Archive for September, 2012

“A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane (1965)

Jazz fans will be familiar with the work of Rudy Van Gelder of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., who has been a recording engineer for nearly 70 years. He’s responsible for capturing some of the genre’s most enduring performances for posterity, with many top artists – the ornery Charles Mingus was a notable exception – choosing to use his talents.

Van Gelder had worked with saxophonist John Coltrane on many occasions, dating back to his legendary stint with the Miles Davis Quintet, before Coltrane entered his studio on Dec. 9, 1964.

“He had been in other studios, so he must have felt that I could help him be heard the way he wanted to be heard,” Van Gelder told author Ashley Kahn in 2001. “The fact that he was here said it all.”

With Coltrane were the other members of his quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. As Tyner recalled:

John said very little about what he wanted. If he had certain specifics that he wanted to add to the music or how he wanted it played, he would say it. I think this is so important, because it was an on-the-spot improvisation, honestly approached music, with no pretentions about it at all.

The band had played sections of the four-part suite that became “A Love Supreme” during live gigs, but the studio date marked the first time the musicians would attempt to bring Coltrane’s vision together as a coherent piece.

Van Gelder discussed with Kahn his role in capturing the proceedings:

All of them were two-track recordings, which eliminated an possibility of mixing later. The advantages of doing one or two tunes at a time in a direct-to-two-track mode allowed me to concentrate more on the balance, mix and overall sound. Yes, we could edit the takes, but we couldn’t change the balance.

So, in what truly was a live performance, the quartet launched into one of jazz’s most celebrated recordings.

Jones opens by striking a Chinese gong, the only time Coltrane used that particular instrument, according to Ravi, his son. Coltrane then enters on tenor sax with a tuneful E-major flurry before Garrison starts to play the four-note sequence for which the album is best known.

“Acknowledgement,” as the first section is titled, builds on the basic 4/4 rhythm as Coltrane solos, starting quietly and building with intensity. Jones adds his usual fluidity to complement the saxophonist before the entire band focuses on the thematic four notes.

The Coltrane takes an interesting turn, playing the pattern three dozen times in various keys, in some ways foreshadowing the New Thing atonality that he’d explore at length the following year. As Dave Liebman, who played saxophone in Davis’ and Jones’ bands during the 1970s, noted about Coltrane’s unusual foray:

It’s really towards what he’s about to go into, which is very, very free and non-key-centered improvisation. The way he takes that “a love supreme” motif, and transposes it through all the keys over the ostinato pattern that Jimmy is playing, is a real study. And McCoy is sort of in between, chasing Coltrane, and staying on the same key.

Eventually, Coltane starts reciting the key phrase, with Van Gelder adjusting the microphone after it failed to pick up the initial “a love.” He repeats the chant, augmented by overdubs recorded the next evening, until his voice and the other instruments, except for Garrison’s bass, drop out. Garrison plays a short solo segueing into the next part of the suite.

“Resolution” had been tested live, as evidenced by a recording made at a small Philadelphia club nearly three months before the Van Gelder session. In the studio, the band did seven takes, with the final try being the one that made it to the LP; an outtake is featured on the boxed set “Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Recordings.”

Coltrane enters with a flourish to state the section’s theme, one of Coltrane’s more enduring melodies. Compared with what preceded it, “Resolution” hearkens back to the saxophonist’s hard-bop work of the ’50s, focusing on chord changes rather than the modal structure he increasingly came to favor.

The final two sections of “A Love Supreme,” titled “Pursuance” and “Psalm,” were recorded together as a single take and appear as a single track on some reissues of the CD. The extended piece starts with a Jones solo, as he provides a demonstration of “the master percussionist’s polyrhythmic approach,” Kahn wrote.

Jones was already known for a ‘busy’ style before any cross-cultural sounds exerted their influence, and his distinctive translation of African and Caribbean polyrhythms onto the traditional jazz trap kit involved a democratic use of all its elements.

“Pursuance” proceeds in a relatively straightforward manner, with Tyner providing a freewheeling touch by flailing away on a series of inventive piano clusters. Coltrane adds a majestic solo drawing on his “sheets of sound” use of harmonics before returning to the section’s main theme.

Again, a Garrison bass solo provides a transition between sections, leading up to a Jones roll on the tympani for the suite’s dramatic conclusion.

