Thursday, December 29, 2016

Remembering Kevin Ayers, Britain's Carefree Psychedelic Genius

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: The Use of Drugs in the Counterculture’s Music

by Rachel, music graduate and music journalist in training, Medium:

By the mid 1960s, American youth took a turn in the bizarre direction. It would be the most influential youth movement of any decade, never to be done in quite the same measure as it was back then.

While civil rights and free speech movements aimed to change specific aspects of society, the 1960s counterculture tended to negate what was perceived as mainstream.

The main characteristic of the counterculture and what caused it to separate itself from the Establishment was the use of psychedelic mind-altering drugs and marijuana. Drugs such as cocaine and heroin were rarely used among the youths in the counterculture of the 1960s, although they were widely available.

Harvard Professor Dr Timothy Leary became an LSD guru to the hippies encouraging them to partake in LSD parties where bands such as the Grateful Dead performed. By doing this the counterculture presented their ideologies of peace and love and with taking extensive amounts of these psychedelic drugs it is why the rest of mainstream society and previous generations could not understand or approve. As the saying goes the older generations often forget who raised the current generation.

In every article written about the 1960s counterculture or every Hollywood film depicting the period, such as Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper, Marijuana and LSD are featured countless times. In every way the radical youth era is portrayed, one statement is clear; the music and the drugs were a primal essence of the counterculture.

Theodore Roszak states ‘psychedelic experience participates significantly in the young’s most radical rejection of the parental society’. This drug use and divergent ideology that came to symbolise the counterculture was influenced directly by the music scene happening in San Francisco.

The music had a significant influence on this type of lifestyle creating its own genre known as ‘psychedelic rock’ or ‘acid rock’. Musicians used fuzz tone, feedback, synthesisers and sheer volume to mimic the mind-expanding properties of Marijuana and LSD.

Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead led this way of life in the Haight-Ashbury hippie commune of San Francisco in 1967. The Grateful Dead and their ‘dead heads’ weren’t the only band influencing young people through their lifestyles but also in their lyrics. There was, apparently, such a thing as ‘LSD coding’ in the lyrics of the 1960s.

Jimi Hendrix’s famous song ‘Purple Haze’ and it’s infamous verse:
Purple Haze all in my brain
Lately things don’t seem the same,
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky
You could interpret this as using LSD (all in my brain), which has an effect on the mind and behaviour (actin’ funny) of the abuser. Although Hendrix wasn’t the only musician to have the psychedelic drugs buried within his songs. Jefferson’s Airplane song ‘White Rabbit’ written in 1967 could also be seen in a similar way.
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head,
Remember what the dormouse said:
“Feed your head, feed your head”
The last two lines of the song could be seen as what the use of these drugs meant to the counterculture and Timothy Leary; using them for a greater mind expansion. Not only were the counterculture bands influencing the American youths radical behaviour with their lyrics, the persona of many of the musicians and their lifestyle promoted what seemed to sum up the counterculture’s attitude.

Jim Morrison was the lead singer of The Doors whose name came from a book popular among the counterculture Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. Morrison is regarded as one of the most iconic, charismatic and pioneering front men in rock music history. Known for his alcohol and drug abuse and numerous run-ins with the law, the singer and his band had a huge impact in the radicalisation of American youth. As drummer John Densmore stated in 2002: ‘I think we were a target because by then we really represented the anti-war movement and the kids versus the establishment’.

Many of the Doors songs have been linked to psychedelic drugs (Crystal Ship, 1967 and Light My Fire, 1966). When the Doors played a sold-out concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1968, there were copious accusations that Morrison wasn’t on form at the concert due to drugs. Three years later he died in Paris, a death related to drugs and alcohol. It was this radical lifestyle, influencing American youths, which led to the deaths of many counterculture musicians including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

With the counterculture music it appeared drugs and rock could not be separated. As Ringo Starr himself said marijuana ‘made a lot of difference to the type of music and the words’. The counterculture was producing new musical styles and new subject matter for lyrics.

