“...Grand Funk Railroad are one of those band names which can fatigue me without hearing a note - see also the likes of The Eagles, Quicksilver Messenger Service and (Chicago)”.
As soon as I wrote that alarm bells went off. “You should delete that”, I thought to myself, but I kept typing. “Think again”, I said as my finger poised above the Publish button, but to no avail. I published and was damned by my own integrity.
To dismiss early 1970s US rock groups is easy, cheap and lazy. It’s especially lazy when, as in my case, you haven’t listened in any real depth to anything those groups recorded. I put some blame for this at John Peel’s feet. Having played some of those bands in the early 1970s on fairly heavy rotation, he, perhaps understandably, cut many of them loose once he heard The Ramones for the first time. In many cases, he had moved on even earlier than that. By late 1977/early 1978, he could barely remember any affection he may have held for them as he gorged himself and his audience on a diet of punk, reggae and post-punk music. In the last 25 years of his life he appeared to dismiss a lot of the stuff he played between 1970 and 1976 with a “What was I thinking!” level of insouciance, while still continuing to wrongfoot 21st Century listeners by throwing in a Jackson Browne track when it was least expected.
Needless to say, I fell in with this orthodoxy that many of those US bands of the early 1970s were rubbish. Looking at my record collection, the majority of the stuff I have from that period is by 60s bands that were continuing to record into the new decade: my beloved Move of course; the best of The Rolling Stones and some solo Beatle brilliance - all of their records exhibited the flaws of the periods such as extended wigouts on guitar and any other instrument to hand, The Move were partiularly guilty of this at times. But I forgave them because they had paid their dues as pop acts and served up enough slices of brilliance in 2 and a half or 3 minutes in the preceding years that they had earnt the right to stretch out over 5, 6 minutes or longer. It was those Johnny Come Latelys that pitched up in 1969 believing that extended drum solos were their birthright which got my prejudices flaring.
Nevertheless, my closed-ear dismissal of those four groups gnawed away at me. I couldn’t escape the realisation that any piece of cultural review, even one as squashed into the back corners of the World Wide Web as this blog, cannot hope to retain any sense of credibility if it doesn’t listen to that which it would seek to belittle, if only to see whether the belittling is justified. And who knows, maybe, just maybe, this music may not be as bad as I guessed it to be. I might even like some of it, and then how would I recognise myself?
So I set myself a challenge. I would listen to 3 albums each from the oeuvre of Grand Funk Railroad, Quicksilver Messenger Service Service, Chicago and The Eagles. I would choose albums released by the groups between 1970 and 1976. This seemed appropriate given that The Eagles released the Hotel California album 3 days before Peel’s first Punk special. The symbolism was irresistible. So here are my field notes from my excursion into hair ‘n’ beards early1970s American rock music, and we begin where all this started:
Grand Funk Railroad
Albums listened to: Closer To Home (1970), Survival (1971) and We’re An American Band (1973)
Prejudices prior to listening: monster riffage and funk stretched out to epic length.
Expectations confounded?: Absolutely. Of the four groups in this experiment, Grand Funk Railroad rocked the hardest and although they liked to top that 5/6 minute mark, they only did so when they had something worth listening to. In the case of Closer To Home that something is the final two tracks - the outstanding rock/soul hybrid of Hooked on Love and the epic title track I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home) which manages to fuse together early 70s sunshine pop, Cream-style power trio dynamics, Space Oddity and Sailing By. 15 minutes listening for 2 songs and 2/3 of that is for I’m Your Captain which falls into the early 70s trap of bunging on several additional minutes for 1
repeated line, but they pack in enough ideas for twice that number of songs.
