Sunday, September 30, 2012

How It Was - The Great Society

How It Was
The Great Society
Columbia CS 9702

The second of the two albums that Columbia issued of the Great Society, trying to cash in on the success of the Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick.  It is a shame that this music was tied to a shoddy bit of record company chicanery because this is first rate music in its own right.  This may be presumptuous of me since I didn't see these bands live, but on the basis of the archival recordings I've heard, I'm inclined to believe that the Great Society might have been the best band in San Francisco in 1966.  They had a great lead singer, a very creative guitar player and terrific songs.  Both of the Columbia albums are full of dynamic and innovative music.  The first album was derived from a 1966 concert at the Matrix in San Francisico.  This album contains the remainder of that concert as well as a track ("Father") that reportedly comes from a gig at California Hall in San Francisco.  Side one opens with "That's How It Is" by David Miner who played rhythm guitar in the group and was originally co-lead vocalist of the band with Grace Slick before she inevitably took command.  This song was reportedly Autumn Records' choice for the band's first single but was rejected by the band's leader and lead guitarist Darby Slick for being too happy, ha-ha.  It is a catchy song with upbeat lyrics, more commercial sounding than most of the band's oeuvre.  It has a very winning vocal from Grace supported by Miner.  I'm not sure why Columbia opted to leave it off the first album, maybe because Grace cracks up at the beginning of the song.  Darby's "Darkly Smiling" is more typical of the Great Society's sound and I think it is one of their best songs.  It has a Middle Eastern flavor to it, both in its guitar riff and Grace's stunning vocal.  It is a very psychedelic song, I guess it is about death.  It is hard to imagine Grace covering a Nat King Cole hit, but that is exactly what comes next with "Nature Boy."  Of course the song is hardly typical crooner material, it has a remarkably mystical flavor for its era.  Grace sings it very convincingly.  The song features a lovely flute solo from band's bass player Peter van Gelder which evolves into a duet when Grace joins him on her recorder.  The side ends with another Miner song, "You Can't Cry."  Miner sings lead but Grace joins in at the end and blows him away.  It is a straight ahead rocker with a driving organ riff and some stinging guitar licks.  Side two begins with Miner's "Daydream Nightmare" which has a surreal title but is just a song about a guy leaving a girl who's done him wrong.  It has a raga rock opening with a hypnotic bass and guitar riff supplemented by Grace playing her recorder like she is trying to charm a cobra.  The song then goes into rocker mode for awhile before going raga again at the end for Darby's guitar solo and some more snake charming from Grace.  It is another one of my favorites on the album.  Darby's "Everybody Knows" is another my lover-did-me-wrong song.  It is a straight ahead rocker with a folk rock flavor until the guitar solo which sounds psychedelic.  Darby and his brother Jerry (the bands' drummer and Grace's husband at the time) penned "Born to be Burned."  It is a moody song with a compelling bass riff and a powerful vocal from Grace.  Darby has a lengthy guitar solo that sounds raga-influenced.  "Father" is an instrumental notable for van Gelder's frenetic saxophone work which mixes raga with jazz.  The song starts with a quiet surf-style guitar riff but builds in velocity and strength leading up to a fabulous incendiary guitar solo from Darby that finishes with a full band rave up that is terrifically exciting.  It is the most psychedelic track on the album and proof of the band's instrumental prowess and originality.  Being a huge Airplane fan, I can't really complain about Grace jumping ship when Signe Anderson left the Airplane, a lot of great music resulted from that merger.  By all accounts the band was on the verge of breaking up anyway because of Darby Slick and van Gelder's desire to travel to India to study the sitar (van Gelder would actually become a skilled sitar player and performer of Indian classical music.)  Nonetheless when I play this record I wonder what might have resulted if they had stuck together for a while.  I think it would have been something special.  Recommended to Jefferson Airplane fans who dig Ravi Shankar.  

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