Beatle George – the influence of a leg end

I grew up in the Beatle Era. The Beatles invaded America when I was four, five years old. One of my earliest memories is of, standing on the lawn of the family home at 6728 Mineral Drive, in what is now San Carlos, California and hearing the sparkling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies of a new Beatles track called “Nowhere Man”. I’ve never been able to forget that moment, because from then on, the Beatles were “my band”.

I wanted to be George Harrison; I wanted a guitar for my ninth birthday, and, I got one. But I didn’t end up learning to play one properly until a bit later, when I was 12, 13 years old, and there were all these amazing new groups and albums like “Led Zeppelin II” or “No Time” by “The Guess Who”, so much amazing music to explore…

But I never ever got over my initial love for the music of the Beatles,and it really was, for me, the sound of the guitars that reeled me in, that caught my ears and my attention…in particular, the sound of George Harrison, who played a really magical role that was called “lead guitar”. The guy who had to be serious, had to play the most difficult parts live.  For several years, I only had albums by The Beatles…I mean, you don’t really need anything else, do you?
I wanted to be that guy, I really did want to be George – and later on, as George grew as a songwriter, turning out amazing tunes like his trio of songs from the “revolver” album:

Taxman

Love You To

I Want To Tell You

…surely, three of the most amazing “pop songs” ever written or recorded, sheer Harrison genius – nobody saw it coming, we all figured, Lennon and McCartney, those are the two guys to watch in this band, those are the writers….well, yes, but really, all four of the Beatles were the writers, and even Ringo wrote some great tunes…but for me, it’s always been all about George, those odd B-sides like the astonishing “Old Brown Shoe” or the seriously beautiful “The Inner Light”…where do songs that unique, that incredible, COME from?

The imagination of one man, Beatle George. The mind that brought us the wit of “Piggies” and the warning of “Savoy Truffle” but then there was his lead guitar playing too, not just on his own songs, but on many of those Lennon andMcCartney songs, too. A new kind of lead guitar, razor sharp fuzz tones, detuned guitars (think of the lead solo in “Fixing A Hole” from Sgt. Pepper) when you heard it, you knew it was George. A simply brilliant guitar tone, and a beautiful, concise style.

As the years progressed, George got into playing slide guitar, and very very quickly, developed a trademark slide guitar “tone” (think of the slide guitars on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” from the “Imagine” album) some of George’s finest slide work…you should hear the out takes from that session, too, on the Lennon box set…amazing slide guitar. But the special tone George got for his slide parts, which really only reached full maturity by the time of his second solo studio album, “Living In The Material World”, which, by the way, is an amazing collection of truly beautiful songs…you owe it to yourself to hear this record if you haven’t done so, so far…its quietly brilliant.

George was always economical with his guitar playing, he never over played, and it was that economy, which at first, was an enforced economy, it was Beatle-driven, here’s your eight bars George, go for it – so George learned to play well in a very small piece of allotted “solo” time. As time progressed, George did play some nice, longer solos, but that economy was always present, he always reigned himself in and never got boring or predictable.

You never knew what you were going to get with George, and his own songs were a mystery even to the other Beatles, who would bemusedly play on, say, 102 takes of a song like “Not Guilty” without complaint, as George continued the search for that elusive ‘perfect take’, and if it took 102 takes then that’s what it takes.

In some cases, no Beatles version was considered “good enough”, so we simply waited, and eventually we did get to hear the properly recorded version of the song “All Things Must Pass” – on a George Harrison record, not on a Beatles album. The same held true for “Not Guilty” where we had to wait even longer for George’s “perfected” version – again, on a George Harrison album, not on a Beatles album.
If you happened to own or know where to borrow the right Beatle bootlegs, then you might have at least heard the Beatles’ versions of “All Things Must Pass” and “Not Guilty” but most people had to wait until George put out the definitive editions of those songs.

 

I never minded waiting, although I do remember being very impatient to get George’s first solo album, the three LP “All Things Must Pass” and I first heard it in Uganda, in the home of some Peace Corp workers who had the brand new pre-recorded cassette version of the album, so that was very exciting, and then I got to hear it in Amsterdam, too, in a massive record store, complete with 60s erotic posters (“wow” was all I could say) – where I had to motion to the bored Dutch girl to turn the record over again, please…five times, because I didn’t know a single word of Dutch.

I finally purchased my own copy, in the Netherlands, and took it back to the USA with me, where I played it endlessly. The only record that excited me more than ATMP was the forthcoming “Concert For Bangladesh” which was another one I just couldn’t wait for, the idea was fantastic, half the Beatles plus Clapton and even the reclusive Bob Dylan…here were another six sides of amazing music, but amazingly, over time, it is Side One that stands the test of time the best, with Ravi Shankar on sitar, and the amazing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakah on tabla…their piece of Bangladeshi folk music, “Bangla Dhun” just absolutely blows me away. These performers are at the top of their skill level, and are playing with speed, accuracy, and sheer musical joy….its amazing to see it in the film version, it truly is the best part of the concert!

That performance opened up my fourteen year old eyes to the sheer beauty of Indian melody and music, and I followed the careers of Shankar and Khan until the present day. Each the master of their instrument, I had George Harrison to thank for bringing that music into my life. And years later, that led me to a house concert at Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, California, where I sat on the floor and listened to Ravi’s daughter play with the remarkable Bikram Ghosh on tabla…a remarkable “house concert” that I will never forget.

I was lucky enough too, to see Ravi and Anoushka performing live in more standard music venues, too and their music has always blessed my ears with its beauty.

So the influence of George Harrison changed me as a person, so much, that I went from being a fan of pop and rock, to being one who also loves the sarod, and loves listening to the master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, play the sarod. Sure, it started on TV, watching the famous Ed Sullivan show where the Beatles performed, and seeing how serious George was, playing his lead guitar lines so carefully and so perfectly, and taking his concise eight bar solo so carefully, too…

Then it was the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” watching George playing his intensely cool guitar parts on film, trying to analyse what he was playing, on something like “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” trying to understand what he was doing with his guitar parts and then, that mad solo…amazing stuff. All the while, singing his harmony vocal parts as if they were easy, as if the guitar part was easy, he made it look easy!

And then there was that tender rendition of “And I Love Her” the first great Beatle love song, and that was my first exposure to nylon string classical guitar, and George worked it out and played the lead parts beautifully in that tune…really simple, yes, but really effective and quite beautiful when you are a young George-guitarist-wannabe like I was…I thought that performance was incredible, and really beautiful…and a lot of that is down to how George handles the nylon guitar part.

That inspired me directly, seeing George play on TV and in films, and hearing him on record, too, on vinyl, was a true inspiration for a budding teenage guitarist such as myself. But later,by presenting the music of Ravi Shankar and friends to the Western world, that opened me up to an entire new universe of music. Thousands of years old oral traditions, of the sitar and the ragas, or rags, that Shankar learned from his teacher, that stretched.back in time, an amazing musical heritage and proud tradition…brought to me by Beatle George.

He really was The Quiet Renaissance Man of the Beatles, later, he brought an entire Indian orchestra into the studio to record “Within You Without You” in 1967…and in 1974, at the Los Angeles Forum, I saw a different Indian orchestra perform, led by Ravi Shankar, the opening act for the first of just two solo tours undertaken by George, live in 1974, playing brilliantly but with a hoarse voice…and again, in less stressful times, 1991 in Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton.

I feel so privileged that I got to see George play, and his guitar playing was awesome, including some of that amazing slide (in the first song, no less) and it was a night I’ve never forgotten. In fact, over time, I managed to see three of the four Beatles perform live…so I am very fortunate indeed. Only Lennon eluded me, but three out of four is not bad at all. At that 1974 Forum gig, George even played his specially modified version of Lennon’s “In My Life” and that was really cool.

George Harrison, the guitarist, was a huge inspiration to me as a kid, and I absolutely took up the guitar because of him, and the rest of the Beatles too. When I was a kid growing up, the Beatles were our heroes, and they raised the bar so high, that soon they became the benchmark to judge new groups by: “they’re OK, but they are not as good as the Beatles” – I don’t know how many times I said that about groups, or if a group was good, you’d say they were “almost as good as the Beatles”…it was the benchmark by which all other groups were measured, for years after the Beatles themselves broke up…we still judged new bends against their music….

Sure, in time, as I grew older, there came guitarists with more technical skill than George, but most of those players, probably looked up to the Beatles in the same way I did. OK, George was no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, but, George did write “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Taxman” and “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light” and “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” and “Here Comes The Sun” and…

I could go on, but you get it, I’m sure. George didn’t need to play like the proggers, because the proggers built their music on the back of the Beatles and atop the pop music from the end of the 60s, and George’s guitar playing was what it needed to be to realise those songs.

And that includes the whole of “All Things Must Pass” including the remarkable “Apple Jam” where we do get a hint of George’s guitar prowess, holding his own even against Clapton, and sounding amazing across the entire Beatles catalogue, from the very beginning, and on through his 1970 masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass” as well and also on  “Living In The Material World” – and occasionally on his later records.

Some of his best guitar work can be found on his 1971 solo album, “Living In The Material World” – especially “that slide” sound; but it cropped up whenever it was needed…on Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, on the 74 and 91 tours…not to mention his standard soloing, on “Apple Jam”, on “Something”, where he famously asked to record the solo along with the live strings overdub, to get a more “live” feel for the solo – and of course, that was the take – the keeper. And what a beauty it is, too.

There are so many specific examples of great Harrison guitars, that I could just keep listing them, but instead, you should just listen…and you will hear them. I certainly did.

What I would give to be able to write a song like “The inner Life”. Or “Something”.  Or maybe one that is half as good :-).

Yes, I’d settle for that, thanks.

We miss you, George.

 

the apple years vol. 1- 1968 – 1975 – george harrison

…being for the benefit, being rather, a review of a beautiful box set, one of two, of the remastered and expanded works of the man who started it all for “Dave from pureambient”, before Fripp & Eno, before Led Zeppelin, before Jimi Hendrix, before King Crimson – there was George Harrison – and his career after he left the Beatles was in some ways, his best work – as this beautiful new six CD set demonstrates.  George was my favourite Beatle, George was the serious one, the one who played the most magical of the guitar parts, the one who brought Indian Music to the world – George really rocked my world, from the time I was nine years old, in 1967 to the present, a long time – one of the very best slide players who ever lived, with the sweetest slide guitar tone – and, a tone that was instantly, recognisably “George” – and these first few solos albums really let George soar musically – from his amazing Beatlesque vocal arrangements on the third and fourth solo albums, which also introduced us to his increased skill with the bottleneck slide; to his live performances in 1974 and 1992…to the man who created the first ever benefit concert in the form of 1971’s “The Concert For Bangladesh” – strangely, not included in this box set.

George was often mis-nicknamed as “the quiet Beatle” – but in 1970, as he started his career away from The Beatles – he was anything but quiet:

1970 – releases first ever triple album set (by any solo artist) – “All Things Must Pass” – sells millions worldwide, spending 7 weeks as the number 1 album – however, as of 2011, it has outsold both Lennon’s “Imagine” (which George also played slide guitar on in 1971) and McCartney & Wings “Band On The Run” combined – and is the most successful album ever released by an ex-Beatle – and, is the 36th best-selling album of the 1970s !!

1970-1971 – “My Sweet Lord” tops the charts – sells millions worldwide biggest selling single of 1971 in the UK, it was the first No. 1 single by an ex-Beatle – 5 million copies sold by 1978, by 2010, over 10 million copies sold!  That is simply astonishing.

1971 -1972 “The Concert For Bangladesh” – the prototype of the modern-day “benefit concert” is released on another triple album, this time, the live music soundtrack and accompanying film that enjoyed a long theatrical release as well.

1973 – releases the remarkable, acoustic guitar and slide guitar-heavy “Living In The Material World” – and this was when we realised just how good George was getting on slide – a remarkable fourth studio album, and, along with “All Things Must Pass”, of course, it was the record that made me sit up and say, “I thought George was good when he was in the Beatles…but just listen to him NOW!”. Shiver-inducing slide guitar – sheer beauty…not to mention that voice…

But this is where it all started, in India, with an unusual soundtrack album…

 

Disc 1 – Wonderwall Music (November 1968) – re-mastered version

This under-rated, under-reported album, has the distinction of being the first Beatles solo album, by George, released in 1968, made while the Beatles were still ongoing.  George had been approached about doing a soundtrack for this rather odd film “Wonderwall”, starring Jane Birkin, Jack MacGowran and Iain Quarrier, and he agreed – a lot of it was recorded in India, because this was at the time that George was exploring Indian music heavily, so, since that was what he was listening to, and the film was vaguely psychedelic in nature, too – he used a lot of Indian music, with a few remarkable “western” songs thrown in for good measure.  George is said to have wanted it to be an introduction to Indian music, and to that end, the first recordings for the album were a series of ragas recorded at EMI Bombay in early 1968.  The “ordinary” western songs, were recorded later in London, and one track, which featured vocals, was unearthed when George was hunting down the master tapes to give to producer Joe Massot, for the remastering of the film in 1998, the track was “In The First Place” by the “Remo Four”.  It is believed that Harrison actually sang and played on the track, but insisted that he only wanted a credit for production – Massot was happy to include the track, which George had originally held back because he believed that Massot only wanted instrumental music.  So this lost vocal track, “In The First Place”, finally saw it’s release in 1999, some thirty one years after it probably originally should have!

“Ski-ing” remains my favourite of the non-Indian music tracks; it features some wonderful reverse sounds, and an amazing but simple guitar riff that I love to play, with fabulous harmonies, over a wonderful raga / drone – and, one of my beloved reverse guitar solos at the end – it’s fantastic!  it’s just one of those riffs that gets stuck in your head – and the album is worth the price of admission for that song alone.  There are one or two Indian songs that I truly love, like the track immediately following “Ski-ing”, which is called “Gat Kirwani” – a fast gat that is 1:15 of pure sitar magic…and one or two tracks, of either variety – that are irritating to the point of – irritation.  But I never skip tracks, I enjoy the whole record, and I love to listen to this whenever the mood strikes me – it’s a great little record, given that it’s a soundtrack, given that George wouldn’t have had much time to make it – I think he did a great job.

But it’s a journey everyone should take – you have to remember, that George was still a very young man, and writing film music was a new process for him – and this is very much, music for a film, rather than a collection of “songs” from a solo Beatle – there are really no “songs” of any description, the album is basically instrumental, and it’s just about as strange as the film that it’s the soundtrack for – quite odd – but, over time, it has really grown on me, and in some ways, it’s one of my favourite records of the late sixties, because it’s George, sure, but just because it captures a mood and a time in a perfect snapshot, this album screams “it is 1968” and it’s heavy Indian influence is undeniable – and very trendy at the time, perfect for a trendy, oddball film.

I recommend this album highly, and of course, I never, ever expected to own a re-mastered version of it, so that is a huge, huge bonus, and it’s a wonderful addition to the box set and to the collection of any George Harrison fan.

 

Disc 2 – Electronic Sound (May 1969) – re-mastered version

From the quickly-defunct “Zapple” label, which was meant to house experimental music – well, that’s what this is.  George was one of the earliest adopters of the Giant Moog Synthesizer, which can be heard on [later] Beatles’ tracks such as “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, and “Here Comes The Sun” – the instrument was very new, this was one of the first “production” synths that ordinary people could actually buy – so George got one.  Two long improvs. “Under The Mersey Wall”, and “No Time Or Space”, of not-unpleasant synth noise, again, nothing spectacular, but you should absolutely hear it once – a strange curiosity from the short-lived Zapple label – and, I believe, the second Beatle solo album – George absolutely had cornered the market on solo albums well before any of the other Beatles caught on. Even stranger, the presence of these two early records, means that the classic “first” George solo album, “All Things Must Pass” – is actually his third solo album !

That said, of all of George’s earliest works, this is probably the least accessible – but, if you are not faint of heart, you really should give it a go – I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s not a million miles away from some of the synth warblings that we got later on by bands like Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk – it mostly sounds like sound effects, like someone showing off what a “synthesizer” is capable of.   I’ve heard other synth records that are far more annoying than this one, and some of it is quite pleasant given how new synth technology was at the time it was made – not unpleasant at all.  Certainly worth a listen when the mood strikes you…

 

 

Disc 3 – All Things Must Pass (November 1970) – re-mastered, expanded version

The first ever triple record set, this album sold in the millions, and it did better than both McCartney & Wings’ “Band On The Run” and Lennon’s “Imagine” combined – in retrospect – it outsold them both!  People WANTED to hear what George wanted to sing about.  I first heard it in the home of two Peace Corps volunteers at their home in Eastern Uganda, in 1970, they had just been to visit the States, and they had brought back the cassette version of “All Things Must Pass” with them – hot off the press.  Since I hadn’t heard it yet (I knew it was out, but I didn’t own it – you couldn’t buy it in Uganda) I spent almost my entire time there, one day and one night, listening to this amazing, magical record – on cassette, no less – and I have never forgotten that day.  I then had to wait many months, until we were travelling home from Uganda (where I lived at the time, with my parents) to the States, to purchase my own copy, from a very cool record store in Amsterdam.  So I did eventually get my copy, at long last…and at long last, I could enjoy it any time I wanted to, and luxuriate in these amazing, personal, heartfelt songs from the mind of George Harrison.

From that gorgeous, soft-guitars opening on the Dylan ballad “I’d Have You Anytime” to the power of Eric Clapton’s solo on the amazing “Wah-Wah” – a song with one of the best riffs of all time, a classic E major riff, that is not particularly easy to play – what an amazing riff to base a song around!  To the beautiful, multi-layered first version of “Isn’t It A Pity” – the opening side of “All Things Must Pass” (I mean vinyl album side, of course) is one of the most familiar pieces of music in the universe to me.  As the newly-re-mastered album rolls along, I am hearing my old friends, with new sounds – and it’s a revelatory experience, and one I highly recommend – as the “main meal” of the box set, having yet another version of “All Things Must Pass” does not bother me in the slightest!  It’s fast becoming my favourite version…

Also on that first vinyl side, was a little song that took the world by storm, the thinly veiled religious anthem “My Sweet Lord” which was a huge-selling single for George, and an incredibly popular song, with its “all religions together” approach to finding God – moving serenely from singing “Hallelujah” to “Hare Krishna” as the background vocals began to name all sorts of deities that mostly, you had never heard of, this song was a truly inspired and truly inspiring acoustic guitar-led ballad of the day – featuring gorgeous “twin” harmony slide guitars (that “trademark” George Harrison slide sound – unforgettable) and fantastic ever-changing background vocals, “My Sweet Lord” – whether you like it or not – you probably know it anyway 🙂  A real beauty…

But there are many, many other less-well known musical gems, hidden in different corners of this record…who knew, for example, what a complex, multi-layered, and beautiful musical construction, a song like “What Is Life?”, actually is??  The re-mastering brings out a lot of small touches in both performance and production that I’ve not noticed before, and this is the album I have probably played more times than any other in my entire collection – and, hearing this new, re-mastered “What Is Life?” is a sonic revelation, for example, while I had heard the strummed acoustic guitars clearly, I did not realise that there were ALSO picked acoustic guitars playing along quietly – I’d NEVER heard them before!

I’d heard the string arrangement, but never realised the hard left panning to some of it before, by Phil Spector, and that “wall of sound” was not so heavily applied to this song, and really – I mean, you can really, really hear everything in this new, excellent mix; including so many multiple harmony vocals from George, I don’t know if anyone else has realised this, but George was drawing directly on his experience of being “voice 3” in the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison Harmony Machine, so when it came time to lay down the vocals on tracks for “All Things Must Pass”, when it was for a big chorus like the one in this song – the layers of harmony, are built up just like tracks from “Abbey Road” and every other Beatles track prior to it – and don’t forget, in 1970, “Abbey Road” was only a year in the near past, so the experience of laying down melody and harmony vocal tracks, in the style of the Beatles, for God’s sake – was fresh in his mind.

So if you listen to something like “The Making Of All Things Must Pass”, you can actually hear this layering process – for example, that record contains several different reductions and partial mixes of “Apple Scruffs”, and you can hear George adding in his lead vocal, his “George” harmony, his “John” harmony, and his “Paul” harmony – and sometimes, there are multiples, double tracks for every part, so instead of three-part, it becomes six-part harmony or more – and if you do listen carefully to this re-master, you can hear the fully developed, finished products, mixed by the remarkable Phil Spector – the vocals of “Apple Scruffs” absolutely shine here, but that is literally because, George was just following the Beatles vocal process, but using his own voice for all of the parts – and that is absolutely amazing to think about – he was literally, besides George Martin, the only person in the entire WORLD who totally knew and understood this vocal “process” – but why not – he had paid his dues, he had started out poor and unloved, in Hamburg, the youngest and most teased of the Beatles, and worked his way up into the biggest band in the world – and he took what he learned, and applied it in his own life – on his first, and best, solo album – “best”, not because what followed was not as good, but because never again, did he amass such an amazing group of players, to play such an amazing group of songs, nor did he ever take the time again, to layer the Beatles-style vocals – sometimes, but never to the degree, never to the quality of what he accomplished on “All Things Must Pass” – which in some ways, is more “Beatle-y” than some Beatles albums – I’d much rather hear “All Things Must Pass” than “Let It Be” for example!

And Phil Spector, for all of his giant reverbs and overwrought string parts, and strident horn parts, did a great job of capturing those layered Beatle harmonies – maybe not quite to the spec that George Martin, and the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison Harmony Machine did – there will never, ever be another “Because” – but, a close second, and there are other example of amazing, multi-layered vocals a la Beatles – “Apples Scruffs” being one of my absolute favourites, where the harmonies really make the chorus, and George, in that case, and to a lesser extent in “What Is Life?” is hitting those high notes, doing the “Paul” part of the vocal – with no problem – it’s flawless, it’s perfect, and what could be better than the dreamy, note-drifting harmonies in the chorus of “Apple Scruffs”?  Not much, if you ask me.  What a fantastic song, and a song for the fans, for the fans that George saw every day at Apple Studios.

It’s a “famous fact” that the songs on “All Things Must Pass” were borne of George’s frustration at never getting his songs released on Beatles albums, he would get one, or two tracks at most, three in one rare case (on Revolver) and the rest, would go back onto the reject pile, in some cases, as in the title track of this album, “All Things Must Pass”, multiple times – it’s still odd for me to realise that the Beatles ran through, rehearsed, and learned this song – and then rejected it.  George’s gain, the Beatles’ loss, I reckon. [Famously, one George Harrison song, “Not Guilty”, was recorded over 100 times by the Beatles – and was STILL never released – it was finally released years later on a Harrison solo album].

But regarding this “famous fact” of this alleged “musical constipation”; OK, there is perhaps, some truth to that, in any event – this is George, saying to the whole world “I wrote a LOT of songs, and HERE THEY ARE” – but also, these songs are George still at the height of his writing powers, coming off the back of tracks like “Something”, “I Me Mine”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You”, and “Taxman”, to name but a few – to me, the songs on “All Things Must Pass” are basically, an extension of that line of song writing, and the quality of the songs on “All Things Must Pass”, is undeniably, close if not equal to that revered catalogue of Beatles tracks penned by our Mr. Harrison.

I mean, whether this album is the result of “artistic constipation” (as some have claimed) or not – it’s still an amazing record – and if you consider some of the deep tracks – like the amazing “Let It Down” – one of the most incredibly beautiful songs George ever wrote, with that deep organ chord laying across his beautiful, loving lyric – and then the power of that chorus, when the horns come in – it’s just an awesome experience musically, and then it’s followed by the twelve-string driven, shiver-inducing beauty of “Run Of The Mill” with it’s odd, Spanish sounding horn parts, funky piano, and earnest, beautiful vocal – and now, you can hear the vocal doubling in the verses properly, for the first time, too – thanks to that fabulous re-master – wonderful!  Or if we move to what was on the original vinyl side four, another hidden gem of a deep album cut, “The Art Of Dying” with its driven, wah-wah guitars, I don’t know it that’s Clapton or Harrison on lead guitar (very probably, both!), but whoever it is, they are ON FIRE.  That song just gives me the shivers, from the opening slide-down wah chord to the last of the dying fade out, with those amazing triplets C – A – E or whatever it is, going at Robert Fripp-like speed and with a similar precision delivery – that little song simply rocks.

