Archive for October, 2012

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds (1968)

The cover of the Byrds’ fifth album, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” famously features the image of a horse in place of David Crosby, who’d either left the band or been fired during recording sessions, depending on whom you believe.

Crosby had been increasingly at odds with fellow founding members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, who chafed at Crosby’s spaced-out ramblings between songs during the Byrds’ set at the Monterey Pop Festival, as well as his guest spot spelling Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield.

Crosby, in turn, opposed the others’ song selections for “Notorious,” arguing that his ode to a menage a trois, “Triad,” should be on the album, and Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back” should not.


Roger McGuinn

At any rate, he was gone as of October 1967, and McGuinn and Hillman coaxed former lead singer Gene Clark back into the band. He’d left the previous year – the classic “Eight Miles High” was prompted by his fear of flying – but decided to return for an appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and a short tour of the Midwest. After only a couple of weeks, he bowed out again.

Drummer Michael Clarke wasn’t far behind. A Columbia Records CD re-release contains a section of studio chatter that puts the rest of the Byrds’ dissatisfaction with Clarke on full display, with Crosby taunting him with crybaby sounds. Clarke stuck around long enough to finish the LP, but by the time it was released in January 1968, the Byrds effectively were a duo.

While two other groundbreaking bands with personnel problems imploded that same year – Young, Richie Furay and Stephen Stills went their separate ways, as did Jimmy Page and the rest of the Yardbirds – McGuinn and Hillman decided to carry on and went about recruiting new members.

McGuinn’s concept at the time – he never would quite see a Byrds’ concept album to fruition – was an overview of American popular music, exploring bluegrass, country, jazz and blues, all the way up to Moog synthesizer experiments, such as he had tried during the “Notorious” sessions.

Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s drummer cousin, came aboard to get proceedings going, and a potential fourth member auditioned in March. In his book “Hickory Wind,” Ben Fong-Torres describes the scenario:


Gram Parsons

“Gram Parsons wasn’t exactly bursting with credentials when he came up for consideration as a member of the Byrds … His first album was flopping; he wrote a song that Peter Fonda had recorded; and he had a few flickers of a bit part in (the Roger Corman movie) ‘The Trip.’ He was just the kind of dilettante that a guy like Chris Hillman should have snubbed.”

The two had hit it off a few months before, though, when they met while waiting in line at the bank. He invited Parsons to rehearsal, where McGuinn asked him if he could play jazz piano.

“Gram, as he recalled, faked a blues figure of some sort, sang, played some guitar, and seemed like a nice guy who’d fit in with the band. Roger, in classic ’60s, laissez-faire style, hired him on the spot,” Fong-Torres wrote in his Parsons biography.

McGuinn’s rumination remains an integral part of Byrds lore:

“I had no idea he was Hank Williams Jr.”

Parsons’ recently released album, “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band, combined elements of rock and country in a manner that some bands – the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield were among them – had dabbled in a bit. But the ISB’s lone long-player stands as the first example of the two styles melding together as a seamless whole.

What’s fascinating in retrospect is how Parsons was able almost immediately to convince McGuinn to concentrate solely on the country component of his American music vision.

“Soon, the band decided to cut its next album in Nashville: Music City, USA. And not only would they be the first long-haired folk-rock band from California to invade Nashville, they would crash the temple of all that was good and backward about country music, the Grand Ole Opry.

The March 10, 1968, performance is legendary for Parsons’ blowing off the Opry producers and launching into his own composition “Hickory Wind” instead of the Merle Haggard song that host Tompall Glaser was expecting.

“The other Byrds looked at each other,” Fong-Torres wrote. “They had gotten stoned backstage, and they weren’t ready for a plot twist like this. They just managed to catch up with Gram, and the song proceeded smoothly.”

Just 21 years old at the time, Parsons apparently had become de facto leader of the Byrds, and sessions for what would become “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” proceeded accordingly. Studio musicians assisted the band for the March sessions in Nashville, and recording continued in Los Angeles during April and May.

Meanwhile …

The International Submarine Band was under contract to LHI Productions, owned by Lee Hazlewood, the guy who wrote and produced “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” for Nancy Sinatra. According to Fong-Torres:

Hazlewood had worked hard to establish his first record company, and he didn’t like watching the Submarine Band fall apart just as its first album was being issued. Nor did he appreciate the leader of that band wandering off to another group. He decided to get hard-nosed. He contacted CBS Records to inform the company that LHI Productions still owned the rights to Gram’s vocal performances, if not to his compositions or to his work as an instrumentalists.

Parsons had sung lead vocals on several of the songs on which the Byrds were working. But, Fong-Torres wrote:

After Lee’s call, Columbia ordered Gram’s voice stripped off the album and replaced it with Roger’s and Chris’. Roger got to work putting his own voice, with a brand-new Southern acent, where Gram’s had been.


Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons

Eventually, the two companies settled.

“We were just about to scratch ‘Hickory Wind’ when somebody ran in with a piece of paper,” Parsons, who died of an overdose in 1973, recalled in an interview. “That’s the last one they saved.”

According to at least one source, the whole Hazlewood controversy just may have served as an excuse for McGuinn to do some reconsidering.

Gary Usher, who produced “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” told a publication shortly before his death in 1990 that McGuinn had overdubbed some songs because of the legal issue, but that the differences were resolved early in the process.

“So whoever sang leads on the songs were there because that’s how we wanted to slice the album up,” he said, noting McGuinn was wary “that Parsons was getting a little bit too much out of this thing. He didn’t want the album to turn into a Gram Parsons album. You just don’t take a hit group and interject a new singer for no reason.”

Whatever the true story, Columbia released “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” on Aug. 30, much to the confusion of fans who were expecting more psychedelia-tinged folk-rock along the lines of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.”

A radio commercial included in a CD re-release plays on the band’s shift in musical direction, as a couple debate whether what’s playing really is the Byrds. The spot ends with the voiceover guy unequivocally announcing:

“The Byrds take 11 trips to the country. Why not fly with them?”

Not too many record buyers did, compared with previous Byrds releases. The album peaked at No. 77 on Billboard, and in the United Kingdom, where the band had a substantial following, it failed to reach the charts.

As far as the LP tracks, the band revisits familiar territory to start Side One, covering a Bob Dylan song. This time around, though, instead of a 12-string guitar lick along the lines of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” this particular tune opens with the unmistakably country-tinged twang of guest Lloyd Green’s pedal steel guitar.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” successfully combines Dylan’s amusingly obscure lyrics with a swinging rhythm, all in a two-and-a-half minute package that also came out as the album’s first single. It performed slightly better than the LP, reaching No. 74.

On the second track, the Byrds delve fully into the country genre with the traditional “I Am a Pilgrim.” The choice of instruments veers far off the rock ‘n’ roll path, with John Hartford providing fiddle, Roy Husky on double bass and McGuinn playing banjo.

