Tag Archives: 1960s

Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.

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Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil in concert

A piece of history

Few artists have occupied such a prominent place in the history of modern Brazilian music as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Guitarists, singers and composers, the two musicians (both born in 1942) were also key figures in the popular tropicália movement in the 1960s, and have been close friends  and collaborators ever since.

Apart from being widely acclaimed as composers and singers, both Veloso and Gil were also involved in various ways with the political developments in Brazil during the second half of the 20th century. They were both arrested and exiled from Brazil in 1969, as the Brazilian military regime viewed their music and political action as a threat. They eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s and, in an interesting turn of events, Gil would even serve as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.

It is hard to overestimate Veloso’s and Gil’s contribution to Brazilian music and culture in general. They have had an immense influence upon subsequent musicians and songwriters at home, while they have also been active ambassadors of Brazilian music abroad, introducing it to large audiences worldwide through their recordings and live performances over the years.

Parallel paths, complementary voices

Earlier this week, Veloso and Gil came to Barcelona for a joint concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana. Opening with the cheerful Desde que o Samba é Samba, the two artists went on to present an eclectic mixture of songs covering several decades of Brazilian music, including many popular tunes such as Drão, Terra, Super Homem, A luz de Tieta, and Tres palabras.

Their simple, modest appearance and basic setup (two chairs and two guitars) were a striking contrast to the flamboyant and richly decorated interior of the Palau’s concert hall. But their beautiful melodies, excellent musicianship, delicate singing, and tuneful guitar playing were more than enough to compensate for the absence of fancy costumes or large backing bands.

Caetano_Gil

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona (2 May 2016)

Gil’s voice may have lost some of its older sparkle and tonal range, and Veloso may not be quite as active on stage as in the past (although he did try a little dance at some point). However, with both of them well into their seventies, these are just details of minor importance. Their brilliant performance proved that they are still perfectly capable of captivating their audience and creating that unique, magical atmosphere that Brazilian music seems to evoke when played by such exceptional performers.

My only thought (and wish) after leaving the concert was that hopefully Veloso and Gil will continue to share their gifts for many years to come. Having been on parallel paths for more than half a century, the chemistry between them is simply astounding, while their playing and unique voices continue to perfectly complement one another.

The geniuses behind the hits

In the history of popular music there have been certain groups of musicians with a profound impact on the making and recording of hit records. They consist of the session players largely responsible for the sound of many great songs we all know and love, but never cared to look beyond the names of the star performers they’re usually associated with.  So let’s get to know some of these unsung heroes…

Hidden in the shadows

Known as The Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based session musicians who performed on Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972 played on more No.1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined! Despite this astonishing feat, they were essentially uncredited  as Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971.

Consisting of phenomenal talents such as bass player James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, The Funk Brothers played on a long string of classic recordings including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Their extraordinary story is told in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002).

Looking back at their list of achievements, one indeed understands why they have been called “the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music.”

Meet The Wrecking Crew

Another group of session musicians that played a big part in how American pop music sounded during the 1960s was The Wrecking Crew. This assembly of highly skilled and versatile musicians, many of whom were formally trained in jazz or classical music, recorded practically every style of pop music in existence and worked with artists such as Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel.

Moreover, The Wrecking Crew was used by legendary producer Phil Spector for his trademark “Wall of Sound”, while songwriter Brian Wilson also worked with the Crew to materialize many of his sonic visions during the 1960s, including the album Pet Sounds and songs such as Good Vibrations and California Girls.

The remarkable story of The Wrecking Crew was also made into a film, which can serve as a great introduction to the musicians responsible for the sound of some of the most successful pop music the world has ever known (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye – one of the few female session players of that period).

The secret of Muscle Shoals

There are some special places where the conditions for making great music seem to be just right. One such place is Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The musicians largely responsible for what came to be known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” were The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), a group of soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in Muscle Shoals who have appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits in total.

