Monday, 12 August 2013

Twenty AAA Milestone Events Part Two - 1967-80




Some days aren’t like other days. Some days are special days. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, they entirely change the landscape of lives forever and mean that things will never be the same again. Events so big that you can almost sense the time-travellers of the future hiding in the shadows with their cameras and their event-recorders. This is especially true of the AAA crew who – in fact – had so many life-changing events that we’ve had to cut this week’s ‘top twenty’ into a two-parter. So here is part two: arranged chronologically from 1966 to 1980, following on from last week. Think we’ve missed any major event out? Then give us a shout by leaving a comment below!


1) Event: The Monterey International Pop Festival makes stars of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane and The Who and enhances the careers of The Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel Location: Monterey Date: June 1967

People had been talking about a ‘youth movement’ ever since 1964, but talking about it and seeing it are two very different things. For the first time ever, millions of music-lovers headed to the same place at the same time and heard as many famous names of the day as you could fit into a three-day event. Even with no shows by The Beatles, The Stones and The Beach Boys (whose reputation was forever damaged by pulling out at the last minute) this was perhaps the key event of the whole decade, several different genres of music lined up alongside each other and a crowd who seemed open to anything and everything. For AAA bands this event was colossal: it was organised by Paul McCartney and Paul Simon among others, cemented the reputation of The Who and Jefferson Airplane (who a lot of people had heard about but never actually seen), saw the last ever performance of The Byrds with (most) of their original line-up and (not coincidentally) the first time David Crosby could be seen on-stage with new friend Stephen Stills (in a Buffalo Springfield performance introduced by Monkee Peter Tork) and made stars of Otis Redding (big in England but never in his home land till Monterey) and Janis Joplin (who was such an unexpected success she actually performed twice – once for the audience and a second time for the film cameras). A great time was had by all – well nearly all anyway. Grateful Dead fans long cherish this day as the time their favourite band played one of their all-time worst sets to one of their two biggest audiences of all time! All these bands were shaped forever by this one event which was full of beginnings and endings and proved to the world in general that the 1960s craze for music was more than just than a fleeting romance, it was a lifelong obsession that in almost all cases for the people who were there continues to this day.

2) Event: Syd Barrett discovers LSD Location: Cambridge Date: Late 1967

Pink Floyd were the single most talked about British group in 1967. Coming from nowhere, they’d scored three top ten singles, released a groundbreaking debut LP (‘Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’) and their live shows (complete with psychedelic lights) were already legendary. Whilst the Pink Floyd of the first half of the 1970s were (briefly) a fully functioning democracy, there was no question in fans’ minds back in the summer of love that their main singer, guitarist and songwriter was the real star of the band. And then it all went wrong, Syd’s gradual breakdown over the course of late 1967 and early 1968 (attributed variously to mental instability and drug use, possibly both) meaning that the band’s focal point was slowly forced out of the group he’d created. Stories of Syd’s collapse became the stuff of rock and roll legend (smearing brylcream over his face so thickly it ‘melted’ under the lights; refusing to lip-synch songs, standing very still not moving, keeping his shoes on with elastic bands because shoe laces were too difficult, singing a new tune named ‘Have you got it yet?’ which changed notes and chords every time he sang the title line). While you can never point to someone’s disintegration as happening on one specific day, it does seem as if Syd changed suddenly sometime in late 1967 (‘within days’ if the other Floyd’s memories are accurate). Did Syd take one big hit of LSD too many? Did he purchase a particularly badly made form of the drug from some unscrupulous dealer? Or was it simply that the pressures of coming up with enough material for another album and single and the prospect of a lengthy your just sent him over the edge that week? Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt that Pink Floyd would have had a very different career had they not lost their guiding light so early on – and its intriguing to speculate as to whether the other Floyds would ever have discovered their own gifts for composing had they not had to fill Syd’s shoes (Would we ever have had ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ without Barrett’s collapse? And what would it have sounded like with Syd’s compositions included?! For the record we almost certainly wouldn’t have had ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Wall’ which were partly inspired by Syd’s story).

