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.

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“Fresh Air,” Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1970

61KnyCgsn9LMuch 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

R-2533153-1472769794-8698.jpegRay 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

41k46g055mLMcCartney 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

george-harrison-cloud-nineAs 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

Unknown-31Most 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

ELO_A_New_World_RecordJeff 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

220px-WearetheworldsingleBy 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

416GN7QFE3LThe 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

late500Although 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

R-892041-1180521070.jpegWhile 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

xwildBy 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

375795_433916706672668_144784144_n-1-300x294The 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!

 

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I can remember all the good times, put ’em in a book of memories

This is the fifth in a series of posts that will feature detailed analysis and commentary of some of my all-time favorite albums.

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In June 1968, the British power trio Cream was touring the States one last time as one of the more popular groups on the rock concert circuit.  Winning the coveted spot as warm-up act for their gig in Detroit was a little-known band out of Cleveland called The James Gang.

The band had undergone several personnel changes since forming in 1966, although founding members Jimmy Fox (drums) and Tom Kriss (bass) still remained.  A talented blues guitarist named Glenn Schwartz had played an important role for a year or so, but A-327475-1125073173.jpghe split for California.  In his place, they invited an innovative guitarist from another Cleveland band called The Measles to join.  His name?  Joe Walsh.

On the drive to Detroit, keyboardist Phil Giallombardo (who was still in high school) and guitarist Ronnie Silverman informed the others they were tired of life in a struggling rock band and wouldn’t be performing that night.  Desperate for the money and the opportunity to play before Cream’s audience, Walsh, Fox and Kriss chose to perform as a trio.  If Cream can do it, they thought, maybe we can too.

The pressure was mostly on the 21-year-old Walsh to not only find a way to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously but handle lead vocals as well.  To his surprise and delight, he found he enjoyed the challenge and the chance to expand his technique.  The crowd ate it up, and so, by the way, did Cream’s guitarist, Eric Clapton.  “He’s one of the best guitarists to surface in some time,” he said in 1970.  “I don’t listen to many records, but I listen to his.”

The James Gang’s manager had connections with Bill Szymczyk, staff producer at ABC James_Gang_-_Yer'_AlbumRecords, and helped the band secure a recording contract.  In the spring of 1969, Walsh, Fox and Kriss convened to record their astonishing debut, “Yer’ Album,” which consisted of several Walsh originals as well as superb covers of Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” The Yardbirds’ “Lost Woman,” and Jerry Ragavoy’s “Stop.”

I was 14 then, and found myself visiting neighborhood record stores on a weekly basis.  One store, Fantasy Records in Cleveland Heights, often played records you didn’t hear elsewhere, and one was “Yer’ Album.”  The employees there loved to promote bands with an Ohio connection, and The James Gang certainly had that.  Following a silly, cacophonous opening bit that lasted less than a minute, the group slid into Walsh’s “Take a Look Around,” and I was mesmerized by the melody, the singing and the guitar playing.  I stuck around the store long enough to hear the rest of Side One, after which I was a huge Joe Walsh fan for many years to come.

On his own, Walsh had devised a way to hot-wire his guitar pickups to produce what became his trademark “attack” sound, which worked to brilliant effect on slow tunes like “Fred” and fast-tempo numbers like “Funk #48” and “I Don’t Have the Time.”  Perhaps the best track on the LP is the acoustic-guitar-driven piece “Collage,” which includes this Unknown-30descriptive lyric that always makes me think of late fall/early winter in Cleveland:  “Autumn calls for a change of year, bringing winter near us green to brown, and the sky’s a sign, wintertime is a razor blade that the devil made, it’s the price we pay for the summertime…” 

The album didn’t perform very well on the charts, stalling at #83, and the two singles released fared even worse.  But the band still gained momentum throughout the Midwest, thanks to reviews like this one from William Ruhlman in AllMusic:  “Even though it’s more an album of performances than compositions, ‘Yer’ Album’ contains much to suggest that The James Gang, particularly its guitarist, has a very bright future.”

As it turned out, Clapton wasn’t the only guitar great to heap praise on Walsh in those formative years.  “He has a tremendous feel for the instrument,” said Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page in the mid-’70s.  “I’ve loved his playing since the early James Gang days.”

The Who’s Pete Townshend took that adulation one step further.  Following The James James-GangGang’s performance warming up for The Who, Townshend was impressed enough to invite them on their 1970 European tour.  Walsh responded by gifting Townshend his 1959 Gretsch guitar, which he subsequently used during sessions for “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.”  “Pete’s a very melodic player and so am I,” Walsh said at the time.  “When he told me he appreciated my playing, I was flattered beyond belief.  I honestly didn’t think I was that good yet.”