The Swampers worked originally at the legendary FAME Studios, established by American record producer Rick Hall. Some of the artists they recorded with at FAME were Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals

Immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”), The Swampers left FAME in 1969 to form The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, becoming first time rhythm section -consisting of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass)- to own a studio they could use for recording and production purposes.

Several rock and pop artists arrived to record at the new studio, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The incredible story of  Rick Hall, The Swampers and a small town that would become the mecca of America’s most celebrated recording artists  is the theme of the recent documentary Muscle Shoals.

White bicycles: Music making in the 1960s

A short history of the sixties

“The sixties began in the summer of 1956, ended in October of 1973 and peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.” 

For anyone interested in the cultural and music developments of the 1960s, Joe Boyd’s fascinating memoir White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960s is a must read (the book title refers to the 1967 song My White Bicycle by Tomorrow, which was about Amsterdam’s community bicycle program). Full of incredible anecdotes as well as precious insights, it highlights less-known aspects of the 1960s music business and its protagonists.

Boyd was a key figure himself. As a tour manager he organized concerts for artists like Muddy Waters, Stan Getz and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He was also responsible for the sound at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan confronted the audience with his controversial electric set. Furthermore, he went on to become a successful record producer, working with bands such as Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd.

From blues to folk and beyond

In his book, Boyd describes the blues boom of the sixties and its increasing appeal to white audiences, which marked “the end of the natural life of the form.” As he puts it: “No white person in America in 1964 – with the exception of me and my friends, of course – knew who John Lee Hooker was.”

He goes on to chronicle landmark events such as the Newport Festivals between 1963 and 1965, which saw the rise of Bob Dylan as Woody Guthrie’s heir and his subsequent turn from political song to a “decadent, self-absorbed, brilliant internal life.” Boyd is even willing to provide the exact time slot of this major shift: “Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965.”

Revolution and disillusionment

Moving on to the cultural scene amidst swinging London, Boyd recalls: “In 1966 the world was changing by the week. (…) Soho that year was like the steppes in AD350, with Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Huns queuing up to pillage, destabilize and eventually take over the Roman Empire.” There is no doubt for the prominent role of the English capital: “New York would never have moulded Hendrix’s genius into as powerful a pop persona as London did.”

Boyd describes the music of the early Pink Floyd as “the soundtrack for the Underground” and likens the choruses of Syd Barrett’s songs to “fertile planets in a void of spaced-out improvisation.” For him, one of the most enduring images of the whole era was that of “the four Floyds bent together over their instruments in concentration while purple and turquoise bubbles of light play over them.”

As for the unprecedented commercial success that followed in the post-Barrett era: “Pink Floyd’s success is difficult to analyse or explain. What they brought with them from Cambridge was all their own; London in 1967 just happened to fall in love with it first.”

Parallel to the music-driven narrative in White Bicycles, Boyd also illustrates vividly the optimism, idealism and progressive tendencies of the time: “Despite differing notions of what the revolution was about, an atmosphere of agape was pervasive in 1967: people were fundamentally quite nice to each other. (…) What London witnessed in the spring of ’67 was more than an endorsement of a new musical style, it was a mass immersion in the sub-culture that gave rise to it.”

Interestingly, he is also careful to demonstrate the other, darker side of this eventful period: “Beneath the surface, the progressive sixties hid all manner of unpleasantness: sexism, reaction, racism and factionalism. (…) The agape spirit of ’67 evaporated in the heat of ugly drugs, violence, commercialism and police pressure. In Amsterdam, people started sealing and repainting the white bicycles.”

In conclusion, Boyd’s White Bicycles makes for some fascinating reading. Next to the impressive parade of (more or less) famous musicians featured in its pages, the author also refers in passing to a variety of topics from Cuban music to the downsides of digital recording. Personally, I found extremely valuable the abundance of references to artists and recordings I had never heard of before, and enjoyed greatly reading about the background stories to some of the best music ever made (as in the chapters on Nick Drake, which are particularly rewarding).

Great moments of Greek(lish) rock, pt.1: The Psychedelic Apocalypse

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.

