John Lennon’s “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”

Cover of John Lennon Plastic Ono Band

I’ve been listening to John Lennon’s debut album “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” from 1970. Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, after they finished recording “Abbey Road.Paul McCartney publicly announced the group’s break up seven months later. John Lennon and Yoko Ono began primal therapy, a type of psychotherapy that focuses on reliving and engaging with repressed childhood trauma. Often referred to as “primal scream therapy,” the sessions encourage the patient to allow themselves to scream, cry, or otherwise feel the emotions they suppressed as children. The deeply personal lyrics of this album express thoughts and feelings encountered during those sessions.

Of the tracks on this album, I only really knew “Mother” and “Working Class Hero.” I’ve probably heard many of the other songs before, but I don’t recall. While “Imagine” had a few better songs on it, “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” proved to be a stronger album overall. There’s not a weak song on it, as opposed to “Imagine,” which I remember dragging through the middle. Anyway, definitely glad to spend th time with this album and definitely will continue with it.

Mother

The album opens with the ringing of a funeral bell; the record of which plays at a slow speed giving it a lower pitch and a great sense of distance. Lennon’s mother Julia passed away in 1958, when her son John was sixteen years old. This was twelve years before “Mother” was recorded. The vocals, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you…” start at the same time as the drums, bass guitar, and piano.

The instrumentation is sparse, open, and direct. Fellow-former-Beatle Ringo Starr plays a simple 8-beat rhythm pattern: hi-hat on every 8th note, kick on the first and third beat and snare on the second and fourth. The piano strikes the chord once at the beginning of each chord change in the progression, with an occasional lead-in note. The bass guitar plays the tonic underneath, with a lead-in note on the 8th note before the chord. As the song progresses, the instrumentation build slightly and gradually in intensity, but never get showy.

The verses follow a I-V-I-I-IV-IV-V-V-I-I7-IV-IV-I-V-I-I chord progression. At about 68 BPM and moving at no more than one chord per 4 beat bar, this progression moves slowly. Lennon sings a full three verses before moving into the chorus-like coda, repeating: “Momma don’t go, Daddy come home…” This plea happens over a IV-I-V-V-IV-I-I7-I7 progression.

This is absolutely one of Lennon’s greatest songs as a solo artist. It starts with sadness, but at the end of each verse turns that lingering resentment into a triumph: “I just gotta tell you, goodbye, goodbye.” However, the coda suggests otherwise as Lennon begins singing and eventually grows to screaming, asking for his parents to return. Rather than giving closure to that childhood pain, he faces it and brings it out.

Hold On

The second track “Hold On” had my ear immediately with the opening chords strummed on electric guitar through a tremolo effect. The tremolo effect is a type of amplitude modulation, often built into guitar amps, that automatically turns the volume up and down rapidly creating a trembling effect. I happen to love it, so I liked this song before it even really got started.

The instrumentation on this song, like “Mother,” is also simple and open. It feels like the album cover photo, open, free, relaxed, and maybe a little introspective. Only three musicians were involved: John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo Starr on drums.

The verses have a I-I-ii7-ii7-iii7-iii7-(IV-V) chord progression. The IV-V are more hinted at by the bass than specifically played by the guitar. The chorus repeats a v7-vi7 pattern, which is a little unusually to have a minor fifth in a song that is otherwise in a major key. This progression creates some tension, making it clear that he teases us with a cadence. Which does get delivered at the end of the chorus, “hold on.” returns us to the tonic.

Isolation

A simple piano line opens “Isolation” with a series of played chords: I-Iadd#V-vi7-I7-IV-IV. Again, Lennon pulls this introspective feeling from a song in a major key. Many musicians would instinctively turn to a minor key, but Lennon finds more power in that contrast. And that particularly may e appropriate here, as this song expresses something that I’ve long felt people misunderstand. I recall often hearing people back home in Ohio disgusted with the affluent complaining about their problems. As if, having money and fame solved all problems. In this song, Lennon recognizes that lost-touch that comes from higher-levels of success as well sharing that it creates a unique set of problems. And even with those, the same basic human suffering remain.

