Monday, August 13, 2018

Random Record Reviews: Volume 1

A few favorite obscure ‘70s Rock LPs: 

I thought I’d put together a list of some of my favorite obscure rock records, inspired by the list 00individual did. (One of the coolest guys on the web, by the way.) Anyway hopefully you all won’t mind this anomaly of a post…though if do you like it, maybe I’ll do more in the future. Or maybe despite your feedback I’ll just continue to do them and then cry myself to sleep at night.

With no further ado, here is my list, in order of release date:

1. Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship: Blows Against The Empire
RCA Victor, 1970

While the Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus, guitarist/vocalist Paul Kantner assembled a pantheon of California rock musicians at the recently-opened Wally Heider studios in San Francisco and recorded this sci-fi concept album about a group of “crazies” revolting against America, stealing a starship, and heading to “the garden” in space. So basically like that “space hippies” episode of Star Trek. This Jefferson Starship is not to be confused with the later one Kantner would also put together – that one was more of an actual group, who of course had a huge hit in the ‘80s as Starship with “We Built This City” (which ironically was written and released after Kantner had left). This 1970 Jefferson Starship is composed of Grace Slick, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, Airplane bassist Jack Casady, and Peter Kaukonen, brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Not to mention many others.

Rolling Stone was ruthless in its review of the album, but if anything it has aged well. Each side flows from one song to the next, with side 1 set on Earth and starting off with the shambolic proto-punk of “Mau Mau” (which manages to call out Nixon and Reagan) and coming to a close with the Kantner-Crosby gem “A Child Is Coming,” dedicated to the baby Kantner and Slick were soon to have (mistakenly reffered to as “he” throughout, the baby turned out to be a girl they named China who eventually became an MTV host!). Side 2 opens with Slick’s proto-metal muezzin “Sunrise,” the sidelong suite eventually centering around the “Hijack” of a starship – complete with an SFX track courtesy Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead. I thought I’d do a “top track” for each of these LPs, but I had a hard time picking one for Blows; this is such an “album album” that to me the songs don’t work as well when you excise them from the album itself. That being said…

Top track: “A Child Is Coming,” which starts off like an acoustic ditty before morphing into a droney, drugged-out psychedelic dirge with Kantner and Crosby trading non-sequitir lyrics while Slick provides ethereal wordless vocals above them. Bonus note: The fuzz bass on this one is positively cavernous on the vinyl – but then my XLM MKII cartridge (with New Old Stock stylus, baby!) brings out the bass in everything.

2. Twink: Think Pink
Polydor, 1970

In 1969 Alexander “Skip” Spence, troubled former Jefferson Airplane drummer and Moby Grape singer/guitarist, got out of a mental ward, headed for Nashville, and recorded the solo album Oar, a solo album in its truest sense, with Spence handling all the instruments. Ignored in its day, Oar was rightly praised decades later. However, a year after Spence’s record came out, another former drummer in a psychedelic group recorded his own solo masterpiece, however this one’s yet to have received its due. The drummer was named Twink (aka John Alder), and he’d been with the Pretty Things; his record, Think Pink, is one of the last blasts of British psych.

Unlike Spence’s album, which sometimes sounds more like a scratched-up folk 78 than a rock record, Think Pink is fuzzed-out acid rock, complete with druggy spoken word pieces, backwards sound effects, and driving acid rock guitar, Twink fronting a group that would soon reform as The Pink Fairies. It’s also damn funky at times; Gnarls Barkley even sampled the track “Fluid” on “Would Be Killer,” on their 2008 album The Odd Couple. Special note must be made of my copy, released by the Italian label Akarma on neon pink vinyl; definitely one of the most psychedelic things I own.

Top track: “Rock And Roll The Joint,” a fuzzed-out acid rock stomper that doesn’t even waste our time with vocals.

