Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

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.

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

I’ve been holding off on writing about Neil Young’s Archives Vol. II, which was released on November 20, 2020, until I finished listening to each and every of its 10 discs. For those not in the know, it covers the fertile period from 11/15/1972 through 3/10/76, when he recorded such classic albums as Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma – and held back a treasure trove of audio delights, including the since-released Tuscaloosa and Homegrown LPs. Also recorded during the timespan: the ill-fated Stills-Young collaboration Long May You Run. In total, 63 of the 131 tracks are previously unreleased, though the bulk of those are alternate or live versions of known songs. Twelve tunes are – theoretically speaking – brand-new to our ears. (I say “theoretically” because a few, such as the tender “Sweet Joni,” have been available on bootlegs for decades.)

The original deluxe edition, which was limited to 3000 copies, sold out in a matter of hours despite its mammoth price of $249.98. A second run is now scheduled, with a release date of next March, as is a “retail edition” with a reduced price of $159.98. (The Greedy Hand store is aptly named.) Me, I’ll likely buy the set as high-resolution downloads…and, until then, enjoy it via the Neil Young Archives website and iPhone app. 

The online Archives, I should mention, is a tremendous value for both new and old fans. For those of us who, years long ago, traded tapes and CDRs on the Rust List or Human Highway email lists and/or browsed the bins of indie record stores in hopes of stumbling upon bootleg LPs and CDs…well, it’s (almost) all there. Every official release. Live sets. The first Archives box set and, now, Archives II. Plus, next year, bootlegs of bootlegs are slated to appear. And, if that’s not enough, there’s tons of video – Neil’s 1984 appearance on Austin City Limits, when he was backed by the International Harvesters, is currently available to watch. (For those curious, it’s free for the holidays – and even when it’s not…it’s only $19.99/year.)

Best of all, one can access it on one’s smartphone (Apple or Android). Most days, I’m enmeshed at my desk for anywhere from a few to 10 hours. Monday through Friday, of course, it’s for my job, while on weekends it’s for this blog – or just goofing off. When the former, and in the mood, I listen via my iPhone, either plugging it into my desktop speakers or using Bluetooth headphones. Enjoying the music in high-resolution form isn’t to be had, yet it still does its job: It makes the day go faster.

Anyway, back to the Archives II: The many plaudits it has received are well deserved; here are a few such reviews: The Everybody’s Dummy blog; The Guardian newspaper; The LA Beat; Louder Than Sound; Rolling Stone; and Ultimate Classic Rock. Among the gems that I’ve returned to time and again: “Sweet Joni,” which I’ve loved since first hearing it on the Rock ’n’ Roll Cowboy bootleg compilation many years ago, and Joni, Neil and the Stray Gators ripping through “Raised on Robbery.” You can hear a snippet of it in this trailer:

There are plenty of other treasures to be had, of course. This Zuma-era take on “Powderfinger” is one:

Whether one should splurge on either the deluxe or retail edition is really a decision best left to each fan. One factor holding me back: the inclusion of the recent archival releases Tuscaloosa, ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live and Homegrown, all of which I purchased. If you didn’t pony up the cash for them, the set makes better sense. Another factor: In my life, accompanying booklets – no matter how well done – are usually looked at once, maybe twice, and then placed back inside the box never to be seen again. (If high-resolution downloads aren’t to be had, I rip CDs as FLAC or ALAC files and listen to those.) Too, I’d rather put that $160 or $250 to supporting up-and-coming artists, most of whom are facing financial hardship.  

Anyway, as Diane can attest, I often cycle through my musical favorites – I can go months or more without playing anything by a longtime favorite simply because…well, to borrow a phrase from Neil’s erstwhile pal David Crosby, “time is the final currency.” For the last good while, for example, it’s been mostly Bruce Springsteen, Courtney Marie Andrews and Zach Phillips – but, after enjoying the Archives II for the past few weeks, I feel like it’s time to saddle up the Horse and go for a ride…