stereo equipment minneapolis st. paul

5 Records You Should Own: Hidden Gems From Classic Rock

By Joe Taylor

We are pleased to announce the addition of Joe Taylor as a regular writer for our Five Records To Own series. Joe is an Associate Editor at Soundstage.com and brings a wealth of knowledge in a number of music genres. With Joe’s assistance, we can all learn a thing or two about records that have slipped under the radar.  Welcome Joe!

The poet W. H. Auden once wrote, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” The same is true of records, although I wonder if some records from the classic rock era have survived because radio stations played them to death. A glance at LPs chosen for reissue, though, suggests that the demand for the defined classics of the last 50 years remains high, and their popularity can’t be explained by familiarity alone.

Sundazed Records has done its share of unusual reissues over the years, including titles by the Soft Machine, Blues Magoos, and the Chocolate Watchband. Most reissue labels, however, seek to meet the demand for music we all know. That’s fine. The cost of obtaining the original tapes and carefully remastering them, especially for vinyl, causes labels to choose records that give them a return on investment.

I’m not going to argue that the recordings I’m writing about here deserve that kind of audiophile treatment, although one or two of them are sonically impressive enough to deserve it. I’ve chosen them because even after 45 years of collecting music and more than 15 years reviewing it, I’ve returned to them repeatedly and gained as much from them emotionally as I have from other, better known recordings. I continue to hear new things in them, even after hundreds of plays.

stereo equipment minneapolis st. paulIan MatthewsIf You Saw Thro’ My Eyes (1971)

If you wanted to tell someone what it means to be a journeyman musician, you could use Ian Matthews as an example. Matthews was a member of Fairport Convention and appeared on the band’s first three albums. When he left, he recorded a solo album, Matthews’ Southern Comfort and then formed a band, which he named after his debut. Matthews Southern Comfort (he decided to drop the possessive) recorded two albums and enjoyed a minor hit with a likeable version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”

If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes was Matthews’ first album under his own name, and he enlisted the aid of two Fairport alums, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, along with a number of other great musicians. Matthews wrote all the tunes but three, and he delivers them all in an easy tenor voice that is engaging and sincere.

The rolling guitar intro for “Desert Inn,” played by Andy Roberts, Tim Renwick, and Thompson pulls you into the album and sets your expectations high because of the quality of the musicianship. Drummer Gerry Conway gives the song its backbeat without pushing too hard, and bassist Pat Donaldson’s melodic lines provide a counterpoint to the guitars. Thompson’s solo has a rock and roll edge to it, but he doesn’t undermine the gentle feel of the song.

Matthews sings with an unusual mixture of reserve and passion throughout If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and the songs on the album play to his strengths. Throughout the album, the musicians don’t call attention to themselves, but they make all the right choices to bring everything together. The guitarists play country and rock with equal skill and conviction, Keith Tippett and Sandy Denny add beautifully understated piano to a number of the tunes, and Conway and Donaldson are consistently engaging and inventive, but never overpowering.

The album includes interpretations of two Richard Fariña songs, “Reno, Nevada” and “Morgan the Pirate.” A recounting of Fariña’s brief, eventful life would take too much space to cover here, but he was a novelist and songwriter who was a friend to both Thomas Pynchon and Bob Dylan. Matthews had performed “Reno, Nevada” with Fairport in concert, but the band never recorded it in the studio. It’s the hardest rocking track on If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and features searing guitar solos from Richard Thompson and Tim Renwick, solid drumming from Conway, and an energetic bass line from Donaldson.

Renwick’s inventive lead guitar on the acoustic guitar based “Morgan the Pirate” is one powerful element in a track that illustrates why If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes works so well. Matthews sings in an unforced voice that lets the narrative of the song unfold, and his own multi-tracked background vocals add fullness and an ethereal complexity. Fariña’s songs have a slightly cynical edge that Matthews’ own tunes, while not completely upbeat, don’t aim for. They don’t need to, but these two songs give the album an emotional completeness it would otherwise lack.

Matthews released other albums through the years, and his next recording, Tigers Will Survive, is a fine effort, but it falls short of what he achieved in If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes. He has continued to record well-crafted albums through the years, but to me he’s never again achieved the magic contained in the twelve tracks on this album.

stereo equipment minneapolis st. paulThe Steve Miller BandChildren of the Future (1968)

Steve Miller ensured his permanent residency on classic rock radio with the title track of his eighth LP, The Joker, which started a run of platinum selling records for him. Early fans think his best records are his first four, and I agree with them. The Steve Miller Band released two albums in 1968, Children of the Future, and Sailor. The following year it released Brave New World and Your Saving Grace. Glyn Johns produced all four.

