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Albums Circa '70 Part I: CS&N 

by

Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
www.millerrisk.com
June 11, 2012

Only a few times in a life have I heard record albums that when I heard them I thought to myself, "this changes everything." Nirvana's Nevermind is one, but its influence fade after about a decade. If I had had such thoughts that far back, Sgt. Pepper's would have been another such album. But Crosby Stills & Nash's premier, self-titled album made me think that I had stepped into a new world the first time that I heard it back in 1969.

I first learned of the album at my high school's math club shortly after the album was released in May 1969 when I overheard some soon-to-be-graduating seniors talking about the new "Crosby album." I did not think much of these guys, so I thought they were talking about Bing Crosby, unaware of the brand new supergroup that melded The Byrds (David Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills) and (rather surprisingly) The Hollies (Graham Nash). Even their engineer and co-producer, Bill Halverson, was fresh from his engineering gig with Cream, generally considered the original Sixties supergroup.

I don't recall when I actually heard any of the songs from the album, but I know that at a time when I had only enough cash to buy three or four albums a year, I quickly bought it and played it nonstop on my rather pitiful portable monophonic record player. The first song, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" (S:JBE), came as a complete revelation to me. The rest of the album was groovy, too. The album and its two singles was a bit of a sleeper at first. But soon came Woodstock and fame followed quickly. Crosby, Still, and Nash had played a 16-song set in the middle of the third (and final) night of the festival with Neil Young joining in on occasion. I would finally get to see and hear a small part of their set the following summer when the movie and its soundtrack were released. (I was "too young" to attend Woodstock, as were all of my friends/cohort.) While some groups sound better live, at that time (and place), CS&N (even with the addition of Neil Young) certainly did not. I still consider the Woodstock version of S:JBE to be unlistenably out-of-tune.

Despite Crosby's top billing, the group is really about the magical combination of Stills and Nash. (Crosby and Nash actually did their own album shortly after the original CS&N effort, but while good in places, it is far from magical.) Stephen Stills hailed from the country-rock group Buffalo Springfield, which probably sold more albums after it broke up than when it was together. Stills wrote and sang lead on the Springfield's one big hit single, "For What It's Worth", a quirky, but socially significant song that was both atypical of the group's output and ahead of its time in 1966. Britpop pioneer Graham Nash (before Britpop was a word), was the special sauce that turned Stills' quirkiness into transcendence. S:JBE was vastly more ambitious than "For What It's Worth" and the song could easily have been a fiasco, but CS&N pulled it off.

One way to appreciate CS&N is to listen to what it is not. While Neil Young was another Buffalo Springfield alum that would join CS&N on occasion (making it CSN&Y), the other key members of the Springfield went on the form Poco, a group that has had its moments. (Effectively, Graham Nash's contract was acquired from his record label in exchange for Poco.). Their first single, "Pickin' Up the Pieces," which obviously refers to the pieces of Buffalo Springfield left after the departures of Stills and Young, is rather embarrassing from the perspective of 2012 and was a flop at the time. "Pick Up the Pieces" is very, very, very country song (and no YouTube version does the original justice because they have all "toned it down" and the current Poco is a mere shadow of the original). Indeed, a key phrase in the song, "pickin' and grinnin'," would later in 1969 become the catchphrase on Hee Haw, a television show that would define "hayseed" long before John Mellencamp would use the word in a song.

An important element of CS&N's special appeal was that it had country roots, but did not sound particularly country itself. No twang to the guitars and not even a Byrdsian jangle. CS&N's first album was discernibly folk, however, but the folk influence was global in nature, especially on the first two songs, S:JBE and Nash's "Marrakesh Express."

While CS&N was a hit at the time, the album reached #6 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #35 on the "Black" Charts (presumably because Atlantic was still a "soul" label), those numbers understate its vast influence. While my own music reproduction equipment would remain lacking until 1975, I did have access to good equipment through friends and relatives, so I could appreciate just how great the CS&N album sounded. The harmonies are right there with the Everly Brothers and Beach Boys. Notwithstanding a glitch in "Guinnevere," the album is clean and crisp unlike almost anything before it in rock and roll. Both stereo and multi-track recording were still in their infancy and it was common for albums to sound muddy or have the vocal and instrumental tracks spread out in perverse ways. (Early Beatles albums had such horrific stereo mixes, that many enthusiasts prefer the monophonic version.) As the "dean of American rock critics," Robert Christgau, wrote, "the album (CS&N) is perfect," though he noted that this was not necessarily a compliment. Compliment or not, CS&N served as the aural template for rock albums for years to come. The Grateful Dead, for example, quickly broke through with two superb studio albums that directly drew their inspiration from CS&N (while retaining the group's unique character). CS&N's manager, Robert Geffen, would take the CS&N formula and repeat it many times, building a major media empire and a multi-billion dollar fortune in the process. The group's label, Atlantic Records, which was on a bit of a roll even before CS&N, would arguably wrest the dominance of the recording industry away from Capitol Records. (According to Wikipedia, Apple Records, the Beatles' label after they spun out of Capitol, but keeping the label as their US distributor, had the first shot at CS&N and turned them down.)

For CS&N, it was a long downhill ride after their first album. The addition of Neil Young (making the group CSN&Y) helped their second album, Dj Vu, reach the top of the album charts, but the group lost the cohesiveness that made it first effort so special. While Young is arguably more talented than Crosby, Stills and Nash combined, he just does not mix well with them. His most famous backup group, Crazy Horse, does a better job backing him than CS&N and he really did not serve any meaningful role in their songs (indeed, he did even not play on most of them). Young may ably span genres such as country, hard rock, and punk, but he cannot have been said to have invented his own.

While the lead track off Dj Vu, "Carry On," is but a mere shadow of Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," there is a song on that album rises to the level of their freshman outing. That song is "Our House," which is essentially a Graham Nash solo effort that predates his solo album, Songs for Beginners. "Our House" sounded corny to the high-school version of me (and the source of the "very, very, very" that I slipped in earlier in this commentary), but years later when I actually lived in a Southern California house (albeit a "townhouse" with a fake fireplace) with the love of my life would I grok the song as the ultimate ode to domesticity. I also discovered that what starts innocently as flowers (presumably handpicked) and vases can turn into Marimekko sheets and towels.

While many cuts from CS&N still generate hefty royalties from their play on classic rock stations today, my remaining summer albums have sunk into the pit of obscurity. My second album, early 1971's Nantucket Sleighride came from Mountain, another group featured at Woodstock. While CS&N was a precursor (if not the source) of the "yuppie music" that I featured my commentaries a few summers ago, Mountain's music was a precursor of a special brand of heavy metal music. Elements of Nantucket Sleighride would re-emerge by the end of 1971 in the work of a group that did not attend Woodstock because it was paid more money to perform at Asbury Park that weekend.

Copyright 2012 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to www.millerrisk.com.