Sometimes you open up a safe, and there’s nothing in it but dust. In the vaults of classic rock from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, though, you’ll find a treasure trove of delectable goodies just waiting to be exposed to the light.
Here at Hack’s Back Pages, that’s what I do every couple of months: I explore the albums of that rich period of musical development and select a dozen tracks that we’ve forgotten about or never got to know the first time around.
This batch is all over the map — acoustic, electric, jam groove, sunny pop and more. I think you’ll find the playlist at the end to be a great soundtrack to any party. Meantime, I hope you enjoy reading the backstories behind these fine tunes.
“Room Full of Mirrors,” Jimi Hendrix, 1971
Hendrix’s premature death in 1970 at age 27 took everyone by surprise, including his record company, but they wasted little time in gathering several of the tracks he’d recorded in 1969 and 1970 and releasing them on two posthumous 1971 LPs, “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge.” Critics noted that while the former showcased Hendrix’s abilities as a songwriter, the latter highlighted his unparalleled guitar playing. “Room Full of Mirrors” combines both of these talents, featuring Jimi in full-blown virtuosity, exploring new territory as he sings about his need to smash the ego (and the mirrors that reinforce them) so the world around us can be better explored and appreciated.
“Lunatic Fringe,” Red Rider, 1981
Tom Cochrane, lead guitarist for the Canadian rock band Red Rider, was inspired to write this song in 1980 after becoming aware of a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the late 1970s. Coincidentally, he recorded the first demo of the track on the same evening John Lennon was murdered by a “lunatic fringe” loner. The tragic event galvanized Cochrane’s intention to have Red Rider release the song as a single, despite the protests of Capitol Records, who felt it wasn’t commercial enough. While it didn’t have Top 40 chart success, it reached #11 on Billboard’s “Mainstream Rock Tracks” charts, and VH-1 included it among the finest “One-Hit Wonders of the ’80s.”
“Heavy Water,” Jethro Tull, 1989
While Tull’s best work came during the ’70s, frontman Ian Anderson (with loyal guitarist Martin Barre still a pivotal part of the lineup) continued to write and record some substantial material on 1980s albums like “Broadsword and the Beast” (1981), “Crest of a Knave” (1987) and “Rock Island”(1989). The latter LP emphasized hard rock arrangements and lyrics that offered typically articulate commentary on weighty social issues. “Heavy Water,” buoyed by Barre’s biting guitar and Anderson’s ever-present flute, rocks along with driving force as it tackles the scourge of acid rain, which had become a problem in England at that time due to unchecked industrial pollution.
“However Much I Booze,” The Who, 1975
The Who in general, and Pete Townshend in particular, were going through some stormy times in 1974-75. They had just completed a triumphant but exhausting tour promoting their amazing “Quadrophenia” LP, and Townshend was feeling depressed about reaching 30 and whether he and the band would still be relevant in the years ahead. He was also drinking way too much, suffering from a writer’s block and feuding with the other band members. All this eventually came out in the downbeat songs that appeared on 1975’s “The Who By Numbers,” most notably “However Much I Booze,” which Roger Daltrey refused to sing (so Townshend sang it). The uptempo arrangement and cheery melody stood in dramatic contrast to the grim subject matter.
“Blaze of Glory,” Joe Jackson, 1989
Jackson emerged from London around 1977 as part of the punk/New Wave movement and brought forth an extraordinary breadth of great music on a half-dozen LPs, touring incessantly in support of them. In 1989, he came up with his richest, most diverse album, “Blaze of Glory,” which he described as “an examination of my generation as the 1980s were ending,” commenting on the optimism of their 1950s childhood (“Tomorrow’s World”), the politics of terrorism and the Cold War (“Rant and Rave” and “Evil Empire”), yuppies and materialism (“Discipline”) and rockers who wear out their welcome (“Nineteen Forever”). Best of all was the title track about tortured hero Johnny, sparked by a vibrant, majestic horn section.
