Psych and Prog

Meat Puppets “Up On The Sun” (SST, 1985)

Kurt Cobain’s favorite Meat Puppets album was II. Obviously. And it’s not hard to understand why Nirvana covered three songs off of it (“Plateau,” “Lake Of Fire,” and “Oh, Me”). Its combo of poignant, desert-fried mysticism and virtuoso, Tasmanian Devil punk packed a distinctive punch—especially for 1984. As great as II is, though, I like Meat Puppets’ follow-up even more.

When Up On The Sun tumbled off the SST Records conveyor belt of awesomeness in 1985, it hit fans like a solar flare. Curt Kirkwood (guitar), Cris Kirkwood (bass), and Derrick Bostrom (drums) had taken another great leap forward, leaving behind their punk roots for a bizarre agglomeration of psychedelia, country/bluegrass, and prog rock. I’m happy to report that Up On The Sun still blazes as hot as it did over 35 years ago. Either that or I’m stuck in my 23-year-old mindset. Anyway

The opening title track finds Curt in mellow stoner sage vocal mode (think Jerry Garcia crossed with Steve Miller) as the group slouch into a Grateful Dead-like, implied-funk amble. Then the buoyant chorus shocks you into a body-wide alertness, as if you’ve actually found yourself on the titular star. Helluva way to begin your best album. The intro to “Maiden’s Milk” barges in with a Zappa-esque motif of absurdly frilly prog-jazzitude, then the song shifts to a swift, Leo Kottke-esque bluegrass romp, with bonus chipper whistles. Here, we become aware that Curt switches into different styles and tones with an unparalleled, speedy nonchalance that would make Frank’s mustache curl with envy.

The album’s greatest achievement, “Away” recalls both the Police’s “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around” and the Feelies’ “Away” (what are the odds?). There’s a faint undercurrent of swerving, Möbius-strip insistence in Curt’s guitar riff that speaks of Afrobeat knowledge, and the track feels as if it’s going to fly right out of the grooves into that fiery orb in the sky. The mercurial country funk of “Animal Kingdom” is awash with wonder about said domain, and the bridge features Cris’ bass mimicking noises of imaginary creatures. Nice!

Another highlight is “Swimming Ground,” which combines head-spinning country-rock euphoria and touching nostalgia for a childhood idyll. It’s as if the Puppets spiked the concept of “Americana” with the strongest amphetamines and LSD—both of which it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine the band consuming in those heady days. “Buckethead” is not a tribute to the Guns N’ Roses guitarist, as he didn’t hit public consciousness till the early ’90s, but the fleet, fluttering filigrees Curt peels off here would surely make him doff his KFC container in respect. The song sounds as if Fear Of Music-era Talking Heads had lost their uptightness and put pedal to the metal. It gives quirkiness a good name.

Up On The Sun‘s remaining five songs offer nonstop excitement. “Enchanted Porkfist” is a clunky pun, but this fast and furious instrumental zooms and curlicues like an American Southwestern Gentle Giant. It’s a new breed of prog rock in which unpredictable tempo changes and virtuosity sound as natural as getting a sunburn in Arizona, Meat Puppets’ home base. Throughout, Curt flaunts superhuman reflexes yet an unbelievably gentle touch that enables him to generate riffs that zip by at an astonishing clip while also sounding velvety, twinkly, and pliable—it really is miraculous, like the Dead’s “Dark Star” at 78rpm. “Creator” abounds with Curt’s faux-wise gobbledygook about deities—which is just as valid as any “good book”’s gobbledygook, and it boasts the advantage of rocking way harder than the Bible or Koran.

Every Meat Puppets release after Up On The Sun receded farther away from its unprecedented incandescence, and that’s okay. Cobain and company knew that trying cover anything on it would be a fool’s errand, because the songs here are too dauntingly sui generis. You have to know your limitations. -Buckley Mayfield

David Crosby “If I Could Only Remember My Name” (Atlantic, 1971)

This major-label album has emerged through nearly five decades of fluctuating interest and apathy to become at once a bargain-bin staple and a cult favorite. You don’t see that happen very often. My used copy’s cover is torn and frayed as much as David Crosby’s life has been, and that ugly exterior somehow makes the music within the grooves seem that much more special.

If I Could Only Remember My Name arose in the aftermath of Crosby’s emotional devastation following the death of his girlfriend, Christine. The former Byrd was eight miles low when he entered the studio. Emotionally and artistically buoyed by friends in high places (and high friends in spaces), Croz manifested a record that was like a miraculous mirage of folk-rock jamming and heart-string-tugging lyrics.

Name might have been the greatest pity party ever thrown, and it proved that a dozen or so millionaire musicians can set aside their egos and create an enduring work of healing spirituality, in order to mend a damaged psyche. It’s also the rare LP that has influenced middling indie-rock artists such as Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens as well as delighted lovers of rarefied psychedelia.

