Rock School

RollingStones

The Rolling Stones

In 2009 I began to grow interested in rock music. It sounds an odd thing to say, but I’d managed to get through twenty-five years of my life without listening to very much, except the odd bit of Led Zeppelin played by my parents. Then, one day after work, I picked up the greatest hits of Cream in HMV. From the very first time I listened to it, I was hooked and wanted to hear more of the same. There was just one problem. With such an ocean of music out there, how would I know where to start?

There was an obvious answer. My uncle had been a music journalist while he was at university back in the early 1970s and he’d kept up his passionate interest in rock and blues ever since. Who better to choose as my guide? I appealed for advice and, some weeks later, a parcel arrived in the post containing two CDs: Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and the Rolling Stones’s Let It Bleed. With them was a typescript giving some context to that period in the late 1960s when music suddenly changed forever. New parcels began appearing at Christmases and for birthdays and before long my uncle had made sure that I had a small but respectable collection of classic rock albums. Each arrived with a few lines summing up his thoughts and giving a bit of history about the bands. It was a way for me to understand and begin to share his love of this transformational moment in music history.

Sadly there wasn’t time for me to learn all the knowledge he had to share. My uncle died in April 2016 after a long and brave battle with cancer. The last time I saw him, he insisted I have a go on his Fender Telecaster and try to play the blues. It was a fitting way to say goodbye. As a tribute to him, I wanted to share his thoughts on the various albums he sent me. There won’t be much new here for rock aficionados, but perhaps there are people out there – like me – who’d like pointers to some of the essential albums of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Let’s begin with the cover letter from the very first package, dated November 2009.

All albums can be accessed via the thumbnails at the bottom of this page.

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Cliff - Copy

My uncle Cliff (1952-2016)

AN INTRODUCTION

It has been tricky deciding exactly where to start, what to give you and in what order they should be handed over. Let’s consider a bit of background.

British Fifties ‘pop music’ was bland and uninspiring, usually performed by a vocalist with orchestral or session musicians backing them. In 1960, Cliff Richard was about as rebellious as things got. But, in Fifties America, behind the pop ‘scene’, some important things were happening, all of which would later have an impact on the music we are here to explore.

  • People like Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly et al had started Rock & Roll (essentially a ‘white’ music)
  • Elvis Presley had ‘arrived’ and created a wonderful mix of Country music, Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll, more interracial than the above and often known as Rockabilly
  • The US Folk Music scene was healthy and fertile: new young talent included people like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and many other singer-songwriters who would later have a big impact
  • The US Jazz scene was incredibly potent with artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley et al, all legendary performers
  • There was a great deal of interest in US Blues musicians (both rural and urban) among traditional Jazz musicians here in Britain, which brought their material to the attention of young British kids
  • Black Gospel and Soul music from the South (Georgia and Tennessee) and Urban Rhythm & Blues from the North (Detroit) became more available in Europe and was increasingly played by radio presenters and emerging disc ‘jockeys’ on pirate radio stations and Radio Luxembourg (God bless Emperor Rosko!)

In 1962/3 proper ‘beat groups’ began to appear in Britain though they rarely wrote their own material. Instead they listened to and recorded songs from the final bullet-point above. So popular did their versions of these songs become that the original Soul and Tamla Motown stars went on to have hits with them too! Two such groups became hugely popular and, while the Beatles were rapidly absorbed by the establishment as loveable roguish ‘moptops’, the Rolling Stones were considered dark, dirty and dangerous.

Many copycat outfits appeared and, from 1964 to 1966, the number of pop groups exploded, filling the charts with exciting cover versions of songs from the States. Key groups were The Who, The Animals, The Small Faces, The Spencer Davis Group and The Kinks and, together with the Beatles and Stones, these were the musicians who fostered the development of modern rock music. At the same time, of course, records by US Blues artists became popular here too and a vibrant underground Blues movement was born. From there would later emerge the likes of Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin.

From 1966 to the end of the decade, all these groups (and many others who were in turn influenced by them) experimented with drugs, wrote their own material, used improved recording techniques, tried out more varied and exotic instruments, adopted more adventurous song structures and drew inspiration from more and more diverse sources. It was an incredibly exciting brew. Even so, most of the LPs of the time were still patchy, often containing a few songs that could only really be considered as ‘filler’. As the ’60s came towards an end, though, that began to change and albums that would hang together all the way through began to appear.

