Posts Tagged ‘country rock’

Well, it’s been over a year, with some long delays between posts. But we’re heading into the home stretch.

To repeat my disclaimer: The rankings are purely subjective, based on my respect for an album’s merits and how much I enjoy listening to it. Plus I’m striving to include a large variety of artists, meaning some would seem to get shortchanged in a way. For example, as I’ve noted, a great majority of Beatles albums deserve to be on any “top 100” list, but I wanted to acknowledge the Mans and Loves of the musical world, too!

Of the final 20 albums, many will have you nodding in agreement; others will have you scratching your heads. I will say that I pretty much formulated my opinions on these recordings decades ago, and if that makes me a “dinosaur” … hey, proud of it!

Here’s what we have so far:

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
30. “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by the Byrds
29. “Beggars Banquet” by the Rolling Stones
28. “Bringing It All Back Home” by Bob Dylan
27. “Hot Rats” by Frank Zappa
26. “Roger the Engineer” by the Yardbirds
25. “The Basement Tapes” by Bob Dylan & The Band
24. “Revolver” by the Beatles
23. “Are You Experienced?” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
22. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
21. “The Doors” by the Doors
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“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.”

“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.

“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane (1969)

What seems relatively tame today was pushing the envelope 40-some years ago.

Such was the case with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” which raised a small series of controversies with its release at the tail end of the ’60s.

The Airplane had put San Francisco on the musical map with its 1967 hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and the landmark “White Rabbit.” The latter, with its lyrics alluding to the fanciful imagery of Lewis Carroll and its connection to modern-day drug use, eventually drawing specific condemnation from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for its supposedly detrimental influence on the youth of America. (Agnew, of course, later pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned, paving the way for Gerald Ford to become president without actually being elected to anything having to do with the Executive Branch.)

With “Volunteers,” the Airplane seemed to aim for being a detrimental influence, at least with regard to people of Agnew’s ilk.

First, there’s the album cover, which features the band dressed in outlandish costumes against the backdrop of a U.S. flag. Remember, that was long before the Stars and Stripes became wardrobe fare, and the image of a decidedly strange-looking rock ‘n’ roll band coupled with the Stars and Stripes tended to rub the average American the wrong way.

The back cover is highly irreverent, as well, and it’s fun to study: a sendup of a newspaper page from the fictional Paz, S.D., complete with a Question of the Day, “What Is Your Favorite Stripe on the Flag?” Again, that’s hallowed ground, but responses include Grace Slick’s “Point that thing somewhere else,” Marty Balin’s “What flag?” and Paul Kanter’s “Michoucan.”

There there are the songs, themselves. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is nothing short of a call to arms: “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we, are we are/And we are very proud of ourselves,” which leads into the epic line “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” the first time that particular word appeared on record. Slick’s “Eskimo Blue Day” violates another taboo with “Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”

The Airplane’s record company, not surprisingly, wasn’t overjoyed.

“RCA felt that some retail chains might boycott the album for any of the above reasons, to which the Airplane responded that record stores like that sucked anyway, so who cares?” Jeff Tamarkin wrote in “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.”

Whatever the case, the album sold briskly after its November 1969 release, staying on the Billboard chart for 44 weeks. Record buyers seemed to agree with reviewer Ed Leimbacher, who wrote for Ramparts: “In terms of sheer music, ‘Volunteers’ is the greatest Airplane album yet; they may have taken off four years ago, but they didn’t reach the stratosphere till now.”

The theme set by the album cover and the opening track, “We Can Be Together,” seems to peg “Volunteers” as some kind of countercultural rant. But the songs display a remarkable amount of diversity, touching on the band’s folk roots (“Good Shepherd,” “Turn My Life Down” and “Wooden Ships”), country-rock (“The Farm” and “A Song for All Seasons”) and even proto-metal (“Eskimo Blue Day” and Hey Fredrick”).

Kantner built “We Can Be Together” and the song “Volunteers” on the same banjo-derived riff, which works particularly well with the latter. Balin had his only co-composer credits of the album on “Volunteers,” and RCA released it as a single. It peaked at only No. 65 but remained a favorite focal point for late-’60s nostalgia, even making it to the soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump.”