“Psalm” is a stark mood piece built on rubato, a disregard for strict tempo. The backing musicians provide a loose foundation over which Coltrane basically recites a poem through his saxophone. As Kahn wrote:

Like a libretto, the words to “Psalm” (eventually titled “A Love Supreme” and printed on the inside of the album cover) define the lyrical flow of the music; one can follow syllable by syllable. Each line crests and resolves, implying punctuation.

And so the John Coltrane Quartet emerged from that Wednesday night session with a full album’s worth of music, although some extra musicians, bassist Art Davis and saxophonist Archie Shepp, joined in for a second session the following night. None of those recordings appeared on the finish product.

“A Love Supreme” was released in February 1965 to critical acclaim and commercial viability: It sold some half a million copies in the next five years, Coltrane’s best effort in that regard by a wide margin.

The quartet played the entire suite in concert just once, a July 26, 1965, performance at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, France, that was professionally recorded and is available as part of Impulse!’s “deluxe edition” CD. The live version is more dissonant than the studio effort, as Coltrane’s music had veered considerably in that direction during the seven-month interim.

As a matter of fact, Coltrane had booked a June session at Van Gelder’s studio to record “Ascension,” a 40-minute composition featuring numerous guest musicians improvising in turn. And for the last two years of his life – he died July 17, 1967 – Coltrane explored increasingly unconventional realms; check out his four-CD “Live in Japan” set (consisting of just six songs!) for a representative sampling of what he was delivering.

In that context, “A Love Supreme” serves as the bridge between Coltrane’s relatively subdued and wildly experimental periods. And as such, it has turned out to be his most enduring contribution to the world of music.

That goes for Rudy Van Gelder, too.

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“The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd (1973)

A bunch of random noises. A heartbeat. Disembodied voices. A scream.

So starts the album that stayed on the charts for 741 consecutive weeks, back when that actually meant something. No half-decent record collection of the era was complete without Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon,” usually on its second or third copy.

Since its release, that’s the album the typical audiophile plays to demonstrate the fidelity of his sound system. So back in the days of vinyl, you had to pick up a pristine version every once in a while. Thus its longevity among the top-sellers.

Then came the compact disc, and the sales kind of plunged. But thanks to constant reissues, including the “Immersion Edition,” the album still racks up enough sales to help earn Pink Floyd’s surviving members plenty of … well, “Money.”

“The Dark Side of the Moon” came together as the band was working with director Adrian Maben on the film “Pink Floyd at Pompeii,” which contains scenes of members working on the eventual album. Accused at the time of relying too much on machines to make music, bass player Roger Waters contends in the movie:

It’s like saying, “Give a man a Les Paul and he becomes Eric Clapton.” But it’s not true. And give a man an amplifier and a synthesizer, and he doesn’t become us.

The synthesizer – specifically, the EMS VCS 3 – indeed is the dominant instrument on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” helping to build a sonic structure that sounds contemporary nearly 40 years after the fact. The oscillating “On the Run,” which also integrates the sounds of footsteps and airport-like announcements, remains a particular favorite among listeners who strap on a pair of good headphones.

“On the run” is a Waters euphemism for insanity, a phrase he used in composing “Free Four,” a deceptively jaunty song about death that appears on “Obscured By Clouds” (1972). Insanity turns out to be a recurring theme on “The Dark Side of the Moon”: how the foibles of everyday life eventually drive you out of your mind.

Thus, many of the album’s songs sport short titles alluding to simple concepts: “Breathe,” “Time,” “Money,” “Us and Them,” “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse,” the final track, which lent its name to the project in its formative stages.

The final line of “Eclipse” – “But the sun is eclipsed by the moon” – inspired the eventual title, which turned out to be the same as a 1972 LP by British blues band Medicine Head. If you never heard of that, you’re not alone.

The two individual tracks with longer titles are among the best on “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Midway through the LP’s second side is “Any Colour You Like,” which elaborates on the “Breathe” backing track to create a heavily processed soundscape: Richard Wright’s keyboard is fed through a VCS 3, and David Gilmour overdubs two guitar parts through a Uni-Vibe pedal effect.

The album reaches its pinnacle with “The Great Gig in the Sky,” which segues out of “Time/Breathe [Reprise]” as a quiet, melodic piano piece by Wright. About a minute in, singer Clare Torry, 22 years old at the time, starts wailing, as directed by the band and session engineer Alan Parsons. Torry’s vocal explorations are among the most spine-chilling in rock history, culminating with a high-pitched screech at the song’s climax – the choice of that word is deliberate – before a relatively relaxed denouement.

