Monday, August 30, 2010

How I Got Into All This

I had the good fortune to come of age in the bay area in the latter half of the 1960s and the early 1970s, when the region, and particularly San Francisco, became the popular music epicenter of the world for a few magical years. Although the summer of love was 43 years ago as I write this, and most of the participants are now eligible for social security, the era still holds a fascination to many. Because I never indulged in the various substances that were such a part of that era, and was an avid observer of the music of the time, I’ve been carrying around a lot of minutiae in my head from the era that I thought might be of more general interest. During that period, I was also honing my skills as a photographer in junior high and high school, and shot a lot of the events I attended.

I decided to write this blog as a way to get some of this information out of my head and my archives and to complement the wonderful work of several other sites dealing with the same places and times, notably Rock Prosopography 101, Lost Live Dead, Rock Archaeology. Jerry Garcia’s Middle Finger, and of course Deadlists and The Jerry Site

I was one of the last in my family to get interested in the new San Francisco bands. My father was a long time jazz aficianado and, predictably, a regular reader of the remarkable Ralph J. Gleason’s columns about music in the San Francisco Chronicle (Gleason’s role in making the new rock music coming out of San Francisco known and accepted by the general public cannot be overemphasized. I’ll take his legacy up another time). Anyway, My dad bought the debut albums by the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company shortly after they were released in 1966 and 1967 and became an avid fan of Janis Joplin, in particular. My older brother began listening to underground station KMPX early in 1967 and picked up some other key records of the time, notably the first album by Pink Floyd and the first two releases by the Doors.

I missed out on the formative years of the bay area music scene partly because of my age and, more importantly, because I incurred a serious femoral fracture during the first week of Junior High School (fall of 1965) that laid me up for most of the school year and took another year or so to fully heal.  During that time, although I certainly heard the records my father and brother had, I was really in no position to fully appreciate, or certainly to be involved in, the musical revolution that was taking place at the time.

Sometime near the end of 1967, I started listening to KMPX on a small FM radio that I kept in my bedroom. For those unfamiliar with San Francisco radio history, KMPX was arguably the first underground FM rock station, and served as one of the most important conduits to get much of this distinctly AM-unfriendly music out beyond the clubs and ballrooms.  For a historical look at this pioneering station and its effective successor, KSAN, look here.  Because the station had an amazing, eclectic record library and Djs who were familiar with a wide variety of music, KMPX invited listeners to venture into traditional blues, jazz, folk, even occasional classical music, but of course the main staple was the emerging rock music of the day.

I can trace the time I really got hooked to one single Thursday night which I figured out from official release dates was probably June 26, 1968. This was after the KMPX strike, so I was listening to the brand new SF music outlet KSAN instead (for everything about these stations, go to jive95). In those days, underground FM stations would play a newly received album straight through, sometimes weeks before it was released commercially, and that evening they premiered advance copies of a whopping four records that had all come in that day and night. First up was Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around, which would not be commercially released until several weeks later. Although in retrospect it was clearly the weakest of the three albums from the Springfield, pieced together by Jim Messina after the band had already splintered, this was still an amazing collection of songs, and my first heavy dose of those soon to be mainstays of CSN (&Y), Crazy Horse, and Poco. I remember being particularly taken with Stephen Stills’ “Four Days Gone” and Neil Young’s “I Am a Child.” Although it seems incredibly stupid now, I couldn’t be bothered, a year earlier, to accompany my brother to see the Springfield when they played at our high school (the now closed Cubberley in south Palo Alto) with the Sopwith Camel.

The next record to be premiered that evening was the Doors’ Waiting for the Sun. Also not as consistently strong as the group’s first two albums, this was still prime Doors with a fully engaged Jim Morrison, mixing pop gems like “Hello, I love You” with more impressionistic pieces like “Spanish Caravan” and “Summer’s Almost Gone” and the political anthems “Five to One” and “The Unknown Soldier.” Heady stuff, especially to a 14 year old in 1968.

After the Doors album played through, the DJ (Tony Pigg, I believe) tracked a third new arrival to the station that evening, Donovan’s In Concert. Although his commercial star has faded somewhat over the years, Donovan was a major pop star at the time, nearly as popular as Dylan or even the Beatles. In Concert (which was recently released in an expanded 2 Disc version) was culled from a November 17, 1967 show at the Anaheim Convention Center where Donovan was accompanied by a group of seasoned jazz players including wind player Harold McNair (who was later a member of Ginger Baker’s Airforce and played a key role in the soundtrack to the first Bond flick, Dr. No) and pianist Lorin Newkirk. It’s a seductively quiet recording, meditative and at times playful, and it sounded particularly magical near midnight when it played through.

