on getting older…on reaching post 17

waking up today to yet another birthday in what seems to be now, an almost endless stream of birthdays…

I think though, that my attitude towards growing older has changed like everyone else, as each year is “ticked off” because another birthday has arrived, you are left wishing that it was a birthday year starting with a “2” instead of a “5”, but the more I think about that…I actually don’t wish that.

I am actually quite happy to have a birthday involving a “5” as it’s starting number: it’s  OK with me.  I feel quite calm about it, and really, I don’t think I would want to go back to being, say, 24 again…because for me, even though they often say “life begins at 40” – for me, “life begins at 50”. absolutely.  there is a feeling that most of the struggle is behind, and now, hopefully, I can make music – and I now go forward gladly, into the fray 🙂

I also am quite, quite pleased, that by complete, unplanned accident, that this is the seventeenth post, and how incredibly appropriate that my seventeenth post would fall on my birthday…that pleases me no end for some unkn0wn reason. but then, there are reasons why 17 is my lucky number, always has been, always will.

so today, I am looking back and looking forward: and I have a gift to enable each of those.  the first, looking back, is a very small gift, but a huge one for me: a usb cassette player.  so finally, I am able to open the cassette vault, and I can begin to look back at the music that has been locked away on that quite obsolete but still most precious of devices: the cassette.  I have…a lot of cassettes, and I mean…a lot…with a lot of music on them. so this gift, the usb cassette player, will allow me to retrieve and hear again, and where appropriate, share with you, music that for the past couple of decades has been essentially lost to me.

this tool will also allow me to share audio examples of the sounds and songs and improvs that I am talking about here, of course, they don’t, unfortunately, go back to my earliest teen years, but there is good, strong coverage of projects from 1989 onwards – in particular, “lost” dozey lumps performances (one of which, is merrily being recorded from the cassette to digital as we speak) as well as the material that will make up the bindlestiff live rehearsal project I announced last year, the virtual “album” “longest”, the material for the album being approximately 74 cassettes taken from the weekly bindlestiff rehearsals during 1994, that have been waiting patiently in one of the big boxes full of cassettes.  so we are very excited about acquiring this particular tool, as it will enable us to digitise, and then share, a lot of dave stafford, dozey lumps, and bindlestiff music. and other music by other musicians, including some long lost concerts that I’d taken from vinyl and stored on cassette.

the gift for looking forward is something I’ve needed for many, many years: an 88-key keyboard (an m-audio prokeys sono 88) to replace my 40 year old yamaha dx7s, which passed normal retirement age about 17 years ago – the dx7s been my main keyboard for the past 30 years or so (and a brilliant one, and even useful to drive software synths despite it’s great age – midi is midi), but the time has finally come.  so a couple of days ago, the new keyboard arrived, it’s a modest, bare-bones affair, but to me, it’s a dream, because I’ve been missing having a full keyboard for so, so long – and those 61, plastic unweighted keys on the dx7s were just no good for playing proper “dream piano” – which is something I spent many, many hours doing as a teenager on my real upright piano – long since gone, I am afraid. so to be able to sit down and play a full arpeggio, starting at a low c and ending on a high c…it’s just amazing, I really, really missed that feeling.

and of course, all the problems of a real piano just go away – it’s always in tune, there are no broken hammers or strings or other impediments, you can literally just sit down, switch it on, and play.

so yesterday, I sat down and made some test recordings, and interestingly, because the keyboard also has it’s own internal sounds, I decided to record both via MIDI and via audio – so one track of MIDI with the keyboard driving a mellotron; and another track recording the same sequence but as audio using the internal sound of the synth.  it made for some interesting recordings, one of the odd things being the fact that the mellotrons, since they are sample based, of course have only a limited range of the keyboard upon which they play, so as you are playing piece involving both mellotron and say, strings (or, strings and choir, since you can run two internal voices at once!) while you are in the centre of the keyboard, you hear and record both the MIDI and audio – but when you play “outside the range” of the mellotron, of course only the audio records – so sometimes, you are playing three keyboard parts with your left hand, and two with your right – the density and beauty of the combined sounds is awesome, not to mention the very odd sensation (and sound) of the mellotron(s) playing on some notes, but not on others…uncanny, but quite, quite lovely.

and then of course, I realised that I could clone the MIDI tracks, select a second, different mellotron voice for the cloned tracks – and then record two different mellotrons (of the same sequence) on two MIDI tracks, and one audio (of the same sequence) – and of course, you could go on forever cloning tracks, so if I really wanted to, I could stack up ten different mellotron sounds – play ten or any number of mellotrons simultaneously, an orchestra of orchestras.  or stack my midi grand piano with my external grand piano, and so on…the possibilities are nearly limitless.  having semi-weighted keys is also a lovely sensation after 30 years without them – pressure sensitive, just like a real key – so when you push softly, you get a soft sound (again, just like a real piano – brilliant!) – unreal, just excellent.

