Category Archives: Stephen Stills

The Essentials: Stephen Stills – Manassas

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In today’s age, the double album seems almost quaint: two vinyl slabs that, combined, hold anywhere from 70 to 100 minutes of music. But they were a Big Deal back in the day, as that second slab substantially upped the cost to the consumer. Instead of $5.99-7.99 (plus tax), which was the average price of an LP when I began buying them in the late 1970s, a fan had to plunk down almost twice that ($9.99-11.99) – unless it was an Elvis Presley compilation on Pickwick, that is. I picked up the 2-LP Double Dynamite for $3.99 at a Montgomery Ward. (Of course, one look at the song list explains the low cost.)

Many double (and triple, for that matter) albums captured live shows; others were compilations that sometimes included previously unreleased material or hard-to-find b-sides. Double LPs of all-new material, on the other hand, were relatively rare, though any music fan worth his or her salt can reel off dozens of such titles, including ones by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Allman Brothers, not to mention Pink Floyd, the Clash, Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Husker Du.

Most, though not all, now fit onto one CD, and play no longer than many “albums” released as one disc in the ‘90s and ‘00s, when it seemed (at least to me) fairly common for new releases to clock in at over an hour; and, in the download/streaming age, time constraints just seem moot. But most CDs that run longer than 45 minutes contain – dare I say it? – songs that should have been left in the vault. In the days of limited space, only the best of the best were pressed onto vinyl.

Yes, of course, exceptions abound. But they’re exceptions.

Anyway, with fans and critics of a certain age being who and what they are, lists proliferate of the greatest double albums of all time. Here’s one; here’s another; and here’s yet another. If you Google the term, you’ll find dozens more.

And yet, on just about every list I’ve seen, one stone-cold classic – “a sprawling masterpiece,” according to AllMusic – is usually overlooked: today’s essential pick, Stephen Stills’ Manassas.

Stills, of course, first turned ears as the driving force behind Buffalo Springfield in the mid-‘60s; and again with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Young in 1969 and ’70. He released a great, self-titled solo debut in 1970; a near-great second solo set in ’71; and, in 1972, paired with former Byrd-Flying Burrito Brother Chris Hillman to found Manassas, a talented group that could play just about everything, including rock, folk-rock, country, bluegrass, Latin and the blues.

Among the group’s personnel: steel guitar great Al Perkins and phenomenal fiddler Byron Berline, both of whom had played with Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers; keyboardist Paul Harris; Blues Image founder (and percussionist extraordinaire) Joe Lala; and CSNY alum Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels and Dallas Taylor on bass and drums.

Oh, Stones bassist Bill Wyman sits in on one song, too. (According to Dallas Taylor, Wyman was ready to leave the Stones for Manassas – but wasn’t asked.)

Manassas, the album, is a mosaic of musical styles accented by top-notch playing and great songs. Split into four thematic sides (“The Raven,” “The Wilderness,” “Consider” and “Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”), it alternately reflects and resonates with the soul; delves into the philosophical; and rocks with precise abandon. It’s an electric album. It’s an acoustic album. Some songs are imbued with hope, others heartbreak and longing.

And it’s hook-laden.

One highlight: “Both of Us (Bound to Lose),” which features a wondrous Hillman intro, a cool mesh of Cuban rhythms and country overtones, gorgeous guitar solos, and harmonies that can’t be beat.

Another: “Fallen Eagle,” a song I sing to myself whenever I see too much of Donald Trump on TV.

And another, “Colorado”:

And another, “How Far”:

Oh, and there’s this gem from Side 4 (“Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay”): “The Treasure (Take One),” a winding treatise on love and “oneness.”

By virtue of my age, and the lack of non-CSN songs played on the radio, I didn’t discover the album (and its followup, Down the Road), until Feb. 12, 1984, when I picked them up at the Hatboro Music Shop. The double-LP set came with a cool fold-out poster that featured a photo montage on one side and the lyrics on the other; and, as I often did in those days, I read the lyrics along with the songs as they unfolded.

I was blown away by it. I still am. And I’m forever mystified as to why it slipped – along with Stills’ other early ’70s solo sides – into semi-obscurity. It did well, chart-wise. After its release on April 12, 1972, it peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, where it shared space in the Top 10 with David Crosby & Graham Nash’s self-titled debut and Neil Young’s Harvest.