3) Event: Pete Townshend writes his first ‘rock opera’ Location: London Date: Late 1967

The Who were already regarded as one of the better specialists in three-minute pop circles by 1966, so how on earth did they end up writing ‘rock operas’ like ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’? Well, necessity as it happens. The Who had been given the unique offer by their publishing company that they could all four be guaranteed money if they came up with their own songs for the band’s second long player (a very welcome offer as The Who were in a financial mess right up until the 1970s), despite the fact that till now only Pete Townshend had written any songs. While John Entwistle discovered a whole new talent, Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey had less success, coming up short. Realising that the new album was going to be dangerously short and reluctant to let the band go back to doing ‘cover’ versions (though Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Heatwave’ did sneak through), Kit encouraged Pete to write a long song by stringing some of his shorter ones together. Whilst ‘A Quick One’ is hardly the greatest thing Pete ever wrote, it took on a whole new life on the road, The Who clearly born for the sort of dynamic contrasts heard in the song, and Pete’s worry about where to take the band next seemed to be answered. Coming next was an abandoned epic suite about the problems of a boy in the future accidentally delivered to a family that requested a girl (of which hit single ‘I’m A Boy’ was the only track ever heard), a mammoth piece about Israel getting invaded by the Chinese (condensed to the point where the plot made no sense as ‘Rael’ in 1967) and finally ‘Tommy’s parents’ , a song about a girl on board an aeroplane that crashes and is finally incarnated in a new body. By learning to extend his thoughts and conjure up believable characters that reflected both author and audience, Pete Townshend grew into one of the world’s deepest pop authors, instead of one of the cleverest writers of novelty songs. How different the Who’s career might have been without this unwelcome intervention and the need for a 10 minute ‘filler’ – because, frankly, without the sudden success of ‘Tommy’ the band were over (having scored no top 40 hits at all during the course of 1968 and much of 1969).

4) Event: The Moody Blues are hired to write a ‘pop’ version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Location: Decca Studios, London, early 1967

By 1967 The Moody Blues were, by their own admission, a bit of a joke. Along with The Animals they had been perhaps the band that best summed up the world’s sudden love of American R and B re-done in British regional accents and after scoring 1965’s biggest hit with ‘Go Now’ had been on a steady decline ever since. At first, even the arrival of talented youngster Justin Hayward and one of the earliest (and most blatant) summer of love anthems ‘Love and Beauty’ hadn’t done much to stem the tide. Ending up on the club circuit, their days apparently numbered, the Moodies were resigned to taking any gig they could get – including an offer from record company Decca to re-record Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ in a pop-rock setting to show off the label’s new ‘surround sound’ technique. Now, the band could have rejected this (the idea is a ridiculous one that should never have been offered) or simply taken the simple way out and done it quickly to get it over with. Instead they went with gut feeling and decided to record a new suite of songs that had (at last!) seemed to go down well at the clubs – a cycle of songs dedicated to the events of one day from sunrise to sunset. Shockingly, established orchestrator Peter Knight – who surely had better things to do with his time – didn’t shop the band to Decca and instead fell in love with the songs, spending much time and money adding orchestral ‘fringes’ to their work. So far so much fun – but can you imagine the looks on the Decca company executive faces when the band (and arranger) sheepishly admitted that they’d done something else entirely than what they’d been asked to do? After all, Decca had been talking about this project for months and wanted to ‘show off’ how great their new pop-rock-orchestral balance was. Why would classical music lovers be at all interested in a (largely) untried and unsuccessful band? Thank goodness someone at Decca had the calm head to realise that all that money could be recouped, that Peter Knight’s enthusiasm was a sign that the world in general was ready for a deep-thinking beat group with classical tendencies and that the ’24 hours’ concept was a marketing gift. ‘Nights In White Satin’ was the canary down the mine, released nervously into a world that might not have been ready for it yet – instead, with some relief, the single sold well and seemed to be permanently on the radio airwaves that Summer so Decca went ahead – and the career of another AAA band was born. How different might the Moodies’ fate have been had they not had the chance to record this album, had Decca refused to release it – or had they been given a less open arranger than Peter Knight who might have refused to have anything to do with their new work? Incredible!

