Top Fifty 41: Curved Air – Air Conditioning, 1970

[Originally posted January 2012]

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Curved Air wasn’t the first band to use rock [amplified] violin – East of Eden, Mercator Projected, and The Flock and It’s a Beautiful Day with eponymous albums all released these violin-full debuts in 1969, and there were others, as well as jazz examples, but these didn’t have Sonja Kristina on lead vocal, or the songwriting slant of classically trained Darryl Way and Francis Monkman.

The line-up for this first outstanding album is: Sonja Kristina – lead vocals; Darryl Way – electric violin and vocals; Francis Monkman – lead guitar, organ, piano, mellotron, electric harpsichord, special effects equipment and VCS3 synthasizer [sic]; Robert Martin – bass guitar; Florian Pilkington-Miksa – drums: all as written on the cover. The title is presented as both Air Conditioning [on the spine] and Airconditioning [on the cover]. A final piece of straight detail is that this release was one of, if not the first LP picture discs made for commercial release. I didn’t get – definitely couldn’t afford – the picture disc when I purchased in 1970, but have acquired one since.

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The album begins with the memorable It Happened Today, and it’s Kristina’s vocal that dominates first for me. But the piano chords are pounding their accompaniment, as is the bass line and the thundering drums. Lead guitar runs throughout. All this heads to the sudden shift of Way’s melodic and flowing violin solo, accompanied by a distinctive bass line and swirling background synth. Second Stretch is an anthemic number with its simple but rousing six-beat rhythm, and the distinctive feature in this song is the rise to a violin and guitar duel where the dissonant conflict rises further to a crescendo that breaks back to the anthem of its melodic line. This is followed by the equally memorable Screw which slows the pace and has the violin lead the melody which is picked up by Kristina. There are orchestrated bars and then the violin rises, again, to a peak with organ reverberations and it is all highly charged in its beautifully melodramatic construction.

The album is replete with such finely crafted numbers. Side one ends with Way’s brilliant instrumental Vivaldi. Here is the electric rock violin played in all of its virtuoso pomp and power. This playing is ably supported by the driving rhythms of bass, drum and lead guitar, but it is Darryl Way’s composition that merges rock raunchiness with lyrical strains and the at times moody tones, echoed and fuzzed as the song builds and builds. I was lucky enough to see them play this live in Ipswich on their first tour, and it was in the relatively small Arts Theatre/Centre where the power and volume of this tour de force was wall-shatteringly stunning, as it was to differing degrees when I saw them in South Devon at the Malborough Village Hall in 2008. On side two of the vinyl there is another Way instrumental, this time the sweetly short and soft Robert Martin penned Rob One. The penultimate track Situations – before the short reprise of Vivaldi to close out the side – utilises Monkman’s synthesisers to the full and is perhaps the most prog-rock sound of the whole album.

The picture below is used for Curved Air’s more recent Retrospective compilation album and if you wanted to sample beyond their first – and don’t fancy obtaining all [but I would recommend this!] – then here is a good place to start.

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