music fan.  During the early years of my life, there was no artist more prevalent than Neil Diamond.  There is no way I could complete this album journey without at least one selection from Neil, or I would have to answer to my Mom.  As such, I have selected what I consider to be his most interesting and compelling album project, “Tap Root Manuscript”, released in late 1970.

     For the current day music fan, most may not fully appreciate what a successful, diverse, and occasionally hard-edged performer Neil Diamond was in his early days.  There is much more to him than being the artist of choice at Fenway Park with “Sweet Caroline”, or his schmaltzy ballads with Barbara Streisand.  It was fantastic to rediscover this album, one that I heard dozens of times in my youngest days.

     Side one opens with “Cracklin’ Rosie”, one of his most recognizable singles, and the biggest hit from this album.  I enjoyed every song that followed on the first side, a stand-alone collection of songs to include “Free Life”, “Coldwater Morning”, “Done Too Soon”, and an interesting cover of the Hollies’ classic “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”.

     As much as I enjoyed each song on side one, the real prize here is side two.  Way ahead of his time, and ahead of artists like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, Diamond incorporates a suite of African melodies and rhythms into a 19-minute collection of songs that stands out as a complete piece.  Like side one, I really enjoyed side two, and it was truly a walk down memory lane hearing the opener (and closer) “Childsong”, wrapped around “I Am The Lion”, “Madrigal”, “Soolaimon”, “Missa” and the impactful “African Trilogy”.  This really is an impressive composition from Neil Diamond; a much higher quality of performance than today’s cynics would ever realize.  It was also remarkable to me, as I listened to this second side, how easily I could recall they lyrics and music to songs I haven’t heard in almost 50 years.

     So, Mom, thank you for introducing me to this music once upon a time… and thanks for inspiring me to bring it back into my canon of music a half-century later.

The Grateful Dead “American Beauty” (1970)

     In another unusual burst of productivity, today we review the 2nd album released by the Grateful Dead, “American Beauty”.  When combined with “Workingman’s Dead”, these two albums comprise most of the radio play tracks for the Dead, at least until their resurgence in the late 1980s.  “American Beauty” is the #215 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     The album opens with “Box of Rain”, which is the excessively slow and uninteresting part of the Dead to me.  The album picks up quickly after that, with “Friend of the Devil” and “Sugar Magnolia”, which will always stand out as my favorite Bob Weir Grateful Dead song.  I’m not a huge fan of Pigpen McKernan’s “Operator”, but I do like Jerry Garcia’s side one closer, “Candyman”.

     Two days ago on social media, I sadly saw a post from a father lamenting the passing of his 24-year-old son, which hit a little too close to home for me.  In his post, he noted that their favorite song to share together was “Ripple” by the Dead, which opens side two.  It is a beautiful song, and from now on it will always be in my head as this heartbreaking tribute from father to son.  “Till the Morning Comes” is an upbeat song that characterizes the vibe of their live show, with the fans moving in mass unison, and the closer on side two, “Truckin” is the perfect ode to the nomadic lifestyle of the Grateful Dead and their passionately devoted fanbase.

     I will always associate the Dead with a unique and one-of-a-kind friend we met in college who opened all of our collective eyes to the world of the Dead.  It has been many, many years since we shared the finer things in life with our good friend Lo, but I think we can all agree on one thing…

“What a long, strange trip it’s been…”

Led Zeppelin “Led Zeppelin III” (1970)

     In 24 months, Led Zeppelin played several hundred shows, and recorded and released three albums.  It always amazes me how much high-quality material these bands (Led Zep, The Doors, CCR, The Beatles, The Beach Boys) among others could write, record and release in a compressed time frame.  “Led Zeppelin III” was inspired by a visit to a Scottish cottage (Bron-Yr-Aur) that included Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, where they got back to the simplicities of nature with acoustic guitars and limited accommodations.  The third album is considered their “acoustic” album, and while there is some validity to this, it is a bit of a misnomer because A), they have lots of acoustic-based songs on the first two albums, and B), there are several electric guitar-based rockers on this album as well.

     Many people look at this album as a bit of a step back from the first two albums in overall enduring quality, and I would tend to agree, although the band would consider it more of a continuous change and evolution of their music.  I believe this album has two timeless classics, one really good song, and the rest of the album is good, but not great.  There is one song at the end I would swap out if I could, and I will explain more shortly.

     Side one opens with “Immigrant Song”, one of their most famous short, riff-based anthems.  It has never been a big favorite of mine, and I think that the main reason is the production somehow has the bass and drums, a trademark of Led Zeppelin heaviness, buried and softer in the mix.  Next come “Friends” and “Celebration Day”, both of which are in that good but not great category.  In particular, I think “Celebration Day” is one of the few Led Zeppelin songs that is significantly stronger performed live than this studio version.  They do hit a home run with the next song, “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, their first true original blues anthem.  This formula, which they would revisit two more times in their catalog, is primarily a Page and Plant showcase, and both are at their very best here, but the drum performance is noticeably great, which once again separates John Bonham to a level above others.  How many blues tracks do you listen to and hone in on the crispness and standout sound of the drums?  Exactly.  John Paul Jones layers in a perfect organ and bass accompaniment; this is Led Zeppelin at their creative and most powerful best.  Side one ends with another short rocker, “Out On The Tiles”, which like a lot of the album, just doesn’t seem to have the intense depth and powerful impact as similar tracks on their first two albums.

