Despite all the hype, Ten Years After could never have earned the title of a “prog-rock” band: sometimes they are mistakenly lumped in with the movement, but Alvin and Co.’s ambitions never really amounted that high – for the most part, they were just hardcore blues rockers with a slight experimental edge, to distinguish them from colleagues like early Fleetwood Mac or Free. Still, if there ever was a period in which they were real close to embodying some “progressive” tendencies, it was this fall of 1971, with this extremely strange, un-Ten Years After-like album, and this really great bunch of songs, with hardly a major stinker in among all the melodies. Unarguably the band’s strongest and most consistent effort since the Ssssh days, A Space In Time continues the line of Watt in its heavy use of synthesizers and special effects, but this time the members probably took out some time to make these thingamajigs actually work. Alvin’s guitar is not idle either; and his songwriting reached a peak at this time – never to be surpassed again.
One thing strikes you immediately as you let all the tracks flow through your mind, one by one – where’s the fingerflashing? This sounds nothing like what we’ve grown to expect from the band because the main trademark element of the sound, Alvin’s blazing speedy chops, are completely missing. An intentional move, of course; whereas I wouldn’t want to accuse Alvin of sharing the famous “guitar hero complex” that managed to overtake such six-string greats as Clapton and Jeff Beck in the early Seventies, it’s at least clear that on A Space In Time the man was keen on cutting out the crap and fully concentrating on the melodies and real musical substance. He wanted to be able to finally make a record that would feature him as a real solid composer, that would not just keep repeating the same lightning-speed licks over and over again. And while it’s rather hard to believe without having heard the record, he did succeed. On here, you’ll find the best batch of melodies ever created by the band – many of them acoustic, showing Alvin’s developing passion for the unplugged atmosphere, but some electric as well. Alvin’s lyrics rarely match the melodies in skillfulness or deepness, but as usual, he manages to walk the thin line between cliches/banality and pretentiousness just fine. And while his take on the ‘we gotta get out of this place’ schtick on ‘I’d Love To Change The World’ is nothing particularly special, it comes along as sincere and never too overblown. Just a guy lamenting over post-Woodstock disillusionment.
The opening track, ‘One Of These Days’ (not to be confounded with the famous Pink Floyd instrumental, or, for that matter, with the ninety thousand other songs by other composers with the same name), kicks in with such a staggering might that it makes you go wow. It’s essentially just a slow blues rocker, but produced like they never tried before – with a deep and elaborate sound, echoey guitars, moody swirling organs, and tremendously atmospheric. My guess is that it probably inspired the Stones for “Ventilator Blues” (which is a weaker song). It does end in a slightly overlong speedy jam that tends to get a wee bit tedious due to Alvin’s self-restriction on the guitar, but never mind – it is all compensated further on.
On no other Ten Years After album will you find, for instance, two tracks as moody and “place-taking” as ‘Here They Come’ and ‘Let The Sky Fall’. Sure, Alvin and the boys did try their hand at ‘mystical acoustic shuffles’ earlier, particularly on Stonedhenge, but there was basically no melody-creating back then. ‘Here They Come’, on the other hand, is based on a slow, entrancing acoustic riff with a slight medieval influence; it’s dark and a little bit creepy. ‘Let The Sky Fall’, on the other hand, features a reworking of the ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ riff, but with an entirely different purpose: the song is supposed not to let you rock your ass, but to contemplate some vivid psychedelic associations, what with all the backwards guitars and special synth effects… I love that mood.
More acoustic shuffles follow, with pretty folkish melodies that are charming in their naivety and amazing in their professional delivery. Isn’t ‘Over The Hill’ gorgeous? The way the steady acoustic riff and the moderate strings section interact with each other certainly is, and on top of that Alvin delivers a pretty catchy vocal melody. ‘Hard Monkeys’ is equally good, with a nice alternation of soft/hard parts and some of Alvin’s most delightful singing ever – the way he chants ‘got no monkey on my back’ almost manages to bring me to tears, so don’t you dare laugh at the song.
