The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

Most of the musicians I know, share with me, a general sense of … horror is really the only word that suits, although it’s not exactly the right word…at the memory of the music of the 1980s – which included but was not limited to – everything bad about the emerging synthesizer, synths badly played and not sounding very good at all – and all of the other early musical crimes of the early and middle 80s.
synthpop

A lot of bad, bad music was made in the name of quickly producing a hit MTV Video – trying to cash in on the video craze – and things were decidedly NOT about the music, as they definitely HAD been in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

I try not to remember some – or even most – of those songs and bands, and when I hear them – they make me uncomfortable at best, and downright unable to listen in others – they are just not the best songs nor are they, for me, the best musical memories – those will always belong to the late 60s / early 70s when Prog ruled the land – and I looked out at the 70s Music Scene – my own “70s Scenario” – and saw that it was good.
poison

Meanwhile, over on the hard rock scene, another disturbing trend was emerging, again, fuelled by MTV videos – albeit part of a different demographic – one populated mainly by teenage boys – within that demographic “MTV Video enthusiasts” –  and with a clear desire to cash in on the video craze – Hair Metal (later known as “Glam Metal” – fair enough) had arrived, and it looked like it was trying to stay (thankfully – it did not) – or at least – it did not stay for long.

Bands that I literally could not understand the appeal of, whose music was made so cheaply and nastily (and that was, unfortunately, reflected in the SOUND of that music, too!), just so another air-brushed group of four hooligans with MASSIVE HAIR could make a few million dollars at our expense – and the punishment for us, was having not only to hear this vapid form of “metal”, but to SEE these ridiculous “hair” bands, who were all clearly about the size and curliness of their perm, and definitely NOT all about their skill as writers or musicians – let’s face it, a lot of those bands – could not write a song to save their life, and their musicianship ranged from barely adequate to definitely sub-par.

With the emergence of a whole new breed of Hair Metal bands on the one hand, and the pop / synth / Revolution Of The Synthesizer that was coming to our TV screens and to our ears mostly from Great Britain – there was a lot to answer for “musically” during the 1980s.   Across the pond (where I live now) in this Synth Revolution – a similar and parallel activity was apparent – pop songs written just so a synth or synths could be used in the video, but which probably had no other good reason for existing.

Back in the 1970s (which suddenly looked pretty darn good to me) synths were used in the arena of Progressive Rock, but they were wielded by men and women of skill and talent, and used on songs that were finely crafted and worked on for often, many weeks or even months – until perfected.  Music created for the sake of music, of pure musicianship made by real artists – craftsmen – people who had studied their instruments and knew how to use them – finely crafted songs, that were challenging and often quite difficult to perform – but rewarding in every sense – there is nothing on earth quite as satisfying as a musical composition that works on every level – including, exciting to perform and hear, in live performance.  I missed that, especially within the recorded music of the 80s, I didn’t at first, feel there was much around of any real quality.

I got the feeling that with the whole Synth Pop Revolution (which, while it did have it’s roots in the late 1970s, to my mind, is mostly, a 1980s phenomenon) coming from Britain and the Hair Band revolution emerging from LA – that they would have spent just a few days on each piece, and no more – clock is ticking, time is money – and meanwhile, again mostly in LA “…and I have to go and get a new perm, so please let’s wrap this up”.  I can just about picture any session by one of these bands – where a lot of time is spent pouting into mirrors, and gazing adoringly at your own magnificent curly blond locks – or whatever it was.

But – as the 1980s wore on – there was a quiet musical revolution going on in the background.  It didn’t belong to any one group or any particular type of group, but rather, was a combination of a number of interesting events and occurrences in the 1980s, that were probably not brought to the fore in the news coverage (or, the MTV News Coverage) of the day.  This was not, however – a revolution of recorded music – but instead – of live performance.

I am thinking in particular of two cases or scenarios – or “types” if you wish – one, where established artists who had worked very hard in the 1970s or even 1960s, to establish themselves and their musical credentials – some of these artists, after being vilified and ridiculed by the punk movement – waited out the last few dismal years of the 1970s (as progressive rock was nearly wiped from the map by first, punk, in Britain, and then New Wave in the U.S) waiting for an opportune moment to put their head above the parapet to find out if they were still as resoundly resented as they had been…

But I think that those established artists, whether ordinary rock artists or progressive rock “musos”, it didn’t matter, they were all realising that they could not only survive in the unfriendly 1980s – but in some cases, in many instances – they could thrive.  In particular – on the live concert circuit.  And live performance is exactly what that first of two groups of musicians I am thinking of has in common with the second group – new emerging bands, who, while their music may have been “born” in a calendar year that indicated that it was in fact, still the 1980s – while that was undeniable, what was also very apparent, was that there was a kind of “backlash” – there was a hankering for the recently-departed 1960s and 1970s.

Some bands were not afraid to boldly embark on brand new careers, in the 1980s, playing music that on paper, did not and would not “work” in the wonderful “look ma I’ve got a synthesizer” world of MTV, or “look ma, I got me a perm and now the Record Company has given us a $500,000.00 advance on our album” heady days of the early Eighties – that was still going on, although perhaps to a lesser degree in the latter half of the 1980s – but at the same time, my two Secret Musical Forces – were also at work, working hard to bring out music of quality in the Decade That Quality Forgot.

And to their credit, they did it.  What tipped me off to it, was a strange but undeniable fact – OK, I had been fortunate enough to have seven years in the 1970s, when I was witness to some of the most amazing live music ever performed anywhere at any time in history – I was lucky enough to be alive and be old enough, to attend shows by now-legendary Progressive Rock and Rock acts – and there will never be a time like the 1970s again.  What I had noticed – was that, the quality and availability of good live music, seemed to be on the rise in the 1980s – NOT declining as you might have thought.

Punk gave us the good shake up we needed (in hindsight, that is undeniable), and as much as I resented the damage that punk and to a lesser degree, New Wave, did to Prog – I needn’t have worried, because not only was Prog alive and well in the 1980s, but there was also an entire parallel music scene, that you could choose to attend, so for every Eurhythmics show that I didn’t attend, there was a show built on the basis of quality music – whether that be Prog Bands from the 1970s, or other 70s act, adapting, surviving and even flourishing, during the musically-depressing 1980s.

 

splitenz

I could, in the space of a few weeks, attend shows by Crowded House (the remnants of New Zealand progressive rock heroes “Split Enz”) – who I also happened to see play live in 1981 – one of the first shows I attended in the 1980s – and in a way, you could not really get more prog than that in 1981…

 

marillion

 

…despite the band making a very poppy record – 1980’s “True Colours” – they had a still-beating prog heart – and their natural successor, Crowded House, who later went on to even more dizzying heights of success – but – as a pop band – not a prog band – or – stalwart live performers like ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson; or new bands like Marillion, whose music sounded like it was straight out of 1974 – and yet – strangely – it was 1985 – now that was a surprise!

A diverse and exciting mix of live performers then – all out touring, all bringing in large audiences, all being quietly successful while MTV continued to trumpet the “news” that the world was now ruled by Synthesizers, and informing us that “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” (or whatever it’s called) was a really, really good song (it isn’t).

enobrian70s

Brian Eno himself, the once-flamboyant feather-adorned synthesizer-player of the legendary art-rock outfit Roxy Music, stated that punk was “a breath of fresh air” and over time, while at first unsure – I did come to totally agree with that sentiment.  Prog was in need of a shake up – but the media portrayed it more like a death in the family, so for a couple of very depressing years – we were left with an apparent void, which was being filled by the practitioners of punk and new wave from say, 1978-1980.

 

But – once the air had been cleared, there was no reason in the world for the rock or prog bands that had been swept up in the Great Cleansing – to lay down their instruments and quit – and in fact – most of them did not give up – they may have taken time off during a period in which it might have been difficult to fare well, but…

…eventually – sometimes sooner, sometimes, much, much later – they would in fact, return – and, join a growing number of newly emerging 80s artists who were neither Synth-playing robots nor Hair Metallists – but in fact, were just playing different kinds of rock music – from an only slightly-disguised version of progressive rock (Marillion channelling early Genesis) to a band like Crowded House, who took their prog Split-Enz roots (see what I did there!) and mutated into one of the finest pop bands the world has ever known.

