For each month throughout 2021, the Arts Fuse has been remembering and celebrating the astonishing body of music from 1971 on its 50th anniversary. Because we started the series in February, we are granting ourselves an additional entry in the first month of 2022 to bring us up to an even 12.
Fame can be a cruel mistress. She giveth, and she taketh away. Laura Nyro and Cat Stevens penned some immortal classics and reached the heights of songwriting fame, but both kept their sense of perspective about their careers in show biz and their other life priorities. They knew when to step away and when to step back in. John Lennon perhaps knew more about the pros and cons of fame than anyone else alive during his time, and he too had decided by 1971 to not allow the pressures of commercial success to restrict his artistic and personal pathways. Judee Sill was more bitter about her perceived lack of success, and it’s sad to know we cannot let her know from beyond the grave how much her music is loved and respected 50 years later. The great Nigerian father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, navigated prison sentences and physical violence in order to arrive at a fusion of bracing political expression and dynamic musical innovation. The result was extraordinary — lasting worldwide fame almost despite himself. Composer Lou Harrison’s enchanting homoerotic opera was initially shunned — now its time may have come.
Will the Arts Fuse run a similar series of articles 50 years from now (perhaps from its rambling New England virtual reality home) celebrating the music of 2021? I seriously doubt it. It’s much more likely there will be homages to the music of 1971 on its 100th anniversary. Leaving aside, for the moment, its extraordinary achievements in classical, jazz, country, and other genres — plus music from outside the US — this was a year when the pop charts supported both the Rolling Stones and Lynn Anderson, Isaac Hayes and Mungo Jerry, Carole King and Tina Turner, David Bowie and Tom Jones, the Partridge Family and Sly and the Family Stone, Led Zeppelin and Joan Baez, Bread and the Doors. Listenership was diversified across demographics (and there were informed radio DJs, actual biological human beings, who deserve some of the credit here), and that is painfully missing today. While the quality of today’s popular music is often high, its range has been dramatically constricted. A paradox: the wealth of world music (and its history) is now available to us for free, 24/7, but the popular music charts are more homogenized than at any other time in memory. Hopefully, this series has been a reminder of not only the way it once was, but of the way it could be again.
Judee Sill – Judee Sill (Asylum)
Judee Sill had lived many lives before she recorded her album. She’d been a juvenile delinquent and a church organist, a bank robber and a bass player in a show band. The sacred and the profane pulse through the 11 songs on her self-titled debut. With their allusions to God, angels, flying saucers, and mystical cowboys, the lyrics might sound like the hippie-Jesus spirituality of the early ’70s. But Sill’s reedy voice and straightforward delivery — a predecessor to Liz Phair’s similarly imperfect vocals — make her words sound like salves for the pain she experienced in her formative years. Sill learned to play Bach during her time as a church organist, and her experience with the master’s technique allows her to imbue these catchy folk songs with unusual chord progressions and elaborate vocal arrangements. The harmonies on the should-have-been-a-hit single “Jesus Was a Crossmaker” gesture toward both the syncopated rhythms of gospel and the ambitious harmonies of Bach’s Gloria Masses. Henry Lewy’s subdued production stands aside, letting the painstaking musical world Sill created take center stage.
After writing “Lady-O” for the Turtles and touring as an opening act for David Crosby and Graham Nash, Sill signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records in 1970; her first record was also the first album to be released on the fledgling label. Her musical ambitions rivaled those of her contemporary, Joni Mitchell, and her normal-girl singing voice was the equal of Carole King’s. But the success of her peers eluded her. When this album and its follow-up, Heart Food, failed to connect with a wide mainstream audience, Sill refused to take gigs opening for other artists. Geffen pulled support for her albums after she called him a homophobic slur on British radio. She died of a drug overdose in 1979. Though her albums had languished out of print, fans like Andy Partridge and Shawn Colvin have kept her legend alive. Sill’s music, including a collection of songs she’d demoed for a third album, was reissued in the 2000s, bringing it to a new audience of freak folk stars.
— Chelsea Spear
Imagine – John Lennon (Apple)
In 2017, the National Music Publishers Association honored “Imagine” with its “Centennial Song” award. You’d be excused for rolling your eyes at the thought of “Imagine” being named song of the century. “Imagine” isn’t even the best song on Imagine. And yet, for 50 years, the tune has been a part of our lives. Most of the people who claim to love it have never listened too closely to its lyrics. If they did, they’d be horrified. Of course, there are those who agree with the song’s utopian vision, but feel that it’s too passive, which is a complete mishearing of the song. The point of “Imagine” isn’t that thinking of a better world will make it magically appear. Lennon is saying that we must dream of what a better world would look like — and then go make it happen. You have to dream first, though. You won’t get anywhere if you can’t first imagine where you want to go.
How you feel about “Imagine” probably determines how you feel about Imagine the album, which is to say it’s either by default your favorite Lennon record or you’ve dismissed it without giving it the consideration it deserves. Until recently I was in the latter camp, myself. I was more interested in the Plastic Ono Band (which I do still prefer), or convincing myself that Sometime in New York City was, at the very least, “interesting.” I didn’t dislike Imagine. I simply didn’t give it much thought, and when I did, I tended to focus on the fact that it was the most commercial release of Lennon’s early solo years.
As if “commercial” is a dirty word. It isn’t, and even if it were, it’s hardly an appropriate description for the antiwar “I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier Mama,” the anti-Nixon “Gimme Some Truth,” or the anti-McCartney “How Do You Sleep?” The jaunty “Crippled Inside” is a more approachable track, though lyrically it treads the same ground as Plastic Ono Band, an album nobody has ever accused of being commercial. “Oh My Love” is certainly a pretty love song, but it’s miles away from being a silly one, and “It’s So Hard” is down and dirty rock and roll.
And then there’s “Jealous Guy,” the real best song on Imagine. Originally titled “Child of Nature,” the tune was written in 1968 while John and the rest of the Beatles were studying with the Maharishi in India. The melody was there from the start, but the initial lyrics didn’t work at all. It’s no surprise “Child of Nature” never made it past the demo phase. Three years later, Lennon revived the track with new, soul-baring words. “I began to lose control,” he sings in the first verse. “I was feeling insecure,” he admits in the second. For these and other reasons, the singer has hurt his partner without intending to. We now know enough about Lennon’s temper to suspect that insecurity and loss of control could lead to violence. While I don’t believe that’s the type of pain sung about in “Jealous Guy,” it’s terrible but true that we have to consider the possibility. Assume that we’re not talking about abuse (of any kind) in this song and what we have left is a stunningly honest account of a man grappling with why he acts the way he does toward the person closest to him, and his genuine attempts to atone. Strings swell behind John as he sings. I suppose you could call the song “commercial,” but it all comes off as pretty heavy to me. And incredible. Just mind-bogglingly incredible.
— Adam Ellsworth
Gonna Take a Miracle – Laura Nyro (Columbia)
By 1971, the Bronx-born singer-songwriter Laura Nyro had made her musical mark as both halves of her hyphenated profession. Her distinctive voice, which could go from a girlish whisper to a gospel scream, could be heard on her first album, More Than a New Discovery (1967), her breakthrough Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970). And her songs had already been recorded by some of the most popular acts of the time, including Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”), the Fifth Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues” and “Stoned Soul Picnic”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Coming”), and Blood Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”). A startlingly original voice and writer, Nyro brought a passion to her music and lyrics that was enough to set at least one teenage girl wandering her high school halls singing her heart out (guilty as charged). And although I didn’t follow Nyro’s career much past her brilliant beginnings, there was one more album that spoke to me, though not, this time, in her own words.
Oddly, for such an original artist, Nyro’s only Billboard Top 100 hit turned out to be her cover of “Up on the Roof,” by Gerry Goffin and Nyro’s fellow New York singer-songwriter, Carole King. (My take on King’s own 1971 masterpiece, Tapestry, can be found here.) Though Nyro was fond of the early rock and doo-wop she grew up with, all her albums had featured only originals, except for the Goffin-King cover on Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Maybe that got her thinking? In any case, in 1971, she invited her friend Patti LaBelle — leader of the ’60s girl-group that had recently morphed from Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles to simply “Labelle” — to join her, along with the trio’s Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, for an album of R&B, doo-wop, and soul covers. The result was Gonna Take a Miracle, a gorgeous collection where the Bronx meets Motown meets Philly — the last Patti LaBelle’s hometown, and the domain of the album’s producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. According to Nyro biographer Michele Kort, despite the “Philadelphia Sound” architects’ presence, “Nyro remained fully in charge,” choosing the songs and arranging the vocal harmonies along with Labelle.
