The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 3: 1990s

Garbage

The 1990s spawned a wonderfully diverse and interesting selection of musical acts ranging from the heavier music of Alice in ChainsPearl JamJane’s AddictionDinosaur Jr, Foo Fighters, and Nirvana to the more intellectual (perhaps) music of bands such as R.E.M.SoundgardenThe LemonheadsThe Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, and the wonderful Garbage.

 

 

 

The Foo Fighters

This in almost stark contrast to the music of the early 1980s, which began with a whimper rather than a bang with all of those synthy / poppy bands from the UK – sees a real return to harder rock music, to heavy guitar music, in a much more powerful and possibly closer to the 1970s in lineage way – the 90s rocked hard.

 

 

 

Motörhead

One of the main examples of a band that really, really rocked hard, perhaps the hardest, is the redoubtable Motörhead. led by the late, great Lemmy.  This type of extremely heavy, extremely fast rock became one of the hallmarks of 1990s hard rock – and Motörhead – with Lemmy at the helm – definitely led the way.

 

 

 

Faith No More

Alternative Metal also sprang forth in great numbers during the 1990s, which saw many very popular bands such as ToolHelmet, the very underrated Faith No MoreRed Hot Chilli Peppers and Rage Against the Machine to name but a few – representing a thriving alternative music scene with some powerful new sounds emerging.

Industrial Metal also gained popularity during the 1990s, in the form of Nine Inch NailsMarilyn MansonMinistry, and the amazing German band, Rammstein.

 

NIN

Nine Inch Nails

In the main, this was a fairly new form of music for the 1990s; although 1980s antecedents such as Killing Joke might lend credence to the notion of a fusion of metal and punk as the ingredients of this new genre – with the additional third element of electronica added in – and one of the best examples of that holy trinity of styles would be the oft-overlooked Prodigy.

Bjork

The 90s also brought us trip-hop, another new genre explored by artists such as Portishead, and Björk,slow-moving beat-based electronic music.

 

Meanwhile, Indie Rock proponents such as Sonic Youth and Pixies rose up in the underground scene, with bands such as Pavement,  Yo La TengoThe BreedersSuperchunkDinosaur Jr.Guided by VoicesLiz Phair, and The Flaming Lips quickly following in their footsteps.

Oasis

But for many, what kept real rock alive in the 1990s was the resurgence of rock in the United Kingdom otherwise known as Britpop – a massive phenomena in early 90s Britain – featuring a number of popular, chart-topping bands such as  BlurSuedePulpManic Street PreachersElasticaSupergrassThe Verve and of course, the remarkable Oasis.

 

These in turn provided the impetus for the success of the more provincial “Madchester” bands hailing from Manchester in the U.K., such as Happy Mondays, and The Stone Roses.

 

Radiohead

What happened after Oasis, then? – well, post-Britpop – a new batch of musical acts appeared with the likes of the VerveTravisStereophonicsFeeder, with the extremely popular band Radiohead leading the way towards the latter half of the decade.

 

Britney Spears

I haven’t really got the space to add in all of the other genres of music that had famous 1990s practitioners, for example – over in the pop universe, such remarkable phenomena as Britney Spears, or even farther outside my own mostly progressive rock world – artists such as  Janet JacksonMariah CareyTLC, or Robert Fripp‘s favourite singer, the redoubtable Whitney Houston.

 

 

The Spice Girls

I am obliged legally to mention the rise “manufactured pop” which had existed for a long, long time in one form or another, but reached a new zenith with the “creation” or rather, “fabrication” of huge stars such as the incredibly popular Spice Girls.  Manufactured boy bands and girl bands proliferated to the point of total oversaturation and have lead to the kind of “X-Factor” or “Britain’s Got Talent” environment we are forced to live in now.

 

I blame the Spice Girls for that.  And the Monkees, the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds before them.  Shudder.

But enough of this very incomplete list (above) of bands popular in the 1990s, which while not complete, at least gives you an idea of what kind of music was in the air during this most curious of decades – and onto my own concert experience in this new world of industrial metal and slow moving trip hop – and of course for me, eternally stuck in the music of the 60s and 70s – my “1990s Concert Experience” will be mostly comprised of the music I know and love, along with a sprinkling of newer artists to try and expand my limited range of musical interests – in every decade, I tried to attend a few “atypical” shows – shows that I wouldn’t normally think about attending (such as, as noted below, “Earthworks” – or later on, “The Innocence Mission”) – just to experience something new.

 

DAVE STAFFORD CONCERT ATTENDANCES – THE 1990s:

1990

This year was like any other year full of exciting live concerts that I might attend, and I started out with a fairly small number of shows, mainly from artists I already favoured and had seen in previous years – but not, possibly, in their newest 1990s incarnations.

A young Todd Rundgren

These 1990s performances I witnessed included Todd Rundgren, Peter Hammill (as always, meaning a trip up to Los Angeles to see him at the famous Roxy Theatre), and the incredibly capable guitarist Robert Fripp, this time performing acoustically with the remarkable League Of Crafty Guitarists.

Also, there was at least one new excursion into a completely different kind of music than I was accustomed to – I went to see Bill Bruford’s “Earthworks” live at the Royal Festival Hall in London – since I had to be there then anyway – and that was a very, very different  experience musically speaking.

ph

A young Peter Hammill

Being what I guess can only be described as “modern jazz” – I did enjoy it on a musical level, but it also confirmed for me that I am firmly rooted in the clutches of rock, pop, and progressive rock – and I don’t really stray outside of that very often.

But I am glad I saw them, and it was a great venue too – always nice to attend a concert on what was then foreign soil but is now, home.  Bruford and his band of stalwart jazzers put on a very respectable show – and for what it was, I did enjoy it – but – King Crimson live it was not!

1991

Crowded House – circa 1991

1991 was a somewhat different year – which began, again, with the ever-touring Todd Rundgren (whose music, if I am honest, I was enjoying a bit less each time I went to see him) but this time, I took in Crowded House (this incarnation, with Tim Finn, band leader Neil’s older brother – both alumni of the remarkable New Zealand band Split Enz – joining the band, so I got to hear the Finn Brother’s amazing vocal harmonies in person) – this was and is, my favourite incarnation of this band, the “Woodface” tour and album – a fantastic show.

 

 

Tin Machine

Another real highlight of ’91 was that I finally, after many, many years of constantly missing him, finally got to see David Bowie performing live – and what a performance – with his new band Tin Machine – with the astonishingly brilliant and talented Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar – this band rocked my socks off – they were fantastic live – just plain two guitars bass and drums rock and roll.

 

I was kinda glad I didn’t go to a “normal” Bowie concert, which would probably have been a bit like listening to a Greatest Hits compilation – seeing him play with Tin Machine was very real, very vibrant and you could see in his eyes and in the infectious grin he had on stage – that he was having the time of his life with his little rock band!  It was most excellent – and, I gained a new guitar hero in Reeves Gabrels, whose career I have followed ever since – an absolutely fabulous and uniquely intriguing lead guitarist with a very personal and unmistakable style – an awesome guitarist!

 

1992

1992 was an unusual “quiet year” for live shows, starting out with a very small, intimate performance by the very talented California Guitar Trio at a small bookshop – the Better World Galleria – in San Diego, California.  This was at a time when I was still very involved in Guitar Craft so I am actually acquainted with the guys in the band and I think that they invited me personally to attend – so I did – and as they always do, the Trio put on an excellent performance.

The rest of the year was dominated by two very important and significant events, the first of which was seeing my third and final BeatleRingo Starr.  In 1974, I had managed to see George Harrison at the LA Forum with Ravi Shankar, and Paul McCartney in ’76 during his Wings Over America tour, but to date I had never managed to see John Lennon (I never did) or Ringo Starr – from my favourite band of all time –

Ringo Starr – White Album Sessions 1968

The Beatles.  So when I had the chance to see Ringo with his All-Starr Band – who, in 1992, included the aforementioned Todd Rundgren on lead guitar – how could I say no?

Seeing Ringo live was a far, far more musical and brilliant experience than you might have thought, and with all of the other musical guests in the band it became more of a star-studded walk down several different memory lanes – the Beatles one being of course one of the most important ones. Ringo‘s son Zak Starkey was incredibly capable as the band’s main drummer – with Ringo joining in when he wasn’t busy singing or being the MC of the show.

Rundgren performed a version of his song “Black Maria” which Ringo had apparently requested as his favourite Rundgren track – while the band supported Ringo through the expected Beatle hits – including a very moving “With A Little Help From My Friends” where the crowd totally got behind Ringo when he hits the high note at the end – the crowd just went wild – and it was really, really a much better experience than I thought it might have been – thoroughly enjoyable.

So in 1992 – I got to experience the third and final Beatle I would manage to see perform live, despite that band breaking up way, way back in 1970 when I was still very young (but already a huge fan of the Beatles – even then).

The second and final concert event for 1992 was another one on “foreign” soil, I once again found myself in London, this time at the Town and Country, for the 20th Anniversary Camel Tour.

This was the first time I got to see Camel  after several missed opportunities in the previous decades – so I was overjoyed as they have always been one of my top favourite bands – and I was not in any way disappointed.  Andy Latimer is surely one of the most talented of all progressive rock guitarists, and seeing him play those remarkable tunes at long last was absolutely fantastic.

Camel – circa 1972

A great show, and a great start to my experiences seeing Camel live – I was fortunately enough to live in California at the same time as Andy Latimer, so I saw the band a number of times then from Dust & Dreams on through Harbour of Tears – and then again more recently – really recently – I went to see the band performing “Moonmadness” in its entirety at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle just last month (September 9, 2018)  – and they were as absolutely brilliant as ever.  The very best of prog.

 

1993

1993 was a very, very unique year for me in that I saw certain groups that had such a lasting and enormous impact on me both as a listener and as a musician – it’s a year like no other, when at least two of the bands I saw that year – only really EXISTED during that year – and it meant that this was a very special year indeed for live music.

The first of two concerts I attended featuring the Robert Fripp String Quintet – at the fantastic Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California – this band was absolutely unique and only existed I believe, as a live performance project  – their one album is a live album.

A rare photo of the Robert Fripp String Quintet performing live in 1995

This band was really a combination of Robert Fripp on lead guitar and soundscapes, Trey Gunn (of King Crimson) on Stick, and the California Guitar Trio on acoustic guitars – an unusual musical marriage of the acoustic and electric sides of Robert Fripp.

 

The music that this group played was so unique and so exquisitely beautiful that I’ve never forgotten the beauty and heartbreak of hearing pieces like the incredible “Hope” performed live – and then, the climax of each concert was one of the most dissonant, out-there Fripp Soundscape performances ever created – the “Threnody For Souls In Torment” – I think the title says it all.

So from great beauty to great dissonance – this band could do it all, and in the space of one performance you would experience an almost bewildering array of ever changing musical beauty and emotion – as well as technical prowess so powerful as to leave you breathless – a band that you just had to see if you could – and one of Robert’s best spin-off projects – perhaps the best.

My next concert for 1993 was something very, very different indeed – again, at the remarkable Belly Up Tavern – this time, it was Soukous music from the Congo (Zaire) in the person of Kanda Bongo Man – whose band is the only modern band that plays Congolese-inspired music like the music I heard growing up in East Africa.

Kanda Bongo Man – Live

I had recently been listening to quite a lot of music by this group, so when I saw they were playing live, I hastened to get tickets – and it turned out to be an absolutely awesome evening of live African music from a very, very capable band with a truly great lead singer and performer – the Kanda Bongo Man himself.

This one definitely falls under the category of “shows I would never normally attend” but as I grew up in East Africa, I have a huge soft spot for this kind of twin lead guitar based music – and the guitar playing I witnessed that evening was absolutely fascinating and very faithfully recreated the music I remembered – interlocking lead guitars not a million miles away from the sound of Fripp and Belew’s interlocking lead guitars on the 1981 King Crimson masterpiece “Discipline”!!

I’m very glad indeed, that I attended this most unusual show – and I think it’s definitely a good idea to occasionally go outside your comfort zone and go see a concert that you would never ever think to go see – and for me, in 1993, this was the one.

Next on my agenda was a trip up the coast to San Juan Capistrano to the renowned Coach House, to see a second, even better performance by the Robert Fripp String Quintet – and the fact that I got to see this truly magical group play not once, but twice is something for which I am eternally grateful.

As if Fripp’s amazing Quintet was not enough – a unique and unusual live performance – the next thing that happened in 1993 was yet another one of a kind, limited edition short-lived musical projects – and I

Robert Fripp & David Sylvian circa 1993

am talking now about the absolutely stunning “SylvianFripp” – the somewhat unlikely musical meeting of the minds of the former leader of art-rockers Japan with the Guitarist of the Crimson King.

 

I drove up to Los Angeles to see this one, and I remember something unusual – I went with my then bandmate Bryan Helm of The Dozey Lumps and Bindlestiff – and I don’t recall that we ever went to many concerts together, but it was unusual to have another musician to discuss the music with afterwards – and we both thoroughly enjoyed this most amazing performance – the official “Sylvian-Fripp” album, which had been released some months previous to this concert – did pale justice to the monstrous force of the live performance unit – the studio album lacks quite a bit of the punch of the live outfit – and it wasn’t until the live album “Damage” came out, that you could hear on record just how powerful this band was.

The songs are some of Sylvian‘s best, and in the live setting, they also did surprising numbers from the Gone To Earth album (that Fripp had played lead guitar on previously) or even Fripp‘s own tune “Exposure” – the oft-recorded Exposure that has been sung by various singers over time – and Sylvian the latest in a long line of Exposure vocalists.  But the main events were some of the extended tracks where Fripp went full-frontal Hendrix Assault Guitar on us – and I will never forget the screaming, shredding blasts of amazing moving chords that Fripp unleashed on an unsuspecting audience at the Wiltern Theatre that night on tracks such as “Darshan” – that was absolutely a mind-blowing performance.

Seeing both the Robert Fripp String Quintet, and then, just a few months later, seeing the Sylvian-Fripp live concert, all in the same year, was very nearly unbelievable and the sheer virtuosity and musicianship of both of these projects involving Robert Fripp was absolutely undeniable – it changed me as a guitarist forever.

 

1994

Every decade has it’s truly quiet year, and this year – for the 1990s – for whatever reason – was my quietest.  According to my research so far – I only attended one concert this year – but it was a most unusual one – I had been listening to a CD called “Pieces of Africa” by

Kronos

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet so I decided to go and see them play live – a third entrant, perhaps, to the “atypical” concerts that I like to add into my schedule from time to time – one of those concerts I would not normally think about attending.

 

But I remember a very intriguing and very different musical experience – this group are known for their almost chameleon-like ability to move between musical styles from strictly classical to works such as the aforementioned “Pieces Of Africa” to interesting string quartet interpretations of rock music.

One standout moment for me – a real surprise – when the band suddenly kicked into an all-strings version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” – and it sounded incredible! – it doesn’t get more rock and roll than that – of course, in a strictly classical music setting!  Fascinating show.

 

1995

Well – the Decade Of The Fripp continues in full swing…

Fripp-Soundscapes2

Soundscapes – Rack Configuration

…and 1995 started out with two shows in a row from Mr. Fripp – this time, performing his live guitar magic – the magic known now as “Soundscapes” (formerly: “Frippertronics“) – I attended two identically-configured shows, one on January 27th and again on January 28th, which featured the remarkably talented and capable California Guitar Trio as the opening act, and then Fripp‘s Soundscape performance followed.

What is a Soundscape?, you may ask – well, Fripp states on the Discipline Global Mobile web site that Soundscapes “has the aim of finding ways in which intelligence and music, definition and discovery, courtesy and reciprocation may enter into the act of music for both musician and audience”.

Soundscapes really have to be experienced live to fully appreciate their amazing sonic qualities – the recordings, which are generally speaking all live anyway – don’t quite do them justice without the visual aspect of seeing Robert sending notes to different loopers

Fripp-Frippertronics

Frippertronics – The Original System Using Two Revox A77 Reel-To-Reel Tape Recorders

to do different things, playing melodies with different effects or guitar synth voices to provide musical textural variety, and also, the sound of a brilliantly-conceived stereo electric guitar system live in the room – it’s an amazing immersive experience, and whether you like Soundscapes or not – they are really something to experience live.

 

I was lucky enough to see this remarkable show at least twice, because I’d also seen a rehearsal that year that Robert did, when I was on a Guitar Craft course, where he used the assembled Crafties (those of us on the course that year) as guinea pigs – did we mind if he tested his system?  No – we did not mind.  So I’d seen a similar show to these, done in the big room at Ojai, California – during a Guitar Craft course – so my own experience of Soundscapes is a bit more varied than most – and I feel very fortunate indeed to have had the additional amazing experience of seeing and hearing Robert do an entire Soundscape performance in a room in an Ojai facility.

Of course, I was also able, on that course, to get a decent look at Robert’s pedal board, so when I finished the Course, I went straight to Guitar Centre and bought the same pitch shifter that RF was using – and I used that for years – it was fantastic, because of course with a little work, I could pretty much get exactly the same live two octaves up sound that he did – it sounded great.  (Note:  the pedal in question was the Digitech Whammy II – a great pitch pedal at the time).

 

Fripp-Soundscapes

Soundscapes

 

After starting the year out on the high of getting to see the Trio twice followed by Robert Fripp twice, a few months passed and then, not to my surprise, I found myself sitting at Copley Symphony Hall on June 28, 1995 – waiting for the new “double trio” version of King Crimson to take the stage – so my third Robert Fripp concert of the year and my third concert containing Robert Fripp that year – 1995 was definitely the Year Of The Fripp for me!

 

KC Double Trio2

King Crimson – Double Trio Configuration – circa 1995

King Crimson were very, very accomplished and very, very powerful, and this was the first time I had seen this “new” incarnation – which meant it was the first concert experience of tracks such as “Dinosaur” which I thought was absolutely astonishing – and also, the beautiful side of the double trio, as represented by the very gorgeous “Walking On Air” – sung beautifully by Belew, with both Fripp and Belew playing clean, reverse guitars – a plethora of stunningly gorgeous reverse guitar sound – fantastic!

 

The final part of my wonderful 1995 concert experience was dedicated to a new interest I had developed in the 1990s – in a band from the East Coast of the United States called “The Innocence Mission” – I’d heard (or seen, rather?) an MTV video late one night by this band, and on a whim, I bought their first album – which I very much enjoyed.   I began to follow them, and continued to buy their albums and then, logically, when I heard they were to be playing live – I went to see them.

