I'm forever threatening to start leavening these monster features with more bite-sized posts and off the cuff dispatches, only to let two weeks go by before checking in with y'all. One of these days I'll have to break down and start doing just that... so consider this the first of many dispatches from the coalface. Hopefully I can keep it up!
As you might expect, I've been knee deep in loads of great canyon and canyon-adjacent music ever since diving into The Canyon 25 project, only some of which has made its way up here. Last time out, I hinted that I've got another feature in the works which will serve as an analogue to the canyon proper 25: the deep geology list, tracking the myriad routes running beneath the canyon and stretching out in all directions.
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that one can feel this music while going about town, as if the charge were still emanating from the city's canyons and palms. Just as I'm haunted by jazz mosaic sonic imagery when I traverse Balboa Park (with the Museum Of Man bell tower keying into real David Axelrod/Song Of Innocence vibes when it rings in the late afternoon), the faint spectre of Spirit, Love and Morrison Hotel serve as a skeleton key for unlocking the desert beneath the asphalt in this town.
I've been rocking out to Love's Four Sail, blues-era Doors (see also L.A. Woman) and especially Captain Beefheart. Yea, that's right, the good old captain. The big revelation this time 'round has been Mirror Man, a record that I'd never spent a lot of time with but very recently came out and hit me with Ark Of The Covenant, pile driver force.
This is a great record, recorded hot on the heels of The Magic Band's awesome Safe As Milk in 1967 (but held back from release until 1971), it offers a third eye vision of this band in light of that record's warped garage punk and Trout Mask Replica's abstract blues. Consisting of four marathon blues workouts (the shortest is eight minutes long, the longest nineteen!), Mirror Man is striking in its single-minded focus on running these stomping grooves down like a well-oiled machine.
Strangely enough, the comparison that immediately springs to mind is Malcolm Mooney-era can, indeed the same pounding minimalism found in a song like Monster Movie's Yoo Doo Right is shared by songs like Kandy Korn and 25th Century Quaker. Similarly, Tarotplane and the title track play like extended ruminations on the debut's most righteous grooves (think Electricity and Abba Zaba), making it the perfect companion piece to Safe As Milk.
It all makes the perfect soundtrack to this early-November Indian Summer we've had going for a bit now, a mini-heatwave to tide us over as we gear up for the long winter...
With this, Love's fourth album, we move deeper still into the canyon. In fact, this was actually the very last record to be cut from the original Canyon 25, not on the basis of quality but because it exists just that little bit too far inside acid rock territory to fit in with the down-home 25. Still, even if it does exist just outside the boundaries of what constitutes canyon proper, it truly is a phenomenal, unique record, more than worthy of our attention in the context of this excursion.
It also works as a perfect transition into the final chapter of the Two Weeks In The Canyon saga: what will be a sort of mirror image 25, a selection of records from the other side of the canyon. That feature should be appearing here sometime later next week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, let us dig into this particular Love story and see where it takes us...
Led by the late great psychedelic visionary Arthur Lee, Love started out as one of the original folk rock combos (alongside fellow Angelenos The Byrds), turning in their self-titled debut in early 1966 (right in between The Byrds' Turn! Turn! Turn! and Fifth Dimension). It was a solid, garage-tinged record that nevertheless found the band still heavily indebted to their influences, most obviously The Byrds first and foremost but also British invasion bands like The Animals and The Who.
The band's chief songwriters — Lee and Bryan MacLean — were still finding their respective voices at this point, relying more heavily on cover versions — songs like Hey Joe (by folk singer Billy Roberts) and Bacharach/David's My Little Red Book — than they ever would again. It wasn't until the following year, on their sophomore album Da Capo, that the band began to carve out territory that was truly their own... and it turned out to be a world that no one else in rock had yet dreamed of.
Da Capo features another shot of the band in front of that same stone structure found on their debut (taken in the gardens of their communal home, which they dubbed The Castle), but its sound was a quantum leap from everything they'd done up to that point. Perhaps most notorious for the psychotic slab of garage punk called Seven & Seven Is, an excursion into warped surf rock (spiked with the distinct flavor of Ravel's Bolero) that would later appear on the epochal Nuggets box set. To this day, it remains one of the most extreme examples of sixties punk.
However, the real shape of things to come was to be found in the intricate arrangements of songs like Orange Skies (written by MacLean, it's the one song not credited Lee) and ¡Que Vida!. Replete with swirling organs, flutes and the distinct colorings of baroque pop, they found the band using the studio to their full advantage in creating songs with unique colorings firmly outside the bounds of straight ahead rock 'n roll. This was an approach that would of course come to full fruition later that year...
Released a mere nine months after Da Capo, Forever Changes — often considered one of the finest albums of all time — is the record that really put them in the history books. At this point, the band developed a mastery of incorporating orchestral elements like strings and brass into the very fabric of their (by this point) extremely distinctive folk rock style. Tunes like A House Is Not A Motel sound like the blueprint for all the best indie rock about twenty years before the fact, haunted by the definitive guitar sound that Johnny Echols conjures up on his six-string.
Nimble, breakbeat-propelled excursions like Alone Again Or and Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale are graceful in a way seldom heard in rock up to that point, cementing the record's status as a deservedly acknowledged classic. Without giving too much away, its boundless reach into regions beyond the typical folk rock and country forms will inform the next and final chapter of the whole canyon saga, where we dive into the more jazz and orchestral-inflected waters on the other side of L.A. — with routes stretching into jazz, psychedelia, hard rock and beyond — of which Forever Changes arguably stands at the apex.
And yet, after the record's release, the band ultimately parted ways. The reasons were many, including substance abuse problems within the band and friction between Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean (who was frustrated at not having more of his songs on the record). Forever Changes was also much more successful a record in the U.K. than it ever was in the States, where it was destined to gradually attain its status as a lost classic over time. Ultimately, MacLean left the group and Lee, discontent, dismissed the rest of the band. After recording a masterpiece, Lee found himself in the wilderness and in need of a new crew to run with.
It was at this point that he formed a completely new band, rounded out by Jay Donnellan on guitar, Frank Fayad on bass and George Suranovich on drums. Love MK. II got down to business in a converted L.A. warehouse, cutting three LPs worth of sun-baked high desert rock 'n roll in a series of marathon sessions. Four Sail was the first album culled from those sessions, and the band's final with Elektra (the remainder of the recordings would appear on the double-LP Out Here, released by Blue Thumb).
Starting from the cover photo and its iconic western imagery, which perfectly matches the acid country sounds found within, this record finds the newly minted Love operating as a looser and more free-wheeling outfit than Lee's previous band. His new circle of musicians also tended towards a harder, more blues-based approach, and he wisely met them halfway. Lee described writing songs around the new band, giving individual members space to express themselves musically, accounting for the change in direction toward a harder, more down-to-earth sound.
The band's liquid interplay defines the record, their turn-on-a-dime rhythmic theatrics kicking up a ramshackle glory with all the makings of a great cowboy movie. This is what you always wanted The Grateful Dead to sound like. Still, there's a lot of ground covered on Four Sail. Despite the swaggering bluster to this record's more turbulent theatrics, there's nevertheless some quietly intimate corners it manages to spend a considerable amount of time in. In short, it's a tour de force, and one certainly that deserves a second look here at Parallax Moves...
The record opens with the sort of trademark cyclical folk rock strum that one has grown to expect from Love, sounding like a dead ringer for what would one day be called alternative. Then, Jay Donnellan's acid-tinged guitar line rises on the crest of a machine gun rhythm from George Suranovich, heralding the record's masterful melding of musical forms with the blistering August. This is a place where country and folk, hard rock, sunshine pop and jazz all mix with wild abandon.
After slipping into a gently tumbling verse from Arthur Lee — his bittersweet paean to the month of August itself — the acid motif returns, serving as a wordless chorus as the guitars spar with scattershot snare riddims. At the tune's midpoint, it all drops back into that cyclical guitar pattern once again before collapsing into a violent eruption of Donnellan's acid guitar pyrotechnics through the tectonic plates of the track's rolling folk and country stylings, unveiling the new band's more hard-edged attack in full force. Indeed, Donnellan's guitars define this record.
It's all gloriously cinematic, you can practically see the dust being kicked up by the horses as the gang rides into town. This is every kid's cowboy movie fantasies writ large in sonic form. There's a controlled fury to the band's blasts of noise that keys into the sort of abstract blues that bands like the Groundhogs had just begun to explore, the band trading their liquid mercury lines with near-telepathic interplay. When everything goes into overdrive at the tune's halfway mark — the band jamming furiously in a cascading pile-up of throbbing bass, crashing drums and Donnellan's acid-drenched guitars — it's like you're riding directly into a sandstorm. And then, without warning, it all ends on the same fanfare it rode in on.
Without missing a beat, the band drops into Your Friend And Mine - Neil's Song a jaunty quasi-music hall number that recalls The Lovin' Spoonful's winning sunshine folk ditties like Best Friend and Lovin' You (see also Hot Tuna and The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies). Even Arthur Lee's lyrics sound like they're straight out of John Sebastian's playbook:
Only you can bring back the good old days.
Let's hear it again for a long lost friend.
Here's a little something to relax your mind
Now that we are two of a kind, my friend.
Donnellan's guitar carves out a little good time, country-inflected guitar line that runs through the entirety of the tune, occasionally creeping into the foreground for a playful kind of solo. The whole thing so brilliantly casual, tossed off even, making it a lovely playpen for Lee's vocals to wander after the blistering intensity of August.
It's not until the third song that we get something like the prototypical Love song. Sounding like a dead ringer for the original band's peak-era sound, I'm With You would have fit right in there on Forever Changes. It directly mirrors the quickstep approach of such prime material as Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale and A House Is Not A Motel, albeit with the overcast, baroque stylings of Forever Changes replaced with a sun-glazed blurriness.
Truly, it seems like no one else can pull this sort of thing off. Nimbly perched breakbeats carry the song's soaring trajectory as guitars seem to twist and turn on eight different planes, cymbals splashing up against the chorus like little waves as Lee recreates the horn section of Forever Changes himself with a wordless ba ba ba, ba ba-ba ba vocal. Simply sublime. It's worth noting one thing that isn't mentioned enough when discussing this band: Lee's vocals, which effortlessly veer between sweet falsetto, rich croon and mountain man roar (often in the space of a single song), and are some of the finest to be found in rock music.
