Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

As the early 1970s edged into the mid-1970s, the subdivision of America’s sonic landscape picked up speed. Perhaps no better evidence of it can be found than in the burgeoning numbers of singer-songwriters geared toward the college-and-older crowd. Theirs weren’t teen laments and/or rants; instead, they sang about love won and lost, plus life’s other hardships, with subjects ripped not from the headlines but their hearts. Much of the credit (or blame) can be directed to the success of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s eponymous 1969 album and releases from Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens and James Taylor.

In late 1972, Dan Fogelberg released his debut, Home Free. It sold poorly out of the gate for a variety of reasons, including a lack of promotion from his label, Columbia, but between then and the release of his sophomore set, Souvenirs, in October 1974, a lot had changed. For starters, there had been something of a groundswell of support for Home Free; a two-page piece in the Denver Post spurred sales in Colorado, for instance, and he’d found a receptive home in – of all places – Jackson, Miss., due to a local FM station. The same was true in other places across the U.S.; he may not have been a household name, but he was winning over listeners. As importantly: He formed his own record label, Full Moon Records, and inked a distribution deal with Epic. 

He’d gained two years more experience, as well. Home Free was musically strong despite (or perhaps because of) the overt CSN influence, but marred by Fogelberg’s frequently subpar lyrics. On Souvenirs, he continues with the same harmony-laden style as before, but ups his lyrical game. Produced by Joe Walsh, it features top-notch studio personnel. In addition to Walsh, it includes the N from CSN, Graham Nash, who provides backing vocals on two tracks; drummer extraordinaire Russ Kunkel; bassist Bryan Garofalo, who – among other credits – was once in a band with Kunkel; and Manassas refugees Paul Harris (piano), Joe Lala (percussion), Kenny Passarelli (bass) and Al Perkins (pedal steel) – Passarelli, of course, was also the bassist in Barnstorm, while the other three backed the band in the studio. The Eagles’ Don Henley also plays drums and sings harmony on one song and, alongside bandmate Glenn Frey, provides backing vocals on another track.

“Part of the Plan” opens the album to nice effect, with its mid-tempo gait complementing well-written lyrics: “I have these moments all steady and strong/I’m feeling so holy and humble/The next thing I know I’m all worried and weak/And I feel myself starting to crumble/The meanings get lost and the teachings get tossed/And you don’t know what you’re going to do next…”

The dose of homesickness that is “Illinois” continues with the same pleasant vibe – and, at least to my ears, echoes Stephen Stills’ similarly themed “Colorado.” Musically speaking, “Changing Horses,” “Better Change” and the title track continue in the same vein, but at a slower pace, with well-written lyrics complementing a soft-rock sound. These are songs for a Sunday morning or weeknight before bed that are sure not to disturb the neighbors; some may call the lyrics pretentious, and at times they are – but within the construct of the songs, they work. “Here is a poem that my lady sent down/Some morning while I was away/Wrote on the back of a leaf that she found/Somewhere around Monterey…”

“As the Raven Flies” conjures not CSN, but Crosby & Nash backed by the Mighty Jitters. It’s a stunner that, similar to Home Free’s “The River,” seems at odds with the other songs on the album. It’s my favorite of the 11 tracks.

“Morning Sky” is another delight. Sporting a distinct country feel, it foreshadows his classic (if oft-overlooked) High Country Snows LP while laying down a story of a relationship doomed by his restlessness. “(Someone’s Been) Telling You Stories,” which follows, sounds like an outtake from Stephen Stills’ double-LP Manassas set, but with lyrics far more defensive than anything Stills ever penned. (Fogelberg lays out several scenarios of infidelity before claiming they never happened.) Coupled together, they paint a portrait of a young man unsure of himself.

The set ends with “There’s a Place in the World for a Gambler,” which conjures both CSN and the Eagles. It’s meant, I think, to be a grand statement to end the album. Musically, it builds bit by bit, expanding the soundscape into something far larger than the lyrics achieve: “There’s a light in the depths of your darkness/There’s a calm at the eye of every storm/There’s a light in the depths of your darkness/let it shine…oh, let it shine.” Lyrical shortcomings aside, however, it’s still a damn good song.

All in all, Souvenirs is a step up from Home Free. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Fogelberg gained traction with this set, which reached No. 17 on the charts, despite the sonic landscape being littered with so many other singer-songwriters and “soft rock” practitioners. It’s a solid outing with a handful of stellar moments. My suggestion: Some Sunday morning, give it a whirl.