Anyone who listens to the radio is familiar with most of the rest of “The Dark Side of the Moon,” but it should be pointed out that Gilmour’s slide-driven solo on “Time” is one of the best from a consistently inventive guitarist.

Regarding the album’s unparalleled chart success, the band members never have been so sure about the reason. As noted in the late Nicholas Schaffner’s book “Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey,” they’ve been quoted as saying:

  • “No idea at all. After we’d made it, actually sitting down listening to it for the first time in the studio, I thought, ‘This is going to be big. This is an excellent album.’ Why it goes on and on selling, I don’t know. It touched a nerve at the time. It seemed like everyone was waiting on this album, for someone to make it.” – Richard Wright (1943-2008)
  • “It hit a chord, obviously. It still doesn’t sound dated; it still sounds good when I listen to it. But I can’t really say why it should achieve that longevity over some of the other great records which have been out.” – David Gilmour
  • “I don’t think there is a clear reason for it. It’s almost certainly a number of different things, which comprise the record itself and what’s contained on it. Plus being the right record at the right time, and generating its own momentum, because people start to think, oh, that’s the one that’s been there awhile.” – Nick Mason, drummer
  • “There’s all this stuff in it about how this is your life and it’s all happening now, and as each moment passes – that’s it. It talking about the illusion of working towards ends which might turn out to be fool’s gold. The philosophy that’s embodied in it has got a little meaning for a lot of human beings. It deals with the Big Picture.” – Roger Waters

Schaffner seemed to like the explanation by British journalist Chris Charlesworth, who put forth: “It’s a great record to fuck to. Millions of people across the globe have fucked to ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.'”

Hmmm … sounds like as plausible an explanation as any for 14 straight years on the charts.

“At Fillmore East” by the Allman Brothers Band (1971)

The first two albums by the Allman Brothers Band drew plenty of critical acclaim, and the latter, “Idlewild South,” rose to No. 38 on Billboard. But the main knock on those efforts was that, as good as they were, they hardly captured the concert experience.

Perhaps taking a cue from other bands in similar situations – the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service come to mind – the Allmans opted to record live for their third album. On March 12 and 13, 1971, the tape rolled at New York’s Fillmore East, capturing a couple of performances. The reels went to producer Tom Dowd, who did some tweaking to come up with two LPs’ worth of material.

The results were better than anyone could have anticipated, given the Allmans’ propensity to stretch out songs and the relatively primitive recording technology available. “At Fillmore East” captures what may have been the most dynamic rock band of the time, and that certainly was when giants roamed the earth.

The Allmans and Dowd divided the LPs thematically: The first consisted of blues covers, the second of originals. In this band’s case, the term “cover” is used loosely; each of the first four tracks is given a treatment that defines it as an Allman Brothers standard.

The album kicks off with its most radio-friendly song to this day, Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” Willie never would have envisioned the power of Duane Allman’s opening slide guitar licks, punctuated by the rest of the band playing the main riff, launching into an eminently memorable blues-rock groove. Gregg Allman, though just 23 at the time, nails the half-boasting, half-pleading attitude of the tune’s narrator.

“Done Somebody Wrong” – credited to Elmore James, Clarence Lewis and Bobby Robinson – follows in a similar vein, with the Allmans giving the song a much grittier reading than the version did as “I Ain’t Done Wrong” several years earlier. Guest Thom Doucette complements the performance on some well-played harmonica.

Duane introduces “Stormy Monday” as a Bobby “Blue” Bland song before correcting himself to credit composer T-Bone walker, who called it “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad).” Some notable rock versions included those by early hard-rockers Cream and Mountain, but the Allmans ended up with the definitive version, a slow blues that allows Duane and fellow guitarist Dickey Betts to show off their chops. Dowd cut about three minutes off the song for the LP; the full version later was released on the compilation called “The Fillmore Concerts.”

“You Don’t Love Me” is another popular blues-rock numbers of the ’60s, recorded by the likes of Kaleidoscope, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Al Kooper-Stephen Stills “Super Session” project. Those versions of the Willie Cobbs song are minor efforts compared with the Allmans’ behemoth: 19 minutes of guitar virtuosity, the likes of which hadn’t been heard on vinyl to that point, especially Duane’s lengthy unaccompanied turn. No wonder he was one of the most-demanded session guitarists of the era, in addition to his regular gig.