Good Times creeps in out of nowhere on a jazzy shuffle, not unlike the one found in Simon And Garfunkel's Somewhere They Can't Find Me, albeit swinging a good deal harder. The guitars seem submerged in the mix before getting overdriven through a wah-wah pedal in the chorus, warping the entire groove and driving up the tension before rising into another one of Donnellan's linchpin solos. Nevertheless, Lee's vocals, switching as they do between the gentle grace of the smooth, cool cat verses and ragged rock 'n roll chorus (and back again), are the true star of the show.
Opening with a ringing guitar fanfare underpinned by more of those trademark Suranovich rolling drums, Singing Cowboy seems to kick up a dust cloud with its galloping beat riding roughshod over Four Sail's halfway mark. This tune in particular really cements the record's unique feel, along with my idea of it as that rare thing: an acid country record, utterly distinctive and worthy of praise in its own right (and not just a footnote to Forever Changes). Lee's lyrics seem to bear this out:
It's do or die, boy.
Say goodbye, don't you cry
Look out kid, I'm coming after you.
Iconic words that brilliantly match the sonic imagery conjured up by the band, bringing to mind some unprecedented fusion of Ennio Morricone and Gordon Lightfoot. The bridge is classic Love, featuring a descending three-stab guitar riff that on second return explodes into another burnt bronze Donnellan solo. This leads naturally into the track's protracted denouement (which incidentally takes up the second half of its five minute running length) throughout which Lee keeps chanting coming through to you and gotta keep on rolling on as Frank Fayad's massive churning bassline takes center stage.
Side two opens with Dream, a listless take on the more whimsical corners of Love's sound. Lee confesses I just woke up from a dream and the band perfectly captures that bleary-eyed dislocation of waking up in a place you don't remember being. One's reminded of the moping, exhausted feeling of The Beatles' I'm So Tired, rendered here with the benefit of a killer proto-hip hop be bop drum break. Donnellan drops another one of his secret weapon guitar solos, this one a likkle bit contemplative and searching (and seemingly copied in part by Oasis on Champagne Supernova!). The band seems to gather its last bit of energy to go into cowboy fanfare mode again for the dismount, before collapsing completely.
Surely spelling doom on the horizon, Robert Montgomery — the other big rocker here — opens with a razor blade guitar riff before Donnellan weaves his wrought iron lines across a twisted foundation of tortured bass and cymbal-splashing drums. This song isn't actually about the actor, but an autobiographical account of Lee returning to his old neighborhood to find that all the people that used to laugh at his proto-hippie style had by then jumped on the bandwagon. Sounding like he's clawing his way out from another bad dream, Lee unfurls a tale of lonely dislocation:
Robert Montgomery lived on the good side of town.
He went down to the people that he used to know, but they had changed
And though they looked different they still were the same...
It's like one of Ray Davies character studies rendered with shades of the apocalypse. Every note played, every drum crash, every stinging guitar line, seems to close in around Lee's soaring falsetto, matching his every move in a staggering dance of doom. Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the track becomes a launching pad for some spiraling guitar work from Donnellan, but dark horse Frank Fayad rides in with some killer licks of his own, scrawled out in molten script at the rumbling low end.
The searching Nothing is something like the mirror image of Dream, only the cyclical folk tension of its verses find sweet release in the soaring chorus, a constellation of glistening stardust guitar and fathoms deep bass underpinned by crashing drums breaking out in a nimble display of gentle fury. Once again, Suranovich anchors the tune with his expertly splashy drumming, as he has consistently throughout the record (with the exception of tracks two through four, which are handled more tautly and controlled by The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown's Drachen Theaker).
Perhaps appropriately for a song called Nothing, there's a zen-like calm to the proceedings that seem to roll in and out with the tide. I often flash on Skip Spence's album closing Grey/Afro, with which it shares the same sense of stargazing shapes caught in a frieze of eternity while expanding rhythms drift in and out of focus. Whoa! It's all quite cosmic, and a secret ancestor to the sizzling post rock of Main, Flying Saucer Attack and Disco Inferno.
While we're on the subject of Skip Spence, Four Sail's penultimate track Talking In My Sleep comes on like a slightly more upbeat take on the cowboy songs found on Oar. What might at first seem like a boneyard throwaway adds a key bit of levity to the record's heavy home stretch (just as Neil's Song had to side one), with Lee modulating his vocals down an octave in humorous fashion and then back up to a falsetto over the tune's gently chugging rhythm. It always cracks me up how Lee sings talking in my slee-ee-eep! Of course it all breaks off into another acid country jam carried by Donnellan's razor wire guitar a couple times before the song is through, which I suppose we'd be disappointed if it didn't!
Always See Your Face closes the record out on a third and final whimsical note, albeit with a strong bittersweet aftertaste this time. This song has always struck me as predicting the sound of Rodriguez's Cold Fact (specifically songs like Forget It and Jane S. Piddy), with the pretty sting of its uncomplicated guitar melody underpinned by the added flourish of a chamber horn arrangement. Lee's sparse lyrics quite poignant in this context:
Won't somebody please
Help me with my miseries.
Can't somebody see, yeah
What this world has done to me.
And I know I know
And I say, oh, I say
That no matter where you go,
I will always see your face.
He's echoed by Donnellan's casually unfurled guitar solo at the song's midpoint, which sounds just something you might have heard on record decades later in the mid-nineties. It's the perfect signature etched onto a weary, accepting conclusion to this record's unspoken song cycle: a tragic epilogue to this cowboy movie of the mind.
And then it's all over... or is it? As mentioned earlier, the following double-album Out Here is a sprawling collection of 17 songs cut from the same cloth (the same sessions, in fact), and it makes a welcome companion piece to this record. This same band (minus Donnellan) turned in one more record — 1970's False Start — even roping in Hendrix on guitar for one song. And yet Four Sail is the cream of the crop, the peak of Love's Indian summer and a singular work that sounds like little else around (if at all, and even then only in bits and pieces).
I'll even go so far as to contend that it bests much of the San Francisco scene at its own game. I mean, I'll love them till the day I die, but Jefferson Airplane never made an LP this front-to-back consistent, this sharply focused. It plays like a brilliant short story, a no-nonsense filmic excursion that nevertheless manages to stay true to the band's garage punk roots (especially since, in essence, it was recorded in a garage!). One could read it as a precursor to something like Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, with its ramshackle widescreen epics, even as it makes undeniable future moves that call to mind The Mighty Groundhogs.
Then there's that undeniable sense of gravity found in the entirety of this record, an unforced sense of portent and mystery that manages to happen naturally as it unfolds. One can see why Jim Morrison had been an avowed fan of the group, dating all the way back to their early years. In fact, Four Sail even predicts The Doors dusty back to the roots blues rock moves on Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman by a whole year. Coincidence? I wonder...
At any rate, this is a crucial record down at the Parallax Room for similar reasons. On Four Sail, Love strike a perfect balance between spontaneous jamming and mapped-out arrangement, never getting bogged down in interminable solos even as they remain thoroughly unpredictable throughout. In a year like 1969 (the year of Woodstock, after all), that's no mean feat. And in the context of the canyon, it serves as the perfect segue between Laurel Canyon proper and where we'll be going next...
In putting together The Canyon 25, I went back and listened to a bunch of my favorite records from in and around that scene. In the process, it quickly became clearer than ever how quietly important Chris Hillman's contribution had been to the whole scene's development, not only as a musician and songwriter but also a strange attractor of sorts, bringing people and ideas together at just the right time.1
In there right at the beginning with The Byrds, his bass was the steady anchor of that band, the propulsion behind Eight Miles High's liftoff into the stratosphere, Inner Space and beyond. Even as early as Mr. Tambourine Man, the band's debut, his four-string input imbued the proto-garage punk of It's No Use with a sense of rhythmic danger. And who can knock the rapid-fire Bo Diddley punch of Don't Doubt Yourself, Babe?
However, it's with The Byrds timely invention of acid rock that Hillman's bass really takes on a life of its own, his throbbing basslines on tracks like I See You, 5 D Fifth Dimension and the awesome Psychodrama City (left off the record for some reason that's always escaped me!), pushing Mike Clark's drums into gear like a locomotive and providing the perfect environment for Roger McGuinn's Coltrane-inspired guitar pyrotechnics to take flight. There's no getting around it, Hillman's bass is the very heartbeat of Fifth Dimension.
Notable also is the fact that he's credited as co-arranger alongside McGuinn and David Crosby on both Wild Mountain Thyme and John Riley. One can't help but wonder if it's his fingerprints in evidence on the former's lush country-western-inflected filmic strings and the latter's shadowy midnight chamber orchestra. Later developments seem to confirm my suspicions...
After three albums spent largely enhancing the material of Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby, the gloves come off on the following record (Younger Than Yesterday), when — much like George Harrison's ascent in The Beatles on Revolver — Hillman emerges as a formidable songwriter in his own right. The humming Beatle-esque power pop of Have You Seen Her Face is wonderful, but Thoughts And Words — with the overcast proto-alternative haze of its verses playing musical chairs with the bouncing breakbeat chorus — is the highlight of the record... a record that from the standpoint of songwriting might just be the band's strongest.2
His most timely contribution, however, comes in the shape of Time Between and The Girl With No Name, two country-inflected rockers that proved to be startlingly prescient as the next few years would come to pass. His love of bluegrass and country was felt early — on 1965's Turn! Turn! Turn! — with the band's cover A Satisfied Mind (the de-facto birth of country rock), an influence that would increasingly be pushed to the fore until it ultimately changes the band's entire direction altogether on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
The following year's The Notorious Byrd Brothers opens blast of the horn-driven rocker Artificial Energy — the result of Hillman's suggestion that they write a song about speed — and sure 'nuff has another trademark Hillman bassline rumbling beneath it. The remainder of the record maintains an atmospheric, dreamlike quality throughout, with even the guitars swirling in an ethereal mist. Hillman's country flavor is further pursued (and sounding more natural than ever) in songs like Old John Robertson, Change Is Now and a country-inflected take on Carole King's Wasn't Born To Follow, foreshadowing the band's big change in direction in less than a year.
Of course, it's all eclipsed by Hillman's Natural Harmony, the album's absolute finest moment. I've gone on about this track before, the way it rises from within the surrounding fog sounding like The Beta Band thirty years ahead of schedule. That clicking hi-hat rhythm collapsing into a tricky shuffling breakbeat, guitars drifting mirage-like as the spooked orchestral tunings of John Riley are pitched into total eeriness. Roger McGuinn's prized Moog synthesizer (played here by Paul Beaver of synth pioneers Beaver & Krause) rising from the depths of the track like the Nautilus from the ocean, stalking its prey. What even comes close!? In fact, this might well be my favorite song in the band's entire oeuvre.
