Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Lee Michaels - Space And First Takes (1972)

(United States 1967-75)

Michaels started playing music in Southern California, where he was in a band with future members of Moby Grape, the Turtles, and Canned Heat. He first joined Barbata in the Strangers, a group led by Joel Scott Hill, before moving to San Francisco. In 1967, he signed a contract with A&M Records, releasing his debut, Carnival Of Life, later that year. As a session musician, he'd play with Jimi Hendrix, amongst others.

Michaels' choice of the Hammond organ as his primary instrument was unusual for the time, as was his bare-bones stage and studio accompaniment: usually just a single drummer, most often a musician known as 'Frosty' (Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost) member of the band 'Sweathog' or with Joel Larson of 'The Grass Roots'. This unorthodox approach attracted a following in San Francisco, and some critical notice, but Michaels did not achieve real commercial success until the release of his fifth album (Fifth), which produced a surprise U.S. Top 10 hit (#6 in the fall of 1971), "Do You Know What I Mean," and a Top 40 follow-up, a cover version of the Motown standard, "Can I Get A Witness".

I'll bet it surprised Lee Michaels when 'Space and First Takes', released in 1972, never took off commercially. This album followed his successful "Fifth", and Lee put together a hard rock delight. The album only consists of four songs, neatly divided into a short and an extended piece on each side of the vinyl. The late 1960's spawned the era of the opus, with many pioneering bands offering long-winded exposes, such as Iron Butterfly's 'In-a-Gadda-da-Vida' and the Chambers Brothers 'Time Has Come Today'. This phenomenon so gripped the times that many bands took Top 40 hits and expanded them into lengthy show topping excursions, such as The Byrds take on 'Eight Miles High', and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's epic 'Carry On'. So in 1971 it's no surprise that an aspiring artist like Lee Michaels would take a cue from everything happening around him, and produce his own extended works.

The instrumental variations on the basic themes are intriguing and deserving of the vinyl they displaced. In fact, for avid fans of lengthy guitar jams, the performances offered by Lee Michaels and former Paul Revere and the Raiders lead guitarist Drake Levin are nothing short of exquisite. They are hard rocking and varied, making the approximate quarter hour devoted to each tune a rewarding investment. The two shorter numbers are also strong guitar based compositions, the best being side two's 'Hold On To Freedom', which would appear as the opener on his 1973 album 'Live'. The live version is actually superior, as it is delivered on Michael's cherished and familiar B3 Hammond organ with great weight and energy. The studio version offered here is good, but the song is much better tendered on the B3 than guitar. If there is any explanation for why this album essentially became Lee Michael's swan song, it would have to be the lyrics. While Lee could at times be a compelling lyricist, he could also come up with some of the most mundane or confusing of lyrics. He offers a pertinent example of each on this disc. 'First Names', the extended piece offered on side one, delivers trite thoughts such as "First names, running around my brain. First names, they all sound the same". Sometimes I think Lee actually wrote songs, including his hit, "Do You Know What I Mean?" as Ecclesiastical statements on the meaninglessness of it all. On the other side of the coin, and the other side of the vinyl, we have the title track, the last extended piece. I'm really not sure what Lee is talking about in 'Space and First Takes', though it does seem to have to do with the musician's studio experiences. As on most of Lee's albums, however, the lyrics are certainly secondary to the instrumental prowess and captivating guitar performances churning throughout.

Michaels ultimately lost much of his hearing from his famous habit of walking out at the beginning of perfomances and running his hand across the dials on the huge amplifiers that ran to his organ. In the 1970's he was getting paid $20,000 a performance, an enormous amount for the day. Michaels finally dropped out of the music scene and moved to Hawaii in 1976.

The Lee Michaels catalog contains four albums that I consider essential to any musical collection, 'Live', 'Barrel', 'Fifth', and this release - his best in my opinion. I've always been attracted to extended guitar jams, and these make the half-hour listening time fly by swiftly, effortlessly, and with great aural gratification. So do yourself a favour, have a listen to 'Space and First Takes' and enjoy this psychedelic extravaganza from the early 70's.
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This rip was taken from a vinyl pressing at 320kbs and includes full Album artwork and label scans.
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.Track Listing
01. Own Special Way (As Long As)
02. First Names
03. Hold Onto Freedom
04. Space And First Takes

Band Members:
Lee Michaels: Organ, Bass, Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Joel Christie: Bass
Keith Knudsen: Drums
Drake Levin: Guitar

Lee Michaels MP3 Link (91Mb) New Links 26/10/2015
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Lee Michaels FLACs Link  (250Mb)

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