Friday, July 17, 2009

Blind Faith

WE really only knew of Blind Faith as an album. The theory was that the world’s first mega-group, not just a super-group, a mega-group, would combine the best of Cream and Traffic and team up to form the best damned rock group in the history of the world.

As already witnessed with Traffic and many other bands, putting highly creative and individualistic people together in one band doesn’t always work. But it was sure worth the effort. Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Jim Capaldi – or surely it was Ginger Baker? And who else? Ric Grech, perhaps?

While my love of their first and only album is ingrained, I clearly need to brush up the finer details.

Well, in the end I see I got the staff-list right. Wikipedia calls them “an English blues supergroup” and offers their credentials. Clapton was ex-Yardbirds and Cream, Baker ex-Graham Bond Organisation and Cream, Winwood ex-Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, and Grech, at that point only ex-Family.

Wikipedia notes that their only album, Blind Faith (1969) comprised music “often seen as stylistically similar to … Traffic and Cream”. Which is, of course, a great, great thing, given how good those bands were. It adds that the band “helped to pioneer a fusion of rock and roll with the blues”. That, for me, seems dubious, because so many of the bands I have covered thus far were doing just that. Indeed, the blues is like a golden thread running through most of the best music of the era.

Wikipedia, matter-of-factly, tells us that while Cream, “rock’s original supergroup”, had became a financial powerhouse by mid-1968, there was growing tension between Jack Bruce and Baker, with Clapton trying to keep the peace. It adds that Clapton was disillusioned with the demand for commercially driven blues, “and hoped to move forward with a new, experimental, less straight-jacketed approach to the genre”.

For similar reasons, Winwood had quit The Spencer Davis Group to form Traffic in 1967. When Traffic split briefly in 1969, Winwood and Clapton started jamming together in Clapton’s basement in Surrey. Earlier they had collaborated on a record as Powerhouse, Wikipedia says, without elaboration. When Baker sat in with them, Clapton was tempted to let him join – but had promised Bruce that any future Cream reunions would involve all three. Anyway, Cream had only broken up a few months earlier. However, Winwood insisted Baker be used as he “strengthened their musicianship”, says Wikipedia. And so strong was this combination that when bassist Grech, on tour with Family, was invited to join them, he cut ties with the family immediately. At Olympic Studios, with Jimmy Miller producing, they set about creating that famed album. Wikipedia says Miller “provided focus to the band, who often preferred jamming over the standard commercial 3-5 minute track”.

And how did they get that name? It seems Blind Faith was “a slightly cynical reference by Clapton to his outlook on the new group”. Which is not surprising.

At Hyde Park

Did Blind Faith tour? Wikipedia says the formation of the group created “a buzz of excitement, with the press heralding them as “super Cream”. Their debut concert was a free one, at London’s Hyde Park on June 7, 1969. But Clapton was apparently not too happy with the band’s sound, saying the crowd adulation reminded him of the Cream days when nearly everything they did was applauded. Knowing they hadn’t rehearsed fully, he was reluctant to tour. While recording of their album continued, says Wikipedia, they did do a short tour of, of all places, Scandinavia, “where the band played smaller gigs and were able to rehearse their sound and prepare it for bigger audiences in America and England”. And yes, it seems they did tour, and the US to boot.

Wikipedia says they kicked off a US tour by playing for more than 20 000 at Madison Square Garden on July 12, 1969. They completed a seven-week tour in Hawaii on August 24. One problem, notes Wikipedia, is that they only had enough new songs to fill an hour, and were forced to play old Cream and Traffic songs – which the crowds usually preferred to the new stuff. Clapton wasn’t chuffed, with this new “super Cream” causing riots at live shows. With Free and Delaney & Bonnie as opening acts, Clapton gravitated towards the “folksy-sounding blues” of the latter, and let Winwood take a more leading role in Blind Faith.

But, despite Clapton’s aversion to further adulation, the album Blind Faith immediately topped the US and UK pop album charts. It even reached No 40 on the black albums chart in the US. The album sold more than a million copies in its first month. It also boosted the sale of Cream albums.

Front cover

But then there was the problem of the cover. I had been trying to recall what the SA cover looked like back then, and seem to think it carried the black-and-white photograph carried on the back cover of the UK version which I bought through Michael’s record shop in Central, Port Elizabeth, around 1986. This is the one that has the cover that caused all the trouble, as I think we’re about to discover. Indeed. Wikipedia says the album provoked controversy “because the cover featured a topless pubescent girl, holding in her hands a silver space ship (which some perceived as phallic)”. How pathetic, we might say today, but clearly even in progressive countries the mother grundies were keeping a lid on anything even remotely prurient.

Wikipedia says the US record company did, indeed, use a photograph of the band on the front, as I’m sure occurred in SA, too. And what of that “space ship”. Wikipedia says it was “merely a chrome-plated hood ornament from a mid-1950s Chevrolet”.

That controversial cover photo on the original UK album was by Bob Seideremann, a friend of Clapton’s “who is known primarily for his photos of Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead”. As the conservatives got the rumour mill grinding, so emerged bizarre claims that the girl was Baker’s illegitimate daughter, of that she was a groupie kept as a slave by the band. What about just accepting that it was a beautiful picture of a young girl in a field? No, impossible. There had to be a more sinister take on the whole affair.

Anyway, Wikipedia further correctly observes that, like Traffic’s Welcome to the Canteen, this cover did not feature the name of the band, or of the album. Initially, only the wrapping paper carried this information. Bizarrely, Wikipedia says this version was banned in the US, but became available in the 1970s as an import.

Checking out my vinyl copy, complete with controversial picture of topless young red-headed girl with plane, I see it was an RSO Records album, produced in West Germany. It was selling here for a mere R16.99, which only goes to show how inflation has destroyed this currency over the past few decades. CDs go for about R160 today.

But, great debut album or not, within a year of its creation, Blind Faith was no more. After the US tour, says Wikipedia, plans for a UK tour fizzled, and by October the band had “effectively dissolved”. Incredibly, no live albums followed the US tour, though Wikipedia notes that several live tracks from the band are on Winwood’s 1995 retrospective album, The Finer Things.

Clapton then worked briefly with the Plastic Ono Band before touring as a sideman for Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, later taking several members of the group to form Derek & the Dominoes. Baker, revelling in the success of Blind Faith, formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force, with Grech and Winwood. But the latter then hived off to reform Traffic, producing – yes – that seminal album, John Barleycorn Must Die.

But just how good was the album, Blind Faith? Well a fresh listen to that vinyl album reinforced for me just what a classic this was. Many were the days we put this on the turntable and lapped up the chemistry between these four musicians. It was a short-lived bit of rock magic that, thankfully, gained immortality on this one album. And, of course, as noted above, it reached No 1 on the US charts, which is no small achievement.

Wikipedia describes it as British blues and psychedelic rock, but again it is one of those albums that virtually defy categorisation. There’s bits of blues in there, jazz, folk, and of course rock, which is really just what the contemporary glue was that combined all these influences into a new and dynamic force which, nearly 40 years on, shows no sign of dissipating.

A Wikipedia essay on the album says they started working out songs for the album in early 1969, “although the first few almost-finished songs didn’t show up until they were at Olympic Studios in April and May under the direction of producer Jimmy Miller”. By then word was out that the union of the decade, between Clapton and Winwood, was afoot, and that Baker and Grech, no slouches themselves, were part of the process too. As noted earlier, they interrupted recording in order to make those tours of Scandinavia and the US. Almost apologetically, Wikipedia claims the album was “recorded hurriedly and Side 2 consisted of just two songs, one of them a 15-minute jam entitled Do What You Like”. It adds, almost as if to redeem the album, that it “nevertheless … was able to produce two classic hits: Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Home and Clapton’s Presence Of The Lord”. Having just listened to the album, I feel it rather churlish, indeed a virtual sacrilege, to dismiss Do What You Like as a “jam”. It is a beautifully structured blues-jazz-rock piece in the finest tradition of what all the serious bands were trying to do, including of course Traffic and Cream.

Wikipedia tells us that an “expanded, deluxe edition of the album was released in 2001, with previously unreleased tracks and ‘jams’ included”. Two live tracks from that free Hyde Park concert – Sleeping In The Dark by Sam Myers and the Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb – are, we are told, also available on that 4-CD Winwood retrospective, The Finer Things. Both would clearly be great to have, but nothing can surely compare with the experience of well, experiencing Blind Faith right then, on that album, in the early 1970s.

Back cover

Before getting to the album itself, Wikipedia addresses further that controversial album cover. It says in the mid-1990s, its creator, photographer Bob Seidemann, in a statement intended to help sell lithographic reprints of the cover, explained his thinking behind the image. He said he chose the space ship to symbolise “the achievement of human creativity and its expression through technology”. Innocence would carry “this new spore” into the universe, and this would be symbolised by “a girl as young as Shakespeare’s Juliet”. The space ship was, in fact, made by Jeweller at the Royal College of Art Mick Milligan. The girl couldn’t be fully developed or “it would be cheesecake”. If too young “it would be nothing”. What he sought was “the beginning of the transition from girl to woman”. He approached a 14-year-old on the London Tube, met her parents, but she proved too old. Instead, her 11-year-old sister was ideal. Her modelling fee? A “young horse”, bought by band manager Robert Stigwood. And, it emerges, Seidemann’s title for the image, Blind Faith, “became the inspiration for the name of the band itself, which had been unnamed when the artwork was commissioned”, says Wikipedia. While Seidemann claimed Clapton’s idea of no printing the name of the band on the cover was a first, it had in fact been done on the 1965 Beatles album Rubber Soul, and Traffic’s self-titled 1968 album.