It was a chance meeting with Gram Parsons (in line at the bank, of all places) that eventually resulted in Hillman bringing him into the fold for the recording of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. With Hillman and Parsons' shared love of country music in full force, the band's focus shifted entirely toward the form. Often considered the first country rock record,3Sweetheart Of The Rodeo finds Hillman's songwriting receding into the background for the moment, making room for Parsons contributions like One Hundred Years From Now and Hickory Wind. All of which presages the direction the duo would take next as they left The Byrds (first Parsons, then Hillman) in a mere matter of months...
No longer Byrds, Parsons and Hillman holed up in their fabled Burrito Manor and conceived the perfect synthesis of rock and country, co-writing epochal songs like the rollicking Christine's Tune and Sin City's weepy balladry. Similarly, I've always loved Juanita, another tear-stained masterpiece, while the lackadaisical rolling country rock of Wheels features undisclosed bursts of satisfying feedback. Interestingly, Hillman switched to guitar for this record, leaving the bass duties to Chris Etheridge. I've gone on record about "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow's sublime steel guitar contributions, but suffice it to say that all the guitars on this record are just exquisite.
After one more (weaker) Burritos album, Parsons quits again, leaving Hillman to pick up the pieces. However, its the following self-titled album — while never reaching the heights of the debut — that is quite worthwhile, a minor gem even, full of gorgeous tunes like Colorado, To Ramona and Four Days Of Rain. I've often felt that it gets a bad rap mainly because it exists in the shadow of The Gilded Palace Of Sin, much as Can's later work gets unfavorably compared to Tago Mago. In both cases, the bands still manage to transcend their imitators and turn in something special.
After leaving The Burritos, Hillman spent the rest of the decade collaborating in various configurations of like-minded musicians, for instance the Souther-Hillman-Furay band and even reuniting with old band-mates Gene Clark and Roger McGuinn for a couple McGuinn-Clark-Hillman albums. Playing on a whole brace of canyon records, he even winds up in Stephen Stills' Manassas big band for the storied sessions of their debut recording.
Another stone cold classic, it resurrects the concept originally intended for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, celebrating the breadth of American music spanning from folk, bluegrass and country to blues, rock and jazz, with even the distinct shades of Latin music felt throughout. Billed second only to ringleader Stills, Hillman is listed as co-producer (alongside Stills and Dallas Taylor) and co-writes two of the record's highlights, It Doesn't Matter and Both Of Us Bound To Lose.
In 1976, Hillman embarks on his solo career in earnest, debuting with Slippin' Away. This is a truly stellar record, and one I'd like to single out for praise. A minor gem, perhaps, like the third Flying Burrito Bros record, only more so. I've only recently discovered it... like why even pretend?! This is country rock of the highest caliber. The record is defined by its impeccable arrangements, gorgeous harmonies and great rolling basslines, more often than not played by Hillman.4 Indeed, this is a great bass record, showcasing that rich, telltale tone played with trademark nimble precision.
From the jazzy shuffle of the title track — with it's non-trivial arrangement and multi-plane harmonies — to the burning rocker Take It On The Run and the filmic sweep of Witching Hour (a Stephen Stills cover version), its an undeniable treasure trove of rock solid canyon songwriting. The closing Take Me In Your Lifeboat even touches down with Hillman's bluegrass roots, presaging an obsession that would become increasingly central to his sound in the decade to come.
With the dawn of the 1980s, Hillman reached deep into bluegrass and Bakersfield for inspiration, turning out a pair of excellent records on Sugar Hill (no, not thatSugar Hill!) in quick succession. First with Morning Sky and then with Desert Rose, he delivered a more intimate, stripped down sound that was often strikingly beautiful, defined by his gorgeous mandolin picking. Three years later, The Desert Rose Band found Hillman in a working band again, releasing a series of albums stretching well into the nineties. After that, further collaborations (most frequently with Herb Pederson) and solo records round out the long and winding career of a lifelong musician, a career that leads right up to the present day.
Last year's Bidin' My Time found him working once again with old ByrdsMcGuinn and Crosby, not to mention the late great Tom Petty (who also produced the record). With nearly sixty years lived in music, Hillman is still going strong (check out his website here4). In fact, there's currently a tour in progress with Roger McGuinn for the 50 year anniversary of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, which sounds rather interesting. It looks like the second leg of the tour has yet to be announced... so hopefully they make their way down to San Diego in the near future.
In signing off, I'll leave you with this performance from a couple years ago, featuring Hillman working his magic on mandolin and harmonies alongside Herb Pederson live in the studio. Just two old-timers doing their thing, like it's no big deal, and achieving casual perfection.
I once had a friend who confessed that — generally speaking — she couldn't tell what the bassist contribution was. I told her to listen to dub reggae for a weekend and everything would make sense(!). Of course, I could just have easily said to listen to a bunch of records that Chris Hillman played on.
Leah and Sari have uploaded their Canyon 25 lists to their respective blogs. You can catch Leah's List at her blog Leah's Thoughts and Sari's List at Musical Sauce. I don't want to give too much away, but there is a very satisfying amount of more recent material in both lists (time marches on) as well as stuff I'm in the process of checking out. I wholly recommend that you do yourself a favor and check them out... now off to the canyon with you!
Music from the canyon played a large part in my musical youth by virtue of my Dad's formidable record collection. I remember hearing things like the Eagles, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Loggins & Messina — alongside canyon-adjacent figures like Jim Croce, Simon And Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot — in heavy rotation, particularly on rainy days. Pops worked construction, and since rain meant his job site was too wet to pour concrete, he'd have the rare day off and often spend the early morning chilling in the living room listening to records. To this day, much of that music reminds me of stormy days staying home sick from school.1
However, my true way in came sometime later, when I first heard the records of Van Morrison and The Byrds (circa 2003). My initial trajectory took me from trip hop and techno through jazz, funk and soul (peppered with new wave, naturally) into this music. It was the next stop. Needless to say, it made a huge impression. I have distinct memories of running after dark in the dead of winter, descending the hill above my old high school to the triumphant strains of Van Dyke Parks' organ solo at the climax of 5 D (Fifth Dimension). My mind also turns to digging trenches in the early summer morning while Astral Weeks swirled around me on the morning mist, the clank of my pickaxe striking the ground in time to the music.
This exposure sent me off searching deeper into the extended canyon scene by way of The Byrds' various tributaries: Gene Clark, Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Flying Burrito Bros, alongside other canonical figures like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Neil Young. I remember hiking around Mission Trails in the aftermath of the great Cedar Fire (2003) — nothing but great hills of ash left in its wake and not a soul in sight — with all of this music alongside CCR, Dylan, Cash and the rootsy Stones records ringing in my headphones. I also remember the sight of those great rolling hills slowly coming back to life in the long months to follow, a spectacle that remains inextricably linked with this soundtrack whenever I reflect on my memories of the era.
Fast-forward to about a month ago. Sari and her sister Leah get to talking about canyon folk, and they start working out what is canyon and what isn't canyon. After all, some of the best canyon records aren't from Laurel Canyon at all, and some figures actually from the canyon aren't remotely canyon-esque in sound.2
Confused yet? Well, it gets worse. There's also the timeframe to consider: too early and you're dealing with straight up folk (Judy Collins, Fred Neil, Buffy Saint-Marie, et. al.); too late and you veer into yacht territory (as purveyed by figures like Ned Doheny and Steely Dan). The sweet spot is right there in the middle... that's where the canyon lies.
The Laurel Canyon scene was defined by a coterie of singer-songwriters to emerge from L.A. as the sixties turned to the seventies: figures like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash. The heart of this scene was found in Laurel Canyon (located in the hills rising to the east above Los Angeles), where various refugees from sixties bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Mamas & The Papas had retreated to get back to basics after the blazing phantasmagoria of the 1960s. Along with The Beatles' The White Album and The Rolling Stones' run of rootsy records starting with Beggars Banquet, this was part of a broader back to the roots project in the culture, a retreat from the Icarus heights of acid rock and psychedelia future shock into the comforting, sepia-toned mystique of the past.
With a few notable exceptions, the Laurel Canyon people's roots were in folk and its subsequent plugging into the electrical grid by one Bob Dylan. Records like Bringing It All Back Home and Richard & Mimi Farina's Reflections In A Crystal Wind sprung from well outside the canyon scene but were nevertheless a crucial influence upon it, blending as they did straight folk with shades of rock 'n roll while the arrangements became increasingly ornate and sophisticated. Critically, this is also the point when the more declamatory style of folk singing gets softened into something far more intimate.
Bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield ran with these innovations across a stretch of great folk rock records, records like Mr. Tambourine Man and Buffalo Springfield, paralleling Dylan's own forays into rock 'n roll best exemplified by Highway 61 Revisited. Coincidentally, all three figures gradually injected the crucial ingredient of country into their sound — culminating in Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Last Time Around and The Basement Tapes, respectively — at just the moment that psychedelia's luster had started to wane. And at that point, there was no turning back...
Gram Parsons often gets the credit for bringing country to the canyon, but the truth is far more complicated. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri (incidentally the town where my maternal grandfather was from as well), The Byrds' Gene Clark famously grew up listening to Hank Williams records, while band-mate Chris Hillman shared a similar affinity with the form. One need look no further than the band's 1965 sophomore album Turn! Turn! Turn!, which features a cover of Jack Rhodes and Joe "Red" Hayes' Satisfied Mind, possibly the first example of country rock on the ground. The Beatles even covered Buck Owens on Help!Linda Ronstadt — who had been a fixture of the L.A. scene since its infancy in the mid-sixties with her group The Stone Poneys — was also firmly rooted in country, with a well-documented passion for covering old warhorses like Crazy and I Still Miss Someone.
It's at this axis of folk and country that the canyon sound happens, with the warm afterglow of the 1960s still felt between the lines of its rootsy sway. The sound is typically mellow, albeit occasionally spiked with more than a hint of darkness (after all, it was the dawn of the 1970s). Elements of Delta blues and jazz sometimes can be felt as well (especially the latter). Listening to a whole brace of these records over the past month, it became clear that jazz was nearly as important a contagion as rock and country on the burgeoning folk scene. In fact, the latter might be the crucial ingredient in synthesizing the whole yacht rock phenomenon, just as country had been for canyon.
All of which (in a round about way) brings me back to this protracted canyon discussion between Sari, Leah and myself.
