A Long Time Comin - The Mystery of the Electric Flag
I was a prolific collector of music from a very early age. I spent every coin that crossed my palm on new albums. Lunch money, birthday money, chore money, it was all saved, and come the release date of an anticipated album, there I was at the local record bar, cashed up and waiting.
I was a skinny little kid with an awesome record collection.
Unlike today, where hundreds of albums are released in a variety of media each week, in the sixties, it was considerably less.
If you heard that Janis Joplin was in the studio, you started saving.
When the album finally arrived, (usually six months after the overseas release), it was played over and over until every beat, nuance and stylistic twist was imprinted in your mind.
It was not used as background music. When it was played, you took the time to listen in its entirety. You may have your small group of music mates over, and you would sit in silence as each delicious side played out.
As you got older, herbal studies were sometimes incorporated into the ritual. But the alter before which we all humbled ourselves was the 'player, and the divine message was the music.
Picking apart the music to ascertain the layers was part of the deal, and as your musical acuity sharpened, so did your musical memory.
To this day, I can replay complete albums in my head; every nuance and note intact.
Every once in a while, an oddity would stand out. It may have been a classical line quoted in a rock tune; something you heard your father play. Or, deep in the mix, a recognisable voice from another band entirely. Maybe a guitar line played in a tone you knew the guitarist never used. Sometimes, something was hidden in plain sight, and no-one ever stopped to question it.
I have considered this particular mystery for the best part of 46 years, and every couple of years, start to ruminate about it all over again.
I have written to music writers overseas, and never once got a reply.
Feeling no closer to any resolution, I recently decided to tap into some friendly music nutters for feedback. First up, I played the track in question to two golden-eared friends.
At first listen, apart from being blown backwards by the sound collage in the middle, they did not pick up on anything unusual.
Then, during a second run-through, I posed 'the question'. Just as the extended and dissonant sound collage drew to an end, and the outro began, I asked “what just happened?”.
Emboldened by their “A-HA!!” response, I knew my suspicions may have some merit.
I took the album to a recent StereoNET get-together with the hope that at least one more person could confirm what I was hearing. Thankfully, one listener did (thanks “Mr. Happy-Pants”).
So, let me fill in the background as succinctly as I can.
As anyone who was coming of age in the sixties will attest, it really was the golden age of modern music. Pop had interbred with itself in the early sixties, and the mutant offspring was every strain of rock that you may hear up to this day.
One of the pioneers of this late sixties blooming, was one Mike Bloomfield, no pun intended. Bloomfield already had form as one of the finest young guitarists on the scene.
Watching the vertical takeoff happening in the music scene all around him, he decided it was time to try some experimentation himself.
He envisioned a mix of city blues, STAX soul, eastern and jazz flourishes, all nailed down with a hard rocking rhythm section. He would even try adding sound collage to this heady mix.
It would be called “THE ELECTRIC FLAG”.
In short order, he had picked up players of the calibre of Harvey Brookes, Barry Goldberg, and young drummer, Buddy Miles.
To this, he added the sax of Peter Strazza, and the trumpet of Marcus Doubleday.
Unfortunately, besides bringing his sultry trumpet, Marcus also bought his heroin habit, a misfortune that would contribute significantly to the short life span of the group.
The formative grouping were roped in to provide the soundtrack to the early 'yoof' movie,“THE TRIP”, starring Peter Fonda, later of “EASY RIDER” fame.
The film was dodgy, but the soundtrack was not too bad. It certainly augured well for the first 'proper' album.
Recorded between July 1967 and January 1968, “A LONG TIME COMIN'” was released in March 1968.
Critically, it was damned with faint praise, but commercially, did O.K.
It still holds up well, with only the 'of its time' dense studio production, and the occassional dodgy vocal takes, being a problem for modern listeners. Personally, I would not have it any other way.
The album is a cohesive blend of the soulful, 'Groovin' Is Easy', bluesy, 'Killing Floor', adult pop, ' She Should Have Just', bar-band,“Wine”, and even a forty-five second bliss-out called 'Easy Rider', the importance of which I will come back to.
Now, at about this time, a young Mexican born lad had moved to San Francisco, and giving up his dish washing job, was starting to earn a reputation as a hot guitarist. One of his idols was Mike Bloomfield, and Bloomfield quickly became his mentor.
In 1967, he formed a little mex/latino/blues/rock band - The Carlos Santana Blues Band. They became a pet project of local legendary music promoter, Bill Graham.
Graham was known as someone who pushed his artists to get a profile and go the extra mile to make it. Bill was loved by his artists, but detested by many of his business associates.
He got SANTANA added to the line up at the WOODSTOCK festival, before their stunning debut album was even released. They were on their way.
Now, we know that Bloomfield and Santana were friends. Bloomfield was not interested in the stardom aspect of music. He was the epitome of the questing musician. It would not be beyond him to give a 'lift' to someone he respected and felt may need it.
Mike and his friend Al Kooper, decided to record a live album together. The plan was to invite up and coming artists they respected, put together a hot rhythm section, and record the results.
The album would be called, “THE LIVE ADVENTURES OF MIKE BLOOMFIELD AND AL KOOPER”.
One guest player was the beautifully strange looking albino guitarist from Texas, Johnny Winter.
Another was a well regarded picker by the name of Elvin Bishop.
The other was none other than Carlos Santana. His guitar is featured on a rendition of the Jack Bruce/ Paul Jones composition, “SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON”.
The album was released in February 1969 to almost universal acclaim.
So, this known association brings me too the point of this article.
“A LONG TIME COMING'” has a track that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the set.
“ANOTHER COUNTRY” written by Ron Polte , is just over 8 minutes and 47 seconds long. He also penned a track from side one, “SHE SHOULD HAVE JUST”.
The lyrics allude to the political unrest and sense of paranoia and danger that rose in the response to the hippie movement, and the trend for students to actually take to the streets in protest. The song posits that the retaliation to this movement was oppression by the authorities, and the risk of death itself. (KENT STATE anyone?- youngsters, google it).
Of itself, the track is a bottler. Featuring weird sounds courtesy of Richie Havens on electric sitar, punctuating brass, and a sensational sound collage in the middle, it also contains an enduring mystery. I suspect the track contains one of the best musical jokes ever.
At the 2.24 minute mark, the track breaks into a sound collage. A snatch of forties danceband dissolves into a distorted guitar layer. Voices cut in and out. The sounds of street protest are heard amidst wave after wave of atonal noise.
On a decent system, the detail packed into this section is quite alarming, and if heard for the first time, quite disturbing.
A walking encyclopedia of music, David’s broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.