The track list:

1970 is likely remembered, at least within the U.S., for what came to be called the Kent State massacre. On May 4th, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on college students protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia, killing four and wounding nine. It spurred an in-progress student strike at some 450 college campuses – which had begun on May 1st, the day after President Nixon announced the expansion – to explode. What had been a primarily peaceful movement flirted with violence, especially when 100,000 anti-war activists descended upon Washington, D.C., the following weekend. The anger was real and can be heard in the ardent strains of CSNY’s “Ohio.”

A month and change later, on June 19th, Diana Ross released her eponymous solo debut, which sports a soulful pop sheen that may seem miles removed from the revolution brewing on college campuses. But, at least from where I sit, it was – in its own way – revolutionary all the same: “Reach out and touch/Somebody’s hand/Make this world a better place/If you can…”

Working with writer-producers Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for all but one of the 11 tracks, she crafts a set that both reflects and transcends its time. Some songs, such as “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” were recycled from other Motown artists; others are original to the album. No matter. By the time the tracks were set to wax, they were hers. It’s not a statement of purpose, but a declaration.

Of course, most everyone knows the basic outline of Diana’s story: Born in Detroit, her name was and is Diane everywhere but her birth certificate, where it was listed as “Diana” by mistake. At age 7, her father relocated the family to Alabama after her mother was felled by illness, but they returned to the Motor City in 1958, when she was 14. At that point, her dream was to become a fashion designer – but she was also flirting with music and soon joined the Primettes, whose other members included Florence Ballard and, in time, Mary Wilson.

In 1960, Ross convinced childhood neighbor Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition for the group with Motown; Berry Gordy liked what he heard but, after learning their ages, told them to finish school first. They signed with another label instead, released a single that went nowhere, and then began to hang out at Hitsville, doing this ’n’ that (aka backing vocals and handclaps) before, in 1961, officially joining the fold. Rechristened the Supremes, they languished at the bottom of Motown’s hierarchy until late 1964, when “Where Did Our Love Go” topped the pop charts – the first of 11 singles to do so. Intra-group (and intra-label, for that matter) tensions soon surfaced due to Berry Gordy’s infatuation with Ross, however, especially once he decided to do what it took to make her a star.

As I noted a while back, the final No. 1 single by Ross and the Supremes, the Johnny Bristol-produced “Someday We’ll Be Together,” was originally slated to be Diana’s debut single – and was actually recorded without the other Supremes. Its success, along with the ad-hoc Cream of the Crop album, pushed plans for her solo debut to the following year (plus gave Gordy more opportunities to milk money from her exit, including the live Farewell double-LP set that was released in January 1970.)

By the time of her solo debut, she was 26 – and, yet, still deemed a “girl” by legendary Hollywood hack writer Leo Guild in a 1970 newspaper series that spotlighted (I’m not making this up) “black beauties.” (One excerpt from the article about her: “She has a peculiar ambition in that she wants the general public not to think that she’s a symbol for the blacks. She wants them to accept her as just a groovy girl.” She’s also quoted as saying, “I don’t think anybody needs a sex symbol. That’s out of date. I’d rather be thought of as someone with brains and maybe have a little sex appeal in back of them.”) It wasn’t just the mainstream press that could be so callous, either; Rolling Stone wasn’t exactly a bastion of feminist thought and pretty much ignored artists of color. Part of that was the era, of course, but – to my ears, at least – it’s the casual affront to those attitudes that gives her debut its revolutionary zeal.

Although it’s probably best known as the original album home of two of her classic singles – “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – it’s not a stereotypical singles-and-filler Motown album. Over the course of the 11 tracks, she’s independent, affectionate, confident and aware. Something’s on her mind, in other words, that’s been troubling her a long, long time…

Did I mention that, vocally speaking, she’s at the top of her game? Although I dispute the assessment, it’s sometimes said of her work with the Supremes that her vocals are light and frothy, essentially the frosting atop a layered cake. There’s none of that here. Her vocals are full and developed, driving the lyrics instead of riding them. You hear her smile, hear her frown. She pulls you into her world.

If you haven’t heard the album, definitely check it out. It sounds as fresh today as it must have in 1970 and is a true essential album – alongside her 1976 eponymous and 1980 Diana albums. (The 2002 “deluxe version,” I should mention, adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including two Laura Nyro songs that stem from unreleased sessions with 5th Dimension producer Bones Howe, and is available on all the usual streaming services.)