A relatively compact instrumental, “Hot ‘Lanta,” follows, a group composition that shows the Allmans’ collective knack for adapting melodic hooks to more complex arrangements, this time by way of bass player Berry Oakley. The outro seems to go on just a bit long, but it does give percussionist Butch Trucks an opportunity to display his skills on timpani.

Betts’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” which appears on “Idlewild South” as the band’s first original instrumental, doubles its length for the live version. The song demonstrates the band’s ability to seamlessly incorporate jazz elements into its repertoire, to a point that the musicians have drawn favorable comparisons to the work of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, which in as of itself is quite a feat. Trucks and fellow drummer Jai Johanny Johanson team up for an extended percussion duet, one that would grow in length in concerts over the decades.

The LP’s four side starts with one of rock’s classic artist-audience discourses.

Duane: “Berry starts her off.”

Fan: “‘Whipping Post’!”

Duane: “You guessed it.”

Oakley’s thundering bass in 11/4 time opens the epic, with the other instruments reaching a crescendo before Gregg begins wailing his tale of woe: “I’ve been run down, I’ve been lied to, and I don’t know why I let that girl make me out a fool/Took all my money, wrecked my new car, now she’s with one of my good-time buddies, they’re drinking in some cross-town bar.”

After the chorus, Duane takes an extended solo prior to the second verse: “My friends tell me I’ve been such a fool, and I had to stand back and take it, baby, all for loving you/I drown myself in sorrow as I look at what you’ve done/Nothing seems to change, the bad times stay the same, and I can’t run.”

Betts then solos before he and Duane take the song up the scale to its climax, where listeners to the debut album, “The Allman Brothers Band,” would expect the song’s finale. Instead, the band immerses itself into improvisational mode, seemingly drawing from the New Thing school of jazz before Betts comes up with a tidy guitar lead against well-assembled backing. Finally, Gregg’s vocal closes the proceedings …

… but not so fast. The group experiments again, with Duane throwing in a bit of the familiar “Frere Jacque,” for several more minutes before Gregg groans the actual finale, “Lord don’t you know, that I feel, like I’m dying.” The band wraps it up before Trucks starts rolling on the tympani to signal the start to another song.

Those present at the concert, itself, knew what followed. But it wasn’t until the release of “Eat a Peach” the following year that album listeners learned that the 22-plus minutes of “Whipping Post” segued into 33-plus minutes of “Mountain Jam.” The two later were linked in that manner on “The Fillmore Concerts,” after CD technology made such a pairing possible.

“At Fillmore East” spreads nearly 80 minutes of music over only seven tracks, but even critics who usually complain about extended compositions seem to agree that the Allmans provide one of the few examples in which more actually is more.

The record-buying public agreed, sending the album to No. 13 and establishing the Allman Brothers Band as one of the hottest acts going.

On Oct. 29, 1971, Duane Allman was riding his motorcycle in his hometown of Macon, Ga., when he struck the back of a flatbed truck that had stopped suddenly in the middle of an intersection. He died a few hours later, just 24 years old.

The Allman Brothers Band not only managed to soldier on but still is a top concert draw more than 40 years later, with Gregg, Butch and Jaimoe around from the Fillmore East days. The group has continued to produce quality music, but its third album always will stand as its high-water mark.

“Rubber Soul” by the Beatles (1965)

A good argument can be made that every Beatles album, at least the ones over which they had creative control, should be on any list of the all-time greats. My erstwhile colleague Brad Hundt, a talented entertainment writer and lifelong Beatlemaniac, no doubt would do so on his list.

But as a reminder, Harry’s Hundred combines my respect for an album’s merits, my familiarity with its contents and how much I enjoy listening to it. So it’s not exactly a “greatest” list; if so, stuff like “Golden Earring Live” would be nowhere near it. But that ain’t a bad album, and I still like it a whole lot 35 years after its release.

So I’ve narrowed down my Beatles selections, and here’s where we start, at the juncture when the Beatles evolved from pop to art, when they demonstrated once and for all that they weren’t just some British guys with long hair and Edwardian suits making a bunch of noise.