The Beatles song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ spells out the words LSD, although this is still denied as being deliberate by the remaining band members. Other Beatles songs that are notoriously linked to drugs include ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The latter, a song suggesting it was written under the influence of LSD and that gives the music its strange psychedelic sound.

To think that the Beatles first conquered America by singing pop songs Love Me Do and Can’t Buy Me Love, with their clean-shaven and distinctive neatly cut hairstyles. When the American youth culture took a turn toward the psychedelic it appears the Beatles followed. Releasing Stg. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in June of 1967, the same year of the hippie epidemic in San Francisco known as The Summer of Love; the Beatles appearance and sound was more psychedelic than any of their previous releases. Even the front cover of the album is all a little too trippy and psychedelic, similar to the famous album art of the Grateful Dead.

In the lyrics of the Who’s My Generation (1965) they represented the young people versus previous generations:
I hope I die before I get old, this is my generation
The band were making reference to Free Speech Movement activist Jack Weinberg’s famous quote ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty.’

In the later years of the counterculture John Lennon’s vocalising for peace became a huge media factor as he and Yoko Ono took on the crusade for Peace themselves. In 1969 they held a two-week long Bed-In for Peace. Before John Lennon put his name to these radical proceedings, it was Timothy Leary and the young hippies of America who began similar events, the most famous being held in 1967 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park known as ‘The Human Be-In’.

Here the essence of the counterculture was captured; the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed, LSD was sold, and Timothy Leary uttered his famous quote ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’ The Human Be-In of 1967 was less about protesting a War and more about celebrating, it was the prelude to the 1967 Summer of Love that made San Francisco the epicentre for the counterculture. 

Originally published at on December 16, 2015.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

ALBUM REVIEW: Bootleg Series #16: The Rolling Stones – Leeds University, Leeds, England // 13th March 1971

by Tom Caswell:

The UK tour of 1971 saw The Rolling Stones stage their first at home since 1966. The band played to sold out venues across the country between the 4th and 26th March, with most of those dates featuring two shows from the band per night. On the 13th however, they were in Leeds playing at the University and we are well and truly blessed to have an exceptional quality bootleg that exists from the one show they played that day.

The band open with Dead Flowers which is a song that featured on their 1971 classic Sticky Fingers, which wouldn’t be released until over a month later on the 23rd April. Along with the other songs on Sticky FingersDead Flowers sees the Rolling Stones take their music in a new direction after the death of founding member Brian Jones nearly two years earlier. Keith Richards at this point was friends with Gram Parsons which definitely influenced his songwriting, hence the country tones throughout the song. Mick Taylor plays a gorgeous solo during the third verse, showing you exactly why he was added to the band in the first place.  

Stray Cat Blues comes next which is from their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. Compared to an early live version played in Hyde Park in July 1969 which was lacking in many ways, this version is far superior with the band on top form and together musically. Jagger is a man possessed on lead vocals who has every single person in the audience in the palm of his hand. Taylor again plays a tasteful guitar solo. 

It’s followed by the Robert Johnson number Love In Vain which takes the show in a slower direction. The band sound fantastic as a unit here and deliver a cracking rendition of this blues classic.

The great Midnight Rambler from their 1969 album Let It Bleed follows and immediately shifts the gig into top gear. During this period of the band it was one of their best live songs and this performance is no different. The roaring guitar playing paired with Jagger’s sublime harmonica work make it one of the highlights of the entire show. The band start the song by jamming until they find that driving groove that makes the song so infectious, cemented of course by Keith Richards on rhythm guitar. The looseness of this song is what makes it so appealing and at just short of 13 minutes in length it’s the longest song of the set. 

It’s followed by another new song in Bitch which is played so beautifully that it could well be the studio version. The horn section is another element of the music they were making at this time which showed what direction the band were heading in and they sound fantastic as a result.
  1. Dead Flowers
  2. Stray Cat Blues
  3. Love In Vain
  4. Midnight Rambler
  5. Bitch
  6. Honky Tonk Women
  7. Satisfaction
  8. Little Queenie
  9. Brown Sugar
  10. Street Fighting Man
  11. Let It Rock
After a short band intro, the 1969 single Honky Tonk Women follows Bitch and Keith Richards is right at the forefront on this track. On the studio version it’s Charlie Watts who starts the song with a cowbell but it’s Keith Richards who goes straight into that guitar riff during this live version. When you think of the most legendary guitar riffs of all time, Honky Tonk Women is right up there with the best of them all, surrounded by many more classic Keith Richards guitar riffs from this period. The live version adds even more energy to an already energetic song. 

