Lucifer’s Friend – Banquet

I can’t believe the difference in sound between Lucifer’s Friend’s 1970 eponymous debut and their fourth album, 1974’s “Banquet”. It’s hard to realize it’s actually the same band. Gone is the metal crunch of the overdriven guitars and Hammond B3 organ that put them in league with Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, and Black Sabbath. Those sounds are replaced here with more rounded guitar tones and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. Oh, and don’t forget the full horn section. All that, along with the free-flowing extended solos, leaves “Banquet” having much more in common with the progressive, jazz-rock fusion sounds of Traffic, early Chicago, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and ELP than it does with any metal band. About the only things consistent between this and Lucifer’s Friend’s debut album is the incredible musicianship and John Lawton’s amazing voice.

Then again Lucifer’s Friend was a band that seemed to strive to sound different on every new album. I think the diversity in their sound from one album to the next is a big reason they had a hard time gaining popular traction outside of their native Germany. Their fans never knew what to expect from them from one album to the next. The thing was, that’s what I admired about them.

Louis Armstrong – Hello Dolly

I know that when a lot of my friends hear the nickname “Satch” they think of guitar legend Joe Satriani. I do too, but I also think of Jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

His full name was Louis Satchmo Pops Armstrong and he played the trumpet. Man, could he play the trumpet! With his deep gravelly voice – one of the most distinct to ever grace popular music – he was as charismatic on stage as he was skillful on trumpet.

The title song from this album earned Louis Armstrong the only Grammy he received while alive. He was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1972.

One of my favorite items in my listening room is a statue of Louis Armstrong. Holding his trumpet in one hand and a handkerchief in the other (he would work up a sweat when he played) and donning his distinct smile, it truly conveys the love he had for playing music. But I don’t need that statue to know that, all I need to do is listen to him play.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

If Barry Gordy Jr. had his way back in 1971, Marvin Gaye would have never recorded the album “What’s Going On”.

When the founder of Motown Records in Detroit first heard the title song Marvin Gaye had recorded for his next album, he was confident it would be a failure and refused to release it. Barry Gordy believed in the upbeat tempo and feel of the songs that had been the formula to Motown’s success. That was the record he wanted from Marvin Gaye. What Gaye delivered instead was a mid-tempo, multilayered song that made a sociopolitical statement against war, poverty, and brutality.

Barry Gordy felt “What’s Going On” would never sell and that it would be the ruin of Marvin Gaye’s career if it was ever released. Equal in his passion for the song, Marvin Gaye took a stand, refusing to write or record even one more note for Motown if the song wasn’t released. Barry still refused. It was his record company after all, and he had the final say.

But the song was released anyway.

Circumventing Barry Gordy, the VP of sales at Motown records decided to go behind his back and have the record pressed and released, sending some advance copies out to radio stations. It’s the kind of thing that will get you fired – unless you know you’re right. The song got heavy airplay across the country and when it came out “What’s Going On” became the fastest selling single in Motown’s history. Marvin Gaye was given the green light to make his album and make it his way.

“What’s Going On” didn’t ruin Marvin Gaye’s career, it defined it. It was his masterpiece. Like its title track, the album makes a strong statement. The soulful and beautifully layered songs lament against war, poverty, drug abuse, injustice, hate, and destruction of the environment. In contrast to the music, the lyrics to the songs don’t always paint a pretty picture, but they always make you think. This is an album that begs you to step back and take a look at the world around you; to take a good close look at “What’s Going On”.

Santana

The band Santana, named after latin rock legend Carlos Santana released their debut album in 1969, a couple of weeks after they played an unforgettable set at the original Woodstock music festival. That incredible performance showcased the band’s freeform jam band style that helped this record shoot up to the number four position on the Billboard charts shortly after its release. That despite receiving mostly negative reviews from music critics. Rolling Stone, perhaps the most influential music publication back then, said the album showcased “hollow technique” and had “no real content”. Meh, what do they know? Decades later, in 2003, they would give Santana’s eponymous debut accolades, describing it as “thrilling” and ranking it as the 150th greatest album of all time.

In their early days, Santana was first and foremost, a jam band. Much like freeform jazz musicians are masters of improvisation, Santana focused on playing by feel, never performing a song the same way twice. That’s why even though they were relatively unknown when they took the stage at Woodstock, everyone remembered them long after they triumphantly walked off it. It is that jam band mastery of musical improvisation that shines through on this record; something hard to pull off in the studio…unless you’re really good. And from the very beginning, Carlos Santana and his namesake band proved they were among the best.

Billy Joel – The Bridge

Billy Joel was such a versatile artist, he never needed to change his style to keep having hit records. They were always universally appealing.

Like Billy Joel’s previous records, “The Bridge” was filled with a huge array of musical styles and influences. A few of those musical influences appear with Joel on this, his tenth studio album. Ray Charles adds his unmistakable bluesy piano and voice to the song “Baby Grand” and Steve Winwood’s Hammond B3 helps Joel cut loose on “Getting Closer”, the rocking closer on the album.

