it is with great fondness that I remember my teenage years, from 13 – 20, almost always in a band, and if not in a band, recording with ted or others, or hanging around with whatever band ted was in at the moment (he was always in great demand because he could both sing and play really, really well – whereas I was more into prog, so no one wanted a proggy lead guitarist for their band…which was fine with me). occasionally, I might get up on stage with ted’s band of the moment, to play, perhaps, “fire” by jimi hendrix or something more banal, like whatever foreigner or other pop drivel they were forced to play – but, it did occasionally get me back onto a stage with an audience – always good to keep your hand in!
we really did have a fantastic time, yet, at the same time, we learned our trade, we learned to play our instruments properly, instead of just in a cursory way as it was at first – I made the first leap from age 13 – 15 – at 13, I was barely competent with chords, much less lead; at 15, I could already play lead and had learned huge chunks of albums by hendrix, cream, zeppelin and anything you put in front of me – so by 15, I had some gained some competence as a lead guitarist.
then the next growth period would have been from 15 – 17, where I was in bands still, but at the same time, learning more about rock, blues, and the beginnings of prog, too. the final big push would have been from 18 – 20, where prog came in full on, and I started learning king crimson on guitar and van der graaf generator on piano and vocal – a decidedly and radically different experience and repertoire from the beatles and ccr that we favoured back when I was 13. in 5 short years, I had gone from learning the two note solo in “born on a bayou” to memorising the fripp solo from “easy money” live on usa, or the riff from crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic part ii”.
but, it was also, perhaps, the most remarkable five years music had known, and I was lucky enough to be there during those years – call it 1973 – 1978 very roughly speaking.
it was during 1976-1978 too, that I worked with pyramid, a band that actually dared to learn and play prog. that was mike the drummer, mike the guitarist, and myself. although for performance purposes I was often relegated to the bass role, in rehearsal, it was always two guitars and drums, and I loved the repertoire we had – this was the band that could play all of nektar’s “remember the future” album – two 20 minute-long pieces – an entire album! our repertoire was varied and amazing, everything from the incredibly difficult and complex “ten years gone” by led zeppelin, to “red” by king crimson (me on bass for that, although sometimes, guitar), we played a mix of rock and prog that was a blast to learn and perform. and as far as I recall, the only gigs we played, we never played that repertoire, but instead, learned a whole new rock repertoire with weird things like “shakin’ all over”, or robin trower, “day of the eagle” and so on, for our real gigs. so the amazing prog repertoire, that we worked on for probably a year, never was recorded, never was performed – we just played it. a real shame, because since that time, I was only in one other prog band – that lasted about five months and then collapsed.
it is amazing to me to look back now at this quite brief period, and realise just how many different bands I was in at different times, how many songs I must have learned and forgotten and relearned and forgot once again – cream’s “politician” or led zeppelin “the rover” or “one more red nightmare” by king crimson – none easy to learn, but I was so fortunate, because I do have the “ear for music”, I could usually work out any tricky riffs or problematic chord sequences that my fellow musicians might struggle with. so we learned songs – played songs – forgot songs – learned songs for one-off gigs, and instantly forgot them again – or worse still, walked into a 3 hour gig with 20 minutes of prepared material
that’s when you learn to improvise, to stretch each song out to 20 minutes so you have enough material – to make songs up on the spot, whatever it takes to get through that commitment. it was both frightening and challenging at the same time. luckily, a lot of the music of the time was eminently suited to both being learned quickly and extended to any length – so a song like “southern man” by neil young – easy to learn, but, you can solo forever on those three chords, as long as you might want or need. so that was one song that I could always bring to the table when a looming gig threatened to expose just how little real repertoire the band of the moment might have had. very helpful to have all those songs in reserve, to be pulled out when needed.
riff-based songs are useful here too, because if need be, you could just show the band the riff on the spot, start playing it, and they would “pick it up” and just follow your lead. that’s a fun way to learn a song – just start playing it, even when you know the band doesn’t know it – cruel, but fair – and, to their credit, most bands responded really well, and some great jams came out of that learning style too.
I even tried my hand at putting together a power trio, but it was difficult especially to find good, reliable bass players. I did briefly, at age 20, have a little trio going – including my drummer pal rick corriere, who I’d known since junior high school – seven long years ago at that point – we played things like jimi hendrix’s “third stone from the sun” which was a great piece to improvise on. but it never went anywhere, so I would just move onto the next jam, band or work on my own on my own piano and guitar skills. I began too, to play the piano a lot, and a lifelong interest in the songs of peter hammill began – first due to exposure to the music of his band “van der graaf generator” but later also, his solo albums, where his thoughtful lyrics and absolutely unique voice really resonated with me personally – so I learned many, many of his songs, and I spent a few years learning, playing and singing both van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, on the piano mostly. somewhere, I have a piano and drum version of “still life” that I played with zappa alumni drummer tom freeman in 1990, at the “luxury yacht” session (bryan had disappeared briefly to attend to something, so I dove into the track, and tom instantly fell in with me – remarkable! – one take) – I took the raw recording of piano and drums away, and sang a vocal over it – I am hoping to find that recording and perhaps eventually release it – as well as a number of other early self-recorded versions of hammill songs.
…two of which I have just located on the dozey lumps live tape I just copied to digital, so I am starting my small collection of previously unreleased covers of peter hammill songs.
and if I find only a few…well, I may just have to re-learn some of them and play them in the here and now with my beautiful eighty-eights 🙂