3. Wilderness Road: Wilderness Road
Columbia, 1972

Several years ago, for an inexplicable but brief moment in time, I was interested in country-rock. I’d had friends who raved about Gram Parsons and stuff like that, but whenever I tried listening to it I was like, “I hear the country, but where’s the rock?” (Regardless, at the time I declared “Chestnut Mare” the greatest song ever.) Anyway here for once is an example of the genre that truly lives up to both styles of music. Aptly described by Rolling Stone as “The Who fronting The Byrds” (bearing in mind that RS meant the early ‘70s Byrds, ie the version of the group that gave us country albums like Farther Along), Wilderness Road was a group of comedians(!?) who also performed music together, and this, their first of two records, is a sort of Western concept album, telling the story of a gunslinger.

You know you’re in good hands from the first track, which starts off with the familiar country twang – and then some Townshend-esque power guitar kicks in. Not only that, but there are psychedelic production tricks here and there, so the record truly straddles many genres, and sadly it’s another that’s been ignored. But fortunately like most of the other albums on this list, the hipsters of today are still unaware of it, so you can get a copy for cheap.

Top track: “Dr. Morpho’s Revenge,” which really captures the “Who meets the Byrds” vibe, plus adds in some cool psychedelic-‘60s style production effects.

4. Randy California: Kapt Kopter And The (Fabulous) Twirly Birds
Epic, 1972

Randy California was only in his early 20s when he recorded this but he was already a veteran rocker – at 15 he played with rising star Jimi Hendrix, who dubbed Randy “California” given that Jimi had two Randys in his band. After this California formed Spirit with his 40-something stepfather, and went on to the cusp of fame, before dropping out and leaving the group. California headed to London where he assembled two other former Hendrix colleagues – none other than Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, aka the “Twirly Birds,” appearing here under pseudonyms.

Perfectly described in a Youtube comment as “the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas of rock albums,” Kapt. Kopter is a drug-soaked epic of Hendrix proportions, featuring countless overdubbed psych guitars and California’s stoned ramblings fluttering in, out, and overtop the soupy mix. Comprised of tripped-out cover versions and shambling, freaky originals, Kapt. Kopter is a damn monster of a record, unjustly ignored upon release and too obscure today.

Top track: The hazed-out, nine-minute cover of “Rain,” which I think trumps the Beatles original, complete with a random fake-out opening and a whole new refrain. 

5. Kenny Young: Last Stage For Silver World 
Warner Bros. Records, 1973

Just one of those chance discoveries…two decades of collecting ‘70s LPs and I thought I was familiar with just about everything, but I’d never even heard of this ultra-obscure record until I spotted it recently in the clearance bin of a Half Price Bookstore. Kenny Young, aka the guy who wrote “Under The Boardwalk,” went the singer-songwriter route that was so en vogue the early ‘70s, and this was the second of two such albums he released. I don’t know anything about the first one, but Silver World is a sci-fi concept album set in the far-flung future of 1997, telling the Romeo And Juliet story of two young lovers in a totalitarian society. Unlike the Kantner sci-fi LP, this one’s of a decidely country-rock flavor; actually, maybe George Harrison’s material of the era would be a more apt comparison. Indeed some of the lead guitar throughout sounds identical to Harrison, and some of the tracks could almost be outtakes from All Things Must Pass.

Like the Kantner record, this release has all the bells and whistles – a gatefold cover, a little booklet on the storyline, and a big pamphlet with color photographs and detailed perfomer info. However the album clearly didn’t register much; I searched my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM and couldn’t find a single mention of Kenny Young, let alone this album. Regardless, I find it very compelling, and it was a nice discovery.

Never released on CD, Silver World is also a healthy reminder of the power of vinyl: the top track, “Light To Light,” has this awesomely deep fuzz bass throughout, yet it’s almost entirely missing in the Youtube upload. To paraphrase the old lady in the ‘80s commercial, “Where’s the bass?” Get yourself a turntable and hear it for yourself – Last Stage For Silver World has yet to be “discovered” by the hipsters of today, so copies are still very cheap.

