There is a lack of excitement in the air—it’s like the days before the Beatles. Bob Dylan has lost much of his impact, even though his records sell more than ever. The end of the Beatles as a group is now irreversible. Even the Stones have fallen into the ranks of the merely human, unable to sustain the fantasies of a new generation the way they did those of mine. There are no longer any super-humans to focus on. And the wellspring of rock has failed in the last three years to produce a new, dynamic R&B singer with anything approaching mass appeal.
Creative moments come at slow intervals and last a short time in any popular culture. Rock ‘n’ roll was a distinct musical form for only a few years—according to Charlie Gillett, 1954-1958. The years 1959 through 1963 were years of transition in which the music manipulators became temporarily more important than the artists themselves and in which the artistry of the rock ‘n’ roll years were formalized and plasticized by unimaginative record companies and A&R men.
Rock: Old and New
Only in the hands of a few independent minded artists like Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, and companies like Atlantic and Motown, did the music continue to grow. In 1963 the Beatles shattered the dreariness of the music business. And with them came rock, the music of the Sixties, and music quite different from rock ‘n’ roll.
Of the two, rock is music of far greater surface seriousness and lyric complexity. It is the product of a more self-aware and self-conscious group of musicians. It is far more a middleclass music than the lower-class one its predecessor certainly was. And, while it borrowed extensively from rock ‘n’ roll styles, it was a fundamentally different kind of music.
It was mainly played on guitars instead of pianos and horns, mainly by whites instead of blacks, mainly in groups of three, four, or five musicians, instead of in nine and ten piece bands, mainly on FM radio (after 1967) instead of AM, and mainly in concert halls and specialized clubs, instead of in bars and state fairs. To replace record hops, liquor and transistor radios here were light shows, dope, and headphones.
And yet both were essentially folk musics. The best music in both idioms came from men who recorded their own material, or worked very closely with a collaborator on it. While producers have been important in both fields, the music was essentially controlled by the performing artist—unlike the music from 1959-63. And in both situations there existed a strong bond between performer and audience, a natural kinship, a sense that the stars weren’t being imposed from above but had sprung up from out of our own ranks. We could identify with them unhesitatingly.
As we move into a new decade and the Beatles recede into our musical past, one gets the sense we are moving into a new, constructive period of transition—a prelude to some new approach to music in the Seventies. It may well be that when someone writes a history of rock ten years from now he will identify its creative period as 1964-68. Certainly the year 1970 will be viewed as one of the decline of one set of artists (groups) and the emergence of a new set (individuals, solo artists, acoustic artists).
Looking back at the last ten years, it seems obvious that the atmosphere of low expectation, common during the early Sixties, contributed to the growth of many artists who became popular in the later Sixties. It gave them time to learn their craft in an unhurried and unpressurized period. When fame finally summoned many of them in the wake of the Beatles, a surprising number were more than ready with their own musical statements.
In America, colleges, coffee houses, and independent record companies like Elektra, Prestige, and Vanguard became the haven of aspiring musicians seeking refuge from the poverty of commercial recording scenes during those years.
In England, the established music scene was dominated by people even stodgier than their American counterparts. With Cliff Richard’s self-righteousness acting as a kind of norm of acceptability, few new groups were even given an opportunity to record. And yet, despite its inaccessibility through records, increasingly well-educated British young people turned away from pop and found a haven in small clubs where groups like the Stones, Animals, and Mayall’s various bands played blues and early American rock ‘n’ roll.
As in the States, the commercial potential of this new thing was ignored by established companies which in turn gave musicians a chance to grow without being hustled into record contracts prematurely. The Beatles themselves were the classic example. It is therefore not surprising that when the Beatles proved the commercial viability of rock in 1964, there were so many groups prepared to follow through with their own distinctive music.
The British Invasion
The Beatles established rock with the finality that Presley had established rock ‘n’ roll. In their wake came two types of groups: the forerunners of mid-Sixties FM rock, who included the Yardbirds. Them, the Pretty Things, Manfred Mann, the Who, the Animals, and the Stones; and the rest—the pop establishment’s attempt to update itself without accepting the cultural changes implied in the styles of the more adventurous and innovative groups. These children of Cliff Richard included Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, the Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Through the mid-Sixties these two different styles achieved high levels of popularity.
So many of the most popular groups of the late Sixties came from England because in that country they could remain shielded from American audiences until they were well prepared. American groups had to make their debuts and mistakes in front of the audience that counted most. In addition, English groups have been more obviously theatrical, the usual explanation for it having to do with English vaudeville traditions.
American groups were often natural but less interesting on stage. Mick Jagger’s command of the stage may have been programmed but it was perfect. Jim Morrison’s more spontaneous, debauched style was merely vulgar. English groups were comfortable with their pop-star identities. American groups would be considered dressed up if they appeared in something other than jeans. These days American groups are more show conscious while the English pop stars have taken to jeans.
Through the mid-Sixties, American rock was defining its own ambience and style. Through the flirtation with folk music in the early Sixties many musicians found a unique source out of which to mold a new kind of rock, something distinct from what British bands were offering. Foremost among these were the Byrds, who transformed Dylan into rock more extensively than Dylan ever did himself. Their special talents allowed them to combine the prettiness of popular folk music with the drive and strength of rock rhythm. The results were usually among the best rock of the period.