The verses continue the same chord progression used in the intro. The instrumentation remains simple in this song as well: drums, bass, piano, and vocals. Lennon provides a bed of extended chords on the Hammond organ through the verses, resting at the end of each verse. Vocals are delivered gently, the drum patterns basic, resting between sung verses. The bass, again, is not showy, but does its job.

I love the bridge, which is one of my favorite parts of the whole album. The drums is mostly reduced to a 4 beat kick drum, the piano becomes more strongly rhythmic emphasizes the chord progression. Double-tracked vocals, panned hard left and right, chant in unison: “I don’t expect you to understand, after you’ve caused so much pain, but then again, you’re not to blame, you’re just a human, a victim of the insane…” The word “insane” is drawn out as Lennon pulls away from the microphone into the distance. A piano and drums relax as well, as the timid but strong Hammond provides the bed giving rest.

People say we got it made
Don’t they know we’re so afraid?
Isolation

Serge Gainsbourg’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson”

Album cover for Histoire de Melody Nelson

This week, I’ve been listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s concept album “Histoire de Melody Nelson” from 1971. Gainsbourg released his first album “Du chant à la une !…” in 1958, which was more of a French jazz album. His musical training began as a childhood from his classically-trained pianist father Joseph Ginsburg. I first encountered Gainsbourg’s work by way of Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. I’m a big fan of Pulp and Jarvis Cocker and much of his style draws on inspiration from Gainsbourg and Scott Walker. Gainsbourg’s seductive blend of French pop with rock and jazz along with his narrative vocal style influenced many musicians that came after him. Discovery of Gainsbourg about 7 years ago led to me developing a love of 60s French pop in general.

Melody

The album opens with the groovy, dark, smoky bass that becomes a theme of the album. Within the first few seconds, the mood and atmospheric settings are established, and the listener is hooked. The catalyst of the albums story emerges through Serge’s spoke lyrics. I do not know French, so I rely on English translations. This also means that I miss out on much of the wordplay, for which Gainsbourg has a reputation.

The speaker drives his Roll Royce on a dark sinister night; his driving is dangerous. Not so much reckless as careless, his focus is on the female hood ornament rather than the road. About 5 minutes into the 7½ minute track, he loses control of the car and crashes, into the bicycling 15 year old girl Melody Nelson. Over the course of the album, the middle-aged man and the teenage girl will live together and fall in love; then she dies in a plane accident on her way back to visit Sunderland, England.

Though chord progression is not as evident in this track as much rock and pop, the majority of the song follows a I-I-VII-IV chord progression, which coincidentally is the same progression as the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil“. This is mostly provided by monophonic basslines, punctuated by seemingly ad-lib rock lines on overdriven electric guitar. To add tension and drama, strings join in between vocal lines, pulling back to not overpower the narrative. Drums likewise intensify and relax, lending urgency and mood to the track.

Ballade de Melody Nelson

The second track, “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” turns the first track into a long prelude. The titular character Melody and the unnamed speaker (Serge) truly meet each other. Apparently, as he tells the tale, she had never received love from any other. His hug is the first she’s received. Jane Birkin provides the voice of Melody, who says nothing more than her name “Melody Nelson” like a refrain. This story is not her’s but rather his. She’s the innocent wounded object of his affection. The cover photograph gives clear idea how creepy this concept is. Musically, this album is amazingly brilliant, the production is fantastic, the lyrics are very good, and the concept is abhorrent. It’s also loosely auto-biographical, with Birkin being the inspiration for Nelson.

