Saturday 7 December 2013

When Peter Berkow and Friends performed their 'Faculty Recital' way back in 1975-1976 ... almost 38 years ago...

This gorgeous album (released in 1976, recorded earlier) is a concept about the post-nuclear holocaust world and without doubt it's Peter Berkow's masterpiece, an album that I think should stand as one of the best progressive works from the United States in the seventies (remember this is just my opinion.)

Berkow made a few albums in the early seventies.  I will state right off the bat I don't recommend the other ones, which I've heard all.   His singing is something that may be hard to get used to, being in the laryngeally thin Bob Dylan school. He is also one of those artists that recycled his compositions, reworking them from one record to the next. Thus the preceding album "Thesis" has most of the songs from this album and is very similar without being as pulled-together and conceptual.  The last album, perversely called "Bootleg Demo (79)" recycled them yet again in an acoustic format, lacking the fusion that makes this installment exciting.  On the other hand "Live at Cabo's (77)" is a fusion album beginning to end, but not a good one at all in my opinion being too meandering and lacking the brilliant prog moves and pleasant dead-head vibe.

Moving on to the album in question, if you look closely at the back you'll notice the whole thing is divided into three parts.  Side one has two parts, Spiritual Rebate for the Stoned Zen Pimp (which reappears on other albums both before and after), and was composed in transit to California (check what he says about it on the back), and Half-Life (referring to radioactive decomposition of course).  The lyrics for the Stoned Zen Pimp are as idiotic as you'd expect, but very much a part of those times, as I understand them-- not having experienced them  myself.  Side 2 recorded in a different time and place contains mostly vocal acoustic songs though they do revolve around the same theme of nuclear holocaust, sometimes tenuously so though, with occasional reprises of themes from side one. 

Of these little ditties the best to me is the song about how his father had different ideas for the son than he did, something I can relate to quite well, since it was my personal ambition to be a musician.  Unlike Peter Berkow, my dad had enough sway or bullying intimidation perhaps to push me into a professional direction.  Unfortunately as a result I will die having regretted almost everything about the direction my life took with the exception of my wife and children.  Positively, it gives me time to buy records and write about them.

"I remember my first big purchase-- I bought a sears robot telescope.
My pa he was proud that his son was a genius-- 'he'll be a physicist I bet--'
but all that I wanted, was to gaze into outer space.
To dream of all the places that astronauts go, when I emigrate;
when the planet explodes, and it's time to evacuate, and I run too--
I run too.

My pa he was a world war 2 immigrant, he ran from Hitler's fate.
But I pawned that old spyglass for my first guitar;
then the old man broke down in tears...
but all that I wanted, was to gaze into outer space...

Now a young man can feel so guilty when the old man dies:
He knew him but he never really bridged the gap,
separated in their lives.
All that I wanted, was to gaze into outer space... "

It's hard for me not to cry even now when I listen to this song, it's just a bit 'too close to home' for me:

It's obvious that Peter started as a university student (presumably bio based on his lyrics) but dropped out and managed to make music a full-time career.  I'd be curious to know what happened to him after the seventies, if he burned out as so many others did on too many drugs or if he went on to shine in an academic setting?  Anybody know?

One more thing I can't as usual resist mentioning.  Both paintings are by one Michael Fernandez.  Please -- I beg you -- take the time to look at front and back and admire the surreal (acid-hazed?)  images he came up with for this beautiful album.  Incidentally the preceding album Thesis from 1975 also features a gorgeous cover painting.

So is it possible still?
Well, on the positive side, humanity has become relatively peaceful of late, compared to its past, cf. Pinker's The better angels of our nature, who incidentally 'solved' the big mystery of why crime rates have dropped so dramatically in the last 20 years in all Western countries-- not because of better policing, Messrs. Giuliani and Bloomberg, but because it's the continuation of a long term trend that started way back in the middle ages!  in fact what needed explaining was why crime rates rose dramatically in the seventies to nineties, which burned out eventually and put us back on the long secular trend of declining crime.  The charts in the book make this quite plain for all countries, even in the twentieth century, there is a very slow down-slope throughout the whole hundred years except for the uptick in the aforementioned decades which ended around the early nineties.  A big thesis of that book is that this change in humans was much too quick to be genetic and is more likely mostly cultural.  However this is debatable because geneticists studying the molecular biology of humans have been shocked at how quickly humans have evolved at the dna level, for ex., the gene for lactose tolerance has become quasi-ubiquitous in the western world only in the last ten thousand years.  The genes for blonde hair, or blue eyes, similarly are shockingly recent.  A gene that confers some resistance to plague or measles as well is likely to be only a few hundred years old!  What if the more violent elements of the population were more likely to die through the last 10,000 years, surely this would lead to concrete genetic changes-- especially considering what humanity went through in the last hundred years?  I am sure this very issue is bitterly debated among psychologists and geneticists, perhaps leading to all-out war (lol).

On the neg. side, we are facing a host of big problems and those nuclear warheads are still with us-- how many of them?  they number in the tens of thousands apparently.  We still have enough to completely destroy ourselves many times over and all life on earth with us.  Some think a terrorist threat is the biggest problem, and it may well be.  But if ever they are used again I think it's likely to be the way they were used before-- at the end of a long, many years' war, in an attempt at finally ending it.  After all, I have never heard of a technology that was created and then was never used.  Everything humans create, is made to be used.

But enough Christmas cheer.  Please enjoy this wonderful little lost gem of American progressive music.


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  2. splendin post, splendid gift!Mega thanks!

  3. Really good album, very enjoyable and off-kilter. Thanks! I'd never heard of this.

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  5. Hi Julian,

    Do you happen to Have his other two LPs?


  6. Well, well, well...I finally found this after 4 decades of wondering about it.
    I first learned of Peter Berkow & Friends back in 1976 in a short—maybe two paragraph—spotlight blurb in one of the major guitar magazines...I forget which one. For reasons that mostly have to do with the fact that Berkow self-produced his album, that was intriguing to me as a hungry, budding 17-year-old guitarist and recording geek, and that it was a “prog” record was even better. For those reasons I never forgot his name. I would look for a copy of it at every thrift store, at every flea market, at every garage sale, record store and record collector’s show I visited. Practically nobody—including lifelong hardcore record hounds—had ever even heard of him or his album(s). But, for the past 40 years his name has remained in my head, though mostly on the back burner. This morning, it popped back to my forebrain, and I thought: “Let’s have another Google search for ‘PB&F.’ ”
    And here I am. So, thank you, Julian for the nice write up, and twin thanks for the *.rar file. I need to quit typing and crank that sucker up.
    Cheers from Lancaster PA, and...Stay Amused!