Rodriguez “Cold Fact” (1970)

     I don’t know about most of you, but before I saw the movie “Searching for Sugarman”, I had never heard of Detroit folk-rock singer Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded and performed, simply as Rodriguez.  Now before you run off to Google to look him up, I will warn you now.  His sad, fascinating and intriguing story is remarkable, and instead of reading up on him, I can not recommend any higher, the musical documentary film mentioned above.  The less you know about Rodriguez before you start watching the movie, the more fascinating it is.  Today we look at his most successful album, “Cold Fact”.

     Rodriguez, who sounds like Bob Dylan with a greater vocal range, never reached much commercial success in the United States, but oddly was extremely popular in Australia and South Africa.  It is all a part of his fascinating story.  Overall, I think this album is fantastic and it really surprises me he wasn’t more of a success in the U.S. and worldwide.  I don’t love the first two songs, but starting with the beautiful “Crucify Your Mind”, which may be the most elegant and gorgeous song on the album, the rest of this album is outstanding.  The lyrics across all of this album are profound and relevant to the time as well as today, and there are a lot of really catchy songs on here.  “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues” is great, and I also really love “Forget It”, “Inner City Blues”, and the quirky but infectious “I Wonder”, one of his biggest hits in those faraway lands.

     So, if you ever use this blog an inspiration to feed your musical curiosity, do yourself a favor.  Go watch the film “Searching for Sugarman” first, listen to this album second (as much as you like), and THEN read more about the artist we know as Rodriguez.

The Who “Live at Leeds” (1970)

     Another day of hard-rocking power chords, we revisit the live album for one of the most celebrated live albums in rock music history.  Fresh off their success with the rock opera “Tommy”, The Who set out to record a live album to reinforce their ability to be relevant and vital as a live act, not just as recording artists.  The resulting “Live at Leeds”, recorded at Leeds University in the UK, was a powerhouse demonstration of this capability, and is rated as #327 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     The original album release was only six tracks, including extended versions of “My Generation” and “Magic Bus”.  Side one features two of the most famous and well-performed rock covers, “Summertime Blues”, the 1950s hit by Eddie Cochran, and “Young Man Blues”, by Mose Allison.  What you see on all of these tracks, is the fierce intensity and musical excellence of The Who at their very best.  Much more than their studio recordings to date, you get the full experience of Keith Moon’s frenetic drumming, John Entwistle’s insane bass lines, and the jolting power-rhythm guitar of Pete Townshend, blended in as needed with a well-paired backing harmony of Pete & John’s vocals set behind showman Roger Daltrey.  Just as we saw the beginnings of heavy metal yesterday with Black Sabbath, today’s performance from The Who not only is extremely well done, it contains a lot of the raw energy we see emerge later in the decade as punk rock took hold in the UK.

     In subsequent re-releases of the album, they have added more content, as during the show, they actually performed, from beginning to end, the rock opera “Tommy”.  As much as I enjoyed the original studio album, this performance is much more intense, with a harder edge that separates The Who as one of the best bands of the rock era.  Again, so much of this is fueled by the explosive three-part rhythm section that is Moon, Entwistle, and Townshend, fully unleashed on stage.  Even their most pop-sounding early singles like “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, “Happy Jack”, and “I’m a Boy” completely transform live, completely validating the assertion of the greatness of their live act and of this album, specifically.

      Like most “live” albums, this performance has been “repaired” with certain re-recorded and overdubbed elements, which can be said of almost every live album ever released.   That said, the always comical banter between the band and the interaction with the crowd, along with the raw sound makes this album perhaps the best single representation of the greatness of The Who.  If you have never listened to “Live at Leeds”, I highly recommend it, and you might as well go for the full extended version so you can hear the entire performance of “Tommy” when the band was at their peak.

Black Sabbath “Black Sabbath” (1970)

     1970 brings us what I consider to be one of the first, if not the first, origins of heavy metal.  We feature today, the debut of Black Sabbath, aptly named “Black Sabbath”.  Not only is this album #355 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Album of All Time, it is #1 on loudwire.com’s Top 10 Heavy Metal albums of all time.  Simply put, this dark masterpiece rocks.

     Today is a great day for Black Sabbath where I live.  The clouds are out, the rain is falling, and the air is cool and damp.  As the opening song starts, we hear the distant bells of a church ringing and the rain is falling, and as Tony Iommi’s wicked guitar begins to chime, we hear the “Prince of Darkness” himself, the one and only Ozzy Osbourne weigh in on vocals.  There are no love songs here, no happy endings, no holding hands walking down the street.  This is angry, this is dark, this is black.. Black Sabbath.  From the industrial town of Birmingham, England this four-piece band masters the heavy sounds of early metal.  With Geezer Butler on bass and Bill Ward, I had forgotten just how much I loved this original album.