InnocenceMission3

The Innocence Mission

The band consists of a husband and wife team, who play guitars and keyboards / guitars respectively, although wife Karen Peris sings most of the lead vocals, they both sing – and the band has had various supporting members over the years – to the point where I believe they are now down to just a duo at the present time.  When I saw them in 1995 – they still had a full band of drums, bass, lead guitar, and piano or acoustic guitar played by Karen Peris.

 

 

So my final concert experience of 1995 was seeing this remarkable new group playing live – and it was a revelation – the songs, some seemingly so fragile that you thought they might break while being sung – others more upbeat, but all with a lovely positive light about them.  I absolutely loved their second and third albums (Umbrella and Glow, respectively) and I continued on following them for many, many years after those albums, too.

 

InnocenceMission2

The Innocence Mission – Full Band

I am so glad I took the chance to just buy the first Innocence Mission CD sound-unheard – and I really liked it – and that really brought me years and years of enjoyment, allowing me to see this band more than once live in a concert setting, and enjoying their records throughout the 90s and beyond.  A really nice way to end the year, with a tight, organised show featuring some of the most beautiful, delicate and fantastic songs – really gorgeous music – and Don Peris is a very accomplished guitarist too whose playing I also very much enjoy.

Another happy accident – and I can now proudly add this band to the list of bands that I admire and enjoy listening to…the Innocence Mission.

 

1996

Although no ticket stubs survive from this year, I am aware of at least a couple of shows I attended – the first – being a second concert by The Innocence Mission – I believe this would be for their third album “Glow” which meant new songs, and new chances to

KarenPeris

Karen Peris

see the remarkable Karen Peris sit at the piano and sing the most beautiful songs in the universe – and it was another incredible night – which ended with the chance for a brief conversation with the Peris couple – they were both really accommodating and very kind – so I had a fantastic experience at this second really quality performance by this then-up-and-coming indie band.  Really enjoyable.

 

I should note here that both times I saw The Innocence Mission, they were accompanied by another band, called 16 Horsepower, that opened for The Innocence Mission on both occasions.  They were not really to my taste, but it was interesting music – the lead singer was a kind of tortured soul (??) and his vocal approach and lyrics were provocative and interesting – so it lent some interesting contrast to the more straightforward beauty of the songs of Karen and Don Peris.

 

The final big musical event of 1996 for me, was a second visit from King Crimson, again, in Double Trio mode – this time, at a strange outdoor gig in San Diego at a new venue called “Hospitality Point” (i kid you not) and I was roped in – thanks to my involvement with Guitar Craft – into the job of handing out flyers to the punters as they entered the performance area.

This particular King Crimson performance was very significant to me, first of all – the band had improved and moved on since the first time I’d seen them at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego, the year before – and they had expanded their repertoire somewhat too – and that was why I particularly did not want to miss this particular show – because I had heard that they were now performing the classic King Crimson song “21st Century Schizoid Man” – so after being a fan of the band for many, many years, and seeing them play four or five times by this point – I finally got to hear them play Schizoid Man – and it was immaculate – when they got to the famous “precision” section near the end of the song – the whole band dropped down, and they played those famous precision riffs – perfectly in time, six bodies united in sound – and it really was impressive – they got the HARDEST part of one of the band’s most difficult songs – exactly right – the way it should be.

I was impressed to say the least.  Also had been rewarded with a back stage pass, but really didn’t do much except watch Tony Levin walk past – everyone was in hiding after what was probably an exhausting show.  Another great King Crimson experience – the Double Trio was loud, they were incredibly talented musicians – and for me – it really worked – I loved that version of the band – and I’m very happy not only that I got to see them play twice, but also that I finally, finally got to see the band – any version of the band – play “21st Century Schizoid Man” – live.  An experience, in my opinion, well worth waiting for – after all, I’d been waiting since 1981, really – when the band first re-emerged – so just the 15 years had passed – until one version of the band finally learned the song!

 

1997

This was an interesting year – and it started out with a very unusual an interesting show in a somewhat unusual venue – a guitar shop in Santa Monica, California called “McCabe’s Music”.  “McCabe’s” was well-known for their very small, intimate acoustic performances – they had a small concert space upstairs – that seated perhaps 70 or 80 people (?) and I can remember being very excited about going to a concert at this famous guitar shop – I remember I went early, so I could look at the guitars and so on – and browsed around in there for perhaps an hour – before they threw us all out so we could all come back in again for the show – or, maybe they let us stay in – I can’t recall.

The artist we were all waiting to see is the very famous British musician – guitarist and songwriter Roy Harper, doing a rare appearance in California playing live upstairs at McCabe’s – news of the show was just out of the blue – but I wasn’t about to miss this – my first chance to see Roy Harper live.

RoyHarper

Roy Harper in more recent times

I was not disappointed – two very good sets of amazing music later, I was stunned by the man’s ability to perform these utterly unique and very specifically his songs – he writes songs like no other – many of them hard-hitting, others, the most tender love songs you might imagine – any cross-section of any dozen songs from any Roy Harper album will give you a set of songs that covers a massive range of emotion and colour and humanism and beauty.

 

He is a poet, writer, activist – outraged and angry peacenik – and I loved this crazy, nutty Englishman and his eccentric music – and his voice – his voice is an instrument in itself, and clever use of delay and reverb live lends itself to some stunning vocal performances along with his lone acoustic guitar – he often managed to sound like a lot more than one man with a guitar.

Those two shows are among my most prized memories – and when Roy came back after the intermission – he was noticeably relaxed, I think that the McCabe’s staff had possibly supplied him with some high quality California cannabis-derived product of some kind – so the second set started out with Roy just laughing for about five minutes – and the audience laughing with him and at him – it was hilarious – and then, he turned in a performance that was even better than the stunningly good first set!

A remarkable experience indeed, and while I was able to see Roy on other occasions later on – this first time was definitely the best time – an intimate venue, and a great performance from someone who is a National treasure – there is only one Roy Harper – friend of Jimmy Page – 1960s minstrel – stoned hippie free love advocate – poet and singer extraordinaire.

Next on the agenda then, for 1997, was the first of a number of shows by Camel – the first time I’d seen them in five years – Andy Latimer was now living somewhere in Northern California, and had his new version of Camel playing up and down the California coast for quite a few years.

I think that this year would probably have been the concert for Dust & Dreams, which is a fantastic album in it’s own right, and I absolutely love the music of Camel but in particular, I love the flute and guitar playing of leader/lead singer/lead guitarist Andy Latimer, and it did my heart good to see Andy doing so well, with a FANTASTIC new band – the first time I saw new bassist Colin Bass in the band – and playing fantastic new

Camel2

Andy Latimer – Camel’s Guitar Genius

material too – I’ve seen Camel four or five times now, across the years – and the performances have all been uniformly immaculate and of the highest musical quality – Andy knows how to arrange a proggy tune!  So this latest new incarnation of Camel – was OK by me – and I went to see them more than once.

 

To this day, I would say that Camel in a way, represent what “Progressive Rock” is and what it should be – more than almost any other band.  And the performance I witnessed just last month – where the band played the entire “Moonmadness” album without stopping – then, took a break, and then came out and played a LONG set of classic Camel music – and they were stupendous.

Only Colin Bass remained now in 2018, from the 1997 lineup – so they had a new drummer (Denis Clement) and keyboard player (Pete Jones) for the Moonmadness 2018 tour – and the new keyboard player Pete Jones has an amazing voice – so this new Camel, the 2018 Camel – has the best live vocal approach I have ever heard the band have!

They even attempted – and easily pulled off – a live three part harmony – and the two part harmony singing between Latimer and the very,  very accomplished new keyboard player Pete Jones was absolutely spot on throughout – raising their game as a live performance act even further.  And Latimer has battled on despite ill health – the man is an absolute legend!

Marillion2

Fish – Marillion’s Original (And Best) Singer

1997 continues with another legendary concert – the final tour of Marillion where their lead singer was still named Fish.  The tour for then-new album “Clutching At Straws” – remarkably, Marillion had done the impossible by making a followup album, to their hugely successful mid 1980s album “Misplaced Childhood” that was just as good if not better – I actually prefer it – and so had upped their game musically – and I was excited to hear the band playing this new album – I’d seen them playing “Misplaced Childhood” previously when I’d seen them live in San Diego; this time, I traveled up to the old reliable Coach House, to see Fish‘s last stand with Marillion – of course, we didn’t know it was his last tour with the band – but the writing was on the wall.

 

The show at the Coach House that night was absolutely amazing and I had a fantastic time – the band were so precise, and this was a great new bunch of songs – and I think their performance this year, on this tour – was miles beyond what I’d seen previously when I saw them live – and to my mind – still never exceeded by the “new Marillion” – the one with the singer NOT named Fish.  That Marillion – has never quite come up with another album that thrills me as much as the brutally honest and self-examining “Clutching At Straws” does.

At one point during the performance Fish was supposed to do a costume change – but he told the audience instead – “I’m supposed to do a costume change now but I will be damned if I am going to go up and down those BLOODY stairs one more time” – to which the audience ROARED in pleased approval and Fish just got on with the next song – wearing the wrong costume – the music was all that mattered – and that was his way of reminding us of that fact.

It was a great show and I think an example of Marillion at their very best!

Finally to round out a very exciting and concert-filled year, another show by Todd Rundgren – this time, played at the smaller, more intimate Belly Up Tavern, and if memory serves me correctly, this was the year that he finally played “No. 1 Lowest Common Denominator” live – which was a song that I dearly loved from the 1974 “Todd” double LP – that despite seeing Todd several times since first seeing him with Utopia in 1977 – it wasn’t until 20 years later – here in 1997 – that I actually got to see and hear him play this remarkable song.

Todd2

Todd Rundgren in recent years

It was a concert for me, of mixed emotions – with highs like that, but also with lows in that some of the newer songs that Todd was performing, just didn’t sit too well with me – I was losing interest in a lot of his newer music – while still very much liking and appreciating his back catalogue.

 

 

Each year, it seemed, Todd’s shows more and more favoured the newer, less interesting and creative songs, and every year, the number of older, interesting, and very creative songs from his best albums, dwindled and dwindled until they became almost non-existent. There also seemed to be less and less emphasis on his substantial abilities as a lead guitarist, and more emphasis on acoustic, piano or other non-virtuoso performance material – in other words – he stopped playing guitar – or at least –  cut it way back.

Later on in his career, he did somewhat remedy this by playing a lot of the older material again – and playing more guitar again – but he had long before that kinda “lost” me.  This may well have been the very last time (to coin a phrase lol) I went to see Todd play – I am not sure.

 

1998

At this point, the haze of time and memory, has drawn a curtain over the decade – and only a couple of glimpses of that clouded memory remain – I have only one entry for 1998, and that was for a new band – a band I had recently discovered by a most unusual method for me – I had heard their new single on the radio, and felt like I had to have that record.  I never hear records on the radio.  But in this case – that’s actually how it happened.

KsChoice

K’s Choice – Sarah & Gert Bettens

That record, turned out to be “Everything For Free” – a wonderful (and also somewhat bittersweet) tale of how everything is free and paid for when you live in a lunatic asylum – from the point of view of someone – an inmate – called “Billy” – as sung by Sarah Bettens – who is showing a visitor around their gilded psychologically-demanded prison and explaining how he gets “everything for free” – it’s a chilling and beautiful tune with a biting, socially aware lyric – by the remarkable Dutch – or perhaps Dutch/American band “K’s Choice“.

 

I bought their brand new 1998 album – “Cocoon Crash”  on the strength of hearing that one song one time driving home – and fell in love.  This was to me, a fantastic find – a new band, a new sound, and a remarkable lead female singer in Sarah Bettens – with a unique and unforgettable voice – or rather, a unique brother (on guitar – Gert Bettens) and sister (guitar and vocals – Sarah Bettens) team that harmonised beautifully together.

I’ve never had another chance to see them perform, but I have continued to buy their albums and follow their career – this band, and in particular the string of albums they made from 1998 probably into the first part of the next decade – really resonate with me.  “Cocoon Crash” is probably my personal favourite, but they have made a number of albums of equal quality – this is a talented and capable band.

The performance took place in tiny, tiny beach front club in a suburb of San Diego called “Mission Beach” – a place I lived when I was a teenager.  The club was very, very small but the band rocked hard and loud, and sounded absolutely amazing – I was blown away by all of the instrumentalists, they were all Dutch except for their bass player who was American – and they played their socks off that night in that tiny place.  Sarah Betten’s voice – and attitude – was unique, infectious and fantastic – and when she came in on third electric guitar the additional noise and din was absolutely amazing – what a great live performance – and, from a band that was brand new for me.

 

1999

The records here completely disappear for a period of time – and it remains unknown if I attended any concerts in the last year of the century or not – I simply do not know – I have so far, not found any ticket stubs or other evidence to show that I did; but should such information become available, I would of course do an update on this blog – so – with K’s Choice and their amazing performance at Cane’s in Mission Beach, California – this decade of concert attendances comes to a somewhat premature end – 1999’s activities remain a complete mystery.

 

 

THE ATYPICALS – A QUICK LOOK

While this concludes the Performances Attended section of the blog, I want to take just a moment to list here, the “new” bands or at least – new to me – i.e. bands that were outside of my experience when I first encountered them in the 1990s – as a contrast to the many bands that I had already been following during the previous two decades.

So while it’s obvious that I have a propensity for bands and artists such as King Crimson, Robert Fripp, Todd Rundgren, Camel, Peter Hammill, and any other classic Prog Rock outfits – the 1990s were, for me, also – a time of new musical awakenings – and while I have provided details of all of these artists in the section above, I thought it was worthwhile compiling a quick list of the “atypical” Dave Stafford concert attendances – those concerts that I would not normally have gone to, or, artists and bands that were either new to me or new in general – which I was encountering and having my first or nearly-first experiences with – through the auspices of seeing them perform live in the 1990s:

The Atypical Bands And Artists List for the 1990s – Dave Stafford’s Concert Attendances:

 

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 1990s is a pretty staggering list of remarkable, talented musicians.

THE 1990s GUITARIST’S HALL OF FAME:

For each decade, I have created a list of the remarkably diverse and talented batch of lead guitarists I have witnessed within the bands or artists I had seen during that decade (see my blogs for the 1970s and the 1980s respectively – and near the bottom of each, you should find a list of guitarists similar to this one following).

 

 

Forward still…on into the distant future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 90s were packed with many, many performances from many of my very favourite musicians – you will see the names of two in particular, cropping up again and again and again in the account above – Todd Rundgren and Robert Fripp – and in the case of Robert Fripp, during this most interesting decade, I managed to see him perform in, actually, five different groups – which is an astonishing feat in itself if you think about it.  I feel very, very fortunate to have been following his career very closely at the time, and that gave me the opportunity to see him play guitar in so many different performance modes – it was simply amazing!

As well as seeing Robert Fripp play many, many times in five different bands, I managed to see a Beatle – my third and final live Beatle experience with the great Ringo Starr – and also managed to see Todd play guitar a few times, and Camel – who I dearly love – twice – once in 1992 and again in 1997 – a very interesting contrasting experience.  On top of so many Prog-based highlights, including seeing the amazing Peter Hammill performing live at the Roxy in Los Angeles at the start of 1990 – I also became familiar with a handful of new or newer groups – and three of those groups became huge favourites of mine over the years.

It was, for me, a really nice mix of shows – heavy on the things I love, and an enormous number of performances by one Robert Fripp – possibly my favourite guitarist of all time – as well as two master classes in Prog Guitar from Mr. Andy Latimer – not to mention the guitar work of Peter Hammill, Todd Rundgren and young Steve Rothery – none of those guys are exactly slouches when it comes to playing electric guitar – and then a light sprinkling of some very diverse new music – covering jazz, classical, African and new kinds folk rock or rock with just a handful of bands – the perfect mix of live concerts of both the “old familiar” and the “new exciting” shows – making for another nearly perfect decade of truly enjoyable concert attendances.

Until next time then – once again my friends ~

 

Dave Stafford
October 5, 2018

 

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

The 2000s – The Naughtiest Decade

 

1990s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)
1990sMaster.jpg

Concert Ticket Stubs – 1990s

 

It was 45 years ago today…

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

EPISODE 1:  The 1970s

 

It actually was – 45 years ago TODAY, literally – today – May 28, 2018 – or for me. in this first of a number of upcoming concert reminiscences – it was actually, May 28, 1973 – and as my first blog of 2018 (finally!) and the first in a series of blogs about live music, concerts, tickets stubs, setlist.fm, and associated items – this one kicks off with a doozy:

The mighty Led Zeppelin – performing live at the San Diego Sports Arena !

Sports Arena

San Diego Sports Arena

The first real ROCK CONCERT I ever went to – I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Grossmont High School, in La Mesa, California – an incredibly gawky, awkward teenage boy with long, straight hair half-way down my back, six foot six of far-too-skinny raging metabolism…and there I was.  Standing up there in the CRUSH at the foot of the stage of the San Diego Sports Arena, waiting for Led Zeppelin, my favourite band – to walk onto the stage.

It was all new to me.  I’d never been in a crowd that large before – never.  I’d never smelled that much…herbal scented smoke before.  I’d never seen the sight that became commonplace for me over the next several years – at the Sports Arena in particular – the sight of dozens of Frisbees flying back and forth, criss-crossing across the length and breadth of the place – and the wonderful haze created by that same scented smoke that cast a mysterious fog over the entire proceedings.   And quite possibly, over my state of mind.

Sports Arena - Seating Chart

San Diego Sports Arena – Seating Chart

People playing, talking excitedly, yelling – cheering – bouncing giant beach balls back and forth, mixed in with the endless frisbees…and all the other fun stuff that people do to pass the time while they wait for their favourite band to come on.  This is one of those experiences that you look back on, and you can quite clearly recall the real sense of excitement that was in that place on that day – this wasn’t just any concert – it was Led Zeppelin – all the way from Britain – to play for San Diego!

 

During the show, I saw a few MORE things I had never seen before – like an attractive girl sat on her boyfriend’s shoulders, proudly displaying both of her bare breasts so that Led Zeppelin, presumably, could have a look at them – along with the other 35,000 people in the audience, of course.  This was a girl – who was NOT shy.  Another first for me.

 

For a 15 year old boy, a boy who was already a guitarist, already trying to be the “NEXT Jimmy Page“, already learning Zeppelin songs and riffs – many of which, I still play to this date – 45 years later – I kept trying to “be” Jimmy Page for a number of years, when I finally decided it might be better to try to be myself on the guitar rather than copy someone else – even someone as talented as Jimmy Page.

