from the garage to garage band – a long road

hello fellow travellers,

 

just checking in before 2016 gives way to 2017, I have been quite preoccupied of late with my new guitar system, I’m building three pedalboards at the moment, and I am in the middle of creating 200 MIDI presets to call up an enormous range of ordinary, unusual, and ambient guitar sounds – from massive distortion (as in, Crush Station and Sculpt) to beautiful modulations to amazing delays to gorgeous reverbs (thanks to Space) or incredible combinations of delay, echo, repeat, and reverb (as in SpaceTime, Ultratap, and Resonator – three amazing H9 modules) so instead of uploading tracks and writing blogs and putting items up on Twitter – instead of any of that, for something like the last two or three months now, I’ve been slowly working out the way these three boards should work.

I have, in an attempt to at least release something for the New Year, I’ve uploaded two completed tracks to the new “music for apps: garage band – an eternal album” record and they are a couple of really interesting pieces – the first one, “preponderance”, is eight minutes plus of something so strange, involving so many interesting sounds and loops, and musical events, that I find it almost impossible to describe.  the best thing is to give it a listen, it’s quite unusual.

the second song is much shorter, and features a strange, dissonant bass line that I actually played on my iphone, on the Apple “McCartney” style bass interface, and then looped in Garageband – and then, I proceeded to create an entire song, entitled “demonstrations of affliction” (in honour of Bill Nelson’s “Demonstrations Of Affection” – of course!) over the top of this very strange and repetitive bass line.  But – it’s interesting, and I look at “what works” with what in a slightly different way after this experience.  there are times when the bass loop clashes loudly and horribly with the overdubs, but, I do insist – it’s SUPPOSED to be that way!  Really, it is.

these two pieces brought me a lot of joy in their creation, and there are two or three more that I’ve been working on that are not quite ready for prime time – but, once I’ve finished those – I will put them up, I am really enjoying the “garage band experiments”.

now – back to what is important – these crazy pedalboards.

 

why are there three? – well, because that’s what works for me.  everyone does pedalboards differently – I want three, but, the three work together to form one giant system.  and that is actually really awesome!

so the first board, is for non-MIDI stompboxes, such as, pitch, distortion, overdrive, EQ pedals.  that’s a small board, with perhaps, 8 or 9 devices – and, it can be used standalone for practice or rehearsal, or for very small gigs where you don’t want to haul all of the equipment.  this board is known as the “Input Board” – this is where the guitar signal starts.

then – there is the MAIN board, which is for MIDI-controlled stompboxes.  This is where my Eventide devices live, along with their dedicated power supply and a MIDI splitter and cables.  this is where the magic happens, by combining different patches across the H9s, or using the Pitch Factor and Space stomps to provide harmony and … space…the possibilities here are staggering.  so this is the heart of the system.  The output of the Input Board, plugs into the Input of the Main Board…so I drive the non-MIDI effects into the MIDI controlled effects.

finally – pedalboard three – is the “Control Board” – this is the simplest of the boards, it contains a large MIDI pedal, that can be programmed to call up all of the different patches on the five devices.  Along with that, are two expression pedals, which are used to alter different parameters on different effects, you know, like the speeding up and slowing down of a leslie speaker simulator, or increasing the spaces between the beats on a tremolo and so on….plus a third expression pedal to operate a stand-alone non-MIDI delay that I use (exclusively) for reverse guitar sounds.

yes, I could have got reverse guitar sounds from the H9s (and I do, actually) but I wanted to free up a bank – so by adding the delay, that means, I freed an entire bank that had been dedicated to reverse sounds.  so I am much happier this way, because I can now make any of the 200 patches – play in reverse.  That is brilliant!

 

but this is where this whole pedalboard building experience really amazes me…if I step back a moment in time, to when I was about 13, and I was in my first real band, and I had a no-name red semi-acoustic electric guitar, and I played through a single channel of a tiny amp, with another guitarist (the owner of the amp) plugged into the same channel of the one channel amp – I didn’t have an amp of my own, so I had to plug into one of the other guitarists’ amps!  That – was my “set up” in 1971.

I remember speaking with the drummer in the band, Brian Monaco, he and I were the main singers, so we solemnly both decided that we would each buy a Radio Shack best quality vocal microphone for something like $25.00 – which was a huge amount of money, and then we had to buy the mic stands, too…no boom for me, just the straight stand with the massive, heavy weights at the bottom.  Brian had the expensive stand with the boom, because he needed it – he was the drummer, after all.

We plugged both mics into one tiny guitar amp, and with the guitars all plugged in together in a way that you just should not do… and that was the bands’ set up.  Three tiny no name amplifiers, with three guitars and two microphones plugged into the six possible inputs – and all three amps were single channel, so the sound must have been terrible.  But – we didn’t notice – we just played.  Amazingly, there is a tape of that band, which you can find somewhere on this blog, in the “companion” to the blog – there are a few tracks from that gig posted.

So when I think back to that, and I then consider what my guitar system is like today, some forty plus years later – with my MIDI controlled presets (20o of them!) and the endless combinations of effects and sounds I can retreive with one button push – I can’t really believe this is happening, it doesn’t seem possible, but – it is.  I’ve just done my first sysex backup of the Ground Control Pro MIDI Pedal, which was very exciting.  It actually worked – which means I can back up and restore the entire contents of the MIDI pedal as needed – which is great!

I often wish that my “13 year old self” could just see my current 2016 set up, so he would know (have known) what the future held.

I remember when I was 15, I began to use guitar effects, first, I had a wah wah pedal that I bought myself, which was a great tool, and then later, a cast-off and not very good sounding Arbiter Fuzz Face, the old red one – which I now wish I still had! and then later still, I had the use of an Echoplex, which was simply an amazing tool, when I was something like 16 or 17.   If I could have seen where that was headed, to modern delays, loopers, and so on – I would have said “no way, this is simply not possible”…

My 13 year old self would not have believed what can be achieved with MIDI and guitars, it’s simply astonishing technology – and I was blissfully unaware of it until much, much later in life.  But I’m glad Ive gone through this, and I think that it’s better to have a good sounding guitar, with a range of different interesting patches, than just ONE GUITAR SOUND – always the same.  That does seem dull, and I know that as a guitarist, I should love the idea of plugging my strat into a tube amp, with NO pedals, and just wailing and waxing poetic with the pure sound of tubes – and yes, I do love that sound, but…not to the exclusion of all else.

 

I think effects are important, and I do spend a lot of time, trying to get them to sound as natural and as organic as possible, I want you to hear the guitar playing first and the effect, second – definitely. I don’t want to be defined by effects, but by my note choices and the songs I write and record and play.  So I do try to remember my roots, try to remember what it was like, always playing through a borrowed amp, for years, as a teenager, because I couldn’t afford an amp!

The truth is, the last time I even OWNED a tube amp, was at least ten years ago – no, at least 12 or 13 years ago (a beautiful small black MESA Boogie which I should NEVER have sold – SIGH!!) so perhaps someday, I will get into amps again.  I think in this day and age, using a high quality device such as the H9 for my main sounds – that I can do just as well (using only a pedalboard into a clean stereo power amp) as a tube amp and no one will really know the difference, – except other guitarists.

I have never hidden the fact that I love effects, and I mean, I have gone pedal mad, I read about pedals, I dream about pedals – and I think there are some truly wonderful pedals out there that can transform your playing and take your guitar sound into the realms of the beyond.  I’ve finally realised that that, is where I want to go.  Beyond.

 

 

We have the technology – so – why not?

If you see what I mean.

 

 

I must now return to programming, I am on bank D now, so, I have about 140 of the 200 presets entered.  Wish me luck on the rest…

 

ta

 

Dave at pureambient

 

 

Happy Very Belated Christmas and a Merry New Year to all !!!!

 

studio diary 20150315 – or, that was then…this is NOW

today I had the uncanny realisation, that I am about to embark on the creation of my 18th “eternal album”, which is a large series of recent recordings featuring mainly apple iPad music applications, along with the odd PC music program or “generic eternals” such as the “classical” album.

that in itself is no more significant than the fact that I launched the 17th one today, “music for apps: thesys – an eternal album” and while this album focusses on the fantastic “thesys” application from sugar bytes,  I am already planning the next (which is set to feature the absolutely remarkable app “SECTOR” from Kymatica – which involves one of my favourite developers, Jonatan Liljedahl – inventor of audioshare, and the AUFX series of awesome effects apps).

I did some pre-planning last night, and I could see that I had sufficient material for at least two new albums in the series almost immediately – and I’ve been a bit remiss this year, waiting until March to release the first eternal album of the year – of 2015 – but – hey, I’ve been busy. 🙂

 

what is significant about the fact that I am about to release my 18th album in the “music for…” or “eternal album series”, is this:

prior to the world of ios applications, I used to make “normal” albums ( from the mid 1980s till about 2011, when I got my first ipad…)  – so, you would record music, work on songs, mix and master those songs, and after x amount of time, usually, months, sometimes, years, you would release another finished album of music.  that’s how it always worked – until ios applications came along.  so the compile, wait, compile, wait, compile, wait some more, way of making albums, gradually gave way to a new way – a single album, dedicated to one instrument, app, software or even genre, where there is no limit on tracks, and I basically just keep adding tracks to each one of these “eternal albums” –  forever. so in 20 years’ time – I could have a very, very large number of tracks up there 🙂 on a broad variety of topic-based albums.

so – in the period between 1992, which is the year that my first album proper came out (“voices from the desert”) and 2012, which is the year my “last” “normal album”, “gone native”, came out – so, in 20 years, give or take – I had released 18 “normal albums” during this time – or, I should say, 18 normal “dave stafford” albums – I am not counting bands or collaborations here. that would have probably put the total count for the 1992 -2012 period to “over 30” – but I am focussing solely on my “solo” albums now.

however, more recently, and, overlapping the end of that period slightly, I realised tonight that as I am planning my 18th eternal album album right now, that this means, that I have done exactly the same number of applications-based, or pc-based / generic, albums in the “music for…” series, in just over three years, that it took me to make 18 “normal albums” in !!

 

that is – remarkable.  and difficult to believe, too.

but – it’s real.  I started out working with apps in about December, 2011, and of course, have worked with them ever since (in some ways, it feels like I am just getting started!!) so that means through 2012, 13 and 14 – and here we are, now, in March 2015 – so actually, approaching 3 and 1/2 years in total.

twenty years – to make 18 Dave Stafford albums in the traditional way.  Then, a mere three and a half years, to make the NEXT 18 Dave Stafford albums – in the “eternal album” way.

 

that is simply – astonishing.  oh, how I wish I had thought of the “eternal album” concept back in the late 80s, when I started recording in earnest, as an adult, and as a looper.  just imagine the one, massive “music for loopers” album I would have compiled by now – featuring 246 looped or live improvs played with guitar, ebow and looper, over twenty years.  and, another similar one for rock and prog works…and so on.

instead, I worked the way we all worked, we would not release anything until we had the whole album, built painstakingly one track at a time – “in the can” – even if that took three or four YEARS !  You just kept going, until you had “enough” songs, to make a decent length record, or, until you had the right songs for the album concept you had. it was quite a realisation, though, that, thanks to the “eternal album” concept, and thanks to advances in recording techniques and processes (no more tape recorders for me!) that I was able to mirror my first 20 years’ output, in just 3.5 years, using these new tools to my distinct advantage.

