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Blonde on Blonde - Contrasts CD (album) cover

CONTRASTS

Blonde on Blonde

 

Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.06 | 14 ratings

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3 stars Real Progressive Rock

If you were wondering what Progressive Sounded like before King Crimson, well here's the answer.

OK, I take that back.

Here's an answer.

Blonde on Blonde took the popular styles of the time (and one or two of their favourite bands), chucked them into a pot and pepped it up a bit - not with virtuoso playing, complicated time signatures, classical references or side-long suites (I don't even get the feel of a concept to the album, except that side 1 contrasts with side 2 in terms of overall style), but with energy that compressed the influences until a new and progressive style popped out.

This is not music that radically changed the status quo (although it does sound a little like the early outings by Parfitt and Rossi's outfit), but music that drew a thick line underneath what had been achieved in music in the late 1960s (which was a huge amount, so this was no mean feat), and raised questions about what else could be done with it. It didn't sit in a corner trying to blend in with everyone else, it was trying out new approaches to the old stuff, with a bit of a swagger, but without some of the preposterous excesses of the times, as if it was trying to cut the crap and get on with the job of doing something different in its own terms.

You would think that they would be making some kind of social statement, considering the album they took their band name from, but I don't really get that from the lyrics - I get more of a musical statement of intent from this album, as well as a great collection of highly and sometimes surprisingly enjoyable 1960s tunes.

Ride With Captain Max starts out a bit of a typical 1960s number, with Mod overtones - think of a highly energetic and less quaint Kaleidoscope or the Small Faces and you're part way there. There's also a smattering of heavy blues a la Yardbirds or even Cream - but it's the Who-like energy that is most noticeable. This drops to a fairly typical sounding acoustic guitar-driven psych song passage, which in turn gives way to a much more boisterous and darker heavy rock passage. Back to the acoustic guitar, and the lyrics get a restatement, with a cross-rhythmic percsussion section, and back to the hi-energy. This structuring approach reminds me of a simplified version of the Clouds. There's no mistaking the catchy rock-pop flavour of this song though.

Spinning Wheel is a grin-inducing sitar-driven affair, with a catchy and simple little melody over an oom-pah bass that gets rather irritating after a while - but you can see the intent here, to conjour up the spinning wheel image, and empahsise a kind of Raga flavour at the same time. There is no let up in the energy.

No Sleep Blues is an entertaining interpretation of the Incredible String Band song, full of angelic slide guitar, tempo change, and such a connection with the original spirit of the piece, that if the ICB had ever rocked up, this is probably what they would have sounded like.

Goodbye reminds me even more strongly of the Clouds, although with the organ taking a more back seat role, and classical music merely hinted at with tinkling harpsichord lines.

I Need My Friend shows a return to heavy blues rock, with some nice twists, hints at the style of the Spencer Davis Group - but infused with some original melodic ideas and a real feel of the changeover in rock style from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.

Mother Earth is altogether a more sophisticated composition, still in a heavy blues rock vein, but with a more progressive atmosphere overlaying the repetitive riffs of the parent form. The chorus seems designed to be sungalong in a stadium, while the breakdown before the instrumental carries an late-night bar-gig intimacy about it.

What a contrast for the B-Side - the cover of Eleanor Rigby starts with an almost unrecognisable introduction, and replaces the string quartet with an insistent acoustic and gentle percussion - and a trumpet. With this interpretation, you'd think that the song had been written by the guys on Blonde on Blonde themselves. Your mileage may vary, but there's so much to like in this version that I'd be hard pushed to say whether the original was better than this or not.

Next up, back to 1960s psychedelia, with a large dash of Small Faces, Cream and all manner of other popular bands, making for something that you'd think would sound a bit cheesey and derived - but instead, thanks to the high-energy so typical of this album, creating a style that is original and yet a product of the times simultaneously. The instrumental catches you unawares, with its simplicity and ever-shifting strands of sonic goodness.

A folk flavour infuses the short instrumental Regency, giving the feel of an interlude in a greater whole, with some really nice counterpoint providing excellent movement.

The folk feeling continues in the intro to Island on an Island - pity the recorder is almost a quarter of a tone out of tune, but here it does lend an authentic (if occasionally painful) flavour to a song that conjoures up images on a Celtic shoreline in a summer twighlight in the fabric of the music.

Don't Be Too Long maintains the folk feel, spinning a tale of separation.

The original album ended with Jeanette Isabella, another song that could have been written by Clouds, with lush Hammond backing filling in the space around the guitar nicely, as the pleasantly faintly hoarse vocals tell the story.

The bonuses are nice inclusions that fit in well with the rest of the material, Country Life also sounding uncannily like the Clouds, All Day and All Night heavy in sitar, recalling the Beatles' early use of the instrument, like a Hi-Energy Within You Without You.

Many, many times better than Yes' debut of the same year, in terms of overall energy, arrangement variety and vocal quality - this album is an authentic representation of what was being called Progressive Rock in 1969, before the release of King Crimson's debut, although not really what we'd think of as Prog Rock now.

Many of the essential elements are here - yet at the same time, it can be quite hard to hear how this differs from a lot of the psychedelic pop rock music of the time, from our 21st century viewpoint - apart from an almost indescribable quality.

I think that quality lies in how the several genres (folk, blues, psych and rock) are fused together with a fresh energy, that successfully heralds in, and provides a missing link to the Progressive Rock that was about to explode on an unprepared world. The one thing it really lacks is the improvisational feel of jazz - but there are brief moments of this, buried in the songs themselves.

Recommended, especially to historians - but a great listen for anyone, and indisputably part of the foundation of Prog Rock, albeit a small corner compared to, say Pink Floyd or the Beatles.

I guess this is a 3.5 starrer, really ;o)

Certif1ed | 3/5 |

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