It begins with “Music Is Love,” a pinnacle of hippie rock. The song rides an easygoing acoustic-guitar riff and hand percussion/handclap rhythm, bolstered by a simple, indisputable message/mantra: “Everybody’s saying music is love.” Everybody was saying no such thing back then or at any other time, but isn’t it lovely to think so? Through the pure beauty of the tune, though, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Written by Crosby, Graham Nash, and Neil Young, this tune must’ve made Stephen Stills very jealous.

Then comes the “Cowgirl In The Sand”-like “Cowboy Movie,” which sounds like a laid-back James Gang with its subtle, clipped funk undertow. Grateful Dead members dominate here, with Jerry Garcia on guitars, Mickey Hart on drums, Phil Lesh on bass, Bill Kreutzmann on tambourine. Over their Haight-Ashbury groove, Crosby relates a harrowing tall tale about an Indian woman who’s not what she seems. Not sure this track needs to be over eight minutes, but maybe the drugs were kicking in real nice when Croz and company cut it. “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” is a mellow, wee-hours CSN tune with gorgeous wordless vocal harmonies—a motif on Name. With Nash joining Croz on vocals, the song goes airborne thanks to Garcia and Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen unspooling liquid gold filigrees.

For a lot of people (maybe even me), “Laughing” is the LP’s peak. You have the goddess Joni Mitchell and Nash on silken backing vocals, Garcia getting glorious on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Kreutzmann on drums. They all lock into synch for this languorous sigh of a song that’s like a more rhythmically easygoing version of “Cowboy Movie.” Think of it as the aural analogue to the LP cover, on which the descending sun glows above the ocean that’s superimposed over Crosby’s pensive stare. The album’s most menacing track, “What Are Their Names” starts with spare, “Dark Star”-esque intrigue, thanks to Garcia’s spindly, stellar picking. With Mitchell, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and David Freiberg on backing vocals, Croz and the crew intone lyrics about the evil men who run the country/world. Timeless stuff, unfortunately. Bonus: Seattle resident and Santana star Michael Shrieve’s on drums.

The album’s final four songs are marked by some of the most beautiful and majestic vocal arrangements and performances of the ’70s. The traditional “Orleans” is a showcase for Crosby’s soaring choirboy voice and delicately gorgeous acoustic-guitar strumming. You can hear its profound influence on Fleet Foxes, for what that’s worth. This track bleeds seamlessly into “I’d Swear There Was Somebody Here,” whose vocal origami of ancient-sounding majesty prefigures Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Yep.

There are fewer rougher bummers than losing a lover to death, obviously, but Crosby and his posse of West Coast all-stars turned the sourest lemon into the sweetest lemonade on If I Could Only Remember My Name. -Buckley Mayfield

The Supremes “New Ways But Love Stays” (Motown, 1970)

If you abandoned the Supremes after Diana Ross departed the hit-making vocal group, you should reconsider. Start making amends by listening to New Ways But Love Stays, the second studio album with Jean Terrell as their lead singer. Ably assisted by Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and the Andantes, the Supremes proved they could thrive without their head diva, scoring their biggest post-Diana hit with “Stoned Love” (#7 on the Billboard singles chart), a slice of irresistible soul that’s at once brassy and blissful—a very difficult feat.

See, another reason not to bail on the Supremes sans Ross is that Motown in 1970 was still producing some of the most ambitious and ingenious soul music in the world. I wish I could tell you who’s responsible for the luxurious backing on New Ways, but Berry Gordy was stingy with credits for some unfathomable reason. Frank Wilson produced every song here except one, though, and he deserves plaudits for the maximalist, orchestral excitement happening here. And whoever selected the songs to cover merits a medal.

The album opens with a version of the Spinners’ “Together We Can Make Such Sweet Music.” A love song, uh, supreme, this is sumptuous, busy soul that testifies with intricate vocal arrangements and vaguely psych-rock guitar embellishments. And is that a Minnie Riperton-like wail or synth hijinks at the end? Whatever the case, it’s awesome. A reverent cover of a reverent song, the Supremes’ “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is executed with utmost skill and nuanced feeling. It elegantly explodes when it needs to, although Art Garfunkel still has the ladies beat with that showstopping chorus. I bet Paul Simon was pleased, and not just for the royalty checks.

Doing one of the Beatles’ funkiest and oddest songs, “Come Together,” may seem counterintuitive, but the Motown brain trust and the Supremes made it something special. They made a sitar the lead instrument, surprisingly relegating the bass to the background. It’s pretty funny as well to hear Terrell sing “walrus gumboot” and to ham it up on the “hold him in his armchair, you can feel his disease” line. What goofy fun this is. Speaking of which, the rendition of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” is the album’s peak. I realize you may be skeptical, but hear me out. This accidental jock jam and 1968 chart-topper by one-hit wonders Steam has been transformed by the Funk Brothers into a clap-happy charmer with sitar accouterments, slamming beats, and sax filigrees to fly for. This is DJ gold, and you should see people’s faces when you tell them who’s responsible for it.

