The Guess Who - American Woman

The Guess Who
American Woman

Released 1970 on RCA
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 24/01/2005ce

side 1
American Woman
No Time
No Sugar Tonight / New Mother Nature

side 2
969 (The Oldest Man)
When Friends Fall Out
Proper Stranger
Humpty's Blues / American Woman (Epilogue)

Ahhh, 1970!! I suppose every turn-of-the-decade year has a certain awkward transitional quality, but let's face it the 60's & 70's were so much more interesting than any other pair of consecutive decades in pop-rock history that there is something singular about the music of that year. Flower power and hippies were on their way out and a new heaviness was on its way in. Of course Led Zeppelin was the epitome of this sonic trend, and thousands of bands in every corner of the world went heavy in the wake of their influence.

Like this quartet of husky Winnipegers ferinstance, who'd been churning out records since the early 60's first as Chad Allan & The Expressions, then later dubbed "Guess Who?" as part of a promotional stunt and the name stuck. In 1966 local star Chad Allan left the group to host a TV show and was replaced by young longhair Burton Cummings. Though Randy Bachman could make a guitar cry with the best of them, their first batch of US hits "These Eyes" (#6), "Laughing" (#10) and "Undun" (#22) were closer to the tasteful pop of groups like the Classics IV and The Grass Roots. Then in late 1969 the single "No Time" (#5) announced that The Guess Who could do HEAVY with the best of them. And indeed, they found great success with the new idiom, probably being 2nd only to Grand Funk in 1970 among the North American contingent of nascent Heavy Metallers. Hell, they were so big they even played for President Nixon & Prince Charles at the White House! (Had to cut "American Woman" from the set though, heh-heh.)

The album version of the song "American Woman" begins with an acoustic delta blues shuffle (quite reminiscient of the first section of Zep's "Bring It On Home") with Burton scatting bout dat 'Merican woman, she gonna mess yo mind, before those funky clipped rhythm guitars start chiming on THAT RIFF (which is a variation on "Whole Lotta Love" by the way.) With mind-expanding lead guitar lines & a tabla accenting the beat this is a "blacklight special" fer shur (which is why it was so perfect for that scene in American Beauty where middle age delinquent Kevin Spacey's driving around smoking dope -- I wasn't even alive when this song came out, but it takes me right back to those days!) And of course the lyrics (delivered with one of the classic sneering vocal performances of all time) are a dig at their big fat neighbor to the south: "colored lights can hypnotize / sparkle in someone else's eyes . . . I don't need your war machines / I don't need your ghetto scenes" That the single shot straight to #1 in the USA probably says a lot about the turbulent mood of those times.*

"No Time" was released as a single ahead of the elpee, and is actually a remake of the leadoff tune from their previous album. The first version of this song clocked in around 6 minutes and suffered a bit from psychedelic overkill (though the guitar solo on that version is positively levitatious) -- here they've reconnoitered it into a tauter hard rock nugget, yet without really sacrificing any of the psychedelic edge. With a tick-tock drumbeat reminiscient of the Stooges "Down on the Street" (which they both probably borrowed from "Time Has Come Today"), more driller-killer fuzztone leads and a chorus of echo-Burtons chiming in that they "got-got-got no time" it makes for a powerful musical & thematic one-two punch coming right after the title track ("American Woman stay away from me --> No Time left for you, on my way to better things")

"Talisman" -- whew boy! When I first got this record as a teen I couldn't stand this cut and would always skip over it, but nowadays I really like it in a perverse sort of way. Because a more be-kaftaned, stoned-out, insence-burning cliche of portentious hippy silliness you will naught find nowhere. "Artificial flowers cannot die because the life within them is illusion" is one of Burton's more coherent observations. Or how does "Myriads of painted faces rush behind the eye of the uncertain" grab you for Rock Poetry? "My steel image comes with the sun, and that's where it slumbers now!" In truth, if you can ignore the singing (or don't understand English and have a high tolerance for overdone vibra-a-a-a-to) it's actually a pretty good piece of music, a sort of madrigal-meets-raga acoustic thing with an impressionistic piano solo at the end.

A lilting waltztime figure serves as the intro (and will return again as the bridge) to Bachmans' "No Sugar Tonight" which is a near-perfect confection of swinging Beatlish pop with a Townshendesque powerchord chorus (and their 3rd top 40 hit from this album, sneaking onto the charts as the b-side of the title tune.) Dig the lyric too, which methinks is about those "Magic Sugarcubes" that were popular back then: "Silent footsteps crowdin me / sudden darkness but I can see!" And then it gets even more funktastic as it segues effortlessly with electric piano into Cummings' "New Mother Nature". Now here is the sleazy-easy farm punk "Bozo Dionysus" whom we love! "A corner in a smoke filled room, the situation must be right / a bag of goodies and a bottle o' wine, WE GAWNA GEDIT ON RITE TONITE!" HELLLL YEAHH BRUDDER! This whole track is one of those classic rock anthems that just totally gets me pumped up. It must always be played very loud and you will bang your head and play air-guitar, air-bass & air-drums, cuz every lick is just sooooo damn sweet. If you ain't been smokin dat noo muthuh naitcha already, you should be feeling a contact high by now. Flip the record over for side two and fire it up!

"969 (The Oldest Man)" is an instrumental featuring a whole bunch of slide guitars overdubbed until they sound like a horn section, plus a tasty Herbie Mann-style flute solo (played by the versatile Cummings.) It showcases the group's instrumental chops in a much more pleasant way than your typical drum-solo driven muso crap of the time.

"When Friends Fall Out" is another remake of one of their earlier songs, this time a Canadian single from early 1968. The verse swings and swaggers to a pleasantly dumb Troggs-style fuzztone groove before convoluting through some jazzy psych-pop turns ala the Strawberry Alarm Clock -- once again, hitting a near-perfect blend of groovy 60's & heavy 70's.

"8:15" is another page from the same book as the previous tune, though harder to describe. It's got a lot of hooky guitar & vocal riffs over rockin' beats, thrown together with the untutored naturalism of celebrated oddball songwriters like John Lennon & Syd Barrett. At the titular time in the song maybe he's gonna meet his girl, or else his drug connection. Whatever happens, it's sure gonna be exciting!

"Proper Stranger" blends acoustic guitars with hard rock as well as anything you'll here from this era outside of Led Zeppelin II & III. I imagine it's their Canadian take on living & working in the USA, though it's not angsty so much as it says "we're here lookin' for a good time." Eh baby?

But alas alack, "American Woman" is SUCH the epitome of a 1970 album that it unfortunately follows one of the cackiest of cack-handed formulas by ending with the dreaded OBLIGATORY COD-BLUES NUMBER. It's so cod in fact that the first line is actually (groan) "I woke up this morning . . ." (That comes right after the harmonica solo intro don't ya know.) One keeps hoping for something interesting to happen to make it distinctive, but nothing does until the final lines which are a classic Burton mind-mush genius throwaway:

"If I coulda been a carpenter
Coulda run around lookin for things to fix
Said uh way back uh long time ago if I coulda been a carpenter
I coulda finda lotta thiiiiiiiiiiings to fix
(fix em up good now!)
Didn't end up bein no carpentarrrr!
And that's why they call me Humpty Mix!"

What else can one say about this track? Well, Burton Cummings is a godlike white blues singer in the same league as Janis Joplin & Robert Plant, only with a better vibrato than either of those cats (he's the Tom Jones of the hash-head set I tells ya!) Meanwhile Bachman & co., when playing Chicago-style blues, sound just as boringly competent as the Rolling Stones or John Mayall or any number of furriners who went to Chicago** to record by-the-numbers blues. Then for conceptual continuity's sake, for about 60 seconds they reprise the opening shuffle bout dat 'Merican woman, she gonna mess yo mind.

And again alas because this was their last album with Randy Bachman and the Cummings-led groups that followed would never come close to producing a studio album as good as this again (the incredible "Live at the Paramount" is a whole 'nuther story however.) And while Randy Bachman would return to the spotlight a couple years later with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, the chemistry he had with Burton Cummings was unique & undeniable (though those who have called Bachman-Cummings "the Lennon-McCartney of North America" are overstating it by a lot.)

Later in the year a new lineup of The Guess Who scored another smash hit album with "Share The Land", though aside from a pair of classic singles that one's a big disappointment (and worse yet they were obviously trying to cop Grand Funk's "Native American" imagery too.) Trend-followers they certainly were. But "American Woman" is a mighty satisfying example of the trend toward Heavy in good old 1970.

* And the fact that Lenny Kravitz could have a hit with a totally unironic remake of "American Woman" 30 years later, complete with video featuring Tracy Lords writhing on a sportscar beneath a giant American flag, says a lot about the times we live in as well.

** The Guess Who's first two American-released albums, "Wheatfield Soul" (1968) and "Canned Wheat Packed By The Guess Who" (1969) were in fact recorded in New York City. For "American Woman" and its follow-up "Share The Land" (also 1970), they recorded in Chicago. Previous to these releases, the Burton Cummings lineup had only recorded a batch of singles in Canada.

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