Curtis Mayfield “Curtis” (1970)

     Where does the fine line between funk and soul blur?  Today’s album is “Curtis” by Curtis Mayfield, former star of The Impressions, and author of one of my all-time favorites, “People Get Ready”.  This album is rated #8 on the Top 10 Funk albums of all time, and while it is a powerful album, I would tend to label this as soul more than funk.  What is the difference, from the eyes of someone who clearly has limitations in this area from a musical and cultural background?  To me, I associate funk with an edgier, guitar and bass-driven sound, often powered with off-beat drums.  Most of the music on this album is keyboard, horn and even string accompanied, and thus has much more of a soul or R&B feel.

     It matters not, let’s look at the album instead.  This album is a great representation of the empowered black artist scene of the early 70s, breaking through the singles-oriented Motown sound of the 60s to address socially conscious and relevant songs, all of which continue to ring true 50 years later.  Look no further than the title of the third song, “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue”.  As you can imagine, that song has been rediscovered by many in the last year.  The signature song from this album is “Move On Up”, a great song that really accentuates the powerful use of percussion and drums on the extended track.  The outro on this song reminds a bit of the bongo frenzy by Santana at the beginning of their set at Woodstock.  I also loved “Miss Black America” for its message and music, and the entire album, while not quite as funky as what I would typically lean towards, is a great showcase for Mayfield’s high range voice and impactful songwriting.

     Mayfield was tragically paralyzed in 1990 when a piece of stage lighting fell on him during a performance, but he continued to write and record until his death in 1999.  Funk or soul, this sound was a baseline for black music in the early 1970s, leading us further down the road towards the up-tempo disco sound of the late 1970s and the explosion of hip-hop in the 1980s.

James Brown “Sex Machine” (1970)

     Today we return to the hardest working man in show business, James Brown, and his latest live album release, “Sex Machine”.  Another highly regarded album from the Godfather of Soul, “Sex Machine”, a double album of “live” material, is rated as album #439 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     This album is a bit of an odd one.  Not surprisingly, the gold standard for James Brown live albums will always be his release from 1963, “Live at the Apollo”.  In comparison, I find this album to be much less sharp and focused, which isn’t that surprising as James and his band are all older and a bit more frazzled from the lives they respectively lead.  Even with the opening track, “Sex Machine”, which is a James Brown classic, it goes on for over ten minutes, and like several of the tracks on this album, there is just too much of James echoing back and forth with his band and less actual singing and song performance.  In reading about this album, I learned that the first two of the four album sides are actually studio tracks with audience sounds and reverberation overdubbed in, which makes this track even more unusual.

     Sides three and four are more traditional live tracks from various performances, and songs like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Mother Popcorn” give us a better, if not perfect glimpse of James Brown at his live-performing peak.  Of the several James Brown albums I have listened to during this journey, this is probably the one I am least like to put back on the turntable in the near future, but still an enjoyable and never dull ride with James, no matter what.

The Stooges “Fun House” (1970)

     A highly significant step towards a new genre today, as we delve into punk rock origins with “Fun House” by the Stooges, led by punk pioneer Iggy Pop.  This album, like many on this list, was not an immediate commercial success, but it has risen in consideration over time and is rated as the #94 album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     I have always had an unusual, awkward and often uncomfortable relationship with punk rock.  One of my earliest concert memories is with a dear friend and sometimes reader here who took me to see the Circle Jerks in a small concert hall in Denver in the 1980s.  Fully immersed in classic rock at the time, the chaotic intensity of the music and show was frankly too much for me, and I quickly retired across the street to K-Mart to look at more traditional rock albums while I waited for my friend to exit once the show was over.  A few years later, a band that really isn’t that punk, The Red Hot Chili Peppers came to my college as an up-and-coming group, and I was shocked and frankly pissed off when people began throwing themselves at me at full speed once the music began to play.  I like the raw intensity of punk, especially in short, explosive bursts, and I prefer it when it still has a trace of hook and melody to the track versus complete abrasiveness.  I tend to drift as the song runs on, and the repetition of the idea can be drawn out excessively, and of course this mindset applies to most music I listen to.

     On “Fun House”, I hear some of each.  The first two tracks, “Down on the Street” and “Loose” are exactly what I want them to be.  Raw, rough, and edgy, particularly for 1970, full of anger and rebellion, exploding in three and half minutes of joyful rock.  After that, the album tends to drag a bit in my eyes, as songs like “Dirt”, “1970” and the title track, “Fun House”, are just a little too much of a good idea.  The last track is a struggle for me.  The punk rock equivalent to “Revolution #9” by the Beatles, it is almost five minutes of industrial rhythm, angst-ridden vocal wails and cacophonic sounds.  It is quite the ending to the album, but honestly, I was just glad it was over.

     I really appreciated this eye-opening music lesson today in a genre I know more by legacy, friendship and watching from afar than I know and understand up close.   Iggy Pop is compelling to watch and you can feel every ounce of his heart in this album, and at its best, sets a great blueprint for so many who would follow.

Creedence Clearwater Revival “Cosmo’s Factory” (1970)

     From a cover of “Proud Mary” to the original creator, we come back to Creedence Clearwater Revival today for their album “Cosmo’s Factory”.  This album, which is rated #413 by Rolling Stone on their Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, is a hit factory, and despite what I said earlier about the #193 rated “Willy and the Poor Boys” album, this is probably their finest hour as a band.  And sadly, not unlike Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles, this triumph comes just a few months ahead of the pending initial dissolution of CCR.  John Fogerty’s strong personality and demanding ways became too much for all involved, to the point even his own brother Tom left the band before the end of 1970.

     That small fact aside, this album is fantastic.  Like most, it has a few items I could nitpick about.  I think the opener, “Ramble Tamble” rambles just a bit too much, and I could say the same about the extended run out of their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, most of the rest of this album is stellar.  Starting off with the Little Richard-esque “Travelin’ Band”, we hit one familiar song after another, each a CCR classic.  “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, “Run Through The Jungle”, “Up Around The Bend”, “Who’ll Stop The Rain”, and the above-mentioned “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, this almost sounds like a greatest hits compilation.  It is no surprise this album was a massive and enduring success for the band.  They even do an altered take on the Elvis Presley song “That’s Alright, Mama”, reworking the title and lyrics (while still assigning proper songwriting credit to Arthur Crudup) into “My Baby Left Me”.  They also pay proper tribute to the blues with Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me”. 

     There is just so much to like here.  We could debate the relative merits of this album versus “Willy and the Poor Boys”… or we could just listen to both and make it a CCR kind of day.  It is unfortunate they have never found a way to properly reconcile professionally or personally, but sadly that is how some great relationships and partnerships end.  No matter, this band left a permanent impact on the American rock and roll world, and the world at large.

Ike and Tina Turner “Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner” (1970)

     Another compilation album today, we have “Proud Mary: The Best of Ike and Tina Turner”, covering a lengthy span of their troubled history together.  This time in 1970 made sense as it aligned with their iconic cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”.  This album is rated #392 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Like the Spectors, we have another husband-and-wife team who were marred by the male being a completely abusive and repulsive human being.  Somehow through all of that, they did make some amazing music.  The first few songs on this album did not do much for me at all, they were early 60s Motown-knockoff songs that I felt were over-sung by Tina and an unfair ask of her vocal talents.  However, starting with the Beatles “Come Together” the rest of the album is a complete home run.  We go from that to a cover of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”, which Tina and Mick Jagger later performed together at the 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.  Then follows a cover of “I Want To Take You Higher” by Sly and the Family Stone, and after a less exciting “Workin’ Together”, we get their slow-then-frenzied historic take on “Proud Mary”.

     The rest of the album is one excellent song after another, showcasing Tina (and occasionally Ike) at their best.  I really loved “Sexy Ida (Part 2)”, as well as her version of the “Acid Queen” from “Tommy” by The Who.  Tina Turner portrayed “The Acid Queen” in their cinematic version of this album, and I think this may be the 4th album to include music from “Tommy” in my blog.

     The older tracks are forgettable, but late 60s / early 70s funk Tina Turner was a true force.  I know some are more inclined to celebrate her musical rebirth in the 1980s, but I think this music is exponentially better.