Side 1 “The Raven”:

  1. Song of Love
  2. Medley: Rock & Roll Crazies; Cuban Bluegrass
  3. Jet Set
  4. Anyway
  5. Both of Us (Bound to Lose)

Side 2 “The Wilderness”:

  1. Fallen Eagle
  2. Jesus Gave Love Away for Free
  3. Colorado
  4. So Begins the Task
  5. Hide It So Deep
  6. Don’t Look at My Shadow

Side 3 “Consider”:

  1. It Doesn’t Matter
  2. Johnny’s Garden
  3. Bound to Fall
  4. How Far
  5. Move Around
  6. The Love Gangster

Side 4:

  1. What to Do
  2. Right Now
  3. The Treasure (Take One)
  4. Blues Man

Here’s the album in full, courtesy of YouTube:

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Today’s Top 5: February 1984 (via Record Magazine)

record284008Thirty-three years ago, in February 1984, America was stumbling out of back-to-back recessions that almost hammered the American Dream flat. The unemployment rate for January was 7.9 percent, which is high – but better than the 10.3 percent of January 1983. In fact, the unemployment rate for 1983 as a whole was, according to the St. Louis Fed, 9.5 percent – the same as it was in 1982. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics has slightly different numbers – 9.6 and 9.7 percent, respectively.) The trend was headed in the right direction, however.

(This Pew Research Center essay delves in-depth into the “Reagan recession.”)

Stories in the news included Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire while he filmed a Pepsi commercial on Jan. 27th; the cable networks A&E and Lifetime debuting on Feb. 1st; the first successful embryo transfer from one woman to another being announced on Feb. 3rd; the movie Footloose premiering on Feb. 17th; and Michael Jackson winning eight Grammy Awards (seven for Thriller and one for the E.T. audiobook) on Feb. 28th.

record284009New music releases for the month included the Footloose soundtrack; Thompson Twins’ Into the Gap; The Smiths’ eponymous debut; Queen’s The Works; The Alarm’s Declarations; and Van Morrison’s Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which had been released in November 1982, still ruled the album charts, as Record’s Top 100 list shows. At the time, I owned – on vinyl or cassette – four of the top 10 and seven of the top 20; and, by year’s end, 20 of the top 100. As February dawned, the top single was – according to Weekly Top 40 – Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” had just cracked the Top 10. By month’s end, the top slot was held by one of the more infectious songs of the year, Van Halen’s “Jump.”

hatborotheaterAt the time, I was 18 and living the commuter-college life. I lived at home, attended Penn State’s Ogontz campus and worked, worked and worked as an usher at the single-screen Budco Hatboro Theater – a fun job that I’d held since the previous summer. (That’s me in the doors in the picture on the left.) This month, however, the employees learned that it was destined to close at some point over the summer, as Budco saw the writing on the wall for single-screen palaces. The building was sold, torn down and a Wendy’s was built on its spot.

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My purchases for the month show where my head was at, beginning with Neil Young’s masterful On the Beach, which I picked up on Feb. 1st.

I also bought Stephen Stills – Stills (6th); CSNY – So Far (6th); Stephen Stills/Manassas – Down the Road (12th); Joni Mitchell – For the Roses (12th); and Stephen Stills double-LP Manassas set (17th), which quickly became (and remains) one of my all-time favorites. This song, featuring former Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman on co-lead vocals, is a a minor gem:

And, with that, onward to today’s Top 5: February 1984 (via Record Magazine)…

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First, though: This issue isn’t one of the magazine’s best. I wasn’t a fan of David Byrne at the time (I’m still not), and never read the interview with him. I also never read the articles about Huey Lewis, Spandau Ballet, Juluka, Philip Bailey and DeBarge. So why choose this month? Because of On the Beach and Manassas. When I saw both in my old desk calendar, well, how could I not go with this month?!

1) The Rolling Stones – “Undercover of the Night.” I won Undercover, a sad-sack Stones album, from WYSP on November 19th of the previous year by calling in on a trivia contest and saying “John Drake” (the real name of Number Six in The Prisoner TV series). I think I played the album once, maybe twice, and never went back. In other words, Anthony DeCurtis – who penned this review – is more generous to it than I obviously am. Of this song, he writes that it “opens the first side with a machine-gun run of synthesized drumming that crashes into a barrage of percussive disco bottom and patented Stones guitar chords.”

record2840122) Paul McCartney – “Pipes of Peace.” This, the second review, goes to show the delay that once existed between release and review. The February issue of Record would have been on newsstands by early or mid-January, I’m sure, but Pipes of Peace had already been out for at least two months by then, as it was released in October 1983 (as I write about here).

In the review, the (apparently tone-deaf) critic Craig Zoller doesn’t mince words: “The only McCartney LP worth holding onto, by any stretch of the imagination, is Wings Greatest because it collects most of his good hits (along with some silly ones). And seeing sluggish hodgepodge efforts like Band on the Run and Tug of War garner critical raves is as bad a joke as hearing the Beatles described as Paul’s old back-up band.” Lest one have any doubts about where he’s headed, he then states of Pipes of Peace: “I’m here to tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s just another lousy McCartney album with a couple of halfway decent cuts, a load of hummable pablum and the usual no-risk coasting.”

What I find interesting: in back-to-back reviews, a subpar Stones album is saluted while an admittedly mediocre McCartney album is thoroughly trashed. Says much about the mindsets of rock critics at the time…

record2840133) Bob Dylan – “Sweetheart Like You.” I’ve been in something of a Dylan mood of late, having listened to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changing, Bringing It Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and the Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos 1962-1964 this week, with Freewheelin’ and BIBH both receiving twin spins. But, though I know his ‘60s output as well as most, and bought Slow Train Coming in 1979, by the time the decades turn to the ‘80s… I’m admittedly ignorant. There are a few albums I’ve bought and liked, and a few I’ve bought and disliked. Which is likely why I turn to his ’60s oeuvre whenever I have a hankering to hear him.