 

But as a formative influence – along with Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp, and others – you can’t beat a bit of Mr. Page – a very interesting and very capable guitarist, musician and writer.  If you think too, about the development of Led Zeppelin, just as one example, from the relatively simple chord patterns of  the songs from Led Zeppelin I, say, something like “Communication Breakdown” to the incredibly complex guitar parts that make up the opening track on the band’s fifth album “Houses of the Holy” – the truly remarkable “The Song Remains The Same” – still a personal favourite of mine even after all of those years.

Meanwhile…back in 1973 – there was the long build-up to the show, the endless waiting outside which, eventually and suddenly, became a mad sprint to try to get as close to the stage as possible before everyone else did – once let into the Arena (reserved seating at rock concerts being more a thing of the future, back in 1973) – and then, finally settled in your “spot” inside, the noise and the tension, the sound of the crowd mounting with each passing moment…

 

HousesOfTheHoly-AlbumCoverIt was all incredibly exciting…and finally, when the band did hit the stage – it was another first for me – the first time I had ever heard a real rock band, a PROPER rock band, mind you – the mighty Led Zeppelin no less, in their prime, in the year 1973, touring behind their just-in-the-shops fifth album “Houses Of The Holy” – I’d never heard a proper rock band play rock music AT VOLUME.  And it was…LOUD.  To this day, 45 years later exactly…I am not sure I’ve heard a louder band.

 

Except perhaps – for Led Zeppelin themselves when I saw them again – twice – in 1975!!

Each year, the PA stacks at the Sports Arena seemed to grow ever larger. the number of and the size and power of the speakers increasing each time, the power behind the systems getting to be more and more each year – so it seemed to me, that if anything, that bands got LOUDER as the 70s went on – until the PA systems sort of began to plateau as Super Huge Size – where they all pretty much sound the same – from a distance, anyway.

 

Led Zeppelin IV-Album Cover

But – intense volume aside – I was hooked.  Seeing this show – set me up for a lifetime of concert going – and what a way to start!  Seeing my favourite band, playing amazing live versions of the songs that I loved – was such a positive experience for me – and after seeing Zep, I embarked on a journey that now, when I look back on it over the long, long span of time – 45 years ago today – when it all began – I just feel so, so thankful, fortunate – even lucky – to have had those concert experiences.

 

 

This series of blogs then, of which this is the first – will attempt to document my concert-going experiences decade by decade, until such time as I reach the present day.  Having the analytical and basic set list / concert listing tools available via setlist.fm has been so incredibly useful when it comes to bringing these memories alive, I would encourage you to go and have a look at the list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm to see the full list of concerts attended not only in the 1970s, but from 1973 to the present day – an invaluable resource to me throughout the process of preparing and formulating this series of music blogs.

Earlier this year, I had my 60th birthday, and for some unknown reason, during that week, I started looking into just what concerts I HAD been to, and what they were, when they were and where they were.  I had no idea that this vague thought I had had – “I wonder how many concerts I’ve actually been to over the years…” would lead to the experience that it has – which has been extremely eye-opening for me in so many ways.  This “thought” eventually culminated in the completion of my list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm as well as the completion of cataloguing and photographing my quite substantial collection of concert ticket stubs, which will be presented photographically along with these live concert experience blogs.

So while it started in 1973 – it still hasn’t ended, and later this year (2018), it will be more shows from the incredibly powerful King Crimson live, one of the most remarkable progressive rock groups spawned originally during the 1960s – when Led Zeppelin was also born (1968 was a good year to start a band).   I am very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Crimson again – each year, they come up with more and more “unlikely early repertoire”,  not to mention some pretty credible new repertoire – to absolutely amaze and delight me and the other long time fans of the band.

So – the act of listening has moved forward through time with me, I continue to engage with artists old and new whose music I respect or revere even, and I am all the richer for it – there is nothing on earth, for me, as exhilarating as a quality live performance by musicians who are committed fully to their craft.

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – 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 such as:

…and the like – all bands or artists that I never did see when I lived in the United States – and I spent the majority of my adult live, utterly convinced that I would never, ever get the chance to see some of these remarkable musicians and performers – and yet, somehow – it has happened!  Much to my ever-lasting astonishment and delight.  So I’ve managed to make up for a lot of gaps in my musical education just by merit of living in Central Scotland!

Building Up The List Of Concerts Attended

Thanks to some modern / technological innovations, even the act of “figuring out” what shows I have attended over the years, is supported and made possible – in the main instance, I began, that same week of my 60th birthday, to use a tool with which many of you may be familiar – the website known as “setlist.fm”.

setlist.fm is, simply put, a remarkable web site dedicated to preserving the memory of musical performances, but doing so in such a way that each user – that’s you and me – anyone – everyone – can easily find the concerts they attended, and “add them” to the list of shows that they have personally attended.  It also allows for setlists to be built, too, so that the songs that were played at each gig, if they are known – can be input, stored, and then viewed by subsequent users.

It also gives us the opportunity to rectify errors that have been made historically, or clarify points about a performance or performances or artists or any number of details about an event.  So with this kind of capability, I find that setlist.fm is really the ideal tool for building up your own personal history of concert-going, which is also then of course. possible to share with others, too – since each profile is public.

It also gives you a lot of insight into your own experiences of concert-going, that you would not have been aware of.  For example – this blog, is focusing on the 1970s – when I first began attending live concerts – and in the seven years of the 1970s that I was actively going to concerts (1973 – 1979), I am able to determine from setlist.fm that I attended at least 55 concerts in that first seven year period (I only began going to live concerts in 1973, so of course I have zero concerts for the years 1970, 71, and 72).  You can also view programmed statistics that can tell you a lot about your own experiences – and, the experiences of others, too.

The featured image (see below) for this blog is a photograph of the surviving concert ticket stubs – my own personal collection – of at least some of the ticket stubs that I managed to save out of the approximately 55 shows I attended during the 1970s.   I wish now that I had kept all 55, but if you think about it – it’s a small miracle that even the handful of survivors DID make it across 45 years, a continent, and an ocean – to be then collected and photographed as part of the preparation of this series of blogs.  Each decade brings a different set of bands, and a different set of ticket stubs from my own personal collection to accompany the blog for each specific decade.

As one example of how that can turn out to be interesting – when I was busy working on my own list of attended concerts at setlist.fm I began to notice something – that a certain other user, with an initially unfamiliar username – seemed to always be shown as someone who had attended many, many – an unnaturally large number of – the exact same San Diego and surrounding area concerts that I had attended.  I mean – this person was ALWAYS in the list.

I began to wonder if this was someone I knew, perhaps someone who I had gone to school with or even had been in a band with, perhaps – or any number of possibilities. After about a week or so of continually seeing this person’s username, every single time I entered another concert I had attended in or near San Diego, California – that I sent them a message, explaining who I was and asking them whether I knew them, since they had so obviously been at so very many of the same live shows that I had been to.  Curiously, a day or so after I wrote to them, I found that they had actually written to me a day or two before I contacted them – but I had not noticed the email for some unknown reason.

UK-TrioAs it turned out, I didn’t previously know this person, but as we corresponded, and started talking about some of our shared concert experiences via email – including some truly and memorable events, such as the day we were both at Licorice Pizza records in San Diego, where we met the band U.K. – on one of those “in-store” appearances, on the day of their concert that night – where they were actually opening for the mighty Jethro Tull.

 

For people like my new friend (who still lives in the San Diego area to this day) and myself – it was a rare chance to meet and interact with some of the musicians who we admired.  And it did seem strange to me, to have shared so many extraordinary experiences with someone that I have never “met” – but in fact, I pretty much feel like we’ve been friends for years – possibly because of those vintage, shared memories – who can say?

JohnWetton

For me personally, getting the chance to meet a former member of King Crimson, the late John Wetton – certainly one of the most innovative and remarkable musicians of our time,  an amazing bass player with a unique and very beautiful voice – speaking with John Wetton was a very interesting and enlightening experience for a young, hopeful musician such as myself.

 

 

So one of the stranger “side-effects” of the setlist.fm experience, in my case was the strange but rather interesting fact that I had spent time with my new pal, in the same room, talking to the same people – even, in the same conversations – and yet, we did not know each other!  And to meet someone now, anyone, who attended some of these same unique gigs that I had been to, after a forty-five year period where there was no such person with whom I shared these experiences to speak to about them – it’s truly remarkable.

 

Unique Musical Events In The 1970s – and at no other time

We have gone on to discuss the long-forgotten details of events such as Robert Fripp‘s amazing appearance at a small Tower Records store (on El Cajon Blvd – now long gone – but – another strange memory – it was right next to the North Star Motel – which is not in itself remarkable, but, “North Star” is one of the standout songs from Fripp’s album of that time, “Exposure” – and that amazing live introduction to Frippertronics, is what set me on a long journey to become a looper, and later, a looping ambient guitarist – I fell in love with the process of looping electric guitar that day – a truly memorable event – and now, I have a new friend with whom I can share the detailed memories of these very special events.

So from a list of concerts on a special web page – you can learn and experience a lot more than what you would think a list of concerts might do.  It was an immensely satisfying task, and I probably did the bulk of the list over a three to four week period, after that, I continued to add just the odd show here or there – ones newly remembered, or ones where I had been missing details – until I finally reached my current total – and it has stayed somewhere around that total (currently as of May 28, 2018 – 209 concerts by 129 different artists!).  That in itself was a surprisingly large number – I had really not expected it to be that large.

 

TheBeatlesIn this blog, I want to touch briefly then, on some of the highlights of the 54 or 55 shows that I attended during the 1970s, which were mostly a mix of rock and progressive rock – I was heavily into and heavily influenced by prog, as it is known, and I was so, so fortunate to live in the times that I have lived – I was born at the end of the 50s, and grew up in the 1960s with the music of the Beatles as the soundtrack to both my childhood and my adolescence.  As the 1970s approached, I broadened my previously-held view that the Beatles were the only band worth listening to, and I began to hear other kinds of music being made, by a whole new kind of musicians – many of whom, were extremely was too young to go and see the Beatles live,influenced by the Beatles themselves !!!

 

 

 

HendrixI was too young to go and see the Beatles live,and just a bit too young to go and see Jimi Hendrix, both of whom played San Diego back in the day, those two bands being my very favourite two bands of the 1960s/70s – a real shame, but – I could NOT have been more perfectly placed on the timeline of my life, to experience fully and enjoy thoroughly, the music of the next generation of rock – the Led Zeppelins, the earliest and best of the proggers, Yes and Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and the like.

 

 

That unique gathering of incredibly diverse and powerful progressive rock titans, was a once in a century event, and I was the perfect age (15) to begin enjoying these amazing rock and progressive rock as they made their way around the world, stopping at San Diego often, and therefore entertaining me with often, repeat performances year after year.  Starting out with Yes, then moving rapidly upwards and onwards through Genesis (with and later, without Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, Strawbs, Roxy Music, E.L.P., U.K. , and Utopia.

What an incredible time to be young and to be able to go and see these amazing progressive rock acts performing – all in the same seven year period – and then, also, onwards through time in the 80s and 90s, too – adding King Crimson to the mix in 1981 – 1984, and again, in the 1990s; and then finally, fast forward to the present day where I was able to see Van Der Graaf Generator multiple times (in both quartet, and in trio format) as well as the absolutely astonishing Thijs Van Leer performing with his band Focus – a band I loved dearly in the 1970s, but did not get to see until much, much later.

I did in fact, manage to almost make up for not seeing the Beatles, by embarking on a side plan of trying to see all four Beatles playing solo concerts – so at least I could hear my biggest musical heroes of all time, singing and playing their instruments live.  I was not disappointed, starting out with my first ever trip to Los Angeles (first time I drove to LA myself) to see the great George Harrison, who put on an absolutely amazing show, that began with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra (my introduction to live Indian music – another great love of mine that I have continued to pursue whenever it was possible) and continued with getting to see and hear George playing a fantastic selection of both his own solo records and songs previously played by the Beatles.

Then, next up, in 1976, I was able to catch Mr. McCartney, on the famed “Wings Over America” tour – which was another totally memorable experience, and the selection of solo numbers and Beatles songs that Paul chose to play, were unique; quite different to George’s choices, and wonderful to experience.

Then followed a long, long gap until I did eventually manage to see my third and final Beatle – the remarkable Ringo Starr.  Again – a performance of solo songs and selected Beatles songs – but truly enjoyable, and the concept of the “All-Starr Band” worked brilliantly – Zak Starkey was the main drummer, with Ringo sometimes joining him on double-drums when the singing duties allowed him to – and with a guitarist of the calibre of Todd Rundgren on hand, no less – well, it was a great night of fun, exciting Ringo and Beatle music.  I will cover these events more specifically when I reach their performing decades (which turns out to be from 1989 thru 2018 – as the “All Starr band”) – but with the sad, sad exception of John Lennon – when in 1980, events took away everyone’s chance of seeing John play live – forever – I did, in time, get to experience first hand, the music of three fourths of the greatest rock band of all time – the boys from Liverpool – the amazing Beatles!

 

The Journey Continues…

However – returning to my journey through the featured decade of the 1970s – I truly feel now that I was indeed, very, very fortunate, the whole decade was so perfectly timed for me – in hindsight, I would not change a thing about it – and although I have always regretted not seeing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the live stage – in another sense, I don’t regret it – because by being too young to go and see those bands – that made me land at the perfect age for that absolutely unique and wonderful decade of true Progressive Rock – from 1967 to 1976.  That was the golden era, the sweet spot, where the impossible-to-exist thing that Prog was, existed in spite of that truth – and I landed nicely near the tail end of that era – beginning my own “concert journey” in May 1973 – exactly 45 years ago today.

Now – at the beginning of this episode, I spoke a bit about my experience at my very first concert, the Led Zeppelin show at the San Diego Sports Arena held on May 28, 1973.  That was however, only the first in a long, long string of shows that I went to – all of them in San Diego I think with one exception which was the George Harrison concert I mentioned earlier – held at the Forum in Los Angeles.

But it was not just limited to Rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Prog bands like Yes and Genesis – there were other experiences, and right off the mark, I went to see one of the finest “southern rock” bands that ever existed – the absolutely brilliant “Allman Brothers“.  Little did I realise, that just a few years later, I would be performing one of their best songs, the lovely “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” with my own band, Slipstream – and that was one of the songs that the Allmans played that night at the Sports Arena.

 

Diversity In 70s Rock:

Actually, when I look at the full list of concerts attended, I actually started out with an incredibly diverse set of bands – they were NOT all of the same genre at all – and I think that is a contributing factor to me liking so many different kinds of music over time.  Those first few shows looked like this:

May 73 – Led Zeppelin (what can I say – it ROCKED!)

September 73 – Boz Scaggs / The Allman Brothers (white soul followed by the precision jamming of the remarkable Allmans – sadly, sans Duane – but they were still incredibly powerful live at this point in time)

March 74 – Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans tour – quadraphonic sound – classic line up Rick Wakeman still in the band)

June 74 – Steely Dan (with, weirdly, Kiki Dee opening – what a strange combination) – this remains, to date, one of the most astonishing musical performances I have ever seen or am ever likely to see – the sheer musicality of this gig was absolutely mind boggling – including two amazing guitarists in Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter – not to mention the insanely talented Donald Fagen on grand piano and – gasp – a synthesizer!

November 74 – Ravi Shankar / George Harrison – please see my comments above.  A mind blowing introduction to live Indian music, followed by my favourite Beatle on lead guitar, slide guitar, and beautifully hoarse vocals – which did not bother me a bit – because I was hearing my favourite Beatle playing slide guitar – and I feel that in some ways – George was the master of the slide – in his own style and in his own way – not in the “Duane Allman” super technical slide playing way – but in a beautiful, careful, lovely way that set George apart from all other slide players.  I loved seeing George and I loved seeing Ravi – a brilliant day!)

January 75 – Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway Tour with Peter Gabriel) – Part of me still can hardly believe that I got to witness this unique musical event – a full four album sides performed without a break – and this then-brand new work was stunning both musically and visually – I had thought that Yes were amazing live, but Genesis were very diverse in their approach to songwriting and quite different – Yes does not have any tunes quite like “Broadway Melody of 1974” or “The Waiting Room” or “Anyway” or “The Light Dies Down On Broadway” – and it was an eye-opening experience for me – realising that there was more to Prog than just the music of the mighty Yes – much, much more, I found out later on…

So from this half-dozen standout shows that I saw in the first couple years of concert going, when I was 15, 16, maybe 17 years old – absorbing musical ideas like a giant sponge – I learned an awful lot from watching rock and prog guitarists play – and solo extensively sometimes – and it was the best possible “music school” I could have gone to – of these half dozen first shows, the diversity of type of music is nothing short of remarkable:

Heavy Rock (Zeppelin)

White Soul (Scaggs) / Southern Rock (Allmans)

Progressive Rock (Yes)

Intelligent Pop (Steely Dan)

Classic Rock (George Harrison)

Progressive Rock / Unusual (Genesis with Peter Gabriel)

Then, if you continue on looking at how my 1970s concert experiences progressed, the musical diversity just goes off scale – taking in many different and unique artists; witnessing live concerts by the amazing Frank Zappa (with Captain Beefheart opening)  or the amazing German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (with British folk-rock legends Strawbs opening – and that was actually, who I was there to see!) or progressive rock giant Todd Rundgren‘s Utopia (the RA tour) or from Britain, Be-Bop Deluxe (featuring guitarist Bill Nelson) or 10cc (featuring guitarist Eric Stewart) or Peter Gabriel (formerly of Genesis) or 60s classic rock greats The Kinks or new wave artists Blondie or the art-rock genius of Roxy Music (featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera) and onto the truly unique musical events such as the aforementioned Robert Fripp at Tower Records “Frippertronics” demonstration – Robert Fripp of King Crimson, playing his guitar through a pedalboard, into two Revox reel-to-reel tape decks, and demonstrating the tape-loop technique introduced to him by Brian Eno back in the UK.

You want diversity – musical diversity – genre diversity – then the experience of those seven years, from 1973 through 1979 – included enough eye-opening musical, technical and performance diversity that for me, well, I do not believe that I could have HAD a better musical education, and as you may notice, the single recurring theme in the artists mentioned in this blog, in particular, in the set of bullet points just above, and in the previous paragraph – and that is – bands with amazing, technically and musically proficient guitarists.

