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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 10. 1971

Mellow Rock

Mellow Rock

Janis Joplin

Pearl 12 db's

Life magazine described the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as 'a double epitaph of a run-down culture.' All snide references to that magazine's musical authority aside, it is not news that hard rock is fast becoming softer, though the energy is being rechannelled rather than exhausted. I want to compare and discuss here the latest offerings of two very different but nevertheless important interpreters of the blues/rock form: Janis Joplin, surely the greatest female rock singer of the sixties, whose antics also included consuming a quart of whisky onstage and tilling interviews with the greatest number of incomplete words (F**k you too, Newsweek); and Duster Bennett, a young British one man blues band who plays guitar, harmonica, drums and cymbal similtaneously and well.

While the music of both performers has been characteristically exuberant and extrovert, it is now quieter and more thoughtful. Joplin, in particular, has lost a great deal of her frenzy, but the power is still all there it shows up in the long suspended phrases. The inflexions that make her style haven't changed, but how could you disguise a voice so distinctive? This is an older Joplin, wholly in control of the music. The album is quite different, in this respect, from Cheap Thrills: here, the musicians are solely hacking. True, they do break out occasionally, but it's unquestionably her LP.

Duster Bennett works inside the blues idiom, while leaning towards country, but he doesn't bother to torture his voice in an attempt to produce an ethnic noise. His music is therefore described as facetious by some, hut his musicianship and coordination are impeccable. When he played with John Mayall he was sometimes featured as a one man band during performances. Most of the tracks on this album are original, though Ray Charles and Ray Davies wrote one each.

One of his greatest forms uses a harmonica over a walking blues on guitar, as here on Sugar Beet. He also uses rhythmic rock and roll vamping, in I love my baby and I chose to sing the blues. As usual, Bennett introduces a few novelties: Vitamin pills is a walking piano blues with the voice throughan all-treble amp, while Everyday features a harmonium, such as is found in provincial churches, as a backing to a very cool, slow, pensive vocal. Act nice and gentle is a twelve-bar jug band blues and That mean old look is straight novelty stuff from Lonnie Donegan's era. Soft strings accompaniment is used on Woman without love—this ballad style is atypical of Bennett, though it sounds good. However, it could easily be wrecked as a single by Big singers like Puke Manu (apologies to those who didn't see "One in five"). Sweeter than sugar is a B.B. King-style modern blues with organ, bass and guitar backing, and the last track, Hill St. Rag, is a bluegrass dance tune on mandolin. It's good, but there's only a little of it.

It should be pretty obvious by now that there's a wide range of stuff here, some of it unashamedly not blues/rock. This diversity seems to be a symptom of the mellowing of rock, since Janis isn't quite her rowdy, raucous self anymore either. Her album opens with Move over (by Janis), which is routine rock, with Janis' gutsy vocal backed up with good guitar work. The next track, Cry baby along with My baby introduces her as a soul singer. It's a big spiritual sound, with organ and all the trappings (My baby even has a chorus backing). Each of these tracks could quite easily come out on Atlantic or Tamla Motown as a first single for a new soul singer, but nevertheless they're unmistakeable Joplin. Half moon is a jump number and it's cool refreshing music. The musicians have a track to themselves in Buried alive in the blues, which sounds something like The Doors in that it's well-planned music that still exhibits an agreeable spontaneity in its short breaks. Me and Bobby McGee on the second side is followed by Mercedes-Benz, an unaccompanied song, by Janis, 'of great social and political import':

O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends
So, O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.

O Lord, won't you buy me a colour TV
Darling for dollars is trying to find me
I wait for delivery each day until three
So, O Lord, won't you buy me a colour TV.

O Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town
I'm counting on you Lord, please don't let me down
Prove that you love me, and buy the next round
O Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town.

You won't believe it's Janis at first on Trust Me, but the guts soon shows. The organ backing is superb—it's a tremendous track. Get it while you can is an emotive, retrospective song. It reminds me of 'Every little bit hurts' by The Spencer Davis Group. Possibly it's significant that it's the last track on the album. The record is characterised by the restraint shown by Janis and the extensive use of keyboards, both piano (Richard Bell) and organ (Ken Pearson). Paul Rothchild's production is particularly good. Janis Joplin's style is more personal and introverted than before, but it is not in any way weakened.

Indeed. Don't be put off by the change I've described: remember, all things must pass, though not necessarily away. What else can I say? Listen carefully to each—I think you'll find it worthwhile.


Robert Johnson CBS

Although the earliest recorded blues was dominated by female singers, the commercial focus shifted in the late 1920's to the basic hard-driving music associated with the Southern rural areas. Record companies were quick to recognize the trend and sent teams of mobile recording units into the deep South in the hope of uncovering new talent. Recordings of rural blues were made all over the South, sometimes under bizarre circumstances, by the mobile units, which did not include field equipment in the present-day sense, but rather involved just enough to set up sketchy but complete studios. "They usually relied on local musicians to find their singers," writes Samuel Charters in "The Country Blues", but they would make a test of anybody who wandered in, no matter what kind of music he played or how drunk he was."

Although the boundaries are understandably blurred, Southern rural blues tends to divide into three general geographic areas: Georgia and the Coastal regions, Mississippi and the Delta, and Texas and the Southwest. Assigning specific performers to specific styles is difficult. Blind Lemon Jefferson tended to play with the irregular rhythms and light textures of the Texas style. Blind Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, and Peg Leg Howell favoured the bass ostinatos and standardised forms of the Georgia blues. Bukka White, Sun House, and the brilliant Robert Johnson were among the best interpreters of the unusual blues forms and speech-like vocal expressions of the Delta.