The Grateful Dead “Workingman’s Dead” (1970)

     I remember hearing the name “The Grateful Dead” as a young music fan, and thinking that this must be a really intense hard rock band.  As we all know now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Deep in country-folk rock roots, The Dead will always be known as one of the most powerful touring acts in rock history, with their legion of following fans, the Dead Heads.  They are also pioneers in the concept of a jam band, with each of their live sets presenting a different mix of songs and several extended, roaming tracks.  Despite their primary notoriety as a live act, they did record several very successful studio albums, including today’s selection “Workingman’s Dead”, which is album #409 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     The influence of band founder and lead guitarist / lead vocalist Jerry Garcia is very prominent here.  The album is bookended by two of their most well-known songs, opening with the mellow “Uncle John’s Band” and closing with the ode to a narcotic-influenced train engineer, “Casey Jones”, which has always been one of my very favorite studio tracks by the Dead.  Oddly enough, as popular as “Casey Jones” was and is, you don’t hear it very often in their live sets.

     The rest of the album is mostly very soft country, with a few exceptions, including “Easy Wind”, a funkier rocker that features keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on lead vocals.  As noted, the Grateful Dead and their indefatigable fans will always be known primarily for their never-ending journey of live performances.  I learned this week that the remnants of the Grateful Dead, “Dead and Company” are coming back through my area in Virginia this summer.  It won’t be the same without Jerry Garcia, but I can think of a lot of worse ways to spend a night out on the lawn listening to Dead tunes. 

“Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion, just crossed my mind…”

The Jackson 5 “ABC” (1970)

     As a casual observer of the Jackson 5 for most of my life, I always assumed that while Michael was clearly the lead performer of the group, I never fully appreciated the degree to which he carried the group until recently, including listening to today’s album, “ABC”.  That is a lot of pressure to put on the youngest of the five brothers in the act, as well as an overbearing stage father, and it isn’t difficult to see how things started in a tough and unusual place for Michael Jackson.

     This album, which is their second studio album, features Michael on lead for every song, with the single exception being “I Found That Girl”, with older brother and original lead singer of the group, Jermaine on lead.  The centerpiece of this album is naturally the funky mega-hit title track, “ABC”.  Michael Jackson was roughly twelve years old at this point, and his insane level of talent as a singer, dancer and performer was clearly apparent.  There are several “live” performances of this song available on the internet, of course they were lip-synced performances that allowed the group to feature their choreographed performances.  The charisma and energy of Michael is truly remarkable, even at that age, and it was clear he was on a different level than not only his performing brothers, but just about anyone else in or out of Motown at the time.

    The rest of the album is interesting but not nearly as compelling as the title track.  “The Love You Save”, which opens the album, was the other hit single from this album, and I appreciate the song “2-4-6-8” as a follow-on to “ABC”.  We will see Michael Jackson many more times on this journey, and I often come back to songs like “ABC” or “I Want You Back” (different album) to hear him at his simplest and purest as performer.

The Beatles “Let It Be” (1970)

     As noted in the last blog, we sadly reach the end of the proverbial long and winding road for the Beatles, with “Let It Be”, their last released studio album before they permanently disbanded as a group.  Cursed from the start, this album showcases what they were still capable of at their very best, while the accompanying film and overall product and production process represents a group in complete disarray.  Surprisingly, this album is on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All time, at #342.

     They started off to record an album of raw, rock-and-roll rooted music to be performed in a live venue.  Instead, they dealt with fights, band departures, arguments and many stops and starts.  One of the highlights of this process was their last live performance, a rooftop concert in London that was used for the source material for several songs on this album.  There are many really good songs on this album.  The opening duet “Two of Us” is a beautiful Paul-John vocal that highlights the best of their partnership and friendship.  An older version of “Across the Universe” by John Lennon is a side one highlight and one of his best late-era Beatles songs, and “Let It Be”, one of the symbolic final stands of the bands, is a powerful McCartney ballad that stands up as one of his most iconic tracks ever, along with “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday”.

     Side two features an early 60s Lennon-McCartney rocker, “One After 909”, and closes with the funky “Get Back”, the rooftop concert opener.  In the middle, we have “The Long and Winding Road”, which takes a relatively harmless McCartney ballad and with Phil Spector’s over-orchestration, turns it into a hot mess.  Even though their legendary produce George Martin produced all of these songs in their original state, the album fell into the cobwebs before being finished by Phil Spector.  Most fans, and certainly Paul, felt Spector did great harm to their tracks with all of his overdubs and add-ins, and the band actually released a stripped-down version of the album, “Let It Be…Naked”, without all of the Spector add-ins, and in general, it is an improvement.  One last comment on Phil Spector’s input… why he left off Lennon’s classic “Don’t Let Me Down”, the second song from the rooftop show, I will never understand.  It was released as a “B” side to “Get Back”, but is a stronger song than almost every track on the album.