All of this stuff is pretty serious, of course, for the boys, and it’s only natural that sometimes they break loose and swap the grim, introspective mood of the songs for a few ‘have-at-it’ fun novelty numbers: ‘Baby Won’t You Let Me Rock’n’Roll You’ is a groovy Fifties sendup that doesn’t sound one second too strained as the band rips it up for two minutes, ‘ Uncle Jam’ is an unnecessary, but short jazz jam, and ‘Once There Was A Time’ is a sharp-edged country-rock number with the traditional ‘da-guitah-z-me-life-boy’ message delivered with vivid imagery: ‘Once there was a time/I robbed my mama/For a good meal and a smoke/Once there was a time/I’d sell my brother/For a dollar when I was broke/But I’d never sell my guitar, etc…’.
And over all of this rules supreme ‘I’d Love To Change The World’ – Alvin’s epoch-defining tune which is still the band’s best known self-penned composition. It’s so well-balanced, in fact, and so immaculately written and performed, that I wouldn’t know where to start to complain. Astute acoustic riff, masterfully created paranoid style on the fast parts, moody echoey vocals in the chorus, adrenaline-raising electric guitar, terrific hard-rocking climax: if you ask me, this song does in three minutes everything that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was doing in seven and maybe more. Of course, lyrics like ‘I’d love to change the world/But I don’t know what to do/So I’ll leave it up to you’ and most of Alvin’s social commentaries are pretty straightforward, but I’d still take them over Zeppelin’s cheap mysticism any time of day, particularly since there are not any less old-time cliches in the ‘Stairway’ lyrics than there are in ‘I’d Love To Change The World’. This is just to show you how much of an underrated band Ten Years After are, so there.
It’s absolutely incredible that a band as ambitionless and tour-busy as Ten Years After found the time and will to record such an album; but it’s also a shame that the band never preferred to follow this chosen route further, as their last two studio albums show them descending into mediocrity once again, leaving A Space In Time as the band’s undisputed songwriting masterpiece and a true, if minor, rock’n’roll classic that’s been overshadowed by time but will hopefully rise out of the depths of oblivion some day. Maybe with your help, oh ye gentle reader?
And at last, this time around there was no doubt these guys were gonna be a major act. Good lads, they seem to have realized all of the mistakes they made on Stonedhenge, and this time you’re in for a listen of your lifetime! No more stupid grooves or Leo Lyons solo spots. No more trippy quiet guitar sounds and no more muddy, ear-destructive production. What you are presented with is a gruff, rip-roaring, tearing-at-the-walls progressive blues album which boasts brilliant production – at last!
I may be a little biased towards this album, but really, you must realise it was a grandiose effort for the boys. Ten Years After was a homemade album of four guys getting together to play a couple of covers; Undead was a live album made by the same boys; Stonedhenge was a first try, but a failure; and this, this is absolutely fantastic. Well, not absolutely. Ten Years After never made an album that was ‘absolutely’ fantastic. Forget about ‘absolutely’. But this is definitely fantastic in the fantastic Ten Years After way.
Where was I? Ah yes, Ssssh. The only real trouble with that album is an ungly cover and the fact that you never can remember how many ‘s’ you have to write between the capital one and the ‘h’. Apart from that, there are some great blues numbers, some great ballads and some great heavy rockers the likes of which were not to be found previously. The very album opener (‘Bad Scene’) is not just heavy – it’s practically hardcore punk: a breathtaking speed and a gruff guitar tone that predicts the Ramones but also kinda outdates them. But there are also tricky changes in signature, a special jazzy middle-eight, Alvin’s trademark solos, strange electronically encoded vocals and… well, you get my drift. There’s everything that Stonedhenge sorely lacked.
