Here in my book of memories

It’s time again for a search through some of the great LPs of the Seventies and Eighties for those long-forgotten album tracks that are well worth digging up and brought back into the light.

13418967174_7bbbde8a43_bMany in my generation will recall these songs because they owned or were familiar with the albums they came from, but younger generations have likely had no exposure to these 12 tunes because the radio stations wouldn’t dream of playing them these days.

I like to think I perform a public service by reminding my readers how much great music has been made in the last half-century.  It’s always been there, bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting to be picked up by our radar.

I hope you agree that these lost classics from the 1970s and 1980s, with an emphasis on songs from the progressive rock genre, are worthy of your attention, and I hope you enjoy them.

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“China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider (live),” Grateful Dead, 1972

19721105_0648No band enjoyed as loyal a following as The Grateful Dead did.  Thousands of “Deadheads” were known to hit the road and follow the band on tour, attending many dozens of shows, year after year.  Truth be told, The Dead’s performances were erratic, due in large part to the group’s voracious appetite for psychedelics, and their studio LPs, for the most part, were ho-hum affairs which failed to capture the band’s music at its best.  For that, you needed to turn to the best of their live albums, particularly the magnificent “Europe ’72” three-LP package.  The 13-minute version of “Truckin'” is pretty great, but I’m partial to the two-song combo of the Dead original “China Cat Sunflower” with the traditional blues tune “I Know You Rider.”  It may be the finest track(s) the band ever put down on vinyl.

“A Gallon of Gas,” The Kinks, 1979

KinksLowBudgetAfter several years of concept albums with lyrics recalling simpler times, The Kinks switched directions (and record labels) and started writing straight-ahead rock and roll with lyrics addressing contemporary issues like inflation, labor strife and the gasoline crisis.  On 1979’s “Low Budget,” the best of these is “A Gallon of Gas,” a slow-tempo, hard-rocking track which pointed out how, in some cities, it was easier to get drugs than gasoline.  “Low Budget,” which included the minor hit “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman,” turned out to be their best-charting LP ever in the US, peaking at #11.  It began a nice run of Top 20 albums in the early ’80s — “Give the People What They Want,” “State of Confusion,” “Word of Mouth” and a so-so live album, “One For the Road” — that kept the band viable and playing to arena-sized crowds for a while longer.

“The Cage,” Elton John, 1970

images-78From the very beginning, Elton John’s music has been a cross between melodic ballads and rollicking piano rockers.  Even his mostly ignored first album, 1969’s “Empty Sky,” offered both genres.  “Elton John,” the self-titled LP that Americans thought was his debut, included the iconic debut single “Your Song,” one of his very prettiest songs, and other strings-laden ballads like “Sixty Years On,” “The Greatest Discovery” and “First Episode at Hienton.”  But just as interesting were the tracks that leaned more toward the kind of swampy rhythm-and-blues his idol Leon Russell was famous for — “Take Me to the Pilot,” “Border Song” and the lost classic “The Cage.”  A rowdy arrangement of drums, bass, guitars and synthesizer complement Elton and his vocals on “The Cage,” hinting at what was still to come on his next several albums.

“It Can Happen,” Yes, 1983

b6ae0620295870be9bb2cb3070f39ad0When keyboard player Rick Wakeman and especially singer Jon Anderson left Yes in 1979, I thought that would be the end of one of the best of Britain’s progressive rock bands.  Instead, veterans Chris Squire and Steve Howe regrouped with a couple of ex-Buggles and kept the Yes ship afloat for another few years until Anderson, whose brilliant, high voice was crucial to the band’s identity, was eventually coaxed back into the fold.  Led by the enormously commercial #1 hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the album “90125” became a #1 album as well.  Longtime Yes fans, at first skeptical, found a number of tracks that harkened back to the glory years, majestic tunes like “Changes,” “Leave It” and particularly “It Can Happen.”