For me – I was even fortunate enough to see one example of these two “groups” of mine – the two Secret Warriors Of Quality Music – on the same bill at the same show – as I was fortunate enough one year, during the 80s, to see Crowded House playing – with the great Richard Thompson as “support act” (!!).  On paper – that just seemed all wrong to me – but as a concert – it was actually brilliant – Thompson is a guitarist extraordinaire, a consummate master, and to have someone of his skill and experience opening for the less-experienced but really, no less talented Finn Brothers (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame) was strange but wonderful – and actually, an inspired idea.

thompsonrichard

Even more remarkable was the fact that during Crowded House’s set, Richard Thompson came out with his guitar to play on one of their songs – so here we had a standard-bearer from the long-ago 1960s, an ex-member and founding member of the great Fairport Convention – on stage with a bunch of musical upstarts from New Zealand.

 

 

I got a genuine laugh at the time, from hearing young Neil Finn taunting Thompson verbally, calling him a “guitar hero” and so on – it was hilarious.

crowdedhouseSome combinations of musicians, you think to yourself – “that could never happen” – and there I was, hearing Richard Thompson improvising a solo to “Italian Plastic” by Crowded House.  Very strange times indeed – but, at that moment – and during countless other 1980s concert moments – the quality of this live music – drove all thoughts of big hair and synth robots right out of my head – and I could live in the moment again, and experience quality live music again.

It was almost as if,  the 1960s and 1970s had just carried on without interruption. almost as if punk and new wave had never happened – and by the mid 1980s, I felt that the old bands were definitely on the way back “in” (I mean, just look at the massive resurgence of interest and huge popularity of both Jethro Tull and of ZZ Top – two bands definitely of the previous decade – yet, in 1987, 1988 – enjoying an immense and very real popularity that required no hype from MTV to propel it) – if anything, these bands began to turn the tables on MTV, and by 1987 – you were far more likely to see an awesome video by ZZ Top or Jethro Tull, than you were to see the dread “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” video.

jethrotull

But what groups am I talking about here, in my two imagined groups?  Well, the easiest way for me to document that, is to turn first to my setlist.fm entries for the period of time, to get a sense of the shows I was attending – and once I have refreshed my failing memory there, I will be able to jot those down as I hope, valid examples of the two types:

Type Uno

– (Existing) Prog Rock or Rock bands and artists returning to music in the 1980s – at first, possibly more represented by concert appearances than by records, but by the end of the 1980s, they were producing smash hit albums that sold very, very well and were often award-winning and more popular than anything that we now consider to be “Classic 80s Rock” or “Classic 80s Dance” or whatever.  It was Jethro Tull, not Billy Idol or Gary Numan, scooping up awards for best album – and if that isn’t a shock result, I don’t know what is!

But what a brilliant result – I was very, very happy for Ian Anderson and co – to have survived punk, then, to have survived – and then, defeated the 1980s – that is testament to the commitment and vision of Ian Anderson – he managed, somehow, to keep Jethro Tull afloat through all that tribulation – and then, emerge successfully. at the end of their ordeal – with an award-winning hit record – I have to heartily congratulate him on that feat of persistent vision.  Brilliant work!

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

The great ZZ Top carved an equally impressive path through the myriad labyrinth of late 1980s music, and even did so with an only very-slightly updated sound – I remember seeing them in 1975, a raw, powerful blues band with real talent and skill – and here it was now, some 12, 13 years later, near the end of the 1980s – and they were back with…guess what – powerful, bluesy music – with several massive hit records included in their late-1980s successes.  Another brilliant success story almost exactly parallel to the story of Jethro Tull in the late 1980s.

But Jethro Tull and ZZ Top are highly visible, very popular groups – there were a surprising number of other bands in this category – and now I am referring to my setlist.fm listing for the 1980s – one of those bands, is the remarkable Queen.  1980 saw Queen produce an arguably very unique record in their canon, the much-overlooked “Jazz” album – and I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see them, very last-minute – and I am so, so glad that I did – again, it was in live performance where these rock and prog bands of the 1970s excelled, and Queen always put on an impressive performance.

maybrianBrian May to me, is one of the most interesting guitarists that Britain ever produced, with a very, very different and very, very unique guitar sound that no one else has ever really successfully replicated.  Queen built a whole new reputation during the 1980s – moving from the dramatic, prog-inspired heavy rock of their early and mid-70s albums, to much more sonically challenging records such as 1980s “Jazz” – and a host of other brilliant records – so again, very popular band in the 1970s – somehow managed to catapult themselves into massive popularity and success during the 1980s.

A First Time For Everyone

Split Enz – the precursor to the above mentioned Crowded House, Split Enz was New Zealand’s premiere progressive rock band in the 1970s, with a huge underground following and some of the most interesting and quirky music ever created in any country – by 1980, they had gradually been leaving the trappings of prog rock almost entirely behind, and by the time I saw them in in early 1981 – their “True Colours” album was riding high in the charts, a huge pop success thanks mostly to the tune “I Got You” – sung, incidentally, by Neil Finn, the future leader of Crowded House – rather than by Tim Finn – the actual (original) lead singer of Split Enz.  Well – one of two lead singers in the original band is perhaps, more accurate.

finnneilI will never forget being at that show, sitting there in the audience – I could clearly see the muscles in the then-very young Neil’s throat moving, moving as in a panic response – in pure fear, as he opened his mouth to sing this huge hit song – I believe this was the band’s first trip to America, and very possibly, their first show of the first tour of America – and the poor guy was scared half to death.  He needn’t have worried – the song, and the band, were received rapturously by the audience – I was absolutely blown away by the quality of musicianship (and, it was the first time I got to see the amazing Eddie Rayner on keyboards – the man is a genius) and seeing Split Enz – even in their later, “pop” persona – was a wonderful and utterly unforgettable experience – one of my favourite bands of all time.

(Note: Split Enz / Crowded House is the only band to appear in both the Type Uno and the Type Dos categories – because Split Enz was an existing Progressive Rock Band from the early 1970s, while Crowded House was a New, Emerging Band in the early 1980s that just happened to be made up of ex-members of Split Enz – so they get entered once – very early 1980s – as “Existing Prog band” and once again – early 1980s), as “New Emerging Pop band”.  A remarkable feat – being the only band that managed to straddle two very dissimilar groupings!).

zappafrankA man who needs no introduction, the late, great Frank Zappa – I honestly don’t think that any change in musical styles ever affected the forward velocity of this man – one of our greatest modern composers, and a genius at getting bands to play impossible music with impossible chops – there is nothing on earth like a Frank Zappa led and directed live performance.

I place him in the “existing Prog” category although Prog isn’t exactly the right way to describe the sheer genius of Zappa – I really think he remained unaffected by punk, unaffected by MTV – unless there was some aspect of it that he could manipulate to further his own aims – in which case – he would.  I think of all of the “existing artists” out there – that Frank just sailed through the 1960s. 70s and 80s without batting an eye – all just water flowing under a large musical bridge – while Frank was busy composing, arranging, or playing the most amazing lead guitar the planet has ever experienced – only Fripp and Hendrix are in the same league – and he could have taught those two a thing or two I feel certain lol.

So while I include FZ in this category – he was gloriously unaffected by the basic stupidities of (most) 1980s music.  Lucky guy, I would say.

This list of Existing Prog bands that came back in the 1980s (that is, if they were ever really “gone” in the first place) would not be complete without both the redoubtable and resilient Yes, who continued to make music in the 1980s, undergoing a radical musical transformation that I personally, in the main, do not enjoy (I was left cold by the Drama album and tour – a 70s-meets-80s experiment that in my opinion, simply did not work) but I have to acknowledge, it gave them a new lease on life that carried them far into the future, while Genesis, the Hardest Working Band In Prog (maybe) were being led by their undeniably charismatic “new” lead singer, one “Phil Collins” – and the success that Collins and co enjoyed during this decade where Prog was NOT King – is undeniable – and must have been so, so galling to the various departed members of the band who had only been with the band during the years of debt – among those, being original lead singer Peter Gabriel and renowned but long departed original guitarist Ant Phillips.

Gabriel is another one on this list, who fits right into this category very comfortably – an ex-progressive rock lead vocalist, revered for his seminal early and mid-70s progressive output on classic Genesis albums such as “Selling England By The Pound” and “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” – leaving Genesis at the height of their then-success in early 1975 to pursue a solo career.  Said career definitely took some interesting musical twists and turns, sometimes veering sharply away from prog (the first “Peter Gabriel” album for example), other times, returning to embrace it once again (the second, Robert Fripp-produced, “Peter Gabriel” album) – but, by the time of the 1980s – Gabriel‘s solo career was in full swing.

gabrielpeter

He became a star in his own right, without  Genesis, and was extremely popular with prog rock fans plus a whole new generation of fans that came to his music first, through his now-famous series of eponymously-titled albums – the first three (or four – see below) albums all being entitled “Peter Gabriel” – the fourth, finally getting an “actual” title – “Security” – although according to Wiki – it’s actually called…”Peter Gabriel”.  So there are four – not three !

Note: the fact that the first four Peter Gabriel albums had no title beyond “Peter Gabriel” (with the exception of the final one, which was ‘sometimes also known as “Security” ‘), was apparently really just too difficult for some people to understand or relate to – so interestingly, to make it easier for those who found this concept (which was Gabriel‘s idea – he wanted it to be like a newspaper – the same paper, with the same headline – but coming out at different times with different stories in them) too difficult – so people invented “names” for the albums based solely on the cover art – so strangely, many people “know” these three classic records as “Car” (Peter Gabriel I”)“Scratches” (Peter Gabriel II) and “Face” or “Melting Face” (Peter Gabriel 3).   For the fourth – well, it somehow acquired the “name” “Security”.

Personally – I like the original titles and the idea of it having the same title every time – that was unique – but – apparently this was too much of a stretch for some possibly less-pliant minds – so they invented these somewhat lame cover-art related “names” – for three albums that already had perfectly good names – or, rather, a perfectly good name.  It’s funny what lengths people will go to, to “force” something unusual or out-of-the-ordinary into terms that they are comfortable with – great lengths, it would seem, sometimes.

So along with Yes, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel, the 1980s was also an amazing time for one of the most underappreciated and hugely talented individuals that early 70s (or in this case, actually, late 1960s) progressive rock ever produced – and of course I am talking about the remarkable Peter Hammill, of the band Van Der Graaf Generator (which, incidentally, is still going strong after re-forming in 2005) – the 1980s saw Hammill evolving his solo performances, which were originally, just himself sat at the piano or sat with an acoustic guitar, singing “solo versions” of Van Der Graaf Generator songs (the bulk of which, were written by Hammill – the main writer and only lyricist in the band) as well as, singing songs from his rapidly-expanded selection of solo albums.

hammillpeterI was lucky enough to see Peter Hammill on several occasions, in differing musical settings, during the 1980s, and while I truly wish I had been able to see Van Der Graaf Generator play live “back in the day” – seeing these solo performances was actually, in a way, a far more powerful and intimate experience.  I have had the good fortune, for example, to witness Hammill, on his own at the piano, playing his remarkable suite of songs which make up the second side of his 1980 solo album “A Black Box” – a song called “Flight” – which is so difficult to play, that I was only able to work out, myself – on the piano – the first part of the song.

By far the simplest part of “Flight”- “Flying Blind” is the first of the several shorter songs that make up “Flight” in it’s entirety – whereas, Hammill reeled off the thousands and thousands of notes and chords of the entire 20 plus minutes long piece – as if it were nothing, all the while singing in that incredibly powerful, moving voice of his – seeing him play and sing “Flight” – live – by himself – as the encore of a remarkable live show – was an absolutely unforgettable experience for me.

hammill-potter-mcintoshA few years later, I was fortunate again, to see Hammill bring one of his small “ensembles” to Los Angeles, back to the Roxy which was where he always seemed to play when he was here in the US – this small group included just two other members, former Van Der Graaf bassist Nic Potter, and “pub musician” Stuart Gordon on violin.

But these two musicians – were no ordinary musicians, and I had no idea what an amazing musical experience we were all about to have – with Potter anticipating every phrase, every pause, in Hammill‘s incredibly strange vocal arrangements – and coming in on time, unfailingly – to Stuart Gordon’s “square wave violin” (my mental term for it – his violin run through guitar effects to achieve some unbelievably beautiful and/or dissonant effects) and the renditions that this band did of tracks such as “Cat’s Eye / Yellow Fever” – with it’s throbbing bass line, power chord guitar (provided by Hammill, of course!) and wild super-effected/treated violin gyrations.

I had never heard just three people sounding like a full on prog outfit on a tiny stage like the stage at the Roxy was.  What a show (you can hear a version of that show, on the Hammill album “Room Temperature” – Live – and well worth the investment I would say) it was – absolutely unforgettable – a brilliant experience.

In some ways, then, the 1980s portion of Peter Hammill’s career, moving through the amazing solo records of the early 1980s – starting with “A Black Box” (which, to give you some perspective, in 1980, this was Hammill’s TENTH solo album!) and then moving on to his very popular and quite hard rocking 1981 offering “Sitting Targets” – and then as the decade progressed, I saw tours for albums such as 1986’s “Skin” which was at yet a whole ‘nother level – the man is incredibly prolific, and each time, has a larger and larger back catalogue of songs to draw on – so that towards the end of that time, the range and power of songs that he could pull from that remarkable inventory of sensitive, emotional, moving songs became extraordinary in the extreme.

Each concert became the showcase for such a broad range of emotions and such an incredibly diverse and remarkable selection of songs, that it was just almost too much to take. What an extraordinary range and depth of feeling this man commands from the stage, with this intense and wonderful body of work that is “the Peter Hammill solo catalogue”…and it is still growing today (as of June 6, 2018 the count of his solo albums is 37 in Wikipedia), as he continues to produce albums regularly despite now being in his 70s.  What a remarkable character!

My 1980s was inhabited by all of these kinds of musical heroes – so my interest in, and my time spent listening to, what was supposedly currently popular “music” – began at a wane and pretty much disappeared completely as more and more of these amazing bands and artists from the 1960s and 70s, arrived in town in the 1980s to remind me that they were far from gone – that they were, in fact “alive and well and living in….” to phrase a coin (thanks, Ian!).

utopiaBut the list is far from complete – Todd Rundgren, and, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – the popular 1970s comedic band “The Tubes” (they of “White Punks On Dope” fame) – so many bands from the 70s, were doing so surprisingly well in the 1980s – and, were out there on the road – proving that their music was truly alive and was far, far more real than what MTV was presenting to us as purportedly, the music of the times – that was not MY experience of the 1980s.

 

KingCrimson-1973It was only starting in 1981 that even more significant groups began to return, still working in Type Uno here – and this was a real surprise entrant – the return of the mighty King Crimson – after a seven year hiatus – Robert Fripp had returned, with only one former member of any former version of the band (Bill Bruford, on drums and electronic percussion) in tow – having created a totally re-imagined version of the band, and the success of their debut album (1981s total return to form, “Discipline”) and tour cannot be underestimated.

 

 

kingcrimson1981I can remember myself and the guys in my band, we were FLABBERGASTED at the idea that King Crimson was on tour, and was going to be playing in San Diego – at the UCSD gymnasium, of all places – but hey – we didn’t care – it was KING CRIMSON – alive and well.  This new version of King Crimson, featured bassist and Chapman stick expert Tony Levin, and the unstoppable Adrian Belew on lead guitar and lead vocals.

 

This “new” band, the utterly revitalised and recharged King Crimson – was nothing short of extraordinary.

To see a concert, in 1981, by what was supposedly at this time, a “dinosaur” band like “King Crimson” – a concert that had more musical quality in it’s worst moment, than some 1980’s “bands” could produce in an entire show – this concert was really, in comparison to most concerts – an experience of almost high art – rock music, progressive, intelligent music – elevated to a new plane of existence, with the interlocking musical gamelan of the Fripp & Belew Lead Guitar Axes Of Power – over one of the most powerful and unique rhythm sections ever envisioned – this was four of the best musicians on the planet, getting together to play a dozen or so of the most amazing songs that you had never heard.

 

The band did also include one or two “old” King Crimson songs, thrown in – probably more for the sake of nostalgia – or, more likely, because the new members of the band wanted to PLAY those songs lol – this concert was a sublime musical experience, that absolutely blew my mind – I could think of nothing else, for weeks, but that amazing, beautiful music I had witnessed – and I listened to the album constantly, trying (and failing, dismally) to unlock it’s musical secrets – what an extraordinary musical document.

GenesisI think for me – that was the turning point – seeing King Crimson play for the first time ever; and seeing Peter Hammill and Bill Nelson and Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel and Genesis and Yes – all playing music in the early 1980s – when television might have you believing that something called “Billy Idol” was ruling the video-waves – the air-waves having now been superseded by the medium of Music Television.

Or – by someone called “Gary Numan” who apparently, was the next big thing – and I am not in any way disrespectful towards these artists – I very much respect their achievements and enjoy their music, too – and yes, they did make records in the 1980s, and sell records, and become “very popular” and so on.

But behind the scenes, in the background – were truly great (often very under-appreciated) musicians, with far more experience (and skill, I am afraid, too) who were out on the road, proving that their music was very real indeed,  given concerts displaying consummate skill and musical vision – and perhaps – at least slightly more real, than the perceived vision of what music was as presented by “MTV” and “MTV News”.

But sometimes, you have to judge by a different yardstick, and increasingly for me, it was a very, very musical yardstick – i.e. did this concert move me to tears?  Was the guitar playing such remarkable work of impassioned quality, that it will haunt my memories for years to come?  Those were the kinds of questions that I was walking away from concerts asking myself – concerts mainly by the supposedly long-dead “dinosaurs” of music – the progressive rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s.  It was no longer really about what was supposedly popular – for me, it was becoming just about music, quality music – and nothing much else mattered.

And that is how I have really remained, to this day – I am not interested in what band sells the most records.  I am interested in what band or artists or guitarist or other instrumentalist – can do something never done before, or something unique, or something truly beautiful or skillful or ingenious.  Or – in some rare cases – all of the above.

That is what I was already evolving into in the 1980s, because I was seeing all of these amazing bands, behind the scenes – behind the very false, fabricated MTV Video World of “Music” and the MTV “Video Music Awards” and so on – none of that was what was real – what was real, were the opening notes of the title track of “Discipline” – the first piece played by the new King Crimson at their concert here held at UCSD gymnasium.

kingcrimson-disciplinecoverTo start a concert, with the final piece and the title track of your first album in over seven years – that is very probably the single most difficult to perform out of an entire album of truly difficult to perform songs – coming out and playing that song FIRST, makes a statement – that says “we can do THIS” – and “THIS” – is simply the part you had to hear, you had to be there – to believe – perfectly interlocking guitars over a sinuous and sliterhing bass part with an insistent, cymbal-less beat throbbing behind it – modern music taken to a whole new level, in a time-signature that I still can’t count to this day.

 

What a way to START a concert!

So it was truly musical experiences like this, that really take you out of yourself, and really make you consider the nature of what is beautiful, what is dissonant, how and when dissonance can be in itself, beautiful, and so on – music that MAKES you think – and think, and think.  That is how the music of “Discipline” made me feel at the time.  What a great way to celebrate the return of the much-missed King Crimson – we were SO glad they were back, and this career was to be short lived, but, would lead to ever-evolving versions of the band – this particular version, what has become to be known, curiously enough, as “the 80’s Crimson” did the bulk of it’s work, first as the band “Discipline” in 1980, and then, as “King Crimson” in 1981 – lasting just four years and producing three fine albums.

But there is still more to this story – still more former prog or former rock musicians, coming out of the woodwork now, re-inventing themselves in startling and remarkable ways.  Bill Nelson, former leader, lead singer, and lead guitarist of the 1970s prog/rock band “Be-Bop Deluxe” was out and about in the 1980s, fronting various versions of his 1979 creation “Bill Nelson’s Red Noise” and I saw one of these post-Red Noise concoctions play live at the Whisky in Los Angeles – and because it was the Whisky, and, Bill Nelson was one of my favourite English guitarists at the time – I took the opportunity to situate myself just in front of his pedalboard (which absolutely fascinated me, it was very, very long and thin and had about a dozen pedals on it, most of which, I was utterly unfamiliar with) and once again, I proceeded to have my musical thought processes melted away and re-formed several times during the evening’s proceedings.

nelsonbill74

Nelson is just one of those people that is ridiculously talented, and can make music with anything he turns his hand to.  Tonight though – it was all about the guitar, and actually seeing him play, at such close range, was a rare privilege indeed for me – to be able to watch how he created the chord shapes and guitar parts that made up these songs that I so, so loved – “A Kind Of Loving” or “Do You Dream In Colour” or even the bizarre “Youth Of Nation On Fire”.

 

 

He played an outrageously cool selection of songs from his first couple of solo records – and it was again, an absolutely unique and totally unforgettable musical experience.  What a show!

This show also included a real moment of drama, as Bill‘s beautiful pedalboard FAILED after one song, so, philosophically, he watched the technician hauling away his entire bank of effects – and saying something about how it may be difficult later on, when he gets into some of the more complex changes of sound… he then turned around, with a determined look on his face – plugged his guitar lead directly into his Music Man combo amp – tested a nice, chunky, distorted power chord – and launched into the next song – sans all effects.

Hearing that song played with raw, straight, unaffected guitar – was an absolute revelation for me – an amazing experience – of a true artist’s grace under pressure –  he handled it like a pro – no problem – just got on with the song, sang and played it beautifully, and then happily, took delivery of his now-repaired pedalboard just in time for the next song to begin.

nelsonbill1980sThey never really missed a beat – the whole “incident” only slowed the show by literally, two minutes – and what a unique and unusual thing to witness – that made it particularly unforgettable – getting to hear the absolutely raw – guitar-straight-into-amp Bill Nelson style – and it ROCKED.  He didn’t lean on his pedals for support to hide weak playing, as some players (myself included – I hasten to add) do – he used them to enhance and improve the sound of his guitar.   But – I could have happily watched and listened to the whole show with the guitar-directly-into-amp scenario, too – with – or without a big pedalboard full of exotic gutiar effects – either way is absolutely fine by me.

 

I would say that during the first few years of the 1980s, that Bill Nelson re-invented himself and his music, on a par and very much in parallel, with the way Robert Fripp re-invented and re-imagined his own role in the new King Crimson.  Gone were the trappings of “rock star” / Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Nelson – no more costumes or make-up or TV appearances were needed – no more limousines – just – music – music as experiment, and I can remember buying his first solo single, the aforementioned “Do You Dream In Colour?” on 7 inch vinyl which included two B-sides that I liked even better than the A side – and that was the start of a truly remarkable series of records – that moved through areas of music that I can scarcely describe using just words – those words would be “GO now, and listen, ye, to these two albums”:

  1. Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam by Bill Nelson
  2. The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart) by Bill Nelson

See – now I don’t need to try and describe how incredibly diverse and musically amazing those two early solo records are – not to mention – some of the most astonishing lead guitar work I had ever heard Nelson play – even on the opening track of “Quit Dreaming…” a song called “Banal”, ironically enough – there is a solo so dramatic, so silken smooth and flowing – so, NOT “banal” in any way – and I think that is the point – you have this hard-edged, almost frightening riff playing throughout this song  – but when it finally bursts into this solo – you get a few moments of the old 1970s Be-Bop Deluxe sweet sweet flowing lead guitar on 1980s steroids – simply amazing guitar work on this record – other pieces of note include one of my personal favourites of Bill’s – another strange one, “U.H.F.” which has a beautifully-flanged lead vocal, and again, absolutely amazing, dissonant / unique lead guitar throughout – this one is another that is just astonishing in terms of the quality and passion of guitar playing – it’s off the scale, it really is.

nelsonbillrecentSo Bill Nelson – in the early 1980s – was in every way, an ever-exploring pioneer of new kinds of musics, and his bands were hand-picked to deliver that music with the greatest impact.  I was so, so fortunate that I was able to drive up to Los Angeles to see that gig – what an absolutely unforgettable night that was!!  Standing there, just a few feet away from someone with such consummate skill with the guitar – it seemed effortless to him – autopilot on, and now – play.  sing.  perform.