6. Mike McGear: McGear
Warner Bros. Records, 1974

Mike McGear, aka Mike McCartney, aka Paul’s brother, released this unsung LP in ’74 which was basically a Wings album in all but name – Paul wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, performed on them along with wife Linda and Wings guitarist Denny Laine, and also produced the album. So it’s pretty much a Wings album with a different singer, though occasionally you can hear Paul’s distinctive backing vocals. The record is pretty great, even if it apparently didn’t resonate with listeners of the day. Rolling Stone did like this one, though, writing how McGear, known as a comedy performer, approached each song as an actor approaches a role.

This is a good comparison, as McGear, whose voice is a bit too thin and weak for the heavier songs, veers from Bowie-esque monotone on some tracks to sounding on others like, well, sort of like Paul McCartney. Special mention must be made of “What Do We Really Know?,” one of the tracks Paul wrote himself and which surprisingly he never did his own version of; clearly from the guy who gave us “Helter Skelter,” it’s a hard rocker that, like the earlier Beatles classic, features a heavy metal sort of coda.

However my top track on this one would have to be “Givin’ Grease A Ride,” a funky sort of “T. Rex meets krautrock” thing with Linda on awesome vintage synths and Paul showing up to help scream the vocals at the end.

7. Neil Merryweather: Space Rangers
Mercury, 1974

Like the Randy California album, this is a proto-metal hard-rockin’ monster of an LP, but whereas Kapt. Kopter has a druggy looseness about it, this one’s razor sharp. The guitars are heavy throughout, but Merryweather’s pop sensibilites keep the hooks in place – for the first side, at least. The second side veers more into a funk-metal sort of thing, with the riffs and beats more important than the hooks. In fact the last quarter of side 2 sounds like Primus a few decades early. Speaking of beats, Space Rangers is funky throughout, and thus has apparently been plundered by DJs of today, so this is one of those LPs that’s sometimes priced a bit too high. It’s super cool, though.

Top track: Opening song “Hollywood Boulevard,” which encapsulates the vibe of the entire LP in a little over 5 minutes.

8. Relatively Clean Rivers: Relatively Clean Rivers
Pacific Is, 1976

I’ve never gotten much into the Grateful Dead…the sole album I have of theirs is the original release of Anthem Of The Sun, which is cool, but not enough to make me seek out anything else – again, I just find it all too country, and country’s not my thing. And yet, this privately-pressed mid-‘70s LP is everything I always wanted the Dead to sound like…it’s rural for sure, but it also features occasional acid rock guitar, psychedelic sound effects, and sometimes even video game-esque electronic squelchings. The brainchild of reclusive underground rocker Phil Pearlman – who previously had fronted similar private press acts Beat of the Earth and The Electronic Hole – Relatively Clean Rivers also sounds like a sort of underground Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – or maybe that should be “and Reed,” as Pearlman’s monotone vocals at times are very similar to Lou Reed’s.

This sole album from the group goes for insane prices today…the kicker being that the original release is the only official release. Pearlman, who dropped out of the music biz after this and became a farmer, living with his family in the country (and one of his sons, by the way, grew up to become an Al-Qaeda operative!), refuses to reissue any of his albums. Thus the only copies of Relatively Clean Rivers you’ll find are bootlegs, in particular released by bootleg label Radioactive Records or its vinyl subsidiary Phoenix Records. Regardless, it’s a fun listen, sort of a last gasp of the early ‘70s counterculture, and it’s often pretty damn funky to boot.

Top track: “Journey Through The Valley,” which features all the stuff mentioned – country vibe, sub-Reed vocals, acid-dripping electric guitar, and a funky beat.

9. Klaatu: Klaatu (aka 3:47 EST)
Capitol Records, 1976

The mysterious group so good people actually thought they were the Beatles, Klaatu eventually turned out to be a trio of Canadian musicians who preferred to operate anonymously. When I moved to Dallas in the summer of ’96 I was on a Beatles kick and I recall I got a Beatles trivia book at the library, something from the ‘80s with a bunch of Beatles minutiae. Anyway this is how I discovered Klaatu; one of the lists in the book was like “Top Twenty Reasons Klaatu Was the Beatles.” But get this – the author provided no further details, so when I read the list I thought, “Holy shit! The Beatles got back together and no one knew??!!” I found an online seller with this LP, ordered it…and sometime before its arrival I found info about the group online…back then there wasn’t near the amount of info on the web as now, of course. But anyway by the time the record got to me – in prisitine mint condition as if someone had carefully stored it away for the past twenty years, just for me – I knew that, sadly, Klaatu was not the Beatles.