“My God,” Jethro Tull, 1971

220px-JethroTullAqualungalbumcover-1When rock music reviewers labeled Tull’s “Aqualung” as a concept album, Ian Anderson protested, saying, “There were a couple of songs that commented on organized religion, but most of the album had nothing to do with that.”  The songs that took religious traditions to task were “Wind Up” — which criticized once-a-week churchgoers with the line, “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” — and the magnificent “My God,” a haunting piece that again taunts the hypocrisy and shallowness of many worshippers in the churches of 1971.  “My God” boasts a rather harrowing melody line, first on acoustic guitar, then with full electric band accompaniment and some of Anderson’s finest flute playing ever.  I would put this track in the Top 10 best Tull songs, out of a repertoire of 225 originals.

“Daughters of the Sea,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974

images-79From the early Tom Johnston singles (“China Grove,” “Listen to the Music”) to the later Michael McDonald hits (“Takin’ It to the Streets,” “What a Fool Believes”), The Doobies were always an accomplished band of stellar musicians who offered tight performances both in concert and on record.  Throughout their initial run (1972-1982), one of the group’s constants was guitarist/vocalist Pat Simmons, whose quality songs added so much to the band’s presence.  “Black Water” was his best known tune, but so many others made the list of The Doobies’ finest tracks:  “Clear as the Driven Snow,” “I Cheat the Hangman,” “Toulouse Street,” “Echoes of Love,” “South City Midnight Lady.”  Let’s not forget the dreamy “Daughters of the Sea,” a Simmons highlight from their 1974 LP “What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.”

“Street Life,” Roxy Music, 1973

Roxy_Music-StrandedThe eclectic, eccentric music of Roxy Music was ahead of its time, and not to everyone’s taste.  Indeed, I didn’t care for it at all when I was first exposed to it, but I found that it has grown on me over the years.  Singer Bryan Ferry’s affected vocals certainly take some getting used to, and the unusual textures and alternately smooth and strident instrumentation Roxy Music utilized made for a broad palette of ideas and concepts.  Andy Mackay’s sax, Eddie Jobson’s synthesizers and Phil Manzanera’s guitar combined so well on a track like “Street Life,” which was a Top Ten single in the UK but ignored here in the US, as was its album, 1973’s “Stranded.”  In fact, their music never did well on the US charts but found a loyal audience that Ferry has enjoyed during his solo career since the band broke up in 1983.

“Rocket Love,” Stevie Wonder, 1980

220px-Hotter_JulyWhen you mention the 1970s, usually The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac are named as the dominant acts, but I think you can make a strong case for Stevie Wonder being every bit as influential.  The man won three Album of the Year Grammys in four years and charted numerous hit singles, not to mention the trail of imitators who came along in his wake.  His 1980 LP “Hotter Than July” reached #3 and featured the Bob Marley-inspired reggae rave-up “Master Blaster” and the country-tinged hit “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It.”  I’ve always been partial to the deep track “Rocket Love,” which focuses on the romantic turmoil of a couple who curiously experience extreme highs and lows:  “You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star, but at a half a mile from heaven, you dropped me back down to this cold, cold world…”

“The Same Old Sun,” The Alan Parsons Project, 1984

220px-TAPP-VultureCultureAfter six Top 20 albums on the US charts — “I Robot” (1977), “Pyramid” (1978), “Eve” (1979, “The Turn of a Friendly Card” (1980), “Eye in the Sky” (1982) and “Ammonia Avenue” (1984) — The Alan Parsons Project began falling out of favor with US audiences, who had always been more receptive to their music than fans in their native England.  Their 1984 LP “Vulture Culture,” which had been intended as the second half of a double album with “Ammonia Avenue,” fell off the charts pretty quickly, managing only #46, with no hit singles.  There were some great tracks on there, though, including “Days Are Numbers,” “Sooner or Later” and the album’s grand closer, “The Same Old Sun,” which starts quietly before building to a dramatic conclusion.  Eric Woolfson’s vocals and David Paton’s guitar solo are particularly strong.

