That’s not my mother in the picture. I know that because she never would have been pictured in the 60’s without showing off her tits . . . at least her tits.
I’ll explain that curious introduction in a few minutes, but let’s talk Electric Flag first.
According to the book If You Love These Blues, in 1968 Mike Bloomfield came up with an idea for a band that would “cover the whole spectrum of American music,” and left Paul Butterfield’s band to pursue his vision. With the help of Barry Goldberg and a box of Oreo cookies, he stole Buddy Miles from Wilson Pickett, hired the ultra-smooth voice of Nick Gravenites, added Harvey Brooks on bass and gathered together the horn section he felt was essential to achieving the sound he had in mind. They moved into a house in Marin “with a bunch of Indians, from India” and began working on songs. Bloomfield insisted that they work out all the individual parts before playing the first song, “Groovin’ Is Easy,” together as a band.
And the sound just blew our minds. All of a sudden, we knew we had a dynamite band. And man, it was a fantastic feeling.
—Michael Bloomfield, from If You Love These Blues
A combination of drugs, egos, conflicting goals and music business bullshit wiped out The Electric Flag after one soundtrack and a début album called A Long Time Comin’. A reunion album appeared six years later, but by that time, the thrill was gone. Some of the members were disappointed with A Long Time Comin’, and it’s true that some of the engineering choices, like putting drums and bass on the same track, limited the opportunity to mix it properly and capture the underlying power of the band. Despite all that, A Long Time Comin’ is filled with some great music integrating blues, soul, rock and jazz to a level that their contemporaries—Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Chicago Transit Authority—never came close to reaching.
A Long Time Comin’ opens with the voice of President Lyndon Johnson delivering his “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress, talking about “the dignity of man” when his speech is interrupted by raucous laughter, applause and the sound of The Electric Flag building up for the spirited opener, “Killing Floor.” Howlin’ Wolf’s original was about a destructive relationship with a woman; The Electric Flag casts America as the destructive lady in question and the killing floor becomes the war in Vietnam. The Flag infuse this song with a combination of satire and soul-level passion. Nick Gravenites spits out the line, “And I wouldn’t have been here, down on the killin’ floor” with a synthesis of anger and mourning. Another line, “I should have gone on when my friend said, ‘Come to Mexico with me'” feels like a bitter self-reproach for not helping a friend escape the draft. Gravenites may not have had the looks, but man, oh man, could he bring it to the microphone. Bloomfield’s presence is established right from the start with his distinctive sound and style, grounded heavily in Chicago blues but so much more . . . the word that comes to mind is “elegant.” Even when he’s playing it rough and raucous, his style and even his bite has a depth and precision that raises him above the rest. As my father says with respect and reverence, when Bloomfield was on, no one was better, and you can hear the years and years of obsessive practice pay off in the total command he exerts over the fretboard. And this isn’t even his best work on the album!
Bloomfield hangs way back on what I consider to be the quintessential Electric Flag song, “Groovin’ Is Easy.” The almost regal opening to this song, with the horns in perfect sync and Buddy Miles beating the toms with dramatic intensity gives me the chills whenever I hear it. Gravenites is as smooth as silk on this song, timing his phrasing ahead and behind the beat but always hooked to the underlying groove. We really only hear Bloomfield as a background singer and in the brief solo, where he makes a perfect handoff to the band at the solo’s end when he plays the song’s signature two-chord motif with sharp punctuation high on the fretboard. This is another endearing quality of Michael Bloomfield: he had the generosity of a jazz musician and wasn’t afraid to let other people shine if they had the chops.
Buddy Miles takes the vocals on the Bloomfield-Goldberg composition, “Over-Lovin’ You,” an upbeat soul number that works pretty well except for the odd addition of synthesized harpsichord on the intro and bridge. Buddy has a fine voice and sings this song with a joyful energy. For me, though, the highlight of the song is Harvey Brooks’s strong performance on the bass. Due to the decision to place bass and drums on the same channel, you rarely hear the bass in all its glory; here Buddy toned down the volume on the drums, enabling Bloomfield (who assisted the brain-dead engineers in the final mixdown) to crank that channel up a bit. Harvey’s bass is also delightfully audible in “She Should Have Just,” a mid-tempo number enhanced with strings and splashes of Spanish guitar. Nick Gravenites delivers another smooth and polished vocal, with enough passion and commitment to make me believe that he actually wrote this song rather than Ron Polte, manager of Quicksilver Messenger Service. It should be noted that the bands centered around San Francisco at the time were involved in multiple cross-collaborations and sometimes those involved didn’t remember who wrote what. My guess is there were many go-with-the-flow collaborations; in this case, both Nick and Harvey Brooks co-produced the first Quicksilver album, so anything’s possible. This sounds like Gravenites to me, and I’ll stick with that until proven otherwise.
The ass-kicking hand-clapper “Wine” comes next, and if you can’t groove to this song, head down to Bourbon Street to guzzle Jello shooters and watch the ladies jiggle their tits on the balconies for a few hours to get your mojo back. Stick McGhee’s original version uses much more colorful language (“Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’ wine! Goddamn! Pass that bottle to me!”) but Nick, Michael and the boys in the band capture the let’s-fucking-party spirit perfectly. “Wine” boogies, rocks, shakes and shimmies like few songs I’ve heard, and Bloomfield’s solo fucking flies (the one in the video below is even better and captures the energy of the crowd).