What’s remarkable about “Rubber Soul” is that the Beatles and George Martin recorded it on deadline, trying to rush-release it before the holiday shopping season. The band had just returned to England from another North American tour full of fans screaming so loud that the musicians couldn’t hear themselves. Rather than take time off, as they’d do following their final tour the following year, they plunged headlong into writing new songs.

What emerged was a departure from most of the love-song music they’d made to that point. Sure, boy-girl relationships continued to be a prominent theme, but in a much more creative manner.

The opener, “Drive My Car,” is indicative of the new direction: John Lennon draws from the Robert Johnson “Terraplane Blues” songbook – Robert Plant later would use it to optimal effect on Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot” – to equate sex with operating a vehicle, and this time it’s the woman who’s enticing the man.

Lennon explores the male-female dynamic with sophistication previously unknown in the Beatles canon on “Norwegian Wood,” which turned about to be the veiled story of his affair with a journalist. Musically, the song also marks a major step forward, as George Harrison plays the sitar for the first time in rock music history. (Outtakes, such as the one released on “Anthology 2,” show the instrument to be much more prominent in the mix than on the official version.)

Paul McCartney joins the fray with “You Won’t See Me,” a commentary on his relationship with Jane Asher, one that would end a couple of years later when she caught him red-handed with an American woman named Francine Schwartz. As for the song, it displays a certain amount of petulance not found in previous McCartney compositions: “When I call you up, your line’s engaged/I have had enough, so act your age.”

“Nowhere Man” joins previous classics “I’m a Loser” and “Help!” as explorations of Lennon’s self-doubt, a condition that would manifest itself considerably in the coming years. The opening a cappella recitation of the lyrics stands as one of the most striking examples of the Beatles’ vocal abilities, and the song remains one of the most revered in the band’s catalog.

“Think for Yourself” demonstrates why George Harrison felt slighted when it came to the paucity of his compositions on Beatles albums. By any measure, it’s an exceptionally advanced composition for 1965: The lyrics resonate fully almost half a century later, what with the utter vapidness into which popular culture has evolved, and the frightening implications that has for the future of the world. Instrumentally, McCartney’s fuzz-toned bass guitar is at once innovative and another step toward what would become hard rock.

Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” became one of his best-known anthems. But he explored basically the same theme two years earlier with “The Word,” which also shows the Beatles’ overall sound becoming harder-edged as the ’60s progressed.

OK, so why do I rank “Rubber Soul” at a spot where 36 albums are ahead of it? Sorry, I’ve tried to warm up to “Michelle” for decades, but it’s one of the few Beatles songs that leaves me cold. Sure, it explores traditional French themes as opposed to the standard pop/rock of the time, which is interesting from a musical standpoint but hardly endears it to listeners who are prefer something a bit heavier.

Ringo Starr’s first Beatles co-composing credit appears on “What Goes On,” a relatively nondescript country-flavored tune that has its charms but isn’t quite the remedy for getting back on track after “Michelle.” Neither is “Girl,” though you have to like the “tit-tit-tit” backing vocals that escaped the censors.

McCartney redeems himself considerably with “I’m Looking Through You,” another jab at Jane through a relatively complex set of lyrics. Two distinct versions exist of the song, with the one that first was recorded serving as a sought-after collector’s item for decades, until “Anthology 2” made that moot.

Lennon’s much-heralded “In My Life” is one of the first of his many trips down memory lane, a bit more upbeat than, say, “Mother,” but still containing a fair amount of poignancy. “Some are dead and some are living,” for example, refers to Stuart Sutcliffe; it’s been conjectured that John always shouldered some of the blame for Stu’s early death.

When the Beatles were writing and recording what became “Rubber Soul,” they managed to come up with 13 new songs. The 14th, “Wait,” was an outtake from the “Help!” album, but the track tends to mesh seamlessly with most of the newer material.

Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone,” while not quite reaching the heights of “Think for Yourself,” still shows that he would have been the chief songwriter in just about any other rock band of the era.

The album closes with the tongue-in-cheek “Run for Your Life,” which is about as far removed thematically as you can get from tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Lennon, who admitted nicking the opening line from Arthur Gunter’s “Baby, Let’s Play House” (as sung by Elvis Presley), ended up despising “Run for Your Life.” We’ll blame that development, like many others, on Yoko’s influence …

For the record (pun intended), the American “Rubber Soul” LP is a substantially different album from its British counterpart, containing two songs from the U.K. version of “Help!” – “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” – while jettisoning “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “What Goes On,” and “If I Needed Someone.”

