Monday, 1 June 2009

Looking back, of course, you’d probably be inclined to place the whole Summer of Love bit firmly into the mass media hype basket, but at the same time there’s no doubt that the mid-sixties saw the emergence of a distinctive scene in San Francisco.

Some of my all time favourite albums came out of those circumstances, and it made sense to have a look at things in general before getting down to specifics.

Rear View: San Francisco 1967-68


Now that I’ve come up with the idea, this Rear View thing has opened up some interesting possibilities and I’ve got a couple of interesting projects mapped out in front of me.

If I want to look at the whole of an artist’s body of work, Retrospectives accommodates that sort of thing fairly well, and eventually there’ll be articles posted here talking about The Band, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Warren Zevon, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Nick Drake to pick a few obvious choices from the bound biographies sitting over in the bookshelves.

On the other hand, Rear Views gives me an excuse to replay and reflect on some albums that might not be classics, but definitely qualify as old favourites.

When you’re talking old favourites a chronological approach is a natural fit, so it’s logical to go right back to the early days. Not quite back to the beginning, of course. That’d involve tracking down a copy of From Nowhere by The Troggs and everything that could possibly be said about The Beatles Greatest Hits Volume 1 has probably already been said.

At some point I’ll get around to a Rear View of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown but since the next couple of Rear Views all come out of the same time and place, it’s worth saving a bit of time talking about the time and place involved.

The albums:

Living With The Animals by Mother Earth

Happy Trails by the Quicksilver Messenger Service

and the first four albums by the Steve Miller Band.

The time:

The “Summer of Love” in 1967 and the following twelve months or so...

The place, of course, is San Francisco.

It seemed, at the time, that things of earth-shattering importance were going down in the City by the Bay in mid-1967, but when you kick into Rear View mode, the benefit of hindsight reveals that however much we reminisce about those halcyon days most of the big names associated with the San Francisco scene failed to deliver too much that has lasted, and my favourite albums from the era are, unsurprisingly, by some of the lesser-known participants in that particular scene.

But looking at the big names in turn before the spotlight skips over to a couple of relatively obscure classics...

The Jefferson Airplane, ultimately, had too many conflicting directions and personalities to accommodate under one roof, and in many ways it’s surprising that the structure lasted as long as it did. A couple of classic albums, followed by a gradual decline....

The Grateful Dead’s early studio output wasn’t ever going to snare them a corner of the long term mass market and it took years for them to carve out the niche that they still occupy, a process that’s a topic for a Retrospective rather than a Rear View.

Big Brother and the Holding Company only shot to prominence because of Janis Joplin, and once she was gone so, for all practical purposes, were they.

Country Joe and The Fish were as political as any of them and more political than most, produced two good albums and then more or less ran out of ideas and steam around the same time.

Almost every one of the major players kept going long after that first ascent to prominence, but in most cases they did it by retreating to the places that first brought them to prominence, the clubs and ballrooms of the Bay area.

Looking at it from outside it’s probably easy to miss the significance of the contribution that the local venues made to the overall scene. Sure, Bill Graham went on to become a major player on the American, if not the world stage when you’re talking concert promotions but it’s fairly obvious that the existence of an active live music scene was a significant factor in what happened in San Francisco in the late sixties.

Of course there were active music scenes in other major cities, but there were a couple of factors that seem to have combined to create a unique scene in San Francisco.

For a start, unlike other centres like Los Angeles, New York or London there wasn’t a substantial music industry infrastructure in place, so you’d suspect that a burgeoning live scene would be able to develop along its own lines without being excessively affected by commercial considerations.

Equally important was San Francisco’s location at the end of the beatnik trail across the United States, along with the presence of run-down low rent neighbourhoods like the Haight-Ashbury where the travellers could find temporary (or permanent) refuge.

Those factors meant that there were plenty of people passing through the coffee shops and dance halls who’d come from somewhere else and brought their experiences from elsewhere with them. It’s hard to imagine Bill Graham’s subsequent career shaping the way it did without his earlier stint working in the Catskill resorts in upstate New York, for example.

The visitors didn’t just bring their experiences with them. They also brought contacts and once they’d settled gave friends and acquaintances somewhere to crash at the end of the beatnik trail. Chet Helms from the Family Dog collective could draw on his experiences running benefits for civil rights groups back in Austin Texas, persuaded Janis Joplin to relocate to the West Coast, and matched her up with the rest of Big Brother & The Holding Company.

At the same time, the same combination of factors that created the scene meant that it wasn’t going to survive once the glare of the spotlight focussed on it during the fabled Summer of Love.

Predictably, by the end of 1968 the media were looking elsewhere in the wake of the student activism that almost toppled the government of France and was echoed on campuses around the world. Not much peace, love, flowers or understanding in that scenario.

So that’s a sort of perspective on the next three Rear Views - Mother Earth’s Living With The Animals, Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails and the first batch of albums by the Steve Miller Band.