This song exposes a curious contradiction in my mother’s personality. As you know, the French are very serious about their wine, and this song advises the consumer, “If you’re buyin’ half-gallons you’re playing it smart.” Worse yet, Nick croons about elderberry and (gag!) Thunderbird wine, a disgustingly foul concoction that smells like sweetened cat piss. Now selling for $2.99/bottle, the line, “You got a nickel, I got a dime/Let’s get together and buy some wine” has been rendered inoperative by historical inflation. You would think that my mother would find this song so deeply offensive to her values, and such a poisonous assault on the French soul, that she would forever ban music advertising such toxic waste from the house. NOT! My father has a picture of maman at a rock festival that took place at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in 1968 showing my completely topless mother with her arms raised to the sky shaking her ass off to the adoring wonder of the audience surrounding her on the grass. The writing on the back of the photo says, “NoCal Folk Rock Festival-SC County Fairgrounds-May 68-Electric Flag-Wine.” When confronted with the evidence, maman laughed and said, “That was my liberation song.” Then she straightens up and says with the haughtiness of a princess, “But I never drank that merde.”
Also influenced by The Electric Flag but experiencing a different form of liberation, a young J. Geils found himself knocked out by Bloomfield’s work on “Texas.” You can definitely hear the Bloomfield influence in the bite of Geils’ attack and the way he precisely clips the notes in his finishes. The mix here is curious; often Bloomfield’s guitar overwhelms Buddy’s voice and he’s so far on the left channel it’s almost like he’s playing in another room. To be honest, I’d like this track better without the vocal: when it’s just Bloomfield on the left and the horn section on the right the sound is deliciously seductive and so very, very late night Chicago.
“Sittin’ in Circles” by Barry Goldberg should have been titled “Hey, Little Girl,” since that’s the hook you remember. The song opens with thunder and steady rain and a definite San Francisco sound that calls up images of beaded curtains and madras cloth before shifting into a soft soul ballad format. Strangely, Bloomfield comes in with a flurry of harsh distortion that is a classic mood-killer. “Maybe my bag ain’t right for you” is one of the more quaint 60’s lines in this song and pretty much describes my feelings about it as well. Much, much tighter and coherent is the purer soul ballad, “You Don’t Realize,” a Bloomfield composition perfectly designed for the band and Buddy Miles’ vocal style. We can hear Harvey Brooks again, giving the piece a strong bottom, but what knocks me out on this track is Bloomfield’s fills and counterpoint, proving that he can do sweet and soulful as well as anybody.
The long-form song was a staple of late 60’s albums, and “Another Country” is the Flag’s contribution to this format. Beneath all the flowery, love-is-all patina of the hippie era, there was an equally powerful sense of fear and loathing in the USA at the time, a general anxiety that the world was coming apart at the seams. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” captured this theme back in 1966, the year fearful whites began the backlash against the welfare programs spawned by the Great Society. But 1968 was the year when things really began coming part and the polarization in American society reached new extremes. Recorded before the Tet Offensive, two assassinations and the advent of a racist as a viable third-party presidential candidate, “Another Country” proved to be both instructive and prescient.
Get the safest room you can find
And lock the door
Find yourself another country
If I could lose
All my troubles
By running away
No, no I wouldn’t stay
The track opens with feedback that morphs into a wailing siren. The full band appears, following a disciplined arrangement of call-and-response with Bloomfield plucking the same three notes on guitar and the horns responding with a combination of staccato and short riffs off the baseline. Gravenites delivers the verses in a vocal that rides smoothly over the contrasting rhythms created by the horns and Buddy’s drums. At about 2:25 the arrangement is blasted away by the cacophony of feedback, horns blaring and the distant sound of Lyndon Johnson plodding through the same speech he started at the beginning of the album. The sounds in the cacophonous section include a mad mix of vocal recitals, horns that take on the flavor of psychedelic mariachis, “chipmunk” vocals on high speed, doors slamming, street noises—ninety seconds of the ugly underbelly of the 1960’s. It ends when Buddy Miles gives the cue with an introductory drum roll and our ears are filled with a Latin beat and Mike Bloomfield on the guitar. We’ve now finally arrived at my personal favorite Bloomfield solo on the album: a wondrous display of superior picking style and speed. The solo begins in response to a swaying rhythm driven by castanets and Spanish guitar; in this section, Bloomfield’s notes and runs sound like falling blossoms in warm, spring breeze, sweet and oh, so beautiful. Towards the end of this segment he executes a crescendo that sounds like you’re following the flowing lines of a flowering bougainvillea from the ground up, a flurry of notes that ends in a bluesier riff that gives the band the cue to kick it up a notch. The horns respond, and after a few bars more to ease the transition, Buddy executes a faster drum roll and the tempo smoothly shifts to uptempo blues rock, where Mike Bloomfield delivers one stunning run after another. The tempo continues to pick up until a transition interrupts the rising tide to take us back to the music of the verses. One of my favorite “suites” from the suite-happy period of the late 60’s through the mid-70’s, “Another Country” is one of the better displays of Mike Bloomfield’s unique voice and astonishing range on the guitar.
A Long Time Comin’ ends with “Easy Rider,” fifty-three seconds of what sounds like Mike Bloomfield playing the blues in a leaky basement. Oh, how I wish this little piece would have lasted ten times as long! And how I wish Mike Bloomfield had never heard of fucking heroin so he could have lived and played that Les Paul until his fingers naturally ran dry!
But what I really wish is that I could be transported back to that warm sunny day when my mother ripped off her top and undulated with abandon to the irresistible rhythms of The Electric Flag. I would have flung my top into the breeze and joined her to create a dance sensation that really would have swept the nation!