In The Air (UK Pop Psych May 1969)

Pete Townshend, off of the Who, got his flatmate/chauffeur a record deal with his managers’ label. John “Speedy” Keen had written “Armenia City in the Sky”, recorded by the Who on their “Sell Out” LP. A couple of other musicians were invited to the studio, Pete produced & played bass & by May 1969 there was a ready-to-release debut 45. In the first week of July “Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman, you know it, everybody does, displaced the Beatles’ “Ballad of John & Yoko” from the top of the UK charts. It’s a distinctive, accomplished record, perhaps diminished by its overuse in films about the period & commercials, but back then it sounded like the zeitgeist, of not only music but also of the way things were, had been captured on a 7″ plastic disc.

 

 

Image result for thunderclap newmanThey were an incongruous trio Thunderclap Newman. Drummer/vocalist Keen had the songs. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, prodigiously talented, was just 15 years old (he looked younger!) when the single was released. Andy Newman was 26 (he looked older!), his boogie-woogie/honky-tonk piano insertions added a different even unique dimension to the music. Surprised by instant success & under-rehearsed, hurriedly augmented by a rhythm section, the group set out on a tour of small UK venues. They were the hottest band in the country but, as we shall see later, their mentor Pete Townshend was busy with other things.

 

Image result for thunderclap newman hollywood dreamIt took another year, a long time in Pop music, for Thunderclap Newman to complete their debut LP, “Hollywood Dream”. I know a lot of people who like a lot of different music & many great obscure albums from this time are not that “lost”, they can be found round at my friends’ houses. It’s only this month (as part of y’know “research”) that I have listened to the whole of this record & it seems that an interesting, varied, adept work has passed all of us by for so long. Speedy’s voice may be a taste to be acquired but the songs have a touch of Ray Davies Englishness to them. Jimmy is an obvious talent, handling that acoustic/electric blend that Townshend was so good at while Andy’s idiosyncratic keys ties the whole thing together. I had always thought that the follow-up 45 “Accidents”, released in June 1970, cut from 10 minutes to 3, was a hit too but I thought wrong. “The Reason” was too similar to “Something …” to make an impression. There was to be just this one LP before the trio went their separate ways. Missed opportunities & poorly scheduled releases meant that Thunderclap Newman would be a one-hit wonder & what a hit it is.

 

 

Image result for idle race days of broken arrowsMeanwhile in May there was a new single from the Idle Race, their fourth to be issued in the UK. “Days of Broken Arrows” was one to hear because the ones that came before were pretty good. Perhaps they had missed their main chance when, in February 1968, “The Skeleton & the Roundabout”, a whimsical tale of the ups & downs of fairground life, had failed to sell despite support from some DJs on the national Radio 1. The demise of the 24 hour a day pirate stations did mean that lesser known groups struggled for attention & a follow-up, the Beatle-esque “The End of the Road”, was similarly neglected after making an initial splash. Idle Race evolved from the Nightriders, a leading group on the Birmingham scene. When the group lost a couple of major players they enlisted a young singer/guitarist with a stash of songs influenced by the Fab Four. You may not have heard Idle Race but you know the work of Jeff Lynne.

 

Image result for idle raceThere are two albums by this incarnation of the Idle Race. Inventive instrumentation & production, light on psychedelia, heavy on the influence of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” & very good they are too. Lynne’s lyrics are idiosyncratic though the collections, like the singles, perhaps lacked the immediacy & the substance to attract a wider audience. Any fan of late-1960’s British Pop will not be disappointed on further investigation. Jeff’s next move was to join the Move, led by former Nightrider Roy Wood. Wood knew how to put the flesh on the bones of a song & make it a hit. “Brontosaurus”, their first recording together, made the UK Top 10. A more confident Lynne eventually usurped Wood as the Move metamorphosed into the Electric Light Orchestra & a bunch of platinum records followed. Post-E.L.O. he moved into production & the rest, or some of it at least, is Wilbury.

 

 

So, on May the 17th 1969 The Who released a double album, a concept album, a Rock Opera no less, about a deaf, dumb & blind boy. Pete Townshend had always been interested in the Art of Pop & while he was a master of the 3 minute single was frustrated by its limitations. There had been an attempt to link songs on “A Quick One” in 1966, the jingles & commercials of “The Who Sell Out” gave a great album an entertaining continuity. “Tommy” was to realise Pete’s big idea, he had given it away in interviews & then had to write the music so that the record walked it like he talked it. Recording sessions were interrupted because the Who had to play gigs, they needed the money. Failure was not a option.

 

Image result for the who tommy albumWe had been given a taste of things to come with the single “Pinball Wizard” in March. Three non-album 45’s had been released in the previous year & however much I liked them there had not been the group’s accustomed commercial success. “Pinball Wizard” is, of course, now a classic & it sounded like one in 1969. It put the Who back on the UK & US charts, the perfect lead-in for the album. “Rock Opera” may have been the tagline of the day but thankfully there was more of the former than the latter. The grand opener “Overture” introduces musical themes to come while confirming that Townshend, Entwistle & Moon were the most imaginative of music’s great power trios (proof of Daltrey’s expanded vocal range came later). The libretto may have been vague in parts but Tommy’s amazing journey struck a chord with a bigger wold-wide audience than the Who had ever attracted before. In the summer of 1969 “Tommy” was all the rage.

