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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then there were four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to – wing beat fantastic – mike keneally (featuring the songs of andy partridge)

one of the most-anticipated albums of the year among fans of both keneally and xtc (and their ace songwriter, andy partridge), “wing beat fantastic” does not, in any way, disappoint.

 

this is the first batch of “new” andy partridge songs we’ve heard in a long, long time, even if they are delivered by collaborator and mega fan mike keneally, rather than partridge himself – who declined to perform on the record (even though some of his samples did survive the process), wanting instead to ensure that it is viewed as a keneally solo album.

the story of how this record came to be is well documented elsewhere, how whilst keneally was in frank zappa’s band, their bassist, scott thunes, had the audacity to invite partridge to a zappa concert in the uk – and much to their surprise, he actually turned up – and both a friendship and a writing partnership was born.  there were two discrete sessions where the two actually sat down and worked on these songs, but it was left to keneally alone to create “wing beat fantastic”.

it seems to me that this must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in the world, similar to a scenario where lennon and mccartney said “here, take these songs, we can’t be bothered to record them – YOU DO IT” – and keneally not only rises to the challenge…he hits the ball out of the park.

first of all, it’s clear to me that keneally is not just familiar with xtc’s style, but that he must have studied it in minute detail, or else this record would not sound the way it does – as if it were the next XTC album.  and that is exactly what it sounds like, and at some moments, when the vocal harmonies are particularly sweet, you can close your eyes and EASILY forget that this is mike keneally, because what your ears hear, especially on a tune like “you kill me” – is pure andy partridge.

as with all zappa band alumni (such as steve vai, adrian belew, etc.) keneally has more than excellent chops on guitar, meaning that he has the skill to sound like a dead ringer for the very capable partridge OR xtc’s other (former) guitarist, dave gregory. But the real surprise here are the absolutely amazing vocal arrangements, and sheer beauty that keneally manages – that study paid off – and ALL of the trademark xtc vocal tricks are here, revolving vocals, beach-boys-like harmonies, delicate, beautiful solo vocals – we knew that keneally could sing, but we never knew he could sing like THIS.

so – partridge picked the right person, the exactly perfect person, to work up these demos into proper songs.  and what a batch of songs they are!

keneally has wisely interspersed the partridge songs with some tunes of his own, and I have to say, some of those are so beautiful that they easily rival the songs co-written with partridge, and they fit in perfectly.  the opening track, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part one” clocks in at exactly one minute, a keneally tune rather than a keneally/partridge, but it’s one minute of incredibly melodic, beautiful guitar music – including amazing slide guitar reminiscent of the master – george harrison.  so my first feeling for the first song, was that it was very harrison-like – a great way to start, and certainly a good indication of what was to come…

I’ve been a fan of mike keneally’s music for a long time, beginning way back when with his groundbreaking “hat” cd (“thank you for buying hat”…) which is utterly unlike “wing beat fantastic” – it’s more like a zappa album, lots of impossible guitar, funny vocals – but, with the occasional moment of sheer beauty.  those occasional moments have now, in this new album, been transformed into an ENTIRE ALBUM of sheer beauty.  I kid you not, this album is a completely atypical album for keneally, but oh my god, I wish he’d done this before, and I hope he does it again – perhaps with an entire album of his OWN pop masterpieces.

and when that first guitar solo comes in on the second track on the album, the gorgeous “I’m raining here, inside” – well, that’s it, it’s absolutely perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s seamless, flawless – and so very like the very best andy partridge or dave gregory guitar solo imaginable – it’s cut from the same cloth – just as the vocals are, even the bass and drum parts remind me of xtc – every song on this record sounds like an xtc song, or occasionally, a george harrison song or a beach boys song – hey, wait a minute, that’s just like you would get on an xtc album.

I do imagine though, that mike and his crew would have studied existing xtc album’s, because the production values, the use of phasers and flangers, the song arrangements, the guitar solos, the vocal harmonies – it just SCREAMS “xtc” – the title track, the third track, is a perfect example of this, it’s so much like xtc it’s not funny, acoustic guitars chiming, passionate, layered vocals, harmonies to die for, great chord changes…it’s perfect, an imitation maybe, but actually, a beautiful creation in it’s own right – as if keneally were some sort of musical genetics engineer, taking the xtc “dna” and re-arranging it into new, cloned musical lifeforms – xtc through the mind of keneally.

and then another amazing guitar solo, this one jagged, clean, lovely – comes flying through the song, as the flanged vocals build and build, a lovely descending figure that you can’t get out of you brain, amazing “oohs” – then, a serene, heavenly bridge ending in a beautiful high note – and it’s over.