The blues covers are all done wisely – generic, mayhaps (which blues cover ain’t?), but catchy, and every one has something special to boast about. ‘Two Time Mama’ has a wonderfully sweet slide guitar tone resulting from several masterful overdubs so that ultimately you seem to be surrounded by a sea of slippery guitar waves gently falling onto one another; and there’s also Alvin singing in unison with the main guitar melody, which is always a pleasure. The harder antidote ‘Stoned Woman’ is built around a mean mean highly distorted bass riff and features complicated time signature changes again. And the closing ‘I Woke Up This Morning’, with the most blatantly obvious title in the world, features an especially ferocious rapid-fire solo by Alvin. Put it next to anything on Ten Years After and you’ll see how high the mighty hath risen: he’s now able to play so fluently, without a single break for more than a minute, that the 1967 style by now seems naive and outdated. Notes just keep falling out of nowhere, with such diabolic precision and craftsmanship that I don’t have much choice but to tip my hat. For some reason, speedy and technically proficient as other guitarists might be, I have never even once heard anybody play like that.
The album’s highest point, however, is the cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ with lyrics revised and melody re-written: the lyrics suck in any case, but the riff is now breathtaking, one of the two or three mightiest that the band had ever in its credit. And you really don’t know how fond I am of these little riffs that repeat themselves over and over; it’s mean and strong, just like Alvin’s accompanying singing. Yeah, I know all they’re trying to do is imitating ol’ bluesmen, but they’re a great bunch of Brit guys imitating ol’ bluesmen! Kinda like a British analog of CCR! Youpee! I don’t quite dig ‘The Stomp’ because that one’s a bit too repetitive for me; with its creepy, quiet atmosphere it sounds like a Stonedhenge outtake, too, and that’s never quite good news. But that’s my one and only complaint about the track listing, and at least you can perfectly ‘do the stomp’ while listening to that one.
Oh, and if you’re anti-blues or something, then I can offer you the somewhat naive but charming ballad ‘If You Should Love Me’ which some might dismiss as flower power hip crap, but I DIG generic flower power hip crap, so I don’t give a damn. I love this ballad, as Alvin once again makes a complete clown out of himself, overemoting on this pseudo-Motown number and thereby transforming it into a ridiculous love declaration by a young naive charming idiot who keeps repeating the same cliches over and over because he really doesn’t know any other words to say but he really feels something with his poor little heart and does his best to go ahead and articulate it. Okay, this is just how I feel about the song, and this is also how I feel about much of the flower power movement. Now where have I put that Country Joe And The Fish record?..
Nah, just pulling your leg once again. I don’t have no Country Joe records. I do have a lot of Ten Years After records, though. And what you are doing now is reading my reviews of them, particularly the review of what I consider to be one of their two best albums. So don’t let me bore you with my second-rate crappy digressions. Let’s just reiterate: this record is a must for anybody with even a passable interest in Sixties’ blues-rock and should forever remain one of the crucial landmarks in that genre. That’s how obstinate I am, and now let’s move on to the next album.
I originally gave it a lower rating because I was so completely under the spell of their second live album (I still think it’s superior, but not as highly superior as before), but I’ve changed my mind. This live album’s great and groovy! Its only flaw is that there are too few songs, plus ‘Summertime’ (which really has little to do with Gershwin’s original) features a completely unnecessary drum solo (Ric Lee is a good drummer, but not a best choice for a soloist). On the other hand, perhaps extending such records would result in them losing a lot of their ‘primal’ charm. Recorded in a small club (Marquee?), it really captures the great, compact, groovy atmosphere of the evening, and you won’t have no screaming little girlies; hey, you can actually listen to the music all the way through. Ain’t it great? I’ve just finished reviewing the Kinks’ Live At Kelvin Hall which came out the same year and it’s so different in that respect…
If anything, this record shows the band as mostly cool jazz players, playing with due respect to their ‘elders’ but in their own self-taught and prejudice-free way; there’s not really too much ‘rock’ on here, and Alvin demonstrates a clear tendency towards playing everything in a funny bebop style. Besides the already mentioned ‘Summertime’, there are two more hardcore jazz tracks which totally constitute Side A: the ‘original’ ‘I May Be Wrong, But I Won’t Be Wrong Always’ and Bishop/Herman’s ‘At The Woodchoppers’ Ball’. The first one is a nine-minute generic jazz tune, the second one – a seven-minute extravaganza. Alvin is the hero everywhere: he sometimes shows enough generosity to let Chick and Leo have a couple of organ or bass solos, but they’re nothing but ordinary professional jazz solos. Good, but definitely unspectacular.
The guitar rules, however – especially on ‘Woodchoppers’ Ball’ where he dazzles you with thunderflashing waves of snappy licks coming at lightning speed. Play this at full volume and you’ll find yourself gasping for breath in no time. Gimmickry? P’raps. But I’ve never seen any single guitarist reproduce these attacks. At least, no rock guitarist. These are great solos! They’re exciting, driving and technically perfect: one of the rare cases where finger-flashing isn’t just meant for the listener to be taking his hat off and bowing down in silent respect, but is also meant for the listener to be grooving to and finding full delight in. It’s dance music, after all, not Yngwie Malmsteem. The final two or three minutes of ‘Woodchoppers’ Ball’ are especially climactic, when Alvin just sticks to a simple chord and keeps on blowing it through at an incredible speed for what is actually just about thirty seconds but seems like an eternity. That’s the climax of this sweaty record. Why evidence like this always keeps escaping guitar-raters who always miss Alvin in the best guitarists lists is way beyond me. For once, a really swell guy demonstrated that outstanding guitar technique and ‘simple’ audience-pleasing can be easily combined, and nobody gives a damn. Beats me.
But, so as not to give the not thoroughly true impression of being hardcore jazz musicians, they add a generic blues number (‘Spider In My Web’) which isn’t just as entertaining mainly because it’s so slow; slowness is this band’s main enemy – when they play a moody slow number, they sound just like every other generic blues band in the business. Even here, though, Alvin actually saves the day by adding a bit more distortion to his guitar and playing a menacing and – gasp – fast solo. So the only place where he doesn’t save the day is ‘Summertime’, completely given to Ric Lee. What a waste of vinyl.
But then again, this is also where you’ll find an early version of their bestseller – ‘I’m Goin’ Home’. This early version would be a letdown to all you fans of the Woodstock version, though: it’s only six minutes long, slower and not as rip-roaring as the Woodstock one (or the one on Recorded Live). But it still kicks ass, and its unpolished character really comes as a pleasant surprise for me. It’s always fascinating to see a good stage number grow, you know; and at least at this period there’s still enough improvisation, and the song hasn’t yet metamorphosed into a frigid eleven-minute monster with every millionth note well thought out in advance and all the solos and interludes being completely predictable. So I don’t exclude that hardcore fans of Alvin might even prefer this early version because the later one can finally get to them – especially if you realise that the way Alvin played these chords in Woodstock in 1969 and in Germany in 1973 (as captured on Recorded Live) had no differences at all. He sure played them differently in 1968. He sure ‘grew up’ since then, be it in the positive or negative sense.
And oh how they grew. This sounds totally unlike their later concert sound captured on Recorded Live. That one would be hard-rockin’, technically excellent and politically conscious. This one is just four guys having fun with their instruments and trying to lighten up the audience. Plain fun. Nothin’ more. Put this on whenever you’re in a bad mood – it can show you there’s always a good side to life.
It may not be the best live album in the world, but it’s certainly in the race for one, together with a couple dozen other notorious records – although as of now, it’s been somewhat overshadowed by the even superior Fillmore East. However, if you can’t locate that archive release or are upset with the price of the double CD, I’d strongly recommend any TYA novice to start here (that is, if you’re able to tolerate speedy, but lengthy guitar jams; otherwise, you’d be much better off with either Ssssh or Space In Time, although I actually doubt that otherwise you’d be interested in TYA at all), especially because not only does this record stand as a ‘great live’ record, it also stands for a ‘greatest hits live’ record. Just look at the track listing!