The song flows through a variety of time signatures, starting in 3/4 and then travelling through 5/4 to play in 4/4 and back to 3/4 again. The percussion is minimal, we mostly hear the hi-hat and snare drum, pushed back in the mix, playing a steady rock beat. The forward instruments are the important bass-guitar, a close-miced arpeggio acoustic guitar, and the vocals.This time Gainsbourg’s vocals are mostly sung. Their exchange is soft at times approaching whisper, to indicate the intimacy of the moment.

This minor key song follows a i-VI-i-VI-i-VI-v7-vii-IV-i. This is presented mainly by the bass and acoustic guitar arpeggios. Strings pad the sound, providing atmosphere that emphasizes the movement of the progression. The bass and guitar play a motif in unison at the end of each verse that serves as the melodic theme of the track.

L’hôtel particulier

As we near the end of the album, “L’Hotel particulier” opens with rock electric guitar strumming chords up front with a pulsating bass underneath emphasizing the rhythm. The guitar patterns continue similar style we’ve heard starting since the first track; This is not redundant so much as repetition for the sake of continuity and theme. The guitar strums panned hard-right, drums panned hard-left. The bass sits in the center. The rock trio provide the main accompaniment, again strings pad the sound occasionally. A dramatic upright piano adds to the sinister and mysterious atmosphere.

Later in the track, a slowly rhythmic tremolo-affected organ adds suspense to the driving unknown. The narrative involves the two going to an erotic hotel, with mysterious hallways intent on sexual persuasion and exploration. He sees himself hug her in the mirror on the ceiling. And he says her name twice, first calling her to him, and the second time he seems almost frightened for her.

Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On”

Album cover of There's a Riot Goin' On

This week, I’ve been listening to Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” from 1971. With this album, Sly Stone took the group in a different direction from their more pop and more optimistic music, like “Everyday People.” Drug use had become heavier, especially cocaine and PSP, which slowed down music production and certainly affected their moods. It also affected the mood of the increasingly impatient record company. He had also joined the Black Panthers and they pressured him to fire the white musicians in the band, when he had intentionally created the band with a mix of black-white and male-female. The Black Panthers put further pressure on him to make the songs as a black-power call to arms. It was in this space of being pulled in multiple directions amongst drugs, hopelessness, paranoia, conflicting ideologies, and the ongoing Vietnam War, that he wrote and recorded “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Sly Stone worked on the album mostly by himself, alone in the recording studio or at home in his bedroom. He used the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine for much of the percussion. He then overdubbed individual instruments that he played. Band members contributed additional instrumentation and vocals,one at a time alone in the studio with Stone. Apparently this process involved considerable bouncing down and overdubbing; Areas of the songs and groups of instruments are mixed poorly, there’s quite a bit of mud and tape hiss. There are times his vocals, presumably recorded while laying in bed, delivered half-hearted get buried in the mix. The vocals,usually the focal point of a recording, get lost. There’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in this album, but it can be frustrating to listen to.

Luv N’ Haight

“Luv N’ Haight” opens the album with electric bass thumped like a drum, then delivering an urgent driving bassline. Joined by acoustic drums, somewhat lost in the groove and mix. A funky wah-wah guitar talks rhythmically on the upbeat. Backing vocals and the wah guitar bring up anticipation, then the fall back for the first verse.

Stone repeats the the line, “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move.” perhaps describing how he felt while high. He may also be playing with opposites the same way the title does, and referring simultaneously to the way one feels buried by depression. The title is a pun references the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco. The name “Haight-Ashbury” had become synonymous with the hippie ideals of peace, love, freedom, drugs, music, optimism, etc. By 1967, it became the center of the Summer of Love. That was the height of Haight, which could not sustain the crowd it ultimately attracted. The drugs got harder and the attitude got paranoid. The mood had changed from glad to sadness. People often identify the the Manson family Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 as the nightmare that truly signaled the end of the Summer of Love. Stone recorded this song the following year. Despite a few other lines and backing vocals, he doesn’t stray beyond this single message.