Also, of course, similar things had been happening in America and a lot of great music was coming over from there. Suddenly we were exposed to very different musical styles: music from Texas and the Mexican border, or from the Louisiana swamps (with voodoo overtones). We heard Country music, New York ‘Arty’ rock, Surf music from California and of course the raw Blues itself. They were great times for the inquisitive.

In 1969 Woodstock happened and the huge music festival became a reality. Pop music went back to being pop music and rock with a capital R was born into an environment where musicians from many different backgrounds were beginning to influence each other. Everything started to coalesce then, though later ‘rock’ would splinter into many sub-genres.

It is around this time, I think, that we will start.

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The Beatles: Revolver (1966)

1966 was arguably the beginning of the end for the Beatles as a ‘pop’ group and the start of their advance into truly experimental and astonishing musicians and studio practitioners. This album has its quota of songs that hark back to their time as pop superstars but also opens the door to what would change … Continue reading The Beatles: Revolver (1966)

The Doors: The Doors (1967)

This is a blast of American rock hewn out of the experimentation and exploration taking place in the US ‘pop’ scene through the middle sixties and a healthy love of urban US blues. It is a true classic and has no other title than the group’s name: The Doors. This is their first album and … Continue reading The Doors: The Doors (1967)

Dr. John: Gris-Gris (1968)

OK. Dr. John. This is a completely different can of… gumbo. Now we are in the swamps of Louisiana amongst the Cajun folk whose French influences had a major impact upon the culture and cuisine of that region and, of course, New Orleans. (Movie link: Angel Heart and more loosely Deliverance, Southern Comfort, Big Easy.) This came out in … Continue reading Dr. John: Gris-Gris (1968)

Love: Forever Changes (1968)

Having heard you ‘loud and clear’ about liking the Doors, I thought we’d fill out your Doors collection and take a closer look at some albums from the US West Coast around the 1967-70 period. Obviously two centres of population, both very different, were of crucial importance: Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both cities had … Continue reading Love: Forever Changes (1968)

The Doors: Morrison Hotel (1970)

While their erstwhile rivals Love faded slowly into the shadows (personnel changes, lacklustre albums etc.), the Doors rampaged on. Morrison Hotel is a halfway house really, from 1970, each side of the original vinyl album being given over to, nominally at least, a separate site of songs. The quality is such throughout that it deserves … Continue reading The Doors: Morrison Hotel (1970)

Santana: Abraxas (1970)

Here I’ve enclosed the album where Latin rhythms shoved and muscled their way into the Rock mainstream. Latin influences had long been a feature of ‘easy listening’ and cabaret circles and had even carved their way into the higher realms of serious jazz, but here we are talking rock pure and simple. Abraxas is Santana’s second album … Continue reading Santana: Abraxas (1970)

The Doors: LA Woman (1971)

This is the final Doors studio album. By the time of LA Woman, Jim Morrison was in a whole heap of trouble and I think it is a testament to the others around him that they encouraged and paved the way for him to deliver this most sublime collection of songs. It came out in Summer … Continue reading The Doors: LA Woman (1971)

6 thoughts on “Rock School

  1. James McCarthy says:

    Very interesting collection! If I may I will drop by with some suggestions from my own collections which may broaden the category of list. Under a very loose category of Americana I suggest The Band by The Band though most music journalists would probably go for Music From The Big Pink as more influential.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Band

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    After reading all the posts (and commenting on some – I think I actually may have gone a bit overboard there, sorry for the spam!) I have to say that this is very impressive, both as an introduction to 60s/70s pop and rock and as a memento to your late uncle. There’s even a couple of albums I do not know yet, but will certainly be checking out soon!

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Nonsense: you know how much I love to hear your opinion on things! I’m glad you approve of Cliff’s suggestions. 😊 We also have his entire music collection to work through, full of CDs and LPs that he never got round to telling me about, so I’m sure there are some treasures hidden in there too. I’ve already fallen in love with Jerry Garcia, for example. I’m glad you found a couple of new things to try out as well!

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        That’s a relief! The Grateful Dead record is actually among those I was referring to – I only have Aoxomoxoa by them, which I did enjoy, but somehow I never explored them any further. American Beauty sounds like an excellent choice for remedying that.

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