In between all of these records, the DJ kept announcing that someone from the Grateful Dead was expected to drop off their new album sometime that evening. Apparently while the Donovan album tracked, the delivery was made, opening the door for the first radio airing of Anthem of the Sun. I knew of the Dead of course, and had first heard of them because their drummer was cousin of one of my classmates, but nothing prepared me for the life changing experience that unfolded over the next 40 odd (sometimes very odd) minutes. The saga of Anthem of the Sun’s recording has been extensively documented elsewhere, but its blend of live and studio recordings, acoustic and electric textures, mystical rock textures, avant garde music, and earthy blues was truly remarkable even in that overtly experimental era.  That first listen started what has remained a lifelong obsession with the Dead, who at the time were merely hometown heroes, years away from the stadiums and crowds of veggie burrito venders. At the time, I did not realize what a profound impact this would have on my life, or how many adventures it would lead me into.  By this time it was well past midnight and, mind effectively melted, I went off to bed.

What was amazing in retrospect was the sheer mass of music released during the interval between 1967 and 1970 that has stood the test of time.  The fact that four seminal releases by artists like the Doors, the Springfield, Donovan, and the Dead could make their radio debuts on a single evening attests to the sheer density of creative energy present within the greater popular music community at the time.  To give a feel for this, I looked into the release dates of a bunch of seminal albums that came out during 1968. This is by no means exhaustive, but it serves to illustrate my point.

January 1968
1/15/68. The Byrds. The Notorious Byrd Brothers
1/21/68. Canned Heat. Boogie with Canned Heat
1/22/68. Spirit. Spirit
1/22/68. Dr. John the Night Tripper. Gris Gris
1/30/68. Velvet Underground. White Light/White Heat
Blue Cheer. Vincebus Eruptum
Aretha Franklin. Lady Soul
Steve Miller Band. Children of the Future
Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf

2/21/68. Blood Sweat and Tears. Child is Father to the Man
Vanilla Fudge. The Beat Goes On

3/4/68. Mothers of Invention. We’re Only In It For the Money
3/6/68. United States of America. The United States of America
Electric Flag. A Long Time Comin’
Incredible String Band. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
The Move. The Move

4/3/68. Simon and Garfunkel. Bookends
4/3/68. Moby Grape. Wow/Grape Jam
4/19/68. The Zombies. Odyssey and Oracle
4/27/68. Sly and the Family Stone. Dance to the Music

5/13/68. Frank Zappa. Lumpy Gravy
5/24/68. The Small Faces. Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake
Quicksilver Messenger Service. Quicksilver Messenger Service

June 1968
6/14/68. Iron Butterfly. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
6/21/68. John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. Bare Wires
6/29/68. Pink Floyd. A Saucerful of Secrets
Donovan. In Concert
Fairport Convention. Fairport Convention
Randy Newman. Randy Newman
Pentangle. The Pentangle
Silver Apples. Silver Apples
Vanilla Fudge. Renaissance

July 1968:
7/1/68. The Band, Music From Big Pink
7/1/68. The Doors. Waiting for the Sun
7/5/68. Creedence Clearwater Revivial. Creedence Clearwater Revival
7/18/68. Grateful Dead. Anthem of the Sun
7/22/68. Al Kooper/Michael Bloomfield/Stephen Stills. Super Session
7/26/68. Moody Blues. In Search of the Lost Chord
7.30.68 Buffalo Springfield. Last Time Around

8/12/68. Big Brother and the Holding Company. Cheap Thrills
8/23/68. Fleetwood Mac. Mr. Wonderful
Blue Cheer. Outsideinside
Jeff Beck. Truth

9/1/68. Jefferson Airplane. Crown of Creation
9/16/68. Jimi Hendrix Experience. Electric Ladyland
H.P. Lovecraft. H.P. Lovecraft II
Sly and the Family Stone. Life

10/25/68. Jethro Tull. This Was
Beau Brummels. Bradley’s Barn
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Strictly Personal
Steve Miller Band. Sailor
Traffic. Traffic

11/1/68. Canned Heat. Living the Blues
11/12/68. Neil Young. Neil Young
11/22/68 The Beatles. The Beatles
Van Morrison. Astral Weeks
Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet

12.2.68 Mothers of Invention. Cruising with Reuben and the Jets
12/6/68. James Taylor. James Taylor
12/23/68 Taj Mahal. The Natch’l Blues
The Pentangle. Sweet Child
Pretty Things. S.F. Sorrow
Soft Machine. The Soft Machine
Spirit. The Family That Plays Together

This roster of releases is impressive as a whole, but it also shows how many albums that are now regarded as timeless classics came out in this 12 month period. November alone brought the Beatles' White Album, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, the Stones' Beggars Banquet, Neil Young's solo debut, and the Kinks masterpiece The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. What is also interesting to me is that entire genres can be seen arising within a single month - proto Heavy Metal in January with Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf, proto Americana in July with the debuts of the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and a significant boost to folk rock in June with the debuts of Fairport Convention and Pentangle. 

Also notable is how many groups or artists put out two albums in 1968 - Steve Miller, Blue Cheer, Sly and the Family Stone, John Mayall, Spirit, Donovan, Steppenwolf, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Zappa (three albums, two with the Mothers and the solo effort Lumpy Gravy), the Pentangle. Quite a different scenario from today, when a major group can go several years between albums. I suppose a point to be made here is that most of these were not major groups at the time, just new bands hungry for exposure. 


Corry342 said...

The list of albums is a great way to remind us how much music was pouring out at the time. I have most of those albums (or did at one time, anyway).

Of course, at the time Donovan was bigger than just about every one of the groups listed here (only the Beatles and Stones were bigger). The Donovan live album is surprisingly good, even for someone like me whose not really a big fan. In one sense, that's a sign of the times--even the potboiler live album by a MOR pop star is pretty good.

Light Into Ashes said...

I look forward to seeing more posts here!
(And more thoughts on Ralph Gleason are welcome - reading his articles today, it's surprising that someone from the "adult world" would so embrace the new, noisy rock scene. The guy was in his 50s when he wrote "Jefferson Airplane and the SF Sound"! One article on him - )

The importance of the new FM stations in spreading & popularizing this new music, encouraging cross-pollenization within the music, and nudging artists' goals from singles to albums, also can't be understated...

A lot of great music was pouring out in those years - of course, readers of this blog may be biased, but I feel the musical creativity of the late '60s is unparalleled. This sample of '68 albums gives an idea, but the explosion got underway in '65 or so, and it's remarkable how fast-moving the scene was, how new genres could be created by just a few singles & then within a year already become old-hat. (Or not.)

Music artists did release a lot of work then, but often because they were obliged to - many were contracted for two albums per year. But also, some bands changed their style so rapidly, an album would be out-of-date by the time it came out!

cryptdev said...


Good point about the general high quality of releases back then. I didn't even touch the pop or jazz stuff that was coming out at the same time. With studio crews like the Wrecking Crew and the Mussel Shoals staff firing on all cylinders, even the sappiest pop records often had something worth listening to. Having said that, I personally wouldn't characterize Donovan at the time as a MOR Pop star - he certainly wrote some memorable material during his peak.

cryptdev said...


Thanks for your generous comments. Yes Gleason was indeed an anomaly in an era where music fans often seem to have stuck doggedly to genres
and debated about whether something was folk music or was jazz. His open ears and willingness to listen to young, unknown rock musicians
was instrumental in changing the face of popular music. I agree that'68 was not a pivotal year in isolation and that you could come up with an almost equally illustrious list for most years from '65 to '70 - I just chose that snapshot
to demonstrate the flood of what are now termed classics that emerged in those few months as an example of the times. You're also right
about the frequency of releases for many groups being driven by contractural obligations. This could be viewed as a detriment, but it
did have the effect of spurring bands to flurries of creativity when they were at their artistic peak.

icepetal said...

Just want to briefly mention that this is most wonderful. I look so forward to reading each forthcoming chapter of your musical life saga. Thanks for sharing!

cryptdev said...

Thanks for the kind words Icepetal! I'm having a good time doing this, and I'm glad it's being read.

slenon said...

I'm reminded yet again of how much music was laid down and published in 1968-69; and how much of it I missed because of my service in VietNam. By the time I returned to campus, and that in the midwest, I was years behind in listening and enjoying the material that was available.

As with every other bit of culture, the gap is often to huge to bridge without help. This blog is an excellent road map and I appreciate it more than I can relate.