The Buffalo Springfield had a similar talent and were more adventurous as songwriters, as well. Veering more to the pop side of the music were the Mamas and Papas and Simon and Garfunkel, both of which became masters of the art of studio recording. While a bit too polished and successful to be called an underground group, the Lovin’ Spoonful kept more of an informal image than any of their fellow groups. Somewhat less talented than the others, they were often the most spirited. And like the others, they enjoyed huge AM successes in 1965 and 1966.
Most of these groups were concerned with attaining conventional success. In later years their music would appeal to the FM audience, but for the time being they committed themselves to the pop process. Other groups less concerned with (or less capable of) obtaining conventional success were creating a true underground: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Blues Project, and, eventually, the San Francisco groups. That city’s musical development proved to be a fascinating story in its own right.
The San Francisco Era
During the early and mid-Sixties San Francisco had the advantage of being shielded from the music business people of Los Angeles and New York. Because there were no firm practices already accepted on how to handle popular music, people there were free to invent their own. Ballrooms emerged as rock’s first answer to folk clubs, discotheques, and civic auditorium concerts with poor sound and lighting. The Fillmore eventually served as a model for every rock club in the country, and it is interesting (maybe even absurd) to recall that there was little regular presentation of rock in New York City until Graham decided to open the Fillmore East.
In companionship to Fillmore, KMPX started a new form of FM radio in San Francisco which quickly spread to other big cities. In two years time FM became more important than AM in affecting album sales and, more importantly, in successfully providing rock audiences with a style of radio and an outlet for music which suited their needs. The mass acceptance by rock audiences of FM, with its superior fidelity and variety, make it clear that the Seventies will see the further demise of AM programming. In cities like Boston (WBCN) and Detroit (WABX and WKNR) as well as on the West Coast, FM stations have already destroyed the primacy of AM radio for good. A new federal regulation requiring all 1971 cars carrying radios to have both AM and FM bands will hasten the process considerably.
In the mid-Sixties San Francisco was the only city to develop a consciousness about the importance of rock. That cultural awareness was the cushion for all other developments. Rock was not only viewed as a form of entertainment; part of that collective outlook held that music was the essential component of a “new culture.” The almost religious fervor that surrounded rock in 1966 and 1967 was occasionally frightening. Like the infatuation with drugs, there was a sense of discovery going on that made it seem like nothing could ever be better and that nothing would ever change. Things were so good, who could ever get tired with them.
Moby Grape was the best performing band to come out of San Francisco, although few people in their native city recognized it. Perhaps because there was a little too much Hollywood in the group for the new audiences and new performing style. Their first album for Columbia was by far the best first album from a San Francisco group. Regrettably, with so much talent in the group, they went the way of all hypes and spent three years trying to catch up with an unbelievably inflated press. Janis Joplin, who came to national attention in the summer of 1967, was typical of a number of San Francisco musicians who had immigrated from Texas and the Midwest.
The two most important groups to come out of the city were the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Together they defined an American style of improvised music that was quite different from the blues bands (Butterfield) that preceded them and the English groups (Cream) that would come after them. The Airplane on record confined themselves to an elongated fabric of folk-rock. Live, however, they jammed often and at length. Unlike British groups, their jams seldom centered on blues but instead displayed a more intellectual and complex approach that was loud but not hard. The Dead did involve itself more with blues and, later on, country, but they too specialized in cerebral improvisation.
Both bands have grown considerably since they first became popular. Volunteers was an undeniably powerful statement about America after Chicago while the Dead’s “Casey Jones” shows them ready to adapt to anything. Both groups are something of a national institution and are the closest thing American bands come to permanence.
The Invention of the Underground
In the wake of the success of San Francisco groups, American businessmen saw the potential in this new approach to popular music, dubbed it “Underground Music” and started responding to what had already become a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of young people. In three years’ time it would number in the millions.
During the late Sixties, literacy, the first sign of civilization, struck rock hard, first in the form of Crawdaddy and Richard Goldstein’s writing in the Village Voice, and then in the pages of Rolling Stone. Dissemination of news and publicity to the new audience became an amazingly efficient process, thereby accelerating the pace of change within the business itself.
All of these new conditions helped to make possible the second coming of British rock groups, the British underground acts. In 1966, a harbinger of the future occurred. Having missed the boat in San Francisco, Atlantic records decided it had to expand from its R&B base and sign some of the English groups. This led to meetings with Robert Stigwood, the notorious English impresario. Stigwood offered Atlantic a package of two groups. One was put forward as the new Beatles, the latter was forced upon the company as part of the deal. The former was the Bee Gees; the latter was Cream.
Cream legitimized the whole new development with unimaginable force. In New York a new booking agency, Premier Talent Associates, evolved to specialize in British groups and following the pattern of Cream’s success helped establish the modern concept of a tour. It entailed extensive promotion of new releases on a regional basis. In each of the major markets of the country the group would appear at the local club, usually gaining FM airplay (where they would often turn up to do interviews, coverage in the local underground press, and word of mouth publicity from those who saw them.
This last was ultimately decisive. The tie-in between new releases, FM airplay, and appearances in selected markets was successfully used to build Jeff Beck, Jethro Tull, Joe Cocker, and Led Zeppelin. It became a formula still rigidly adhered to today.
As in the late Fifties and early Sixties, towards the end of the decade the formula seemed to be taking precedence over creativity. A group of people emerged, sometimes producers, sometimes managers, sometimes engineers, who understood rock well enough from a technical point of view to manipulate it with above average success. Technological changes within the recording process itself helped to make this possible.
During the late Sixties eight- and 16-track tape recorders became the standard of the industry. These machines not only improved the quality of recorded sound but made it easier to program. Producers and engineers, increasingly the equivalent of movie director and editor (or cameraman) have greatly increased their roles in the recording process. The negative consequence is a potential reduction in spontaneity and feeling. Over-dubbing as a recording technique has virtually eliminated the need for musicians to play together at all. Mixing, in turn, offers vast opportunities to affect the sound of the record after the actual recording has been done. Together they make it possible to formalize and standardize recorded sound to a higher degree than ever before.
The British Groups
Cream more than any other group established the importance of improvisation and instrumental facility as bases for new rock. They had no talent for and did not rely on singing or song writing. The core of their live performance material was blues although Cream was not merely a blues band—at their best they combined that musical form with rock in an expert and exciting way. At their worst, they indulged in a narcissistic display of technical virtuosity. Among other things, they institutionalized rock “jams” and long cuts, and they may well have pulled it off better than anyone who has tried them since.
Jimi Hendrix was the other major artist who helped elevate the importance of instrumental rock. While Cream maintained a detached image of themselves as craftsmen, Hendrix flaunted his decadence and outrageousness in an almost vaudevillian style. And even more than Clapton, he challenged people with his extensions of the guitar into all sorts of realms that had been overlooked, ignored, or undiscovered.
The children of Cream and Hendrix—Jeff Beck, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk, and Mountain—were outgrowths of blues bands and used blues as the framework for developing individual styles. Beck was perhaps the first to take the more exhibitionistic elements of the approach and turn it into a virtual parody of improvised music. Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee followed Beck with a primitive form of show-offishness that created brief moments of excitement and long hours of tedium.
Led Zeppelin has by now become the most popular of all the late Sixties British bands. Like their predecessors, they build their style on doubling bass and guitar figures, thereby creating a distorted emphasis on the bottom sound range. It is a completely physical approach to sound that usually works better live than on records. Zeppelin’s demeanor, like that of most of these groups, was loud, impersonal, exhibitionistic, violent, and often insane. Watching them at a recent concert I saw little more than Plant’s imitations of sexuality and Page’s unwillingness to sustain a musical idea for more than a few measures.
I got a sense that the real mood of the band is ennui. I sat there thinking that rock could not go on like this. There are those who are prepared to buy it now, but there is no future in it, and that is why groups like Zeppelin take it all in now. They have no place to go, no place to grow into, no roots anywhere. And so there they were in front of 15,000 people, going through the motions—their “act”—in order to pick up a paycheck. 15,000 people sat through it all hoping that somehow their expectations would be fulfilled. They weren’t because in the words of a fine Bob Dylan song, “nothing was delivered.”
The changes of the late Sixties were illustrated best at the three major festivals that took place between 1967 and 1969. The Monterey International Pop Festival signaled the decline of the then existing rock establishment and legitimized the underground. Out of Monterey came Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Who, as well as increased mass acceptance of some San Francisco bands and Otis Redding. These relatively new names entirely overshadowed the AM stars: the Association, Simon and Garfunkel, Scott McKenzie, and even the Mamas and Papas. One could witness the underground culture at a point of transformation into a mass culture.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held only two summers later, signified the ultimate commercialization of that same culture. A fitting end to the Sixties, it showed the country just how strong in numbers the rock audience had become, and just how limited its culture was. It was the last assembly, if not the only one, of virtually every name of any consequence to have emerged since Monterey and was held in front of the largest audience ever assembled. After it there was no place left to grow, no way for things to get any bigger, nothing that could be more exciting or gargantuan.
The energy and intensity of interest could only be imitated cheaply then parodied, and from bathos it went through pathos to tragedy: at Altamont, the anticlimax of it all, an audience once naively optimistic turned rancid with cynicism, a cynicism that was but a reflection of the stars whom they admired.
The vibrations that emanated from the Stones’ free concert showed at least a healthy sign that people had not forgotten how to be critical of both themselves and those whom they admire. And yet somehow one realized it couldn’t be made up: Altamont showed everyone that something had been lost that could not be regained.
This past summer saw exploiters and manipulators trying to pull off Woodstocks all over the country. The incompetence of Woodstock, an incompetence (and the resultant spontaneity) that was worshipped in the media, could not be institutionalized as a fixed part of the program by the new promoters.
The rock business has had a bad case of elephantiasis and everything that had been swept under the rug was now coming into the open: the greed, the hustle, hype, and above all, the lack of a long range commitment to the music or the audience on the part of many groups, managers, agents, and record companies. More and more, it looked like people trying to take the money and run. And when decadence comes into the open, decline cannot be far behind.
Presley was forced to look at his reflection in the face of Frankie Avalon. The Stones saw themselves parodied by the Doors. And Bob Dylan must have tired long ago of that sincerest form of flattery, imitation.
The Heavies of 1970
Cream created the instrumentally oriented trio and then had to watch it come back to them in the form of Jeff Beck, Zeppelin, and finally (one hopes, finally) Grand Funk Railroad. In these last three there is a chronological pattern moving from bad to worse. With Grand Funk we finally reach sort of nadir with the expectation that people must inevitably turn their attention elsewhere.
