This week, in celebration of Earth Day, we take a look back at some of the earliest songs to show an awareness of environmental issues. The first set is pretty straightforward, with Joni Mitchell's original studio version of Big Yellow Taxi setting the tone. Our second set is more speculative, with songwriters like Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young letting their imaginations run wild. We wrap up the show with a 13-minute long version of Memphis Slim's classic Mother Earth, from the album Eric Burdon Declares War. Here's the complete lineup:
Artist: Joni Mitchell
Title: Big Yellow Taxi
Source: LP: The Big Ball (originally released on LP: Ladies Of The Canyon)
Writer(s): Joni Mitchell
Label: Warner Brothers (original label: Reprise)
One of Joni Mitchell's best-known tunes, Big Yellow Taxi was originally released on the 1970 album Ladies Of The Canyon. The original studio version of the song hit the top 10 in Australia and the top 20 in the UK and Mitchell's native Canada, but only reached the #67 spot in the US. A later live version of the song, however, cracked the top 30 in the US in 1974. Mitchell says she was inspired to write the song on a visit to Hawaii, where she looked out her hotel window to view a mountain vista in the distance, only to be shocked back to reality when she looked down to see a parking lot "as far as the eye could see".
Title: Nature's Way
Source: CD: Best Of Spirit (originally released on LP: Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus)
Writer: Randy California
Nature's Way is one of the best-known and best-loved songs in the Spirit catalog. Originally released on the 1970 LP Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, the song was finally issued as a single in 1973, long after lead vocalist Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes had left Spirit to form Jo Jo Gunne.
Artist: Marvin Gaye
Title: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
Source: LP: What's Going On
Writer(s): Marvin Gaye
No show celebrating Earth Day would be complete without Marvin Gaye's Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). Released as the second single from the 1971 LP What's Going On, the song is considered one of Marvin Gaye's greatest songs and an anthem of the environmental movement.
Artist: Jefferson Airplane
Title: Eskimo Blue Day
Source: CD: Volunteers
Jefferson Airplane's sixth LP, Volunteers, was by far their most socio-political album, from the first track (We Can Be Together, with its famous "up against the wall" refrain) to the last (the song Volunteers itself). One of the more controversial tracks on the 1969 album is Eskimo Blue Day, which describes just how meaningless human concerns are in the greater scheme of things with the repeated use of the phrase "doesn't mean shit to a tree". Eskimo Blue Day was one of two songs from Volunteers performed by the Airplane at Woodstock.
Title: The Prophet's Song
Source: LP: A Night At The Opera
Writer(s): Brian May
Label: Virgin (original label: Elektra)
When Queen's landmark LP, A Night At The Opera, was released in 1975, much attention was focused on the album's penultimate track, Freddy Mercury's Bohemian Rhapsody, which went all the way to the top of the British top 40 charts and is one of the most recognizable recordings of the 20th century. With all this attention focused on one song (albeit deservedly), several other outstanding tracks on the album have been somewhat neglected. Perhaps the best of these overlooked tracks is The Prophet's Song, a Brian May composition that opens side two of the vinyl LP. At over eight minutes in length, The Prophet's Song is Queen's longest song with vocals, and, like Bohemian Rhapsody, features layered overdubs by Mercury, including a fairly long acappella section in the middle of the track. The song also has powerful dynamics, ranging from the almost inaudible acoustic guitar and toy koto introduction to high volume electric lead guitar work set against a heavy metal background. As if that were not enough, The Prophet's Song also has a powerful message, making it one of Queen's most important works.