next comes track four, a 30 second reprise of the opener, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part two” – which is even more enigmatic and beautiful than the first version – just beautiful, mike.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to have these songs in hand, in demo form only, and then sit down in your leucadia studio and say “right, how are we going to do this then?” – and the answer is the result – the album “wing beat fantastic” – IS fantastic, totally fantastic…and the next song “you kill me”, track five, is just staggeringly beautiful – even just the introduction is so beautiful I can’t believe it, a great guitar riff, followed by chord changes that you don’t expect, that give you the shivers before the song proper has even begun.  a clean pair of lead guitars leads us into the vocal – and those vocals – I would ask AGAIN – who knew that mike keneally could sing THIS beautifully?

the harmonies are straight from every xtc album from “skylarking” onwards – really, really complex, really, really beautiful vocal arrangements – and from a distance, if you don’t dissect it too closely, you would NEVER KNOW it wasn’t andy partridge singing.  an almost zappa-like “linking riff” repeats irresistibly in between the choruses, a tiny reminder that this is a zappa band alumni – but the sound overall, is not zappa at all – it’s PURE xtc.

in fact, I played the record for my partner, who doesn’t really know the music of xtc that well, and she said “that guy sounds EXACTLY like the guy in xtc” – and I could not agree more.

this album is an unqualified success for keneally, and I think that this album will do well for him, even if it didn’t have the songs of andy partridge, it would do well, but having that extra kick – not to mention many, many xtc fans ravenous for “new” andy partridge fans (myself included – and just about everyone I know pre-ordered the CD).

track six, “friend of a friend” is a very short little linking piece, 0:49 of acoustic guitars that works beautifully as a lead in to the next track…in fact, it almost sounds like the introduction of track seven, rather than a piece in it’s own right – the two fit together so well.

the album now moves into some really wonderful uncharted musical territory, as exemplified by a song such as track seven, “that’s why I have no name” – a song that is so very strange, with a lot of unusual reverse sounds burbling in the background, and a lot of wonderful clean jazz and reverse guitar (that is probably forwards guitar played through a reverse guitar patch, using something like a line 6 dl-4 delay modeller set to “reverse guitar”) as well, a very strange chord progression, very odd, almost dirge-like vocal, the whole piece is very…minor key, almost jazzy – but again, even though UTTERLY different from the preceding pop masterpieces – even this very odd songs screams “I sound like xtc!” at the top of it’s musical lungs.

I was not surprised to realise that this is a keneally song, not one of the tracks co-written with partridge, and I think all of the “solo” keneally pieces fit in beautifully with the co-written ones – a beautiful job of integration.

a remarkable, ascending clean jazz guitar solo is as startling in it’s appearance as it is in it’s intelligence, and then, it suddenly mutates into a reverse guitar solo of extraordinary beauty – keneally uses every bit of skill he has, but any very strange or very dissonant elements that we might have got on a zappa-influenced record like “hat”, have been replaced with a melodic sensibility of almost uncanny proportions – this solo just TAKES FLIGHT, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the song, drifting waves of reverse guitars float over the top of a steadily building background, the clean guitar returns for a moment – and then we are back to the verse once again.

the end section features all of it: the jazzy guitar, volume pedal guitars, reverse guitars – and it’s just perfect – and it then STOPS on a dime. perfection, but – strange perfection.

then it gets weirder still, with the very odd vocal melody of “your house”, track eight, and it’s incredibly melancholic mood – but very quickly, you realise, this is sort of like the “chalkhills and children” of this album, an odd, unusual vocal melody, which then moves into really beautiful moments “drawn by some strange magnetic pull…” it’s so weird, that you can’t get it out of your head “I know this is crazy, cause after all, it’s only…your house”.

this song sounds resigned, final, triumphant, sad, uncertain “I walked slowly at first, tried not to break into a run…I knew that was your house at the end of the road…”.

