Fifty years have passed since the musical heyday of 1969, Getintothis’ Gary Aster takes a look back through some of the best of the year, join him on a trip through a summer of psychedelia.
“It’s another year for me and you. Another year with nothing to do” remarked an off-point Iggy Pop during The Stooges’ 1969, but you know, I think he might have found something to do.
It’s the end of an era and it’s going out with a bang, not a whimper, the 1960s was a turbulent, at times revolutionary decade and its radicalism, naturally enough, found expression in music just as it did elsewhere.
Looking at the wealth of excellent releases to hit the shelves in 1969 one could be forgiven for wondering if there was some sort of unconscious collective effort by bands and artists to rush-release their latest offerings before the decade’s close.
Because by any reasonable comparative measure, 1969 would have to qualify as having offered up an especially good musical harvest, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who released albums that would come to be regarded as among their very best works.
It was a vintage year too for English folk, which delivered two classic albums by Fairport Convention, and a further two from The Pentangle and Nick Drake.
In the US, Creedence Clearwater Revival issued two outstanding albums that year, alongside classics by Sly and the Family Stone, MC5, Joni Mitchell, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Isaac Hayes, Scott Walker, The Temptations and The Stooges.
Yes, 1969 was a year when record-buyers had outstandingly good stuff to choose from, shelves were over-crowded with an abundance of new music and it is little wonder that some great records went by, to varying degrees, unnoticed.
But good music has a habit of eventually making itself heard a little more widely.
Most of the records featured here are well-known to collectors of rare and precious vinyl, and the eye-watering prices that several of these discs have fetched at auction later led to their being re-issued.
Strange how it all feels like a distant memory to recall a time when, if you wanted to hear an album, you actually had to go and find a copy of it, and many were very hard to track down.
That scarcity sometimes lent a special quality to these hard-to-find records which were otherwise underserved.
Here, then, are ten choices whose special qualities remain undiminished by the relative ease of their availability in today’s logged-on world.
One wonders how many of the people behind these recordings could possibly have imagined that their music would still be available, and so easily, half a century later.
David Axelrod – Songs of Experience
The second album by composer and producer David Axelrod, like its predecessor, Songs of Innocence, is a musical adaptation of the work of 18th century English poet and visionary William Blake. Somewhat misleadingly described as a jazz fusion record, the largely instrumental music herein (though still referred to as songs) has elements of rock, funk and soul alongside baroque, folk and avant-garde influences.
The record plays host to a veritable who’s who of top-flight session players including Carol Kaye, Al Casey, Earl Palmer and Don Randi amongst many others. It’s an album with very high production values all-round – expertly composed, arranged, performed and recorded with great technical skill, which perhaps accounts for the frequency with which it has been raided as a rich source of samples. Dr Dre, DJ Shadow, Black moon and Metabeats have all dipped in with the latter describing Axelrod as “a sound library in himself.”
Although overlooked on its first release, the album today enjoys a cult following and deserved critical acclaim for the evocative, dark, funky and orchestral music it contains, which is amongst its composer’s very best work.
Bubble Puppy – A Gathering of Promises
An ineptly-named band (there was a lot of it about in those days) but responsible for this rocking gem which includes their accidental minor hit Hot Smoke and Sasafrass, originally intended merely as the B-side but alert radio DJs flipped it over, correctly sensing a hit.
On the back of this unexpected success, an album was swiftly required – A Gathering of Promises is the result. It showcases the songs the band had been playing almost every night in bars and clubs for several years. As such, they nailed them down quickly and easily. The sound is that of a tight, well-rehearsed band striving to sound raw and loose.
It owes something to the MC5 and Blue Cheer, bridging the gap from trippy psychedelia to the harder American rock emerging at the time, yet unusually for such a heavy band, featuring multi-layered vocal harmonies of the sort that were about to make millions for Crosby, Stills and Nash. They should have been huge but it all soon fell apart after a series of blunders, though most of the protagonists found success elsewhere later on.