5) Event: Cat Stevens catches TB. Location: London Date: early 1968

On the surface Cat had everything on New Year’s Day 1968. An eighteen year old with at least three big hits to his name (‘I Love My Dog’ ‘Matthew and Sun’ ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’) and many more on the way, his path in life seemed certain. However as the gruelling tours mounted up and the pressure on the next big single grew, Cat was feeling (like many youngsters in his position) as if his life was getting out of control. Too many parties with too many sycophants and bright young things were in danger of keeping him out of touch with his audience and a Decca insistence of keeping him young and cute was beginning to restrict his writing. Something had to change – and it did, in the worst possible way, when young Cat contracted TB. Too ill to perform for months on end, and with his record contract due to run out just at the moment when many assumed he had given up music for good, Cat couldn’t promote his last stellar run of Decca singles and his career seemed to be over. Brooding darkly, Cat’s songs stopped trying to think from the head and instead went more to the heart, while the singer – unable to go anywhere – ignored his ‘image’ and grew his beard for the first time. Once Cat was better several months on he found a whole new path for himself – one that wouldn’t be dictated by his age, his looks, or his record company ideas on how to groom him and his writing went to a new depth it might not otherwise have felt, with every song on those first two albums sung to a bare-bones acoustic guitar, light years away from the orchestras of the first two albums. Had Cat not become poorly, had he not caught the illness that nearly killed him, then his career might have been dazzling bright but short – or worse still, he might have burnt out completely. That spell in hospital might only have lasted in months, but for Cat Stevens life was never the same again – and instead of ending up in an artistic cul-de-sac he was ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the rest of his life suddenly falling into place.

6) Event: Crosby and Stills meet Nash at a party and find their voices blend well together Location: depending who you ask, Mama Cass Elliott’s House or Joni Mitchell’s kitchen, Laurel Canyon, California Date: mid 1968

David Crosby had been sacked from The Byrds. Stephen Stills was out of a job after the Buffalo Springfield came to a painful and inglorious end. Graham Nash, after a year of making the Hollies one of the most delightfully psychedelic bands hovering around the outer universes, felt trapped by poor sales and a return to a more traditional form of ‘hit’ pop singles. The three of them seem fated to come together, but the path to CSN wasn’t easy. For a start no other band had ever been formed from three separate ‘previous’ bands before – and surely the differences between backgrounds in dreamy California, uptight Texas and poverty-stricken Manchester would prove too different for the band to get it together? Well, yes, ultimately it did - CSN have spent far more years apart from each other than they ever spent together, with or without the addition of Neil Young. Nash, too, was the only one with a career (of sorts) still there for the taking – and people forget what a guaranteed money-spinner The Hollies still were (scoring two #3 UK hits with their next two post-Nash singles, the hideous ‘Sorry Suzanne’ and the majestic ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’). It took a last soul-destroying Hollies tour (with Crosby hanging out with Nash in the dressing rooms, to stop him from changing his mind) for it to happen at all. But happen it did – and the invention of CSN undeniably changed the three men’s lives forever, giving them a wider canvas on which to write their songs of protest and new philosophies without any danger of their bandmates ever saying ‘no’ or claim that they were going too far. The biggest unsung hero in the CSN story is surely Mama Cass, the mother hen of 60s music who knew everybody and anybody and knew – even before CSN did – that they ought to meet because they’d surely get along (Joni Mitchell, too, who had close ties with the band after being discovered by Crosby, dating Nash and growing up in the same hometown as Young). Crosby and Stills always seemed destined to end up together (they’d made most of their contributions to the first CSN album under the name ‘Frozen Noses’ and re-cut them when Nash joined the band), but would they have scored the same success without Nash’s distinctive harmony, commercial instinct and – above all – work ethic and drive? Probably not! Would Nash have enjoyed another 10 years with The Hollies (especially the 1972-73 period without Allan Clarke?) probably not!