so the usb cassette is already at work, transcribing a concert I’ve wanted to digitise for a long, long time: the dozey lumps “live at goddard’s” on july 15, 1989 – and I can tell you, from 2012, it’s a very, very odd sensation indeed to hear myself speak from 23 years in the past, and to hear bryan and I introducing the band – and then launch with extreme confidence and vigour into the nearly impossible dozey lumps repertoire – but, this is the twist on this show – we also decided to play electric material – which is fine, except – we had no such material.  so during rehearsals, we worked out a number of “untitled instrumentals” – or at least, the framework upon which we would improvise.  and finally, a choice selection of…cover versions, mostly, of utterly impossible-to-perform (but that fact did not stop us!) songs by our favourite progressive rock heroes, so I am quite keen to see if any of them have stood the test of time, and might be sonically and performance wise, worthy of some kind of release.

what covers? well…and this is going to seem so odd, but, I was deep into my peter hammill phase, so there are a couple of ph songs on vol. II or III of the cassette, I believe, “mirror images” and “flying blind”.  and then, because this was really well before bindlestiff formed, so what covers we chose was based on the music we both loved, so along with my two peter hammill covers (both on electric piano), we also did songs by peter gabriel, split enz  and king crimson – lofty company for our humble dozey lumps acoustic numbers and homespun electric improvs!  so a concert that was pretty much a “full” dozey lumps songs, with a couple of bryan’s instrumentals added in; our “untitled instrumental” series, and – unusually for this period, a couple of electric versions of dozey lumps tunes in one of the sets from that night – and then, finally, sprinkled in between – the prog covers.  a very, very odd set list indeed.

possibly the strangest aspect of it, besides that I did not expect to hear it any time soon, and now I can, is hearing my 31-year old self play, from uh, 20 some years in the future…I could not resist the temptation of “listening in” during the transfer of the beginning of cassette 2 from the 3-tape set, on the first couple of verses of our peter gabriel cover, “indigo”, wherein bryan takes the lead vocal; while I play his korg synthesizer, in electric piano voice.  and from what I heard – well, it’s a very solid performance, or at least, the section I heard was…but it’s the confidence with which we launch into it, as if we’d played a million times (when in fact, I think we’d played it about four times across two rehearsals) – but, I’d learned it months before, because I used to sit at the piano and sing it, so I knew “my” part, and bryan knew the vocal – so we just did it ! but I’m not only “playing” the keyboard part, which believe me, for someone who is basically a guitarist, is not easy to play (nor was it easy to learn, but I did eventually work it all out) but I’m also embellishing it, and playing slurs that don’t belong, in between chords, and so on – and it sounds good – so that was a very odd experience hearing myself have a proficiency and uberconfidence playing a difficult, difficult piece on piano – a proficiency that I no longer have, unfortunately.

I think at the time, when we would “roll the tape back” we would be very, very overcritical of how we “did” on the performances; especially on the covers, but that’s because these were artists that we really revere, and we wanted to do these basically impossible covers of impossibly difficult songs, as well as we possibly could – do them justice if you will.  but now – many years later – listening to the young dave stafford and the young bryan helm, playing music that they are obviously passionate about, and playing with such confidence and a clear love for the material – I don’t feel ultracritical any more, and I could probably even forgive any small imperfections that might be present, just because it’s remarkable that these “pre-bindlestiff” improvs and especially covers, even exist – that they are impossible, difficult, prog rock classics, played by two people with no massive prog rock ensemble behind them – it was a good indicator of what a good band bindlestiff was about to become…once we finally recognised, sometime in 1991, that we had changed from the dozey lumps into bindlestiff, and we then started “writing” our own original electric/loop music.

so what a gift: not just a usb cassette player, but a tool that brings a forgotten, nearly lost past back from the brink of magnetic death, and preserves some remarkable music that might well have been lost forever.

I’ve had time today to think about these recordings, too, and what a blessing it is that I now have some 17 years experience of working with digital audio, what a blessing it is that I now have the proper tools and effects to take these raw recordings, clean them up, make minor enhancements to their sound if appropriate, and help them realise their full sonic potential – whereas, had I published them in 1995, when I was a complete novice at digital music, I would not have had the tools and experience to do them justice – so, the timing is right, despite the long, long delay in examining the tapes for possible release – now, we can examine them, and, if they are worth releasing, we can quickly and effectively process them with minimum effort using the modern tools we now, luckily, have available.

so yesterday, these were half-forgotten shows and recordings from years past, now, today, they’ve been and are being transferred into the digital realm as we speak, where we can easily work with them, so maybe, thanks to this brilliant little tool, we’ll get to hear some of these most unusual improvs and cover versions.  we shall see…

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