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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Who Did It Better? Woodstock

Who Did It Better? 

For today's installment, we climb aboard our musical way-back machine to take another look at a song written by one performer, but made popular by another. This is Joni Mitchell's second appearance as a songwriter, here, at WDIB. Her first was a look at her classic Both Sides Now, made popular by Judy Collins.

This week, we also revisit the story of a little-remembered band: Matthews Southern Comfort; a band that would come to learn firsthand exactly what a double-edged sword success can be.  

Now, on to the story... 

Written by Joni Mitchell in 1969, three versions of Woodstock were released in 1970. 

The first, and perhaps best known, was by supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - released as a single on March 11, 1970. Mitchell's own was the second; included on her album Ladies of the Canyon, released in April of 1970. Her label would choose to include her version as the B-side of her single, Big Yellow Taxi. The third version, by Matthews Southern Comfort, became the most popular version in the UK, thus becoming a worldwide hit.  

Mitchell wrote the song based on what her then-boyfriend Graham Nash told her about1969's Woodstock Music and Art Festival - for she wasn't there herself. Seems her manager felt it would be in her best interest to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead. Composed in a hotel room in New York City while watching televised reports of the festival, Mitchell recalls: "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock." Mitchell would record a version for her upcoming album Ladies of the Canyon, due to be released in April of 1970.

On March 11, 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young label pushed out Woodstock as the lead single  from the group's 1969 Déjà Vu album. The band learned the song from Mitchell herself, due to her relationship with Nash. The group would change the overall tone of the song while introducing the stop/starts that populate their version. (Trivia: there exists a version with Jimi Hendrix playing bass and overdubbing the guitars. That version finally saw the light of day in 2018 on the album Both Sides of the Sky.) 

Interestingly, Woodstock was one of the few Déjà Vu tracks where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were all present and participating in the same session. However, Stills was not happy with his vocals, claiming they "...were excruciatingly out of tune." This resulted in a bit of discord among group members. Young would later claim that "the track was magic. Stephen erased the vocal and put another one on that wasn't nearly as good." Nonetheless, their version would peak at #11 on Billboard's Hot 100 in May of 1970 and #3 in Canada. 

Meanwhile, across the pond... 

Matthews Southern Comfort was an established British band led by Ian Matthews. Name sound familiar? If you know your 70's pop, it might. Matthews would later go on to have a #13 solo hit stateside in 1978 with Shake It. But that's getting ahead of the story. Now, back to 1970...

Woodstock would serve as the group's first charting hit. The band initially played the song, a version that adhered to Mitchell's own, on BBC Radio 1 on June 28, 1970. According to Matthews, the group was one song short of a full set for the program. He had recently purchased Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon album and had grown fond of Woodstock, so he chose it to complete the set. 

Public reaction to the group playing the song was such that the BBC contacted UNI, the band's label to share the good news. As Matthews recalls, UNI  "had no idea what the (BBC) were talking about and contacted my management, who asked me about it. UNI suggested that we record the song and add it to the newly recorded Matthews Southern Comfort album, Later That Same Year. I declined to mess with the completed album, but agreed to have them release the song as a single." 

Once in the studio, they meticulously deconstructed the song resulting in a "radically customized" arrangement - so much so, that Matthews was a bit worried about actually ever meeting Mitchell. Due to his vocal range, he couldn't hit the high notes, so he altered the melody. Turns out all that worry was for nothing, for Mitchell actually preferred his arrangement. In the end, the session turned out to be a recording the band recognized as "something special". 

Now, MCA Records, UNI's parent company, would only release Matthews Southern Comfort's version of Woodstock if the Crosby Stills Nash & Young version failed to chart in the UK. When that, indeed, turned out to be the case, MCA, according to band member Andy Leigh, "reluctantly released ours because of that agreement, but they wouldn't spend a penny on promotion. But our managers, who were excellent, hired a PR (person), a song-plugger. Tony Blackburn, who had the breakfast show on (BBC) Radio 1, began playing Woodstock and kept playing it and other DJs started doing the same." 

Issued as a single on July 24, 1970, the band's version debuted on the UK Top 50 on September, 26, 1970. Tony Blackburn then made Woodstock by Matthews Southern Comfort his 'Record of the Week'. Once that occurred, according to Matthews, "it began to sell 30,000 copies a day, eventually going from #10 to #1 in a week."

The group's version reached  #1 in the UK on October 31, 1970, holding on to the top spot for an additional two weeks. It was also: #2 in Ireland, Sweden, Poland, and Norway, #3 in South Africa, #4 in New Zealand, #9 in Denmark, #15 in Austria, #17 in the Netherlands, #23 in Finland, and #27 in Germany.

But wait... the story's not over!

In November of 1970, the group's US label, Decca Records, another MCA affiliate, issued the group's version of Woodstock in America. Initially, it went nowhere. However, January of 1970 saw the single released in Canada and that changed everything. 