 

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, contained just in the bullets above and that paragraph of diverse artists – is staggering in itself:

It’s interesting to consider what an effect seeing that many astonishingly talented and brilliant musicians, witnessing the different musical approaches and technical prowess of these amazing players – had on me, as a guitarist – I think that I absorbed a lot, and it was only years later that the eventual effect of this was felt – I became an amalgam of my own influences, when I listen to myself play guitar now, I can hear the influence of many of the guitarists in the list above – and those influences will stay with me forever, because I absorbed them, mostly, during my teenage years (I turned 20 in 1978 – near the end of my 7-year 1970s concert experiences) when my brain was still pliable enough to do so.

But even years later, I will recall things that I witnessed certain guitarists doing back in the 70s or really, at any time I’ve seen a great guitarist – and I will bring back whatever I can from that memory, into my current performance.  It’s extremely beneficial to have these particular experiences – because seeing these guitarists, in these intensely creative bands – has had a profound effect on both me personally (in terms of the awe and respect in which I hold many of these artists) as well as on my guitar playing – I aspired for many years, to learn and adapt and modify these incredibly diverse guitar influences, into my own playing – and eventually – my own style began to emerge – but, it’s still based on those early experiences.

If I had not spent many, many hours wearing out the vinyl of my copy of Led Zeppelin III, or any other classic 70s album that I loved, studied and tried to learn to play – including songs from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” by King Crimson – and over on the piano, too, I was learning and absorbing music by Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill, Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel – so there was an entire second side of influence, through piano-based songs – I even learned Tony Banks songs (such as “Anyway” for example) – with the help of my best friend Ted Holding, may he rest in peace – songs and bits of Keith Emerson and so on – anything to enrich the pool of musical ideas that I could then draw from for the rest of my life.  Mostly on the guitar, but – a significant amount of time was invested in learning piano and keyboard based songs – which I think helps to round me out as a musician – I am not “just” a guitarist (thankfully!!).

I had an absolute blast in the 70s, and if there is anything to regret, it would simply be that I did not go to MORE concerts during the 70s (and 80s and 90s for that matter) – my experiences would then just be all the richer for it.   I am not complaining by any means – I could not ask for a richer experience than this one – I am just greedy, I loved seeing these bands and artists playing their music, and I simply want more – there can never be enough good music in one’s life.  Never!

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 70s were an absolutely unique and utterly amazing time, when I got to see some of my very, very favourite players and bands – from the mighty Led Zeppelin to the amazing Steve Howe of Yes (the man who could jump from guitar-to-guitar-to-pedal-steel-guitar-and-back-to-guitar-again mid-song, mind you – mid-song!) to having my mind permanently opened by the power and mystery of Steve Hackett‘s amazing guitar parts for Genesis“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to seeing Frank Zappa play in his unique, groundbreaking guitar style – there is nothing on earth like Frank Zappa, there was only one, they absolutely broke the mould that time.

Moving from the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, on up eventually, to the end of the 70s with Blondie and the emergence of New Wave, it was an amazing musical journey – I learned a lot, but I also 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, 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 –

 

 

Dave Stafford

May 28, 2018 – 45 years to the day from the day of my very first concert experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live at the San Diego Sports Arena – it now seems, that in some ways, that it all just happened yesterday…

 

 

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

The Dreaded 80s – Not as bad as we remember

 

1970s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)
Dave Stafford - Concert Ticket Stubs - 1970s

Concert Ticket Stubs – 1970s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary – november / december 2014

The last several weeks have been more about getting equipment, computers, software and storage sorted out, than having a lot of time to actually play much music.  That is slowly changing, early this morning, I spent almost two hours playing and recording some beautiful sampled sounds in Kontakt, and it’s rare that I sit and play the keyboard for an hour and fifty minutes at one sitting!  I did capture a few interesting things, so I am hopeful that this long period of extended studio set-up, improvements, and testing, will also result in some new music along the way.

I’ve had more than my share of frustration with equipment; particularly, software and storage, but things are slowly sorting themselves out.  Hardware issues, software issues, strange computer behaviours – I’ve got it all.  But it is slowly getting better – all the time.  I solve one issue at a time, eventually, they will all get done.  Over the past two days, with a lot of assistance from my pal Ken Mistove, I have sorted out a number of long-standing issues in SONAR X3, and we have also made a number of improvements to how things work in the world of the music computer, external hard drives, and recording practices – big improvements, and things are running so much smoother, and better, already – which really pleases me, as I really just want to sit down and play music, not, troubleshoot for two hours, and then play for 10 minutes!

My attempts to film the Kaoss Guitar (the remarkable Ibanez RGPK6 electric guitar), well, on Sunday, November 30th, I finally got some takes that were better than my original session from the previous week, November 23rd; so we shall see, I’ve been going through the audio and video from the first session from the 23rd of November, and then I have to go through the miles of footage shot on 30th November as well.

I am hopeful that out of probably 25 takes between the two sessions, that there will be a handful of pieces that are worth making videos of.  It’s difficult to say, but I feel that some of the takes from the second session will yield video, I am less sure about the first session – besides being a bit under-rehearsed, I was still having a fair number of technical issues too, so I was not able to concentrate fully on the music.  So I may be forced to shelve the entire first session, although I believe that at least one of the final three takes from the 23rd may be good.  Time will tell.

Update: there are definitely some good takes from the 20141130 session, beginning with one almost-ambient-but-not-quite quiet track, entitled “just gone”, which is mixed and ready for video build now.

Then tonight, I mixed the next candidate, a remarkable distorted reverse guitar solo entitled “slicer” – so that’s two audio mixes ready for video. There are probably three or four more kaoss guitar trax to come from the second session, audio mixing continues this week, with video builds to begin soon as well. End update 🙂

The Kaoss guitar itself – is an absolute joy to play, I had really hoped to get some videos made and uploaded so you can hear and see it, but I’ve decided that it’s more important to take some time, and get some really interesting examples of what you can do with this innovative instrument.

The recording set up for the Kaoss guitar is very, very simple indeed, I am using my Line 6 DL-4 delay (either bypassed, or, to provide reverse guitar on demand) to provide a stereo out, so it’s the guitar into the DL-4, and then directly into the sound card, thus bypassing all of the outboard effects in the mixer – and for the first time, I am relying solely on Guitar Rig for guitar tone and for reverb / delay effects – since it’s a live performance anyway, I didn’t feel that I needed to use the outboard stuff, so I am keeping it really, really simple.

As part of Komplete, and just in general, I’ve been relying more heavily on Guitar Rig 5 for a lot of my guitar-oriented projects, which allows me to create complex rack mount simulations of many, many excellent effects, which I can play through when I record, but then, if I am not totally happy with the patch I have chosen for the live take, I can then “remove” that patch, and replace it with a different one (re-amping, in essence) until I feel happier – so I’ve also started saving my patches, taking stock patches and changing them radically, and then saving the results, so I can re-use them on other takes later.  I’ve never done a lot of re-amping because I considered it to be a bit too burdensome in the past, but with Guitar Rig – it’s a pleasure.  It’s quick and easy, and there is such a huge range of truly exceptional effects, that you can very quickly build up some really complex and wonderful sounds – the kind of guitar sounds that 30 years ago, I could only ever dream of, or, hear on a Jimi Hendrix album (such as, “Electric Ladyland” – my favourite).

In that first Nov. 23rd session, I had played through one Guitar Rig patch that was a bit too echo-y, too over the top, so later on, I re-mastered it; removed the original Guitar Rig sound I used for the live take, and replaced it with a different Guitar Rig sound (a customised sound created by and saved by myself), a much better sound (if I do say so myself!), and really, that saved the day – it made the performances sound so much better.

So I am currently working on both audio mixes, and video creation and mixes, from the two Kaoss guitar performances; as well as, I captured a large number of new improvs using Komplete and Kontakt last night, which I need to go through next! after the kaoss projects, and see what is there – some of them are surely going to be good – the system is performing so beautifully now, it’s an absolute joy to use – and that is reflected in the music that comes out, too.

I think audio mixing is my favourite of those activities, or in the case of the Kaoss Guitar takes, well for any and all live takes that are simply live to stereo – I should say, “audio mastering”, as you can’t really “mix” a live performance, unless it involves multiple instruments, which these do not.  So you just have to get the best stereo sound, make sure the track is normalised to the right level, be happy with your EQ and effects (re-amped or otherwise) and then – that is that!

I was so pleased with the results of the somewhat tentative and somewhat technically challenging first session, I had very little experience with the new Kaoss guitar, it’s quite a struggle to work out the very best way to play it, without sounding awkward, and slowly, I am gaining experience with it, to the point where on Sunday, November 30th – I could almost make it do what I wanted 🙂 – almost, most of the time.  Sometimes – it’s still outwith my control.

I’ve also been shopping, what with all the sales on line – but not for the ordinary kinds of things that most people shop for at Christmas time – I’ve been buying samples.  During the past two months, I have added so much to my sample library, it’s just out of control, and this past week, I bought three amazing packages from my favourite software instrument maker, Soniccouture (http://www.soniccouture.com/en/products/) – I have a lot of these now, including the amazing Geosonics – sounds of the earth – field recordings adapted into music – astonishing stuff – at a huge savings, 50 percent off in total.  That was a short lived sale, but I am glad I acted – it was great to acquire all of those sounds for such a good price, I could not be more pleased:

1) “the conservatoire collection” – a collection of renaissance and baroque samples – very pricey, but you get things like baroque guitar, psaltery, flemish harpsichords, hurdy-gurdy and so on – fantastic one of a kind classical sounds.  I had an absolute blast using these instruments for the first time earlier today, and I can foresee a lot of interesting pieces forthcoming using this beautiful collection of antique sounds.

 

2) “glass works” – the sounds of various glass instruments, including a famous “cloud chamber bowls” instrument made by eccentric composer and instrument maker Harry Partch, I visited Partch’s studio when I was a teenager, on a school trip actually, and I actually played his original glass bowls instrument, so I am very excited to OWN those sounds! some of the pieces I recorded early this morning were made with the “cloud chamber bowls” instrument, and it sounded JUST as I remembered it – but perhaps even more stunning, is Soniccouture’s emulation of another of Partch’s unique glass instruments – the amazing “armonica”.  This instrument sounds like nothing on earth, like a weird combination of bowed glass, church organ and ethereal spaces – that’s as close as the English language will allow me at a very poor attempt to describe an incredibly beautiful sound!  Lovely beyond compare.

 

3) “ep 73 deconstructed” – this is the most intense, most detailed set of samples available for a 1973 fender rhodes electric piano – the kind my best pal Ted (RIP) used to use in our jam sessions back when I was about 18 years old – a great, classic sound, playing this vintage rhodes is a fantastic experience, it was literally, better than the real thing – and I could have easily sat and played it for hours on end – and, of course, it’s Soniccouture, so you get a lot of “extra” sounds, bowed, plucked, sound effects, and so on – variants on an already perfect set of electric piano samples – incredible attention to detail is Soniccouture’s watchword – the samples they create – are simply, the best.

However, best of all is this next item…

 

The final item in my “black Friday to Monday shopping spree” – based on Ken’s emailed link that simply said “HURRY!” – normally $200.00 I got it for $79.00 – one day only – it’s ADT from Waves Audio – a software “hardware emulation” where they take a classic piece of hardware equipment, and painstakingly re-create it in software.

In this case, “ADT” is, of course, “automatic double tracking” which was developed by one of the Beatles’ engineers, and it was used on classic Beatles albums from the late 1960s such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The White Album” – this device used tape machines, that were slowed up and down to create a second, “doubled” track, it was basically built for John Lennon, who complained about having to double track his voice – he wanted a machine to do it for him.  So this guy, Ken Townshend, figured out a way to do this, using the existing technology of 1967 – which in itself is remarkable.

 

Even more remarkable is the fact that from ADT, a massive industry sprang, of doublers that are choruses or flangers; “Ken’s flanger” is what Lennon called the device, and the name has stuck – millions of “Flangers” have been sold since then, emulating this same “ancient” technique. While I have owned and do own a number of flangers and choruses, both hardware and software, this is the ORIGINAL, the one that started it all – and, I couldn’t own the original hardware, it only exists at Abbey Road Studios where it was designed, it’s not for sale, so having it as software, gives me the classic Beatles chorus and flanger sounds, WITHOUT tape machines and an impossible-to-buy-hardware item.  If that isn’t technological magic, I am not sure what is 🙂

 

So 2015 is going to be a very interesting year indeed, I have a plug in version of the “original” chorus/flanger plug in now, so I can apply “Beatles” flanging or chorus sounds to my guitar parts (think of the lead guitar break in “Fixing A Hole” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – or Clapton’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – what a sound!)  I will also be able to choose from a huge, huge range of samples, something I’ve never really had available in my first 40 years of music-making 🙂

 

I wish I had a time machine back when I was 16, if I could have travelled 40 years into the future, and been shown what my tiny, modest studio would look like, in that far distant future of the year 2015, from the vantage point of 1975 – I would a) not have believed you, that such a thing could be possible, and b) it would have seemed like witchcraft, magic – the samples, a kaoss pad guitar (or, a kaoss pad itself, for that matter!!), synthesizers that can reproduce real sounds, sampled sounds, (or, a synthesizer itself), ipads, app technology, all of it is strictly magical stuff if you go back forty years.  40 years ago, I was 16, and I was working with my good friend and fellow musician Ted Holding, who had some recording and mixing gear, but neither of us had any access to the kinds of tools and software instruments available now to me, and to all musicians, in the year 2015 – we would have been dumbstruck with amazement, we really would have!

At 15 or 16, my “technology” was a knock off or off brand electric guitar, played thru a hand me down Fuzz Face, a Cry Baby Wah pedal, and later on, a borrowed echoplex – the kind with tape loops in them, not the new echoplex pro – played thru a Carvin bass head and a home made speaker cabinet. The guitar and the wah pedal were mine, the rest, mostly stuff left lying around Ted’s studio (aka garage) or built or repaired by Ted. I played through that bass amp for like, three years, until I could afford to buy an amp of my own!! Of course, when we hit 18, 19 and 20 we did achieve some manner of technology, but it was still a far cry from what is available now.

Ted expanded his selection of instruments, adding Fender Rhodes, Hammond Organ, and an ARP Omni string machine. I had better guitars, and I brought over a reel to reel tape deck to use as the worlds cheapest tape delay unit, which I would reach over and switch on during a guitar solo, and it was the best and most authentic tape delay I’d ever used…because it was real, real tape, on a reel, running past tape heads with a delay introduced…it sounded amazing to us then.

40 years on, a modestly priced delay pedal such as a Line 6 DL-4, can emulate tape echo very similar to what I was doing back then, plus a myriad of amazing delay effects, all in a small green box…no need to lug around a massive Sony reel to reel tape recorder, but I didn’t own any kind of delay or reverb unit, and couldn’t afford the expensive delays of the day…so using the tape deck as a delay pedal, was a no brainier. We were all delighted, it really made my guitar sound good!

Sometimes even now, even though I’ve now been doing “digital music” for quite some time – since 2005 at least – I’m still just stunned when I walk into my studio and I open up the computer, and I see the tools arrayed there, at my fingertips, for music production.  It’s difficult to imagine how my young self would have reacted to the idea of having real instrument samples playable on demand, on a MIDI keyboard – disbelief, shock, astonishment – at the very least.  But – I am glad I’ve stuck with music, because now, the toolsets are very nearly unlimited, and this gives you choice – choice to create sound worlds that previously, you could only dream of…

I plan on doing a lot of musical dreaming in 2015, and right now, I am making a start – I can’t wait to master the pieces from this morning, and start sharing some of the magic of glass works or the ep 73 deconstructed electric piano or to my very first attempts at playing the hurdy-gurdy – remarkable.

 

A good “problem” to have, I suppose – spoiled for choice, where to begin?  At the beginning, of course!!!

 

 

D.

 

 

 

 

 

scorched !!

or – “Dave Gregory – home at last…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SKYLARKING – XTC – a mini review – yes, the polarity, and a few other things, have been corrected!