Children of the Future was the Steve Miller Band’s debut and Johns’ first big production credit. He brought Miller and his band to Olympic Studios in London early in 1968. Six months earlier, the Beatles had released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, redefining what was possible in the studio. Motown was becoming ever more popular. Progressive rock was just beginning, and in England the blues had taken hold firmly.

Miller brought many of those strains of music together in Children of the Future, especially on the first side of the LP, four tracks that play out as a suite. It opens with the sound of crashing drums, feedback, metal sliding over guitar strings, and jittering bass. Capitol/EMI released the album in June, 1968, and the apocalyptic noise echoes the final notes of “A Day in the Life” on Sgt. Pepper’s, which had been released almost exactly one year earlier. Phase shifting acoustic guitars lead to the title song, which captures the counter-cultural movement that was beginning to flow out of rock music:

We are children of the future

Wonder where this world is going to, going to

Miller’s likeable tenor and the rich vocal harmonies on the track would be a trademark of the band’s first LPs. “Children of the Future” is upbeat and bouncy, with a melody that is easy to grab onto. Miller always had an ear for hooks, and the two brief songs that follow the opener, “Pushed Me to It” and “You’ve Got the Power,” are radio friendly. Both tracks are under a minute long, and show a pronounced Motown influence. Although I often think they could have been developed further into full songs, they form an easy intro into the next track.

“In My First Mind,” which Miller co-wrote with the band’s keyboard player, Jim Peterman, contains elements of the then growing psychedelic movement and the early stirrings of prog rock. Swirling organ and Mellotron create a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere for Miller’s voice, which at times breaks as he reaches for the high notes. Tim Davis’s drum rolls give structure to this sleepy song about love and time, while Lonnie Turner’s bass lines give it a strong foundation.

Neither Miller nor second guitarist Boz Scaggs makes an appearance on guitar on “In My First Mind” until the song segues into “The Beauty of Time is that It’s Snowing (Psychedelic B.B),” and even then it’s a brief interlude in a sound collage that closes side one and ends with a blending of “Children of the Futrure” and “In My First Mind” that features exquisitely layered harmony vocals that recall the Beach Boys at their best. It ends the side on a vivid, trancelike note.

After the imaginative flights of the first side of the LP, side two brings us back to earth, but the record’s six remaining songs show the breadth of the band’s songwriting and playing abilities. Boz Scaggs’ “Baby’s Calling Me Home” is the kind of romantic soul ballad he would perfect on his own albums, and Steppin’ Stone,” another Scaggs tune, is the hardest rocking track on the record. Miller’s “Roll with It” should have been a solid AM hit, and “Junior Saw it Happen” combines the blues and psychedelia without compromising either.

Two traditional blues songs, “Fanny Mae,” and “Key to the Highway,” close the album with a demonstration that the Steve Miller Band was, after all, a sold blues unit that had a deeper understanding of the music than a lot of its contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Steve Miller Band’s next album, Sailor, is an acknowledged classic, but Children of the Future feels more complete and the suite on side one is perhaps the most ambitious thing Miller ever did. It has a combination of bravery and naivety that captures a moment in rock history when the rules were still being written. Miller would make more popular records, but none any better.

stereo equipment minneapolis st. paulFleetwood MacBare Trees (1972)

When Bob Welch joined Fleetwood Mac in 1971, the band had already released four albums and lost two original members, Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer. Danny Kirwin, who had played on the group’s third and fourth albums, was still on board, and Christine McVie, who contributed background vocals and keyboards to the fourth album, Kiln House, became a full member of the band. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were the band’s stalwart rhythm section.

The new lineup recorded Future Games that year, and the album was a departure from the blues and early rock influences that marked the band’s previous recordings. Welch, the son of a screenwriter, grew up in California, and the band started to move into a lighter, more melodic direction. Future Games was a solid outing, but Bare Trees is a minor masterpiece from Welch’s years with Fleetwood Mac, although Kirwin is its dominant force. He wrote five of its nine tracks, with Welch and McVie contributing two songs each.