In discussing Survival, I need to broach a difficult subject - one that some of you may feel queasy about but it’s simply unavoidable when looking at this record, because it underpins most of what drives the thrust of the album. Christian rock. Wait! Come back, please! Honestly, it’s really good. For lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter, Mark Farner, a relationship with God informs the best songs on this record, most explicitly in I Can Feel Him in the Morning, a fusion of Revolution 9 and a stab at a contemporary hymn which works far better than a description like that makes it sound. Comfort Me swims with palpable joy and relief at having found a way back to God, it almost makes you wonder why we don’t all do it. However, any cynicism can’t stand up for long when set against the effervescence of Farner’s vocal. If it doesn’t convert you, it at least makes you pleased for him.
Throw in the tremendous anti-war rocker Country Road, the audio-verite state of the nation gospel thrills of I Want Freedom and a cover of Gimme Shelter which sounds like the leads in Hair backed by Black Sabbath’s rhythm section and you have an album so full of interesting sounds and ideas that it stood out as the only album of the lot that I would actually go out and buy.
I’m actually listening to We’re An American Band as I type this, for a second time. This was partially because, apart from the title track, which I already knew through Peel endorsed cover versions, none of the other tracks had grabbed me when I first heard it, which didn’t bode well. It sounds like an entirely different band from that on the other two albums. In large part this may be down to the change in producers, this album being the first one recorded with Todd Rungren, who tried to make every record he worked on sound like the most complete pop record ever made, and the artists themselves sound like the biggest acts in the world. It takes aim and fires at stadium rock and in terms of sales figures, it hit the mark, reaching Number 2 in the Billboard Top 200 albums - the other two albums covered here both got to Number 6. It’s all got far more virtuosic and rockist compared to earlier albums and that’s not to say that is necessarily bad, especially on tracks like The Railroad or Ain’t Got Nobody but I did find myself missing the more intimate settings that Terry Knight placed them in.
Video courtesy of tmrw33
Quicksilver Messenger Service
Albums listened to: Just For Love (1970), Quicksilver (1971) and Comin’ Thru (1972).
Prejudices prior to listening to: aimless Americana that would go on for decades
Expectations confounded?: Yes. I hadn’t thought that any of these bands would be waving a flag for guitar pop as opposed to rock indulgence, but Quicksilver Messenger Service did just that to decent
effect across all three of these albums. One of the last acts to be signed up in the rush to mine the San Francisco sound of the late 60s, QMS were still keeping those sunshine vibes going with tracks that sounded 1967 in 1972. At its best this meant the fantastic 1970 single, Fresh Air, a back to nature rocker with a chorus that should have had all those with and without tickets at The Isle of Wight Festival punching the air that summer. Just For Love’s other highlight for me is Cobra, a fast country blues instrumental that clearly influenced The Doug Wood Band’s most famous piece of work. When QMS were good, they were really good. But the issue for me is that too often, they were pleasant but little more. That’s still better than being boring though and the Quicksilver album featured two gems in Song for Frisco in which the band lament the end of the Love era in their home city and Don’t Cry My Lady Love with its gorgeous barroom piano sound.
Comin’ Thru, their penultimate album, highlights the pleasantness conundrum. It’s very funky in
places and has a lightness of touch about it, common to most QMS albums. But I’d struggle to name
a single outstanding track from it. Maybe, the topical Doin’ Time in the USA which formed a neat
opening salvo with their take on the traditional song, Chicken, but it was a bit of a meander from
there. The musical equivalent of a walk through St Austell town centre: pleasant but unremarkable.
Video courtesy of ScreamDream3000
Albums listened to: Chicago ll (1970), Chicago Vll (1974) and Chicago Vlll (1975)
Prejudices prior to listening to: eggy sub-stadium rock pop played by people in skinny shirts, wide lapels and all looking like Gene Wilder.