I feel like I already knew all these songs, because in a way, I have heard them all before – in those last ten or twelve xtc albums – because keneally heard those records too (in fact, he was in the studio during the making of “oranges and lemons” which xtc recorded in los angeles – which is where the partridge-keneally partnership really began to blossom), and he knew EXACTLY how to inject the magic xtc dna into these songs – and he’s done it!

then we have track nine, “miracle man and woman”, which has the most remarkable vocals, a very, very unusual vocal arrangement – and this is the weird thing, it features a lot of really, really good acoustic guitars – which remind me of gentle giant, the vocals too, are almost gentle giant-like in places – until you get to the godley & creme “deep”/”creepy” backing vocal – beautiful synths (which might well be guitar synths) accompany a strangely equalised vocal section…what a wonderful musical construction!

the middle section of the song is some sort of synthesizer duet, with tinkling piano in the background – and then, here it comes, the kevin godley vocal “ahhhh” from heaven (remember the backing vocals on “I’m not in love” by 10cc?? – like that) – a wordless vocal accompaniment to the middle section – which resolves into a synth-backed acoustic guitar solo, that is SO gentle giant it isn’t funny – like an odd outtake from an early giant album like “acquiring the taste” or maybe “octopus” – and then that crazy, ominous godley & creme creepy vocal returns to end the song on a note of pure creepiness – brilliant!

next is “inglow”, track ten, and it’s very serious indeed, a slinky rhythm overlaid with carefully bendy guitar notes, then, a cheerful, clean, simple melodic solo – a beautiful introduction, resolving on a really wonderful chord – and then starting again, this time with multiple lead guitars, the acoustics gently swaying behind them – a magical instrumental, that makes me think of tropical islands and sunsets and evening closing in – a slowly fading in, mysterious, wordless vocal appears and disappears – the clean melodic lead guitars continue their beautiful journey – what a fantastically beautiful composition, I just find the mood and feeling in this piece to be remarkable – a lovely interlude indeed, and one of keneally’s most mature and respectable guitar compositions ever.

eventually, the vocals begin, and if the first half of the song can be attributed to the genius of mike keneally – then the second half, the vocal section – well, that’s pure andy partridge, but realised by keneally – so they are both brilliant.

track 11 is one of my favourites, “bobeau” – which is a snappy little number with a funky horn arrangement, and a very complex layered vocal arrangement – not to mention great guitars and basses from keneally – then, a fantastic, sing along chorus, with great piano and horn backing – sort of this album’s equivalent to something like “extrovert” from the xtc canon, that’s the only thing I can even imagine I can compare it to – then, a very, very weird vocal melody, backed by ocean sounds and wonderful ghostly background vocals – leads us, via a very odd bridge, towards the song’s remarkable conclusion – which is all about the guitar.

after the final verse, we get another chance to experience the incredibly mature skill of keneally as a lead guitarist, or actually, in this case, as a slide guitarist – for me, the last section of “bobeau” is a huge highlight, during the second chorus, you start to get some lead guitar bits – but then, it starts, a sinister bass and drums, with creeping horns, backs an amazing, slapback slide solo, which is either double tracked or remarkably delayed – but it’s a scorcher, and then keneally really starts to mix things up, with a heavily syncopated guitar riff that is sinister, killer and fucking brilliant.  I love it!

then suddenly, it stops, the ocean sounds and seagulls return for a moment…

“land”, track 12, the final track on this amazing album, is another keneally-only piece, which makes a great end piece for the record, and it contains one of my favourite lyrics on the entire record “you understand, finally that, you don’t understand…” which I think is…fantastic.  wing beat fantastic, maybe…

it seems to be cut from the same genome that the keneally-partridge co-writes are, almost as if it were inspired by the other songs, it has a bit of everything, including some really beautiful acoustic guitar – short and sweet, just over two minutes, but a perfectly constructed finale for one of the most important pop records – ever.

“wing beat fantastic” is a remarkable achievement, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, where a well known ex-zappa lead guitarist takes away a handful of andy partridge songs, and creates an album that is so xtc-like as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and that is clear praise, mike, you did an amazing job with this, you transformed these demos into a thing of real beauty, a succinct and very musical album that successfully captures the spirit of xtc beautifully, in a very respectful, and perfectionistic, way – every detail has been considered and reconsidered, the vocal arrangements, the vocal harmonies, are absolutely among some of the most beautiful I have ever heard on any album – and if keneally were now to switch hats permanently (no pun intended) and just make beautiful pop records, I would love every one of them.

I know that when andy partridge first heard the completed keneally project, he was absolutely overwhelmed by the result, in fact, literally moved to tears, and I understand why that is.  this is a gorgeous record, it would have fit seamlessly into the xtc catalogue anywhere between “skylarking” and “apple venus” (either part) and no one would have been the wiser – OK, you can tell it’s mike keneally singing, not andy partridge, but beyond that – the guitar work is top notch, the guitar solos are simply amazing, and the songs – wow, the writing, the lyrics, the tunes, the arrangements – it’s all good!

there is not a bad or even lesser tune on this record, keneally has done the impossible, he has almost “out-xtc’d” xtc themselves.  but it’s done so respectfully, so tastefully, it’s imitation as sheer flattery – but perfect imitation, glorious, beautiful, joyful music – music like the music that xtc themselves produce.

