Haight Ashbury is, of course, the unremarkable intersection of Haight St. and Ashbury St. in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. It designates something of a ground zero for the multiplicities of scenes active in the surrounding environment in the mid-late 60’s. It was the epicenter of the American psychedelic rock movement, as well as an emblem of the counterculture itself. The music of the typical Haight Ashbury group was usually folk-based, with varying degrees of blues influence (from none to a whole lot), hints of surf riffs in places, with or without an organ, with long, spacy guitar playing and varying degrees of improvisation onstage. Some groups branched out towards acid rock, some toward country-rock, some towards blues-rock, some towards nostalgia, some towards heavy metal. The roster of well-known players of the era is long and impressive: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, Big Brother & The Holding Co. (Janis Joplin), Santana, Steve Miller Band, Hot Tuna, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, New Riders of the Purple Sage. There were also many also-rans, some so loosely knit they survive only as a name on one of the famously beautiful concert posters of the day. The Charlatans, whom history has largely forgotten, were the first Haight Ashbury band to secure a recording contract; Jefferson Airplane was the first to have a hit and gain national exposure.
Books have been written on San Francisco’s history in the 1960’s, so a brief summary of the place and times will suffice.
As those who were there at the time claim, the real summers of love were 1965-1966, before LSD had been criminalized, and before anyone outside of San Francisco knew what was going on.
When the mainstream media finally got wind, late as usual, they dubbed 1967 “Summer of Love” and dubbed San Francisco’s inhabitants “hippies” and “flower children”; catchall terms that really referred to nothing specific that actually existed, but sounded really groovy to bored kids stuck with oppressive parents in the suburbs of America. However, it wasn’t just the media; Scott MacKenzie’s smash 1967 hit “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” written by Los Angeleno John Phillips, also put a groovy spin on the city.
Thus, what was good about the original scene; a variety of cultures cohabiting peacefully, an optimistic and exhuberant bent for experimentation, experience, and art, a live-and-let-live philosophy and tolerance, was brutally overrun when the word got out, touching off a migration of teenage runaways, twenty-something drifters, and thirty-something dope dealers, bikers, and ex-cons who grew their hair long to get in on drugs and free love. 33-year-old Charles Manson and a couple of girl-followers were “flower children” on The Haight for a few months in 1967. 1967 rendered the district filthy, overcrowded, crime ridden, STD infested, and full of abused runaways, burnouts, and the mentally unstable. The original inhabitants moved out as the riffraff moved in, for a few years the area was fairly slummy until gentrification set in. A sense of traditional counterculture (an oxymoron in the mid-60’s) still exists, although there’s very little continuity left. The street remains part of the tourist bus route throughout the city.
One aspect of Haight Ashbury culture the media made a big deal about was its communal living aspects; sometimes as many as two dozen people shared a single enormous Victorian wooden house. As Jerry Garcia once pointed out, this was really an economic phenomenon more than a philosophical one; the houses, which sometimes had as many as a dozen bedrooms, were run-down survivors built prior to the 1906 quake; they could be rented fairly cheaply, and a dozen people could split the rent and still get their own bedroom.
The communal living (many bands, including the Airplane and Dead had communal houses, although the houses eventually became business centers more than residences) did lead to an unusually tightknit musical community; Phil Lesh described his experience being in the Grateful Dead as being one of five fingers connected to the same hand. Members of all the leading bands have guested on each others albums, a practice that continues to this day.
For the purposes of this playlist, the groups included are either from San Francisco, its surrounding area, or were frequent visitors to the ballroom venues of the day, like Avalon, Winterland and the Fillmore West. I included not only the original acts, but later ones through the early 70’s, corresponding with the 1971 closing of Fillmore West.
