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.
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.
My best mate Dave and I were lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of Folk music by his elder sister and her friends. They were very into Bob Dylan of course but also played lots of records by Joan Baez, Paul Simon and a host of ‘finger in the earhole’ squawkers that Dave … Continue reading Richard & Mimi Farina: Reflections in a Crystal Wind (1965)
This is a 1965 LP from Bob Dylan. I have to say that there is little in his back catalogue that should be considered poor and there is much to be considered classic. He was of course the blue-eyed boy of the traditional folk scene and, long before he picked up an electric guitar in … Continue reading Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
This was a very successful album over here in 1966 and a prime example of American Soul music from the Atlantic label. Otis and his label mate Aretha Franklin were known as the ‘King and Queen’ of Soul and widely considered to possess the best male and female voices respectively in the genre. Otis went … Continue reading Otis Redding: Otis Blue (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)
For many this was Dylan’s magnum opus and it certainly does contain some of his most astonishing work. For me, though it is widely considered a classic, it is probably a flawed masterpiece and has a patchy feel about it. The high points are stratospheric, the lows forgettable. Make of it what you will. If … Continue reading Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
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)
Along came Jimi Hendrix who dropped a lighted match into the box of fireworks. His first album is a must have. I have often said that I don’t think it is possible to truly understand the impact that he had unless you were around before he emerged. Nevertheless I am sure that, with a little imagination, … Continue reading Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced (1967)
From 1967 comes The Velvet Underground & Nico, a hugely influential album that is referenced by new and aspiring young musicians even today. In simple terms it saw the début of Lou Reed and John Cale, who would both go on to have wide and varied careers even until today. Beyond that the band had its … Continue reading The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
You will either love this or hate it, I suspect – few people I know who heard Captain Beefheart were ambivalent about his music. Certainly some of his later albums were a difficult listen, but this is a wonderful raucous (though at times melodic) blend of American garage punk and the blues that was unique … Continue reading Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band: Safe as Milk (1967)
1967 gives us The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. This was a milestone of a different sort from The Velvet Underground & Nico. Probably the first genuinely ‘Psychedelic’ album, this is a strange mix of Cambridge whimsy and trippy, spacy music that became the Floyd’s trademark as time went on. The quirky stuff came from … Continue reading Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
This is an album by arguably the second most important group of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury era – namely the Jefferson Airplane. They were more variable in terms of quality down the years (the usual ‘musical differences’ / personnel changes being responsible, I think) and this may be their only true classic. You have Surrealistic Pillow … Continue reading Jefferson Airplane: Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
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)
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)
This Stones album is from 1969 and marks the point in their development where they became truly awesome. Between 1969 and 1973/4 they released a series of albums that were uniformly excellent and earned them the accolade of the ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’ (which remained undisputed until Led Zeppelin began their … Continue reading The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed (1969)
Van was the vocalist with Them (an Irish version of the Stones, if you like) and they had a few big hit singles in the glory days. He is a multi-instrumentalist (piano, sax, guitar and much more besides) but in truth his best instrument is his voice. Them proved much too narrow a channel for … Continue reading Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1969)
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)
And so to 1970. Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs was released as a Derek & the Dominos album but was of course Eric Clapton pursuing his post-Cream muse with a bunch of American session musicians largely drawn from the mighty Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. It is a real tour-de-force blessed with some extended versions of … Continue reading Derek & the Dominos: Layla (1970)
This is Stephen Stills’s first solo album, which is a huge favourite of mine. I’m not sure that it was particularly successful over here but the guy is a tremendous musician and the playing on here (with some pretty famous guests – like Clapton and Hendrix – along for the ride) is terrific. There is … Continue reading Stephen Stills: Stephen Stills (1970)
This is one of the albums from the glory days of the San Francisco scene. I don’t propose to discuss the Frisco scene in depth here, simply because there is so much more to it and I just may want to get aboard a Bay-Area hobby-horse later on when I unveil the meister-guitarists Jerry Garcia, … Continue reading The Grateful Dead: American Beauty (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)
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)
This is the debut album by J.J., who, I am sad to say, died this year  of a heart attack after a long and very distinguished career. Throughout it all he was a shy and careful man – never seduced by the fame that came his way. When I saw him in London, back … Continue reading J.J. Cale: Naturally (1972)
I get the impression that people either love this or ignore it completely. It is the album that (essentially single-handed) saved Richard Branson’s Virgin label from going bust and therefore paved the way for the massive brand that has its fingers in so many pies to this day. An instrumental piece that spanned both sides … Continue reading Mike Oldfield: Tubular Bells (1973)
I could have picked a whole host of albums to showcase the talents of this woman. I fell for her at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 – she played in the midday slot while the French anarchists and the ‘music should be free’ drug wrecks were trying to destroy the festival. She burst … Continue reading Joni Mitchell: Hejira (1976)
In 1979 a slip of a girl poked her nose into the ‘Lounge’ scenes in the lower end of Los Angeles. This was the playground of Tom Waits, Chuck E. Weiss and other pseudo jazz and lounge musicians who were bringing on a fresh view about the impact of living in downtown LA. She brought … Continue reading Rickie Lee Jones: Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
I have broken our unwritten rules here, in the sense that this is a superb compilation of most of Warren’s best songs. He recorded many albums during a career that ran from 1976 to 2003, when he died of cancer. Much as I liked the guy, I would find it hard to make a case … Continue reading Warren Zevon: Genius (2002)