Some other highlights on New Ways include the mellow and funky “It’s Time To Break Down,” which hip-hop producer DJ Premier sampled for Gang Starr’s “JFK 2 LAX.” You just can’t deny orchestral soul with that mighty Motown budget behind it. And while “Shine On Me” may be boilerplate Motown upfulness, it bears so much vocal creamy sweetness and is inflated by inspirational horn charts, you may mistake it for a Rotary Connection joint.

New Ways‘ original title and cover caused some controversy within Motown’s offices. Stoned Love was deemed too drug-friendly and the women’s black turtlenecks were considered an endorsement of the Black Panthers, so compromises were made. Weak sauce, Mr. Gordy, but thanks anyway for releasing such a gem.

*The 1991 CD reissue contains a bonus cut of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With.” -Buckley Mayfield

Nancy Priddy “You’ve Come This Way Before” (Dot, 1968)

Nancy Priddy had a one-and-done solo career in music, but You’ve Come This Way Before stands as one of the best albums by an actor—perhaps a low bar, but still. (Priddy acted in TV shows such as Bewitched, Matlock, and The Waltons, and gave birth to another actor, Christina Applegate.)

Before she retired from music for good, though, Priddy racked up impressive credits with the great, grave folk singer/poet Leonard Cohen and synth master Mort Garson. For Cohen, Priddy sang backup on three tunes from his 1967 debut LP, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, including “Suzanne” and “So Long, Marianne.” With Garson, she flexed thespian prowess to recite astrological insights over Mort’s abstract Moog emissions for myriad Signs Of The Zodiac records. On the gossip tip, Priddy briefly dated Stephen Stills and inspired the Buffalo Springfield song “Pretty Girl Why.”

It was while working with NYC folk group the Bitter End Singers that Priddy met producer Phil Ramone, as well as arrangers Manny Albam and John Simon, all of whom would contribute considerable skills to You’ve Come This Way Before. The musicians are uncredited, but the internet reveals that Bernard Purdie mans the drumkit, and you can tell that’s true from the subtly funky beats on the album-opening title track. Whoever else is backing Priddy’s dulcet, coquettish singing, they’re a killer crew.

Now, most women making records in the ’60s didn’t have much autonomy with regard to songwriting, but Priddy pens every tune here, and the lyrics bear a poetic depth about the vagaries of romance and existence. They’re closer to Joni Mitchell, Bobbie Gentry, and Nico than to those of the evanescent pop stars of the time, e.g., “A chess game played by gods/In which there are no odds/A Master Plan directing man to something more/Our pathways are magnetic/Our logic is synthetic/Our struggle is so pathetic, and a bore.”

Those lyrics to “You’ve Come This Way Before” add luster to the hip, understatedly funky sunshine pop that spectacularly blossoms, thanks partially to the ever-resourceful Purdie. The arrangers whip up exquisite quiet/loud/quiet dynamics while Priddy expresses kittenish charm with sporadic forays into dulcet belting. She’s not quite Dusty Springfield or Bobbie Gentry, but Priddy’s a capable conveyor of subtle emotions.

If you dig orchestral pop à la Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Claude Vannier, you’ll love “Ebony Glass,” which achieves a majestic moroseness through harpsichord, violins, harps, and glockenspiel. “Mystic Lady”is an arty ballad with lush melodies, surprising, intricate vocal arrangements, and prog-like dynamics—a tour de force with soul. Named after the famous Andrew Wyeth painting, “Christina’s World” is as ornate and sweeping as the Left Banke, thanks to the arranging and conducting of Everett Gordon. The album’s most uptempo song, “My Friend Frank,” is almost as quirky as Lothar And The Hand People and as swinging as the United States Of America’s “Hard Coming Love.” Respect to whoever plays the madly swirling, spiritual organ solo.

Two of the LP’s highlights remind me of another late-’60s woman singer-songwriter who should’ve been much bigger: Margo Guryan (see my review of her Take A Picture album on this blog). “We Could Have It All”’s towering feel-good pop also recalls the 5th Dimension and it makes you feel as if you’re soaring to your final reward. Another should’ve been hit, “On The Other Side Of The River,” offers nonstop excitement, hip-swiveling rhythms, and melodic sweetness, much like Guryan’s “Love,” which is highest praise.

Modern Harmonic reissued You’ve Come This Way Before on vinyl in 2020 and the UK label Rev-Ola re-released it on CD in 2005. Grip this jewel before it slips out of print again. -Buckley Mayfield

Kraftwerk “Kraftwerk” (Philips, 1970)

Musicians sometimes have very poor insight into what constitutes their best work. Bob Seger and Alex Chilton come to mind. One of the most extreme cases of this unfortunate phenomenon is Kraftwerk. The legendary German group’s founders—Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider-Esleben—are/were undoubtedly intelligent people, but for baffling reasons, they refuse(d) to acknowledge the existence of their pre-Autobahn releases. It’s a shame, because Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk II, and Ralf & Florian represent some of their greatest, most adventurous creations.