     After the crushing intro of “Black Sabbath”, Ozzy’s harmonica takes us into the equally powerful “The Wizard”, an absolutely phenomenal one-two punch of opening songs.  After “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, “N.I.B.” matches the intensity of the first two songs, completing a very powerful side one.

     Side two is a bit more obscure, but just as dark and impactful, with three songs blended together to fill out the album.  Through it all, the chords and rhythm are fierce and tight, and Ozzy’s young voice and delivery with Black Sabbath is one of two voices I have heard that just belong in a horror film.  Many would follow the roots of Black Sabbath, who built on the many hard-rocking bands, mostly from the UK, who came before them.  It will get louder, more aggressive and even more intense, but I think I may have to agree with the folks at loudwire.com, I’m not sure it gets any better than this for pure metal aggression.

The Doors “Morrison Hotel” (1970)

     You may recall that the last Doors album, “The Soft Parade”, featuring songs like “Touch Me”, was a pretty notable departure from their rock and roll roots.  Today’s album, “Morrison Hotel” brings us back to that place, with a good dose of blues rock injected as well.  Some of their very best guitar-based songs emerge on this album, and I remain impressed at their productivity in the shadows of Jim Morrison’s continued descent into an alcohol and drug-marred daily existence.

     The album opens with “Roadhouse Blues”, one of their very best songs, and is then followed by a classic mystical desert song from Jim, “Waiting for the Sun”.  Also on side one, we have “Peace Frog”, perhaps their funkiest and best guitar track ever recorded.  Any Doors album is always the Jim Morrison show first and foremost, but guitarist Robby Krieger really shines on this album.  In addition to being their second-most productive songwriter (behind Jim), he really brings a wide array of sounds and style to the different songs we hear from the Doors, and along with Ray Manzarek, forms an extremely tight two-person melody machine.

     Two other great songs on this album are “Ship of Fools” and “Land Ho!”, which features another great Krieger riff interwoven with a great vocal performance from Morrison.  This album did not chart any high-selling singles, but with time it has proven to be one of their deepest and best albums, probably my favorite since their debut album.  The world may be closing in on Jim and the Doors, but they still find a way to deliver impactful and lasting songs on this album.

James Taylor “Sweet Baby James” (1970)

     Synonymous with the early 1970s is the singer-songwriter, whether it be guitar or piano based.  Today we encounter one of the best ever, James Taylor, on his second album, “Sweet Baby James”.  Well received, this album is rated #182 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Like most of his music, it is acoustic based and fairly mellow, but I think James sets himself above his peers with his ability to mix it up with some blues and rock and roll blended in with his folk country rock core.  The album opens with the title track, “Sweet Baby James”, a perfect introduction to the James Taylor sound.  Next comes “Lo and Behold”, with a bluesier edge.  “Sunny Skies” is almost too happy, but again classic Taylor.  Other highlights across the album include “Country Road”, a great song that features Carole King on piano.  The two of them would work frequently together during these years.  Randy Meisner, an original member of the Eagles, also appears on some of the songs on bass.

     The standout track of this album is “Fire and Rain”, an all-time James Taylor classic which is one of his best songs ever.  I see some similarities in this song and Elton John’s first big hit, “Your Song”.  Both served to carve their identities as top-shelf songwriters from their earliest debuts.  That song is preceded by his arrangement of the traditional folk song, “Oh, Susannah”.

     Overall, like most James Taylor music, this is the definition of easy listening, but I find it more interesting and compelling than some of his peers like Dan Fogelberg.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see James Taylor live at Red Rocks on my birthday, a perfect night I won’t forget anytime soon.  His music is perfect to fill the hills and mountain air on a warm summer night.

Van Morrison “Moondance” (1970)

     Today we come back to Van Morrison for his next released album, “Moondance”.  This album was recorded and structured for a greater commercial appeal than the highly regarded “Astral Weeks”, and he was definitely successful with that goal.  This album is rated #120 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.  As a comparison, “Astral Weeks” was #60.

     I’m a big fan of both albums and of Van Morrison in general, but I can see why this album had a better reception.  In general, the songs are shorter and more upbeat, and there are some amazing songs on this album, including what I consider to be the ultimate Van Morrison song, “Into the Mystic”.  I will share my own tragic “Into the Mystic” story a bit later, but let’s look at the rest of the album first.