Everywhere you turn, are songs that are just…good songs.  In some cases, brilliantly good songs.  And the one that got away, the gorgeous “I Live For You” featuring an amazing Pete Drake pedal steel guitar riff – George’s voice, on the unfinished demo, is just perfect, and the rough harmonies are absolutely perfect – I love that little track, and I am so glad it’s been re-incorporated into the album – it should have always been there, but I am really glad it’s there now – and Drake’s pedal steel solo in the middle of it is a master-class in the instrument, one thing George was always able to do, was to coax world-class performances out of his guest musicians – and on this album, that roster of guest musicians reads like a Who’s Who of 60 British rock royalty, with his old friend Eric Clapton as the main guitar slinger, there are a host of other guitarists present, and it must have been an amazing feeling, in that room, running through tracks with the giant live band, with two drummers and piano and organ and God only knows how many guitars – starting with that, and then, another layer of performance from Phil Spector, horns, strings, reverb – and, just for good measure – some more reverb.

George remarked on camera, in later years, that he wished that the album didn’t “suffer” from a cloud of reverb, from the “production values of the day” – but I disagree, what Spector did, as with what he “did”, to “Let It Be” – was what was right for that moment, for that time, and while I would like to “hear” a reverb-less version of the album, I would never consider it to be the real master – the master is this master, with its huge amounts of reverb – and I am sure that’s where I get my own propensity for drowning whole tracks in massive reverbs – it sounds fecking amazing!  Try it sometime – record a song, play it back dry – then, trial some large reverb rooms on it.  When you find the right one, you will know…then, turn up the “wet” control to at least 50 percent, and close your eyes.  There – that’s the Phil Spector method, which I am strangely, proud to say, I often use in my ambient music – treating entire completed tracks with reverb – and it just changes everything, it makes an already-ambient track, super ambient, it just brings out some amazing reverberations, literally, and I am still fascinated with that sound – so the supposedly “over-produced” “All Things Must Pass” does not bother me in the slightest, and I think that Spector got a bad rap for it – he was hearing a sound in his head, and George trusted him, so this is the album that got made – and it’s an amazing album, syrupy strings, strident horns, waves of untrammelled reverb – it’s perfect, a perfect time capsule of 1970, and absolutely, the highlight of the box set – this album is why you buy “The Apple Years Vol. I – 1968-1975”.

If you take a track like “Awaiting On You All”, with its irresistible descending riff, OK, sure, it dissolves into a mass of reverb, but it still rocks – nothing Phil Spector did, really detracted from that fact – the songs, the performances – rock.  I love that song, and if you took away the reverb, it just wouldn’t be the same – but, having said that, if you listen to this re-master, in headphones – you can hear EVERYTHING, it’s a quality mix, Spector was no dummy, you can hear everything, clearly, every tiny part – every vocal harmony – it’s simply quality.  The reverb is really over-exaggerated by the press, especially now in this nice, clean re-master – you can hear that it’s only on a few tracks where he may have over-egged the musical pudding a tiny bit – but it simply does not matter! Because it’s such a great bunch of performances from a truly great band led by a truly great musician, our George.

Speaking of great performances, “All Things Must Pass” featured something I’d never seen before, and rarely if ever, have seen since – an alternate version of a track, right there on the main album.  So on side one, you got the first of the versions of “Isn’t It A Pity”, and then later, on the second record, you get “Isn’t It A Pity, Version 2” – and the differences are substantial, wonderful flutes float up through this second version, and different, bluesy guitar leads appear out of nowhere, with the most subtle, beautiful note-bending I’ve ever heard – delicate, emotive – shiver-inducing again – a lovely alternate version of a great song – and that experience, prompted me to create alternate versions of my own songs much later on in life – inspired by this simple idea.  As far as “Isn’t It A Pity” goes, I almost like the second version better than the “real” version, but they are both great, both have a lot to offer to the discerning listener.

“Hear Me Lord” closes out the four “song” sides, and this is a song that I played on the piano a lot, we accepted this heavy song about God as just another song, and I loved to play it and sing it, George was ever-evolving in his beliefs, and we may never know which “lord” he is referring to at any given moment, but what we did know was, just how serious he was about it – and this is a great song, with some surprising fuzz guitar layered in there, that you don’t really notice – beautiful work – and the stellar piano part is absolutely spot-on, too – a great piece of music, and a great, uplifting “anthemic” song to end the album proper with – brilliant!  A giant chorus, complete with those trademark George Harrison slide guitars that we know so well, takes us out on the long fade.  But it also – rocks “above and below us… out and in, there’s no place that you’re not in – won’t you hear me lord?.”  The rhythm guitar part is surprisingly fierce, and again, we have carefully layered vocal work, and that astonishingly improv-like piano, just jamming throughout the track – inspirational indeed!  Proving that in the right hands – even songs about God can rock.  Sigh.

 

A word now about “Apple Jam” – originally, the “main” vinyl album had four sides, the first four sides / two LPs, were of “songs”, and a third record, sides five and six, were called “Apple Jam” – jam sessions recorded in between tracks.  Growing up, this being one of very few albums I had at all, and learning to play guitar, it was “Apple Jam” that I started out with, in terms of listening to improvised guitar playing for the first time, it was the first time I’d ever head guitarists “jam” – and it was a real revelation.  I still play many, many of the riffs I learned from this record, and it’s not a bad place to start – you can jam along to it pretty easily, and I grew up playing guitar much in the style of a modified Harrison/Clapton clone, and later, it was “Live Cream” and other live tracks featuring long improvs, so I really got into learning the Clapton oeuvre…closely followed by Jimi Hendrix, and that’s where I, and pretty much everyone else, lost the plot – impossible to imitate, but it sure is fun trying, Hendrix blew us all away, and Clapton and Harrison were his contemporaries, and were aware of him – so I don’t think having a load of George Harrison and Eric Clapton riffs in my head, from playing “Apple Jam” over and over and over and over when I was 12, 13 years old – is such a bad thing.

It certainly gave me a great start at improvising, and if you are going to jam with others, and they are playing some kind of I-IV-V or other modified blues – knowing Clapton’s lead lines from “Apple Jam” is an absolute boon.  The whole thing is in the key of C, or C Minor for “Out Of The Blue” – and to this day, it’s a great record to put on and jam along to.  It totally rocks – live, instrumental rock tracks from the best rock musicians of the 1960s, assembled in one room to make a George Harrison album – the excitement is palpable!

Sure, later on, my influences changed, and I became as much about Fripp & Eno as I did about Clapton & Harrison, but all of it is my musical DNA, I would not be the guitarist I am, if it were not for those influences, if it were not for the experience of “Apple Jam” being the first, and for a long time, only, album of improvised guitar playing I ever owned, and therefore, it became the template for all jams that I played probably from age 15 to 20 – it was what I knew, what I played – what I loved.  So having the…slightly rearranged, albeit, tracks from “Apple Jam” in this newly re-mastered package, is just the icing on the cake, and I can barely contain myself, I can hardly wait until I get there, so I can rock out once again to “Out Of The Blue” or “Thanks For The Pepperoni” – amazing jams from the most amazing, giant “rock band” ever assembled – George Harrison And His Famous Friends.

Not to be missed, do not, do not, I repeat – miss this record.  It’s a hugely important part of the Beatles story, and to me, it’s almost like a final Beatles record made by a different version of the band, led by and directed by George, to play George’s songs – which was NOT the avowed purpose of the Beatles – that was, to play Lennon-McCartney songs :-).

So “All Things Must Pass” is a very important part of history, and it’s now taken it’s rightful place in this amazing box of the “Apple Masters Vol. 1” – a brilliant collection showcasing the talents of the “quiet” Beatle, who in 1970, was not quiet in the slightest!

 

Disc 4 – Living In The Material World (June 1973) – remastered, expanded version

Then came the somewhat lower-key “Living In The Material World”, with it’s absolutely astonishing Hare Krishna artwork – one of the brightest, boldest album covers of the day – simply striking!  And a visual, and auditory, declaration, from George, of his new-found love for Sri Krishna – we’d had some broad hints before this, such as the mega-worldwide hit “My Sweet Lord” from the previous record, the afore-described “All Things Must Pass” but it wasn’t until “Living In The Material” hit the record stores in 1971, that we knew, without a doubt, that George had “gone” completely Hare Krishna – and we mean, completely.

The songs – reflected this, OK, there are still a few normal “love songs” such as the very catchy, acoustic-guitar led “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” but the majority of the songs seemed to be about…Krishna.  Or – how people’s perceptions of George had changed for the worse, because of his love of Krishna – as exemplified by “Who Can See It” – a song about those who can, and can’t, see the truth right in front of their noses, about Krishna being God, that is.

This very, very strong religious bent of George’s, actually, never bothered me in the least.  The press had a field day with it, and I don’t think George was too pleased with some of the reactions to his new found religion.  But for me – this was just a new batch of songs by George Harrison – and, it was startling in other ways – a lot of acoustic songs, but also, a LOT, and I mean a LOT, of that brilliant slide guitar, with that special George Harrison “tone”, that we’d heard hints of before, but now we were getting the real thing – and some of the songs, like “The Lord Loves Him (Who Loves The Lord)” and the acerbic “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” are almost entirely based around slide guitar riffs – and that was something new for George.  Dobros and acoustic slide were appearing, too, so really, for guitarists, this is a hugely important record, because it showed us the next evolution of George Harrison, the guitarist – and this is still a great record to study if you want to learn the best slide guitar technique ever known to man, or, just how to play guitar with style, class and skill.

The album opener, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” was a substantial hit for George, a very catchy acoustic riff opens the song, and some amazing slide guitar cements it’s musical credentials, this is a quality piece of work with a beautiful, universal message – and this is the kind of thing that all Beatles seem to be able to pull off – from “All You Need Is Love” to “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” various Beatles at various times, seem to be able to talk openly about universal truth and beauty, and make it palatable to the masses – well, “Give Me Love” is just that, a song about love and peace – and in 1971, as now, the world needs more love, the world needs more peace – this message is eternal, and what a great way to start the record, too.

The acoustic feel of most of the album is, I believe, very intentional, and for me, some of those “quieter” songs are some of the most important, and most beautiful, one of which, “The Day The World Gets Round” uses guitar harmonics in a brilliant way, and I really, really love the whole feel of that track – again, and actually, I believe, for the last time, George is really paying attention to the vocal approach, and in this track, he is hitting some of the highest notes I’d ever heard him sing – and pulling it off.  He really pushed himself vocally here, and there is once again, evidence of the modified “Beatles” vocal harmonies technique – what I might dub the “Wall Of Georges” – not to the extent as it’s used on All Things Must Pass, but it’s still there – whereas in all of the records after this one – I don’t personally feel that George ever matched the vocal work he did on those two records – “All Things Must Pass” and “Living In The Material World” – that’s his highest point as both vocalist and, more importantly, vocal arranger – and I think this is just a work of genius in that regard.

Not all of the songs are acoustic in nature, to appease the record company, the did do one “big production number” which is the title track of the album, which contains THE most gorgeous middle eight break, where the rock music shifts effortlessly and beautifully over to tablas and tanpuras, while George sings in a voice of heaven “from the spiritual sky, how I pray, how I pray, that I won’t get lost or go astray…” – and when you hear those tablas kick in, it’s just magic – and this is one of those amazing examples of the integration of Indian music into Western music that should not work, but somehow – it works amazingly well.  And when that beautiful Indian music section ends, it just melts right back into the “western rock band” sound as if NOTHING had happened – and the song continues as a normal piece of rock – Ringo on the drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, George on electric guitars – horns, etc. – the big band sound – for “Living In The Material World” – the one “production” track on the album.  That track appeared at what was the last position on the vinyl album’s “side one”, so you got four or five acoustic tracks, then this big, loud, piece of showy rock music (with, gorgeous Indian middle section, don’t forget) and then back to vinyl album “side two” another batch of mostly acoustic songs.

The album ends on a very quiet song indeed, one of my personal favourites, with some of the most moving and gorgeous slide guitar anywhere – and that song is the beautiful “That Is All” – a lovely love song of some significance.  When it reaches the moment for the slide guitar solo, I just collapse in a heap, it’s so incredibly beautiful – words cannot describe it, you just have to hear it – and then it just quietly wanders off to its inevitable sleepy ending…low key, no big exit, no big statement – just, this is me, now, George-who-loves-Krishna – and you have to hand it to him – to come out like that, showing what you love on your sleeve in that incredibly public way – that must have taken some big cahones – really, it takes nerves of steel to publish a cover like that, knowing that it will probably alienate a lot of people, including a lot of your fans.

George was always a man of his convictions, and his love for Krishna to me, was very real, I knew, and I still know now, from listening to the absolutely honest and absolutely heartfelt lyrics of this record, that George truly believed in Krishna, and in the love he’d found there – and while he may have wavered later on, at this point, his faith was so strong, that he was willing to face millions of people and say “I’ve found peace and fulfilment in the Lord Sri Krishna” and being dead serious about it – not a publicity stunt, not like an early equivalent of announcing “I like, so many others, am a Scientologist” – that just makes me laugh, but nothing about “Living In The Material World” makes me want to laugh – it’s a truly important album, which is often overshadowed by it’s much, much more famous predecessor, “All Things Must Pass”, but now, I think people should really listen to this record, because it, to me, is just a logical next step, it makes sense to me – this is what you do to follow “All Things Must Pass”.

That album was a very public record, made with a large group of “famous” musician friends, while “Living In The Material World” – despite also being very public (it would be many years before every move a Beatle made, was not in the public eye) – it’s also incredibly personal and private, almost – and I think George must have thought to himself, well, if they “get it”, they will “get it” – if they don’t – they don’t – and he was willing to lose a few million fans if he had to – he was going to tell the truth (as he saw it) about his beliefs, and let people know that he now loves the Lord Krishna, and he is proud and happy about that – and he wants to let the world know about the happiness he has found there, about the personal fulfilment and joy of being a believer in Krishna.

At the same time, there is still George the man, and, George the man who writes ordinary songs about love, such as “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” or “That Is All” as well as songs that describe his new-found closeness to his new God, the Lord Krishna: “The Light That Has Lighted The World”, “The Day The World Gets Round”, “Who Can See It” and “The Lord Loves The One (Who Loves The Lord” and the beautiful, mystical “Be Here Now”, surely one of the most beautiful acoustic George Harrison songs since the brilliant “The Inner Light” – a Beatles B-side – and “Be Here Now” has a beautiful, quiet appeal that really resonates with me, it’s just a lovely little tune.

While the “ordinary” songs are seriously outnumbered by the “religious” songs, it makes no difference to me, I love all of these songs, there is wry humour as in the very litigious “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” (another fantastic example of some of the greatest slide guitar playing on the planet – give this one a listen!) as well as deep, personal love songs “That Is All”.

One real curiosity is the presence of a song that was originally intended for Ronnie Spector, the cautionary tale “Try Some, Buy Some” which is very odd, it somehow works within the context of the album, but it’s strange because it doesn’t really fit the mostly acoustic mould of the record – George took the track, and recorded new vocals and I think, guitars on it – maybe this was just to flesh out what is otherwise a fairly short record, I do not know, but even this odd song has its place here, a bit of “overblown” Phil Spector string arranging for anyone hankering back to that previous record again, the Spector-produced “All Things Must Pass”.  The difference in this record is simple: it’s produced by Harrison throughout – with one exception – Phil Spector on “Try Some, Buy Some”.  So it does sound a bit out of place, here you have these very clear, very clean, definitely not clouded by reverb acoustic-led tracks, beautifully produced by George – and then comes the massive of reverb-y strings that is “Try Some, Buy Some” – so it does stick out, like the proverbial Spector-sore-thumb.  But at the same time – it belongs here, there is no other place it would belong, and I think George does a good performance of the tune – I like this track – despite its production values being totally at odds with every other song on the record J.

The two bonus tracks that have long been associated with this record are the lovely “Deep Blue”, and the somewhat silly, somewhat…frivolous “Miss O’Dell” – a strange, unfinished sounding demo-like song where George periodically breaks down into hilarious laughter during the vocals as he attempts to sing the chorus – so in that sense, I do welcome this song, as it does provide one “light moment” in what is essentially, some very heavy, very serious musical proceedings – not to say there isn’t joy present in some of the songs, in the love songs in particular, but there is certainly nothing nearly as light-hearted (or as slight as) “Miss O’Dell” – it’s definitely unique in George’s not insubstantial canon.

It’s difficult for me to believe this, but this is only George’s fourth studio album, from the period from 1968 – 1973 – although 1971 is not represented here because it produced a live album, which you do not get in this set – the Concert For Bangladesh – which of course, doesn’t “count” as a studio album – so it’s odd to me that this fairly “late” record is already the fourth studio solo album – but there it is.  No matter though, it’s a fantastic way to end the set, and despite the final track, “That Is All”, going out on a serious, quiet note – “Living In The Material World” itself is a great high point to leave the box set at, a positive record made by a man who was finding himself, finding his true beliefs, and making his way in the world – one song at a time.

I love this record, I have always loved this record, and I think I love it almost as much as I love “All Things Must Pass” – which, on recent reflection, may actually be my favourite record of all time!  Because it was so important to me as a child, I really believed in George, and I felt that the Lennon-McCartney Axis Of Power gave George short shrift – that George and his songs were constantly being side-lined in favour of adding just one more “Lennon-McCartney original” to the next Beatle album…I was so, so happy then, with the appearance of these two records, both of which are crafted with so much heart – that’s one thing you can’t deny – George Harrison had heart, and on these two records – you don’t have to look far to find it.

 

 

Disc 5 – Dark Horse (December 1974) – remastered, expanded version

 

This was an album that I didn’t own at the time, there were a lot of records I didn’t buy, simply because I didn’t have the money.  So when I went to see George Harrison and Friends, at the LA Forum, in 1974, I had no idea what to expect.

It starts out very, very promising, with a bright little instrumental called “Hari’s On Tour” which I have learned to love, despite the somewhat dated sound of Tom Scott and the LA Express’s approach to horn playing, Harrison himself is actually jamming pretty well on his slide here, and it’s worth it just for the slide playing.

Unusual, too – a Beatle starting a solo album with an instrumental?  I think that “Hari’s On Tour” is an bit of an underrated gem, and if I am not mistaken, this was the piece that the band started with when I saw them – which was a complete surprise, and of course, at the time, I had NO IDEA what it was.

After this most unusual opening salvo, George moves us into “Simply Shady”, which is the first indication that something is amiss, George’s beautiful high voice is a bit lower now, there are still nice harmonies, but they are simpler – there are still really nice lead guitars, as one would expect, some nice bluesy riffs in this tune, along with bits of pedal steel guitar – again, probably a better tune than I thought.

I don’t know now, how to really react to the tracks from Dark Horse, and all of the albums that followed – I mean, it’s George, so I a part of is loyal, but another part of me longs for the deep spirituality of “Living In The Material World” or the just-freed pop/rock genius of “All Things Must Pass” – and you can tell, two songs in, that yes, it’s George – there’s a nice little blues guitar solo on the outro of “Simply Shady” – it’s pleasant, it’s well done, but some of the spark is gone.

Continuing the alliteration, probably unconsciously, we then get “So Sad” which starts out with some very Beatle-y chorused / leslied guitars, but then it sort of dissolves into standard pop fare – sure, there is a small fanfare of slide guitar in between each chorus – that’s something that seems to crop up in many of George’s songs on every album, but there is just something about the vocal delivery, it’s just not what it was, and for me – well, I feel a slight sense of loss.

George worked himself far, far too hard in 1974, to the point of exhaustion, and his voice suffered – and maybe, you can hear the beginnings of that here on the album, I don’t know – but by the time of the tour, his voice was well and truly shot, so we got to hear super-hoarse renditions of Harrison classics and newer material, which was a bit of shame – but I didn’t care – it was flippin’ GEORGE HARRISON, playing live – and I got to see it.  It was an amazing concert, with Ravi Shankar and his Orchestra opening the show – and that was the experience of a life time – seeing Ravi Shankar followed by George Harrison – brilliant.

The musical excesses of the times are already starting to catch up with George, “Bye Bye Love” – a strange cover of the Everly Brothers song that all of the Beatles adored, starts with, of all things – a fretless bass.  To my mind – that is just about the most inappropriate instrument you could choose – but there it is – It is a very, very, VERY strange cover, to say the least. George’s voice is more animated, he definitely sounds better on this track than on the preceding tracks, but beyond that – the fretless just ruins this for me – not my thing I guess – sure, there is a time and a place for fretless bass – but NOT when you are covering classic 50s pop.

A funky electric piano now enters about half-way through, which just further dates this to 1974, but a bit of a clichéd 1974, and there are guitars a plenty, a strange Rhodes/guitar/vocal break appears, with that inappropriate fretless getting funkier and funkier…and retrospectively, I personally would question George’s choices of musicians for this project – it was a very funky band, and sure, they were all great players – but for me, George needed a pop band, a rock band – not a funky band with Billy Preston and Willie Weeks to the fore.   Like the band he had for the 1991 tour.  But – it was 1974, and these were the choices he made.

It had a huge influence on the sound of the record, which then of course alters the feel of the songs, so – it’s all change, this album does not, to my ears, sound like an album made by the same musician who made the third and fourth solo albums.

“Maya Love” starts to bring things back a bit, although there is an incredibly funky electric piano and bass line to deal with, at least there is a ton of great slide playing once again – and for me, I can ALWAYS enjoy George’s slide playing, in any context, in any song – so for me, even an album like Dark Horse, I can listen to, because if I am not maybe so wild about the songs, or the vocals – I can listen to the guitars.

“Ding Dong” is another one that is up tempo and quite cheery, with the Tom Scott Overdone Horns still at it, the predictable bell sounds, but the vocals are a bit better again – although the massed vocal chorus is just plain silly.  I just have trouble with this song – “ring out the old, ring in the new…” – I wish he had rung in some different “kind” of new – this new George was not really the George for me.

But – the concert was fantastic, the “Dark Horse” tour was an amazing event, even with George’s damaged voice – there was no stopping him, on with the show – until Ravi had his heart attack, at which point George moved him and his family to Encinitas, California, very near to where I lived – so he could have the best heart care available at the time.  Years later – I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a private concert at Ravi’s home – and that was an amazing experience – and since he now lived in the San Diego area, this enabled me to see him perform many times, and also, to see Anoushka, his daughter, perform – and that was a real stroke of luck for me!

And I feel a million times lucky – because I got to see Ravi’s band play at that 1974 concert – before his heart attack side-lined him.  Of course, he recovered fully, and eventually lived to the hearty old age of 93 – an incredible person, and as George’s mentor, one of the most amazing musicians to have walked the planet – I know, I’ve seen him play.

By the time we get to the title track, “Dark Horse” – well, you’ve now become somewhat acclimated, and actually, I find this to be one of the best songs on the album – the acoustic guitars make a welcome FIRST APPEARANCE, so that make it nice, and flutes instead of horns is a nice change, too – a very pleasant little tune, and one of the tracks I actually recall from the concert.

Then things go from bad to worse, suddenly, I feel like I’m in some seamy B-movie, as “Far East Man” assaults my ears – strange, strange, strange – funky chord progression that owes more to 70s soul than to George Harrison, rock guitarist – and it’s just so seamy, with its smooth jazz sound, it’s slithering saxophone riffs – ugh.  A strained vocal, with Tom Scott on sax, answering the phrases – doesn’t help – and trying to hit the high notes, and not quite doing so – oh God, I just want it to stop – and of course, the solo is a horn solo, not a slide solo – so there is nothing redeeming here – “Dark Horse” (the song) was clearly a high point, followed immediately by this low point – OK – there is some slide guitar eventually, but even it’s not worth struggling through this terrifically dated and disturbing funky soul diva nightmare.  I don’t like it, George – I’m sorry.  It’s not for me.

