Saturday, July 01, 2017

My Favorite Albums Of 1967

On the day of my birth in July of 1961, the #1 song in the United States was "Quarter to Three" by Gary U.S. Bonds. Exuberant dance tunes and celebrations of all-night parties were common in rock- and-roll during the JFK years. "Quarter to Three" epitomized the trend:

Don't you know that I danced, I danced till a quarter to three
With the help, last night, of Daddy G
He was swingin on the sax like a nobody could
And I was dancin' all over the room
Oh, don't you know the people were dancin' like they were mad
It was the swingin'est band they had, ever had
It was the swingin'est song that could ever be
It was a night with Daddy G

Few on that dance floor could have predicted that in only six years rock would evolve (or de-evolve, depending on your point of view) from "a night with Daddy G" to "Nights in White Satin." Indeed by 1967 rock-and-roll went from being (at its best) the youthful drive to piss off your parents with only four chords and a backbeat, to a full-fledged art form which made raising the consciousness as legitimate a function for rock as raising the roof. And it pissed off your parents even more. 

Why the dramatic shift in rock quality in such a short period of time? In terms of musical influences, folk singer Bob Dylan has to be given credit for giving currency to the idea that it was okay for songs to "say something." Given that the years 1961-1967 were filled with controversies over civil rights, Vietnam, feminism and much else, there existed lots to say something about. In terms of recording techniques, the Beach Boys' classic "Pet Sounds" (1966) used experimental arrangements to produce a kind of "art rock" that might be difficult to perform live but could be reflected on in privacy or in groups like a great novel. Guided by the "Pet Sounds" example, bands moved away from the standard 2-3 minute track with guitar/bass/drums and mostly innocuous lyrics to lengthy, orchestral tunes often featuring deeply personal lyrics or social commentary. 

In terms of social movements, the west coast hippies like the "Beats" of the 1950s mixed a rejection of middle-class norms with an acceptance of personal liberation to create a space for rock as more than "mere entertainment." The hippies experienced rock as a vehicle for sending messages to the masses, as a peaceful weapon to provoke emotions in a culture made numb by hyper-consumerism, and as the most striking symbol of the values of the new generation; they saw rock-and-roll as nothing less than the soundtrack of the REVOLUTION. As such, they helped shape an audience of listeners that came to expect and appreciate maximum levels of creativity in songwriting and sound.  
For me, more important than musical and sociocultural influences in the development of rock-and-roll was the emergence of FM radio as a space for non-commercial rock music. In 1967 popular San Francisco deejay Tom Donahue wrote an article for the new Rolling Stone magazine called "AM Radio is Dead and its Rotting Corpse is Stinking Up the Airwaves." That article and the work of Donahue and other like-minded jocks led to the creation of the "free-form" style of programming. For the first time, deejays could play whatever they wanted, not just the "hits." In the free-form format, a deejay might play an obscure track, or an entire album, or maybe just spend some time talking about the meaning of the music. Donahue pioneered the free form on KPMX and KSAN in Frisco. In my home town of New York City, WNEW-FM became the archetype of what a "progressive" rock radio station should be, featuring deejays in-tune (pun intended) not just with new music but with society. (Just as an aside: I've yet to meet anyone raised on that era of FM radio who believes that FM radio today is--with few exceptions--anything other than awful, pathetic, mindless crap. Another great venue ruined by corporate greed.). 

So thanks to those and other factors, by 1967 rock and roll had been transformed from mostly fun to a major force for social change. Hordes of youth headed out to San Francisco to find out what all the buzz was about, and the June 16-18 Monterey Pop Festival is widely recognized as the event that ushered in the "Summer of Love." The Beatles did not perform at that concert, but their "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album (released in June in the United States) became the iconic record of the times. 

Sgt. Pepper is an important, great record, but its notoriety unfortunately overshadows the fact that there were many important, great records released that year. Given that we are in the 50th anniversary of 1967, I thought I would list my own personal favorites from that year (organized by the month in which they were released.). 

January: The Doors, "The Doors" and Laura Nyro, "More Than A New Discovery." 

The Doors first album is a classic example of a record that would not have been heard (or possibly even made) without the existence of a viable FM radio band. Today the album is pegged as a seminal recording in the "psychedelic" or "acid" rock category (mostly because of  the songs "Break on Through" and "The End" and lead singer Jim Morrison's burnout image), but for me it's just a great example of modern blues played by a group of white guys from California. 
I found out about Laura Nyro in the 1970s when a WNEW-FM deejay played "And When I Die" by Blood, Sweat, and Tears and announced that the song was "written by Laura Nyro and appears on her first album." Nyro was a thought provoking lyricist who wrote catchy tunes; she's admired among serious artists. In 2012 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall's website says that her music "reflected a combination of spirituality and street smarts." 
February: The Jefferson Airplane, "Surrealistic Pillow" 

Everything on this record rocks, but "White Rabbit" is by itself worth the price of admission. Grace Slick's penetrating vocals belting out subversive lyrics might be THE highlight of the music of 1967. 
March: Grateful Dead, "The Grateful Dead" 

The first album from the most legendary jam band of all time. As with the Doors first album, the Dead's debut effort is often unfairly pegged as vital mostly because of its connection to psychedelia. But listen to "Viola Lee Blues" and it's clear that from their earliest days the Dead found a way to create a blues-rock-folk hybrid unlike anything heard before or since. 
Honorable Mention: The Velvet Underground's "The Velvet Underground & Nico" came out in March of 1967 also. Rolling Stone calls it the 13th greatest album of all time. The album's eclectic musical style--and the fact that the songwriters dared to address controversial themes like drug abuse and prostitution--make it a groundbreaking effort. Lou Reed's chilling tune "Heroin" is on this album--another great example of pioneering music that would never have been heard were it not for the courageous efforts of the era's FM deejays. 

April: The Electric Prunes, "The Electric Prunes"

The Electric Prunes were the ultimate American garage band. When I teach "The Rhetoric of Rock and Roll" for contemporary students, lots of them get a kick out of this album's featured track "I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)." A few years ago I asked a student why he liked that song and he said, "The words sound like something they came up with after smoking some really good weed." That sounds about right. 

Last night your shadow fell upon my lonely room
I touched your golden hair and tasted your perfume
Your eyes were filled with love the way they used to be
Your gentle hand reached out to comfort me
Then came the dawn
And you were gone
You were gone, gone, gone
Too much to dream
I'm not ready to face the light
I had too much to dream
Last night

I had too much to dream last night
May: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Are You Experienced?" and The Mothers of Invention, "Absolutely Free"

Hendrix wasn't the first electric guitar hero in the history of rock; Chuck Berry, Dick Dale, Link Wray, and Duane Eddy were some of the earliest innovators in the genre. But Hendrix's 1967 debut album took the instrument to a new level; when Les Paul and Leo Fender pioneered the solid body electric guitar in the 1940s, they could never have imagined the result would be roaring riffs as can be heard in songs like "Manic Depression" and "Fire." It should also be noted that while Hendrix is primarily known for his guitar theatrics, he was also one of best lyricists of the era. "The Wind Cries Mary" is Shakespearean in its romantic imagery. 
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's "Absolutely Free" is one of the funniest rock records ever recorded. Zappa's biting satire blew up America's consumerist, materialist culture in what could be described as the musical equivalent of  a Lenny Bruce or George Carlin stand-up routine. Today, as we experience the absurdity of having a full-fledged internet troll calling the shots in the White House, "Absolutely Free" seems more relevant than ever. The song "Plastic People" features some lyrics that in 2017 should be posted on every highway bulletin board in the land: 

Take a day and walk around 
watch the nazi's run your town 
Then go home and check yourself
you think we're singing 
'bout someone else 
June: The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" 

Sgt. Pepper did for rock music what Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" did for film: raised the bar and changed the rules. "Kane" and "Pepper" spawned some awful imitators in their respective media, but they also inspired artists to take more creative risks. 
July: The Bee Gees, "Bee Gees 1st" and Canned Heat, "Canned Heat" 

Bee Gees 1st was actually the third studio album released by the band, but the first to be released internationally. The album is a power-pop archetype, and it might be only a mild exaggeration to say that "To Love Somebody" is the greatest pop love song ever written. 
Canned Heat's first album is not their best or my favorite of theirs, but in the midst of all the mind expanding music of 1967, this one refreshingly provided a jolt of John Lee Hooker inspired boogie and blues. Like most Heat albums, it's fun from beginning to end. 
August: Pink Floyd, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"; Albert King, "Born Under a Bad Sign"; Vanilla Fudge, "Vanilla Fudge" 

