A Blast From The Past
By Beppe Colli
June 1, 2007

"Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture. A sunny optimism permeated everything and possibilities seemed limitless." (...) "With its vision of 'blue suburban skies' and boundlessly confident vigour, Penny Lane distils the spirit of that time more perfectly than any other creative product of the mid-Sixties." (Ian MacDonald - Revolution In The Head - The Beatles' Records And The Sixties - Pimlico, 1995, p. 177)

I really don't remember the first time I heard Penny Lane (it was on the radio), nor the second or the third. What I definitely remember, however, is the first time the song made a strong impression on me: I was walking on the sidewalk in the centre of the town when I heard this music - very loud, and sounding both familiar and strange at the same time - coming out of a shop. It was spring, and I'm quite certain it was a Saturday afternoon: every morning I went to school, while in the afternoon I did my homework, Saturday being the only exception. If memory serves, the shop sold electrical home appliances; in fact, a few years earlier, it had started like this, with shops adding record players to their usual stock of refrigerators, washing machines and TV sets - and what better place to sell records than the one where record players were sold? By the time Penny Lane was released, however, there were quite a few record shops in the town where I lived (a quiet Sicilian town with a population of about 50,000), some of which even stocked (a few) LPs! Singles were quite expensive at the time, but people seemed perfectly happy to part with their money: in those days it was definitely not uncommon for a "hit record" to sell 1,000,000 copies or more.

When I bought my copy of Penny Lane (Spring, 1967) I was about 12.6 years old: this, according to Ian MacDonald's rule, immediately disqualifies me as a reliable witness of those times - let alone a participant! And that's fair enough. But I'll try anyway.

I don't remember the "British Invasion" as being such a shock to me. It was not a case of "no music" giving way to "music": at home, the radio was very often switched-on, the Beatles just a different colour in a panorama that was by no means monolithic. Tracks like Please Please Me and She Loves You (not to mention And I Love Her, a song that got covered ad nauseam) made no particular impression on me. Of course, the cumulative effect of later material was something else. Picture a song list which goes: A Hard Day's Night, Ticket To Ride, Help!, We Can Work It Out, Day Tripper, Yesterday (didn't like it), Michelle (ditto), Norwegian Wood, Eleanor Rigby, Yellow Submarine (well...).

Shall we forget the Stones? I'm sure I missed The Last Time, but I definitely did not miss what followed: (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud, 19th Nervous Breakdown, Paint It Black, Lady Jane (which I actually thought was rubbish), Let's Spend The Night Together, Ruby Tuesday (well...), We Love You - all in the space of two years!

Just a thought: picture the modern equivalent of the Beatles (who at the time, remember, were the most popular artists in the world) and the Stones (not exactly what you'd call an unknown group) producing the aforementioned string of hits, plus albums, while constantly touring the world etc., in the course of about three years - and not only not playing it safe, but pushing the envelope!

Thanks to the (Public) radio (a monopoly with no competition from private entrepreneurs), by 1967 I knew my fair share of new music. The "British Invasion", of course: the Animals, the Troggs, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Hollies, the Small Faces, the Spencer Davis Group (talking about singles, of course, not complete discographies); funny thing, I totally missed the Who up to Happy Jack. A few groups from the U.S.A., such as the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful. Some Dylan and Donovan. Also, lotsa Soul and R&B: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave (the first time I listened to Monster Movie by Can it was not the Velvet Underground - whose name I'd never heard - I was reminded of, but Otis Redding and Sam & Dave), Wilson Pickett, and, just a bit later, Aretha Franklin. In a word: Wow!