Zeppelin and lately Grand Funk, stand as the current word in English hard rock (despite the fact that Grand Funk is an American band). Blood, Sweat and Tears are the opposite of Zeppelin’s parody of sexuality. This group is the slick, castrated, middle of the road rock that only Columbia could do justice to in its marketing. Andrew Sarris, in one of his more charitable moments, said of director Stanley Kramer, “He will never be an original, but time has proven that he is not a fake.” No one will ever say the same for Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Creedence probably sells more records than anyone else these days and are uniformly respected for their diligence and taste, as well as their ability to make catchy 45s. They may well be the best popular band in America, but if rock were where it should be that statement would be ludicrous. When a competent and talented, but unspectacular band such as this represents the height of the scene, something has surely gone wrong.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young may never perform together again. They were the latest contribution to the soft sound within the rock heirarchy. While gifted in any number of areas and capable of doing spectacular live shows, their records have been contrived without direction. The sense of an organic unit working tightly together seldom intrudes. Which is why it is so easy to believe talk about their breaking up.
The Who were one of the truly inspired groups of the mid-Sixties. After expending so much energy just getting known in this country, they have finally reduced what was once a blazingly exciting concept into their own set of rules and formulas. Tommy was made the Who a permanent institution, and wonderfully so. Unfortunately, it seems that their most innovative days are behind them.
The Band, like Creedence, seems to have almost everyone’s respect and have created one unquestioned masterpiece, The Band. However, they have not ignited the massive enthusiasm common to some of the biggest bands precisely because of their conservative, thoughtful approach to performing. Also, there is no single personality upon whom public interest has focused. On Stage Fright they show signs of believing their own publicity a bit too much with the result that they are trying to sound wise before their time and have become too tight as well. They will continue making important music, but they are in many ways an isolated phenomenon.
Of all the major groups of the Sixties still performing, Sly and the Family Stone, is among the best musically. His influence on contemporary music has yet to be fully understood. He is the only major rock figure who has a deep following with both whites and blacks. He completely reshaped the content of R&B following the death of Otis Redding and the eclipse of Stax records. Motown, the greatest hit factory in the land, is currently in hot pursuit of his style. Unfortunately, his personal problems have complicated what could still be one of the most rewarding careers in the recent history of popular music. However, it is fair to say that his influence will last longer than anyone now imagines.
Such are the heavies in 1970. Omitted are Santana, Traffic, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, the Doors, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and so many other names that could be pulled off the Billboard chart or a good agent’s client list. But it is a fair cross-section: British and American, hard and soft, East Coast and West, and even a black man.
Every group on the list contains at least one exceptional musician. Each one’s music is stylistically well-defined. And yet something fundamental is missing. Certainly there are no names to equal Dylan, the Stones, or the Beatles. With a possible exception or two, there are no legends, no passion, no glamour, and no stars. And while a lot of the music is good, not too much of it is interesting and very little of it will have any impact beyond the lifespan of the group itself. For me, most of the names on the chart already conjure images of the past. The future lies mainly with an altogether different group of artists.
The Return of the Solo Artist
Rock in the late Sixties was, ultimately, a harsh music. It most often communicated frenzy, confusion, anxiety, depression, and anger. It often failed to give expression to the tenderer emotions. And among its most positive accomplishments were the acceptance of long rock improvisations and the breakdown of the three-minute rule for recorded music.
By the end of the Sixties counter-trends, often springing from within these very groups, began to emerge. As the harsher forms became increasingly repetitious and unimaginative, musicians flirted with country music, old rock and roll, and new styles of production and arranging, often involving the use of a greater variety of instruments than are associated with rock bands. The solo artist, a concept that had all but been abandoned with the decline of the folk revival of the early Sixties, was revived by the likes of Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor.
This group of artists is almost diverse in character as any listing of rock groups but there are important distinctions to be made. In general, they are a more reflective, relaxed, sometimes even pastoral, group of artists. The elimination in many instances of the banks of amplifiers and the breaking of the group bond returns the accent to a single person’s feelings and thoughts. In many ways it allows for a fair greater range of emotional expression. The soloists are without a doubt the new auteurs of popular music.
As yet only three have achieved economic parity with the larger rock bands: Joe Cocker, James Taylor, and Neil Young. Cocker stands like a storm in the middle of this new sea of tranquility, a magnificent anomaly. His tour last spring with the Leon Russell group of musicians was an exciting and sometimes spectacular event, as it matched one of the fine vocalists of the moment with what was at the time the best performing band in rock. The results, captured to a surprisingly accurate degree on Mad Dogs and Englishmen, gives us one of the few truly joyful albums of the year as well as an inspiring bit of contemporary musicianship, from beginning to end. The Cocker tour not only had musicianship and artistry, but a grapes and wine decadence and glamor that was inspiring in itself. He and his colleagues carried on like true stars: they oozed with confidence and self-assurance.
It was all so refreshing, and yet inherent in its very over-large structure was its own inevitable self-destruction. It had one great quality that had been missing from so much of the music of the last two years: spontaneity. And yet one could see a hint of desperation underneath the smiles that seemed to say, “Get it while you can.”