The album’s perfect pacing seamlessly mixes spare, ethereal takes on more obscure tunes like “The Bells,” “Desiree,” and “The Wind” with full-on rockers like Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmie Mack,” “Nowhere to Run,” and their quintessential teen anthem, “Dancing in the Street.” The opener, an early Shirelles tune written by the singers themselves, “I Met Him on a Sunday,” sets up the album’s vocal partnership: as in the original, each of the four singers here gets her own “day,” then blends in with the others for the doo-wop-ish chorus. Throughout the album, the harmonies, with each Labelle singer coming through clearly in the mix, make the group more than just the “background” to Nyro’s voice — and completely justified their shared artist’s billing.
Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Nowhere to Run” feature catchy extended codas that open up the arrangements, giving the originals a run for their money. And the medley pairing Major Lance’s Curtis Mayfield-penned hit “Monkey Time” with “Dancing in the Street” works like a great mix-tape to keep the party dancing. A lovely, lilting take on Ben E. King’s hit (by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector) “Spanish Harlem” and the yearning “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” originally by the Royalettes, round out a highly satisfying tribute to Nyro’s earlier influences and favorites. It was one of her most popular albums, and it brought LaBelle, Hendryx, and Dash (who, sadly, died in September) back from girl-group obscurity. Three years later, Labelle was at the top of the charts with their disco-era hit “Lady Marmalade,” produced by the great New Orleans composer Allen Toussaint. Nyro herself stepped away from her career for several years after Gonna Take a Miracle to raise her son; she later returned to performing and recording, until her death at 49 in 1997.
— Evelyn Rosenthal
Fela’s London Scene (His Master’s Voice), Live! (Regal Zonophone), Why Black Man Dey Suffer (African Songs Ltd), Open & Close (His Master’s Voice), and Na Poi (His Master’s Voice) – Fela Kuti
1971 was the year Nigerian Fela Kuti developed his signature Afrobeat sound. A number of elements, social and personal, came together to make that happen. It was a portentous moment in the history of his country. A multi-ethnic federation had just emerged after the Biafran War. Having successfully repressed the Igbo people through brutal massacres and starvation, the Yoruba maintained that dominance, bestowed by the colonial patronage system that had given birth to the nation. Of special significance: the Yoruba kept control over the oil in the Igbo territory, reaping the benefits from its continued export to Britain and elsewhere. Economically, the country was well on its way to having the strongest economy in Africa — even though little had changed domestically.
Kuti himself was Yoruba, born to an upper-middle-class family with aristocratic roots who were able to send him to London for school. So he was not the most likely candidate to espouse pan-African Socialism, as he later would. In London, where African dance music was all the rage, Kuti performed highlife, the genre of music that was also very popular in Nigeria at the time. When Kuti began mixing highlife with jazz, Afrobeat was born. While in London, he befriended Ginger Baker, later the percussionist for Cream, with whom he would go on to collaborate with for many years.
In 1963, Kuti moved back to Nigeria, when highlife was in decline. At the onset of the Biafran War in 1967, he traveled to Ghana — birthplace of highlife — in search of a new musical direction. He came up empty handed and in 1969 he traveled to the US. There he underwent an ideological transformation. The previously apolitical Kuti met Black Panther member Sandra Izsadore (formerly Smith), and spent a number of formative months with members of the Black Power movement. He returned to Lagos a changed man; his newly rebranded Africa 70 group went about formulating a new sound and message.