     Side two, the “acoustic” side, opens with “Gallows Pole”, a remake of a traditional song focusing on a person’s last moments leading up to his execution by hanging.  I do love the tempo increase and one-off banjo from Jimmy Page on this song.  “Tangerine” follows, a bit on the melancholy side and not a great song, but then comes “That’s The Way”, one of their two best acoustic songs ever that is amazing here and performed live as a trio, with Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on mandolin.  I also love “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”, which comes next, another acoustic song but up-tempo with John Bonham’s thumping drums as Robert Plant sings a love song to his beloved dog, “Strider”.  Bonzo sings a great harmony vocal on this when they play it live.

     The last song on the album is my least favorite, and the one I would have swapped out.  Let me explain.  The song, “Hats off To (Roy) Harper”, is named in tribute to their eclectic friend, UK folk-rock singer Roy Harper, but is a distorted, unusual remake of the Bukka White blues song “Shake ‘Em On Down”.  It is just a bit too much reverberation and Plant wailing for my tastes.  What I believe they should have done is inserted their classic song “Hey, Hey What Can I Do” as the perfect closer for this album, which they instead released as a B side to “Immigrant Song”.  “Hey, Hey What Can I Do” is in my opinion, one of the very greatest Led Zeppelin songs of all time, allowing them to deliver that light-and-shade within a song, as an acoustic song that hits heavy and powerful at the same time.  Unfortunately, they did not consult with me before finalizing the album.

     “Led Zeppelin III” will never by my favorite Zeppelin album, but like all of them, it does have its moments of greatness, and really branches out their reach across many different genres of music beyond just hard guitar rock.

Santana “Abraxas” (1970)

     Another Woodstock veteran today, the album of the day is “Abraxas” by Carlos Santana and his band, including keyboardist and lead vocalist Gregg Rollie, who would go on to form Journey with Neal Schon, another Santana alum.  This album is rated as album #334 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Carlos Santana is an iconic guitar player whose career has seen many regenerations commercially, fairly impressive for an artist who is never featured on lead vocals.  It is this classic sound of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that I connect with most naturally.  On this album, some songs are instrumental only, some have vocals in English, and some have vocals in Spanish.  I find myself most naturally drawn to the beautiful sounding Spanish vocals, they seem much more colorful and appealing.  It reminds me of whenever I travel to Miami, one of my first steps is to turn the radio to one of several Spanish-only stations.

     This album is well-known in the rock music genre, it features perhaps Santana’s two most prominent songs from that era, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman”, and a Tito Puente cover, “Oye Como Va”. As noted above, I particularly love the percussion and strong Mexican tone of “Oye Como Va”.  I also like the mellow vibe of “Samba Pa Ti” and the high energy rhythm closer, “El Nicoya”.

     I love how the modern musical world has embraced the greatness of Carlos Santana, as he also provides one of the few remaining timeless bridges back to the Woodstock era.  A great album, and no surprise it was so well received and rated, then and now.

Neil Young “After The Gold Rush” (1970)

     We look today at “After The Gold Rush”, the third album from solo artist and multi-group member Neil Young, who by this point had not only released solo albums but also recorded and performed with Crosby, Stills and Nash as well as Buffalo Springfield, also featuring Stephen Stills.  This album, mixing country folk with an occasional harder edge, with Neil being a very accomplished guitarist along with his strong high-end vocals.   The album is rated #90 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     My appreciation for Neil Young has grown a lot over the years.  Once upon a time, I found both his voice and guitar playing to be a bit jarring, and the production of “Southern Man”, one of the most notable tracks on this album, is a good example of this.  As many of you know, it was this song that prompted the lyrical response and reference from Lynyrd Skynyrd when they wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” and called out Neil Young.  And while I do appreciate this side of Neil Young, it is typically some of his more melodic and basic tunes that really pull me in. On this album, the best example of this is the beautiful song “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”.   The highest-selling single from the album, the harmonies and simplicity of the song are fantastic, and it is the perfect centerpiece for other similar songs like “Tell Me Why”, the title track “After the Gold Rush”, and the closer, “Cripple Creek Ferry”.

     I find this album and its melancholy tracks to be very comforting, especially on a quiet summer afternoon like today.  I can piece together the images and the time of the early 1970s, hand in hand with music like Neil Young and it is a feeling of blissful warmth.

Black Sabbath “Paranoid” (1970)

     1970 was a remarkably productive year for the band Black Sabbath.  Following their debut release earlier in the year, in September they released their second album, “Paranoid”.  With these two albums alone, the foundation of Black Sabbath’s most significant and successful music was produced within a single year.  Even more successful than their debut, this album rates as the #139 selection on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

     The album opens with “War Pigs”, which is probably my favorite and most powerful Sabbath song ever.  Continuing the same formula of rough and raw chords and Ozzy Osbourne’s dark lyrics, “War Pigs” brutally confronts the hypocritical war machine and its misguided, perverted motivations for existence.  Following that, the title track “Paranoid”, a gold standard for quick, intense and fast paced metal rocking.   Side one takes a breather with the distorted psychedelic “Planet Caravan”, before crushing with a wallop, closing with “Iron Man”.  Another legendary Sabbath tune, I also will always associate this great song with the unquestioned all-time greatest wrestling duo, The Road Warriors.  If there is a better “walk-up” song that “Iron Man”, I haven’t heard it yet.

     Side two isn’t quite as hit laden, but still rocks at the same pitch, closing out with “Fairies Wear Boots”.  Preceded by “Electric Funeral” and “Hand of Doom”, Black Sabbath completely delivers on their target of aggressive, haunting, and slightly terrifying rock like no other band of their time.  To this day, these first two albums compose the beginnings of a genre that is still taking no prisoners fifty years later.