Caravanserai Is Another ’70s Gem Hitting the Big 50

Santana’s fourth studio album marked a radical departure from successful Latin rock formula

Today, on October 11, 1972, Santana released their fourth studio album Caravanserai. While it’s a gem and did pretty well at the time, looking at it from today’s perspective, one has to say Carlos Santana made a gutsy decision to abandon a Latin rock formula that had generated three high-selling and high-charting albums and various hit singles, such as Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman, Oye Cómo Va and Everybody’s Everything. Most of all, it was bloody good music! But many great artists don’t rest on their laurels.

According to an AllMusic review of the album, Carlos Santana was “obviously very hip to jazz fusion”. It’s also fair to say that with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, jazz fusion had emerged as a new music genre that was getting some attention. But Columbia Records president Clive Davis wasn’t convinced. Reportedly, he called Caravanserai “career suicide” after his first listening to the album, which is largely instrumental and blends jazz, rock and Latin. An October 2018 post on The Music Aficionado blog does a terrific job telling the story behind Caravanserai in great detail. This post informs part of my review.

Apparently, Santana drummer and jazz lover Michael Shrieve who also co-produced Caravanserai had a major influence on Carlos Santana. He introduced him to artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Shrieve and Santana were also inspired by other artists like Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Alice Coltrane and Weather Report. The Music Aficionado quotes Carlos: “We were looking for our identities in the same places with a spirit of exploration and the courage to try something new, even if it didn’t make sense or we weren’t supposed to do it. Caravanserai was the album we weren’t supposed to do.”

Another important influence that helped shape the sound of Caravanserai were changes in the Santana band. By the time they went into the studio to start work on the album, Michael Carabello (percussion) and David Brown (bass) had been replaced by James Mingo Lewis and Dough Rauch, respectively. Gregg Rolie (organ, piano, vocals) and Neal Schon (guitar) were on the album, but by the end of the recording sessions, they also had left. Subsequently, together with members of Steve Miller Band and Frumious Bandersnatch, Rolie and Schon co-founded backing band Golden Gate Rhythm Section, the group that became Journey.

I’d say let’s take a look at some tunes. One of my favorite tracks on Side one is Look Up (To See What’s Coming Down), co-written by Rauch, Rolie and Santana. To me, the standout here is Dough Rauch’s funky bass playing. Carlos Santana: “You can hear what he brought to All the Love of the Universe and Look Up (to See What’s Coming Down) – when we heard those tracks, we realized how much we needed Dougie”. The Music Aficionado also quotes Shrieve saying Rauch was one of the first bassists “to play with the thumb and popping technique that was later made famous by Larry Graham [Sly and the Family StoneCMM] and Stanley Clarke [Return to ForeverCMM].”

Another gem on Side A I’d like to highlight is Song of the Wind. The beautiful instrumental, credited to Rolie, Santana and Schon, for the most part, is a guitar duet between Santana and Schon where they each trade beautiful melodic solos. Citing Santana’s memoir, The Music Aficionado quotes him on Rolie’s contribution: “To this day I listen to Song of the Wind and break down inside hearing Gregg’s playing on that one – no solo, just a simple supportive organ part that is not flashy or anything but supremely important to that song.”

Closing out Side one is the great All the Love of the Universe. Co-written by Santana and Schon, it’s one of the album’s three tracks with vocals. Vocals are provided by Santana, Mingo Lewis and Rico Reyes. The song is another showcase of Rauch’s outstanding bass playing.

On to Side two and Stone Flower. The tune was written as an instrumental by Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim. Santana added lyrics written by Shrieve who provided vocals together with Carlos. The Music Aficionado also rightfully calls out the contributions of Tom Rutley (acoustic bass) and Wendy Haas (electric piano).

The last tune I’d like to highlight is the closer Every Step of the Way. Clocking in at just over 9 minutes, the instrumental is the longest track on Caravanserai. According to The Music Aficionado, it’s Carlos Santana’s favorite tune on the album. Quoting Carlos from his biography The Universal Tone: “For two reasons my favorite song on Caravanserai is Every Step of the Way – first because it sounds like what we really loved back then: Herbie Hancock’s Crossings [Hancock’s 10th album released in May 1972 – CMM]. The song also reminds me of Shrieve because he wrote it and because of how we played together.”

Here’s a Spotify link to the album:

Caravanserai performed surprisingly well. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard 200. In the UK, it reached no. 6, notably matching its predecessor Santana III. Caravanserai did best in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 3. Elsewhere, it climbed no. 10 in Norway and no. 16 in Australia. In addition, the album also became a solid seller, reaching Platinum certification in the U.S. and Gold in each Canada and France. Caravanserai was also voted no. 609 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Long before I heard this album for the first time, I had listened to and really come to dig Santana’s first three records. Undoubtedly, Caravanserai is very different from the classic Santana sound. As such, the album was an acquired taste, which got better every time I listened to it. If you are where I was initially, I’d say give it a few more spins. You might come to love it as well!

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; The Music Aficionado blog; YouTube; Spotify

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Musings of the Past

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

The other day while browsing the blog for older content that would be worthwhile to republish, I came across a post from August 2018 about my favorite David Bowie album. That’s when I realized that I had actually missed the 50th-anniversary date of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But since June 16 only passed about four weeks ago, I felt it was still close enough to celebrate this milestone with a repost of the above.

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Bowie/ Ziggy Stardust

When it comes to David Bowie, I’ve always felt more drawn to his early years. Space OddityThe Man Who Sold The World and Changes are among my favorite tunes. Ditto for StarmanZiggy Stardust and Suffragette City. I was less fond of his Tin Machine venture and didn’t pay much attention to music he released thereafter. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is Bowie at his best, in my opinion. So guess what happened when I recently spotted a used audiophile vinyl copy of this gem at a small record store close to my house? Yep, I just couldn’t resist taking it home!

Often simply called Ziggy Stardurst, the record is Bowie’s fifth studio release and appeared in June 1972. Wikipedia characterizes it as a “loose concept album” revolving around a bi-sexual alien rock musician who becomes widely popular among teenagers before his fame ultimately kills him. Ziggy Stardust also became Bowie’s most notorious alter-ego during the massive tour that supported both this record and the follow-on Aladdin Sane from April 1973. Spanning the U.K., North America and Japan, the extended tour lasted from late January 1972 until early July 1973. One of the U.S. gigs, performed for radio broadcast in Santa Monica, Calif., became a fantastic bootleg. Since 2008 it’s been available officially as Live Santa Monica ’72.

David Bowie (second from right) with The Spiders From Mars (left to right): Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and Mick Ronson

Driven by his fondness for acting, Bowie liked to create on-stage personas for his music and totally immersed himself into the characters. In the case of Ziggy Stardust things got so intense that eventually he could no longer distinguish between himself and his alter-ego. Wikipedia quotes him from the biography  Bowie: Loving The Alien (Christopher Sanford, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997): Stardust “wouldn’t leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to go sour … My whole personality was affected. It became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.” Time for another cheerful topic – music about earth’s demise! 🙂

The album opens with Five Years, which like all other tunes except one was penned by Bowie. Telling about the planet’s upcoming destruction, musically, the song is a great built. Generally speaking, when it comes to music, to me the lyrics tend to be secondary to the melody and musical arrangement – in other words, usually, it takes the two latter for a song to grab me.

Next up: The excellent Soul Love, a tune with a distinct cool groove. In addition to singing lead and backing vocals, Bowie is also playing acoustic rhythm guitar and alto saxophone. I admire people who can master various instruments and always wanted to be a multi-instrumentalist myself. I only managed to learn the acoustic guitar and electric bass, each with moderate success, but I’m getting off-topic here!

Starman was the last song Bowie wrote for the album after RCA had noted it was lacking a single. Really? How about the catchy rocker Suffragette City? In any case, I’m glad Bowie obliged, since the result was one of his all-time greatest tunes: Starman. It ended up replacing a take of Chuck Berry’s  Around And Around, simply called Round And Round. That cover eventually became the B-side to Drive-In Saturday, an April 1973 single from the Aladdin Sane album. BTW, Suffragette City ended up as the B-side to Starman – I think it should have been its own (A-side) single!

The record’s title track is another highlight. I’ve always loved the guitar riff – simple yet effective! Plus, it’s about a guy playing guitar. Did I mention guitarists are cool dudes? 🙂

The last tune I’d like to highlight, perhaps you guessed it, is Suffragette City, the tune on the album I like best and perhaps my favorite Bowie song overall. It’s simply a kick-ass rocker – ahhh, wham bam, thank ya man! (taking some creative license here). Initially, Bowie had offered the song to then-struggling  Mott the Hoople. His condition: Don’t break up, guys! While the band declined that tune, they went with Bowie’s All The Young Dudes instead, another catchy song. Oh, and it became their biggest hit in the U.K. and extended their career for more than five years (until 1980) – not a bad outcome!

The album’s musical arrangements are credited to Bowie and Mick Ronson (guitar, piano, vocals), who was part of his excellent backing band The Spiders From Mars. The other members included Trevor Bolder  (bass) and Mick Woodmansey (drums). I need to check out whatever happened to these guys after their last performance with Bowie. That show at the  Hammersmith Odeon in London on July 3, 1973 was captured in the 1973 documentary Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars by D.A. Pennemaker, a film I’ve also yet to watch!

The Ziggy Stardust album was recorded at Trident Studios in London, U.K., and co-produced by Bowie and Ken Scott, one of the five main recording engineers for The Beatles. That in and of itself is already pretty cool, but there’s more: Scott has also worked with other big names, such as Elton JohnPink FloydMahavishnu OrchestraJeff Beck and Kansas. And he co-produced additional Bowie albums, including Hunky Dory (December 1971), Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups (October 1973).

Ziggy Stardust has been called Bowie’s breakthrough album. It peaked at no. 5 on the British Official Albums Chart and no. 75 on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart (now called the Billboard 200). The album has received numerous accolades over the years. It is ranked no. 35 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 2013 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 1997, it was named the 20th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll in the U.K. In 2017, the U.S. Library of Congress selected the record for preservation in the National Recording Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”

– End –

The original post, first published on August 28, 2018, ended here. The following link to the album on Spotify has been added:

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify