Jun 20, 2018

1968: Anthem of the Sun review


The road between spring 1967 and autumn 1968 has not been an easy one for your above average, generally talented, usually creative, rock 'em sock 'em lay-it-on-the-kids rock group.
It has been a difficult road for them because all of a sudden that spring, people started taking rock a little more seriously, for better or worse, leaving rock musicians without the focal points or the heavy doses of tradition that earlier contemporary music had fed upon almost exclusively.
The earthquake that the West Coast explosion and Sergeant Pepper brought about left most groups groveling in the dark, attempting to re-define their musical boundaries and carve out some sort of valid identity for themselves in the rock world.
Many of the groups could not or would not make any worthwhile transition and subsequently have fallen by the wayside, either by issuing incredibly sterile albums, disbanding, or sticking to the tried (tired) and true formula they had previously laid on the citizens.
Some of the groups, however, have come through unscathed, notably Buffalo Springfield, the Beatles (after a long, long period of doubt that wasn't helped much by Magical Mystery Tour), and the Grateful Dead.
Let's get at the Dead.
The Grateful Dead contributed a large section of the fuse that ignited the West Coast explosion I mentioned earlier, with their first album, Grateful Dead (WS 1689). They crashed into the rock scene a year and a half ago exuding enough pure kinetic energy to light and heat Wheeling, West Virginia for six months.
In reality, their initial album was one long song, the song of creative men digging what they were doing and rolling, no, hurtling through their musical lives. It was plainly an album to jump around with.
But now, after a year of recording and contract hassles, the Dead have stopped some of the jumping with the release of Anthem of the Sun (WS 1749).
I think there are three basic concepts relevant to Anthem of the Sun, so let's hang anything else we want to say about it around them.
The concepts are: 1) musical talent and proficiency, 2) maturity, and 3) accessibility (or lack of it).
In order now. The musical proficiency of the Grateful Dead is almost unrivaled in contemporary music. Individually, Jerry Garcia on lead and Phil Lesh on bass stand far above most of their so-called competition in the field. Lesh has gone farther than anyone except possibly the early McCartney in liberating the full potential of the electric bass.
Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann have developed into a superlative rhythm section and even Ron "Pigpen" McKernan is getting into his vocals and organ work on a higher level than before. Musical proficiency is valuable, however, only because it broadens the scope of what a group can accomplish and visualize for itself. And vision depends on maturity.
The Dead albums surpass so many of the others released during the same period of time because the group has learned to follow the shortest possible route to their destination. They say everything they have to say quickly, generally as simply as possible, and get off your turntable.
For instance, it is interesting to look at what Jefferson Airplane did with electronic effects on After Bathing at Baxter's and compare it to the studio effects on Anthem of the Sun. The former group never knew when to stop turning dials and hence created a hodge-podge of meaningless gimmicks, while the latter used electronic sounds to subtly enhance the album's total effect. Maturity does that for groups.
Accessibility. The Grateful Dead are one of a dwindling number of musical aggregations that refuses to give their audience something for nothing. They don't sugar-coat their sound, their album covers, or their image. They are saying to their audience, "If you honestly come along, you'll love it and we'll be good to you. But if you want it free, go to hell."
The Dead have learned all of the rules, melodically and structurally, and now they are taking no small pleasure in breaking them one by one. It makes for a difficult music and a difficult concept. But if you take some time, they will let you in on where they are headed, and it's a nice place to go.

(by Little Sherri Funn, from the Michigan Daily, University of Michigan, 14 September 1968)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

Other Anthem reviews:

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Bonus review!