The Stones then move on to Satisfaction which, in the beginning at least, sounds a lot different to the original studio version recorded six years earlier in 1965. The opening riff sounds less definitive and more soul like in many ways, again highlighting their evolution as a band since the recording of the original. The addition of horns in the outro only confirms a more soulful direction which is wonderful to listen to.

The Chuck Berry classic Little Queenie follows immediately after Satisfaction although it lacks any of the high tempo featured in the original version. However it’s still enjoyable to listen to, even though the band take a more relaxed and laid back approach to it. The piano playing in particular is an exciting highlight and Jagger owns the song from the front of the stage. Keith Richards replicates Berry’s world famous guitar lines to make the song more reminiscent of the original version. 

The great Brown Sugar comes next, debuting for many that incredible opening guitar riff from Keith Richards, after all it wouldn’t be released as a single until over a month later on the 16th April. Sadly the guitars sound a little out of tune but apart from that it’s a great rendition even though it does lack the incredible sax solo from Bobby Keys which features on the studio version.

Street Fighting Man and Let It Rock are the two final songs and sadly the out of tune instruments remain on the former. Thankfully things are righted on Let It Rock which sees Keith Richards laying down some more incredible Chuck Berry riffs. Watts and Wyman keep the song locked in, enabling the rest of the band to do their thing so well.

Overall the bootleg is one of the finest featuring The Rolling Stones out there. The quality is second to none and the band are on top form from beginning to end. Hearing the band at during this particular musical period is fantastic because with Taylor having been on board for two years already they sound as tight as they ever did and have since. 

With a number of the songs you’re also able to hear the direction they were going musically, a direction which would ultimately lead to the recording and release of their 1972 classic Exile On Main Street, an album that is today widely seen as their all time best. Hard to argue with that. But this show is a must for all bootleg lovers out there, it’s incredible.

Friday, September 2, 2016

CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES #6: Blind Faith – Blind Faith

00602537803637-cover-zoomby Tom Caswell:

1969 saw the formation of one of rocks most underrated and under-appreciated supergroups in the form of Blind Faith. 

Formed by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood initially, bassist Ric Grech and drummer Ginger Baker would join a little later and the outcome of this musical melding of minds was their self titled album, Blind Faith, released in August 1969.

The album opens with Had To Cry Today which gives you your first taste of this gorgeous album. Clapton’s guitar playing is immediately infectious but in a different manner to his playing in Cream. The tone is softer, the playing is more delicate and there’s more intimacy between each of the band members. Steve Winwood is sublime on vocals and that’s a trend that continues throughout the whole album.

Can’t Find My Way Home is the second song which is dominated by acoustic guitar. Without taking anything away from the other songs, it’s by far the stand out track on the album. Winwood’s singing is as good as you’ll ever hear him but it’s the guitar that really stands out the most. There are two versions of this song, the acoustic on the album and an electric version which wasn’t officially released until the deluxe edition came out in 2001. Both are superb but the acoustic guitars add a beauty to it that is indescribable.
  1. Had To Cry Today
  2. Can’t Find My Way Home
  3. Well All Right
  4. Presence Of The Lord
  5. Sea Of Joy
  6. Do What You Like
Well All Right is a Buddy Holly cover and the only cover on the album. It’s a fun rendition with the band on top form just like the two previous songs. The piano and guitar playing fit together seamlessly while Baker does his thing on drums as only he could. With this song you really start to understand the direction Blind Faith are going with their music, with each of the songs sounding nothing like anything the band members had done previously in their previous bands.