What became apparent, in time, was that there was a lot more to those grooves than one noticed at first. This was a slow process, of course. It goes without saying that at the time I would not have been able to differentiate between a song, its performance, the sound of the performance as recorded, and the sound of the record - not in those terms, anyway, and not as clearly. But bit by bit I started noticing a few things. How some records that were different as songs sounded pretty similar. How the same drums and guitar seemed to play on records by different artists. How a song as covered by an Italian group sounded totally different - most of the time, a lot worse. It wasn't that I was particularly gifted, or anything. It's just that listening to all this (quite diverse) stuff side by side made it pretty apparent that some things one liked were the product of highly skilled people - quite different, this, from the impression of "lucky amateurs" one often had as "received wisdom" - and of quite specific - and sometimes, highly original - technical procedures.

Suddenly it seemed like musical innovation was undergoing a process of astonishing acceleration, with new, original sounds appearing practically every day, the better artists listening to each other, eager to engage in a transatlantic two-way conversation. It's important to keep in mind - though at the time I was not aware of this, obviously - that (at least, part of) the audience was not only paying a lot more attention when listening to music, but also paying a different kind of attention to a different kind of music. New musical solutions were by now expected. One learned to dismiss things one liked on first listening as shallow. Songs - records! - were now expected to slowly reveal themselves over time.

Thinking about the way those sounds are nowadays for the most part available to the general public - their punchy and aggressive, but also well-defined, smooth and round sounds having been mangled by careless digital mastering - won't do one's health any good. How people who write about music could have an accurate idea of what they are talking about when all they know are those "indifferently digitally remastered" editions is beyond me - not that they seem to lose any sleep over this, of course.

What I liked about Penny Lane was that, while it could still be considered as a "typically extroverted and communicative Beatles song", it seemed to conceal at least as much as it revealed (if one paid the right kind of attention, that is). The other side (yes, I know it was supposed to be a double-A side single, but Penny Lane was the one you heard on the radio) was really something else. Of course, those who were already familiar with, say, Revolver, already knew there was something quite different going on. But this was a single, which made it a totally different ball game. Like in - What the heck was that?

Since at the time I didn't buy - nor borrow - any music mags (not that I knew of the existence of any music mags anyway), I wasn't aware of the fact that the release of the new album by the Beatles - titled Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - was turning into an event of gigantic proportions. I heard a few songs on the radio, With A Little Help From My Friends and She's Leaving Home, if I'm not mistaken, being the ones getting the most airplay. I noticed how the guitar and, especially, the drums on the title-track sounded quite different than the way they did before. I don't remember ever hearing A Day In The Life. I have to confess that for me Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was not a particularly relevant release, since by now there were other sounds coming out that I considered to be a lot more interesting for my taste. (Of course, there are now whole libraries about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Those in need of an introduction - or simply interested in reading a very good piece - will be well-served by an unpublished article by Mick Gold from 1974 titled The Act You've Known For All These Years: The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper, currently available at Rock's Backpages.)

A funny thing happened to me in February (I think), 1976. By that time I was working at a (privately-owned) radio station. There was a weekly program (can't remember the exact name) where listeners would bring their favourite album, to be broadcast and discussed on the air. Once, while I was about to leave the building, I casually met the guy who was to be the guest that very afternoon. He had brought Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I have to confess I had not thought about that album for a very long time. I remember asking the guy something like "How come you chose that one? There were two albums by the Jefferson Airplane released that year, two by the Doors, Absolutely Free by Frank Zappa..." He didn't answer anything which made any sense to me, and I left.

Funny thing, pt. 2. It was July, 1987. I was in France, attending the MIMI Festival which at the time was held in St. Remy de Provence. Since I didn't speak a single word of French, I was quite happy to discover that a local newsstand had more than a fair share of mags written in English. I bought Rolling Stone - and what's that? An article about... the 20th birthday of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Again, I had not thought about that album in ages. After overcoming my initial shock (twenty years already!) I thought about what it all meant: Why was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band considered relevant all over again - or at least deserving that much space in a trendy, mainstream mag like Rolling Stone?