7) Event: Woodstock. Performances by CSNY, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Who and Grateful Dead Location: Max Yasgur’s farm, New York Date: August 1969

Talking of CSN, this was ‘their’ festival and their music dominates the film and first two soundtrack albums like no other. The trio’s second ever gig, it gave them the giant audience they craved and the world took them to their hearts. CSN weren’t alone either – Woodstock also helped enhance the careers of many another AAA band: it gave The Who an American platform for ‘Tommy’ after their gradually slowing profile in the second half of the 1960s (with the sun coming up right on cue during the ‘See Me, Feel Me’ finale, another sign that this gig just ‘had to be’!), Jefferson Airplane – bumped down the setlist – provided a ‘breakfast in bed’ set at the ungodly hour of 7am that rebooted their careers, Janis Joplin played one of her last gigs (and one of her best, even if it isn’t that well received without Big Brother to back her as in Monterey) and, predictably, The Grateful Dead messed up again, giving their biggest audience of their 30 year career by some margin an interminable version of ‘Turn On Your Lovelight’ that went on for 40 minutes! While the music was less interesting than Monterey, the sheer size and spectacle of the festival – at one point Woodstock was declared ‘the 6th largest city in America’ that many people showed up – proved that this many people could get together and not do anything ‘bad’. Four babies were born at Woodstock (many more were conceived there!) with only one death from natural causes: any city with that big a population would be proud of those statistics over a three-day weekend! The 1960s dream of peace, love and flowers never seemed more real and the youth of the day never had their voices this clearly represented ever again. There’s a story that months before the concert Roger Daltrey had a dream about a sea of people strewn about a field in poor conditions and assumed he must be seeing Vietnam, though he was confused why close-up everyone had blissful looks on their faces. When August 1969 rolled around he realised that what he had seen was actually ‘Woodstock’, the single greatest ‘disaster zone’ in the history of the human race.

8) Event: Altamont Speedway. Performances by The Rolling Stones, CSNY and Jefferson Airplane. Grateful Dead turn up but don’t play. Location: Date: December 1969

Altamont, however, couldn’t have been worse. Eager to get in on the act, the Stones had talked for months about putting on a ‘free’ festival, but a scared bunch of American official had messed them around till the last minute, blocking them so many times they were left not with plan B or C but arguably plan Z, a small and cramped stadium no other musicians had ever used before. The Grateful Dead, long seen as the ‘villains’ (or at least the naive ones) of the event were asked about providing security to the ‘original’ venue, on the more placid West coast and said that the ‘Hells Angels’ there would be a good fit (the East coast’s Hells Angels were more vicious and more likely to work drunk or stoned). No one comes out of this ensuing mess well, with song after song from all the bands on the gig being interrupted by pushing and shoving and vicious crowd control that wouldn’t have worked in a zoo. At least, no one except Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin who is so incensed by the sight of a ‘security’ hells angel beating up a young fan that he goes into intervene and gets knocked unconscious for his troubles (Marty leaves the band he founded suddenly not long after; I’ve often wondered if this was a contributory factor). While the Airplane, CSNY and the Flying Burrito Brothers (A Byrds spin-off group including Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons) try their best to cool the crowd down, the Grateful Dead take one look at the ‘evil’ vibes and refuse to play. Hitting the stage late, after several delays, the Stones’ closing set goes from bad to worse – a combination of their strange selection of their nastiest and most satanic material, tiredness and a growing divide between Mick (who’d flown in by helicopter) and Keith (who’d been in the crowd all day) mean they play a nervous, cagey set forever interrupted by outbreaks of fighting in the crowd. Inevitably, someone in the crowd is stabbed by one of the hell’s angels (yes he has a knife – but was in no danger of using it given the film footage that exists of this concert, named ‘Gimme Shelter’) and dies in the arms of his sobbing girlfriend. The Stones, sure that something’s happened but not quite sure what, play aimlessly on, the band and crowd as one waiting for this whole sorry mess to end. Taking place less than a fortnight before the chronological end of the 1960s, this was the world re-adjusting for the good karma of Woodstock in the worst possible way. Along with the end of the Beatles (announced shortly over) all the optimism and hope of the past few years seemed to have dried up and disappeared in one big swoosh and most of the AAA bands (along with most other 1960s superstars) will never be the same again.

