[25 September 2007]
Detroit Free Press (MCT)
The frontispiece of Rhino’s gorgeous, book-bound four-CD set “Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970” ($64.98) might be the closest thing rock music has to the famous 1958 photograph commonly known as “A Great Day in Harlem,” when 57 of the great jazz musicians of the era gathered for a group portrait.
Taken by Jim Marshall, the Rhino shot depicts the members of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Message Service, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company beneath a tree in Golden Gate Park. Near the center, where they belong, are Big Brother’s Janis Joplin and the Airplane’s Grace Slick, the vocalists who would be dubbed “the fire and the ice” of what would soon be known as the San Francisco Sound.
Standing out, though, are the Charlatans, duded up in vintage cowboy and city-slicker gear, the only band here that most people have never heard of.
The Charlatans’ music - which mixed jug band, Western swing and music hall with rock `n’ roll in what could be described a precursor of Americana - never reached many ears outside the Bay Area. That puts them in the company of bands like the Mystery Trend, the Stained Glass and the Family Tree, all of whom are represented on this collection.
More than a few compilations have been released this year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the year that thousands of American youth descended on San Francisco to get their hippie on, and when millions more turned on, figuratively or literally, to what was being called psychedelic music.
As “Love Is the Sing We Sing” makes clear, not all of the music that grew out of the greatest geographical scene in rock history - surpassing Memphis and Liverpool in quantity and stylistic influence - was suitable for freaking out to. But taken together, it is a piece of not just time and place, but of an attitude of freedom, rebellion and celebration - when each of those aspirations could be expressed in a single lyric line or guitar solo.
The 77-track set, which has been assembled chronologically, opens with what is often called the anthem of the era; “Let’s Get Together,” as performed and recorded in 1964 by its author, Dino Valenti, who allegedly sold the publishing rights to raise bail after one of his multiple drug busts. His version reappears in its 1969 hit version by the Youngbloods.
Like most of the other songs on Disc 1, subtitled “Seismic Rumbles, ” it is pure folk-rock, although the term had yet to be coined.
The 12-string jangle and sweet harmonies of folk-rock supplied the foundation of the sound, recalled here in recordings from one-hit wonders like the Mojo Men and the Vejtables as well as in early offerings by the Airplane, who had some local success in 1966 with “It’s No Secret,” sung by original vocalist Signe Anderson.
But the same year, the Great Society, recorded “Somebody to Love,” a song that addressed love as a righteous requisite for social reform, personally and collectively.
Society singer Grace Slick took that song with her when she replaced Anderson in the Airplane, and the brace of that and the band’s following single, “White Rabbit,” put San Francisco on the charts. It announced the agenda to the outside world: Feed your head, and your spirit will follow.
Along with endorsing illegal substances, they also paved the way for FM underground radio, where the improvised soloing of the Dead (cerebral but funky) was often heard back-to-back with the jazz of John Coltrane and ragas by Ravi Shankar, the only classical musician to appear at 1967’s touchstone Monterey Pop Festival, which was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, depending on which side of Haight-Ashbury you scored on.
Like the other volumes in Rhino’s beautifully annotated “Nuggets” series, this one leans heavier on the songs you never heard on the radio, or the songs you’ve never heard at all. This is likely to be the only place you’ll rediscover forgotten gems by the Loading Zone and the People, or be reminded that Moby Grape’s first album was as great as anything ever released by Buffalo Springfield.
And if hearing these songs again or for the first time makes you feel like you want to smile on your brother, well, that won’t hurt either.