Of course, I hadn't noticed that a new thing called CD had been introduced on the market not too long before. Here we could easily talk about nostalgia, Baby-Boomers, those evil Majors making us buy the same records all over again... Right. But nowadays it's practically impossible for one not to be aware of the (past? well, not quite!) existence of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or any other "past masterpiece". Shall we blame Boomers all over again? Does the fact of having any file at one's disposal (for free!), just a click of the mouse away, change one's perception of what's "current"? Was Lester Bangs even more right than he thought he was when he wrote "But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis"? (Where Were You When Elvis Died? - Village Voice, 29 August 1977 - now in Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung). Does the notion of being a witness to something "legendary" (meaning: from a time where legends could still be born) explain the proliferation of Old Famous Albums currently being "recreated" in the flesh? (Think about it: Paul was the one who first toured a lot of Beatles songs that had never been performed live.) A partial list goes like this: Pet Sounds. Smile!. Horses. Aqualung. Fun House. Berlin. With surely more to come.

Then, what?

So, what were those fantastic sounds of 1967 that I regarded as being even better than the Beatles? Well, I'm not really saying they were "even better than the Beatles" (and I've already mentioned Penny Lane c/w Strawberry Fields Forever, right?), just that to me they sounded new and interesting. Where do I start?

Obviously from that morning in June, (on the car radio - so it must have been a Sunday, or maybe school was already over?), when a guy called, I think, Renzo Nissim said something like "There is this new American group called The Doors, they have a new song on the top of the charts right now, and the name of the song is Light My Fire. Let's listen to it right now.", and then proceeded to play the album version! To this day I don't know whether it was a mistake or what. Fact is, after the song part ended (and it was dynamite - remember the way it starts? no, not with the organ part, but with a tom going "BAM!"), I obviously thought the song was about to end; then I started hearing those long instrumental solos.

There was also the "Summer Hit of 1967" ("an embarrassing piece of trivia" - you've been warned - according to a book about music I still like all the same): A Whiter Shade Of Pale. I was into Black Music just enough to think When A Man Loves A Woman (but not Ray Charles, not yet), but this was... well, different. As in: Let's slow things down - a lot.

There were bits and pieces that almost counted as songs. For instance, the piano intro to Death Of A Clown by the Kinks (Nicky Hopkins, of course). Or the piano intro to We Love You by the Stones (yep, it's Nicky Hopkins again).

There were the new instrumental sounds - and strange mood - of another worldwide hit: Night In White Satin by the Moody Blues. Who could ever forget that snare shot + reverb before the flute (!) solo: ttaaaaa! More or less at the same time, great instrumental skills and highly sophisticated use of dynamics brought Vanilla Fudge to the fore with another worldwide smash: You Keep Me Hangin' On. Subtlety was the name of the game for Traffic with No Face, No Name, No Number.

Then my family moved to another town (population: about 400,000) where record shops had a lot more albums (from Pentangle to Mayall to Zappa to... Wish I could travel back in time taking a fat wallet with me), and I started getting into different sounds: Jethro Tull and then King Crimson, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, Cream. Meanwhile, a new radio program (Count Down - Sundays, 2.30 p.m.) started broadcasting the "underground groups": Family, Vanilla Fudge, Spirit, Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf.

What I've tried to make clear is that all this music I'm talking about was available on the radio - even though in many ways (take my word for it) it was definitely a highly specialized taste. I'm obviously aware of the fact that what I've said up to now could be an easy target for ridicule, as in "boomer longs for his lost youth, celebrates music from his past ".

Well, look what I've got here: an article by Eric Boehlert titled The Greatest Week In Rock History. It starts like this: "Thirty-four years ago this week, the Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Temptations, Santana, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Creedence Clearwater all shared top billing on the Billboard album chart. There's never been another lineup quite like it - and there will never be again."

The article was published on Salon on Dec. 19, 2003. The week he's referring to is Dec. 20, 1969.

After clearly stating that at that time he was just four years old (the nostalgia argument definitely doesn't apply here), he makes some interesting points.

