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Blood, Sweat and Tears (self-titled, 1968)

In late 1968, the American/Canadian jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears (BS&T), formed in 1967, recorded an eponymous LP, their second offering. The band had gone through a number of lineup changes from the first album, and as fate would have it, they would undergo a virtually endless series of lineup changes afterwards. For those reasons, the group BS&T as it existed in October of 1968, when the tracks for the self-titled recording were laid down, had a very brief existence indeed, which coincided with a few months in the late 1960s when pop music reached dizzying heights of experimentation and virtuosity that it has yet to equal. So, the release is somewhat like a musical snapshot of that transcendent time period, a kind of artistic statement on behalf of its respective era. Like a snapshot, it captures an impermanent moment in time, something that can never be exactly reproduced again.

All of this probably explains why BS&T never really did anything afterwards on a par with this quadruple platinum masterpiece. For one, BS&T as it was in 1968 was never to be again. Secondly, the times changed, and BS&T didn’t manage to seem nearly as relevant afterwards. Granted, they’ve played many shows over the years since then, and have undoubtedly entertained and warmed the hearts of countless thousands for decades, but again, their best stuff is on that one release, period. For better or for worse, the essence of BS&T is pretty much the album BS&T, pure and simple.

Despite the album’s enormous sales over the years, the sad truth for those of us who grew up listening to it is that the younger generation knows relatively little about it. It’s getting harder each year to find a radio station that plays BS&T songs as part of its regular rotation. Yep, it’s turned into an “oldie but a goodie.” But that’s okay -- now the kids can “rediscover” it with the help of old guys like me who write articles like this one.

I first heard this album as a young teen in the early 1980s. It was part of my mother’s old album collection from the 1960s. If you really want to get the most out of it, I suggest that you buy it as a vinyl LP rather than a CD. The rich and diverse sound of the recording was really designed for the warmth and resonance of vinyl. Anyway, growing up, BS&T had an enormous impact upon me. I rate David Clayton-Thomas as one of the greatest pop singers of all time, and to a very large extent, he carries the production with his many outstanding vocal performances.

The other half of the BS&T equation is the instruments. Were they a jazz outfit or a rock outfit? The answer is yes. That being said, however, it is not jazz-rock fusion, but instead music mostly in the rock format with jazzy overtones. Additionally, the album features some light ballads and is framed on both ends with classically-tinged instrumentals -- more on that later. Anyway, the deft combination of brass wind instruments with standard rock instruments (drum kit, electric bass, electric guitar, Hammond organ, etc.), all expertly played and brilliantly recorded and mixed, produced a sound that magically made the old Benny Goodman-era big band style seem incredibly hip and groovy, while simultaneously giving rock and roll an ultra-classy and curiously traditional vibe. Both grandpa and his draft-dodging hippie grandson would just have to get into it in spite of themselves.

From what I can gather, BS&T’s musical style pretty much laid the stylistic foundations for the group Chicago in the following decade and to some extent also served as the rough template for the disco sound of that same era. Even today, when you hear the jazz band sound in the context of the popular rock format, you have to wonder how much of it is owed to BS&T’s influence. In a nutshell, BS&T showed us all that rock didn’t necessarily have to make a sharp break with the past, as many had long thought, and that a line of horn players could still blow our socks off. Artistically speaking, the generation gap shrunk considerably upon the release of this album, at a volatile and divisive time when everyone was in sore need of a bit of reconciliation.

Several chart-topping tunes came off of BS&T, which are “And When I Die,” “God Bless the Child,” “Spinning Wheel,” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” all of which you can still hear on the radio today on golden oldie stations.

Here’s some commentary on the individual pieces:

"Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie, first and second movements"

This is an adaptation of a piece of classical music. The first movement, elemental and basic in the extreme, features a pair of dreamy flutes, a lazily plucked and strummed acoustic guitar, and some gentle chimes in the background. It sounds like something you’d want to play for an infant child in his crib to get him to go to sleep. It’s followed by the second movement, which uses the same simple melody of the first movement, but adds a lot of complex instrumentation and melodic variations in such a way that the soothing, meditative tone of the first part is supplanted by a jarring, irritated and slightly demented ambience. It’s kind of as if the infant you tried to put to sleep with the first part woke up screaming bloody murder during the second part owing to a really painful case of diaper rash.