In the process of working through the canyon ideal, we each decided to put together a little list of our top 25 canyon albums. We even had a little party and put on presentations while Leah was in town, the whole nine! Well, that was a lot of fun certainly (Sari and Leah's lists were incredible), and I even got turned onto a bunch of great records — especially recent ones — that I hadn't yet heard before. So I've got some serious listening to do, which is always a great place to be.
In the spirit of this whole endeavor, I figured I'd post the director's cut of my own list up here to kick off a little Laurel Canyon mini-series. It's an early autumn thing, seen. If I'm not mistaken, Sari and Leah will be posting theirs up as well in the near future. Don't worry, I'll extend a link their way when the time comes. I should note that I'm setting aside the entirety of British/Celtic folk for the moment (even Van Morrison!), which obviously could sustain an entire list of its own. Maybe next time! Today, it's a strictly canyon affair...
So without any further ado, this here list is the culmination of my roughly 15 year journey through this music since first getting hooked up with Astral Weeks and Mr. Tambourine Man way back in 2003. Regulators, mount up!
The Canyon 25
I can think of no better introduction to the canyon than The Mamas & The Papas. The third album from the canyon's first family, Deliver features the intricate arrangements of John Phillips reaching their peak (even if their debut still beats it on the songwriting front). The focus on lush production and Michelle Phillips' ethereal vocals mark it out as canyon-esque, pointing the way toward what would become the dominant sound in L.A. in the coming decade.
Strictly speaking, this is actually proto-canyon: emerging as it does just in time for the Summer Of Love, it mostly lacks the confessional nature of the singer-songwriters. In truth, I almost included John Phillips' country-tinged solo album instead. Ultimately, I see Deliver as a crucial building block in the whole canyon enterprise, veering away as it does from earlier British invasion influences toward a sort of folk-inflected chamber pop. One could even read The Mamas as the midpoint between The Beach Boys and CSN. Shoot me down, but I hear it!
Kicking off with their definitive take on The Shirelles' Dedicated To The One I Love, the group also trade verses on Creeque Alley, a Lovin' Spoonful-style folk stomper that namechecks John Sebastian's gang in an autobiographical hootenanny laying out The Mamas' origin story in detail (both groups rubbed shoulders in the Greenwich Village folk scene). Also of note is the strung-out version of Twist And Shout, which remains my all-time favorite version of the song, beating out The Beatles and even The Isleys' original.
The founder of the feast gets down to business in Nashville, breaking down the walls once and for all between the rockers and the good ol' boys with some tasty country rock action. The culmination of his Basement Tapes sessions with The Band, this finds Dylangoing to the source, so to speak. The previous year's John Wesley Harding may be the more consistent record, but the highs on Nashville Skyline are so sublime that one can't help but be won over by their rustic charm.
The sumptuous production and Dylan's unexpectedly soothing year vacation from smoking vocals are a special treat, especially in the moving rendition of Girl From The North Country (originally from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan), featuring a duet with the great Johnny Cash. The key to this record's charm lies is its unfussy, lived-in character. This is a million miles away from the stark dust bowl portraits of Blowin' In The Wind and A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall! In fact, Peaceful Easy Feeling might be the best way to describe songs like One More Night and I Threw It All Away.
In fact, it's almost too easy! This feels like a setup... definitely a setup. We need something weird, right away... our survival might just depend on it.
Ah yes, this fits the bill! Kinda obscure, but not really. Spirit were rising stars at the turn of the decade (Led Zeppelin even opened for them early on), generating a lot of buzz in the burgeoning rock press at the time even if they were largely forgotten by classic rock radio over the ensuing decades. That's a whole class of band right there,3 isn't it, bands that made the charts and appeared on American Bandstand or Top Of The Pops but ultimately got beveled away from mainstream consciousness by the passage of time. Such a shame! Surely oldies stations would have benefited from spicing up their rotation a little with songs like Uncle Jack and Fresh-Garbage? I suppose there's always Radio AG!
At any rate, this lot dealt in a sort of jazz-inflected art rock — shot through with a strong dose of folk and country — that was L.A. to its core. You can hear echoes of The Byrds, Love and even David Axelrod in multifaceted excursions like Mechanical World, Straight Arrow and Gramophone Man (later sampled by fellow Californian Peanut Butter Wolf!), where the band cycle through these ever-changing movements with a turn-on-a-dime precision that prefigures the rise of progressive rock. The melody of Taurus was even lifted by Jimmy Page two years later for the opening to Stairway To Heaven!
Post-techno country folk by Scottish chanteuse Dorothy Allison. Starting out in the dream pop group One Dove, she later went solo even as she continued to regularly collaborate with groups like Death In Vegas and Slam (which is how I first found out about her, incidentally, on Alien Radio's sublime Visions). Her wispy vocals were instantly recognizable no matter the context, and it was only a matter of time before I picked up her first record (and then her second, when it came out).
This was her third, coming five long years after We Are Science (my favorite thing she's done),4 and its dreamy Appalachian balladry couldn't be further from Science's electropop stylings if it had sprung directly from the grooves of Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. I remember once hearing Andrew Weatherall compare it to Gene Clark at the time, and sure enough songs like Sunset and Quicksand seem to resurrect ghosts of the sessions for White Light and The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark.
It's worth noting that this album perfectly distills the spirit of Death In Vegas' Scorpio Rising most canyon-esque moments (Help Yourself and Killing Smile) into a potent album-length statement. I really wanted to include Scorpio Rising in this list, steeped as it is in a sort of sweeping desert mythology, but like Kenneth Anger's film of the same name, it's just that little bit too preoccupied with leather/Velvets imagery to qualify for the down-home Canyon 25. Next!
The Lovin' Spoonful were the playful other to The Byrds' heavy folk rock trip, with John Sebastian's breezy tunes perfectly capturing the more wistful currents of the times. Sunshine pop, to a man. This record finds them at their absolute rootsiest, bigging up country music in Nashville Cats, perfecting their springtime folk pop in Lovin' You and Darlin' Companion, and even predicting the canyon sound in the gentle shades of Rain On The Roof and Coconut Grove (thus facilitating David Lee Roth's solo turn twenty years later!).
Another proto-canyon moment (and East Coast to boot), I nevertheless could not in good conscience exclude it. Factoring as they do into The Mamas & The Papas' origin-story showcase Creeque Alley, The Lovin' Spoonful were a crucial agent in buttoning down folk and loosening it up a little for the good times, and nowhere more than on Hums. In the reissue liner notes, R.E.M.'s resident music historian Peter Buck even names Zal Yanovsky his favorite guitarist of the 1960s. Good man!
Against all odds, The City Of Angels happened to have their very own Rolling Stones in Lowell George's outfit, a band that drunkenly ran roughshod across the canyon scene for the duration of the 1970s like they were The Clash. Outlaw bizzness in full effect! Much like The Clash, Little Feat were increasingly influenced by the sounds of New Orleans r&b as their career progressed, but their anomalous debut was a different story altogether. Riding westward on the strung-out sounds of country rock, this plays like the blueprint for Exile On Main St. and Sticky Fingers.
Rootsy rock 'n roll jams like Strawberry Flats and Snakes On Everything play like FM staples beamed in from a parallel dimension, while the gritty stomp of Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years offers up some of the dirtiest blues you could ask for. Then, Lowell turns around to tear out your heart with Willin' — featuring the exceptional slide guitar of Ry Cooder — a sparse, deeply soulful bit of country balladry. Any and all fans of "roots-era" Stones (roughly speaking 1968-1974) owe it to themselves to hear this one.
The square root of P.J. Harvey, Ellen McIlwaine comes on like a one-woman Led Zeppelin. The first side of the album (recorded live at The Bitter End in New York) largely features blues workouts showcasing her virtuoso slide-guitar work. Tunes like the breakneck Toe Hold and a cover of Up From The Skies (originally by her old pal Jimi Hendrix) make a virtue of their stripped-down arrangements, while Losing You is naught more than a slide-guitar frenzy that would make Tony McPhee proud. She even ropes in salsa legend Candido Camero on congas for Pinebo My Story.
The second side plays like an extended trip through the mountains, with the early morning balladry of Can't Find My Way Home kicking off the travelogue. Like side one's Weird Of Hermiston, it keys into the same mystical folk vibes that Zep did on tracks like That's The Way and (rather appropriately) Going To California. Then, out of nowhere comes a cover version of Kitty Wells' It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, done as a straight up Nashville number heavily indebted to the great Loretta Lynn. Lord have mercy!
In which Morrison & co. reinvent themselves as a hard blues band, beating all contemporary blues-boom merchants (with the exception of Beefheart and the Groundhogs) at their own game. Heavy-hitting numbers like Waiting For The Sun and Maggie M'Gill appeal to the part of me that wants to pudge out like Marlon Brando and sort of go about town dressed in a straw hat and off-white suit, looking — as my man Snakes once put it when describing The Score to me — like I had a washing machine stashed in my shirt.
However, it's gentle reveries like Blue Sunday and Indian Summer that run parallel to what was happening in the canyon, albeit with a strong dose of sun-glazed psychedelia mixed in for good measure. Perhaps the most controversial entry here, I nevertheless find it to be of a piece with the self-titled debuts of Little Feat and Crazy Horse. In fact, to my mind these three records form a loose trilogy, embodying as they do the sound of an L.A. before the steel and glass and concrete took over. It's a reminder that beneath it all, beneath the roads and the sidewalks and the skyscrapers, one still finds the parched earth of a desert stretching westward to meet the sea.
The bad Beach Boy gets down with some tasty post-Surf's Up canyon pop action, turning in a stone cold masterpiece at a time when his band was at its lowest ebb. This is manna from heaven for fans of Wilson's idiosyncratic songwriting found on late-60s/early-70s Beach Boys records like 20/20 and Sunflower (particularly things like Slip On Through and Be With Me). Needless to say there are plenty of Wilson's trademark malfunktioning bleeps and skewed synth flourishes in evidence throughout.
Playing like a cloudy day at the beach, towering ditties like River Song and Dreamer sound just like the churning waters of the Pacific Ocean, while near-ambient works like Thoughts Of You and Farewell My Friend play with great washes of oceanic sound in such a way that would make his brother Brian proud. In fact, it's the sad-eyed other to some of The Beach Boys' absolute finest moments. As one might expect, that evocative cover speaks volumes about the raggedly soulful sounds contained within...
Randy Newman's sophomore album sidesteps the intricate orchestration of his debut to fuse his New Orleans roots with the quintessential sound of the canyon, tackled head on in a dream jam session featuring canyon stalwarts like Ry Cooder and various Byrds (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) in attendance. The stylistic détente turns out to be the perfect setting for Newman's caustic tales of various burnouts, stalkers, losers (and more!), sounding unlike anything else in the man's extensive discography.