Some important/influential San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury artists/songs include:
1. Grateful Dead: Dark Star
Jefferson Airplane may have hit bigger first on the national stage, but there is no group that has come to truly epitomize Haight Ashbury as a philosophy as much as music, and there’s no Grateful Dead song that epitomizes the Dead more than “Dark Star”. What non-Deadheads might not know is that “Dark Star”, known for the up-to-20-munutes-and-beyond improvisations the band gave it in concert and once best known for the version on Live/Dead (1969), is that it actually was released as a under 3-minute single in a studio recording, although it never made it onto an album at the time. Devotees of the Dead and “Dark Star”, in its myriad of versions, or Dead-influenced musicians might want to add that little nugget to their audio libraries as a record of the song’s germination, if they haven’t already. Also of interest is Greyfolded, 1995 album by sound-collage artist John Osborne, who “folds” dozens of live versions of “Dark Star” in the service of creating the ultimate “Dark Star”, over two hours long. That might be too much for non-Dead fans, who might want to skip the rest of this playlist, too. But novices should set aside some time and sit through the classic version on Live/Dead. A better one is on Two From The Vault, the best double-live album of vintage Dead; everyone has their favorite.
2. Jefferson Airplane: Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
Electric, photogenic, modern, and freaky, Jefferson Airplane found themselves on the cover of Life magazine in 1967 under a heading “The New Rock”. Formed by Marty Balin in 1966, the band broke when their sophomore Surrealistic Pillow, which was languishing, was mined for a second single in 1967, “Somebody To Love”, which introduced Grace Slick to the world. Both single and album (which also produced the surprise hit “White Rabbit”, a psychedelic bolero through the looking glass) eventually reached top-3. Their follow-up was the defiantly experimental and darkly psychedelic After Bathing At Baxters, which contained several excellent long-form numbers that showed off the band’s considerable instrumental abilities. “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon” is a jaunty folk-rock that drifts into a languid, hypnotic drone while the three-part vocals of Marty Balin, Grace Slick, and Paul Kantner harmonize dreamlike, while explicitly condoning LSD. Perfect for a languid Saturday afternoon, or a languid trip. The rest of the album gets a little more scary, so trip at your own peril.
3. Santana: Jingo
Santana broke later than most of the well-known San Francisco bands, commanding much attention for their manic performance of “Soul Sacrifice” during a lull in the rain at Woodstock. Mexican native Carlos Santana, the only constant member through the years, formed the band in 1966 with Gregg Rolie (future-Journey) as Santana Blues Band; by the time of their 1968 debut at the Fillmore, their name shortened to Santana. The band was a sextet when it recorded its first album, Santana, in 1969; it would ultimately peak at #4. “Evil Ways” reached #9 and remains a radio staple; its Latin rhythms and percussion were new to rock in 1969, and Rolie’s organ solo remains distinctive, in a psychedelic Zombies sort of way. “Jingo” is perhaps better representative of the band however, as it builds a tribal rhythm to a percussion-and-organ crescendo, erupting in Santana’s high pitched guitar wail; the band’s polyrhythmic assault is still spine tingling and informs impromptu drum circles to this day.
4. The Charlatans: Codine Blues
Essentially an electric jug-band gone psychedelic, known for their flair for dandified fashion, 20’s musical nostalgia, and good-timey sound, The Charlatans were the first band from the Haight Ashbury area to get recognition, and the first to land a record contract (with Autumn records, later Kama Sutra). Led by singer/guitarist Dan Hicks, who would later form Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, the band recorded several singles in 1966, but most went unreleased; their debut album The Charlatans, didn’t appear until 1969 after lineup changes had diluted the band’s vision; they released one more in 1970. “Codine Blues” is a version of Buffy St. Marie’s “Cod’ine Blues” (aka “Codeine”, “Codine”), a familiar title to garage band aficianados, and is an excellent version of this chestnut. 1966 vintage, it’s a tremeloed garage rocker in waltz time, with fuzzy, echoed guitars, a pounding piano, and good vocals; the song’s biting lyrics are believably sung, if done better elsewhere. Somehow, this fails to convey the band’s great reputation, but it’s still an excellent cut. The Charlatans vintage 1966 stuff can be found on the 1996 compilation The Amazing Charlatans, which helps restore their legend a little.