 

a pop masterpiece, not to be missed – genius.  “wing beat fantastic” truly is, fantastic.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.

 

what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!

what we’re listening to – neil young – archives vol. I

I hadn’t heard this for a long time, and I suddenly thought, oh, I really, really need to hear that right the way through.  my wife had surprised me with it, brought it home with her from glasgow, this extraordinary box full of the mysterious earliest history of someone who was, and still is, a huge influence on me – neil young.  like every kid, I had harvest, but then I started buying more of neil’s records, and over time, I ended up with quite a few – but I was never prepared for the mass of material presented in this exquisite first archive box.

so I started at disc 0 track 1, and I’ve been slowly moving through neil’s earliest years, and it’s such an amazing trip – right now, he’s playing lead guitar in an instrumental surf number “kahuna sunset” from buffalo springfield,  but at any given moment, you might find neil young almost anywhere – with an orchestra, behind a piano singing, with his acoustic guitar, singing early versions of “nowadays clancy can’t even sing” or rocking the lead guitar on the electric version of “mr. soul” from the underrated, under appreciated buffalo springfield.

the double lead guitar attack of stephen stills and neil young was unstoppable, and on “mr. soul” they trade solos just to prove it – with neil taking a strange, almost indian raga kind of solo at the end of the middle section – beautiful!

or you get something grand and orchestral like “expecting to fly” – so uncharacteristic, I think neil is channelling brian wilson on this number, the orchestration is very, very reminiscent of wilson’s “let’s go away for a while” – a tune that we know young favours, since it’s the closer on his “journey through the past” album. this piece is on such an epic scale, with it’s mournful mood and even more mournful vocal – but, this is and was miles beyond a boy from canada strumming his guitar, it’s neil using the studio and orchestra like a giant song dream machine, taking an ordinary song and re-imagining it in an incredible way, I love the strings in “expecting to fly” and if neil is channelling brian wilson, I don’t care – that’s a GOOD thing in this case.

another very interesting piece from this time is the very oddly constructed “broken arrow” – a great song, broken up with circus organs and other silly things – but a really nice tune, with a little waltz bit in it – it’s genius. “did you see him….? ….did you see him in the river, he was there to wave to you, could you tell that the empty quiver, brown-skinned indian on the banks that were crowded and narrow – held a broken arrow?”

it’s a weird, weird pastiche of sound effects, strange interludes, it’s very weird, but it does keep returning to the beautiful waltz time section with neil’s plaintive vocal just cutting across all the strangeness – determined to tell the story in between the madness – next strange section – some clarinet jazz with piano…making no sense with the rest of the song – but, great piano solo…and then it just fades away – the end – but not, then, it’s an amplified heartbeat – and that is the end!  what a weird song!  but I love it.

of course, there are lots of “normal” songs like the lovely, naïve, “I am a child” – a really, really beautiful piece of music, gentle, beautiful vocal, wonderful lyrics, nice shuffling beat – classic neil young, and when I think of neil, it’s often “I am a child” that comes to mind – anything from his first album, like “I’ve been waiting for you” – things like that.

then you also get wonderful things like “previously burning” – more instrumental guitar music, but with a full orchestra – probably the same orchestra that’s on “expecting to fly” – but this lovely piece is really just a guitar backing for an unfinished song I’d say.  really nice mood, doesn’t sound unfinished – just sitting there waiting for a lyric that never arrived.

it’s quite a wild ride, but what it is constant, is that voice – and the songs – and that amazing lead guitar style.  I used to say that north America only really produced two truly great guitarists: frank zappa and neil young!  each has an idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable sound, and both are really amazing players – who both grew enormously as musicians during the late 60s and early 70s – to the point where no one could touch them.

my two favourite american (I know, neil is canadian – it’s in north america already!) guitarists then, zappa and neil young – and I listened to them both a lot, and learned a lot from both as well…probably more from neil, since when I was a young guitarist, learning zappa was a bit beyond what I was capable of.  later, I did learn a few zappa tunes, but neil young – he was easy to imitate.

