Those were the days, my friend
Time once again for another dive deep into the archives of the rock music of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, scanning through thousands of albums in search of those wonderful nuggets we’ve forgotten about or have never been exposed to before.
This is the Lucky 13th installment of my periodic efforts to uncover and breathe new life into these neglected pearls, these lost classics of a wonderful era when music seemed to mean more…to me, at least. Maybe to you as well.
The Spotify playlist at the end is available so you can hear these tracks as you read a little about each one. Please send me your suggestions for other favorites I should shine a light on in my next visit to Santa’s gift bag of lost classics.
“Fresh Air,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1970
Much of the music of the 1960s San Francisco scene strikes me as dated, pretentious and raggedly produced; still, it has a certain innocence and naive enthusiasm that can’t be denied. Sadly, only the music of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead gets any kind of exposure any more. Gone are the days when early FM progressive radio was fond of treating us to the likes of Moby Grape, It’s a Beautiful Day, Country Joe and The Fish and Cold Blood now and then. My favorite practitioner of that proud hippie genre was Quicksilver Messenger Service, whose trippy jam music featured the talents of Dino Valenti, John Cipollina, Nicky Hopkins and David Freiberg. Albums like “Happy Trails,” “Shady Grove” and “Just for Love” offered quaint yet bold forays into a sort of folk/psychedelia mix. Their finest moment, I think, was “Fresh Air,” with its gentle tempo and flute. Takes me back to a simpler time.
“Living on a Thin Line,” The Kinks, 1984
Ray Davies was the composing wunderkind who came up with more than 300 songs that kept The Kinks churning out new albums almost every year for 30 years (1964-1994). Davies handled all the lead vocals and acoustic guitar, and prowled the front of the stage in tour after tour, serving as both the visual centerpiece and spokesperson for the group through robust and lean times alike. An ongoing dynamic in the group’s chemistry was the difficult rivalry and tempestuous relationship between Ray and his younger brother Dave, the group’s brilliant lead guitarist. It’s a miracle the group was able to stay together mostly intact through three decades, as Dave struggled to get his songs onto the band’s records. On 1984’s great “Word of Mouth” LP, the best cut is Dave’s “Livin’ on a Thin Line,” which was later used an episode of The Sopranos to illustrate the fine line Tony Soprano walked between his mob family and his real family.
“Letting Go,” Paul McCartney, 1975
McCartney has written so many sing-songy ditties of little consequence that we sometimes forget he was capable of “letting go” with some serious rockers on occasion. His “Venus and Mars” album was regarded by many as a worthy successor to his 1973 magnum opus “Band on the Run,” and his last before he went south for the remainder of Wings’ career. Despite the success he achieved with dreck like “My Love” and “Silly Love Songs,” I have always favored the deeper tracks when McCartney showed he could crank it up several notches and produce something worthy of the exemplary Beatle he once was. The bass line, the guitar work, the vocals, even the horn charts all combine majestically on “Letting Go.”
“If That’s What It Takes,” George Harrison, 1987
As another former Beatle, Harrison had a different problem than McCartney did. He simply wasn’t as prolific a songwriter, and he ultimately didn’t really want to do what had to be done to be a perennial player in the music business. After the explosion of great material on his solo debut “All Things Must Pass,” it became pretty clear the well was going to run dry quickly, and that’s just what happened as the ’70s dragged on. It wasn’t until 1987 when Harrison had generated enough quality material to come up with a consistently fine record, the engaging “Cloud Nine,” which was helped by the efforts of Jeff Lynne, Eric Clapton and others. Most listeners only heard the so-so remake of the ’50s hit “Got My Mind Set on You,” but there are another four or five excellent tracks worthy of your attention: “Fish on the Sand,” “Wreck of the Hesperus,” The Beatles tribute “When We Was Fab,” and especially the shimmering “If That’s What It Takes.”
“Fakin’ It,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1967
Most of the early Simon and Garfunkel catalog (singles as well as album tracks) was dominated by sadness, isolation and delicate guitar melodies. By 1967, Simon and producer Roy Halee began branching out, experimenting with more challenging arrangements and story-songs that took on a higher sophistication. Eventually, this would give us masterpieces like “America” and “The Boxer,” but first came the 1967 minor hit single “Fakin’ It.” The lyrics continued Simon’s introspective approach, as the narrator bemoans the fact that he’s not being honest but is, in fact, faking it as he proceeds through life. The S&G harmonies are tighter and more impressive than ever, as the arrangement hits us with horns, hand claps and even a short spoken section as a customer enters a tailor shop and says cheerfully, “Good morning, Mr. Leitch, have you had a busy day?”
“Tightrope,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1975
Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra had attempted to wed rock songs with “light orchestra” instruments in the manner of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” since about 1971, but their albums hadn’t found much success in their native UK nor in the US. A few singles started gaining airplay and decent chart positions (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Strange Magic”) but it wasn’t until 1976 and the release of “A New World Record” that ELO had their major breakthrough, reaching the Top Five in both countries. The radio played mostly “Telephone Line,” “Livin’ Thing” and the remake of The Move’s “Do Ya,” but I have always been partial to the LP’s leadoff track, “Tightrope,” with its classical/progressive intro, rollicking beat and vivacious use of strings, all of which recalls the best Moody Blues music.
