1971, SINGER SONGWRITERS #1

The early 1970s saw the emergence of the singer-songwriter as an acoustic force in popular music. If you played something—commonly piano or guitar—and wrote your own material, why bother with a band? All that negotiating and compromise, pah! Do your own thing, (wo)man. Do it yourself.

So albums boasting a single person’s name on the cover flowed with ever-increasing frequency from the world’s major labels. One could mount a convincing argument that Carole King’s Tapestry (released in February 1971 and featured at Vinyl Connection here) set such an impossibly high bar that everyone else was vying for silver that year, yet many were not discouraged. 

Here are a few singer-songwriter albums that appeared between March and June of 1971.

MARCH

Leonard Cohen—Songs Of Love And Hate

Talking of high bars, poet and louche romantic Leonard Cohen set his own mark very high indeed with his first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967, featured here). This is his third LP and although it delivers what the title promises, this is neither a stark nor relentlessly miserable album. Cohen is a lyricist of wit and invention, so the words are naturally a focal point. But the arrangements are subtly supportive and the overall sound is crisp like a frosty morning, letting Cohen’s words float like puffs of steam, dissolving emotions in delicate monochrome clouds.

Standouts: “Last year’s man”, “Joan of Arc”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”.

Nick Drake—Bryter Layter

Mixing a couple of delicate instrumentals in with the songs, Nick Drake’s second album deserves its own feature. I wrote on it for Discrepancy, so perhaps I’ll post the review here. In the meantime, an exec summary: a charming album, with loving musical support from Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks; undertones of desperation—or at the very least, a desperate lostness—pervade the songs.

James Taylor—Mud Slide Slim

Following up a hit such as James Taylor’s second album, Sweet Baby James, is no easy task. There is an introspective air to many of the songs here, and some self-camouflaging story-telling too. Yet a few third person tales does not sideline the emphasis on first and second person songs, nor reduce the enjoyment of the disc. 

Standouts: “You can close your eyes” and “You’ve got a friend.

APRIL

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—4 Way Street

Slipping 4 Way Street into a singer-songwriter article is a teensy bit cheeky, as those who know this double live album would instantly realise. With the first disc devoted to acoustic performances by various permutations of the quartet, it certainly passes muster. After a snippet of Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” the first song proper is Neil Young’s “On the way home”, followed by Graham Nash’s hit from the previous year’s Déjà Vu, “Teach your children”. David Crosby is up next, presenting his hippy lullaby to sexual liberation, “Triad” (which Grace Slick sang swoonfully with Jefferson Airplane, by the way) and follows it up with the lilting “The Lee Shore”, one of his best. Nash pitches in a couple more before Neil Young grabs the spot with “Cowgirl in the sand” and a wistful version of “Don’t let it bring you down”, the introduction to which is one of my favourites on any live album. I’m doing this from memory, having not played the album for quite a few years, but Neil’s intro goes something like this:

This is a song guaranteed to bring you right down.

(Pause) 

It’s called “Don’t let it bring you down.

(Audience laughter)

It kind of starts out slow… then fizzles out all together.

(Audience applauds)

The second album is a monster band in full rock mode, with brilliant versions of “Carry on”, “Pre-road downs” and (a standout) Young’s “Southern man”.

There are both CD (1992) and vinyl (2019) re-issues with (the same) extra material which is nice, though the vinyl RSD version is disappointing, messing with the sequencing and sounding like it was mastered from the CD.

Standouts: Nash’s Hollies gem “King Midas in reverse”, Stills “Love the one you’re with”, Crosby’s “Long time gone” with the electric band.

MAY

Melanie—The Good Book

Confession: I bought this for the unusual album cover design, where a neat little lyric booklet slots into the front cover. 

This was the studio album after Melanie’s hit LP Candles In The Rain—the one with “What have they done to my song, Ma” and the title track that goes “lay down, lay down, lay it all down…”. That post Woodstock 1970 LP found its way into the collection of every cheesecloth-wearing girl of a certain vintage, even if they only had a total of four LPs. (Two of the others are listed in this post and the other was the Stones Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, birthday present from a boyfriend and played twice to humour him before being forgotten after he was dumped even before the greeting cards had come down). (Yes, that is all a bit squirmy these days, and yes, Ya-Ya’s is yet another album cover apostrophe catastrophe).