Hello. This is a review of the re-released ‘Skylarking’ CD by XTC, written in a new style that I like to call, ‘stream of consciousness’. In headphones, my very first listen to the ‘new’ ‘Skylarking’. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

Ahhhh…..I am back now in “SUMMER’S CAULDRON” – drowning here, in actual, fact, sonically drowning in my headphones, at least! – with the insects buzzing in rhythm all across the sharpest stereo field of any version of “SKYLARKING” I’ve ever heard – from the moment the disc begins, I realise that ANDY PARTRIDGE is right – the original release does sound “thin and distant” – but that has now been sorted by original album engineer JOHN DENT, who, after discovering the album’s polarity issues, then applied just the right amount of 2013 technology to the problem, this strange problem of “incorrect polarity” – but whatever that really is, it’s been fixed, let me assure you – the backing vocals of “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, so clear and clean, the vocal harmonies layered so beautifully, TODD RUNDGREN’S melodica part drifting beautifully through this wonderful, clear new mix – the insects and birds constant throughout, and then we are suddenly brought into “GRASS”, with its swaying, utterly beautiful violins introduction, one of COLIN MOULDING’S best pop songs, ever, from any album – and the guitars, finally, the XTC GUITARS have arrived – jangly, bendy, wonderful guitars – and there seem to still be some crickets lurking here and there in this song – with its double entendre about being “on grass” – lying on grass, or, is it lying on grass whilst BEING on grass – “the things we used to do on grass”…what a lovely tune, and when that big vocal harmony comes in near the end, and the violins switch back from pizzicato to legato – and then, the birds and insects return to help the feedback guitar to gently end the piece in their long fade out. Producer Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “musical” programmed birds and insects sound amazing throughout “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, and then when they reappear at the end of “GRASS” in full, finally fading away so that we can all meet up in “THE MEETING PLACE” – this one is so, so quirky, but I love it, it’s just fantastic – with its gently moving up and down form, and that irresistible descending guitar riff, COLIN MOULDING supplying some wonderful PAUL MCCARTNEY style high register riffs as is his habit, and then “THE MEETING PLACE” gives away to ANDY PARTRIDGE’S ode to superwoman, “THAT’S REALLY SUPER, SUPER GIRL” – a fantastic and underrated piece of pop music, very complex background harmonised vocals, wonderful Electro-Harmonix phaser shifter style sounds, great effects on all of the vocals – this song is really all about harmony, and even counterpoint – the layering of main vocal, background vocals, and harmonising vocals is exquisite – and then, we get the first proper lead solo on the record, an absolutely snappy gem, ending with some truly sublime whammy bar bending, a super (sorry, there’s just no other word to describe it!) clean, super concise lead solo, the kind that XTC have become known for, ever since childhood friend and guitarist DAVE GREGORY joined the band, on their third album, the much lauded “DRUMS AND WIRES”. But now we are back to ANDY PARTRIDGE, and a song that has a very special place in my heart, as I spent many, many hours working up my own very special cover version of the song, for one of IAN STEWART’S wonderful XTC cassette compilations, this one entitled “SKYLACKING”. My version of “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY” wasn’t meant to sound anything like the XTC version, I built the music for the song entirely out of ebow guitars, working in harmony, to emulate the pianos and guitars of the original – and then, I sang a very tenuous, uncertain lead vocal on top of the ebows – but, even if imperfect, working on this song just sent my admiration for XTC through the ceiling – the vocal arrangement, when those background vocals appear, and the amazing piano in the background, not to mention ANDY PARTRIDGE’S remarkable lead vocal performance – what an incredibly beautiful voice…and with the words “slow descending grey” a phalanx of violins introduces us to our next tune, “1000 UMBRELLAS” which features an all strings backing, very, very intense strings, which underpin Andy’s strangely agonised vocal, he seems at the point of desperation here, a huge contrast to the easy and beauty of the previous track, “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY”, which just shows you how multi-talented he is – this vocal is practically a different persona – and then, hope returns at the end, the strings cheer up a tiny bit…Andy’s voice of desperation changes to beautiful pop mode again…and then suddenly, a slow ritard to our all-strings extravangza ending, and it’s the circus-accordion into to the bouncy, jaunty, and extremely fun “SEASON CYCLE” – “pushing the pedals on the season cycle – summer changed by autumn….” this piece is very, very PAUL MCCARTNEY to my mind, like something that belongs next to “GOOD DAY SUNSHINE” – but in this case, “SEASON CYCLE” has a curious central bridge section that is suddenly very solemn and serious, taking the mood down several notches briefly – before returning to the bright and wonderful refrain of this remarkable pop tune from ANDY PARTRIDGE. A very short silence now, for the first time, and suddenly, the incredibly powerful beginning of what may be my personal favourite track on the album, “EARN ENOUGH FOR US”, which every man seeking employment or a better job or a better paying job can instantly relate to, having a wife and family to worry about, but this age-old story here is told to the absolutely popping snare of ex-TUBES then-TODD RUNDGREN drummer PRAIRIE PRINCE, who plays drums on a number of these tunes (and completely kicks ass on this particular tune – it really is an amazing piece of drumming) – and this song, to me, is just THE perfect power pop song – it rocks, that’s all there is to it, it has a really strong drum part, and then, powerful, power-chording and lead guitar playing from both ANDY PARTRIDGE and DAVE GREGORY, a fantastic chord progression that the BEATLES would have been proud to use, it’s just an incredible piece of power pop / rock craftsmanship – and there a million reasons why it’s my favourite – COLIN MOULDING’S bass part is amazing, again, with those PAUL MCCARTNEY like high register sections, working perfectly with the drums – very REVOLVER-like at the end – this song just wakes me up, it’s bright, it’s message, while somewhat dark, is framed in the brightest of sounds – a wonderful dichotomy, and I can’t say enough good about this song. Amazing, beautiful vocals, too. “I’ve been praying I could keep you – and, to earn enough for us” – no sooner has it arrived, then the hopeful, beautiful pop masterpiece “EARN ENOUGH FOR US” has to end…leading into the a cappella start of “BIG DAY”, Colin’s foreboding warning to newlyweds everywhere, which while lyrically is not perhaps the most genius on this record, or as a song – this song still has a lot going for it, including that odd intro, which repeats during the song, which actually comes to a complete stop to allow this burst of harmonised “BIG DAY”S to repeat. I like the stop start feel of the track, it’s nice that it stops, and each time that vocal section plays, it gets odder and odder, the second repeat, a strong tremolo is applied to the vocals, and there are lots of lovely psychedelic sounds in the background…the tremolo then is applied to the verse itself – maybe it’s more of an auto-panner, difficult to tell sometimes, but a great effect nonetheless, this song is all about sonic imagery – and the sounds do evoke a lot of mental, visual images – so it succeeds wildly on that scale. The next song is one of the most eerie, beautiful songs that ANDY PARTRIDGE has ever written, with a vocal that is so remarkable, and has such beautiful effects applied to it – what an amazing piece of music is “ANOTHER SATELLITE” with it’s beautiful delay lead vocal, which then leads to other islands of different types of vocals, including some lyric-less “ta-ta” sounds, then, glockenspiel or similar arrives to accompany our spaced-out lead vocal, the rhythm is sort of drum machine, but with those big ringing, heavily chorused guitar chords ringing out in the background, it sound alive, not machine like – marimbas now appear, to tie up the verses – and then, a long outro of repeated choruses ‘don’t need “ANOTHER SATELLITE”…’ on and on into the distance, which then leads up to…the lovely (and for a time, the “omitted”) “MERMAID SMILED” a beautiful acoustic guitar number, with insane, high speed percussion courtesy of ex-TUBES percussionist MINGO LEWIS, another awesome musician who participates on this amazing album, due to the RUNDGREN-EX-TUBES axis of power. Meanwhile, muted trumpets, and intense bass part, and some just amazing melodic and chordal ideas, bring “MERMAID SMILED” inexorably to its all-too soon ending…but then, more MINGO LEWIS mad percussion begins another one of the albums standout tracks “THE MAN WHO SAILED AROUND HIS SOUL” – with its hippie flutes and jazzy piano and bass parts, this is just an odd, odd song, but somehow, it absolutely belongs here – and it also sounds incredibly “JAMES BOND” – high pitched strings, heavily-reverbed “spy” guitars – in fact a lot of cliché spy guitar here and there in this piece – and then back to those jazz breaks – it’s so odd – but I love it to bits, what an amazing and unique ANDY PARTRIDGE piece – MINGO LEWIS popping the fastest bongo solos you ever heard, PRAIRIE PRINCE’S drumming is insanely clever, a mad break in the middle, then, back to bongo’s and flute for the outro, with Andy singing a lone refrain of the title…an absolute classic, with a perfect spy ending. And then – the other controversial song on the album, the incredibly poignant, sad and musically perfect “DEAR GOD”, this song is the first thing I heard from this album, except, at the time, it was just a single, it wasn’t actually ON the original album, it has only been added in in later years (and some purists object to its presence on these later releases – this one included) but personally, I can’t imagine listening to the rest of SKYLARKING without it. In this short, pop masterpiece, ANDY PARTRIDGE has a long chat with GOD, and he challenges him on several burning issues, whilst amazing, Beatle-like TODD RUNDGREN strings drift in sheer beauty in the background, a great tune – fantastic string arrangement, and ANDY PARTRIDGE’S acoustic guitar and vocals are absolutely sublime – and then, a strident, powerful bridge, where ANDY PARTRIDGE seems fairly disgusted with GOD’S performance – and finally, to an ending that mirrors the song’s beginning, both the beginning lines, and the final line, both being sung by a young girl named JASMINE VEILLETTE that TODD RUNDGREN suggested for the part. The amazing GOD-questioning “DEAR GOD” is followed, suitably, by COLIN MOULDING’S remarkable song, “DYING”, which features among other things, a sort of clip-clop horse-like rhythm (but not quite) some fragmentary acoustic guitar chords, a serious bass part, and then, a beautifully arranged bridge, with lovely clean electric guitars, and a lot of beautiful ATMOSPHERE – and finally, a clarinet during the songs fade out, “DYING” is a song full of regrets, and a song full of forlorn longing, not wanting to end like his beloved relative did – “I don’t want to die like you…” – very, very serious subject, but a wonderful and rewarding song…sitting in the penultimate position on the album, “DYING” is followed by yet another COLIN MOULDING tune, the very unusual “Sacrificial Bonfire” – with yet another absolutely incredible, truly beautiful orchestral arrangement from TODD RUNDGREN, which in the middle part of the song, threatens to overcome the vocalist with its power and presence. Luckily, COLIN MOULDING holds his own throughout, the song is based around a very simple acoustic guitar and bass figure, but it then builds to a fantastic crescendo thanks to TODD RUNDGREN’S orchestral contributions. In 1986, when the album first came out, I admit, I struggled with both “DYING” and “SACRIFICIAL BONFIRE”, but over time, as is their wont to do, their particular magic has worked on me, and I eventually realised just how beautiful, and just how important they are to winding your SKYLARKING experience in just the right way – it can’t all be triumphant highs, and COLIN MOULDING provides just the right amount of sober realism to create a rounded, beautiful end block of two remarkable songs. The contrast between the writing and performing styles of ANDY PARTRIDGE and COLIN MOULDING has always been one of the most important aspects of why the music of XTC is so successful – they each write in a very individual style, but by gracefully peppering a bunch of ANDY PARTRIDGE tracks with a smaller number of COLIN MOULDING tracks – you end up with the perfect masterpiece pop album – and SKYLARKING is damn near perfect in every way – I can’t think of a more consistent, more creative, and frankly, more beautiful pop extravaganza – 15 remarkable tracks by two writers who over time, have become national treasures in Britain – I just wish they were still writing together. So – SKYLARKING – Polarity Corrected version – get it- you won’t regret it. A beautiful setting-straight of the record, this is the way it was meant to sound, and, the way it was meant to look – and now that Andy has the rights, he has set right a grievous error, the release of the thin and distant, incorrect polarity version, from 1986 through to 2014 – it’s now, in 2014, finally “right”. Enjoy the fruits of ANDY PARTRIDGE’S labours: a new, improved, thick and lustrous SKYLARKING. 🙂

“under the influence” (beatlesque)

I wanted to take a little time to try to give some indication of the vast scope and reach of the influence of the Beatles, and in particular, their influence on other musicians.  This has inspired everything from direct Beatle parodies such as “The Rutles” (featuring Neil Innes and Eric Idle) to tracks that sound very Beatle-like (such as any number of Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, The Move, Roy Wood, Knickerbockers, songs – and many, many others – see lists below) to whole albums of Beatles tribute (such as Utopia’s brilliant and very musical Beatles spoof album, “Deface The Music”, from 1980).

Even the world of jazz was invaded by the music of the Beatles, from Wes Montgomery and other guitarists of the day, inventing their own jazz versions of Beatles tracks, or someone of the stature of Ramsey Lewis, making, in 1968, an entire album of Beatles covers, all taken, amazingly, from the Beatles then-current 1968 “White Album” – in a completely unique and extremely jazz way.

Awesome inspiration, across all genres of music – the music of the Beatles actually can be called “universal” in its appeal, given the strange and disparate characters who breathe new life into a huge, huge range of covers and tributes and sound-alikes, from the very ordinary covers, to the truly bizarre spoofs, jokes and odd variations that abound the world over – everybody under the sun has had a crack at covering a Beatles song – and some go much, much further, either creating amazing near-carbon copies of Beatles songs (such as 1976’s “Faithful” album by Todd Rundgren – his “faithful” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is exquisite) or creating music that sounds so much like the Beatles, that it is actually thought to be by the Beatles (for some unknown reason, “Klaatu” was one such band, where folk thought that it was actually the Beatles, performing anonymously six or seven years after they had broken up…but, it was not).

For my money, there are other artists who create original music that is much, much closer in content and feel than the music of “Klaatu” (but, don’t get me wrong, “Klaatu” are a remarkable, very capable, and very interesting band to listen to – and, little-known fact, they are the actual authors and creators of the original version of the Carpenters’ hit single, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” – not too many people know that in that case, the Carpenters were doing a cover of…“Klaatu” !

I think, though, that in many ways, that the Beatles, and to a somewhat lesser extent, The Beach Boys, had a huge influence on musicians all over the world.  From Apples In Stereo to XTC, there are so many musicians, including some pretty unlikely characters, that have either covered Beatles songs faithfully (or unfaithfully in some cases), or have created either songs and/or albums of songs that mirror, mimic or even mock, the sound of the Fab Four.

I think that it’s very true what they say, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if that is true, then the Beatles have been flattered until they are completely flat, because so, so many musicians have cited them as a major influence, and have unashamedly copied their songs, their sound, their harmonies, their guitar playing, their bass playing, their song structures and so on – and the list of people who do cite the Beatles as a musical influence is just simply too long to print in this forum.

What always surprises me is the number of extremely progressive musicians who claim a serious Beatle influence, when you listen to the music of a band like Yes, or King Crimson – you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think “Beatles” – but Yes were obviously fans of the band, in the early days, they covered the Beatles “Yes It Is”, and I believe that both Steve Howe and Chris Squire have said they are fans of the Beatles music.  Robert Fripp has also acknowledged the influence of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on him upon hearing the whole album on his car radio one fateful evening, and Beatles references are embedded, sometimes deeply, into the music of King Crimson – “Happy Family” from the third Crimson album, “Lizard” is an unconcealed tale of the Beatles breakup, penned by then-Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.

So sometimes, there are Beatle-influenced bands and musicians, where the music made by those musicians, music sounds nothing like the Beatles to our ears – but for them, the Beatles still loom larger than life, buried deep in their internal, musical DNA – just waiting to get out, in the form of new songs that are about the Beatles, influenced by the Beatles, or simply sound like the Beatles, intentionally (usually) or not (occasionally).  Perhaps yet another splinter-list should be “Songs That Sound Like The Beatles But Their Composers / Performers Did Not Intentionally Try To Sound Like The Beatles – It’s By Complete Accident” but I feel that my already non-legendary non-skills as a list producer have already fallen flat, and that’s too complicated for me to work out who did or did not “intend” to sound like the Beatles!  I don’t think I can write that list – but if you can – please do, and please send it in, and if it’s complete enough, I will post it here.

Speaking now as a guitarist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guitarist who did not care for the guitar playing of  John Lennon or George Harrison, nor have I ever met a bassist who did not respect the massive skills of Paul McCartney on the bass guitar – the absolute, indisputable master of melodic bass playing – and when I listen to Chris Squire play, I do hear echoes of Paul McCartney’s style in his playing – especially the “high register” bass work.  This famed skill at playing beautifully in the higher and highest pitch ranges of the bass guitar has been imitated by many, but for me, well, it’s Todd Rundgren’s “Determination” that showcases this technique in an incredible way (see below for more on “Determination” ).

The same can absolutely be said for drummers admiring Ringo Starr, everyone knows that Ringo is not a “flashy” drummer, he doesn’t often “show off” but what Ringo has that many, many drummers do not have, is the steadiest tempo imaginable, and, a sense of when to play, and when not to – he always provides just the right amount of percussion to any given song, never overplays – just what is required.  This is borne out when you hear live sessions by the Beatles, while John, Paul and George make error after error in the earliest takes of any given song, it’s rare indeed to hear the almost metronome-like Starr make an error.

Even guitarists who also play bass get the whole “Paul McCartney high-register bass playing” concept, as can be evidenced by the multi-talented Todd Rundgren, from his 1978 solo album “Hermit Of Mink Hollow”, there is a brilliant track called “Determination” , which not only features pitched up, trebled up, “jangly guitars” but a beautiful, beautiful, McCartney-esque bass line, that just pulls the heartstrings as it flies beneath the open chords, beginning in the high register, and then sweeping down to become a bass again – McCartney’s early adoption of unusual styles such as playing bass melodically, playing bass in the very high registers, or playing bass in any number of innovative ways, not always melodic – playing with his low E string slightly detuned (as in the song “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”) or, playing the low E string so hard that it detunes as he plays (as can be heard in parts of the song “Helter Skelter”)  – has not gone unnoticed by Todd, and any number of other McCartney imitators.  Speaking of McCartney imitators, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries also recognise the genius of the Beatles front line which is evidenced by songs that closely resemble Beatles songs in form and content, lyric and guitar styles.

I wish more drummers were like Ringo, well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – Zak Starkey, Ringo’s eldest son.  Zak is a remarkably talented drummer in his own right (I was fortunate to see him perform with an early incarnation of “Ringo Starr’s All Stars” (a show which also happened to feature the above-mentioned Todd Rundgren) and, hearing Zak and Ringo Starkey nail the complex drum part of Todd’s “Black Maria” live was absolutely fantastic – Zak made it his own, but carried the band of mostly older musicians, through the set with his unshakeable rhythm, and he has certainly inherited Ringo’s steady hand – but Zak is also a thoroughly modern drummer, and in some ways, he goes far beyond his famous dad – which is what you might expect – I mean look at Jason Bonham, it’s the same thing, drummer with a famous drummer dad, and with that burden of being the son of a legend, they try that much harder to sound unique, and go beyond the “oh, he’s the son of Ringo…” or “oh, he’s the son of Jason” – and I am justifiably proud of both of them, for carving their own musical paths, and not relying on “dad” for their fame or ability, but making it on their own laurels.

witnessing one of the variations of “Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band”, on the 1989 tour featuring Todd Rundgren, it was remarkable to see Zak take sole control of the drums when Ringo went front and centre to sing, so for some of the classic Beatles songs that the band played, it was Zak on the drums rather than Ringo himself, but it absolutely mattered not, Zak did an amazing job on tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “It Don’t Come Easy” – and at other times, father and son played together, and that was truly a joy to see – amazing !

Two generations of Starkey’s, doing what they do best – playing the drums, and playing the music of the Beatles too – among other items from the various band members such as the aforementioned Todd cover – and “Black Maria” live  with Zak AND Ritchie Starkey is not something I shall forget any time soon – fantastic”!

And, because it was Todd’s big moment, Ringo was free to join Zak on drums, so it was the pair of them behind Todd – and you could see in Ringo’s face how much he enjoyed playing the song (I believe it was included in the set list, because Ringo always had liked the song, so much so that he insisted that it be the “Rundgren” moment in the concert – it being his favourite track off of Todd Rundgren’s seminal 1972 album, “Something / Anything”) and Zak was just head down getting on with the drum part – and that is the only time I’ve ever seen the song performed with two drummers – and if those drummers are Ringo and Zak Starkey, you know it’s going to go well – and it was an excellent cover, absolutely spot-on, and a real highlight of the show.

I don’t think anyone can argue that the Beatles had a very, very significant influence on musicians of many generations, and new generations of players are discovering the Beatles anew even now, in 2014, and are translating their experience of hearing Beatles material into their own new “musics” – so the process continues, of hearing songs influenced by the Beatles, even in new music created by young musicians – because, in 2014, maybe they just heard “Revolver” for the first time, and it absolutely blew their minds – just like it blew our minds back in 1966 when we (now, unbelievably, now we’re the “older generation”!) first heard it.

And – it’s undeniable – this is unforgettable music, genius music from the writing to the playing to the singing and even to the packaging – Beatle imagery is also something that has been oft-copied, and some of their most famous album cover designs have been copied again and again by so many bands.