5. It’s A Beautiful Day: White Bird
Now remembered as an also-ran, in their day It’s A Beautiful Day was a fairly big name locally. Their drawing card was the Haight’s violin virtuoso David LaFlamme, who presided over varying lineups of the band until 1972. LaFlamme handled vocals with wife Linda LaFlamme, and the duo favored harmonic ballads, although they would also indulge in psychedelic noisefests, particularly onstage. Their 1969 debut album reached #47 on the charts; the next one, without Linda LaFlamme, made it to #28. “White Bird” was a radio hit from the debut and is a delicate two-part harmony that soars as the title implies, and gets in plenty of good LaFlamme violin. In later years, It’s A Beautiful Day remained a Fillmore staple, although in 1972 David LaFlamme was forced out over royalty disagreements; the band released two albums without him in 1973 and 1974, but ultimately dissolved.
6. Steve Miller Band: Livin’ In The USA
The Steve Miller Blues Band’s genesis was when 12-year-old Steve Miller taught his friend Boz Scaggs a few tunes on the guitar; the pair would play together in a band at the University of Wisconsin. Miller came to San Francisco by way of Chicago, where he soaked up the local blues scene; Steve Miller Blues Band (without Scaggs) made its debut opening for Chuck Berry at the Fillmore in 1967. Scaggs rejoined in time for an appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival; Capitol signed the group after the festival, dropping “Blues” from its name. Their debut album, Children of the Future, made small ripples nationally in 1968, reaching #134, but the followup, Sailor, reached #24, and got some airplay for “Livin’ In The USA”. Their third album, Brave New World, from 1969, did even better, and featured Paul McCartney in a guest spot. Miller’s career stalled in the early 70’s, and he also suffered serious injuries in a car crash and a bout of hepatitus, but a thorough reinvention of his sound and persona resulted in a huge hit with The Joker in 1974; he remained a big-seller into the 80’s. Scaggs departed after Sailor in 1968; he enjoyed blockbuster success with Silk Degrees in 1976, and has maintained a working career since.
7. Quicksilver Messenger Service: Who Do You Love
Folk singer/songwriter Dino Valenti (who had written “Get Together” under a psudonym, covered by Jefferson Airplane and The Youngbloods) formed the first version of Quicksilver Messenger Service in 1965 with guitarist John Cipollina and singer Jim Murray; bassist David Frieberg, a wellknown presence on the folkie circuit joined shortly after, and drummer Greg Elmore and guitarist Gary Duncan came aboard when their up-and-coming garage-rock band The Brogues split in the wake of two members getting drafted. Ironically, Valenti didn’t get to participate in Quicksilver until years later; he was imprisoned in 1965 on drug charges and languished until 1968; he rejoined the band in 1970. Quicksilver Messenger Service, without Valenti, was one of the best of the psychedelic jam-bands; on a good night they could take on the Dead or Airplane. Record companies descended upon San Francisco in 1967, snapping up everything in sight, but Quicksilver resisted signing until they got a huge offer from Capitol. Their debut, Quicksilver Messenger Service, appeared in 1968; Happy Trails, their sophomore effort from 1969, is one of the essential psychedelic albums of late 60’s America. Its crowning glories are the side-long psychedelic suite “Who Do You Love?” and the 7-minute psychedelic workout of “Mona” that opens side two; both using a Bo Diddley song (and beat) as a springboard for acid-drenched (but musically acute) improvisation. The album remains their best seller, although they maintained a modest chart presence through 1971; versions of Quicksilver Messenger Service continued releasing albums through 1975.
