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 🙂

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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. 🙂