Thursday, December 17, 2020

Jimi Hendrix - Straight Ahead (1970)

Jimi Hendrix released his third and final album, "Electric Ladyland", in October 1968. It was released some two years before his untimely death in 1970, and is considered by many his greatest achievement as a musician and songwriter. What many people don't know, however, is that in those 24 months between the release of EL and his passing, he was working on a new studio album to follow it up. Hendrix played around with many titles for said record, such as First Rays of the New Rising Sun, which is how the project is more popularly known, People Hell & Angels, which is the title of an unrelated outtakes compilation released in 2013, and even Straight Ahead, after the song of the same name he recorded during these sessions. He was also unsure about the format in which to release all of those songs, with the record being either a double or triple album, and many different configurations and tracklistings being tried by him, without ever settling on a final sequence. Throughout his recording with the Band of Gypsys, from November 1969 to February 1970, and his work with the Cry of Love Band, from March 1970 to shortly before his death in August 1970, thirty or more songs were recorded and left behind in varying degrees of completion, and slated for inclusion on the album at some point or another, in the various shapes this album took throughout its recording. All in all, his fourth studio LP has become one of the most mysterious unfinished albums of all time.

In trying to piece together what Jimi Hendrix's fourth studio album would look like, fans have come across two tracklists from sometime in mid-1970. One of them, a three-sided, fourteen-song album with "Dolly Dagger" as the opening number, has already been tackled by the great soniclovenoize a while back, so it would be futile on my part to try and improve on his work, as I honestly wouldn't be able to. So what I will do is base my work on the other tracklist: a 25 song list with no sides, titled simply "Songs for L.P. Strate Ahead". While many don't even consider it a proper tracklist, and mostly ignore it when discussing Hendrix's final recordings, I disagree with them, as listening to some of the songs in the order they're in on the list you end up with some pretty great sounding flow, and the feel of a more or less cohesive album. However, I will not just simply put together the 25 songs and call it a day for two very simple reasons: it's missing a couple of very key tracks we know for a fact were slated for inclusion on the album, and it's got two songs that hadn't even been written yet, let alone recorded. That means our work will have to be dividing the list into sides, adding the missing songs where they fit best on the sequence, and trying to keep it cohesive and making sense, as much as it is possible. Also, I will try my best to only use mixes done by Jimi himself, with obvious exceptions to incomplete songs and those he didn't get to mix, but still had overdubs done before his death.

Of course, the sheer amount of songs available to us make it very tempting to turn this into a triple LP, and that's exactly what we're going to do. Even the 25 song list by itself wouldn't fit too snugly on two discs, let alone an expanded version of it, which means we will be expanding this album to six sides, since Hendrix was already considering doing so anyway. Another positive thing that can be seen when analyzing the list is the number of songs in a finished or nearly finished state. The vast majority of those songs are available in rough mix form, with those mixes being approved by Hendrix himself, and come from the same November 1969/August 1970 period we're working with when compiling this album. That means we will be dealing with a whole lot of finished or almost finished material, which certainly helps balance out the more demo-like unfinished songs on the record, and keep this album from sounding too unfinished itself. As for the others, all but one of my selections was officially released, and only one song comes from before our November 1969 threshold. Those of course are his solo demo of "Heaven Has No Tomorrow", from June 1970, and the July 1969 take of "Hear My Train a-Comin'" we will be using in this reconstruction, since those are the two only useable studio versions of both tracks we have available. Anyway, not to keep you waiting any longer than I already have, let's take a look at what our Straight Ahead album looks like:

Ezy Ryder (The Cry of Love)
Room Full of Mirrors (Rainbow Bridge)
Earth Blues (Rainbow Bridge)
Valleys of Neptune (Valleys of Neptune)
Belly Button Window (The Cry of Love)
Straight Ahead (The Cry of Love)
Cherokee Mist (Purple Box)
Freedom (The Cry of Love)
Stepping Stone (War Heroes)
Izabella (War Heroes)
Astro Man (The Cry of Love)
Drifter's Escape (South Saturn Delta)
Power of Soul (Both Sides of the Sky)
Angel (The Cry of Love)
Bleeding Heart (War Heroes)
Message to Love (West Coast Seattle Boy)
Burning Desire (West Coast Seattle Boy)
Night Bird Flying (The Cry of Love)
Drifting (The Cry of Love)
Come Down Hard on Me (Purple Box)
Electric Lady (Rainbow Bridge)
Getting My Heart Back Together Again (People, Hell, and Angels)
Lover Man (Purple Box)
Midnight Lightning (South Saturn Delta)
Heaven Has No Tomorrow (Soulful Sessions)
Sending My Love (Both Sides of the Sky)
Lonely Avenue (West Coast Seattle Boy)
Beginnings (War Heroes)
Dolly Dagger (Rainbow Bridge)
Machine Gun (Band of Gypsys)
In from the Storm (The Cry of Love)
The New Rising Sun (Rainbow Bridge)

