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 reminisce about the days of old

I can never get enough of the thrill I get when I dip into the bottomless foot locker of fabulous rock songs from the ’60s ’70s and ’80s that I call “lost classics.”

In this installment (#12), the dozen selections hail mostly from the ’70s, with a couple in Vinyl-Record-Storagethe ’80s, but God knows there are still plenty of choices remaining from the ’60s, and even from the ’50s, for future visits to the vault.

I hope you enjoy listening to these tracks (via the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post) and getting reacquainted with them, or learning them for the first time.  And I hope you’ll send me your ideas and suggestions for candidates for future “lost classics” blog entries.

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“Marie Marie,” The Blasters, 1981

The_Blasters_(album)Brothers Phil and Dave Alvin formed The Blasters in L.A. in 1979, and the foursome quickly evolved into a remarkably tight unit, playing a smart blend of rockabilly, early rock ‘n roll, blues, country and roadhouse R&B they dubbed “American music.”  They enjoyed an enthusiastic cult following, and critics praised them as well, but they struggled for any sort of mainstream success.  Their second LP, “The Blasters,” made it as high as #32 on the Top 200 album charts in late 1981/early 1982, but none of their succinct, catchy singles made a dent.  “Marie Marie,” which had appeared on the group’s debut album and then re-recorded for the second album and released as a single, should’ve been huge, at least as big as the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town,” but it was curiously overlooked.  British artist Shakin’ Stevens had a #19 hit in the UK in 1980 with his cover version, and The Blasters’ original was used in the 1986 Tom Berenger film “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

“Dolly Dagger,” Jimi Hendrix, 1971

R-525926-1199655363.jpegIn the wake of Hendrix’s death in October 1970, the floodgates soon opened, and the market was inundated with all manner of unreleased (and often ragged and unpolished) recordings that sullied the musician’s otherwise sterling catalog.  The first two posthumous releases, though — “The Cry of Love” and “Rainbow Bridge” — were pretty damn great, and have held up well.  They include songs now considered among his essential tracks (“Freedom,” “Ezy Ryder,” “Room Full of Mirrors,” “Angel,” “Earth Blues”) and were intended for “First Rays of the New Rising Sun,” a double LP he was working on at the time of his death (and finally released, as such, in 1997).  Perhaps the best of this batch is “Dolly Dagger,” a great rocker that chugs along nicely with Jimi’s fine guitar work and vocals.  It was recorded in 1970 and wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place on his ’68 masterpiece “Electric Ladyland.”

“Get It Right Next Time,” Gerry Rafferty, 1979

Night_Owl_(album)The Scottish musician’s first attempt in the music business came in the early ’70s with compatriot Joe Egan in a group called Stealers Wheel, and they hit the Top Ten with “Stuck in the Middle With You.”  Then the lawyers and record executives started suing and countersuing, and Rafferty was “stuck in the middle,” unable to record for four years.  Once free of old contractual ties, he recorded “City to City,” a solid album that soared to #1 in the US in the summer of 1978 on the strength of the monster #1 hit “Baker Street” with its unforgettable sax riff, and “Right Down the Line,” which peaked at #12.  His follow-up LP “Night Owl” leveled off at #29, and produced two modest singles, “Days Gone Down” and “Get It Right Next Time,” which both made the Top Twenty, but you rarely hear them anymore.  I’m partial to “Get It Right Next Time” because of the way the song creeps up on you and offers another fine sax part by Raphael Ravenscroft.

“Little Girl So Fine,” Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, 1977

51RFJGZ5KVLBeing a part of the same New Jersey shore bar scene as Bruce Springsteen perhaps turned out to be both a blessing and a curse for Johnny Lyon and his fine bar band.  As Bruce rose to stardom, he helped Southside wherever he could, feeding him songs to record and occasionally showing up at his gigs to sing with him.  But some observers felt Southside was a hanger-on, riding The Boss’s coattails, an observation I firmly believe has no merit.  Southside was the real deal, a soulful singer of great R&B, surrounded by a great horn section and solid musicians, and their live shows were exuberant affairs that left you sweaty and drained afterwards.  The Jukes’ first three LPs were packed with so many high-energy songs — “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “Without Love,” “The Fever,” “Talk to Me” — and also a few quieter numbers to balance out the repertoire.  One of the best was the Springsteen tune “Little Girl So Fine” with its bonafide Fifties sound.

“Out of the Blue,” Roxy Music, 1974

s-l300-2When I was in high school and college in the mid-’70s, Cleveland was fortunate to have WMMS, a trailblazing FM radio station that was responsible for introducing bold new acts and helping them break out nationally.  David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen both benefited from enthusiastic response in Cleveland, as did Britain’s Roxy Music, a truly eccentric band led by the ironically glamorous singer Bryan Ferry.  They were superstars in England, but it wasn’t until their fourth LP, 1974’s “Country Life,” that they first cracked the US Top 40 album charts.  I was slow to warm to Roxy Music; Ferry’s quivering voice was an acquired taste, and some of the band’s early songs were pretty dissonant.  Thanks to WMMS’s Kid Leo, I was finally won over, and the track that did it was “Out of the Blue,” which builds and soars majestically.

“Someday, Someway,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1983

51-K+vi5IML._SY450_Like a breath of fresh air, Michigan-born Crenshaw arrived in the early ’80s with a clean pop sound that owed more than a little to early Beatles.  Actually, that should come as no surprise — in 1978-79, Crenshaw mimicked John Lennon in the original national stage production of “Beatlemania!”  But the material Crenshaw developed on his debut and subsequent albums wasn’t just Beatles copycat stuff.  Critics called him a latter-day Buddy Holly, and that was perhaps closer to the mark than the Beatles comparison.  He had a knack for writing irresistible pop all his own, but with an ’80s twist of New Wave rhythm and echo production.  Sadly, only a couple of his singles and albums gained any traction on the charts, which I find inexplicable, given the radio-friendly nature of the music.  Take “Someday, Someway,” his only Top 40 single (#36 in 1982).  I dare you to sit still to this highly infectious tune.