The music picks up in rhythm intensity towards the end for the coda. Backing vocals ping-pong from left to right channel in call and response: “Feels so good,” “Feels so good.” “Wanna move,” “Wanna move.” They drop the “don’t” probably for rhythmic reasons, but it definitely changes the meaning of the line. Despite the apparent chaos, there’s instrumentation is fairly sparse. The drums are almost completely kick, snare, tom, and hi-hat. There is the clean electric bass that plays almost completely plays the root of each chord, acting more as an additional percussion instrument. The wah-guitar sounds more improvised than planned. There are some horns buried so deep in the mix that you more feel them than hear them. Layers of backing vocals fly about the stereo field. A piano plays off-kilter rhythmic chords, coming and going in the mix, appearing only in the second half of the song.

Family Affair

This track comes across much more mellow and intentional. It opens with electric piano played by famous session musician Billy Preston. Billy Preston played on many records in the 1960s; his contribution to Beatles recordings receives particular recognition. The electric piano in one channel is heavily modified by rhythmic sweeping of a volume pedal, which removes the attack swells on the upbeat. The electric piano in the other channel is left dry. At first, Preston plays a single strike of the chords on the first beat of each measure. After the first verse, he improves melodic arpeggios and chords during the third and fourth beat of the first each two bars. This addition to the groove continues into later verses.

The drum machine has been filtered, rolling off the high end giving it a more muted feel. This creates a pulsing throbbing feel to the percussion, allowing all of the other instruments to sit on top. The loose bass guitar is kept low in the mix, providing just enough underlying tonal groove to support the accompaniment. Except for a few wah-muted solos, the electric guitar is kept hidden. Stone’s vocals are up-close and tight, dry and in front. Again, he’s delivering them somewhere between a smooth singing and low-key talking. Here it totally works, it sounds cool. The tight recording and having them mixed to sit just above the accompaniment makes a big difference.

Runnin’ Away

Towards the end of the album “Runnin’ Away” provides a strange change in feeling. It’s more light-hearted in feel. Male and female double up in perfect unison. The female vocals are up-front with the male vocals adding additional texture lower-end texture. The male vocals are mixed so low, they’re near subliminal. Acoustic drums provide a simple beat, galloping bass guitar provides a throbbing low end, and filtered acoustic guitar strums rhythms between verses. The accompaniment pulls back during the verses, allowing them to take focus. The lyrics takes a sly dig at the disintegration of the hippie movement. Mid-60s Bacharach style trumpet lines enhance the optimistic feel of the song; The lyrics about failure contrast with this feel. This is a joke mocking the failure of the hippie dream.While there is not a consistent scheme for where rhymes happen, rhyming is seen throughout. And the first line of each line ends with a mocking laugh.

Running away to get away, ha-ha, ha-ha
You’re wearing out your shoes
Look at you fooling you
Making blues of night and day, hee-hee, hee-hee
You’re stretching out your dues
Look at you fooling you
Shorter cut is quicker but, Ha-ha, ha-ha
Time is here to stay
Look at you fooling you

Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Cover of Van Morrison's album "Moondance"

This week,I’ve been listening to Van Morrison’s third solo album “Moondance” from 1970. Though I’ve heard his songs on occasion my whole life, my real introduction to him came about two years ago. I spent a week with his second solo album “Astral Weeks” as part of this great albums project. That album did not appeal toe me at first. By the end of that week, I stil did not care for it much, but within a year it became one of my absolute favorite albums. My son got me a vinyl copy of the album for Christmas, and I purchased the Record Store Day release of outtakes. My guitar practice time often involves playing a “Madame George.

I’ve been looking forward to listening to another album of Morrison’s work. This absolutely did not disappoint. This album is more immediately accessible than “Astral Weeks.” That tracks on that previous album can feel like they go on too long, as the performance venture off into a mildly evolving folk jazz. The performances on “Moondance,” while incorporating some jazz-influence, lean more towards folk rock and have more tight composition of pop songs.

Caravan

The third track “Caravan” immediately caught my attention. I really like the “turn it up.. turn it up” section that ends each chorus. The key there is the rhythm. The band hits twice and rests while Morrison sings emphasizing the next two beats. It’s a back and forth call-and-response, with the accompaniment leading. This rhythmically engaging exchange utilizes repetition which encourages the listener to participate. This hook brought me into the song immediately and it is the first thing I talk about here. That’s the sign of a good hook!

The verses start with two runs through the 50s Progression (I-vi-IV-V). This is followed by two runs through a descending chord progression of IV-iii-ii-I. This is played with jaunty boom-boom-bop-rest rhythm that anticipates the post-chorus. Drums, bass, piano, and acoustic guitar provide the majority of accompaniment through the song. Then the band rises into a mildy celebratory la-la-la section following I-V-I-V-iii-ii-I. This again is a common chord progression, a basic two chord I-V.. followed by a descending run through minor chords.

The lyrics present three main themes intermingling in reverie. First, a gypsy caravan spent the night near the speaker’s home when they were young. Second is the speaker’s current relationship with “sweet lady.” Third, these are tied together by songs playing on the radio. The childhood evening of listening to the songs and stories of the caravan revealed something to the young man that he feels benefit in making the current setting resemble that one. As a child, he saw the girl on the caravan playing with the radio and today, he asks his lady to turn on and up the radio. Likewise, as they sat around the campfire then, he asks the lady today to turn on the electric light.

turn up your radio
and let me hear the song
switch on your electric light
then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight
so I can feel you
sweet lady of the night,
I shall reveal you
(If you will) turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher; radio
turn it up, turn it up, so you know; radio

Brand New Day

The slower soulful track “Brand New Day” sits in the middle of side two on “Moondance.” Morrison told he heard a song by The Band on the radio. He was feeling frustrated and down and was inspired to write a song of hope. The imagery and lyrics are poetic, well-written, yet straight forward. He sees the sun come up in the morning, and realizes that this brand new day offers a change. The night is in the past.

Drums, bass, and piano start the song off and vocals start at just after 1 second. A clean electric guitar in the right channel balances the acoustic piano in the left channel. These two instruments play dancing arpeggios and gentle melodic lines, suggesting the chord progression. Morrison’s acoustic rhythm guitar is barely audible in the center. The bass guitar, also center channel, gives us the most straight forward hint of the chords: I-vii-vi-vi-IV-V-I-V for the chorus.

That’s a descending set minor chords for the first bar followed by a promising IV-V major chords, offering a strong cadence. The chorus is a solid cadence-rich chord progression of I-V-i-IV. It has a solid foundation on the tonic, making it a perfect match for the hopeful strengthening feeling in the lyrics: “It seems like… It feels like.. a brand new day.”

The lyrics of the verses consist of two quatrains, each following a ABCB rhyme scheme. However, with the delivery and internal rhyming, we could also see the verses as a pair of six lines each, following a AABCCB rhyme scheme. These lyrics give something of an “Amazing Grace” tale, with the sun and the promise of a new day being the grace. The three verses progress through speaker’s change in feeling. At first, they see the sun come in and see the promise; next, we get a description of how they were feeling before and after without any real detail; and finally, it’s all pleasant warmth.

And the sun shines down
All on the ground
Yeah and the grass is oh so green
And my heart is still
And I’ve got the will
And I don’t really feel so mean
Here it comes, here it comes
Here it comes right now
Till it comes right in on time
Well it eases me
And it pleases me
And it satisfies my mind

Into the Mystic

One of the best songs I’ve heard by Van Morrison, “Into the Mystic” closes the first side of the record. It starts with just the acoustic rhythm guitar that remind me of the previous album, “Astral Weeks.” He adds to it a rhythm slap of the palm muting the strings just as they are quickly strummed. Bass and nylon guitar quietly join in. The bass plays a moving groove, with nylon guitar gently plays lead lines between Morrison’s vocal lines. With the second part of the chorus, a piano joins and the acoustic guitar picks up in energy. After the chorus, some majestic, but simple, horns bring up the mood. They fall back, letting the vocals return to repeat the chorus. Then the horns again. The song builds up in energy and mood this way.