Like many of their early ’70s Deutschland compatriots (Can, Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Faust, Popol Vuh, Et Cetera, etc.), Kraftwerk were both striving to distinguish themselves from post-WWII German culture and not simply imitate the era’s dominant Anglo-American rock paradigms. Operating under this liberating notion, Kraftwerk created some of the most revolutionary experimental rock and electronic music of all time. Most heads still aren’t ready to absorb the genius percolating on these early records (plus that of Tone Float by Organisation, Ralf and Florian’s pre-Kraftwerk band).

The sounds on Kraftwerk et al. diametrically oppose the precise, linear driving musik and robotic electro-funk that marked their work from the mid-’70s onward. No doubt, all of that stuff should be revered, too, and its influence is staggering. But it’s so frustrating that the creators of those early releases disown them, making the LPs ripe for bootlegging and gray-area reissues. I normally don’t condone buying those, but in this case, do what you gotta do to get ’em.

So, finally, to Kraftwerk’s debut album. Produced by the studio wizard Conny Plank, it consists of four long tracks, each a mind-blower. Opener “Ruckzuck” (translation: Right Now) is the pinnacle of flute-centric avant-rock. Schneider’s electronically treated instrument stutters and splutters with contrapuntal ingenuity, forming a mesmerizing motif over Andreas Hohmann’s motorik drums and Hütter’s guitar stabs and organ whorls. An interlude of cymbal and warped-to-hell flute crescendos will shock you with a horror-film force. That rupture is indicative of a piece that keeps regenerating, changing tempo, accruing strange textures, ebbing and flowing, and throwing surprises at your ears at a frantic rate. “Ruckzuck” is nightmarish yet euphoric psychedelic music as you’ve never heard it before. Schneider proves himself to be the Sonny Sharrock of the flute, a mad genius who took his instrument’s timbres to heretofore unexplored and untamed realms..

Stratovarius” (Schneider plays violin, too) resembles Can’s “Aumgn,” emitting several minutes of maleficent squall and alienating drones. Eventually, a slack, quasi-funky rhythm emerges along with cantankerous guitar feedback and squawks. When the song shifts into a freak-rock rave-up à la Can’s “Outside My Door,” it reveals Kraftwerk deconstructing rock into fascinating shapes while ratcheting up the intensity to horrifying dimensions. “Megaherz” is an electronic experiment in extreme dynamics and tonalities, but it’s not without its tender, beautiful passages. The one in which Schneider’s flute and Hütter’s organ and triangle cohere into a meditative respite is exemplary.

Von Himmel Hoch” (From Heaven Above in English) remains one of history’s maddest album-finales. It begins with a series of otherworldly aircraft noises, explosions, and alarms. Gradually, a menagerie of bizarre animal growls generated with a modified organ called a “tubon” coheres into a powerful rhythm, underscored by future Neu! member Klaus Dinger’s pugilistic drums. As some of the most fucked-up borborygmus/stomach gurgles ever laid to tape ensue, you think, “It’s too bad Roger Waters and Ron Geesin didn’t conceive these sounds for their Music From The Body LP.” Unexpectedly, the track gets urgently funky near the end, before finishing with a bass frequency explosion. WOWOW.

To reiterate, it’s shameful that Kraftwerk is out-of-print. Instead, it deserves a reissue with liner notes, previously unseen photos, bonus tracks, the works. Come on, Ralf. Quit being such a Scheisskopf. -Buckley Mayfield

Can “Monster Movie” (Music Factory, 1969)

Choosing a favorite Can album is like pinpointing your favorite orgasm—damn near impossible, but fun to contemplate. As with many things music-oriented, it depends on your mood. One of the great things about these German geniuses (plus their American and Japanese vocalists) is how different each LP is. On any given day, your fave could be the unique funk bomb of Ege Bamyasi, the aquatic space-out of Future Days, the psych-rock/musique-concrète amalgam of Tago Mago, the proto-techno rhythmagic of Soon Over Babaluma, the alien dub and robo-funk of Flow Motion, or the raw-nerved, Velvet Underground-inflected trips and trance jams of Monster Movie. Or yet another one. Choose your adventure, etc.

My lifelong love affair with Can—whom I consider the greatest rock band ever—began with Monster Movie in the very early ’80s. I was smitten from the first seconds of “Father Cannot Yell,” which is a skewed, avant-garde take on the Velvet Underground at their most adrenalized—but with a loose-cannon, African-American sculptor on vocals instead of a NYC hipster. Nothing else really sounded like this in 1969: Holger Czukay’s ominous pulsations of sinewy bass; Jaki Liebezeit’s robust, tricky beats; Irmin Schmidt’s synapse-sizzling keyboard fibrillations; and Michael Karoli’s radiant guitar; Mooney’s spluttering of a disturbing, primal, parental scenario. “Father Cannot Yell” is not so much a traditional rock song as it is a surge of panicky energy that makes you think earth is spinning off its axis.