More than any other record here, 12 Songs maintains a strong foundation in the blues. Songs like Suzanne and Lucinda conjure up a bluesy swagger festooned with Ry Cooder's deliciously atmospheric slide guitar, while Have You Seen My Baby and Mama Told Me Not To Come recall peak-era Ray Charles. There are plenty of surprises in store as well (Old Kentucky Home even offers up a sneaky bit of bluegrass), while songs like Underneath The Harlem Moon and Yellow Man are quintessential Newman.
Notoriously hard-to-impress rock critic Robert Christgau called it a perfect album, and true enough, there's not another one quite like it.
Sure, this out-of-time masterpiece may have been the Rosetta Stone of alt. country, but it manages to transcend the confines of its own scene to stand shoulder to shoulder with the classics of the genre. Everyone knows the band's revelatory re-imagining of The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, but also check their stunning take on Blue Moon, a reading that for my money tops even the storied Elvis Presley and Billie Holiday versions.
Factor in dark, bluesy numbers like I Don't Get It and Working On A Building (sounding like nothing so much as Spirit Of Eden-era Talk Talk), and you've got an out-of-time masterpiece that paradoxically could have only happened in the late eighties.
J.J. Cale's low slung slacker blues, in tune as it is with the canyon, remains utterly in a universe of its own. Naturally was Cale's debut, recorded on a shoestring in light of the apparent fact that everyone seemed to be covering his songs. Cale made a virtue of his meager resources, utilizing rhythm boxes and a Gaussian-blurred, lo-fi aesthetic that gives the whole affair a hazy, dreamlike quality. Songs like Crying Eyes and River Runs Deep seem to emerge naturally from the sunset sound of songbirds and crickets when you're fishing down at the creek.
I once played this album for my Dad, who was blown away by the contents but remarked how would you ever think to check out a record with that cover? To which I replied, how could I not?! True enough, the sleeve is a perfect representation of the backwoods country blues sounds found within, where Cale fashions oft-covered songs like Call Me The Breeze and After Midnight into their definitive versions.
Not my favorite Byrds record, but undeniably brilliant nonetheless. The Notorious Byrd Brothers plays like a sprawling vision of American roots music, juxtaposing state-of-the-art country rock like Wasn't Born To Follow with the lush folk pop of Carole King's Goin' Back and David Crosby's Tribal Gathering (which offers a glimpse of what he'd be up to with CSN in but a few months). Taken as a whole, it all marks this out as The Byrds' definitive proto-canyon moment.
Of course, they couldn't neglect their status as pioneering space rockers (see Fifth Dimension), with Chris Hillman turning in the peerless Natural Harmony and Roger McGuinn commemorating the Apollo 11 moon landing with Space Odyssey (both of which feature cameos by McGuinn's newly-purchased Moog synthesizer). Natural Harmony in particular sounds like something The Beta Band might have come up with at the peak of their powers.
Fusing aspects of jazz, Broadway, folk and the blues, Phoebe Snow was the quintessential New Yorker who nevertheless had a strong sonic affinity with the canyon. Her gentle urban folk — with its plush, velvet-cushioned production — is the cosmopolitan flipside to L.A.'s earthy nature boy reveries. At times, one can even hear pre-echoes of Tracy Chapman in her extraordinary no-nonsense approach to deeply personal songwriting.
Boundless in the most subtle of ways, her self-titled debut opens with Good Times, featuring unmistakable shades of The Beach Boys, before following immediately with the impossibly intimate cool jazz (that other West Coast touchstone) torch song Harpo's Blues. The hit single Poetry Man would be the perfect Laurel Canyon song if only it weren't from the wrong coast. Beyond that, all sorts of surprises are in store, including unexpected flourishes of Mellotron.
Despite earlier incursions like The Byrds's Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The International Submarine Band (both of which were also profoundly shaped by Gram Parsons), this remains the quintessential country rock record. But set aside Gram for a moment (he gets plenty of props already). Let's talk about Chris Hillman, the Bruce Willis of the canyon, the glue in not only Burritos but also The Byrds before them, who quietly wrote killer song after killer song while his more garrulous band-mates got all the column inches.
And then of course there's "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow, the John Coltrane of steel guitar and the x-factor behind this record's atmospheric magic, paving the way for later pedal steel iconoclasts like B.J. Cole and King Sunny Adé. It's no small coincidence that it's with Kleinow departure, rather than Parsons' exit a year later, that the band's wholly unique sonic presence largely seeps out of of the music (in fact, I actually prefer the self-titled third album to Burrito Deluxe — the latter made when Gram was still kicking around). Here, they're unstoppable.
Ooh, this is a good one now: we're in the top ten with a bullet! Blissed out dream pop from L.A.'s coolest band of the nineties. Part of the reason I love the decade so much5 is that it'd routinely toss up something like this, which you'd swear was vintage but then nothing from the sixties or seventies ever sounded remotely like this. I dare you to find anything this languid and hypnotic from the peak era of canyon (but if you do, please send it my way!). You needed someone with the Gen X sensibility to make it all feel so achingly melancholic.
Take a song like Cry, Cry, with its smeared steel guitars dragging that weary rhythm along in a morphine haze — all the while Hope Sandoval cooing her lunar country couplets out into the ether — before droplets of liquid guitar rise up like fractals to meet the gorgeous chorus. Weep to the bittersweet balladry of Flowers In December and free fall downstream on the slow-motion cascade that is Roseblood, then lose yourself in Umbilical's organ-drenched black hole before Look On Down From The Bridge comes in to guide you back home.
I used to daydream hard to this record back in high school. You have no idea... I don't know what else to add, other than David Roback is a genius and Hope Sandoval may have actually been an angel.
Bleak canyon blues from The Loner himself. It would be the quintessential 70s record if only it didn't sound so much like the future. From Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis to Cielo Drive and Hollywood narcissism, its all here in black and white. Appropriately enough, three songs have the word blues in their title! Of course you'd never guess it from the relatively upbeat opener Walk On, which finds Young literally leaving his troubles behind.
Similarly, the sparse bluegrass of For The Turnstiles — featuring Young's lonely picking on a banjo — might be the coolest fuck you song ever written. Revolution Blues — a slow-burning rocker rumored to be about the Manson family — was famously played by Johnny Rotten on his Capitol Radio show with Tommy Vance (that's kind of like a gold star around here), while the title track sounds like post rock/Radiohead twenty years before the fact (unsurprisingly, they've covered it live): blank-eyed and beautiful.
From its stunning cover photo on down, On The Beach is the perfect low profile denouement to Young's self-styled ditch trilogy and one of the key records of the decade.
Lindsey Buckingham's obsessive tour de force, which manages to capture rock, country, folk, yacht and even proto-new wave within its sprawling 75 minutes. Raw and lush in all the right places, some moments even sound like a sun-baked Krautrock, with a title track that would sit comfortably on Faust IV, while the skewed country hoedown of The Ledge and That's Enough For Me negotiate roots music even as the band have one foot planted firmly on the yacht.
Of course, there's more to this record than Buckingham going wild in Mick Fleetwood's home studio (including an episode where he freaked out and cut his own hair with a pair of nail clippers!), with Stevie Nicks in particular turning in some of her most gorgeous songs: look no further than Sara and Sisters Of The Moon and swoon. I'd be willing to bet Bryan Ferry did... (see Avalon for details).
When it came time for Joni Mitchell to record her debut album, rather than recording songs that she'd previously written for other artists (as was common practice for songwriters at the time) she decided to write a whole set of entirely new material. The resulting song cycle — an oblique take on her experiences moving to the West Coast — is absolutely stunning, and remains my favorite thing she's ever done (for me, even beating out more obvious contenders like Blue and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... but then I'm extremely abnormal).
From the opening notes of I Had A King, you can tell you're in for an adventure. Joni's restless, searching tales bear an almost medieval quality that prefigures the most bewitching corners of prog, and David Crosby's spacious production gives the alternate tunings of Mitchell's spidery guitar work an isolated, wintry atmosphere through which her soaring voice swoops and dives with unshackled abandon. The stunning sleeve art — which was actually painted by Joni herself — goes some way to describing the wonders found within.
At the dawn of the seventies, the man who wrote Eight Miles High and I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better conjured up this stone tablet of canyon folk informed by the Hank Williams tunes he treasured growing up in his native Kansas City. Filled with fragile country-inflected numbers like Because Of You and For A Spanish Guitar (a song Bob Dylan famously said he wished he'd have written), its a treasure trove of quivering, open-hearted songcraft. Songs like With Tomorrow and Where My Love Lies Asleep are impossibly tranquil ballads unparalleled on those terms by anyone else in the canyon.
The title track — the record's one truly upbeat moment — was once compared to The Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane by none other than Woebot himself, and it undoubtedly shares that song's sense of boundless freedom. Like everything on White Light, it is defined by Gene's rolling harmonica shadings and peerless country croon, both imbued with the pathos of endless longing. It's a deeply affecting sound, both soulful and searching, and timeless in every sense of the word. Even with clipped wings, this Byrd soars.
Emerging from the deepest recesses of David Geffen's West Coast empire, Essra Mohawk turns in this criminally overlooked collection of fathoms-deep piano chansons. Informed by a broad musical vision that takes in everything from folk, soul and country to baroque pop, rock 'n roll and Broadway, these songs tend to unfold in the most surprising ways, casually twisting and turning through their various movements as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Mohawk's vocals soar throughout, sometimes over unexpectedly funky backing in tunes like Spiral and I Have Been Here Before, while Looking Forward To The Dawn — the album's gentlest moment — quietly sneaks in to conquer all. If the Laurel Canyon scene had a Charles Mingus or a Salvador Dali, that is a visionary iconoclast effacing into abstraction all preconceived notions of what is possible within their chosen idiom, then it was undoubtedly Essra Mohawk.
After early years as The Rockets and then Neil Young's backing band, L.A.'s secret weapon step out from behind The Loner to deliver this masterpiece of dirty country rock. Against all odds, they manage to transcend Young's own formidable body of work with a selection of gutsy rockers like Beggars Day and Gone Dead Train, even managing to sneak in weepy ballads like Look At All The Things and I Don't Want To Talk About It into the spaces between the spaces before breaking into full-on hoedown mode in Dance, Dance, Dance.