Mighty Baby – Mighty Baby
When former mods The Action parted company with their singer, due to the age-old problem of musical differences, the remaining band members renamed, reshaped and reformed themselves under the influence of pot and jazz to emerge as the long-winded hippie jammers who later played a four hour improvised set at the original Glastonbury Fayre.
The album documents their earliest and best efforts in this direction, showcasing their improvisational tendencies and switching easily from heavy to mellow. Opening track Egyptian Tomb, however, includes one of the grooviest rhythm tracks of the original psychedelic era. Released as a single, and like the album it was intended to promote, rather unfairly it completely failed to chart, despite picking up glowing reviews.
Chess Records later issued it in the US, where it fared no better. The band ploughed on for a while, recording a follow-up which also failed to chart before eventually splitting up when most of them converted to Islam. But they left behind this slow burner which later achieved cult classic status and has been repeatedly reissued.
Bonzo Dog Band – Keynsham
To my ears, this is the Bonzo’s best effort and the first on which Vyv Stanshall and Neil Innes shared production credits. The arrangements are richer, more varied and musically sophisticated. It encapsulates everything that they did best as a group.
This is the record on which it is most apparent that group are not in fact merely in it just for a laugh, a point that seems to have entirely eluded reviewers at the time who bemoaned the relative lack of chuckles and mucking around here compared with earlier efforts. This is not to say that the album is without a sense of humour – far from it – but rather to note that the humour is darker, more satirical and tongue in cheek.
There are still delightfully demented moments of absurdity and music-hall kitsch like Mr Slater’s Parrot and the infectiously manic Tent, but these are punctuated by more measured and musical refrains like the pastoral Quiet Talks and Summer Walks.
But above all this is a superb vehicle for the combined talents of Neil Innes, musical pasticheur par excellence, and the unique and surreal mind of Vyv Stanshall.
The Open Mind – The Open Mind
A band best remembered for their stunning 1969 single Magic Potion, a mainstay of countless compilation albums which has been covered by The Damned, Sundial and many others. Unfortunately the single was not originally included on their one, scarce and now highly collectable album of the same year.
That’s a mistake that subsequent re-issues have rectified of course, but it probably cost them plenty of sales first time around. It’s certainly their strongest, most forward-looking track, which pre-empts the sound that Hawkwind and others subsequently based an entire career on.
There are still echoes of that sound too on this album, alongside tracks which hark back to 1967 and earlier mod and freakbeat sounds. But these are combined with heavier, riff-laden tracks more contemporaneous with the time of their release.
The album is difficult to categorise, positioned as it is between older, established sounds and the newly emerging heavy rock and metal styles it subtly anticipates. A few dud tracks mean it is denied full cult classic status (unlike its accompanying single) but is still worthy of your attention.
Andwellas Dream – Love and Poetry
Originally from Belfast, Andwellas Dream relocated to the mainland UK where they recorded and released this cult psychedelic classic after a string of singles on the CBS label. Although arguably a few years behind the curve when it was first released, its reputation has since grown considerably in the estimation of record collectors.
It is more than a little indebted to the sounds of 1967’s Summer of Love and perhaps displays its influences too obviously. At various times the album reminds the listener of Procul Harum, Donovan and Tomorrow amongst others, and indeed some critics do dismiss it simply as generic psychedelia.
What distinguishes it from mere painting-by-numbers psych however is the quality of the songwriting. Songwriter David Lewis pens superior melodies with enigmatic lyrics. Penultimate track Felix for example, which concerns the band’s roadie tasked with manning the liquid light projector, might just as easily be about an existential crisis, or the awakening of some mysterious ancient power. Terrific stuff!
The Soft Machine – Volume Two
Recorded following the departure of Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine here complete their transformation into an art band. Robert Wyatt’s absurd Dada-esque vocals confirm early on that this is not a record for the easily put-off.