The next track, “Mary, Mary So Contrary,” ushers in a 180º shift to slack, clanging rock in the vein of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Cream’s “World Of Pain.” Karoli’s articulate guitar lead whines and snakes through the song like a tortuous siren and is underpinned by Liebezeit’s emphatic, deceptive funk beats. Mooney’s obsessive, lyrics about the titular woman are strange, but this might be the most conventional love song in Can’s canon, outside of “She Brings The Rain.” “Outside My Door” features a wonderfully doleful train-whistle harmonica wafting over a spasming psych-rock roar that’s somewhere between 13th Floor Elevators ca. Bull Of The Woods and Mass In F Minor-era Electric Prunes. Mooney looses a stream of discombobulated consciousness in which the standout line is “Any color is bad.”

Monster Movie climaxes on “Yoo Doo Right.” A 20-minute Ouroboros jam of throbbing intensity and sublime subterranean tremors, this is really Holger and Jaki’s show. The formidable rhythm section creates an undulating foundation of low frequencies, heavy on the bass twang and tom-toms, over which Schmidt’s keys and Karoli’s guitar fill the firmament with aching drones that hint at VU’s “Black Angel’s Death Song.” Mooney sings about his lust-object mantras as if possessed: “once I was blind now I can see/now that you’re in love with me/you made a believer out of me, babe/you made a believer out of me/she said, ‘yoo doo right, yoo doo right.’” At around 8 minutes, the song reduces to rimshots and Mooney sadly intoning the lyrics for a minute; then the rest of the band resume forging periodic swells of keyboard burbles and a fuzzed-out guitar riff that’s like a fanfare for an advanced civilization. Czukay and Liebezeit continue to build a mountain of rhythm out of bare necessities. Mooney’s OCD rants and tender singing capture the mindset of a man in an agitated state of romantic thralldom. It’s an exhausting yet exhilarating trip.

Monster Movie contains some of Can’s most straightforward rock moments, but also their most prodigious improv epic (just nudging out “Halleluwah”). It’s a start-to-finish mind-bender and a rewarding entry point into their incomparable catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Bee Gees “Bee Gees 1st” (Polydor/ATCO, 1967)

Rock bands that emulated the Beatles were 10 a penny in the mid/late ’60s. But among the legions of Fab Four disciples from that era, few sounded as sublime as Bee Gees. They decisively proved this point with Bee Gees’ 1st (actually their third LP, but first to be released worldwide). It’s a cornucopia of baroque psychedelic pop that out-John-Paul-Georged nearly everybody in the field. (Klaus Voorman, the brilliant artist who designed the cover for Revolver, also did a fantastic job with 1st.)

1st came out about six weeks after Sgt. Pepper’s in the UK, and peaked at #7 on the Billboard album chart. That’s how sophisticated pop-music consumers were in 1967. At this point, the Gibb brothers—Barry, Robin, and Maurice—were working with Australian musicians Vince Melouney on guitar and drummer Colin Petersen on drums. Bill Shepherd and Phil Dennys handled the orchestral arrangements with panache. These musicians made for a formidable team.

Right off the bat, “Turn Of The Century” and “Holiday,” show Bee Gees’ vast emotional range. The former’s ebullient baroque pop with echt Beatlesque vocal harmonies, which contrasts with the latter’s lachrymose ballad of precious intimacy, although Shepherd’s orchestrations nudge “Holiday” into Moody Blues/Left Banke territory.

The album really takes off with “Red Chair Fade Away,” an eerie efflorescence of psychedelic pop in the “Strawberry Fields Forever” vein. It pushes a profound nostalgic button for people who love songs in which instruments such as flute and violin seem to be melting in the studio—a number larger than you’d think. Out of sheer quirkiness, Robin brays like a sheep after Barry repeatedly sings “red chair fade away” near song’s end, and “I can feel the speaking sky” is brilliant and terrifying synesthesia. Another towering high point is “In My Own Time,” whose strutting garage-psych recalls “Taxman,” a style I wish the Gibb bros attempted more often. (By the way, the Three O’Clock did a nice cover of this tune on 1983’s Sixteen Tambourines.)

New York Mining Disaster” uh, mines the old-timey vibe of the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.” However, it is the Gibbs’ perverse genius to turn a tragic story about a worker being trapped in a mine into a soaring, feel-good hit. The bittersweet vocal harmonies and phrasing come off as a combo of “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The delightful psych lite of “Please Read Me” is as shaggily wonderful as your favorite Help! or Rubber Soul tune. “I Close My Eyes” is a very special song, bristling with strange beauty, staunch drumming, bravura fragile vocalizing à la 1966-era John Lennon, and a bizarre ee-ew sound that seems like a mistake that producer Robert Stigwood decided to keep for sheer WTF? value.

Beatles panto is fine and all, but do Bee Gees have soul? Oh, they certainly do. Dig “One Minute Woman,” a blue-eyed-soul charmer with sophisticated swagger and elevated by sumptuous strings and horn charts akin to a Lee Hazlewood production. “To Love Somebody” was originally written for Otis Redding, and it shows. One of the greatest love songs ever, it bursts with soul as it swims in a profound orchestral pathos and Barry sings his ass off. No wonder it’s been covered by Nina Simone, Rod Stewart, Roberta Flack, Gram Parson, Janis Joplin, and many others.