Billy Cox, Jimi Hendrix, and Mitch Mitchell of The Cry of Love band in early 1970

The first side of this reconstruction consists of the first five songs on the "Strate Ahead" list, plus Jimi's solo demo of "Belly Button Window", his final studio recording. It was only written and recorded after the making of this list, which explains the song's absence from it, even though it is present on the three-sided sequence reconstructed by soniclovenoize. I added it to side one in order to break the sequence of fast-paced rockers with something slower, and that's something this song does pretty well, being a midtempo blues shuffle, with only guitar and vocals. It also adds about three minutes to a relatively short side, which is certainly welcome. Our side two will simply be songs six through eleven of the list, as the songs in it flow together pretty well, and make up a nice 22-minute side we will leave intact, even though I wish Jimi's mix of "Cherokee Mist" would be released soon. Side three consists of songs twelve through fourteen of the list, plus "Power of Soul" and "Message of Love", both of them being songs given a final mix during Hendrix's last week at the studio in August 1970, and also being released in live form on the Band of Gypsys album earlier in the year. The former acts as a side opener, as "Angel" doesn't work too well in that spot, and the latter stands in between two slower and bluesier tracks, helping improve the pace of the album. Aside from the lack of vocals in "Burning Desire", all songs have been pretty much finished by now, which makes for a strong listening experience.

Side four is the more complicated one of the bunch, with songs fifteen through seventeen of the list, plus "Drifting" and "Come Down Hard on Me", two songs Hendrix worked on during the August 1970 mixing sessions and were listed in his other working sequence. The complication here stems from the fact that I think "Electric Lady - slow" is actually "Pali Gap" from the Rainbow Bridge soundtrack. Many things point to it, such as the original name for "Pali Gap" being "Slow Part", and the song being recorded at Electric Lady being enough evidence to warrant its inclusion. And it's not as if we have many other songs that could fit this description, either way. Moving on to the final disc, side five includes songs eighteen through twenty-three of the original list, with only the final two songs, "Locomotion" and "This Little Boy", replaced by "Lonely Avenue" and "Beginnings", two songs Hendrix mixed during his final recording sessions and were seriously considered for inclusion on the album. The songs we replaced are being so because they were never recorded by Jimi, and for all we know, no manuscripts of them exist either. As for side six, we simply use songs twenty-four and twenty-five as bookends for the side, and add the other two songs Jimi had available back then: "In from the Storm", which was recorded after the list's creation, and an edited, audience-less version of "Machine Gun", in order to bring this final side to a more reasonable length of 24 minutes.

As for an album cover, I used a painting Jimi had commissioned with painter Henri Martinez, with the intention of using it as an album cover for the First Rays of the New Rising Sun project. As Martinez explains it, "this painting would present him as a proud Cherokee warrior, holding his weapon of peace - an electric guitar.", which is a great concept behind a beautiful looking painting. This album is far from a finished product, obviously, but even in its rough, unfinished state you can see what great things Jimi had been doing during the final months of his life, and what a fantastic album he would've put together had he lived past 1970. Had he managed to finish the material he had available, he would've most certainly put together an album to rival Electric Ladyland and Axis: Bold as Love in quality, all that while moving in a different direction and looking for a funkier, more soul-influenced sound. The single off this album would most probably be "Dolly Dagger" with "Night Bird Flying" on the b-side, as that was already the planned single before Jimi's death, and makes for a good, funky introduction to what was supposed to be a new chapter in Hendrix's career. And for someone who spent two whole years without releasing a note of music, it's only fair that he should release a triple album to compensate for his absence, showing us the greatest guitar player of all time still had it in himself to compose great songs, before his untimely death and return to the New Rising Sun.