I would stress, too, that it’s not just that things took longer back then, or that it’s more time consuming when you are working with tape machines than in a purely digital environment, and so on – it’s also because, the tablet itself, in my case, the apple iPad – has radically, and unalterably, changed the way musicians work.  if you ask me, it’s revolutionised the way we work. everything is designed for speed, and ease of use.  everything can be done quicker, and usually easier, than in a real studio.

so the ipad, the tablet, the way that some of these absolutely, practically magical applications work…that just changed everything – and that is why I was able to produce 18 albums, with probably, more tracks than my previous 18 albums, in such an incredibly short span of time – 3.5 years.  that’s something approaching six full length albums each year – which, back in the day, would have been not only a prohibitive schedule to maintain, but also, a punishing one.  No one would “try” to make six albums in one year – it was unheard of.  OK, maybe two or three albums per year, at a stretch, maybe, in pop’s heyday, or at the beginnings of rock music – but generally, established patterns of record production mixed with touring, were established and pretty much, followed, by all bands and artists.

then, in 1967, the Beatles actually slowed down this process, by taking an unheard-of six months to complete “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. and for a while anyway, from then on, bands would compete to see how long it could take them to make one record, in the same way they competed for the “biggest crowd” or the “loudest concert in history” or whatever silly, prideful contests went on during the worst of rock’s excesses – whenever you consider that period to be (1980s, anyone?) 😉

 

of course, you do tend to work more quickly with applications, in most cases.  There are exceptions, and certain pieces just require a little more time.  But nowadays, even if it takes me, say, six weeks to finish a concerto in three long movements – the MOMENT it is finished, I can load it up to the “classical” album to join other tracks in the classical genre.

so the new system is working really, really well – for a number of reasons, and I can’t really get my head around the idea of making 36 Dave Stafford albums across 23 years – with the first 18 taking up the first 20 years, and the second 18 taking up a little more than the remaining three years!!! that is just – really stunning.  something to think about, I suppose.

and of course, at this rate, it won’t be long before the “eternal album” series exceeds the pre-2011 “normal albums” in numbers, and I cannot imagine how many albums, not to mention, how many tracks, these 17 soon to be 18 eternal albums will have at the end of THEIR first 20 years – a staggering amount, even assuming that my output will slow somewhat, as I grow older 🙂

track wise, I am not sure how it rates, I would have to do some manual counting, but I would guess that it’s probably a case where there are nearly as many “eternal album” tracks, or maybe more, than the original 18 albums would bear – because back then, tradition said put 12 or 14 tracks on an album, and of course, I would ignore tradition, I had one double album, “other memory / sand island” that had a whopping 33 tracks; while other “normal albums” maybe only featured seven or eight lengthy pieces – and EPs, of course, which I’ve counted as “albums” – might be as short as four tracks.

so I would bet that the track count of the “eternal album” HAS already exceeded that of the original “normal” albums.

I will actually be able to find out over the coming weeks, I’ve begun work on a thorough updating of the discography on the old pureambient website, I plan to pair it up fully with bandcamp, which has all of the albums, old and new, up there – so I will get full counts as soon as I expand the track details and so on, I will have a more concise resource that I can “count tracks” from much more easily.

however, please do not hold your breath, to include more useful information, I’ve had to alter the format of the discography entries slightly, which means an extensive, laborious re-write – but, I really want to do this, for one reason, so there will be a one-stop resource for information about each of the albums, old or recent, for another because it appeals to my own internal sense of order :-).

I do have an interest in statistical information, I can’t really help it, so things like this fascinate me, but it’s a really interesting comment on the speed of life, too – now, I have tools that I can use, to VERY, VERY quickly, build music of real complexity and beauty, on a tablet device (that’s where the magic comes in, I reckon – anywhere and everywhere, I can work on music – with dozens of amazing, powerful music-making tools – incredible!!!), which I can also use to make high quality art work, and then the music can be uploaded to bandcamp, instead of being made available on media as it used to be – it all happens so incredibly quickly now, it’s no wonder that I was forced to invent the “eternal album”, just to deal with a situation where suddenly, after 20 years of slow and steady music production; the ios music apps suddenly turned me into the most prolific musician on the globe – and I had to do something about it if I was to even be able to process the ios music I was creating!

what I did, of course, is invent the “eternal album”.

it took a while to get it all working, but in a very short time, for example, I was able to upload no less than 61 tracks to the album “music for apps: mixtikl – an eternal album” – and that right there, is the equivalent of five or six normal albums – produced in perhaps, six months at the most – astonishing!  so everything is…very much faster, there are no more endless delays waiting for the drummer to set up, or dealing with instrument problems (although, I do still get those, since I DO still use real instruments, and I do plan on making at least a few more “normal” albums of guitar music over the next few years – so please, watch this space!).

music just took longer back then, you had all hardware devices, so to do looping – you needed a LOT of gear.  And a nice rack mount to put it all in.  with a nice digital reverb in it.

now – all of those rack mount devices, exist not just on your computer, where all your recording takes place, too, but also – on your bloody tablet device as well ! and that is a downright miracle – multi-track studio apps like auria, sophisticated effects units like effectrix and turnado, begin to rival the quality of that expensive hardware that now sits in a corner in the studio, rarely if ever used any more, which is really sad, so I continue to make the time to use both – because as much as I love and fully embrace the music / ios technology – I still have a huge love for real guitars, basses, keyboards and drums – real instruments, recorded the old fashioned way – that still has a lot to be said for it!

 

sure, for playing guitar, I still use a LOT of hardware, especially, “loopers”, but more and more, any processing, any effects – are almost easier to apply using your PC, or even your tablet – which to someone from my generation, who grew up with electric guitars and amps, where basically, it was all about the hardware – hardware was the only option in 1971, when I started playing electric guitar for the second time, in earnest, when I was in my first few “garage bands” – is almost incomprehensible.  yet – it be.  it definitely be !!

I was really quite taken with this revelation, then, about just how much has changed.  but it’s today’s young musician that can benefit the most from all of this amazing technology, bypassing the difficult skills of learning to actually play the guitar, bass, drums or keyboards, but instead, in their bedrooms, using technology – to replicate it – and, much, much faster than we could ever do it back in the 1970s with hardware.

sure, they won’t have some of the hard-won skills that those of us who grew up in my generation will have, but, they will have the advantage of the “quicker, better, faster”, etc. – technology – and I hope we hear some amazing music being created by bands that, for example, have five members who all play the iPad.  how fun would that be!

things have changed, and today’s music making person, has a huge range of devices, software for PCs, and apps for tablets and phones, none of which we had back in 1970.  I think that this unavoidable fact has both positives, and negatives, and I can only hope that the former outweighs the latter – because the danger is, that we get too many folk who have no musical talent, “playing” the iPad, and finding limited success – because of the mediocre skill levels that CAN be used to operate some of the simpler music apps – we will, unavoidably, have an even larger stack of not-so-good “electronic musicians” to wade through than we did five years ago – but, at the same time, there are still a fairly large number of “traditional musicians” around – so, I am hoping for a balance – and I think there is merit to both types of musician – the traditional such as myself, the electronic, and, hybrids – such as, myself again – because I absolutely love playing with ios music applications, very nearly almost as much as I love playing my Gibson SG – so, for me, it’s win, win – and win.

 

have fun – until next time –

 

 

peace and love,

 

dave at pureambient

 

 

 

 

seems like a lifetime ago… (or, studio diary 20141101: arriving too late to save a drowning fungo bat)

A blast from the past as it were, sometimes, when you are involved in one project too many, various routine tasks (such as, uploading completed pieces of music) slip through the cracks.  This is the story of one of those projects – a project that was actually completed at the end of October, 2014, was rough mixed on November 1, 2014, but is only just now seeing the light of day.  The rough mix was acceptable, but for reasons unknown, the final mix was not made, and the piece just sat in the completed masters section of the database – done, complete – but not published!

That would be, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings“, my third concerto, but, the first to feature piano and strings, I’d always worked with horns before, specifically, oboes (my lead instrument of choice it would appear – see concerto no. 1 [in e minor] and concerto no. 2 [in a minor] – both for guitar and oboe – do you see a pattern emerging there?) so I wanted to test some uncharted waters, and see if I could “say” as much with just piano and strings.  It was challenging, but in the end, I believe I have succeeded quite well in that particular aspiration.  But I will let you be the judge of that…

A curious melody, sounding for the life of me, like a lost European folk melody, begins the piece, but then, suddenly, a banging and clashing of strings and timpani takes over, with urgent, repeating “morse-code”-like bursts, which then settle to almost ambient, mellotron-like strings, which wash over the listener in beautiful, deep waves…or so I hope, anyway! 

That folk melody established at the very beginning, then re-occurs in various places within the larger work, as do other themes – I really like to try and establish a number of different, short musical themes or ideas, in the first (and sometimes, second) movement, and then, reiterate them, often in totally re-arranged or re-configured ways, at various points during movements 2 and 3 – I like to always refer “back” to earlier themes wherever possible, I find that gives you a cohesiveness that can otherwise, be lacking – you can hear the relationship between the movements, as well as their own unique characteristics.

What I found was, that of course, you can’t really have the strings or the piano “soloing” endlessly, so various interesting musical events probably “take the place” for me, of the missing oboe, short instrumental passages, plain and simple chord sequences; lovely pizzicato sections (I find pizzicato strings to be absolutely gorgeous, and I will use any excuse to include them in my work – I really will); but what I found very interesting was that I continued to turn to the percussion section, to take over sections of melody!

In particular, I began to rely heavily on the timpani, to express musical ideas, that normally might have fallen to a more common solo instrument (my missing oboe again, or clarinet, or flute…) – so I found that timpani alone, or, timpani with xylophone, became my new weapon of choice, and even better, when you contrasted those two percussive instruments against the best percussion instrument of all, the piano – it sounds great!

So I found myself playing xylophone a la Ruth Underwood, taking my cues from the world of Zappa jazz more than from the world of serious classical music, and I tried to think like a Zappa would (not an easy task) – however, I will say, that this concerto has a far more…”modern” sound to it, it’s far closer to jazz then my previous two works (in places), and normally, I am not a huge fan of modern classical composers or modern classical music, but I learned here, that it can be very invigorating and indeed, a joy to take those sort of almost jazz-like flights of fancy, and then keep bringing back to earth with the strings and piano, making sure that the normal classical motifs and forms are still in place, so that it still retains a flavour of non-modern classical music – elements as old as the hills – the piano, leading the way, the strings, supporting, questing – I really enjoyed the composition process in this instance, as I always do, and each time I produce a new piece, I learn something – actually, not “something” – many, many things – new.

Then, it’s almost as if the percussionists have temporarily “lost the plot”, as they seemingly almost wander off onto a strange melodic quote from “the firebird suite” – played on the xylophone in a humorous style [between 5:59 through 6:25].

More Ruth Underwood-style solo xylophone follows, which then resolves into the most incredibly ambient section of strings I’ve ever scored, which is the long, flowing section that ends the first movement – in such an incredibly calming, slow, and luscious way, and, the first time I’ve used a long fade out in a classical piece– the calm after the modern jazz storm I would almost say.

A strident string and piano theme begins at 6:42, but very quickly, loses its stridency, and becomes calmer, with pizzicato “dropped chords” occasionally appearing, long, deep strings, fade gradually along with the ever-calmer piano melody, which is now dream-like, almost ambient – eventually, the piano disappears altogether, leaving those gorgeous strings on their own for the last few moments running up to 08:07; until the first movement fades to complete silence, when another “first” is to immediately follow; the start of the second movement, has an even longer “fade in”, which then becomes a new piano theme (which, curiously, had originally been part of the first movement, had been rejected and removed to the outtakes section – and then, because I really liked it, re-instated as the first new piano theme in the beginning of the second movement; which then begins to merge and intertwine with more timpani and more xylophone, but, fleetingly; once again, the long, beautiful ambient “string chords” threaten to overwhelm, they just flow over what is happening whenever they will, often, at unexpected moments, and I really like the sound of those long, string section held chords – simple, effective.

Then we have a section of string madness, where more new themes emerge, including a brief, bowed solo from the bass (another first for me, I think) I have tried to be a bit more bold in terms of allowing individual players to have more solo “moments” – and probably, more solo piano than in any other piece.  Some really lovely violin and viola leading up to ominous bass notes, long, held notes.

At some point, we are briefly re-visited by the opening “European folk music” theme, which is a nice place for a re-iteration, tying the first two movements together nicely.

Normal string melodies, trade off with pizzicato ones, followed by more moments of madness, from 11:18 thru 11:29 for example, when the lead violinist, begins playing high speed pizzicato riffs way above the top of his/her normal range, a piece of musical joyousness I simply could not resist, which started out as just one instance, and soon grew to a full 12 seconds of high pitched pizzicato madness – a temporary loss of sanity on the first violinist’s part, no doubt. 🙂

The second movement then settles into a sort of strange mixture of piano, timpani and xylophone, in more supporting roles, as violin, viola, and cello play interlocking lines, this section gave me a lot of grief at the time, but it was worth the pain, I persevered, and it all came out well in the end.  Some sprightly up and down arpeggios for both the piano and for the xylophone are interspersed, accompanied by powerful timpani, the pianist playing with some wonderful flourishes and beautifully underpinning the piece with subtle low bass notes, while his/her right hand is playing double-quick arpeggios in the top octave of the piano keyboard.

Our familiar D suspended 4th to D major theme re-occurs too, extending out into a timpani–led improv section, followed by more mournful, long mellotron-like string parts that bring the second movement to its inevitable conclusion…

…the third movement begins immediately, without the customary rest between movements, at 16:02 on an eerie, ominous minor chord, with the bass alternating with a short-duration minor chord, a cello melody begins, and we are once again, away…

More new themes are immediately presented, piano and strings being featured heavily throughout this movement, we then move into some “octave” piano work, followed by a beautiful, strange almost Rundgren-esque chord sequence [17:31 – 17:42], involving both major seventh chords and bass notes that are not the root note – as example, C major 7th with a G bass, or C major 7th with an E bass – anything but a C bass!! (two of Todd Rundgren’s trademark devices, the major seventh and the 3rd or 5th in the bass – why  not!) – which are then reiterated briefly by the strings –and then on into the next emerging theme, a descending chord motif…which then resolves to a piano theme first introduced in the first movement; our bright, major key sequence of D suspended 4th to D Major chords once again; which then resolves to a really stark, honest solo piano section that I am inordinately proud of [19:51 through 20:30].

A tension-building exercise is next, using a new piano riff to drive home a musical concept via repetition, and I love the powerful way that works, once again, resolving back to a reprise of that stark solo piano piece with its odd tempo slow-down [the one just referenced, from 19:51 through 20:30] – I love the fact that the tempo changes so often in this piece.

Again, the tension-building riff, but this time, for a shorter amount of time, it then dissolves into a piano and strings section that builds and builds in volume, until finally I reach my “Beethoven moment” [22:41 – 22:47] which while it may sound simple, it actually took some doing to get that part to sound right.

SPECIAL NOTE: since we are for now only producing recordings of the full concertos (previously, we have offered both the full concerto; and recordings of the individual movements, but we have discontinued that practice, and for the foreseeable future, we will be producing only complete, full versions of the concertos online) – here are the start times for each movement, and the total time as well, for those who like to know such things:

  • Beginning Of First Movement                       00:00 Approximate Duration: 08:07
  • Beginning Of Second Movement                 08:07 Approximate Duration: 07:55
  • Beginning Of Third Movement                     16:02 Approximate Duration: 13:09 (13:15 with added silence at the end of the piece)
  • Overall Duration                                         29:11 (29:17 with added silence at the end of the piece)

 

As is my custom, it would seem, the third movement of every concerto I do, seems to always end up to be by far the longest of the three; I do not know why this is, I am not intentionally doing this, it just works out this way – partially, I suppose, because I want to add in themes from the first movement, and sometimes the second, that if all three movements started out life roughly equal, that the third would always end up having several minutes added, because, first of all, I want to re-insert certain earlier themes, but also, there just seem to be more emerging new themes, as well as sometimes, I like to re-arrange or sometimes, radically modify earlier themes, to present them with all new instruments, or with one instrument taking the lead and another a background part, the reverse of how they were in movement one, and so on – a place to experiment, a place to really stretch out both compositionally but also, as a player.

The piano parts are where I get to compose what I would love to sit out there in front of that audience and play, so they are special to me – I do tend to spend inordinate amounts of time working on the piano parts, solos and other instances of piano – which I use for everything – bridging sections, supporting the strings with some percussive, piano “rhythm” – I love to play piano, but I have also learned – that I love to score piano – it’s a real delight, and I love it when things work out well, and it ends up sounding just as I “hear it” in my mind – and that is an accomplishment, it’s not often easy for musicians to do that, but Notion is an app that actually does allow me to do that – it lets me wander compositionally where perhaps my mere, human hands maybe never really quite could – but my mind – my mind can!

To date, then, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano and strings”, also remains, as of January, 2015, in any case, the longest in duration of my published concertos, although the Concerto No. 4 is nearly as long, clocking in at 27:22. I think this longer form suits better, allowing me more chances to introduce new themes or refer to existing ones…

In this case, the third movement of the third concerto becomes a vehicle for a fair amount of solo piano, which appears repeatedly in between other musical events; in my humble opinion, the piano solo in the third movement is one of the most surprising bits of music that I have come up with in recent times, it really surprises me, and, it contains a wonderful slow-down of tempo at one point, which really drives home the melody playing at that moment.  After the long piano improv, a longish section of strings, with cello and viola soloing over the top of short chord bursts of strings, follows, again, this time, gradually slowing in tempo, with the cello leading the way to a long, long final sad chord…and then, back to the bright, beautiful string section with piano, theme of D major suspended fourth to D major, repeating, that originally appears in the first movement.

That piano theme fades away completely (I seem to really, really be on a “fade in / fade out” kick at the moment), or is that, rather, a “fade out / fade in”?? – the latter, in this case, and a completely new section, mostly piano-led, appears very gradually, fading in – to take us away into the lands of solo piano once again, repeating the wonderful “slow-down” tempo section, and then – to an incredibly Peter Hammill-esque duet between the lower registers of the piano and the string bass – it really, really is reminiscent of early Hammill there for a moment. [from 26:23 – 26:50 and beyond…] – I like how the piece lingers in this very lower register, where things are dark and deep – but then, moments later, the sun emerges again in the form of that persistent, sunny D suspended 4th to D major melodic section – what a swing of mood that is!

So many different moods and emotions are present here, especially in the third movement, which becomes a very rich and complex juxtaposition of themes, but somehow, I manage to make all of those recurrences, alternate versions, variants and mutations, all fit – and all work together nicely.  It was sometimes not easy to fit it all together, at times I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but in the end, I made it work – and, I think I have some nice tension built in certain places, that resolves into some of the quietest, most ambient sections that to date, I’ve been able to include in a classical work.

Notion has been absolutely instrumental in helping me to learn how to score, but by the time I reached concerto no. 3 (September – October 2014) I had gained enough skill with Notion, and with scoring, that I could, somewhat playfully I admit, insert these short sections of odd music just for the sheer fun of it – and when you listen, you might think, hey, wait a minute, did I just hear…the firebird suite, by Igor Stravinsky, played on a solo xylophone?  I am afraid the answer to that question is – “yes, you did”.  Or “hey, wait a minute, wasn’t that Todd Rundgren on the piano there?? “yes – I am afraid so!”.

You are not imagining it, it’s really happening!

Therefore, I present, better late than never; completed on November 1, 2014, but not uploaded until January 2015, with a great amount of pride and happiness, here is my third major classical work to date, “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings” by dave stafford – we hope you enjoy it.

🙂 🙂

learning the beatle repertoire…

After a childhood dominated by the Beatles (I only had four long-playing vinyl LPs – all by the Beatles!) and their music, when I returned from Africa in 1971, armed with a rudimentary, self-taught knowledge of the guitar, one of the first things I did, was seek out other musicians to work with.  it came as no surprise, somehow, that we already had something in common – we all loved the songs of the Beatles, and in almost every band I was ever in as a young teenager, we tried to learn Beatles songs – with varying degrees of success, I must hasten to add.

 

Two early bands, both joined when I was still in Junior High School, provided the vehicle – and I was one of the few who purported to play lead guitar (and I could,  but, very, very haltingly, and, very, very slowly, and…not very well at this point in my life, age 13 – 14) I was “in” – it’s difficult to recall, and in fact, I have no idea what the name of either of these bands are, but for the sake of reference, I will call them the “Mike Lewis Band” and the “Stafford / Monaco” bands, respectively, because those were the alleged “leaders” of the two budding beat groups 🙂

 

There is even a recording of the “Stafford / Monaco” band, an amazingly good cassette tape (considering the age and the quality of the tape – recorded by my older brother John on a poor quality 120 minute tape, no less) of a live performance, where we tackle some Beatles numbers, and I even have a go at singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” – the verses only, no bridge 🙂

 

This is a perfect example of great enthusiasm for the material, from a group that did not have the chops or ability to play the songs particularly well – but – we were all just thirteen, so, I don’t really expect much out of either of these bands, to be honest!  So if a few of our songs were missing bridges or the odd verse, it’s just the way things worked out…

 

I think the “Mike Lewis Band” was the first band I was in, Mike was a gregarious, friendly bass player / acoustic guitarist who spent his entire life forming bands, writing songs, and playing in bands – he was determined if not incredibly talented.  I remember though that he and I did reach some dizzy heights, such as our attempts to play the beautiful acoustic guitar balled “Julia” from the Beatles “White Album” – I am happy that there is no tape of that !  But we even took turns singing the verses, so we could do the overlapping vocal bit – very sophisticated.  But – “Julia” was not part of our repertoire, Mike and I would tend to play acoustic guitars just for fun, playing the songs of the day, and singing, and I can remember we learned and played “The Needle And The Damage Done” by Neil Young, which was also very popular at the time.

 

In the “Mike Lewis Band”, we started out as a three-piece band; I think, with Mike Lewis on bass and lead vocals, Mike Brooks on drums, and myself on lead guitar.  Then Mike announced that he was going to bring around this amazing pianist that he knew of, to see if he would join our band.  That was when I first met Ted Holding, who later on, would become my very best and dearest personal friend, but at this point in time, Ted was quiet, unassuming, with his long, straight blond hair hanging in his face – but when he sat down at the piano – it was a different story.

 

Ted had the voice of an angel, a far, far better voice than Mike (which I am sure didn’t please Mike too much) – but, Mike was smart enough to know that bringing in someone of Ted’s calibre truly strengthened the musicality of the band, so he set aside any feelings of inferiority – he had such bravado anyway, that he would probably never admit that Ted was miles beyond us all in terms of ability and talent.  Ted on the piano – even at age 13 ! – was a revelation, and as we grew up together in the early 70s, I was privileged to watch Ted graduate from pop music, Beatles music, on through (of course) Elton John, and then, onto prog: learning the music of Genesis, ELP and so on, on the piano.  I watched, I imitated, I begged him to teach me songs – so really, my own keyboard ability came along in leaps and bounds directly as a result of working with Ted – may he rest in peace.

 

I don’t remember that the “Mike Lewis Band” played a lot of gigs, although we must have played some, I’m really not sure – I remember practicing in the back bedroom at Mike’s parents’ house, spending a lot of time there either with the band, or working with Mike on new repertoire for the band.  And that would have included some Beatles covers, although with this band, since it’s the farthest back, I literally cannot remember a single song that we actually played – the memories are gone, I’m afraid.

 

But – I do remember the “Stafford / Monaco” band a bit better, partially because of the taped show, and because it was later – I don’t know what happened to the “Mike Lewis Band”, but I ended up joining up with this kid Rick Snodgrass, and many an hour was spent at his parents’ house, learning songs and working out our repertoire.  I brought along one of my new pals, who lived in my neighbourhood, around – our drummer (who also sang) – the very talented Brian Monaco.

 

Our set list included everything you would expect from a cover band in 1971: the Beatles (of course!), Creedence Clearwater Revival (of course!), the aforementioned John Lennon (and our half-cover of “Imagine”), and Santana, that kind of thing.  For a band whose four members age was all exactly 13, we were remarkably accomplished.  In those days, as was always the case in the early days of most bands it seems, there was a shortage of bass players – so we just didn’t have one.  To compensate for this, we went from a standard two guitars and drums to a really confusing three guitars and drums – but somehow, we made it work – Rick brought in a friend of his on third guitar, so we had one rhythm guitarist (Rick) and two lead guitarists (myself and Tommy).  Rehearsals could be a real row if we weren’t all in tune !