As with so many of the great blues-rock songs discussed by other bands thus far, the really great ones have a distinctive, one could say, in retrospect, iconic, basic melody which provides the structure for the rest of the song. Which is why Had To Cry Today, a Winwood composition, is instantly recognisable the moment that tight electric guitar and bass set off on the melody. I see that both Winwood and Clapton play guitar on the album, so I’m assuming Winwood essentially provided the melody – especially on the songs he wrote – while Clapton did his unique form of lead guitar embellishment. Again, though, it is Winwood’s immaculate vocals which provide the crucial catalyst for success. “It’s already written that today will be one to remember / The feeling’s the same as being outside of the law / Had to cry today / Well, I saw your sign and I missed you there.” I have to concede that no matter how many times I’ve heard this song, this is the first time I’ve got to address the lyrics. Again, it was a case of a few words heard, but the voice, as an instrument, being the key factor. So it’s great, finally, to see what Winwood was saying: “I’m taking the chance to see the wind / in your eyes while I listen / You say you can’t reach me but you / want every word to be free / Had to cry today / Well, I saw your sign and I missed you there / And I missed you there / Had to cry today ...” Imagine this in a Cream-like setting of Ginger Baker drumming, superb Ric Grech bass playing, and a lead guitar that explores areas few other guitarists have dared to venture, and you get the picture. The song, long at 8:48 minutes, ends in a sort of psychedelic jam, with two guitars duelling fiendishly.

And always expect the unexpected on a top British rock album from this era. Rich, rollicking, blues acoustic guitar, with the slash of cymbals at the end of each line of the lyrics, sort of sums up the next track, another Winwood song, Can’t Find My Way Home. This has to be one of the all-time classics of rock, and it is the most subtle and deliberately understated sound imaginable: “Come down off your throne /

And leave your body alone / Somebody must change / You are the reason / I’ve been waiting so long / Somebody holds the key / Well, I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time / Well, I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.” These lines, which one does hear clearly on this track, are like precious tracts from some seer, to be handed down from generation to generation. Not because of their meaning, but because they, as part of this song, occupied such a pivotal place in the collective psyche of a generation. “Come down on your own / And leave your money at home / Somebody must change / You are the reason / I’ve been waiting all these years / Somebody holds the key / I’m near the end, and I just ain’t got the time / Oh, and I’m wasted, and I can’t find my way home / But I can’t find my way home / But I can’t find my way home …” This is repeated a few more times, before it continues: “Still, I can’t find my way home / And, I ain’t done nothing wrong / But, I can’t find my way home.”

They call it British blues, and I guess that this tradition, started perhaps by John Mayall, did evolve into a separate creature, something that to my mind has generated some of the greatest sounds in modern rock music.

Winwood went to the US for one great blues song on this album, Well … All Right, which was written by Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison, Joe Mauldin and Norman Petty. And it is here that we get the first taste of the Clapton guitar and Winwood’s piano working beautifully in tandem. It’s an up-tempo blues-rock song, which includes a short but sweet piano-led jam near the end. I’ve again, not really thought about the import of the lyrics, but it’s so good to see them finally: “Well all right, so I’ve been foolish. / Well all right, let people know / About the dreams and wishes that you wish / In the night when lights are low.” Again, heard dozens of times, but now finally the words are out in the open. And they lead to the chorus: “Well all right, well all right, / You know we live and love with all our might. / Well all right, well all right, / You know our lifetime love will be all right.” The final verse reads: “Well all right, so I’m not working. / Well all right, let people say / That those foolish kids can’t be ready / For the love that comes their way.”

I don’t know if Clapton had had a religious experience, but I guess he and the likes of George Harrison were looking at all sorts of religions and philosophies. So Presence Of The Lord fits into that movement. It is a slow blues, sung I’m sure, by Winwood. It is instructive to listen objectively to this music and just appreciate the pure quality on offer here, thRough all the instruments and the vocals. “I have finally found a way to live / Just like I never could before. / I know that I don’t have much to give, / But I can open any door.” Winwood’s voice soars for the chorus: “Everybody knows the secret, / Everybody knows the score. / I have finally found a way to live / In the colour of the Lord.” Successive verses vary very little from this, but it is that combination of lead vocals and lead guitar which keep the song keen and vital. And then things stop, and a wah-wah lead guitar launches a brilliant jam session in which Clapton really vents his spleen. But it never becomes brash or boring, and soon enough the Winwood vocals resume: “Everybody knows the secret, / Everybody knows the score. / I have finally found a place to live / In the presence of the Lord. / In the presence of the Lord.”