The backbone of Cocker’s tour was composer-singer-pianist-arranger-producer Leon Russell. Russell worked regularly and especially on the Cocker tour with a fabulous group of West Coast musicians and free lancers that included drummers Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner, bassist Carl Radle, guitarist Don Preston, and hornmen Jim Price and Bobby Keys. Many of these same men had toured earlier with Delaney and Bonnie, a white country soul duo with a distinctive style. Out of that association came organist Bobby Whitlock who has now joined with Radle and Gordon to form the Dominoes in Eric Clapton’s new band, Derek and the Dominoes. Many of these same musicians accompanied Russell, Clapton, and Dave Mason on their solo albums.
Russell himself is a genuine talent. His “Shoot Out On the Plantation,” “Hummingbird,” and “Delta Lady” are among the finest songs of recent years. His piano playing, with its flashes of Earl Hines, is about the best to be heard these days and while his singing is erratic, it is also intensely personal.
Eric Clapton was a leader of the band scene in the Sixties and has taken a larger role with his new group than he ever did with Cream or Blind Faith. Not yet accomplished as a singer or as an arranger, he still ignites occasional sparks that make it clear his best days are still ahead of him.
Delaney and Bonnie are talented musicians who have yet to find themselves. Each of their five albums, especially From Delaney to Bonnie, has had its moments, but never enough of them. Dave Mason is bound to be one of the really bright faces of 1971. His first album displayed excellent songs and arrangements from beginning to end. His only shortcoming is an apparent tendency towards cuteness.
Sensing the danger of over-production, many of the new solo artists have reacted the opposite way. Traveling alone or with small groups, they are more concerned with feelings of intimacy, naturalness, warmth, and honesty. They seldom try to intimidate, overwhelm, or to energize an audience physically.
Of the soloists to appear so far, James Taylor is probably the most influential and most talented and certainly the most popular in this vein. He is establishing the style of the genre in the early Seventies.
Contemplative, reflective, natural to an often painful degree, unpretentious, not inordinately humble, he comes before audiences as Dylan did in the early Sixties and asks people to accept him for what he is. He refuses to try too hard but will always meet his audience half way.
The music of Sweet Baby James is embellished in a subtle way that leaves him in the foreground. What solos there are are thoroughly de-emphasized as the lyrics and voices are once again made central. “Country Road” is an almost perfect song, with its deceptively simple beginning, its barely noticeable syncopation on the chorus, and its clear lyric line. However, at the end of the album Taylor reminds us over a delightfully rocking Russ Kunkel on drums, that “Oh, my soul, I’m sure enough fond of my rock and roll.”
Neil Young reflects a different mood than Taylor, a mood much more enriched by sophistication. Taylor’s music is often painful; Young’s is confused. His new album After the Goldrush is one of the best to be released this year and should serve to further define the contemplative approach just emerging. His languid and plaintive style is obvious emotionalizing at its best. His “Oh Lonesome Me” is a minor masterpiece.
Rod Stewart is different from both Taylor and Young because his background is so closely tied to the British rock band scene. Even now he continues to lead a schizoid existence. On the one hand he records and tours with a fine little British funk group, the Small Faces. On the other he has released two superb solo albums that comprise a much more intimate and personal statement. Gasoline Alley is an exceptionally brilliant piece of work, which shows Stewart blending all manner of folk and rock styles into a very cohesive statement of himself. Particularly startling are his superb renditions of Elton John’s “Country Comfort,” his own “Gasoline Alley,” and his stylized rendition of Eddie Cochran’s “Cut Across Shorty.” At time he blends the styles of Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan and Ewan McCall, but on Gasoline Alley he has emerged as a true original.
Van Morrison will undoubtedly be one of the major figures of the Seventies. Moon Dance, one of the major releases of recent years, was a work of brilliant originality. It combined a soul-styled approach to melody and arranging with a simple and personal style of lyric writing. Morrison’s voice—his phrasing, timing, tone quality, and diction—are close to the summit of rock singing from any period of time. The richness of feeling in his work should set an example for every practicing singer-songwriter.
Elton John bears some resemblance to Morrison in his use of some soul devices in his composition. He has a fine voice and has thus far collaborated with an excellent lyricist, Bernie Taupin. The production on his first album was big but John used it to his own best advantage. An excellent pop piano player, his music has a depth missing from most group rock. His two best songs, “Country Comfort” and “Border Song,” have been covered beautifully by Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin respectively.
Some of the new solo artists are reminders of their own past. Figures like John Sebastian were closely tied to the first folk revival of the early Sixties and are now completing some kind of musical odyssey. Through the years Sebastian has learned how to play on people’s sentimentality and desire for tranquility in an almost cynical way. While his voice is rather meager he has developed a cult based on his capacity to accept virtually anything as being groovy, warm, and loving.
Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Neil Diamond, in increasing order of commercial musical styles, all offer something more substantial in the solo vein. Joni Mitchell has developed the ability to express the mood of frustrated intellect in a time when thought is so under-valued to an ever-expanding degree. Melanie has emerged as the female counterpart to Sebastian in sentimentality. Carole King has come out from behind her writing career and is a beautiful pianist, arranger, and singer. Her legendary talents as a songwriter are now revealed as but a part of an unbelievably whole musician. And Laura Nyro, one of the most talented but confused artists of the period, may find the new mood of the audience more sympathetic to her erratic but superb talents than that of the Sixties was.
