Call Mr. Lee

Cricklewood Green
Ten Years After

If you’d wanted to, back in the 1960s and 70s, you could listen to all sorts of rock bands that allegedly based their music on the blues. I’ve pretty much convinced myself, if no one else, that the entire Classic Rock canon rests on a misconception that puts a soloing virtuoso front and center, captivating listeners with the fleetness of his fingers. Better still to also have him sing.

I’m willing to blame this all on the English and the European concept of the virtuoso.  But that leaves too many Americans off the hook and overlooks the role of feedback.

Fact is, even a ‘blues legend’ like Buddy Guy had to reinvent himself to fit a form that had morphed on its way across the Atlantic and back. And though I love the blues, I hate the ossified guitar hero-led form. Horns, harps, pianos, acoustic, electric, I don’t care. Just give me an ensemble and a singer and check the egos, please.

That’s not to say I don’t ever listen to such music. We’re all prisoners of our upbringing and there’s something friendly and familiar about that overexposed dinosaur music. Plus, there’s the occasional little-known gem to be tended to, one of which is our subject today.

Alvin Lee
1944-2013
You’ve no idea how hard it is to find a picture of him at his most famous show.

At the risk of pissing off true fans, Ten Years After were one of the lesser English bands to emerge in the 1960s. And by that I mean they were never going to be one of the four client bands of Glyn Johns lucky enough to have an entire holiday weekend dedicated to their music.

Their one monster hit might show up in a long enough list of the best rock songs ever. Yet it didn’t, for example, make the cut on WNEW-FM‘s 1996 Firecracker 500 list, a trick Roxy Music and The Clash managed to pull off.

TYA existed, instead, in a sort of nether space, at least here in the States. They were arguably best known for their nine-and-a-half minute long performance of ‘I’m Going Home‘ at Woodstock, the only number to make it on-screen and record. That shambolic performance featured guitar player/singer Alvin Lee, shredding his way up and down the neck of his signature red ES-335. You could walk out to the gents, wash your hands, buy a Coke and Lee would still be hammering on and pulling off when you got back to your seat.

You either love it or hate it. I enjoy the first couple of minutes and then tune out because I really hate the whole guitar-God thing. For me, the entire appeal lies in how raw and on the verge of falling apart it sounds.

Ten Years After were a real band, not just a man and his employees.

TYA’s sole Top-40 hit, 1971’s ‘I’d Love to Change the World,’ was the rock book-end to Ball of Confusion‘, released the previous year by The Temptations. Lyrically it was a mess–I’m sort of surprised Thatcher and co. never tried to use it. Musically, it featured great dynamics, a nice acoustic guitar bit built around what I call the Celtic blues Am/Em change, and a solo for the ages, blessedly short by the standards of the day and the player.

That solo offers a glimpse into where this band lurks in the minds of many. No less a guitar-God than Slash seems to have liberally copped from it for the solo in, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine.’ Hey, if it was a hit the first time, why wouldn’t it be again?

It’s also, arguably, a primary point of differentiation from the otherwise interchangeable (and released five years earlier) ‘Unpublished Critics‘ by Australian Crawl. And while I’m grasping at straws, Stonedhenge was the title of TYA’s second album, which I’m certain was not missed by my friends in Tap.

Vin Scelsa, Radio demi-god
I hope it is okay to borrow this fabulous image attributable to and (c) D Van der Heyden

By now you’d be forgiven for wondering what happened to the album pictured at the top. Enter Vinnie. Vinnie is Vin Scelsa, a legendary radio personality, at least in these parts. I think so highly of Vin’s sensibility and taste that I happily followed him around the dial for almost three-quarters of his fifty year career.

Keeping up with Vin was not easy. For instance, I’m still not certain I understand why Blue Öyster Cult is the thinking man’s metal band. I’m not even certain they’re a metal band. And I’m pretty certain ‘(Don’t Fear) the Reaper‘ and ‘Run to You‘ are the same song.  But I digress. Vin once said in passing that the second side of Cricklewood Green was among the greatest accomplishments of the rock era.

I have to agree.

I’m not going to go through it track-by-track. That’s what the Spotify playlist at the end is for. Instead I’ll talk about what sets it apart from contemporaneous releases.

It takes a lot of talent, willpower and luck to resist the maw of the marketing machine.

It’s too easy for bands to fall into the marketing machine. The Beatles kept changing. The Stones, for all their variety, became cartoons. Led Zeppelin owned borrowing odd song structures  from around the globe and mashing them up with the blues. Whatever project Jeff Beck was involved in was bound to be quasi-experimental. Clapton, Lord save us, would just stand there and be Clapton.

So here’s sloppy Alvin Lee playing in any number of styles, constrained and unrestrained. He sounds equally at home playing jump blues, T-Bone Walker style (something Clapton has never attempted), Chicago-style and then amping it up for the rock crowd. The songs hold together, not quite a suite or cycle but related to each other in a manner that seems more organic than forced. The delight lies in the unexpectedness of it all.

Take a listen, I think you might enjoy it, too.

Here’s the playlist. I’ve added songs mentioned above

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