8. Moby Grape: Hey Grandma
Moby Grape could’ve been contenders, even should’ve been contenders, but some essential missteps and bad luck hurt their career early on. Singer/guitarist Skip Spence, a charismatic loose cannon, had been kicked out of Jefferson Airplane (with whom he played drums) in 1966 for erratic drug-induced behavior; Airplane manager Matthew Katz decided to form a band around Spence, capitalizing on his local popularity. Poached from the Frantics were guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson; guitarist Peter Lewis was plucked from The Cornells, while bassist Bob Mosley was a veteran of many local groups. The band was signed to Columbia, who hyped them mercilessly; all of the songs on the album were simultaneously released as singles, killing the chances of all of them. Still, their 1967 debut, Moby Grape, remains a stellar, shining classic. Songwriting from all members and sharp playing resulted in thirteen perfect little gems, all manic and electric and capturing much of the intensity of the times the slower jams of the era don’t. Also rare was that nearly all of the songs clocked under 3 minutes, four were under two. It’s hard to pick a representative one, but “Hey Grandma”, the album opener is a good place to start, with its rollicking tempo and three-part harmonies. The band’s subsequent career was full of hard knocks; Spence suffered from mental illness he never really recovered from. Mosley up and joined the Marines suddenly in 1969. They fueded with their manager. Still, they released albums regularly through 1972, and permutations of the group play gigs to this day.
9. Big Brother & The Holding Co.: Summertime
Janis Joplin might have gotten all the acclaim, but in their day, Big Brother and The Holding Co. was an excellent band as well. They weren’t virtuosos, although each was a good player. But they did manage to combine in a remarkable acid-rock, full of cracking guitars and reckless feedback, lumpen bass, crashing drums that made them as essential to Joplin’s art as she was to theirs; even after she unceremoniously dumped them in 1968, they continued to make good music, although her departure robbed them of some of their drive, as well as most of their sales. In other respects, Big Brother is also the quintessential Haight band; a celebration of acid drenched feedback, mutant amplified blues and folk, and a dash of hillbilly. Formed in 1965, the band consisted of guitarist Sam Andrew, guitarist James Gurley, bassist Peter Albin, and drummer David Getz; Joplin joined in 1966 at the suggestion of promoter Chet Helms. Their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 broke them nationally; “Ball and Chain” was a showstopper. Cheap Thrills, from 1968, reached #1 and is still essential listening. “Summertime” the George Gershwin chestnut, is a good example of how Joplin was capable of being delicate just as much as she could belt, and the band’s ornate psychedelic noodling that erupts in a resonant feedback galvanization is peak. After her departure, Big Brother managed three more albums, all charted in the mid-100’s; they gave up the ghost in 1971. A biker favorite, Hell’s Angels “endorses” Cheap Thrills on the R. Crumb cover.
10. Blue Cheer: Rock Me Baby
Another biker favorite, Blue Cheer evolved from an early Haight Ashbury garage band, The Other Ones, who included guitarist Leigh Stephens. Along with bassist/singer Dickie Peterson and drummer Paul Whaley, Blue Cheer was a classic power trio (American style), emphasizing the harder boogie aspects of acid rock. Some consider them one of the first heavy metal bands, although their songs were played up as much for the feedback as for the riffs; as such, they represent the hardest edge of the San Francisco psychedelic bands. Taking their name from a variety of LSD, they had a surprise hit with a brutally rugged version of Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues”, which peaked at #14 and helped guide their debut album Vincebus Eruptum to #11, their best showing. The album is raw; barely produced, which gives it an agreeable punky menace. While “Summertime Blues” is about the only cut anyone remembers from the trio, their cover of “Rock Me Baby” is another good piece of kozmik metallic acid blues, taken at a slower tempo than much of their material. Their lesser-known followup, Outsideinside is arguably a better album; the band was prolific despite lineup changes commencing with their third album, in total they released six through 1971, and reformed for a few more in the 80’s and 90’s.