“The Christian Life” is a song by Charles and Ira Loudermilk, better known as the gospel-country duo the Louvin Brothers. Parsons brought the song to the Byrds, but McGuinn’s lead vocal ended up on the album. A comparison between the two singers shows Parsons, in a version released decades after the fact, giving “The Christian Life” a much more reverential treatment than McGuinn, who seems to put tongue in cheek for lines like “My buddies shun me since I turned to Jesus/They say I’m missing a whole world of fun.”

Stax/Volt singer William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water” received an R&B treatment in its original incarnation, as it did on Otis Redding’s cover. The Byrds’ backwoods reading originally featured Parsons’ lead vocal, but McGuinn’s appears on the album, for whichever reason the listener wants to believe. For comparison’s sake, Gram’s version has surfaced on the 1990 boxed set “The Byrds” and re-releases of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

“You’re Still On My Mind” is a honky-tonk-flavored song penned by Mississippi musician Luke McDaniel, a friend of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Parsons, who brought the song to the band, ended up with the “Sweetheart” lead vocal, regardless of his own story about the album’s making.

Woody Guthrie wrote “Pretty Boy Floyd” as a romanticized version of the infamous bank robber’s proclivity to play Robin Hood: “Well you say that I’m an outlaw, you say that I’m a thief/Well, here’s a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.” The tune perhaps is the most Byrds-like, at least compared to the band’s folk-rock origins, on the album.

Parsons actually co-wrote “Hickory Wind” with Bob Buchanan, who contributed lyrical input while the two were passengers on a train to Los Angeles. The song combines Gram’s nostalgia for his upbringing in Georgia and Florida with homesickness and disappointment on the part of both musicians:

It’s hard to find out that trouble is real
In a far away city, with a far away feel
But it makes me feel better each time it begins
Callin’ me home, hickory wind

The next album track is another Parsons composition, “One Hundred Years from Now,” although McGuinn and Hillman share the vocal on the finished product. A rehearsal version featuring Gram appears on re-releases.


Clarence White

Veteran country songwriter and singer Cindy Walker wrote “Blue Canadian Rockies” for Gene Autry’s 1952 movie of the same name. Hillman’s vocal carries the relatively straightforward love song, and future Byrds member Clarence White plays guitar.

Merle Haggard’s “Life In Prison” explores a time-honored country theme: The protagonist has murdered the love of his life. In this case, the powers that be won’t execute him, much to his chagrin: “If I die, my pain will go away.” Haggard, a former inmate, has gotten a lot of mileage out of jail-oriented songs, including the better-known “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home,” both of which were covered by the Grateful Dead.

The original LP wraps up with another Dylan composition that had not been released as of 1968, “Nothing Was Delivered.” As with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the dominant instrument is Green’s pedal steel, which opens the song on somewhat of an upbeat note before the vocals begin.

As for the subject matter, Dylan is relatively straightforward in his description of a drug deal gone bad (although nowhere near as graphic as Don “Buck Dharma” Roeser in the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Then Came the Last Day of May”). Bob’s narrator plays it cool, but his message is clear:

Nothing was delivered
But I can’t say I sympathize
With what your fate is going to be
Yes, for telling all those lies
Now you must provide some answers
For what you sold has not been received
And the sooner you come up with them
The sooner you can leave

The outtakes from the album that eventually saw the light of day include three tunes that didn’t make the album: Parsons’ “Lazy Day,” Tim Hardin’s “You Got a Reputation” and the traditional “Pretty Polly.” The latter is the sinister tale of a gambler who “courts” a young girl, then brutally murders her. Perhaps he’s related to the “Life in Prison” guy.

Although it tanked sales-wise, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” received critical praise and went on to influence myriad bands that sought to combine rock with country, most notably (from a commercial standpoint) the Eagles.

But Parsons’ stay with the band was brief. The Byrds left for London in July, wowing the crowd at a “Sounds ’68” charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall. From there, it was on to then-segregated South Africa, but without Gram.

“Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was brought up with a Negro for a brother,” Parsons later claimed. “Like all Southern families, we had maids and servants, a whole family called the Dixons that took care of us. Sammy Dixon was a little older than me, and he lived with and grew up with me, so I learned at a real close leel that segregation was just not it.”

The other Byrds weren’t buying it.

“It was total garbage,” a still-bitter Hillman told Fong-Torres. “I really wanted to murder him.”

Hillman figured Parsons wanted to hang out with new friend Keith Richards, and the Rolling Stones guitarist confirmed his role in Gram’s decision.

“I was instrumental in his leaving the Byrds,” Fong-Torres quotes Richards as admitting, “because I said, ‘Nobody goes to play in South Africa.'”

Hillman bailed out later in the year, leaving McGuinn, the band’s sole original member, to regroup around White. Drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bass player John York came aboard, but the Byrds had trouble regaining their artistic and commercial heights before breaking up in 1972.

Gram Parsons later talked Hillman into joining a new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, which recorded the de facto followup to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” for their classic debut, “The Gilded Palace of Sin.”

White, whose guitar-playing skills made him far and away the best instrumentalist the band ever had, died in 1973. While loading equipment into his car, he was hit by a drunken driver.


Gram Parsons died in Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn.

Parsons, who had recorded to “solo” albums with singing partner and future country superstar Emmylou Harris, died a few months later, on Sept. 18. He’d gone on vacation to Joshua Tree National Park in California, staying at a nondescript motel on the edge of the desert.

“Gram wasted little time in making a connection with a heroin dealer in town,” Fong-Torres wrote. “Before scoring, he drank heavily at lunch” with two women. “They sat and watched Gram chain-drink Jack Daniel’s, then drove him back to the Joshua Tree Inn. There, he found his drug connection, and in a room next to the owners’ apartment, he added heroin to his already overloaded system.”

After his death, friend Phil Kaufman, honoring some kind of pledge the two supposedly had made, stole Gram’s casket from Los Angeles International Airport and burned his body at Joshua Tree.