Some of those copies are more on the side of parody, for example, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention classic Beatles parody, made not that long after the original came out, “We’re Only In It For The Money” is directly made to look like a bizarre “version” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and in some ways, the cover is the biggest part of the joke – the music on the album (which is brilliant, by the way – one of my favourite early Zappa / Mothers records) is not nearly as important to the parody as the album design was.  But the whole effect is…kind of hilarious 🙂

In particular, some of the most famous Beatles album covers, such as the “bendy” photographs of the band that graces the cover of their innovative “Rubber Soul” album have been imitated by many other bands, time and time again.  Even in the earliest days, the unusual photographs of photographer Robert Freeman (as in, the classic shot of the Beatles silhouetted against a dark background) as on “With The Beatles” (UK) or it’s US counterpart, “Meet The Beatles” has been copied many times over the last few decades.  But revolutionary cover art is difficult to come up with, so bands just borrow from the best…The Beatles.

No article about Beatles’ influence would be complete without mentioning two gentlemen from different eras of pop music, firstly, the ridiculously talented eric stewart of 10cc, who has performed Beatles songs live in concert with 10cc, and also has an undeniable streak of “beatlesque” harmony and sound on various tracks throughout the long career of 10cc – the best example is probably part 1 and part 3 of 10cc’s pop opus, “feel the benefit” – very “dear prudence” if I don’t mind saying so myself :-).  the other gentleman in question is from a couple of decades later, from the 1990s and beyond, and that is Jason Falkner; unwilling conscript into pop genius band “jellyfish”, after he escaped their clutches, went off on a very successful if low-key solo career – and again, the sound of his vocal harmonies, the beautiful chord progressions in his music tell me one thing: he, like Eric Stewart before him, is under the influence of the Beatles.  Personally – I cannot get enough of the music of 10cc or Jason Falkner, two generations apart, perhaps, but, united in their love for Beatle harmonies, jangly Beatle guitars, beautiful Beatle chord progressions, and even Beatle-like lyrics.

I started out writing this edition of the Beatles’ story by trying to create various lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, and then, albums inspired by the Beatles, and I was really only able to touch upon a very few – I know that I have missed out so, so many – and everyone has a different “take” on what bands sound like the Beatles, what albums are directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles and so on.

Regarding my attempts at filling in these lists – I am ultimately not satisfied by my primitive attempts at “list-making”, and in searching the Internet for valid lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, I kept finding lists that made no sense to me, personally – that would always include every big rock band of the day, so it would always be “Pink Floyd”, “The Who”, “Jimi Hendrix” – and I don’t think any of those bands sound like the Beatles at all !  Yet, site after site would cite (ha ha, get it – site – cite) Hendrix or Pink Floyd as a Beatle sound-alike – but I cannot bring myself to agree with this, yes, Hendrix loved the Beatles, he played bit of Beatle melody in the middle of his own songs, he covered many Beatles songs – but, he doesn’t really SOUND like the Beatles, does he?  Maybe very vaguely, on a song like “Crosstown Traffic” perhaps – but, I’d say, if anything, that Hendrix influenced the Beatles, as much or more than the Beatles influenced Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix sounds like…Jimi Hendrix, and no other, really – he is utterly unique.  Hendrix did absolutely love the Beatles, and would indeed, often insert a perfect bar of George Harrison lead guitar, into one of his own original songs, in live performance – and then give a little laugh, like it’s an “in-joke”  – “here’s a cool melody that I nicked off of the new Beatles disc, it’s called “Revolver…”.

As for Pink Floyd, it would take some real convincing for me to add them into the list –  I love a bit of early Floyd as much as anyone, but I do not hear echoes of the Fab Four in their music (you saw what I did there….”Echoes”…Pink Floyd – and, it was completely unintentional!) I am afraid I just don’t get it, these constant references to Pink Floyd sounding like the Beatles – maybe they are talking about the odd Syd Barrett track, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem right to me….so I did not add them in :-).  Yes, the Beatles and Pink Floyd did both play psychedelic music, but it was very different in nature – so, no, I don’t see the connection, musically.

So – please send in your additions and corrections to any of the lists, and I will update them periodically to reflect world opinion – I am not a Beatle expert (although I have read extensively about them, in particular, I started out years ago with Hunter Davies’ remarkable biography of the Beatles;  in later years,  I’ve studied the remarkable works of Mark Lewissohn, whose “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is like the Bible, to me, one of my most cherished and most often re-read Beatles information sources).

I will read anything and everything written about the Beatles, even now – and I cannot possibly compile complete lists of the type I am presenting here, so any and all input from readers would be much appreciated – please comment, and in your comments, submit corrections or additions to any of the lists, and every few months, I will compile all of the comments and update the lists – so over time, maybe, these lists will become relatively complete – which would be great, because we would be creating a useful, accurate, and complete Beatle resource – or rather, a resource of bands and albums that SOUND like the Beatles, anyway – why not?

Meanwhile, on the subject of the Beatles music, I’ve been very happily really enjoying my two latest Beatle purchases: from 2013, the two-double-CD “Live At The BBC” – volume 1 (from 1994) completely remastered, and a new volume 2 entitled “On Air” which is a fantastic addition to this wonderful series – four CDs chock full of radio performances, studio out-takes, and the Beatles chattering – a fantastic Beatles music resource, of early live tracks and one demo, and at this point I say, thank God for the BBC !  Luckily, they kept all of these Beatle recordings, so now they have been compiled for future generations to enjoy.

My other purchase, “The U.S. Albums” is a 13 disc monstrosity, but hearing the albums in the U.S. running orders for the first time since I was a child, is just remarkable – even though John Lennon condemned Capitol for messing with the Beatles’ carefully considered running orders, the odd, arbitrary, Capitol-created running orders are unfortunately for we Americans, what we grew up hearing, so even now, I am still startled by the UK releases – because the songs don’t arrive in the order my brain expects they will.  So now I have complete choice – if I want the real thing, I consult the Stereo and Mono boxes from 2009.  If I want the Capitol versions – I consult the US Albums from 2014 – very exciting stuff for Beatle-maniacs such as myself 🙂

The last time I bought this many Beatles CDs all at one go, was in 2009, when the long-awaited stereo and mono re-masters appeared – and of course, that was an essential purchase. Following that, though, I am truly amazed, and at the same time, very grateful indeed, that in 2014, I can almost casually pick up 17 “new” Beatles albums – four from the BBC, and 13 from Capitol – and that just makes my Beatles catalogue so much more complete and containing even more variations on their remarkable catalogue of music – beautiful, rockin’ Beatle music.

So we’ve gone down an alternative path this time, a path taken by the many, many musicians who revere the Beatles, and admire their music enough to copy it exactly, partially, or, some aspect of Beatle music has entered into their own songs, anything from a guitar riff to some high register bass work of a melodic nature, or a steady Ringo Starr back beat – so sometimes, you may have a completely unique song, but there is a section of it that REALLY recalls the Beatles very strongly – so, five percent of the song is 98 percent Beatle-like – but, the REST of the song is not !

As a musician and a guitarist, I do hear a lot of these “stand-alone” Beatle moments, it might be a few bars of music in a Jason Falkner or Michael Penn pop song that strongly remind one of the Beatles, or just a 10 second passage in a song on the radio – you hear “Beatlesque” bits of music almost every day, and I am often fascinated by them, sometimes, you work in your mind to try and figure out which Beatles song or songs is being referenced – sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes, it’s impossible to determine – but you do know, just by hearing, when something has the quality of being “Beatlesque”.

 

Lists Of Bands That Sound Suspiciously Like The Beatles

 

Bands Or Artists That Always Sound Like The Beatles:

The Rutles

Bands Or Artists That Often Sound Like The Beatles:

Badfinger – an Apple band

The Knickerbockers

James McCartney – son of Paul McCartney

The Move – featuring Roy Wood

Raspberries – featuring Eric Carmen

The Swinging Blue Jeans

 

Bands Or Artists That Occasionally Sound Like The Beatle

10cc

Apples In Stereo

The Bears – featuring Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) – solo artist

Electric Light Orchestra – featuring Jeff Lynne

Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish) – solo artist

Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Jellyfish – featuring Jason Falkner

The Kinks

Klaatu

Julian Lennon – son of John Lennon

Jeff Lynne – Electric Light Orchestra – Harrison’s producer /  member of Traveling Wilburys

Aimee Mann – solo artist

Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) – solo artist

Nazz – featuring Todd Rundgren

The New Number 2 – featuring Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn – solo artist

Michael Penn & Aimee Mann – couple (they did an incredibly lovely cover of “two of us” – gorgeous track)

Todd Rundgren – solo artist

Teenage Fanclub –  Scottish pop band

Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren

Roy Wood (ex-Move) – solo artist

XTC – featuring Andy Partridge

 

Bands That Sound Suspiciously Sort Of Like The Beatles

Oasis – (in their dreams, anyway!)

Tame Impala

 

Albums That Are Directly Inspired By The Beatles

Fresh – Raspberries – 1974

Faithful – Todd Rundgren – 1976 (all covers album, including Beatles covers)

The Rutles – The Rutles – 1978

Archaeology – The Rutles – 1996

Deface The Music – Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren – 1980

We’re Only In It For The Money – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – 1968

– visual parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

 

Well-Known Known Admirers Of The Beatles – Musicians

Jon Anderson (ex-Yes)

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson)

Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries)

Robert Fripp (King Crimson)

Liam Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Noel Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Steve Howe (Yes)

Eric Idle (ex-Rutles)

Graham Gouldman (10cc)

Jimi Hendrix (may he rest in peace)

Neil Innes (Rutles)

Aimee Mann (solo artist)

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn (solo artist) – brother of Sean Penn

Todd Rundgren (solo artist) – w/Nazz, Utopia

Chris Squire (Yes)

Eric Stewart (10cc)

Alan White (Yes)

 

Please – agree or disagree with my choices; send in additions, recommend deletions, recommend changes – and if there is enough input, I will periodically re-published updated versions of any Beatles lists that have appear in this blog series based on your input.

Meanwhile, maybe there are some artists noted here that you were not aware of, that have obviously studied the music of the Beatles and learned from it, and I am always happy to listen to any musician or band that sounds like the Beatles – so, if I have missed any truly obvious ones – please let me know, and again, I will update the list, too.

Happy listening – the influence of the Fab Four runs deep, traverses the entire globe, and only seems to be on the increase over time, as successive generations re-discover their music (often prompted by their parents, but still…) and then integrate parts of it into their own new kinds of music – a process that I hope goes on forever.

Nothing would make me happier, “in the year 2025” (another 60s pop joke for the older folk in the audience!!), let’s say, to hear a brand new song on the radio that sounds very original, but, completely Beatlesque at the same time – that would please me no end, because we then will know – young people are still listening to the greatest rock band that ever was – the fabulous Beatles – and they rock!!

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely under the influence of the Beatles – always have been, always will be – my favourite band from childhood, the first band I truly appreciated, and in actual fact, I literally “grew up” with them and their music, it’s a joy to still be listening to them now, in the year 2014, and feeling just as happy about it as I first did back in 1963, when I must have heard them on the TV, on the Ed Sullivan show – being only five then, I don’t directly recall it, but as it was repeated on TV every year or more often every year thereafter, I feel like I do remember it – and I do remember their later TV appearances directly.

What a remarkable group, and what a remarkable influence they’ve had on a remarkably talented group of very respectful and creative musicians – my peers I am proud to say, who also “grew up” with the Beatles.  There’s no better way to end up “under the influence…”

the beatles – in the beginning

I have been remiss.  While I have written at length about so many great bands and artists, and – OK, I have mentioned the Beatles at times, but what an omission – this band dominated my musical world for six years, from the age of 9 through 15, for me, there was only one band, and that was John, Paul, George and Ringo – my beloved Beatles.

So when I had an unusual request arrive in my email inbox the other day: a nice lady in Las Vegas, asking me if I would be interested in writing in my blog, about the Beatles – well, how could I refuse?  In fact, it struck me, why on EARTH have I not dedicated a single blog to the four lads from Liverpool who started it all for me?…(and, for so many others, too!).

Oh my God, I thought, I can’t believe that I’ve done a hundred plus blogs in just over a year’s time, and I’ve never dedicated one to the Fab Four!!!

That is a grievous error on my part, and this kind soul who asked me so innocently if I would write about my favourite group of all time – she will eventually end up with more words than she ever, ever dreamed of.  Just – give me a few years, and I will make this up to you all – and, I will add to her ever-growing collection of Beatle memories (what a job – I’d love to collect Beatle memories as part of my “day job”!).

Strangely, though – Las Vegas has been on my mind of late: because one of my strongest wishes in terms of my ongoing relationship with the Beatles, is to visit Las Vegas for the sole purpose of attending the Cirque du Soleil‘s remarkable Beatles “LOVE” production.  I really, really want to see and hear this musical and visual spectacle (and I absolutely love the innovative “Love” CD that George and Giles Martin worked so incredibly hard on) – it’s a great album, it just is – an uncanny juxtaposition of some of the best songs ever recorded by anyone -the music of the Beatles, totally reinvented for the purpose of supporting the Beatles “LOVE” production.

This also provided us with the first alternative remixes of Beatles tracks from an official Beatles source (most fans were delighted, some cried “blasphemy” – but I am firmly in the former category) – I approve of the alternative approach of these remixes, Giles Martin especially worked very hard to create something really unique and wonderful from there tracks; so, in 2006 – George and Giles Martin  gave the world 80 minutes of new Beatle music – which is simply brilliant.

If you watch the 2008 DVD documentary video about the making of “LOVE”; it looks like it’s going to be an amazing live performance (and we already KNOW the music is good…) – so, hopefully, one day, we’ll travel to Las Vegas and check it out.

But already – I digress.  Back to the business at hand, by all means! 🙂

 

Consider this then, to be the beginning of a series of articles about the Beatles, as a group, and possibly, also as solo artists, although that’s another story – however, I do reserve the right to write at length about my favourite Beatle, George Harrison, at great length; out of sequence; at any time in his life – because George was the quintessential Beatle to me – he had it all, that wry humour, a winning smile, advanced prowess with the lead guitar, the most beautiful slide guitar sound of all time – truly amazing slide guitar sound and technique – George was just an all-around cool guy…may he rest in peace.

However, George will be the subject of a future series of Beatle-related posts, this time, however, I am writing about the Beatles as a group – and I intend to begin at the beginning, and just see where we travel to.  or, possibly, as George said: “arrive without travelling…”.  Sigh.  Note – I only just realised, from reading the wiki entry for the song, that the bansuri (Indian classical flute) player on “The Inner Light”, is none other than the remarkable Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of my favourite Indian musicians – a brilliant player – imagine that, I had no idea!

But now it’s time, finally, to talk about the Beatles .  And when it comes to the Beatles , well…

 

It all begins with memories.

One of my earliest memories of all, is a memory of standing in the front yard of my house on Mineral Drive, in San Carlos, a suburb of San Diego, California, in about 1965 or 1966, as a young child, and hearing “Nowhere Man” playing on a transistor radio, and feeling utterly transfixed and transported – frozen in time, almost mesmerised, while this heavenly music played, sounding literally like musical magic…  (which, in my opinion – it simply is).

the memory is kind of…mixed up in my mind, I mainly remember the incredible sound of the vocal harmonies (although at 7 or 8 years old, I had no concept that that sound was “vocal harmony” – that knowledge came much later) – but, that sound is mixed up with bright, bright sunshine, on a late afternoon, with late afternoon shadows behind me from the house, but bright, bright sunshine in my eyes – standing there, looking out at the street – and just listening to “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles.  What a beautiful, mournful, wistful, heartbreakingly beautiful sound.

To this day, “Nowhere Man” gives me shivers – without fail, when they hit the chorus the first time…it’s the sound of heartbreak, the sound of sympathy, the sound of empathy, the sound of joy at hitting a perfect harmony…a song so complex, so far ahead of it’s time – what a beauty – and I think this song encapsulates the beauty of the song-writing and singing of John Lennon in particular, who just excels on this tune – until that amazing dual lead solo comes along, that is, when the good George joins in with John to absolutely steal the show with their amazing, concise, super bright guitar solo or I should say, duet – ending with that magical-sounding harmonic – a great piece of guitar playing from both players, if you ask me.

Of course, at that age, I already knew who the Beatles were, I had been aware of them probably since I was about 5, but it wasn’t until a couple years later, when I recognised “Nowhere Man” for what it was, a beautiful, yearning, shiver-inducing slice of perfect pop music.

like so many kids did in the States, I watched the Beatles cartoon as a young boy, and I saw the Beatles themselves on our tiny black and white television, although I was just a little too young to see the live performances on the Ed Sullivan Show (actually, I probably did see it, as I imagine that my parents watched it); they did watch the Ed Sullivan Show show regularly at least in it’s later years, not sure about in 1963 – but I would have only been five at the time (1963), and I have few memories from before kindergarten (i.e. about age 5).

the Beatles performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show for the final time on august 14, 1965, but, for a few years following that, they would regularly send Sullivan other video artefacts, like the much, much more sophisticated colour videos that the Beatles shot and sent to the show (since they could not possibly schedule live performances at the time, their schedule was absolutely insane – so they sent their data instead!).

I remember in particular, the video of “Rain” (which was shown along with three other later tracks, “Paperback Writer”, “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever”) – [apologies for any annoying ADVERTS at the beginning of any or all of the preceding video links] – and specifically, with regards to “Rain”, I can recall being absolutely gob-smacked by the increased complexity of that song, Lennon’s beautiful, dreamy vocal – and George looked so, so cool with his Gibson SG, too.   And why were they all wearing sunglasses, I wondered?

It was years later that I found out the answer to that one:  “tea”.  They had been…having “tea”.  Lots and lots of “tea”. 🙂

 

When I was about 8 or 9 (so, 1966 / 1967), my parents started allowing me to buy long playing vinyl albums for the first time.  I may have had some 7 inch singles of a more juvenile nature, but my first actual LPs were Beatles albums – starting, strangely, with, “The Beatles Second Album” and then, “Meet The Beatles”, followed by “Beatles 65” and later on, the truly awesome “Yesterday And Today”

– of course, being an American, and living in the U.S. at the time, meant that I had the doubtful “joy” of owning the somewhat inferior US pressings, courtesy of Capitol Records, USA – fewer songs, and incorrect running orders, changes to the original albums not sanctioned by the Beatles at all.   these four Capitol albums were, for a number of years, the only albums I had – and I really didn’t ever have the money to buy them all until I was an adult – so sadly, I never owned “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” on vinyl (perhaps my two favourite mid-period records!) but eventually did on CD, (nor did I ever own most of the other early to mid period albums – “Please Please Me”, “With The Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Beatles For Sale”“Help”, and many others – on vinyl) – I think “Sgt. Pepper” and then the “White Album” were some of the first “later” Beatles albums that I finally acquired, and eventually, as part of the remastered box sets that finally “set the record straight” for beatles recordings, with the beautiful stereo and mono box sets – finally, I had the bulk of the Beatles output.

