Given the success they had the first time around, it was pretty much a fait accompli that Stanley Clarke and George Duke would make another album together. The Clarke/Duke Project II is that album. It’s not as funky as the first project, which was already once removed from the funk of George Duke’s solo records (e.g., Follow The Rainbow). Instead, the album is just as likely to trot out synth rock (“Put It On The Line”) or an R&B ballad (“Try Me Baby”) as funk. I notice that the Clarke/Duke albums seem to have a cleaner image than Duke’s solo music, like the positive “Every Reason To Smile” or “The Good Times.” That said, I’m not sure there’s much of a market for clean-cut funk. I can totally see someone putting an old George Duke record on the turntable and rediscovering their booty, but I can’t imagine listeners playing air bass guitar to “Great Danes.” Then again, it’s not like I’m looking into your home with a telescope, so maybe that’s exactly the sort of thing you do. If these projects do nothing more than turn fusion fans onto funk or vice versa, then they’ve already served a purpose. You’ll find more basscrobatics on Stanley Clarke’s albums, though, and better funk on Duke’s. I do enjoy the production value on this record; songs like “You’re Gonna Love It” just ooze quality. Prog fans can stay out of the Projects altogether and scrounge around for a clean copy of The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience if they prefer, but there’s no denying that Duke’s participation elevates Clarke’s funk aspirations.
Kronomyth 3.0: FLYING HIGH. The Airplane continued to fly into the outer fringes of rock with the psychedelic masterpiece, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Presented as a series of themed sections (e.g., Streetmasse, The War Is Over, etc.), the songs were actually written over several months and likely conceived as individual acid trips (“bathing” is a code word for tripping). Although not as accessible as their last album—nothing here has the immediacy of a “White Rabbit” or “Somebody To Love”—the album contains some indelible moments of music: “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” “Martha,” “Watch Her Ride,” “Two Heads.” I get the sense that Kantner and Slick were actively hijacking the Airplane at this stage, steering it into higher altitudes of consciousness. Balin is merely a passenger, present on vocals but contributing only one track (albeit a good one), “Young Girl Sunday Blues.” A second song written by Balin during this period, “Things Are Better In The East,” reveals him to be the straight man in a band of kooks. Whether it was mutiny or mutation, the Airplane quickly became something bigger than Balin first imagined, from psychedelic balladeers to psychedelic pioneers. When it was released, Baxter’s was at the edge of progressive music, making heavy use of distortion, stream-of-consciousness and other advanced studio techniques, for which producer Al Schmitt was along for the ride, not an architect. If you were to make the case for Jefferson Airplane as a progressive rock band (and it would be a short argument relegated to a few albums), After Bathing At Baxter’s would be Exhibit A. It is an album that rewards repeated listenings and (presumably) altered states, with rich lyrical imagery to mine for meaning, particularly from Grace Slick. Like I said, it doesn’t have a readymade hit on which to hang your hat, but there’s enough mind candy here to occupy two heads.
Kronomyth 9.0: IN A SOULFUL WAY. After the electric In A Silent Way, Herbie Hancock scored the soundtrack to an animated feature based on Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert character (Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert) and used that material to create Fat Albert Rotunda. The record is a radical departure from Hancock’s solo work so far, representing a new fusion of soul and jazz that aligns with the first wave of funk. And yet, Hancock’s style has always had a strong rhythmic quality to it, from the earliest days of “Watermelon Man” through “Cantaloupe Island,” so the stylistic change is in many ways a natural evolution for him. But where Empyrean Isles was an intellectual album, Fat Albert Rotunda is music you feel. It gets under your skin, gets your foot tapping and excites all of your senses. The funky bass lines from Buster Williams, the rhythmic guitar of Eric Gale (uncredited on the original elpee) and the rest of the band eschew the subtle nuances of jazz for the sweaty charisma of James Brown, and the result is instant gratification. You had to work on some level to appreciate Miles Davis; enjoying Fat Albert Rotunda is child’s play by comparison. At the center of his soul record, Hancock places two traditional jazz songs: “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” and “Jessica.” They’re lovely islands in a sea of rhythmic frenzy, similar to his earlier work and yet somehow more direct and transparent. I can see where jazz purists might argue that Fat Albert Rotunda has dumbed down Hancock’s music for the masses, but what I hear is an explosion of creativity and energy. From this point forward, Hancock would become the great alchemist of jazz and funk, carrying the electric experiment of Miles into undiscovered regions of sound.