11. Electric Flag: Texas
Mike Bloomfield was a hotshot young guitarist with a blues-rock pedigree in Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and had played on Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” with Al Kooper in 1966) when he founded Electric Flag in 1967. Featuring keyboardist Barry Goldberg, singer Nick Gravenites, bassist Harvey Brooks and drummer Buddy Miles, plus a horn section, it worked the same side of the street Al Kooper was working on on the East Coast. The band’s first gig was scoring the soundtrack to the Roger Korman LSD exploitation flick, The Trip. They made their live perfomance debut at the Monterey Pop Festival, where Bloomfield was singled out for praise by Mama Cass Elliott (of festival arrangers the Mamas and Papas) during her onstage patter. A Long Time Comin’, therefore was a much-anticipated release in 1968. As such, it was greeted with some disappointment, although the album holds up fine; a mix of psychedelic/soul/blues with hints (only hints) of jazz that even name drops Janis Joplin on a track. “Texas” is a slow blues, in contrast to some of the busier soul numbers; while it isn’t quite representative of the band’s sound, it displays Bloomfield’s firey guitar in all its glory, and the horn section is moody and atmospheric. A Long Time Comin’ peaked at #31, something of a letdown. Bloomfield left the group in 1968, recording Super Session with Al Kooper, and embarking on a solo journey that ultimately saw him scoring porno films in the late 70’s to support a drug habit that claimed his life in 1981.
12. The Great Society: Sally Go ‘Round The Roses
While Grace Slick’s name is forever linked to Jefferson Airplane, some might not realize that she wasn’t a founding member; she was drafted from the Great Society by Paul Kantner (via emissary Jack Casady) when original Airplane singer Signe Anderson elected to leave following their 1966 debut album. The Great Society had been Slick’s first band, a semi-popular outfit on the Haight she had formed in 1965 with her husband Jerry Slick on drums, brother-in-law Darby Slick on guitar and David Minor on guitar/vocals. The band wasn’t a tight unit; Sly Stone, attempting to produce an early recording, walked out after 50 straight blown takes of the same song. However, their preserved live recordings, first released in 1968 after Slick had become a big name, show an atmospheric and colorful raga-rock outfit that had Slick’s voice as a drawing card, a couple of excellent originals (Slick’s own “White Rabbit” and Darby’s “Somebody To Love”), and a naive charm that sounds good as a period piece. “Sally Go ‘Round The Roses” is their best moment; a long raga-rock treatment of the Jaynettes’ mysterious, quasi-lesbian anthem, it benefits mightily from Slick’s keening voice and Darby Slick’s guitar (the solo, accompanied by droning organ, sounds closest to a real raga than any other raga rock excursions). The band opened for the Airplane at the Matrix and other venues; when Slick joined the Airplane, the band folded. Jerry and Grace separated in 1967; she and Kantner would have a child in 1971.
13. Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks: Canned Music
Dan Hicks’ musical odyssey is an odd one, and his oddball musical direction has sustained him for decades, as he continues to play for a small but fervent cult. Originally a drummer, he switched to guitar and grew up playing folk in the Bay area. His first group, the Charlatans got a lot of notice for their musical eclecticism and image, but for a number of reasons were unable to get an album together and released. In 1968, Hicks formed Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, a sextet, to open for the Charlatans, who were past their peak, and eventually won more interest than the mothership. He cut the Charlatans adrift shortly after and focused on his new band, adding the Lickettes as backing vocalists (vocalists Sherry Snow and Christina Viola Gancher). Their debut album, Original Recordings, from 1969 is quite unlike anything else. The band sounds like the stoned hippie amalgamation they were; somewhat out of tune, somewhat out of synch, although in retrospect, this adds to the charm. It’s Hick’s strange visions that make the album interesting, among which is a strings-aided acoustic Western swing that sounds old and organic even as it fakes it; the wispy Lickettes make eerie sidekicks. “Canned Music” is a prime example of this style; Hicks refined this style over the years and multitudes of albums (Hicks ended His Hot Licks at the end of the 70’s, but has released solo albums consistently in the 90’s and 00’s).