(Rev. 13:18)

Although 60s-70s Greek rock music was of no particular interest to the international public (not least because of obvious linguistic reasons), there were however some notable exceptions. Perhaps the most well-known Greek English-singing band of the era is Aphrodite’s Child (named after a song by Dick Campbell), formed in 1967 by Vangelis Papathanassiou (keyboards), Demis Roussos (bass guitar and vocals), Loukas Sideras (drums and vocals), and Anargyros “Silver” Koulouris (guitar).

Their first single Rain and Tears (1968), an adaptation of Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D, was recorded while the band was based in France. It met with considerable international success and went on to sell more than one million copies.

The band’s undisputed masterpiece, however, would be 666 (The Apocalypse of John, 13/18). Recorded between late 1970 and early 1971, 666 is considered a landmark in the history of progressive rock. An album of astonishing musical diversity, it was a powerful combination of original concept and highly innovative sound.

666 was largely Vangelis’s own musical project, as is testified by the advanced (for the time) use of synthesizers/keyboards, sound effects, and overall production. Musically, the album contains several remarkable moments (e.g. Aegean Sea, Break, The Four Horsemen), however it works best when seen as an uninterrupted, thematically-unified musical composition.

Aphrodite's Child: Best ofIts musical merits notwithstanding, the release of 666 was not unproblematic. The record company did not approve of the record’s length and largely experimental style, to say nothing about its subject matter. To top it off, the track “∞” featured Greek actress Irene Papas singing frantically “I was, I am, I am to come” in an aural simulation of female orgasm.

When the double album was eventually released in 1972 (one year after it had been completed), its blood-red cover (where the number 666 is prominently displayed) would also stir some controversy. This, however, only helped to boost the album’s sales, which exceeded 20 million copies worldwide.

Despite being the band’s greatest achievement, 666 would also be their swan song. Relationships between band members grew increasingly worse during the album’s recording, and by the time the record was out Aphrodite’s Child had already split. Both Roussos and Vangelis would follow successful solo careers, the latter achieving worldwide fame as a composer of electronic music (including the soundtracks for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire).

Even though the children of Aphrodite had chosen to go their separate ways, they had managed to give birth (albeit a troubled one) to their psychedelic masterpiece – an everlasting monument of Greek rock music and one of the defining albums of the 70s progressive and experimental scenes.

Music in colors

I often associate music up to the early sixties with film noir. All these black and white photographs from jazz artists performing in smokey bars, people sweating it off on the dance floor, Elvis with his guitar, The Beatles in Hamburg – they appear before my eyes just like sequences of a great two-color movie starring the biggest names of pop culture, plus countless of less known actors in side roles or as mere extras. Some more important than others, but all of them part of the bigger picture.

A picture that was about to be painted with a seemingly inexhaustible range of colors, over the course of the fateful decade that would culminate in the psychedelic frenzy of the Summer of Love and the social unrest of the Parisian May. Alongside the explosion of colors in the movie theatres, the visual representation of art and artists would also become part of this revolution through posters, photographs and highly imaginative album covers. A new world had arrived, a world seen as through a giant kaleidoscope, full of colorful patterns and magical reflections. Black and white was being pushed irrevocably to the kingdom of nostalgia, becoming its official ambassador.

And what about the music? Were all the black and white notes on the music sheet also painted in fresh, vibrant colors for the first time? Not quite. Music contained its color -or rather colors, countless colors- since its very inception. Every musical sound that can be produced has always had its match in a parallel, imaginary palette of endless color variety. Still, it takes a skillful composer to meaningfully arrange the different sounds, not unlike the master painter who organizes his paint across an empty canvas as he sets out to produce a true work of art.

Colors, thus, do not only exist in order to please our eyes, but can also appeal to our sense of hearing. For this to happen, all their unique, subtle and infinitesimally different shades need to find their aural counterpart from a similarly endless variety of sounds. Being able to appreciate and listen to all these extraordinary, enchanting tone colors blending together in something meaningful is a special, and somewhat miraculous, sort of synaesthesia only made possible thanks to one thing: music.