All that drama might have made for a good song on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

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Harry’s Hundred: 70 down, 30 to go

Posted: October 9, 2012 in Music
Tags: ,

OK, we’ve made it this far. Remember, the rankings are based on my personal regard for and familiarity with an album, in addition to its artistic achievement, making this list purely subjective:

100. “6 and 12 String Guitar” by Leo Kottke
99. “A Picture of Nectar” by Phish
98. “Mass in F Minor” by the Electric Prunes
97. “Back Into the Future” by Man
96. “Brave New World” by the Steve Miller Band
95. “Bridge of Sighs” by Robin Trower
94. “Dual Mono” by the Greenhornes
93. “Live” by Golden Earring
92. “New Riders of the Purple Sage” by New Riders of the Purple Sage
91. “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King
90. “Blue Oyster Cult” by Blue Oyster Cult
89. “Hollywood Dream” by Thunderclap Newman
88. “Mothership Connection” by Parliament
87. “Smash Your Head Against the Wall” by John Entwistle
86. “Billion Dollar Babies” by Alice Cooper
85. “Blues Helping” by Love Sculpture
84. “Stratosfear” by Tangerine Dream
83. “New Dark Ages” by the Radiators
82. “High Time” by the MC5
81. “Third” by Soft Machine
80. “Blues for Allah” by the Grateful Dead
79. “Nazz Nazz” by the Nazz
78. “Fun House” by the Stooges
77. “Elephant” by the White Stripes
76. “Marquee Moon” by Television
75. “After Bathing at Baxter’s” by Jefferson Airplane
74. “Forever Changes” by Love
73. “White Light/White Heat” by the Velvet Underground
72. “Fear of Music” by Talking Heads
71. “Spectrum” by Billy Cobham
70. “Garcia” by Jerry Garcia
69. “London Calling” by the Clash
68. “Procol Harum” by Procol Harum
67. “Blue Train” by John Coltrane
66. “Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin
65. “Vincebus Eruptum” by Blue Cheer
64. “Made in Japan” by Deep Purple
63. “Yer’ Album” by the James Gang
62. “The Gilded Palace of Sin” by the Flying Burrito Brothers
61. “The Who Sell Out” by The Who
60. “re-ac-tor” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse
59. “Truth” by Jeff Beck
58. “Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
57. “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” by Pink Floyd
56. “#1 Record” by Big Star
55. “Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part 1” by the Kinks
54. “Head Hunters” by Herbie Hancock
53. “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” by Spirit
52. “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones
51. “The Inner Mounting Flame” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra
50. “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers Band
49. “Band of Gypsys” by Jimi Hendrix
48. “Animals” by Pink Floyd
47. “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake” by the Small Faces
46. “American Beauty” by the Grateful Dead
45. “Exodus” by Bob Marley & the Wailers
44. “Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek & the Dominos
43. “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane
42. “The Band” by the Band
41. “In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis
40. “The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators” by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators
39. “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton” by John Mayall
38. “Anthem of the Sun” by the Grateful Dead
37. “Rubber Soul” by the Beatles
36. “At Fillmore East” by the Allman Brothers Band
35. “The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd
34. “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane
33. “On the Beach” by Neil Young
32. “Spirit” by Spirit
31. “Led Zeppelin II” by Led Zeppelin

“Led Zeppelin II” by Led Zeppelin (1969)

I. The Danish Connection

Gladsaxe Kommune is a small municipality on the island of Zealand, toward the easternmost part of Denmark. In 1955, it became home to a 206.5-meters-tall guyed television mast, the first TV transmission site in Denmark.

That might have served as the sole claim to fame for Gladsaxe, which today is modestly inhabited at about 62,000 people.

In the summer of 1968, whoever booked the performers for the Teen-Clubs at Gladsaxe’s Egegård Skole (school) must have figured he scored some kind of coup by scheduling the Yardbirds. The British band had scored a string of hit singles, although the last one was way back in 1966.

A couple of dozen youngsters gathered to hear the Yardbirds, unaware that what they witnessed was essentially a different group. Guitarist Jimmy Page, who had replaced Jeff Beck – himself, a replacement for Eric “Slowhand” Clapton – was the only remaining member from the band that last played as the Yardbirds on July 5 in Los Angeles. With Page were bass player John Paul Jones, who was fairly well-established around London as a session arranger and musician, and singer Robert Plant and John Bonham, a couple of 20-year-old unknowns from Britain’s Black Country.

While the teens in attendance expected to hear a typical Yardbirds set, the band instead launched into a series of blues covers, all with a common denominator: “They were so loud it almost hurt,” wrote an anonymous reviewer of the show. That especially held true during “Dazed and Confused,” a psychedelic number Page already had made famous by his use of a violin bow to produce eerie, ear-splitting sounds as Plant tried his best to replicate them with his voice.

Fans who would have preferred to hear “Still I’m Sad” and “Mr., You’re a Better Man Than I” probably left the show disappointed, as well as temporarily deaf. But they later could claim to be among the few in attendance at the very first Led Zeppelin show.

Actually, the second Led Zeppelin show took place that same evening of Sept. 7. Having wrapped up proceedings at the Teens-Club, the band packed up its equipment and headed to a venue called the Brondy Pop-Club, in nearby Brondy. Another reviewer wrote this synopsis:

“Jimmy Page has put a new band together. The music is the same, only better than ever. … Robert Plant should face some small criticism and a lot of praise for an excellent performance. There is no doubt that he is a good singer, but he doesn’t have to twist his body like he’s having a ruptured appendix, does he? Musically, the band is super-great. Their hard disciplined beat is amazing. Of course, it was foremost Jimmy Page that was responsible for this but the drummer should also be mentioned; a drum solo so wild and good is hard to find. It was so good that one almost wished that John Bonham wouldn’t stop.”

And so began one of rock ‘n’ roll’s ultimate legends, a band with music that remains in high demand nearly four and a half decades after it formed and 32 years after it came to a tragic end.


II. Your Time Is Gonna Come

The story of Led Zeppelin in the 1960s isn’t often told amid the tales of excess and debauchery that arose during following decade. Whether those are true, exaggerated or merely apocryphal matters little; the upshoot is that the term “rock star” was given a new, larger-than-life definition.

The tendency is to view Led Zeppelin as an overnight sensation, which fits to some degree: Within a year of the Gladsaxe show, the band was among the most sought-after concert attractions in rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s because Page and Zeppelin’s no-holds-barred manager, Peter Grant, came up with a plan that defied the music industry’s conventions at the time. Following the plan was going to take a lot of effort, and there was absolutely no guarantee it would work.

“Page began to patch together a grouping of songs, many of them things he’d worked on live with the Yardbirds,” explained Charles R. Cross in “Led Zeppelin: Shadows Taller Than Our Souls.” “He wanted Led Zeppelin to quickly record an album and make their mark that way, rather than cut singles or work their way up through small clubs, as most British bands did in that era.”

The Scandinavian shows represented prior commitments for the Yardbirds, and as soon as those nine gigs were finished, Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones entered Olympic Studios in London. In the span of about 36 hours, according to the guitarist, they completed their first LP, mixing and all. Page paid for the studio time, meaning economy was necessary; as Jimmy recalled, that arrangement also assured another important aspect of the recording. He told Guitar World magazine in a 1993 interview:

I wanted artistic control in a vice grip, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with these fellows. In fact, I financed and completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic (Records). … It wasn’t your typical story where you get an advance to make an album. We arrived at Atlantic with tapes in hand. … Atlantic’s reaction was very positive, I mean, they signed us, didn’t they?

At any rate, the studio bill came to the equivalent of about $3,000, which represented a substantial sum for a 24-year-old musician. (It still does.) Fortunately, Grant and Page had been dealing with Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006), who had the foresight to recognize the band’s commercial potential and provided Led Zeppelin a $200,000 advance.