Obviously the latest Jefferson Airplane album, Crown of Creation (RCA Victor LSP-4058), is the best they've ever done.
But that just isn't saying very much.
I always thought that somewhere beneath all the crap JA released there must have been some mature musicians and an occasional decent songwriter. And although it's taken three poor albums for them to find themselves, the group seems finally ready to grow up musically.
The first Airplane effort, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, is nice to look back on as the one that helped give birth to the whole San Francisco scene. Although it sounded like it was recorded in a garbage can and engineered by moles, there was the unmistakable sound in it of a very real facet of American life (i.e., hippy-commie-creeps) trying to express itself musically. And, after all, they were the first to go nation wide.
Then they hit with Surrealistic Pillow and the psychedelic-freak-out-do-your-own-thing business became contemporary. The album was blessed with a classic of The Summer of Love in "White Rabbit" and, unfortunately, little else.
The problem with Pillow was that it had a tremendous lack of unity. The songs simply did not hang together. It hurt them to be played together. Also, the arrangements were very slick, almost the Al Hirt version of acid-rock. But it sold a million, the first of its genre to do so, which, I suppose, means something.
The members of Jefferson Airplane themselves realized that their first two albums weren't much, and they pressed RCA hard to be able to do their next one completely on their own.
Result: The Jefferson Airplane Party, or After Bathing at Baxter's.
Baxter's was the result of seven months of off and on recording, and it will stand forever, along with Their Satanic Majesties Request, of course, as one of the classically overdone albums. Far, far too much over-dubbing, re-recording, plain noise, etc. to make it anything more than a dull, sterile, gimmicky offering. It was, with the exception of one beautiful track, "rejoyce," an incredible immature recording. It sounds as if they had a good time recording it, but that's about all that is noteworthy about it.
As the group later said, "Baxter's was our first real album. We had a lot to learn."
The eight months between Baxter's and Crown of Creation featured a de-escalation of the Airplane attack, not totally unlike Dylan's de-escalation in John Wesley [Harding]. There seems to have been a general discarding of some of the myths surrounding JA's musical sorties and they began to get down to songs with direction, consciousness, and clarity, just as Dylan did. (Not that any of these qualities are absolute virtues in and of themselves, but they are noticeably lacking and necessary as components of any revitalization of today's generally rancid rock scene.)
Hence, Crown of Creation, and Grace Slick firmly establishes herself as a first-rate writer by virtue of the album's first cut, "Lather." I think Grace Slick is probably a pretty wicked woman in real life, which allows me to excuse her slightly affected wicked singing. Her voice is warm but her phrasing and emphasis are ice-cold, giving birth to an extremely interesting and unique sound. But you already know that from "Somebody to Love."
The best cuts on the album are "Triad," written by David Crosby, and "Crown of Creation," the title song. "Triad" is interesting because it shows a perfect wedding between artist, in this case Grace, and material. It's a very effective work. "Crown of Creation" is more along traditional Airplane lines, but somehow it seems more unobtrusive and less obnoxious than stuff like "You and Me and Pooneil." It, more than any other cut on the album, shows how the group has come to work with taste. They've simply desisted with a lot of irrelevant guitar and feedback and the effect is one of a refreshing breeze in a stuffy room. 
A lyric sheet is enclosed in the album, which is sort of a help in befriending it, and Crown of Creation is definitely the kind of an album that you should get to know, even though slowly and carefully. After being deluged with Buddah records and the slightly higher class Cream, "Crown of Creation" hopefully gives promise to an emergence once again of reason in rock.
Maybe the kind of atmosphere that permits Wheels of Fire to be the number one album in the country is disappearing.

(by Little Sherri Funn, from the Michigan Daily, 4 September 1968)


1 comment:

  1. Sherri Funn was the pseudonym for the rock columnist in the U of Michigan student paper in 1968. I'm surprised he liked Anthem so much, since in general he was in favor of "honest," non-pretentious, non-gimmicky rock without a whole lot of studio trickery - he preferred hummable songs to brilliant engineering. He considered Sergeant Pepper a terrible influence on rock music, was disdainful of the Airplane, and despised Cream (in the 10/1/68 column, he said Cream "exemplifies perfectly to me what is rancid about today's rock scene," calling them "dishonest, overly slick, and creatively sterile"). On the other hand, he was a Doors fan.

    He'd seen the Dead live (though not mentioning it here), which might inform the review. He praises Garcia & Lesh as players, and says the Dead are more "mature" than other psychedelic groups.
    But this is a strange review in that he doesn't actually say much of anything about the album. He admits that it's difficult and not very accessible, but says the electronic effects are "subtle" and implies the songs are quick, simple, and short - which is so far from the case that I wonder if he was putting on readers.