Lyrically, the song presents its own statement of purpose: “I want to rock your gypsy soul, just like way back in the days of old, and together we will float into the mystic.” The verses tie this mission statement to age-old romantic tales of voyages across the sea. And these are the visuals upon which Morrison hopes his song can take us. At the same time, the declaration is that of erotic love. The speaker in the song will be returning from a sea voyage, and when he does, they will make love and “float into the mystic.”

The words are made up of only a single verse, followed by a two-part chorus that he sings twice; and then as the song comes to close “to late to stop now…” The lines of the verse have a AABCCB rhyme scheme. However, in the middle of the third and sixth line, the ending rhyme of the previous two lines appears. He also makes use of alliteration with two words starting with the same consonant: “bonnie boat” and “soul and spirit.”

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

The Wailers’ “Catch a Fire”

Cover of The Wailer's album "Catch a Fire"

This week, I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fifth album “Catch a Fire” from 1973. Caribbean music was only just starting to get noticed by the rest of world. This great album combined with an international tour, drove the band and reggae into world-wide fame.

The closest thing to reggae we listened to in my house growing up was Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue.” In my late teens, I actually gave some reggae a listen. I was intrigued by the heavy use of syncopation. Attempts to emulate the strumming patterns on guitar challenged me. It wouldn’t be until my mid-twenties that my girlfriend’s music collection gave me a decent introduction to the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. I came to appreciate his music and stop simply associating it with hippies and stoners. This was real, passionate and sincere music with immediate socio-political concerns. There was more rebellion here than just some smoke.

Concrete Jungle

The Wailers open the album with “Concrete Jungle.” Marley sings about Moving from Jamaica to an American city to find the big city life to just as oppressive, only in a different way. While the song definitely reggae, there’s something about the sound and rhythms that also remind me of Stevie Wonder’s funk. This could be an intentional incorporation of the music of American cities, or perhaps just a cross-pollination of genres in the early 1970s.

The song follows a I-I-vi-IV chord progression for the verses and the chorus, with a I-IV pre-chorus. The rhythms are particularly interesting to me. The way guitar is used is one of the defining features of the genre. The guitar is firmly a member of the rhythm section. Short syncopated percussive claps of guitar chords emphasize the upbeat. A quick stroke of the pick hits these strings and they are immediately muted preventing the chords from ringing out. The Wailers will often use two electric guitars.. on that plays on the eight-note upbeat and the other adding an additional hop by playing an adjacent sixteenth note.

The bass guitar rests a lot more than we often hear in rock and pop music. There will be a deep bass note on the first beat of the measure, with a waking melodic groove until the third beat and then rest. While in most of the music I listen to will have the kick drum emphasize the first and third beat of each measure, that is not the case here. There is still often a snare or timbale on the second and fourth beat, but not always.

Stir It Up

Probably my favorite song on the album is the mellow “Stir It Up.” The Wailers released this song as a single in 1967. A cover of the song by Johnny Nash had found success internationally in 1972, leading to The Wailers joining him on an international tour. For this album, they re-recorded the track. The “Catch a Fire” version starts with an up-beat double-sixteenth chop pattern. A Moog synth provides a deliciously modulated pad that provides the memorable sound of the track.

The song follows a basic I-I-IV-V chord progression throughout. The muted electric guitar keeps the syncopated rhythm pattern. A Clavinet supports the guitar with its equally percussive chops. A percussive bass groove hits the first and second beat then rolls through rest of the bars rising. During the verses, the bass takes more rests, hitting that first beat still, providing a restrained lower end. And while all of this might seem like it’d be chaotic in description, its actually very smooth and relaxing.