Anyway, of Infidels, reviewer John Swenson opens by saying that Dylan “is the most consistently misunderstood figure in pop music history” and closes with “Dylan hasn’t sung this well in some time, a fact which indicates his ultimate commitment to his material.” In between, there’s a lot that makes me want to check out the album, which I may well do in the coming week.

4) John Cougar Mellencamp – “Pink Houses.” Christopher Hill accurately describes the one-time Johnny Cougar’s seventh album: “Uh-Huh, Mellencamp’s first record under his real name, is also his first conscious effort to speak collectively for the people of his state and his state of mind. Though not always successful, the rough grain and savor of parched Midwestern earth that comes through makes this a bracing, provocative antidote to the bleak romancers of the ‘Badlands.’” He doesn’t single out the album’s tour de force, however, which is this song:

record2840145) Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers – “A Woman’s Got the Power.” Anyone from the Delaware Valley circa the late ‘70s and early ‘80s likely remembers the A’s – at least, anyone of a certain age who, regardless of whether you were old enough to get into the clubs, listened to Philadelphia’s two main rock stations at the time, 93.3 FM WMMR and 94.1 WYSP. The homegrown rockers were routinely plugged and played on both, as they should have been – they were damn good.

And this song, which was the title track of their 1981 album of the same name (their second and last on Arista), was played to death – as I remember it, at any rate.

Anyway, of the Big Man and his side band: Barry Alfonso, who reviews Rescue, notes that “the feel captured is right on the mark—such tracks as ‘A Man in Love,’ ‘A Woman’s Got the Power’ and ‘Savin’ Up’ (the last-named a Springsteen composition) have the funky nobility that big-band R&B has always traded in.” He also raves about lead singer John “J.T.” Bowen: “He lends to Clemons the same sort of urban bravura that Clemons brings Springsteen. It may not be new, but it still packs a wallop.”

AND, if two clips of the same song aren’t enough, here’s a third: the A’s performing it live…

 

 

Today’s Top 5: October 6, 1969

fullsizeoutput_11c8According to Newsweek, America’s white majority was a troubled lot as the world’s clock prepared to flip from 1969 to 1970: “Fewer than one in three of the working-class group say they are better off now than five years ago; by contrast, 44 percent of the white-collar workers polled feel more prosperous. And the blue-collar group is even less confident about the future. Only 28 percent expect to be better off five years from now.”

They had reason to be apprehensive. While unemployment was low, inflation was on the rise and, as a result, wages – even with decent raises – were stagnant or, worse, slipping. What cost $100 at the end of 1968 cost $105.46 at the end of 1969. That $5.46 difference may not sound like much in and of itself, but when you add together lots of $100 outlays…well, it adds up. Fast. There was also the matter of the never-ending war in Vietnam, where more than 11,000 Americans died this year alone. (As the people were beginning to realize, Richard Nixon had lied when he claimed during the ’68 campaign to have a “secret plan” to end it.)

That said, have no fear: I’m not launching a broadside about how people were directing their wrath at the wrong targets. (That’s an age-old American tradition, after all.) Instead, here are some of the pictures used to illustrate the era’s “forgotten” Americans:

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And, with that, today’s Top 5: October 6, 1969. Here are five songs from the Top 40 chart ending October 4th that have stood the test of time…

1) The Archies – “Sugar, Sugar.” This sweet confection, co-written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, was in its third week at No. 1 and was on its way to become the year’s biggest hit.

2) The Youngbloods – “Get Together.” The No. 13 single this week was this Dino Valenti-written song. First recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1964, it was also recorded by (among others) Judy Collins, We Five, Jefferson Airplane and the Staple Singers. As detailed in its Wikipedia entry, the Youngbloods originally released this version as a single in 1967, but failed to make the Top 50 with it. In 1969, however, it was resurrected by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for a radio commercial, re-released as a single and, eventually, made it to No. 5 in the charts.

3) 5th Dimension – “Wedding Bell Blues.” The No. 37 song for the week is this Laura Nyro-penned classic by the 5th Dimension. According to Wikipedia, one reason the group decided to record it was because Marilyn McCoo was due to marry fellow member Billy Davis Jr., which gave the lyrics an added (comic) weight.

4) Peggy Lee – “Is That All There Is?” One of the power-plays for the week is this classic Peggy Lee song, which jumped from No. 76 to 50. It would eventually make it to No. 11, her first Top 20 hit since “Fever” in 1958. (Peggy released a string of very good albums in the late ’60s that are well worth seeking out.)

5) Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” New this week, at No. 86, is Stephen Stills’ sublime song suite for Judy Collins.