14. Hot Tuna: Don’t You Leave Me Here
Hot Tuna was a successful spinoff from Jefferson Airplane, launched by bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen had developed into a fairly consistent songwriter, and had mastered country blues picking, and increasingly wanted an outlet for the country-blues he and childhood friend Casady liked, which had appeared to good effect on Volunteers with the Traditional “Good Shepherd”. The duo began by opening for the Airplane at some shows; by 1970 they had enough material for a debut album, Hot Tuna, which charted at a solid #30. Recorded live in a Berkeley coffeehouse (you can hear a bottle fall and smash in the background, and other ambient sounds), the album is an intimate and intricate one, showcasing Kaukonen’s excellent acoustic picking, and Casady’s rumbling electric bass (plus Will Scarlett on harmonica). Kaukonen’s vocals work well too, particularly on the Jelly Roll Morton song “Don’t You Leave Me here”, which has a lazy, unrepentant, rolling-but-languid, good-time feel to it. “Hesitation Blues” is another classic from the album, comprised of 8 covers and two Kaukonen songs that he defers to the end, but which fit right in. Hot Tuna would add fiddle player Papa John Creach in 1971, in 1972 they spun off from the Airplane completely (Creach played in both groups) and pursued an electric acid-rock boogie sound, epitomized on Hoppkorv, from 1976. The duo split in 1979 but reconvened in the 90’s; Casady also spends time in Jefferson Starship.
15. Sly & The Family Stone: I Want To Take You Higher
Sly & The Family Stone were easily one of the top groups in America for a brief time, roughly 1967-1970. Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart), a native of Texas, came to California with his family in the 50’s. He recorded a single at the age of 16, “Long Time Away” which got regional airplay in 1960, and later landed a job as disc-jockey at KSOL, an influential r&b station, and later KDIA. He then landed a job as producer at Autumn records, where he produced the Beau Brummels, The Mojo Men, Great Society, and others. The Family Stone was formed in 1967, evolving from the Stoners, which Sly formed in 1966. A multiracial band playing a uniquely electric and energized psychedelic soul with sunshine sentiments (at first), they first hit with “Dance To The Music” in 1967. Stone’s vision became darker and more ominous with each release; Stand!, from 1968 mixed in defiant titles like “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” among the more conciliatory “Stand!”, There’s A Riot Going On is a frightening, almost paranoid album with Sly’s funkiest rhythms, and his most blackcentric message; it’s also druggy and confused but acute. Fresh, in 1973, seemed a retreat, and Sly faded away, lost in a debilitating drug habit that has precluded his recording since the late 70’s. “I Want To Take You Higher”, with its voodoo rhythms, gospel chorus, keening guitars and powerful horn section is maybe their greatest track; they did a breathtaking version at Woodstock. Countless funk groups of the 70’s owe something to Sly; it’s one of rock’s crying shames that funk wasn’t played by rock stations after Sly was gone. He represents a crucial road seldom traveled in rock.
16. New Riders of the Purple Sage: Dirty Business
Not unlike Hot Tuna, New Riders of the Purple Sage was conceived as a Grateful Dead spinoff group, an outfit with whom Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart could further explore the folk/country music that informed Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970. The original lineup, which was never set in stone, consisted of Garcia, Lesh, Hart, plus John Dawson on guitar/vocals and David Nelson on guitars and mandolin. Ultimately Garcia, Lesh, and Hart re-focused their attentions on the Dead, resulting in former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden taking Hart’s place, and bassist Dave Torbert taking over from Lesh. Their debut, New Riders Of the Purple Sage, released in 1971, features Garcia on banjo, guitar, and pedal steel, Mickey Hart helps out, too. The album is a low-key rustic homespun affair very much in line with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, even if it lacks those albums classic songwriting. Most of the songs are in the 4-minute range, but “Dirty Business” is a good western yarn that ambles along for nearly eight. It’s essentially a folk tune, but is accompanied by feedback squelches that give it a windswept, tumbleweed strewn atmosphere. The album peaked at #39; the New Riders remained a marginal commercial success through 1976. Their last album appeared in 1980, although a new New Riders Of The Purple Sage was assembled around Dawson in the 90’s, and has released several albums in addition to frequently touring.