Overall, I was disappointed when I started with this album, because I was hoping for songs like “Redemption Song.” Now, I see that that is from a much later album. However, after a week, many of these songs grew on me. They have strong melodies and accompaniment. There are hooks throughout that I found myself singing throughout the day when not listening to the album.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars

Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul”

Cover for Aretha Franklin's album Lady Soul

This week, I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s album “Lady Soul” from 1968. This marked her twelfth album released in seven years since her first in 1961. Just over a week ago, I spent a week with her tenth album, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” from 1967. Both are fantastic. The songs of Aretha Franklin often played in our house when I was growing up. My mom had a copy of the “30 Greatest Hits” compilation on CD. She and my sister listened to it a lot. “Natural Woman” and “Respect” especially got a lot of play. Though her music filled my childhood, it took several years before I actually developed my own appreciation. Franklin’s singing amazes every time I hear her. She knows how to fill the songs with such emotion and power. A lot of singers attempt the same and often just sound like they are yelling. Aretha Franklin sings!

Chain of Fools

The album opens with “Chain of Fools,” written by Don Covay. The speaker of the song is in a relationship with a philanderer. She discovers that he has other lovers and that she is just one of many “fools.” And yet, she is determined to stick it out as long as she can handle. They use the metaphor of a chain consisting of links to represent the collection of lovers. This metaphor is used throughout the song, maintaining consistency.

There are three verses, the first two are eight lines, the third consists of four. Each set of four lines follows a ABCB rhyme scheme. With the exception of “fool/cruel” and “break/take” the rhymes are not strict. We have “man/chain”, “link/strength”, and “home/strong.”

For five long years
I thought you were my man
But I found out, love
I’m just a link in your chain
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothing but your fool
You treated me mean
You treated me cruel

There is no real chord progression to the song, though there is plenty of groove and movement. The song provides soulful rock riffs over the same chord all the way through. The guitar mostly plays arpeggios, with a little melodic riffing, of the same minor chord. Joe South’s lead guitar plays some gritty low notes through a clean amplifier, again it’s simple but effective. The bass guitar rolls along, mostly repeating the same two bar pattern, one bar answering the other.

A Natural Woman

The soulful “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” closed side A of the record. Carole King wrote this song with her then husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. I heard this song so much as a child that it feels like the first verse and chorus are just woven into me. It reminds me of the front door and windows being open throughout the house in the early spring. The lead and backing vocals joining and dancing around each other.

Spooner Oldham’s perfectly understated piano starts the song with a simple set of chords, like the piano in a small church. The verses follow a chord progression of I-V-VII♭-IV. Then Aretha begins “Looking out on the morning rain,” joined by the bass guitar. Gradually, the strings and drums also begin to play. A gentle, cautious, pre-chorus follows ii7-iii7, a progression that feels like it’s waiting for strength. Then the strings and backing vocals rise up in the chorus with religious joy, “You make me feel.. you make me feel.. You make me feel like a natural woman!”

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
Life was so unkind
But you’re the key to
My peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like
A natural woman

Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin (I)”

Cover of Led Zeppelin's debut album

This week, I’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut LP from 1969 that introduced the world to their unique blend of hard blues rock. While I’ve known their fourth album my whole life and a few of their other albums since I was a teenager, I somehow missed most of their first. Most of my punk-rock friends shrugged off Zeppelin as the hippie-rock of their parents. Yet, my parents didn’t listen to them beyond a few songs on Led Zeppelin IV like “Stairway to Heaven.” The punk rejection is kind of funny considering how album’s “Communication Breakdown” influenced much of the Ramones. Still, punk rejected what they saw as excessive moments of showy musicianship that Zeppelin were already demonstrating on this first album.