The first of a series of stumbles ensued as Kuti sought to put together a coherent musical and ideological approach — perilous tasks in which he arguably never succeeded. In 1970, he participated in an International Trade Fair in Ghana and sang one of his first political numbers, the nationalist-sounding ”Buy Africa.” It was a blatant attempt to secure government support (no doubt a cringe moment for him later in his career). James Brown’s 1970 tour of Nigeria was influential. The label EMI brought him to London to record Fela’s London Scene at Abbey Road (released internationally in 1971), an album that served up the old Kuti. A tour with Baker in Africa and Europe followed, and those recordings make up the album Live!. Baker recorded his travels in Africa with Kuti in the documentary Ginger Baker in Africa (1971).
Back in Nigeria, a series of singles followed, such as “Jeun Ko Ku” (“Chop and Quench”), which scholar Tejumola Olaniyan has deemed the “invention of the commercially successful Afrobeat formula.” Then came Why Black Man Dey Suffer. This is the first album in which Kuti fully distilled the essence of Afropop, which biographer Dr. Michael Veal has defined as “a third guitar [with] a repeating, single-note staccato figure in the middle register, which functioned as a contrapuntal voice between the bass guitar and the rhythm guitar, [and] chorus singers, enabling Fela to make extensive use of chorus lines and call-and-response patterns in his songs, a practice universally associated throughout Africa with the most traditional forms of music.” Kuti would gradually shift from vocalizing in Yoruba to pidgin English, which would help him reach (and unify) other Anglophone West Africans.
The political message was pushed to the front now, a strategy evident in Open & Close and Na Poi. In these studio albums, released in Nigeria in 1971 (later elsewhere), Kuti began to try to cobble together a practical application of the ideological ideas he’d acquired in the US. Establishing a communal compound in Lagos dubbed the Kalakuta Republic, Kuti was rigorous with his discipline over himself and his fellow musicians. From 1971 on, Kuti was entrenched in his compound as well as his craft, his music taking scathing shots at historical wrongs and contemporary political ills. By 1977, the military would sack the compound, burning it to the ground and violently assaulting its occupants, including Kuti and his mother.
What started in 1971 served its purpose, however incoherent it may have been in certain aspects. It was never clear, for instance, where Kuti stood on a variety of issues: Africa, diaspora, nation, ethnicity, class, and gender. On the one hand, he was a pan-Africanist, a product of strong women (his mother and Izsadore) who wanted “support for the poor man” (as he sang in “Beggar’s Lament”). On the other hand, there was his embrace of polygamy, a traditional practice only among Yoruba elites. But musical excitement is much easier to achieve. By mixing elements from jùjú to funk, combining beliefs old and new that would appeal across Africa, Kuti became an iconic powerhouse whose music continues to energize today.
— Jeremy Ray Jewell
Teaser and the Firecat – Cat Stevens (A&M)
Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, then just Yusuf, and now using both Yusuf and Cat Stevens) has never quite gotten his due. He could have been bigger than James Taylor. Both started off at about the same time in the same singer/songwriter genre. Stevens usually wrote better melodies and much better lyrics, he had a more expressive vocal range (although a reedier voice), and he could play more than just two or three guitar licks over and over. There’s room in the world, of course, for both Taylor and Stevens. But Taylor was more homespun American, and he cultivated more contacts in the exploding early ’70s California musical culture. Stevens’s later work was uneven, and his disappearances and reappearances from the music industry (with different names) haven’t helped his career. There was also that bogus charge in 1989 that he supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Stevens was just not born to pursue maximum celebrity. He had a promising start in London in the late ’60s, making a powerful entry as a songwriter with “The First Cut Is the Deepest” in 1967 (later a hit for Rod Stewart, James Morrison, and Sheryl Crow, among others). But Stevens contracted tuberculosis in 1969. While he was recovering for months in the hospital, he began to reassess his priorities and trajectory. He studied religions, meditated, and wrote a catalog of songs about things other than drugs, parties, or puerile teen love affairs.
Mona Bone Jackson debuted a new sound and approach for Stevens in 1970. The record did well, especially in the UK, but it was a precursor to Stevens’s 1971 masterpiece, Teaser and the Firecat. While the album may not be as familiar to American audiences as other singer-songwriter classics that year from Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, and others, it holds its own with the best of them. There’s not a song on Teaser and the Firecat that sounds dated 50 years later.