The notion of "greatest week in rock" sounds dubious? "But there's a unique way to systematically rate rock's past and try to uncover the best single week: simply choose the one that had, album-for-album, the 10 best entries atop the Billboard 200 album chart. A week when the top 10 had no fluff filler, no disposable pop creations, and no dreadful trend imitators. A week that boasted the best collection ever assembled at the pinnacle of the charts at any given moment. Not the 10 best albums of all time, necessarily: that would be too much to hope for. But the week when record buyers produced a lineup of albums unmatched, taken as a whole, for quality, originality and longevity."

We are reminded of some interesting facts: "By the end of 1969, only 20 albums in the history of rock had ever sold 1 million copies. By contrast, this year alone nearly 50 albums sold 1 million copies or more, a difference that far outpaces the country's population gains since 1969. Also, young teens were still buying more singles than albums in 1969. That meant the demographic of heavy album buyers was concentrated among white college-age kids, giving their favorite rock acts an inside track on the Billboard charts."

"But it wasn't just the individual songs and singles that made the week of Dec. 20, '69, stand out. In many ways, rock 'n' roll was the '60s - it played a defining role in American culture that's hard even to imagine now. Listening to this music, even for those of us who didn't live through those days, summons up the extraordinary and tumultuous history of which they were such an integral part."

So, what were the albums? And what else does he say? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to read the piece.

For reasons that will become clear in a little while, I thought I'd write a list featuring the names of those whom I regarded as doing valuable work in music during the period 1970-1975, as per my opinion at the time. I decided to write the names in the same order as they came to me off the top of my head. Please notice that, having written the list, I avoided consulting any books, or doing a double-check with my album collection, in order to see whether I had forgotten to mention any artist I liked.

Since the list mirrors my taste, knowledge, and availability of information in the course of the aforementioned time period, I've omitted those artists (such as Gil Scott-Heron, whose first Arista album I bought in 1976, or Steely Dan) whose very existence was totally unknown to me at the time; artists whose music I initially perceived as being a bit too "lightweight" (for instance, 10cc., their 1975 worldwide hit I'm Not In Love being the only song of theirs I was familiar with. I proceeded to buy their How Dare You! album in 1976); artists whose songs I'd often heard performed as covers but whose albums I had never seen around (a good case in point being Laura Nyro). I've also omitted some groups - such as Procol Harum and Jethro Tull - whose albums from the early 70s I enjoyed a whole lot at the time though I considered them to be not as good (nor as fresh-sounding) as their albums from the late 60s.

(It's not that I personally owned all those records! But I knew most of them pretty well anyway.)

Amon Düül II (four or five albums)

Can (six or seven albums)

Faust (four albums)

Van Der Graaf Generator/Peter Hammill (about half a dozen albums)

Jefferson Airplane/Paul Kantner & Grace Slick/Hot Tuna (about ten albums)

Soft Machine (three albums)

Gong (three or four albums)

Kevin Ayers (four albums)

John Cale/Nico/Lou Reed (quite a few albums among them)

King Crimson (five or six albums)

Henry Cow (three albums)

Frank Zappa (half a ton)

Joni Mitchell (five or six albums)

Jack Bruce (two or three solo albums)

Hatfield & The North (both their albums)

David Bowie (two or three albums)

Brian Eno (two albums)

Gentle Giant (four albums)

Hawkwind (three or four albums)

Traffic (a few albums)

The Who (three albums)

Matching Mole (both their albums)

Robert Wyatt (two albums)

Slapp Happy (two albums)

Neil Young (two or three albums)

Jeff Beck (two or three albums)

Neu! (three albums)

Todd Rundgren/Utopia (half a dozen albums)

Please add at the very least a lot more than a few album tracks each by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations.

Astute readers will notice that quite a few mega-sellers from the early 70s are conspicuous only by their absence: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd.

One of the most celebrated books ever written about rock, Stranded: Rock And Roll For A Desert Island (first edition: 1979, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.  reprint: 1996, Da Capo Press) has always been for me, in many ways, a source of great puzzlement.