Presence Of The Lord comes next which is an original Clapton number but Winwood takes lead vocal duties thanks to the insistence of Clapton himself. Clapton would eventually sing the song over a year later with Derek and the Dominos but with Blind Faith it was up to Winwood to do his thing which he does brilliantly. The solo section towards the middle/end of the song is superb, Clapton’s only lead part of the song. 

Sea Of Joy and Do What You Like are the final two songs, bringing the relatively short album to a close. Sea Of Joy is a Winwood original and a song that is often under-appreciated on the album as a whole. There’s a wonderful violin section played by bassist Ric Grech which adds another element to the band and their music, a unique aspect which continued in a live setting when they were on tour. There are a few photos of Grech playing violin with the band on their US tour.  

Do What You Like is a song written by Ginger Baker and the longest song on the album due to the inclusion of a long drum solo. It’s an extremely pleasing song to listen to though and Clapton’s guitar solo before the drum solo is unlike anything he ever played before. It’s superb.

Overall Blind Faith is a fantastic album and will (sadly) remain under-appreciated compared to other albums from that time period. It doesn’t help that the band are yet to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, something that is well overdue considering the amount of rubbish that manages to get in instead. Hopefully that changes soon and more people become aware of this gem of an album.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guitarist Randy Bachman Demystifies the Opening Chord of The Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’

by , Open Culture:

You could call it the magical mystery chord. The opening clang of the Beatles’ 1964 hit, “A Hard Day’s Night,” is one of the most famous and distinctive sounds in rock and roll history, and yet for a long time no-one could quite figure out what it was.

In this fascinating clip from the CBC radio show, Randy’s Vinyl Tap, the legendary Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive guitarist Randy Bachman unravels the mystery.

The segment (which comes to us via singer-songwriter Mick Dalla-Vee) is from a special live performance, “Guitarology 101,” taped in front of an audience at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto back in January, 2010. As journalist Matthew McAndrew wrote, “the two-and-a-half hour event was as much an educational experience as it was a rock’n’roll concert.”

hard days night chord

One highlight of the show was Bachman’s telling of his visit the previous year with Giles Martin, son of Beatles’ producer George Martin, at Abbey Road Studios. The younger Martin, who is now the official custodian of all the Beatles’ recordings, told Bachman he could listen to anything he wanted from the massive archive - anything at all.

Bachman chose to hear each track from the opening of “A Hard Day’s Night.” As it turns out, the sound is actually a combination of chords played simultaneously by George Harrison and John Lennon, along with a bass note by Paul McCartney. Bachman breaks it all down in an entertaining way in the audio clip above.

You can read about some of the earlier theories on The Beatles Bible and Wikipedia, and hear a fascinating account of one scholar’s mathematical analysis of the component sounds of the chord from a few years ago at NPR.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

BOOTLEG SERIES #15: Eric Clapton – Frost Amphitheatre, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA // 9th August 1975

Eric’s return to to the stage in 1974 saw him free from a certain demon for the first time since his Dominos period but a new demon had taken it’s place in the form of alcohol. As a result, there are a number of bootlegs from shows in 1974 that show Eric at his very worst. Unable to sing in key, unable to play like he once did, it’s one of the saddest things to listen to as a Clapton fan. 

But there were a number of shows where things came together brilliantly and this show at Frost Amphitheatre at Stanford University on the 9th August 1975 is one of them.

The band open with Layla which Eric originally recorded with Derek and the Dominos five years earlier. Compared to versions from bootlegs in 1974, Eric is on form vocally and the band sound incredibly tight. I don’t think any version of Layla post-1970 can be compared to when Derek and the Dominos played the song live on tour due to the lack of Jim Gordon and Duane Allman, but Clapton and George Terry manage to do the song justice.