I always enjoyed neil’s playing more than his greatly lauded partner/companion/friend/competitor? stephen stills.  stills is a great guitarist – I know, because I’ve seen him live – but for my money, neil is the more interesting guitarist, and, the most consistently good lead player in the buffalo springfield and in CSNY – for me, it was always neil young. you always knew when neil took a solo!

disc 1 starts with a very odd, acoustic guitar filled version of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is just so, so cool.  a very different arrangement to the version we know and love on the album, but I love it when artists do this – they have two or more completely different versions, and somehow, they pick one to put one there album.  this on has something like a flugelhorn solo in the middle of it, and synthesizers where the background vocals should be – it’s totally bizarre, but really wonderful.

and then we get to the songs from the first solo neil young album, starting with a song that hits me so, so hard, “the loner” – the attack of the guitars, the beautiful, whammied lead guitars – the perfect Hammond organs and then those guitars that I believe have been run through the organ’s leslie speaker – creating an amazing sound.

but the song itself “know when you see him, nothing can free him – step aside, open wide…it’s the loner…” and then you get the gentle little acoustic guitar melody with beautiful strings accompaniment – then back to the very, very hard verses with all their beautiful guitars, guitars upon guitars, with the strings in the left channel only, acoustic guitar in the right – that lovely 60s complete separation – fantastic.  I could listen to “the loner” all day long..

archives is so full of surprises, such amazing alternative versions of songs that are very familiar – for example, there is a very different version of the song “birds” – which ended up on the “after the goldrush” album many years later, but this early version is charming, simple and very, very beautiful.

another odd thing is neil’s voice – it’s not that wonky! It’s pretty normal on a lot of the songs, serious, no dramatics, he just sings the songs in a really beautiful way – no effects, just neil.

even that strangest of neil young songs, “last trip to tulsa” is enjoyable, it’s a stoner’s dream – a long, long story about chopping down a palm tree – what’s not to like?

then we return to electric music, and the sublime, beautiful, flanged, slow-panning slow motion thick as molasses guitar solo in the centre of “I’ve been waiting for you” – which is such a beautiful song anyway – my one complaint about the song – it’s not nearly long enough – fantastic leslie guitars along with buzzing lead guitars start us out, a chorused electric guitar accompanies neil’s beautiful vocal, bass and piano support perfectly – drums build tension to that beautiful chorus…”I’ve been waiting for you…and you’ve been coming to me….for such a long time now…” and then that SOLO, that amazing solo that wanders slowly from left to right and back several times as it flies through your brain…I love this song!!!

the stereo lead guitars during the fade out are just so urgent, full of life, warped and crying out “such a long time now” just as much as his voice is…beautiful.

maybe his best early work.

then the very serious songs, that are almost awkward in their seriousness – “the old laughing lady” being a case in point – nothing funny about this song; you need to be in a serious listening mood if you are to “get” this number – it’s serious!  another lovely orchestration though, lovely, lovely strings.

a song like “here we are in the years” is so pastoral, so normal, just wonderful in it’s innocence…the slow beauty of the country, how the stupid city slickers can’t relate to the slower pace of life in the country – a fantastic little piece of music…a synthesizer appears to play a few notes, then back to neil’s story, complete with beautiful strings, harmonies and chiming guitars…I love this song, it’s just so full of hope and sorrow and acceptance…here we are, in the years…and then it just fades away as if it isn’t done, but it needs to go…

“I’ve loved her for so long” – an amazing, high pitch vocal, and an orchestra from heaven, then a strange gospel choir appears, but neil’s vocal is so good that it doesn’t really bother me – when he sings in this register, it’s just unbelievable – really lovely.  A really weird arrangement, bass, drums, electric piano – and then the screaming choir in one speaker, the massed strings in the other…it’s just strange – but cool.

archives vol. 1 contains so much amazing material that I would have to write a novel to even describe it approximately, so I am literally picking a few highlights to try and describe – and the one I am listening to now is just astonishing, a previously unreleased live version of “broken arrow” – just neil and his guitar, and it’s an absolute revelation – this is the song, stripped of it’s odd orchestrations and overdubs, and in this simple, unadorned form, with a beautiful, melodic vocal, you get the true essence of “broken arrow” – it’s just astonishing, I’ve always loved this song, but this version, to my mind, is actually superior to the released buffalo springfield version, because the vocal is better, and despite the fact that I love all the weird overdubs on the studio version, it’s this one that I cherish – the surreal, acid-like lyrics, but it’s just the simplicity of the arrangement, straight chords, pure vocal – it’s really a thing of beauty.

the same set of live tracks, “live at the riverboat 1969”, from disc 2, contains other “solo” versions of songs that we know well from the Springfield catalogue, including a similar revelatory version of “expecting to fly” – another one that works far better with the orchestras and overdubs removed – I guess this means I like my neil young without overdubs, just the songs – and it’s the songs that really are so, so powerful “if I ever lived without you, now you know I died – if I ever say I loved you, now you know I tried – babe…now you know I tried…babe…now you know I tried”.