“Good Shepherd” has its roots in a 19th-century hymn and later was transformed into a Southern spiritual, as recorded by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen learned the basic tune as “Blood-Stained Banders,” and his arrangement for “Volunteers” combines his finger-style acoustic guitar with the fuzztone of his electric Epiphone for “a psychedelic folk-rock song,” as Jorma has described it. The tune has remained a staple of his work with Hot Tuna ever since, as well as a highlight of the 1999 album “Love Will See You Through” by Phil Lesh and Friends, featuring Kaukonen dueling with virtuoso guitarist Steve Kimock on a lengthy rendition.

“The Farm” might be Kantner’s answer to Canned Heat’s cover of Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” that the band rewrote as “Goin’ Up the Country.” At any rate, it reflects the sentiment of plenty of San Francisco musicians who moved to rural Marin County after city life became more than a bit tense. Jerry Garcia’s lively pedal-steel guitar contributes greatly to the motif.

Slick had been writing purposefully obtuse lyrics since “White Rabbit,” and “Hey Fredrick” fits right into that category: “There you sit, mouth wide open, animals living by your side/On wire wheels, the four-stroke man opens wide.” As she explains in her autobiography (with Andrea Cagan), “Somebody to Love?”:

“My inability to successfully mainstream anything hasn’t bothered me much, but had I achieved mega-mainstream success it would have been an interesting test of the distorted pride I seem to take in my idiosyncratic behavior.”

What sets “Fredrick” – named for the band’s code word for intercourse – apart from other Slick compositions is the heavy jam into which it develops. Kaukonen, bass player Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and guest pianist Nicky Hopkins take over following Slick’s last words around the 3:20 mark and deliver nearly six minutes of what was as close to heavy metal as anyone was getting in 1969.

The tone lightens up quite a bit for Kaukonen’s “Turn My Life Down,” which Balin sings. The arrangement guest stars Steven Stills on Hammond organ and the vocal group Ace of Cups – Mary Gannon, Marilyn Hunt, Diane Hursh and Denise Jewkes – providing pleasant background.

Having called his generation to revolution, Kantner ponders the aftermath in “Wooden Ships,” which he wrote with Stills and David Crosby. Those who know the song best from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album, and its inclusion by that band in a prominent place in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock,” might notice that Kantner isn’t part of that version’s credits; apparently, it wasn’t cool to have an RCA artist’s name appear on an Atlantic Records album.

At any rate, “Wooden Ships” describes a world possibly following World War III, in which the few survivors poignantly ask, “Can you tell me, please, who won?” It doesn’t much matter, as the scenario starts to echo Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach”: “Horror grips us as we watch you die/All we can do is echo your anguished cries.”

Studio rehearsals for “Wooden Ships” had the Airplane segueing into “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues,” a song that the late Alexander “Skip” Spence wrote when he was the band’s drummer, before moving on to help found Moby Grape. Jefferson Airplane had recorded a version of the song in 1966, but it went unreleased until the 1974 odds-and-ends compilation “Early Flight.”

Slick addresses the plight of humanity on a more roundabout way on “Eskimo Blue Day,” with her ultimate assessment expressed with the previously mentioned scatological flourish. The instrumentation again features Kaukonen, Casady, Hopkins and Dryden turning it up near 11, with Grace adding touches of recorder in strategic places.

Prior to “A Song for All Seasons,” Dryden’s Airplane compositions had been Zappaesque sound collages, including the unreleased-for-decades “Saga of Sydney Spacehog.” His “A Song for All Seasons” sounds kind of like what the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers were playing at the time, a jaunty, country-flavored romp about the travails of a rock band: “I heard your manager skipped town with all your pay/And your lead singer’s bulge turns the sensors gray.”

A brief, somewhat bizarre rendition of the Soviet Army theme “Meadowlands” leads into “Volunteers,” which closes the ’60s with the key line: “One generation got old/One generation got soul/This generation’s got no destination to hold.” While those lyrics seem to be inextricably tied to the sentiments expressed on “We Can Be Together,” they certainly are applicable to the teens and twentysomethings of 2012.