“Squonk” (live), Genesis, 1977

220px-Genesis_-_Seconds_OutI admit I was late to the party when it comes to the music of Genesis, whose albums date back to 1969.  I never really paid attention until their 1976 LP “A Trick of the Tail,” which was coincidentally their first after the departure of frontman/lyricist/vocalist Peter Gabriel.  The group carried on admirably, with drummer Phil Collins stepping up and sounding uncannily like Gabriel on most tracks.  Keyboardist Tony Banks and guitarists Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett wrote the eight amazing songs that comprise “A Trick of the Tail,” and four of them — “Dance on a Volcano,” “Robbery, Assault and Battery,” “Los Endos” and “Squonk” — appeared as in-concert versions on the double live album “Seconds Out,” released in 1977.  I actually prefer the live take of “Squonk” to the studio rendition.

“Darkness,” The Police, 1981

Ghost_In_The_Machine_cover-1By 1981, the reggae-punk rock oeuvre that marked The Police’s first three albums had evolved into a different style that made liberal use of keyboards, synthesizers and even horns.  On their “Ghost in the Machine” LP, the hit singles “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Spirits in the Material World” sound far removed from the band’s earlier work, except for Sting’s mesmerizing vocals.  Buried late in the segue of songs is “Darkness,” a dreamy piece written by drummer Stewart Copeland.  It offers lyrics that touch on the dichotomy of light and dark, and how darkness can be a blessing when light brings the pain of reality into focus:  “I wish I never woke up this morning, life was easy when it was boring…”

“Scared,” John Lennon, 1974

205547da87eecb390c38836e4fbcb861In 1980, when Lennon sat for a lengthy interview for the first time in years and talked about all his past music, he praised the relatively unknown “Scared” as one of his favorites, and the best track on his 1974 LP “Walls and Bridges.”  He was in his period of estrangement, living and recording in L.A. many thousands of miles from Yoko, and although he was capable of churning out commercial hit singles like “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” many of the songs he was writing dug much deeper, exposing and reflecting on his flaws and fears.  “Scared” deftly utilizes a few spooky wolf howls and a dirge-like pace to set the tone for lyrics about regretting past behavior and not wanting to be alone anymore.  Within a few months of this album’s release, John and Yoko reunited, and a happy John took a break from the business to raise his baby boy Sean.

 

Seasons change and so did I

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of a group that is considered royalty in its native Canada, and revered among many U.S. fans as one of the best Top 40 hit bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s:  The Guess Who.

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Some of my readers will no doubt be scratching their heads as to why I would spend much time and space on a group that frankly isn’t in the same league as previous artists I have profiled (Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Genesis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd).

The answer is simple:  I have always loved the songs of The Guess Who, and the amazing rock vocals of Burton Cummings.  When tunes like “Undun” or “Hand Me Down World”

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Clockwise from top:  Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Garry Peterson, Jim Kale

or “Albert Flasher” come on the radio, I am instantly transported to 1970-71, hanging with friends and driving with my girl around the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

To me, their records were perfect little pop songs, carried either by Cummings’ rollicking piano and distinctive voice or the stinging guitar riffs of Randy Bachman (at first) or Kurt Winter.  Between 1969 and 1974, The Guess Who was Canada’s biggest success story, scoring 10 Top 20 hits in the US and twice that number in their native country.  Their albums performed less well (only three reached Top 20 status in the US), which isn’t really all that surprising, as the group was, from the outset, a singles band.

“We had our eye on the Top 40 charts,” Cummings reflected.  “That was our goal, to have a hit single in the US.  Once we did that with ‘These Eyes’ in early 1969, Randy and I gained the confidence to write more in the same vein, and then they became hits too.”

Soon, recalls Bachman, “It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences.  I’d play Burton a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his, and we’d say,  ‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa.  Sometimes we had heard songs we wanted to imitate, something by Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  We liked to rock, but we enjoyed writing ballads too.”