Now, that was substantial, considering no other rock act had received anything approaching that before, and Page’s project was barely known outside of the fans who had started attending shows finally using the Led Zeppelin name. The press derided Ertegun’s leap of faith, starting a rocky relationship with Page that lasted for decades.

Meanwhile, Zeppelin was playing mainly university gigs around England, to mixed reaction, especially with regard to Plant’s vocal antics. On Dec. 10, the band performed at the Marquee, one of London’s major clubs, and a reviewer noted as T. Wilson expressed some common complaints:

They are now very much a heavy music group. … Amp troubles didn’t help them on this particular occasion but there seemed to be a tendency for too much volume which inevitably defeats musical definition. … Drummer Bonham is forceful, perhaps too much so, and generally there appears to be a need for Led Zeppelin to cut down on volume a bit.


III. Across the Ocean

With only about 20 shows performed to that point, Led Zeppelin embarked on its first American tour, starting the day after Christmas at the Auditorium Arena in Denver. The once-grand building opened in 1908 as the second-largest arena in the nation, after Madison Square Garden, and it hosted the Democratic National Convention that year. By 1968, the building served as the home of the Denver Rockets (later Nuggets) professional basketball team and as the city’s largest indoor concert venue.

The Dec. 26 concert featured Vanilla Fudge, which had scored a massive hit with a proto-metal cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” but was having trouble finding focus as 1968 drew to a close. The band had opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience during part of its tour earlier in the year, and it has been conjectured that certain “businessmen” in the Fudge’s native New York put forth some kind of ultimatum to the Hendrix management to make the necessary arrangements.

Also on the Denver bill was Spirit, a highly innovative Los Angeles-based group with 17-year-old guitarist Randy California, a Hendrix bandmate before he hit it big. Among Spirit’s more popular numbers was a song called “Fresh Garbage,” the riff from which would end up as part of Led Zeppelin’s repertoire.

As for Zeppelin, Grant’s design was for the band to gain as much exposure as possible in the United States, which represented an exponentially larger commercial market than Britain. He also conjectured that American fans would be more receptive to highly amplified, blues-based music than their English equivalents.

That seemed to be the case in Denver, as recalled by promoter Barry Fey in his 2011 autobiography, “Backstage Past”:

The night of the concert, I get on stage to make the announcement to open the show. “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome, direct from England for their North America debut, Led Zeppelin!”

There was a smattering of polite applause. Then, Robert Plant let it rip and everybody in the audience was stunned. Frankly, I don’t know how Spirit went on after that. You didn’t have to be a genius to know Zeppelin was going to be a smash. Oh, my God. People were going crazy!

The next morning, I get a call from Max Floyd, the program director at the Denver FM rock station, KLZ. “Who did you have on last night? Our phone lines are jammed!”

The band had given me a white copy of their album, one that hadn’t been released yet. I took the album to the radio station and they played it continuously, all day.

The tour package, still headlined by Vanilla Fudge, continued to the Northwest. For the Dec. 29 show in Portland, Ore., the billing was “Special Guests: Led Zeppilen, featuring Jimmy Page,” the first time the named of the band had been used, albeit misspelled, for promotional purposes.

At the start of 1969, the band headed down the coast for its first California shows, playing three nights at the Whisky a Go Go. The famed Sunset Strip club had served as a springboard for many of the era’s notable Los Angeles bands, including the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love and the Mothers of Invention.

Led Zeppelin’s first headlining performances were at the Whisky, with another band that would create its own legend in the ’70s, Alice Cooper, opening. Then it was back up the coast for three nights at an even more prestigious venue, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco.

Despite Page and possibly others suffering from the flu, the band made an impression on the Fillmore crowds during its four-night run, creating a buzz throughout a city that had a tremendous influence on music at the time. Zeppelin’s frenetic take on the blues provided quite a contrast in styles compared with the laid-back, country blues of opener Taj Mahal and the psychedelic jam sessions of headliner Country Joe & the Fish.

The day of the final Fillmore show, Atlantic released the LP “Led Zeppelin,” from the October Olympic sessions. “Good Times, Bad Times” was released as a single in the United States, back with “Communication Breakdown,” both original compositions. No singles were released in England, in 1969 or at any time throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.

Meanwhile, the band headed east, braving a snowstorm to play in America’s heartland, at the University of Iowa. William L. Seavey wrote this review:

Jimmy Page, a former member of the Yardbirds, is group leader, although the way he slinked around the stage hunched paralytically over his guitar he didn’t look the part. But leader or not, he is one incredible talent. He is to the electric guitar what Adres Segovia is to the classical guitar or Chet Atkins to the folk guitar. …

John Bonham, drums, is said to have created a sensation with his solos when he accompanied Tim Rose on and England tour last year. Wednesday night he turned the trick again as he captivated the audience with what must have been 15 minutes of percussional gymnastics.

Robert Plant is the Janis Joplin of the group, a blues belter par excellence who is in indefatigable despite a voice constantly strained to its limitations.

These three have the makings of idols, although perhaps not as the Zeppelin. They seem to lack identity as a group, although that is not to say they are uncompelling. But with time and material they could command quite as much attention as some of the established groups do.


IV. Destroyer

Amid such accolades, the band arrived in Detroit, which already had established a proto-metal identity with the likes of the MC5, the Amboy Dukes and the Stooges. The more seasoned members of the Motor City press weren’t as kind to Page and company, but they did admit the band had an abundance of potential.

Word hadn’t spread to the D.C. area, where a reported 55 audience members showed up for a concert at the Wheaton (Md.) Youth Center on the day Richard Nixon was inaugurated. Perhaps the more enlightened rock fans in the area were drowning their sorrows.

In Boston, Led Zeppelin received a tremendous response, with Jones later asserting that Grant felt the shows at the Boston Tea Party club convinced him the band truly was headed in the right direction.

The LP had reached the Top 20 – on the strength of FM Radio play, hearsay and certainly the stunning cover photo depicting the Hindenburg disaster – by the time the group reached New York for a run at Graham’s Fillmore East, opening for Iron Butterfly, whose “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” album would remain the top-selling album in Atlantic’s catalog until Zeppelin put an end to that. London’s New Musical Express reported: “As expected, Led Zeppelin destroyed the audience at the Fillmore East last weekend. Second show Friday night they remained onstage for 90 minutes of absolutely incredible musicianship up and down the entire blues scene.”

The tour continued in Toronto, then in Chicago, where Led Zeppelin debuted an extended version of Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” with a section featuring Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” riff. The tour’s final show was in Baltimore, and the band headed back to England having made quite the impression on its massive target audience.