See, Canada had just enacted a law where Canadian radio stations were required to dedicate a minimum of 30% of their programming to Canadian content. Because Mitchell, who wrote the song, was Canadian, the group's single fell into that category and all that airplay resulted in renewed interest in the states. Matthews Southern Comfort's version made its much belated debut on Billboard's Hot 100 on March 6, 1971, where it would proceed to rise all the way to a very respectable #23. In the meantime, the group would also take the #5 spot in Canada. 

All of this newfound and unexpected success, plus a shake-up at MCA that would result in the band leaving the label, took a toll on bandleader Matthews. With a full US tour scheduled to begin the same month that the single was to be released in the states, Matthews abruptly left the band, citing the pressure and demands of success. In his own words: "It created all this peripheral stuff that took up my time. What would've been time learning to be a songwriter, it became time spent doing interviews, photographs, tours and appearances. It all came to a head after a dreadful soundcheck at Birmingham town hall. I left the building, walked down to the station, got on a train home and locked my door for a week."

The remaining band members soldiered on, now simply known as Southern Comfort. Signed to Harvest records, the group would release another three albums. 

Woodstock was included in the US version of their final album with Matthews, Later That Same Year.

As for Matthews... he would place three singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Canadian charts as a solo artist. His biggest hit would end up being the November 1978 release Shake It, which would reach #13 on Billboard's Hot 100 in April 1979, while also snagging the #6 spot in Canada.

Oh, one more piece of trivia: there was also an instrumental version of the song, done by The Assembled Multitudes which inexplicably hit #79 on Billboard's Hot 100 at the same time as these other versions. We're not including that in this competition because... well... elevator music. And I would never ask that of you.

Well... there's the whole story. 

And now? On to the competition!

The Song: Woodstock
The Competitors: Mitchell vs. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young vs. Matthews Southern Comfort

Woodstock - Joni Mitchell

Woodstock - Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Woodstock - Matthew's Southern Comfort

Joni Mitchell
Joni always delivers what you're never expecting. That dirge-like intro with the keyboard and all those passing notes blending is a lot to ask of a listener. But this clearly signals her future musical direction. Her voice enters and all I can think of is how much it reminds me of Maria Muldaur's (Midnight At the Oasis). In fact, this is all very reminiscent of Mulduar's Mad Mad Me (1973), a song I am more familiar with. 

This is some crisp production work. You can hear every intake of breath. Speaking of which, she breaks phrases in order to accomplish that... something that surprises me. Those backing vocals? This is a dirge! Mitchell's voice undulates. There is nothing linear about her phrasing. She's constantly surprising the listener and going places where it almost defies musical sense. Tonally, she's a bit much to take, frequently creating a nasal-woodwind like quality. And while her pitch is never anything but spot, which is the saving grace of her vocals, she asks a lot of the common listener. This is a folk/jazz hybrid; two musical roads that don't converge easily.

The backing vocals get stranger. It's like druids in long robes at Stonehenge. Odd choice. But then, Joni relishes experimentation. Everything after the 4:18 mark? WTF? Her doo-doo's? This is odd. Just odd for the sake of being odd. I laugh a little every time she forces a note from her head voice into her throat and you get that weird vocal break. This is some super self-indulgent stuff here. Oh, Joni. 

Well. This would be a 'no'. I get that it's innovative and complex, but it's also not much fun. A little like listening to an older female vocalist in a church who is singing something she shouldn't. It's like Joni channeling her inner Kate Smith. 

The lyrics work. They are the hook here. Everything else feels like a pretentious college junior sitting at a Fender-Rhodes electric piano demonstrating how 'deep' they truly are. It's a bit hard to take this seriously. (I know, I know - blasphemy!)

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Huh. Not the warm fuzzy I remember. Those guitars in the intro... Okay, to be fair, we are listening to a mono version on vinyl, so that is the reason everything sounds so flat and harsh. Those guitars in the intro bleat like a whoopie cushion. I get that rock 'n roll traditionalists are all about the interplay, the tension/discord competing guitars can create, and maybe live it works, but today this is not hitting me well. I like the Creedence Clearwater Revival feel - it's very swamp rat. Stills voice plays nicely off that aesthetic. His vocals are spot on, carrying us forth. and once those backing vocals swoop in... swoosh... it is cosmic, warm and I am in lurve. 

Okay, so the mono mix/vinyl is preventing me from truly delving into what is happening here instrumentally. There's a Hammond organ (played by Young) in there coloring things nicely. The whole thing is very dense and heavy, yet the arrangement has enough momentum to carry it. 

Rather amazed they were able to take what Mitchell wrote and come up with this. There was a lot of grungy/earnest rock post-Woodstock. The group's chorus arrangement elevates this from the pack. I find myself waiting for that hook - the chorus. I assume that's Still's scratchy-ass guitar solo. Not a lot of color there. And then the chorus again... yay. And the scratchy guitar play out. Hmm.