Kirwin’s “Little Child” has enough blues drive to keep Fleetwood Mac’s early fans happy. His guitar playing is tough and inventive, and he and Welch mesh well during the guitar solos. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie show why they are among the best rhythm units in rock—solid, unobtrusive, and spot on. Kirwin’s “Sunny Day” is the rare rock instrumental from the 70s that works, an easy melody that, again, allows for very enjoyable twin guitar work from him and Welch.

“Bare Trees” and “Danny’s Chant” highlight Kirwin’s guitar skills, as well as his ability to blend the blues with the softer California touch that Welch introduced into the band. The closing track is Kirwin’s real gem on the album. He set a poem by Rupert Brooke to music, and “Dust” is an achingly tender meditation on life’s swift passage. Christine McVies sensitive harmony vocals give the song an even deeper emotional undercurrent. Acoustic and electric guitars combine to create a sound that is calm and reflective without being too laid back.

The flute on Welch’s “The Ghost” is actually a Mellotron, played by Christine McVie. Welch’s songs had a light hint of jazz in them and his best songs showed a good ear for a hook. Christine McVie’s keyboard improvisation on “The Ghost” is a high point of the record and Welch’s voice has an easy charm. “Sentimental Lady,” his other contribution to the album, is a gorgeous ballad that features a beautifully developed guitar solo from Kirwin and nicely arranged harmony vocals, provided by McVie and, multi-tracked, Welch. Five years later, Welch released the song as a solo artist and scored a hit, but this version is far better.

Chrstine McVie’s contributions to Bare Trees—to all of Fleetwood Mac’s LPs during this period—cannot be overstated. Her keyboards and harmony vocals gave depth to the arrangements, and her own songs are well constructed, intelligent pop. Kirwin’s hot guitar helps set up “Homeward Bound”, but it’s McVie’s smoky alto and rollicking piano that sell the tune. “Spare Me a Little Love” is immediately appealing, the earliest indication that McVie could write great, ear catching songs that didn’t pander.

When Fleetwood Mac became a hit making machine three years later, a few of those hits were penned by Christine McVie. By that time, Fleetwood Mac had a different lineup. Danny Kirwin had left after Bare Trees and Welch had departed after three more albums. His name is on two very strong Fleetwood Mac records, this one and Future Games, and that’s not a bad legacy.

stereo equipment minneapolis st. paulNils LofgrenNils Lofgren (1975)

When Nils Lofgren released his eponymous debut in 1975, he was already a veteran in the music business. At 19, he played on Neil Young’s After the Goldrush and after that released four LPs as the leader of Grin. When Grin disbanded, he recorded this solo LP. Jon Laudau, then a reviewer for Rolling Stone, compared it favorably to Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, which had been released earlier that year.

I don’t know if Nils Lofgren is a classic on the order of Blood on the Tracks, but it is a stunningly assured record. Lofgren was a triple threat. He sang with real rock and roll passion, he wrote great songs, and he played guitar that was flashy but tuneful. He was also a strong piano player. The songs on Nils Lofgren are about young love’s glories and disappointments. “Be Good Tonight” opens with Nils singing over a display of guitar pyrotechnics that segues into “Back It Up,” a more subdued but still rocking song about love and duty.

Nils Lofgren is somewhat sparely recorded, often with Lofgren on guitar or piano and just a few overdubbed touches. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar and bassist Wornell Jones give Lofgren’s tunes an extra kick. Dunbar is by turns hard rocking and subtle, and Jones’ fluid bass curls around Lofgren’s playing.

And while I said that Nils Lofgren might not be Blood on the Tracks, it’s clear that Nils has a way with a lyric. “I got eyes in the back of my head/but no sixth sense ever warmed my bed,” he sings on “One More Saturday Night,” where his fuzz toned and wah-wah pedaled guitar is velvet smooth against the acoustic guitars that carry the song’s chords. He also seems to share Dylan’s talent for expressing disdain. His voice is scornful on “I Don’t Want to Know” as he sings “I don’t want to know/your boyfriend’s name/I don’t want to know/all the men you’ve claimed.”

Nils Lofgren overflows with great guitar lines that other players can learn from, such as the fills played over the piano on “If I Say It It’s So,” and the searing high note solos that flow through the song. Yet Lofgren always uses those moments to underscore the emotion of a tune and never just for show. He can soar when he wants to, though. “Keith Don’t Go (Ode to the Glimmer Twin),” his tribute to Keith Richards, is a dazzling display of guitar mastery, with fast runs and impossible string bends.

