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Albums Circa '70 Part II:
Nantucket Sleighride 


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
July 9, 2012

Typical American urban teenagers circa 1970 listened to a lot of heavy metal music; albeit, well before that label was commonly attached to such music. Most of the music that I can remember being played at my friends' parties during high school at that time was loud and obnoxious, having the effect (intended or not) of keeping parents as far away from the action as possible. I hung with a rather tame crowd (no drugs, alcohol, or excessively affectionate behavior) and distinctly recall a party at the home of the alpha female of our crowd (currently one of my elite group of Facebook friends) with everyone sitting in a circle an listening to Iron Butterfly's In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida and Led Zeppelin II. We were probably drinking Boller cream soda, Elizabeth, New Jersey's local discount beverage of choice.

No one ever had to tell me this, but listening to female-incompatible music is a big mistake if one is interested in their company. Early heavy metal did not have much of a female acceptance factor. This all changed with a single song, Led Zep's "Stairway to Heaven," off their fourth (late 1971) album commonly known as "ZoSo." I fell in love with the song instantly, it fit perfectly with my new Southern California home, but its rise to fame (and later infamy) unfolded over a period of years.

Rather than add to the millions of words written about ZoSo and "Stairway," this commentary focuses instead on Nantucket Sleighride, both the album (and song) by Mountain that predates Zep's effort by almost a full year, coming out in January of 1971. Mountain, like Crosby, Stills and Nash (the subject of last month's commentary) was featured at Woodstock, but unlike CS&N none of Mountain's extended set made it into the original 1970 Woodstock movie or its soundtrack. Only much later would bits of their Woodstock performance be included on anniversary boxed sets. Mountain and CS&N are also linked through a common predecessor, Cream, whose producer, Felix Pappalardi, was the leader of Mountain and the co-producer of Nantucket Sleighride and whose engineer, Bill Halverson, was a co-producer of last month's featured CS&N album. Mountain resembles a latter manifestation of Cream (minus its superstar talent), while CS&N is something altogether different.

What Mountain brought to heavy-metal music was the injection of a mystical romanticism that gave their songs the same distinctive nonlinearity that was ultimately perfected in "Stairway." Such mystical romanticism derives largely from English folk music and the "electric" version of this music developed a following in the late sixties through the cult popularity of such groups as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span, all of which currently wallow in obscurity pending their rediscovery at some future date. Prior to ZoSo, Led Zep had already dabbled in the electric folk genre with "Gallow's Pole" on their third album, which pre-dates Nantucket Sleighride. Also, their fourth album included a purely acoustic duet with Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention, "The Battle of Evermore." But both these Zep songs are modern versions of traditional British folk music, while "Nantucket Sleighride" and "Stairway" are much more than that.

The song "Nantucket Sleighride" appears on the album of the same name as its second and third songs of the album. The second track of the album is the one-minute instrumental "Taunta (Sammy's Theme), which is the gapless intro to the nearly six-minute-long "Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)." "Nantucket Sleighride" is the ultimate farewell-sex song, the sort of thing to play to your sweetheart before going off to fight in Vietnam (or, more commonly at the time because the draft was winding down, college). This is a song so ambitious that taken out of context of its time it might well qualify as the cheesiest song ever written. People just don't go for lines like "I know you're the last true love I'll ever meet" and "wrap your body 'round my soul" anymore.

Getting parachuted into Cambodia is not very romantic, so "Nantucket Sleighride" is about sailing off into the unknown to nail "the mighty sperm whale." Interestingly, the song is dedicated to a sailor (Owen Coffin) who volunteered to be eaten by the shipwrecked crew of a whaler that served as the model for Melville's Pequod in Moby-Dick. The lyrics to "Nantucket Sleighride" seem like the Jeff Spicoli version of Moby-Dick. For example, Starbuck, the first mate of the Pequod, left the harpooning up to his crew, contrary to the song's lyrics.

Still, for a song written by folks with serious drug issues, not to mention fatal marital issues, "Nantucket Sleighride" is a masterpiece. Given the obvious connection between CS&N and Mountain it is not a stretch to conclude that Mountain, like The Grateful Dead, were directly influenced by CS&N. While the song never charted, the album did well at the time; it peaked at #16 and ultimately went gold. Sonically, the album sounds more like a product of the 1960s rather than the 1970s. Mountain diverged from CS&N (and The Grateful Dead and, most importantly, Led Zeppelin) in the quality of the sound pressed into the vinyl. Granted, the blues are down and dirty, but California clean was taking over the music business. Eric Clapton saw the writing on the wall and graduated from the sonic mud of his Cream albums and, to a lesser extent, his Dominos' album to a string of clean, but not sterile, solo-billed efforts. (Sidenote: Like CS&N, Led Zep recorded on Atlantic Records.)

Here in the US, you never hear anything from the Nantucket Sleighride album, including a number of other, far more cheesy, romantic, folksy numbers than the title track (and its intro). Mountain's overbearing "Mississippi Queen" from their debut album, an obvious beneficiary of the 21st century cowbell revival, is all the airplay the group gets these days. You don't hear "Stairway" much either, but that is because the world is still burned out from all the play it got in the 70s. The big lesson here is that J.R.R. Tolkien is a better author to appropriate your imagery from than Herman Melville.

Next month, no more folk-inspired rock music, but instead the roots of an entirely new and different rock genre that would come to be known as Power Pop. I will discuss a pioneer of that genre who was moderately big at the time and then largely forgotten until recently, Emitt Rhodes, and his eponymous 1970 debut album as a solo artist.

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