disc 3 propels us into a stark and amazing future, the carefully harmonised, beautifully arranged studio version of “cinnamon girl” is a far cry from neil and his guitar at the riverboat – a man, and a band, transformed, in just a year’s time – a mutation as startling as the beatles evolving from the dylanesque bits of “rubber soul” straight into the full-tilt psychedelic aspects of “revolver” – neil was undergoing a very, very similar transformation – picking up crazy horse as his band, an incredibly shrewd move, and then there is that heavy, heavy guitar solo at the end of cinnamon girl – which I can remember at the time really surprised us, the song was over – but the song wasn’t over, until neil had a little fling with his guitar…

so this third disc is more about crazy horse, and neil as band leader, and it includes songs from “everybody knows this is nowhere” and “after the goldrush” – so some of the most familiar of neil young material, but when I compare this in my mind to the material on the first two discs – the distance that neil young travelled musically, from say, 1968 to 1970 – is indeed comparable only to something like the transformation the beatles underwent.

a brilliant short version of “birds” by crazy horse is followed by “everybody’s alone” with a great vocal, and here comes that neil young guitar tone, the whammied, distorted guitar that we would come to know and love – sweet chord progressions, a totally earnest vocal, but when he takes one of those solos, you just stop, it’s so, so pure, so raw, a great guitar sound, and a sound that I never tire of…

disc 3 also includes one of my favourite neil young songs, performed by crosby, stills, nash & young – featuring Stephen stills on lead guitar, with neil on organ – and singing harmony with graham nash, close harmony – brilliant harmony – I love everything about this tune – “all I need is your sweet, sweet lovin…fill my life with happiness, all I want is your heart – everytime I think of you – mine falls apart” – this track was originally on the woodstock sound track, but I feel it never got it’s due – it’s a cracking little number.

another forgotten masterpiece, “country girl” by crosby, stills, nash & young is included here, and it’s a very formal arrangement, with the four-part vocal harmony to the fore – but despite being slightly over-produced, it’s still a very, very beautiful song – a very powerful song I think – I’ve always loved it “no time to stay the same…too young to leave…” – more neil young lyrical magic “find out that now was the answer to answers that you, gave later – she did the things that we both did before now, but who – forgave her?”.

a surprisingly heavy guitar ominously appears in the last section, playing single low notes on top of the chords…and then suddenly that positive, beautiful chorus “country girl, I think you’re pretty…” with neil’s voice now suddenly to the fore – a great revolving coda with, bizarrely, a reverb-drenched harmonica solo! of all things playing the chorus out…perfection.

the end section of disc 3 features the somewhat rough but very wonderful live at the fillmore east – crazy horse live – including the title track of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is a huge highlight for me, love the song, love the fantastic whitten & young lead guitars – they both rock “gotta get away from this day-to-day runnin’ around – everybody knows this is nowhere” – crazy horse are just perfection here, they just play the song – the spark comes from young’s lead vocal and lead guitar – as always, he’s chosen the perfect foil the perfect instrument – to play his songs.  crazy horse never overplay, they never get in the way – they just PLAY.  It’s rock and roll perfection if you ask me, the bass and drums support the rhythm and lead guitars – that’s how a four piece rock band SHOULD work – and despite being top-heavy with the very talented neil young on lead vocals and lead guitar, that formula still operates beautifully – I love this band, live or studio – either way.

this also includes “winterlong” – a tune from this time that never ended up on a studio album, so having it here is nice – it was part of the live show, and the vocal harmonies are fabulous for live and for the time – it’s pretty cool! but for my money – of course – it’s the renditions of the songs we know – including not only “everybody knows…” but also, “down by the river” and “cowgirl in the sand” – with their lovely guitar workouts, when we first heard that “I’ll just play one note over and over again” neil young lead guitar style – and it’s fantastic, in a way, neil young is really an incredibly innovative guitarist – he plays like no one else, he has an utterly distinctive, instantly recognisable sound – as much the “neil young sound” as frank zappa is “the frank zappa guitar sound” – you just know it, and it was during this period that young really started to push his own boundaries, and only he could make playing one note, over and over and over, sound really, really good!  it works…and it’s refreshingly different to the way most guitarists play lead guitar.

I am the first to admit that overall, I prefer british and european guitarists to american guitarists – but there are three american guitarists that I really, really admire (yes, I know he’s Canadian, I mean north American guitarists, of course!): neil young, frank zappa, and todd rundgren.
zappa was utterly unique, and outside almost any conversation involving normal music and normal songs, and of course, both rundgren and young were huge anglophiles, with a well known love of british music – so maybe that’s why I like them, because they were trying to BE british!

disc 3 continues with the lovely songs from “after the goldrush” notable for the strange concept of a young guitarist named nils lofgren being drafted into the band – and then being told to play the piano – an instrument he barely knew – but neil young knew, he knew that this would work – and my god, does it ever work.  the title track, with it’s prominent, blocky piano chords – is so instantly recognisable, so “just right” for the song – and what a song, that sci-fi, dream lyric, the incredibly high pitched lead vocal – I will always love that song.

another huge favourite song of mine is here, “only love can break your heart”, with it’s heart-stopping vocal harmonies on the chorus – I always felt this should have been a huge, huge hit for neil young, kinda like his version of todd rundgren – pop perfection, like “hello it’s me” or “I saw the light” – but it was destined to remain just another brilliant album track from the very, very popular and successful “goldrush” album.

a tour of the songs of this time has to end up with the amazing, immutable “southern man” – another work of guitar genius, this is so intense, and really fun to play – I used to jam on this for ages, I remember one gig where I was a stand-in lead guitarist, and we didn’t know any songs – so I taught the band “southern man”, and we then played it for 25 minutes – that amazing progression from D minor to Bb to G – great to solo over, and on the record neil plays an incredibly fast and spastic solo that is pure genius – of course, live, csny used to jam out on this one too, but whatever the version – “southern man” is a song of genius, with a great lyric, a beautiful, incredibly beautiful vocal harmony – and then – THOSE GUITARS!  This rocks.

“lillie belle your hair is golden brown, I’ve seen your black man, coming round – swear by god I’m gonna, cut him down – I heard screaming, and bullwhips cracking, how long – how long?” – that is just intense, the imagery, and the fierceness of young’s lead vocal takes you by surprise – he is singing with a passion heretofore unheard of – and it’s amazing to behold.

“when will you pay them back?” – probably never, I am afraid.

and then – another pop masterpiece, another should have been a rundgren-style number one: “when you dance, I can really love” – my god, I just love this, harmonies on the verses are brilliant, distorted guitars throughout – but that lovely, harmonised vocal is such a shining, beautiful thing – then, some great chiming lead guitars, and then back to more of the most beautiful vocals on the planet – “I can love, I can really love, I can really love…”.  an insistent piano, an ominous bass and guitar chordal pattern near the end – and then it fades away as quickly as it first appeared.

“when you dance…I can really love” – a simple message, with awesome guitar breaks between each verse – what a cracking tune.  another totally under-appreciated pop masterpiece – at this point in his career, neil could really do no wrong.

now – things turn political, things get very serious – but to neil young, watching soldiers gun down innocent students at kent state was just too fecking much – so we have the really frightening “ohio” – “soldiers are cutting us down…” a shivering testament to a horrific incident – peaceful protesters, shot down for no reason “what if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground”.

apparently, this was written very, very quickly – and was released just days after the incident, young was so incensed, so angry that such a thing could happen, that he really wanted to point the finger – and he does – at richard nixon, at the senseless death of innocents – heavy, heavy stuff – but you know what, I am not normally a fan of mixing politics and music, but in this case, it actually works in an incredible, shivering way – “why? why? how many more?”… an impassioned david crosby can be heard, seriously lamenting, meaning every word…during the outro of this incredibly powerful song.

a live version of “only love can break your heart” with crosby and nash comes out just beautiful, acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony – shivers – this is just so, so beautiful, and a great reading of a great song – I absolutely melt when I hear this incredibly beautiful vocal arrangement – these three voices just work – and the song…”what if your world should fall apart?”…it doesn’t get better than this, this is real music – it’s just the song, with neil’s heartbreaking lead vocal prominent, but the exquisite harmonies of crosby and nash make this into a sublime, remarkable musical happening – they really get it, and the whole effect is just stunning – what a thing to witness or to be a part of…sigh.

similarly, a live version of “tell me why” again with crosby and nash – just works so, so well, these two tracks almost put the “official” album versions to shame – especially in the vocal department, where, amazingly, the live vocals are better and more inspiring than the studio ones…excellent!  this song never knocked me out on the album, but hearing this live version totally changes my opinion of the song – it’s brilliant – but, it has to be THIS live version…no other!

