of the Week #8
They Used To Play On The Radio
By Beppe Colli
a few days ago, on a Forum that's mostly about music that's read all over the
world, a Forum member asked this question: "Why the highly-celebrated Who
album Live At Leeds was originally released with the concert appearing in a
truncated form? And why on just a single album, instead of a triple LP?".
A Forum member from the United Kingdom replied: "In those days, purchasing
an album required a certain amount of financial effort, if you were young.
Buying an LP each month was really something. How many fans could really afford
the price of a triple LP? And how many triple albums were released that
year?" ("Two", but he didn't say which ones. I assume they are
the soundtrack to the Woodstock movie, which is in a category by itself; and
George Harrison's solo debut, All Things Must Pass, that I recall being sold,
sturdy box and all, for the price of a double album, at least in U.K.)
Last month, a good American friend of mine,
having noticed the inner picture from the Steppenwolf album called Monster
which I used in the homepage of this very webzine as part of installment #4 of
my Pick Of The Week series, wrote to me saying that the image had reminded him
of those days when he used to listen to that album, at the ripe old age of...
nine. My friend had obviously developed a prodigious musical sense at a very
young age, and his parents acted accordingly. Not considering the money factor,
it was difficult for me, in a cultural sense, to picture a nine-year old buying
an LP. As it was typical in the part of the Country I lived in, I bought my
first 45 single (Penny Lane, The Beatles) at twelve, my first LP (Waiting For
The Sun, The Doors) at fourteen.
While those things are still very clear in
the mind of those who were there, this knowledge becomes more and more opaque
with each passing day. No big deal, right, but judgements about those days are
increasingly formulated without a strong factual basis backing them.
One important factor is the devaluation of
the public sphere and the glorification of the private sector, something which
started at the end of the 70s and created the pre-conditions of a negative
appreciation of all things bearing the "public" tag (starting with
the public health sector, the private being called "more efficient"
by definition; here I have to say, as incredibly as it sounds, that even the
current pandemic doesn't appear to be enough to have people change their minds
The Italian State monopoly when it comes to
telecommunications (I hope I'm right when I say that the first privately-owned
Italian radio station started broadcasting in Milan, October 1974) made it
possible for young people of the time to have a deep knowledge of modern
International "rock" music of the most experimental type, right in
the afternoon, and not in the heart of the night, with almost no consideration
for the number of people who were actually listening.
While those who were not interested in
football matches could listen to a program that went on the air on Sundays, so
having access to a list of groups that, besides the obvious Beatles and Stones,
featured names more suited to a California FM station, such as Spirit, Vanilla Fudge
and Blue Cheer, the normal week-day offered groups such as Genesis, Yes, Deep
Purple, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Van Der Graaf†
Generator, and so on. (Even Nick Drake! Not much Zappa, though.)
I decided to present six albums that in my
opinion are a good representation of the breadth of what Italian radio used to
feature in those days in their afternoon schedule. They are not necessarily
"the finest" or "my favourites", though come to think of
it, at the time I owned four of them (would have been five, had the High Tide
album been available for me to buy).
In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971)
not for the fact that this tag has been a kind of "trademark" of
Brian Eno's music for quite a long time now - also the title of one of his
albums that's quite important for the formulation of his aesthetic - I'd say
that "Discreet Music" is a perfect way to describe the music composed
and played by Caravan on such a fine album as In The Land Of Grey And Pink.
goes without saying that, when opposed to "assertive", "discreet"
is very likely bound to loose. Which is exactly what happened to Caravan, at
least in commercial terms: at a time when most groups had an impressive
guitarist, or a keyboard player playing "whole lotta keyboards",
Caravan had neither, and so they paid the price.
their multi-style approach, their rhythmic flexibility, their use of the organ
as a solo instrument in ways that sound still fresh today give this album a
flavour best reserved for "connoisseurs".
to In The Land Of Grey And Pink now is bound to remind one how in tune Richard
Sinclair - the group's main singer, also the bass player - was. Which could
maybe appear as a strange thing to say, were not for the fact that our ears get
progressively more and more accustomed to the "perfect pitches" made
possible by machines (and what about "perfect tempo"?). And so,
listening to an old album one used to like so much does not necessarily make
for an enjoyable experience.
"in tune" singer who kept his electric bass in good intonation -
proper neck relief, fresh strings, the proper amount of finger pressure on the
strings and on the fingerboard - Richard Sinclair gave Caravan that
"Universe in perfect harmony" dimension that's Caravan's real secret.
were heard on the radio, especially at night, when the noise of the day
disappears, leaving one's mind left to wonder (at least, that's exactly what
happened a few decades ago).
