Between Patchouli and Punk: In Praise of 1973

DYLAN

The Band perform for 600,000 at the Watkins Glen festival in July 1973. If you look real hard you may see your older brother just to the left of Robbie Robertson’s shoulder.

In terms of the baby-boomer cultural zeitgeist, 1973 hardly would stand out as a pinnacle year, at first glance anyway. It was on the tail end of that generation that had already staked its place in 20th century lore with the seismic political and musical upheavals of the previous decade. The Sixties have long been lionized—often to the point of self-parody—but looking back on it from a 40-year (gulp!) perspective, I wouldn’t give up anything for having fallen into a group that was just starting high school around then. The Sweet Spot Generation you might call it. Just old enough to have seen the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and a mite too young to consider hitchin’ to Woodstock (a good thing considering my aversion to mud and large crowds) but wised up enough to dig our older siblings’ 3-LP soundtrack from the film.

By 1973, the Vietnam War was winding down and the military draft had ended, ensuring males of my age that little would interfere with the pursuit of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Spiro Agnew was on the way out and his partner in crime, Tricky Dick Nixon, was in the middle of Watergate and soon to follow. You could say that ’73 was the true start of the Seventies, especially if viewed from a musical perspective. The period from 1970-72 was like the beach break from the last cresting wave of the Sixties rock revolution and 1973 was the year that the next wave of classic rockers would come out from the wings. Aerosmith, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Lynyrd Skynyrd were some of the artists releasing debut albums in that year. So there we were, the less-celebrated poor cousins of the oh-wow-we-changed-the-world early Baby Boomers, we were fated to be made fun of for the poofy hairstyles and class pictures taken in powder-blue leisure suits (I would know), easy objects of ridicule in decades after. But this was (especially in retrospect) a great bridge era between a waist-high view of the epic Sixties and a young adult coming-of-age during the punk rock revolution set to hit in our college- age years.

It was a time so accurately (and hilariously)depicted in the great Richard Linklater film “Dazed and Confused” as in this off-the-hook discussion of American history>

So what did the musical landscape look like then? The ranks of the previous decade’s heroes were already thinned by the deaths of Hendrix, Janis and Jim Morrison. With others from the top of the pantheon it was a mixed bag. The Stones served up “Goat’s Head Soup”, considered by many to be something less than a culinary classic. Coming on the heels of “Exile on Main Street”, it would come to signify the start of the group’s figurehead status and the close of their extended period as a vanguard act. The Who fared better with the stormy concept album “Quadrophenia”, a vivid look back at the Mod era of the mid-60s from whence they came. I thought it made for a better rock opera than the more celebrated “Tommy.” It at least inspired a much better film than Ken Russell’s queasy adaptation of the deaf-dumb-and-blind-kid opus.

Amid cover stories where Hunter Thompson and his illustrator Ralph Steadman excoriated the scandal-plagued Nixon administration, Rolling Stone magazine profiled “The Corporate Dead” as Jerry and the boys released a tasty platter called “Wake of the Flood”, the first album released on their own label and a telling title for the times. The Jefferson Airplane, still feisty but past their prime, released the live “Thirty Seconds over Winterland” before quickly morphing into the more user-friendly (and lucrative) Jefferson Starship. Bob Dylan was still a nebulous public presence some six years after his game-changing motorcycle accident and 1973 saw him appearing in the Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” His soundtrack album of the “Watergate western” yielded “Knockin on Heaven’s Door,” his first Top 20 single in four years. He was a year away from his triumphant comeback tour with the Band and, according to some, hasn’t stopped gigging since.

It was forty years ago today that the former Fab Four were well established in their solo careers, three years after The Breakup. Ringo had a #1 hit with “Photograph”, the lost-love ballad that also sounded like a mash note to a lost era. John Lennon left his radical causes behind and released the introspective “Mind Games” while George dealt with the always tricky business of “Living in the Material World.” Paul McCartney had a typically busy year, first with the inadvisable “Red Rose Speedway” LP (“Little Lamb Dragonfly” anyone?), then scoring a major hit with the Bond theme song “Live and Let Die” before ending the year with his most acclaimed album, “Band on the Run.” It was the last one he put out on Apple Records.

For the second wave of boomers, who missed out on the age of liquid lightshow ballroom concerts and acid-fried festivals, the post-hippie standard bearers were the progressive rock bands. Mainly from England they hailed and in the peak year of 1973 they were the undisputed kings of hockey arenas and bedrooms where cabinet-sized stereo systems blared out their records under a hashish haze. Sidelong suites filled with squealing Moog synthesizers, swelling Mellotrons, heroic guitar solos, hyperkinetic rhythm sections and arcane lyrics delivered by ethereal lead singers were the order of the day.

It was the year that Pink Floyd’s perennial bestseller “Dark Side of the Moon”, was released to grateful headphone-wearing teens the world over. The turntables and 8-track players of prog fans were getting quite a workout with delectable titles from King Crimson (“Lark’s Tongue in Aspic”) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (“Brain Salad Surgery”), while other notable works included Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Birds of Fire”, Hawkind’s “Space Ritual” and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, which lent its opening theme to “The Exorcist” soundtrack and help foist Richard Branson onto an unsuspecting planet (it was his Virgin Records debut release). Groups like Yes, Jethro Tull and Peter Gabriel’s Genesis were at the top of their game and the poison pen of established critics (who would later vilify this genre) were not yet dipped in the inkwell. But such stuck-up spoilsports couldn’t bother we of a certain age. As an outgrowth of Sixties pyschedelia, this limey art-rock was a heady stand-in for us who were a bit too young for the original article.

That’s not say there wasn’t any groundbreaking trends amid all the refining of the Sixties pop business model. Looking ahead to the punk-new wave-indie movement that would give youth music an essential kick in the behind a few years on, there was the New York Dolls’ first album, two by Roxy Music (“Stranded” and “For Your Pleasure”), Mott the Hoople’s classic underdog testament, “Mott” and Iggy and the Stooges “Raw Power.” Not to mention the recording of Big Star’s second long player. But all that could wait and it usually did—except for “Mott” all those were discoveries made later when I struck out for life in the big city and a world made safe for the Ramones and the Clash. But back in 1973, it was what it was. So to finally to get to my alternate Top 10 of that strange but wondrous year, let us not forget what a real best-of list would look like for that 12-month period. Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”/”The Harder they Come” soundtrack/Steely Dan’s “Countdown to Ecstasy”/the Allman Brothers’ “Brothers and Sisters”/Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”/Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken”/Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.” But for those game enough to explore the real zeitgeist of 1973, feast yourself on these ten offerings:

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Berlin—Lou Reed

It wasn’t just the calendar that prodded me into getting out my 40th anniversary post. The recent death of Lou Reed brought out all the accolades the Godfather of Punk deserved. But I was reminded that post-mortem adjectives like “uncompromising” and “defiant” that are now standard-issue compliments didn’t come without something legitimately ballsy to back them up. In July 1973—just four months after “Walk on the Wild Side” gave him his only Top 40 hit—Lou flipped off the world with one of the most infamous albums in rock history. It’s a 50-minute pop operetta that starts ominously and soon plummets into a hellish tale of an ill-fated couple’s descent into violent, drug-fueled co-dependency and eventual suicide. Of course, nowadays it’s a recognized classic.

(Reed took advantage of the music’s cunning charisma and gave it the full oratorio treatment in a 2007 concert film).

Before today’s deferential music press, where Arcade Fire will get a four-star rating just for showing up at the studio door, critics took their job seriously. Sometimes a little too seriously as when Rolling Stone reviewer Stephen Davis called “Berlin” a “distorted and degenerate” record of a type “so patently offensive that one wishes to take some kind of physical vengeance on the artists that perpetrated them.” Luckily, Lou evaded Davis’ murderous intent and gave us 40 more years of a musical life-and-times that will never be duplicated. (While discovering or re-visiting “Berlin” why not make it a ’73 double feature with the elegant “Paris 1919” by Reed’s former Velvet Underground partner John Cale, featuring such literary name-dropping numbers as “Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Graham Greene” and “Macbeth.”)

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Made in Japan—Deep Purple

It wasn’t just the aforementioned prog that had the full attention of the era’s denim-clad and music-loving youth. Good old-fashioned “hard rock” also held sway, whether your preference was Alice Cooper’s ”Billion Dollar Babies”, Blue Oyster Cult’s “Tyranny and Mutation” or the venerable “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath.” But for this year, you just gotta give it up for Ritchie Blackmore & Co. Deep Purple slashed and burned their way to the top in the early days of metal and legions of stringy-haired, guitar-wielding malcontents eagerly followed suit. Caught here in their plundering prime, the Purps managed to squeeze seven entire songs onto a double live LP. Highlights include the bong-blasting hit version of “Smoke on the Water”, Jon Lord’s epic sci-fi organ solo on the 20-minute “Space Truckin’” and singer Ian Gillian repeatedly referring to his Osaka fans as “you mothers.”

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Beck, Bogert and Appice

It had all started with Cream several years earlier, these stapled-together power trio supergroups whose shelf life seemed to shorten with each new configuration. It was even spreading to folk-rock circles with Souther, Hillman & Furay—not to be confused with McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. This combination of the manic ex-wunderkind of British blues-rock guitar and the Vanilla Fudge/Cactus rhythm section did not result in world domination and Beck split after one studio album (even West, Bruce and Laing lasted for two). Too bad, because it was an entertaining effort, even if their handling of cover versions was a bit schizoid. The record boasted both a thorough bludgeoning of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and a sensitive take on Curtis Mayfield’s “I’m So Proud”, a minor hit and the slow dance of choice for that year’s high school sophomores. File this one next to Emerson, Lake and Powell.

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Eric Clapton’s Rainbow Concert

Oh, sure—it’s easy to be all into E.C. nowadays as a three-time Hall of Fame inductee. But the kids of ’73 were there in the record-store trenches, shelling out $3.99 for this single-disc sampling of the one-off “comeback concert” organized by Pete Townshed that January. Ol’ Slowhand was in the early stages of kicking his crippling heroin addiction and he works his way through struggling but ultimately winning versions of “Badge”, “Little Wing” and four others, backed up by Pete, Ronnie Wood and most of Traffic. Sneaking just inside the Top 20 in both America and the UK, it has of course been expanded beyond all recognition in the CD era.

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Live—Uriah Heep

These journeymen heavy-rocking Brits never had the mysterious aura surrounding Led Zep or the full-out instrumental virtuosity of contemporaries like Wishbone Ash or Focus. But they had a distinct flair for the type of proggy metal so popular at the time and rode its coattails for all it was worth. This was a thunderous genre that didn’t sit well with trendy rock scribes (“from the first note, you know you don’t want to hear any more” said one early reviewer). But by the ’73 they had reached the point where they were ready to go boldly where all men had gone before and get out their double live album. It was split between compact rockers like “Easy Livin’” and “Sweet Lorraine” and longer arty pieces. Unintentional humor stemming from the excesses of the age crop up. There is the Fifties-revival bandwagoning on the lengthy “Rock ‘n’ Roll Medley” and singer David Byron introduces the 11-minute warhorse “July Morning” by saying it features Ken Hensley on the “Moog Simplifier.” The gatefold packaging bears a curious resemblance to the 1984 soundtrack album of the Spinal Tap movie. File this one next to “Break Like the Wind.”

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Pinups—David Bowie

In 1972, Bowie first achieved worldwide fame via his Ziggy Stardust persona, but by the following year it was time to look back to his roots. After the springtime release of “Aladdin Sane” (described by David as “Ziggy goes to America”), he recorded this cover album of British Invasion-era songs, even though it was packaged with cover art where he posed futuristically with supermodel Twiggy. While a mega-star’s version of “Friday on my Mind” may not exactly recapture the spirit of the Marquee Club, there’s still a lot of fun stuff here. Check out the airy melancholia of his take on the Mersey’s “Sorrow” or his stardusted version of early Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” (even more psychedelic than the original) or the slowed down re-casting of the Who’s “I Can’t Explain” complete with sexy sax. The Pretty Things, the Yardbirds and Them also get a tip of the cap. Also worth a listen is a sort of American equivalent to this, “Moondog Matinee”, the Band’s ’73 tribute to their early rock and roll influences.

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A Passion Play—Jethro Tull

In the early 70s Ian Anderson and his merry band of men were one of the world’s most popular groups. The continuous LP-length composition was the last word in Brit-rock concept albums and this was their second in a row, after the popular and widely-praised “Thick as a Brick.” With its oracular vocal sections connected by complex instrumental passages (often featuring Anderson’s multi-tracked flute playing) and lyrics that seemed to rise up from a sublimated consciousness, “Passion Play” was maybe the most unusual album to ever hit #1 in the U.S. album charts. Throughout 1973, the pages of Rolling Stone were filled with supportive reviews of even spin-off progressive rock records like those from Badger, Flash and ex-Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher. But for critics, this was a sudden line in the sand. RS savaged the album and the live show in the same issue—there was just no more patience for Anderson’s satyr-like stage antics and his libretto about a man’s near-death journey through the afterlife. Of course, the kids in my age group, ready to expand musical horizons, ate it up. Tull’s “Passion Play” tour rolled into the Boston Garden that September with its theatrics and films and pyrotechnics and kinetic, rafter-shaking jams was my memorable entrée into the wonderful world of rock concerts.

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Time Fades Away—Neil Young

Lou Reed wasn’t the only guy in 1973 to turn his back on a 1972 commercial breakthrough. After the world-beating success of the sensitive “Harvest” album, Neil Young swerved his car off of Easy Street and left the seekers and the lovelorn in the care of other singer-songwriters like Cat Stevens (“Foreigner”), Jackson Browne (“For Everyman”) and Joni Mitchell (“For the Roses”). He took his “Harvest” backup band, the Stray Gators, on the road to record this ramshackle live disc of dark new material. It has been scarcely available since it’s original release, with Neil admittedly unhappy with the tumultuous tour, the botched experiment in early digital recording and his own mental state at the time. Audiences jonesing for “Heart of Gold” were met with disillusioned anti-epics like “Last Dance” and “Don’t be Denied”, the latter’s look back at parental divorce and schoolyard thugs a far cry from the rosy memory-lane scenes in the recent documentary “Neil Young Journeys.” I thought I heard once it was an inspiration to the future Johnny Rotten, not surprising considering its uncompromising power. The exceptional cover photo of faithful fans hoping for an encore in a quickly emptying arena perfectly sum up the album’s underlying theme of lost Sixties idealism: Time Fades Away, indeed.

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Preservation Act One—The Kinks

The period attraction of concept albums was certainly not lost on this pioneering North London group—Ray Davies and Co.’s “Arthur” was one of the three origin rock operas of the late Sixties (along with “Tommy” and the Pretty Thing’s “S.F. Sorrow”). After the double-album Act Two came out in 1974, “Preservation” did appear as a one-off touring production for the group that was memorable for those in their dedicated fan base that happened to catch it. Getting nostalgic about this record has a peculiar knock-on effect. Some of its best tunes (“Daylight” and “Sweet Lady Genevieve”) yearn for another, nearly pre-industrial era. So, too, with the other LP the Kinks put out in ’73, the odds-and-ends “Great Lost Kinks Album” that lived up to its name by quickly going out of print. At least “Preservation”, a distinctive political jeremiad unloved by many critics, made it into the CD age. Around the millennial years, fans around here were treated by the Boston Rock Opera’s revivals of this work. The last one, with Ray Davies as advisor, finally realized the works full musical-theater potential, which the Kinks were surely too busy and disorganized to make happen back in the day.

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Yessongs—Yes

This list was in no particular order. But by virtue of putting a 3-record live set and booklet inside a Roger Dean-designed six-panel gatefold sleeve, you have to admit that Yes released the “heaviest” album of the year. With cranked-up versions of nearly everything from their previous three albums, it had something for every fan of English art rock. Don’t miss Chris Squire’s towering bass solo, Steve Howe’s interstellar guitar fury on “Yours is No Disgrace” or Jon Anderson singing his mystic extrapolations on themes from the Age of Aquarius. And cape-wearing keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman, in an excitable medley from his ’73 solo work “The Six Wives of Henry VIII”, proves for all time that there’s no sense in playing one note when ten in the same space will suffice.

I remember listening to it with a few other guys in a house of textbook suburban ennui while the parents were off to the Tri-Plex one Friday night. We were smoking up a basement space that had morphed from a rumpus room to a den of iniquity in a few short years. When the taped introduction of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” yielded to the band exploding into “Siberian Khatru”, the blast from the foot-high speakers knocked one of my buddies off his seat and we all had a good cough. The sound of the front door opening confirmed to the others that “The Sting” wasn’t a three-hour movie as one had insisted.

We grabbed the remaining Haffenreffers and stumbled up through the bulkhead and into the frosty night. Making our way to the golf course behind the last houses of our “development”, we drank our beer and loudly discussed novel ways of using the using ball washer. In a more poetic moment, someone said the strange light we saw in the sky was the “Starship Trooper” coming to take us away from all this. The next thing we knew (or thought) the cops were after us with their flickering flashlights. We beat it on down the fairway, laughing and running and running. We kept going long after the authorities had given up on us, knowing that 1973 couldn’t last forever.

8 comments

  1. Amazing essay, you really know your music. Just a few days ago I made a series of geek-ish lists with my 10 favourite records from each year, and I was struck by the huge amount of incredible albums that came out in 1973. But I think you did a great job in covering the year and its many (sometimes as different as day and night) sub-genres.

    You really don’t want to get me started on the albums themselves, because I don’t think this little reply box allows enough words for me to describe how much I love Dark Side of the Moon, Selling England By The Pound, Berlin, Band On The Run, Raw Power or Quadrophenia.

    Anyway, looking forward to more essays in the vein of this one.

    1. Thanks, it was such a great year and one that dosn’t always get noticed as such which is how I came up with the idea for the piece. Looking back on it I noticed a few albums that slipped my mind (like Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire”)and there were some others I had to leave out or it would have gone on too long. Glad you enjoyed it. The site will have more music posts in 2014,I’ve been thinking of doing a series on my favorite rock songs that are ten or more minutes long, a good antidote for the short-attention-span era. Cheers, Rick

  2. A great era and heavily weighted towards British bands. I love reading people’s memories of those times as only those who were there can truly tell it like it was – love the basement story, one of many similar evenings all across the UK and North America (although we tend not to have basements) in 1973.

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