Artist: Album (label, release date) 1-5 stars
Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (JVC Japan, May 23, 2006) ***
Harry Nilsson: Everybody’s Talkin’: The Very Best of Harry Nilsson (RCA, May 23, 2006) ****
Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself (Universal Special Products, May 23, 2006) ***
J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame (Beat Goes On, May 23, 2006) ***
Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
It’s pretty hard to take this album seriously in 2006, especially since it was ridiculed at the time it was released. However, it became the biggest selling record in Atco’s history in 1968, a year before Led Zeppelin’s debut would eclipse the record. Most rock fans are familiar with the title cut, a 17-minute relic of 60’s indulgence, complete with heavy gothic organ, drum solos, a rudimentary bass riff that seemingly never ends coupled with flash proto-metal guitar, and Doug Ingle’s deep baritone mumble for a lead vocal. The song was a hit in an abridged 3-minute edit, and the album peaked at #4 on the charts. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (legend says it was to be called “In The Garden of Eden” until Ingle kept blowing the lyrics) is what it will always be; a snapshot of the moment when flower-power psychedelia began its mutation into the very first heavy metal ever. Since it took up all of side two back when albums had “sides”, the rest of the disc is comprised of only 5 numbers with quaint titles like “Flowers and Beads” and “My Mirage”. How much you need to hear them depends on how deeply into 1960’s archaeology you want to go. I can tell you that “Most Anything You Want” is the best track, a kind of Association-meets-“Touch Me”-era Doors with plenty of fuzz guitar and organ. “Termination” is the closest to proto-metal they get besides the title track, and even there they sound pretty lightweight. Ingle and drummer Ron Bushy are the only holdovers from the band’s 1968 debut, Heavy; the newcomers were 18-year old Erik Braunn, who supplies the fuzzy, heavy guitars and Lee Dorman, responsible for that famous bassline. The San Diego-based Iron Butterfly never repeated their success; their 1969 followup Ball, while more ambitious, faded after going gold, and by 1971 they were finished. A brief revival in 1975 yielded two failed (but interesting) albums, and the surviving members of the band have reunited several times since. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida belongs in the rock historian’s collection, but casual listeners probably only need the title track, if that.
Harry Nilsson: Everybody’s Talkin’: The Very Best of Harry Nilsson
If ever there was a man who threw away his talent, it was Harry Nilsson. Once upon a time, Nilsson was a smooth voiced crooner who had a way with melody and a very crackpot sense of arrangement and production, that often relied on lush orchestrations bent in the service of bizarre pop ditties unlike anyone else’s. During his peak, from the late 60’s through the early 70’s, he was responsible for a number of charming, goofball songs (which he wrote or covered) as well as some in a more traditional vein; among his hits were Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'”, Badfinger’s “Without You”, and originals like “Coconut”, “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City”, “One”, “Spaceman”, “Without Her”, and “Me and My Arrow”. The Beatles became fans early in his career when they heard his layered, scrambled, diced and spliced medley of Beatles songs “You Can’t Do That” from 1968. In 1974, he became drinking buddies with John Lennon during Lennon’s famous “lost weekend” and essentially ruined his silky voice; the pair recorded Pussy Cats at this time, and Nilsson sounded ravaged. He never was the same again; although he fulfilled his contract with RCA by putting out a string of offbeat, strange albums in the 1970’s that almost nobody bought, by 1979 he had stopped recording, and pretty much did nothing but laze around until his death from a heart attack in 1993. A Coca Cola ad in 2005 used “Coconut” and alerted a new generation to his offbeat charm; now RCA is giving his back catalog a new push, re-releasing his best-selling albums and offering this 14-song sampler. A sampler is all it is; the aforementioned songs are all on it (except “You can’t Do That”), and a few others including the single version of “Jump Into The Fire” an uncharacteristic hard rock song that is much better in its manic, full-length album version. Nothing from Pussy Cats or later are here, nor his pre-“Everybody’s Talkin'” material. But if you like “Coconut”, and what to see what else the man had to offer, this is as good a jumping in place as any. Those who already have these tunes are urged to explore Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson Sings Newman, Nilsson Schmilsson, Son of Schmilsson, The Point, and maybe even the standards album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, for a better picture.
Uriah Heep: Look At Yourself
Uriah Heep never gets any respect. Critical disdain greeted their 1970 debut, and followed them every inch of the way. Yet, they’ve survived, multiple lineup changes notwithstanding, and continue to tour and release albums to the present day. Look At Yourself, their third album, was their big 1971 commercial breakthrough, earning them their first chart appearance in U.S. (#93), and sold well in Europe. It still doesn’t get much respect, although time has been kind to it, and it stands up reasonably well to its competition of the time, which included discs by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Of the three, it is Deep Purple Uriah Heep most resembled, thanks to Ken Hensley’s busy Hammond organ, David Byron’s histrionic wails, and Mick Box’s crunchy, meaty guitar. The centerpiece is “July Morning” a 10-minute early metal classic that hangs on a circular organ riff and plows forward with the certainty of an 18-wheeler before alternating between soft and hard, building to a prog-rock crescendo. The title track is an uptempo rocker also propelled by organ and featuring one of Byron’s best vocals. Elsewhere, “Wanna Be Free” showcases Box’s guitar, “Tears In My Eyes” is a delicate progressive track that recalls Yes to a vague degree, “Love Machine” gallops along on 8 cylinders, and the other tunes hold their own. Look At Yourself is Uriah Heep just as their sound was gelling; an improvement over the ponderous prog-rock of Salisbury from 1970, but not quite the semi-masterpiece their fourth album Demons and Wizards would be. Fans of early heavy metal should enjoy this album; particularly Deep Purple, Queen, and Judas Priest fans. Non-fans will probably be put off by the falsetto backing vocals and plodding rhythms. I fall somewhere in-between, but found it worthwhile in the end.
J. Geils Band: Freeze Frame
What happened to these guys? After spending the 1970’s in relative obscurity, this Boston band broke through big-time with Freeze Frame, a 1981 album that peaked at #1 and spawned 3 hits, “Centerfold”, “Angel in Blue”, and “Freeze-Frame”. All were catchy tunes, and the album itself was quite good, one of the better releases of 1981, which was one of the worst years ever for major-label rock. The band had changed their sound considerably over the years; renowned for their stage show, the band had specialized in a sweaty, gritty r&b at the outset. By the time of Freeze Frame, most of the r&b was gone, although not entirely, and the band had discovered a magic way with a hook. Freeze Frame was actually a continuation of the change in direction signalled by the 1980 hit “Love Stinks”, and the band seemed poised to become one of the biggest of the 1980’s until in-fighting between singer/songwriter Peter Wolf and keyboardist/songwriting partner Seth Justman came to a head; the pair split at the height of their success, and while Wolf managed a successful solo debut in 1984, the J. Geils Band’s next album tanked, and the group split up for good. So Freeze Frame now has some of the patina many early 80’s new wave/power pop bands have; a slightly disposable feel, despite the hooks. Aside from the hits, there are some interesting moments here, including the cacophonous “Rage in the Cage” and the almost punky sounding “Piss on the Wall”; all of it well played and fairly easy to digest. However, the band’s failure to capitalize on this success makes this album sound like more of a dead end than it needed to.
Also out this week: Five post-peak 1980’s albums (Girls to Chat & Boys to Bounce, In The Mood for Something Rude, Rock ‘n’ Roll Outlaws, Tight Shoes, Zig-Zag Walk) from second tier hard-rockers Foghat on Wounded Bird; The Best of Divine, yes Divine from all those John Waters flicks, on Delta Blue, Put A Little Love In Your Heart a 1969 album by British pop singer Jackie DeShannon, on RPM UK; Paul Carrak’s post-Squeeze 1982 solo album Suburban Voodoo on Acadia; Sammy Hagar’s post-Van Halen 1997 solo disc, Marching to Mars on Geffen Gold Line; Bill Haley’s Jukebox a good 1961 album on Collectibles; This Land Is Your Land, a Woodie Guthrie compilation spanning 1940-1947 on Living Era; Ultravox, the 1977 sophomore album by synth-punk pioneers Ultravox on Universal International; and a good new Neil Diamond compilation of his early years, Forever Neil Diamond, on Shout! Factory.
Watch Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida [American Bandstand, 1968]