Expectations confounded?: Yes, although I find listening to any of their albums more than once and
in one go difficult to recommend. But that shows up the shallowness of my ability to listen, I think, because Chicago’s early 70s albums really want you to listen. They are packed with ideas, flourishes
and interest. At the risk of sounding like Joseph ll in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, there’s almost too
much music on offer here. What stops it from sliding into double/triple album purgatory is the way
that it incorporates its brass section and never stays still long enough for an idea to become boring or repetitive. In trying to distinguish their sequence of numerically titled albums, all you need to know is Chicago II is the one which brings together politically charged jazz funk workouts, Hair-inspired
musical numbers and rejected television show theme tunes. Chicago VII opens with six instrumental
numbers but these run the gamut from the Afro-Soul of Aire to a terrific Lalo Schifrin inspired piece
called Devil’s Sweet, so it’s all good. Chicago VIII is the one which could take the much derided title for Best Album of 1975. A lush, thinking pop record with bags of romance, humour and intelligence. Unlike their other records, it contents itself with a mere two sides rather than four and it is a more straightforward rock record content to play out its ideas in 4 minute bursts rather than 7 and a half
minutes. It also features Brand New Love Affair Parts 1 & 2, one of the best of those lush 70s orchestral ballads that sound like the NewYork Symphony Orchestra had been drafted in on a pop contract. My favourite of this type is God Bless the Absentee by Paul Simon. In conclusion, I went
in thinking Chicago would be dull, beige lightweights but the evidence of the early 70s suggests that they would have been what Pink Floyd would have sounded like had Syd Barrett kept it together and been able to steer them towards the kind of free jazz, large number collective he wanted them to be when trying to write pop songs became too much for him.
Video courtesy of Riccardo Cassanova
Albums listened to: On The Border (1974), One of These Nights (1975), Hotel California (1976)
Prejudices prior to learning: as for Quicksilver Messenger Service but far beardier.
Expectations confounded? No, but not as painful as feared. In a sense, while 1976-77 may be remembered as the period when punk came and swept everything aside, the reality is that US Country Rock was arguably holding it to a draw when the sales figures and interest in the Hotel California album are taken into account. That album was something of a vindication for The Eagles, who had agitated for a move more towards rock than country over the preceding three years. In fact
so much so that it caused them to part ways with the legendary producer, Glyn Johns and perhaps
more tellingly, lose Bernie Leadon, a country roots musician of astounding versatility. Listen to any
early 1970s US rock album featuring banjo, or steel guitar and the chances are it was played either by Leadon or Clarence White. At the point where I started listening to the band for the On The Border album, it’s the tension between the country and rock elements that makes for the more interesting
tracks. For the first 3 minutes of its 4 minute running time, Midnight Flyer is a straight country
shuffle driven on by Leadon’s banjo, but the last minute sees a tonal shift and heavily phased electric
guitar plays the track out. Elsewhere, Eagles set out their stall with tracks like the terrific You Never
Cry Like a Lover or Best Of My Love which sounds like it was created to be exactly what it was, a
(US) Number 1 hit single.
One of These Nights attempts to build on this success, but its best moments are those where Eagles
flirt with psychedelia in tracks like the supercharged wooziness of Visions or Bernie Leadon’s swansong instrumental, Journey of the Sorcerer, otherwise known as the theme to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Set against that, the album’s title track sounds like the most 1975 thing ever committed to vinyl.
And so finally to Hotel California. It’s a bit unfair to hold this monster selling record up as one of the exhibits in the Why Punk Had To Happen trial, but the decadence of the album is pretty nauseating. In a track like Life in the Fast Lane, the cocaine reality that these guys lived with every day is directly quoted and amidst the stodgy rock tunes and sanctimonious nonsense of the closing track, The Last Resort, it stands out as the album’s most revealing tune for lifting a lid on the inherent emptiness that comes with great fame. The title track might have become over familiar through years of bad karaoke, but listened to in context, with its shimmering arpeggios and brilliant voodooesque lyrics - one of Eagles’ strongest suits throughout each of their records - it does a brilliant job of highlighting the sense of bloat that had swollen so much of rock music into something which had gotten away from its audience and which punk rock of the kind John Peel played on that December 10 1976 show, broadcast in the same week that copies of Hotel California were first placed on record store shelves, tried to close the gap. 41 years on, we can afford to be more generous to these and other exponents of “good singing, good playing”.
Video courtesy of huntertom.