By opening the album with “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” which sounds somewhat like Paul Simon compositions of the period (or vice versa), Capitol Records made the U.S. “Rubber Soul” appear to be more of a folk-rock album, to compete commercially with the likes of Bob Dylan and the Byrds on Columbia. Like the Beatles needed help with sales!

Seriously, whatever the version, “Rubber Soul” went to the top of the charts around the world, proving the Beatles could appeal to a more serious, mature audience than the screaming teeny-boppers who packed their concerts. In turn, that made the band members realize they probably didn’t need to be trying to perform in front of screaming teeny-boppers.

But that’s another story.

“Anthem of the Sun” by the Grateful Dead (1968)

Say you’re a recording engineer who helped get the riff to sound the way it did on “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” From there, you go into production for Warner Bros. Records, where you’re assigned to work with a relatively new band from San Francisco.

Your first album with the group goes relatively smoothly, the result of a three-day session that was typical in early 1967. That fall, you start work on the followup.

Welcome to Dave Hassinger’s world. Dealing with the Grateful Dead at the time – or at any point in the subsequent 28 years, for that matter – wasn’t going to be easy for anyone who was used to dealing with anything near normal, and Hassinger wasn’t up to the task.

The breaking point famously came when Bob Weir requested a sound like “thick air.” After that, the band was on its own. Warner’s could have scuttled the project, but company president Joe Smith believed in what the Dead was doing. So the members were granted the then-unheard-of privilege of producing their own record.

The finished product, “Anthem of the Sun,” finally made its way to the shelves in the summer of 1968. Even amid the spate of different-sounding music – history tends to lump it together as psychedelic – emerging at the time, the album stood out for its blatant disregard of conventional song structures. To this day, it remains one of the most intriguing listens not only in the vast Dead catalogue, but in the whole of what now is considered rock’s classic era.

The album’s credits attest to the complexity of “Anthem of the Sun.” The musicians are credited with playing unexpected and somewhat exotic instruments: Jerry Garcia on vibraslap; Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on celeste and claves; Phil Lesh on trumpet, harpsichord and guiro; Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart on orchestra bells, gong, chimes, crotales, prepared piano and finger cymbals; and Tom Constanten on prepared piano and electronic tape. Oh, yeah: Garcia, Lesh and Weir also play kazoo.


A vibraslap

(I had to look this up, because I didn’t know if it really exists: “A vibraslap is a percussion instrument consisting of a piece of stiff wire [bent in a U shape] connecting a wood ball to a hollow box of wood with metal ‘teeth’ inside. The percussionist holds the metal wire in one hand and strikes the ball [usually against the palm of their other hand.] The box acts as a resonating body for a metal mechanism placed inside with a number of loosely fastened pins or rivets that vibrate and rattle against the box.”)

By the way, “Anthem” marked the Dead debut of Hart and Constanten, who helped steer the band toward new visionary heights as the experimentation of the late ’60 reached its pinnacle.

The staggering array of recording venues also demonstrates that the album is out of the ordinary: four studios in California and New York, plus half a dozen live performances, including such quaint-sounding locales as the Eureka Municipal Auditorium, Eagles Auditorium in Seattle and the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore.

That was the band’s grand concept, to merge concert and studio tracks to produce something akin to an actual Grateful Dead show of the period. Fortunately, the live recordings survived to be released decades later; the Feb. 14, 1968, performance at San Francisco’s Carousel Ballroom, available as “Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2,” actually contains the whole of what would become “Anthem of the Sun” and serves as the basis for much of the album.

As far as the music goes, everything starts deceptively simply, with an organ note and Garcia singing “The other day they waited, the sky was dark and faded/Solemnly they stated, ‘He has to die, you know he has to die.'” Despite the lyrical subject matter and a minor-key, phase-shifted middle eight, the next minute and a half proceeds relatively lighthearted compared with what follows.

