Scribes Sounding Off: Slurping Up The 70s

In the previous installment of SSO, we looked at how 80s-defined punk rock imagery affected movies of (mostly) that time period -- in the glorious coffee table tome Destroy All Movies!! Now we’re going to go back in time and broaden our scope to stare at some wonky but wonderful LP jackets, and listen again to music that we probably have taken for granted due to commercial and FM radio overkill. And then we’re going to close on a genealogy of whispered-over wild roots to melt the known with the secret world. All three of these great-for-gift volumes were recently put out by excellent publishing company Backbeat, and are recommended for carrying out the intentions they have to chronicle popular and semi-popular music that is often neglected by trend-cultish music critics.

Mountains Come Out Of The Sky is a high quality, big and tall, multi-colored encyclopedia of progressive rock, put together out of obvious passion and with dear depth by Will Romano (frequent freelancer to Modern Drummer, Guitar Player, EQ, and author of biographies of Jimmy Reed and blues legend Hubert Sumlin). This is an unusual release for Backbeat, as it is just as much about the rich colors of the album covers and loving close-ups of weird arena rock-filling instruments and gizmos as it is the fandom-fueling backstories of everything from Krautrock pioneers to American pop chart dominators like Kansas and Styx.

Prog may have been loathed by many American music journalists through its ascent and apex, but you’d be surprised by how many creative groups actually fall under that term. Pink Floyd remains an on-going inspiration to post-punks and post-rock generations, and the chapter on them here is perfectly illuminating. The two excellent chapters on King Crimson cover a period for Robert Fripp when everything was possible in rock music (as can be heard on their classic albums, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic and of course In The Court Of The Crimson King), and the only inevitable boundary would be the changing of the cultural guard (the tepid and even sometimes hateful response to their very fine come-back period for Discipline in the early 80s).

Yes, guys with big mustaches, capes, short shorts, and banks upon banks of keyboards pop out of these glossy pages, but so do the feral-scholar looking Fripp, and KC vocalist Adrian Belew, two smart dudes who arguably had as much influence on SST and early grunge as the Stooges and Coltrane. Genesis is praised here (in 1979 I knew as many punks who had The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway as they did Never Mind The Sex Pistols), but also buried (anything after 1979, pretty much). Dream Theatre are obviously metal-loving brutes just creating more abstractly than Metallica.

Recent episodes of The Venture Brothers on Adult Swim aren’t throwing in characters’ adoration of this music merely for mockery; records like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s twisted and touching Brain Salad Surgery were all about taking you to a completely other place, with or without the assistance of chemicals. And certainly without concern for fashion or popularity, even if various forms of prog wide-spread influenced those things enough to help change mainstream concepts of rock. And some bands like UK and Marillion have some material you’ve never heard but maybe should have heard more about in the States; trust me, some of your possible favorites (The Decemberists and the Shins, most obviously) have absorbed this stuff. There really is no “Us And Them” at this point, except on Dark Side Of The Moon.

Mountains Come Out Of The Sky is a dream book for the deep prog fan, but also -- as my wife enthused when she saw it in our apartment -- a way to shake off the usual punk-worship and to get to know a huge genre with many glittering satellites much better. And just think of all the dollar bins out there you can hit at record stores with this gorgeous work of research under your belt.

Fab Four Faq 2.0 by Robert Rodriguez is the first book on the musicians in the Beatles I’ve wanted to own in some time. And it’s for the same reason I love Mountains -- a combination of already being vicariously familiar with much of this material, but never having delved into the stories of its creation. While maintaining a healthy POV regarding the failings of the initial solo period works -- there is a whole chapter in here on what LPs to avoid (quite a few, actually) -- as opposed to trying to chronicle everything throughout as if its all equal.

Chicago-based collector and historian Rodriguez is a fan, but instead of writing the first Faq for us all to (once again) glory in a celebration of the 60s, he realizes there are sometimes very specific fans of the 70s work of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. Lennon is the one you’ll hear most mainstream and alternative rock fans trumpeting as the most noteworthy, as his topical brilliance on Plastic Ono Band (with the extremely influential Yoko) is carried through game-wrenching avant experiments and full-on rock failures, with an occasional, truly nimble pop album (Imagine) to keep him in heroin, tube amps, and drinks for Nilsson.

But as Ian Svenonius so wonderfully noted in his essay in The Psychic Soviet, McCartney was often able to obtain success by getting freaky in the context of a pop song (“Hands Across The Water,” the multi-part title track to big hit “Band On Run,” a humongous reissue of which has just been put out) without being all macho about his intentions or image. His joy in crafting ear-worms, chopping up funk, and splashing around weird dubby keyboards has made McCartney just as valuable to alternative/indie songwriters as Lennon was to punk with “Working Class Hero” in its content. It’s hard to imagine all those oodles of smart power pop and psyche-rock, both decades old now like XTC or newer like Sufjan Stevens without hearing McCartney’s crushes for huge canvases of experiment-play and almost gospel-level love for emotional expression.

And then there’s George Harrison, who is often seen as a quirky “nice addition” to the main two singer-songwriters who made up the Beatles and barnstormed the 70s charts, but who in fact still inspires baroque pop bed-sitters and chamber rock chameleons to this day with classic albums like All Things Must Pass and 33 1/3. Harrison may have seemed like a weird younger brother in the Beatles, given an occasional track here and there, but if you’d heard him outside their context even then, he would have seemed extraordinary in his own right -- eclectic but accessible, vulnerably spiritual and questioning, and as enamored with playing as much as writing songs (an important thing to note these days -- thanks, John Roderick). And I’ve never owned one, but people like Rob Morgan (a Seattle legend) will let you know just what Ringo albums are essential for your collection. (Believe it or not.) If you can’t track Rob down in Ballard (*cough* Sonic Boom *cough*), and even if you can, I highly recommend Fab Four Faq 2.0 for all the specific releases I touch upon above, for doting descriptions on all four geniuses’ work. I may never read another Beatles book again, but I am damned happy to own this one -- I love it when great rock books fill in the gaps. And the 70s were all about gaps.

But what about all my you crate-digging underground freaks?! I have not forgotten you, my brothers and sisters. Seasons They Change is a very thick walk into the woods to witness the flowering of post-psychedelic and acid folk forms that transmuted the essence of rock through the “Me Decade.” Author and researcher and frequent Shindig! magazine contributor (and ubiquitous UK DJ) Jeanette Leech has put together a dazzling history and guide which begins with “British folk running free” with the likes of The Incredible String Band -- and then journeys to America with Peter Stampfel (the Holy Modal Rounders) and the burbling of folk freaking out here. The sagas of Pearls Before Swine, Vashti Bunyon, Roy Harper, Michael Hurley, and so many others through the 70s are told and interconnected effortlessly.

Pat Thomas (of the extremely cool and influential Ptolemaic Terroscope zine, the very awesome band Mushroom, and now A&R main man at Light In The Attic), Richie Unterberger (the impeccable author of a dozen brilliant histories like Turn! Turn Turn! and Eight Miles High and a thousand excellent liners), Graeme Thompson of (my last glossy fetish) Record Collector magazine, “Captain” Jay Babcock of the head-adored Arthur, and many others contribute interview segments and assistance to Seasons, and the community vibe can be felt in its completeness and clarity. Just like Shindig!, when you pick up Seasons you know some people have long been frying on some destroying stuff you barely heard of yet.

As the drugs spread with the jams and the straight world gets more wearying, developments in Spain and other parts of Europe and in places like Brazil help make the underground buzz with new energy and immortal fire. Living becomes a political act in itself, and everything is spiritual. This loving chronology of ontological-musical anarchy may appropriately reference the work of mainstream rebels like Dylan and Baez, but it’s how most of the book dotes on the music of artists like Tim Buckley and Bert Jansch that most KEXP listeners would be drawn to like a blazing but uncertain bonfire. And even beyond them, there are still oodles of barely or unknown experimenters or picadors to uncover in its pages -- The Amoebic Ensemble, The Beavis Frond, a thousand other groups; the Transistor and Dandelion labels; clubs like The Cock; and tracing “The (whole) Family” up to (for example) Hope Sandoval, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom. At the front are sweet, rare color photos of Espers (Greg Weeks actually writes the excellent introduction), Current 93’s David Tibet, and many others -- though would have loved to have more of those.

Of the three books listed here, I recommend Seasons They Change the most wholeheartedly, just because I find the music it covers most pleasing, both on an intimate level, and also currently creating the greatest excitement in me (and in the music made around me, and will be, for many years to come). Mountains gives me greater scope on some things I outright avoided, and the post-Beatles book fills me in on stories I only half knew. But if I carried one to Seattle’s Jive Time or Bop Street or Easy Street or Sonic Boom as a reference guide for purchases though, Seasons They Change would damn well be it. So much great music I still need to discover. Join me!

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