Just for the record: Led Zep, Isaac Hayes and Joni Mitchell
A bi-weekly vinyl review
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin, and birthday celebrations kick off later this month with the first vinyl release of How The West Was Won, a monumental collection of live recordings from the band’s 1972 US tour that was first released on CD in 2003.
What’s more, speaking to Mojo magazine, guitarist Jimmy Page said further releases are planned, and these will most likely begin around the anniversary of the band’s first live gigs which took place in Denmark in September 1968.
Reflecting on the 1972 tour, Page said: “At the time everybody in the band was playing unbelievably well. Even as band members there were moments you could sense that fantastic things were hanging on stage every night. It felt really special.”
Singer Robert Plant, meanwhile, told US magazine The Current that while it’s “difficult to find” unheard Zep material, anniversary celebrations — of a sort — would go ahead.“The great thing about Led Zeppelin was that we didn’t chronicle ourselves,” Plant said. “We just went from town to town and sang songs and played guitars and stuff. And then went about our lives.
“The whole idea of chronicling the life of people in bands … in a way, I wish that we had more stuff to look at, but there will be a book of photographs and stuff. But some of it will be particularly interesting, I think.”
He adds: “Beyond that, musically, there’s bits and pieces lying around, but not an album or anything like that. But there will be a celebration, I'm sure, somewhere. A cork will pop!”
How The West Was Won, a deluxe, four-disc box set, is released by Warner Music on March 23.
WHEN PSYCHEDELIA MET SOULA trio of classic Isaac Hayes albums, Black Moses, The Theme From Shaft and Hot Buttered Soul have just been re-released on vinyl in remastered form by Craft Recordings.
The latter was a truly genre-defining moment; when Hot Buttered Soul first appeared in September 1969, it tore apart preconceived notions about the sort of music black artists could market. The album had just four sprawling tracks, and its chart success freed artists from the recording industry’s singles-driven commercial model, inspiring such stars as Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers, among others.Hayes had worked as a session player and producer at Stax Records, the legendary label that was home to Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Sam and Dave and others. Besides playing on their records, Hayes co-wrote many of their hits, including Soul Man, When Something’s Wrong with My Baby, I Thank You and Hold On, I’m Comin’.
But in December 1967, Redding, Stax’s biggest star, died in a plane crash and, six months later, the label lost its entire back catalogue after severing a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. To recover, label chief Al Bell instructed every artist on the imprint to record solo albums as soon as possible.Hayes took that as carte blanche. “I didn’t give a damn it if didn’t sell,” he would later tell Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records. “I had the opportunity to express myself, no holds barred. What I had to say there couldn’t be said in two minutes and 30 seconds.”
Hot Buttered Soul had just one original song, the 10-minute Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic. The cover versions, particularly the 19-minute version of Jimmy Webb’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix and the 12-minute take on the Bacharach-David hit Walk on By, were radical exercises in deconstruction. Hayes used their melodies as suggestions to stretch the tunes to their limits. He laid on psychedelic guitar distortions with plush orchestrations, patenting a style that would become his signature: symphonic soul. The result was R&B album that lingered on the Billboard charts for a staggering 69 weeks.
MORE NEW RELEASES
Grunge-scarred survivors The Breeders return with All Nerve (4AD), an album of angular guitars and songs of disassociation. What’s more it’s the same line-up — Kelley and Kim Deal, Jim Macpherson and Josephine Wiggs — that recorded 1994’s mega Last Splash.More raw nerves, this time from left-field Americana star Mary Gauthier. Her Rifles & Rosary Beads (Proper) is a collection of songs co-written with military veterans as part of a programme to overcome post-traumatic stress. Uncompromising stuff.Unease and ambivalence a-plenty in American Utopia (Nonesuch), former Talking Head David Byrne’s first collection since 2004. “Byrne filters grace, wonder and apocalyptic portent through his fractured worldview,” according to Mojo magazine.Lastly, Whistle Down The Wind (Proper), a valedictory album from the matron saint of folk, Joan Baez. At 77, the voice is strained by age but it sounds remarkably similar to that of her heyday. Produced by Joe Henry, with songs from the likes of Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eliza Gikyson and others. An album of heartfelt simplicity, rather than melancholia and resignation.BURIED TREASURE
Alexander Spence: Oar (Columbia, 1969)Creative differences between band members are not uncommon, but seldom have they been as dramatic as the fallout between Moby Grape guitarist Alexander “Skip” Spence and the the rest of the group in July 1968 — he went after them with an axe. Duly arrested, it was obviously apparent to all concerned that a prodigious intake of psychedelic drugs had taken their toll on Spence, and he was committed to New York’s Bellevue Hospital, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent six months in psychiatric care.Upon his release in December 1968, Columbia Records surprisingly gave him the opportunity to record again and bankrolled the sessions that resulted in Oar, one of the first true solo, multi-tracked rock recordings and among the most enigmatic albums in all of popular music. Spence played and sang every note on the album — guitars, bass, drums and unforgettably intimate and hushed vocals — in a matter of mere days. The music was loose and whimsical, with haphazard rhythms and fade-in/fade-out overdubbed guitars. Spence’s lyrics — oblique, elliptical, child-like — only added to the album’s mystique. As one critic noted, “One could easily imagine him making them up while staring at the walls of the mental hospital he had just spent half a year in.”
Initial reviews were favourable, but Columbia didn’t think much of Oar and did little to promote it. The album sold poorly, and was quickly deleted. It was downhill for Spence from then on, too. Mental illness, alcoholism and a heroin and cocaine habit prevented him from sustaining a musical career. He died in 1999 of lung cancer.
Original pressings of Oar (CS 9831) are indeed rare. Last time I checked, a US dealer was offering a mint copy for about R12,000. It was reissued by the Dutch label Music on Vinyl (MOVLP435 ) in 2011. New copies of these should cost between R300 and R350.THE ESSENTIAL LIBRARY
Joni Mitchell, Blue (Reprise, 1971)
Any halfway decent record collection should include several Joni Mitchell albums. Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, For the Roses, Court and Spark, Hejira and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, among others, are all milestones in a remarkably long and fruitful career.
But the sad, forthright and beautifully spare Blue stands out as the quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album. Mitchell’s songs here are all raw nerves, tales of love and loss etched with a complexity, vulnerability and cynicism that, at the time, was rare in popular music — especially from a woman.There’s desire and hope, too. But even such “bright” moments, like All I Want, Carey and My Old Man, have undercurrents of sorrow and loneliness. “I perceived a lot of hate in my heart,” Mitchell has said of the mood behind Blue, adding that the album is “probably the purest emotional record I will ever make”.
The album also marked a turning point in her career. After this watershed, Mitchell’s work would move beyond the acoustic folk of her early records to explore a more intricate, jazzy experimentation that characterised her later work.