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Blue... It wasn’t a hit. Print-ready version

by Bob Lefsetz
Lefsetz Letter
June 23, 2021

I'm not saying it was a stiff, but most people never heard it. Furthermore, radio didn't play it. By 1971, FM radio stations were leaning harder, there was no room for singer-songwriters and their quiet music. This even haunted James Taylor, the biggest of the lot. Suddenly, he was an AM act. Same deal with Carole King. "It's Too Late" on AM radio is what broke "Tapestry," the album was moribund before that action, it was not being pushed on FM, most people never heard it until it came out of the radio speakers.

We can play this out with James Taylor. He released albums with less and less commercial acceptance. To the point where he ultimately jumped labels to Columbia from Warner Brothers, looking to reignite his career. And how did he do this? Via a cover of "Handy Man." James Taylor became a cover artist, even before this. "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" was an original from "One Man Dog," but it was soft and so far from FM rock as to go totally unplayed on that band. Its follow-ups? DIDN'T EVEN CHART! "Hymn," "Walking Man," you may know them, but those who are not Taylor fans do not.

Then, at the end of his Warner tenure, James worked with Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman and returned to form. Still, he didn't have any original hits. "Mexico"...made it all the way to #49, "Shower the People" to #22, but "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)"? That was a #5 hit. In other words, James was struggling for radio acceptance, and the only way he could get it was via either upbeat ditties or dirgey love songs, he was at the mercy of a world that was stacked against him.

Same thing with Carole King. One of the biggest selling albums of all time, and then...almost nothing. "Sweet Seasons," from "Music," the follow-up to "Tapestry," made it to #9, but hits dried up, and her albums had less and less success until 1974, when Carole changed sound and had a #1 AM radio hit with "Jazzman" and its iconic Tom Scott solo. This was not the personal statement from deep in her gut, this was nearly fodder, a track that FM would make the sign of the cross at. And after "Wrap Around Joy," which contained "Jazzman," Carole's career went in the wrong direction, she never had another hit, other than a cover of her own hit song "One Fine Day," in 1980

So...

Joni Mitchell releases "Song to a Seagull" in 1968... Most people were unaware it came out, many are still unaware.

On her second album, "Clouds," Joni decided to buy a bit of insurance, it contained her versions of two songs Judy Collins had already made hits, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now, both of which were written prior to Joni's debut. Did that help Joni make inroads? Not by much. I didn't know a single person who owned that album simultaneous with its release.

The breakthrough was 1970's "Ladies of the Canyon." First and foremost it was an artistic leap forward. Secondly, it contained "The Circle Game," a standard in the folk world that Joni was reluctant to include. People now knew who Joni Mitchell was. But it's not like you saw "Ladies of the Canyon" everywhere, only if you were in the know.

But a year later, in 1971, Joni puts out the iconic "Blue" with no insurance, no past hits and...not a whole lot happens. It was an insiders thing. And whereas you might have heard tracks from "Ladies of the Canyon" on FM radio in 1970, "Blue" was absent from those airwaves in 1971.

So, Joni Mitchell was stuck in neutral. Someone who'd written hit songs for others, but had even less purchase on the public than her David Geffen management cohort Laura Nyro.

What Joni Mitchell needed was a hit. And by this point she's on Asylum Records, run by the aforementioned Geffen, and he pushes her to write a radio-friendly song and she does, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," which was definitely heard on the radio, but only made it to #25 in "Billboard" and #20 in Cashbox and...the truth is the album it emanated from, "For the Roses," was darker than "Blue" and "Ladies of the Canyon" so Joni Mitchell was a known quantity, but her LP was not flying out the door.