Artist: Zager And Evans
Title: In The Year 2525
Source: Stereo 45 RPM single
Writer(s): Rick Evans
Label: RCA Victor
Since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950s there have been literally hundreds of one-hit wonders, artists who had one fairly big hit and then faded off into the background. Usually these artists recorded one or more a follow-up records that got minor airplay (and sometimes even major airplay in a limited number of markets), but were not successful enough to make a long-term career of it. A few of them get cited as the "ultimate" one-hit wonder, but for my money the title undisputedly belongs to folk-rockers Zager And Evans. The reason I say this is because they were more extreme than any other one-hit wonders, both in their success and their subsequent failures. The success part is impressive: In The Year 2525 spent six weeks in the number one spot on the US charts and finished second only to the 5th Dimension's Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In for the entire year 1969. Their subsequent failures were equally impressive: not only did they fail to crack the top 40 charts again, they couldn't even make the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making them the only artists in history to have a #1 hit without ever making another chart appearance.
Artist: Jimi Hendrix Experience
Title: 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Source: CD: Electric Ladyland
Writer: Jimi Hendrix
Label: Legacy (original label: Reprise)
1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon Turn The Tides (Gently, Gently Away) from the Electric Ladyland album is the longest work created purely in the studio by Jimi Hendrix, with a running time of over 16 minutes. The piece starts with tape effects that lead into the song's main guitar rift. The vocals and drums join in to tell a science fiction story set in a future world where the human race has had to move underwater in order to survive some unspecified catastrophe. After a couple verses, the piece goes into a long unstructured section made up mostly of guitar effects before returning to the main theme and closing out with more effects that combine volume control and stereo panning to create a circular effect. As is the case with several tracks on Electric Ladyland, 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)/Moon Turn The Tides (Gently, Gently Away) features Hendrix on both guitar and bass, with Mitch Mitchell on drums and special guest Chris Wood (from Traffic) on flute.
Artist: Neil Young
Title: After The Gold Rush
Source: CD: After The Gold Rush
Writer(s): Neil Young
Once upon a time Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann wrote a screenplay for a movie to be called After The Gold Rush. Neil Young read the script and decided that he wanted to do the soundtrack for the film, which Stockwell described as "sort of an end-of-the-world movie. I was gonna write a movie that was personal, a Jungian self-discovery of the gnosis... it involved the Kabala (sic), it involved a lot of arcane stuff." The movie was never made, and even the script is now long lost. However, Young did manage to write a couple of songs for the film, including the title track itself, which became the title track of his third album. The song itself describes a dream vision about the past, present and future of earth's environment. Young still performs After The Gold Rush, although he has updated one of the song's most famous lines ("Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s") by replacing the words "the 1970s" with "the 21st century".
Artist: Eric Burdon And War
Title: Blues For Memphis Slim
Source: LP: Eric Burdon Declares "War"
Writer(s): War/Peter Chapman
"When the acid trip is over, you've got to come back to Mother Blues." Eric Burdon's ad-libbed line from the track Blues From Memphis Slim, pretty much sums up the state of the former Animals lead vocalist's career as of 1970. The original Animals had been founded with the blues in mind, with the band members, including Burdon, preferring the cover tunes of artists like John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed featured on their albums to the hit singles provided to the band by their producer, Mickey Most. Finally, in 1966, the group officially disbanded, just as Burdon was discovering the mind-expanding qualities of hallucinogenic substances (he had been a hard drinker up to that point). In early 1967 Burdon formed a "New Animals" that would soon come to be called Eric Burdon And The Animals. This band had little in common with the original Animals (other than Burdon's distinctive vocals), and was, by any measure, pure acid rock. But after a couple of albums, even that group started to change, taking on more of an R&B sound with tracks like their extended version of River Deep, Mountain High. Finally, in 1969, this group disbanded as well, leaving Burdon and his producer, Jerry Goldstein, looking for a new band and a new sound for the singer. They found it in a Los Angeles nightclub, where a band called Nightshift was backing up former football star Deacon Jones. Burdon and Goldstein persuaded the multi-racial band to change their name to War, and got to work on an album called Eric Burdon Declares "War". The album featured mostly suites such as Blues For Memphis Slim, which was built around the bluesman's classic Mother Earth, with several added instrumental sections composed by the band. At thirteen and a half minutes, it is the longest track on the album. After a second album with the group (The double-LP The Black Man's Burdon), Eric Burdon left the group, leaving War to become one of the more popular bands of the 1970s.