This quote comes from Tom Carson's essay about The Ramones' Rocket To Russia LP. It appears on p. 112 of the Da Capo edition:

"When rock turned classy and 'mature' in the late sixties, the move was inextricably tied up with the utopianism of the counterculture; the possibility of revolution was the only thing that gave Sgt. Pepper and the flood of pretentions in its wake credibility. When the countercultural dream died, it turned all that visionary artiness into pure sludge - icing with the cake shot out from under it. The first five years of the seventies were a long tunnelling out from the wreckage of the sixties, and they were among the worst years in rock 'n roll history, as smugly reactionary as the void between the apostasy of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles; like the generation it created, the music had lost its focus."

I've quoted the piece in its entirety in order to avoid accusations of "quoting creatively". I don't think that the first part of the piece holds any water, but this is a topic for another time.

A few years ago, thanks to an interview he did with Scott Woods and Steven Ward (it's on the Rock Critics website), I learned that by the time he wrote the essay in question, Tom Carson was 22 years old. Since at the time I was not much older (three or four years at the most), I feel I'm entitled to comment on this.

The long list appearing above features albums that I had the chance to listen to, while living in Italy, from the age of 15 to the age of 20. How a period when the abovementioned albums were released (some of them even charted!) could be defined as "among the worst years in rock 'n roll history" is well beyond me. That an album like The Ramones' Rocket To Russia could be considered as a rebirth worth celebrating after a "smugly reactionary" period when, in fact, all those albums were released is something I really don't get. What's more, I know quite a few people - not necessarily Boomers - who think that when compared to The Ramones' Rocket To Russia a lot of albums released by more than a few of those artists who did not make my list - Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd - take gigantic proportions. Am I missing something?

While it could be argued (maybe) that it once worked as a somewhat-but-not-quite-satisfactory partial explanation, nowadays the "nostalgia argument" (still weapon #1 for those who have all those new releases to sell) doesn't hold water anymore. Not at a time when what the best-selling music magazines put on their covers are artists who became popular more than forty years ago, with the "young guys" of the bunch being the "new wavers". It's funny to notice that, at the time when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was originally released (forty years ago to this day, by the way), Chuck Berry sounded positively old - not to mention music that had been all the rage forty years earlier! Which is food for thought.

What is certain is that the past is for the most part not so well served. Take the Doors, for instance. I've often thought about the identity of the strange stringed instrument appearing on the group's cover of Alabama Song that's featured on their first album. It was only a few years ago - thanks to an old interview by Paul Williams with Doors producer Paul Rothchild which had originally appeared in 1967 in Crawdaddy! magazine - that I learned that this mysterious sound came from an old instrument called the Marxophone. There are more things to be learned about the music by the Doors in the (relatively concise) interview with Bruce Botnick - the group's engineer - that appeared about four years ago on (UK monthly) Sound On Sound than in all those useless tomes endlessly talking of "drunken behaviour". What's more, while it's likely that those who were around at the time will have at least an idea of what music Ray Manzarek was referring to in his playing, I have yet to see, say, Otis Spann's name being mentioned once.

The same, of course, is true of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, where a lot of audio techniques invented by Geoff Emerick - and which are impossible to duplicate today - are, in a way, the music.

Trouble is, the personality-driven, single-related mentality (in a way so pre-"adult rock") that's so prevalent today gets applied to all music, past and present. Like, when a new hit by "artist x" gets compared to Otis Redding's (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay as if it only featured the singer! What about Steve Cropper's sliding Tele licks, then?

It goes without saying that listening to a lot of different music side-by-side - with the Stones next to Bacharach next to Hendrix next to Sinatra next to the Monkees next to the Byrds next to the Jefferson Airplane next to the Beatles next to... well, you get the picture - is not quite the same as listening to a "thematic channel".

Now, what?

© Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | June 1, 2007