December 17, 2019

From the VAults: 1974

 

     For some reason, years ending in ‘0’ or ‘00’ carry some aura that make them more memorable than those bearing other year ending the digits like 1 – 9.  With that said, looking back at 1974 through a 45 year historical perspective allows us to note how different things were before and after that year. It would seem that 1974 was a pivotal year across the board:  socially, politically, personally, and musically.

     It seems that 1974’s social and political happenings were a mixed bag of events, some of which crossed over the line in the sand that is supposed to separate these categories.  Washington D.C. was in the midst of a full blown upheaval as the Watergate Hearings were leading the nation toward the premature end of President Nixon’s second term in office. OPEC began dictating oil prices and it showed up at the gas pumps with ‘outrageous prices’ (author’s note:  I would LOVE to pay those outrageous 75 cents per gallon prices today, wouldn’t you?). The OPEC crunch was felt even more significantly as many areas experienced the first gas shortages since WWII. The shortages resulted in ‘rationing’ – one could buy gas only on alternating days of the week (another first since WWII).  Gas rationing was regulated by the odd or even last number on one’s vehicle license plate, unless you worked in an ‘essential area’ like trucking or emergency services. Gas prices also affected shipping costs and everyone experienced increased prices for consumer goods (the price of sugar, for example, went up some 300 percent from the pre-oil embargo days).

     Musically, 1974 saw the beginning of the ‘major bands play stadiums and large sports arenas’ era.  The Beatles had actually pioneered these big event type of concerts (for example, the fabled Shea Stadium show that set a record for selling out a huge venue in a short period of time), but the concept was so new in the mid-1960s that no one could hear the music.  Band equipment was made with clubs and perhaps theaters in mind. As The Beatles found at a large show like this, tens of thousands of screaming fans even prevented the band from hearing what they were playing. For stadiums and large sports arenas to become viable concert draws, instrument amplification and public address (PA) systems needed to be upgraded.  The first hints of what would become common place were seen at events like the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock in the late 1960s.

       Each of the PA speaker cabinets that were manufactured specifically for 1969’s fabled ‘Concert and Aquarian Exposition’ (aka:  Woodstock) weighed half a ton. Each PA tower erected at the site contained 16 speaker cabinets arrayed on 70-foot towers that ran up the hill for a combined weight of 8 tons minus the weight of the towers themselves. Sound engineer Bill Hanley designed the system utilizing three backstage transformers delivering 2,000 amperes of current (which gave him some anxiety when a severe thunderstorm rolled through on the second day).  Stage announcer Chip Monck can be heard warning the people climbing the towers for a better view to get down for good reason (especially when the wind and lightning started). Large venue concerts were then were viewed as one off affairs due to the high equipment costs. It was one of the bands who appeared at Woodstock who pioneered turning these large venue concerts into a staple of the major band tour circuit: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY).

     CSNY weren’t the first so called ‘supergroup’ assembled from parts of other well known bands.  The concept had been tried before with mixed results. David Crosby (guitar/vocals) was more or less booted out of his other famous band, The Byrds.  Steven Stills (guitar/vocals) and Neil Young (guitar/keyboards/vocals) were both members of the short lived Buffalo Springfield. Graham Nash (vocals/guitar) was a founding member of one of England’s biggest pop bands, The Hollies.  The Hollies were touring the United States and Nash was feeling constricted by the direction the band was taking. The rest of The Hollies not cuddling up to a song he wrote called King Midas in Reverse certainly didn’t help matters.  A chance meeting of Crosby, Stills and Nash at a party in the hills of Los Angeles led to the first magical blending of their voices.  Although they each have conflicting stories about where this took place, all agree this happenstance meeting started the ball rolling. Nash finally got to record King Midas in Reverse on the first CSN album that also included some ear catching songs by Stills (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes) and Crosby (Guiniever).   By the time they got to Woodstock (sorry), they had all of one public performance under their belt.  By then, they had also picked up the ‘Y’. Most didn’t realize Neil Young had joined the band prior to Woodstock because he refused to be filmed and subsequently wasn’t shown in the movie.

     The first time I heard Carry On blast out of the speakers at a party during my senior year of high school (Deja Vu was released in March of 1970).  I was in awe of the group, album, and the message they were sending out to the youth of America.  Neil Young came on board during the recording of CSNY’s second record and it was he who told Stills the album needed an upbeat opening track for the album.  Stills dutifully went home that night and wrote Carry On which went on to be a live favorite for years to come.  The album featured other generational framing tracks like Crosby’s defiant Almost Cut My Hair, Nash’s Teach Your Children, Young’s Helpless, and the band’s arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s ode to Woodstock, not surprisingly called Woodstock.  

     While CSNY had been to Woodstock, Mitchell had skipped the event because her manager was fearful that she would not be able to make it back to New York City in time for an early week appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.  She wrote the song while watching TV news accounts in  her NYC hotel room. It turned out that CSNY made it back to NYC just fine and appeared along side Mitchell in a panel discussion (including the Jefferson Airplane) about the Summer of Love in general and Woodstock in particular.  How did CSNY’s version of Woodstock come to be featured in the film rather than Mitchell’s?  CSNY’s management threatened to withhold permission to use the band’s footage in the movie unless they also incorporated their version of Woodstock (which was recorded after the event and included as the closing track to Deja Vu).  CSNY sold their image as a band ready to ‘stick it to the man’ while their management did everything they could to see the band profit from this image.  ‘Get paid by the man’ while appearing to ‘stick it to the man’ (the record companies in this case) was an odd marketing tool, but it worked for them. I always thought that this was a bit hypocritical but along the way, I began to see that bands often had much more complex histories beyond the image the record companies used to sell records.

     The post Woodstock events described above took place in 1969 – 1970, so how does this figure into 1974?  The whole Crosby-Stills-Nash and sometimes Young story is so complex that we will disect it further down the line.  Suffice to say, it all comes down to those four essentials of rock and roll: marketing, image, money, and ego. As mentioned previously, the counterculture image of CSNY at the release of Deja Vu was the public face of the band.  The four distinctive voices may have blended in spectacular harmony on record, but the egos involved had a much more difficult time working in harmony.  Success brought in vast amounts of money which in turn spurred excessive spending and the conspicuous consumption of mind altering substances that eventually turned the band into an unproductive maelstrom.  We will kind of skip over the whole post Deja vu period leading up to the spring of 1973.  By then, the band’s various solo works had born little notice on the record charts and CSN&Y began contemplating making a new group recording.  A new record would be the key that would unlock a new tour which would help refill their rapidly draining coffers. There was also the small issue of proving that CSN&Y were still relevant enough to sell records and fill venues half a decade after their triumphant debut.

     As various disagreements and interband squabbles kept CSNY from recording fresh material in the early 1970s, the musical landscape was changing.  Bands that they had influenced like the Eagles and America began to dominate the charts. These staples of the FM radio band dominated popular music, but beneath this glossy surface, a new group of rebel bands were fermenting.   Even if it wasn’t a terribly long lived phenomenon, the undercurrent of what would become punk music began to stir things up. When Hilly Kristal opened his little club in Manhattan (and thanks to author David Browne’s book Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (2019 DaCapo Books) I now know that the club’s name CBGB & OMFUG stood for “country, bluegrass, blues, and other music for uplifting gormandizers”), it became ground zero for this new wave of anti-pop bands.  ‘Bare-bones’ music made by bands like The Ramones bore little resemblance to the intricate vocal arrangements found on the first two CSNY albums. Lumped in with those other big bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, and ELP, punk fans and bands loathed CSNY as another one of the bloated, overblown bands they viewed as has-beens.  Even Stills pronounced CSNY as being ‘a myth’ in 1973, yet it didn’t stop their manager, Elliot Roberts, from meeting with Stills and Nash to discuss doing an album and tour that summer. He even went so far as to chase down Crosby and Young on Crosby’s boat two miles at sea off Maui to sign the contracts. Old habits die hard and the first attempt at recording together fell apart in June of 1973 and they again scattered to the wind.

     CSNY would make another attempt in May and June of 1974.  They began rehearsing on an outdoor stage built in the woods at Young’s California ranch.  For all their musical and personal history, they needed to find out if they could still perform a whole show together (their last full tour together happened in 1970, and eon of time in the pop world).  It was former Fillmore owner Bill Graham who suggested the best way for them to maximize their profit margin: they would plan a tour of mostly outdoor stadiums. It was something that had not been done before and it promised to generate millions in revenue.  Graham was just the man to coordinate such an undertaking. The only big question at hand was whether or not the band could pull it off.

     Nash and Crosby weren’t thrilled with the stadium tour, but they went along with it.  Neil Young had developed a habit of bolting the last few reunions as soon as he felt bad vibes. That Young was more in line with Stills on this project (with Nash and Crosby holding down the other side of the discussion) was another surprising turn of events.  A similar alliance prior to another tour in 1987 lead Young’s long time production manager to print up gag T-shirts for that reunion proclaiming “SYNC – Time for a Change”. Either way it played (CSNY or SYNC), Nash and Crosby felt like sidemen rather than part of the band.  As they rehearsed, the original ten shows planned grew to thirty one. Two full tour set ups would be used so one could leap-frog to city B while the other crew manned the show going on in city A. It was ambitious and everyone crossed their fingers and hoped it would work. No one was sure which of the top grossing movies of the year the tour would resemble the most:  Earthquake or The Towering Inferno.

       The tour began in Seattle and ended a couple of months later at Wembley Stadium in London. The various problems led Crosby to call it “The Doom Tour” but the fact that all four of them stuck with the whole grind was almost a miracle.  CSNY set the template for big rock and roll tours to come, from the unheard practice of catered meals backstage to the more common problem of ‘consuming an excess of mind altering substances’. The four members of CSNY would weave around each other for another forty years with various attempts at recording and touring.  The four distinct personalities would joust for position until finally, they could no longer stand the thought of working together. Circa 2018, the band CSNY seems to have finally run aground.  

     It was a long, hard road CSNY traveled from Woodstock to the pioneering stadium tour of 1974.  In a future installment, we will profile each member of CSNY so we can at least try to understand how they managed to play together at all.

Top Piece Video:  Johnny’s Garden, a previously unreleased clip from Wembley, 1974