“Can’t Take It With You,” The Allman Brothers, 1979

enlightened-rogues-51c584f3be053One of America’s finest bands in their original incarnation, The Allman Brothers Band took blues standards and some Gregg Allman originals and mixed it with a Southern sensibility and a few Dickey Betts countryish songs to create a genre all their own (though there were plenty of imitators).  Due to tragic deaths and drug-related disagreements, the group imploded in 1976, only to reunite (with lineup changes) in 1979, then threw in the towel again in 1982, then resurrected themselves a second time in 1990.  The first reunion included two forgettable LPs (hence the breakup), but their initial return on the 1979 beauty “Enlightened Rogues,” which reached #9 on the charts, is a worthy entry in the band’s catalog.  Marked by Allman’s ferocious blues vocals and organ, the guitar interplay of Betts with new guitarist Dan Toler and the always rock-steady rhythm section, “Can’t Take It With You” is the highlight track.

“Easy Livin’,” Uriah Heep, 1972

220px-Demons_and_WizardsNamed after the Charles Dickens character from David Copperfield, Uriah Heep emerged in 1969 and became durable players in Britain’s progressive rock scene.  Indeed, the group continues to perform these days, with founder Mick Box still at the helm, playing a mix of heavy metal and older prog rock classics.  In the US, their impact was far less prominent.  Three of their early ’70s albums — “Demons and Wizards” (1972), “The Magician’s Birthday” (1972) and “Sweet Freedom” (1973) — reached the Top 30 and went gold, but their fame here soon faded.  They are perhaps best known for “Easy Livin’,” a defiant rocker that just cracked the Top 40 in the autumn of 1972.  It clocks in at a neat 2:37, carried by strong vocals by long-time member David Byron and dominated by the organ work of Ken Hensley, who left the band in 1976.

“Heart of the Sunrise,” Yes, 1971

fragileyesYes was one of the top two or three progressive rock bands of all, both in its native UK and in the US.  This was dense, sophisticated stuff with often impenetrable lyrics, but the musicianship was usually dazzling.  The incredible “Heart of the Sunrise” never got much airplay, but since it lasts more than 10 minutes, it’s easy to understand why.  To my mind, it is one of Yes’s finest moments, from one of their best albums, 1971’s “Fragile.”  Singer Jon Anderson’s voice is magnificent here, showcasing his impressive range and command.  Yes featured its finest lineup at the time:  Keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and drummer Bill Bruford combined to produce a singularly extraordinary sound on every track they attempted.  Many listeners aren’t willing to stick with a song that lasts longer than maybe five minutes, but this one is well worth your time, I assure you.

“Soul Shoes,” Graham Parker, 1976

51yJqH4uL2LParker is all but unknown to the US rock music listening audience, and that’s a crying shame.  This British rocker with a biting soulful edge was the victim of poor promotion and management, at least in the States, when he was the leader of Graham Parker and The Rumor in 1975-78.  His two studio albums from that period — “Howlin’ Wind” and “Heat Treatment” — offered a wicked stew of raw rock, pub soul and punkish reggae well before those latter genres had yet taken hold.  Parker’s in-your-face performing persona predated the “angry young man” stances made popular by those who followed, like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson.  Curiously, his 1979 solo debut “Squeezing Out Sparks,” which dumps The Rumor and its horn section, was his critical and commercial high-water mark, but I’m a fan of the hungry rock-soul sound of those two early LPs, exemplified in the short-and-sweet rocker “Soul Shoes” from “Howlin’ Wind.”

“And I Moved,” Pete Townshend, 1980

220px-EmptyglassAs the songwriting titan behind The Who’s monumental catalog of ’60s pop and ’70s rock anthems, Townshend has shouldered a lot of responsibility he may not have been capable of handling.  Indeed, The Who’s “By Numbers” LP in 1975 is riddled with songs that lay bare his insecurities and problems with drugs and alcohol (“However Much I Booze,” “How Many Friends”).  Keith Moon’s death in 1978 left the band unsure of its future, and Townshend, always writing and recording new demos at his home studio, decided the time was ripe for a bonafide solo album (he’d done one half-hearted attempt in 1972, “Who Came First”).  But for the absence of Roger Daltrey’s distinctive lead vocals, Townshend’s “Empty Glass” LP in 1980 sounded in many ways like a new Who album, from the opener (“Rough Boys”) to the closer (“Gonna Get Ya”).  The standout track for me, however, was “And I Moved,” with a dominant piano motif throughout.

“To the Last Whale,” Graham Nash and David Crosby, 1975

220px-WindonthewatercnThe debut of Crosby Stills and Nash’s self-titled 1969 album is still turning heads with its astounding three-part harmonies and gorgeous melodies and textures.  In its wake came the addition of Neil Young and the superb “Deja Vu” LP…but then the group splintered into four directions, each attempting solo albums, pairings and one-off projects that, while they had their moments, were hardly as strong as when the original trio first arrived.  What a delicious surprise, then, when Graham Nash and David Crosby put together “Wind on the Water,” the 1975 LP of gorgeous songs and stellar production that ranks among their most consistent work, certainly far better than anything since.  Stills’ fine guitar work may be absent, but the Crosby/Nash harmonies are in perfect form, especially on the album’s closer, “To the Last Whale,” with its “Critical Mass” a cappella choral opening and “Wind on the Water” main section.  Chills up the spine on this one.