The dozens of solo artists will begin to have larger show business potential than do rock groups. Johnny Cash has sold more albums than anyone else last year as he parlays his legendary back-ground into a model for the nation’s most primitive forces. Tom Jones and Glen Campbell have cleaned up in the old Sinatra market. And, in what is probably the most revealing fact of all, Elvis Presley found this year to be the right one to wage a full-scale comeback attempt. For what time could compare to the present for the return of the most stylized, personalized, and possibly the most talented, of all the rock stars.
In the range of the popular solo artists, seen as a group, certain traits are clearly manifested.
There is also a greater focus on songs and singing than on any form of virtuosity, particularly instrumental virtuosity, which is a quality that few of them possess. And because the work of so many of these artists is so precise and compressed, it is often best presented through records rather than live appearances. In fact what has happened, as it always has when popular music is at a crossroads, is a return to the basic facts: the singer and his song.
As the image of this type of performer jells, we can expect an increasing number of press releases that jabber about honesty, restraint, quiet, countriness, and reflectiveness. And while the approach of these artists is easily parodied, those adjectives fairly describe the best of them. Before their day is over we are in for a lot more of them than anyone has already imagined. On the basis of the evidence thus far, can anyone doubt that this is a reason for some excitement and enthusiasm over the future of our music.
Thus, the most easily identifiable major shift of early 1970 is that the R&R band scene introduced in 1963 by the Beatles and which dominated pop music through 1969 is in the initial stages of decomposition.
The Black Music Scene
The black music scene has not gone untouched. The popular stars of the last few years have all gone into decline and no replacements are on the horizon. Aretha Franklin stopped making personal appearances though she is making a comeback. James Brown has lost some of his overwhelming drawing power at the box office, and Motown performers continue to be locked into their plastic nightclub performing style. Only the incredibly popular Jackson 5 come before us with something wholly original to say.
In recording, the most stunning fact of recent years has been the decline of Stax records. When Stax left the Atlantic fold, the rights to Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, reverted to Atlantic Records. Since that time they have discovered they suddenly were without major stars. Perhaps the lone and not particularly strong exception of Isaac Hayes, whose sentimental, talky “soul” versions of pop hits has connected with the black middle of the road audience, one of the few things keeping the company going.
Atlantic’s black music has gone into something of a decline as well, as Wilson Pickett no longer turns out hit after hit; and many of those he does are not close to his great era. Aretha has been fair to middling, although it now looks like she is on the comeback trail with her fine version of “Don’t Play That Song” and “Border Song.” Sam and Dave have tragically parted company while people like Percy Sledge are in danger of drifting into obscurity. Joe Tex has started imitating Isaac Hayes to no avail and singers like Dee Dee Warwick just aren’t distinctive enough. Only Clarence Carter keeps churning it out, and his records are straight pop AM radio pieces by now. The problem at Atlantic revolves around the lack of a contemporary, original style of recording—what used to be called soul artists, and in the failure to develop new personalities.
Those two problems do not plague Motown at the moment and they are justifiably as hot as ever. They have already developed the major new soul group of the Seventies, the superb Jackson 5. Norman Whitfield continues to turn out contemporary, Sly-influenced, repetitious rhythm records on people like Edwin Starr and the Temptations. Stevie Wonder has recently developed into not only the brilliant singer heard on “Signed Sealed and Delivered,” but with that record and the Spinner’s “It’s A Shame” a fine producer as well. The latter is the best single to come out of the company in recent months.
It is important to remember in discussing the work of black artists that they are dealing with an increasingly homogenized market in which the old class of R&B and soul records is merging more and more with the basic pop market. Secondly, it is a music still basically oriented to the 45 and AM radio. Consequently, the immediate pressure to find big stars is not as great as the need to find songwriters and producers who can turn out a consistently commercial singles. No one has greater success in developing such production teams than Motown, but towards the end of the Sixties the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff seemed like a good pair of challengers.
Gamble and Huff, who are based in Philadelphia, are independent producers who have worked with the Intruders, the O’Jays, Dusty Springfield, Archie Bell and the Drells, and Jerry Butler. Their two albums with Butler, Ice on Ice and The Iceman Cometh, represent some kind of zenith in the pop production of soul artists. Their integration of strings, horns, choirs and timpani into unbelievably well-recorded arrangements of their own melodic and lyrically sensitive songs was often astounding. Unfortunately, they and Butler have parted ways and the potential of their work may never be realized. Without Butler, whose singing is possibly the most sophisticated in all of pop music today, their productions lose their focus. Often they sound contrived and the worst of it is beginning to sound like a parody of their earlier work. Like so many producers before them, they have reduced what was refreshingly original to something trivial through repetition. The fire is gone and only another “Western Union Man.” “Never Gonna Give You Up,” or “Only the Strong Survive” is going to light it again.
As an offshoot of the Gamble and Huff development, other producers using the same studio and band have made interesting records in Philadelphia. Of them, the best are done by the Delphonics, who are the masters of the trendy “sissy soul” sound. Masters of falsetto harmony, they have produced a succession of fine pop records culminating in their last hit, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time.”
Of the other independent producers, the American studio in Memphis has gone into an entirely pop bag and has been almost unbearably successful at it.