High Tide (1970)
I have to confess I bent the truth. I can't really say whether the music
performed by High Tide was really broadcast on the air - John Peel did, I have
my doubts about Italy. But I consider listening to the two albums released by
the group - Sea Shanties (1969), and High Tide (1970) - an important experience.
read an enthusiastic review of the group's debut album (more or less:
"maybe, and I say maybe, there are better guitarists than Tony Hill, but
nobody can play the violin as well as Simon House"), by sheer luck I
managed to find a copy of the album at la Rinascente, and... a ferocious,
aggressive sound appeared - one can almost see the classic Marshall head + double
stack with 4x12" roar; what is even more impressive is the obviously
deliberate quality of the music. "A ferociousness of the intellect",
if the concept is clear.
jump in quality from the debut album to its successor is simply impressive. The
music even more though-out, the organization in space - width, depth -
impeccable, the work of sound engineer George Chkiantz (Family, Soft Machine,
King Crimson) makes it possible to achieve a clarity that makes goals
crucial point being that on this album the guitar becomes both
"smaller" and "easier to perceive", since pure volume is
replaced by a very skilled use of equalization and stereo placement. Now the
quartet can really play "counterpoint".
comes first, right, but what about lyrics? In just a few lines, The Joke paints
a nightmare, a world where a defendant is deprived of his laughter, having
committed the heresy of laughing before the given time at a joke that's the
accepted way of participating for the people of this place.
Simon House was left somewhat unscathed from the High Tide experience, and went
on, contributing to albums by Third Ear Band, Hawkwind (his playing on the
album Warrior On The Edge Of Time being an interesting extrapolation of his
work with High Tide), David Bowie, Robert Calvert, and so on.
I could say here would be a good substitute for the listener's direct
perfectly obvious that every time a sentence starts with the words "when I
was young" those who pronounce these words will be greeted with much
readers are invited to take a little test: Try to picture a world where the
tracks featured on an album such as Lizard are broadcast at 4pm, in the leading
radio program "for young people".
The Court Of The Crimson King (1969) was a stunning debut, changing most
people's opinion about what was currently possible to play on the drums. While
In The Wake Of Poseidon (1970) appeared to follow the same path (but there were
also innovations), Lizard (1970) had most people puzzled, and it's not
difficult to see why.
album is quite dense, at times dissonant, knotty, rich with different styles. And
while its predecessor, a Top 5 in U.K., presented timbres that were not too unusual
for the "rock" world of the time, Lizard greatly expanded the palette.
Robert Fripp, the "reluctant leader", also changed the sound and the
vocabulary of his guitar, which had made him "one of the greats", even
though many were not convinced ("he's too slow").
listened to on a modern CD player Lizard doesn't sound too "quirky". But
before CD were invented, listening to many LPs of the most adventurous kind of
music was a torment, due to vinyl's poor signal/noise ratio, poor pressing of
most albums, bad quality of the (often recycled) vinyl. And if a group's
dynamics were more similar to that of a classical orchestra, as was the case with
King Crimson... Record players of the time played their part, of course - I
still remember friends' comments while listening to the Larks Tongues In Aspic
album for the first time: "Do you hear any music yet? Did it start
albeit with great caution, this music became a friend in many homes, given time.
A quality, patience, that nowadays is quite difficult to find.
To Our Children's Children's Children (1969)
there's a group that nowadays is really impossible to defend, this is the Moody
Blues. And if one admits to being a fan, one will be made fun of.
is not only due to the passing of time, since right at the time of the group
selling millions of albums and lotsa concert tickets, the group's detractors
were many and vociferous. And even Italian radio, usually quite catholic,
appeared unsure about their records, with the obvious exception of the group's
let's admit it: Velvet Underground won, melody lost". This was the comment
of the one and only critic who saw the group favourably in a "special
program" given to the Moody Blues where (at least!) half of them were
really against the group!
about the group is wrong. The album covers. The melodies. The vocals (let's not
talk about John Lodge's high octave...). The arrangements
("pompous"). The spoken segments ("ridicule"). The song
think that in the last few years only those comments I read about Donovan
(something not for the faint of heart) come near, but the "minstrel" is
less ambitious, and so he is not as good a target as the Moody Blues.
my record collection, which was my pride and joy, a guy who came to my home for
the first time uttered the words "I see you like quite commercial music".
