Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Third Estate

Ed: Is anyone from here in Baton Rouge familiar with this band?

From the Anthology Recordings website:

The Third Estate

Spend enough time with a favorite album and over the years you will find that it has worked itself into your life, in a way that transcends the immediate appreciation of the music. Private memories will be attached to the record, and they will enhance the listening experience as you grow older.

For me, The Third Estate’s Years Before The Wine will always be linked to a US road trip that my girlfriend and I did back in 1996. Having paid our respect to the "King" in Tupelo, and narrowly avoided the Olympic madness in Atlanta, we were hoping to celebrate the 4th Of July in New Orleans. But as the surly call-center clerk informed us, there wasn’t a single motel room to be found in N.O. over the holidays. The best they could offer was a room in Baton Rouge. “Baton Rouge?”, I thought. “Hmm... isn’t that where Third Estate were from?”.

We reserved the room, and arrived in the evening to an audio wall of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. The following day - the 4th - we spent a great afternoon in New Orleans, then returned to Baton Rouge to sit in the dark with hundreds of locals on the Mississippi river bank and watch fireworks launch from an old steamroller. Snips of Third Estate kept popping up in my head, their "French Revolution" theme somehow appropriate for Independence Day on the Bayou.

On our last day in Baton Rouge before heading west towards Texas, I searched through my cassettes for the Third Estate tracks I had taped for the trip – I think it was “Kings” and “Puppet City”. Cruising slowly among the lush river vegetation and beautiful neo-renaissance buildings that dominate the LSU college campus, the warm, relaxed intelligence of Third Estate’s music spoke to me more directly than ever before. “This is it”, I thought, “this is the place of their music”. And so the connection was established.

Later on I would find out that the three band members weren’t really from the area, although they were Southerners, and had indeed recorded extensively at a small 4-track studio in Baton Rouge. The band’s roots go back to a grade school duo formed by songwriter-vocalist Robert Everett and guitarist Chas Harrell in the small town of Kentwood, LA. After playing together for several years, they hooked up with drummer Jerry Lang, and an embryonic version of The Third Estate was born. Calling themselves Agonistes, the trio slowly put together an album that was completed in 1973. Most of those recordings were shelved, but “Sing His Song” and “Thought I Heard You Calling” were coupled for a 45 that hints of the sound that would later become Years Before The Wine.

While taking a history class in college, Robert Everett came up with the idea of a concept album about the French Revolution. Returning to the Baton Rouge studio where the Agonistes' material had been cut two years earlier, the band began work on what would become Years Before The Wine. Wanting a fresh start, all songs were recent compositions, and the project took a full year to complete. The album was written entirely by Everett and/or Harrell, who between them also handled all instrumentation except drums, while female vocalist Fae Ficklin guests on the title track. 500 copies were pressed and self-released without much fanfare in 1976; three decades later the reissues have sold four or five times the quantity of the original run.

Third Estate’s music deserves to speak for itself, but it’s interesting to note how wide the album’s appeal is. Psych fans, westcoast fans, prog-rock fans: they all love it. There is no great secret behind this, but simply the combined effect of mature songwriting with memorable chord progressions and hooks, excellent playing, a warm and inviting atmosphere, and lyrics that are intelligent without being aloof. In theory, a lot of bands could do this - in reality, not many have. Since its re-discovery by record collectors in the late 1980s, the legend of Years Before The Wine has grown to make it one of the most highly respected private pressings made in the mid-1970s.

The band’s story has been fairly well covered over the years, but one thing I haven’t seen discussed much is what the band’s members drew inspiration from. Robert Everett, who today is a professor of Science Education at the University Of Central Florida, recently told me that:

- My favorite bands back then were (and still are) Genesis, Strawbs, Yes, ELP, Barclay James Harvest, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson. I'm a big Camel fan although they came along a little after The Third Estate (at least for me they did). I guess we were listening to a lot of Strawbs during the recording and writing of Years Before The Wine. The Strawbs' Bursting At The Seams and Ghosts were played a lot during that time. I believe Ghosts came out in 1975, so definitely that was a big influence towards the end. Earlier recordings (now available on a double CD) from our Agonistes days probably had more influences from straight rock bands from that time period and even before (Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath, Cream, etc). I still listen to the progressive rock bands, but not the others.

Q: What genre would you place Third Estate in, if any?

- I would have to go with a Strawbs type band (progressive folk-rock). I wish we had access to a mellotron.

Q: Any particular memories from working on the Years Before The Wine album?

- Back in those days we were just writing and recording. Chuck and I spent a lot of time rehearsing new chord structures. When we found a certain groove we stuck with it. All of the experimental sounds on the album were carefully planned, mostly by me. The crowd noises at the end were people at a church musical that I recorded. There's a lot going on in that section. I don't believe I've mentioned it before, but the backwards voice on the album is actually part of President Richard Nixon' s resignation speech.

More info:
From the ProgArchives

samples of each song on the Anthology Recordings site

on (some are by a hip-hop group also called The Third Estate, but "Puppet City" the BR band)

and here is a download/review from ChrisGoesRock in Sweden

1 comment:

  1. Your blog has brought a smile to my face, because Chuck Harrell is my dad, and your story is wonderful knowing the appreciation you have for his music.