Essential listening for any and all roots rock aficionados (and everyone else besides), it features blazing guitar from a teenage Nils Lofgren (who joined just in time for the recording sessions) and Ry Cooder on slide guitar (he's everywhere today!). Notably, this also bears the unmistakable fingerprints of Jack Nitzsche behind the mixing desk (and piano), adding to its skewed aura of gritty outsider charm (imagine putting out The Wild Bunch while everyone else was still doing Dodge City!).
It's also the only Crazy Horse album to feature founding guitarist and ringleader Danny Whitten, whose untimely death by o.d. but a year later would inspire Neil Young's tortured The Needle And The Damage Done.
Zero gravity canyon folk from the ex-Byrd/CSN rabble-rouser. Featuring a huge cast of luminaries from both L.A. and San Francisco — including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and most of Jefferson Airplane — Crosby's networking pays handsome dividends in the shape of ethereal missives like Laughing and Traction In The Rain, while the low slung canyon funk of Cowboy Movie finds him telling the tale of CSN's disintegration through the western lens of The Wild Bunch.
Of all the records to spring from the CSN nexus, this remains the absolute strongest, coming on like an entire LP extrapolated from the low-slung widescreen funk of Crosby/Kanter's own immortal Wooden Ships. The pair of ethereal closing tracks — Orleans and I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here — are a particularly visionary masterstroke, evoking an oceanic Pacific endlessness as the record slows gently to its inevitable close.
The bewitching Judee Sill unfurls a spellbinding selection of delicate country folk songs that belie her rough-and-tumble past and tragic life story. Her vocals deftly weave through these great cathedrals of lush orchestration, sounding perfectly at home within them as if she were simply curling up by the fireplace... and doing so with such unforced grace that it makes you feel at home too.
Tunes like Enchanted Sky Machines and Jesus Was A Crossmaker (the latter produced by Graham Nash) have an almost Broadway-informed punch to them, while Ridge Rider and The Phantom Cowboy ply an uncomplicated country seemingly informed by the wide open spaces of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The peerless Lopin' Along Thru The Cosmos, meanwhile, is quite simply too beautiful for words.
Number one, and without a moment's hesitation either. Folk crooner drifts languid and bittersweet along the Pacific coastline on a jazz-kissed breeze, the largely straight up folk of his first two records transformed here into a swirling slipstream of existential proto-canyon songcraft. Sun-glazed reveries like Strange Feelin' and Buzzin' Fly are the order of the day, while the poignant Sing A Song For You harks back to the sombre corridors of his folk roots.
The real kicker is a pair of marathon tracks that combined eclipse the running time of everything else here. The sprawling Love From Room 109 At The Islander On Pacific Coast Highway is defined by Buckley's mournful reminiscence against the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Conversely, the unexpected monster groove of Gypsy Woman swerves bravely toward the kosmische future, predicting not only Buckley's sensual, r&b-inflected Greetings From L.A. but also the inner space funk of Damo Suzuki-era Can (try and beat that!).
Like a lonely hawk surfing thermals high above Topanga, this isn't just canyon folk... it's the whole canyon.
If it's raining then it's cold out, which means if you're a kid you get soaked on your walk home from school... so chances are you'll catch a cold sooner or later. Which meant that if there was a day Pops and I were both home on a weekday, it was during winter.
That's why, to this day, when I hear Cat Stevens I still feel like I'm getting a sore throat. The mind is a crazy thing... I can practically taste the Sucrets!
The other great thing about the nineties is that you could listen to this back to back with trip hop, r&b and techno! It was quite a heady mix, after all, going from Among My Swan to One In A Million and Sean Deason's Razorback.
The lull ends. Halfway into October, the trees still unchanging, why not descend into the canyon for a little while? I'm talking about acoustic guitars and a sometimes casual funk — where jazz is often read between the lines — Laurel Canyon, Topanga Canyon, the geology stretching down and out from the ridges on through the center of the city, spreading like veins beneath the streets on out toward the Pacific Ocean. Welcome To L.A.
Tracks For My Father is the first Anthony Shakir record I ever owned, having picked it up nearly twenty years ago. I remember finding the 12" in the cutout bin (at the old record store next door to Club Elements) while digging with Snakes after school one crisp Autumn afternoon. I'd heard ofShakir before but hadn't yet heard his music, and with its evocative imagery (on Daniel Bell's 7th City imprint) and $1.50 price tag (which even to a broke high school kid isn't an awful lot of money) it seemed like the ideal place to start.
When I took the record home and put the needle 'pon the record, the effect was like a hidden door opening somewhere in the back of my mind. I hadn't heard anything remotely like it. Fractured beats seemed to tear open cracks across the shifting surface of their own skittering rhythms, cracks through which bass, synths and texture poured out over it all like molten soul. Nowadays you might call it broken beat, but at the time this malfunktioning, hip hop-inflected techno soul felt like the missing link between contemporary Timbaland and Kenny Dixon, Jr.
The good good, in other words, and to this day it remains my favorite record by old Anthony "Shake" Shakir.
My thing was trying to learn how to make music and the only reason I got into electronic music was that the early 1980s R&B just sucked. I didn't like the last Parliament record, Trombipulation, so I started finding out about these other records.
I've always liked this quote because it's at the axis of r&b, techno and house that Shake's music pivots, placing him firmly within the context of machine soul's protracted development. Centrally, in fact.2 In many ways, Tracks For My Father is like UR's The Turning Point, unfurling four sprawling movements that draw inspiration from the rich grooves of vintage jazz, funk and soul even as they manage to augur uncharted futures of their own.
For one, take a look at The Turning Point's striking imagery of Carlos Santana, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin emblazoned across their center labels. In the case of Tracks For My Father, we get snatches of an interview with some old-time soul man3 interspersed between tracks, as if you were tuning into some late night radio transmission as you venture into the city beneath the pale moonlight. So let's take this journey and see where we end up...
The record opens with the deranged synths of One Beat Just Won't Do shearing into focus. It sounds like the machines are warming up as those synths cycle in and out of range, and then the front door opens and you're dropped out into the world. Submerged in the sounds of the city, now you're shuffling down the sidewalk, alone among the teeming masses. The words One beat, just won't do, ring out from some car stereo passing by, the words hanging in the air on repeat. You weave through the pedestrians, all on journeys of their own, while cars negotiate the traffic on the rain-slicked streets beside you.
Drums cycle in a stop-start rhythm, matching your movements as you juke your way down the boulevard. Beats punch in and out of that still-looping chorus like one of Theo Parrish's MPC workouts (with his deep house vibes subtracted and shot through with a sort of skewed electro-jazz hip hop flavor). Then, the vocals cut out altogether and a warped organ hangs over the beat like a fog, before the beat vanishes as well, synths and organs twisting in unison eight feet above the ground.
Once again, the beat kicks into gear and you're back on the move. The whole city's linked up in a network of concrete and asphalt, glass buildings rising from the pavement in a circuitry of steel. Traffic streams in grid-like patterns like a torrent of pure information, and you're part of the flow. As the music slowly fades, another voice comes into focus, this time the deliberate exchange of a late night interview in progress:
Yeah Joe, you know, we were talking earlier — just before we started this — that we've seen the business go from really creative music, you know, to corporate business control. Well, how do you feel about that?
Well they changed the business. In other words — I guess — in the sixties, we had at least — I don't know — forty recording companies who recorded the music of Soul America. By 1982, we had six recording companies. And what they did was put the music of the soul labels into a vault and they fired everyone. And suddenly, in the mid-eighties all of the soul singers just sort of vanished...
Mhmn, that's true...
They vanished. And they have definitely changed the culture. And you know I love the big business too. I love paychecks and all of that, but if the culture has got to suffer... the musical culture, the enormous contribution that we gave to the world in the 20th century, then I say nuh-uh they just kinda screwed it up a little.
Without warning, Fact Of The Matter kicks in with an electroid slab of skewed, introspective techno. In a sense, it's the most conventional track here, perhaps even reminiscent of something like Live For Friction (from the Iconoclastic Diaries EP). You've arrived at the club, once again weaving through a crowd of people, this time veering toward the bar to order your drink and then proceed to the dancefloor. An archaic synth progression pulses from the soundsystem, all warmth and silicon soul, scattering stardust across the room before it gets sucked back into its own vortex again.
That mutant electro beat still taps out its rhythm while a deep six bassline seems to jump rope across its surface. One's reminded of Carl Craig's masterful More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art and its fizzing electronics, those gentle computer rhythms cycling like clockwork in the night. No surface is constant, no measure unchanging, as textures move in and out of phase as if viewed through a prism. Rhythms rewind and slip into eddying tide pools — where only a flickering bassline accompanies the synths — before flowing back into the slipstream once again.
Like Kraftwerk remixed by Kenny Dixon, Jr. the whole thing just unfolds like sonic origami.
On the flipside, Roaming opens with a melody fashioned from a snatch of atmosphere, a simple cluster of sparkling synths that just seem to hang in the ether. An errant bassline taps out the counterpoint and you've stepped back into the world. A crisp breakbeat stomp propels you back down the boulevard toward your point of origin, starting you on the long walk home. That bassline returns — this time plucking down at a lower register — sounding like some bebop-era wood bass reconstructed in virtual reality. This is what tech jazz is all about...
Roaming is, rather appropriately, the most linearly propulsive thing here. There's no rewinding beats, no tangents of rhythm, just non-stop forward motion. I reflect for a moment on 4 Hero's transition from ardkore jungle into the cosmic jazz of Creating Patterns and the broken beat excursions of their own 2000 Black imprint, a sound that Tracks For My Father seems to parallel as a vision of everything jazz could become.4
It's a vision that stays with you even as the track begins to recede onto the horizon, and we return to the interview and further words of wisdom...
The one thing that we did find — as you know — in traveling all over the world, the one level of communication that we had that overcame language barriers and everything else was the music, you know?
It was the music.
And now that — and you know — and of course the corporate world ain't gonna like this, but I'm sorry this is the way it is: the corporate world stepped in and took away the creative process, and started making it the financial process.
Drifting in on a silicon haze, Travelers is by far the most ethereal thing here, its gently flickering shadows quite minimal even in the context of this record's brooding, cracked jazz soundscapes. Celestial synth textures phase in and out of earshot like a hazy morning mist. You're shuffling homeward back down these same city streets — by now nearly deserted — and you can just begin to see the first glimmer of sunlight on the horizon, bathing the face of certain eastward facing buildings even as you roam the darkness below.
A pulsing synth pattern seems to bounce along the center of it all like a coiled spring, while a simple keyboard melody plays gentle counterpoint deep in the distance. The drip-dropping percussion enters subtly, splashing into focus like footsteps upon the rain-slicked sidewalk. Everything seems to drift in and out of focus, threatening to crumble into dust even as it staggers ever forward, taking you home to your front door once again. And then, our journey ends.
Over in the space of twenty-five minutes, this four track EP hits you like a vintage soul album in miniature (albeit shot through with a healthy dose of Future Shock). Part of the reason this record means so much to me is that it seems to cram a whole double-LP r&b song cycle's worth of ideas into the space of four tracks and two interludes. Submerged beneath its deceptively simple surfaces are hidden vast corridors left for you to explore, reaching deep into the past even as they uncovers possible futures.
The record seems to fuse the sensibility of Moodymann's Black Mahogani with the x-ray electro of Drexciya's Neptune's Lair and 4 Hero's jazz-inflected stone tablet Creating Patterns. Of course, none of those records had even come out yet, which further highlights the record's singularly visionary nature. The sound and spirit of Tracks For My Father have everything in common with the music of 21st century figures like SA-RA Creative Partners, Kelela, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. In other words, music that we're still catching up with.
Tracks For My Father springs squarely from the very particular environment of late-nineties Detroit, an era when records like Urban Tribe's The Collapse Of Modern Culture (which Shakir had a hand in developing) and Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed were fusing techno with the twin spectres of progressive soul and jazz. It's a world that remains quite tantalizing to this day, evoking images of Blade Runner intercut with Detroit 9000 in its Future/Past negotiation.
I remember even at the time thinking that this record is what the future would sound like... now wouldn't that be something if that someday turned out to be the case after all.
I suspect that the man in question might be Joe Hunter (of legendary Motown house band The Funk Brothers). But don't quote me on that... (Needless to say, if anyone has any information, please do share!)
Letting the Funkadelic post breathe for awhile seemed like the right thing to do, seeing as The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is one of the key records within the whole Parallax/Terminal Vibration continuum. A true trip — in every sense of the word — joining the dots between Electric Ladyland and Neptune's Lair, the album acts as a strange attractor between the myriad paths that crossed into the post disco era. I said as much here. Of course it all becomes increasingly relevant as the Terminal Vibration saga moves from post punk through dub and dance music into machine soul. There's more in that bag just around the corner...
The other reason for the (deep) space between posts is some significant developments going on behind the scenes at the Parallax Room. You may have noticed that the archives have been augmented with enhanced multimedia content, and that's just the beginning. We're in the process of transforming this space into something far more accessible, with content mapped out of its current linear structure into an encyclopedic archive of material delving deep into the heart of vibed-out beats and related words therein, in orbit of atmospheric, street-level moods and grooves. Stay tuned. Further developments are waiting in the wings.
Funk. The term has been rinsed thoroughly through the years — applied and mis-applied all over the shop on a seemingly loop — but at the end of the day, what is it really? The groove, hitting on the one, interlocking parts of a rhythm, all of them cycling in clockwork motion, players playing deep in the pocket all night long. Is it tight, is it loose, or somewhere in between? In attempting to answer that question, perhaps it makes sense to rewind to the man who dreamed it all up in the first place...
Smack in the middle of the 1960s, James Brown released the epochal Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, a frisky bit of proto-funk that took the nimble soul shuffle of early records like Think and Night Train to its logical conclusion. With an agile rhythm that found Melvin Parker's beats seemingly dancing three feet off the ground, while the bassline (played either by Bernard Odum or Sam Thomas, depending on who you ask) hopscotches across the spaces in between, it set the template for funk proper that would be hammered home further in records like Mother Popcorn, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, all the way up to Sex Machine, The Payback and beyond.
James Brown famously rehearsed his band The J.B.'s mercilessly, even going so far as to dock a musician's pay if they made a mistake live! The result was perhaps the most tightly regimented rhythmic unit ever assembled, with a style that moved so far beyond precision that they somehow wrapped around into looseness again. In essence, he constructed a a perfect machine from a group of individual human players, an innovation that set the course for large swathes of music's development in the years to come.
George Clinton's Detroit-based empire slowly developed in parallel, off-record in the shadows of Motown's artist roster before exploding with the twin debuts of Parliament's Osmium and Funkadelic's self-titled LP in 1970. Picking up where artists like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone left off at the tail-end of the sixties, both groups spiked their funk/soul strange brew with a healthy dose of acid. Records like Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop were shot through with post-Hendrix psychedelia, adding a dirty edge to the proceedings that was in thrall to the times.
Seemingly on the flipside of the coin lies that other institution that would prove to be so crucial in the development of Detroit's nascent progressive scene: Kraftwerk. They're often placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, Kraftwerk and Parliament, machine music and funk, but the truth — as is so often the case — is far more messy than one might expect.
There's that oft-quoted remark from Detroit club kids that Kraftwerk were so stiff, they're funky. Then, you hear something like The Model and Sex Machine back to back, and the parallels between the two become striking. Both tracks glide three feet above the ground on the horizontal tension of tautly arranged components interlocking like clockwork: rolling rhythms finding joy in repetition.
Somewhere in all of that was the sound of the future...
Whole worlds would spring from this fertile nexus — from techno and g-funk to r&b and electro — in the years to come, post-disco realms of sound stretching out in every direction, dazzling in their strange shapes and oftentimes even their distance from each other. And yet if there's one record that embodies this point of intersection — and did so before the fact, even — then it's surely Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final album from P-Funk's original run, the last stop before George Clinton's Computer Games (which made the connections between funk and the machine explicit), an album that it also presages in many ways. War Babies is the illogical conclusion to everything that had come before, a record that throws everything from Flash Light and Not Just Knee Deep to Hit It And Quit It and There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang into a blender of abstraction and comes up with the adrenaline rush of pure future shock.
I often think the record works like a bizarre fusion of garage and laboratory, nestled deep in the heart of the Motor City, a place where mechanics and mad scientists disassemble vehicles and rebuild them in strange new combinations. Then, they flip the switch and machines spring to life, sputtering and scurrying like unwieldy insects across the shot room floor.
This shop operates at the interzone between post-disco, new wave and the nascent electro funk (the latter which Parliament/Funkadelic had a large part in birthing via Bernie Worrell's rubberband electronic basslines and gliding Arps). Rising stars like Prince and Zapp were soon hot at their heels, mapping both parallel and intersecting territory with their own innovations.
And yet, Funkadelic managed to up the ante one last time. Just as Kraftwerk rose to the challenge of new wave upstarts like The Human League and Gary Numan with their masterpiece, Computer World, Funkadelic went out with the left field big bang that is The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Recorded after many key figures had left the group, including the aforementioned Worrell, the record is nevertheless the band's twilight era masterpiece.
The record opens with the title track, which kicks off with what sounds like one of Eddie Hazel's Maggot Brain guitar phantasmagorias (although it's actually played by Michael Hampton). Outer space sounds swirl as a booming voice intones the following madness:
You probably don't remember me, but...
But I remember you.
You probably won't believe this, but, uh...
I, at the early age of 72... was adopted by aliens. [bursts into laughter]
Was adopted by aliens... [bursts into laughter again]
That's right, I said aliens.
They have long since programmed me to return with this message...
Then, a bouncing groove at the intersection of new wave funk and video game music pounces into the fray for the repeated refrain, When you learn to dance, you won't forget it, before it all turns into a trademark p-funk groove in the tradition of Not Just Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove, only with an added sense of creeping desperation swirling in the mix. The phrase End Of The World Party springs to mind whenever I hear it, the band standing on the verge of the precipice, still getting it on. I suspect Prince was listening closely (see 1999).
The track is almost entirely built on Junie Morrison's electro funk foundation in the form of squelching neon synth architecture, throbbing basslines and a hybrid man-machine beat, while Michael Hampton shreds guitar into post-acid sparks across the track's entirety. Various members of Parlet and The Brides Of Funkenstein turn up on the chorus, giving their trademark input in the form of a gloriously sneering sing-song of the track's title, while Junie punctuates every bar with synth stabs that punch through the mix like electric-shock therapy.
Truth be told, it probably even edges out Not Just Knee Deep as my favorite P-Funk dancefloor rave-up ever...
After such a mind-bending opening, Electro-Cuties might feel just a little bit less extraordinary. A minor track, even. Nevertheless, it manages to connect the band's disco funk present with their rock hard roots, fusing a slap-bass fueled groove with a Cosmic Slop-esque riff in the bridge. Like the previous track, it has the lurching feel of disparate random parts recomposed into a brand new machine. The Brides even turn up on backing vocals again, with one even delivering a proto-rap in the track's extended second half.
Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is another matter entirely: featuring the great Sly Stone, it's the indisputable peak of the record. Opening with a talking drum figure and psychedelic voices drifting in the ether, it kicks into a whirring, stop-start beat that seems to perpetually trip forward over it's own throbbing bassline. It seems another strange machine has been conjured up from spare parts, and more than any other track here, it embodies the record's modus operandi.
Lurching in one direction before swooping and diving in the other, the rhythm seems to be powered by unstable elements, its tripping beat kicking into high-gear double-time every so often as the band struggles to catch up. You're just waiting for the tune to shift gears again, and in its Doppler rush of acceleration and deceleration on can almost feel an eerie pre-echo of jungle.
All the while, the track's held-down by Zapp mastermind Roger Troutman's new wave-tinged rhythm guitar that's always struck me as a dead ringer for the sound on Adam And The Ants awesome Dirk Wears White Sox (the American version, of course). There's strong new wave/post punk currents running through the entirety of War Babies, and nowhere is that more evident than here. Think Metal Box, but coming from the opposite direction. Mike Hampton's incredibly pretty lead guitar threads the rhythm almost subconsciously, adding another dimension of emotion to the whole affair.
Sly Stone famously in the mix here, credited as co-producer alongside George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and combined with staccato trumpet lines provided by Sly's old band-mate Cynthia Robinson in the chorus, there's a definite Sly & The Family Stone flavor to the whole strange affair. There's even a lush organ passage in the breakdown in the breakdown that would have fit right in on There's A Riot Going On! I'd swear it was laid down by Sly Stone himself, but the only keyboards on the track are credited to Roger Troutman, who works the Moog synthesizers. However, as with Riot's famously hard to navigate album credits (see also the Talking HeadsRemain In Light), I suspect that it's not the whole story. It's a late-era, extended band kinda thing...
The tune gets reprised a couple tracks later in the Killer Millimeter Longer Version, which finds the machine being started back up, its heartbeat pulsing quickly before tugging into shape. With its slightly more languid, open-ended arrangement, this version sounds even more like something from Riot. What's more, Sly Stone is credited on drums and keyboards, and late-period Family Stone member Pat Rizzo is present on saxophone. According to the album credits, it also features the lone contribution from original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had already released his solo album Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs back in 1977.
There's an errant quote from The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before it all fades out and then back into place, with a thirty-second reprise-within-a-reprise cover version of She Loves You over the same rhythm. A drunken group chant, to be sure, and the perfect way to wrap up the Funk Gets Stronger saga.
Running parallel to these new wave/post punk moves, the record also spends a satisfying amount of time messing around with fourth world rhythms, with the extended rhythm sequence Brettino's Bounce nestled between both versions of Funk Gets Stronger. It's the sort of Caribbean-inflected groove that a post punk band like A Certain Ratio would kill for, with the band seemingly effortlessly unfurling a rolling percussion frenzy that lasts the better part of four minutes. A gong brings it all into focus, chattering polyrhythms and talking drums careening across the sound stage, before another gong sounds to conclude the jam session. Some might call it filler, but I think it's great!
The other big fourth world moment is Shockwaves, a cod reggae number that rocks a malfunktioning skank across the showroom floor. Once again, strange machines are afoot in the sound lab, this time with parts imported from Jamaica... Crazy!
At first it almost seems like a joke song, complete with ridiculous fake island accent in the verses, but like Chuck Berry's Havana Moon it quickly bolts toward the sublime. The sprightly rhythm slowly goes overcast with the descent of soaring backing vocals and its incredible chorus:
I'm from the first world,
I like to groove.
Don't want no problems,
Set up that groove.
I'm probably out on a limb here, but it always makes be flash on Bowie. Particularly contemporary things like the proto-Remain In Light fourth world stylings of Lodger
(the most obvious example being Yassassin), Up The Hill Backwards and even twenty later with Earthling's Looking For Satellites. It certainly fits right in with the wider My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts drift of the times. Interestingly, aside from the title track, it was chosen as the only other single from War Babies, coming out on 7" wax. Shades of new wave's détente with reggae (see also The Police, Jah Wobble, The Clash, et al.).
The following Oh, I almost feels like a breather after the breathless experimentation of the record's mid-section. It's the most straight-up p-funk number here, relaxing in a gently mid-tempo manner the way that Mothership Connection and Aquaboogie were. Adding to its sun-glazed aura is the acid-tinged, Ernie Isley-esque guitarwork of Michael Hampton and Jerome Ali. Interestingly, an unreleased 12" version of the tune later washed up on Parliament's The 12" Collection And More.
The record closes with the rubberband electro funk jam Icka Prick, the key final track in this song cycle. With its machine box rhythms rolling along at a hip hop pace, it's practically a g-funk track. David Lee Chong holds down synthesizer duties here, injecting the track with squiggly day-glo boogie shapes, while Michael Hampton returns (yet again) for some crunchy lead guitar work. One's immediately reminded of Zapp, but this is much looser, and less locked down, coming on like an amorphous, jell-o take on the electro funk sound.
As the song opens, Michael Hampton ad-libs Oh, you ain't seen obscene yet, We gonna be nasty this here time, and he ain't lying. Icka prick and iron pussy, yucka fuck and muscle cunt,while we servin' pussy from the shoulder, she servin' dick from the head, and Elmo MacNasty, mental masturbation, psychological perversion (hey, hey), are just some of the couplets you're treated to after he warns you to Put on some protection for your ears.Ain't no decent dick in Detroit! The Brides' backing vocals retort That's disgusting!
Without warning, it all goes supernova in the track's denouement, with soaring Hit It And Quit It vocals, whining Drexciyan synths and metallic guitars elevating the track toward its epic conclusion before it all fades without warning...
Over the years, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies has crept up on me to become my favorite piece of the P-Funk story. I've never seen it singled out for praise as such, but for me it distills nearly everything great about Parliament/Funkadelic into a sleek capsule aimed toward the future. Its man-machine hybrid draws together disparate contemporary strands — the post-disco funk of Zapp and Funkadelic themselves, the new wave shapes of Prince and the Minneapolis sound, and fourth world sonics straight out of the My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts playbook — all while pointing the way toward Cybotron, Model 500, Kosmic Messenger and beyond.
And as such, it's myriad routes stretch right up through the present day... not to mention the fact that it's a killer party record.
Seeing as we've moved into the dog days of summer, the moment seems right to bring back the Motion series. A couple entries tumbled out of the Other99 blog (this site's precursor) back in the day, which were basically playlists to accompany long distance runs in either the early morning and evening. Perhaps I'll dig up some of those old playlists — if I can find them — but for now, we're resetting the counter to 001.
The Motion reboot begins with a sequence born in the crucible of the early morning circuit in the Heights: down Reservoir Dr., along the trolley tracks in Alvarado Canyon and looping back again. However, it found its true home in an early evening route along the San Diego Harbor, alternately as the sun set on the horizon or beneath overcast August skies.
This selection happens to include some of my all-time favorite techno music — which places it comfortably among my favorite music, period — so it made sense to start it up again here. In light of the general technoid-come-r&b drift of this summer (as we enter the final chapter of the Terminal Vibration saga), it makes perfect sense within this context as we descend deeper yet into the realm of machine soul...
Motion 001: Hi-Tech/No Crime
Dave AngelEndless MotionsR&S
Classic tech jazz inna UR stylee, this one had a profound impact on me back in the day. I used to studyDave Angel's unmissable Classics compilation, of which this was undoubtedly the centerpiece, back when I first started making beats. A round up of Angel's material on the R&S/Apollo labels, it also happens to include the entirety of the excellent 3rd Voyage EP.
This liquid groove runs at an accelerated European pace, a searching bassline and lush pads holding down the groove as sparkling sonics flutter across it all. This the next step on from Eddie Russ' See The Light, it sets the perfect tone for a sequence that hovers in that verdant interzone between techno and soul.
Jimi TenorCan't Stay With You BabyWarp
Ostensibly, this is the other side of the coin (see also Compost Records, Kirk Degiorgio, et. al.), Jimi Tenor nevertheless had a distinct approach all his own. Conjuring up images of some lounge singer solo on an organ in some hotel bar, he epitomized the sort of 90s-era profound unlikeliness that also tossed up figures like Beck and Stereolab.
I often think of Tenor as a post-Thomas Leer troubadour of bedroom electronica, offering up an idiosyncratic take on the music in the clubs, thoroughly warped and sounding like nothing else around. Can't Stay With You Baby finds the man in the glitzy cascade of city lights just as rush hour begins winding down. With shades of Prince in the vocal delivery and strong undercurrents of modal jazz, this is above all else a killer pop song. Should be far more widely known.
TronikhouseSmooth Groove The Smooth MixKMS
Vintage Kevin Saunderson from the dawn of the 90s, this
takes a laidback angle on his Reese material, with the trademark organ-esque bass figure one comes to expect from the man who brought you E-Dancer's The Human Bond and Reese's Just Want Another Chance.
Dig that ever so subtle, Blue Bayou synth hovering over the whole thing like an Everglades mist. Skeletal and vibed-out to the extreme, and locking in at only three-and-a-half minutes, it's another great pop moment and one of the first tunes I'd direct someone to if they were curious about techno.
An exclusive from the Digital Sects 2 compilation (although it later appeared on Submerge's Depth Charge 3 compilation), a showcase for Sean Deason's Matrix Records which was only just on the rise. A tune from the man himself (in his Freq guise), this organ-led number finds Deason pumping some serious keys over a moody, half-lit groove.
This the secret cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, only on the after hours, 3 In The Mornin' tip. One of the great night drive traxx for real, this is right up there with peak-era Hashim and Underworld. As far as I know, this never made it to wax... so CD-only techno in full effect!
YennekSerena X Inner Zone MixBuzz
Arguably Kenny Larkin's finest hour, this Carl Craig rework (featuring an early allusion to his Innerzone Orchestra project), which takes the original version's pristine aquatic groove and funks it up with the same febrile rhythms you'd find in his AMAZING Psyche/BFC material.
Those synths though! Such style, gliding as it does over that loping bassline and clattering percussion, and as such instantly recognizable as the work of Craig. A match made in heaven, Kenny Larkin returned the favor a couple years later with his equally brilliant remix of Craig's Science Fiction.
Carl CraigSparklePlanet E
This exquisite slice of digital disco is cut from the same cloth — and generally speaking, the same era — turning up on a timely reissue of Carl Craig's epochal Landcruising (re-titled The Album Formerly Known As... for the re-up). Hard to believe that a tune this mind-blowing — from the Landcruising sessions — sat unreleased in the vaults for a decade!
Similarly, this has a great swinging rhythm and insane synth work, traveling in great arcs in the Blade Runner mode and deliciously tactile bleeps flowing all over the shop. Once again, that nimble bassline and and shuffling beat epitomize the type of techno I dig above all else.
Kosmic MessengerDeath MarchElypsia
I'm a huge fan of Stacey Pullen. Indeed, I have a long-delayed feature dedicated to the man coming at you later this month. Until the doors opened on his Black Flag imprint, Kosmic Messenger was his most dancefloor-dwelling moniker, with tunes like Eye 2 Eye, I Find Myself and Flash omnipresent for much of the 90s. It's a perfect complement to his more contemplative material as Silent Phase, picking up where the Bango records left off.
I first heard this tune on Pullen's excellent DJ-Kicks, where its grinding chord progression and shimmering loops perfectly matched the record's Blade Runner file-under-futurism ambience. Pullen's shadowy history as a drummer in his high school marching band seems to surface between the cracks in that rolling martial rhythm. I've often thought that Kosmic Messenger output was a direct descendant of Parliament/Funkadelic's freakiest moments.
The 4th WaveElectroluvPlanet E
The grand finale! The most lush, incredibly baroque synth work soars over an clattering, intricately arranged techno rhythm. It makes sense that Carl Craig would snap it up for release on Planet E, fitting in as it does with the label's mid-period output (post-Intergalactic Beats and pre-Silentintroduction) brilliantly.
The 4th Wave was British techno purveyor Steve Paton, who later washed up on both Kirk Degiorgio's Op-ART and James Lavelle's Mo Wax imprints. This tune is quite simply amazing, hailing from the three-track Touched EP (the sole 4th Wave release on Planet E). There's something very rich and ancient lurking somewhere in its DNA (those organs in the breakdown are the kicker) that seems to call back the 70s (it always makes me think of those early-morning training sequences from the first Rocky movie).
As the mix winds down, the closing misty bards of Electroluv ringing in our ears, we arrive at our destination. I hope you've enjoyed the journey...