The most famous track is the last one, “Peace Train” (which Stevens hilariously pitted against Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” live at Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010). Other tracks also have a theme of peace. “Changes IV” and “Bitterblue” are upbeat rockers with catchy cross-rhythms that deserved to be hits. The lyrics to “Changes IV” add another car to the peace train: “Don’t you feel a change a-coming/From another side of time,/Breaking down the walls of silence/Lifting shadows from your mind.” Similarly, “Tuesday’s Dead” draws on calypso rhythms (which Stevens would later revisit effectively on his cover of Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night”) with intelligent and unclichéd lyrics about changing the world.
The love songs are simple and heartfelt. “How Can I Tell You” and “If I Laugh” are quiet and humble, demonstrating Stevens’s unobtrusive but accomplished technique on acoustic guitar. I don’t know how the emotive “How Can I Tell You” has escaped becoming a Valentine’s Day standard, but it’s never too late.
The other song that did become a standard, along with “Peace Train,” is “Morning Has Broken.” It’s a traditional song, first published in 1931, but Stevens (with Rick Wakeman on piano) took it to the pop charts, securing its place in hymnals across religions and denominations ever since. It memorably conveys simple happiness in new beginnings.
Teaser and the Firecat was released in October 1971, a fitting benediction of love, optimism, and peace to a year that needed all of them in full measure.
— Allen Michie
Young Caesar — Lou Harrison (The Industry Records)
American composer Lou Harrison’s 1971 opera Young Caesar has had a troubled production history, partly because of the excessive length of its awkward libretto. But its staging difficulties can mostly be credited to the composition’s homoerotic story line — this is the first openly gay opera. Patrician Gaius Julius Caesar will accept none of the rich aristocratic females who are offered to him as suitable mates: the selections range from overweight to drop-dead gorgeous. Then he is required to go to the Roman province of Bithynia, to collect idled ships from King Nicomedes IV. The immediately smitten monarch — with deft delight — goes about seducing the infuriatingly naive Caesar. Nicomedes brings an impish sense of humor to the task. “Relax,” the king purrs to Caesar, “you don’t have to conquer the world today.”
According to his biographers, “Harrison originally created it as a puppet opera, which premiered at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but later refashioned it for more conventional, equal-tempered instruments and live performers. This version premiered in 1987, but Harrison worked on more substantial changes in response to a commission from Lincoln Center,” a production that was eventually canceled because of discomfort with the opera’s subject matter. This last version was not performed until 2007, after Harrison’s death, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The opera did not receive a high profile presentation until 2017, in a hybrid version produced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Industry — it was recorded live with the LA Phil New Music Group at Walt Disney Concert Hall, a semistaged production directed by Yuval Sharon that coincided with the LA Pride Festival and celebrated the centennial of the composer, who was openly gay. In 2018 it was digitally released by The Industry Records. Also, there is a 1974 Fruit Punch Collective version available for free download, which has the additional merit of featuring an interview with Harrison and his partner and collaborator William Colvig.
I want to do more than salute Young Caesar‘s historical and political significance. This is a work of frisky power and unusual beauty from an eclectic American original. As Arts Fuse classical music critic Jonathan Blumhofer has noted, Harrison “was greatly attracted to Asian musics, especially the percussive gamelan of Indonesia. He constructed what he called an ‘American gamelan’ as well as other instruments made from found objects (like oxygen tanks). He incorporated scales and devices from Java and India, and blended them with Western elements.” Young Caesar‘s gay romance is dramatized through a tender — if at times waggish — melding of Eastern (the score calls for a variety of Asian instruments, including gamelan) and Western musical traditions. The resulting multicultural mishmash serves a mischievous narrative that skitters from the silly to the sublime. Some critics believe that, because Harrison continually revised the work (he was convinced of its importance), adding music over the decades, the final version displays the full range of his stylistic panache.
I am drawn by the work’s playful (at times vaudevillian) humor as well as its mix-and-match exoticism. I love marionettes, so it would be terrific to see a staging that makes use of classical Javanese shadow puppets.
You can hear three moving arias from the opera below: I. “What is so fine about becoming a man?” II. “Now grasp your daughter” III. “And that crown”
— Bill Marx