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is the second song which, personally, is an odd choice. It’s a good rendition but after six minutes of explosiveness in Layla it kills off any kind of momentum the band gathered since beginning the show. Tell The Truth manages to save things magnificently though and you immediately get the feeling that this should have followed straight after Layla

The opening guitar riff sets the tone well and Clapton sounds great on vocals, as does the rest of the band on their respective instruments. The guitar solo sections sound great and Carl Radle’s trusted and solid bass playing drives the song further and further towards blues/rock heaven.
  1. Layla
  2. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
  3. Tell The Truth
  4. Can’t Find My Way Home
  5. Key To The Highway
  6. Carnival
  7. Take Me Down To The River
  8. Badge
  9. Better Make It Through Today
  10. Blues Power
  11. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  12. Let It Rain
  13. Eyesight To The Blind (with Carlos Santana)
Things then turn acoustic with a laid back version of Blind Faith’s Can’t Find My Way Home. The song picks up brilliantly as it goes on with a well played harmonica solo in the mix. 

It’s followed closely by Key To The Highway which at this point is the third song to feature from Clapton’s Derek and the Dominos period. Whereas the version that featured on the Layla album contained explosive guitar playing from Clapton and Duane Allman, this version is more laid back. Clapton sounds good on vocals and when he takes a guitar solo mid-way through the song it resembles some of his former glory with the Dominos resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable performance. The song builds and builds over its near nine minute length after which the willing crowd roars its approval. 

The song Carnival follows which would feature on Clapton’s next studio album No Reason To Cry a year later in 1976. He introduces it as a “new one” before the band perform an extremely enjoyable rendition of the song, cemented by Jamie Oldaker’s superb drumming. The guitar playing on this track is nice too and you can sense the enjoyment coming from the band.

After Carnival comes Take Me Down To The River which takes the show in a different direction, but sadly the song is nothing more than a filler track. The band sound great but it pales in comparison to Badge, the song that follows. Clapton is in fine form here and the instrumental section is one of the highlights of the entire show with each member of the band firing on all cylinders. When you think things come to an end near the five minute mark, you’re hugely mistaken, because Clapton re-enters with that downward chord progression that makes Badge so enjoyable to listen to. 

Things then head in a more mellow direction with Better Make It Through Today from 1975’s There’s One In Every Crowd album. The song begins beautifully with Clapton singing from his soul before he turns things up a notch with a wah drenched solo mid-way through the song. The band and their ability to change the tone of this song is superb as they end it the way it begin, laid back and mellow before immediately feeding straight into Blues Power from Clapton’s debut 1970 solo album. 

This song was one of the most explosive when played by Derek and the Dominos, especially on their US tour of 1970, and the explosiveness returns in full force here, albeit in a slightly different form due to the larger band. Clapton shows why he is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time magnificently well here with a fine solo beginning at around the three minute mark.

Clapton then goes back to basics with a rendition of the Robert Johnson number Ramblin’ On My Mind, a song he first recorded with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers nearly a decade previously. The song is completely different to the Mayall version but Clapton’s heart and soul remain the same, resulting in a fantastic performance. This version actually resembles The Sky Is Crying from There’s One In Every Crowd when it comes to song structure. Same beat, same guitar, very similar indeed. But still great.  

Let It Rain comes next with those familiar opening chords before the full band come in, with Clapton arguably giving his best vocal performance of the entire show. On some songs you can hear the difference in his voice compared to that of five years previously with Derek and the Dominos, but with this version of Let It Rain he sounds exactly the same in delivery. 

The whole song is a fine band effort and a fantastic way to bring the show to an end, but only until they re-appear with Santana in tow for a run through of Eyesight To The Blind from The Who’s film Tommy. It’s fantastic to hear these two guitar greats go at it and at one point you can hear Clapton lay down a few licks from the song All Your Love from the Bluesbreakers album. Very special.

Overall it’s a fantastic show and a great quality bootleg. Clapton shows during 1974 and 1975 were very hit or miss but this one at at Frost Amphitheatre at Stanford University is one of the best available with Clapton on fine form and at the top of his game musically and vocally. A joy to listen to.

CLASSIC ALBUM SERIES #4: John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers – Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton

Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton
Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

July 22nd 1966 saw the release of what has become the greatest British blues albums of them all, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. 

The album set the benchmark for all blues albums that followed, cemented by Clapton’s explosive guitar tone thanks to the majestic bonding between a Gibson guitar and a Marshall amplifier. 

Not only is it the greatest British blues album but it’s also one of the great albums of all time, period.

