Pick of the Week #8
Songs They Used To Play On The Radio
By Beppe Colli
Jan. 15, 2021

Just 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 about this).

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)

Were 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.

It 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.

But 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".

Listening 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.

An "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.

Caravan 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
High Tide (1970)

Here 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.

Having 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.

The 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 transparent.

The 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".

Music 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.

Only 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.

Nothing I could say here would be a good substitute for the listener's direct experience.

King Crimson
Lizard (1970)

It's 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 ridicule.

But 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".

In 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.

The 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").

When 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 already?".

Anyway, albeit with great caution, this music became a friend in many homes, given time. A quality, patience, that nowadays is quite difficult to find.

Moody Blues
To Our Children's Children's Children (1969)

If 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.

This 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 (few) mega-sellers.

"Alright, 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!

"Pseudo-Prog", "Syrupy", "Pretentious".

Everything 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 lyrics ("elementary").

I 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.

(Seeing 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".)

With 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"...

Once 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.

Decca 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.

The best period is bracketed by two giant hits: Nights In White Satin (1967) and Question (1970).

An 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)

Once 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.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

Once 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.

Which 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.

Young 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.

A colossal, uncontrollable success made the group members throw the towel, which made Winwood reunite Traffic.

Clear 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.

Listen 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.

Or 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)

When 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".

Here 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 remember it.

What 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 on.

When 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.

Since 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).

And 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).

But it's not a story that ended then, as those who'll listen to this song will immediately understand.

© Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 15, 2021