Bonham, Jones, Plant and Page kept the momentum going after their return to Europe, playing some U.K. gigs and doing their first recording for the BBC on March 3. Incredibly, the band duplicated its Gladsaxe Teens-Club and Brondby Pop-Club doubleheader on March 15, with the Danes theoretically knowing the difference between the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin this time around. Two days later, the band did a television appearance in Copenhagen, a performance that appears on the “Led Zeppelin” two-DVD set, released in 2003.

When the group returned to the United States the following month, it headed all the way to San Francisco for two shows each at the Fillmore West and Graham’s larger local venue, Winterland. The April 24 Fillmore show is the best-sounding audio recording to emerge from the ’69 tours, featuring the definitive “As Long As I Have You.”

On April 26, the band debuted a tune based on blues composer Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” with Plant wailing the line that would become the song’s title in the Led Zeppelin catalog.

“Whole Lotta Love” was part of a set of recordings on which the band had been working on since January, ducking into studios between gigs in the United States, Canada and England. With the heavy touring schedule Grant had arranged for them, Bonham, Jones, Page and Plant had no time for the type of hiatus usually associated with recording an album. But in the ’60s, artists were expected to deliver at least a couple of LPs per year, and with Led Zeppelin already a proven commodity, it made sense to keep the momentum going.

Fortunately, the band was displaying no shortage of creativity.

“Jimmy’s riffs were coming fast and furious,” Jones recalled in the liner notes for the “Led Zeppelin” CD boxed set, released in 1990. “A lot of them came from onstage, especially during the long improvised section of ‘Dazed and Confused.’ We’d remember the good stuff and dart into a studio along the way.”

Cross wrote:

This piecemeal approach necessitated that they carry the master tapes with them everywhere they traveled as an extra piece of carry-on luggage. When even a few hours in their schedule would free up, they would book a nearby studio, rush in for a quick session and then head off to their next concert commitment.

The commitments continued at a brisk pace, with Led Zeppelin playing a series of further concerts on the West Coast, including a whirlwind trip to Hawaii, before heading back to the Midwest and closing the second American tour with three return dates at the Boston Tea Party and two at the Fillmore East.

Work on the forthcoming album continued as the band scurried around England throughout June. At the start of July, it was back to the USA for the Atlanta Pop Festival, Newport Jazz Festival and Laurel (Md.) Pop Festival. Then came Pennsylvania’s Zeppelin debut, at the Summer Pop Festival in Philadelphia’s Spectrum, alongside the likes of Johnny Winter, Jethro Tull and Buddy Guy.

The latest U.S. continued throughout August, with Led Zeppelin playing numerous festivals – hey, this was 1969! – but not the one that took place Aug. 15-18 at Yasgur’s Farm in Sullivan County, N.Y. Grant had been offered a slot at Woodstock, but instead opted for a higher-paying gig at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, N.J. Somehow, that night’s opening act, Joe Cocker, made it to New Jersey after his afternoon set that was captured for posterity in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” movie.

This being 1969, Led Zeppelin also experienced problems with sound systems that couldn’t quite keep up with the bombast, especially at some of the festivals. At the State Fair Coliseum in Dallas, Plant announced the band wouldn’t be playing at the forthcoming Texas International Pop Festival, then corrected himself. But problems prevented the audience, which had gotten into an uproar, from hearing the correction.

When the band did perform at the festival in oven-like conditions on the last day of August, Plant gave a brief apology about the misunderstanding, as heard in a high-quality audio recording of the event. Led Zeppelin played only five songs, but the set goes on for more than an hour, capturing the excitement the band was bringing to each performance as it made new fans by the tens of thousands.


V. “Led Zeppelin II”

Amid all the touring, the band finally wrapped up recording and producing the new album before heading back to England on Sept. 1. With the debut firmly ensconced in the charts, Atlantic had no trouble promoting the upcoming release of what eventually hit the shelves as “Led Zeppelin II.”

In fact, some 400,000 advance orders had come in by the time the album finally appeared, on Oct. 22. By that time, Led Zeppelin had embarked on yet another American tour, its fourth of the year. It started with this gig, as noted by reviewer J. Harris:

Led Zeppelin became the first hard rock act to play Carnegie Hall since the Rolling Stones tore the place up some five years ago. Even up against Donovan at Madison Square Garden (a complete sellout), both of Zepppelin’s shows went clean, with tickets being scalped as much as twice their original price!

Though the management was uptight at half the audience dancing on top of their seats, and tried desperately to control the encores, the group managed to pull off one of the most exciting performances ever. They featured a selection of material from their new album, in addition to Jimmy Page’s haunting “White Summer” solo and Bonzo’s 25-minute attack on the skins.

The album performed along the same lines as the concerts, knocking the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” out of the No. 1 spot on the American charts and going straight to the top in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain and Germany. (It peaked at No. 2 in Norway.) The single version of “Whole Lotta Love” reached No. 4 in the United States and became one of the top-selling 45s of 1970. Even its B-side, “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” went to No. 65.

Some critics, though, tore heavily into “Led Zeppelin II.” Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn, for example, wrote that “it seems as if it’s just one especially heavy song extended over the space of two whole sides” while derisively referring to Page “the absolute No. 1 heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world.”

A major point of contention was Led Zeppelin’s authorship of the music. As mentioned, “Whole Lotta Love” sounds somewhat like “You Need Love,” as recorded by Muddy Waters and, with a slightly different title, England’s the Small Faces. “The Lemon Song” basically is a combination of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues,” and part of “Bring It On Home” is loosely based on a Sonny Boy Williamson II tune.

But a closer examination reveals a majority of the album’s songs as being cut from original cloth: “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Thank You,” “Ramble On” and especially “Heartbreaker.”

And even the supposed pieces of plagiarism are far removed from the originals. No one had come up with a riff resembling “Whole Lotta Love” before, and it remains one of the best-known guitar figures in rock history. The song’s middle section certainly is unlike anything on any blues album, a free-form splurge combining Page’s pyrotechnics, Plant’s otherworldly vocals and a whole lotta special effects into a package that serves as the definitive bridge between psychedelia and hard rock.

Plant’s a cappella “Way down inside, woman, you need …,” echoing itself as it bleeds through the various recording tracks, also has endured as one of rock’s defining moments, leading back into the main theme and Plant’s couldn’t-quite-be-censored “Shake for me, girl, I wanna be your back-door man.” Yeah, those lyrics had been heard before, but never quite like this.

“What Is and What Should Never Be” starts as a ballad, one of the first sets of lyrics composed by Plant, about a romance with his wife’s younger sister. The song contains one of Page’s more lyrical solos, performed on his ’59 Gibson Les Paul, before shifting gears into a hard-rock outro, complete with Plant’s rapid-fire delivery of words, a sheer counterpoint to the earlier tone of the song.

“Thank You” is an even more gentle tune, one that Mendelsohn apparently missed when he was giving the album a listen for his Rolling Stone piece. Plant delivers a mature set of lyrics – a tribute to his wife, Maureen – supported by Jones on Hammond organ and Page on 12-string guitar. Jimmy also sings some backing vocals, a rarity among Zeppelin recordings.