The track listing:

And for those curious: Here’s the newspaper article referenced above… if nothing else, it shows how far we have come in the past 50+ years. (Each section can be clicked on to enlarge; it was too lengthy to fit into one, unfortunately, so you’ll have to hop between the two images.)

Life’s complexities during the early ‘70s seem simple and straightforward from today’s perspective, almost quaint and naive: We are stardust; we are golden; a new Eden is within reach. Though Joni Mitchell wrote the “stardust” and “golden” lines in “Woodstock,” much of the ethos can be credited to Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose 1969 debut ushered forth a softer sound that demanded more attention than their louder compatriots. They emphasized matters of the heart and soul, and even their political pontifications came, at least in part, from within. It was an est seminar set to song, just about, but long before that self-help movement joined the mainstream. While their 1970 collaboration with Neil Young, Deja Vu, added darkness to their light, the est quality remained. They were authentic and in touch with their inner selves.

Both albums helped give life to a new sub-genre of rock music, one that usually found itself in the crosshairs of critics: soft rock. It was “wooden music” (aka acoustic) or a wooden-electric mix with country flourishes and, sometimes, an orchestral backing. This wasn’t the folk and folk-rock of the early and mid-‘60s or even the folk-pop practiced by Simon & Garfunkel, though elements from all proliferated within soft rock. It was mellow, sensitive, soul-baring stuff – and, depending on the wordsmith, either illuminating or cliched. One of its biggest pluses, however, was that songs could be cross-marketed, as they fit multiple radio formats on the increasingly competitive FM band.

By 1972, soft rock was all the rage – Carole King, Don McLean, Neil Young, America and Cat Stevens topped the album charts that year, while Neil Diamond, Don McLean, Melanie, Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Neil Young topped the singles charts with soft-rock songs. Also releasing albums that fell, at least in part, within the soft-rock realm: Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Loggins and Messina, and Paul Simon.

I start there, in this look at the debut from Dan Fogelberg, to add a little context. Music is never made in a vacuum; it’s generally a reaction to or a continuation of a larger trend. Such is the case with Home Free, which was released in October of that year. In many ways, it is a stereotypical soft-rock affair, sporting contemplative (if, at times, grammatically suspect) lyrics and sensitive sounds, harmonies galore and even sumptuous strings that accent the melodies, which often seem simultaneously familiar and not.

That’s not a knock. Consider this: He was likely 21 when he recorded the album; and probably younger when he wrote some of the songs. As such, I cut him – as I would any young artist – some slack because of that; he was still in the process of becoming. Plus, recorded in Nashville with producer Norbert Putnam, it just sounds great. Among the album’s personnel: David Briggs of the legendary Nashville Cats; and Buddy Spicher and Weldon Myrick of the equally legendary Nashville A-Team. Neil Young fans should also recognize the name of the drummer, Kenny Buttrey.

The album fades in – as if replicating the gradual awakening of the day – with “To the Morning,” about the promises each new day brings. Lyrically, it’s somewhat slight (“And it’s going to be a day/There is really no way to say no to the morning/Yes it’s going to be a day/There is really nothing left to say but come on morning”), but it does capture an element of life lost long ago: “Waiting for mail/Maybe a tale from an old friend or even a lover/Sometimes there’s none/But we have fun thinking of all who might have written.”

Even when the lyrics are clunky, it’s not much of an issue: A great case in point: “Hickory Grove.” It’s a lush, lush song that features suspect wordplay (“Hickory Grove, make the sun/Rise slower I don’t have much time/Hickory Grove, watch me run/down through the years of my prime”), but it doesn’t matter. You – or, at least, I – get lost in Fogelberg’s vocals, the melodies and overall production.

Of the “familiar”: As evidenced by “Hickory Grove,” the CSN influence is profound – and not just with the harmonies. In fact, “Stars” borrows its guitar refrain and melody from “Helplessly Hoping” while spinning a heartfelt ode to a long-lost lover (“For stars fall every time a lover has to face the truth/And far too many stars have fell on me.”) As with “Hickory Grove,” it’s a lovely song. By the time it ends, however overt the influence, you don’t care.

Other songs, such as “Looking for a Lady” and “Anyway I Love You,” are well-produced but – yes, I’m repeating myself here – lyrically slight. I could go on, and perhaps I should, but instead I’ll end with what is – for me – the album’s stand-out track: “The River,” which closes the set. It’s somewhat at odds with the nine songs that precede it, evolving from a piano-led tributary into a raging river accented by raucous guitars. Again, read by themselves, the lyrics aren’t the best – but matched to those guitars? And with his full-throated delivery? It’s damn good.