Surprisingly, neither of those two songs were hits off of “The Bridge”, although “Baby Grand” was released as the fourth single from it. I don’t think Billy Joel was too concerned about that song’s lackluster sales. “The Bridge” still gave the entertainer three top 20 hits with “Modern Woman”, “This Is the Time” and my personal favorite from the album, “A Matter of Trust”. That song will always have special meaning to me as I was getting over some trust issues I had at that time in my life. It was the reason I had to buy “The Bridge” when I first heard it.

The Waitresses – Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?

The Waitresses were best known for their quirky 1982 new wave hit “I Know What Boys Want”. Anyone who never checked them out beyond their one hit wonder status, has no idea what they are missing.

Quirky, sure. But The Waitresses were also about intelligent, multifaceted arrangements and musicianship that had every bit as much in common with the CBGB crowd in New York as it did with the virtuosic eclecticism of Frank Zappa.

The Waitresses released a couple of albums following “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” Unfortunately neither contained the magic combination of what they accomplished on their debut. An album I rank as one of the top ten albums from the 1980’s.

The Nice – Nice

“Won’t you welcome please, a most distinguished group from England: The Nice.”

And so begins side 2 of the third album by the band where Keith Emerson earned his reputation as one of the greatest keyboardists in rock and roll. At this early stage in his career, Emerson had yet to begin his pioneering work using the Moog synthesizer. That would come a couple of years later in the supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer. So here, his talents are limited to just organ and piano. That is, if you could ever refer to Emerson’s playing as limited. Listening to “Nice” you can’t help but feel that it’s the instruments themselves that are limited in Emerson’s hands.

It’s easy to tell here how influential Keith Emerson was to ELP – and not just because both The Nice and ELP had keyboards as the main lead instrument. Like ELP, the songs on “Nice” integrate rock and roll with heavier doses of classical and jazz than do the psychedelic musings of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the dark, moody prog of King Crimson, Carl Palmer’s and Greg Lake’s respective bands prior to ELP.  Then there’s the many pieces of Nice songs that were incorporated into later ELP tracks.

The standout track however, at least to me, is the live track  “Rondo ’69”, which was based on the polyrhythmic “Blue Rondo à la Turk” by jazz master Dave Brubeck, from his 1959 classic “Time Out“. “Rondo” became a keyboard showcase at Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts in the years to come.

I hate to admit it, but until the 1980s, when I started to expand my musical appreciations, I thought Rondo was an ELP original. Yeah, not even close. It’s pure Brubeck; the song is merely reinterpreted by Keith Emerson and the other members of The Nice. But I give them credit for the improvisational midsection. It was very…Nice.

Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles! – Live! (Quadrophonic)

An amazing live performance by two legends. Recorded at what was probably the most incredible location to ever see a rock festival: inside the crater of the Diamondhead volcano in Honolulu Hawaii.

The Sunshine Festivals used to happen every year on New Year’s eve and day, and on the Fourth of July. The first festival was organized in 1970 and had about 12 thousand people in attendance. By 1979, it was attracting over 75 thousand people and had to be shut down due to concerns over the environmental concerns being caused by the huge crowds.

This blistering performance by Carlos Santana and Buddy Miles was recorded on New Year’s day in 1972.

Listening to this performance in quadrophonic (a 1970’s analog version of surround sound that preceded home theater systems) really adds to the listening experience of this record. Well, I guess technically, I’m not listening to it in quad, but I find Dolby Pro Logic surround sound (an analog surround sound from the 1990’s that predates Dolby Digital surround sound) brings out the same effect as quad. If it’s not the same, it’s darn close. (I’m thinking they didn’t try to totally reinvent the wheel for analog home theater surround sound). The ambience of the venue is capture perfectly here, with the rear speakers making me feel like I’m sitting right in the middle of the crowd.

I really need to look into picking up some more quad albums.

Linda Ronstadt – What’s New

Transitioning into the ’80s, the sound of popular music was changing. Many poular acts from the ’70s found themselves either adapting to more dance oriented music or risk falling off the musical radar of most people. Never one to follow trends, Linda Ronstadt chose a different road. In 1983, she released an album of pop and vocal jazz standards from the musical era that preceded rock and roll – the music her father listened to when she was growing up. The result was an ulikely album to hit the number 3 position on record charts being dominated by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

I always loved Linda Ronstadt’s voice. She could sing anything and make it her own. Her voice never sounded more beautiful than on her trilogy of albums with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. “What’s New” was the first in that great musical trilogy.

Beautiful music sung by a beautiful lady with a beautiful voice.

Frank Marino – Juggernaut

First there was the band Mahogany Rush. Then there was Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Finally it was just Frank Marino.

I suppose the writing is on the wall when your lead guitarist and vocalist start tagging their name in front of the band’s.

Frank Marino is a Canadian rock legend who, much in the style of Hendrix, played a combination of hard rocking blues and jazz guitar. “Juggernaut”, the second solo album by Marino, had a slightly more ’80s feel than his earlier work in the ’70s but still found him staying true to form; doing what he does best. Really, the music didn’t change that much from Mahogany Rush to Frank Marino’s solo material. It’s still some of the best guitar playing you’ll hear on any record.