17. Joy Of Cooking: Closer To The Ground
Formed in Berkeley in 1967, Joy of Cooking were one of the first female-led (as opposed to female fronted) bands ever. Their core was singer/songwriters/guitarists Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown (who also played keyboards); their first album Joy Of Cooking, appeared in 1970. Their music was a loose, laid back jazzy medium rock that displayed no psychedelic influence, but were capable of a gritty white funk that recall Stephen Stills on “Closer To The Ground”, the bass and piano driven title cut from their 1971 sophomore album. While their music wasn’t overtly political, Garthwaite and Brown became outspoken on women’s issues, which led to many male listeners (and apolitical female ones) to shy away from their music, which never sold very well, although all three of their albums made the top-200 and “Brownsville”, the single from their debut, reached #66. After splitting in 1973, Garthwaite and Brown reunited as the Joy in 1977 for a fourth album together.
18. Sons Of Champlin: Get High
Sons of Champlin formed in 1966, and released their debut album Sons, in 1969; it dented the charts at #171. Their biggest, and most notorious album was their sophomore album, also from 1969 Loosen Up Naturally, which peaked at #137; unfortunately its cover was marred by a hidden obscenity in the artwork (the original artwork was defaced, apparantly without the band realizing it) that resulted in a recall, killing any chance it had to be a hit. Essentially, the band was a funky r&b influenced outfit that used a horn section in the manner of Electric Flag, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Chicago. “Get High” is the best moment from Loosen Up Naturally, the horns escape their charts and get semi-improvisatory; lending a pleasantly discordant sound to an instrumental bridge; a funky vibraphone also gets a solo in the middle. At their best, Sons of Champlin were a complex band that suggest Moby Grape with horns; at their slickest, they almost had a hit in 1976 with the disco/funk “Hold On” which peaked at #49. The band broke up after a 1977 album failed to go anywhere; leader Bill Champlin joined Chicago in 1981, and remains there to this day.
19. Tower Of Power: Sparkling In the Sand
Tower of Power actually hailed from Oakland, a very important distinction in the Bay area; Oakland is the working-class side of the Bay. Still, they belong on this list not only because they were Fillmore regulars in the early 70’s, but also shared with Sons of Champlin and Electric Flag the idea of a rock/soul/r&b group with horns. They didn’t hit their stride until 1972-73, after most of the other bands on this list were gone, although they made their debut in 1970 with East Bay Grease, from which “Sparkling In The Sand”, the nine minute album closer is taken. The group would get much tighter and funky in their prime, although the shaggy, formative qualities of “Sparkling In The Sand” lend the album a slightly homely quality that makes it sound at home with some of the other bands. In later years, members of Tower of Power, and the entire horn section itself became very in demand as session players; Tower of Power releases albums under its own name to this day.
20. Country Joe & The Fish: Section 43
Country Joe & The Fish are best remembered for their anti-Vietnam War “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”, a ragtime-esque novelty protest song that appears in Woodstock. This has pigeonholed them as a novelty act in the eyes of many, but in fact Country Joe & The Fish were a good psychedelic band, capable of electric freakout and improvisation. Country Joe McDonald was raised by lefty parents and played the folk circuit in the early 60’s, specializing in topical folk classics by The Weavers and Woodie Guthrie. Country Joe & The Fish formed in 1965 from an aggregation called the Instant Action Jug band. Their debut album, Electric Music For Mind and Body, released in January 1967, is an early psychedelic classic, eclectic and varied, that resembles Jefferson Airplane to a considerable degree in places. “Section 43” opens as a crisp-sounding raga rock with organ and acid rock guitar, before taking the listener through 4 distinct phases of eerie, freaky, and baroque psychedelia. Country Joe went solo in 1969 and has maintained a fairly regular schedule of releases ever since.
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