King Koncert: Memoirs of an American Rocker

by Tim Van Schmidt  

February 24, 1971- Inglewood Forum. Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad.

Moving to the Los Angeles area was like being shipped to paradise for a young man who liked rock music. The “Calendar” section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times was tantalizing with page after page of concert ads. As it turned out, these concert opportunities weren’t special events at all, but everyday business for the big city. It didn’t take long before a concert came up that I couldn’t live without seeing- Grand Funk Railroad.

Even before moving from Phoenix, both Grand Funk albums, Closer to Home and the double-disc Live Album, were favorites. The band was loud and raw and easily touched the nerve of adolescence without any strings attached. The feeling was that the musicians weren’t so much trying to be artists as they were just rocking hard. I was awe-struck by the gatefold picture of the band wailing away onstage at Madison Square Garden on the Closer To Home cover. The wistful refrain from “I’m Your Captain” was solace after being uprooted from Phoenix and set adrift in the Valley. Needless to say I was excited about seeing these heroes. I kept the Grand Funk tickets next to my bed in case I had to grab them and escape my room since the show was only two weeks after the great LA earthquake of 1971.

Opening the concert was Black Sabbath, showcasing a new form of hard rock- mixing horror show theatrics with over-the-edge guitar. The music rumbled dark and deep and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne howled. Some of the Grand Funk fans at the top of the arena howled back. But heavy versions of the group’s signature song, “Black Sabbath,” as well as new tunes such as “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” earned applause from the crowd of more than 18,000.

My own bootleg tapes of the show prove that at the time, Black Sabbath was not particularly a vocally oriented band. Certainly Osbourne’s vocals, telling horror movie tales of power, mystery and brushes with the devil, gave the group a unique identity, but guitarist Tony Iommi was truly in the spotlight. Iommi not only handled the big, thick riffs, but also peeled off numerous guitar solos, full of cascading notes. Iommi was a master of guitar tone and style, particularly in his extended solo on “Wicked World.” He jumped from the broad, thick quality of his riff work, to clear jazzy sounds, to deep, dark flamenco style strumming. In several of the songs, a kind of Spanish classical sound would come through. “Wicked World” also exhibited the cohesion between Iommi, drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler. The tune begins with an early-Jethro Tull style jazz-rock fusion section, the music full of changes. “War Pigs” also demonstrated the band’s instrumental precision.

While many bands were still singing about love, or about political issues, Sabbath wrote about alienation, frustration and the consequences of poor choices. These themes were particularly strong in “Paranoid,” the opening tune. On “Iron Man,” when Osbourne matter of factly sang “nobody wants him, he just stares at the wall,” he was confronting common adolescent emotions that no one else in rock would touch. This was all underscored by the dramatic, almost operatic quality of Osbourne’s contributions. On the group’s namesake piece, “Black Sabbath,” Osbourne told a story of supernatural pain and suffering and his howling, “Oh no, no, please God help me” was an effective bit of rock theater. Osbourne’s voice- high and nasal- was a perfect complement to the strong lower register riffs Iommi and Butler were cranking out. Osbourne would say “thank you very much” in a quick, clipped pace at the end of each song.

The horror movie appeal and the open discussion of Satan had already been pioneered by the Rolling Stones in their song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” but Black Sabbath turned it into a musical style. For this performance, Black Sabbath was synched in, exhibiting plenty of instrumental strength and a good dose of Osbourne’s vocal posturing. “Iron Man,” with its thudding, simple beat had the crowd clapping at Osbourne’s invitation. Ward’s drum work towards the final section of the piece, creating a steamrolling train rhythm behind Iommi’s guitar calisthenics, particularly added an unmistakable power to the ending flourish.

Sabbath’s debut set in Los Angeles was succinct and full of a new kind of music- hard, heavy and dramatic. Still, Grand Funk was the main attraction and the announcer teased the crowd with the information that “Grand Funk wants to play for an hour and a half or so.”