speaking of david crosby – you also get the strange live rave-up/mess that is “music is love” – a song from one of crosby’s solo album, that heavily features neil young – and despite the stoned hippie approach to the performance, it’s still kinda cool – although ultimately, this song is more about crosby than young – I quite like it, it’s like a messy, stoned raga – “everybody’s saying that music is love” – a bit obvious.  a strange but essential addition to this disc…

then we move back to something of such delicate, transcendent beauty – a very underrated but very beautiful song – one of my all time favourites of neil’s – done solo at the piano, live – “see the sky about to rain” – this is one that you just have to hear to believe, such a lovely melody, just an incredibly pleasant, wistful, almost mournful song.

as disc 3 comes to a close, we get “on the way home – live” – and from the applause at the beginning of the track, it really hits you what a huge, huge star neil young had become – and here he is, just a few years on from the buffalo Springfield years – playing one of their songs on acoustic in front of a huge audience.

I am sure that part of him could not believe it was really happening, the huge success of csny took all four of it’s members by surprise, and they didn’t deal well with it.  I think of the four of them, neil weathered the strange storm of adulation and nonsense that is being a part of the record industry programme – they had become huge stars at this point, the audiences were huge, and with it, came all the responsibilities and problems of anything that grows far too big far too fast – I think that really, neil kept his head pretty well, all things considered – he just kept doing what he did best, playing that acoustic guitar and singing.

this section is live from massey hall, so neil’s on home territory here, playing in Canada – and as well as “on the way home” he plays “new” songs, and in this case, one of those, “old man”  is presented, and neil’s awe of the song’s subject, the ranch foreman of his ranch, is clear – he respects the man’s knowledge – and how odd is that – writing a song about a guy that works for you, a 70 year old man – and comparing your 24 year old self to him.

the whole thing must have been quite, quite surreal – 24 years old “live alone in a paradise, that makes me think of two…” – having so much money that he could just buy a huge ranch in california “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you…” – I think writing about something real, helped to keep neil grounded – and “old man” is a brilliant piece of music, very deserving of praise – one of many great, great tunes from the very popular harvest album – which was brand new at this point in time.

to be so hugely successful at age 24, but to still be able to write clear, concise, meaningful songs about very real things – the level-headed neil young sticks to the programme – keep it real.

beautiful – and this live version just sparkles – and gets such a respectful, wonderful hand of applause – sensational.

a live version of “helpless” gets a great reception, because of course, it mentions canada, which, of course, makes the canadian audience at massey hall respond like mad – but it’s a lovely song, even without the trademark csny harmonies – it’s a beautiful song.  somewhere, I have an amazing cover of this song done by yukihiro takahashi and bill nelson – it’s absolutely fantastic – they trade vocals, each taking a verse – wow! a great cover of a great, great song.

a long rambling story about an imaginary neil young movie prefaces a rare live showing of one of the most heartbreaking of all of neil young’s songs, the beautiful, exquisite “a man needs a maid” – a tale of loneliness, sadness, and real heartbreak – on the harvest album, with a fantastic orchestral score – but here – just neil and his piano…and the lyrics are not all there yet, because he sings “a man feels afraid” – instead of the final version “a man needs a maid” on the album.

“when will I see you again” he asks plaintively, as this very, very sad tale unfolds – “a maid…a man needs a maid” – [crashing imaginary orchestra] – but on the piano, stark, naked – it’s even better for all the vulnerability that’s on show – then, it segues effortless into a piano version of “heart of gold” – that’s one odd medley!

“cowgirl in the sand” on solo acoustic is just as beautiful as “cowgirl in the sand” live with the raucous but wonderful crazy horse – I love it either way, and here, he pulls these amazing guitar notes on the acoustic – this one note, he keeps playing, in the middle of strumming – this note keeps appearing – it’s just fantastic, a hint of what the electric version holds.

one great thing about archives, is that you do get to hear truly alternative versions of songs, sometimes, you get the same song in three or four completely different guises – and that is fantastic in the case of neil young, the different versions are rarely similar, in fact, usually they are totally different, and often, surprisingly so – I love hearing the “what ifs…” and neil is a master of this, reinventing song with completely different instrumentation and arrangements – and that is brilliant in itself, but it also shows just how good the songs are – because in most cases, they easily can withstand the varying treatments – they are, quite simply, really, really good songs – and they sound great in solo acoustic settings, band settings, pump organ versions – you name it – it all works.

two of the sets in archives vol. one were also released separately – the live crazy horse set, and the live at massey hall concert, but they are essential to this set, and coupled with the rest of the amazing material on offer here – this is one of the best introductions to the genius of neil young, early period, that you could ever want.

“don’t let it bring you down – it’s only castles burning…”