But the record was great! I played it a lot, then rediscovered it a few years later, when I wrote a review of it for Julian Cope’s Unsung. Reading the review now, I see I come off as overly negative and condescending (imagine that!!). I did this record a disservice, as it’s truly great. It moves and grooves, and it’s filled with cool ‘70s production gimmicks…and it does really sound like the Beatles at times. One singer sounds identical to George and another sounds identical to Paul; there’s even the goofy track “Sir Bodsworth Rugglesby III” with its Muppets sort of vocals, and you could easily figure it for Ringo. However the solo Beatles weren’t doing anything like this at the time – Klaatu, titled 3:47 EST in Canada – is more along the lines of ELO with a bit of a ‘70s hard rock crunch, and perhaps is an indication of what Sgt. Pepper’s might have sounded like if it had been recorded ten years later.

Top track: “Sub-Rosa Subway,” aka the greatest hit single Paul McCartney never recorded. I mean tell me that singer doesn’t sound exactly like Paul!

And that’s just the tip of it, friends. I haven’t even mentioned King Crimson rhythm section McDonald and Giles’s self-titled 1970 psych-folk-funk masterpiece, or Grace Slick’s ’74 solo LP Manhole, or….


Zwolf said...

Good reviews. :) I vote for keep doin' 'em. I could recommend some stuff, but I'm weighted toward the Black Sabbath end and I don't know if you go that heavy. But, if you do, look into Buffalo, Iron Claw, Sir Lord Baltimore, Captain Beyond, Pentagram, Leaf Hound, Wicked Lady, Groundhogs, Edgar Broughton Band, Bloodrock, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Dust, Budgie... okay, I guess I did recommend stuff. But if you're not into feedback-drenched malevolence, disregard 'em!

If you like Twink, be sure to check out The Pink Fairies, who he played with. They were on the heavier end of things, but still a lot of psych, with a lot of goofing-around to 'em. Motorhead even covered "City Kids" back in the early days... amazing song.

Kurt said...

I always like to read about obscure or underrepresented albums. I'm old enough to remember some of the buzz about Klaatu. As teenagers we got our records from independent neighborhood record stores and I remember employees sometimes mentioning them. But I was a dumbass kid then and bought stuff by Blue Oyster Cult instead. By the time I was almost done with high school Klaatu was a joke like "Remember that band Klaatu?"

Stephen Mertz said...

In a former life I managed a secondhand record store & I still haunt them regularly. Great reviews.

Unknown said...

Some excellent stuff in there, and to be honest I could bore for years about this kind of thing, so I'll restrict myself to a few comments... Thankfully...

First off, to hark back to something you said a few posts back - yes indeed, Aphrodites Child's 666 is one hell of an album, and in my personal pantheon of out there genius prog records comes second only to Secondhand's Death May Be Your Santa Claus, which is kinda like Crazy World Of Arthur Brown meets Faust but EVEN BETTER than that sounds (if you like that kind of thing).

So, to this - the Twink album is great, but its reputation is marred by the fact that the bloke was such an arse and got up the nose of many musicians, critics, and record dealers over the decades. I would also caution approaching the Pink Fairies purely on the basis of this, as only the first Fairies album features Twink. The second one is my favourite for its dumb stoned humour and some great guitar by Paul Rudolph, although I humbly adore Larry Wallis and so also love the third Fairies album. In truth it has very little in common with the first two, as only the rhythm section remain, and they were not writers, just players. It's a great album, but by a different band.

Randy California's solo album is great, and if you like it I would recommend above all other Spirit albums Further Along and Spirit Of 76, which are basically Randy roaming musically so far away from the mainstream that his personal vision of psych rock is out on a limb... but a glorious one. You may already know this, of course, in which case I apologise.

I can endorse Zwolf's choices, too - I love Stray, and Del Bromham still gigs under that name with a rhythm section that I think includes his son these days (but I'm not 100% on that). He hangs his guitar off the rafters and gets all theatrical about the feeback, climbs amps, and does not act like a 65 year old bloke. Thank God! Saturday Morning Pictures is in my top 20 alltime fave albums. And I interviewed Pete French of Leafhound once - back in the early 90's when I was writing an aborted book about what had happened to 70's rockers (answer - they waited for 'heritage' rock and their pensions and reformed!). He was fitting kitchens then, and was surprised anyone remembered him. Nowadays he fronts a new Leafhound and a reformed Atomic Rooster (which is a bit iffy in my book as he was in them for five minutes, as was guitarist Steve Bolton, with three blokes who were never in the band before, while the three guys who were the real core of the band are all deceased).

But enough. I must go and dig out Budgie's Never Turn Your Back On A Friend (just behind Stary in the personal top 20)...

Steve Carroll said...

I distinctly remember being in High School and the local rock radio station played an hour-long "expose" on the Klaatu and dissected and examined the clues to determine if they were indeed The Beatles. There were many discussions around the lunch room table at the time leading up to the special, which aired on a Friday night. We all showed up at lunch the following Monday and dismissed the hype but then proceeded to debate it further. None of us changed our minds, but I like having that memory tucked away all the same.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Zwolf -- I'm a big Black Sabbath fan myself...Ozzy era only, at least! As for those other groups, thanks for the suggestions! I was really into proto-metal at one time (which is why that phrase pops up so many damn times in the post), so through the Julian Cope site I found out about Sir Lord Baltimore (he even made that giant silhouette figure thing his logo), Pentagram ("First Daze Here," at least), and etc. Also the first self-titled Montrose LP, which has heavy guitars throughout and Randy Holden's "Population II." I used to do CD trades with some guy who seemed to have everything ever, so he really hooked me up with a lot of crazy, heavy stuff. Then I mellowed out and somehow got into an obsession with David Crosby's "If I Could Only Remember My Name," which led me to the other CSNY universe stuff, and especially the bootleg PERRO material (aka "Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra"), which features all the musicians featured on Kantner's "Blows Against the Empire," playing together in Wally Heider's studio in 1970. That stuff can pretty easily be found online now.

I've never really looked into the Pink Fairies stuff outside of the Twink LP. As for Motorhead, I never really got into that music, but I do like some's just too pricey on vinyl, but I did get for a nice price a cool Record Store Day 2017 release titled "The United Artist Years" which features Hawkwind stuff from '71 to '74, and it's on cool green-black swirl vinyl. Plus my kid bobs his head to anything with a loud/dirty bass, so he was headbanging away to the opening bars of "Lost Johnny."

Kurt -- There's nothing dumb about the Blue Oyster Cult!! Not surprised to hear Klaatu became the punchline to a joke. It's really not their fault, though...sounds like Capitol just exploited the gullibility of record buyers. I seem to recall you are in Canada -- am I right? If so the last Klaatu LP, the only one I don't have, was only released there. But the label made Klaatu use studio musicians or something, so it doesn't have the same sound as the others. Or at least so I have read.

Joe Kenney said...

Had to break this up into two posts because Blogger appears to be having issues…

Steven – Thanks for sharing! You might be interested in checking out that 00individual blog I mentioned above, as he too was a record store manager – has some great posts about his adventures in that capacity, in the early ‘70s. You can find the first one HERE.

Drew -- Thanks a lot for the comment, I really enjoyed reading it. I'd like to hear more about your book on '70s rockers. Maybe now might be the time to complete it? Thanks for the mention of Spirit of '76...I've been meaning to get it. I know I keep mentioning that Rolling Stone Cover To Cover, but when I got it back then, one of the first searches I did was "Kapt. Kopter." The only hit that came up was a review for Spirit of '76, where the reviewer wrote off Kapt Kopter as "strange," so RS didn't even review it. Anyway the reviewer of Spirit of 76 compared California to Skip Spence!! Mostly for the reasons you also noted...far out explorations and whatnot. I really need to get that one, a double LP to boot. California sounds like a fascinating guy...after Kapt Kopter he apparently ended up in Hawaii, like a drifter or something, was taken in by some family, and became a gardner. Then his old bandmate called him, they got Spirit back together, and I guess Spirit of 76 was the first release. And the guy was a total hero too, giving up his own life to save his son's -- I personally couldn't imagine a better way to go out.

Steve -- Great story, thanks for sharing. It really is easy to close your eyes and think that first Klaatu album is the Beatles...that faux-Harrison sounds identical at times, and they have all those buried sounds and effects. The Klautu-Beatles thing is right up there with the Paul Is Dead fact I think some of the rumors even mixed, as the claim was that the self-titled Klaatu album was really recorded in 1966, before "the real Paul" died, and was put on hold for several years! I just think it's incredible people believed all this stuff back then, but of course the drugs were better in the '70s.

Unknown said...

Joe, you won'r be disappointed by either of thiose Spirit albums - Farther Along (my English spelling first time around) is a real companion piece to Spirit of '76 - it dates from the following year, and to me it sounds like he was working on triple album and Mercury baulked at the prospect of trying to ship that... And yes, saving your son from a killer wave surfing at the expense of your own life is one hell of a heroic way to go. Randy always came over as a nice guy in interviews, and at the end of 78's Spirit Live, which was recorded at the Rainbow in London, he has to curtail the set because of a curfew and invites the audience back to the band's hotel - apparently about a hundred took him up on it and were entertained by Mr C and Cass (I think the bassist at the time was Fuzzy Knight, who had also been on the earlier two albums - I'd have to get off my butt, go in the next room and check, and... y'know...).

Interestingly, the head of the Greater London Council at around that time - Ken Livingston - was a huge Spirit fan and used GLC arts money to bring them over for some London gigs just so he could see them. He's a controversial figure here even now, and I don't always agree with him, but his heart has always been on the right place even if his methods are sometimes odd. And he does have good taste, obviously.

Unknown said...

I got off my butt - it is Fuzzy Knight - and guess what! The companion piece to Spirit Of 76 I'm raving about is FUTURE GAMES - Farther Along is prior to those, and a good album but not in that out there class...

Sheesh, calls himself a writer...

Unknown said...

Hey Joe!
Thanks for turning people on to the 00individual site and and for the cool accolade!
If I am, then so are you!

Joe Kenney said...

Drew, thanks for the extra info on Spirit, meant to respond here sooner. I ended up getting Spirit of 76 and also got "The Original Potato Land," and I'll admit I downloaded that one because it was only released on CD and the CD appears to be OOP now. I'm sure you are familiar with it -- basically the unreleased followup to Kapt Kopter with druggy Cheech and Chong-esque sequences of California and Cassiday bridging a bunch of Spirit-esque rockers. Doesn't have the proto-metal fire of the Kapt. Kopter album but it's still pretty cool. Sound quality varies, taken from DAT and an old acetate. Doubt it would've made a dent if released as intended in '73, as it appears none of Spirit's stuff really knocked out the charts, at least here in the US.

And 00individual, thanks for stopping by! Your blog is great -- lets me vicariously live through an era I've always been fascinated by.

Caspar said...

Comparing the dates for unusual yet similar titles Sub Rosa Subway (Klaatu, 1976) and Red Rose Speedway (Wings, 1973) does suggest that Klaatu might have been pushing the analogy a bit too far. Incidentally, Sub Rosa Subway was the B-side to Klaatu's Calling Occupants... single, the A-side of which is better known as a Carpenters song. Karen Carpenter, before she fronted a band as a singer, had originally been a drummer - a career path also chosen, either beforehand or afterward, by Iggy Pop, Dave Grohl and... Paul McCartney. Proper spooky, wot?