Jimmy Page formed the band after years of impressive work as a session musician and a short period with the Yardbirds. He pulled together singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham, who previously worked together in the short-lived Band of Joy. Fellow session-musician John Paul Jones joined the Page’s Led Zeppelin to play bass and organ. At first named The New Yardbirds, they changed their name to Led Zeppelin after Keith Moon’s joke that they would go over like a lead balloon.

Good Times Bad Times

The album opens with “Good Times Bad Times,” which was also their first single. From the first 15 seconds of full-band double-stabs, it’s clear that Led Zeppelin intends to be big and loud. Then with the first line of vocals, the drums begin pounding, explosive and rolling. John Bonham dances all over the drums keeping a constant rocking texture going throughout. Considering his heroes included star jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, it’s no surprise that Bonham would use so many fills. This is no simple 4/4 drum pattern and, like Keith Moon, he’s not afraid to hit the cymbals. Page continues the double-stab pattern, but fills the space between with grooving blues riffs.

Page and Zeppelin build most of their songs around riffs. So, we hear usually hear a 1 or 2 bar rocking guitar riff that gets repeated throughout a verse, and then a different riff in the same family for the chorus. He frequently livens up these repetitions with variation through adding or switching a note, as well as bending notes. The bass either plays in unison or a separate riff that provides counter-balance rhythmically and tonally. Rarely is anybody in the band playing something simple. There’s lot of movement and action throughout these recordings.

Of course, I love the lead guitar that was played through a Leslie speaker. I love a rotating speaker when used on guitar, organ, or really anything else. It brings a great life to Page’s solo, that honestly it didn’t need, but help bring it forward. This is likely also accomplished through combination of the hi-mid frequency boost of the horn speaker as well as perhaps a boost pedal, which had just come out the same year.

Your Time Is Gonna Come

John Paul Jones begins “Your Time is Gonna Come” with gospel-blues-rock sounding organ. Then, Bonham kicks in the drum with a crash leading into one of his simpler drum patterns. During the coda, he kicks it up with fills every other bar and ultimately leads into pulsing patterns on the kick and toms. Page plays picked arpeggios on an acoustic guitar. Plant sings folk-blues inspired verse, leading into a soulful chorus of “Your time is gonna come.” In this song, it’s not a good time, but rather he’s warning a woman that has broken his heart that she will some day experience the same. There’s not a lot of rhyming here; they don’t shy from it, but they don’t enforce any sort of pattern.

Made up my mind to break you this time
Won’t be so fine, it’s my turn to cry
Do what you want, I won’t take the brunt
It’s fading away, can’t feel you anymore
Don’t care what you say cause I’m going away to stay
Going to make you pay for that great big hole in my heart
People talking all around
Watch out woman, no longer is the joke gonna be on my heart
You been bad to me woman, but it’s coming back home to you

How Many More Times

The longest and most epic complex song of the album, “How Many More Times” closes the second side. Throughout its 8½ minutes, the band takes us through several rounds of twists and turns. There are times it begins to feel like a freeform jam, but they know what they are doing and where they are going. The band brought together several unused song ideas that Page had written from previous years into a coherent whole. The transitions from section to section work perfectly, especially by the occasional reintroduction of the opening blues-rock riff that reminds the listener where we came from.

Page makes frequent use of a wah pedal on much of the lead guitar. Sometimes he uses it in the “half-cocked” position which causes the pedal to act as a high-frequency boost. He also creates otherworldly effects by playing the guitar with a large bow. This song, in addition to musically interesting interplay of bands as well as unison stabs.. provides a fascinating set of examples of early effects on electric guitar.

There’s a lot that I love about this album, even if the focus on blues-inspired hard rock is not necessarily my favorite. I like when they get more into psychedelic territory like Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti. However, what I really love about this album is the sound of it. Rotating speakers, a variety of expert guitar sounds, the big complex drums, the rolling bass, and the occasional use of organ.