At the time of its release, the album didn’t do well in the charts – it peaked at No. 210 in early 1973. However, thanks to the success of his following albums, his label re-released it…and it went platinum. (Sales in excess of a million, for those not up on such things.) Overall, I find Home Free a solid first outing with – as I like to say – glimmers of greatness. My main criticism, which is likely evident from what I’ve already written: the lyrics. They remind me of the (bad) verse I and fellow classmates penned in my freshman poetry-writing class. That aside, as a whole, the album is worth more than a few spins – so long as you don’t listen too closely.

Here’s the track listing:

One thing to note: From what I’ve read, the original mix of Home Free is only available on the original LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes or the 2006 double-CD set of Home Free and Souvenirs from the Beat Goes On label; Fogelberg and Putnam remixed it for its release on CD in the late ‘80s. AllMusic’s’ Richard Foss details how those changes impacted the songs.

Also: Here’s the first mention of Home Free, from December 1st, 1972, I found on Newspapers.com; it’s part of the critic’s own attempt at (I think) hip verse: “Home Free, more than ever, Dan Fogelberg, on his way.”

Here’s another mention from one Holly Spence, which appeared in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star on Feb. 28th, 1973: 

And here’s an excellent deep dive that appeared almost a year later, on January 13th, 1974, in the Hattiesburg (MIss.) American. It goes to show the shelf life of albums back then; a year-plus from its release, it was still winning over listeners. (I had to split it up, however, so parts of the article jump between the two images.)

As I’ve noted before in these pages, I’m a big believer in the George Santayana aphorism that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Hand in hand with that: Those who don’t know the past are also missing out on a lot of good music.

Which leads to this: In late summer 1981, I purchased Dan Fogelberg’s The Innocent Age. I was 16. I don’t remember the whys or wherefores that led me to plunk down the money for what was a pricey double-LP set. I didn’t own anything by him and wasn’t familiar with his work beyond, I think, “Same Old Lang Syne,” a single he released in late 1980 that got airplay on Top 40-oriented WIFI-92 and “adult rock”-minded WIOQ, both of which I listened to on occasion. I may have heard “Hard to Say,” the single he released the previous month, as well, but can’t say for sure. Regardless, singles alone didn’t cause me to part ways with my cash – I was a kid on a budget, after all. Fogelberg also wasn’t a hip figure within my circle, so I’m sure the recommendation didn’t come from a friend. No, it was more likely due to a review – perhaps the one that leads off this no-bylined roundup of new albums that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 13th…

In any event, I listened to it. Liked parts of it, Side 2 especially, but as a whole found it overlong and – dare I say it? – boring. As I said, however, I was just 16. Joan Jett, among others, beckoned. MTV, too. Which is to say, The Innocent Age soon gathered dust in my LP collection. I doubt I thought of Fogelberg again until 1985, when I read a review of High Country Snows in (I think) Rolling Stone. I picked up that LP not long thereafter and…well, it’s a thoroughly delightful album, one I’ve returned to many times in the years since. I even played its bluegrass-flavored songs on the Folk Show on Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station, WPSU, from late ’85 through early ’87, side by side with favorites from New Grass Revival and the Seldom Scene. It didn’t spur me to further investigate his oeuvre, however, or even go back and give The Innocent Age another go.

Flash forward to August 2020, when – for reasons I will explain at a later date – I gave The Innocent Age a spin via Apple Music. I liked what I heard far more than I did way back when; the songs and sides I originally found bleh resonated with me in a way they didn’t then. (Sixteen-year-old me is no doubt scoffing at my adult tastes.) A few weeks later, I listened to the 2017 Live at Carnegie Hall release, which captures a 1979 performance, and…wow. I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times in the months since. I then gave a listen to his 1972 debut, Home Free, and was pleasantly surprised by what I heard.

At first, I considered spotlighting some or all of those albums in my occasional Essentials series once my Remember December navel-gazing exercise was done. In the weeks between then and now, however, I came up with something that I hope will be more fun: a slalom through his discography, most of which – obvious from the above – I simply don’t know. Beginning tomorrow, and going in order of release, l’ll spotlight one of his albums each month, offering critical insight alongside historical context, plus whatever else I can dig up.