Saving the best for last, we come to “Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You.” Featuring anguished mellotron played by Maurice and Gregorian-like chants (“o solo dominique”), Bee Gees set a Moody Blues tone before shifting into a stoned bliss psych-rock gem that stands up to the best of Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. Amazing that this song, with its odd dynamics and strange atmospheres, appeared on the B-side of the “Holiday” 45. I can’t be the only one who freaked upon hearing “Every Christian” on the radio for the first time. In the context of commercial airwaves, it’s hard not to gasp, “What is this?”

It’s that mad combo of sonic adventurousness and indelible catchiness that makes Bee Gees 1st the group’s zenith and a stone-cold classic. -Buckley Mayfield

Larry Coryell “Barefoot Boy” (Flying Dutchman, 1971)

From 1969 to 1975, guitar virtuoso Larry Coryell had a phenomenal run of solo albums for prestigious labels such as Vanguard, Flying Dutchman, and Arista. (His date with German avant-jazz keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner on Et Cetera’s Knirsch LP is essential, too.) During this time, Coryell was challenging hotshots such as John McLaughlin, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey, Ray Russell, and John Abercrombie for jazz-rock-guitar supremacy.

Of all the great recordings Coryell cut in that golden period, Barefoot Boy may be the strongest. At points, it predates the fury and finesse of Miles Davis’ On The Corner by about a year. In 1969, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau called Coryell “the greatest thing to happen to the guitar since stretched gut,” and for a change, I agree with him.

Recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios and produced by Flying Dutchman label owner Bob Thiele, Barefoot Boy charges out of the gate as if ablaze. Coryell and company radically intensify Gábor Szabó’s “Gypsy Queen” to nearly 12 minutes, forging thrumming, seething jazz rock over which saxophonist Steve Marcus breathes rococo fire while Coryell unleashes a Hendrixian vernacular on guitar: scultped feedback, fleet wah-wah riffs, divebombs. The rhythm’s monomaniacally repetitive and robust, thanks to Roy Haynes’ drumming and Lawrence Killian’s conga. Surely, Mr. Szabó was impressed.

It may take a while to catch your breath after that, but hurry, because “The Great Escape” is gonna make you move some more. It’s a brazen funk cut redolent of the torqued tension of Axis: Bold As Love and On The Corner, with Haynes’ clanging cymbal work accentuating the roiling rhythm. Coryell goes into hyperdrive with thick, corrugated riffs and mercurial, pointillistic runs while Mervin Bronson’s bass line churns lubriciously. Icing this groovy cake, Marcus gets off a Wayne Shorter-esque solo of concise brilliance. Was Miles taking notes?

The 20-minute “Call To The Higher Consciousness” begins with an uplifting fanfare not unlike the one in Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” with Mike Mandel’s piano emulating the rolling bliss of Lonnie Liston Smith’s. Marcus takes the lead in the early stages, blowing golden arabesques over a lovely, loping rhythm. Eventually, Coryell emits a flurry of crystalline notes that ripple with mind-boggling fluency. There’s room for everyone to take a solo in this sidelong journey, including Mandel’s gorgeous shower of high-pitched chords and Haynes’ nimble and rugged drum workout. When the group barge back in, they spew a geyser of spiritual-jazz euphoria akin to that heard on Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana’s Illuminations. After several bursts of febrile joy, the song downshifts into subdued mode in the last few minutes.

Although rarely touted as such, Barefoot Boy belongs in the fusion pantheon, with your Spectrums, your Emergency!s, your Birds Of Fires, etc. -Buckley Mayfield

Harvey Mandel “The Snake” (Janus, 1972)

The fact that you often see Harvey Mandel’s albums in the used bins is yet more proof that the world’s full of fools. The Detroit-born blues-rock musician is a guitarist’s guitarist who played with some of the best blues-rock musicians of the ’60s (Canned Heat, John Mayall, Charlie Musselwhite) and was thisclose to joining the Rolling Stones. You can hear Mandel auditioning for the slot given to Ron Wood on 1976’s Black And Blue, on which Harv knocked it out of the park on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel.” I can’t be the only one who thought Mick and Keef blundered with their pick (pun intended).

Anyway, Mandel’s string of albums from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s is strong, with The Snake being its peak. Right from go, “The Divining Rod” alerts you to Mandel’s six-string mastery, with its dynamic, swerving rock powered by righteous cowbell. He wrings serpentine, silvery lines of dazzling intricacy and elasticity, and you can tell Meat Puppets’ Curt Kirkwood was listening intently. The zig-zagging, Gábor Szabó-esque jazzadelia of “Pegasus” assumes a Romani tinge thanks to Don “Sugarcane” Harris’ spirited violin coloration. As for “Peruvian Flake,” I learned from the Urban Dictionary that the title’s a slang term for cocaine, so it’s apropos that this song’s quicksilver rock of mind-boggling technical proficiency. It’s kind of shocking that Steely Dan didn’t hire Mandel after this came out.