Haven’t listened to this since initial post-purchase spins thirty years gone, and I’m not sure I will. Melanie’s voice and impassioned style are a taste I never acquired.

Graham Nash—Songs For Beginners

Chock full of Nash’s melodic, simply arranged songs, there is precisely zero likelihood I could bring even a gram of objectivity to this engaging and surprisingly ‘woke’ album. Simply put, I was in love with these songs for much of my twenties, learning three of them on the guitar (hooray for 3 chord classics!) and fervently praying to the gods of Laurel Canyon to have someone to sing them to. The arrangements may sound a bit twee now, in fact I suspect they are, but nothing can dim that glow of summers past wrapping Songs For Beginners in a warm cocoon of inaccurate memories.

Standouts: “Simple man”, “Chicago”.

JUNE

Joni Mitchell—Blue

What can you say about Blue? It and Tapestry wrote the eternal good book for female singer-songwriters in the first half of 1971. This is a fully certified five star album, one that everyone should spend time with as familiarity breeds not contempt, but wonder.

Standouts: The whole album.

* * * * *

Any favourites amongst these?

39 comments

  1. I’m slowly developing a tolerance for modern music that includes singing – thanks Bruce. My recent exposure to Nick Drake has been enjoyable (adding Bill P to that thank you list). I also bought The Essential Leonard Cohen recently, which is a compromise based on $, I’m sorry.
    Now, that Joni Mitchell is calling.
    Cheers,
    Bluey.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’ll be strumming an acoustic guitar again in no time, DD.
      “Blue” is excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Still on my feet.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I know most of these – Blue and Bryter Layter are the standouts for me. One classic from 1971, but I think from later in the year, is John Prune’s self-titled debut.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, the recently departed John Prine is a definite hole in the VC collection. So unless I encounter a copy in the next little while, that highly regarded debut may not appear. Sorry.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That debut is solidly awesome.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. chris delprete · · Reply

    Thanks Bruce for another great piece. Playing those lovely three chord Nash tunes would have probably gone down better than my gentle acoustic renderings of the Status Quo three chord catalogue. I did manage to master some Cat Stevens with a success rate of zero in terms of beguiling the opposite sex. I had all the accoutrements except the bedsitter and female company.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ah Chris. Delightfully put.

      Like

  4. Great stuff. I tackled a review on Joni’s Blue and I really liked that album. I was actually surprised. I don’t usually go for that style too much, but when I dived in to the stories of the songs and everything about it, it started to resonate a lot more and ended up enjoying it a lot. Now I need to get a good clean copy on vinyl.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A similar story to my own, John. I loved later 70s Joni but found Blue a bit, I dunno, precious maybe. But with time and a few more listens, the subtleties drew me in.
      It was re-issued last year, so should be fairly easy to locate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have seen the new re-issue, but I kind would love one from the 70’s.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Fair enough too!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. All these have something to recommend in them, but I’d go with Joni and Nick Drake topmost. Leonard Cohen was a little too “louche” for me in those days. (Great word!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I reckon that for consistency, Rick, I’d probably agree. But I so love ‘4 Way Street’. Is that one you also like?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, that was a big album in my circles back in the day. Nowadays I like it mostly for the Neil Young songs. But I do love that acoustic version of “King Midas in Reverse” as a bonus track.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wasn’t that a treat? I remember buying the CD re-issue at an import store in Melbourne CBD in 1993 (or thereabouts) and being quite delighted by that inclusion, and also the Stephen Stills’ addition. And you’re spot on, of course, Young’s contributions hold up really well.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Yeah what a first half of the year, huh? Remarkable. The Tom Waits book touched on that trend, which Waits and Bruce Springsteen entered into and referenced the Americana influence too, and one of my favorites from that period Dan Hicks, who doesn’t get so much attention though I think he should.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Someone who I am yet to investigate, Dan Hicks. There’s a bluegrass component there, right?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. pinklightsabre · · Reply