 

Excerpts from this rare concert are available on the pureambient blog companion page, where you can actually hear the “Stafford / Monaco” band’s primitive renditions of Beatles and other popular songs of the day – here are the tracks that have been uploaded so far (the rest will probably not be uploaded – but maybe someday), but even this partial set list is stacked very, very heavily in favour of our favourite band – the Beatles:

 

Stafford / Monaco Band Live At Johnson’s, 1971

 

3 Back In The U.S.S.R. – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco

Imagine – (the verses only, no bridge) – guitar & lead vocal, Dave Stafford

And I Love Her – (Instrumental Version)

10 Born On The Bayou

13 Gentle On My Mind

16 Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds  – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco

17 Honey Don’t – acoustic guitar & lead vocal, Rick Snodgrass

20 Twist And Shout

22 Evil Ways

Credits:
Tracks 1, 9 & 16 – Lennon / McCartney
Track 7 – Lennon
Track 10 – Fogerty
Track 13 – Hartford
Track 17 – Perkins
Track 20 – Medley / Russell
Track 22 – Henry

Now, one shouldn’t approach this as a great musical tribute to the Beatles or any of the bands we covered, we were very, very young, very inexperienced, but I will say, we were enthusiastic, and Rick’s parents were endlessly supportive, too, giving us advice, listening, and making suggestions – it was a very positive experience overall.  What we lacked in experience and proficiency, was made up for by our burning desire to play the music that we loved – and, in later years, when I was in my late teens, I did participate in Beatles covers that sound much, much better than these very primitive versions, with typical very-old-cassette bad sound quality.  When I hit 19, 20 – I was playing in cover bands, and playing Beatles songs, reasonably well, every night for a couple of years.

 

But – learning these songs – what a struggle it could be !  I think what amazes me most about the the “Stafford / Monaco” band’ set list is the fact that we tackled two very musically complex tracks; one from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and one from the “White Album” – which, for a group of 13 year old boys, was incredibly ambitious.  I am especially proud of Brian Monaco, for his remarkably accurate drumming and his lead vocal on the rather difficult to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.  I only wish the guitars were even close to the original – they are not !  But Brian’s performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is really remarkably good, all things considered.

 

The earlier Beatles tracks and covers that we did, were not much easier to learn – I do recall that our instrumental arrangement of “And I Love Her” – an early favourite track of mine, was especially arranged by myself for the band, and we worked very, very hard to be able to perform this song as well as we did on the cassette.  Of course, the straight-ahead rock numbers are a little bit easier to learn, the bread and butter of every cover band that ever existed – “Honey Don’t” featured Rick, while “Twist And Shout” was another Monaco lead vocal – a real rocker!

 

The inclusion, oddly, of Glen Campbell’s huge hit, “Gentle On My Mind”, is down to Rick, who was a huge fan.  While it’s not a track I would have picked – it actually works quite well.

 

Santana, of course, were huge at this time, so our final track of the evening, “Evil Ways” – again, featuring the unstoppable Brian Monaco on drums and lead vocal – made good sense.

 

There were several Creedence numbers in the set, of which “Born On The Bayou” was one of the most popular, this band had just skyrocketed to fame, and every band of teenagers with guitars was learning this now-classic piece of rock music – ourselves included.  This was one of the first proper “lead solos” I learned – two notes of it, anyway.

 

I cite these two bands as the earliest examples of myself learning Beatles music, a process that began when I was 13, and continues to this day (I recently recorded, but did not release, a live cover of “I’m So Tired” on piano – piano and voice) – and I plan to work on the track until I do get a releasable version – so even now, in my mid-50s, I am STILL learning, playing and singing songs by the amazing Beatles.  As I got older, my ability to play the guitar improved somewhat, and by age 16 0r 17, I could do a much better job of covering a Beatles tune than my 13 or 14 year old self could – that’s for sure!  By age 19, I could confidently reel off a three part Beatle medley that was part of the repertoire of another band I was in – Slipstream.

By the time I was 20 or 21, I had learned so much from the remarkable Ted Holding, that my piano playing skills were way beyond what they had been – which of course, opened up opportunity to learn Beatle songs on the piano, too – a whole new world of songs.

So where did this go next?  Time passed, school went on, friends, and fellow musicians, came and went – in fact, for example, I was in many, many different bands formed by the also-unstoppable bass player Mike Lewis – we remained friends, and he would pretty much bring me into every band he formed for a number of years (whether I really wanted to be in that band or not, sometimes!). Some of these, unfortunately to my ever-lasting shame, were Christian rock bands – a place that neither Ted nor myself belonged or felt comfortable in, but – we did it for our friend, Mike.  Later on, in high school, we teamed up with a new rhythm section, Mitch and Kent, and that was yet another Christian rock band, with the horrific name of “Soul Benefit” (and we could not play soul at all, so a complete misnomer) – but, Ted and I did it for our friend Mike, and, to play with superior musicians – Mitch played bass far better than Mike, so Mike switched to acoustic guitar/lead vocal/rock star, and Mitch took over the bass parts, Kent, the drums.  We were together for a couple of years, needless to say, except for “fun”, we didn’t cover the Beatles in those two bands 🙂  I do remember us playing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple really, really loud one night rehearsing in a church!

Mike had a system, he really, really needed Ted’s talents on piano and vocals, so in order to convince Ted to join whatever crazy band Mike was forming this week; Mike would first get me to agree to be in the band, and then, we would work on Ted, get him to come along, and then, and only then, things would start to sound really good.  Ted’s ability on piano absolutely took off; he progressed far beyond his years, and his voice also just got better and better.  To be frank, he made Mike look pretty bad, and his piano playing was far, far beyond any of us – we were not as skilled on our chosen instruments.

The years after Junior High school are more of a blur, for my 14th year on the planet, I would have been moving on from those earliest bands into more sophisticated bands, and while I still worked with Mike Lewis on his many projects, I began to work more directly with Ted Holding, who happened to also love the music of the Beatles.  I began to hang around at Ted’s house, and we worked on music incessantly – all the time, for hours and hours and hours, usually just the two of us– I would play bass, or guitar, or even organ – and Ted would play the piano.  We would sing Beatles songs – Ted singing lead, me attempting harmonies – and it was just fantastic fun.

This became several different bands, some quite imaginary, like “Ted & Dave” (also known as: “Holding & Stafford”) and others more substantial, like “Ted & Dave & Rick & Jennings” (also known as: “Holding”, “Stafford”, “Corriere” and “Morgan”) – I was in a lot of configurations of these “for fun” bands – and it was enormous fun!  It really was.  “Ted, Rick and Dave” (also known as “Holding”, “Corriere” and “Stafford”) was probably my favourite, but who is to say – no, wait, my absolute favourite had to be the “Ted & Dave” configuration, because we could play every kind of music possible, from Elton John to the Beatles to Ted’s own original songs and so on – an absolute blast and one of the happiest times of my life.  By the way, Rick Corriere was a junior high friend of Ted’s and mine, an accomplished drummer, and when we were all about 18, 19, 20 years old, we would stage “progressive rock” style improv sessions in Ted’s studio that were just amazing – please see the pureambient audio companion, see the entry for 1977 – for more on this particular prog wannabe band.

 

One day, in the “Ted and Dave” configuration, Ted and I decided to try and work out a favourite Beatle track of ours, the beautiful, heartbreaking “No Reply”.  We decided we would record it (we must have been about 16 by now) on Ted’s brother’s reel-to-reel recorder, which had an amazing ability that was new to me – “multitracking”.

 

So we laid down basic instrumental tracks, Ted on piano, myself playing nylon string classical guitar (my first acoustic guitar purchase – a beautiful little guitar that I still have to this day) and we worked very hard to get it sounding just right.   Then – we overdubbed vocals.  When I say we…I mean, mostly Ted, I think I do sing on the track (I don’t actually know, it hasn’t been transferred from analogue yet) but I think he does the majority of the voices – and trying to work out the exact harmonies that the Beatles sang, was difficult, challenging, and exhilarating at the same time – we were so pleased with the result – it really sounded extraordinary to us – I mean, multitrack tape – incredible!.  Once this is eventually converted, I will add a link to the “Ted & Dave” version of “No Reply” – for now, I don’t have the track available – yet.

 

I hope one day to go through the reel to reel tapes (which Ted gave to me many years ago, because I wanted to preserve this music) and present this piece – but it is on a long list of analogue-to-digital conversions that need to be done, and I do not have a reel to reel deck set up at the moment.  So it’s a minor mystery, does it really sound as good as my memory tells me it does?  Hopefully, one day, I will find out.

 

But it was the process that was so fascinating – when you “took apart” any Beatles song, to try and learn the parts – first of all, it always amazed me how quite tricky many Beatles tracks are – not easy to learn, deceptively difficult, and maybe you would know the chord sequence, but for some reason, even though you THINK you are playing the exact, right chord sequence, it never sounds quite as good as the Beatles version!

 

Next up, was one of the more challenging Beatles tracks for me, this was still early on, I was probably 15 or 16 at this point, back in the famous downstairs bedroom studio once again and not yet such a great lead guitarist that I could easily learn the quite tricky solo in “Ticket To Ride”.  I remember struggling mightily with it, but luckily, Ted saved the day, he worked out the exact notes, figured out where and when to bend the strings – and eventually, I got it – I was so pleased!  I can remember him standing in front of me, almost WILLING me to learn it, telling me when to bend, pointing at the guitar neck to show me what note to play next –  my first true decent almost-right lead guitar solo – and, I get to do it twice during the song (or was it three times? – not sure – that’s the problem with memory).

 

Another memory from this time involves a different session at Ted’s house, this time, a couple of years later, aged, approximately 17 – and, we’d moved from his large downstairs bedroom studio, into the much larger garage space, probably because Ted was also working in other bands, often with his then brother-in-law, Joe Norwood.  One day, Ted and I were trying to learn “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” and Joe, who was a few years older than we were, and himself, an extremely good lead guitarist (from whom I learned a lot) – stopped by – and then to our amazement, joined in with his guitar, working out the Eric Clapton parts that I was really not-quite-yet-able to emulate – so I happily switched to rhythm guitar, and held down the basis of the song with Ted, provided vocal harmonies, and let Joe wail away a la Clapton.

 

That was the beauty of being a young musician, with a lot of really quality musician friends, you always ended up playing music, often, with players far better than you (and for me, both Ted and Joe were far beyond my modest abilities – as pianist, and as lead guitarist) – Ted taught me almost everything I know about piano – that I didn’t teach myself, and, I learned a lot from watching and listening to Joe play lead guitar, and also, he spent time explaining a lot of things to me, about music, about guitar, and I owe a debt of gratitude – here was this really cool older dude (he was probably like, 19, or 20, maybe 21!) and I was a scruffy 17 year old wannabe lead guitarist – but Joe Norwood very kindly and patiently shared his knowledge and expertise with me – a good friend, and a great blues guitarist, by the way.  a video of Joe’s music can be found here.  Joe also sold me one of my best guitars, my Ibanez destroyer, which I still play to this day.

 

It was fantastic fun, “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” is certainly one of George’s best-known tracks, and I think, quite a remarkable tune.  It’s very difficult to play well, the basic riff is one thing, but that bridge “I don’t know how, nobody told you…” is so, so hard to sing – George’s voice was really at his best in 1968, he was still young enough to hit some really high notes with relative ease, yet by then, he was an experienced enough lead singer to really write and sing some amazing songs – and on the “White Album”, George’s range of song contributions is absolutely remarkable: “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Savoy Truffle” – you could not get four more “different” songs – the sadness, longing and truth of “Guitar Gently Weeps”, the wonderful harpsichord and political satire of “Piggies” – incredible creativity there, and sense of humour; “Long, Long, Long” one of George’s unrecognised masterpieces, a love song of such beauty and intensity (I remember performing “Long, Long, Long” at a wedding reception with my friend, drummer Rick Corriere) that I really feel it’s an overlooked masterpiece, and George’s ode to Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, the wonderful, rockin’ “Savoy Truffle”, with it’s almost sleazy horn arrangement and awesome lead guitar work from George – and that sinister vocal “you know that what you eat you are, but what is sweet now, turns so sour…” – brilliant, ominous – George at his cynical best!