It’s interesting, too, to compare this record with Undead. You’ll see how ‘huge’ they have grown – almost in every sense. From a secluded club scene to large arenas in major European capitals; from a homemade lousy equipment to the Rolling Stones mobile; from half-hour gigs to extended concerts; from half-obscure jazz covers to international hits; finally, from the raw, unpolished, even though mighty energetic tones to a well-polished, professional, intoxicating ‘wall-of-sound’. Just compare the two versions of ‘I’m Going Home’ on both records and you’ll see the difference. Some may regret the loss of that original ‘raw’ sound, but I say I don’t mind.
I like both albums, but Recorded Live is longer, has more songs and doesn’t have any embarrassments like the lengthy slow uninteresting blues of ‘Spider In My Web’ and the stupid drum solo on ‘Summertime’. Sure, it was recorded at a rather late period in the band’s career, when they were already almost spent creatively and on the brink of dissolution, but it is a well-known fact that live playing and “general creative state” are two absolutely different things. Live playing and its quality depend on quite a few factors, including, simply speaking, the particular mood of the band’s members on the day of the gig, which, in turn, may depend on the weather or the expression on that guy in the front row’s face. Luckily, most of the performances on this album were drawn from moments when the band seemed to be in relatively high spirits.
For the record, the album does feature a lengthy run-through of their most driving and famous numbers. Practically none of them are superior to the studio recordings, but none are inferior, either. On the other side, the live performance does give them a ‘spontaneous’ edge which might make them more suitable for some listeners. They kick off with ‘One Of These Days’ (wow! but somebody cut down that ending jam, please!), only to continue with the unforgettable riff of ‘You Give Me Loving’: what a wise choice from their worst record so far, and I don’t even mind that Alvin messes up the lyrics because they were so convoluted in the first place.
Later on, the band, as usual, breaks in some of the oldies, like ‘Help Me’ and ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’. On the way, Alvin displays some cute little tricks, like showing his prowess at classical guitar (‘Classical Thing’), resurrecting the ‘Skoobly-oobly-dooboob’ ditty (‘Scat Thing’) and just playing the fool (‘Silly Thing’). The two highlights of the show are, of course, a terrific fifteen-minute version of ‘I Can’t Keep From Crying’, which is again transformed into tons of different things on the way, including even a few lines from ‘Cat’s Squirrel’ and even ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ – sic!, and ‘I’m Going Home’. The former also was the central point for showing Alvin as a ‘guitar experimentator’ – in particular, he liked to tune his guitar and play it at the same time, which sometimes resulted in a truly awful, ear-destructive sound which I kinda like nevertheless.
And the latter (‘I’m Goin’ Home’, that is) is predictably close to the Woodstock version, except that the various sections are interspersed in a different way and the drums are much more prominent. And damn the stupid audience that mars the opening chords with its silly applause! Otherwise, though, it’s simply a superb version: with all the ‘boo-boo-babys’ in place, and the old rockabilly classics medley in the middle. It does seem a bit worn off as compared to the Woodstock version, but you can excuse the guys: after all, the piece was like a stone around their neck, and it’s a wonder they were still able to do it with enough authenticity and patience.
For me, the only letdown on the album is the seven-minute ‘Slow Blues In C’. They should have left things like that to the Allman Brothers. But then again, it’s just a minor flaw in an almost flawless seventy-minute record! Be forgiving! This doesn’t sound like the Allmans at all! And I don’t have anything against the Allmans, I just don’t have a lot in favour of them doing similar things. They put me off to sleep. Berk. Ever heard ‘Mountain Jam’? How many times do you have to sit through these thirty minutes to dig it? Ah, if only everything these guys played were akin to their version of ‘You Don’t Love Me’… This record, on the other hand, is instantly amiable and friendly – and it features lots of guitar jams, too. But these kids are so frantic, so full of energy and they love the stuff they’re playing so much you’ll be sure to be caught in the fun. This is no Yessongs, either – just your basic love for dat electro guitar sound. And no ‘supergroup’ hype, either – they just play and they don’t give a damn.
I like it when a record doesn’t have balls.