“Smiling Phases”

Steve Winwood, among others, was involved in composing this catchy, punchy piece. There’s an awesome instrumental break in the middle of the track during which BS&T shows off some of their best stuff -- it would be hard for me to imagine how a band could showcase more technical and conceptual virtuosity in such a short span of recording time. I love the severe and poetic closing line of the song: “And you’ll be amazed at the gaze on their faces as they sentence you.” I can almost imagine a jury in a courtroom, looking over at the defendant as their sentence is read.  

“Sometimes in Winter”

Steve Katz takes over from David Clayton-Thomas for vocal duties on this track. I rate it as possibly my favorite piece on the album. It’s a melancholy lament for a relationship that once showed so much promise and brought so much joy, and has now come to an end in spite of the wishes and desires of the singer. In the winter season, he passes by the house of his former flame, and recalls all the moments that they shared. The wistful message and vocals are perfectly complimented by the complex musical arrangement, which adeptly communicates the narrator’s strong feelings of loss and nostalgia.

“More and More”

This was originally released as the B-side to the hit single “Spinning Wheel.” Maybe BS&T imagined that this would end up being more of a radio-friendly tune than it actually turned out to be. Be that as it may, it’s a very cool tune, an evident tribute to the soulful, supercharged James Brown-styled vocal approach. David Clayton-Thomas really delivers the goods on this one, at least as much as might be reasonably expected from a white man from Canada.

“And When I Die”

I really like the difference between the occasionally grim message of the song and its overall upbeat feel. It’s most definitely a sing-along tune. It contains possibly my all-time favorite song lyrics: “I can swear there ain’t no heaven, but I pray there ain’t no hell.” That pretty much sums up my theological outlook. It was a big radio hit for a while.

“God Bless the Child”

Another big radio hit. The key lyrics to the song are: “God bless the child who can stand up and say, I’ve got my own.” But there are some other good lines as well: “And the strong seem to get more, while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade.” Also: “And rich relations may give you a crust of bread and such. You can help yourself, but don’t take too much.” There’s a great instrumental break in the middle which cleverly and seamlessly transitions from a Cuban-styled salsa theme right into a jazzy, New York Harlem one. BS&T were really firing on all pistons with that track.

“Spinning Wheel”

This was probably the biggest hit single from the album, and the track that you are most likely to hear on the radio today. It’s the story of a lonely, homeless, and penniless vagabond who kills time by riding on the merry-go-round at an amusement park, a simple and innocent enough form of psychological escape from the hopelessness of his personal situation. He consoles himself with the wishful thought that “someone’s waiting just for you.” The childlike lyrics are roughly contrasted with the sarcastic, mocking tone of the instruments, as well as the fierce, almost angry vocal delivery. The song ends with a congregation of indifferently played flutes repeating a simple, infantile melody, as if to convey the impression that the out-of-touch narrator has finally lost his marbles. Strange stuff for a hit single, but there you have it.

“You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”

I told you there were a lot of hit songs on this album, and this seems to be the last one. If you’ve just fallen in love and your partner has really made your day, play them this one, and I guarantee you’ll get them to smile. I rate this among my top five romantic songs, most definitely. This one was custom-made for Valentine’s Day, no doubt.

“Blues – Part II”

Technically speaking, this is BS&T’s most ambitious track on the album. It has a number of distinct movements over the space of thirteen and one-half minutes. It begins with a lone organ in an almost progressive rock style, and then transitions into several minutes of customary extended jazz improvisation, which ends with -- of all things -- the melody line for “In-A-Gadda Da Vida,” played in a rather exaggerated, irreverent fashion. This is succeeded by Clayton-Thomas’s soul-stirring lament about the heartbreaking loss of his woman, once again as James Brown might have done it. I suspect that this track is where BS&T threw in the leftover odds and ends of their musical production, and purposed to organize it all into a medley of sorts. As such, it works quite well, and also gives significant time to the musicians in the group who may have wanted to showcase a more traditional jazz approach.

The album ends with a reprise of the first track, first movement, which sounds exactly the same except for the last few seconds of it, during which you can hear footsteps going across the floor, and the slamming of a door, as if to say, that’s it, album over.

Well, if this album is quadruple platinum, it’s not for nothing. If you’ve already heard all the hit songs from it, go ahead and buy it for the other tracks, which are just as awesome. If you are a jazz aficionado, this is a must-have recording for your collection. If you want one of the defining LPs of the 1960s, you need it. Honestly, I can’t think of any reasons for you to not buy this release, except that you are too stingy to pay for music, or you don’t particularly care for great tunes, in which case I can hardly understand why you have bothered to read this far -- enough said.

Reviewed by Somebody Else 7/1/12

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