Even with all the guitar technique, Nils Lofgren is a songwriter’s album. “Keith Don’t Go” is built on a memorable chord progression and a hummable melody. On many tunes Nils doesn’t solo or uses lead guitar lines to add color, as he does in “One More Saturday Night.” The arrangement for “I Don’t Want to Know” is built on acoustic guitar and piano, and “The Sun Hasn’t Set On This Boy Yet” is piano, drums, and bass. Nils Lofgren is a master guitarist, but he lets the songs speak on this album.

Lofgren began touring with Bruce Springsteen in 1984 and his guitar solo on the title track of Tunnel of Love should be on any list best-of list. His own recordings after Nils Lofgren never really achieved its heights, but no collection of rock and roll albums should be without it.

stereo equipment minneapolis st. paulTodd Rundgren—Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren (1971)

When Todd Rundgren left the Nazz, he recorded two albums under the moniker Runt, but by the second LP, released in 1971, the title made it clear Runt wasn’t a band. It was Rundgren. His next album, 1972’s Something/Anything would make it official by putting his name alone above the title, and featuring him on all the instruments and vocals on the first three sides of the two LP set.

The Ballad of Todd Rundgren is the album that first showed the many sides of Todd Rundgren, from balladeer to rocker to guitar god. Rundgren’s songwriting skills showed a variety of interests, along with the skills to back them up. The AM friendly ballad “A Long Time, A Long Way to Go” (which surely should have been a hit) is every bit as convincing and skillfully performed as the guitar rave up “Bleeding.” Rundgren had already used multi-tracking to create complex harmony vocals on Runt, his debut, but with Ballad he perfected it, establishing a standard he would maintain throughout his recordings.

At a time in the early 70s when blues ‘n’ boggie bands were dominant, Rundgren’s attachment to pop melodicism was as unexpected and out of step as Big Star’s. Even the guitar rockers, “Bleeding” and “Parole,” were notable for their easy to remember melodies, strong hooks, and soaring vocal harmonies. Todd, whose guitar playing has often been underappreciated, could pen a guitar riff as memorable as any Jimmy Page could cook up, and he shaped his solos to contribute to the overall impact of the song.

Rundgren’s broad grasp of pop music through the early 70s might be most apparent in “Hope I’m Around,” a track that shows an unusual appreciation of Philly Soul and a surprising ability to play and sing it. “Wailing Wall” and “Boat on the Charles” show the influence of Laura Nyro, one of his favorite songwriters. The epic “Chain Letter” builds in emotional and musical intensity, and “Long Flowing Robe” is catchy and fun, another song on the album that should have been a hit.

The range of songwriting on Ballad is remarkable, but Rundgren, who has produced all his post-Nazz recordings, sequenced the songs and they flow together well. His sense of humor is evident throughout the album, in details like the Floyd Cramer-like piano that opens “Range War” and the cover photo, which shows him with his back to the camera and a noose around his neck.

The following year, Rundgren would release Something/Anything?, the album that secured his career. Many of the recordings that followed, such as A Wizard, A True Star (1973), would be more experimental, but he returned to pure pop songs with The Hermit of Mink Hallow (1978), The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (1982), and Nearly Human (1989).

The Ballad of Todd Rundgren was Todd’s masterpiece, equal to Something/Anything? in its reach and ambition and, if anything, slightly more focused. It was the beginning of what would become a history of often visionary recordings.

These albums, even the Ian Matthews, are available on CD, but they should be heard on vinyl. You can find them on E Bay or possibly a good sized record shop in any city. Early copies of Children of the Future are worth having for the cover, but the sound will vary in quality depending on where they were pressed, and an early 70s two-fer on Capitol that included Sailor is on noisy vinyl. The pressing I’ve been most pleased with is a late 70s reissue in a thinner cardboard version of the original cover.

Look for copies of Bare Trees in a cover with a flat finish. Later pressings and record club versions were in a glossy cover, although I’ve compared them and sonically they’re similar. Early pressings of The Ballad of Todd Rundgren are on a blue Ampeg label, but most copies have a harvest brown Bearsville label. To my ears, they sound largely the same.

These are not records you’ll hear on classic rock radio, which may be why I like them. They have been as rewarding to me as other, better known LPs and I return to them often. Any record collector has personal favorites, and I might have chosen Boz Scaggs and Band for this list or maybe Friends by the Beach Boys. But these five are of among my very favorite LPs, and you might like them, too.