I have just now, during the research for this blog, supplemented that CD catalogue by ordering both the “US Albums” box set, as well as the two-double-CD remastered “Live At The BBC” discs – can’t wait for those to arrive – Vol. 2 is all previously unreleased material, so more LIVE Beatles on the radio is a good, good thing…more “new” Beatles music – especially excited about hearing the “new” music from Vol. 2.

Regarding Capitol’s uh, “adjustments” to the Beatles catalogue without their consent, I remember reading the John Lennon interviews from Playboy in book form, wherein he was aghast at being handed the U.S. albums to discuss by the interviewed, and explaining to him how very hard they (the Beatles and George Martin) worked on presentation, running orders, and so on – only to have Capitol America just ignore it all, and release inferior, shorter “versions” of Beatles albums – to make MORE money – fewer tracks, more records sold for fans to get all the tracks – simple arithmetic, probably made them millions – Capitol I mean, not so much the Beatles.

 

It wasn’t until the Beatles full catalogue were first released on CD, that I finally became truly familiar with the real Beatles catalogue, which took some real getting used to since I was so, so accustomed to “The Capitol Albums”.  However, now, even though I do own Vol. I of “The Capitol Albums” mainly for sentimental reasons, I vastly and totally prefer the British releases – with the correct running orders, and songs all intact – plus the singles – which in the US, were sometimes added to albums, too, I believe – rather than mirroring the British releases.  I can recall, too, that the VERY first compact disc I ever bought, ever, was “White Album” – bought from the Price Club for $20.00 – what a way to start your CD collection!  For me, it was almost like hearing the album for the first time, the lead guitars on “Good Morning, Good Morning” practically LEAP out of the speakers, while George Martin’s impeccably-arranged horn section on George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” came through the mix with a hitherto unheard brightness and clarity – sounding fantastic!

I am well aware I’ve not really spoken much about the band’s individual talents, from the rock-solid drum beats invented by Ringo Starr, to the absolutely remarkably talented Paul McCartney, possibly the best melodic bass player of all time, and an absolute innovator on the bass guitar (not to mention, what a voice!!!) – so many “firsts” for Paul, the high register passages, the strange note at the end of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the “sticking” or repeated bass line in the outro of “taxman” – Paul is simply an amazing and extremely innovative bassist – and when you matched him up with the rock steady, unflappable Starr – you had the best rhythm section in rock music – with two genius guitarist, songwriter, singers on the front line with them.  what an amazing group – literally the first, and the best, at just about everything.

 

Of course, we now have the much more recent (2009) “Stereo” and “Mono” ultimate remasters box sets, which truly are incredible – and I am so, so glad that they did not mess with the catalogue in terms of the albums themselves, and the two aforementioned box sets really get it right when it comes to preserving the legacy of the Beatles amazing catalogue of music – and, bonus of all bonuses – in stereo and in MONO, too – and I personally especially love the “Mono” box set, even though it’s not for everyone – I’ve never owned the mono mixes; I’d heard a few of them, most of them came as a surprise to me – some amazing variations from the much more familiar “Stereo” versions.  But – as I am want to do when I get excited about the music of the Beatles – I digress.

 

The next phase of my earliest Beatle memories come from an unlikely time and place: Uganda, East Africa, where between 1967 and 1971, I lived with my parents and my two brothers– my parents were both teachers, and my father had won a place on a US Aid sponsored opportunity to move your family to Africa for two years to teach (in a program called “TEEA” – Teacher Education In East Africa) – basically, teaching teachers how to teach – which was then extended to four years.

 

My schooling during those years was a bit erratic, but my next early Beatle memory is of me, having no way to copy the lyrics from the AMAZING poster included in the Beatles most ambitious album to date, the “White Album” – I was boarding in Kampala, at Makerere University, with an American family (so I could attend school), and they had the album – which I played all the time – but my specific memory is of  writing out, by hand, ALL of the lyrics, of all of the songs, onto yellow foolscap paper – because I WANTED THOSE LYRICS !!!  I believe that somewhere in a box of keepsakes, I may still have those handwritten yellow sheets from 1968!

 

At age 10, I was not really aware of copiers, and in Kampala, Uganda, in 1968, they would not have been commonplace – so the only way I could “take a copy” of those lyrics, was to write them out longhand – which used up an enormous amount of paper, and my right had ached horribly from the effort – but I was determined, and after a couple of days, I had them all – and since it was a long time before I actually owned a copy of the “White Album” – I would often read those mysterious words from my yellow lined paper, hearing those beautifully picked electric guitars in my head, even after we returned to California from Uganda:

“She’s not a girl, who misses much….”

Next time: we will discuss the joys and frustrations of trying to learn, and perform, and occasionally record, the music of the Beatles – beginning with the very first proper band I was in – just about every band I was in from that time forward, played at least one Beatles song – at least, up until I got into Guitar Craft, Looper’s Delight and looping – but that was my strange career choice, to become an ambient looping guitarist; the time I am talking about, I am still at the tender age of 13, so with only a couple of years of self-taught guitar (and I later found, I had not done a particularly good job of teaching myself!) experience, I was finding that it was quite difficult to learn, remember, and play even the simpler Beatles songs – and it was during this time that my admiration for the skill of George Harrison in particular changed from admiration, to admiration and immense respect – that tricky little, bendy lead solo in between the verses of “Ticket To Ride” was at the time, one of the most difficult riffs I ever had to learn.

With just a couple of years of playing chords, I was not yet a lead guitarist, but learning that incredibly difficult riff, and then, learning more and more Beatles songs, also truly helped my own playing – when you imitate the best, you can’t help but sound good sometimes 🙂

So until then, I will leave you with that shiver-inducing refrain, the one I heard that day back in the mid-60s, that probably changed the course of my life for ever – because I seriously doubt, that I would EVER have become a musician, if it weren’t for the inspiration that the Beatles, as a group and as individual musicians, too, provided to me, all the time, through their amazing music:

 

“nowhere man – please listen

you don’t know – what you’re missing

nowhere man – the world is at your command…”

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

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

 

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

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

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maybe his best early work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to – the quiet zone / the pleasure zone – van der graaf

1977 was such a pivotal year in music, sure, in ’76, we had the beginnings of punk, the uncertain rumblings that said “this is gonna change…” and, soon enough, it did all change.

but the established artists of the day just kept working on music, and let the punk tide wash over them and around them – but, critically, importantly – just kept going.

that’s exactly what young peter hammill did – he kept going.  the classic four-man organ-based van der graaf generator had broken up for good after a series of disasters, including a disastrous yet successful “tour” of north america and canada, but hammill, as standard-bearer, decided to reinvent the band – completely.

with guy evans still present on drums, [always present thank god], hammill proceeded to and managed to completely change van der graaf’s sound; he even removed the “generator” to give the band a more stripped down identity in this year of great change: they would henceforth be known as “van der graaf” – no longer  “van der graaf generator”.

with the organ, bass and horns slots all empty, hammill started from scratch: bass player – he retrieved van der graaf’s original bassist, nic potter, so that was sorted; he brought in graham smith on violin, from string driven thing – and immediately, that became the core of the new van der graaf.

so suddenly, those beautiful church organs were gone, and hammill’s stark piano and acoustic guitar songs were now framed by violin solos, strings, real bass – fuzz bass! and these changes completely altered the fabric of van der graaf’s sound.  in a very, very good way…

a new year; a new band; a new album “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” by the new, string-driven, stripped-down van der graaf.  this one…rocks!

the album’s opener, “lizard play”, an acoustic guitar-driven vocal and violin extravaganza, sets the scene for the entire album – a supremely well organised sound, fantastic and very complete vocal overdubs – a great bass’n’drums rhythm section with snapping hi-hats, slithering bass, tight drum rolls, fabulous drum fills…and peter’s voice begging, begging “will you dance with me…?” – and then the secret weapon appears – david Jackson, the on-again off-again member, makes an appearance in the very last moments of this song on sax – so really, you have three of the original “classic lineup” – but the presence of potter and smith manage to change the sound of the band so completely, you would almost never know – so, a very similar band, a very different band – but – a really completely unusual, unique album in the hammill canon, unlike ANY other – I am adamant about that.

we move on to “the habit of the broken heart” – a listless, sad violin accompanies a lonely acoustic guitar, but then guy comes in with a steady drumbeat, and nic joins in with a very accurately repeated sequence – the perfect background for hammill’s vocal, and, on this tune in particular, I think it is lyrically really cool “I’m so sorry that he hurt you, but don’t throw yourself away”…and “you’re so special, such sadness seems a shame” – a straight ahead little rocker, with a central solo section of banshee-wail-smith-violin, just to make sure you are still with us…the violins are used then after the solo, as a sort of drone to build and build tension, the drums go mad at the end, guy is breathtaking on this piece – it’s worth it just to hear the drum part!

“the siren song” is next, and is, perhaps, the most beautiful song here, an epic poem, with fantastic nautical allusions, “lashed to the mast” – done only as hammill can do, but, utterly sincere, utterly heartfelt, and very, very beautiful indeed – I spent many, many hours teaching myself to play this song, and I will tell you, as an amateur pianist of no mean skill – this song is really, really difficult to play and sing – it’s very, very well written.  I love every word, every chord, every sound in this song – I could play “the siren song” over and over and over again, because it has an absolutely unique “feeling” unlike any other song I know – and that’s the genius of peter hammill at work.  the vocal – half-whispered at first, then, stronger and stronger and more and more full of agonised passion – “laughter – in the backbone – laughter – impossibly wise – that same laughter that always comes, every time I flash, on that look in your eyes…” that is brilliant!

“and time, will smash every theory I devise” – “nothing really matters, NO, nothing really matters very much….” – shivers.

then, oddly, a fast section, a lovely little piano bit with a nice, clean violin solo on top, this shouldn’t really work but it works really well, it doesn’t seem likely, but there it is, a nice length, a full run-through of a nice long chord sequence, ending up in a great little electric guitar riff (those AMAZING flangers again) and then … somehow, back to the original song’s theme, back to an almost dead stop, and a final, heartbreaking verse, with tinkling electric piano and more passionate violin helping it along until the very, very end.

it helps that these songs are good, really good, some of ph’s best – like “the siren song” – sure, that helps, but the band – they just sound fantastic.  guy is totally on form, underpinning the songs with his powerful, yet musically rich and complex drum parts, there is no other drummer that could have done these songs justice – it had to be guy.

and it’s on the rocking numbers that guy comes to the fore, propelling the songs forward – “last frame” is the first track that’s wholly electric in nature, featuring some beautiful distorted, thick-sounding lead guitars from hammill – but it’s guy’s drumming that draws me back to this song over and over again – nic’s contribution on distorted bass is awesome, and then hammill and smith handle all of the totally insane soloing necessary (the extended solo section, with it’s multiple overdubbed violins and multiple lead guitar melodies, is a true masterpiece of prog heaviosity – it’s a must-hear solo section).

“last frame” is a real sleeper, you don’t really notice it’s power, but then weeks and months later, you find it’s in your head – a really, really powerful song, using the idea of photography as an analog to a relationship, with hammill in various stages of alienation and grief, “hanging back from that last frame…in case it doesn’t show you, the way I used to know you…” – in hindsight, one of the best tunes on this record, but as I say, you tend to take it for granted.  “there you are – your eyes laced with secret pleasure – saying that you’re on the way – to change – devouring, in inordinate measure, every diversion that’s arranged….”.

The final allusion to photography “but then, I only have a negative of you…” gives way to a great descending coda, that quickly fades away into the distance…

smith is quite a furious player, and on this record, he mostly demonstrates a very powerful, very loud, very electric style of violin playing – which is fabulous – except when suddenly, he reaches deep and produces clean string parts of startling beauty – such as the violins within “the siren song” (perhaps my personal favourite track from the album) or the string parts for “the wave” – so not a one-trick pony, sure, the manic, mad, crazy, insane high speed distorted violin solos on this record are brilliant, but I tend to like the quiet songs even more, and smith does a brilliant job of switching between these two totally opposite styles – impressive.

if we hark back to the vinyl version, “last frame”, track four on our CD, would have been the end of “side one” of our vinyl, meaning that track five of our CD is track one on “side two” of our vinyl, and that is the very, very beautiful “the wave” – which never used to knock me out for the longest time, it seemed perhaps too obvious, but now – I consider this to be a hugely important track, with amazing violin overdubs filling out all the spaces of this piano ballad – and a heartbreaking, truly beautiful vocal from hammill – the drama of his lyrics brought into technicolour presence by smith’s amazing, shuddering overdubbed violins – sudden burst of acoustic piano filter through, and in the background, as always, nic and guy pinning this remarkable little piece of music down into a final form.

on both the “loud” songs and the “quiet” songs, the tension built up by the use of the violin (as opposed to the beautiful, melodic organ playing of the now-departed hugh banton) is stunning, and hammill uses the instrument to make these hard-hitting songs pack even more weight than they do as “just songs” – the arrangements on this album, to me, are just top notch, he’s taken everything he learned in the previous incarnations of the band – and distilled them into this remarkable album.

the other standout rocker on this song, is the absolutely amazing “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – a fantastic piece of distorted guitar/fuzz bass/string section that has to be heard to be believed.  hammill’s super flanged electric guitar is balanced by nics crazed fuzz bass octave parts, while guy is flying across the skins at an absolutely impossible speed…then hammill layers on the background vocals creating an incredibly lush and complex vocal arrangement that stems from his angry, powerful lead vocal – it bounces between the power and the glory, all the while, graham smith is sawing away, soloing, building and releasing the musical tension – then, a quiet, minor key section appears, multiple, heartbreaking gypsy solo violins appear as the chord progression is carried forward mostly by nic (guy stops completely to allow this serious piece of music play out) which slowly winds down to the end…this song, out of all the songs on this record, is such a powerful piece of music, and I think it’s one of hammill’s best songs of all time – bar none.

“the sphinx in the face” has long been one of my very favourite hammill/van der graaf songs, in part because of this fantastic lyric “I’m gonna head to the island when the summer’s out, I’m gonna do all the stuff that I can – drink like a fish in a waterspout…” – that’s genius! beginning with an awkward but cool guitar riff, when the rhythm section enters, with nic potter’s fuzz bass full of confidence, ploughing on through – I love that sound! this is one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for days.  it has a heavily overdubbed vocal chorus, which hammill uses later in the reprise version “the sphinx returns” – as “the sphinx in the face” fades out, the instruments gradually disappear, leaving the multilayered falsetto led vocal harmonies – a great effect.  and they then begin the reprise version, giving us really good sense of continuity, despite being separated by “the chemical world”, it’s as if this song were playing the whole time in the background.

“the chemical world” – this is one of the strangest songs hammill has ever done, and it takes a while to warm to.  it’s quite…odd, and it also contains a fast section with some very, very heavily warped vocal effects, which makes it end up sounding like a lost transmission from the planet klingon during that section.  But over time, I’ve realised that it’s a really, really well done piece of music, with a great acoustic guitar/gypsy violin part that recurs – and then there are those strange, strange vocals! Weird as green milk, but really, nothing else would suit – and then when the “normal “ vocal returns it sounds awesome – a great back and forth between the totally alien and the relatively normal J  it’s a chemical world … after all.  and it’s gonna blow up in your face…  graham smith is extremely excellent on this with some otherworldly violin playing and effects, this song is so effects laden that it’s not funny, but they are done in a tasteful and wonderfully experimental way – there is no other song on earth like this one!  none.  it’s just the drug … it doesn’t last.

the aforementioned “the sphinx returns” as noted, begins where “the sphinx in the face” left off – in reverse, beginning with the naked vocal harmonies, the band comes back in, but this time, at a furious pace with an insanely beautiful, screaming david jackson sax solo – it is phenomenal! Jaxon is only on this record in a few places, but I think even hammill realised the importance of keeping just a little bit of the “signature” van der graaf generator “sound” in his new generator-less “van der graaf” – and including jaxon here, particularly on this song – is an inspired act of genius, because he takes this piece to another level – it already rocks, just because when you have multiple overdubbed peter hammills, vocals and guitars, on top of that very powerful rhythm section, nic and guy; when you add jaxon to that equation – it really just ROCKS – that’s the only way I can explain it – this is just a very brief reprise, with sax, of one of the very best tunes on the record – no wonder hammill decided to put it on twice!

the remastered CD then brings us an absolutely delightful rarity: the studio version of “door”, a song we’d only ever previously heard on 1978’s live album “vital” – and one of the few studio tracks featuring what was to have been the next incarnation of van der graaf – “vital”, and this track, and the studio version of “ship of fools” – that’s most of what is available from the expanded band, which included synthesizer wizard charles dickie (and his work on both “vital” and on the two aforementioned singles has to be heard to be believed – it’s brilliant) as well as an expanded string section.  it’s such a shame that they didn’t go on, and in 1978, van der graaf ceased to exist after only a two-year run, producing exactly one studio album and one live album.