Some other highlights include “Ode To The Owl,” a moving blues-rock solo guitar tribute to Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson, who died in 1970 at the tragically young age of 27 and “Levitation,” whose sly jazz rock is elevated by Charles Lloyd’s flute, Freddie Roulette’s sublime, pointillistic steel guitar solo, and Kevin Burton’s flamboyant soul-jazz organ solo. My fave cut is “The Snake” (a slightly less sublime and psychedelic version appeared on Mandel’s 1968 debut LP, Christo Redentor). This might be the coolest, most funkadelic track in Mandel’s canon, and as I’ve discovered as a DJ, it segues very well into Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” Mandel saved the fieriest for the last with “Bite The Electric Eel.” This is a fried blues-rock jam that can hold its own with Peter Green’s The End Of The Game. The song’s full of staggering showboating, but there’s nothing at all annoying about it.

I paid $1 for my used copy of The Snake, but as it’s the zenith of one of America’s most virtuosic and tone-smart blues-rock guitarists, the album’s worth at least 30 times that. Hot stuff, indeed. -Buckley Mayfield

Kevin Ayers “Bananamour” (Harvest, 1973)

Is this the second-greatest rock album featuring a banana on its cover? Quite possibly. While Bananamour is not quite as important as The Velvet Underground & Nico, it does boast the best song ever about the German vocalist who appeared on the Velvets’ landmark LP. More on that later.

Kevin Ayers’ last LP for the prog-oriented Harvest label, Bananamour isn’t as far out and cerebral as 1970’s Shooting At The Moon or as wonderfully weird as 1969’s Joy Of A Toy, but it has more hits than misses and it contains perhaps the founding Soft Machine member’s greatest composition. More on that later.

Bananamour—a fruity, bilingual portmanteau word that suggests Ayers is not to be taken totally seriously—starts with the woozily beautiful and ominous “Don’t Let It Get You Down (For Rachel),” a ballad redolent of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and “Carry That Weight.” Ayers’ feeds his voice through a Leslie speaker while backing vocalists Liza Strike and Doris Troy vibrantly burst to the fore with the title chorus. The carefree lope of “Shouting In A Bucket Blues” is elevated by guest musician Steve Hillage’s honeyed, psych-blues-inflected electric guitar, which contrasts with Ayers’ lusciously lugubrious acoustic-guitar strum. Bassist Archie Legget steps to the mic to sing “When Your Parents Go To Sleep,” a brassy, wobbly legged blues-rock ballad about aching hormones. His voice is like a less pugnacious Joe Cocker while the tune resembles the Stones’ “I Got The Blues.” I’m not complaining.

Another impressive guest, Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge, illuminates “Interview.” With Legget’s bass line getting to the funky nitty-gritty, this is severe blues rock that cuts as deeply as Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” Thankfully, this tune gets stranger as it goes, with Ratledge going off into the stratosphere with some mindblowing improv. Another Soft Machine alumnus, the inimitable Robert Wyatt, bestows harmony vocals to the warm, intimate ballad “Hymn.”

Bananamour has a couple of goofy tangents, too. “Oh! Wot A Dream” falls somewhere between Pink Floyd’s “Pow R. Toc H.” and a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band ditty while “Caribbean Moon” comes off as a British take on Nilsson’s “Coconut,” with all the insouciant charm and faux-calypso vibe that that implies. (“Caribbean Moon” appears on the US Sire edition, not the original Harvest release.)

Now for the pièce de résistance (thank you for your patience)—“Decadence,” a chiming, slow-blooming drone-rock epic that portrays the aforementioned Nico as a cold, elusive heartbreaker. A key passage: “Fading flowers in her hair/She’s suffering from wear and tear/She lies in waterfalls of dreams/And never questions what it means/And all along the desert shore/She wanders further evermore/The only thing that’s left to try…/She says to live I have to die.” Harsh, dude. The song’s gradually accelerating and ascending cruise to the stars (Legget’s bass is a spiraling, springy wonder) foreshadows soulful British space-rockers Spiritualized. That is high praise, indeed. You can bet legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel loved Bananamour. -Buckley Mayfield

Lothar And The Hand People “Presenting…” (Capitol, 1968)

Look at that cover. The five members of Lothar And The People seem like the high-school students most likely to join a benign cult based on the plot of a ridiculous fantasy novel. Yet after they moved from Denver to New York City, the quirky quintet signed to Capitol Records… and the rest is cult-rock history.

LATHP cut two surprisingly good albums and then adios’d. But they had the distinction of being the first rock group to tour with synthesizers and one of the few to manipulate Theremins. These nerds had an air of gimmickry about them, but they also had talent. Their 1968 debut album, Presenting…, abounds with high-quality, Moog-enhanced novelty rock.

Produced by Robert Marguleff of the excellent synth duo Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (who later worked studio magic on Stevie Wonder’s best albums), Presenting… begins auspiciously with “Machines.” A Mort Shuman composition originally cut by Manfred Mann in 1966, the track rides a ludicrously chunky, mechanical rhythm while the singer belts a cautionary tale about said machines transforming from things that serve humans to becoming our enslavers. The grim message almost gets lost in the robotically bouncy joy the music induces.

A jarring transition occurs with “This Is It,” an easy-going, jazzy charmer that carries the air of a sly Mose Allison tune. The melody is sophisticated yet attention-grabbing, immediately burrowing itself into your memory bank and wiggling adorably there forever more. More catchiness ensues on “This May Be Goodbye,” a psych-pop tune toggling between endearing and annoying, thanks to John Emelin’s nasal, forceful vocals, and “That’s Another Story,” which feels at once old-timey and as hip as Pentangle-esque folkadelia, thanks to its wonderful see-sawing melody.

LATHP could go hard, too. “Sex And Violence” is a groovy, heavy jam featuring the title chanted and sung menacingly. Rusty Ford’s bass line is sick and the guitar solo anticipates Butthole Surfers freak Paul Leary. The tough yet baroque garage rock of “You Won’t Be Lonely” evokes Detroit’s SRC. “It Comes On Anyhow” is the most psychedelic and disjointed moment on the record, full of “OM”s, warped harpsichord motifs, Paul Conly’s synth drones, Tom Flye’s huge beats, and mutterings of “It doesn’t matter.” Imagine a more concise “Revolution 9.”

For Moog-lovers, Conly shines on “Milkweed Love,” an ominous ballad in the vein of Mort Garson and Jean-Jacques Perrey, and “Paul, In Love,” a beautiful reverie à la Garson’s Plantasia. Plus, nearly every song here is capped by little Moog filigrees.

A cloying wackiness occasionally mars Presenting… “Kids Are Little People”’s goofy children’s-television rock and “Woody Woodpecker” (yes, the cartoon theme) especially annoy. But the loony-bin-bound pop of “Ha (Ho)” at least has the decency to end with an enticing electronic coda that foreshadows Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. Thankfully, most of this LP hits the sweet spot between sublime and silly. These songs may carry an indelible late-’60s timestamp, but that only adds to their charm when heard in 2020. -Buckley Mayfield

The Undisputed Truth “Cosmic Truth” (Gordy, 1975)

The plaything of producer/composer/arranger Norman Whitfield, the Undisputed Truth were Motown’s great black freak-soul hopes—basically, the Temptations’ younger, wilder siblings. UT even recorded several songs cut by the Tempts (and Rare Earth, for that matter), a ploy that demonstrated Motown boss Berry Gordy’s practice of recycling the catalog in order to milk hits for all they’re worth. Because Whitfield and his songwriting partner Barrett Strong were on a scorching creative roll in the ’70s, the Undisputed Truth reaped the artistic rewards of their genius, if not the commercial successes of Motown’s more palatable acts.

Cosmic Truth is UT’s sixth album and their second of 1975, following the flamboyantly soulful and funky Higher Than High. For me, Cosmic Truth is the group’s peak. It should be discussed with the same reverence people reserve for classics such as Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and Love’s Four Sail.

The LP’s gatefold spread features UT’s five core members wearing garish silver makeup and sporting huge white afros, a visual analogue to what you’ll hear in the grooves. Opener “Earthquake Shake” immediately tips you off that Cosmic Truth isn’t going to be your father’s typical Motown release. This brassy, tumultuous psych funk is the sonic embodiment of the title. A bit beyond the halfway point, a massive drum break enters and the whole song gets about 77 percent funkier and stranger. The coda of birdsong, distant backwards strings, oboe (?), more earthquake rumble unexpectedly takes the song into prog territory (Moody Blues or early King Crimson). So far, so surprising.

But you ain’t heard nothing yet. How about an oozing-molasses cover of “Down By The River”? Undisputed Truth soul up Neil Young’s 1969 epic to the max, elevated by an absolutely heavenly keyboard performance by Mark Davis. The guitar solo here—it sounds like Motown session badass Dennis Coffey—is a shimmering helix of spun gold. Neil had to have been gobsmacked by how godly this version was.

However, “UFO’s” [sic] is not a surprise; it’s spacey, psychedelic funk with guitars that sound like gnarly, alien engines. It’s also the LP’s most explicit Parliament-Funkadelic homage, with vocals evoking Bootsy Collins’. Similarly, “Lil’ Red Ridin’ Hood”’s sleazy funk could’ve easily slotted on Free Your Ass And Your Mind Will Follow. “Spaced Out” is my go-to track on Cosmic Truth for DJing purposes. Its strutting and rutting funkadelia with exceptional dynamics, caustic guitar pyrotechnics, and the echoed unison backing vocals send this interstellar lust song over the edge.

1990” features mad guitar heroics in a dank, midtempo, War-like vein, harmonica and all. Finally, the fantastic, heartbreaking “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” which the Temptations made a hit in 1966, receives a supremely soulful treatment with a sweet piano solo, subtly effective congas, and masterly vocal arrangements. It’s up there with the commanding renditions by Rod Stewart and the Faces and Rare Earth.

The aptly titled Cosmic Truth is one of Motown’s most fascinating, undersung magnum opuses. -Buckley Mayfield