Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1: Blood, Sweat And Tears, "Spinning Wheel"

Artist: Blood, Sweat And Tears
Song: "Spinning Wheel"
Album: Blood, Sweat And Tears
Year: 1968

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Looking back at the entire history of recorded music, one can make the argument that an overwhelming majority of bands take a similar path throughout their careers.  In most cases, after spending years perfecting their sound, the group catches a "lucky break" and finds larger success.  It is usually this stage of the bands' progression which is not only the longest, but the most fruitful in terms of musical output and creativity.  Though there are some groups that take years to "prove" themselves on the larger stage, there are a few bands that seemed to take the opposite approach, hitting their apex the moment they "got big," and then took a swift turn downwards.  While there is no question that they stand as one of the most musically creative and outright talented bands in history, there may be no other group that was as quickly disappointing as Blood, Sweat And Tears.  Their first album was nothing short of a masterpiece; as the band found a brand new space at the intersection of psychedelic, jazz, pop, rock, and a number of other genres.  This was followed by a self-titled release later that same year, and it seemed that the band had a limitless amount of musical potential, as the songs on this record were in many ways more complete and outright stunning than those on their debut.  It is with this in mind that one can point to Blood, Sweat And Tears' fantastic 1968 single, "Spinning Wheel" to quickly learn why they stand as one of the most brilliant bands in music history.

While "Spinning Wheel" fits perfectly into the overall catalog of Blood, Sweat And Tears, there is no questioning the fact that within the opening notes, the music sounds a bit different than the songs off of their previous album.  This is not a "bad" thing in any way, and it is likely due to a few small changes within the overall lineup of the band.  Yet within seconds of the song beginning, the mood is set into place, and it is difficult to not be completely caught up in the tone of "Spinning Wheel."  It is the way that the hard-hitting horns contrast the overall groove of the song, and it is musical juxtapositions such as this that keep the song sounding fresh even after more than four decades.  Unlike almost any other recording from the era, it is the way that the piano progression from Dick Halligan becomes the cadence of the song, as well as the way that it creates a poly-rhythm with drummer Bobby Colomby.  Bassist Jim Fielder manages to find a pace and a riff between these two, and as this third tempo comes to life, one can quickly understand just how far beyond their peers Blood, Sweat And Tears were in terms of musical ability and creativity.  Yet it is the brass section and the way they play throughout all of "Spinning Wheel" that is the true musical highlight, and the fact that the song features some rather unexpected, yet superb solo sections makes it impossible to place "Spinning Wheel" into any single musical grouping.

However, the most obvious change in the sound of Blood, Sweat And Tears from their first album is the fact that this record features David Clayton-Thomas handling almost all of the lead vocals.  There is a spirit and vibrancy to every line which he sings, and it is this energy which enabled such a change in overall sound to work perfectly in the overall scope of the band.  The slight grit in his voice lends a bit of soul to "Spinning Wheel," and it is the way that his voice seems to be mixed at the same volume as the instruments that give the song a blending that is wonderfully unique.  As he sings, Clayton-Thomas' voice seems to swirl around the track, and in many ways this is as ideal a "psychedelic sound" as one can find anywhere, yet there is an unquestionable rock edge to his approach.  But it is also the somewhat cryptic lyrics to the song that make this a quintessential piece of the late 1960's counter-culture, as the spinning element of his voice makes the words all the more powerful.  Though one can certainly interpret the song as a look at life in general and the realities therein, it is phrases like, "...just let it shine within your mind, and show you the colours that are real..." and the multiple references to the "painted pony" that give the song a vivid and almost wild feel that were nothing short of perfect for the period during which the song was first released.

Truth be told, perhaps due to the amazing sounds of their first album, one can argue that Blood, Sweat And Tears was a very highly anticipated release, and it easily lived up to that hype.  In fact, "Spinning Wheel" would be nominated for a trio of Grammy Awards, taking home the honors for "Best Instrumental Arrangement" for that year.  Once one hears the song, it is quite obvious why it was given such accolades, and the influence of this song can be found in a wide array of bands that followed.  It is the way that "Spinning Wheel" has an almost classical structure, moving between very distinct segments, and allowing each musician on the track of have ample time at the front of the mix.  The way that the horns work across the mix, as a solo instrument, a punctuating point, as well as the backing chords to the mix is absolutely unlike any other recording in history, and this may be the most lasting impact of Blood, Sweat And Tears.  Furthermore, the fact that the horns work so perfectly within a more rock-styled arrangement would lead to similar attempts from bands across the planet, and yet there is an almost smoky and jazzy feel here that remains completely unique.  Also, it is the almost playful sound of the traditional Austrian song, "O Du Lieber Augustin" that closes the song which makes Blood, Sweat And Tears 1968 song, "Spinning Wheel" one of the most uniquely unforgettable moments of all time.

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