As it turned out, the Grand Funk show was also my debut as a music journalist and my account of the concert was published in the ChristopherColumbusJunior High School newspaper, The C Breeze. The review gave a blow by blow description of the show- starting with the group’s dramatic entrance to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. My summary was that “the excitement presented on the Live Album is nothing to what we feel now.” Grand Funk revved up tunes like “Are You Ready?” and Don Brewer’s drum showcase number “T.U.N.C.” They also came back for an encore version of the Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter,” a song guitarist Mark Farner suggested should become “our generation’s national anthem.” After being called back for another encore- the great slow blues workout “Heartbreaker”- Farner told the Forum crowd that “compared to the people at MadisonSquareGarden, you people are out of sight!”

The appeal of Grand Funk’s music was very much about attitude. Here were three guys- not necessarily accomplished musicians- delivering a great racket that made the primal heart pump. It was stripped-down stuff performed with dramatic macho posturing. As long as the attitude was there, the main impact of Grand Funk remained intact. This was exactly what the band offered at the “Fabulous Forum.”

My tapes showed that Grand Funk had plenty of qualities, however. These included close harmony vocals and some well-timed organ, fuzz guitar and harmonica parts. Grand Funk’s formula included building the intensity up, breaking it down, building it up again, shifting into a new groove, doing the same thing, returning to the original groove, or staking out another one. A lot of the hour and a half set was performed with instrumental segues bridging the gap between tunes. Though a lot of the concert would reach airline jet-type volume, it also came down to next to nothing at key times. A sensitive version of “I’m Your Captain” was the artistic centerpiece of the evening, while most of the tunes were geared towards rising and falling emotional peaks. The loud stuff was as raw as Cactus. Most of the lyrical content was based on crowd-rousing “feel alright” themes as well as some soft philosophy about “getting together” and “loving the human race.”

Each man in Grand Funk worked hard. At the center was Farner, whose guitar solos would change tone every few bars, ranging from clear, piercing notes to a heavy, loud fuzz effect. Farner’s vocals had a kind of soul rock quality- even reaching into falsetto parts- that effective harmony vocals from the others helped support. Drummer Don Brewer aided in creating the sometimes cacophony of sound with endless, quick rolls across his drums. Bassist Mel Schracher often kept the groove nailed down with the simplest musical figure. Between the three, the group managed to produce a full sound and plenty of action. Endings of songs were long and dramatic, often segueing into the next tune. All of this demonstrated the band’s level of showmanship, Farner leading with confidence. The recordings show that despite plenty of vocal parts, the band’s sound was very much instrumental in nature with long grooves of jamming reaching moments of electric intensity. The crowd responded by clapping along at several points. I responded by not wanting to leave, even though we were already late for meeting my parents for a ride home.

While I was excited to be at the concert, the feeling at the Forum, however, was much different from what concerts seemed to be all about in Phoenix. There was some kind of camaraderie in the crowd- after all, we were all stoked about seeing Grand Funk- but this was not a community event. Though there was a party atmosphere, it wasn’t because this was a gathering of good friends, or the “rock tribe.” Rather, this was a mob of fans straining to see their favorite band show them how it’s done. The new age of rock had come.

August 14, 1971- Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Stephen Stills and Manassas.

 Widespread drug use at the Jethro Tull concert in Phoenix in 1970 became a center of controversy in the city. In fact, a week after the concert, a brief article appeared in the Arizona Republic in which Coliseum board chairman Dick Smith announced that rock shows would be banned at the facility since “narcotics agents and police found it impossible to control drug use in the audience.” Smith cited 34 cases of drug overdoses at the concert and that “80-90 youths” had been treated for drug misuse. Authorities estimated that “2,000 of the 11,000 persons at the concert were involved in drug use.” Officers reported that “marijuana and seco-barbital were most commonly used.”

What came next in the article was the scary part: “Officers indicated…that they hesitated to make arrests…because they didn’t want to start a riot.” They weren’t kidding. I would see the power of the people stopping an arrest at an Illinois rock festival in the summer of 1971. While local bands wailed on the stage in the middle of a farmer’s field, an officer on horseback tried to arrest an audience member at the festival. They were immediately surrounded by a crowd of other audience members, who pressured the officer to let the suspect go. Faced with hundreds of angry hippies, the lone lawman did just that and withdrew. There was strength in numbers and the freewheeling youth culture was getting out of control. The Coliseum board’s decision to ban rock concerts was a power play that was soon repealed, but the message from the authorities and venue officials was clear: the party was over.