Few people would claim that The Guess Who catalog had a lot of emotional depth.  The lyrics were often quirky, sometimes even a bit lame, but when put to irresistible melodies as sung by Cummings, it didn’t seem to matter.  Consider, for instance, “Rain Dance.”  What are we to make of these words?  “Fifi said to Don the baker, ‘Can you show burton-cummings-in-1969me how to make another bun, Don?’, And I’m still standing with my next door neighbor saying, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?’…”  Cummings fashioned such a memorable melody line that the song ended up at #19  (in Canada, it reached #3).

There were instances, though, when Cummings came up with lyrics that had substance, like on the melancholy piano ballad “Sour Suite,” a minor hit which touched on the sad feelings of an off night and depressing memories the next morning (“I don’t want to think about a runaway dad that took away the only thing that I’ve never had, don’t even miss him this morning, I don’t want to think about a cold goodbye, or a high school buddy got a little too high, I can’t help him out this morning…”)

So let’s answer the question many people have always been curious about:  Why “The Guess Who”?

Originally, Bachman (then only 16) had formed a group in 1962 with drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale, with singer/guitarist Chad Allan as the front man.  Using the common naming format of many rock bands of that period, they called themselves Allan and The Silvertones.  They soon morphed into Chad Allan and The Reflections, and gained some notoriety in Canada, mostly in and around their home base of Winnipeg in the central Canadian province of Manitoba.  By 1965, they changed their name to Chad Allan and The Expressions because a US band called The Reflections had scored a Top 10 hit with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”

As Chad Allan and The Expressions, things started happening when they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over,” a 1960 hit in England by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. R-5451335-1393701861-1746.jpegThe Expressions’ label, Quality Records, frustrated by the inability of Canadian groups to break into the American market, came up with an idea:  They chose to credit the record to (Guess Who?), hoping it would be better received if it was thought to be by a British Invasion act.  Sure enough, the song reached #22 in the US in early 1965 and went all the way to #1 in Canada.  The band’s real name was revealed a few months later, but disc jockeys continued to announce the group as The Guess Who, which effectively forced the official name change.

In 1966, Cummings was added on keyboards and backing vocals, but then Chad Allan chose to leave the band, which put Cummings at the forefront as lead singer.  This new lineup kept the momentum going in Canada with several Top 20 singles, including Neil Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the eventual Carpenters’ hit “Hurting Each Other” and two Bachman compositions, “Believe Me” and “Clock on the Wall,” but they all stiffed in the US and elsewhere.

Once Bachman and Cummings put their songwriting talents together in 1968, something clicked.  “These Eyes” zoomed to #6 in the US, followed by “Laughing at #10 (a chart topper in Canada).  “Undun” did less well, stalling at #22, but “No Time” reached #5 in the US and was another #1 in Canada.  This was all in the space of 10 months.

(“No Time” had actually been first recorded in ’68 with a weird intro, a longer guitar break and an extended vocal section at the end.  This version rarely gets heard, but you’re in for a real treat — you can hear it on the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay.  Cummings’ vocals and Bachman’s guitar are both amazing here).

Then came the strange case of “American Woman.”  The band had returned to Canada after a long string of American shows, and at a small hall in Ontario, they were taking the stage after a brief break.   Bachman was tuning his guitar after replacing a broken

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(Clockwise from left):  Jim Kale, Greg Leskiw, Garry Peterson, Burton Cummings, Kurt Winter

string and realized he was playing a new riff.  The other members returned to the stage and joined in, creating a jam session in which Cummings improvised lyrics about how homegrown Canadian women were preferable to American girls.  A couple of lines (“I don’t need your war machine, I don’t need no ghetto scenes”) were interpreted as anti-American, but as Cummings said, “It was just a sentiment I ad libbed that night.  The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and we had a lot of draft dodgers in the audience.”

The band recorded the song a week later and, despite the apparent putdown (“American woman, stay away from me”), the song zoomed to #1 in the US and Canada, as did its flip side, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.”