9) Event: Punk Location: Everywhere Date: 1976

The final nail in the coffin, however, was punk music. When rock and roll started in the 1950s, it was a young man’s game and – as a general rule – whenever an artist reached a certain age, however talented, they tended to disappear or fade from view (or die – statistically being a rock star in the 1950s meant almost the same chance of an early death as being an aeroplane pilot or mountaineer, what with plane crashes and drug deaths). The 1960s had changed that though: whilst rock music still contained the same ethos of rebellion and rejection of the ‘old guard’, it was no longer about appealing to teenagers or being ‘available’ for fantasies of marriage; music was for thinking, now, as much as for dancing to and age suddenly didn’t matter. Without any new bands of any lasting merit to keep them honest, most musicians tended to drift into excess, the intelligence of the mid 1960s often ending up in full blown prog rock boredom. Suddenly a new generation, embittered by a lack of money and a new harshness of life (the cold war hotting up again, plus a recession and Thatcher and Raegan’s nasty seam of politics) felt no one was representing them anymore and returned to the thoughts of the past: namely that rock and roll, if it was ever meant to change anything, had to be done by ‘young’ people through noise and humour – not thoughts. Things will come full circle – so much so that every release from the 1990s ends up sounding like a distantly remembered ‘demo’ version of how the 1960s used to sound – but not yet’ for the moment age is an enemy and every band, however well meaning, is a part of the establishment, a problem’ not the ‘solution’. It’s a great shame that the punks overlooked a) the fact that one day they’d get old themselves and b) that intelligence was a useful ally in their means. Together with their energy and new-found purpose to keep the ‘older’ bands honest, this could have been a golden period – not a short-lived war which neither side won (the Sex Pistols ending up in disarray only 18 months after it all happened). Sadly, never again past 1976 – or at any rate the end of 1977, the punk ‘year zero’ when all things entertainment wise were due to be ‘re-set’ – would any AAA band still going be thought of as ‘cool’ or as ‘part of a world movement’. Instead, in one sudden move, everyone was now a rock ‘dinosaur’ that would now have to pretend to be like the ‘newcomers’ if they wanted to keep their record deals in a nasty new world.

10) Event: John Lennon’s death Location: The Dakota, New York Date: 1980

The true ending of the ‘hippie dream’, though, was the sudden senseless killing of John Lennon. Almost all fans had the secret dream that, whatever their differences, The Beatles could always get together again and put things right, that they were just waiting for the ‘right time’. Even Lennon’s ‘retirement’ in 1974 didn’t put an end to this speculation – but sadly his death on his comeback did, an outpouring of grief and emotion measured in modern times only against JFK’s similarly violent and unexpected death at a young age (whose the Beatles had, unwittingly, taken the mantle of youthful energy from, appearing on Ed Sullivan only three months after the president’s death). Lennon was, against all odds and some secret speculation, proved to be merely human. From now on every AAA band member still alive at this point is a ‘survivor’, not merely an ongoing musician, and every death will be judged in terms of grief and lost opportunities against this one. A reminder of our frailties, at a time when we most wanted to feel unstoppable, Chapman killed much more than just one life when he shot Lennon that fateful day. What would have happened without this event? Would the fab four have ever have got back together? Would Lennon’s comeback have inspired a new raft of 1960s nostalgia? Well, who knows – but one thing’s for certain: Lennon’s comeback kept McCartney and Harrison on their toes, writing their best work for many a long year and even though ‘Double Fantasy’ wasn’t much of a comeback, the half-finished follow-up ‘Milk and Honey’ and some unfinished demos were more than evidence enough that Lennon still had his wit, his power and his abilities to finish the job he and his colleagues had started.
Will there ever be another AAA seismic shift? Have we, in fact, missed out a really obvious event? Let us know what you think – but in the meantime it’s goodbye from us for another week!

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