Around that period, “James Gang Rides Again” was released, and that brought Walsh and his cohorts their first chart success, thanks to the single “Funk #49,” which still gets airplay today on classic rock setlists.  This album, which made it to #20, is almost as good as the debut, with Walsh writing or cowriting all nine tracks.  It was then followed in 1971 by “Thirds,” which reached #27, and “In Concert,” which peaked at #24.

But Walsh was feeling limited by the constraints of a three-man lineup.  Eager to spread his wings, Walsh said farewell to The James Gang in 1972.  He was invited to England to join Humble Pie in place of the departing Peter Frampton, but instead Walsh chose to move to Colorado, where he regrouped with producer Szymczyk and formed the group Barnstorm.  Curiously, the group turned out to be a trio too, with drummer Joe Vitale and bassist Kenny Passarelli in support, but the difference was in the multi-layered recording techniques used as Walsh performed on synthesizer, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, fuzzbox, talk box and keyboards, creating swirly, organ-like tones.

The album was a commercial disappointment, but it set the stage for what I believe to be Walsh’s other career high point, the 1973 solo album “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get.”  Retaining Vitale and Passarelli, and adding Rocke Grace on keyboards, walsh02Walsh hit the jackpot, with his signature hit single “Rocky Mountain Way” reaching #23 and the LP soaring all the way to #6.  The innovative (and ultimately gimmicky) talk box utilized on “Rocky Mountain Way” preceded Frampton’s famous use of it on his mega-platinum “Comes Alive” album by three years.

More important was the quality of songs, again all written or co-written by Walsh.  He had now musically matured to the point where he was dabbling successfully in multiple genres — blues, jazz, folk, pop, even Caribbean music.  “Book Ends” offers a stunning contrast to Walsh’s rock songs with its delicate melody and gentle lyrics about fond memories of days gone by.  “Wolf” deftly combines acoustic and electric guitars with Walsh’s spacey vocals to create a track that would’ve fit nicely on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”  The use of flute and a jazzy instrumental arrangement turns “Midnight Moodies” into a real tour de force.  “Meadows” rivals “Rocky Mountain Way” as the best pure rock song on the LP, and “Happy Ways” features Passarelli on vocals, giving it a jaunty calypso beat.

a197d979c352874e21a8641dd2d6debbI was a freshman in college by the time “Smoker You Drink” came out, and it was indeed a fine companion for those hazy dorm room evenings, as I vaguely recall.  We played the hell out of the album throughout that school year, and I took great delight in exposing others on my floor to how amazing a younger Walsh sounded five years earlier on the James Gang stuff.

By this time, Walsh had moved to Los Angeles and became friends with Dan Fogelberg, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne and others in the California rock scene.  Indeed, he quickly involved them in his next solo LP, “So What,” and was responsible for Fogelberg’s first commercial success when he served as producer and lead guitarist on his breakthrough “Souvenirs” LP that same year.

So it wasn’t really that much of a leap when he surprised a lot of people by joining The Eagles in 1975.  Walsh’s fans thought he would be softening up his music too much, and Eagles fans grumbled that Walsh would turn them into a hard rock band, but instead, they found a way to combine the best of both worlds.  The dueling guitars of walshfelderWalsh and Don Felder on “Hotel California” rank among the finest solos in all of rock.  Walsh’s song “Life in the Fast Lane” became a milestone Eagles track, and I think his lovely tune “Pretty Maids All in a Row” showed he can write melodies to rival Henley’s and Frey’s.

Another half dozen solo LPs followed, especially 1978’s “But Seriously Folks…” and his most successful single, “Life’s Been Good.”  But a slide into drug and alcohol addiction hurt him significantly, with sloppy live performances and lackluster songwriting, and sales slowed to a trickle.  In 2004, Walsh finally faced his demons and began his recovery, and The Eagles invited him back into the fold for their numerous reunion tours.  His latest solo album, 2012’s “Analog Man” (I’m an analog man in a digital world”), shows he still has the chops 28792295_800_800and the self-deprecating sense of humor that made him such an enormously entertaining guy in the first place.

For those of you whose knowledge of Joe Walsh’s recorded work is limited to the radio hits and Eagles moments, I strongly encourage you to listen to the Spotify playlist below, which includes 1969’s “Yer’ Album” and 1973’s “The Smoker You Drink” in their entirety, with three bonus favorites thrown in (“Here We Go” and “Turn to Stone” from “Barnstorm,” and the live version of “Pretty Maids” from 1994’s “Hell Freezes Over”).  I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.