“Trapped,” Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, 1985
By the mid-1980s, Springsteen had developed from a hungry Jersey street rat to an arena-filling superstar, selling millions of copies of albums and singles alike. Behind that image, though, he still loved just sitting around listening to obscure songs from the ’50s and ’60s, looking for diamonds in the rough that he might polish up and tackle in one of his live shows. One of those was a song he found on the B-side of a single by Jamaica reggae musician Jimmy Cliff. It was called “Trapped,” and its lyrics spoke of the powerlessness of a person living in a land where the privileged few thrive at the expense of the many. Springsteen and The E Street Band converted it from an uptempo, perky reggae song into a rock powerhouse during his “Born in the USA” tour. A live recording of “Trapped” was donated to the “We Are the World” charity album, and although it received more airplay at the time than any other track besides the title song, you don’t hear it enough anymore…
“Tops,” The Rolling Stones, 1981
The heart of The Rolling Stones through the years has been the sometimes fragile partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who wrote the bulk of the group’s repertoire. In 1980, the duo were in the midst of significant friction for the first time, so producer Chris Kimsey dug into the vaults and found nearly a dozen tracks in various stages of completion that could be cobbled together to make a new album, which turned out to be their last US #1 LP, “Tattoo You,” released in August 1981. The rocking “Start Me Up” and acoustic “Waiting on a Friend” were both huge hits, but there were also several other gems. “Tops” was actually begun nearly ten years earlier during the 1972-1973 “Goats Heads Soup” sessions, when Mick Taylor was still playing guitar in the group. Jagger’s vocals, recorded in 1981, bring this track and its slow, loping tempo to a zenith.
“For a Dancer,” Jackson Browne, 1974
Although his biggest commercial success came with 1977’s “Running on Empty” LP and a few hit singles that followed, Jackson Browne’s best songs, in my opinion, came early on in his career. He was still a teenager when he was getting noticed for wise-beyond-his-years compositions like “These Days,” “Rock Me On the Water” and “For Everyman.” Indeed, I’ve found his lyrics to be his greatest strength, better than his song crafting in most cases. So many fine pieces in his repertoire, up to and including his underrated 2014 LP, “Standing in the Breach,” but for me, you just can’t beat the extraordinary songs from 1974’s “Late for the Sky.” His paean to Joni Mitchell, “Fountain of Sorrow,” is widely praised, but less heralded is “For a Dancer,” a poignant tribute to a dancer friend who perished in a house fire. It concludes, “In the end, there’s one dance you do alone,” referring to life itself being a sort of dance.
“Heaven Knows,” Robert Plant, 1988
While Led Zeppelin’s musical maestro Jimmy Page chose to mostly withdraw from the music scene in the aftermath of the supergroup’s disbanding in 1980, vocalist Robert Plant went the other route. He assembled a new band, released five albums in seven years, and toured almost continually. In fact, he’s still at it in the new millennium, collaborating with old and new musical partners, with mostly favorable results. In 1988, his album “Now and Zen” went triple platinum, and radio program directors were inexorably drawn to “Tall Cool One” because of its use of multiple samples from Zeppelin tracks. My overwhelming favorite, though, is the album’s opener, “Heaven Knows,” a marvelously dreamy rocker with Plant singing in his most melodious range. If the guitar parts sound like Zeppelin, that’s because Page showed up to contribute on the track.
“Be Cool,” Joni Mitchell, 1982
By the time the 1980s arrived, Mitchell had been through several sea changes in her career: Canadian prairie folksinger, Lady of Laurel Canyon during the era of Woodstock, LA-slick commercial artist on “Court and Spark” and “Miles of Aisles.” Her late-’70s move into jazz territory was met first with keen interest and then with outright disdain by many in her audience. Her return to more pop-rock material with 1982’s “Wild Things Run Fast” was a welcome development to her long-time fans, but the music scene had changed so much that her work was largely ignored by radio, which was a shame. The LP is full of great, accessible music and lyrics, with equal touches of rock, pop, folk and jazz. Joni said she had been inspired by the latest work of The Police, Steely Dan and The Talking Heads, and the deep track “Be Cool” sounds most like Steely Dan.
“On the Road to Find Out,” Cat Stevens, 1970
The nearly three decades Cat Stevens spent in self-imposed exile from the pop music scene made many of his fans appreciate his early music all that much more. Listening to his best three LPs, and his recent live performances of those great songs, has given me a stark reminder of what a brilliant talent he was and still is. I don’t begrudge anyone their passions, be they spiritual or whatever, but to deny the world and one’s self the beauty of music like “Tea for the Tillerman,” “Teaser and the Firecat” and “Catch Bull at Four” strikes me as indefensible. “Tillerman” in particular is one of the best albums of the entire 1970s singer-songwriter genre, and not just the better-known tracks like “Wild World” and “Father and Son.” Check out “On the Road to Find Out,” which has such deep lyrics about everyman’s life search, put to a delightful melody. Revel in this stuff!