Rick Hall scores with occasional hits, but nothing new of consequence has emanated from there beyond his superb record of Carter’s “Patches.” The other studios in the south, with the exception of Atlantic’s Criteria in Miami, have been cool.
While it may be sacrilegious to say it, the most influential black artist of recent years, with the possible exception of Jimi Hendrix, has undoubtedly been Sly and the Family Stone. In the early R&B days it was not uncommon for songs to have one chord. Sly has revitalized that concept and recharged it with contemporary rhythms and a group singing approach that is a pure delight. His versatility and capacity to synthesize seems almost endless.
Both the singing and the rhythm have been completely absorbed by Motown, with the Temptations making greater use of the former and the Jackson 5 modeling themselves on the latter. Without “Dance to the Music” there never would have been “I Want You Back.” His influence has been vast. Even Lulu has cut her Sly imitation of “Hum A Little Song From My Heart.”
The Jackson 5 stand as something of a phenomenon amidst all this. The voice of 12-year-old Michael Jackson is so fresh and pure that it would sound good singing anything. As it is they give him the absolute best R&B being composed today and provide him with the best vocal and instrumental arrangements anyone has heard anywhere lately. The only thing keeping the Jackson 5 from establishing a new hegemony over the entire R&B scene is their youthfulness.
As with white groups, recounting the names and companies and hits only serves as an ultimate reminder of the lack of cohesiveness on this scene. The major problem is how to deal with the black record buying public when it has merged so tightly with the AM pop market. Will black record buyers ever start buying albums in preference to 45s? And are well-produced records more important than the perennial need for major personalities? On this last point, the stark fact is there are none. Sly came close but he blew it. Isaac Hayes is a fad. The Motown artists are all too limited on stage. Only Jerry Butler has real possibilities, and thus far it hasn’t happened. There is no James Brown or Otis Redding to set it all right these days. There is no one with a personal vision to offer this time around. No matter how good some of the records are, the black scene remains business as usual right now. In many ways it is a cynical business indeed.
The Big Three
Through most of the Sixties three figures conjured up the mood of the music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Not only was their music important, but they fulfilled the mythic need for leadership in the period. Every era requires strong innovators and personalities to give glory to the movement; revered figures who achieve universal respect and can be held up as models to aspiring musicians as well as to audiences: heroes. And perhaps the thing that tells us most about the changes going on in rock are the changes that overcame the heroes of the Sixties.
While an enormous financial success, the Stones tour of 1969 will ultimately account for their decline as a Pop myth. They simply could not live up to their own introduction: “The greatest rock and roll band in the world.” People enjoyed themselves but they knew it wasn’t that different, that much better, that much more exciting. As Michael Lydon noted, at each concert there was more applause at the beginning of the first number than at the end of the last.
And yet the Stones knew that if they hadn’t toured they would have suffered more precisely because it had been so long since they had communicated in the flesh and there were millions of kids who wanted to see them who hadn’t even heard “Satisfaction” when it was released in 1965. Even God has to deliver a miracle from time to time just to keep the customers satisfied. Indifference is the enemy of all deities, religious or secular.
Dylan’s dilemma is much deeper. The source of the rock intelligence, the originator of the contemporary rock lyric, the synthesizer, the opera singer, the solo artist, the true outsider: he has so much to live up to, so many expectations to fulfill.
And yet, like the Stones he has been caught by his past. Self Portrait was such a disaster precisely because it wallowed in the past. New Morning was a refreshing step away from the emptiness of its predecessor but not quite a large enough one. Dylan’s problem is one of time. He is older than most of us, and it’s beginning to show in his music. That isn’t necessarily bad, but who can say that it is necessarily good. He has been around long enough to see an approach that he gave definition to in the early Sixties revived in the early Seventies: The force of a single personality. The question facing him is whether or not the students still need their teacher.
And the Beatles: as Dylan traversed the line from underground folk hero to national and international rock star, the Beatles went from international rock stars to underground folk heroes. They played all roles to all people and were ultimately accepted by the Queen and Timothy Leary, AM and FM, black and white, and by musicians of all types and in every field. Their separation, when it finally occurred, was a result of the inability of so much talent to be contained within the limits of a group. And yet it is certain that no single member of the group on his own will enjoy anything approaching the popularity or influence of the Beatles as a group.
The Fate of Rebelliousness
The Beatles when they began were superb exponents of a simple adolescent rhythmized form of popular music whose life style addressed itself to its audience’s needs as perfectly as Presley had to his. And like Presley they achieved unanticipated and incalculable popularity in a brief period of time. With success undoubtedly weighing heavily on them, they did not chance to move into an openly rebellious stance, preferring instead to play the part of a flea riding an elephant. Their rebelliousness, while entirely real, was always gentle and they preferred to kneel rather than fight.
By comparison, the Stones were a more violent and openly defiant group. The media could never adjust to them and as a result a young audience could feel that they belonged to them and them alone. The Stones did not share themselves with adults in witty and clever movies. Parents would find themselves saying about the Beatles: “Well, they are cute.” When Jagger finally made it to the screen in Performance, the adjective most commonly used to describe him was “loathsome.”
The Stones music was blues-based instead of pop-based. There was no chance of them recording “A Taste of Honey” or “Till There Was You.” They seemed to be flaunting their anger when the Beatles sometimes seemed to be concealing it, and as a result the audience learned to love the Stones in a quite different way than they did the Beatles.
