(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
In today’s age, the double album seems almost quaint: two vinyl slabs that, combined, hold anywhere from 70 to 100 minutes of music. But they were a Big Deal back in the day, as that second slab substantially upped the cost to the consumer. Instead of $5.99-7.99 (plus tax), which was the average price of an LP when I began buying them in the late 1970s, a fan had to plunk down almost twice that ($9.99-11.99) – unless it was an Elvis Presley compilation on Pickwick, that is. I picked up the 2-LP Double Dynamite for $3.99 at a Montgomery Ward. (Of course, one look at the song list explains the low cost.)
Many double (and triple, for that matter) albums captured live shows; others were compilations that sometimes included previously unreleased material or hard-to-find b-sides. Double LPs of all-new material, on the other hand, were relatively rare, though any music fan worth his or her salt can reel off dozens of such titles, including ones by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Allman Brothers, not to mention Pink Floyd, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Husker Du.
Most, though not all, now fit onto one CD, and play no longer than many “albums” released as one disc in the ‘90s and ‘00s, when it seemed (at least to me) fairly common for new releases to clock in at over an hour; and, in the download/streaming age, time constraints just seem moot. But most CDs that run longer than 45 minutes contain – dare I say it? – songs that should have been left in the vault. In the days of limited space, only the best of the best were pressed onto vinyl.
Yes, of course, exceptions abound. But they’re exceptions.
Anyway, with fans and critics of a certain age being who and what they are, lists proliferate of the greatest double albums of all time. Here’s one; here’s another; and here’s yet another. If you Google the term, you’ll find dozens more.
And yet, on just about every list I’ve seen, one stone-cold classic – “a sprawling masterpiece,” according to AllMusic – is usually overlooked: today’s essential pick, Stephen Stills’ Manassas.
Stills, of course, first turned ears as the driving force behind Buffalo Springfield in the mid-‘60s; and again with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Young in 1969 and ’70. He released a great, self-titled solo debut in 1970; a near-great second solo set in ’71; and, in 1972, paired with former Byrd-Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman to found Manassas, a talented group that could play just about everything, including rock, folk-rock, country, bluegrass, Latin and the blues.
Among the group’s personnel: steel guitar great Al Perkins and phenomenal fiddler Byron Berline, both of whom had played with Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers; keyboardist Paul Harris; Blues Image founder (and percussionist extraordinaire) Joe Lala; and CSNY alum Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels and Dallas Taylor on bass and drums.
Oh, Stones bassist Bill Wyman sits in on one song, too. (According to Dallas Taylor, Wyman was ready to leave the Stones for Manassas – but wasn’t asked.)
Manassas, the album, is a mosaic of musical styles accented by top-notch playing and great songs. Split into four thematic sides (“The Raven,” “The Wilderness,” “Consider” and “Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”), it alternately reflects and resonates with the soul; delves into the philosophical; and rocks with precise abandon. It’s an electric album. It’s an acoustic album. Some songs are imbued with hope, others heartbreak and longing.
And it’s hook-laden.
One highlight: “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” which features a wondrous Hillman intro, a cool mesh of Cuban rhythms and country overtones, gorgeous guitar solos, and harmonies that can’t be beat.
Another: “Fallen Eagle,” a song I sing to myself whenever I see too much of Donald Trump on TV.
And another, “Colorado”:
And another, “How Far”:
Oh, and there’s this gem from Side 4 (“Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”): “The Treasure (Take One),” a winding treatise on love and “oneness.”
By virtue of my age, and the lack of non-CSN songs played on the radio, I didn’t discover the album (and its followup, Down the Road), until Feb. 12, 1984, when I picked them up at the Hatboro Music Shop. The double-LP set came with a cool fold-out poster that featured a photo montage on one side and the lyrics on the other; and, as I often did in those days, I read the lyrics along with the songs as they unfolded.
I was blown away by it. I still am. And I’m forever mystified as to why it slipped – along with Stills’ other early ’70s solo sides – into semi-obscurity. It did well, chart-wise. After its release on April 12, 1972, it peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, where it shared space in the Top 10 with David Crosby & Graham Nash’s self-titled debut and Neil Young’s Harvest.
Side 1 “The Raven”:
- Song of Love
- Medley: Rock & Roll Crazies; Cuban Bluegrass
- Jet Set
- Both of Us (Bound to Lose)
Side 2 “The Wilderness”:
- Fallen Eagle
- Jesus Gave Love Away for Free
- So Begins the Task
- Hide It So Deep
- Don’t Look at My Shadow
Side 3 “Consider”:
- It Doesn’t Matter
- Johnny’s Garden
- Bound to Fall
- How Far
- Move Around
- The Love Gangster
- What to Do
- Right Now
- The Treasure (Take One)
- Blues Man
Here’s the album in full, courtesy of YouTube: