So this is now the second album I’ve featured in the past week that was made over thirty years ago. As a matter of fact, this very first album from the soon-to-be iconic group Santana, was released forty-four years ago in August of 1969. Think about that for a second. You may not have even been alive when this album came out – I certainly wasn’t. To put this in a bit of context for you, The Beatles would release their swan song record, Abbey Road, about a month after Santana debuted. Led Zeppelin would release Led Zeppelin II about a month after that, and Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma would hit record stores the following month, November. All of those classic rock records your parents listen to? Yeah, this album precedes most of those (not quite all of them, though). The question is, why am I going so far back in time with these album reviews? Why not focus more on the newest releases?
Well first of all, over half of my posts feature albums from the past two years, so I certainly wouldn’t say I neglect the newer material. As a matter of fact, I pride myself on keeping up with the latest and (hopefully) greatest from each and every artist I follow. That being said, it’s simply impossible to fully appreciate the extent of how far we’ve come as a musical society without acknowledging our heritage. We’ve all come to accept this as fact – it’s why we always want to know the origin story of all our beloved superheroes, or why we study history in school. By learning from the past, we can understand much more about the present, and we can use such knowledge to better prepare for the future.
I’ve been going through a huge period of musical nostalgia recently (can you be nostalgic for an era from before you were born?), studying the history of music and how humans have progressed in our concepts of art through the ages. It’s fascinating stuff – the story of mankind is easily the greatest one ever written. So now, before I go off on an even bigger tangent, let’s zoom in on the music of the 1960s in America. The British Invasion dominated the earlier part of the decade, the folk revival, championed by the likes of Bob Dylan and The Byrds, rose in popularity soon afterwards. Throughout all of this, Motown and Southern soul defended their position on the charts, and artists like Otis Redding, The Temptations, a young Stevie Wonder, and James Brown remained just as influential as popular white artists.
Alright professor, enough of the history lesson. What does any of this have to do with Santana? Well let me tell you, young whippersnapper. With the rise of LSD and other drugs in American culture, so began the Psychedelic era, which gave birth to the jam band and placed a greater emphasis placed on skilled musicianship. Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix began to gain popularity at an exponential rate with their respective bands, giving rise to the concept of the guitar virtuoso. So now, enter Santana.
In August 1969, the Santana band performed at Woodstock Festival to a huge audience. A few weeks later, the eponymous debut album, Santana, was released to the public. From that point on, the group became a well-established chapter in the story of rock history. It’s important to remember that the Santana of the late ’60s was very different from the Santana we think of today. There weren’t any Latin pop collaborations with Rob Thomas, Dave Matthews, or Michelle Branch. Back in the day, the group was purely a free-form jam band that played mostly instrumental music – essentially the kind of music you would expect to hear at Woodstock.
Of course, what made Santana unique was his blend of Chicano rock and Latin rhythms with the traditional jazz and blues sound of the time period. This first album featured Gregg Rolie on organ and piano, David Brown on bass, Michael Shrieve on drums, and Michael Carbabello and José Areas on auxiliary percussion. Unfortunately, after a few years the band would fall victim to a whole slew of internal conflicts, with musical differences and drug use causing the band to slowly become divided. In 1969, however, the band was just beginning to enter its golden age.
Santana was playing world music before the term was ever brought into popular use. He was playing jazz-rock fusion before anyone really knew what to call it. He was an musical innovator by any definition of the word, and he played a significant role in the creation of many subsequent styles. Just about all of the tracks on Santana have become absolute classics: “Evil Ways,” “Soul Sacrifice,” “Persuasion,” and “Waiting” are all still considered some of the group’s best work. Even the deeper cuts like “Savor” and “Shades of Time” are magnificent pieces of music, and they contribute just as much to the overall progression of the album.
If you were one of the thousands of lucky festival-goers to see Santana live in concert at the Woodstock Festival in ’69, then I envy you. From what I hear, it was an absolutely monstrous performance, and it kickstarted the career of a musical legend that would impact the world over in the next several decades. No one in today’s society should call themselves an avid rock fan without having listened to this album. For me, this record brings with it a massive flood of inspiration as I hear the group that influences many of my own musical influences shred circles around a sea of lesser fusion jam bands. Long live the days of rock ‘n’ roll.