 

But – it was a faultless, unbelievably professional, polished performance – Bill took his bands and his music very seriously indeed, and this outfit was more than road-worthy – they played his music – the way it was meant to be played.

 

I have now, I believe, spent more than enough time talking about Type Uno artists – however – believe it or not, I didn’t even make it past about 1983 in assembling the examples above.  If I were to continue on in this vein for the rest of the 1980s, I would add in another dozen or so examples of Type Uno artists – those ex-rock or ex-prog musicians who, for the most part – trod a very different path in the 1980s, from what their previous careers back in the 1970s had been.

And sometimes, as in the case of both King Crimson and Bill Nelson – that led to some absolutely extraordinary music and, live concerts that represented that recorded music.  I felt so, so fortunate to have been there to witness that – especially the re-birth of King Crimson  – that was almost miraculous.

Crimson was one of several bands, that I literally thought I would never, ever get to see – because from my perspective – they had suddenly disbanded in 1974 – never to return as far as we knew.

So that was a welcome return to form – along with, experiencing the new musical directions of Bill Nelson, Peter Hammill or any number of existing, surviving rock and prog people – all of them, doing so incredibly well (who knew???) in the supposedly-musically-“dead” 1980s!  The more I thought about it – the more I realised, that in some ways, the 80s were almost MORE musically rich for me than the 1970s were – for one thing, I got in a FULL 10 years of concert-going, versus the seven I had managed in the 1970s (and that was only due to my age – not through choice) – so I had an “extra” three years in which to have even more incredible 1980s concert experiences.

For another thing – these artists – who were AMAZING during the 1970s – had come back, bringing new ideas; new technologies; new ways of thinking about music; new recordings; and most importantly to me – concert tours where their faithful, loyal fans could still go and see and hear them play – and as often as not, I was totally surprised by how much these artists had grown and evolved – always, in such a positive way – that I now view the 1980s as a really, really positive decade – in terms of my overall, over-time concert experiences.

Who else, then – would I place into the Type Uno category – before I delve into Type Dos – well, a quick further check of setlist.fm’s listing for user “pureambient” (that’s me, by the way) reveals that the illustrious company noted above would also be joined by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, populists Hall & Oates (who I only became interested in, after hearing Daryl Hall’s remarkable collaboration with Robert Fripp, “Sacred Songs” from 1980 – another overlooked Fripp-produced masterpiece – and Fripp was so insistent that Hall was so good – that I had to go and see for myself.  He was.  He was an amazing singer).

roxymusicThen, there was the early-80s version of Roxy Music which, by 1983 when I saw them for the second time, had mutated so far away from their original Prog roots, that they seemed to be a completely different band – one that very well might have been better named “The Bryan Ferry Orchestra” and be done with it – with Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay physically present at the concert, but, reduced to the roles of glorified sidemen by the rather large ego of one Bryan Ferry…

 

The only redemption, for me, was that Phil Manzanera was permitted to perform ONE of his songs – and chose to play “Impossible Guitar” which I absolutely love – so I was fortunate to get to see that rarely-performed-live piece of brilliant guitar work – made an otherwise difficult to stomach Roxy concert, much more bearable.  By way of contrast,  when I saw Roxy in 1979, four years earlier – they were then already on their way towards this not-so-good musical place, but – there was still some prog left in them, and they played a few good versions of a few older tunes back in 79.  Not so at the 1983 concert that I saw – which was pretty disappointing to say the least.

belewadrianAdrian Belew – well, he was around in the 70s, although more in the role of very talented sideman to either Frank Zappa or later, David Bowie – and I felt very, very fortunate to get to see him with his original band, “Gaga” – at the wonderfully tiny San Diego State venue of The Back Door (a music venue so small, that even ***I*** have performed there in the past – lol).

Belew and his band were absolutely unbelievably talented, funny and skilled – and it was a truly memorable evening for fans of the eccentric electric guitarist – the only true successor to the performance spaces that Jimi Hendrix used to inhabit – Belew fills that void to some degree.

More gigs for guitarists – now this was another aspect of the remarkable, the impossible things that happened in the 1980s – that you would have thought, would either be impossible, or only could have happened in the 70s – but – not so – I am talking about now, one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen – Paco De Lucia, Al DiMeola, and John McLaughlin – what a line-up.  Three legends of the guitar – each with their own style – and the combination of the three together, performing a variety of impossible pieces – was like nothing I had ever seen before and I am not likely to ever see again – everyone I know who went to this – will know what I am talking about – this was about skill, passion and grace – and these three gentlemen had lots of all of those things.  It was…amazing.

guitartrio1A year later, the trio returned – and this time, joining them on steel string acoustic guitar – was none other than future Deep Purple lead guitarist and Dixie Dregs alumnus Steve Morse – a guitarist I have seen many times – with the Dixie Dregs (another group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s)

morsesteveLater, Morse created the “Steve Morse Band” (yet ANOTHER group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s), I even got to see Morse performing at a guitar clinic in a local music store – an immensely skilled and talented player. Adding Morse to that trio (DeLucia, DiMeola, and McLaughlin) – created the single most remarkable mini-orchestra of guitarists that the mind could imagine – the Impossible Quartet – and that show was even better than the standard trio show that I saw the previous year.  What an experience!

And then – I went to see Allan Holdsworth.  I was beginning to get into jazz, a little bit – I’ve never really played it, but, I do have huge respect for those that play it well – the “Pat Metheny”s and so on in this world – but – Allan Holdsworth – who, again, was around in the 1970s, so he definitely falls into the Type Uno category – is a guitarist on an entirely different Guitar Planet.  To this day, I have never before or since seen a modern jazz guitarist, or in fact, any guitarist outside of the classical tradition, with the kind of a) encyclopedic knowledge of scales, modes, chords and….everything there is to know about a guitar fretboard and b) incredible, incredible, speed – I’ve never found another like Allan Holdsworth.

holdsworthI can remember sitting on the edge of the stage, just watching his left hand, trying so hard to figure out what on earth chords he was playing – as he played through one of my very favourite of his pieces – “The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun)” – and there is this beautiful beautiful chord progression, that he “swells” into a big delay and reverb setting – and it’s just sublimely beautiful,

And as I watched, I realised, that even with my twenty some odd years of guitar playing experience at that time – that I literally, had absolutely NO idea what those shapes indicated – I could not understand WHAT CHORDS the man was playing.  I knew one thing though – they are beautiful.  Still are.

Later, I found out why – when I got ahold of an Allan Holdsworth music book – and the title of the book pretty much explains why a guitarist of 20 years plus experience, had no idea what it was that he was seeing and hearing when watching Allan Holdsworth play – the book is called “Reaching For The Uncommon Chord”.  THAT is why.  Because he uses inversions that most people can’t even FORM with their fingers.  “Uncommon” is exactly the right word – and seeing him play, hearing him do this – live – opened my eyes to whole new UNIVERSE of sounds and ideas that I think, I am still absorbing today – almost thirty years later.

What a remarkable guitarist – and a really nice person too, very approachable. Sadly, Allan passed away very recently – and it was a huge, huge loss to the guitar-playing, and listening, community.  An absolute Hendrix-Order, Zappa-Order, Higher-Order guitarist unique in so very many ways.  Not, however…for the faint of heart – Holdsworth is possible a musician best appreciated by other musicians as his playing style may be too intense for the public to absorb or appreciate.  If there ever was a “guitarist’s guitarist” – it was Allan Holdsworth.

Every time I think I have exhausted the list of possibly Type Unos – I find still more to add to the list – the aforementioned Richard Thompson whose career soared during the 1980s – including a lot of excellent performances both on acoustic guitar and with full “electric” band – I was lucky enough to see both types – and also, the aforementioned band Richard used to be in, Fairport Convention, who also enjoyed a resurgence of their own during the late 1980s, possibly thanks to their close touring association with the unstoppable Jethro Tull.