“It Is “He” (Jai Sri Krishna)” is repetitive but anything is an improvement on “Far East Man”, at least this is more like a normal song, but I feel nothing of the devotion and love that I get when I listen to “Living In The Material World” – and the silly “gubba-dub” instrument that George plays takes any possible serious religious message and makes it seem quite silly – it’s just a stupid sound, and why George thought it appropriate for this song, or for any song – I simply cannot imagine.

And then, a “jew’s harp” – yet another cheap gimmick, appears in the very next song, the first of two bonus tracks the short and sweet “I Don’t Care Anymore” – which is, blessedly, acoustic guitar and voice mostly…a real song, tacked onto the end of an album of songs, that to me, are mostly, not real.

The final piece, and the second of two bonus tracks, is an early version / different mix of the title track – and it shows what a good song it was even early on – I do like this song, it’s the best on the album – and here, it’s just acoustic guitar, lead vocal, and a lot of nicely overdubbed vocals.  So this, and the real version of the title track – are my two favourite tracks on the album!

Disappointing in many ways, I think this album had some potential, but I feel like it was rushed (and it was, they were rushing to finish it in time for the tour…so, haste makes waste, was never more true than in this case!) and that is a real shame.  A couple of the songs, I find unlistenable, and one or two, are worth it – otherwise, I suggest you look elsewhere in the Harrison catalogue, and leave Dark Horse alone except for the two fine versions of the title track – which are undeniably pleasant, and show such promise…sigh.

 

Disc 6 – Extra Texture (October 1975) – remastered, expanded version

 

A rocking pace, an upbeat, up tempo track, “You”, starts us out on the 1975 George Harrison solo album, “Extra Texture” (Read All About It) – another one that I did not buy at the time, but have only heard much, much later on – and while I can’t call it a “return to form” (after the very disappointing “Dark Horse”) it certainly sounds better – except unfortunately, that damnable Tom Scott is there again, with his incessant sax riffs, and I just don’t know why George is so fond of the saxophone – but he seems to want it EVERYWHERE – and for me, well, I would probably like “You” if it weren’t for that damn sax!

Nice guitar riff, a clean Telecaster-y sounding riff, vocals back on form, hits the very high note at the end, sounding relaxed and confident – this is more the George I want to hear, but the band, the arrangements – well, they are just not up my street, and we are still uncomfortably, many light-years away from the pure genius of “All Things Must Pass” or the beautiful, quiet introspection of “Living In The Material World”…too far away for my liking.

“The Answer’s At The End” is slow, slower, almost dirge-like in comparison to the snappy opener, so the mood of the album takes a down swing right away, and that earnest, strained-voice sound starts to return, not quite as disappointing as the vocal sound on “Dark Horse”, but still, a bit troubling.  This is a ballad, seventies style, full on, with cheap sounding strings, pianos, and plenty of drama…it’s OK, but I don’t really feel a huge amount of love for it – a slinky, descending piano riff suddenly moves it into cocktail lounge territory, until thank you God, a slide guitar appears, briefly, to make the rest of the song worthwhile.  Even that four second solo is worth it, it sounds great, and I just wish he would play, play, play – but, he feels that he has to do these “songs” – and that’s what he does – until the end of his career.  He is so earnest, it’s difficult to feel upset with him, he means so well, he wants these songs to work so badly – but as with “Dark Horse” – they have dated considerably.

More tinkling pianos take us at last, to the end of this long, somewhat tedious ballad – and then…then, we get “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” and indeed, the opening guitar figure, has a beautiful, beautiful tone – and we do get a lot of guitar in this tune, another serious one (with another earnest, heartfelt, vocal) interspersed with the most incredibly beautiful guitars imaginable – really lovely, and for me, this track is a highlight, even though as a song, it doesn’t thrill me – the slide techniques, the tone – it’s just unbelievable – wah slide, slide harmonies – all beautifully done – really nice work – and I love it.  But that’s the big deal here – the slide guitars are ALWAYS good, even when they appear in the worst possible arrangements, even when they appear in bad songs – they are really good.

“Ooh Baby” (You Know That I Love You) starts to move us into that 70s soul again, but this time, it’s so tastefully done, that I don’t actually mind it – a very serious love song, with a sort of Smoky Robinson style vocal and approach to it – George takes this stuff so seriously – and for a sappy love song, done in a very soul style, it’s really pretty well done, and a pleasant vocal – I actually don’t mind this, oddly – because it’s really not my kind of song, but I admire the quality of it anyway.

Piano and organ introduce the next piece, yet another earnest, modified ballad – with a terrible title, “World Of Stone” – very serious stuff here, featuring some strange sounds from the guitar, wah sounds – but then, we get a very nice Stratocaster/clean guitar solo, followed by an odd chorus vocal – this is just kinda strange, but it’s OK, harmless, it doesn’t bother me, and some of the chord progressions are fairly interesting and fairly advanced, so I can admire it’s structure, even if I don’t really get it as a tune…more beautiful clean guitar soloing on the outro, with that strange, mixed-low chorus in the background – nice, nice guitar playing – I love it when he takes a longer solo like this, it’s a real beauty – and I will remember this – if I want to hear some nice, nice guitar – the last part of “World Of Stone” is the place to go – surprising, and beautiful.

Next comes “A Bit More Of You”, which is upbeat, up tempo – and you guessed it, full of sax riffs – but, surprise – it’s a musical joke, obviously, the end of the vinyl side one, it’s 45 seconds “more” of “You” – get it?  So, a faded in and then faded out, reprise of that first track (to remind you of back when this album was still good?) – I don’t quite know why, but it’s more of George’s wry humour, I suppose.  Good joke – “A Bit More Of You” J.

“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” features that phrase, repeated four times, before some other lyrics appear, followed immediately by a fifth iteration.  More serious, serious balladry, very very strange background vocals here, too – almost weird – and some strange chord progressions, too – but still, not a lot to recommend it – a sort of nauseating chorale sound on the chorus, which once again, features those same words, over and over and over again… not much of a lyric, if you ask me.  Forgettable, but at this point, inevitable.  George seems locked into this “I am a serious soul singer” thing, he has to write these super serious ballads – I don’t get it – what happened to pop music, what happened to rock and roll?  It’s just not here, on these albums – it’s not on “Dark Horse”, with the possible exception of parts of “Hari’s On Tour” – otherwise – no – and it’s not here on “Extra Texture” either.

I don’t know what happened, it’s almost as if the 80s started early for George, and he went straight from 1972, to 1980 – his middle 70s, was like our 80s – bereft of most musical value J.

“Tired Of Midnight Blue” is the next aural assault on our ears, this one is a bit funky, piano led, with high pitched background vocals at first – but then, it gets better, it’s sort of like modified spy music, and it has some nice guitar work, maybe a bit “Steely Dan” if you know what I mean, interesting because it’s a bit odd.  I don’t mind this one, and so far, the songs have been overall, better, and much more palatable than the songs from the last album, “Dark Horse”.  Nice vocal harmonies, beautiful slide guitars – it is here, if you are patient and you know which tracks to listen to – this is one I will listen to again – it’s quite good, imagine that!  Strange – but good.

“Grey Cloudy Lies” with it’s strange piano, Leslie’d (rotating speaker) guitars, and moog synth arrangement – is just odd, another ballad, another downbeat, serious track, with a serious vocal – and it just sort of drifts by it’s not unpleasant, but it’s also not terrifically memorable for any reason.

“His Name Is Legs (Ladies And Gentlemen)” is the first of two obligatory bonus tracks, funky bass, piano, funky horns, trite lyrics, forgettable tune – funky Rhodes piano – I don’t really see the point, unless this is an attempt at “rocking” – if it is, it’s a pretty lame one – I suppose I should be thankful that there is something else besides the album opener that is actually upbeat, but I don’t get a lot out of this track – it’s just OK, but I just don’t really engage with it, and the horns are too funky for my liking, and any song with a bad horn arrangement – and, in this case, a really weird vocal break, that I can’t even explain – it’s just goofy – really, really silly voice-over “comedy” I think this is supposed to be quite funny, but it’s really not, and the spoken sections do not travel well.  Very silly stuff, and with such an otherwise downbeat, subdued record, its perkiness seems false and just kinda unnecessary.  It’s not helping!   However – his name is Legs, in case you were wondering – ladies and gentlemen.  Not recommended. Not particularly funny, or particularly good – it’s just plain odd.

Our second of two and final bonus track is “This Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying (Platinum Weird Version)” – and I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.  It’s sparser than the original version, much less “produced” – and, much more powerful too – much more – the original version is one of the stronger tracks on the record – which, by the way, is said to be so downbeat and low key, because George was depressed over the panning he’d received over his 1974 projects – the “Dark Horse” album and tour.  If so – well, it’s not that bad – I think overall, it’s substantially better than “Dark Horse” – and this version of this song, has one of the best solos George has played in a long time – it just rocks, it has a wicked, wicked guitar sound – and I will tell you what, I would happily sit through this entire album again just to hear this rocking version of this little song.  Said to be a “follow up” to the 1968 classic George Harrison song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and also, an indictment of the responses to the “Dark Horse” album and tour – but my God, the guitar playing is just amazing – when the main solo arrives, (guitarists, you do NOT want to miss this one – check it out at 1:53 – far, far better than the one on the “finished version” – far better!!) – just about knocks you out of your seat – a really nice surprise.

 

DISC 6 – The Apple Years DVD

 

The DVD is just what you would expect, it contains an “Apple Years” feature, an “All Things Must Pass” feature, some live video clips from the 1992 “Live In Japan” CD, a making-of “Living In The Material World” piece, and additional videos and features for Dark Horse and The Concert For Bangladesh – which of course, isn’t in either of the boxes!

So it’s a bit odd – the Live In Japan video clips are VERY welcome (PLEASE PLEASE GIVE US THE WHOLE CONCERT FFS!) but they actually relate to Vol. 2 of the box set – and the Concert For Bangladesh feature is in the right place chronologically, but – that album, for whatever reason, is not included in the set (because it’s live? because they didn’t have the rights?) I don’t know why – because the second box contains the live 1992 concert CD – so it can’t be that.  I don’t understand the omission of the Bangladesh CD – but there it is.

Short but sweet, enjoyable, but nothing earth-shaking, and as always, you will have seen some or all of this material elsewhere – but, still, a nice addition to the box.  I very much enjoyed it.

 

 

IN CONCLUSION – THOUGHTS AND WISHES, HOPES AND DREAMS…

The fact that George’s career took a bit of a hit in 1974 / 1975 does not in any way detract from what a brilliant set of music “The Apple Years Vol. 1 – 1968 – 1975” is – it’s just what happened, and I think that any lack of inspiration present on “Dark Horse” and “Extra Texture” are more than made up by the amazing music on the four albums that precede them, and you would really need them to understand the full story of George’s music.

It’s also important to hear the next phase, as represented by “The Dark Horse Years Vol. 2 – 1976 – 1992” because George did produce some better music, later on, once the bad experiences of 1974 receded into the background.

I actually felt quite sorry for George – after those first few amazing years of the 1970s, and his absolutely runaway successes – one after the other – “All Things Must Pass” selling beyond his wildest dreams – “The Concert For Bangladesh” being a huge success – two triple albums in a row…and then the beautiful, understated “Living In The Material World” – at the end of 1973, he could look back at three solid years of massive success, with his “My Sweet Lord” single eventually selling in excess of TEN MILLION copies…and “All Things Must Pass” itself, over time, outselling McCartney and Lennon’s most famous albums combined…in a way, at this point in George’s life, really, the only way he COULD go was down…and it’s was, sadly, “Dark Horse” – album and tour – that took him there.

It could have been anything – any record – any time, but, for George, 1974 was truly disastrous, and I think too, that the madness of his first three years as an ex-Beatle were probably quite wearing, quite tiring – a lot of expectation, a lot was expected of George – and he delivered, over and over and over again, how he managed to pull of the Bangladesh benefit is still a miracle to me, he managed to convince Dylan to play at literally the last minute – he just made things happen.

So I was not surprised by “Dark Horse” being not quite as good – well, to be frank – not nearly as good, as what came before.  But I don’ t know if ANY songwriter could keep up with the output and the quality that George produced between 1970 and 1973 – and don’t forget, in 1969, he’d written “Something” – so you can really add that last year or two as a Beatle to this same time line, he was really on an incredibly musical high from 1963 to 1973 – a non-stop musical high, that started with his 1963 rendition of “Roll Over Beethoven” (taken from the Beatles’ second album “With The Beatles”), with his somewhat famous pals “The Beatles” and ended with “That Is All” which sits nicely at the end of 1973’s fourth solo album “Living In The Material World”.

If you think about it – from the first songs that George sang lead vocals on:

“Chains”

“Do You Want To Know A Secret”

“Devil In Her Heart”

“Roll Over Beethoven”

“Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”

“I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”

 

…and, from the first songs that George wrote AND sang lead vocals on, too:

“Don’t Bother Me”

“Cry For A Shadow” (Co-written with John Lennon)

“I Need You”

“You Like Me Too Much”

“Think For Yourself”

“If I Needed Someone”

“Taxman”

“Love You To”

“I Want To Tell You”

“Within You, Without You” (compare this 1967 track to 1963’s “Don’t Bother Me” – quite a change there!)

“Blue Jay Way”

“Flying” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)

“Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)

“The Inner Light”

“Sour Milk Sea” (Jackie Lomax)

 

At this point, this is where we join the “Apple Years Vol. 1 1968 – 1975” box set, where George is credited with writing all of the songs on the first solo album, the soundtrack for “Wonderwall” the film.

Then – all the songs from “The Beatles” – aka “The White Album”:

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

“Piggies”

“Long, Long, Long”

“Savoy Truffle”

 

And then…

“Only A Northern Song”

“It’s All Too Much”

“Badge” (as performed by “Cream” co-written with Eric Clapton)

 

Followed by the two songs from 1969’s “Electronic Sound”

Then…

“Old Brown Shoe”

“Something”

“Here Comes The Sun”

“I Me Mine”

“For You Blue”

 

Not to mention or forget…

 

“Dig It” (Co-written with Lennon, McCartney, Starkey)

“Maggie May” (a traditional folk song covered by the Beatles on “Let It Be”)

Songs from the Doris Troy solo album of 1970

Songs from the Billy Preston solo album of 1970…

 

And off the back of that – off the back of this massive list of George Harrison penned songs – most of them, written and performed to an amazingly high standard – he went on, having JUST WRITTEN both “Something” and the amazing “Here Comes The Sun” months previously – to build the tracks that became “All Things Must Pass” – and when you look at that legacy, the whole thing (or most of it, anyway) it’s an amazing career, of amazing songs – culminating in the triple-whammy of “All Things Must Pass” followed by “The Concert For Bangladesh” followed by “Living In The Material World” – amazing, and built on a foundation of songs, the list above – that are frankly, absolutely incredible!

What a list of truly remarkable songs, and Dhani Harrison, as compiler, must be complimented for the very thorough and very high quality job he has done compiling these re-mastered, expanded albums included in the two box sets, “Apple Years” and “Dark Horse Years” – both, highly recommended!

I am so glad they appeared, and in particular, having pristine re-masters of “Wonderwall” (a personal favourite of mine), “All Things Must Pass” (George’s finest hour), “Living In The Material World” (from the Apple Box), and “Live In Japan 1992” (from the Dark Horse box – not reviewed here) – is a huge, huge deal to me – I love those records, not to mention “Cloud Nine” (also included in the “Dark Horse” box) which while a bit dated, sound pretty good still.

Of course, there was also the “Travelling Wilburys”…George’s “other” band of famous folk, which are omitted here entirely, and, the “Concert For Bangladesh”, only mentioned in passing on one of the DVDs…and not included in either of the boxes.  But even without those, the six discs here, represent a fine legacy, of my favourite Beatle, and preserved in a brilliant way by his son Dhani (a talented producer, musician, singer, and writer in his own right).

A remarkable man, a very talented man, a great musician, an astonishingly innovative and unique slide guitarist – George Harrison is a musical force to be reckoned with, a songwriter beyond compare – and you could not start in a better place than his output for Apple Records from 1968 – 1975 – this was when it was all happening for George – not to be missed!!

 

 

 

“And that is all I want to say…

Our love could save the day…

And that is all I’m living for…

Your love and nothing more

 

That is all…”

 

 

 

Peace, love and harrisongs forever !

 

 

Dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Return Of The Dinosaurs (but then…were they ever really gone?)

The beginning of 2015 has been a real treasure-trove of live releases from the inarguably, the two most influential, powerful and long-lasting of the progressive rock bands: the mighty King Crimson (whose current ranks, in the 2014/2015 incarnation of the band, have swelled to seven thanks to a front line of three drummers) and the stripped-down-to-a-trio but just as powerful, just as dark, and just as technically proficient, Van Der Graaf Generator.

January saw the release of a sort of “taster” live King Crimson album, entitled “Live At The Orpheum” recorded at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on September 30 and October 1 during the band’s 2014 US tour – their first tour in this seven-man configuration.

While the album is almost frustratingly brief, clocking in at about 41 minutes, it may be an intentional Fripp-ploy, or Fripp-plot as my keyboard seemed to prefer, so I will allow it to say that, to leave us tantalised and wanting more.  And that – it does.  I recently read a full set list of a 2014 King Crimson show (see “HollywoodReporter.com” to view this setlist), and it was about double or more in length (at least) to what this live album contains.  But – what the album contains – is surely one of the most extraordinary and most unexpected things in the universe – King Crimson, with their “front line” of three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin – who also plays a bit of mellotron), and a “back line” of four musicians including founder Robert Fripp, is delving deep into…it’s back catalogue.

And that – well, we had hopes – we knew that Mel Collins was back in the band, and we also knew that his fellow 21st Century Schizoid Band alumnus Jakko Jakszyk, over time, had mastered most of the classic King Crimson repertoire from the “first four” albums – “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, “Lizard”, and the less well known and under-appreciated “Islands” on guitar, and on lead vocals (plus, other tracks from “Red” too) – quite a feat in itself, but, also making him the perfect new lead vocalist / spare Fripp-type guitarist, too, for this new King Crimson.  Much to my personal astonishment, we get not one, but two tracks from the much-derided and often undervalued “Islands” (1971), which over time, has actually become my personal favourite out of the “first four” classic King Crimson albums.

The two tracks they cover from “Islands” (“The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”), are at the same time, perfect re-creations musically and yet, edgy, new and sparkling from having “re-invented” drum parts, in three perfectly-arranged sections (Gavin Harrison, drum arranger), from the three drummers; who take these songs as seriously as any of the classic tracks on offer here, as well as what is probably Jakko’s best vocal on the album, on the wonderfully melodramatic “The Letters” – an absolutely beautiful vocal rendition.  Perfect – and chillingly accurate – “impaled on nails of ice…and raked with emerald fire…” – Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics still forming a huge part of the ethos of King Crimson, some forty plus years since they were penned in 1971 – and that was Sinfield’s last King Crimson album as lyricist – “Islands”.  For me, the lyrics from “Islands” are probably my favourite of all of Sinfield‘s lyrics on any album by any band, including the remarkable debut from King Crimson, 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – there is something about “Islands” that just resonates with me, and much of it is in the beautiful words that the departing Sinfield graced the record with.

The back catalogue represented here on this short, but amazing live album, also extends to two tracks from the “Red” album, fast forward now from 1971, to 1974, where the second major incarnation of King Crimson, that started out in 1973 as a quintet, quickly became a quartet when percussionist Jamie Muir, left the band, leaving poor Bill Bruford on drums to handle all of the drums and percussion from there on out.  David Cross was the next to go, driven out by the world’s loudest (and best) rhythm section – John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and it was Wetton, Bruford and Fripp that remained long enough, after the extensive touring just prior to the making of their last studio album, as a trio now – so in two years, from a quintet to a trio; the ninth of the “first ten” – (counting Earthbound as no. 5 and USA as no. 10) – two songs were included: the never-before performed “One More Red Nightmare” (this time, sporting the drummers having a go at bettering one of original drummer Bill Bruford’s most difficult and well known drum parts – and doing a GREAT job of it, by the way) and as the album closer, the beautiful, extended “Starless” – with Fripp playing that signature thick, distorted lead guitar melody (the one that breaks your heart all over again when you hear it), as Mel Collins reprises both his own and Ian McDonald‘s horn parts – McDonald was a guest on the 1974 “Red” sessions – as was Collins.

Forty four years has elapsed since Robert Fripp and Mel Collins toured together in 1971, and worked on the difficult fourth Crimson album, “Islands” together with then drummer Ian Wallace, and singer/Fripp-trained bassist Boz Burrell (both of who have by now, passed on), and some 41 years have elapsed since the “Red” album – the final studio album from the “first ten” which was completed in 1974 – so it’s more than a lot of water under a lot of different bridges – but, for me, for this reviewer, it’s absolutely fantastic to hear Mel Collins and Robert Fripp playing these songs again, and showing us anew how powerful, unique, and in many cases, under-appreciated they were at the time – especially the wonderful “The Letters” with it’s incredible story of unfaithfulness and purity, and the awesome , powerful instrumental track, “Sailor’s Tale” where Jakko and Fripp re-create the double fuzz tone attack solos that underpin one of Mel Collins’s most well-known and insanely wonderful sax solos – and we now have TWO perfectly-aligned, fuzz guitars duetting with Collins now on this unbelievably cool piece of music, driven now by three drummers plus the as-ever-note-perfect Tony Levin on bass – it is simply astonishing – a great version of a great song – really powerful stuff.

In fact, besides the obvious brilliance of Tony Levin on bass / stick, the multitasking Jakko’ on vocals, guitars and possibly keyboards, and Robert Fripp himself playing what can only be called “regular guitar” (as these older pieces demanded) instead of soundscapes and, “regular guitar” from Fripp, is both a surprise and a revelation – he is as competent as ever, a stellar player – and not to be trivialised;  however, it’s really the presence of the remarkable Mel Collins that makes this live outing astonishing, beautiful, shiver-inducing and reminiscent all at once – he is able to either re-create his original parts, or, create improved, modernised versions of them, that still capture the beauty of the originals – effortlessly, and there are some very innovative uses of Mel’s abilities on this record – my favourite being during “The ConstucKtion Of Light” (the sole track from the 2000s represented on this record) when it comes time in the song where Adrian Belew is meant to sing – instead of a Jakko vocal to replace the missing Belew…we get a beautifully understated jazz flute solo from Mel Collins!

So that just knocks my socks off – a word-perfect rendition of the track, with Jakko and Fripp playing the interlocking guitar parts with precision and grace – and then here comes Mel, replacing the now-departed Adrian Belew with an amazing piece of live jazz flute – simply brilliant!

The only place where the album maybe lets us down a tiny bit, is in the almost-complete absence of any new music – it contains a short introductory piece, and an equally short percussion showcase written by Harrison – teasers, tiny bits of new Crimson.  But that tiny point does not bother me in the slightest, because the quality of the takes, the amazing versions of classic tracks on this truly astonishing mini-live album, captured from just two random nights on the tour – are of such a high quality that I can wait a bit longer to hear new King Crimson songs in 2015.

The track list is as follows:

1. Walk On: Monk Morph Chamber Music

2. One More Red Nightmare

3. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

4. The ConstruKction of Light

5. The Letters

6. Sailor’s Tale

7. Starless

If you enjoy the music of King Crimson, you cannot go wrong with this incredibly well-played, beautiful-sounding live record – which now joins a remarkable collection of live King Crimson recordings that begins with “Epitaph”, which documents the eleven months of the original 1969 band – remarkable performanecs! – then, moves through “The Great Deceiver”, “The Road To Red”, “Starless” (covering 1973-1974 and all points in between) and many, many more – and at the moment, ends here – in 2015, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the band’s formation back in January, 1969 – this live release, released in January, 2015 – 46 years later.

