Thursday, July 22, 2010
Blackburn & Snow - Something Good for Your Head (Big Beat, 1999; 2007)
The music of Jeff Blackburn and Sherry Snow is an aural representation of what it was like to be young, turned-on, and in love during the early days of Haight-Ashbury circa 1965-1966. Yet another forgotten countercultural Bay Area act from one of America's most creative decades of the 20th century, this duo straddled the divisions between folk, folk rock, and psychedelia and helped define the first-wave San Francisco Sound. Despite recording an album's worth of material and having two singles released during their existence, Blackburn & Snow never realized their vast potential and were ultimately relegated to the periphery of a scene that they helped establish.
In keeping with the typically eclectic background of most San Franciscan musicians from the 1960s, Blackburn was a high school dropout with a background in country music by virtue of his upbringing in Bakersfield, California, while Snow was part of the coffeehouse music scene during her days as a college student in San Jose. Although they had initially met there earlier in the decade, the soon-to-be romantically-linked pair became reacquainted in San Francisco in 1964, where she had been renting a house with future members of Jefferson Airplane. In many ways, the duo never really abandoned their folk music roots since they often performed self-accompanied on acoustic instruments at places like the Ark in Sausalito and the hungry i in North Beach. The bulk of their studio work, however, was psychedelic folk rock, and although their gigs at venues such as the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium featured electric backing musicians, the couple never did have a regular band that worked behind them. Their signing with Trident Productions, owned by Kingston Trio manager Frank Werber, in late 1965 seemed like a good move - as did plans to record an LP for MGM-Verve - but youthfully stubborn idealism on Blackburn & Snow's part as well as a souring relationship between their business handlers and record label conspired to prevent them from achieving the success that they certainly deserved. After gigging in the Bay Area and spending considerable time in the studio throughout 1966, their last recordings took place in 1967, and their professional and personal relationship ended soon afterward.
Best known for the should-have-been hit single "Stranger in a Strange Land" (a song based on Robert Heinlein's book of the same name and possibly written by David Crosby under a pseudonym), Blackburn & Snow left a recorded legacy characterized by their soaring vocal harmonies, Jeff's formidable songwriting skills, and outstanding contributions from studio musicians such as the redoubtable lead guitarist (and future member of the Ventures) Gerry McGee. There is no denying the potency of "Stranger," which was rightfully included on the Love Is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970 box set, and yet its release symbolized the difficulties that the pair would experience while working in the music industry. As great of a performance as it is, they resented the fact that it was chosen to be their first single since just about everything else they recorded had been written by Blackburn. Furthermore, despite being recorded in 1966 (as were most of the other tracks on this CD), business decisions by Werber caused it to languish in the vaults for a year before it was finally issued in January 1967, thus contributing to its lack of success on the charts.
Many of the other 19 tracks included here were supposed to have appeared on their aforementioned planned album, which had a working title of Something Good for Your Head. Although the LP had been intended for release in April 1967, that plan never came to fruition due to the aforementioned disagreements involving MGM-Verve and Trident. The decision to shelve it was an injustice, but at least these recordings finally got to see the light of day more than 30 years later. The majestically anthemic "Yes Today" features one of the most mind-blowing electric guitar solos from 1966, while the dreamy "Takin' It Easy" explores Blackburn & Snow's more mellow side. The ahead-of-its time foray into country rock "Time" was the A-side to their second and last 45, which was backed with the vivacious and Dylanesque generational manifesto "Post-War Baby." (In contrast, the alternate version of this B-side sounds somewhat tentative, but is still interesting nonetheless.) The unusual time signatures and blazing guitars on "It's So Hard" combine to make it one of the duo's most psychedelic moments and is a fine example of early acid rock before the trips started going bad. "Do You Realize," "Think," and "Stand Here" all compare favorably - and perhaps even exceed - the folk rock glory of early Jefferson Airplane, and it's not surprising that Sherry Snow was one of the female singers considered as a possible replacement for Signe Anderson. The enchanting acoustic number "Sure or Sorry" contains incredibly exquisite vocal harmonies - even more so than usual - and presents the listener with an idea of what Blackburn & Snow sounded like when they performed as a duo at small clubs. The same goes for "Some Days I Feel Your Lovin'," "I Recall the Day," "I Don't Want You Back Babe," and "Stop Leanin' on Me," which apparently are all demo recordings. The short but sweet "Unchain My Heart," the only other song on this CD not written by Blackburn, hearkens back to rock 'n' roll of an earlier era. "Uptown-Downtown," the B-side to their aforementioned first single, provides social commentary in a spirited folk rock setting. This is followed by the couple's last recording, the joyous "No Kidding," with its upbeat mood belying the disappointment that they must have felt from their lack of commercial success. The jangly "Every Day Brings Better Things" features arrangements reminiscent of the Byrds and early Love, while the last cut, the instrumental backing track "Pass This Way," offers a tantalizing glimpse of a work in progress.
1. Stranger in a Strange Land
2. Yes Today
3. Takin' It Easy
5. It's So Hard
6. Do You Realize
7. Sure or Sorry
8. Unchain My Heart
10. Some Days I Feel Your Lovin'
11. Post-War Baby
13. No Kidding
14. I Recall the Day
15. Every Day Brings Better Things
16. Stand Here
17. I Don't Want You Back Babe
18. Stop Leanin' on Me
19. Post-War Baby (alternate version)
20. Pass This Way (backing track)