Festering underneath this success, though, was increased tension between Bachman and Cummings.  Bachman had chosen to avoid drink and drugs and had even converted to Mormonism, while Cummings was more of a wild child (as were Kale and Peterson). cshf_05_randy_bachman-1According to “Bachman,” the recently released documentary, “I had become the group’s de facto manager.  I was handling our business affairs, counting the money, constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, and then getting [the other band members] out of bed, nursing their hangovers and driving them to the next gig.  When you do that 300 days a year, it takes its toll.”

Bachman had been suffering painful gallbladder problems and needed surgery, but the touring prevented him from getting the care he needed.  Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with The Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single, and now we’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks.  I have an operation scheduled.’  They said, ‘Great, well, we’re gonna keep going.’  I said, ‘Am I coming back?’  They said, ‘No, we’re kind of glad you’re gone.’  They were into the drug culture, I wasn’t.  So I was glad to leave, but I was sad to leave.  This had been my life.  I had run this band.”

Bachman’s place was quickly filled by guitarist Kurt Winter, an old Winnipeg friend who offered not only great guitar work but wrote some memorable tunes like “Bus Rider” and “Hand Me Down World.”  Because The Guess Who’s radio hits kept on coming almost

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From their “Live at the Paramount” album cover, 1972

seamlessly, the casual listener took no notice of Bachman’s departure.  Winter became Cummings’ new songwriting collaborator, and they teamed up on “Hang On To Your Life,” “Rain Dance,” “Heartbroken Bopper” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.”  Alone, Cummings came up with “Share the Land,” “Albert Flasher,” “Glamour Boy” and my personal favorite, 1974’s “Star Baby.”

I couldn’t help but feel sad that The Guess Who’s final chart success was the insipid “Clap for the Wolfman,” a tribute of sorts to the radio legend Wolfman Jack.  To my ears, it’s boring, and pales in comparison to almost any other track in The Guess Who’s repertoire.

By 1975, Cummings decided to give a solo career a try, effectively ending the band’s run.  Kale bought the rights to the name and continued assembling various Guess Who lineups to hit the road and even record albums over the ensuing years, but none could manage much success.

Cummings’ first attempts at going it alone did all right, with “Stand Tall” (#10 in the US), “I’m Scared,” “Break It to Them Gently” and “You Saved My Soul” all reaching the charts, but it didn’t last long.  Still, he stayed active in the business, writing and producing and occasionally performing.  He even participated in a few Guess Who reunion concerts,

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Bachman and Cummings in the late ’80s

with and without Bachman in the lineup, which is fairly remarkable, considering the way they parted ways in 1970.  Naturally, those shows generated the most enthusiasm from the public.

 

Said Cummings in 1986, “Sometimes when you leave a well-known band, it’s almost immediate death.  Lots of people have tried it and fallen by the wayside.  I’m pleased that there are still people who like me or my songs or the way I sing them.  Some of them like me well enough to come see me perform.  And I do sing quite a few Guess Who tunes.  Hey, those were some great songs.  I was the band’s singer, and I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, so why would I avoid performing them?  Certainly the audience wants to hear them.”

As for Bachman, he struggled upon leaving The Guess Who in 1970 because industry folks couldn’t understand why he would leave a group just as it had attained a #1 album and single.  But he soldiered on, first putting together a country rock band called Brave Belt with old colleague Chad Allan, and when that didn’t pan out, he recruited his brothers Tim and Robbie and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner

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The Guess Who, 1968

Overdrive in 1973.

BTO enjoyed a very successful run for a few years, churning out solid pop rock hits like “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You.”  (Me, I always favored the sultry, jazz-inflected “Blue Collar” featuring Turner’s vocals.)

So… Is the story of The Guess Who compelling?  Perhaps not.  Is their body of work “extraordinary, influential or consistently excellent”?  Hmmm, not so much.  But nevertheless, I just go crazy when I hear “These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you” and “I was a workshop owner in the gulch for the people and I offered myself to the world,” dammit!  And I have a hunch that many of my readers share my affection for the songs of The Guess Who.  I hope the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below (which includes a few solo Cummings and BTO selections) hits the spot for you this week.

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