Garcia’s short narrative, called “Cryptical Envelopment,” actually is the opening part of a suite called “That’s It for the Other One,” which evolves into a cacophony of instrumental bursts derived from numerous concert tapes layered on top of one another. What eventually emerges became one of the Dead’s most-played riffs, the E-D combination of “Quadlibet for Tenderfeet,” better known as “The Other One.” Weir’s lyrics seem to tell of some type of mystical journey, culminating with “Cowboy Neal at the wheel of a bus to Never-Never Land,” his tribute to the legendary Neal Cassady of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” fame, who died just before the Carousel Ballroom show.

“That’s It” features a brief reprise of “Cryptical Envelopment” before heading into John Cage-type territory with the sound collage called “The Faster We Go, the Rounder We Get” and “We Leave the Castle.” For listeners who adhered to the Dead’s lifestyle beyond music, the combination of all the percussion instruments listed above must have been a real treat, particularly for those wearing headphones.

Eventually the noise dies down and a cheery guitar riff takes its place, leading into “New Potato Caboose,” Lesh’s composition with lyricist Bobby Petersen. Elements of the song sound relatively normal following “That’s It,” particularly the extended out jam, which became a high point of live sets featuring Phil’s bass guitar explorations.

Following is Weir’s “Born Cross-Eyed,” which manages to compress several bizarre approaches to songwriting and execution into just over two minutes of music. Nevertheless, Warners released the song as a single, perhaps solely because of its brevity. (The B-side is a short studio version of “Dark Star” that bears little resemblance to what it would become during Dead concerts over the decades.”)

“Alligator” is notable as Robert Hunter’s first lyrical contribution to a Grateful Dead recording; he’s co-credited with Lesh and McKernan, as opposed to the monster songwriting team he’d later form with Garcia. The song is treated to numerous overdubs, including those kazoos, that frame it in a thoroughly different context from its in-concert origins.

The overdubs eventually give way to a rawer sound, as the band relies primarily on the Carousel show to take the song to its conclusion, which is a segue into “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks”).

“Caution” dates all the way back to 1965, when the band was in the process of transforming from the Warlocks to the Emergency Crew to the Grateful Dead. The song began life as a knockoff of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” but became a showcase for Pigpen’s bluesman persona: “I went down to see that gypsy woman, and I told her my story …”

The album concludes with a long segment of guitar feedback, which is exactly how the band wrapped up its concerts, much to the delight of the more chemically aided members of the audiences.

The listening public in general didn’t know what to make of “Anthem of the Sun” on its release, as the album peaked at No. 87 on Billboard. And it received plenty of retroactive criticism during the ’80s backlash against ’60s psychedelia.

But of course, the Dead’s reputation has soared since those dark days, and the album eventually was ranked number 287 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

That’s not bad for a project that had the producer quitting right smack in the middle.

“Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton” by John Mayall (1966)

Contrary to legend, Eric Clapton didn’t have quite a household name when he decided to leave the Yardbirds in 1965.

The band had experienced some success around the nascent London blues circuit, but the members and their management eventually learned they’d have to extend their repertoire a bit if they were looking for major success.

And so came “For Your Love,” the Yardbirds’ breakthrough hit. The primary instrument is the harpsichord, played by freelancer Brian Auger. Clapton’s guitar appears only in the bridge, and even then it’s kind of buried in the mix under Keith Relf’s multitracked vocals.

Keep in mind that “Slowhand” still was a teenager at the time, and he was none too happy about his role in the band being usurped. And so he bailed out, making his spot available for another teenage guitarist, named Jeff Beck. The rest, as they say … well, who needs to spout clichés?

The B-side of “For Your Love” was an instrumental called “Got to Hurry,” which probably contained the most accomplished lead guitar heard to date in the United Kingdom: Clapton’s fretwork screams out against a relatively routine 12-bar-blues backing, begging for discerning listeners to take notice.

One of those listeners was John Mayall, who’d been cultivating his own version of the British blues to a modicum of success. His Blues Breakers backed up John Lee Hooker on a U.K. tour, and his band’s single “Crawling Up a Hill” made a bit of noise on the charts.

Mayall snatched up Clapton for the Blues Breakers, and they promptly cut a couple of tracks for a 45. The A-side, “I’m Your Witchdoctor,” while not a hit, gave knowledgeable listeners a bigger hint about Clapton’s guitar capabilities.

Clapton and Mayall cut another single, just the two of them: “Lonely Years” backed with the Eric-penned instrumental “Bernard Jenkins,” before the guitarist decided to go hang out in Greece and play in a band called the Glands. He eventually returned to the fold after Mayall briefly brought in a replacement guitarist named Peter Green.