The Canterbury bands always denied the existence of a so-called Canterbury scene, but the phrase has become journalistic shorthand for the original and progressive sounds to be so described that were first heard on this album.
As befits a record from the golden age of vinyl (it says ‘ere), the album is split into two suites each taking up a whole side of the original LP. Songs blend and blur into each other without precise borders, in much the same way as they did in live performances.
The album was partly inspired by The Mothers of Invention’s Absolutely Free and Zappa had a direct influence on the band, offering advice which they acted upon. The resulting collection adds a jazz influence into the already existing mix of Dada, humour and psychedelia to great effect. Perhaps unsurprisingly it failed to chart but is generally considered to be Soft Machine’s best effort.
Sam Gopal – Escalator
It’s Lemmy. Yes, that Lemmy; no longer a roadie for Hendrix but before joining Hawkwind. Although Malaysian-born musician Sam Gopal has a not-insignificant influence on this album, as well as lending his already-established name to this new line-up of a band he formed, Gopal himself is very much secondary to “Ian Willis” (which was the name Lemmy went by at the time) as lead singer, guitarist and frontman, as well as the songwriter of more than half of these tracks.
The substitution of the traditional rock drummer, replaced by Gopal’s inventive percussion, gives the album a unique feel and identity. Lemmy’s vocal and fuzz guitar are given prominence in the mix and the heaviness of the riffs really drives these tracks along.
The original liner notes credit the bass to another player, but it’s unmistakably Lemmy trialling the prototypes for his signature style on at least a few of these songs. Certainly, there are several pummelling bass runs later re-used by Motorhead which gets their first outings here, and You’re Alone Now is essentially an early version of Hawkwind’s The Watcher. Ok, it’s a one-off with limited novelty appeal, but it’s a fun record with a unique sound.
Sunforest – Sound of Sunforest
This penultimate pick could also be described as a fun, light record in some ways, if an unusually musically sophisticated one too. It’s a difficult album to categorise as it features a variety of wildly different styles, but can be broadly defined as psychedelic folk, and is the work of the trio of Terry Ann Tucker, Erika Eiger and Freya Hogue, two of whom were classically trained musicians.
There are splashes of authentic-sounding medieval and renaissance music, alongside electronica, jazz and pop. Although a relative commercial failure, it somehow came to the attention of Stanley Kubrick who memorably used two of its pieces on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange.
But it’s the funky pop of tracks like Lighthouse Keeper and Magician in the Mountain that probably most account for the record’s cult status, collectability and frequent rate of its reissue. It’s an oddball collection, but it contains moments of real musical skill and quiet beauty alongside superior pop escapism and is worthy of your consideration.
White Noise – An Electric Storm
This is probably the most out-there record of this particular list.
White Noise formed in 1968 when American electronics student David Vorhaus attended a lecture given by Delia Derbyshire. Vorhaus somehow convinced Derbyshire and her fellow BBC Radiophonics Workshop alumnus Brian Hodgson to collaborate with him on an experimental project drawing inspiration from maverick producer Joe Meek’s studio innovations and ‘50s Musique Concrete.
The resulting album is a ground-breaking record which compares favourably with other early psychedelic electronic music, like Silver Apples, or the United States of America. Unlike their US contemporaries, Derbyshire and Hodgson were seasoned veterans of electronic music production who had the benefit of classical training, and it shows.
Split into two parts, the lighter first half of the album consists of songs not a million miles away from Broadcast and the Hauntology bands of today. One particularly dreamy track, Love Without Sound, was ambitiously released as a single, but sank without trace, as did the album at first.
But side two is the most challenging half, consisting of two lengthy and experimental pieces. Such was the effect of album closer Black Mass: Electronic Storm in Hell that it was later used to soundtrack parts of Hammer Horror’s Dracula AD 1972. Fifty years later it remains a mind-blowing and unsettling listen.