Kronomyth 2.0: WHAT IN EARTH? You can pinpoint the exact moment where progressive rock jumps the icthyosaurus on this album. It occurs when Wakeman punctures his high-flying balloon of orchestra, choir and rock with narrator David Hemming’s reading of Verne’s actual text from the book. It’s not the only cringe-worthy moment on the album. For example, in trying to match the literary description of the novel, Garry Pickford-Hopkins is forced to sing “Silurian epoch hosts me as my grave / My final blow I wave / A life too late to save” and the English Chamber Choir is given the unenviable task of making “Crocodile teeth, lizard’s heard, bloodshot eye stained ocean red” sound like high art rather than something a trio of witches might mumble over a potion. Where Six Wives was brilliantly stitched together, Journey shows shoddy workmanship in the arrangements; near the end of the work, Wakeman inexplicably nicks Grieg’s “In The Hall of the Mountain King” to move things along. Is staging a live musical adaptation of Jule Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” ambitious? Absolutely. Is it admirable? Sure. It is effective? Not at all. In fact, from a musical perspective, I see this as a monumental failure. A failure that sold millions of copies and topped the charts, so I doubt that Wakeman, his label or many of his fans see it that way. There are some salvageable moments, such as the rock songs encased in “The Battle” and the music following the creation of the Hansbach. If Wakeman had realized this work as a succession of songs rather than a continuous text, it could have been quite good. History, if it hasn’t lost its spectacles, will likely view this a quixotic venture from an idealistic age or the poster child for prog’s grandiloquence.
Nico (born Christa Päffgen) was a model, actress and tamer/purveyor of night mares. Modeling gigs and a part in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita eventually led her to Andy Warhol’s Factory, where she was inserted into Warhol’s musical art project, The Velvet Underground. Nico’s jetset zombie vocals on The Velvet Underground & Nico were contained to just a few tracks (“Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”), but once heard were not soon forgotten.
The Velvet Undergound proved to be a launching pad for a subsequent solo career featuring John Cale in the role of musical director. Chelsea Girl, named after a Warhol film in which she starred, was made surprisingly accessible by the unsanctioned addition of orchestration. Nico has since repudiated the record, although its use in the film The Royal Tenebaums showed that it has aged well. The dark masterpiece The Marble Index was much truer to Nico’s musical vision: a harrowing journey through a nightmare world. Nico and Cale also collaborated on Desertshore and The End, the latter featuring The Doors’ song, which always suggested to me a kind of Oedipus/Elektra parallel between label Elektra’s twin towers of doom, Jim Morrison and Nico.
Nico continued to release records in the 80s despite a heroin addiction. Fiercely non-commercial, Nico nevertheless enjoyed recognition for her pioneering work during her lifetime by the generation of goth rockers she inspired. She passed away in 1988 at age fifty, an enigma for the ages.
Kronomyth 1.0: LADIES MAN. Soon after joining Yes, Rick Wakeman was approached by A&M co-founder Jerry Moss to record a solo album. Wakeman, who had been toying with the idea of writing music based on the book The Private Life of Henry VIII, began sketching out pieces around the personalities of Henry and his six wives (the music for Henry himself was later scrapped). Thus began a love affair between English history and keyboard prog that continues to this day for Wakeman and his fans. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is possibly the single greatest keyboard prog album ever written. Every song plays out like a rollercoaster of emotion and adventure, infused with humor and humantiy and featuring an array of keyboards that are perfectly woven into complex, full-bodied arrangements. Every time I listen to this album, it brings me joy. Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves and the rest of these storied ladies arrive like old friends. While the earlier “Cans And Brahms” (from Fragile) was a pleasant enough diversion, The Six Wives of Henry VIII fully reveals the genius of Rick Wakeman for the first time. Although it’s my favorite of the Yes solo records (Olias of Sunhillow is a close runner-up), Six Wives actually sounds more like a Yes/ELP hybrid. Wakeman and Emerson are both sonic architects/saboteurs who can create grand cathedrals of sound and dismantle them in an instant with humor. It’s a process that Wakeman repeats with breathtaking ease on Six Wives, so that, despite the sheer number of notes on this record, each has its proper place. Yes fans and the comparatively smaller number of Strawbs fans will no doubt pore over the musicians’ credits with interest. In the honorable mention department, Alan White is terrific on this album, and the cameos from Dave Cousins and Dave Wintour are also highlights. The album was released in a quadraphonic stereo mix that was later appended to the Deluxe Edition reissue.
Kronomyth 2.0: NIGHT MÈRE. The first fifty seconds of The Marble Index isn’t really the beginning of anything. Rather, it’s the end of everything you know: a kind of psychological air lock between reality and Nico’s unreal nightmare world. In the next moments, Nico presents the listener with the album’s challenge: Can you follow me? Can you follow my distresses? It’s a serious question, as Nico’s sonic nightmares are not for the faint of heart. Each song on The Marble Index is a dark dream in miniature: children (or is it us?) hiding from a dancing demon (“No One Is There”), the body of Julius Caesar lying in a bucolic setting (“Julius Caesar”), the mist of history chasing us across the centuries (“Frozen Warnings”), the loneliness of seeking self in the world (“Facing The Wind”). This dreamworld, so alien to us, is disturbingly familiar to Nico. In “Ari’s Song,” the dream-mother/protector conveys her strength to her son with the words “Only dreams can send you where you want to be.” Nico and her harmonium are the beacon in this dark world populated by John Cale’s furtive shapes and sounds. The use of seemingly extraneous bumps and thumps in the music (e.g., “Lawns of Dawns,” “Facing The World”) give the impression of an active reality filtered through the subconscious, as if Nico’s body were being moved while dreaming. With a modicum of strings and sounds, Cale creates strange worlds that range from beautifully surreal (“Frozen Warnings”) to crushingly oppressive (“Evening of Light”). As a singer, as a songwriter, as an artist, The Marble Index is Nico’s grand achievement. It remains one of the most frightening monoliths made by man or woman, a poetic Stonehenge of mystery and power.