        No not bluegrass really. More old timey, if that means anything to you. His first few are brilliant, take a listen. “Canned music,” start with that song.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Blue all the way, Bruce. As you note, “What can you say…?” One of the very first posts I made on my own blog was about “A Case of You.” So many interconnections among the artists featured in your post: Joni had relationships with both Nash and Taylor, and Stills and Taylor both play on Blue. Mitchell and Cohen are both proud Canadians. Mitchell sang backup vocals on Mudslide Slim. Young and Crosby played on Songs for Beginners. There’s a new documentary series on AppleTV+ called “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything”…I haven’t seen it yet myself, but I would assume (*hope!*) that they spend some time on the singer/songwriter phenomenon you’re addressing here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Terrific little parcel of interconnections there, JDB. Thank you for laying them out and being delicate enough to avoid the obvious linking factor. You could write a book about that time in Laurel Canyon, and in fact several people have.
      I have heard about that doco, but must delve a bit deeper to check its availability here. Of course, you could say that about every year from 1963 to 1972; THAT was the 60s decade.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And of course I should have included Neil Young in the ‘proud Canadian’ bucket. One of the reviews I read about that documentary about 1971 made the exact point you do, i.e. that one could make a strong case that any number of individual years in the 60s or 70s changed everything. There’s been a recent doc on the Laurel Canyon scene as well (I may have mentioned that before on VC…apologies for repetition).

        Liked by 2 people

  9. I wouldn’t call it a singer/songwriter cut, but southern man on four way street is a religious experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Amen, brother.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m familiar with most of these. Mud Slide Slim (was the Mud Slime intentional?) is a favourite for whatever reason. It’s perhaps the easy listening to counter my other favourite here (Bryter Layter).

    I’ve never really fully enjoyed Blue (can it be enjoyed?). I obtained a really clean copy a while back, but after a number of spins with little to really take from it I decided to sell it on. As you do. My collection has no place for essential records! Ha! I’d sooner have a copy of Tapestry. That album still bowls me over. A remarkable record and one that is so infectious.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If I was a record in your collection, I would live a nervous life I think Jim! Don’t know whether you scanned the comments, but John from 2loud2oldmusic and I had a brief interchange about ‘growing into’ Blue. Prediction: in a few years you will buy it again and decide it’s a masterpiece. 😅

      Thank for picking up that typo, btw. Better fix that. I really enjoyed spinning James T again; it was more consistent than I’d remembered.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha! It’s quite possible, Bruce – no doubt having to part with a fair bit more cash to obtain another copy, too!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Been there, spent the cash, lamented the discards. 😅

          Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve got original editions of all of these albums, all bought at the time, bar the Melanie one (although I do have Candles In The Wind). Hard to name a favourite but Cohen’s might be the pick for purely personal and sentimental reasons.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s nice, Paul. With SoLaH, I always wondered whether he wrote the song ‘Joan of Arc’ after she appeared in an earlier song on the album as a supporting player.

      Like

  12. Your post is yet another illustration what an incredible year 1971 was in music! And it doesn’t even include other gems like The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”, The Who’s “Who’s Next”, “Led Zeppelin IV” or The Allman Brothers’ “At Fillmore East” – which of course it did not, since you focused on singer-songwriters! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But stay tuned, Christian. 🙂

      Like

  13. Nice to see the Canadian content bookends here – I think it’s one of those lists where the good news is, there’s no wrong answer.
    I’d probably choose Blue, I love how she often fits in more syllables than I would have thought would fit & the notes she hits on the My Old Man line, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall,” brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Where would American music be without Canadians? Poorer, for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Oh, Joni. You made me swoon with Blue, if men are allowed to do that. Wait— I was a boy when I first heard that. Yes, I was most certainly allowed to swoon. Such a great classic.

    I recall feeling letdown with the abbreviated “Suite” on 4 Way Street. It was my favorite song, after all, though I suppose the thinking was that they already gave us a live version on the Woodstock album. I love the dirty, raucous version of “Carry On.”

    Songs for Beginners has aged like fine wine all these years later.

    Great collection here, Bruce. – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will staunchly defend your right to swoon at any age, Marty. 🙂
      Yes, I had exactly the same reaction with that teasing snippet of J B-E suite. Disappointment that was exacerbated when the triple LP re-issue failed to remedy the situation. Harumph.
      Glad you’re a fellow ‘Carry On’ fan (and I don’t mean the movies).
      – Bruce

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Leonard, for sure. I like the others (I’m still getting to Blue in full), but his poetry and songs have been in my blood so long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A truly great Canadian, Aaron.

      Like

      1. The more books I read about him, one wonders. I just stick to the written and recorded output mainly! And oh man I do love that.

        Liked by 1 person

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