And then, in January of 1974, came "Court and Spark." There were no plays for hits, nothing looking for commercial success, however the orchestration was more lush and the album had more of a sheen...there's no way it could be cut with a dulcimer in a Greek cave, suddenly you had a sophisticate relating her story of being in Paris and...Joni had hits doing it totally her way, most significantly with "Help Me," and of course "Free Man in Paris." And with these insightful songs on AM radio, the young female demo that did not listen to FM rock became aware of Ms. Mitchell and found they could identify with her message and Joni became the most revered, the most exalted female artist extant. She even went on a victory lap tour where she recorded the double live album "Miles of Aisles" and then...

Waited nearly two years and released the jazz-influenced, right turn "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." These same people, the AM ladies, were eager, they bought it and...THEY REJECTED IT! From superstar to has-been in two years. It was over for Joni, she never graced the AM airwaves again. And having destroyed her commercial career, a la Neil Young, Joni no longer had chains, people were no longer paying attention, and she recorded and released "Hejira" to almost no acceptance. It's one of Joni's two best works, and in some ways it's better than "Blue," listen to the truth in "Song for Sharon" and "Refuge of the Roads." But the tracks didn't comport with anybody's idea of popular hit music. There were only two tracks shorter than five minutes long, and "Song for Sharon" clocks in at 8:40 and "Refuge of the Roads" 6:42. These tracks wouldn't even get playlisted today. "Hejira" wasn't background music, you had to sit in front of the speakers, listen on headphones to get it, it was a deep dive into Joni's identity, but because it wasn't upbeat, because it didn't conform to anybody's idea of radio commerciality, it barely made a dent.

And from there, Joni marched further into the wilderness. At first she seemed not to care about commercial success, and when she tried later, on her Geffen records, she seemed to have lost the key. Furthermore, these songs were less personal.

So...

"Blue" is one of the greatest albums ever made. And it's all her, we can't say its success was really a collaborator's. But the accolades it is receiving on its 50th anniversary are coming to a great degree from people who weren't even alive when it was released. Or people who were friends with Joni at the time. Context has been lost.

Forget revealing her truth. Believe me, that was not so extraordinary back in 1971, THAT'S WHAT IT WAS ALL ABOUT! It's hard to believe that today, with the mindless ditties clogging up the chart, but personal expression was the game, the zenith, you wanted to open yourself up and get it all down. So it took decades for people to realize "Blue"'s greatness, all the detritus, the imitative, the wannabe dreck had to fade away so it could shine. Kind of like the Mona Lisa. It's got its own gallery at the Louvre. It stands alone. Exhibit it with other works and it loses its luster. Even more significantly, no one, NO ONE, has been able to replicate the formula. Looks easy, but it's not. First and foremost, Joni was writing and playing for years before she had her success. Today people don't put in the time and they want instant validation. Also, today people are gun-shy about revealing their truth, unless they go to the other extreme, as they do in memoirs, detailing the most heinous of activities to shock you. Joni Mitchell was just another person on the planet back in 1971, you could relate to her, she might be richer, but...

Now the truth is after all these hosannas, "Blue" is going to fade back into the woodwork. This is not the Beatles with all those radio-friendly ditties. As for people discovering "Blue" today as a result of the hype? I don't think many will, oldsters are aware of it, have either accepted it or rejected it, and youngsters don't see the words in the newspapers touting its value.

It was a different era. There were so many great acts and great albums that Joni Mitchell could release a masterpiece and many could shrug. Today if you cut something half as good, like Adele's "21," the whole world is flabbergasted. And believe me, "Blue" has legs that "21" does not.

And then there are the women without Joni's voice. Men too. People believe lyrics are enough, they are not. As for learning to play your instrument...that takes too much time, you can buy the damn beats, why take all that time practicing off the radar screen when you can start promoting on social media today, be on your way to becoming a brand.

And then there's Mo Ostin and Warner Brothers. He supported you if you didn't have a hit. He signed you to a five album deal and it was assumed you'd make a record every year and get better and find yourself and at some point maybe your music and the public would align. Today Joni Mitchell wouldn't even get signed, she wouldn't have the data, and on top of that she doesn't make radio-friendly music, today's radio that is. Sure, people covered her songs, nice. But those live numbers...you play coffee shops, great, call us back when you've moved up to theatres.