 

Another earlier recording / jam session back in Ted’s bedroom studio focussed on the fantastic pop song, “I Should Have Known Better” – with Ted on piano, and myself on guitar and harmonica – and, we shared the vocal duties.  I loved playing this tune, it’s always been a favourite, and it was easy enough to learn (for a change!) and it was fun trying to play harmonica and guitar at the same time – because I didn’t have one of those harmonica holders – I never have had one.  But that didn’t stop us, we just…did it, somehow.  I loved doing harmony vocals to Ted’s confident lead vocals, “and I do – hey hey hey – and I do !” – and, I got to play the fab guitar solo, which was fun to learn and even more fun to play.

 

When I look back at this time, from 1971 to perhaps, 1979 – so basically, the 1970s – I was 12 when they started, and 21 when they ended – I am looking back at one of the most creative, fun, exciting times in my life, and during those “difficult teenage years”, I was too busy playing guitar, playing piano, singing, and just having a great time playing music, with so many different bands and players – it was an absolutely amazing time to be involved in music.  And while the Beatles had broken up at the beginning of the 70s, their music had had such an incredible impact on the world, we were still reeling from the shock of their transformation, from innocent 50’s rockers, to 60s pop icons, to the musical revolution that was the “Beatles Studio Years” – beginning with “Rubber Soul” and carrying on through “Revolver”, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the “White Album” – the sheer musical change that the band underwent was absolutely astonishing, and I think the world was still absorbing this, sort of thinking “what the hell did they DO?” – how did they GET from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in just three years’ time???  How could a band of self-taught teddy boy long-haired art-school drop-outs from Liverpool, end up in Abbey Road Studio No. 2 with a 40 piece orchestra, recording the incredibly complex and musically amazing “A Day In The Life”??  How can this have even HAPPENED?

 

It’s almost enough to believe that at some point in 1965, aliens landed, and planted seeds in the Beatles’ collective brains, which sent them on the musical journey that they then embarked on.  OK, maybe not aliens, but certainly, Bob Dylan, who introduced them to…”tea”, had an influence, but it can’t just be the ”tea” – surely, that music was already somewhere deep inside the Beatles, it just needed the right catalyst to bring it out.   In my opinion, one of the biggest and most significant catalysts was none other than the good Sir George Martin – who had the most influence over the Beatles, and encouraged them, even from the earliest days, to try new things.  And try them, they did.

 

So when it came to “Rubber Soul” – they tried new things.  Acoustic songs, folk-rock songs, volume-knob lead guitar.  But to my mind, the biggest transformation is “Revolver” – from that first count-in preceding George’s “Taxman” (which of course, is not from “Taxman”, but never mind – it was added in to the front of the song, later on) to the dying notes of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, curiously, was last on the album, but recorded first in the album sessions).

I personally think that “Revolver” may be the “best” Beatles album (if such a thing is even possible!!!).  It’s certainly one of my very, very most favourite records of all time, not just, favourite Beatles record.  Favourite records, full stop!

Almost every Beatle album has any number of unusual or interesting musical facts about it, and George’s brilliant tirade against the 95% tax imposed on early Beatle earnings, has the curious story as told by one Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, who, upon finally meeting George Harrison after many, many years, the first thing out of Lindsay’s mouth was “George, I loved your amazing guitar solo on “Taxman” – it’s fantastic!” to which George laconically replied “oh – that was Paul, actually”.

And that story, amazing as it is, was heartbreaking even for me, although it made my admiration for Paul McCartney increase, I had, like Lindsay Buckingham, for 20 years or more, had always thought that since it was George’s song, and George was the lead guitarist of the Beatles – that George had played the amazing, Indian sounding solo – only to find out years and years later, that it was the very capable McCartney who had actually done so!

But if you step back, and think about Beatle repertoire, and think about the content and song structure of “early” Beatles work, and then, compare and contrast that to some of the startling new kinds of music that began emerging on ““Revolver” in particular – I mean, even Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” was a complete shock, like nothing else the world had ever heard – some say it’s a successor to “Yesterday”, but in my opinion, while “Yesterday” is a deservedly famous and uncontestably beautiful ballad, with a lovely string arrangement, “Eleanor Rigby”, by comparison, is high art – a heart-wrenching story-song, and George Martin’s string arrangement here, is absolutely sublime – so incredibly beautiful (which I was absolutely delighted when they included the live take of the strings alone, as recorded in the big room, Abbey Road Number 2 studio, on “The Beatles Anthology”what a sound!).

 

So what happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, that he would be able to write “Yesterday” one year, and the next, come up with something that is an order of magnitude more intense, more complex, and is certainly more musically amazing: “Eleanor Rigby”.  It’s almost like two different people, as if his brain did a re-boot and said “what if I wrote a song like THIS…” – and the rest is history.

 

“Revolver” also gives us Paul‘s astonishingly tender and beautiful “Here, There & Everywhere” – surely one of the best love songs of ALL TIME.  A song that John Lennon so liked, that his only comment was, “I wish I’d written it”.  One of Paul’s very best and most beautiful songs, with a vocal that is just heartbreaking (including John’s delicate harmonies…”watching her eyes…”) and the chord progression – wow – this is not actually that easy to play, either.

 

And yet – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There & Everywhere”, for all their increased sophistication – are not even the “unusual” or “different” or “strange” tracks on “Revolver” – they are the “normal” sounding tracks !!!! The most normal of all the tracks on the record.

 

Something definitely happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, but at the same time, both John and George were experiencing a remarkably similar brain transformation.  “She Said, She Said” with it’s odd time signatures, and fabulous, distorted guitars, is one of John’s best and most amazing tracks, I love the whole sound of it, it just takes me somewhere, immediately – and when I think’I want to hear “Revolver”‘ it’s usually “She Said, She Said” that I am thinking of – but when I get to the album, it’s then generally going to be George’s songs that I actually start with – “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You” and the redoubtable “Taxman” – three of George’s very best Beatles songs, and, that amazing combination of heavy fuzz guitar and Indian instrumentation on “Love You To” just knocks me out – it’s an amazing idea – mixing traditional classical Indian instruments with rock music – but it works, and, it works really, really well.

 

John’s brain was maybe the most altered of all, and besides the aforementioned “She Said, She Said”, his contributions to “Revolver” are among his very, very best Beatles output:  the incredibly beautiful “I’m Only Sleeping” – where George spent ages recording two “reverse guitars” – and that song is responsible for my own obsession with playing reverse guitar (or – “backwards guitar” – which is now available at the touch of an effects pedal) – which, in 1966, could only be achieved by turning the tape over, playing “forwards” while the song played “backwards”, then, turning the tape back over (I know this, because that is how I had to record reverse guitars in my own music for many, many years -a great technique!), and HOPING that your resulting melody line “forwards”, has resulted in a musically pleasing “backwards” guitar – a very hit or miss proposition; but Harrison painstakingly wove two guitar tracks into one of the most beautiful examples of reverse guitar ever created – and while many have tried, no one has every really quite captured the beauty of reverse guitar in the way that George Harrison did on John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – which is an incredible song in it’s own right, the reverse guitars are just the icing on a very, very sweet cake.

 

Even though Lennon dismissed it in the “Playboy Interviews”, he was also mostly responsible for one of my very favourite Beatle tracks from “Revolver”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with it’s amazing dual lead guitar part that just drives the song so beautifully, when I first heard this song, I could not BELIEVE the guitar parts, and to this day, I still can’t quite imagine how they worked this out!  The interplay of the twin guitars with the rhythm section is just perfect, and Paul’s bass just soars in between the cascading, rising and falling lead guitars – plus, one of the best harmony vocal works on the album, I love the vocals on this song too – they just fly over the top of those guitars, which seem to be playing almost continuously throughout the song – and again, I can’t imagine how they worked out the vocal parts – but the end result is astonishing – a great song, often overlooked.

 

It’s no accident that this part of my memories of the early days of learning Beatles songs suddenly has become dominated by a somewhat-useful-but-far-from-complete review of the “Revolver” album, but, it does tie in (believe me, it really does!) because I would cite “Revolver” as the album where it first became utterly impossibly to replicate the songs live – well, some of them could be rendered, maybe, but in the main – they have become so complex as to not be easy to replicate on stage, or, by other musicians either.

 

So – none of my bands, ever played anything from “Revolver”, although I do recall privately playing “Got To Get You Into My Life” with Ted on piano – just for fun.  And I spent a lot of time studying the chords to, and learning as best I could, Paul’s very lovely “Here, There & Everywhere” – a truly beautiful and remarkable song. I’ve also played and sang “I’m Only Sleeping” on acoustic guitar, and I learned the main riff of “And Your Bird Can Sing”on a Guitar Craft course (at the 21st anniversary course in Argentina, no less), in the new standard tuning for guitar, no less!  That was hugely fun, playing “And Your Bird Can Sing” with other guitarists, “Crafty”-style – remarkable – a totally unique and unforgettable experience.

 

 

But most of “Revolver” – especially songs like “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were so advanced, even “She Said, She Said”, were so incredibly strange and new, and so musically intriguing – that you can only really listen, you can’t really imitate – sure, Paul has now performed some of these songs with his live band, in the 2000s, but, it’s not the same, really – and while he has every right to play Beatles material live in the here and now – it’s never going to sound like the original sound of “Revolver” – one of the most distinctive sounding Beatles records of all time, and in my mind, the “turning point” from normal rock music, into the exciting and mostly uncharted territories that they experimented with from “Revolver” on out.

 

It is remarkable then, that at age 13, in 1971, the second band I was ever in, the “Stafford / Monaco band” played one track from the “White Album” and one track from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – two records made after the turning point, and while our versions are not musically accurate, the fact that we even TRIED these songs is remarkable – we tried!  It was down to a shared love of the Beatles, and to be honest, almost every musician I ever worked with in the 70s, loved the music of the Beatles.

Almost every drummer in almost every band, would at some point, sit up a bit straighter on their drum stool, and bash out a version of Ringo’s famous drum solo from the end of the “Abbey Road Medley” – every drummer worth his salt had learned that solo, inside out – and it was instantly recognisable – so there was a great love for the Beatles, and for Beatles music, in the musical community that I worked with in the San Diego, California area in the 1970s.

 

The Beatles were the benchmark to which every other group would be compared, even if that group broke a Beatle record, I don’t mean vinyl here, I mean, for example, that a band like Creedence Clearwater Revival might have surpassed Beatles sales figures from the 60s, in the 70s – certainly, bands like Led Zeppelin surpassed a lot of the Beatles‘ accomplishments, such as “largest audience”.

 

But the interesting thing here is, such news was ALWAYS announced, with a backwards reference to the Beatles, so it would be “In 1973, hard rock band Led Zeppelin sold out a show in Tampa, Florida, with over 56,000 people in the audience – the largest audience at a rock gig since the previous record set by the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965”.

 

Every new sensation, every new “record” was always compared back to the originals, to the masters, to the boys who did it first – the Fab Four.  It always amazed me, for example, Zeppelin were (rightfully) very proud of the fact that they had broken a record set by the Beatles – it was an honour, somehow.

 

Everything was bigger in the 1970s, in the 60s, large concerts were a thing of the future, and as the infrastructure of rock grew ever-larger in the 1970s, it was unavoidable that most of the then-rather amazing records that the Beatles did set in the 1960s – were easily surpassed by their more sophisticated 1970s successors – like the incredible Led Zeppelin – who for example, did no less than NINE US tours between the years of 1968 and 1971.  In the 70s – all records were utterly blown away by the eventual emergence of “stadium rock” – with Led Zeppelin leading the way to ever larger and larger productions.

 

The Beatles never had that infrastructure, and the technical aspects of their live performances were pretty primitive and often, quite dismal, with underpowered PA systems and insufficient monitors, you can see them in the film of the Shea Stadium concert, struggling to hear themselves sing and play over the screaming.  But of course, the screaming was always there, and that did eventually cause the Beatles to lose heart in the idea of live performance – which, while heartbreaking for the legions of fans who never got to see them play live (myself included, sadly) was actually, very, very beneficial – because escaping the terrors of the road, and moving permanently into Abbey Road Studio No. 2, meant that the Beatles could now blossom creatively – and by God, blossom they did.  An explosion of growth – demonstrated by the insanely fast musical progress made by the Beatles, across the albums spanning 1966 – 1969, a musical journey of unprecedented scale and scope – leaving one of the most remarkable catalogues of music ever created in it’s unstoppable wake.

 

Note: I have actually seen three of the Beatles live, but, as solo artists; first, George, at the Forum in Los Angeles with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra and Billy Preston in 1974, then, “Wings Over America”, Paul, at the San Diego Sports Arena, either in 1976 or 1977, and finally, twice, Ringo‘s All Stars, sometime in the 1990s, one of them featuring Todd Rundgren.

 

Every year, we would be treated to a new Beatles album (just one now in most years; not two a year as Brian Epstein and the record company had pressed the Beatles to do back in the early 60s) and each year, it would be a totally different musical experience – and if again, you step back and look at it – it’s absolutely astonishing; I view it like this:

 

1965 – “Rubber Soul” – the beginning of “the change”, Lennon starts singing and writing in a much more personal way, under the influence of a) Bob Dylan and b) ”tea” supplied by Bob Dylan – with songs such as  “Nowhere Man”, “Girl” and the amazing “In My Life” – a complete and radical re-invention of the man & musician,  John Lennon.

 

1966 – “Revolver” – a radical re-imagining of rock music, including heartbreaking string arrangements, classical Indian instruments integrated with heavy guitar rock, progressive bass playing, and the one-chord / one-note drone / raga style music concrète” sonic experiment, “Tomorrow Never Knows” – which was actually the first piece recorded for the new album – a groundbreaking record in so many ways

 

1967 – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – the world’s first concept record, with the famous photo montage on the front cover – and the lyrics on the back (a world “first”, there, too!) but to me, it’s just a bunch of truly great songs – and some of the best moments are maybe not the most famous, for example, the detuned and distorted lead guitar solo in “Fixing A Hole” is absolutely astonishing in it’s complexity and beauty, for a guitarist like myself, it was a revelation – and while after this, everyone began to use detuned guitars – created via a device called “Automatic Double Tracking” or ADT – the birth-device that all flangers and choruses since, have come from – the Beatles were really the first to come up with this kind of radical guitar sound in the studio – absolutely marvellous.  George and John begin to experiment with truly distorted and detuned sounds after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform – and you can hear it on tracks such as the reprise version of the title track – the lead guitars are really powerful.  And of course, the closing song is the absolutely unbelievably beautiful “A Day In The Life”, featuring what is surely one of the most beautiful John Lennon vocals ever recorded – George Martin said about John’s dreamlike vocal on the track – something like: “a voice…from the heavens”.  I agree with Sir George Martin – a truly beautiful song with an incredible Lennon vocal.

 

[1967 – “Magical Mystery Tour” – OK, this year, they made two records. “Magical Mystery Tour” is highly underappreciated, I absolutely love it – especially the wonderful “Hello Goodbye”, the title track, the wonderful only-instrumental “Flying” and even “Your Mother Should Know” – there are no bad songs on this record – much overlooked and underappreciated.  But then, “Sgt. Pepper” and then, the “White Album” really stole MMT’s thunder – hard to compete against those two behemoths.]

 

1968 –  “The Beatles” (aka The “White Album”).  A complete change.  Minimalism.  Stark white cover.  The pageantry and grandeur of “Sgt. Pepper” is wiped away, by 30 darker, more experience-driven songs, a strange batch of songs, no doubt, but with that amazing diversity that you get when you have three strong players and three strong singers and three strong writers in the band – and I shouldn’t downplay Ringo – he very much tried to hold his own (imagine, having to complete with the two impossibly powerful songwriting teams, the “Lennon-McCartney” team AND “Harrison” who was practically a team in his own right – that can’t have been easy !!!) and this album has two cracking Ringo tracks on it, “Don’t Pass Me By”, and the really beautiful “Good Night” which is maybe one of his most beautiful vocals – a lovely tune.

 

[1969 – “Yellow Submarine” – honourable mention.  OK, they made two records this year, too.]

 

1969 – “Abbey Road” – I am intentionally leaving out “Let It Be” because of it’s chequered past.  I love “Let It Be”, but, even though it was recorded before “Abbey Road” – it was then shelved, and eventually emerged in 1970, hanging it’s head in shame, but, gloriously re-invented by Lennon and Phil Spector as a grandiose strings and choir kind of record. However, I think that “Abbey Road” is truly the band’s swan song and legacy – they went into the studio, stopped arguing (for the most part) and recorded an album of songs “like they used to”.  The album was a compromise: to please John, side one of the vinyl LP was “songs”, to please Paul, side two of the vinyl LP was a suite of “connected” songs, the so-called “Abbey Road Medley” – which is a minor masterpiece in it’s own right.  The maturity of songwriting on display here is absolutely startling, especially in George (who, at this point, is about to blossom musically with his upcoming triple album “All Things Must Pass” – but that’s another story for another blog) who produced not just the awe-inspiring love song “Something”, but also, the fantastic, irrepressible “Here Comes The Sun” – featuring the Moog synthesizer, and the most beautiful, sparkling guitars imaginable – a great song, one of George’s best, and personally, I probably actually like and respect “Here Comes The Sun” actually more than “Something”. (I should give honourable mention for George’s guitar solo in “Something”, however; it was played live by George during the strings overdub on the song, remarkably – beautifully underpinned by one of the best, most melodic bass guitar parts ever recorded – really incredible work from Sir Paul).

I’ve played both pieces many times, usually, I play “Something” at the piano, while I would always play “Here Comes The Sun” on guitar – and I love them both – but it’s difficult to say which one is “better” – they are both fantastic, and showed the George could actually compose right at, or even better than, the level that John and Paul had been composing at all along.  He caught up, and in a way, with those two tracks, even surpassed John and Paul – and certainly, his first solo album, the redoubtable “All Things Must Pass”, shows us even more examples of his songcraft, and overshadows all of the debut solo releases by all of the other Beatles – it basically wiped the floor with the other Beatles’ post-Beatle output, selling millions – I bought two or three copies over the years in various formats.

 

Right up to the end, the Beatles kept writing and producing the most amazing catalogue of original music in the world of rock, that the world had ever seen.  Songs that became more and more sophisticated, and for musicians such as myself, became more and more difficult to play, or imitate – but it was sure fun to try !

 

Over the years, I’ve played a LOT of Beatles songs, a huge range of them, and learning them, was often quite a bit of work, but once learned, playing them was just sure joy.  Just for fun, I’ve attempted to write down every Beatle song (including both songs that they composed, and, their cover versions of songs that they also performed) that I’ve ever learned, and / or, performed or recorded – just to see how many I can come up with:

 

 

Baby It’s You (with the Mike Packard Band – successor to Slipstream – circa 1979)

Twist & Shout (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

I Should Have Known Better (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

I’ve Just Seen A Face/Ticket To Ride/Help! Medley (with Slipstream – circa 1978 / 1979)

And I Love Her (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

No Reply (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Eight Days A Week (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Honey Don’t (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971 – and other bands, too)

I’m Only Sleeping (solo acoustic guitar & vocal  – circa 1970s)

Here, There & Everywhere (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Got To Get You Into My Life (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

A Day In The Life (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Back In The U.S.S.R. (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (w/ the Holding  / Stafford Band feat. Joe Norwood- guit. – circa  1973)

I’m So Tired (solo piano & vocal – unreleased – 2013 live -in-the-studio piano & vocal demos)

Blackbird (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1968 – the first“finger-picked” song I ever learned; summer 1968)

Rocky Raccoon (solo acoustic guitar & vocal  – circa 1970s)

Julia (acoustic guitar duet & vocal – circa 1972 – the second “finger-picked” song I ever learned, circa 1972 – with Mike Lewis, acoustic guitar and vocal)

Helter Skelter (electric guitar – various times, 1970s – present)

Long, Long, Long (piano & vocal – with Rick Corriere, percussion – circa 1970s)

Cry Baby, Cry (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Something (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (electric guitar & vocal – w/ Jim Whittaker, guitar – circa mid  1970s)

Here Comes The Sun (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)

You Never Give Me Your Money (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Golden Slumbers (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Carry That Weight (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Two Of Us (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)

Let It Be (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

The Long And Winding Road (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

 

So – remarkably, thirty one songs – which surprises me, I would not have thought it would have been as many as that, but it’s also NOT surprising, because, the Beatles‘ catalogue is something that musicians almost always “fall back on” at one time or other in their careers, and if you cover Beatles‘ songs, you are guaranteed that at least people will know the song, although they may not love your version of it – or, they may – but they are one of the groups most “covered” over time – not to mention, that in a list of the top ten covered songs of all time, the Beatles not only hold the top two spots, but they actually have four tracks out of the ten, plus, John Lennon’s “Imagine” makes five – so, either the Beatles or a Beatle own the record for most covered song, for HALF of the top ten – amazing!

 

Before I continue, I have to say, that even to the present day, there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at the piano with a Beatles songbook, and having a go at a Beatles song you’ve never tried – or, for that matter – one you’ve played a million times.  Or – get out your electric guitar, turn up the distortion, and work on your Beatle rock riffs – “Hey Bulldog”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Helter Skelter” and so on.  And of course, that makes me realise that there are actually probably quite a few “partial” Beatles songs I know, or just the main riff, and, a few that I have learned and then completely forgotten because I didn’t keep up with them (including the amazing “Yer Blues” – with the guitar solos actually learned from tab – brilliant tab! – something I never normally use, tabs, but this one was spot-on – excellent) – but I REALLY wanted to learn that solo.  So really, “Yer Blues” makes it 32…but if I start adding in fragments of songs, I will never finish the list – so there it shall sit 🙂

 

I would say, that growing up, for those nine or ten years from 1971 to 1979, learning, singing, and playing Beatles songs, along with a healthy helping of Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and so on, was the best musical education I could get – far better than going to music college, instead, just dive in and learn the music that you love.  That’s what I did – and I am glad of it.  Huge chunks of Led Zeppelin I are still in my fingers’ memory, and huge chunks of Hendrix music, too – I could play those two bands’ music all day long, along with the Beatles  But, the Beatles had the most profound impression, because of their incredible melodic values, and the hard-won vocal harmony which really, were what set them apart at first.

So while Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix really, really rocked, they never quite had the songwriting skill and stamina that Lennon, McCartney, or Harrison did (and that may be why I found myself drawn to progressive rock fairly early on – seeking better songcraft – and often finding it) – although some of the late Cream and later Zeppelin, are pretty musically advanced.  But those are the successors, the Beatles, I think, wisely disbanding before the heavy metal bombast of Stadium Rock took over the world – by then, they were gone…

 

Having the Beatles so central to my education, music or otherwise, was hugely important, and it’s also simply given me a world of personal satisfaction and enjoyment, I will never forget the day I finally mastered Paul McCartney’s quite difficult “Blackbird”, the first guitar piece using fingerpicking that I ever learned, at age 10, no less – it took me a couple of weeks (being taught by a 16 year old girl, who had in turn, been taught the song by somebody else…) but eventually, I “got” it – and that was wonderful, because any time I was out with an acoustic guitar, I could play it – and everyone around me INSTANTLY recognised it, and responded positively – I never got a negative response to playing a Beatles song – ever.  People in general, either really like them, OK, maybe some younger people, don’t really know their the Beatles were the best band in the world, from 1963 to 1969, unchallenged.

 

At the same time, during 1969, was that “other” best band in the world that I like so much, King Crimson – whose leader, guitarist Robert Fripp, has described a personal, musical epiphany that he had one night, hearing back to back on the radio first, music by Bela Bartok, and then, the last part of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – with “A Day In The Life” – and it was the impetus of that, that eventually led him towards the pursuit of the creation of King Crimson – so, unlikely though it seems, one of the heaviest and most complex of all “progressive rock” bands – actually started out by a young guitarist being utterly struck with the incredible piece of music that the Beatles‘ “A Day In The Life” is.

I can just imagine Fripp, in his car, as the final orchestra part builds and builds, so loud, overwhelming the whole song…and if you think about it, on the first few Crimson albums, of course, the dominant sound (besides Fripp’s amazing lead guitar) is the mellotron – which they had two of – and they used it to create Beatle-like string sections in live performance – so again, inspired by “A Day In The Life”, young Robert Fripp imagined a band with two mellotrons in it – and then, he built it.  Repeatedly.

 

It’s amazing the number and diversity of musicians either directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles, some of them wearing their inspirations out on their sleeve, others, are more hidden or difficult to discern – but they are still there. So, you get a band like Oasis, who unashamedly try to sound like a modern day Beatles (and mostly fail at it, in my opinion) although I quite like a lot of their songs anyway, on over to a band like Klaatu, who people thought might BE the Beatles, secretly reformed and making records under a mysterious new name in the 70s.  As it turns out, Klaatu are just some guys from Canada, who made Beatlesque music (I really enjoy Klaatu, especially their first three albums).

 

There are so many others who obviously admire the Beatles, from Todd Rundgren, his first band The Nazz, and the latter-day versions of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, to any number of other latter-day Beatles soundalikes – the Raspberries in the early 1970s, Badfinger – an Apple band, discovered by the Beatles,  and far too many others to even mention.  Perhaps I will attempt a “list of bands that sound suspiciously like the Beatles” – but I am not quite sure I can do such a thing.  I will have a “think” about that…meanwhile, back to the subject of cover versions…

 

Here are the Beatle tracks and their positions in the list of “most covered songs of all time” – of course, these lists change all the time, and it was very difficult to find a list that seemed properly representative – this list, from 2008, contained no less than 5 Beatle-related tracks as “most covered”:

 

1)      Eleanor Rigby ***

2)      Yesterday

4)      And I Love Her

6)      Imagine (John Lennon)

8)      Blackbird

 

Apparently, for a long, long time, “Eleanor Rigby” was second to “Yesterday”, it was only in recent years when it knocked “Yesterday” out of the top spot.

 

I was surprised to NOT find George Harrison’s “Something” in these lists, I had thought it was one of the highest covered songs of all time – but I might be remembering that old Frank Sinatra joke, where he introduced “Something” as the finest song ever written by Lennon-McCartney – in all seriousness, he actually did not seem to know or realise that it was written by George Harrison.  That’s a famous story there!

 

***However…the Wiki contains some conflicting information here, because it also states, on the page for the song “Something”, that the song has more than 150 cover versions, which means it’s the second most-covered song after “Yesterday”.  So somebody needs to do some counting, and really find out a) what the top ten most covered songs of all time REALLY are, by all artists, and b) what the top ten most covered Beatles songs are – what song is REALLY, currently in the top spot – make up your minds !! 🙂

 

 

For those who might be interested, there is a very interesting page here on Wikipedia, that lists many of the most significant cover versions of Beatles songs

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cover_versions_of_the_Beatles_songs

 

When I say significant, that refers to all of the real musicians in the list, it does not, however, actually refer to the included “group” called “Alvin and the Chipmunks” who did a whole album of Beatles covers in 1964, so they have twelve entries in the chart !  I am sure that’s a really, really good album (if you are a fan of sped-up vocals, that is).  But – it’s an interesting list, Chipmunks aside…and it includes some of my very favourite cover versions of Beatles tracks: containing everything from:

 

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass to 10cc to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones to Adrian Belew to David Bowie to The Carpenters to Johnny Cash to Cheap Trick to Bryan Ferry to Neil & Liam Finn to Peter Gabriel to Jimi Hendrix to Allan Holdsworth to Eddie Izzard to Tom Jones to King Crimson to Sean Lennon to Marillion to Pat Metheny to Keith Moon to Nazz to Harry Nilsson to Oasis to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to Phish to Radiohead to Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Residents to Todd Rundgren to The Sandpipers to Santana to Peter Sellers to The Shadows to Sandie Shaw to Frank Sinatra to Elliott Smith to The Smithereens to Soundgarden to Stereophonics to The Supremes to James Taylor to Teenage Fanclub to They Might Be Giants to Richard Thompson to Transatlantic to Travis to Ike & Tina Turner to Utopia to U2 to the late, great Sarah Vaughan to The Ventures to Rick Wakeman to Paul Weller to Jack White to Roy Wood to XTC to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Yellow Magic Orchestra to Yes to Neil Young to Dweezil Zappa to Frank Zappa and I told you it was a great list – this is just a tiny portion of artists represented on the entire list.

 

A truly interesting resource for an incredibly diverse set of Beatles covers – and the diversity of artists who have covered the Beatles is immense, yet, they all share the same love we feel for the band – a love for Beatles music, reflected in the fact that they took the time to learn, perform, or record a Beatles track or tracks.  Shared love = love of the Beatles‘ music = All You Need Is Love – that’s an equation that I can understand and believe in – and I do.

 

 

 

“Love, love, love – love, love, love

 

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”

 

 

 

 

– from “All You Need Is Love” – June 1, 1967

 

 

 

see you next time ~~~~~

“whisper words of wisdom…”

mobile universe of sound (the ios world)

the ios universe of applications…is heaven for synthesists and musicians alike.  as a guitarist, I appreciate guitar applications, but my passion is collecting synthesizers…also, real synthesizers were always big ticket items, and I couldn’t afford the nice ones.

for me, ios, and the availability of inexpensive apps that emulate great synths old and new, changed everything.

pre-ios, I had a limited number of hardware and software synths, and the soft synths mostly had to be run inside my DAW, or in some cases, as a standalone application on the PC, but still, I had no access to an almost limitless array of synthesizers – and now, with ios and the amazing developers who populate it, I have more choice than I can deal with!!

HARDWARE SYNTHS

or, how it all started…

imagine if you will, then, a guitarist who has been working on music for many, many years, and during that time, dabbled in synthesizers – in the early days, I had an arp odyssey (a mark I, no less!), surely one of the most difficult to tune synths of all time; I had a wonderful serge modular system, and to my everlasting horror, I foolishly sold them off many years ago…

then, by chance almost, I picked up a couple of classic yamaha hardware synths: a dx7s, and a dx11s, and the dx7 saw service in the live set up of the band bindlestiff, where I played synth on stage as well as ambient loop ebow guitar – and my partner played a korg, so that was a great contrast of two fantastic synths – and if you listen to some of the pieces we did with that combination, yamaha and korg, such as “the wall of ninths” or “pacific gravity” you can hear what two classic synths can do in live performance.

so – during the first thirty five or forty years of my career, I owned at most, five hardware synths, and now, I am down to three – and that was it.  then came pro tools and sonar and soft synths in general, and I have a reasonable selection of those, which made recording much easier – in particular, having a decent grand piano, “true pianos”, was very useful, and I’ve used “true pianos” for a lot of projects, from my own songs to covers of peter hammill and van der graaf generator.  I picked up the wonderful “m-tron pro” mellotron software, which inspired one of my best solo albums, “sky full of stars”, and I also have “BFD2” a dedicated drum program, which allowed me to have professional sounding drum tracks when making the rock / prog / ambient album “gone native” – and if you take your time with it, you can make really great drum tracks with, such as this one, “wettonizer”, from the “gone native” record.

LEARNING SYNTHESIS, ARPEGGIATORS & SEQUENCING

having owned such a limited range of hardware synths, I never really got the chance to expand my knowledge of synthesis by owning and playing a variety of synths, and I certainly never would have been able to afford most of the desirable synths (I remember playing a korg M1 when they came out, and just practically drooling with desire – but I simply could not afford it) – so I never bought a modern synth.  I do love my yamaha dx7s, as eno has noted, it has a few really great sounds, it does certain things very, very well, and there’s nothing quite like it.

but overall, besides a modest collection of standalone and DAW-based soft synths, I really felt like I didn’t have much chance to understand, for example, the differences between additive synthesis and subtractive synthesis, I never really felt like I totally understood the magical relationships between oscillators, filters, modulators, and amplifiers, because I didn’t have examples of the many, many various hardware devices with their wildly differing approaches to synthesis.  arpeggiators and sequencers were largely mysterious to me, but after working with the fairlight app (now called peter vogel cmi) for a year or so, I really “got” how sequencers work – which then meant I could use them with better clarity in many, many other synths that feature them.

THE ARRIVAL

then came ios.  the apple platform, and, when you look at what is available for music – well, that’s what made me decide which tablet to get, when I saw what I could get on ios, at the time, compared to the relatively modest selection of apps on android – it seemed a no-brainer.  I realise that over time, android is catching up, but I still don’t know if they will ever match the range, scope and incredible diversity of synths and near-synths that the apple store boasts – it’s astonishing what is available, and it’s astonishing that you can buy a massive collection of the world’s best synthesizers for a fraction of what the hardware versions cost – a tiny, tiny fraction.

FIRST GENERATION SYNTHS & THE FAIRLIGHT

so I went for the ipad/ios combination (despite not being a huge fan of apple in general!) and it was the wisest choice I ever made.  within minutes, I was beginning to collect that massive set of synths that I could never in a million years have afforded in the hardware world – I started out by buying something that would have normally cost me about 20 grand, the great 80s sampler, the fairlight – and I spent about a year and a half, learning how to build sequences the slow way – and it was a fabulous learning experience, and I came to understand how the fairlight works, and how to arrange the instruments into sets, and create music in a way I never had done before (step by step) – quite inspiring, and very educational – and as I said, I could then transfer my new sequencing skills, to many, many other devices that support sequencing and sequences.

MOOGS & KORGS – GREAT EMULATIONS

another early purchase was moog’s “animoog”, and even now, when I have more app synths than I know what to do with, I am constantly returning to this synth, with it’s ever-expanding library of great sounds.  the korg “iMS-20” soon followed, and that was probably the synth that I truly started to learn from, because it’s so visceral, and so visual, with it’s bright yellow cables in the patch bay, and it’s utterly faithful graphics…  the first generation synthesizers that were first available on ios were already excellent, emulating hardware synths that would have cost me thousands, now mine just for a few quid on ios.  unbelievable – because I never would have owned any of those in my real life, because the hardware versions are so incredibly expensive – well beyond my means.  for example – the fairlight cost about ten thousand dollars more than my annual salary the year it came out.  now – it’s mine for a pittance…

AND ARTURIA TOO…

other early device purchases were my beloved “addictive synth”, the very, very capable “n log pro” – a great sounding little device;  “mini synth pro”, and another real favourite, the arturia “imini” – a mini-moog style synth on an ipad !!

between arturia’s “imini” and moog’s “animoog”, I was set to go for that style of synth. also, synths like the great bismarck “bs-161”, the very capable “sunrizer”, “cassini”, the amazing “alchemy” synth; the list goes on and on and on….

TOUCH CONTROL – THE REMARKABLE TC-11 SYNTH

then you get unique and amazing synthesizers like the touch control “tc-11” synthesizer, which takes real advantage of the ipad’s large screen, and delivers a synthesizer-playing experience that is unmatchable – you place your hand or hands on the screen, and by moving your fingers and hands in various ways, you “play” the synth – there’s no keyboard, but this shows you that you don’t necessarily need a keyboard to make beautiful synthesizer music (something I’d learned once before, when I got my first korg kaossilator – amazing hardware device!) – and you can produce truly beautiful music using a non-traditional interface like this – “tc-11” is simply, one of the highest quality, most remarkable devices that’s ever appeared on iosios – I absolutely love it.  one of my very favourites, I do like synths that don’t have keyboards, but out of all of them, this is the most fun, and most creative, to work with and use to produce  startlingly different synth music, often of great beauty – the remarkable “tc-11”.