Thanks to pleading by people such as Phoenix radio and television personality Pat McMahon, the Coliseum board of directors finally came up with a plan to allow rock shows to continue at the facility. It involved making concerts non-smoking events and assigning volunteer “marshals” the task of enforcing the rule. Assigned seating also replaced the festival free-for-all system.

A return trip to the Coliseum in 1971 to see one of the “trial” concerts under the new system- Stephen Stills- was truly a disappointment. Instead of enjoying the mix of acoustic and electric stuff Stills was cranking out on stage- with the help of musicians such as Fuzzy Samuels on bass, Joe Lala on percussion and special guest Steve Fromholtz- the formality of the scene was distracting and annoying. Despite Stills’ counter culture reputation, his music couldn’t overcome the vigilance of the “marshals” in colored vests. They flashed full beam flashlights in the faces of smoking offenders and audience members visibly bristled under the scrutiny. It became a long night of constant conflict, even while Stills encouraged the crowd to “Love the One You’re With,” his hit solo single. The revolutionary tone of “For What It’s Worth” was strangely strained as authority closed in on the rock fans.

September 25, 1971- Hollywood Bowl. Jesus Christ Superstar

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, there was plenty of music and many venues to explore. My first trip to the stately Hollywood Bowl was to see a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. Featuring original Mary Magdalene vocalist Yvonne Elliman, in the spotlight thanks to the album’s single, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” the production focused on the groundbreaking rock opera’s music. The performance was a formal concert presentation, the passion of the story and the rock-tinged music heightened by the green-crowned amphitheater’s beauty and the lighted cross on the hill above.

Jesus Christ Superstar was a breakthrough album for many kids like me who were stuck between respecting the religion we were being brought up with and getting the message that maybe going to church just wasn’t cool. Still reeling from the upheaval of civil disobedience in the 1960s, authority of any kind- including religion- was still being challenged in the early 1970s. Going to confirmation classes in the Lutheran churches in Phoenix and Canoga Park was kind of like going to Boy Scout meetings at the time- it felt naïve and old-fashioned. In Canoga Park, however, the pastor used Jesus Christ Superstar as part of our confirmation classes and I got to hear plenty of it. I even borrowed his reel-to-reel tape unit so I could make a copy. This was an opportunity to connect with the controversial story of Jesus, portrayed as a hip kind of revolutionary, and hear wailing vocals, electric guitar, and rock beats. The appeal would turn Jesus Christ Superstar into a multi-faceted touring favorite with versions on Broadway and on film.

September 28, 1971- Inglewood Forum. Charlie Starr, Moody Blues.

The next “show I had to see” was the September 1971 Moody Blues concert at the Forum. I was excited enough by the concert ad in the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” section that I circled it heavily and left the paper on the table so my parents would take the hint. My interest was primarily fueled by the musical taste of my oldest brother, Kirt, who consistently counted the Moody Blues as one of his favorite bands. He had all of their albums. The ones I particularly liked were On A Threshold of a Dream and, of course, Days of Future Passed. The music of the Moody Blues was an artful alternative to the roaring electricity of Jethro Tull and the driving beat of Grand Funk. They could be melodic and even genteel, but they also knew how to write some good rock songs.

At the Forum, the Moody Blues were stately and somewhat detached, the band members separated by risers at various levels. The stage was bathed in luscious colors, especially, at one point, a deep, dark blue, adding to the dreamlike presentation. The primal “Procession” from their newest album, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, was strange and exotic. The album was only a month old at the time and the single, “The Story In Your Eyes,” was poised to become another American chart hit. That night, however, “Nights in White Satin” was the predictable emotional pay-off.

This was the first band I had seen that didn’t give an encore. After they revved up the arena with a rocking version of “Ride My See-Saw,” the lights came on full and bright and the show was over. Opening for the Moody Blues was blind singer-songwriter Charlie Starr, performing a memorable version of “That Lucky Old Sun.” The Moody Blues’ appearance was controversial at the time because the group was using a Mellotron. Union protests charged that the instrument- which duplicated the sounds of a variety of instruments with the use of pre-recorded tapes- was taking jobs away from other musicians.