In other words it's a whole different environment, a whole different game. Never mind there not even being a folk scene, never mind a coffee house to play in. And it's all about loud, that's how they EQ the records, if it's not in your face, it can't break through the clutter. Oh, we'll give a chance to quirky, but the truth is Joni Mitchell was not quirky, she was part of the mainstream, which was broad if you were a fan, after all Jethro Tull, Randy Newman, the Mothers, the Beach Boys, and Alice Cooper were all on Warner/Reprise at the time. You can't find this diversity today, even if you look at all the acts on all the labels of Universal Music!

Then again, you have no idea of the power of music back in 1971. If you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you turned on the radio, you played a record. Making money? It was secondary to finding yourself. It was about laying down your statement. In a way nobody does today. But it's not only music, it's films too. The top ten grossing flicks of 1971 included "The French Connection," "Summer of '42," "Carnal Knowledge," "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Last Picture Show"...and only "French Connection" might be green-lit today.

So "Blue" was of a time. But how great is it that we have a perfect document of that era!

And the great thing about a record is you bring your own identity to it, you form your own story, in truth Joni Mitchell does not represent your fantasy, ask anybody who knows her, then again this is almost always the case with great artists, who can oftentimes do only this one great thing, they are unique, with rough edges, narcissistic, strong-willed, they need to do it their way, and we respect this because most of us don't have the cojones, we aren't willing to hang it all out there, to risk it. Sure, you might think you do, but no one's paying attention to you, you don't have a record deal, no one's spending money on you, you have no pressure, and when you do to stay the course, hew to your values...that ain't easy.

Then again, back then labels didn't have the right to reject albums. They didn't tell you to remix them. Most contracts said you just had to deliver it and they put it out. And back then no one could truly predict a hit. And hits were different. FM radio was less about generating album sales than ticket sales. And if you were lucky, you crossed over to AM radio and physical sales took off and then so did ticket sales and then...you were cursed with the blessing of having to follow it all up.

You think it's easy? You sacrifice your life to feed the starmaking machinery and at some point, if you don't O.D., you want to get off the wheel. Silicon Valley talks about the "flywheel," that's the goal, but people can't work 24/7 ad infinitum, they break down, then again, no machine can write "Blue."

Now I don't think you can get "Blue" unless you're open to it, in the right headspace. Actually, I'd tell you to start off with "Ladies of the Canyon," then go to "For the Roses" and "Court and Spark" and then back to "Blue," then you might get it, you might be open to it. It'd be like going on a first date with someone who opened all their wounds but also said they liked you and...if you do this, most people run away, you've got to dribble out your details. Unless it's the perfect one. Who gets you, who understands you. Listening to "Blue" you thought Joni Mitchell was the perfect one, the fact that she was an artist signed to a record label didn't enter the equation, this was a person, this was her story, and it was a snapshot in time, she'd be somewhere different next time around, as she was. Joni was not locked into a rut, she didn't keep repeating herself. "Blue" is part of a continuum. Really, it should be seen as part of the body of work.

And no one's got a better one in rock and roll. Except maybe the Beatles. And Bob Dylan. Then again, "Blue" is the White album with more coherence, it's got the upbeat elements of "Abbey Road" yet it is not solely sunny and just like "Sgt. Pepper" there were no hit singles, it stands on its own. As for Zimmy...musically, Joni trumps him hands down. And Joni has never been accused of plagiarism. Joni Mitchell is an original, and in a me-too conformist world that is everything, that is what we are looking for, that's why we're even talking about "Blue" fifty years later. The greats break the mold. The lame are restricted by it. Fifty years ago, music was a great leap forward, and Joni Mitchell outjumped the boys, she set a record that still holds. And we can only marvel at the result.

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Added to Library on June 25, 2021. (703)

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