1/28/2009

Sounds of 1967 (USA)

In 1967, in the nightclubs and ballrooms of San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane took the lead in playing new music that was fresh and inventive, along with The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Country Joe and The Fish, The Steve Miller Band, Santana, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The six musicians of Jefferson Airplane (Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Spencer Dryden) all were fearless and forceful figures with restless temperaments, and their unruly sound did not lend itself to easy handling. The full range of their erratic glory was not always evident on their recordings, but when they were onstage, they could be fierce and overwhelming.

I first saw Jefferson Airplane perform in December, 1966, when they joined with several other bands as openers at a concert by the The Beach Boys. Jefferson Airplane gave a brief and fairly straightforward performance that evening, but when I saw them perform again in June, 1967, at a time when they were starting to receive considerable praise for their second album, Surrealistic Pillow (which included "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," two radio hits with dauntless vocals by Grace Slick), I was greatly impressed by the unrelenting strength of their sound. There were moments of impetuous dissonance throughout their set, when each voice and each player was swerving and swooping in their own direction, threatening to pull apart the structure of the song being played, but somehow their fractious music held itself together.

In Los Angeles, where The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Love already had established themselves, four musicians known as The Doors were attracting great interest in 1967. The music of The Doors was dark and carnal, and it was offered to the public in fiery performances that centered on the murky voice and reckless actions of their vocalist, Jim Morrison. Hearing their single, "Light My Fire," on the radio for the first time, I was stopped cold by the strange and serpentine feeling that it conveyed. When I listened to their first album, The Doors (released on Elektra Records at the beginning of the year), I felt as if I was being drawn completely out of myself and into a shadowy realm. Their songs combined beauty and wildness in equal parts. Their second album, Strange Days (released in September, 1967), contained more songs in the same vein, with one track, "People Are Strange," achieving regular airplay as a single.

Jim Morrison was the well-read son of a military family. He also was a headstrong and outspoken performer whose approach to his audiences was vigorously provocative and boldly extreme, and he soon fashioned himself into a towering figure of rock'n'roll. He drunkenly creating his own legend, flouting convention at every turn and spouting ornate lines of rebellious poetry, as he swayed and strutted in leather pants. He sought to use concerts by The Doors as a means of revealing, and challenging, all that he held to be false, shallow, and unworthy. Jim Morrison constantly kept reaching toward the furthest edge of his music and his life, until finally, in July, 1971, while he was living and writing in Paris, he reached too far.

The Turtles were another band from California, who had their biggest hit in 1967. They already had released several singles in 1965 and 1966, with "It Ain't Me Babe" (a song written by Bob Dylan, which The Turtles transformed into a driving piece of folk-rock) receiving favorable airplay, but when "Happy Together" (a slick tune written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, and cleverly arranged by Chip Douglas) was released in February, 1967, it quickly became a hit of huge proportions, spending a total of three weeks in the top slot of the Billboard Hot 100. Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the two singers with The Turtles, later worked (as the Phlorescent Leach and Eddie) with Frank Zappa in The Mothers of Invention, and also were heard doing backup vocals for Marc Bolan on recordings by T. Rex in the early 1970s.

The Velvet Underground, formed in New York City and promoted by Andy Warhol, also released its first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, in 1967. It contained eleven songs, mostly written and sung by Lou Reed, that embodied harsh and uncompromising themes, with frank references to addiction ("I'm Waiting for the Man," "Heroin") and perversion ("Venus in Furs"). Several of the vocals were by Nico, a German actress (she appeared in Frederico Fellini's La Dolce Vita), model, and singer. Although The Velvet Underground never gained wide acceptance in the mainstream of musical taste, their arresting songs and eccentric musicianship have never lost the power to disturb and inspire.

The Left Banke also came from New York City, and also released their first album in 1967. It included their graceful hit from October, 1966, "Walk Away Renee," and its equally graceful follow-up, "Pretty Ballerina," along with "She May Call You Up Tonight," "Barterers and Their Wives," "Shadows Breaking Over My Head," and a handful of other polished songs that featured the baroque keyboards of Michael Brown and the earnest voice of Steve Martin-Caro (with vocal harmonies by Tom Finn and George Cameron). Although the music of The Left Banke had a marked degree of poise and showed great promise, the musicians themselves frequently were distracted by changes in their lineup and problems with money, and after recording their second album, they were unable to go any further.

In December of 1967, Bob Dylan released his eighth album, John Wesley Harding, after having retreated from the realm of public life for many months following an accident on a motorcycle. His new sound was much softer and more reflective than the electric music that he had played during 1965 and 1966, with brief and understated songs that featured a number of references to stories in the Bible. The homespun quality that defined the twelve tracks on John Wesley Harding was in direct opposition to the more adventurous approach being taken by many other musicians that year. It seemed that Bob Dylan, as always, was interested only in doing what he wanted to do.

1967 also was the year of the Monterey International Pop Festival, which was held in California on a weekend in June. The festival, organized by Lou Adler of Dunhill Records and John Phillips of The Mamas and The Papas, was the first time that rock'n'roll had been properly showcased in the USA. Many famous performers of the 1960s were featured, including The Association, Lou Rawls, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon and The Animals, Canned Heat, Simon and Garfunkel, The Electric Flag, The Byrds, Laura Nyro, Jefferson Airplane, Booker T. and The M.G.'s, Otis Redding, Buffalo Springfield, and The Who.

In particular, two American musicians were suddenly propelled to a height of lasting fame after their stunning appearances at the Monterey International Pop Festival: Jimi Hendrix, a guitarist and singer who served as leader of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Janis Joplin, a bluesy shouter who performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin took the festival, and later the rest of the world, by storm.

Jimi Hendrix, a black American who grew up in Seattle and came into his own after he moved to England in 1966, was an exceptional musician whose astounding command of the electric guitar has yet to be excelled or equaled. His guitar spoke in a musical language that had never been heard before, expressing itself in frenzied tones that were hot, molten, and infused with mind-blowing feedback. In addition, he was a brazen showman on the stage, as he famously proved when he concluded his performance in Monterey by playing "Wild Thing" and setting fire to his guitar. His single, "Purple Haze," and his first album, Are You Experienced, stand as primary landmarks of 1967.

Janis Joplin was a bookish outcast from Port Arthur, Texas, who headed to California when she was twenty, with the hope of pursuing a new way of life in San Francisco. She was a raw and throaty singer, whose earthy style was defined by a combination of lusty musicality and yearning expressiveness. Her anguished rendering of "Ball and Chain," filled with regret and longing, was a revelation to the audience in Monterey. She chose to fashion herself into the character of a bawdy woman, becoming known as someone who sang hard, drank hard, and lived hard.

Unfortunately, the music and the lives of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin came to an end only several years after the festival in Monterey, with each of them being destroyed by their careless abuse of hard drugs. They both perished at the age of twenty-seven in 1970, one month apart from each other. The truth and the appeal of their youthful talent, however, has never diminished, and the force of their spirits continues to endure in their groundbreaking recordings.