Jimi Hendrix - The Cry of Love
Jimi Hendrix - Rainbow Bridge
Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Hendrix Experience [Box set]
Jimi Hendrix - West Coast Seattle Boy
Jimi Hendrix - Both Sides of the Sky
Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune
Jimi Hendrix - War Heroes
Jimi Hendrix - South Saturn Delta
Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels
Band of Gypsys - Band of Gypsys

Monday, December 07, 2020

The Byrds - The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

The Byrds released their sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in August 1968. It came after a schism in the group, where guitarist David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke left the group, right before the release of their 1967 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. For a while, the group carried on as a trio, augmented by drummer Kevin Kelley, who also happened to be bass player Chris Hillman's cousin. The band was unsure about how they would carry on, with leader and guitarist Roger McGuinn plotting a double album which would consist of the history of popular music, from old 1930's folk music to the music from the future, complete with synthesizers. This project was supposed to be called 20c, and he wanted a jazz pianist to join the group, in order to make the double album possible. That in of itself is a great opportunity for a reconstruction, which Albums Back from the Dead already tackled very well. McGuinn thought he got his wish of a piano player when, in a chance encounter at an LA bank, bass player Hillman met Gram Parsons, songwriter, singer, and then was still a member of the International Submarine Band, one of the biggest pioneers in the country-rock genre, which was itself still in its formative years as of 1968. Since Parsons could play the piano, he joined the Byrds that February, and the band set out to perform shows and plan their next steps as a group. He and Chris bonded over their shared love of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and other country music legends, and together convinced McGuinn to scrap his plans of a double concept album in favor of a full-on Byrds country music record, captained mostly by those two. McGuinn agreed, and the new Byrds lineup set out to Columbia Studios in Nashville to make what is probably one of the greatest country-rock albums of all time.

The problem is, it really wasn't recognized as such back then. A disastrous performance at Nashville's traditional Grand Ole Opry, where they were heckled for their long hair, and an appearance at DJ Ralph Emery's radio show, where they were ridiculed by Emery as not real country performers, and he very heavily criticized their single "You Ain't Going Nowhere" before playing it. That, combined with the very poor commercial performance of the record (it managed to be "too rock" for country radio and "too country" for the so-called progressive FM stations) already brought on some tension to the band, with a power struggle between McGuinn and Parsons starting to form. Parsons had ambitious plans for the band, including a deeper dive into the country genre, which involved integrating pedal steel guitar player JayDee Maness into the band, and crediting them as "Gram Parsons and the Byrds". Things came to a head when, right before a South African tour, Parsons left the band on the grounds that he did not want to play for segregated audiences, and stayed in London to hang out with the Rolling Stones. With that, guitarist Clarence White was recruited, with his friend drummer Gene Parsons (no relation) replacing Kelley on the drums. This lineup only lasted about a month, with Hillman following Parsons' lead and leaving the band, in order to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with him. However, McGuinn decided to carry on, and with new bassist John York, they cut the very bipolar Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde in late 1968, a strange but well performed mixture of psychedelic rock and country. It was followed by the Burritos' The Gilded Palace of Sin, which featured a much more country sound, and that meant the Sweetheart LP gave birth to two very different followups, by the two different sides of the story.

What you might already be asking yourself is: what would the follow-up to Sweetheart of the Rodeo look like, had Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman stayed in the Byrds? And to figure out how a second Parsons-era Byrds album would look like, we can look at Sweetheart of the Rodeo and make some parallels in how we will compile this album. Sweetheart was an 11-track album, with nine covers and two original songs, with the lead vocals shared more or less equally between McGuinn, Hillman, and Parsons. When comparing the material we have available for this album with the songs they recorded then, however, one thing that's clear is that there is much more original material available for us right now, as those three seem to have started writing songs after recording the album. Which means we will be doing the exact opposite to Sweetheart in that aspect, and have only two cover songs (one from the Burrito side and one from the Byrds side), with the rest of the material consisting of new stuff. That "nine original tunes and two covers" ratio was already used in the album immediately preceding our timeline, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which means they'd likely return to it as well. Other than that, no songs written outside the mid-to-late-1968 period will be included, as this is the timeframe of the recording and writing of both Byrds and Burritos albums, and most songs included here will also have to have been recorded during sessions for the aforementioned albums, with only one exception which will, as usual, be explained later. The album would've been recorded in Nashville, as was the case with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and produced by the Byrds' typical producer Gary Usher. And without any further ado, here's what our reconstructed album will end up looking like:

The Devil in Disguise (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
Sin City (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
King Apathy III (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)
Do Right Woman (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
Bad Night at the Whiskey (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)
My Uncle (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
Wheels (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
High Fashion Queen (Burrito Deluxe)
Stanley's Song (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)
Juanita (The Gilded Palace of Sin)
Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)
This Wheel's on Fire (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)

Bonus tracks:
Old Blue (Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde)
Dark End of the Street (The Gilded Palace of Sin)

Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, and Hillman sometime in early 1968.