     It opens with the warm “And It Stoned Me”, an excellent opening track with lush horns.  Next comes the well-known jazzy title track “Moondance”.  Once again, film association enters my head as I always think of the horror-comedy film (is there such a thing?) “An American Werewolf in London”.  Anyway, this song is a perfect mood setter on any night where your heart and mind are in the same place.  This whole album carries that same vibe, following with “Crazy Love”.  Two tracks later, we reach the peak of romantic emotional impact with “Into the Mystic”, one of the greatest love songs ever.

     The entire album has great flow and there isn’t a bad song in the mix, so if I had to choose, I would rate this as my favorite Van Morrison album over the more experimental “Astral Weeks”.  Ten beautifully produced songs in 38 minutes, a great listen from beginning to end.

     So, about two years ago, I saw Van Morrison in concert for the first time.  Through the course of the night, I was greeted with unfamiliar songs I enjoyed, as well as the expected… “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Moondance”, “Crazy Love”, and others, as I waited patiently for “Into the Mystic”.  And then, it happened.  The lights came up, the band left the stage, the amphitheater emptied, and there I was left, still waiting.  How in the world does Van Morrison play a show and not play “Into the Mystic”?  Two years and counting, and I’m still waiting for him to make this right.

Simon & Garfunkel “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970)

     The 1970s kick off with one of the most successful duos of the 1960s, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.  Despite growing differences and conflict between the two that ultimately led to their dissolution as an act not long after this album was released, they recorded and released what I and most others consider to be their greatest album.  Highly successful, the album “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was the #1 selling album of 1970, and is rated #172 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which feels a bit low to me.

     The album opens with the powerful title track, a soulful ballad written by Paul Simon, like most of their songs, but sung primarily by Art Garfunkel.  Paul originally had to convince Art they had a hit on their hands, but it took some time for Art to come around.  Paul continued to harbor some resentment even as the song hit big, concerned his contribution to the number was not fully appreciated.  Despite the pettiness and hard feelings that ultimately soured their working relationship, they did create a beautiful song here.  At the urging of their produced, Paul wrote a third verse that they sing together, and it adds significantly to the overall impact of the song.  The album continues on with “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, a beautiful Peruvian classical piece remade in their two-part harmony.  It is a really lush and powerful piece also, and the strength of the album continues to shine with the more pop-sounding “Cecilia”. 

     Side two opens with another home run Paul Simon song, “The Boxer”.  I will always vividly recall when Paul performed this song solo on Saturday Night Live, in their first show following 9/11, a somber and deeply emotional scene as he performed to a stage full of New York firefighters, police officers and other first responders.  It was the perfect song of resilience for that moment, and has always stuck with me as such.  There really isn’t a weak song on this album, songs like “Keep the Customer Satisfied”, “Baby Driver” and “The Only Living Boy in New York” all display the wide range and continued growth of Paul Simon as a songwriter.

     As if to keep the mood light during the dark tension, the album also includes a live cover version of the Everly Brothers hit, “Bye Bye Love”.  The similarities in harmony between the two acts are obvious, and they surely had a lifetime career as an Everly Brothers tribute act if they didn’t have such gifts with their own music.

     As a fan, we can all get selfish and ask why acts like these couldn’t work it out better, but in the end, like all, I’m grateful for the five albums of remarkable songs that have had a notable impact on my music life, and I certainly respect where both of them evolved to professionally after they disbanded.  They will always be one of the most recognized and influential acts of the dynamic decade that was the 1960s.

The Meters “Looka Py Py” (1969)

     One more album slipped in under the wire before I move forward to 1970.  In late 1969, New Orleans funk masters The Meters released their second album, “Looka Py Py”.  Like their first album, this is another instrumental collection of Louisiana funk that really hits the mark.  It is rated as album #415 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

     Listening to this album is another easy pleasure, 12 songs in just 32 minutes, each with a unique funk groove that just begs you to slow down, ease back, and let the rhythm take over.  The cohesion of this band is really apparent in this second album, they just play together so well.  As a four-piece unit who was still entirely instrumental at this point, Art Neville’s organ line usually serves as the replacement for the lead vocal melody, while guitar, bass and drums create the rhythm and harmony backing.  Ziggy Modeliste is one of the first masters of the off-beat drum sound that exemplifies what I love about New Orleans funk.  What I would have given to seen this band live in their original form, on a late and hot night in New Orleans as the sounds permeate the city.  Every one of these songs is great, but my two standout favorites are “Funky Miracle” and “Little Old Money Maker”.  I don’t know how anyone can listen to this and not be completely pulled in. 