 

The Who - Stonehenge Rock Bar - September 1978 - Mini PrintWhatever your opinion on the growing aggrandisement of Rock at this time, an ambition to be more expansive possibly to the detriment of the adrenaline rush of a perfect Pop 45, there’s no doubt that “Tommy” contributed, as Pete intended, to a more serious consideration of popular music. He was just 23 years old when he challenged his developing talent to find a new way to tell a story. None of that old stuff like writing a novel, making a movie or painting a picture but y’know, for the kids. Now, 50 years later, when a shot of the Who’s Maximum R&B is just what you need the Pop Art of the preceding albums can do the trick. The sheer heft of “Live at Leeds” & “Who’s Next” are unmatched while “Quadrophenia” can be considered a more successfully realised “concept” than Pete’s first attempt. If “Tommy” is your selection there will be no reduction in quality.  It’s a great album, a landmark in the development of our music. Here, have another track.

 

Turning It Loose (Soul May 1969)

The higher reaches of the Billboard R&B chart for May 23rd 1969 were packed with legendary names. The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Marvin Gaye & Aretha Franklin were all being denied the top spot by Joe Simon, a singer who is less widely remembered but back then was enjoying his biggest hit. “The Chokin’ Kind”, another song from master tunesmith Harlan Howard, had been a 1967 Country hit for Waylon Jennings. It was picked up by Nashville-based Joe, given a smooth Soul treatment & a crossover smash was inevitable.

Meanwhile at #8 a great band had another great tune.

 

 

Image result for booker t time is tightThis clip has been here before & when we finally get this time machine working then set the controls for the Oakland Coliseum on New Year’s Eve 1970 when Booker T & the M.G.’s opened for Credence Clearwater Revival. The older guys had jammed with CCR & wanted to show just what they could do onstage. The exceptionally talented quartet didn’t get around much anymore, kept busy in the Stax Memphis studios where they played on most of the music made in that label’s ascendant years, writing & producing many of the hits. While Credence watch admiringly from the wings that driving beat from drummer Al Jackson & Duck Dunn’s loping bass lay a solid foundation for Steve Cropper’s stinging guitar lines & Booker T’s swirling Hammond organ. The joy & compatibility of the ensemble is obvious. the trademark sound one of the wonders of the world of Soul Music.

 

Image result for booker t and the mgs poster“Time Is Tight” was written for the soundtrack of “Up Tight”, a film about Black militancy which sits between “In the Heat of the Night” & the upcoming Blaxploitation trend. The group’s albums were often loaded with covers of the hits of the day. This soundtrack, mostly original material written by Booker T Jones, Jazz & Blues influences in the foreground, is one of their most interesting. The single version of “Time Is Tight”, slower, succinct, building to an exciting crescendo, a highlight of a very impressive body of work, is just a click away. ( Here in the UK we hold particular affection for “Soul Limbo”, for many years the intro to TV coverage of cricket).

 

 

Earlier in 1960’s Phil Spector, the Tycoon of Teen, had kept US Pop interesting in the doldrums between Elvis joining the Army & the Fab Four appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Holed up in the echo chambers of Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios with some ace session players & a gang of drummers he & his crew meticulously pieced together a “Wall of Sound” on a string of hits. In 1966 he spent heaps of time & money on getting “River Deep-Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner just how he wanted it. Here in the UK where we got good taste, the song was recognised as a Spector master work, the US didn’t get it & the single stalled at #88 in the Pop charts. We now know that an easily bruised ego was the least of his personality problems but it would be 3 years before Spector re-entered a studio for a Ronettes 45 & then this one at #28 & rising.

 

Related imageCheckmates Ltd, 5 guys from Indiana, had released a few unsuccessful singles & a couple of live albums before attracting the attention of the star producer. Spector’s deal with A&M would get them out there & “Black Pearl” was the first track from an LP that gave frontman Sonny Charles lead billing. I loved the depth, drama & scope of Spector’s teen symphonies & this, like those other ones, sounded great on the radio. Half of the album “Love Is All We Have To Give” is a fine addition to & send-off for the Wall of Sound. There’s a heart-wrenching title track, a dynamic arrangement of “Proud Mary” that Ike Turner was happy to take for himself & a couple of updates from Phil’s New York apprenticeship with Leiber & Stoller. Side 2 is a 20 minute long orchestral selection from the musical “Hair” & no-one wants to hear that.

 

 

Image result for marva whitneyThe influence of last month’s chart-topper was already becoming evident & there are two cover versions of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” among the new entries this week. At #45 was the Hammond organ-heavy Senor Soul. Four of their members would become War & their time, their big time, would come soon enough. The highest newcomer, at #38, is Marva Whitney, Soul Sister #1 with “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To)”, a kind of cover version, a kind of answer record. The Isleys had taken much inspiration from James Brown’s sound & it was only right that he & his band should have their say about it. Live, beautiful in living colour on “The Mike Douglas Show”…marvellous!

 

IImage result for marva whitney it's my thingn 1968 Marva replaced Vicki Anderson as featured female vocalist in the James Brown Revue. Her boss was the money-maker for King Records so she got to make discs with her own name on the label. The records made with Vicki, Marva, Lyn Collins & his various backing musicians are sure enough Funky, brilliant satellites orbiting the star’s own. This incredible clip is tagged as Marva & the J.B.’s. There’s James conducting the hazy figures of the band who were still the Famous Flames on the records & I reckon, the James Brown Orchestra on stage. I’m sure that Maceo Parker is on saxophone, Jimmy Nolen, guitar but I would be wishing & hoping about the other players. No matter, how about that band! The following year Marva & everyone else quit over unresolved grievances with The Godfather of Funk & their replacements, they were the J.B.’s. That group could play a bit too.