“Volunteers” not only closes the ’60s, it closes Jefferson Airplane’s so-called “classic” era. “A Song for All Seasons” kind of hinted at the state of the band at the time, as subsequent events revealed.

Dryden and Slick had been a couple through early 1969, when she switched her affections to Kantner. Meanwhile, Kaukonen and Casady, who had played music together off and on for more than a decade, had started concentrating more fully on their side project, Hot Tuna.

As for Balin, who co-founded the band in 1965 with Kantner, his compositions hadn’t been central to an Airplane album since its second effort, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which was recorded all the way back in ’66.

Inner struggles combined with external forces just weeks after the release of “Volunteers.” On Dec. 6, 1969, “more than 300,000 souls found their way to one of the most desolate, depressing locations in the state of California to witness one of rock’s darkest moments,” Tamarkin wrote.

The occasion came to be known to the world as Altamont, during which a black concert attendee, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.”

Jefferson Airplane was one of the bands that opened for the Stones at their notoriously ill-planned free concert in the California desert. As Dryden recalled:

“It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning. It was the end.”

Dryden had a great seat for “the end.” He was drumming during the Airplane’s obligatory cover of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” when:

“The band stopped playing momentarily,” Tamarkin wrote, “shaken by the brutality. Spencer, Jorma and Jack returned to riffing absentmindedly, one eye on the chaos offstage and another on their fellow musicians. Paul stood at the lip of the stage, his guitar dangling as he surveyed the weirdness.

“Then a scream came from below. Marty, standing a second ago at center stage peering at the melee intently, leaped from his perch, disappearing into the thick of the crowd. More movement followed, but there was still no sign of Marty. He had been knocked out cold.”

The scene was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter” by David and Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, culminating with Slick imploring the crowd in a shaky voice, “Let’s not keep fucking up!”

Dryden didn’t play too many more shows with Jefferson Airplane, departing in January 1970. Balin hung around until October, when he decided not to perform at a concert following the death of his friend Janis Joplin.

The band struggled through two more studio albums and a decent live set documenting its final days. Then came Jefferson Starship, then Starship, a story as convoluted as it is depressing.

Those later aggregations may have tarnished the reputation of the “classic” Airplane. A listen to “Volunteers,” though, shows it to be not a relic of its era, but an examination of topics that continue to hold relevance more than four decades later.

“American Beauty” by the Grateful Dead (1970)

The line of demarcation separating the 1960s from the ’70s couldn’t have been more pronounced with regard to Grateful Dead albums.

The four LPs the band released on Warner Bros. Records from 1967-69 – “The Grateful Dead,” “Anthem of the Sun,” “Aomoxoa” and “Live/Dead,” presented the Dead in all its psychedelic glory. That’s fine for fans who are in a certain frame of mind, but some of the recordings aren’t all that accessible for the average listener.

With “Workingman’s Dead,” released in June 1970, the Dead showed it was capable of producing relatively succinct tunes with discernible melodies. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” became staples on FM radio, opening up the band to a wider audience.

“American Beauty,” which came out in November of the same year, sees the band continue to explore the rootsy-country themes that characterize “Workingman’s Dead,” in generally a more polished manner. Lyricist Robert Hunter helped the musicians realize some of their best-crafted compositions, such as in the opening track, “Box of Rain.”

As Blair Jackson wrote in “Garcia: An American Life,” bass player Phil Lesh “wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words.”

“If ever a lyric ‘wrote itself,’ this did—as fast as the pen would pull,” Jackson quoted hunter as saying. Lesh delivers the rather obscure words in a heartfelt manner for his first lead vocal on a Grateful Dead record.

Following is one of the band’s most popular songs, “Friend of the Devil,” sung by lead guitarist and rock icon Jerry Garcia. Mandolin player David Grisman, Garcia’s musical partner during the last several years of his life, guests on the tale of a man apparently beset by myriad problems with women.

Rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had been conspicuous in his songwriting absence since the bizarre “Born Cross-Eyed” on “Anthem of the Sun” (1968), but he returns on “American Beauty with perhaps his best-known composition. “Sugar Magnolia,” which represents one of Weir’s few collaborations with Hunter, actually is a compendium of two songs, with the coda “Sunshine Daydream” sometimes performed on its own in concert.

The role of the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan in the Grateful Dead had diminished since the days when the rotund teenager performed with Garcia and Weir in Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. By 1969, he had been supplanted as keyboard player by Tom Constanten, and his appearances in concert were limited, although they invariably were highlights of the show.

In the studio, McKernan was absent on “Aoxmoxoa,” with the credits simply listing his role as “Pigpen.” On “Workingman’s Dead,” he sang Hunter’s “Easy Wind,” easily one of the gems of the entire Dead catalog.

The band finally gave Pigpen an opportunity to perform one of his own compositions with “Operator” on “American Beauty.” The brief, effective modified blues tune tells the story of him trying to reach on old girlfriend whose whereabouts are unknown.

The Garcia-Hunter song “Candyman” is one of several bearing that title; it has nothing to do with “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” or Sammy Davis Jr. The Dead’s “Candyman” continues in the vein of “Friend of the Devil,” with a colorful character chasing tail.

The LP’s second side opens with the one-two punch of “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace,” which remain among the Dead’s most-beloved songs. (I’ll put in the caveat that I heard the band play “Brokedown Palace” as an encore enough for me to get kind of tired of the guys doing so.)

“Till the Morning Comes” is an upbeat rocker that the Dead performed precious few times in concert before abandoning. The languid “Attics of My Life” kind of stalls the album’s proceedings, at least temporarily.

The comes the closing number, “Truckin’,” which chronicles the arrest of certain band members in New Orleans in early 1970, among other travails of being out on the road. Anone who’s taken even a remote interest in the Grateful Dead knows this is the song that contains the line for which the band is best known: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

That line, though, sort of seems out of place on “American Beauty,” which might be as close to a conventional pop album as the Dead ever recorded.

“The Gilded Palace of Sin” by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)

No one should write anything about the late Gram Parsons without citing former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres’ definitive biography, “Hickory Wind.” And so:

“Gram, whose soulful but sometimes frail voice evoked a broken heart, and who wrote songs as if he had one, never had any luck with his recording career, with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers or on his own. But through his efforts – sometimes ragtag and botched; other times brilliant but too far ahead of their time – he became identified as a pioneer, perhaps the pioneer, of country-rock. Although he did champion the idea of hippies playing country music for a rock-and-roll audience, and of bringing longhairs and rednecks together without barroom brawls, he was never comfortable with the phrase.”

Perhaps some of the most successful acts that followed – the Eagles come immediately to mind – wouldn’t have achieved their heights without the seeds that were sown by the man who was born Cecil Ingraham Connor.

“The Gilded Palace of Sin” was Gram’s third album, with as many different groups, following “Safe at Home” by the International Submarine Band and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” recorded during his short stint with the Byrds.

Gram resurrected the name Flying Burrito Brothers from a previous, unrecorded band and reunited with one if its members, bass player Chris Ethridge. When Chris Hillman also quite the Byrds, he, too joined the Burritos. Then came perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: pedal-steel guitarist “Sneeky” Pete Kleinow, who had sat in during the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” sessions.

The pedal steel contributes mightily to the sound the band crafts on “The Gilded Palace of Sin,” the culmination of Gram’s “vision of country being performed by long-haired guys with a rock-and-roll consciousness,” to quote Fong-Torres. The ISB had hinted at the possibilities, while Roger McGuinn wasn’t quite ready to turn the Byrds completely over to the concept.

The Burritos, however, were glad to follow Gram, from posing in custom-made getups for the “Gilded Palace” album cover – Kleinow looks downright irritated to be donning such garb – to embracing Parsons’ songwriting efforts. He co-wrote nine of the 11 tunes, mostly with Hillman, and five of them stand among Gram’s most brilliantly crafted compositions.

Those include the first two songs on the album. “Christine’s Tune” – written about a “devil in disguise that actually was the late Christine Frka, a member of the groupie-group the GTOs – is indicative of how a woman can control a man’s soul; “Sin City,” referring to Los Angeles, is about how money can do the same. “Wheels” is an ode to riding motorcycles, a relevant anthem in the “Easy Rider era.