     The Meters are a treasure of American music, and one of the legendary heartbeats of New Orleans.  I will say it one more time, although it might emerge again.  It is an absolute travesty that the Meters and/or Neville Brothers, and the Neville family at large, is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and are not more widely appreciated for the depth and greatness of their sound.  OK… rant over.  Time for more funk…

The Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed” (1969)

     Here we are at the end of the 1960s, the last album I have listened to from this remarkable decade of musical transformation and evolution.  Every decade has its moments of greatness, but I don’t know if anything will ever match the cultural and musical revolution of the 1960s.  We wrap up with a good one today… no, in fact, a great one, the album “Let It Bleed” by the Rolling Stones.  This album is the 41st rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     1969 was a time of triumph and tragedy for the Stones.  Original member and founder Brian Jones was removed from the band and died shortly thereafter at the age of 27, setting in motion a disturbing trend for the coming years.  As this album was released in late 1969, with Mick Taylor replacing Jones, the Stones played at the Altamont Music Festival, after not appearing at Woodstock.  This festival in California, following on the heels of the positive after-effects of Woodstock, proved to be the very opposite.  Overbearing security that was self-imposed by the Hell’s Angels led to a fatal stabbing, and three other accidental deaths all cast a dark shadow on the festival. 

     Through all of this darkness, the Stones delivered a blockbuster album.  It opens with the super-intense “Gimme Shelter”, featuring Merry Clayton’s powerful duet with Mick Jagger.  I said in an earlier blog that I felt “Sympathy for the Devil” was their most impactful song ever, but this song just might change my view on that.  Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman also stand out as a powerful rhythm section on this track.  Following “Love In Vain”, we have “Country Honk”, which is a over-the-top country version of their classic hit “Honky Tonk Women”, which was released prior to the album as a single.  In either form, this song’s combination of music and lyric are perfect, and Mick and Keith crush their dirty harmony vocal.  The more familiar single version is also another amazing performance from Watts, the funky Stones delivering a performance no other band could consider.  Side one ends with the title track “Let It Bleed”, which has always been another personal favorite of mine.  I always thought this song and album title were a parody of “Let It Be” by the Beatles, but it actually came out several months prior so that theory has effectively been rendered false.

     Side two opens with another great riff, the bluesy “Midnight Rambler”, which is one of the best 3 minute rock songs ever.  Unfortunately, it goes for 6:52, and along with “Monkey Man”, another great song on this album, I think they could have done more with less.  Minor nitpicking on great songs from a great album, and to top all of this off, another legendary Stones song closes out the album, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

      With all of that content on one album, it truly is a period of triumph and greatness for the Stones, and along with the three other British superpowers, an incredible year of music.  Think about it, in one year, we were given the first two Led Zeppelin albums, “Tommy” by the Who, “Abbey Road” from the Beatles, and this masterpiece.  Although “Exile on Main Street” and even “Sticky Fingers” garner a lot of hype, someone has a lot of work to do to convince me this isn’t the best Stones album ever.

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival “Willy and the Poor Boys” (1969)

     Nearing the end of 1969, we have our first encounter with another timeless act from that era, as well as another act who performed at Woodstock.  Today we look at the album “Willy and the Poor Boys” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  This album, which was their fourth album released as this band (even though they had performed and recorded together under other names for almost ten years), is rated #193 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

     Creedence Clearwater Revival, or CCR, primarily features singer, lead guitarist and songwriter John Fogerty, although the band also included his brother Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook and Doug Clifford.  Interestingly enough, CCR hails from the San Francisco area of California, even though the casual fan would assume, based on their sound and their lyrics, that they originated from the Bayou of Louisiana.  Ultimately, they all became embroiled in long and bitter disputes over legal issues, and to this day, John Fogerty refuses to perform with any of them, including his brother.

     This album is a strong mix of well-known CCR classics and some lesser-known instrumental tracks and covers.  It opens with “Down on the Corner”, building on the theme of a sidewalk hustle band jamming for spare change.  Two other standout tracks on the first side are the Leadbelly cover “Cotton Fields”, which might be my favorite song on the album, and “Feelin’ Blue”.  The second side opens with the fiercely anti-Vietnam war song “Fortunate Son”, which right or wrong, I will always associate this song with the scene in the movie “Forrest Gump” when Forrest and Bubba arrive to their combat unit in Vietnam.  The third prominent song on the album is another Leadbelly song, “The Midnight Special”, and the album concludes with a powerful condemnation of Richard Nixon on “Effigy”.

     I have always found it sad that CCR could never reconcile their differences, especially when family is involved, but they had a very strong run of productive recording in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to this day remain one of the most successful American bands of that classic rock era.  This album is probably the best one to showcase as an introduction to new listeners.