Robert Johnson recorded a total of twenty-nine sides in five recording sessions with the mobile studios in the late thirties. The sixteen tracks on this second volume of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers completes the release of the total recorded output of this incredibly talented young Negro blues singer and musician of the thirties. Although he died young, at 21, (poisoned by a jealous girlfriend), Johnson's effect on subsequent blues performances has been phenomenal. Consider the tracks on this album that are standard blues numbers: 'Dust My Broom', 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Rambling on My Mind', 'From Four Until Late', 'Love in Vain'—recorded by such different (and significant) artists as Muddy Waters, Cream, and the Rolling Stones. It is even rumoured that Johnny Winter learned to play slide guitar off the first Robert Johnson album. Johnson's music manifests the essence of the blues—the expression of deeply personal emotions, disappointments, jealousy, anger, homesickness, desire, wanderlust. It is the effort to express these emotions that gives the music its uniqueness.

As implied before, Robert Johnson's strong point is his bottleneck work, ranging from standards like 'Dust My Broom' to the intricate rhythms of the well-known 'Preaching Blues'. There are other mannerisms, for example dropping from sung falsetto to spoken phrases in 'Kind Hearted Woman Blues' and the skilled use of harmonies in 'Sweet Home Chicago', 'Phonograph Blues' contains some classic double entendre'

"We played it on the sofa, played it by the wall,
My needle has got rusty, and it will not play at all."

While the eroticism of 'I'm a steady rollin' man' is more direct:

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'I'm a steady rollin' man, I roil both night and day.
Don't have much sleep, woman, to be roiling this way.'

The original version of the early Cream number, 'From Four Until Lata' appears on the second side, in exactly the same form as it takes on the more modern LP. 'They're Red Hot' is an old-style rag, and obviously a concert number - up-tempo, a jug band style. The wanderlust of the itinerant blues singer comes out in 'Rambling on My Mind"

"Running down to the station,
catch the first mail train I see,
I got the blues running through me so,
and the stars got the blues about me."

The last track, 'Love in Vain', (used by The Rolling Stones on "Let it Bleed") has an obvious country flavour in its sentimentality;

"When the train rolled up to the station
I Iooked her in the eye.
Well, I felt so lonesome, I could not help but cry,
Oh, my love in vain."

Robert Johnson displays the rural blues singing and playing style specifically calculated for the most direct communication of gut emotion, though his music is somewhat sophisticated because of his contact with urban life (and probably his taste for the special joys and discontents of town life). This album is essential listening for all blues/rock aficionades with any interest in where their music began.

Tea for the Tiller man Island

Cat Stevens cover art

It's official now. Time has run a feature on James Taylor and the new rock is now 'bitter-sweet and low. Notwithstanding the putative erudition of the music editors of Time, I think the new move in rock might be more accurately described as a 'renaissance in Romanticism.' I use these words advisedly, for many of the new stars produce songs with all the delicate balance and finesse of Elizabethan madrigals. If we accept these premises, then Cat Stevens is one of the 'new' rock artists. Except that he isn't.

Cat Stevens put out a string of hits in England in the mid-sixties (Semi-detached Suburban Mr. James' et al.) Even then his songs, though rather trite, displayed a little more artistry than the music many of his pop contemporaries were issuing. Stevens was not very happy with his product however, and finally, after a new breakdown, managed to get out of his contract by demanding his next record have a hundred-piece orchestra and massed choir. Nothing was heard of him for some years, until Mona Bone Jakon his first album for a long time, suddenly took off in the U.S. He had tapped the first demand for the 'new rock'.

Stevens can't really be compared with James Taylor or people like Elton John, though he has, like Taylor, spent time in mental institutions. But while Taylor's music is indeed 'bitter-sweet and low', Stevens has, perhaps, a message more of hope, though in a similar mood. Tea for the Tillerman, his second album, is a sparing LP, using only a few sidemen and strings. The music is finely balanced, two acoustic guitars dominating (Stevens plays guitar and keyboards.) Delicacy and precision are the watchwords. Cat Stevens' songs are most intricately written. It is obvious he is quite scrupulous in polishing them for recording. He does not use a straightstanza very often, but winds the music about the words, repeating words in different rhythms when there is a point to make.

Here I wish to emphasise that it is wrong to consider Stevens as a 'folk musician', at least in the strict sense of the words. One of the highly-trained rock musicians (someone like Keith Emerson, I don't remember whom) said recently that The Beatles and similar groups were really folk musicians, playing for the people on a fairly shallow musical level. Stevens is not. His music is well rehearsed and well executed. It is not the sort of music that any singer could put down in a day given competent sidemen. The pauses, the balance, the interweaving of vocal and music are the products of highly competent musicianship.4, Stevens' voice is a curious one. At once it seems delicate and highly poised, and about to break into a shouting blues a la Stevie Winwood. It is a beautiful instrument the way he uses it ('the medium is the message?') The lyrics of the songs are by Cat Stevens for Cat Stevens. Quite personal, they rather convey a mood of romanticism, bitterness, sadness, and hope, than explicitly state a message. Odd phrases suddenly leap out at you and take you by surprise, however ('nevertheless you know you're locked towards the future') and stick in your mind. One song, Into White, is completely abstracted:

I built my house of barley rice, green pepper walls and water ice.

Fire and spring ice? It is very evocative.

So. If you are tired of heavy heavy heavy rock, or if you wish to balance your mind. Cat Stevens is an excellent choice. A beautiful and delicate LP, Tea for the Tillerman conveys, with some subtlety, the sort of moods we seem to lose most of our ability to express after leaving the confines of the College Magazine, and is a most refreshing noise. Understandably jaded with heavy music, it's easy to see why the Arrierican and British audiences have turned to artists like this, branded new as the bitter-sweet and low apostates of the new rock.

-The One..