Showing Gram at the top of his game are two songs he wrote with Ethridge, which “they lazily titled ‘Hot Burrito #1’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2,'” in the words of Fong-Torres.

Gram’s plaintive voice comes ringing through loud and clear in the former, a plea to a girl who lost his virginity to him: “I’m the one who let you in/I was right beside you then.” (Elvis Costello covered the song as “I’m Your Toy” during his “Almost Blue” phase.) “Hot Burrito #2” is more assertive, telling the subject, “You’d better love me, Jesus Christ.”

Also included are countrified versions of a couple of ’60s soul standards, “Do Right Woman” and “The Dark End of the Street,” as well as some originals that are in keeping with the times, with the draft-dodging sentiments expressed in “My Uncle” and the spoken-word tale of woe in “Hippie Boy.”

Unfortunately, the listening public apparently wasn’t ready for country rock, as “The Gilded Palace of Sin” sold poorly. Gram pretty much bankrolled a supporting tour with his trust fund, and it turned out to be an epic party more than a showcase for the band’s talents.

In case you don’t know the Gram Parsons story, it ends tragically, with him overdosing in September 1973 at age 27. Actually, it doesn’t even end there: Friend Phil Kaufmann stole Gram’s casket and burned the body in Joshua Tree National Park, as part of a pact the two had made.

By that time, country rock was playing regularly on Top 40 radio … with a notable exception of music by the man who started it all.

“New Riders of the Purple Sage” by New Riders of the Purple Sage (1971)

When I was at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t particularly like the music the guys usually had blaring through the fraternity-house speakers during parties. “The chicks dig it,” they’d explain, or something to that effect.

One of the brothers who lived at the house, Steve, had a decent stereo and record collection in his room. So every once in a while, to escape “Another One Bites the Dust,” I’d head upstairs and put something on that I wanted to hear.

Usually it turned out being the debut by the New Riders of the Purple Sage. I’d been familiar with the song “Henry” for awhile; it’s kind of a novelty number about a fellow who smuggles a bunch of “vegetative matter” from Tijuana. But listening to Steve’s record revealed gems I hadn’t known: “I Don’t Know You,” “Louisiana Lady,” “Garden of Eden” and the epic “Dirty Business.”

I’ll admit that one of my big attractions to the album is the presence of one Jerry Garcia, playing pedal steel guitar. Jerry had picked up one of those in Denver while touring with the Grateful Dead and immediately taught himself how to play it. And while he was at it, he figured he’d use the instrument in a side project. And so the New Riders of the Purple Sage was born.

By the time the band recorded its debut for Columbia Records, Jerry still was on board, but all the songs were written by the late John “Marmaduke” Dawson, one of the NRPS guitarists. Look at the credits of the Dead’s immortal “Friend of the Devil,” and you’ll see his name there, too.

“New Riders of the Purple Sage” digs deeper into the country-folk-bluegrass territory the Dead was mining at the time, as a radical departure from its marathon psychedelic concerts. The new formula worked like a charm on “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” both released in 1970 and both recognized as being among the band’s greatest accomplishments.

While not quite living up to the standards of those albums, “New Riders of the Purple Sage” holds its own with stellar compositions, harmony vocals and, of course, the steel guitar. The epic “Dirty Business,” sort of about the plight of coal miners, has Jerry opening up the sound into a fuzztone-feedback effect reminiscent of what audiences were likely to hear during various points of Dead concerts.

I eventually bought my own copy of “New Riders of the Purple Sage” and still have the LP downstairs somewhere. And that’s not just because Steve left school and took his records with him.

Postscript: This is kind of depressing, but most of the principals involved in “New Riders of the Purple Sage” are with us no more:

  • John Collins Dawson IV (1945-2009), guitar and vocals
  • Spencer Dryden (1938-2005), drums
  • Jerome John Garcia (1942-95), pedal steel guitar
  • Dave Torbert (1948-82), bass

Here’s to the health of survivors David Nelson and Mickey Hart.