More shows are planned for Great Britain and Europe in September 2015, and I am happy to report that we’ll be travelling to both Birmingham (September 14th) and Edinburgh (September 17th) in the UK, to see the band, something we’ve never, ever done before, as well as, one date in Utrecht, Holland (September 24th)  – just for the sheer fun of it – a week later – so, I am actually ecstatic because we are going to see the new King Crimson not once, not twice – but THREE times!!  – well, maybe, once before, in 1975, when I saw Led Zeppelin twice in one week – but that was because a second show was added at the last minute – this is a deliberate tracking of the band from one city to another and then to another continent…how very exciting!!!  I’ve seen King Crimson before – a few times (1981, 1982, 1984, and in 1995) but this is King Crimson with MEL COLLINS – come on, and that is why we’re going to see them three times in one year!!! ☺.

 

Then – February arrived, and the special two-disc version of “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” by Van Der Graaf Generator, arrived along with it.  Now, I had been lucky enough to read about and pre-order this record, because, for those that pre-ordered, a limited edition of 5000 would contain a second disc of live material, which is called “Bonus Atmos”…and I would always rather have a double-live Van Der Graaf Generator CD instead of a single-disc Van Der Graaf Generator CD – any day of the week, month or year!!

On the day the discs were due to arrive, the vendor wrote to explain that they had been short-shipped, and that there had been a serious shortage of the two disc version of the CD – and that some unfortunate customers might have to wait for more to be pressed.

I was not one of those unfortunate souls, two days after that email, my copy of the double CD arrived – and I have to say, for my money, it’s the best live Van Der Graaf Generator album YET – even if you just count the first disc. If you consider both discs – then it’s absolutely the best – the range of tracks on offer, from classic to modern, is astonishing, and of course, it contains not one but BOTH of the “behemoths” – the two “giant” live tracks that this dedicated trio have re-learned: “Flight”, taken from the tenth Peter Hammill solo album, “A Black Box” (my personal favourite), as well as a classic Van Der Graaf Generator track reworked for the 2010s – “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” originally from the VDGG “Pawn Hearts” album of 1974.  We were fortunate enough to see the band at this time, in 2013, and the setlist did include both of these tracks – and, they also both appear on disc one of the new CD, “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” – so for those two tracks alone, it’s worth the price of admission.  You cannot go wrong!

Most people know the story of the reformation of Van Der Graaf Generator, when the “classic” line-up got back together for a show, in 2005, and then a tour, and then another tour…and originally, this included fourth member David Jackson, on saxes and flute, along with founding member Peter Hammill, organist/bassist Hugh Banton, and the remarkable Guy Evans on drums – this quartet made a new studio album, went out and played it – and then at some point, David Jackson had had enough – and much to the horror of the fans, who were loving this re-united band – he quit after the 2005 tour.

We all held our collective breaths, wondering what on earth would happen next – how could this band go on without the very distinctive flute and sax contributions of the remarkable soloist David Jackson?? – the man who plays two saxophones at once, and was a huge, huge part of some of the songs – an integral part, you would think.  An irreplaceable part…

Think again – the remaining trio of HammillBanton and Evans voted to go on as a trio – and produced an even more remarkable album, called “Trisector” in 2008, followed by tours and another wonderful studio album called “A Grounding In Numbers” in 2011, plus an experimental record called “ALT” in 2012 – so this gave the this well-rehearsed trio of veteran musicians a huge and diverse back catalogue – or two – drawing upon the classic tracks from the 1970s, or, the tracks from the current four studio albums, starting with “Present” (which was a double – so it’s really five studio albums) made with Jackson, three, beginning with Trisector – without.

One other live album, the most excellent double “real time” (with David Jackson) was also released in 2007, so this band has been very, very busy in its new incarnation(s), “Merlin Atmos” (without David Jackson) being the second full length live document of the band in the last decade – and I don’t really care how many Van Der Graaf Generator live discs get made – they are always good, and always welcome – because this is a band that actually just gets better and better as time goes on, and has become astonishingly able on the stage – almost telepathic in their ability to support the wonderful songs of Peter Hammill, as well as other tracks written by various band members over time – “HammillBanton and Evans” compositions probably to the fore, and why not?

Many of we fans have actually come to feel that the trio is somehow – better – purer, and able to improvise more freely, and it has in particular really allowed Hugh Banton to come forward, and take every single Jackson solo or part, and make it his own – beautifully.  It’s strange to vocalise this, but – I like the trio better, than I like the reformed classic quartet!  Sacrilege to some, truth to me.  I think a lot of VDGG fans will know exactly what I mean by this – especially if you have been fortunate to see the trio version play live, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few times.

And – this band, this oddest of power trios – drums, organ/bass pedals, and piano/guitar/vox from Peter Hammill – has dared to take on repertoire that the reformed quartet, with Jackson, would not have DREAMED of attempting.  Like the final track on CD one – the amazing “Gog” – an obscure Peter Hammill track from 1974’s “In Camera” album, that this trio plays as if on fire – a terrifying lyric and vocal, accompanied by church / nightmare / drum solo lead guitar music such as you have never heard – an extremely strange track, but – played with a wonderful, overwhelming sense of the now.  Truly powerful, unbelievably strange music – but, also truly wonderful, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to see the trio version of VDGG play “Gog”, and it pretty much frosted my socks, to coin a phrase.  I will never forget the power of that performance “will you not come to me? – and love me for one more night?” – the roar of Peter Hammill‘s voice is undiminished by time, and the anguish in the lyrics of a song like “Gog” does not lessen with time.

I did see the quartet version of the band early on; they were great, really, really good, and seeing David Jackson reprise his original solos was amazing and unforgettable, but, seeing the trio perhaps three times since then, I’ve come to absolutely love the stripped down, “can-we-really-pull-this-track-off-with-just- the-three-of-us?” (answer: yes, always) version of the band.

This 2013 double live CD is absolutely a must have, as far as I am concerned, first, so you can own the “official” live versions of both “Flight”, with it’s wonderful new intro and outro, and the re-worked, modernised but absolutely fantastical “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” (upon which one “Robert Fripp” played a bit of electric guitar, back in 1974, on the original studio version thereof) – those two tracks are astonishing, but – the rest of the tracks are of equal lineage, and the “new” tracks taken from the last few albums, sit perfectly with the older material – it no longer, in fact, “matters” from whence a song comes – it’s the Voice of Van Der Graaf Generator – and that voice is undoubtedly the voice of Peter Hammill – back healthy and hale from a heart attack scare several years back – and the music just flows from track to track and you find yourself not caring when a song was first recorded, but just listening in the moment, to a band of consummate musicians, playing a large quantity of some of the best highlights of one of the best progressive rock catalogues ever built – an amazing band.

The set list is as follows:

Disc One – Merlin Atmos

  1. Flight
  2. Lifetime
  3. All That Before
  4. Bunsho
  5. A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
  6. Gog

 

Disc Two – Bonus Atmos

 

  1. Interference Patterns
  2. Over The Hill
  3. Your Time Starts Now
  4. Scorched Earth
  5. Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
  6. Man-Erg
  7. Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End

 

The band took an interesting tactic when it came to preparing this disc, that I found very refreshing – the three of them, split up the work like this:

 

  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “mixed by HB at the Organ Workshop”.
  • When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “balanced and arranged by PH at Terra Incognita”
  • Guy Evans wrote the liner notes, which talk about the two long pieces they learned and how that came about.

 

I thought that was really, really fair and “meet”, and when you listen to the whole disc, both discs, I mean, in order, they sound like one cohesive concert, so the way that “HB” and “PH” “hear” the band in terms of the live mix, are clearly quite similar – it’s as if they were one person, but each mixing half of the show – very odd, but – effective.  In fact, I’ve just re-listened to the transition from “Gog” to “Interference Patterns” in the play list containing all 13 tracks – and it’s just like the next track begins, there is no audible change that would indicate the hand of PH at the mixing desk, or any way to denote the handing off of the mixing task from Hugh to Peter at this point – it just flows…brilliant!

 

For me – a deeply satisfying concert, and hearing these familiar songs once again, now that the trio has been playing for a number of years, hearing the small changes and improvements – it’s just fantastic, they are growing, and, the quality of equipment, the quality of current technology, actually means that they sound better now, than they originally did in concert – back in the 1970s, underpowered and distorted PA systems, and generally bad stage sound plagued the band (as various bootlegs will attest) while all of the live material from the reunion onwards is of such a great quality – it’s fantastic, and I am so pleased for them, because it’s as if they are getting a second chance to be Van Der Graaf Generator, but, with the advantage of age, wisdom, experience, skill – and they can apply those in equal measure, on a stage that is MIDI compliant, and where microphones are not feeding back, and everything sounds really, really good – so it’s win, win, win for the new Van Der Graaf Generator – I hope they continue as long as possible, I love this band, and I can’t believe that I’ve now managed to see them four times – when I really thought I would never, ever see them play live.

I was fortunate enough to see some solo Peter Hammill shows in the 1980s, but at that time, Van Der Graaf Generator was a distant memory, and no one dreamed that they would eventually reform – and thank God that they did!  What a great band, and another great live record with another great, no, amazing set list – 2013 was a good year for this band.

 

 

So here are two bands that were instrumental in starting out what became “progressive rock” – King Crimson in January 1969, and Van Der Graaf Generator originally in 1968 – both, now, alive and well in the 2010s, and making extraordinary music live on stage – still – and long may they play.  Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill are two very different people, two very different “bandleaders” (Fripp would possibly deny being the bandleader, but never mind) but, what they do share is determination, determination that…the music shall be heard.  Fripp endured legal battles that kept him away from music and the stage, Hammill had a heart attack and overcame his health issues, to go on to start making amazing albums like “Trisector”” – and one of the tracks from that album, “Interference Patterns”, starts Disc Two of the new set, and it’s an amazing, amazing performance – a really, really tricky song – and they play it amazingly well – a fantastic version of a now-classic song from a now classic album – “Trisector”.

And rumours are abounding that King Crimson is working on new material, so it may be that they are at the start of a new run of compositions that will rival the post-reunion output of Van Der Graaf Generator – I certainly hope so, that would be fantastic, and I remain hopeful that during the September tour, that King Crimson might reveal some new works from an upcoming album – who knows?

Meanwhile, you could do worse than to start your year with either or both of these extremely high quality live releases – I highly recommend them both to progressive rock fans, and the curious, everywhere.

 

 

 

all the very best

 

dave 🙂 🙂

 

 

scorched !!

or – “Dave Gregory – home at last…”

I suddenly realised, after many months of hearing the name “Tin Spirits” (but never, sadly, hearing their music – until now, that is…) the penny finally dropped: this is DAVE GREGORY’S band. Yes – that Dave Gregory, the one who used to play stunt guitar in that little ole’ band from Swindon, the redoubtable XTC. For 19 years, across 12 studio albums, from “Making Plans For Nigel” in 1979 (from the remarkable ‘Drums And Wires (1979)‘), to “Senses Working Overtime” (from the remarkable ‘English Settlement (1982)‘) on up to the celebrated “Apple Venus (1999)” (the last XTC album that Dave appears on).

Dave Gregory established himself as a stellar lead guitarist capable of precision-engineered, well-crafted and very creative guitar solos, including some truly unforgettable ones all the way from “No Language In Our Lungs” (from the remarkable “Black Sea (1980)“) to “The Ugly Underneath” (from the remarkable “Nonsuch (1992)“) and all points in between.

If Dave was the “quiet Beatle” of XTC, he wasn’t so quiet when it came to his solos, and if Andy Partridge wrote the songs and had that crazy, boundless energy, then Dave was the thoughtful musical foil to Andy’s uh, “Extrovert” personality. Dave also has an amazing collection of legendary electric guitars, vintage guitars and amps, and always had a few amazing vintage guitars to hand at every session, always the right guitar for the right solo – always well prepared, and always sounding just right for the song in question – whichever it may be. Yes, that’s a lot of “always”, but you count on Dave to come up with a great guitar solo for almost any song, no matter how strange, or how beautiful…

Don’t forget, too, that Dave was also in “The Dukes Of Stratosphear”, along with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding of XTC, and his brother, Ian Gregory, on drums, the amazing 60s psychedelic rock parody band, and later on, worked with Steve Hogarth (and was a regular member of his touring band, too) and Dave has also appeared on albums by the Bournemouth prog band “Big Big Train”, and of course, pre-, during and post-XTC, he has always been in demand as a session guitarist, too.

As the old reliable wikipedia put it: “Since leaving XTC, Gregory has been much in demand as a session musician with a number of artists, including Peter Gabriel, Aimee Mann, Cud, Marc Almond, Bingo Durango, Johnny Hates Jazz, Jason DonovanMartin Newell, Louis Philippe, Lulu, Mark Owen, R. Stevie Moore and others. Gregory, who has been regularly involved in Steve Hogarth‘s h-Band, has also contributed to works by Porcupine Tree, including string arrangements on their sixth album, Lightbulb Sun, and for Dublin group Pugwash.

On 16 August 2009, English progressive rock band Big Big Train announced on their official blog that Gregory would be appearing as a guest musician on their sixth studio album, The Underfall Yard.[1] Gregory subsequently appeared on Big Big Train’s Far Skies Deep Time EP and is listed as a full band member on English Electric Part One (2012)”

That demonstrates just how in-demand Dave’s services as guitarist, arranger and musician are – one of Britain’s “most desirable” guitar note-slingers.

Dave’s newest band, Tin Spirits, first got together in Swindon, UK in the summer of 2008, when Aussie import, guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt from TheGigRig invited former XTC guitarist (and musical hero) Dave Gregory to a local studio to video record an ‘amp shoot-out’ with Dan’s band The Hi-Fidels, comprising bassist Mark Kilminster and drummer Doug Mussard. The rest, as they say, is history…

Me saying “Stunt guitar” is absolutely short-changing him, Dave played a huge, huge part in helping Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding to create the “XTC sound”, and if anything, not nearly enough credit goes to Dave, for his outstanding contributions to both their albums, and to their live shows – for two decades.

I remember when I saw XTC live, show 9 of the “English Settlement” tour, and I recall watching Dave playing, off to the side of the stage; he was multitasking in a really cool way, and when he reached over to play the squiggly synth line that follows Andy’s lyric “just a spineless wobbly jelly fish…” from “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” (from “Drums And Wires (1979)”) – Dave makes the “jellyfish” sound on his little synth – and then, right back to lead guitar…my jaw hit the floor, and I spent most of the night, trying to see around the incredibly energetic Partridge, to see and hear what Dave was doing back there – it all just sounded amazing! All good.

That show, XTC live at the California Theater in San Diego, California, (my then-hometown) on April 3, 1982 turned out to be the 9th and final show of the US leg of the tour, the rest of which was completely cancelled due to “illness”; but the well-publicised breakdown of Andy Partridge (just hours after young 1982 Dave Stafford saw them play live!!) was the real reason the tour was halted. The band never toured again, occasionally, some years later, doing a small number of acoustic shows on radio or television, or the odd TV appearance here and there…

Dave had joined XTC at just the right moment, just as they were breaking away from their frenetic “dance band” persona, and with the departure of the sometimes alcohol-fuelled organist Barry Andrews, they were, much to their own surprise, already becoming “serious musicians” – recording and touring behind “Drums And Wires” – an album that I still listen to often, well, for me, that’s where it all started.

I have been a fan of XTC since the late 70s or early 1980s, indeed, I was fortunate to be at that very last live show they ever did, in San Diego back in ’82. That’s the only time I ever saw XTC or Dave Gregory play live, but the experience stuck with me, and based on seeing them that year (they were AMAZING!) I continued to collect their albums, and to follow their progress, as they moved into their own version of the Beatles’ “Studio Years” – when touring becomes a burden, and the decision is, let’s (still) make records, but, not play live.

This was mostly down to bandleader Andy Partridge, it was Andy who ended up so stressed out that he called time on live performance just HOURS after I saw him play a blinder of a show, and everyone was disappointed, because XTC live was one of the most energetic and interesting bands you could see live, in the early 1980s – they didn’t really have a lot of competition, especially once they had delivered both the most excellent “Drums And Wires (1979)” and it’s excellent follow-up, “Black Sea (1980)” – followed by the very excellent “English Settlement (1982)” – by the next excellent album, ‘Mummer 1983‘, it was time for Terry Chambers the drummer to go – and go he did, to Australia to marry his girlfriend, and, after playing with the Australian band “Dragon” for a couple of years, after that, he never really returned to the music business.

Now drummer-less, it did not in any way phase the remaining three members of XTC, who were all long-time friends from Swindon, and Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory, carried on through the rest of the 1980s, and into the 90s, until eventually, Dave could stand no more, and he left – and, then, XTC was a duo – and Andy and Colin went on to make more albums, although for me, once Dave left – they were lacking that spark – sure, Andy is damn near as good a player as Dave is (they are both amazing guitarists, let’s face it) when he makes the effort, and, he did make more of a real effort with the lead guitar parts on the ‘post-Dave’ albums, because I am sure he was conscious of the shadow and the memory of Dave sitting there in the studio, quietly ripping through some more amazing lead guitars for the latest XTC disk. The amount of lead guitar on records post-Dave, is noticeably less – Andy plays a few good solos, here or there, but it’s just not quite the same….

But the eventual fate of XTC is a story for another time, for now, suffice to say, that Andy and Colin went on to create a very respectable canon of work after the departure of Dave, who suddenly found himself at loose ends – playing on sessions, playing wherever he could, for a quite a few years after he left XTC. Things were almost beginning to plane out, Dave was almost forgotten, and could easily have faded from the ever-quick-to-forget music fans, but luckily, a chance encounter with a trio of Genesis / XTC fans ended up in more invitations to jam, and over time, Tin Spirits, was formed as a four piece, two-guitars-bass-and-drums band – with Dave Gregory on lead guitar.

So – once I realised that I had been missing the boat completely for a few years, that this amazing band, Tin Spirits, had toured the UK (and I could have SEEN THEM live – extreme dismay!) and indeed, they had been, and, much to my eternal frustration, on their earlier tours, they did a lot of covers of prog and other music that they had a shared love for, including Genesis “Back In NYC” from “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and other songs by Rush, Yes “Roundabout”) and even Frank Zappa.  You can view some videos of some of these amazing prog covers on the Media page of the Tin Spirits official website.

Of course, it will not bother me one bit, if instead of these covers, that if we do get to see them (and I really, really hope we can…) that we might have to “endure” listening to them play most of the tracks from their new disc “Scorch” – and I will tell you, much as I would have loved to see and hear Dave Gregory play “Back In NYC” with his new band, it would be NO hardship whatsoever to sit and listen to Tin Spirits play some or all of the “Scorch” album – no hardship at all. 🙂

I have heard Scorch about four times now, and each time I hear it, I just end up feeling so uplifted, and it really, really makes me want to play the guitar (and only the very best guitar albums have that effect on me); it also really makes me want to write on guitar again (not something I’ve done a lot of since ‘gone native‘) and one thing that Tin Spirits have been extremely effective at, is creating a very full, very prog sound, without the use of keyboards – none whatsoever were used on “Scorch”, it’s all guitars, bass and drums – as it should be, really.  Dave himself is an accomplished keyboard player, but I applaud their determination, and “Scorch” is proof positive that you can make a big, big prog sound just with two guitars, bass and drums.  Of course, guitar technology has come a long, long way, and the lines between guitars and synths, continue to blur.

But the main difference between Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of XTC, and Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of Tin Spirits – is that in the former, he didn’t really get to play much at all – a solo here, a solo there, a keyboard solo, the odd guitar bit here or there – but nothing that he could really get stuck into – whereas in the latter, he doesn’t just get stuck in – he excels, explores and explodes – you can hear that Telecaster cutting through the air during the epic “Garden State”, and the extended solos that Dave is now not only allowed to take, but should be legally REQUIRED to take, will knock your guitar-playing socks off.

This is really a master class for lead guitarists, and we could all learn more than one thing from listening to ”Scorch” – and the rest of the musicians in the band are not slouching, in any way – guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt (also a pedal board/guitar controller inventor – the inventor of the amazing TheGigRig) is damn near as experienced and as capable as Dave is, so it’s a remarkable pairing, almost, but not quite, like having two Dave Gregorys in your band – and that, my friends, is a VERY good thing.

Bassist / lead vocalist Mark Kilminster and Doug Mussard (drums and vocals) are one of the most experienced and adaptable rhythm sections I have ever heard, and the way they slot in their backing, providing rhythmic support for the two interlocking guitar wizards – this would be, a “sort of” analog / mirror of the prog / pop “version” of Levin and Bruford supporting Fripp and Belew – I cannot think of any other truly analogous pairing of “amazing rhythm section” with “two remarkable and innovative guitarists” – I can happily and honestly say that about both King Crimson, and, about Tin Spirits.

And, another thing – the “no keyboards” rule has been faithfully followed, so somehow, Tin Spirits have created truly Progressive Rock, without the use of the dread synthesizer, and to me, to use just the guitar technology available, to be able to write for two guitars, bass and drums, and create the complex, intricate and beautiful music that is contained on “Scorch” – that is quite an accomplishment.

I am absolutely gobsmacked by just how goodScorch” is, to the point where I plan to sit down this weekend, and order their first album, so I can have their entire recorded catalogue :-). I know that the first album is not rated as highly as “Scorch” is – but I am prepared and ready anyway, open ears and mind, and I am sure I will enjoy it.  If this video is anything to go by (link below), it’s going to be excellent – a 13 minute plus epic from that first album, “Wired To Earth”; here is “Broken” – this bodes well, sounds good to me!

I bought “Scorch” without having heard one note by Tin Spirits – and, as sometimes happens, it was an incredibly GOOD ‘blind’ decision. This album is currently rocking my world, and finally, after 19 years of tantalising glimpses of Dave Gregory’s genius, from the guitar solos on “That Wave” from the remarkable “Nonsuch” to his brilliant work on “Drums And Wires”, “Black Sea”, “English Settlement”, and so many other brilliant XTC albums; “The Big Express” is a huge favourite of mine, really, I love all of XTCs catalogue, one of the most enduring in this genre (start out punky, and then gradually mutate into the new Beatles – you know, THAT kind of band!) not to mention the 1986 smash hit “Skylarking” album, produced by Todd Rundgren – an amazing body of work, but now, Dave has started another one – and this one is the guitar band for guitarists who REALLY LOVE GUITAR – “Tin Spirits”. Album Two, “Scorch”, is fantastic. I haven’t heard Album One yet (“Wired To Earth”), but, I will be ordering it this weekend.

From those tantalising glimpses of brilliance provided by a great solo from Dave on a really good XTC song, to this: where Dave is utterly set free, where he can solo for as long as he likes, and, this record is full of extended, and super-extended, and ridiculously super-extended guitar solos, many of them by Dave – and the range of playing, from Hendrix ballad style drenched in prog beauty to scathing Telecaster lead lines, I could just listen to the guitar solos, and duos, on this record over and over and over – and, don’t get me wrong, the band has EXCELLENT vocals, but right now, I am bathing in the glory of a finally-unleashed, finally-unchained, doing it the way HE wants to, nearly endless guitar solos from Dave Gregory – FINALLY !!!!!!!!! If only Andy had let Dave play like THIS in XTC, we might have seen them become a brilliant Prog band too…

This boy can PLAY. He can PLAY good. He knocks my socks off on this particular disc, if you haven’t picked up “Scorch”, I recommend it highly – it’s the guitarist’s guitarist guitar album of the future, and I love what I am hearing – finally, freed from the 30 second XTC mini-solo, when Dave stretches out on album closer “Garden State”, it’s like getting to hear Hendrix practicing beautiful guitar for “Angel” or “Drifting” or “Little Wing” that’s all I can think about, when I hear the fluid, sinuous, sounds of Dave’s guitar, and his tones are pure liquid fire, they are musically SCORCHING, there is absolute purpose, and serious musical intelligence there, and never has there been a more aptly named album.