Dylan, the American, stood apart from groups and came before his earlier audiences as a self-proclaimed prophet. His anger was the most blatantly obvious of the three, as his tone, his lyrics, and his music were all designed to express it explicitly. Many songs from his earliest period were filled with hatred (“Masters of War”) and his political anger often carried over into other areas (“Ballad of a Thin Man”) in his later works, only to mellow by the time he arrived at John Wesley Harding.
What rebelliousness there was in all three entities is tamed today. Little they do appears outrageous any longer, and in the case of Dylan and the Beatles (except for John Lennon), that appears to be the way they want it. Having grown older, they seem to have grown wiser and are less intensely engaged in the conflicts that dominated their earlier music. It all sounds very mature, in fact quite often too mature, too self-accepting, too accepting of things as they are.
Only the Stones continue to play with defiance, but after their last American tour it’s hard to take that too seriously. Rather one gathers that the Stones harp on the past in their live presentation because they have no place else to go with it. If Jagger is not outrageous, what then is left of the Stones? Unlike Dylan they cannot cope with, or do not have, the luxury of change at that level. Their music however, continues to grow, often dramatically so. It is just that the context now seems to be more theatrical than life-like.
Awe Replaces Enthusiasm
The truth of the matter is that the names of the Sixties have become anomalies. No one looks to them for direction, no one copies them and few are still influenced by them. Despite the high level of its musical content, Let it Bleed had virtually no effect on pop music today. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are more to be emulated by every flourishing high school band in the country than Mick and Keith. While there are still those who imitate the old Dylan—Arlo Guthrie is perhaps foremost among them—who has been affected by the Dylan of Self Portrait? And with the exception of Badfinger and other isolated instances, the last group to strive for the Beatles style was the Bee Gees. The work of the rock triptych is consumed and passed over with reverence and awe but not with the enthusiasm of past years.
None of this is meant to imply that the individuals involved will no longer create great music. They surely will. Rather it is in their relationship with an all-adoring public that change is most visible. Their music has changed — whether for better or worse—and with those changes their audience has too. Whatever happened to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the former members of the Beatles in the Sixties, it will not be the shape of things in the Seventies. They were once more than musicians. They were once Gods.
The alternatives are not well defined, and there is confusion at all levels of the music industry about the direction music is taking. For the men who stage live shows, now, often unable to afford the superprices of the supergroups, the question of the day is where the stars of tomorrow are coming from. The clubs and medium-sized concert halls are in trouble.
“Who are the big groups to emerge over the summer?” asked an agent in one of the largest independent booking agencies. The answer was none. Club owners are now headlining acts they might well have passed over for second billing a year ago. Some clubs have closed, others closed for the summer, and in many cities where music is being presented regularly, business is very, very soft.
Because of the current economic recession customers seem to be concentrating more money on fewer attractions, whether buying records or tickets. As a result, a handful of acts have become incredibly popular, while it has become harder than ever for a middle-level band to get along or a new band to get off the ground.
For the past two and a half years, since the success of Sgt. Pepper, the album sweepstakes has begun to look like the singles game, with many companies shotgunning it: releasing large numbers of albums on the assumption that something will catch on. While they may have been right in the short run, in the long run they have saturated the market, making it harder for talented new musicians to break through the mass of pap at the rate of a 150 new albums released every week along with 200 new singles per week.
The Rat Race
It’s now widely assumed that sooner or later the audience will be unable to absorb any more of a particular kind of music, and everyone in the business is searching desperately for what’s coming next. If someone were to find the next thing, though, it’s inevitable that he would rush it too fast, and record it to death before it had a chance to grow into anything at all.
Once there were dozens of talented musicians who only needed to get inside a studio to do something interesting, now there are few who don’t get a chance to record something years before they are prepared for it. There was a time when going to see a band play on a weekend could be something to look forward to for days. Now it can often be an invitation to depression.
Rock and roll is madness and the method that has been imposed on it is too rational, too business-like, and too orderly, and if something doesn’t break loose soon, it will kill off what energy is left for a good long time.
Rock, the music of the Sixties, was a music of spontaneity. It was a folk music—it was listened to and made by the same group of people. It did not come out of a New York office building where people sit and write what they think other people want to hear. It came from the life experiences of the artists and their interaction with an audience that was roughly the same age. As that spontaneity and creativity have become more stylized and analyzed and structured, it has become easier for businessmen and behind-the-scenes manipulators to structure their approach to merchandising music.
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The process of creating stars has become a routine and a formula as dry as an equation. But thankfully, if history is any judge, it is only a matter of time before adhering to that equation will reach a point of diminishing returns and those who stick to it will pay the consequences. For while equations don’t change the audiences, musicians, and music, do.
A cycle is coming to an end. Rock’s first phase, which truly began with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” ended with the break-up of the Beatles. And amidst the economic tightening in the industry, and the changing character of the audience, something new is forming. Whether or not it will lead to something basically different than the music of the last six years cannot be discerned as of yet, but the change is now. There is a new audience that grew up on the music of the Sixties that is going to require and demand a music for the Seventies. No one yet knows what that audience will want or what the musicians will give them. But one thing is certain: that audience will have music. For whether we knew it or not, we are all committed to music. And whether we believe it or not, it is too late to stop now.