Pink Floyd went on to bigger and better things, but their 1967 debut is still a key creation in the development of "progressive" rock. When Elvis broke through in 1955, I'm quite sure no one thought there would be a time when rock songs could have titles like "Astronomy Domine," "Lucifer Sam" and "Interstellar Overdrive." 
Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign" helped usher in the blues revival of the time. Depending on what mood I'm in, when asked "What's your all time favorite song?" there's a good chance I'll say "The title track of Albert King's 'Born Under a Bad Sign." 
Vanilla Fudge's first album is a landmark in how to perform cover tunes: make them so different from the original that the average listener won't even recognize that they are covers. No crappy karaoke from the Fudge. Their cover of the Supremes'  Motown classic "You Keep Me Hangin' On" used to be in regular rotations on the classic rock radio playlist. It should be brought back. 
September: The Kinks, "Something Else"; The Beach Boys, "Smiley Smile"; Arlo Guthrie, "Alice's Restaurant"; Procul Harum, "Procul Harum"; Eric Burdon & The Animals, "Winds of Change"

As the kids returned to school in September of 1967 they were met with some spectacular records. The Kinks will always be known as the most underrated of the British Invasion bands of the 1960s. That's too bad, because their best work is on par with best of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who. "Something Else" has the acoustic/electric mix that became commonplace in 1990s indie rock and today. Two tunes on the album, "Death of a Clown" and "Waterloo Sunset," deserve to be on any list of great 1960s records. 
People who knew the Beach Boys for surfin' and hot rod songs did not appreciate "Smiley Smile," but the record is another example of Brian Wilson's ability to push the envelope in the recording studio. The most popular song on the album, "Good Vibrations," had already been released as a single in 1966 (my guess is that someone at the studio headquarters insisted it be put on "Smiley Smile" so as to make it easier to market the album.). On songs like "Vegetables" and "She's Goin' Bald" you almost get the feeling that Wilson is poking fun at the Beach Boys' previous incarnation. Very endearing. 
Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" includes "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," an 18 minute, 20 second folk epic that became the anti-war anthem of a generation. I've seen Arlo perform it live twice at the Oshkosh Grand Opera House and it never seems dated. 
Procul Harum got unfairly pegged as a one hit wonder on the strength of the beautiful tune "A Whiter Shade of Pale." But their debut album is high caliber throughout; Gary Brooker's vocals and keyboards demand attention. "She Wandered Through the Garden Fence" and "Conquistador" are my personal favorites off the album. 

In 1967 rocker Eric Burdon was a true believer in the love generation. "Winds of Change" is probably the most coherent musical statement of what was going on in San Francisco in the middle 1960s composed and performed by active participants in the historical moment. 
October: Sam & Dave, "Soul Men" and Buffalo Springfield, "Buffalo Springfield Again" 

Sam & Dave were accompanied by Booker T. & The MGs and the Mar-Key Horns, some of the most awe-inspiring musicians ever to perform and record. Anyone curious as to what is meant by the Stax sound needs to listen to "Soul Men." 
"Buffalo Springfield Again" is notable for featuring some of the early, classic material by Stephen Stills and Neil Young. I don't think Stills ever topped his song "Bluebird" from this album, while Neil's "Mr. Soul" might be the earliest example what later became known as grunge rock. 
November: The Moody Blues, "Days of Future Passed" and Cream, "Disraeli Gears" 

"Days of Future Passed" is a "thinking person's album," the kind of opus that became impossible even to conceive of after the birth of music video in the 1980s. Too bad; there's something to be said for music that connects with a 4.0 GPA English major. 
"Disraeli Gears" is one of the foundation records in the sub-genre known as heavy metal. Guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce, and drummer Ginger Baker provide a rock out clinic on this album. If you've listened to lots of FM radio over the years you're probably sick of "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Strange Brew," the two tracks off this album that remained on the classic rock radio set lists. My personal favorites on the record are "Tales of Brave Ulysses" (another one that the English majors might get into) and "Take It Back"--a subtle anti-war song. 
December: The Who, "The Who Sell Out" and Leonard Cohen, "Songs of Leonard Cohen"

Pete Townshend, guitarist and brains behind the Who, has his entire career navigated between the comic and the tragic. "The Who Sell Out" catches him in a comic phase; the album is an extended satire on commercialism. Today when we watch Don Draper on the hit show "Mad Men" we recognize the absurdity of the early public relations/advertising culture of the early 1960s. The Who recognized the absurdity early, which is one of the reasons this record occupies an important place in the history of rock. 
"Songs of Leonard Cohen" was the crooner's first album. For me, Cohen could do nothing but recite the contents of grocery lists and it still would have been worth a listen. He simply had one of those mesmerizing voices that comes along only a few times each generation. That he was able to compose poetic, eerily beautiful words only added to the appeal. 
Happy Birthday 1967! Thanks for leaving us with a wealth of wonderful, timeless music. And may every summer be a "Summer of Love."