10 Weird Albums Rolling Stone Loved in the 1970s You’ve Never Heard
Some albums don’t fit neatly into any category: they are experimental, or spoken word, or a fusion of jazz and opera, or actual recordings of whale songs. Nevertheless, these 10 albums from the Seventies have unifying qualities: they were strange, they didn’t sell, we legitimately dug them. Yes, drugs may have been involved in some cases.
Various Artists, ‘Songs of the Humpbacked Whale’
We lauded this album of field recordings of whales, available by mail order to support the New York Zoological Society Whale Fund, as not just an interesting record, but a legitimately good one, especially late at night. "You'll want to stack it between Music From Big Pink and Moondance," we said. "The kids can't dance to it, but they can't dance to Satie either." The humpback whale population has recovered somewhat in the past four decades, and is now up to roughly 80,000.
What We Said Then: "Whale songs are songs in the sense that they occur in complete sequences which are repeated. . . It's hard to ask a whale questions about cognition. They don't care much. . . Humpbacked whales, long known as the most playful of the giant sea mammals, range in size up to 55 feet, bigger than the gray whale and the killer whale, but considerably smaller than the blue whale. Can a blue whale sing the blacks? Insufficient data." — Jon Carroll, RS 64 (August 6, 1970)
The Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass, ‘The Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass’
This avant-garde free-jazz outfit was insanely prolific: this album was one of six they released on various labels in 1970 alone. The group strove for multi-instrumental anarchy, but with the great Lester Bowie on trumpet and his wife Fontella Bass on vocals and piano, they grabbed hold of a funky groove anyway. Bass died in 2012, Bowie in 1999; the collective played its last gigs circa 2006.
What We Said Then: "The unit of saxophones, flute, brass, drums, gongs, banjo, xylophones, electric guitar, bass, siren, harmonica, zither, clarinet and oboe takes an hour or two to assemble. Often the group appears smeared with war paint, stripped to the waist. The players move from instrument to instrument, beginning a phrase on the trumpet, continuing it on bass drum, ending it with a hoarse scream." — Robert Palmer, RS 125 (January 4, 1973)
David Ackles, ‘American Gothic’
Ackles, a former child actor, came from a vaudeville family. For a time, he was a staff writer at Elektra Records, but when none of the label's artists wanted to record his theatrical songs, he did it himself. American Gothic, his third album, produced by Bernie Taupin, sounds like Neil Diamond starring in an obscure Brecht-Weill musical. Highlight: the 11-minute "Montana Song." Ackles died in 1999, but when Elvis Costello was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame four years later, he named Ackles as an essential influence in his acceptance speech.
What We Said Then: "Ackles is an important artist whose work eludes categorization. It has almost no relation to rock & roll and a lot more to do with musical theater. . . The musical materials of the album are brilliantly eclectic and ordered with such formal precision as to warrant concert hall production of the song cycle just as it is on record. Chief among the many influences on Ackles' music are Kurt Weill and Aaron Copland, who for Ackles respectively represent brazen actuality and mythic search." — Stephen Holden, RS 117 (September 14, 1972)
Terry Melcher, ‘Terry Melcher’
Melcher, the son of Doris Day and the producer of multiple Byrds records, was also famous for almost having recorded Charles Manson (and moving out of the house where Sharon Tate was murdered). On this album, he sang like an animal with its leg caught in a trap. He even dueted with his mother on Jackson Browne's "These Days," sounding utterly defeated. "This album is definitely not for everyone," we cautioned, and it proved to be for hardly anyone. Melcher cowrote the Beach Boys' Number One single "Kokomo" before dying in 2004.
What We Said Then: "Melcher. . . has released an eccentric work that suggests he's given up not just on optimism but even on despair. With a vocal delivery somewhere between a sarcastic howl and a wounded moan, he gets to the heart of his desolate feelings in two successive cuts — his own existentialist lament, 'Beverly Hills,' and the Penn-Oldham country song, 'These Bars Have Made a Prisoner out of Me.'" — Bud Scoppa, RS 162 (June 6, 1974)
John Cale and Terry Riley, ‘Church of Anthrax’
This unlikely collaboration between the Velvet Underground's violist and the minimalist composer most famous for writing In C didn't sound much like either of them: the album was largely stretched-out organ-heavy improvisations, a freak-out in slow motion. We lamented that the world had been ignoring "one of the finest records to be released this year." Cale went on to make many excellent solo albums, while Riley, just as prolific, also inspired (and was name-checked in the title of) the Who's "Baba O'Riley."