At the end of the 1980s, re-emerged one of the first of the many, many, many different re-configurations of the band Yes – which featured the classic five man lineup of Yes without bassist Chris Squire.  I went to see this strange band in 1989, whose first and only album was pretty underwhelming, largely because of the possibility of seeing these four ex-members of Yes, playing older Yes material live in concert.

It was – interesting.  Originally, they had Tony Levin as their stand-in replacement for the very difficult to replace Chris Squire – and that was what I had been looking forward to – only to find out, that Levin had dropped out early on, and had been hastily replaced by Jeff Berlin.  Now – Jeff Berlin is one of the most amazing bass guitarists on the planet.  I’ve seen Berlin play in a tiny club with Allan Holdsworth and Chad Wackerman, and Berlin was actually, clearly, the bass-playing equivalent of Allan Holdsworth – they were a match.  How Wackerman ever kept up with those too, will always be a mystery – stunning musicianship.

But Jeff Berlin is more of an improviser’s improviser, so the idea of him playing Chris Squire’s very inventive but, very structured bass parts – well, to my mind, it just seemed like a WEIRD idea.  And in concert – well, Jeff was fine.  Jeff played all the right notes – but the feel, was all wrong – he played with a jazz, loose feel, which did not suit Squire’s intended style – so it just sounded so odd to my ears.  Not entirely successful – four experienced prog guys – with a super jazzy improvising loose bass player – no.  I wished I’d seen the Levin version…but alas.  ABWH were short-lived, and I think that is possibly a good thing.  Yes is just not Yes without Chris Squire – let’s face it.  It’s just not quite right without him.

Finally, again near the end of the 1980s, we had some glimpses of the future – Adrian Belew’s pop project, “The Bears” started making records and went out on tour, and I for one was very much enamoured of their approach – I loved the idea of two lead guitars, bass and drums, where often, both of the guitarists were playing “backwards guitar” as they sang and played live – I loved that.  I have always been a huge fan of reverse guitar, and seeing the huge grins on the faces of Rob Fetters and Adrian Belew while they were both playing backwards – it’s as much fun to do, as it is to hear!  I saw The Bears a number of times, and they are an extremely quality pop group as you would expect – excellent music.

And then – Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists – not a “band” in the traditional sense, this latest Fripp invention – was simply Fripp performing in public on acoustic guitar, with a group of the then-best Guitar Craft students.  The repertoire was written in part by Fripp, and in part by members of “the League” and it’s a most interesting presentation – playing in Fripp’s “new standard tuning” for guitar – this was a most inspirational group to witness playing live – but in one sense, it’s also one of the most radical of re-imagining’s possible – to get from King Crimson in the 1960s and 1970s, to the League of Gentlemen in 1980, to the League of Crafty Guitarists in the late 80s and also, on into the future – that was Robert Fripp – always moving forward on so many different musical planes.

Type Uno groups that I did NOT see – the list is just staggeringly long, I am sure, but while I am on the subject – Robert Fripp’s “dance combo” the aforementioned League of Gentlemen” were one of the hottest musical properties of the year 1980.  A four piece led by Fripp and ex-XTC keyboard wizard Barry Andrews – that is one band I really, really wish I had the opportunity to see play live.  Ach well as they say…

 

Type Dos

– New, emerging bands, or, complete rebuilds of older bands that mutated into new bands – so in this category the most obvious is the one I have already mentioned, Marillion, and, the other one I have already mentioned, Crowded House.

This category does include a few bands that may well have existed in the very last part of the 1970s, but I would still class them as new not so much in that they are brand new in the 1980s, but they were not necessarily full-established or very experienced when compared to most of the Type Uno bands – many of whose roots went all the way back to the beginning of the 1970s or even into the 1960s.

There is a huge difference in an artist who formed a band in 1968, coming back to perform live and make records in the 1980s, and a band formed in 1979 that then continues on into the 1980s as part of their natural evolution – those to my mind, are “new emerging bands” – I have just taken slight poet license on when they emerged – and if I were to just adjust the time period, this silly concept of two types would work a bit better – but for now, it’s what I am working with.

The first half of the 1980s, for me – according again to my setlist.fm list of concerts attended – was a pretty sparse time for new bands with new music.

I did see a few of the most important bands of the 1980s, most notably, the great XTC, but there were far far more bands that I never did see – because mainly, to be totally honest – I was spending my time and my money, attending concerts by Type Uno artists – artists I knew and loved, and, who I knew would not let me down by giving a poor concert.

So I continued to attend concerts with a definite 1970s mindset – and that worked for me – and if you look at the list above compared to this listing of Type Dos shows attended – it’s absolutely pathetic in comparison.  I was only making an almost-token effort to include Type Dos bands in my concert-going – but if truth be told – that was mainly because – there were not that many Type Dos bands that I really enjoyed the sound of.

In some cases, I wonder exactly why I went – for example, I attended an outdoor summer extravaganza, three bands playing live, beginning with Madness, then, Oingo Boingo, then, headliners The Police.  Now this was a competently-performed set, all three bands had something to offer – but, in hindsight – I believe I enjoyed Madness far more than I enjoyed The Police.  I was never that huge of a fan of The Police, and I think it was more about peer pressure – everyone at the place I was working was going to the show – so would I go?  Sure – why not?

I have never, ever been a fan of the music of Danny Elfman, leader and creator of Oingo Boingo, and I just think it’s absolutely silly music – not for me, at all – meant to be “funny” – but – it isn’t.  Madness were terrific – great energy, good chops – a lot of fun, and a lot of musical credibility.  Then I suffered through Oingo Boingo.  Then, I did enjoy the set by The Police but it was more about wow look at that drum kit or, wow, Sting really can play the bass AND sing at the same time – look – he’s doing it.

Or rather – doing part of it – they did have three background singers, which makes the whole idea of being “just a trio” a bit silly – and I felt it was really unnecessary.  It seemed to me, that it would have been much, much better if we could have heard what JUST the three of them could do, live – now that might have been interesting. They played a competent set, with songs from every album including the then-new “Synchronicity” which for them, was ultra-complex.  They did a credible job – but that’s what it seemed like, more of a chore, a task, a job to be done – they didn’t seem like they were having any fun at all – and their lack of enjoyment was contagious.

I hope that others will remember that concert more happily than I do, but my overall impression was of being underwhelmed by The Police, and not liking Oingo Boingo one bit (I still don’t).  But – every cloud has a silver lining – at least I got to see Madness – they were great – awesome performance.

Still sticking with the mainstream, again, not really sure WHY I went – outdoor show in summer time?  nice weather?  for some inexplicable reason, I went to see Men At Work.  It was not particularly memorable.  I still do not know why I went.  In this same category, I would place The Motels, a group I barely remember – and I don’t remember a particular song I like or anything – no idea.  Those two shows – which I did attend – just flew past almost unnoticed.

I did also, however, see some very real and very powerful live performances – the aforementioned XTC among them – but I would say one other of those, was Gang Of Four.  Now – this was a band I knew absolutely nothing about, I had not heard them play – and the other guitarist in my then-band, Slipstream absolutely INSISTED that I should go to this concert – so, we went – it was a long, long drive up to LA I remember – and I was absolutely transfixed and shocked by the band once they started playing.  I have never before or since seen a band quite like this one – dark, powerful, with a lot on their minds – and deadly serious about what they were playing, and what they were saying.

With tunes like “(Love Like) Anthrax” or “Armalite Rifle” and heavily politically inspired lyrics, I found it to be a very powerful and musical experience.  The music was  – jarring.  But – this “post punk” outfit – really stuck in my memory, and I am grateful to my pal in the band for being so insistent that I attend – because I am glad that I did.  I hadn’t seen much or many bands that had a political agenda (unless you count U2 – which come on, you can’t seriously count U2???) so it was a breath of fresh air in that sense – not you ordinary love songs here – but songs that meant something.  It was a really different musical experience too, and one that was thought-provoking at the very least.

xtcliveMost important to me, was seeing XTC play live in what turned out to be, their last ever live performance – they played in San Diego where I saw them – and then, in LA the next night – they did not show up, because Andy Partridge was on his way home to escape a world of nightmares from touring and over use of prescription medications.

They never did really return to the stage – but – it also ushered in their “XTC’s Golden Age of Studio Recordings” – where, much like the Beatles – their music really, really changed once they left the stage behind for good.

XTC’s performance itself ,was absolutely amazing:  Andy was filled with so much incredible energy, and the band were animated and lively – Dave Gregory was especially amazing – bouncing back and forth between lead guitar and lead synthesizer – and the band’s vocals were also great – Colin and Andy sounded so, so good together.  I am so, so glad I went to this – I had been getting more and more into their music, and I thought why not – that should be a good show.  I never dreamed for a moment, that I would witness the last live concert by the band – wow.  What a shock to find out after the fact, that Andy had fallen very ill and returned to the UK – swearing that he would never perform live again.  Sadly – he kept that promise – mostly.

After seeing Gang Of Four first, and then, XTC, in the first part of the 1980s – was unfortunately, for me, the highlight – the rest of my Type Dos experience wasn’t quite so memorable – but I will have a go anyway:

Starting with Asia – now, in one sense, you could almost class Asia as a Type Uno band – except – what band would that have been back in the 1970s?  King Crimson?  Yes?  ELP?  Because they were not a direct descendant of one particular band – I have to class them as Type Dos – but the music they brought to the mid-80s, definitely had more of the feel of a Type Uno band.

JohnWettonAsia then – as a new “prog” band – with ex-Family, ex-King Crimson bassist and vocalist John Wetton on bass and lead vocals, with Steve Howe. ex-Yes on lead guitar, and with Carl Palmer, ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer on drums – and, some guy called Geoff Downes on keyboards – this was a “new” band, playing “new” music.  Oh – I so, so wanted this band to be good…

 

Their debut album was a bit confusing – slightly proggy, but overlaid with a sort of sickly sheen of popiness that felt forced at best.  It was just – weird.  But I went to the show, to see the PLAYERS – not so much for the band, and certainly not for the album.  And – the players were good – again, Wetton is more than competent he played and sang well – it was fine.  Steve Howe did his usual high quality lead guitar work, nothing disappointing there – and Carl was a fine drummer for the outfit.

Perhaps it’s better if I just leave it at that – rather than try to analyse it any further – this SHOULD have been a great band, but I remember being so disappointed by everything – the album, the show – that I never bought (or heard) their second album, or anything they ever did after that.  I just lost interest immediately.  A missed opportunity.  A failed attempt at commercial success?  Something funny going on there – I don’t really know what.  But somehow – it just did not work.

On a couple of occasions during the 1980s, I went to see Elvis Costello play, usually with the Attractions in tow – and this was one of those weirdly unsatisfying things – it should have been excellent – but it was just OK.  They played well – very well.  The songs are good – but something about it – it just did not have the excitement, nothing urgent, in a lot of ways, it did not seem like “live” music – but more, an accurate re-creation of studio music.  I know that must sound weird – but I hope you can get what I am meaning.

On the surface – Elvis Costello and the Attractions put on a really good concert. But below the surface, there was something dissatisfying about the whole experience, that one could not put one’s finger on – I don’t know WHAT it was – but I felt let down, I felt disappointed – I think I thought that he would be amazing – and when he turned out to be just some guy with a guitar – well, I ended up feeling a sense of disappointment.

Then, things took a slightly upward turn, and the quality of the Type Dos bands I was going to see play, started to improve again – and that began with a gig by the revitalised Pretenders.  I am so, so glad that I got to see this band play in 1984, and I think that Chrissie Hynde is absolutely a musical genius – to write these songs, to go to Britain and put this band together – and then to succeed so well – I am so so happy that she did this.

pretenders

It didn’t last long – my personal favourite record of theirs being the astonishing Pretenders II – I think after those first two remarkable records – that things began to go downhill a bit – but when I saw them – they were at the height of their powers – and those were not insignificant.  Chrissie herself, is a powerful performer, and her approach to her vocals and her guitar playing – stick in the brain, and she definitely left a good impression on me.  I am very glad that I  chose to go see this band play live – an awesome experience.

 

The Pretenders’ opening / support act, however, the much hyped The Alarm – left me pretty cold.  I felt like they were competing for musical space with U2 – and to be honest – no one was, or is, competing for that space (!) – it’s not really a desirable musical space to inhabit !!!  But they seemed to me, like a third-rate impersonation of U2 – and while that may be overly-cruel on my part – I cannot think of a kinder way to express what for me, is a true assessment of how The Alarm sounded – “68 Guns” – maybe – but none of them were loaded.  Or they only brought 49 of those guns with them on this night – I am not sure.

Another double bill of new, emerging bands was Big Country with support from the forgettable Wire Train – and I think that my interest in Big Country was probably almost entirely derived from the fact that Stuart Adamson had been a huge fan of Bill Nelson = something he held in common with me.  The band were fine, nothing wrong with them – but nothing hugely memorable, either.  I can’t really remember Wire Train at all – much as I would like to say something about them – I cannot – I have absolutely no idea.  So this was another one that just flew past me, almost unnoticed…

I have to mention (by contract I am afraid) that I did see the band Berlin, or at least, I saw part of their set – but I hasten to add this disclaimer – going to see Berlin was never my intention – I was going for one reason, and one reason alone – not to see Terri Nunn or hear her telling us about all the roles she could play – but to hear the opening act – Bill Nelson – with a full band, on the very short “Mountains Of The Heart” tour.  And Nelson was amazing – he was not happy that night, as Berlin had used up all of the sound check time, leaving Nelson NO time to sound check his own band.

So, as retaliation (which, while juvenile in the extreme. was actually, appropriate under the circumstances) Bill decided to extend his set by an extra six or seven minutes – making Berlin wait, making Berlin late to get on stage – and he did this, much to MY good fortune, by taking a super-extended, in the spotlight, energy bow guitar solo – which was extraordinary – I’ve never heard of Bill Nelson doing this before or since – the last song had ended – but he continued playing his beautiful, powerful sustained e-bow sound – and he played and played and played – I was absolutely overjoyed.  Eventually, he relented, thanking the audience and apologising for the short set – MADE short by the thoughtlessness of the people in the band Berlin.

So while I went to a Berlin concert – it was not to see Berlin, and I actually left during one of the first few songs of their unremarkable set.  Going home was preferable to seeing Berlin play live.  Seeing and hearing Bill Nelson play an amazing short set of fantastic songs, followed by a really long “spite” guitar solo – was absolutely astonishing.  A fantastic experience!

marillionPerhaps the single most significant of all of the Type Dos bands – would be Marillion.  Bursting onto the scene in the early 1980s, but apparently believing that it was actually, still 1974 – this remarkable band of Englishmen led by one slightly mad Scotsman – became quite successful despite the fact that their music was a direct throwback to the 1970s – people didn’t seem to mind, because Fish and Marillion were brilliant on stage, Fish was incredibly friendly and personal both on and off stage, and the time that they flourished – up until 1987, when singer Fish left the band after the classic album “Clutching At Straws”.  This was a great time in music.

Fish, having his remarkable, very, very prog-sounding outfit out on tour, making retro-prog albums, playing retro-prog live and everyone loving it – what a fantastic and probably impossible thing to happen.

I really enjoyed the music of Fish and Marillion during the 1980s, and even though they SOUNDED like a Type Uno band – they are definitely the archetype of a Type Dos band – a new emerging band with a unique presence and quality music, too.

On a short trip to Britain, by complete accident, I happened to go to see a Japanese heavy metal band, Vow Wow, playing at the Marquee in London.  I wasn’t really meant to be there, I went almost by accident, but it was an enjoyable-enough experience – the band were OK, not great, but not bad – but for me, just being in the room where all of my Type Uno heroes had played – from the Move to King Crimson – was enough – at least I can say I’ve seen a show at the Marquee – OK, I wish it had been by a band that I knew, or that I liked – but – it was better than nothing lol.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. was another attempt at a sort of Asia-style supergroup, the ill-fated GTR.  Now – I never did get the first GTR album – because after I saw them play – I would not have, and did not, want to have it.  Again – this was touted as an amazing new group, led by two of the best guitarists in progressive rock – Steve Howe and Steve Hackett.  To me – that was an irresistible combination of talent and skill – it HAD to be good !!  It wasn’t.