I thought he was talking about Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Moody
Blues, the obvious targets in my collection, but when I asked him about it, he
firmly replied "the Doors, a singles group".)
the passing of time I've made my peace with those who made fun of me for liking
the Moody Blues. Sure, coming from those who walk with a copy of Henry Cow's
Unrest under their arm is one thing. But coming from those who like Abba or
Esquivel ("be sure to put the music in quotation marks while listening!")
or "Bachelor Pad Music"...
upon a time a "beat" group of some renown, the Moody Blues changed
their line-up and bought a Mellotron. And since the group's keyboard player,
Mike Pinder, worked for the firm that built them, there were fresh sounds and a
good skill in using those colours.
gave the group to producer Tony Clarke (whose death was not even mentioned in Mojo
magazine - way to go, guys!), the main sound engineer on the group's albums
being Derek Varnals. Hence, albums that are a practical textbook on the way to
record sound, with a very skillful use of the studio, effects, and tapes, that
only the beautiful accessibility of the music manages to hide.
best period is bracketed by two giant hits: Nights In White Satin (1967) and
album whose music was "impossible to play live" - the group quickly
recorded A Question Of Balance (1970), which while not being something one
could call "unplugged" definitely shows the group in their most "elemental"
guise - To Our Children's Children's Children (1969) submerges the music that's
typical of this group - folk, ballads, "space" - in a darkness rich
with reverbs where the group's melancholia and those "whimsy" moments
peacefully live side-by-side.
John Barleycorn Must Die (1970)
upon a time, when the formation of taste was slow and produced durable objects,
there were "the charts", meaning "the best" of this or that.
United Kingdom was the best at this, making great use of "lists" (as
in "the best list of lists"), then exporting the contagion to the
USA, when the most successful editors of the most successful UK magazines
managed to turn Blender and Rolling Stone into Smash Hits.
passing of time and changes in the audience have made for quite comical changes
in people's perception. The best Jethro Tull album? A Passion Play. The
Beatles? The "White Album", or Let It Be. Led Zeppelin? Coda. Rolling
Stones? Their Satanic Majesties Request or Goats Head Soup. Jimi Hendrix? Band
Of Gypsies. And so on.
if one really thinks about it, the reasons to consider "the usual
suspects" as "the best albums" were not so mysterious, and
remain very easy to understand. Not "objective" reasons, mind you,
but ones that still read extremely well.
in a while, as a visitor to those "record fairs", I happen to see
somebody asking for "an album by Traffic", and nine out of ten it's
John Barleycorn Must Die.
is a really fine album ("or so I say..."). And which is the first
album by Traffic that I bought, also their most frequently broadcast album, as
a whole album, on Italian radio.
Steve Winwood had sung, co-composed, and played a very recognizable Hammond
organ on smash hits by the Spencer Davis Group. A more "underground"
kind of group, with many fans on both coasts of the USA, Traffic had split and Winwood
had decided to join forces with former Cream members Eric Clapton and Ginger
Baker, creating Blind Faith.
colossal, uncontrollable success made the group members throw the towel, which
made Winwood reunite Traffic.
ideas, many music styles, skillful arrangements, fine recorded sound, inventive
instrumental palette, and a sense of the limit that made it easy for the group
to avoid any excess.
to Stranger To Himself, where Winwood plays all instruments, with a fine mix of
acoustic guitar played bottleneck, solo guitar ŗ la Cream, piano, fine electric
bass, functional drums, and spectacular vocals.
the "dry" groove of Empty Pages, with an excellent electric piano
solo whose transcription I happened to find on an issue of Down Beat with
Ornette Coleman on its cover and an interview with Don Preston as its feature.
Van Der Graaf Generator
Pawn Hearts (1971)
it comes to Van Der Graaf Generator I'll repeat what I just said about King Crimson's
Lizard: I'll ask readers to imagine a time and a place when and where an album
such as Pawn Hearts - the same being true of the album's immediate predecessor,
H To He - is a staple of the afternoon radio program most listened to by
Italian "young people".
I have to say that what I've often read in music magazines and CD booklets -
that Pawn Hearts went to #1 of the Italian charts, and that the group had to be
escorted by the police, as a "celebrity" - is not history as I
I remember is that Van Der Graaf Generator were for a long time kept afloat by
those Italian young people who bought their albums and attended their concerts,
in so similarly to such groups as Genesis, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, and so
it comes to my favourite Van Der Graaf Generator album it's hard for me to
choose between those already mentioned above: sometimes I prefer the
(relative!) simplicity of H To He, while at times I like to submerge myself in
the multitude multiplied by reverbs of Pawn Hearts, an album that like its predecessor
was produced by John Anthony and recorded at Trident studio, and engineered by Robin
Cable, David Hentschel, and Ken Scott.
the long suite that appears on the album's second side was far too long to be
broadcast in its entirety, Italian radio decided to push the two more
accessible (!) tracks appearing on Side One. But Lemmings had a few passages
where the volume was way too soft (I was listening to it again just yesterday,
with its ending just as I remembered it: those snare hits in the right channel,
followed by bass drum hits - tu-tým, tu-tým, tým, tu-tým - in the left channel).
so it was that Man-Erg became a kind of hit single on the afternoon Italian
radio, in its 10' majesty, with the piano that introduced the story: "A
Killer Lives Inside Me/Yes, I Can Feel Him Move", and a tale about the
plurality of one's character (or something like that).
it's not a story that ended then, as those who'll listen to this song will
Beppe Colli 2021
| Jan. 15, 2021