What We Said Then: "'The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace at Versailles' is a perfect title for a piece of music whose piano introduction is an introduction to the reflected wonders of all that the past, present and future has to offer. Riley's saxophone is mirrored in and out of infinite halls that only the gods have dared enter, an icy environment fit for contemplation of the cosmos. This is music to carry the mind and heart of the listener away." — W. H. Fuller III, RS 91 (September 16, 1971)
Andy Pratt, ‘Resolution’
This Harvard graduate fused classical music and rock, attempting to transcend both, and blowing us away in ambition and achievement. We said that Mick Jagger "sounds mannered and jaded after Pratt" and that Pratt "has forever changed the face of rock." Four decades later, Resolution just sounds like a real good singer-songwriter album with unusual orchestrations, but there's nothing wrong with that. Pratt converted to Christianity a few years later and made more explicitly spiritual music, eventually releasing over 20 albums.
What We Said Then: "Always emotionally charged, the instrumental textures evoke volcanic eroticism on one cut, aching tenderness on another. . . The songs carry rock harmony one step beyond the Beach Boys and the Stones. Because they modulate so frequently and unexpectedly, they require concentration. . . Like the late-19th-century Romantic composers, especially Scriabin and Mahler, Pratt uses chromatic restlessness to evoke extreme emotional volatility." — Stephen Holden, RS 216 (July 1, 1976)
Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, ‘Zero Time’
At the dawn of the age of synthesizers, the instrument was so novel that people recorded whole LPs just to showcase its capabilities. While many of them were charmless, this album was beautiful and contemplative. It was made by a British duo with a custom Moog setup; they also used it on session work for Stevie Wonder and other acts. We thought that even if you owned other electronic records, you might find that this record "divides your collection into two parts — Zero Time and everything else."
What We Said Then: "After all, a Moog theoretically can produce any sound, and produce it instantly, so that a clarinet might scale three mellow ascending notes and then on the fourth note play the sound of the sea giving up her dead. Like taking acid and discovering that your mind has the power to stop your heart, the realization that this instrument can do all sorts of things to you, now that it has you, is unsettling." — Timothy Crouse, RS 88 (August 5, 1971)
Allen Ginsberg, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’
The great American poet Allen Ginsberg (Howl) adapted some of the most famous poems by William Blake, setting them to simple melodies and singing them himself. The result was more literary than musical, but listening to him, one couldn't help but get caught up in the rush of words and images. Years later, when some young musicians asked Ginsberg what they should name their band, he told them, "The Blake Babies." Ginsberg died in 1997; U2 borrowed Blake's title for their most recent album.
What We Said Then: "Ginsberg is no singer, but the distinctive sinuousness of his reedy voice is one of the set's most compelling qualities. Nothing here sounds strained or pretentious, which should make it the last word in concept albums. It sounds, rather, like a labor of love, a salute from a young visionary to an ancient sage, executed with delicacy and charm in a vocal style reminiscent of an Anglo-American muezzin." — Lester Bangs, RS 60 (June 11, 1970)
Carla Bley and Paul Haines, ‘Escalator Over the Hill’
A jazz-rock opera on three LPs, with an all-star collection of musicians including Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, Don Cherry and Linda Ronstadt. There's allegedly a plot, about expatriates and a Pakistan hotel, but the point was the insanely ambitious sprawl of genres, from Cream-style rock to droning free jazz. Carla Bley went on to a long career as a jazz composer and bandleader; lyricist Paul Haines is now best-known as the father of Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric.
What We Said Then: "Escalator Over the Hill, with its spiffy gilt-lettered box, profusely illustrated libretto and international cast of characters, comes on like a DeMille epic, but leaves the listener enormously satisfied. . . a work that is complex, labyrinthine, but immediately enjoyable." — Bob Palmer, RS 114 (August 3, 1972)
Joseph Byrd, ‘Yankee Transcendoodle: Electronic Fantasies for Patriotic Synthesizer’
Byrd, formerly the leader of the influential avant-garde band the United States of America, made a whole album of marching-band songs and patriotic tunes, as rendered on modern synthesizers. While it seems improbably high-concept, we judged it "bright, lively, spunky and full of charm," making listeners reconsider what had been background music in their lives. Byrd ended up scoring a Robert Altman film, becoming a music professor and working as a food columnist in Humboldt County, California.
What We Said Then: "Byrd refashions everything from 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' to 'John Brown's Body' to 'The Internationale' (here disguised as 'Grand Centennial Hymn') into a warm and casually humorous texture very much like one of Garth Hudson's long organ introductions to 'Chest Fever'; like Hudson at his most inventive and witty, Byrd plays music that a lot of people have heard primarily on merry-go-rounds and at parades." — Greil Marcus, RS 227 (December 2, 1976)