I will let others do the song by song analysis of “Scorch”; I am really more interested in conveying what an extremely excellent album “Scorch” is, and, also, trying to give it the back story it deserves, and how it fits into the chronology of both XTC, as well as Dave Gregory‘s long and very distinguished career as a great guitarist, arranger, and all-round musician, vintage guitar enthusiast, and now, playing in the band of his dreams – Tin Spirits.  And for me, even though I’ve started at the wrong end of their short and sweet catalog, “Scorch” is an amazing musical document, and it is absolutely worth checking out.

I will say, the album opener, “Carnivore” sets the mood brilliantly, it’s a proggy instrumental with lots of great guitar, but it’s when we move into the next few songs, and you start to get to where there are well-defined guitar solos…and you suddenly “hear” Dave, you KNOW it’s Dave just by the sound – and to my mind, the only guitarist that I think is similar to Dave, is the late, great Jimi Hendrix (but probably, the gentler, more melodic “side” of Jimi) – who is clearly, clearly a huge influence on Dave.  So when that first “Gregory” solo hits your ears – you are suddenly really paying attention, and it does not disappoint – instead, it reels you in, you want more – and you don’t just get more – you get a LOT more – more Dave Gregory guitar on this album than you will find on any three XTC albums ! And that is saying something…

The gentle, pastoral guitars of “Little Eyes” from “Scorch”, take you everywhere from an almost King Crimson “Discipline”-style “interlocking” or what I call “gamelan guitars” to fluid, beautiful, liquid Hendrix guitar solos – the whole effect is so uplifting, positive sounding – a brilliant track, “Little Eyes” gives you a very good idea of the basic quality of the album – it’s just a perfect little song – lovely.  It’s long instrumental outro, is a great showcase for Dave’s amazing guitar style, and in this solo, you hear him reaching for the stars – and finding them, sparks flying – just one of those so-perfect solos, that then merges perfectly right back into the rhythm of the song…seamless, timeless – beautiful.

Take someone like Dave Gregory, with his massive collection of amazing vintage guitars, his knowledge of how sounds were created in the past, and his ability to recreate very specific guitar tones by using particular combinations of guitars, amps and effects, add in his many, many years of guitar playing, almost always, as a lead guitarists in one form or another – and you have a mature, powerful, guitar-force-to-be-reckoned with: Dave Gregory; in 2014 – suddenly, I can hear the culmination of that career, a player at the top of his game, the craft of guitar is relaxed, confident, powerful – you can hear it – in the beautiful guitar solos that are featured in almost every track on “Scorch“.  Remarkable!  And really, really beautiful, too.

Get “Scorch” now, if you love prog, if you love pop, if you love guitar music, if you loved XTC, if you love the guitar work of Dave Gregory – heck, just get it – I bet you will like it! In Europe, you can get it from Burning Shed, in America, probably Amazon. This be rocking! I’m going back to listen to it again right now…ah…sonic bliss 🙂

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

leave it to robert fripp

leave it to robert fripp.  only fripp could do this.

since 1968, robert fripp has produced some of the most consistently challenging, musically advanced work of the modern age of rock music.  musicians have marvelled at his guitar playing in a huge range of very different settings: as de facto leader and muse of the great king crimson; as tape-recorder experimenter buddy of the remarkable brian eno; as the guitar-sparring partner of andy summers; as the leader of an amazing 1980 “dance band” called “the league of gentlemen”; as the secret weapon of david bowie on various tracks from the “berlin years”…the list goes on and on, fripp’s own solo records, many of which feature him on “soundscapes”, meaning, fripp, a guitar, and whatever guitar / looping system he has on at that moment, to the remarkable “exposure” (in it’s many, many guises) with it’s many, many singers and crop of amazing songs…the list just goes on and on…even in the strange late 60’s trio “giles, giles, and fripp” – robert fripp played a lot of really very remarkable guitar on the band’s odd records – their one official release, and the more recent and very interesting “the brondesbury tapes”…

…fripp was also the onboard lead guitarist (remarkably, sharing that role with michael brook) in the absolutely underrated “sylvian / fripp” (as the name hints, a collaboration between fripp and japan leader david sylvian) – and the even more obscure yet fascinating “sunday all over the world” – fripp’s first of two bands that feature his wife, toyah wilcox, on vocals…and all the while, many, many versions of “king crimson” would form and dissolve, form and dissolve…

some of these releases, are “division one” releases, large scale, well marketed, well received – others, more low key, or “division two” releases, but no less significant for that.  it didn’t matter how much or how little media fanfare accompanied any particular fripp or fripp-related release; you knew, if a new album came out from robert fripp, say, entitled “a blessing of tears” – that it was going to be good – really good.  over time, based on your very real experience – you recognise that works by this artist, are generally, works of great quality.

and somewhere amidst all of this work, amidst all of these remarkable and interesting collaborations, amidst the ongoing work with king crimson – the most incredible, most astonishing release of all appeared, with no fanfare whatsoever – and I am not really sure just how many people know about it.

this is what fripp has done – he’s released a masterwork, a really, really important work – one of the earliest examples of the use of looping on stage – with almost no fanfare whatsoever.  to my mind, that’s similar to miles davis releasing “sketches of spain” but not mentioning it to anyone; just letting a few fans discover it, but not really bothering to acknowledge that it’s a key work in his canon – one of the best albums he ever produced.

THAT is what fripp has done – basically, he has released the best (guitar) album he has ever done, bar none, without really mentioning it to anyone !

I was late to it – I found out about it by accident, months after it was released.  I immediately downloaded it, all of it, and set out to listen to it.  thirteen hours later – I was still reeling from the shock of just how perfect, just how beautiful, just how intense, this amazing release truly is.

I am speaking, of course, about the frippertronics tour of europe, which kicked off on may 7, 1979 in amsterdam and completed in madrid on june 1, 1979 (although no recording exists for that show – the last recorded show being the may 29th show from zurich, switzerland – we think) and these 15 long, live frippertronics looping performances – are simply staggering in their scope, diversity and incredible beauty. overpowering beauty, musical intensity of a kind you rarely, rarely ever get to hear or witness – loop music as it was in the beginning. (and shall be, looping without end, amen, forever).

leave it to robert fripp to release 15 mind-bogglingly good shows of live frippertronics, after allowing them to sit, unreleased for decades – all that time – I had assumed that the tapes did not exist, were not viable, or had just been lost or forgotten – but, they were handed to alex mundy, dgm’s resident necromancer, and alex has lovingly restored the solos to the loops, the lectures to the looping…  there are a few remaining bits of robert’s spoken portions, in one or two of these shows, but this is mostly just guitar, guitar and more guitar – heaven for someone like myself – as it was seeing fripp play at tower records that made me want to become a looper – which I did, about a decade later – and I’ve never stopped since.

I was lucky enough to witness a live frippertronics show myself, on the US leg of the tour later that year (and I am hoping that this will eventually be released, assuming at least part of it does… 🙂 at a tower records store in san diego, california where I lived at the time, so I had a very personal interest in hearing the first live performances, in europe, of frippertronics – a tape-based looping system developed with the help of fripp’s friend and musical partner, brian eno.  I was also fortunate enough to see a “lecture” at mandeville auditorium at UCSD in 1983, which turned out to be…a frippertronics show – this time, as we entered the hall, robert was already looping…amazing.  I’ve just noticed that DGM have that show in their download archives, so that’s one I will definitely download…sigh.  but anyway, returning to the earlier, european version of frippertronics…

the set up was straightforward: two full-sized revox tape decks, with a large space between them, and a long piece of tape (the “tape loop”) running between the two machines; a black gibson les paul guitar, and a very small, minimal guitar pedal board – amplifier and speaker cabinets – that was the entire thing, but the one ingredient that really brought this “small, intelligent unit” to life, was it’s creator and operator: robert fripp himself.

with only an astonishingly short “four to six seconds” of loop time available to him via the revoxes; fripp was able to use his knowledge of music, counterpoint, and harmony to introduce notes, phrases or even “pickup selector switch switching sounds”, into the loop in the appropriate way as to build up pieces that were alternately serene, terrifying, beautiful, or very, very dissonant.  most of the frippertronics loops are on the serene, beautiful side; with the occasional leap over to the dark side, and some of those “dark” loops are some of the best performances here.

but, whether you prefer the heavenly, melodic, beautiful waves of sound that robert often performed, or if you prefer the dark, dissonant, disturbing pieces he sometimes favoured – there is something for everyone in this 15-show set.  I love all of these loops, dark, light, and every musical shade in between, and the beauty of the loops themselves, is set off wonderfully by the confident, high-speed, accurate solos that fripp almost casually layers over the top of the loops.

he is so confident, so accurate, that it’s almost miraculous to behold – and there are a lot of surprises – notes you don’t expect; sudden endings you don’t expect, and so on…it’s quite surprising sometimes.  a sudden, very loud low note will, out of nowhere, underpin what was moments before, a lovely, high-pitched floating cloud of beautiful looped guitar…

that dark, powerful note overwhelms and overtakes the lovely floating cloud; turning light to dark momentarily, but perhaps, allowing for a different kind of overlaid solo to then occur. fripp steers the compositions where he wants to; altering the running loop on the fly to change it’s character; and then launching into another impossibly fast crimson-esque guitar solo – you could just about hear the wheels turning in fripp’s head, it all comes out – every idea, every doubling of a note, every harmony, every intentionally dissonant harmony – it’s all to plan, and that plan is executed with frightening precision and overwhelming confidence – the power of robert fripp, lead guitarist, is absolutely laid bare on this series of live, loop and solo recordings.

as a looper myself, albeit with about 10 years’ less experience than fripp, I can speak first hand to just how difficult it is to loop with only a four second loop!  four seconds is a very, very short space of time in music. one of my first digital loopers, the digitech rds-8000, sported just eight seconds of loop, and working with that was possible, but never easy 🙂

as the technology improved, the digital loopers became more capable – I moved from 1 second to 8 seconds and eventually on up to 196 seconds (with the remarkable echoplex digital pro) – quite a leap, from eight seconds to over three minutes! – and once you have a looper with that kind of capability, the problems mostly disappear (although, very long loops have their own challenged).  fripp used his four to six seconds, with the revoxes, off and on for about four years.

while fripp did embrace digital loopers, it wasn’t until the early / mid 1980s, so for these performances – it was done strictly with the tapes, and four seconds was all robert had to work with.  and what he does in those four seconds, is simply remarkable guitar playing.

oh my god – what fripp can do with a four second loop; it’s absolutely astonishing, and I am quite certain that many weeks or months of meticulous rehearsal preceeded this short tour – when he starts out on his first loop of that first amsterdam show – it’s with complete and utter confidence, and he sounds relaxed, well practiced and so, so accurate – he builds up a loop, it ends up smooth, beautiful and lovely – and then, begins to solo, but not just any solo, truly beautiful, melodic, thick sustained-notes soloing, as only fripp can – and to have these performances restored – loops and solos – is a sonic miracle, but to my mind – these performances demonstrate the true quality of robert fripp, the guitarist, that even his best work with king crimson could not quite demonstrate.

because here – there is no john wetton or tony levin (king crimson bassists at different times) thundering away in the low frequencies; there is no cymbal splash or electronic percussion madness from bill bruford (king crimson drummer since 1973, on and off), and there is no david cross (violin) or adrian belew (lead guitar, vocals) to “spar” or harmonise with – all of that is gone, and in it’s place – a four second span of time; to be filled with beautiful, harmonising notes, or to build up loop counterpoint, or to layer long, sustained notes or trills – and then, this loop becomes the band, it becomes the music that robert then solos over – but we can now really hear what he is playing, far more clearly than one can in some king crimson recordings – and while these recordings are of varying quality, the beauty and simplicity of what fripp accomplishes here is not diminished in any way, shape or form – it’s guitar heaven, it’s undoubtedly one of the première examples of man v machine where both win; fripp has taken what eno (and others) developed, and made a few modifications to the system to make it as suitable for guitar as possible – and has created a brand new kind of music: frippertronics.

fast forward twenty years, and a similar, yet wildly different, kind of solo fripp music emerged: the soundscape.  this is the modern-day equivalent to frippertronics.  and while I love and admire both forms, frippertronics and soundscapes; for me, my money is on frippertronics – because it involves the pure sound of a gibson les paul (whereas, soundscapes are more guitar synthesizer-oriented, therefore, less guitar-like) and the fripp pedal board, captured, looped, and soloed over with an intensity and capability that few musicians ever reach – fripp worked very, very hard at this – and he got it right, and if you listen to these 15 shows back to back – you will not be disappointed – and in fact, that is exactly what I did, I downloaded them all on a friday night; then on the saturday, I put them on – and let them play in sequence, all day long. 

at ten pm that night, it finally came to an end – and I was left speechless, breathless, and utterly, utterly impressed – OK, I knew it would be good – but I never dreamed – my 34 year old memory of the 1979 frippertronics show I had seen, and the 30 year old memory of a second show at mandeville auditorium, told me “this will be incredible” but even those memories could not have prepared me for the reality of the speed, dexterity, power, and beauty of these live guitar loop and solo performances – they are out of this world, and for guitarists, are an absolute lesson in what can be accomplished with a very, very finite set of equipment, set up for one purpose – and then there is the way that robert plays.

it’s so, so powerful, because really, it was not that long before, barely five years, that he was onstage with wetton, bruford and cross, playing lead guitar night after night after night, and the power of his time with king crimson (ten remarkable albums in the short space of 1969 – 1974) – and the power of his playing in those various “king crimsons” (plural) is now matured; amplified; calmed; organised; and it’s so precise now, there is very little bending (something he would give up almost completely, eventually) and the melodies he plays are just exquisitely beautiful – especially when played over loops of incredible precision and beauty.

so to my mind, even just speaking as an average guitarist – this is the best guitar album I have EVER HEARD.  I have no other words, no other way of describing what it’s like to sit and listen to robert fripp solo for 13 hours over tape loops that he made on the fly; in a record store, restaurant or other non-traditional venue on this first-ever frippertronics tour.  there is simply no other music on earth like this, and it truly shows the talent, power and sheer chops that fripp has developed over time.

by eschewing traditional venues, and bringing the music directly to the people – and even more remarkable, by TALKING to, and with, the people – fripp bucked the whole system, which I am sure pissed off his record company and everyone else who would now not be able to make a buck off of these performances – this was a real dialogue now, between robert fripp and those who love the music he creates – and at every show, there was a question and answer session (and that just blew my mind, I could not believe that we were sitting on the floor of tower records, and fripp, a few feet away with his les paul still slung around his neck – was taking questions from the audience!).

an audience that was stunned, or I would say more accurately, completely fucking blown away, by what they had just seen and heard.  the power of robert fripp’s lead guitar playing alone is enough to frost your socks; passages of great speed and precision, wonderful melodies that fly from the fretboard – but also, a new component, those enticing, amazing loops – that support and blend with the solos so perfectly; hypnotic, repetitive – and the perfect musical “bed” over which to solo.

but – the loops weren’t static, they were often “changed” by fripp, who would solo for a minute or two, and then, add more notes to the loop, and then, go back to soloing over this “new” altered loop – and he might do this several times within one looped performance – change the loop, solo, change the loop, solo more, etc. – to beautiful effect.

I learned a lot from watching this process, a lot which I later put to use in my own work, but what I also learned was, just how difficult this process is – the concentration required, the precision required – it’s intense, and few people could pull it off.

leave it to robert fripp.

 

this is a link to the first show from the frippertronics european tour, may 7, 1979, follow the right arrows to find the rest of the shows (and much more).  there is also a link where you can purchase all 15 shows as a bundle (recommended – this is what I did).

I know that fans of king crimson and robert fripp have their favourite albums, tracks, and live performances by robert, working in king crimson, or, guesting on other albums by other well known artists such as david bowie, or, in collaboration with people like david sylvian.  I am one of those fans, and I can remember arguing about very important topics such as “which is the best version of ‘schizoid man’ ” or whether red or usa was the best late period king crimson album (at the time) and so on.

I am not ashamed or embarrassed in any way to say I love the music of king crimson, robert fripp, as well as “sylvian / fripp”, “the league of gentlemen”, the league of crafty guitarists, and the current working group, the orchestra of crafty guitarists (which I was, briefly, a member of) – I love all of that, and I would defend it’s high quality and musicality – these are works of quality.  their common denominator, is, of course, robert fripp.

however – as much as I love say…“exposure”, as much as I love king crimson, and would defend their amazing catalogue against any naysayers, with songs as beautiful as “starless” or “the night watch” – well, it puts a lot of other “prog bands” to shame, if I am honest – this music is so intense, and so, so beautiful…

…but in some ways – this 15-show frippertronics european tour, is the best album that fripp never made, and never made a big deal of. it’s release was incredibly low-key, it just appeared on the dgm website one day, but there was no marketing push, no attempt to big this up at all – it just appeared – and those of us who realised what it WAS – well, we snatched it up immediately.  but then – we KNEW – we knew what this contained.

because they (these live performances) are so real; because they are the first ever recordings of robert fripp creating live loops to solo over; because the soloing is so absolutely incredible, I would say that now, this is my favourite robert fripp recording – of all time.

I know – that seems like sacrilege.  how could anything be “better” than, say, “in the court of the crimson king” ?  the answer is, of course, it can’t, really, but, when I hear this music, I realise – this is really the kind of music that fripp was playing all along, but you couldn’t always hear it, because the band was playing so loud! 

this is the “real” fripp – hypnotic layers of intense, dark sound, guitars screaming like seagulls over the top, ominous low notes bending via the services of a tuning key, notes “played” by switching the pickup selector switch from “off” to full on (with the bass pickup turned all the way down, and the treble pickup, turned all the way up) – the selector switch becoming a rhythmic device that adds to the loop – fripp using his fuzz tone, the wah-wah pedal, and his other devices to add texture and form to the loops – and once happy, he would then let that loop play – and solo his heart out with an intensity at least as powerful as “1969 to 1974 king crimson”. 

you think that the guitar solos on “USA” are pretty darn powerful and quick (you are right – they are) ?  you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think that nothing can top what fripp plays on “red” in songs like “red”, “fallen angel” and “starless”  – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.  you think what you hear on “the great deceiver”, a four CD live fripp-wetton-bruford-cross king crimson albujm, is a lot of amazing robert fripp lead guitar (you are right, it is)?  You should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

about 13 hours in total, I believe, something like that – and a large portion of that, is robert soloing his heart out, at length, over those amazing four second loops.  I have since played these shows on a saturday, just letting them run all day long, and it really, really makes for a great “mood” – you would love the way it takes an ordinary saturday, and turns it into an amazing day and night of pure, pure music – the frippertronics way.

so, so beautiful – the best album that robert fripp never made.  15 live shows – this is the one album that is pure testament to the intense, quick, and breathlessly beautiful way that robert fripp plays lead guitar – truly, this is where you can really hear genius at work, on the fretboard of a black les paul guitar – at the hands of the master, robert fripp.

now – for the non-guitarist, it’s likely that you may continue to regard the “band” works of robert fripp more highly than this “guitar” based fripp work.  but for me, as a musician and as a guitarist – this is simply the ultimate fripp documentary, which might have been lost to us, but blessedly, dgm have taken the time to resurrect these shows (and others, as well) and release them via the dgm website (these are download only) – and I for one, thank alex mundy at dgm for doing this work, and I thank the big guy in the sky (whoever that may be this week) for preserving those fragile tapes for all those years until alex could do his magic with them.

I can only imagine how it felt to alex, and to robert, to hear these for the first time in 34 years – and it’s criminal that these were never really released in any form (except for the occasional loop based record such as “let the power fall” – which gives you an inkling of what these tour performances were like – but one short album of loops is no substitute for the real thing – the real 13 hours of music!) – please forgive me if I am repeating myself now – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. 

seriously.

you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

I bought a flat guitar tutor

one of the oft-overlooked songs from the first godley and creme-less 10cc album, 1977’s stewart and gouldman-led “deceptive bends”, is a short little song, penned by eric stewart and graham gouldman, that in 1977, struck me as being every bit as good, or better, as anything from the first four 10cc albums featuring the classic line-up of godley, creme, stewart, and gouldman – the song with the unlikely title of “I bought a flat guitar tutor”.

ok, “deceptive bends” does contain “the things we do for love”, and even more embarrassingly, “modern man blues” but I can forgive the latter, and actually admire the former – as a pop song, it’s a cracker, and as a guitarist, I admire it’s concise and very  lever guitar solo.  the story about kevin godley, throwing his complimentary copy of “the things we do for love” against a tenement wall may or may not be true, but in hindsight, it’s actually a pretty damn good pop song despite kevin’s alleged “reaction” to it.

so while many might criticise “deceptive bends” because it is more poppy, it is more straight ahead, and it does not contain arty, clever songs like the ones godley & creme used to pen for the band – there are hidden gems on the album, and this song is the brightest one.

it took a few listens, but I quickly realised that eric’ and graham’s clever little 1920s jazz number is really an in-joke for guitarists, being nothing more than a lyrical listing of the guitar chords that eric was playing as he sings the song!  an elaborate joke, a word play, puns, call them what you will – set to seriously beautiful and clever music.

strangely, and remarkably, the song’s lyrics very nearly contains enough information for a savvy guitarist to play the song without seeing the chords – just follow along with what eric sings !

and that would be cool enough, if he just listed A major, or A flat, or A minor…but no, eric goes for the gold, and includes as many odd chord types as possible: suspended, diminished, augmented – and as he sings the chord name – his fingers move to that chord.  all of this crammed into a 1:47 masterpiece that should go down in history as the coolest guitar tutorial ever conceived, if nothing else – you can just about see how this works from this crude representation of the song’s lyrics, with the actual chord names above the lyrics in question:

|A|        |Ab|

I bought a flat

|Abdim|        |Bdim|    |E|

diminished responsibility

|D9|                              |C|

you’re de ninth person to see

|Bsus4-B-Bsus2|      |A7|

to be suspended in a seventh

|Amaj7|           |E|

major catastrophe

|Am|                     |G|

It’s a minor point but gee

|Gaug|                 |G#aug|

augmented by the sharpness of your

|C#|

see what I’m going through

|A|   |B|     |E|

ay to be with you

|Ab|            |C| |C/B|

In a flat by the sea

|C/Bb| |Bm| |Bm/A|

_________________________________________

…and it may not be obvious to non-guitarists, but some of the words that match the chords aren’t words at all, but, letter sounds at the end of a word, that still equate to a chord, so for example:

|Abdim|        |Bdim|    |E|

diminished responsibility

“E” major chord corresponding to the “e” sound at the end of the word “responsibility”…

|Amaj7|        |E|

major catastrophe

“E” major chord corresponding to the “e” sound at the end of the word “catastrophe”…

and OK, “a flat by the sea” is great because of “a flat” equating to an Ab (A flat) chord, but I love even more that the word “sea” falls on the chord C – C major – that’s just brilliant, really clever I think.

and farther on, again, “see what I’m going though” where “see” equates to C major

and then “Ay to be with you” where it moves from A major to B major – that is just so, so clever!

I am also very fond of this bit:

|D9|                     |C|

you’re de ninth person to see

because by changing the article “the” to “de”, you then get the “D ninth” chord – pronounced “de ninth” of course.

this section is really tricky, too:

|Bsus4-B-Bsus2|      |A7|

to be suspended in a seventh

|Amaj7|           |E|

major catastrophe

because the chords just follow perfectly – the suspended chord on the word “suspended”, the seventh chord on the word “seventh”, and the major seventh chord on the word “major” – that’s two of the cleverest two lines of lyric ever written – I really wish I’d thought of this!!

I can remember playing this for my friend jim whitaker, who really loves a good jazz chord, and he was really knocked out by it – we both found it to be extraordinary.   but for me, it wasn’t just the clever word-play – although that is really appealing, it’s also the amazing, 1920s django reinhardt-style solo that runs the song out – that’s what blew my mind, that this mild-mannered pop star could knock off a solo that would not have sounded out of place on the second steely dan album – world class guitaring – this elevated eric stewart in my eyes, to an extraordinary degree.