SECOND GENERATION AND MISCELLANEOUS SYNTHS:

very quickly, I became a true collector of synth applications, and guitar applications, too – but it’s those synths that I keep going back to – and now, the second generation of application-based synthesizers are here, and they are beyond fantastic, with features and sounds that are incredibly complex, mature and amazing: the mighty “thor”; the incredible “nave”, “magellan”, the korg “ipolysix”, arturia’s amazing “isem” – the list just goes on and on and on.

the “dxi”, “epic synth” (1980s style synth), “launchkey” plus “launchpad”, “modular” (similar to my lost serge system, but reliant on in-app purchases to make it truly useful), “performance synth”, “sample tank” (the free version only so far), “spacelab”, “synth”, “synthophone”, “xenon”, “xmod”, and “zmors synth”….the list goes on still…

GENERATIVE DEVICES

then there were the generatives…mostly ambient in nature, and therefore, extremely well suited to the type of music that I generally make, so I happily adopted and became an adherent of “scape”, “mixtikl”, “drone fx”, circuli and so on…I worked with and continue to work with generative synthesis, which is a fascinating branch of synthesis, with it’s own quirks and interesting ways of working.  mixtikl in particular holds my interest very well, sure, anyone can make sounds on it, but if you get into it deeply, you really have an enormous amount of control of how it generates the finished product…which is endlessly changing, never the same, constantly mutating according to the rules and conditions that you control…

“scape” is just purely beautiful, the sounds, courtesy of brian eno and peter chilvers, are simply top-notch, and using art works to create your generative pieces is a stroke of genius – and it’s very simple, just…drag geometric and other shapes onto a canvas, and see and hear your generative piece grow.  more recently, I’ve picked up “drone fx”, which to my mind, is very nearly in the same class as “scape” and “mixtikl” given that you can set it up to create generative pieces, and the results are excellent – it’s a very ambient flavour, which suits me just fine, so I am very happy to add “drone fx” to my arsenal of generative music applications!

then there is “noatikl” (obviously, a spin-off or product related to the great “mixtikl”) – I don’t have much experience with this tool, I would call it a “sound design”-based generative music app, where you create loop-like pieces by connecting different sound generating nodes together – it’s quite odd, but it makes lovely music, and I hope to learn more about it and gain some skill in using it in the future.

THE LAND OF AMBIENT

this category includes most of the generatives, so please see “GENERATIVE DEVICES” above, for details on “scape”, “mixtikl”, “noatikl”, “drone fx”, and “circuli”.  there are other really, truly important synths in this category, in particular, the brian eno-designed “bloom”, which was the predecessor to “scape” – “bloom” is a generative player, you select wonderfully named style and “bloom” then creates them on a grand piano for you – it’s really lovely, I can sit and listen to it for hours.

then there is another from the “mixtikl” family, the lovely ambient music player “tiklbox” – this one is really simple, it has a die in the middle, and you roll the die, and it then randomly selects or creates a piece of music based on the number you roll.  It’s mostly very pleasant, I like the music it makes, but there is very little user interaction possible, you just turn it on, roll the die, and…listen.  but – that’s cool, too.

PHYSICS-BASED SYNTHS

then you have the slightly strange synths, two more in the semi-ambient category being “circuli”, which is literally, circles that grow and collide, and those collisions produce music, and the somewhat similar “musyc” that makes it’s music with bouncing objects – again, virtual objects collide to produce notes, chords or percussion sounds.  “orphinio” presents varying sets of intersecting circles, each set to a different tuning or modality.  both of these “shape-based” synths have truly great potential, but you have to be patient to get the kind of sounds you want out of them.

GRID-BASED SYNTHS

then there are the “grid” devices – visual sequencers with massive grids that scroll past, and you merely “click on” some of the buttons as they pass, and note events begin.  one of the best of these is an old favourite of mine, “beatwave”, which I have used as a background for guitar improvs, because you can very quickly “build” a good quality backing track (it’s very similar to looping, really) and then just let it run, and solo over the top of it for live performance purposes.  a similar and also very enjoyable device, “nodebeat HD”, works in a very similar way, and in fact, there are a good number of these “grid” types of synths out there, most of which sound very good.

MICROTONAL GRID SYNTHS

then…again…you have the static grid types, such as the classic “mugician” and “cantor”, which use a static grid that you play by putting your finger on the notes you want to play, and “cantor” in particular, has a great “auto octave” function which means that if you want to go up very high, you just swipe a big diagonal line upward – and the device leaps up through four or five octaves – and a reverse diagonal, takes you back down to the lower notes.  “cantor” is more note based, although it does have microtonal attributes, you mostly use real notes, whereas “mugician”  is totally and utterly microtonal, you can “hit” notes, but it’s more about being able to play in a microtonal fashion – something that takes practice to get good at.

early on, I used “mugician”  to play microtonal indian-style melodies over the remarkable “itabla pro” (one of my very, very favourite music apps of all time – I could write an entire blog about “itabla pro”; how good it is; and how much I LOVE it!) and that was great fun – it works really well as a lead instrument in that kind of musical situation.

slightly different in design to the “mugicians” and “cantors” (which while sounding very different, do have very similar interfaces visually at least) is the most excellent “sound prism pro” which features it’s own unique grid design, that is similar but different from the other two apps mentioned.  “sound prism pro” has it’s own unique musical vocabulary, and is a bit more melodic / harmonic, whereas “mugician” and “cantor” are essentially solo instruments – melody only.

VOCAL SYNTHS

then there is the “vocal section”, which on my pad, share a special page with my audio utilities – in this category, we have some great tools for creating vocal harmonies and effects: “harmony voice”, “improvox”, “vio” and “voice synth” – each boasting it’s own slightly different way of achieving vocal harmonies – some very innovative and good sounding tools in this category, a lot of fun to sing into, too.

RECORDING STUDIOS – AUDIO, MIDI, HYBRID

just outside of the land of synthesizers, there are also a broad spectrum of recording studio applications, such as “auria” (professional audio multitrack studio), “cubasis” – professional AUDIO + MIDI studio, “nanostudio” one of the oldest and most respected MIDI studios, and a personal favourite (and it does qualify, because it has a synth in it – a GREAT synth, called “eden synth”, which I absolutely love), “isequence”, “isynpoly” and “synergy studio”, midi studios all; and the unique yamaha “synth and drum pad” which is a bit different from the rest and is a lot of fun to experiment with – some unique sounds there, too.

the most recent entrant to this category is korg’s groundbreaking “gadget” – an incredible studio with fifteen unique korg synthesizers, bass synths and drum synths (yes, fifteen) that you can combine in endless variations to produce some amazing music.  I’m currently working on my first three pieces with gadget – and of course, I feel another eternal album coming on…

STANDALONE ARPEGGIATORS

on the same page as the studios, I also have a couple of standalone arpeggiators, “arpeggiognome pro” and “arpeggio”, which are very useful for driving your other synths, and unusual apps like “lemur”, which I purchased at half price for future development projects.

DIY SAMPLE PLAYERS – NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

I also have a few of what I term “idiot synths” (no offense to anyone) because you need know absolutely nothing to run them, they are really just sample players with controls to modify many samples running in parallel.  the “groove maker” series are really quite good, I love the “groove maker rock” version especially.  I also have “session band rock” which is similar, I’ve made a couple of nice “metal” backing tracks with “session band” – the “rock” version, of course!

PIANOS, ELECTRIC PIANOS, ORGANS, MELLOTRONS

then there is the more traditional section of keyboards, which features a variety of grand pianos, regular pianos, upright pianos, electric pianos (“iGrandPiano”, “iElectric Piano”, “EPS”, mellotrons, and a couple of really, really great emulations of organs – “galileo”, “organ+”, and “pocket organ c3b3” – I love all three of these!  I am really pleased in particular to have the organs available, and the work that’s gone into them, right down to the quality of that leslie speaker emulation – I love the “slow to fast” sound and vice versa, and all of these do a good job of that.  the sounds are simply beautiful, and, they are a lot smaller, lighter, and cheaper than real organs 🙂

DRUMS & BASS – AND PERCUSSION, TOO

this section of my ipad has really expanded of late, and there are a lot of great apps available for very little cost.  starting with the basses; we have a large variety of very innovative and interesting-sounding devices, from oddities like “amen break” to more practical devices such as “bass drop hd” and”bassline”. the drums section, by comparison, is massive – old faithful “korg ielectribe”, “dm-1”, “drumatron”, “easybeats”, the unique “impaktor” (which makes a drum kit out of any ordinary surface), propellerhead’s quintessential “rebirth” which of course, handles bass and drums, and is enormous fun just to play…”synth drum”, “virtual drums”, and a million other drum kits and machines too numerous to mention…

my absolute, all time favourite drum app, however, is not any ordinary drum machine or drum kit, rather, it’s the extraordinary “itabla pro” – one of the most excellent applications I own.  full on tabla samples, with several playing styles for each template; and an extremely large range of templates in all time signatures, it’s as much an education as it is a drummer. also featuring tanpura and other supporting instruments, it has two completely tunable tanpuras, the tablas and the two tanpuras are all tuneable within an inch of their life, and it makes outstanding music for interacting with other ipad instruments.  I’ve been working for some time using synthesizers with “itabla pro” as accompaniment, and it works equally well with microtonal synths such as “mugician”, as well as ordinary “western” synths such as animoog – on my ipad right now, I am working on a new piece that features two animoog solo melodies over a tanpura and tabla backing – and it’s sounding very, very good so far.

notably, while not a percussion instrument, there is also an excellent free app, called “samvada” that does tanpura only, it’s beautifully made, sounds great, and is excellent for use either in conjunction with “itabla pro”; or, for situations where you want a tanpura drone but you don’t need tablas.  sometimes, I just gang up the tanpuras on “itabla pro” with “samvada”, for the ultimate in rich, deep drones – fantastic.

ODDS AND SODS SYNTHS

other oddities include “tabletop” which is a sort of…table top, where you can arrange midi synths and drum modules to make music with, with a lot of in-app purchases if you want the really nice tools.  it is possible to make decent music with the free supplied tools, but it is limited unless you are willing to spend a lot on IAPs.

there are so many in this “category” that I cannot possibly list them all: “76 synthesizer”, “moog filtatron”, “catalyst”, “cascadr”, “dr. om”, “noisemusick”, “figure”, “lasertron ultimate”, “samplr”, the list just goes on and on and on…

IN CONCLUSION…

and as time passes, more and more synthesizers will arrive on ios, each more powerful than the last, it just seems like a never-ending process, there are so many excellent developers out there, as well as such a hunger from musicians (myself included, I am not ashamed to admit) for these synths – especially the vintage ones, the ones that emulate the classic keyboards that we all lusted after, but most of us simply could never afford.  ios, and the availability of cheap synth apps – gives us what we could never, ever have in the real world.

armed with this vast array of synthesizing power, I feel like there is no sound that I can’t make, and no requirement I can’t meet – if I need a sound for a project I am building on my ipad – I will, absolutely will, already have a synth – or two – that can make that sound.

I am utterly in my element here, I hope the synths never stop arriving, and as long as developers keep creating them, I will absolutely, absolutely – keep playing them.  rock on.

I will leave guitar applications for another day – suffice to say, they are equally diverse and fascinating, and several of them are putting serious challenges to existing stomp box and other guitar processing hardware items.  I love my guitar apps, and it’s a whole new world of guitar playing – instead of my traditional set up; instead, I have a guitar to ipad to sound card set up – and I can get a whole world of excellent tone just using ios ipad guitar applications…

in the meantime, synthesists unite, and developers, please do not stop working on new and better and more innovative synthesizer apps.   something needs to feed this addiction, and that’s truly what it has become – but in the best possible way, and I get so much enjoyment, hours and hours and hours of enjoyment, from just playing the various synths, to making various recordings using them – it’s created an entirely new application-based world of music that I did not realise I had in myself – and it’s an absolute joy to play these innovative instruments, and to try out new combinations of devices either by using them in a multi-track environment such as “auria”, or, for simpler set ups, the very practical “audiobus” (another game-changing device) and now, we have the new inter-app audio as well, so options for tying synths together via MIDI, or for triggering other devices from within one device, just grow and grow – it is truly amazing.  I feel truly blessed to live in such times, technology at work for good, for the sake of sound, and the sound quality of most of these apps far exceeds expectations.

for that, and for the massive number of free, inexpensive or even expensive synthesizer applications, I am truly grateful, and truly happy, that these exist for me to collect 🙂

happy synth-ing!

playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.

the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”