The LP’s second side opens with “Heartbreaker,” the song that, in retrospect, establishes Led Zeppelin as a major contributor on the path toward heavy metal. Page’s monster riff combines with Plant’s energized vocals and Bonham’s frenetic drumming to establish a true template for the genre.

Then everyone drops out, and Page launches into an unaccompanied solo, one that he improvised on the spot, showing the range of his chops in a minute-and-a-half burst. Aspiring guitarists have been attempting to emulate him ever since.

Bonham and Jones return for a power-trio romp before Plant comes back in with the vocals. The track ends abruptly, with Plant’s vocal intro to “Living Loving Maid” popping up almost immediately.

“Ramble On” serves as an early display of the band’s interest in mysticism, as the lyrics invoke J.R.R. Tolkien:

Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,
My freedom I hold dear;
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air,
‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her

Instrumentally, the song is notable for Jones’ melodic bass playing intertwining with Bonham’s percussion, although there is some debate as to what exactly Bonzo was playing when the song was recorded; it may have been a small plastic wastebasket or the soles of his shoes.

There’s no doubt that he bashes his trusty drum kit on “Moby Dick,” his answer to Ginger Baker’s “Toad” with Cream. Bonham had been performing solos from the band’s early days as “Pat’s Delight,” named for his wife, before the catchy Page-Jones riff made it way into the proceedings.

“Bring It On Home” starts as a mellow, harmonica-based blues, as Plant does his best Williamson impression. In a dramatic sweep, Page comes in with yet another epic guitar riff, transforming the song into a metallic rampage before it wraps up by easing into Plant’s harp-blowing once more.

Much of “Led Zeppelin II” has become so familiar over the decades that it’s difficult to appreciate the album’s various innovations, its advanced-for-the-time production techniques, the subtly of its instrumental dynamics and the influence it had on popular music of the ’70s.

“Spirit” by Spirit (1968)

In the summer of 1966, Randy Craig Wolfe was a 15-year-old kid with a strong interest in music and a family to match: His uncle Ed Pearl ran the Ash Grove club in his native Los Angeles, and Ed Cassidy, the man who’d recently married Randy’s mother, had been a professional drummer since the ’30s.

Ed, then 42, had taken his new family to New York City so that he could find more work, and Randy, an aspiring guitarist, started hanging out at the legendary Manny’s Music on West 48th Street. Perhaps he was hoping to see someone famous; according to a New York Times article published when Manny’s closed in 2009, “The store hit its heyday in the 1960s, when British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who made Manny’s a must-stop destination upon landing in America. ”

Instead, he met another young, out-of-state guitarist, a black guy from Seattle. As Randy recalled:

He was in the back of the store playing a Strat. Our eyes caught each other, and I asked him if I could show him some things I learned on the guitar. He then gave me the Strat and I played slide guitar. He really liked it and invited me down that night, which I believe was his first night of this gig at the Cafe Wha?

The band, billed as Jimmy James & the Blue Flames, had a bass player who also was named Randy. So the guitarist started referring to them by their home states, Randy Texas (Palmer) and Randy California (Wolfe).

Jimmy James, of course, turned out to be James Marshall Hendrix, and he started teaching Wolfe some of his own favorite chops.

“I know he showed me the chords to ‘Hey Joe,’ because I had never heard that before,” Wolfe reminisced, as quoted in Johnny Black’s “Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience.”

Cafe Wha? is where Hendrix met Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith, who in turn introduced Jimi to Animals bass player Chas Chandler, who in turn was looking to get into the management side. The rest is history, as Hendrix went with Chandler to his native U.K. and to superstardom … without Wolfe. As Chandler told Black:

Jimi genuinely wanted to bring Randy to England, but I was adamant that he made space between them. I said, “How the fuck am I going to get a visa for a 15-year-old, anyway? Do you understand what implications there are with something like that? You just don’t do it.

And so Randy was left with this observation:

One day I arrived to find that Jimi’d split for England. That was the end of it.

But Hendrix’s desertion didn’t deter Wolfe from his pursuit of music. After his family moved back to Los Angeles, he met up with some musicians he’d played with as the Red Roosters prior to the extended New York stay. They got back together, this time with Ed as the drummer, and with a new name: Spirits Rebellious, from a Khalil Gibran book. Plus Randy kept the name Jimi had given him, now professionally known as Randy California.

The five-piece band – also including vocalist Jay Ferguson, bass player Mark Andes and keyboard player John Locke – eventually shortened its name to Spirit and started drawing a decent following around the L.A. clubs. In an era of increased musical experimentation, Spirit drew from a variety of influences for a cross between acoustic folk, early jazz-rock fusion, hard blues-based rock, wowing audiences with its ability to mix tight song structures with long, technically advanced improvisation.

One such vehicle for improvisation was a song Locke composed called “Elijah.” Spirit recorded an 11-minute version as part of its demo tape, made available some 25 years later on an anthology called “Chronicle” by an obscure Canadian label. The songs on the tape, although poorly recorded, helped the band draw interest from record companies.

One of those was Ode Records, a fledgling label formed by music entrepreneur Lou Adler after he sold his Dunhill label to ABC. Although he later signed Carole King as a solo artist – she recorded the landmark, top-selling “Tapestry” for Ode – and launched the record- and movie-making career of Cheech & Chong, Adler’s first release for his new venture was Spirit’s debut album.

The album came out in January 1968 amid a wildly eclectic musical landscape, one that had broadened during the decade to embrace all kinds of styles. As such, “Spirit” seemed to have something for everyone, what with its musicians’ variety of influences and, perhaps directly related, the age range of its members (Ed was 44, Randy 16).

Perhaps there was too much diversity within the grooves. The LP did peak at No. 31, but at a time when singles dominated the market, Spirit’s initial offering, an odd dirge called “Mechanical World,” went nowhere.

Among albums released in 1968, though, “Spirit” has aged extremely well, as many of its compositions sound not the least bit dated nearly 45 years later.

The message put forth in the album opener, “Fresh Garbage,” certainly still rings true. The lyrics are short and to the point: “Look beneath your lid this morning/See those things you didn’t quite consume/The world’s a can for your fresh garbage.” Ferguson was inspired by a trash collectors’ strike to write the song, but its environmental implications proved to be ahead of the curve.

Musically, the song features a memorable riff, one that might sound familiar to heavy-duty Led Zeppelin fans: It was used by that band during performances of Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” during early Zeppelin concerts, some of which as the opening act for Spirit.

The bridge of “Fresh Garbage” demonstrates that Spirit is no ordinary band. The song abruptly breaks into a peppy, piano-driven section that reaches a multi-instrumental crescendo before returning to the main theme, over which Ferguson repeats the lyrics.

By contrast, Ferguson’s “Uncle Jack” is a relatively straightforward rocker, although what he sings is somewhat enigmatic: “‘So many lives to live,’ I heard him say/’But some people live to give themselves away, to find peace of mind, waiting where they can’t get it'” The song is the only one from Spirit’s August 1967 sessions to make it to the LP; the remainder was recorded between Nov. 9 and 17.

From left: Ed Cassidy (b. 1923), Randy California (1951-97), John Locke (1943-2006)

About “Mechanical World,” California later wrote:

Mark was very ill with the flu and was confined to his room for weeks, making him feel very depressed and mechanical. Towards the end of his sickness, Jay could be seen sneaking in and out of Mark’s room with guitar in hand. When Mark finally came out, there was a brand new song. The group really collaborated on this track, and everyone was happy to see Mark smiling and healthy again.

As for the song, it lurches along spouting lyrics that reflect a sick person’s outlook: “Death falls so heavy on my soul/Death falls so heavy, makes me moan/Somebody tell my father that I died/Somebody tell my mother that I cried.” Even with that baggage and its clocking in at more than 5 minutes, it became the single, perhaps because of the money spent by Adler on its orchestral arrangement.

The orchestra returns for “Taurus,” an instrumental that serves as California’s first solo composition. Since 1971, conjecture has been rampant that Led Zeppelin copped part of the melody for none other than “Stairway to Heaven”; the listener is the ultimate judge. California simply had this to say:

Written for my first love, Robin. She was a Taurus. But I must also mention the perfect astrological balance of the band with two Tauri (Cass and Jay), two Pisces (Randy and Mark) and one Libra (John).

Now, that sounds like 1968!

Ferguson’s “Girl in Your Eye” perhaps is the most 1968-sounding track on the album, with its incorporation of the sitar and orchestral sweeps. California’s pioneering use of feedback sustain, however, is used to great effect to counteract some of the period elements.

“Straight Arrow” is a fun piece that Ferguson wrote about Keith Andes, Mark’s father, an actor who inspired the composition with his performance as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” Again, the song takes a jazzy sidetrack in the middle before returning to its main theme.

The lyrics for the most part evoke a Western-type hero, with one line standing out: “Watch what you do because Straight Arrow watches you.” Spirit would revisit that line of thinking on California’s seemingly paranoiac “1984,” a song that climbed up the charts in early 1970 before radio play ceased for no apparent reason. So, who was being paranoid? …

The “Spirit” album continues with the ultra-heady “Topanga Windows,” which features some of Ferguson’s most catchy wordplay: “People searching for a better season, trying to catch their moment on the run/Always asking wanting what’s the reason, what do you want when you just want to have some fun?” The song’s languid, dreamlike pace picks up substantially in the middle, bolstered by California’s double-tracked guitar, again putting the teenager’s tremendous talent on full display.

“Gramophone Man,” the album’s sole group composition, chronicles a common plight among musicians: meeting with record-company executives who care only about sales, not who might be doing the performing. The message is conveyed in a sly manner: “And watch the time, the world is waiting, give a tune for Mr. Gramophone Man/Jack and Jill falling down off their hill, singing songs for Mr. Gramophone Man.”

Ferguson contributes two brief compositions, “Water Woman” and “The Great Grand Canyon Fire in General,” that lead up to the album’s conclusion. The latter is interesting for its allusions to an actual Los Angeles event, “a big summer fire that burned about half of Topanga Canyon,” California wrote. “Our yellow house was saved, but everyone had to evacuate and spend a week camping at the beach.”

Poor guys.

“Elijah” clocks in at nearly 11 minutes on the LP version, allowing the various members to show their chops. California wrote about its serving as a concert extravaganza:

Some of the more memorable solos I recall were Jay and Mark pulling out two chairs center stage and facing each other doing the “hambone,” a two-man, hand-slappin’, thigh-hittin’ rhythmic affair. On John’s solo, he often would use a hand-held, breath-controlled keyboard that sounded like a sax. …

Sometimes I would do my guitar solo by turning my amp off and playing acoustically right on the microphone. Our audiences were great – you could hear a pin drop.

“Elijah” probably worked better as performance art than as an album track, but it does present a clear picture of each of the musicians’ capabilities. California’s section is a bit disappointing considering his groundbreaking work on most of the rest of “Spirit,” but he certainly acquits himself well, particularly considering his age at the time.

For fans of rock’s psychedelic era, “Spirit” is a real treat in that it doesn’t have to go to great lengths to offer a cerebral listening experience. Even the orchestration, something Spirit never again integrated, is subtle enough to serve pretty much as an auxiliary instrument, rather than tending to drown out the proceedings.

Perhaps it didn’t resonate with the record-buying public, or for posterity, as did the albums recorded around the same time by California’s former bandmate.

But Hendrix continued to hold Spirit in high regard until the end of his life, always acknowledging the role that young Randy Wolfe played in Jimi’s salad days.

“On the Beach” by Neil Young (1974)

As far back as 1967, Neil Young expressed in song his ambiguity about fame. Stephen Stills’ “For What Its Worth” had put Buffalo Springfield on the charts, becoming an anthem for the era with its us-vs.-them rhetoric.

Young’s answer to his band’s success was “Mr. Soul,” a witty, self-deprecating look at “the thought that I caught that my head was the event of the season.” He frankly admitted to his quirkiness, even at age 21, with the key line: “She said, you’re strange, but don’t change, and I let her.”

He went on to display flashes of eccentricity with the advanced sound collage “Broken Arrow,” which joined “Mr. Soul” on the tremendous “Buffalo Springfield Again” album, and certainly with the bizarre imagery of “Last Trip to Tulsa” on Young’s solo debut. But he’d played it relatively straight during the first round of his collaboration with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and on his own next three albums, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” “After the Gold Rush” and “Harvest.”

By the time of the latter’s release in 1972, Young had become a bona fide rock star, a status that was cemented when both “Harvest” and the AM-friendly single “Heart of Gold” reached No. 1.

His immediate followup was the two-record soundtrack to a barely watchable film called “Journey Through the Past,” featuring Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performances, along with “Harvest”-era outtakes and some true oddities, including versions of Handel’s “Messiah,” performed by the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation Orchestra & Chorus, and the Beach Boys doing “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.”

“Journey Through the Past” has remained out of print since its initial release, disappointing fans who might want to hear the side-length version of “Words (Between the Lines of Age).”

As 1972 drew to a close, it was without guitarist Danny Whitten, his Crazy Horse compatriot (and the subject of “The Needle and the Damage Done”). Whitten had planned to join Young’s backing band, the Stray Gators, but was in no shape to play. On Nov. 18, 1972, he died of a heroin overdose.

With that cloud hanging over his head, and with an apparent disdain for hitting the top of the charts, Young went on tour with a repertoire that concentrated on newer, darker material. Fans weren’t positive about the switch in material, and Young, himself, experienced physical and emotional problems while on the road, culminating in a throat infection toward the end of the tour.

Despite the difficulties, Reprise Records, hoping to keep the Neil Young gravy train rolling, culled live recordings from the tour, added one from 1971 and released the package as “Time Fades Away.” Fans who expected a standard live album of hits instead found unfamiliar songs amid a sludgy mix, the result of Young insisting on an early digital system that didn’t prove reliable. (Producer David Briggs referred to it as the “Compufuck.”)

As Young later explained about “Time Fades Away” in the liner notes to his anthology “Decade” (1977):

No songs from this album are included here. It was recorded on my biggest tour ever, 65 shows in 90 days. Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while. I was becoming more interested in an audio verite approach than satisfying the public demands for a repetition of ‘Harvest.’

On the strength of “Harvest,” though, the live album peaked at No. 22 and ended up selling more than a million copies. Like “Journey Through the Past,” it never has been released on compact disc.

On Aug. 26, 1973, Young gathered musicians to record an album’s worth of songs he’d written about drugs and depression, influenced by the deaths of Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. Reprise bigwigs gasped at the idea of releasing such material on the heels of “Times Fade Away,” and the project was shelved.

Three months later, Young tried again, recording at his Arrow Ranch in Woodside, Calif., with a small group of session men. According to “Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography” by Jimmy McDonough, the musicians consumed a homemade concoction dubbed “Honey Slides,” sautéd marijuana and honey. Perhaps that enlivened the proceedings, but the songs again were pretty much on the bleak side. Reprise had to go with a proper follow-up to “Harvest” after two full years, and on July 16, 1974, “On the Beach” hit the shelves.

Record buyers probably enjoyed the enigmatic cover art, which includes a ’59 Cadillac half-buried in the sand. But most weren’t quite prepared for the music.

“Walk On” starts the album with its most accessible composition, featuring a relatively upbeat tempo and a suitably harmonized chorus: “Ooh baby, that’s hard to change, I can’t tell them how to feel/Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later it all gets real.”

That statement sets the tone for the rest of the way, as Young explores a variety of topics through somber lyrics with sparse accompaniment. The result is a revelatory statement that subtly draws the listener into the composer’s bleak frame of mind, evoking images of fear, dejection and hopelessness.

Of course, Neil had treaded those waters before. His “Ohio” stands as perhaps having the longest shelf life for a song written about a specific event, still receiving plenty of airplay going on 43 years after the National Guard killings at Kent State.

The drama inherent in the recording of “Ohio” is muted throughout “On the Beach,” as is evidenced by its second song, “See the Sky About to Rain.” Young’s Wurlitzer electric piano combines with Ben Keith’s steel guitar to form a dreary soundscape, over which Neil sings in his high-pitched study in melancholia: “See the sky about to rain, broken clouds and rain/Locomotive, pull the train, whistle blowing through my brain.”

The song wraps up with a line that’s become legendary in its anti-establishment stance, with Young even using part of it as the name for his publishing company: “I was down in Dixie Land, played a silver fiddle/Played it loud and then the Man broke it down the middle.”

That imagery seems positively glowing compared with what follows, perhaps the most unnerving song in Neil Young’s overwhelmingly vast catalog, and that’s saying a lot.

“Revolution Blues” tells the story of Charlie Manson’s “family” through their eyes, which is a chilling approach in as of itself. But Young also managed to convey the attitude that such grisly events aren’t a onetime occurrence, that they can happen at any time. Young is in his creepiest vocal form as he narrates as much as sings:

Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town
You never see us ’cause we don’t come around.
We got 25 rifles just to keep the population down …

Well, I’m a barrel of laughs, with my carbine on
I keep ’em hoppin’ ’til my ammunition’s gone
But I’m still not happy, I feel like there’s something wrong

I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains
And 10 million dune buggies comin’ down the mountains
Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars,
But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars

Wow. Try sleeping after you listen to that.

At first listen, “For the Turnstiles” seems to alleviate the tension, with its simple, banjo-and-dobro arrangement. But then Neil launches into another diatribe about the seamy side of life, about desperation: “Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter.” That sense deepens as the song arrives at this stunning piece of imagery that provides the title: “All the bush-league batters are left to die on the diamond/In the stands, the home crowd scatters for the turnstiles.”

Perhaps it was Family Night for the Mansons at the ballgame?

“Vampire Blues,” written in response to the first Energy Crisis, has a subject matter that should have been relegated to its own time. But like “Ohio,” it persists, this time simply because nothing much has changed in the past 39 years:

I’m a vampire, babe, suckin’ blood from the earth
I’m a vampire, baby, suckin’ blood from the earth
Well, I’m a vampire, babe, sell you 20 barrels’ worth

I’m a black bat, babe, bangin’ on your window pane
I’m a black bat, baby, bangin’ on your window pane
Well, I’m a black bat, babe, I need my high octane

Structured as a 12-bar blues, the song crawls at a sinister pace, with the imagery strengthened by the tone of Neil’s guitar, which he seems to scratch more than play.

Listeners who made it through the first side of the LP may have left it sit on the turntable and gone on to happier pursuits. But the adventurous among them flipped it over and heard the title track.

“On the Beach” is a blues at an even slower tempo than “Vampire Blues,” mostly consisting of minor chords. Interestingly, the major motif that appears in the middle of each verse adds an eerie contrast, as if some kind of relief seems to be on the way but never comes.

Lyrically, Young sums up the song’s theme of everyman’ misery with this key verse: “Though my problems are meaningless, that don’t make them go away.”

Actress Carrie Snodgress (1945-2004), best known for her Academy Award-nominated role in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” was Young’s longtime girlfriend when he wrote “Motion Pictures (For Carrie).” On the surface, the largely acoustic piece would seemed to stray a bit from the overall theme of “On the Beach,” as Neil notes how he’s happy not to be on the Silver Screen. But once more, he goes further to reveal his insecurities: “Well, all those headlines, they just bore me now/I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow/And I’ll stand before you, and I’ll bring a smile to your eyes.”

The album’s longest track, “Ambulance Blues,” also its closing number, an encapsulation of the angst throughout “On the Beach.” For nearly nine minutes, Young chronicles a journey through devastation and deception, with this warning about so many people he had met in the entertainment business:

I never knew a man could tell so many lies
He had a different story for every set of eyes
How can he remember who he’s talking to?
Cause I know it ain’t me, and hope it isn’t you

Combine that with the climactic line – “And there ain’t nothin’ like a friend who can tell you, you’re just pissin’ in the wind” – and Neil Young has the last word on how having a No. 1 record ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“On the Beach” didn’t quite make No. 1. It peaked at No. 16 and always was among Young’s poorest-selling efforts.

Reprise ended up releasing “Tonight’s the Night” in 1975 to ecstatic critical reception, but the momentum established by “Harvest” was lost. But that’s quite OK with Neil Young fans who consider some of his lesser-known albums to be more rewarding than the top-sellers.