“Try to Touch Just One,” John Kongos, 1972
Of all the great artists and records I’ve heard over the years that were criminally ignored in the U.S., I’d put John Kongos’s 1972 album “Kongos” near the top of that list. Hailing from South Africa, Kongos moved to England in the late ’60s and worked with various bands and musicians before finally recording his solo debut, using many of the musicians Elton John used on his early records (guitarist Caleb Quaye, percussionist Ray Cooper, bassist Dave Glover, even producer Gus Dudgeon). One song, “He’s Gonna Step on You Again,” got moderate airplay here, but the standout song for me is “Try to Touch Just One,” a quasi-suite that takes the listener through an entrancing mix of different tempos and instrumentations.
“Bad,” U2, 1984
They hadn’t yet released their breakthrough LP “The Joshua Tree,” but U2 were well on their way beyond the clubs of Dublin when they released the remarkable album “The Unforgettable Fire” in 1984, beautifully produced by Daniel Lanois. The standout track for me among many fine songs is “Bad,” developed from a riff The Edge came up with that the band built up in intensity as layers of sounds were added. Bono sang gently at first, then agonizingly, about the horrors of addiction that had claimed several people he knew. “I wrote the song for a friend of mine,” he said. “I also wrote it for myself, because you can be addicted to anything. And, you know, that song’s not just about heroin: it’s about a lot of things. None of our songs are about just one thing.”
“Keep On Growing,” Derek and the Dominos, 1970
The sessions for Eric Clapton’s classic double LP “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” were legendary for the serendipitous inclusion of Duane Allman on many of the tracks, but one I’ve always enjoyed, “Keep On Growing,” was just Clapton and the Dominos jamming on what was originally an instrumental. It almost was excluded from the record until keyboardist Bobby Whitlock came up with lyrics and a melody line. “They loved the song and what I’d done to it, so I told Eric, ‘Why don’t we do this like you sing a line, I sing a line, we’ll sing a line together.’ We did it like that and it worked out. That song was fresh picked, straight off the vine. What you hear on the album was the first take.”
“Take Me With You,” Santana, 1976
After Santana’s initial explosive success with their first three albums (especially 1970’s “Abraxas”), Carlos Santana felt the need to work with other musicians and try his hand at jazzier songs and arrangements. My interest waned during this period, but in 1976, the group reappeared with an entirely new lineup on “Amigos,” highlighted by an astounding instrumental called “Europa,” which reached the Top Ten in several European countries and got plenty of FM airplay in the US. Often overlooked was the two-part piece “Take It With You,” which begins as a ferocious Latin rocker and then morphs into a much mellower groove. Great stuff.
“Tickets to Waterfalls,” Jack Bruce, 1969
I’ve mentioned Bruce’s 1969 LP “Songs For a Tailor” several times before in this blog because it’s not well known and I’d like to change that. It was the bassist/vocalist’s first LP after the demise of the supergroup trio Cream, and it’s jam-packed with compelling songs by Bruce and lyrics partner Pete Brown. Side A is damn near perfect, with five superb tracks that mesmerized me upon first hearing and still do today. Here, I single out “Tickets to Waterfalls,” with Bruce’s inventive bass lines and powerful vocals captured beautifully in Cream producer Felix Pappalardi’s crisp production.
“She’s Changing Me,” Fleetwood Mac, 1974
In the 1971-1974 period, Fleetwood Mac was largely in the hands of guitarist Bob Welch, who wrote about half of the band’s material, with Christine McVie and Danny Kirwan pitching in on the rest. Welch wrote and sang some excellent tracks that hold up quite well all these years later — “Future Games,” “Sentimental Lady,” “Emerald Eyes,” “Bermuda Triangle” and the superb “Hypnotized.” On his last LP with the band, “Heroes Are Hard to Find,” he came up with the Beatlesque pop tune “She’s Changing Me,” which I always thought would’ve been a successful single for them. Welch left the band in late 1974, which cleared the decks for Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who changed the band’s sound and fortunes dramatically.
“What About Me,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1970
Everyone mentions the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane as the flag bearers of the San Francisco scene of the late 1960s, but knowledgeable fans of that period wisely include Quicksilver Messenger Service in the discussion. In 1969 and 1970, the group released four LPs that made the Top 30 on US album charts, two with charismatic lead singer Dino Valenti taking control of the microphone. Valenti was a stage name for singer-songwriter Chet “Get Together” Powers, who, under the pseudonym Jesse Farrow, wrote FM radio classics like “Fresh Air” and “What About Me,” both giving off a strong counterculture vibe.