The Flying Burrito Brothers' first album featured eleven songs, with two cover songs included. Of those, we will only include five, those being "The Devil in Disguise", "Sin City", "My Uncle", "Wheels" and "Juanita". Unfortunately, both Hot Burritos were written in collaboration with Burritos bass player Chris Ethridge, which means the songs would've not have been written in this timeline. "Do You Know How it Feels" is a song from Gram's International Submarine Band period, and "Hippie Boy" is just a horrible song, which means both will have to go as well. That means we already have five originals, with three Gram leads and two Chris vocals. One song we will be including, however, is "High Fashion Queen", from the followup record Burrito Deluxe. Apparently, it was written during the same writing sessions as most of Gilded Palace of Sin, and was inexplicably left off the album. It's included as it has a more rock and roll sound than the other Burrito tracks, and helps give this album some cohesion. As for The Byrds' album, it features four covers and six original tracks, of which we'll include three, with those being "King Apathy III", "Bad Night at the Whiskey" and "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man". Neither "Candy" nor "Child of the Universe" are included, as they were both not meant for the Byrds (they were part of the soundtrack to the movie Candy) in the first place, and are simply bad songs. We will be including outtake "Stanley's Song", however, as it feels at home with the Burritos tracks, and as with "High Fashion Queen", helps keep the album cohesive. And as for the covers, we'll include the obligatory Bob Dylan cover, "This Wheel's on Fire", representing McGuinn and the new Byrds lineup, and the best of the two covers included on the Burritos' two albums, "Do Right Woman", with Gram providing the lead vocals. With that, we only need to sequence the album and call it a day.

We will start off the record as with TGPoS, with the opening combo of "The Devil in Disguise" and "Sin City". Since the original recordings were sped up about half a key in order to speed up the tempo of both songs, I reverted this effect by slowing down the tracks by half a key in Audacity, with both of them finally sounding right to my ears. They are followed by the first rock songs on the album, "King Apathy III", and the countrified cover of soul music classic "Do Right Woman", which provide some contrast to the proceedings. Yet another McGuinn original, "Bad Night at the Whiskey", another more psychedelic song, is followed by a bluegrass song about dodging the draft, "My Uncle", closing out side one as it did on the Burritos' record. Side two also opens as it does in our timeline with the mellow "Wheels", which is followed by the rockier "High Fashion Queen", and by sci-fi country tune "Stanley's Song". But moving on, we have "Juanita", followed by the only McGuinn-Parsons song ever written, "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man". Given its importance, I had it become the second-to-last track on the album, with only "This Wheel's on Fire" coming after it, as it's probably the best album closer out of the material we have. As for what group would perform on these tracks, I can see a main band of the four Byrds, with Gram handling all keyboard parts and Hillman still on bass, with Roger McGuinn singing all of Chris Ethridge's backing vocal parts, and Gram Parsons singing harmony with Roger on "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man", which he co-wrote. They would be joined by pedal steel player JayDee Maness (whom Gram wanted to become a member of the Byrds!) on all Burritos songs and "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man", and Clarence White on all Byrds songs and also on "High Fashion Queen".

The record will still be titled The Gilded Palace of Sin, as that is a reference to "Sin City", probably the greatest song on the record, and it just sounds like as great LP name. To keep some sort of "conceptual continutity" going with the album that came before it, I used a painting by artist Jo Mora, the same man who painted the cover of Sweetheart. Given the album title, I used a painting that also featured a girl at center stage, but instead of a cowgirl, I chose one which had a more, well, sinful nature. The fact that she's wearing a golden crown makes it even better. Divided into two 20-minute sides, TGPoS is nothing short of an equal to its predecessor, continuing its fusion of country and rock and tipping the balance a little more towards rock, which to my mind is a good thing. A problem which might arise is that there's no clear lead single in the album, although both "The Devil in Disguise" and "This Wheel's on Fire" could serve that purpouse pretty well, even if we know neither of them could become smash hits like the ones the group saw in the past. This album is also pretty well balanced in the lead vocal department, with five leads by McGuinn, four by Parsons, and three by Hillman. This also has the distinction of being the first Byrds record to feature 12 tracks since Mr. Tambourine Man, which might be controversial to some of you Byrds purists. To sort that out, simply remove the weak "Stanley's Song" from the sequence, and your wish of an 11-track album is granted! It's a shame that the mercurial Parsons could never stay in one place or band for long enough, and the music world really suffered for it in this case. If only Parsons and Hillman had managed to stay on just a little bit longer, before flying off to greater things, and had given one of the greatest albums of all time the sequel it deserved.

The Byrds - Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde
The Flying Burrito Brothers - The Gilded Palace of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers - Burrito Deluxe