Life at 33 1/3: The album classics of 1969

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The Beatles, Abbey Road (Apple) – Released: September 26, 1969

Is the famous medley on side 2 actually nothing more than spectacular styling of half baked ideas and song fragments that they couldn’t bother to finish?  The question is irrelevant because the medley works.  Blended into a suite, the individual pieces interact and create something so much larger, a universal message, nothing less.

The medley also works on another level as it reflects and summarizes the songs that precede it and brings “Abbey Road” to its natural and moving conclusion.  There is a lot of pain in the songs, they are all about growing up and growing apart, about broken love and broken friendship, but the strength of this collection of songs is The Beatles’ amazing ability to convey hope.

“Abbey Road” points us to the given wonders such as the sun, the sky, the Earth spinning, the miracle of life and having someone who loves you that you can love back.  The album – and with that The Beatles’ career – concludes with the love of mankind, echoing the words of the most famous rabbi of them all: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  A powerful finale to the most remarkable career in the history of music.

Contents: Come Together/Something/Maxwell’s Silver Hammer/Oh! Darling/Octopus’s Garden/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)/Here Comes the Sun/Because/You Never Give Me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End/Her Majesty

Elvis Presley, From Elvis In Memphis (RCA) – Released: June 17, 1969

“From Elvis In Memphis” was Elvis’ “Bringing It All Back Home”.  Things mattered again.  He cut himself loose from all the idiotic advisors, got a real producer who hand-picked the stellar musicians and tore into songs that he could have written himself, if he had been able to write.  It was chemistry.  The voice was back, mighty as mountains, soft as heartbreaks, turning the lyrics into flesh, blood and human spirit.  The songs were strong, the playing magnificent.

“From Elvis In Memphis” is up there with “Elvis Is Back” and all his classic recordings from the ’50s.  The album was as contemporary, valid (and timeless!) as anything The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan did at the time.  As rock swerved in all directions, “From Elvis In Memphis” was an anchor.  This is what it’s all about: Take the listener to the heavens and back through the magic of a three minute song.  If he believed in it, nobody could turn a song into a living being like Elvis.

Contents: Wearin’ That Loved On Look/Only the Strong Survive/I’ll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)/Long Black Limousine/It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’/I’m Movin’ On/Power of My Love/Gentle on My Mind/After Loving You/True Love Travels on a Gravel Road/Any Day Now/In the Ghetto

Procol Harum, A Salty Dog (Regal Zonophone) – Released: June, 1969

You can pick any Procol Harum album as your personal favourite, that is OK, but it will always have to be measured against “A Salty Dog”, the fulfillment of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid’s master plan, its magnitude cannot be surpassed.  This is where it all came together.  This is what they build the band’s future on.  Matthew Fisher quit, and later Robin Trower did too, but the overall sound did not change that much.

With few exceptions, any Procol Harum album is a blessing from start to finish, but none more than “A Salty Dog”.  Why didn’t it sell a gazillion copies?  Now that is a mystery to me.

For a start just check out the title track on YouTube; it is one of the most beautiful songs any band has given the world, so stunning it hurts.

Contents: A Salty Dog/The Milk of Human Kindness/Too Much Between Us/The Devil Came From Kansas/Boredom/Juicy John Pink/Wreck of the Hesperus/All This and More/Crucifiction Lane/Pilgrim’s Progress

The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed (Decca) – Released: December 5, 1969

Second in an unbroken four album run of bona fide Stones classics.  Harder, funkier, grittier and more erotic than “Beggars Banquet”, and with a dash of Americana to boot.  Darker in its moods too as it captures the end of the 60’s spot on: “Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today” (The opening line of “Gimme Shelter”).

Side 1 is a perfect ride, they touch all the bases that would characterize the best of their 70’s output.  Side 2 is more uneven, “Midnight Rambler” is too long and more unpleasant than groovy, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is their most overrated track by far, a pretentious attempt to create their own “Hey Jude” (the melody itself is nothing but the same phrase on repeat).  I love “You Got The Silver” though, and “Gimme Shelter” is so strong you want it to last forever.

Contents: Gimme Shelter/Love in Vain/Country Honk/Live with Me/Let It Bleed/Midnight Rambler/You Got the Silver/Monkey Man/You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (Atlantic) – Released: January 12, 1969

They took the blues and turned it into the sound of the future.  The depth and dynamics of this recording was stunning for its time, and it still sounds as fresh and powerful today.

The group’s versatility is already on display, even though the heavy electric blues is dominating the proceedings.  They sculpted the arrangements different from any band before them, and the captivating alteration between calmness and explosion was effectively enhanced by the room ambience the group exploited so wonderfully.

Contents: Good Times Bad Times/Babe I’m Gonna Leave You/You Shook Me/Dazed and Confused/Your Time Is Gonna Come/Black Mountain Side/Communication Breakdown/I Can’t Quit You Baby/How Many More Times

Jethro Tull, Stand Up (Island) – Released: August 1, 1969

Ian Anderson: “This was Martin Barre’s first album with us, and it marks the turning point in our music, away from the blues and toward progressive rock.  It is a very broad, eclectic album…”  A great album.  My absolute favourite is “We Used To Know” (nicked by the Eagles and turned into “Hotel California”).

Contents: A New Day Yesterday/Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square/Bourée/Back to the Family/Look into the Sun/Nothing Is Easy/Fat Man/We Used to Know/Reasons for Waiting/A Thousand Mothers

In The Court Of The Crimson King, King Crimson (Island) – Released: October 10, 1969

The most influential progressive rock album of all time, the title track and “Epitaph” are epic beauties, while the opening track is the noisiest, scariest piece of metallic industrial rock you’ll ever encounter.

Contents: 21st Century Schizoid Man (including “Mirrors”)/I Talk to the Wind/Epitaph (including “March for No Reason” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”)/Moonchild (1.”The Dream” 2.”The Illusion”)/Court of the Crimson King (including “The Return of the Fire Witch” and “The Dance of the Puppets)

Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On (Reprise) – Released: September 19, 1969

Released when they were the hottest group around, quite a surprising record as it displayed a broader stylistic range than the two preceding albums that were both exponents of traditional electric blues.  The melancholy state of mind of both Danny Kirwan and Peter Green is very apparent.

Contents: Coming Your Way/Closing My Eyes/Fighting for Madge/When You Say/Showbiz Blues/Underway/One Sunny Day/Although the Sun Is Shining/Rattlesnake Shake/Without You/Searching for Madge/My Dream/Like Crying/Before the Beginning

Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking (Island) – Released: July, 1969

Fairport dug deeper into traditional British folk music on their next album, the masterpiece “Liege & Lief”.  But “Unhalfbricking” will always be my favourite, and it’s got “Who Knows Where The Times Goes?” on it.

Contents: Genesis Hall/Si Tu Dois Partir/Autopsy/A Sailor’s Life/Cajun Woman/Who Knows Where the Time Goes?/Percy’s Song/Million Dollar Bash

Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left (Island) – Released: September 1, 1969

He wrote sad songs of extraordinary beauty and performed them with a soft, whispery voice, mainly accompanied by his own, restless acoustic guitar.  This is his debut, unique pieces of melancholy, like watercolour paintings of autumn.  Drake left us in 1974 and only made three albums.

Contents: Time Has Told Me/River Man/Three Hours/Way to Blue/Day is Done/Cello Song/The Thoughts of Mary Jane/Man in a Shed/Fruit Tree/Saturday Sun