There was nothing good about it – singer Max Bacon was so unremarkable, that all I remember is his name.  I also do not know who else, apart from the two famous guitarists – was in the band.  None of that mattered – because they just were not very good.  I don’t remember or know a single song by them.  It’s almost as if history, ashamed of itself, has erased most of the memories of this band – to hide it’s shame.  And I am part of that – eager to believe in these two superhero guitarists – in practice – it was nothing but a huge let down – a real disappointment.  Not recommended – at all.

Towards the end of the 1980s, I ended up seeing a truly mixed bag of new, emerging artists – Type Dos artists – which included the then-very-popular Suzanne Vega, a lesser-known but far more talented singer called Maria McKee, as well as, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of female singers – the band X from LA.  I won free tickets to see X – which I enjoyed far more than I thought I might – I particularly enjoy John Doe’s singing.

Then came what I might term as the Unavoidable Event – part of you, really did not want to go – but – you felt like you were obliged to – everyone you knew – was going – so I held out for a long time – and then ended up getting really, really horrible seats for – at the back of the Sports Arena, in literally, the VERY top row – so far up, I am surprised I did not get nosebleed – and that didn’t help my enjoyment of the show.

Having a point of view from behind the stage did have advantages, I could see what The Edge was doing really well, and his confidence and obvious skill, along with his basic humility – well, his was an impressive performance.  But sadly, U2 is not really about The Edge – it’s about one man, who I shall call, for the sake of humour – Knucklehead Smith.  That guy – the leader of said band – was just as over the top, as loud, as not funny – as we all expected him to be.  For me – he was the low point of the show.  The band could play.  But could he sing?  Sort of.

It was OK.  I wasn’t bad.  Some of the songs were pretty exciting, and the guitar work could not be faulted.  I suppose I am glad in a way, to give me a more well-rounded view of what the 1980s were all about – that I saw U2 live.  But I could have done without Knucklehead Smith – he is one crazy dude.

The last concert I remember from the 1980s, was held in a tiny club, a concert given by a new guitarist on the scene, who was just releasing his very first album, which he called “Surfing With The Alien” .  Once again, not quite sure why I was there – but I am very glad that I was – because I got to see the original, the most humble, the most basic Joe Satriani – before he became a “big star” – and it was a good, good concert – very modern, the guitar sounds were great, it was clear he was a really good player – and I left quite impressed with this young man and his guitar.  The fact that he went on to such incredible heights of fame – and that it all began with that one album – and I was lucky enough to have been there, to see the birth – to see the very beginning of Joe’s very successful career as a guitarist – more power to him.

That – my friends – was my 1980s concert experience!

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – or each decade for that matter – there is always someone that I missed out seeing “back in the day” or newer artists that I want to check out live – there is always something going on.  I feel very fortunate indeed that I have been able to see so many great concerts.  Moving to Britain was also a hugely fortunate thing in terms of me being able to see bands performing live that did not regularly play in far-off San Diego, California (where I lived for the first half of my life) and so many bands that I never got the chance to see when I lived in California, I have not only seen but in some cases, I have been able to see performing live several times.

This includes bands or artists – and mind you, these are bands or artists that I firmly believed I would never, ever get to see play live –  such as:

  • Caravan Caravan
  • Gong       gong
  • Muse  muse
  • Neil Young     neil

 

 

To my ever-lasting astonishment, I did eventually get to see these four bands – and it was difficult to believe it was happening until the actual moment – came – and for example, with Neil Young, whose music I had loved since I was a teenager – at age 13, two of his songs were among the songs that the very first band I was ever in’s repertoire, so I basically grew up with Neil Young as the soundtrack to my life – but everytime he played in San Diego, I couldn’t go, or I didn’t find out until too late, or it sold out or any number of things – and I ended up never seeing him play.

Little did I imagine that I would see him years and years and years later, in Glasgow, Scotland, playing one of the most amazing sets of original music I have ever seen, with his new band “Promise of the Real”.  It was an extraordinary night, and a long-held dream come true – and, he played so many of the songs that I truly, truly loved, including “Alabama” and “Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” from the 1972 classic album “Harvest”.  I just could not believe it was happening…I was seeing Neil play in this surreal situation, thousands of miles away from California where I would have thought and expected that I would see him play.  It’s funny how things work out.

I can’t remember feeling so happy, so very satisfied with a concert – the songs were all good, the band was extremely good and Neil was just Neil – a remarkable man full of the most remarkable songs but also, a world-class lead guitarist with a style that is as unique in it’s own way, as a Zappa or a Hendrix might be – there is only one Neil Young, unmistakable, as he takes “old black” through it’s paces – and I was lucky enough to hear and see him soloing quite a bit that night.  Really fortunate.

So in cases like these four, and others I mentioned in my previous blog – it seems that dreams really, really can come true.

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

I was a guitarist then, and I am still a guitarist now;  so it’s only natural that I would follow and enjoy music by the world’s most talented and capable guitarists – and the list of guitarists that I was lucky enough to see in the 1980s is a pretty staggering list of remarkable, talented musicians:

 

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 80s were a far, far more exciting time musically, for me, than I actually had expected it to be – because I largely ignored what the media would have had me believe was “my experience of music” in the 1980s – and instead, I spent my time and money on going to live music concerts put on by both Type Uno and Type Dos artists – which gave me a great mixture of very, very experienced musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, updating and renewing their sound for the tech of the 1980s, while the Type Dos shows gave me an idea of what new bands were around, what they sounded like, and how they compared to the more familiar Type Unos that I knew so very well.

Starting my decade with the musics of Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Queen, Genesis, and Yes – and that was just in the FIRST 10 months of 1980 – on up to and including Peter Hammill, King Crimson, XTC, Bill Nelson, Allan Holdsworth, and Peter Gabriel – and finally, up towards the end of the decade, the Dixie Dreg’s, Adrian Belew’s “The Bears”,  Richard Thompson (electric band this time!) and Robert Fripp with his League of Crafty Guitarists  – and many, many more – once again, I had an enormous amount of fun – and I realise now that for me, that my idea of “fun” is quite different from that of most people – I have a lot more fun when I am watching and listening to an incredibly talented lead guitarist (or in some cases, a pair of amazing guitarists – like Robert Fripp & Adrian Belew of King Crimson – or Adrian Belew & Rob Fetters of The Bears), playing as part of an incredibly talented band that has worked out an amazing repertoire of impossibly beautiful, and possibly technically demanding songs – now – that’s MY idea of fun!

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

Next time on Decade By Decade – The Live Concert Experience / Overview:

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DISC 6 – The Apple Years DVD

 

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

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

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

 

 

IN CONCLUSION – THOUGHTS AND WISHES, HOPES AND DREAMS…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chains”

“Do You Want To Know A Secret”

“Devil In Her Heart”

“Roll Over Beethoven”

“Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby”

“I’m Happy Just To Dance With You”

 

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

“Don’t Bother Me”

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

“I Need You”

“You Like Me Too Much”

“Think For Yourself”

“If I Needed Someone”

“Taxman”

“Love You To”

“I Want To Tell You”

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

“Blue Jay Way”

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

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

“The Inner Light”

“Sour Milk Sea” (Jackie Lomax)

 

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

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

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

“Piggies”

“Long, Long, Long”

“Savoy Truffle”

 

And then…

“Only A Northern Song”

“It’s All Too Much”

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

 

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

Then…

“Old Brown Shoe”

“Something”

“Here Comes The Sun”

“I Me Mine”

“For You Blue”

 

Not to mention or forget…

 

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

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

Songs from the Doris Troy solo album of 1970

Songs from the Billy Preston solo album of 1970…

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

“And that is all I want to say…

Our love could save the day…

And that is all I’m living for…

Your love and nothing more

 

That is all…”

 

 

 

Peace, love and harrisongs forever !

 

 

Dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the return of progressive rock…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if you know what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