     My last thought on this album says a lot about how I feel about the greatness of the Beatles as a band, when compared to their solo releases.  As great as they each are as artists, there is something magical about their work together as a band, even in the worst of times and circumstances.  To make this point, let’s compare “Maybe I’m Amazed” with “I’ve Got a Feeling”, released within weeks of each other.  Both are powerful, piano/organ driven songs featuring Paul on lead vocal, singing with passion and intensity.  No matter how good “Maybe I’m Amazed” is, and it is a great song, when you take those same raw ingredients and add in some of Ringo’s best drumming, some of George’s most raw guitar fills, and best of all, John coming in with his alternate lead vocal singing, “Everybody had a hard year, everybody had a good time, everybody had a wet dream, everybody saw the sunshine”, the song is just on an entirely differently level than anything they could deliver individually. 

     My life, and the lives of millions of others, have been forever impacted and changed by the greatness that was the Beatles.  It was a relatively short but brilliant run in the spotlight following years of honing their craft in small clubs, but fifty years later, the world remains in love with the Beatles, and so do I.

“And when the broken-hearted people, living in the world agree, there will be an answer… Let It Be.”

Paul McCartney “McCartney” (1970)

     1970 brings us the implosion of the Beatles, in all of its messy presentation.  After the release of Abbey Road in 1969, John informed the band he was leaving, which was underscored with several tense meetings and discussions over business management and finances.  We will see that the ill-fated “Let It Be” album will come out soon, but in a final straw of contention between Paul McCartney and the other band members, he recorded and chose to release his first solo album, “McCartney”, weeks before the release of “Let It Be”.  In a funny story, Ringo Starr was selected by the other three to go to Paul and try to convince/insist that he delay the release of his solo album.  Paul summarily dismissed Ringo, and thus the others, and the release was on.

     It is interesting to review this album in this context.  Knowing the intense competitive rivalry that existed between all of the band members, particularly between Paul and John, I would have expected Paul to debut with a more impactful album.  For the most part, “McCartney” is pretty uninspiring.  It was recorded solo with limited technology, and most of the song are one-to-two-minute mini-songs, not unlike the stream of short snippets in the Abbey Road medley.  Unfortunately, they aren’t near as catchy or interesting, and most of the album is honestly pretty dull.  Of all of these songs, “Every Night” and “Junk” are probably my favorites, but in what will become a common theme in my assessment of the Beatles’ solo releases, the contributions from the other three, including their signature three-part harmony vocal, are sorely missed here.  Oddly placed near the end of the album, we do have the one standout song on the album, and Paul’s first hit as a solo artist, “Maybe I’m Amazed”.  Complete and powerful in its delivery, as much as I like this song, it sounds somewhat misplaced among these other “smaller” songs.  It does reinforce his raw talent as a singer, songwriter, and musician, and is a good preview of stronger work to come.

Miles Davis “Bitches Brew” (1970)

     For the first time in a while, we come back to jazz, with a familiar face being jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis.  Like all genres of music, jazz and Miles specifically continued to evolve through the 1960s and early 1970s, and his highly rated album “Bitches Brew”, which is the #87 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, incorporates a new ensemble of highly regarded musicians to include Chick Corea on electric piano and John McLaughlin on electric guitar.

     Like many of his prior albums, this double album is a collection of extended pieces, with several sides of the album covered by a single extended track.  The music continues to be very free-form, and in most cases, is very high energy.  I found it to be a great soundtrack for finishing the last two hours of a long evening drive last night, and it was energizing and appealing without being overtly distracting or jarring.  Like prior albums, Miles does a great job of sharing the spotlight with his talented peers, and while his trumpet is a key component of the music, it blends in well and does not overshadow the others, particularly the consistent piano work from Corea.  The sound of this album has an exotic, almost tribal feel at times on the first two tracks, and as we reached the end of the album and our long drive last night, my jazz sage son and I agreed that “Sanctuary” was the perfect “wind-down” track to prepare us for the end of our journey and the highly awaited long night of sleep that came as a reward for a high-paced day and long weekend.

     I will never be a jazz expert and it will always be a genre I’m stretching myself to keep pace with, but I have really enjoyed all I have encountered so far, and this diverse and unique album was another great stop along the way from an artist who impressively stayed relevant and impactful for a long and extended career.