I already knew he was a great guitarist, and an even greater slide guitarist, from his work on the first four 10cc albums (10cc, sheet music, the original soundtrack, and how dare you!) but this song – this was something new, beautiful vocal, beautiful jazz chords (with built in instructions!!!!), jazz SOLO – and what a solo it is.

the solo is partially double tracked, comp-ed with piano and with vocals – but I truly think if it had sat next to “through with buzz” or “charlie freak” on a steely dan record, I would never have noticed that it was out of place. the difference being that eric has a beautiful, melodic voice that donald fagen does not.  don’t get me wrong, I love donald fagen as a vocalist, but for a song like this – you want eric stewart singing, you really do.

the song begins with a short whistled section, followed by a perfect, beautiful vocal from eric, ending in a beautiful, high “whoo-oo” as he then moves into that incredible solo – which I just can’t get out of my head, it’s just gorgeous – and the solo runs through the entire chord sequence again, in place of a second verse – and as it follows all those chords, the suspended, the diminished, the augmented – it goes some amazing places – I absolutely love it.

the last part of the solo is not double tracked, I reckon, because it’s too fast, and it needed to be solo – so it’s very cool, as the solo goes on, first the double tracking drops away, then, the piano and vocals take a back seat – and eric just flies, really difficult and incomprehensible figures – a solo I don’t think I can learn (although at some point, I do plan on giving it a try!).

I do find it difficult, because it’s clearly a cut above the songs that surround it – preceded by the acceptable, quite clever (and with a monster guitar riff, too)  “honeymoon with b troop” and followed by the forgettable “you’ve got a cold”, you could almost miss it, at less than two minutes – but, I believe it to be the absolute high point of the album with only one possible exception – the last song on the record, the incomparable pop masterpiece “feel the benefit (parts 1, 2 & 3)” – which is a significant point on the record, and indeed, a notable highlight of 10cc’s late 1970s output in general.

so do not blink, or you might miss it; but on this otherwise very straightforward pop album, “deceptive bends”, there’s a beautiful piece of jazz guitar, at a steely dan level of quality, hidden away between the usual 10cc pop.  It immediately became my favourite track on the album, the beautiful “feel the benefit” notwithstanding, “I bought a flat guitar tutor” will always be my favourite post-godley and creme 10cc song (well, OK, there are a few on “bloody tourists” that might compete for that spot – “tokyo”, “old mister time” and “everything you always wanted to know about !!!”); my favourite song from “deceptive bends”;  and it’s also the main reason, along with “feel the benefit” that I didn’t give up on 10cc, and I tried to follow them all the way into the 1980s (unsuccessfully, I might add).

certainly, I also love their 1978 studio release, “bloody tourists”, and remain very happy that I saw the “bloody tourists” tour – that was a high point of the late 70s for me.  and I recently dissected the 1977 live documentation of “deceptive bends”, “live and let LIVE” in a previous blog, and I would still say to this day, that there is very nearly as much musical value in those three albums, from 1977-1978, as there is in the holy “first four” with the original lineup.

I think that “I bought a flat guitar tutor” is a unique piece of music, that stands above and outside of the main work of 10cc – and it showed me that eric stewart is no flash in the pan pop star, he’s a serious musician with real chops (and when you hear this solo, I think you will agree) and the guitar/piano/vocal solo at the end of the piece is totally surprising and quite, quite amazing – you would never think for a moment that this is the same band that made “the things we do for love” – but it is.

the things we do for music.

in researching my last piece on the live 10cc album, I ran across a quote from eric stewart, where he spoke of wanting to go for the more grandiose, complex pieces of music, but that the demands of “you need a hit single” always outweighed that, and he always, unfortunately, at least to some degree, bowed to that pressure.

[warning – author now goes on a short but necessary diversion describing the other very important song on “”deceptive bends”, “feel the benefit” – and never really returns to the blog’s original subject]:

I wonder what would have happened if he had ignored that pressure, and had spent his time designing massive, complex and beautiful pieces of music – like “feel the benefit”.

speaking of “feel the benefit”, that’s the other reason – along with “I bought a flat guitar tutor”, that I held out hope for this “new” version of 10cc – the guitars, oh my god those guitars, and the incredibly beautiful orchestration, and the bass part, too! – and the vocals!… – of “feel the benefit” take 10cc to a new level of beauty and complexity, that the original band never really quite got to (although they got close, in pieces like “une nuit a paris”) – they never came up with a beatlesque anthem of the order of “feel the benefit”; which still gives me goose bumps as eric sings “ what would we feel…………..” just before that amazing double guitar solo begins…

and then, that solo just floors me – studio or live, it rocks the house.

another moment from “feel the benefit” that is absolutely earth-shatteringly beautiful, is the “bridge”” which occurs at 2:30 beginning with “you’re like a cloud behind the sun…” and ends with the incredibly beautifully sung “the wanderer soon returns and finds the colour of the grass is just the same…on the other side of the tracks” (eric spanning at least two octaves across this short lyric) and then all hell breaks loose – a final “oh – oh” as the orchestra swells and stirs magnificently, recalling if anything, “a day in the life” – I can think of no other song to even compare this to – leading to an almost godley and creme like orchestral section that climbs up to the first guitar solo…

but the way eric sings that one line, oh my god, the passion, the beatlesque glory, the fire in his belly – and the orchestra, the string parts following “…on the other side of the tracks” just give me the worst goose bumps imaginable, it’s so incredibly beautiful.

so these two songs, are for me, what makes “deceptive bends” so valuable and important, and it definitely began when I noticed what a clever little tune “I bought a flat guitar tutor” was.

the appreciation for “feel the benefit” came almost simultaneously; but it’s beauty is perhaps more obvious (it’s quite popular out there in you tube land, for example), whereas I feel that “guitar tutor” has definitely been overlooked over time – perhaps because of course, it was never performed live – more’s the pity.

part of me hopes that eric has been secretly working on a triple album of unfinished masterpieces, which he will eventually release, sort of like george harrison did when he finally released “all things must pass” – an album full of genius (and songs that never got made until lennon and mccartney got out of george’s way…) – three albums full of 10, 15, 20 minute masterpieces that make both “une nuit a paris” AND “feel the benefit” pale by comparison.

eric?   over to you now mate…

🙂

uh, while I am dreaming, eric, could we also please have:

a master edition of the FULL 11/11/1975 10cc live in Santa Monica / King Biscuit concert

10cc live at the civic theatre, san diego, california, 1978 – full concert

10cc live any other full “original soundtrack” tour shows

10cc live any live performances of anything from “how dare you!” – even rehearsals, alternate takes – anything

10cc live, any full “sheet music” tour shows

10cc live, more 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978 live shows – especially material from “how dare you!”

if you need more ideas, please just ask 🙂

the worst band in the world

a few months ago, I tidied up a portion of my music collection that had lain dormant for a long time; I completed the partially complete task of loading the entire 10cc catalogue onto my mobile device.

thus prepared to re-engage with one of the most interesting bands of the 1970s (were they art rock? were they pop? were they prog?), yesterday, I put on a record that I haven’t listened to a lot since 1977, when it came out, but I am stunned just now, hearing it in headphones for a start, but just hearing how good it is…”live and let LIVE” by 10cc.  this album…is an absolute corker.

despite the absence of the uh, stoned geniuses, kevin godley & lol creme, this newly-reinforced and revitalised version of 10cc, led by the very straight eric stewart and graham gouldman, the two remaining original members…is astonishingly capable, the set list is amazing, considering that godley & creme aren’t there…and what a performance !! stunning musicianship, and the vocals are so, so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s live.

I myself was fortunate enough, to see 10cc live in 1978, so, the tour after this one; at the san diego civic theatre, this was the “bloody tourists” tour, and while it was a slightly different band (I got to see them with the amazing duncan mackay on keyboards, whilst “live and let LIVE” features tony o’malley on keys) it was essentially the same group as you hear on this official live album…

there is a live album made by the original 10cc; the quartet version, featuring eric stewart, graham gouldmanlol creme and kevin godley – which is available under different titles, but it’s basically “king biscuit live 1975” and it was in support of “the original sound track”, so quite “early”, recorded at the stage where they have just three records out – and while it’s a great album, because it’s the original band…it does not have the production values that 10cc – ”live and let LIVE” does.

of course, ”live and let LIVE” was recorded a full two years later, with a revitalised eric stewart in charge – and the difference is noticeable.  two great live albums, but the difference was something like, well, we’ll record this 1975 santa monica gig for fm radio – and maybe release it some day; whereas with ”live and let LIVE” was intentional, more “let’s go out and play these songs really well, really professionally, and record the whole tour until we get a perfect version of every song, or one perfect show” kind of thing;  the planning and execution is something akin to the invasion at normandy – planned to musical perfection by eric stewart, executed to near perfection, live on stage, by the “new 10cc“.

and yes, if you go onto you tube (or if you buy the “tenology” box set) you can see fantastic live videos of the original four piece, playing deep album tracks such as “oh effendi” or “old wild men” – and, it is a bit sad, that those kinds of ultra creative / proggy tracks are long gone from the repertoire by 1977.  the original quartet was unbeatable, studio or live, their four studio albums are all top-notch, so when eric stewart sat down to build “deceptive bends” without godley & creme, he knew he was facing a challenge.  but, he stuck with what he knew best: songs.  and, he penned the undeniably catchy “the things we do for love”, which meant that “deceptive bends” was going to be a big success.

so what does this “brave new 10cc” play, then?  first of all, you need to remember that this is the stewart-gouldman 10cc, therefore, the “poppier” 10cc, not the darker, stranger 10cc featuring godley & creme, so it does tend towards pop, and towards the “hits” – but there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of great tracks from all different phases of the band’s long career.  and, a few performances of classic original 10cc tracks – in particular, the show opener, a hard rocking version of a stand-out track from the band’s third album, “the original soundtrack” – an absolutely kick-ass version of “the second sitting for the last supper” that is shocking in it’s musical prowess.

also from that original series of four albums (10cc, sheet music, the original sound track, “how dare you!” – that was all they did before godley & creme split – well, five if you count “king biscuit 1975” I suppose) a very cool version of “art for art’s sake” plus eric stewart’s best contribution to “how dare you!”, the overlooked pop classic “I’m mandy, fly me”.  an unavoidable choice, also from “the original soundtrack” album, is the fm radio classic “I’m not in love” – also a stewart track.

but, here’s the full set list for this double live album:

the second sitting for the last supper                  [dave – (!! – a storming way to begin the show !!)]

you’ve got a cold

honeymoon with b troop

art for art’s sake

people in love

wall street shuffle

ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)                    [dave – (listen to eric stewart on slide – harrison and allman, look out)]

I’m mandy, fly me

marriage bureau rendezvous

good morning judge

feel the benefit                        [dave – beatlesque perfection, stonking dual lead guitar outro…)]

the things we do for love

waterfall

I’m not in love

modern man blues

before I look at the show itself, I should explain the difference between the bands:  the original 10cc line-up of stewart / gouldman / godley / creme was nominally a quartet, but often, because drummer godley had so many lead vocal duties, they had a second drummer in paul burgess – so the “original” live quartet was actually a quintet:

eric stewart – lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

kevin godley – drums, lead vocals

lol creme – electric guitar, gizmo, piano, lead vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

with the departure of godley & creme in 1977, who went of to concoct their triple album, progressive rock masterpiece “consequences”, which utilised their invention, the “gizmo”, throughout – a “gizmo” orchestral work, if you will (which includes performances from the late sarah vaughan and the late peter cook) – stewart and gouldman had to then rethink the band – and enable it to play both the very complex (and often quite strange) back catalogue, as well as the current material (at this point, the new 10cc only had one “new album” – the very respectable “deceptive bends”) – and I think that eric stewart now, ironically, faced the same problem that kevin godley did back in the original band – he played so many different parts on the album, multiple lead and rhythm guitars notably, as well as now being the main keyboardist in the studio band, so he needed to have a band with enough capability to free him from trying to play all those complex parts himself – and let him concentrate on either lead vocals, lead guitar, or occasionally electric piano or real piano as required.

so – faced with this problem, the solution seemed obvious – hire an extra guitarist who can also play bass (in the person of rick fenn); hire a second keyboard player so that they can replicate tracks where there are more than one keyboard (in the person of tony o’malley); and for some reason, hire an extra drummer (in the person of stuart tosh) (maybe because they were accustomed to having two drummers on stage?) – not really sure why – but that is what they did.  the new, expanded 10cc looked like this, then:

eric stewart– lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

rick fenn – lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals

tony o’malley – keyboards, acoustic and electric piano, vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

stuart tosh – drums & percussion                 [dave – formerly of the pop band “pilot” – oh they of the one hit “magic”…]

(It is interesting to note, and perhaps a comment on how difficult they were to replace, that basically, it took four people – fenn, o’malley, burgess and tosh – to replace two departed original members – so four people to replace two very talented, capable people – that’s kind of “telling”, isn’t it??).

this band, with duncan mackay replacing tony o’malley, was the 10cc that I was fortunate enough to see in 1978 playing the live version of “bloody tourists” – and I would say, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, they played all the really excellent deep tracks from the new album (including some real beauties, “tokyo”, “old mister time” and others), and also including a very proggy number called “everything you’ve always wanted to know about !!! (exclamation marks)” (my personal favourite track from the album) which features an amazing end section of duncan mackay and eric stewart playing more like members of yes or gentle giant, than a “pop” band – serious chops – I kid you not – it was musically stupendous.

and…clearly, without a doubt, this was the band with the best live vocal sound I’ve ever, ever heard, incredible six part harmonies (when needed) and the most perfectly arranged, and in tune, and in time, background vocals imaginable.  just…stunning.  only the beach boys or the beatles in the studio are better.  hearing them sing like this, live, in 1978, was something that left a strong impression on me – and made me realise just how important having properly arranged vocal harmonies is to the live sound of every band.  if you are going to do harmonies – do them right.  hit the notes.  be in tune… !!

it’s fortunate for 10cc that the technology of 1977 and 1978 allowed them to re-create six part harmonies and complex background vocals on stage in a way that in 1966, the beatles, then the world champions of rock vocal harmony, could not (not due to any shortcomings on their part as vocalists, but totally because the technology just wasn’t there in ’66).  I think that eric stewart secretly wanted his band to be like the band that the beatles could have been live, had 1966 technology allowed them to hear what they were singing.

I watch the film of the beatles playing “nowhere man” in munich, germany in 1966, and it’s the closest thing we get to them singing their perfect LP harmonies, live; whereas on ”live and let LIVE” – stewart manages to recreate the studio vocals on every single track, beautifully and damn near perfectly – on stage.  If only the beatles had arrived ten years later…but then, that wouldn’t have worked out for other reasons, so I shouldn’t wish such things really…

and on ”live and let LIVE” – it’s pretty much the same as what I saw a year later with the 1978 version of the band – the vocals are unbelievably perfect.  just like the record – only – live.  this perfectionism is obviously the work of eric stewart, who was always the guy who arranged, recorded, and mixed all of the original 10cc albums; with godley & creme gone, stewart took over as de facto leader with gouldman as his willing lieutenant…and together, they forged a new, better, more in tune, less unpredictable live version of the band.

one of the stand-out tracks on the record is the 13 minute rendition of  “feel the benefit”, the long suite in three parts from the then-new “deceptive bends” album – this is a very beatlesque song to begin with, having a “dear prudence” like guitar intro (and coda) that evolves into a very string-laden ballad, which features the incredibly beautiful lead voice of eric stewart, clearly the “heir apparent” to paul mccartney (and strangely, later on, he joined mccartney’s band for a while, appeared in mccartney videos, and on a few mcartney tracks here and there – appearing on a few different mccartney albums over time) – what an incredible lead vocal on this track!

and then, when the background voices join in, it’s literally goose-bump inducing; it’s so perfectly like the album, but with the added excitement of being live – and stewart is the star throughout (thirteen minutes on his very best game) – sitting at the piano, singing the lead vocals, and then at the end, jumping up to play his half of the dual lead guitars, a beautifully distorted guitar duo – complete with graham gouldman doing his very best bright, chris squire imitation behind them – that chime their way out through the end of the song – a totally beatlesque and very very beautiful song, rendered with incredibly precision – even the silly centre section, the second of three parts, entitled “a latin break” meaning – “latin break in A major”, very punny indeed, is perfectly performed, including a live fade out of part two with simultaneous fade in of part three (something I have NEVER heard on anyone’s live album, EVER – amazing performance!!!), which is a return to the coda version of the “dear prudence” guitars…fantastic.

the album is worth it just to hear this one 13 minute pop masterpiece – the vocals are astonishingly in tune and in time, almost to the point where it seems impossible that any band could sing that well live. but – my experience in 1978 proves it, this live album, ”live and let LIVE” proves it – one band could – 10cc.

“feel the benefit” also reveals something that few people know – well, people who have seen 10cc play live probably know it – that graham gouldman is a world-class bassist.  he takes an extended and incredibly virtuoso bass solo during “feel the benefit” that sounds more like chris squire than something you’d expect from a “lightweight pop band” like 10cc.  gouldman wields his rickenbacker bass with an almost careless charm, a sort of, “oh, yeah, I’m actually pretty damn good with this thing” attitude – and I believe that he shares the perfectionism that stewart is known for.

I think that stewart felt a little frustrated with the godley & creme “version” – or “vision”, perhaps, of 10cc, he could see the potential – on the records, he could make the vocals sound perfect – but on stage, he could not control godley and creme, and it’s well known that while godley & creme were / are more than a little fond of a little ganja…while we also know stewart is not, stewart wanted to play straight, it was all about the music for him, and nothing else – so with them out of the picture, we could now have the “vocal perfect” version of 10cc live – and this album shows that not only did he succeed in this desire, he excelled – the band excelled.

I think too, that the public’s perception of what kind of band 10cc was flawed – the “hits” made them seem very, very poppy – “I’m not in love” being a very atypical track, the rest of “the original soundtrack” sounds NOTHING LIKE “I’m not in love” – which of course was then swiftly followed with the REALLY poppy “the things we do for love” (not to mention, also, the even smarmier, but wonderful, ballad “people in love”….) – and this gave a somewhat skewed impression of what the band really were.

I thought of them as progressive, but more along the lines of a very poppy / prog / beatlesque / strange kind of band, I thought they were maybe competing a bit with queen (“un nuit a paris”  – from “the original soundtrack”– a godley & creme track, of course – pretty much out-queens queen themselves – in a good way, I promise you!) while if you listen to “sheet music”, “the original soundtrack”, and “how dare you!” – these are deep records, with songs embracing many, many styles, pop, rock, prog, r&b, blues even, indescribable genres…) that cannot really be pigeon-holed even as prog, definitely not as pop (despite the obvious pop “hits”) – you really have to just listen to those three albums to understand what 10cc were – and a huge part of that legacy still spills over into 1977, and into this new band, especially on stage – stewart and gouldman carrying on the 10cc name and tradition by adding “deceptive bends” as the poppier follow-up to “how dare you!” – and it still flows, sure, the magic of godley and crème is gone, but stewart and gouldman are no slouches as musicians, writers or performers – and I think “deceptive bends” proudly belongs right where it is – the next album after “how dare you! despite the serious and life-changing personnel changes.

sure, as with almost all live albums, there are the very, very occasional gaffes, which stewart has wilfully left in the mix – a missed chord in the outro of the otherwise impeccable rendition of one of the very best songs from the final “original 10cc” album, “how dare you!” – stewart’s wonderful ode to an air hostess, “I’m mandy, fly me” – another extremely difficult, extremely beatlesque track, once again, rendered to perfection vocally and musically – leaving that one slipped chord in to perhaps say “look, we are human after all…”- it’s hard to say.

but it isn’t easy to find mistakes on this record, you have to look really hard – because really, it’s a flawless live snapshot of their current record, “deceptive bends”, peppered with a range of hits (from “wall street shuffle” to “I’m not in love” to “the things we do for love”) and the occasional surprise track from the distant past (“waterfall” and “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they)” – from the first album era) – as well as tracks from all four of the original 10cc albums.

still – it seems quite odd to hear the words coming from the stage… ‘here’s one from “how dare you!”’ when the band that made “how dare you! never played a note from that album live that I know of.  however – I am still appreciative that at least, we get to hear a track from “how dare you! done live – even if it is by this strange new sextet version of 10cc.

for me, even though I understand the necessity, I found it a bit frustrating that in a number of instances, because eric was very busy playing electric piano or real piano, and singing lead vocal, that signature guitar solos that are very, very much “eric stewart guitar solos” – were of course, played live by the very capable and enigmatic rick fenn  I had to console myself with the tracks where eric did play lead guitar – and those were smokin’ hot.  note to all guitarists out there:  if you think eric stewart is that wimpy guy who wrote and sang “the things we do for love” – sure, you are right, but if you heard and saw him play slide guitar on “ships don’t disappear in the night”, or if you saw him switch from piano and vocal to lead guitar at the end of the impossibly cool “feel the benefit” – this guy can play lead guitar, and he’s also an amazingly good slide player – trust me.

so it would be “the wall street shuffle” – one of my all-time favourite 10cc tracks, and in fact, the track that got me into the band – and eric would be singing and playing the piano – so when it came time for the lead solo, that beautiful, concise, perfect eric stewart-channelling-george-harrison guitar solo…there came rick fenn to play it.   and, to his credit – he played that solo, and almost every other eric stewart guitar solo that he was called upon to play – with care, with precision, with beauty – but – it wasn’t eric playing it!  that, I found a little difficult to get used to…but, technically, I suppose it just had to be that way – no one can swap instruments that often on stage (except steve howe perhaps, but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme – and, he doesn’t have lead vocalist duties while he’s swapping guitars repeatedly…), so I applaud this decision – play the song well, play the electric piano part perfectly, sing the hell out of it – and trust your new guitar stand-in to play that amazing little solo just right.

but then I would forget all about that, when I saw and heard eric himself, during the thunderous ending of “feel the benefit” or witness the precision slide guitar-fest that is “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)” – eric stewart letting go and showing us how being in the best pop band in the world doesn’t hold you back from having prog-rock like chops – I swear, stewart and gouldman are both far better players than their recorded catalogue would indicate – which is why this live album is so important – for example, a rare early b-side, called “waterfall” is an opportunity for the band to stretch out on a three chord jam, and play the song in a million different ways, as vocal blues, as total reggae, but more importantly, as total three chord jam with fantastic guitar solo interplay between fenn and stewart – including an amazing extended “burn out” where o’malley leads the two guitarists into the final chords of the song – just brilliant.  this track just rocks – and I think we often forget that 10cc really could, and can, rock when they wanted to.

and you should hear the audience response to “waterfall” – they are louder than the band.

sure, there are so many songs from the back catalogue that I wish were on this live record, and of course, there are a few slight missteps (like the somewhat uninspired gouldman tune “marriage bureau rendezvous” or the somewhat plodding and predictable “modern man blues” which is the encore – both from “deceptive bends”) – other than that, the choices are solid, and the pieces are really well performed…and it’s a very even mix of hits, oldies, and a decent chunk of the “new” album – “deceptive bends”.

every single fan of every band has their own wish list of songs that they wish their favourite band would play when they do a live show or album, and with 10cc it’s very difficult, because with half of the band gone, and, the half that was considered to be the very creative, “arty” half – that immediately makes it very, very difficult to recreate the repertoire from those original albums, without the unique voices of godley & creme, and their unique musical contributions, too…there are not too many “gizmo” players out there from which you could find a replacement for “gizmo” inventor lol creme – who is also an accomplished pianist.

I think given the cataclysmic personnel change that the band had just endured, that this new stewart / gouldman led sextet did really well.  first of all, the recovered in the studio, with “deceptive bends” (personnel: eric stewart, graham gouldman, and the redoubtable paul burgess) – and finally, expanding that studio trio to a sextet for a wildly successful tour for that album.

note: additional players on “deceptive bends” – little known fact, a very young “terry bozzio” is on “drums” – it doesn’t say on which track or tracks unfortunately – source – wikipedia (what else?).

  • del newman — string arrangement
  • jean roussel — organ, keyboards, electric piano
  • tony spath — piano, oboe
  • terry bozzio — drums

the wiki page goes on to explain that this album was actually begun while godley & creme were still in the band; at one of their last UK concerts, at knebworth on 21 august 1976, they debuted an early live version of “good morning judge” and there was also an “awful” studio version of “people in love” (strangely, known as “voodoo boogie” – which was included on the recently released – and apparently, already out of print !! – “tenology” box set) – so at least two of the songs actually date back to the original band – something I did not know until I researched this blog!

apparently, the rough mix of “voodoo boogie” was so awful, that godley & creme left shortly thereafter, leaving it to stewart to pick up the pieces and try to build an album that did justice to the name 10cc.  I for one, think he not only succeeded, but he took the band into a new era, a short-lived era, but a very successful and high profile era – and the three late 70s albums – “deceptive bends” and ”live and let LIVE”, both from 1977, and “bloody tourists” from 1978 (which features the massive worldwide hit “dreadlock holiday” – plus a bunch of great album tracks that were the last great batch of stewart / gouldman compositions) – all three of these records are outstanding, excellent examples of quality musicianship.

for me, 1980’s “look hear”, and it’s follow-up, “ten out of 10 – as we moved further into the 1980s…it just wasn’t the same – it became formulaic, and it was also the beginning of the end for one of the best bands that the 1970s produced – everything changed in 1980, and it was hard for 1970s bands to thrive in the synth / robotic era of the 1980s.  gouldman as much as admitted that the last time they had been “hot” was 1978, and he has expressed his displeasure with the 1980s output – and the fans seem to agree, since the 1980s albums did not chart…whereas 1978’s “bloody tourists”, did – the last 10cc album to do so, I believe (I could be wrong about that!).

but for one shining moment, 1977 / 1978, the band re-grouped and went out there and showed them how to do it right…with brilliant tours supporting both studio albums, and luckily, the first one was recorded intentionally for a live album – the oft-overlooked but absolutely brilliant ”live and let LIVE”…pronounce the title however you like, but listen carefully to what is perhaps one of the most meticulously performed and produced live albums of all time – created by the master: mr. eric stewart – long may he sing, play that slide guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric piano, record, arrange, engineer, produce and mix… 🙂

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.

whatever happened to… the grays ??

once upon a time, many years ago, in the year of our lord 1994, there was a short-lived power pop band, with progressive rock leanings and complex, four part harmonies,  named “the grays”.

I had come to know of their music via the music of member jason falkner (also of jellyfish, and briefly, the three o’clock – a band credited with being part of los angeles’ “paisley underground” scene – before that) and I purchased their album, which has the odd title of “ro sham bo” – and found myself playing it often, and I very much enjoyed it – threedifferentwriters, each one singing their own songs, full on three or more part harmony…and just a great sounding power pop album.

quirky, odd songs that stick in the brain. intelligent guitars, perfectly arranged harmonies and backing vocals.  great singers – great songs.

fast forward to 2013, and my good friend pete greeson pointed me to a second grays “album” – which isn’t so much a real album as a really great bootleg, full of rehearsals, alternate versions of songs from the official album, and live / acoustic radio shows and interviews, “companion” is exactly that, something you need to hear if you are a fan of the band – or maybe, if you aren’t a fan.

“the grays” were sort of a power pop super group, a reluctant one, since most of it’s members, particularly jason falkner, didn’t want to be in bands…but it happened anyway – one of the interviews included on “companion” alludes to the fact that someone heard the band jamming in a rehearsal space, and then spread the news about the band – and then, it was just about which label to sign with.  epic was the eventual choice.

to demonstrate how little is known about this now-defunct group, I have just copied the entire wiki entry for “the grays” here (it won’t take you long to read!):

The Grays were a short-lived rock band comprising singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Jon Brion (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass), Jason Falkner (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Buddy Judge (vocals and guitar), and Dan McCarroll (drums). They only released one album, the out-of-print but highly regarded Ro Sham Bo (1994) on Sony/Epic Records.

Their musical style featured careful composition married with pop-friendly melodies influenced by The Beatles but with a harder edge. Their songs also contained musical surprises such as atonal harmonies (“Is it Now Yet”), backwards vocals (“Everybody’s World”), and dissonant ukelele-like solos (“Oh Well Maybe”) mixed in with traditional rock instrumentation.

(instruments played added in by me – d.)

that’s it.  It’s accurate enough I suppose, but I find it astonishing that this rather significant pop experiment only rates two tiny paragraphs – to me, “ro sham bo”was one of the highlights of the year, particularly because of the presence of jason falkner and jon brion – this band had real potential, and I think it’s a real shame that they only existed for such a short time – I would have loved to have heard a few more records by the band.

and now, in 2013, in the form of “companion”, I guess I am getting to hear that – well, I’m getting to hear something besides the very familiar (I played this album – I mean “ro sham bo” now –  constantly when it came out) songs from their one album.  and “companion” delivers, and in the case of “blessed”, a fantastic pop song with a vocal by falkner and an astonishing guitar solo from…someone. and it sounds like a live in the studio take, although it may not be – it’s difficult to tell, and it just fades out at the end, so we may never know.

another interesting track on “companion” is a frankly bizarre power pop cover of joni mitchell’s 1968 classic track, “both sides, now” – and hearing this song, sung again by falkner, and re-arranged with power pop harmonies, and delivered at speed – the band is rockin’ on this track (as they pretty much are on every track they recorded) – it’s very strange, a strange choice of cover, but once committed – they do a great job of it! it’s fabulous.

“outside miner” is another odd track on “companion” that has so much potential, and it just makes me wonder how many other songs were started, rehearsed, and then nearly disappeared forever…which makes me doubly glad that “companion” exists. how very strange, too, to “get”, after nineteen years, a second “album” from a band that in your mind, only has existence through it’s one official release.

and, if the wiki entry for “the grays” is short, the entry for buddy judge is literally non-existent.  besides playing on “bachelor no. 2” by aimee mann, there is just not very much information out there about buddy judge, except of course his own web site. this is one of those rare situations where the wiki lets you down, and you then have to look further afield for information. the brief bio page on his web site show that along with the aforementioned aimee mann session, buddy has contributed to albums by michael penn, liz phair, and the wallflowers. in recent years, buddy seems to have moved almost entirely into film and tv music.

his involvement with “the grays” is summed up in one short sentence, “he was a singer / songwriter in the grays, with jon brion and jason falkner”.  that’s it – I kid you not.  so it seems that buddy has really moved on, and really isn’t still working in the power pop arena – whereas falkner and brion seem to remain as integral components of it to this day.

the aimee man connection weaves in and out of this story, in 1993, brion, now moving into the world of production, produced his then girlfriend aimee mann’s “whatever” (1993) album, as well as it’s follow up, “I’m with stupid” (1995).  brion has also been involved in some very high profile film scores, notably “boogie nights” (which he also had a cameo role in the film), 1999’s “magnolia” (whose soundtrack heavily features a lot of aimee mann songs) and “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” (2004) – and many, many more – brion’s list of sound tracks is impressive, his list of production credits, equally so.

for many years, brion had/has a residency at “largo”, a popular dinner club in los angeles, where he performs music without a set list, using drum loops made on the fly, and then building up loops of other instruments – all based on audience suggestion.  this has proved to be incredibly popular, and has resulted in many, many interesting live collaborations with a long list of well known musicians who have joined brion on largo’s stage and performed live along with his on-the-fly loops and songs.

oddly, falkner, who seems the most prolific of the three (at least in terms of number of releases) – is the only one of the three who has not really gotten heavily into film music, in the way that brion and judge have – although recently, he has begun to do so – and is currently credited with two recent high profile soundtracks, “ocean’s 13” (2007) and “the informers” (2009) so it may be that falkner will now turn mostly to film work as both brion and judge seem to have done – although I doubt that falkner will ever stop making pop records – which is a very good thing, indeed.

this of course is the problem, you have three guys who each in their own right can make monster records and/or film scores – falkner being perhaps the most “high profile” of the four, but jon brion is also very well known as a studio musician extraordinaire contributing to albums by the wallflowers, sam phillips and marianne faithful, among others, and writer of many, many file soundtracks –  so, the expectations are high.  and the band did not disappoint, musically, maybe the only power pop supergroup that actually succeeded, albeit only for one year.

falkner himself has a long resume of musical collaborations and contributions, serving briefly in the three o’clock while still a teenager, being in the band jellyfish for the first album and tour (after which he left, due to not being allowed to develop his songwriting within the band) and went on to work on many, many sessions, for aimee mann, beck and travis, to name a few.

the “new” songs from “companion” make up the first half of the record, but then you get several acoustic sessions, in many cases, acoustic versions of songs from “ro sham bo” – and that is quite a revelation.  a song that on the official album is a fully produced power pop masterpiece, such as “same thing” (which appears in two separate acoustic performances on “companion”) is quite startling when re-invented as an acoustic track – and the vocal work in particular is excellent – trading lead vocals, harmonies, backing vocals – all pulled off live in a seemingly almost effortless way – very impressive.

then – a vocal line follows a descending guitar line, as solo outro – and this “new” acoustic version of “same thing” is over.

the acoustic version of “nothing between us” is just beautiful, it’s such a great song anyway, but it’s absolutely fantastic to hear these songs, which are all beautifully produced on the album…in this raw and primitive form – yet, you can hear exactly what goes into the songs, and the transition from acoustic to full on power pop is made transparent – at least to some degree.

vocals are important, and “the grays” take that seriously – the harmonies are meticulously worked out (as they were in jellyfish, too) and performed in these acoustic renditions as if their lives depended on them being perfect – and they damn near are.  I am always positively impressed by a band that can a) play their songs well on acoustic instruments and b) recreate studio multi track harmonies in a live setting, and do it with a sense of quality.

“both belong” acoustic is really lovely, and jason’s voice is in great form, and this song is such a pop gem, falkner’s performance here is really relaxed, the vocal pure and in tune, the guitars supporting, background vocals impeccable as always. the truly beautiful and quite beatlesque acoustic guitar interplay at the start of this song reminds me very strongly of the sparkling acoustic guitars in the beatles “here comes the sun” – and of course, being power pop, being a jason falkner song, I expect a beatles influence.

in a recent, rare interview, jason recalls his experience of working with paul mccartney, and the obvious awe that he holds mccartney in says it all – the beatles are clearly an influence, although on this song it’s george harrison’s influence more than mcartney’s that shines through.

I would imagine this would have been a difficult situation to be in, having three strong songwriting / guitarists (and one drummer – who was probably a bit bemused to watch the three writers struggle for dominance…) all of who would naturally want “their” songs to be on the album – but somehow they worked it out, and managed to select a great set of songs to include on “ro sham bo” (surely one of the worst album titles of all time??).  the title is based on one of the many words for the children’s game most commonly known as “rock-paper-scissors”.  there – now you know as much as I do about the album’s title.

when you look at the writing credits, while you might think that falkner and brion would dominate, but in fact, the writing credits are shared out almost perfectly evenly between falkner, brion and judge – but I have an inkling that this wasn’t easy to arrive at – it’s very, very difficult for bands to act as true democracy – but it would appear that they managed to do it, at least for this one album.  I believe a second album didn’t happen because they could no longer agree on whose songs should be included – but it’s unknown how far, if at all, the band moved towards actually making a second album.

falkner very famously swore he would never be in a band again after his experience in jellyfish, but, in 1994, was persuaded to join jon brion in the grays – they had met during session work, and hit it off – but it was once again, personality clashes, and writing differences, (as it had been in jellyfish) that meant a sadly early ending to a band with enormous potential.

I think that jon brion has been too busy doing session work to make many albums, so while falkner has released many solo albums and two albums of beatles covers, brion’s catalogue is mainly down to “meaningless” from 2001 (his only solo record to date), which is a great little pop record in it’s own right.  I have to confess to not being as familiar with brion’s work, except for his contributions to sam phillips albums and the one solo album, “meaningless”, which I only just recently acquired.  I do know that the people he works with speak incredibly highly of him, and I believe he is very well respected as a guitarist and all around musician who has contributed to a lot of great records…

meanwhile, falkner was the guitarist / songwriter for all seasons, contributing to albums by the great brendon benson (jack white’s partner in crime in the criminally overlooked and most excellent band, the raconteurs) – and a pop genius in his own right, he also worked on a susanna hoffs album (I am not a fan), and many others.

the sudden and very, very unexpected appearance of “companion” really raised a lot of questions in my mind…this is absolutely one of those “what if” moments, what if…the band had stayed together, and made a dozen albums over 10 years?  given the quality of the songs on “ro sham bo” and the additional very intriguing material available on “companion”, I really feel that they might well have succeeded very well indeed, and become even bigger than the much-lauded but strangely unsuccessful jellyfish.

I believe though, that it’s a basic problem to have more than one strong writing presence in a band, and the grays had not one but three, which inevitably leads to arguments about whose songs go onto the album, and whose fall by the wayside…so I think that these sort of “pop supergroups”, while a great idea on paper (three great voices, three great guitarists, three great writers – should be fracking amazing – and they often were!) in real life, it causes conflict, and in reading a very detailed recent interview with falkner, he alludes to this and it’s clear that he is most comfortable on his own – he is better off not being in a band.

it’s a bit telling that in one of the interviews included on “companion”, the interviewer asks the band a question about how the songwriting is divvyed up…and instead of answering, the band sort of mumble “let’s play another song” – because it wasn’t a question that they really wanted to answer!

I for one, am glad that falkner broke his own rule, the one he keeps breaking, the one about not really wanting to be in a band – and decided to give it a go with the grays, and while it only lasted for one album, all four members played and sang as if their very lives depended on it.  with passion, with heart, and with the highest standard of musicianship, too.  in the case of the grays, they absolutely were greater than the sum of their parts – and when you have four very talented parts, and they come together in a musical union that for some reason, just resonates – then you get something greater than the individual parts – the beatles had it, and with the beatles as one of their biggest influences, the grays had it too.  not too many bands really do – but this time, you can just hear it – from the first note of the first song – this band just works.

and given the strength of falkner’s albums, band and solo, well – for me – the solo albums win, hands down – especially the trio of “jason falkner presents author unknown” (my personal favourite), “can you still feel?” and the remarkable “necessity: the four-track years” – a collection of demos and alternate tracks, many from “author unknown” that is a fascinating glimpse into the creative process – home made four track versions of songs that were later recorded and mixed in a proper studio – “necessity” is essential listening to anyone who wants a master class in pop songwriting – it’s simply brilliant, although if I had to choose just one, it would absolutely be “author unknown”, a record that I listened to non-stop for about two years! given the strength of his albums – it’s no surprise that the grays profited so much from jason’s participation – and in this band, there was no restriction on jason contributing songs, either. 🙂

I just recently saw, for the first time EVER, an “official video” by the grays, (in this case, the most excellent lead-off track from the album, “the very best years” – one of jason’s best songs, a really lovely power pop anthem that has long been a personal favourite grays and falkner track) – which really caused mixed emotions in me – it was very odd, after almost 20 years, to actually “see” the band playing (I never had before 2013) – for me, there was just…the album, and that was all.  it was great to see them “in action”, and it also struck me again just how good they were, and what a shame it is that so few people ever got to hear this remarkable music.  we are lucky that we have what we have.

“ro sham bo” is currently out of print – but is available second hand or on import.

thanks again to pete greeson for his contributions to this article, and for increasing the number of grays fans in the world – good man.

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.

what we’re listening to – live at brighton – king crimson – kc club 30 – 10/17/1971

the king crimson club releases have been an amazing resource for fans of the band, a behind-the-scenes look at both crimson “live” and also in the studio – but for me, it’s always been about the concerts, hearing how this remarkable band made it’s way through the world, with changing personnel and changing times…

I was in the original king crimson club the very first year it appeared, and I collected all the titles up to a certain point; then later, when they changed to an ordinary purchase versus the original subscription service, I would occasionally “top up” my collection, by hand-picking any live concerts I was missing.

a couple of years ago, I went in and looked up what titles I was missing, and duly ordered half a dozen cds, mostly from the 1971 band, and one from the 1973 – 1974 band, but among them was a little gem that I did not then know about: brighton, october 1971: the islands band live.   you may be surprised to learn that, over time, this particular line-up has actually become my favourite line-up of all – possibly because of the absolutely magical connection between master guitarist robert fripp and master flute/sax/mellotron player mel collins, who were magic in the studio together, and transcendent together, with boz and ian, on the stage.

this is not to downplay the crucial role of bassist boz burrell and drummer ian wallace, the former, famously a singer that fripp taught how to play bass, note by note, by rote; the latter, the pioneer of the vcs3-treated drum solo (in conjunction with the synth’s operator, peter sinfield) – and I will say right now, I actually feel the opposite of what robert has often said (which is that boz “did not convince” on the quieter pieces) – I think he was a great rock singer, but even better at the “quiet pieces” – I love the quieter pieces, and I love the way boz sang them both on record and live, especially live – he could be so gentle, so serious, so lovely – and then belt out a bluesy, funky, vocal rave up the next – and, he was a solid, clean bassist.  sadly, both boz and ian have recently passed away – but their musical legacy has not – the collector’s club has immortalised this most excellent, but lesser-known, king crimson line-up.

that five-man line-up – four on the stage – one at the back with his lighting board and his vcs3 synthesizer – played a long, long series of really, really powerful concerts over a relatively short; but very, very intense period.

so why is this concert, among so, so many live king crimson concerts out there, so special then?

well, for two reasons, the main one which is: they play the song “islands” live.  so far, this is the only recording of this song from the stage that we know of, and it’s stunningly beautiful (questionable sound quality of the whole concert aside).  it’s incredible, delicate, and even though mel gets a bit loud on the mellotron at one point, well…it’s a live version of the song “islands”…what can I say?  the second reason is less important but still significant, because there was a time when bands would record an album, and then go out and play that album, and that’s what is happening here: the second reason is this is the ONLY king crimson concert where the band plays the entire “islands” album live (well, as close to “entire” as it ever could be, of course, track five of the original studio album is an orchestral piece, “song of the gulls” which I am not counting, because unless they could pack along an orchestra, there would be no way for them to perform this song) – so when I say “all”, I mean, all five of the five songs that they actually could play – the sixth, “song of the gulls”, never being a contender for live performance due to the fact that the band never played it anyway – it was recorded by mostly session musicians, although it’s probably that collins plays on it, and possible that wallace does too!

for me though, it was a complete shock, I had assumed, for many, many years, that king crimson never played the song, the title track of “islands”, live…so I was just looking at the cds when they arrived, and I saw the word “islands” at the end of the disc 1 running order, and I thought, that can’t be right, it must be a mistake…imagine my surprise, my excitement – because this is one of my favourite songs in the entire crimson canon, I just love the mood and I also think it’s one of peter sinfield’s best and most beautiful lyrics – I simply love “islands” – so I could not believe, after all that time – that I had thought wrong – that they DID play it live, at least, for a short time – obviously, it was dropped from the set pretty early on, for reasons unknown, because it does NOT appear later in the many, many club cds featuring the “islands” band – it’s just not there.

this is quite an “early” performance for this lineup, it’s at least 3 gigs into a late 1971 british tour, as fripp mentions the “last three gigs” and boz announces “formentera lady” as a “new song”, so it’s possible that the album wasn’t even done at this point, but obviously, it was close to being done, since they do play all five songs within this concert. compared to an earlier still show, live at plymouth guildhall in may of the same year, where only three of the songs from “islands” seem to exist – this is the first full reading of the album in it’s entirety (minus “song of the gulls” of course – as close as we will ever get to a full live version of the album).

now, before I go further, I do need to say – this is a bootleg, it’s taken from what sounds like an audience cassette, so the sound quality does leave a lot to be desired (as do a lot of the club cds unfortunately, but they are only able to work with what they have).  I’ve heard far worse, you can hear all of the players clearly enough, and it’s an amazing show in my opinion – I have a huge, huge soft spot for this lineup, the funkiest and most potent crimson lineup – I really love the way they play live.

so spotty sound quality doesn’t bother me – but it might bother you, so I did need to make the disclaimer. 🙂

having said that – this show just rocks from beginning to end, it really does, and I find it to be most rewarding, a very, very early glimpse of the full “islands” album, before it was entirely formed, and the arrangements here are closer to the album than I’ve heard on any other live show from the time.

the show starts out with the gentle lapping of waves – courtesy of peter sinfield, the band’s lighting technician, on the vcs3 synthesizer, over which fripp makes a strange announcement about someone in the audience calling out for “wally” – whom he assumed must mean drummer ian wallace…which then moves smoothly onto the dramatic introduction of “cirkus” – a very heavy tune in concert, with that incredibly slow mellotron riff – I really love the way this band plays this song, with both fripp and mel collins playing fantastic mellotron, as well as fripp on comedy electric piano – it’s really quite amazing. a very complex song in the studio, but live, this simple arrangement, using various mellotron voices, strings, flutes, whatever is required to recreate that sound – it works really well, the mellotron is such an adaptable and useful tool.

and the rhythm section, with boz playing heavy bass line and singing the vocal with such passion, and the aforementioned ian wallace slugging the shit out of his drum kit, at a strangely slow pace – it’s a great reading of “circus” and of course, when mel collins switches to sax, it’s gets funky fast, his playing on this piece is simply out of this world, it totally rocks…and then it’s suddenly very, very beautiful, a singing, lithesome sax solo floats over fripp’s mellotron backing…with the bass and drums dreaming along…what a mood!

the audience is dead silent during the super quiet mellotron and cymbals break; where the volume goes way, way down (this band has always, always been known for it’s dynamic range – from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye) – an eerie and wonderful, almost creepy section and then wham – the loud, dissonant section, with some very strange mellotrons indeed – the last part of this song is such a row – until we get to that fantastic bit, where fripp comps chords on his electric piano, and mel plays the most amazing, funky sax solo you ever heard – and it just rocks in this version – then back to the double mellotron attack – until we reach the explosive ending – this song is always good live, but this is a particularly rousing and wonderfully fun version – wallace, at the end, with his double bass drums pounding is awesome – and then it’s suddenly over.

from the “lizard” album then, we move back to “in the wake of poseidon” for a strong reading of “pictures of a city” – that album’s successor to the more famous “21st century schizoid man” – for my money, it’s a more challenging piece of music, and this demonstrates that the fripp-collins musical partnership is already really well established at this time – mel had been in the band for a long, long time before he ever played a gig with them – and it’s clear that this piece of early repertoire is not just comfortable, but it’s in their bones, the parts are embedded in their musical dna – they know this song, backwards, forwards, and sideways – and it’s an incredibly convoluted musical journey…and a fantastic one too.