This is a classic for a reason. You must keep in mind - this is 1970. I enjoy the succinctness of their version. It's very focused and driven. And every time that chorus takes off? I soar right along with it.

Matthews Southern Comfort
From the get-go, this is a completely different take. Again, we're dealing with vinyl, so the sound is a bit thin, not a lot of depth. That intro makes me think of King Harvest for some reason. I can't place the instruments. That bell tone in the keyboard is nice. The vocals are buried in the mix. Matthews voice is thin as it is, so the mix is not helping matters. I can't separate the keyboard sound from the guitar. It's a spooky texture... and reminds me of The Classics IV version of Spooky.

This is a very clean (to the point of icy) take on the song. Super mellow. I like the counter melody added to the chorus. We are not going to be soaring anywhere boys and girls. We are settled in, sitting lotus style, simmering in a very post-toke haze. I like the harmonies. Very grounded. Is that a moog synth? That hollow, ghostly shimmer? 

Matthews vocals are nothing to write home about. Thin, a bit nasal, lacking color. But then, this is a trip and he's merely the porter, a travel guide; he's not taking us anywhere, merely providing a constant reminder on why we are on this trip. 

Again... love the counter melody that guitar keeps introducing. And such a lovely sound. You know.. this keeps reminding me of other bands... like, now I am thinking of Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Mary Balin. This arrangement has the magical sound of something like Jefferson Airplane's Miracles. It's spacey and spooky and lovely. 

We reintroduce the intro and then scoot out into an instrumental break. I am game. Wow, that solo is all over the place. Trippy fun. Yeah. This is definitely the version you want to listen to stoned in your bedroom. I can see why this charted and competed so well with CSN&Y's version (which is considered an absolute classic). It's a different beast. A different flavor. I do wish the vocals had been mixed differently... there's a warmth lacking; it's that point where serenity becomes stagnant. Oh, I am disappointed that they didn't allow the instrumental to play us out... it is such a lovely groove. That pinging bell tone. Man. I just want to coast on that forever. 

The Verdict
Eeek. (Do I say that every week?) 

These versions could not be more different from one another. It's like they aren't even the same song. 

Mitchell's version is a lot to ask of a casual listener. I am familiar with this type of vocal approach, only because I was briefly entranced with Maria Muldaur's vocal style (cosmic earth goddess jazz?) So, I can see how Mitchell's choices could be a bit off-putting. I am intrigued by her version, but not in love with it. I appreciate it's adventurous nature, but it's not something I would want as a steady musical diet. 

CSN&Y's version sticks with me. It's the one in my head, perhaps because it is the one I am most familiar with. It is a standard and played constantly... added to films to instantly catapult an audience to a specific time and place. I wish the guitars were more crunch than bleat. I think the juxtaposition of crunchy leading into those soaring chorus vocals would have been awesome. As is, we are stuck with a somewhat messy, primitive Cajun sound. It works for the time period, I guess. 

Matthews Southern Comfort's version is a trippy lovefest. It comes off as a bit icy at times, but I love slowly falling in between those notes. I fault the mix and, perhaps, Matthews very British, thin vocals. He's very reserved, which is why you find yourself leaning in... he's making you come to him - a clever ruse and it works. Because once you're there, the arrangement with all it's bell tones swirl about you and, if you're in the right mood and place, you get lost in it. I adore it. 

Now, understand that I have never heard MSC's version before. And I am shocked I like it as much as I do. But its that very British, Al Stewart, pop thing that lures me in. 

I know most of you will go with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And they remain in my head. 

But for me - this is a tie. It may be the whole 'shiny new thing' syndrome at play, but if I am to listen to one of these versions again, I am going with Matthews Southern Comfort. Something about their musicality speaks to me. 

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Okay, that's my say in the matter. Your turn. You know what to do. Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I love hearing a different perspective. 

And, as always... thanks for reading (and listening). 


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I had never heard Joni sing that. It's very RenFair, like you say, very medieval. It's a trip, though. I wonder what listening to her music while being stoned would be.
I think my fav is MSC, too. That song sounds to me like I imagine the seventies sounded like to people listening to music then. It's groovy but it rocks. And I like his voice.


anne marie in philly said...

CSN&Y had the rock version, MSC had the soft version.

whkattk said...

CSNY and MSC are the tie for me. Mitchell was never my favorite vocalist; something a bit too....thin?....too high?....too....something. I know the singer/songwriter was all the rage then what with Carol King and Carly Simon, et al...but I always thought Mitchell should've stayed un-hyphenated.

Deedles said...

I like the CSN&Y version because it was the first I heard and I was fourteen in 1970. I don't like Joni Mitchell's voice at all and never heard her version. Never will. I did try here. Anyway, MSC version I also liked. It sounds different here than when I first heard it. Flatter. I will always be grateful to them for clearing up the words. Thanks to them I discovered, years later, that CSN&Y were singing "this he told me". For years I sang "Mister Toby."

Mistress Maddie said...

Crosby Stills Nash and!!!!