The album opens with the Otis Rush number All Your Love, a cracking way to begin. The song manages to capture everything great about the Bluesbreakers from Mayall’s unique vocals, Clapton’s explosive guitar, McVie’s pounding bass and Flint’s driving rhythm that is the back bone of the entire song. 

It’s followed by Hideaway which has arguably become the standard version of the song, the original of course being by the late great Freddie King who Clapton was hugely influenced by at the time. Even though it’s a song largely dominated by Clapton’s guitar, the entire band shine brightly and showcase their abilities as Britain’s premier and best British blues band. 

The first Mayall penned track comes next in Little Girl. Apart from Mayall’s vocals, Clapton again takes centre stage with a blistering guitar solo over the ruthless rhythm section of John McVie and Hugh Flint, both of which really take this song to another level. Another Man is pure Mayall drenched with some of the best harmonica playing you’ll ever hear.
  1. All Your Love
  2. Hideaway
  3. Little Girl
  4. Another Man
  5. Double Crossing Time
  6. What’d I Say
  7. Key To Love
  8. Parchman Farm
  9. Have You Heard
  10. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  11. Steppin’ Out
  12. Ain’t It Right
Things then slow down a tad with Double Crossing Time, a fantastic number written by Mayall and Clapton. It’s a wonderful slow blues which clocks in at just over three minutes in length which is the only downside as you feel it deserves to go on for at least another few minutes. 

The opening riff of What’d I Say, originally by Ray Charles, is next and this particular version remains one of the most exciting ever recorded. Mayall gives one of his best vocal performances and it’s the first time on the album so far where you’re able to bask in the magnificence of Hugh Flint’s drumming, as he plays a superb solo section halfway through the song. 

The rest of the band then return with a Day Tripper-esque riff to bring the song to a close. Next up is Key To Love which is another Mayall original. Flint is an abslute force of nature with some of the best drumming you’ll ever hear, and Clapton returns for another ear drum attacking guitar solo.

The great Parchman Farm comes next which was originally recorded by Bukka White in 1940 and then covered by a host of musicians including Mose Allison, Johnny Winter, Bobbie Gentry and Hot Tuna to name just a few. Mayall is a man possessed on harmonica here, arguably giving his finest musical performance of the entire album. 

The slow blues number Have You Heard then takes things in a slower direction, at least at first. When it comes to electric guitar solos this song certainly contains one of the finest ever recorded with Clapton showing exactly why the nickname “God” was so fitting. The things he managed to do with a guitar during this song are second to none in my opinion, firmly placing him as the greatest British blues guitarist of all time.

Ramblin’ On My Mind remains to this day as one of Robert Johnson’s most well known songs, helped by the legendary status of this version featuring Clapton on lead vocals. And it’s the fact that Clapton took lead vocal duties on this song that made it so legendary, after all this is the first time he ever sang lead on a song. Even though he used to sing backing vocals with The Yardbirds it’s a strong vocal performance with guitar accompaniment including a tasty solo, backed up by Mayall on piano. It’s probably the most pure blues song of the whole album and a song that opened up Clapton both vocally and musically, as he would go on to call Robert Johnson one of his main influences and as a eventually record Me & Mr. Johnson, a tribute album to his idol, in 2004.

Steppin’ Out is the second guitar lead instrumental after Hideaway and a song Clapton would continue playing with Cream up until their final active year in 1968. It’s a superb number with Clapton yet again showcasing his guitar abilities fantastically. The final song is It Ain’t Right which sees the album end on a wonderful note. Originally recorded by Little Walter, Mayall lays down some fine harmonica while the rest of the band hit hard like a freight train. A perfect way to end the album.

Overall it’s a faultless album, a solid 10/10 if there ever was one. Not only do you get to witness the evolution of Eric Clapton but you get to listen to British blues at it’s very finest. The band as a whole were fantastic. John Mayall, Eric Clapton, John McVie, Hugh Flint. Four of the finest musicians to ever play and the blues is richer today because of them.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Rolling Stones Introduce Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Greatest Cultural Moments of the 20th Century” (1965)

by Josh Jones, Open Culture:

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Howlin’ Wolf may well have been the greatest blues singer of the 20th century. Certainly many people have said so, but there are other measurements than mere opinion, though it’s one I happen to share.

The man born Chester Arthur Burnett also had a profound historical effect on popular culture, and on the way the Chicago blues carried “the sound of Jim Crow,” as Eric Lott writes, into American cities in the north, and into Europe and the UK.

Recording for both Chess and Sun Records in the 50s (Sam Phillips said of his voice, “It’s where the soul of man never dies”), Burnett’s raw sound “was at once urgently urban and country plain … southern and rural in instrumentation and howlingly electric in form.”

He was also phenomenal on stage. His hulking six-foot-six frame and intense glowering stare belied some very smooth moves, but his finesse only enhanced his edginess. He seemed at any moment like he might actually turn into a wolf, letting the impulse give out in plaintive, ragged howls and prowls around the stage.

“I couldn’t do no yodelin’,” he said, “so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.” He played a very mean harmonica and did acrobatic guitar tricks before Hendrix, picked up from his mentor Charlie Patton. And he played with the best musicians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time. If you wanted to play electric blues, Howlin’ Wolf was a man to watch.

This reputation was Wolf’s entrée to the stage of ABC variety show Shindig! in 1965, opening for the Rolling Stones. He had just returned from his 1964 tour of Europe and the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival, playing to large, appreciative crossover crowds. He’d also just released “Killing Floor,” a record Ted Gioia notes “reached out to young listeners without losing the deep blues feeling that stood as the cornerstone of Wolf’s sound.”

The following year, the Rolling Stones insisted that Shindig!’s producers “also feature either Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf” before they would go on the show. Wolf won out over his rival Waters, toned down the theatrics of his act for a more prudish white audience, and “for the first time in his storied career, the celebrated bluesman performed on a national television broadcast.”

Why is this significant? Over the decades, the Stones regularly performed with their blues heroes. But this was new media ground. Brian Jones’ shy, starstruck introduction to Wolf before his performance above conveys what he saw as the importance of the moment. Jones’ biographer Paul Trynka may overstate the case, but in some degree at least, Wolf’s appearance on Shindig! “built a bridge over a cultural abyss and connected America with its own black culture.”

The show constituted “a life-changing moment, both for the American teenagers clustered round the TV in their living rooms, and for a generation of blues performers who had been stuck in a cultural ghetto.” One of these teenagers described the event as “like Christmas morning.”

Eric Lott points to the show’s formative importance to the Stones, who “sit scattered around the Shindig! set watching Wolf in full-metal idolatry” as he sings “How Many More Years,” a song Led Zeppelin would later turn into “How Many More Times.” (See the Stones do their Shindig! performance of jangly, subdued “The Last Time,” above).

The performance represents more, however, than the “British Invasion embrace” of the blues. It shows Wolf’s mainstream breakout, and the Stones paying tribute to a founding father of rock and roll, an act of humility in a band not especially known or appreciated for that quality.

“It was altogether appropriate,” says music writer Peter Guralnick, “that they would be sitting at Wolf’s feet … that’s what it represented. His music was not simply the foundation or the cornerstone; it was the most vital thing you could ever imagine.” Guralnick, notes John Burnett at NPR, calls it “one of the the greatest cultural moments of the 20th century.” At minimum, Burnett writes, it’s “one of the most incongruous moments in American pop music” - up until the mid-sixties, at least.

Whether or not the moment could live up to its legend, the people involved saw it as groundbreaking. The venerable Son House sat in attendance - “the man who knew Robert Johnson and Charley Patton,” remarked Brian Jones in awe.

And the Rolling Stone positioning himself in deference to “Chicago blues,” Trynka writes, “uncompromising music aimed at a black audience, was a radical, epoch-changing step, both for baby boomer Americans and the musicians themselves. Fourteen and fifteen-year-old kids … hardly understood the growth of civil rights; but they could understand the importance of a handsome Englishman who described the mountainous, gravel-voiced bluesman as a ‘hero’ and sat smiling at his feet.”