I love this song live, and this is again, a superior version, with both fripp and collins pushing the boundaries of this already impossible to play piece, and it’s an absolute joy to hear their musical banter – back and forth and every which way, with collins demonstrating what a world class player he really is, and fripp just being fripp, impossible, unexpected, wild, controlled, remarkable. I love how it moves from precision to insanely out of control and then back to precision in a heartbeat, as if those are two ends of a special musical spectrum that only king crimson circa 1971 understood.

at the same time, that special musical spectrum that I mentioned, that was really just fripp and collins moving off and on the beat in some pretty spectacular way, moving in and out of syncopation, and probably a few bits of fripp timing magic that there are no musical terms for, too. 🙂

then the concert moves onto it’s first selection from the new album, “islands” – “formentera lady”, which boz introduces as a song that they have “just finished recording” – which is interesting, because we know from earlier 1971 concerts that some of the songs from islands had existed for a while – “ladies of the road”, “sailor’s tale” and “the letters” at least – but “formentera lady” was apparently quite a latecomer to the album if it was only finished in september or october 1971.  a lot of people are not keen on this song, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful, and fripp’s guitar part is sublime, I’ve never heard such use of chord inversions with melodies weaving in between in a constant stream of picking, strumming and more picking – beautiful chord inversions, really beautiful guitar playing – and then of course, mel collins has switched to flute for the first time in the show, and his ability on that instrument meets or exceeds his ability on sax – he is extraordinary on the flute, and he proves it on this first outing.

boz does a great job with the vocal, as ian wallace pounds out the vocally-referenced “indian drum”…and then collins, does a perfect descending flute motif to demonstrate “dark circe” falling – the instruments literally spelling out the lyrics of the song.  meanwhile, I can hear fripp adding in a missing string bass part in between his own parts – doubling up because in the studio, there are a lot of additional instruments – yet, this four piece arrangement is very nearly the equal, and is incredibly faithful to it – moreso than any other live version I have heard.

boz even has a go at the soprano and other wordless vocals at the end of the song, and the whole thing is just so wonderful and atmospheric, often in a concert situation, this piece sort of degenerates into a not so good generic jam session, but this one stays focused, stays real jazz – with collins switching to sax somewhere in there, and robert playing his very cool jazz chords, working with and against the drums, boz, the only constant, on his one note bass part, while the rest of the band is in cool jazz heaven, collins again showing his considerable skill on sax – fripp gets quite frantic with his wild chord progressions – and then suddenly, it’s all stop, as wallace plays the unmistakable cymbal intro to “a sailor’s tale” – and really, this is one of the very few versions where they stick to the plan, they play “formentera lady” without it disintegrating into a common jam, they kept it straight, and then did the segue into “sailor’s tale” just as it is on the record.  for me, that’s fantastic, because I grew up listening to the studio album, and those two songs always belonged together, with formentera ending gracefully; ian wallace plays his cymbal riff; and that distinctive drum and bass part, the beginning of the musical madness that is “a sailor’s tale” starts up…heavenly.  that thundering bass riff, the pounding drums – and waiting, waiting for that sax and guitar to come in together…

fripp has only a second to switch from clean jazz guitar to that thick, molten bass pickup lead guitar sound that he made so, so famous, and then hit the mark with collin’s most insane sax solo ever, screeching, screaming high pitch flying down to a beautiful wild melody – they come in together, stay together, and then collins is totally away – until it’s robert’s turn, collins switches suddenly to beautiful, mysterious mellotron, while robert explores yet another variant of the sharp edged, angular, slapback echo guitar that is the wild and crazy solo of “sailor’s tale” ending in that signature “slide up” the neck dissonant chord, a la jimi hendrix – but done in that inimitable fripp way – then boz and wallace return with that fabulous drum and bass part…and the song drives away, with the mellotrons getting more and more intense as it goes…a long section where the rhythm section just cooks with that awesome riff, and the dual mellotrons battle for minor supremacy and eerie strangeness –and then, that crazy ascending trademark mellotron ascending madness – to a dead stop.  brilliant!  one of my favourite tracks from the “islands” album, and almost always very good in concert – as it definitely is this time around.

without a break then, without a word, they proceed to “the letters” – so at this point, they have now played the first three songs from islands in the same order as they are on the album – which to me is just remarkable – brilliant.  this is the vinyl “side one” of islands – played entirely live.  “the letters” is another strange, strange song that I just love, with it’s odd, jagged rhythmic centre, surrounded by beautiful, minor key verses – this tale of infidelity and pain, with a wicked sax from mel collins, and boz’s vocal is so, so beautiful, too – even though the words seem to change and mutate every week, never ever quite the same as the album – most of them are there – and in this rendition, the middle section of the song ends in absolute sonic madness, which ends up as total distortion on the tape for a minute or two – you can’t really hear what’s going on, but eventually, it resolves, and we get to the amazing final verse, with a tantalising mellotron leading to a cymbal – and then boz – totally a cappella, sings the final verse “impaled on nails of ice – and wait for emerald fire…the wife with soul of snow – picks up her pen and slowly writes – I’m still, I need no life…to serve on boys and men…what’s yours was mine is dead…I take my leave of mortal flesh”. (of course, these lyrics changed and changed again – on the studio version, it’s “raked with emerald fire” – either way, awesome imagery from peter sinfield).

this was recorded back in the day when fripp still made quite a few stage announcements, and this is one where he speaks quite a lot, and usually, ends up making the audience laugh quite a lot – so fripp announces the next number, which is the title track of the new album – there is an awkward pause – and then you hear him, clearly, off mike but not off mike… “mellotron, mel?” because obviously, robert has noticed that mel is not prepared to play the mellotron, – another short silence follows…and then mel’s response “oh!” – and gradual audience laughter ends in a round of applause…(someone else in the band then gives mel a hard time and the band are all laughing).

then it starts – just beautiful, beautiful clean chords from robert, boz on vocal, gentle flute from mel – no drums yet, the title track of islands…the loveliest lyric sinfield ever wrote, and as I mentioned before, robert always said later on, that boz didn’t convince on the quieter material, but I utterly disagree, he has a lovely, beautiful, tuneful voice, and he always did a great job of singing the ballads and quiet songs live, if anything, I think boz doesn’t always convince on  the loud songs!  here, his voice is so perfect, so beautiful, so hushed, and the very simple guitar arrangement on the verses is perfect – when the chorus arrives, then mel gets to play those mellotrons (which do get a bit too loud in places, but nothing could really spoil this amazing song!) boz comes in with a really melodic and sensitive bass part, and fripp plays wonderful sliding chords interspersed with lovely little guitar melodies…

back to the verse, it’s just robert’s guitar, flute and vocal again, with cymbal bell taps from wallace – who does play on the choruses, but otherwise lays back, this is all about the guitar and flute, and that amazing vocal – I love it, I can’t believe it exists, and it exceeds any dream or expectation of how this song might sound live – it’s just magical, and you must, must hear it if you like “islands” at all – it proves what a great song this is, that the four of them can play what was played in the studio, a very heavily multi-tracked piece with many, many guest musicians – but with the mellotron, and the brilliance of fripp’s guitar…they are just not necessary, and the four of them pull this off beautifully – an amazing effort.  sigh.

I am just so, so glad that one person had a tape rolling on one of the few occasions that the band played this – I feel so grateful that I am getting to hear this now – because it’s a precious moment in time, a very rare piece, played so seldom – and so far, this is the only known live recording of this song (per sid smith – this is all we have) so it’s a great honour indeed, and it lifts this concert up as unique and wonderful in a way no other “islands band” concert is – it’s a first, and, since they also play the whole album – it’s a fantastic way to get to know this remarkable record.

of course, by placing islands (the track) here, that puts things out of order vinyl running order wise, but they do get back around to playing the one remaining piece, in fact, it’s next – at the beginning of disc 2, the redoubtable “ladies of the road” – in a strangely unsatisfying version, collins is always good on this, but I feel like robert is struggling with his guitar, that weirdly slapbacked sound, the strange chords he is playing, it sounds a bit laboured compared to other more seamless live versions – but, this is a minor complaint – he still does well, but not insanely well as sometimes happens – a respectable effort if not the best version of this song ever performed.  a solid effort.

having said that, I still very much enjoy this rendition, with it’s screaming saxes and out and out rude lyrics – it’s very, very naughty indeed, which is very refreshing – because it’s just honest, it’s real, it’s about something real, and fripp even dedicates it by saying “this is a song about rude ladies…” – going on to elaborate about exactly what kind of ladies he means.  boz is brilliant on the lead vocal, but the chorus vocals fall to bits as they often do, ian wallace singing lead at the end of each stanza, but all of the band laughing so hard at the dissolving choruses as to make both of them non-viable – a bit of a shame, because on the record, it’s a lovely little vocal, almost beatlesque arrangement – but, you can’t have everything, and every concert has it’s low spots – this might be it for this one.

so after a slightly lacklustre “ladies of the road” comes “groon” – now “groon” started out life as a giles, giles and fripp song, which was later co-opted by king crimson in live performance – but it’s very much open-ended, there are a couple of riffs that are mostly a robert fripp solo guitar piece, although the band do well enough following that riff, but once that’s been played a couple of times, it just becomes a jam.  And that can be bad or good, in this instance, though, it turns out to be very good, in fact, a very satisfying jam, which includes a very long and very good drum solo from ian wallace, of course featuring the vcs3 synthesizer which was a brand new device, eno had one, king crimson had one, edgar winter had one – and it was used to great effect by peter sinfield to process wallace’s drum solos (during “groon” and sometimes other numbers) – this must have been such an amazing experience for the audience, because what starts out seeming to be an “ordinary drum solo” soon becomes something absolutely extraordinary, a synthesizer solo of amazing proportions.

but it’s kept secret for a while, wallace plays a long, untreated and excellent drum solo (proving ably that he doesn’t need the synth to be a great drummer, but that it’s use makes him a remarkable drummer), and then eventually, after several minutes, when you least expect it (this piece is in excess of 24 minutes, almost 25, so plenty of time for development) suddenly, sinfield, out of nowhere, begins to “treat” the drums with the vcs3 – and then you get an entire OTHER solo, this time, with the VCS3 treatment – and it’s absolutely mind blowing.  variable pitch drums ?  in 1971 ? white noise, pink noise, modulation…sure, a few years later, this stuff became commonplace, but back then, it was absolutely revolutionary, no one had EVER heard a “drum solo” quite like this one – and king crimson were right there, at the forefront of the modern, electronic drum kit – but doing it with one of the first synths available that you could use to process the sound of instruments with – brilliant!

so “groon”, which could just have disintegrated into a crappy, banal jam session, is actually a real highlight of this concert – and in fact, it’s often a highlight – simply because of this insane, remarkable, unique and utterly fascinating drum solo – and it does NOT sound like drums for very long – it just becomes a maelstrom of amazing electronic sound – like nothing else on earth – it’s fantastic.  at one point near the end, the audience explodes into spontaneous applause – you can tell they are simultaneously stunned and amazed…

what do you follow something like that with – well, of course, what else – your heaviest piece of repertoire – from the first album, “21st century schizoid man” – and now, after that inspirational version of “groon”, the band are both totally warmed up and totally on fire, in fact, when Robert comes in with his first solo, he plays something so crazy, it’s just the weirdest guitar part I’ve ever heard him play, what a solo!! and at one point, the band stops, and he is playing this beautiful, beautiful note – and then, they are away again, boz doing his level best to play the very, very difficult bass part as well as he can, and doing a great job, ian wallace, absolutely kicking it on the drums – great vocal, great solos – and once robert finishes his first blistering solo, he turns it over to collins – who then just screams and screams and screams, totally inspired, it gives me goose bumps the way this man plays – robert’s solo was totally amazing, so mel just goes into sax hyperdrive, and plays a blinder – what a great, great live version of one of this band’s best songs.

robert plays the riff that signals the beginning of the famous “precision part”, causing mel to return to earth – a crazy vcs3 sound follows along briefly, then, the band play this famous segment PERFECTLY, note for note, just like the album – as they pretty much always do – the part that was once called “studio gimcrackery” but which instead is very, very real – they play it perfectly, then, back into the final instrumental section before the last verse – which trundles along like a pregnant dinosaur, full of intense, powerful feeling – double bass drums thumping, and boz, singing like a distorted alien, there is nothing on this earth quite like an “islands-band” era version of schizoid man – and this is a good one!

after three very loud, very progressive, very amazing performances, the show is almost over, but, not before ian wallace does his famous “mr. gumby” imitation…a bit of levity to relief…”my hobby – by ian wallace” – something which has to be heard to be believed…  this time, he can’t get the words out – he can’t remember the name of the band he is in…it’s just madness – wallace screaming like an insane person – very odd indeed!

but all part of crimson 1971, robert gives a last announcement, a “good night” from king crimson, and they launch into the ultra creepy, begun with a vcs3 “explosion”, snare drum and double mellotron intro to “mars” – a piece of live repertoire from the 1969 band, originally from the “in the wake of poseidon” album – this is one of the most amazing mellotron duels ever performed, and it’s interesting to compare this live version, with collins and fripp doing the dual mellotron honours, to the original live performances of mars where it was ian mcdonald and fripp performing the double mellotron party trick.

the main difference isn’t just the presence of collins instead of mcdonald, it’s the presence of the vcs3 – with sinfield introducing massive “explosions” at key points in the piece – that was certainly something not present in the 1969 live versions.  this song takes ages and ages to build up to it’s climax, and it’s so, so creepy – it just creeps me out every time, this is wicked, wicked mellotron – intense – and then in the middle section, some AMAZING frequency/filter sweeps from the vcs3 take this weird and wonderful piece to a whole ‘nother plane of existence – it’s weird enough with just the two mellotrons against that ominous, persistent, bass and snare, that just goes and goes and goes – but adding in the strange ascending and then descending vcs3 sound effects is an act of genius – it just enhances an already remarkable live instrumentation, adding in something mysterious and strange to this brooding mellotron masterpiece.  another fantastic rendition – if only we had a clear, clear recording of this concert, but even from this recording, you get a real feeling for how terrifying and beautiful this piece is live – it’s a real monster.

it’s quite odd too, because there is no flute, no sax, and no guitar – it’s just snare drum, single note bass, the two mellotrons, and sinfield on vcs3 – what a strange idea, what a sound – and at the end, it’s just cacophony, with both robert and mel abusing their mellotrons physically, slamming the keys, just making noise – it’s amazing, there is no sound on earth like it! I think sometimes, that these classic crimson ascending dual mellotron endings are maybe meant to emulate the big orchestral build up of “a day in the life” – I can’t think where else on earth fripp would have got the idea to do that!

the piece suddenly ends with a swirling keyboard riff and the return of the ocean sounds (thanks to peter sinfield, still the “fifth member” of crimson, operating the vcs3 synthesizer from the light board at the back of the hall) heard at the very beginning, with the crowd clapping for an encore that never arrives…sigh.

 

maybe not the “best” “islands band” concert probably (a very subjective topic surely – who can say, all concerts have highs and lows, and I never have tried to decide which concert by any band is my favourite, I just enjoy them all!), but mostly, a very, very good performance – and, including a delicate, heartfelt, beautiful rendition of the delicate and ultra rare title track – so that’s enough for me.  I love this record – and I am so glad dgm decided to release it – after all those years of thinking that  “island” live did not exist, I have never, ever, EVER been more glad to be wrong…

what we’re listening to – “focus live at the BBC”, early 1973, with bob harris

to say that this is my favourite concert of all time is not really an exaggeration.  I taped this off the radio soon after it was broadcast, I had it on a kodak cassette for more than 30 years…later, I got other copies of it from tape traders, later still, “new” copies from the internet – and no matter what version I am listening to – this concert has a quality like no other.

I would also say, straight away, that I feel it’s far better than the official live focus album from the day, “focus live at the rainbow” – which is a nice record, but, it’s from later in their career, and it’s my contention that they reached the height of their quality performances in late 1972/early 1973, when “focus III” was the “new” focus album.

I’d come to focus almost accidentally, I had bought the album “moving waves (also known as “focus II”) like so many other teenage boys, for the bad reason that it had “that” song on it, “hocus pocus” but what I understood pretty quickly was, “that” song was a bit of a one-off, a bit of a gimmick, and if you ask me, it’s the worst song on the album (well, not that there are ANY bad songs on “moving waves” or “focus III” – two more perfectly-formed prog masterpieces you could not ask for), and the rest of the tracks are so good, that you can skip “hocus pocus” and still have a fantastic listening experience – especially since it ends with the remarkable “eruption”.

at some point, I would love to talk through the first three focus albums in detail, to discuss their relative merits, that is “in and out of focus” (also known as “focus plays focus”), “moving waves” (also known as “focus II”) and “focus III” but for now I want to restrict myself to this mystical live concert.  first of all, this concert has no definitive “date”.  some think it’s actually from december 1972, others are just as certain it’s january 1973, from what bob harris says during the introduction, it’s pretty certain that it’s in the new year of 1973…but beyond that – the BBC records aren’t clear, the last focus broadcast they mention is from the end of 1972, so that’s no help…

the show starts with one of the toughest pieces from “focus III”, “anonymous two” – a 20-minute-plus prog/jazz workout that is something that I wouldn’t try “cold” – but they just dive in, and it’s amazing – the speed, the skill, the solos – each member takes a solo – but to me, it’s the ending, when suddenly, after all that improvising and jamming, they all four hit that theme, hard, and in a slowed-down, endless-ritard way, with jan akkerman’s incredibly fluid, melodic guitar working so beautifully with the glorious, classically themed hammond organ of thijs van leer…sheer sonic beauty, but also, precision jobs – and the snap/cold/dead ending of “anonymous two” here is a thing of beauty.

I don’t know why akkerman left the band, but now, I really wish he had stayed forever.  to me, this was the best focus lineup – bert reuter on bass, pierre van der linden on drums, van leer on organ and flute, and akkerman on lead guitar – this lineup, that produces a few of the classic, and best, focus albums – starting with moving waves, then focus III, then hamburger concerto (a terrible album name, but the last great studio album from the band – although, in my opinion, not as good as focus III).

they follow the loud, brash, jazzy “anonymous two” with something very delicate and beautiful and melodic (and this is my favourite piece from the entire focus canon) – a shortened, concise version of “focus I” from the first album – this is the best arrangement, and the best performance, of this song, anywhere, any time, and to me, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and akkerman’s sensitive, careful, beautiful guitar lead really just blows me away, it’s so simple, so purely about melody, and van leer so seriously underplays his part – very clean, very clear, very simple hammond chords, while the rhythm section just purrs along – it’s three minutes of classical pop heaven, and I absolutely love it – I find the original studio version tedious, with it’s extended end section, this short, to the point, live, clean reading of a great song is the best – I love this arrangement!

after the almost religious experience of pure, simple, beauty that is “focus I” has passed, the band moves back into prog territory, this time with the very flash title track to the “new album”, “focus III” – starting with a mysterious hammond, but soon, progressing to a full on prog-workout, that gives all the band members plenty to do…this track then seques into another really, really long track from “focus III”, “answers! questions? questions! answers?” – which is again, very jazzy, very fast, with odd dissonant sections that are weird enough to have come from a king crimson song but are played instead with hammond and guitar – and it’s that organ and guitar combo that keeps me coming back for more, they slam, they speed, they twist, they turn, they shred, then – suddenly, a beautiful organ solo, with single notes, and a gently speeding up and slowing down leslie speaker, suddenly, akkerman comping on chords with little guitar solos in between as van leer takes over – a drum and bass interlude leads into a van leer flute solo – this song is so complex, and twists and turns through so many sections and solos, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t in their live repertoire for that long – it’s can’t have been easy to remember, much less play!

but they do a stupendous job – it’s better than the album version, by far better – and I can hear it’s influence on me when I hear tapes of myself jamming from a couple of years after this came out – I kinda learned how to play lead guitar from listening to this tape far, far too many times – and you couldn’t have a better teacher, akkerman was all about taste, knowing what to do when, knowing when to push hard, but totally being able to be supportive too, working as a team…what a great band this was in 1972 and 1973!  it’s great too, to hear the musicians stretch out and play for so, so long – I love the long view, and they think nothing of playing music in 15, 20, 25 minute chunks – but not just jamming, a lot of it is planned, arranged, set up – but whether it’s carefully arranged prog, or crazy, abandoned jamming – it’s simply brilliant!

the musicality of van leer and his prowess on the hammond is surpassed perhaps only by hugh banton (of van der graaf generator) but he is also an absolutely amazing flute player (if you’ve seen the official focus DVD, you will have seen and heard his flute solo there – the best flute solo in modern music that I have ever heard – it is astonishing!) – and I love the melodic and classical music influences he brings to the table.  his hammond organ is the harmonic foundation upon which akkerman adds the melodic information that makes this such an amazing team – it just works!

I do not mean to short-sell the contributions of bert reuter on bass and pierre van der linden on drums, they are critical to the success of the two soloists, and they are so constant, so supportive, but, also, totally able to come up to par when it’s required that they go beyond the ordinary – they come through with flying colours – in fact, bert even plays a nice solo in “anonymous two” as does van der linden – both extremely good players, if perhaps slightly overshadowed by the powerful presence of akkerman and van leer – but who wouldn’t be intimidated by two such amazing players?

without stopping, they move into a third song, another melodic, thematic one, this time from “moving waves” – the beautiful, beautiful “focus II” – this piece has some really great rhythmic breaks, and van der linden is especially good on this, I love his drum arrangement, and the stops and starts, slow downs and speeds up, the dynamics are all over the place, and he plays almost effortlessly, but so, so carefully, too – his popping snare leading the way at some points – there are a large number of “bits” where it’s just pierre – and I think he rules this piece – the last section especially…and then…the hush, quiet organ chords, a suddenly subdued, melodic akkerman – and pierre just sits on the bell of his ride cymbal while harmonic and melodic magic occurs around him, reuter supporting on melodic mccartney-style bass – what a song, and, another dynamic build up, with distorted, leslie-speaker organ winding down with that amazing lead guitar…

to play these three songs in sequence, without stopping, ending up well over 20 minutes in total, as if it were nothing – these guys sound like they could play all night (and when I saw them play, they tried to) – this is a fantastic live medley, and a great part of a great concert.

finally, because they have to, they play their big hit, and of course, they have messed with the arrangement to make it even weirder (as if it were not weird enough on the album), with it’s proto metal chord sequence, but with…yodelling…as the vocal, van leer is famous for his strange vocalisations, and his work on this track is no mean feat – he demonstrates not just his yodelling ability, but also the enormous range of his voice – all the while playing a very complex chord sequence as he yodels and sings.  the star here though in my mind is akkerman, who has to play at breakneck speed, however, he makes it sound easy, and it’s back to those famous chords…

van der linden also gets some little solos of his own, in between whatever vocal weirdness van leer is injecting at any time – this is not my favourite song, but they do rock on it – and the drum part is amazing! so it’s worth it being here, so we can here them being quasi-proto-kinda-metal – in a very dutch and strange way !  I mean, the idea of a massive hit song having…yodelling as it’s lead vocal, that’s an odd, odd hit – but, it got them noticed, despite the fact that it’s the weakest song on that album (“moving waves”).  with this bizarre and strange rendition of “hocus pocus” by focus, the concert ends.

for me, the gem here is the shortest, apparently most inconsequential song, the 3 minute arrangement of “focus I” – I absolutely love that tune, and it represents a special kind of prog to me – a kind of prog that only camel and focus, really, and maybe sometimes nektar, every played – very simple, very classical, very melodic music – and “focus I” has such a hauntingly beautiful guitar line, that plain, clean note, rings in my brain, akkerman expressing van leer’s melody the best way possible – simply.

I was quite disappointed then, when the official live album (“at the rainbow“) came out, and it didn’t contain this material, it was missing a lot of the great songs played here, so really, even though it’s now 2012, I would give anything for van leer to go back and make the RIGHT live 1973 album – this one, or a better one, if there is such a thing.  this band was so good at this point, I really think that “focus live at the rainbow” disappoints, because it was made too late, when akkerman had lost interest (and his playing is NOTHING as good on “rainbow” as it is in this concert – believe me) so it would be my dream come true if van leer could find the master tape of this awesome BBC concert (or even the best quality BOOTLEG tape, just so I can have an official, clean recording), and give us a deluxe CD release of the real 1973 live focus album that never was.

if only.  it makes me wonder too, what the tapes of this band in rehearsal sound like, what other concerts recorded right around this time might yield – and if van leer or anyone has those tapes – they could make a fortune off of people like me – because I want two or three or four “new” live focus albums from 72/73 – twist my arm.  what a great, jamming, melodic, powerful, instrumental band – a huge influence on me (I can hear myself imitating akkerman in tapes from the late 70s), and I would be proud if any of the rock music I make ends up half as good as any piece from this remarkable concert.

thijs van leer – if you are out there – can we have an “offical” CD release of this concert please?  PLEASE?????????????