Mention Sea Of Joy and anyone who loved this album when it came out will tell you this is one of the great musical journeys of our time. A quick-fire lead and bass-led opening melody slows and quietens suddenly, enabling subtle acoustic guitarwork to come to the fore, before Winwood’s vocals begin: “Following the shadows of the skies, / Or are they only figments of my eyes? / And I’m feeling close to when the race is run. / Waiting in our boats to set sail. / Sea of joy.” Ginger Baker had this ability, with Cream and again here, to effortlessly bring a dimension to the songs he played on which far exceeded what was expected of a “mere” drummer. This was an instrument to be treated with the same reverence as the guitars and pianos, organs and wind instruments. On this song, and the next, his virtuoso drumming is arguably at its highest point in his career. You will rarely hear better drum-playing anywhere. There is also a sublime quiet section where Grech’s violin is allowed to soar, with acoustic guitar providing the perfect foil. Elsewhere, the bass guitar and organ work beautifully in tandem. But in the end it is Winwood’s winning voice that showcases those lyrics: “Once the door swings open into space, / And I’m already waiting in disguise. / Is it just a thorn between my eyes? / Waiting in our boats to set sail. / Sea of joy.” Winwood’s lyrics, too, have that ability to draw you into the song, without caring too much what precisely he’s singing about. The journey is evoked in phrases snatched, like “open into space” and “waiting in disguise”. The song concludes: “Having trouble coming through, / Through this concrete blocks my view / And it’s all because of you.” Then those final lines: “Oh, is it just a thorn between my eyes? / Waiting in our boats to set sail. / Sea of joy. / Sea of joy. / Sea of joy. / Sailing free. / Sea of joy.” Insert within those last lines that wonderful lead-guitar-led melody – dala-la-laa-la-laa, dala-la-laa-la-laa – and suddenly you are indeed sailing on a sea of joy.

The concluding, 15:18-minute Ginger Baker composition, Do What You Like, was often, in our youth, thought of as a drum solo, a chance for “the world’s best drummer” to show off. But of course it is far more than that. It is, in a way, the culmination of this experiment, the final British blues-jazz-rock classic, unpretentious, brilliant. It starts up-tempo, with Baker stamping his mark on matters early on with a few well-chosen raps on certain key drums. Winwood, again, does the vocalist duties, but the others join in on the choruses, and later, as the various solos occur, they chant the line “do what you like” in chorus, and have a lot of fun at the same time. “Do right, use your head, everybody must be fed / Get together, break your bread, yes, / together, that’s what I said / Do what you like.” It was, I suppose, a bit of a philosophy lesson for us all, an almost ritualistic, religious experience, including the breaking of bread, which in any society symbolises sharing at its most important level, in the feeding of people. “Don’t fight / Don’t fight, use your head, it’s all right every night / Do what you like, that’s what I said / Everybody must be fed, do what you like / Open your eyes, realize you’re not dead / Take a look at an open book / Do what you like, that’s what I said, do what you like.” Once the lyrics are out of the way, the solos begin, starting with a low-key organ break by Winwood, with the Baker drums at all times reinforcing a timbre, a texture, which is pristine. Clapton takes over for a short bluesy lead guitar solo, in which he squeezes out the notes in his own inimitable way. All the time, the chanting of “do what you like” continues. Then it’s Grech’s turn, as the bass and drums work along together, interlinking, overlapping, playful, joyful. Finally, the bass fades away, and Baker starts a drum solo which is initially excrutiatingly understated. It is almost as though he’s finding his feet, feeling his way – which of course is intentional, since it adds to the power and, indeed, glory, of what is to come. The first drum rolls, which traverse the speakers on the stereo, are like thunder moving across the sky. This is no ostentatious showing off. The solo is an extension of Baker’s style, it flows effortlessly, with the chanting enhancing the textures and colours he achieves with drum and cymbal. As he reaches a point of climax, there are cheers from his bandmates, before they return, again seamlessly, to take up the initial melody which set the song in train in the first place. Finally, echoing the likes of the Stones, Beatles and Pink Floyd, the track ends with some whacky, weird, chatting and sounds, including the words “B-flat” and some Woodstock-like humming.

This was Blind Faith. A short, wonderful, moment in time. The rock machine was working with all pistons firing beautifully, and for a while there, in 1969, four of the best musicians around laid down some sounds that will surely live for many, many decades to come. People will return to this well to nourish souls encumbered by mediocrity, as they hanker for a time when the great musicians of our time were at the height of their creative and aesthetic powers.

1 comment:

Bombshellicious said...

Cream was my favorite band of the time I loved them I remember seeing them in concert. Also loved Rory Gallagher hope he gets a mention somewhere hehe though probably he wont get called a global rock legend.

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