After a brief stint as The In Crowd that nearly landed them a cameo in Michael Antonioni’s Blow Up (a role that eventually went to The Yardbirds), Keith West, Steve Howe, John “Junior” Wood and new drummer Twink (John Adler) re-christened themselves as Tomorrow and threw their hats into the psychedelic scene. With producer Mark Wirtz, the group entered Abbey Road Studios in Spring 1967 (where The Beatles were currently recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band) and recorded the songs for their first and only album.
The first fruits of those recording sessions were a pair of singles: “My White Bicycle” b/w “Claramount Lake” and “Revolution” b/w “Three Jolly Little Dwarfs.” Although they didn’t chart, the singles did catch the ear of John Peel as well as another John, Lennon, who praised “My White Bicycle” as an early psychedelic anthem. Unfortunately, the rest of the album wasn’t released until the following year, by which time the psychedelic music scene had already shifted to heavier fare.
At the time of its release, Keith West was the band’s most visible member (particularly after the success of “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera”). Today, Tomorrow is remembered mostly as a footnote in the career of Steve Howe, or by psychedelic artifact hunters who appreciate the album’s (then) high-production values.
Kronomyth 1.0: TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS. The first (and only) Tomorrow elpee is a pleasant artifact from the short-lived but highly popular psychedelic scene of the late 60s. Unfortunately, the record was released almost a year after it was recorded; it sounded dated by 1968 and hasn’t aged any better over the years. The band’s singles, “Revolution” and “My White Bicycle,” fared better from earlier releases. The music leans decidedly toward the pop side of the psychedelic experience: precious vignettes of lost souls (“Colonel Brown,” “Shy Boy”), fairy tales (“Auntie Mary’s Dress Shop,” “Three Jolly Little Drawfs”) and harmless blows against the empire (“My White Bicycle,” “Revolution”). Produced by Mark Wirtz, the album makes use of what were at the time sophisticated studio recording techniques, such as multitracking and phasing; the band even takes on The Beatles’ daunting “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In describing the sound of Tomorrow, I’d plot it somewhere between the contemporary work of Pink Floyd and David Bowie; lighter than the one, heavier than the other. Although most of the songs are credited to Keith Hopkins (West’s real name) and Ken Burgess, Steve Howe’s guitar work is the driving force behind nearly every song. Yeswatchers will take particular delight in Howe’s solo on “Now Your Time Has Come,” one of the earliest examples of what would become Howe’s distinctive sound (showcased to better effect in Bodast). Some people regard the first Tomorrow album as a psychedelic classic; people who presumably know more about the psychedelic revolution than me. Had this album been released in the spring of 1967 then, yes, it might have been highly influential. But in the interim between its recording and its release, Tomorrow’s debut had been superseded by the work of The Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, Traffic, Cream, etc. Fans of psychedelic pop will enjoy the trip back to the past, Steve Howe fans will be better served by Bodast and the kloset kinks among us will lift “Shy Boy” on our shoulders.
“How awesome is that? They wanted to not need me so bad they murdered three innocent heroes of color, and they still had to bring me back.” – Rick Sanchez.
Ginger Baker is one of the greatest rock drummers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he’s also one of that century’s more prickly personalities. And so every Ginger Baker project seems to be a promising venture that crashes on the rocks of conflict sooner or later.
Baker and future collaborator Jack Bruce played together in the Graham Bond Organisation, an up-and-coming blues/rock band. Despite the bad blood between the pair (Baker once threatened Bruce with a knife), they reunited for Baker’s collaboration with Eric Clapton, Cream. Over the next few years, Cream would redefine the rock landcsape with a powerful mix of blues and psychedelic/progressive rock. Clapton and Baker influenced countless musicians in coming generations, and it could be said that Baker double-handedly (and double-footedly) elevated the drums to new heights during his time at the center of Cream.
After Cream broke up, Baker and Clapton recruited Steve Winwood (from the highly popular Traffic) and bassist Rick Grech for a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith. Eagerly anticipated, the band’s first album proved to be its last when Clapton left the Faith to follow Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett. Baker assembled a new and bigger band with the remaining faithful, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and released two albums that represent some of the earliest (and most effective) attempts to fuse Western jazz and rock with African music.
After the Air Force, Baker entered a sort of self-imposed exile in Africa where he explored his interest in African rhythms more deeply and discovered a(n expensive) passion for polo horses. Since then, the career of Ginger Baker has been a series of one-off alliances (the briefly stable Baker Gurvitz Army notwithstanding) interspersed with the occasional Cream reunion, or rumor of the same.