Mayall, Clapton, bass player John McVie – yes, where half of the name “Fleetwood Mac” came from – and drummer Hughie Flint then went about laying down tracks for the bandleader’s first studio album. Recorded in March 1966 with Clapton playing a 1960 Gibson Les Paul, “Blues Breakers” – also known as the “Beano” album, because that’s what Eric is pictured as reading in the cover – amply demonstrates the prowess he already commanded just shy of his 21st birthday.

The album opens with a cover of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love,” during which Clapton doubles on the song’s signature riff while weaving sinewy leads around the main theme. During a mid-tune rave-up, he shows why his nickname “Slowhand” is anything but derogatory.

One of Clapton’s biggest influences in his early days was Texas six-string giant – in physical stature, along with instrumental ability – Freddie King, and Slowhand rips up the classic instrumental. In doing so, he provides the first hint that British guitarists might just be able to keep the pace with their American counterparts.

The Mayall original “Little Girl” follows, and while its lyrics are a bit hackneyed, the song boasts a killer riff and more stellar Clapton fretwork. Mayall also takes credit for “Another Man,” which actually is a traditional blues and serves as a showcase for his harmonica work. (For an acoustic guitar workout, check out the version of the song on Jorma Kaukonen’s “Quah.”)

The languid blues “Double Crossing Time” features Clapton playing a lead that lays the groundwork for his work with the band he’d help form later in 1966, Cream. The first side of the LP wraps up with a spirited version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” although much of the track is taken up by a relatively pedestrian Flint drum solo.

The horn section on “Key to Love” foreshadows Mayall’s work circa 1968-early 1969, and “Parchman Farm” is a harmonica-driven take on the oft-covered Mose Allison tune. (Two years later, Blue Cheer would do a proto-metal version for “Vincebus Eruptum.”) At nearly 6 minutes, Mayall’s “Have You Heard” is the longest track on the album, and it gives Clapton plenty of opportunity to further hone his blues mastery.

The next two songs became stapes of the Clapton catalogue: “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” in which he performs his first lead vocal while bringing the legend of composer Robert Johnson to the musical masses, and James Bracken’s instrumental “Steppin’ Out,” which later stretched out to epic proportions during Cream concerts.

“Blues Breakers” wraps up with harmonica master Little Walter’s “It Ain’t Right,” which ostensibly features Mayall but has Clapton underpinning the song with furious riffs throughout.

The album climbed to No. 6 on the U.K. charts while inspiring the notorious “Clapton is God” graffiti around London. By that time, he was well on his way to becoming an ex-Blues Breaker, combining forces with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumnus) and Ginger Baker on a project that further entrenched him as one of rock’s top few guitarists.

Mayall became renowned as a bandleader whose sidemen went on to carve their own niches in rock history: Green, McVie and Mick Fleetwood with Fleetwood Mac; Mick Taylor with the Rolling Stones; Andy Fraser with Free; Jon Hiseman, Tony Reeves and Dick Heckstall-Smith with Colosseum; Flint with McGuinness Flint; Keef Hartley with the Keef Hartley Band (which played at Woodstock); Aynsley Dunbar with the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation; and Jon Mark and Johnny Almond with Mark-Almond (not the Soft Cell guy!).

At age 79, Mayall still has a heavy touring schedule, with numbers from “Blues Breakers” included, of course.

Reboot: Exit0.0

Posted: September 14, 2012 in Anecdote

OK, I knew Steve Earle released an album called “Exit 0.” And I was well aware that Cape May, N.J., is home to Exit 0 of the Garden State Parkway.

But I had no idea that Exit Zero has become a mini-cottage industry down there at the beach, until my recent vacation. What with magazine publications, a couple of stores and sponsorship of a musical festival, among other pursuits, that name has been put to much better use than appearing on some random guy’s blog.

And so I’ve come up with a new title, with a nod to “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” of course. Plus I haven’t touched the blog for months because of other obligations, so it’s time to start over, I guess.

It’s also time to resume the list of my favorite albums. I made it 61 percent of the way through before the hiatus, which wasn’t bad, but I did promise a hundred. That being said, I compiled the list back in the spring and have probably changed my mind about some entries in the meantime. But what the heck. If I feel like making a revision, I will. And you won’t even know it …