“door” in the studio is absolutely fantastic, it has a very similar heavy feel to it as does the “ship of fools” single – which sounds like proto-metal to my ears – I love the direction this band was going in when it suddenly disappeared.  stay away from the door…

the penultimate track on the re-master is an alternate version of “the wave” – with no vocal, and stripping away the layers of vocal reveals a remarkable sensitive and beautiful basic track, with a great, great peter hammill piano part, and then there are those strings…another graham smith masterpiece if you ask me. “the wave” has always been a dark horse, the song that I never thought that much of – until you hear it like this – it’s truly, truly one of the most beautiful songs on the album, in either incarnation.

finally then, we come to the holy of holies, the studio version of “ship of fools” – this song very nearly leaves me speechless, you just have to hear it to believe it, an impossible, convoluted but incredibly powerful guitar riff is central, that goes without saying, but you have never, ever heard hammill play – or sing – like this…he is on fire! – it’s just out there,  the vocal and lyric is incredibly powerful – a bizarre slapback echo on the drums, the best bass part nic potter ever played – and hammill, hammill, hammill finally coming into his own as a shockingly powerful rock rhythm guitarist and a surprisingly good lead guitarist too – sure, we’d heard the live version of this on “vital”, which is really, really good – it opens that record – but this, this is a song that I can’t get enough of – “dispensing platitudes and junk”…”there’s no rules”.

no rules.

this then, in 1978, out rocks, out punks, most of what punk itself was putting forward.  we all know the story about how john lydon idolises peter hammill – well, this song is one reason why he probably does – “ship of fools”, live or studio, is the perfect blueprint to start a punk revolution from – just copy this, or any of the similarly punk-like songs on hammill’s fifth solo album, “nadir’s big chance” – and you got yourselves a musical movement.

this song is a powerful argument for the concept that it was really peter hammill, not john lydon, who started the punk revolution – although it was via lydon – who loved the music of van der graaf and peter hammill – he just channelled hammill in his own way – and a genre was born!  when you hear “ship of fools” – you will know exactly what I mean J

it’s rare that a bonus track becomes my favourite song on an album, but in this case, it’s probably a draw between the remarkable “cat’s eye/yellow fever” and this stunning, last-gasp-of-this-van-der-graaf single, “ship of fools” – these songs rock hard, have brilliant lyrics and vocals, heavy, heavy guitars – everything a boy or girl needs to have fun.

1978 was a bad, bad year for prog rock – but by 1977, with the release of “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” hammill showed us, over two years, two albums, and these amazing singles – that not only had he already moved on, but he was creating a startling, new, heavy kind of music that possibly was key as an influence on none other than johnny rotten – that’s quite an accomplishment for someone who would have been classed by those self-same punks as a “prog rock dinosaur” – hammill shed that skin, and grew a brand new one – and walked away unscathed from the punk revolution – one of the very, very few proggers to survive it.

it’s a ship of fools.  (there’s no rules!!)

“I was looking for something good, clean, straight – but instead I found – the bunker wall – and gate”.

what we’re listening to – anthology (40th) – the move – movements (30th) – the move

it’s no secret that I am a fan of roy wood and his first very successful band, the move, and over the years, I’ve collected first move records, then move CDs, but I must say, that the two large anthologies released more recently get a lot of airplay with me.

“movements” (30th anniversary compilation) was the first – three CDs including quite a few most excellent rarities – and for me, some of them are just precious beyond belief, such as an early version of “curly” that is just fantastic, the Italian version of “something” and so on – a really, really great set.  I was and am extremely happy with “movements”, because it’s a really good overview of the band, but they also included enough rarities, alternate takes, and so on, for fans as well – another first is the full length ending/fade-out of “omnibus”, which has always been truncated on every other release, and finally saw the light of day on “movements” – and just to hear roy’s actual guitar playing during this full outro is fantastic – any recovered roy wood guitar is so, so worthwhile if you ask me.

I feel that roy is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, and if you have doubts about that, I would refer again to the new “live at the fillmore west 1969” cd which proves to me that roy was the george harrison of the move, but he was also the john lennon – he did it all, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, lead vocals – and his lead playing I feel is fantastic.

he’s also the only other british guitarist besides george harrison (well, that I know about any way – only “famous pop guitarist” I should probably say) to seriously learn indian music, and the banjar solo in the middle of “fields of people” on the new live album is a fantastic demonstration of his skill in this area.

ten years after “movements” was released, came the four-disc “anthology” (40th anniversary compilation) – and if I thought “movements” was good – this record is unbelievable.  in some ways, if you have these two releases, these seven discs, then you have what you need to understand the move completely and utterly.  “anthology” has even more amazing rarities than “movements” did.

an early version of “fire brigade” that features piano over guitar, an alternate version of “I can hear the grass grow”, various un-dubbed and partially dubbed songs that you know but in different guises – and perhaps best of all, a fully restored and repaired version of the live marquee show which is just fantastic – this show was always damaged, but they found a way to repair it properly, and it now also features all of it’s tracks instead of just some, and they have also thrown in a couple of the original live mixes as well for a couple of the tracks – ALL of disc 2 is live tracks, from the marquee in 1968.

add those to the tracks from the new live album, and you have a lot of great live move performances!

of course, if you are a completist like me, then you need to pick up the 40th anniversary re-masters of the original albums as well, because on those – you guessed it – you get STILL MORE bonus tracks and rarities.  My favourite of these remasters is probably “shazam” – an amazing record in it’s original incarnation, but this one has some real beauties hidden away in the bonus tracks – including an amazing, amazing alternate version of my favourite move b-side “this time tomorrow” – with a vocal from carl wayne (instead of david morgan, who sings the original version) – a beautiful, beautiful song – arranged in a completely different way from the “official” version – and I love hearing things like this, it’s kind of like roy thinking “well, what if it went like…this”.  Or…this.  Or….this?

so after 40 years has passed, that single I bought way back in 1969, of “curly” on the a side, and “this time tomorrow” on the b-side, is now on CD, and I get an alternate version of both songs to contemplate and enjoy – I would have never dreamed of this amazing set of extra, rare, behind-the-scenes material back then!!!!

of course, I didn’t really get a good sense of the move just from having that single, that’s just how I started, and when I returned to the US after four years in africa, all I could find were compilations – and the vinyl version of “something else” – which was the truncated, bad sound quality live album from the marquee. for years, that was all I had for years…you just couldn’t get “real” move albums.

so I felt like I was missing out for a long, long time, eventually, I tracked down things like “message from the country” and so on, and then finally, over the past few years, I collected the 40th anniversary stuff – and I probably play “anthology” much, much more often than many, many records I have – and it’s fantastically arranged, too – do I want early move? disc 1.  do I want rough and ready live move? disc 2.  do I want psychedelic mid-period move? disc 3. do I want late period/jeff lynne move? disc 4.

I really seriously feel that the move got such a bad deal in the press, and their releases were in a shambles for years, and while those have been sorted, the damage to their reputation hasn’t been, which to me is a huge, huge shame.  I absolutely feel that the move SHOULD have been as big as the beatles, the stones and the kinks were – because musically, they were equals.  roy wood was like lennon, harrison, mccartney, brian jones and ray davies all rolled into one. a quintuple threat, he could write, he could sing, he can play lead guitar, rhythm guitar, piano, organ, drums, sitar, sax, oboe, banjar, banjo, bagpipes – ANYTHING.  the beatles, the stones and the kinks – none of those bands had a single person capable of all that.

if you listen to roy wood’s solo albums, where in the main, he plays every single instrument (doing a “todd rundgren” before todd rundgren did a “todd rundgren”) you can’t fail to note what an incredibly capable and talented man roy really is – I recommend both “mustard” and “boulders”, I love those records, and I really think that todd took a leaf out of roy’s book – I think that the move was a huge influence on todd and the nazz, it obviously was, because todd did indeed cover “do ya” on his live 1975 utopia album, “another live” – and roy also liked todd, because the move had not one but two nazz songs in their live 1969 set list – so it’s difficult to say who influenced who – but both todd and roy are the master of walking into a studio, and playing every part themselves, and creating amazing pop and rock music out of thin air.

on the “boulders” album, there is an amazing song called “all the way over the hill (an irish loafer and his hen)” which is a perfect example of…pop perfection, with amazing background vocals, drums, bass, guitars – including harrison-like lead guitar – but then in the middle of the song, out of nowhere, a brief but astonishing sitar solo that mutates into a reverse guitar and then…back to the song – I would give anything to come up with songs half as clever as this one…and then at the end, roy plays live strings, cello, viola, violin – and does this whole irish jig /outro thing – again, where does this stuff come from – like five little songs all rolled into one four minute song.

from the “mustard” album – well it’s just strange, surreal, the title track is some kind of 20s track with female voices (or sped up roys?) featuring a great horn solo from roy, I love this little song, it’s so bizarre…but it’s the second track that I truly love “any old time will do” – piano based, great drums – another one that would have fit right onto any early todd album – a song of unrequited love, roy singing from the heart, perfect background vocals, a beautiful melody – and every note, every sound made by roy.  the guitars, the slide guitars…are bliss, this song just bursts with pop joy, it’s such a shame that these albums never made much impact on the charts – because if you like the move at all, then roy wood solo is like getting to the man behind the scenes – I really wish roy had made more solo albums, I wish he would make an old-style pop album right now.

I felt so, so fortunate, a couple years ago now, I had the chance to see the roy wood band live, and it was sublime, it was really, really good – the band was great, straightforward, crack players – and of course, even though I didn’t expect him to, he did six or seven move songs – so I was able to see and hear him play those amazing riffs, like that really strange one from “I can hear the grass grow”, and for me, that was just as special, and just as utterly surreal and unbelievable – as seeing george harrison (one of the BEATLES ffs!) play in 1974 – to me, those are my top two live british guitarist sightings, more enjoyable than things like…eric clapton in 1975, who just underwhelmed me – but george and roy – both did fantastically live.  george had lost his voice – but his guitar playing was astonishingly good – as was roy’s.  I can’t believe that I actually got to see roy wood play – I waited a long, long time for that one!

but, if you don’t have any of the move’s albums, and you want to hear the most under-appreciated pop band that SHOULD have been the “other beatles”…hear them properly – then you cannot, cannot go wrong with the 40th anniversary package – and it’s a beautiful, beautiful disc – I love the packaging, it’s totally deluxe, but more importantly, it really gives a very complete overview of the band and it’s music, and I could listen to just those four discs over and over and over again – I never tire of the music of roy wood and the move – and I should say too, what an amazing singer the move had in the late carl wayne, his performances in the studio, and on stage (as proved beyond a doubt on the new live album) are just remarkable, so that gave the band a great live vocal sound – because they had not one but two very, very strong lead vocalists (kinda like that other pop group, what was their name again?) and the live harmony vocals were a move trademark, they took their vocals very, very seriously indeed – and sounded great for the extra effort they made.  so carl’s contribution to the band should absolutely not be overlooked – roy wrote the songs – and sang some of them, but carl drove the band forward, and sang most of the time, so roy could concentrate more on guitar – so that’s a win/win situation if there ever was one.

I am not quite sure why the music of the move resonates so strongly with me, possibly because I associate it with my childhood in africa, a happy time, I don’t know, but they always were, and probably always will be, my favourite pop/rock combo just below the beatles – or maybe, just beside them 🙂

what we’re listening to: roger powell

when we think about the great synthesizer pioneers of progressive rock, it’s really a list of very, very obvious suspects, from wakeman to emerson and right back to wakeman again.  a few others – maybe…  but there is one synthesist that is just as skilled, just as talented, and was really at the forefront of the revolution, I am talking about of course, roger powell, who is perhaps best known for his work with todd rundgren’s utopia.

but what is less recognised is the fact that powell actually was first, a protege of bob moog, and then later,  worked for moog’s competitor arp, who produced the arp odyssey (and by sheer coincidence, I used to own one of those myself) and was really interested in synthesis from a purely technical standpoint as well as from a musical / performance standpoint.  I still have a 7 inch 45 rpm flexi disc of roger powell demonstrating the “amazing new arp odyssey”, which is a strange curiosity now.

I am not saying, by the way, that wakeman or emerson or any of the great prog players were or are ignorant of the building blocks of synthesis; I know that all the players of the time absorbed a certain amount of knowledge just in the process of learning to use these monstrously large and cumbersome machines (they had no choice!).  but to me, powell always seemed in a class utterly by himself, sort of a “mad scientist” of synthesis – and, if you listen to his very, very small recorded “solo” catalogue – just three records spanning some 40 years, you can hear that he really takes the sound-making capability of synthesizers very seriously indeed.

[note: I am only talking here, in this post, about three of roger’s four records because I haven’t yet heard his fourth album, which is an album of solo piano work].

it’s almost as if he decided that within the organisation of utopia, that he would use a certain synth vocabulary, and he coaxed some amazing sounds out of his instruments, and in 1977, went on to help develop the powell probe and brought it to the stage with utopia – and soon, everyone had an original or copycat “portable synth” strapped around their neck.  jan hammer used a modified powell probe so that he could also be free to roam the stage.

I was lucky enough to see todd rundgren’s utopia in 1977 (and twice in 1978!) and powell’s command of the powell probe was beyond impressive – controlling a bank of six (I believe) synthesizers and sequencers that were offstage, he was able to both roam the stage with impunity but still command hundreds of sounds from a vast array of synths – it was absolutely blindingly brilliant…and it was really something to see, bleeding edge technology in 1977 – that worked beautifully.

roger’s work with utopia speaks for itself, it’s a fantastic catalogue of at first, progressive rock, but as time goes on, on both utopia and solo todd rundgren albums, the demands on roger to play not just prog, but ballads, pop – pretty much anything that the chameleon-like rundgren came up with – well, it was all water off a duck’s back to powell, since his skill on piano is certainly equal to his skill with synthesizers.

and he was there in the thick of it, first, working for arp, helping with the design of their products, before rundgren found him and dragged him out in front of an audience.

he didn’t just bring his voice and his skill on the keyboard to the band, he also brought the first fibreglass prototype powell probe, he brought his trumpet, he brought his youthful enthusiasm – and, I was lucky enough to see this tour, the 1977 “ra” tour…and roger was on fire the night I saw the band – hell, they were all four of them on fire.   it was strange seeing the keyboard player stalking the stage with the same freedom as the guitarist – and, it put roger on an equal footing with todd and new bassist/singer kasim sulton.  it was…fantastic – portable, light, fully capable, driving the off stage synths and sounding totally amazing – awesome.

if you listen to something like “communion with the sun” from the “ra” album (1977) by utopia, you really hear roger working so well with todd, they play in unison; they play in harmony; they trade solos in an amazing, concise, intelligent way; this piece was basically set up so it really could be played live, yet, it sounds like it can’t be – it sounds like a very complex studio track.

but – that was the genius of utopia 1976/77/78, at least, that you had four players who could really play, and, all four sang well too, so with very, very tight four-part vocal harmonies (and on “communion”, some yes- or even gentle giant-like “staggered/round” vocal arrangements) on top of a very concise arrangement played by four extremely good musicians – well, utopia live, for those three years, was a musical force to be reckoned with.

sure, the technology would and did let them down – guitars would not stay in tune – things fall apart, so if you listen to a live show from 1978, you will hear disasters, but then they just pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and dive back in – and suddenly, you are hearing something akin to a prog / beatles, with amazing, perfect, four-part harmonies, and the ability to solo as well as yes or gentle giant – in fact, the guitar/synth trade-offs that todd rundgren and roger powell do sometimes defy belief – they are that technically and musically amazing.

that was the strange inconsistency about utopia – in the same concert, they might play three songs in a row that are just horrible, really out of tune, with bad mistakes, bad vocals – then, suddenly – it all falls into place and they play three absolute blinders, with perfect vocals, amazing solos, and precision chops – brilliant!  talk about erratic though…I actually think that speaks more about todd himself, because he is a bit of an erratic genius, he’s either great, or he is messing up in grand style – gotta love the todd.

a fairly unremarkable pop song might, for example, on the show I am listening to right now, “oops! wrong planet tour” might suddenly come alive because, for this one moment, everything is working: todd’s guitar is in tune, his voice is in perfect condition and he hits all the high notes, the whole band is in tune and in time, everyone is singing at their very best – and then you hear it, the best-ever live version of “love of the common man” you ever heard or dreamed of – far exceeding the original studio version from “faithful” – pop beatlesque perfection.  I’ve heard this song live a million times, but this version – it’s the way it should be.  the vocal harmonies are astonishing for live!  and yet on other tracks from this same show – everything goes wrong!

before I forget to mention, another talent that the remarkable roger powell has, is he is really quite a good trumpeter – this was first apparent on “another live” (1975) – the first utopia album roger appeared on – where his trumpet parts are integral to the success of the lead-off track “another life” – a really brilliant addition to the synthesizers, including an actual trumpet into the very synth-heavy utopia line up (at the time, they had either two or three keyboard players at once!) was a really good idea, and roger excelled at it (whereas todd on sax didn’t quite convince me!) – roger nails it.

later on, on tracks like “abandon city” (another one on the live show I am listening to right now), roger was given a really significant trumpet part, and again, really, really adds a lot to what might have been just another ordinary track from “oops! wrong planet”; roger’s jazzy, tasteful trumpet chops are most excellent.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen rick wakeman or keith emerson or really…any of the more famous prog keyboardist whipping out a trumpet and taking an awesome solo during a live concert!  one keyboard player who does, does spring to mind – edgar winter, who played sax live I believe as well as synth – but he is another unknown great.  there may be a few, but I really respect a guy who can be so good on keys, who can then effortlessly switch to trumpet and play with just as much quality and dedication.

sometimes I feel as if certain players overly dominate the field, while some that are equal or even, dare I say it, better – unfortunately, comparatively – they languish on the side lines or are (criminally) less-recognised:

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

kerry minnear of gentle giant (give me minnear over wakeman any day – sorry rick!) – plays every keyboard imaginable, plays cello, sings beautifully, writes…this man is a genius (another one who plays a non-keyboard instrument)

moogy klingman (of earlier utopia – 1974 version) – brilliant pianist – a prog pianist

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

eddie rayner (split enz, crowded house) – especially early split enz (1975-1980)

thiis van leer (focus) – also an amazing flautist, so there is another beside winter and powell

hugh banton (van der graaf generator) – originally a church organist, hugh plays with both hands and both feet

(an amazing thing to see in live performance, and for my money, a far better player than emerson or wakeman – but, because van der graaf didn’t have the high profile that yes and elp did, many don’t realise just how amazing banton is – if peter hammill is the soul of van der graaf, and guy evans is it’s beating heart, then hugh banton is the band’s brain – a mind of musical mayhem and intense, great beauty…)

and of course, our roger “the pal” powell.

don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that yes and elp are not good, sure, I love the music of rick wakeman or keith emerson as much as any true blue progger (but, less so over time), but I think they get all of the attention, while some of the lesser-known players are actually – more interesting, more skilful, more unique – more musically…interesting – but no one gives them a chance, because they have put emerson and wakeman on endless repeat in their brain – please give some of these other very, very talented players a chance – if you love synthesizer or keyboards – I mean, just listen to octopus by gentle giant and then tell me how good rick wakeman really is. (good, but not as creative/interesting/capable as the genius mind of kerry minnear).

just to be clear, I get it, I know how brilliant rick wakeman is on something like “south side of the sky” – I love that, especially the live versions up on youtube – but I just think that the focus needs to shift, and if you really love the music of rick wakeman, then you owe it to yourself to check out the music of winter, minnear, klingman, fast, rayner, van leer and banton !  seven amazing players – I promise you!

roger must have had one hell of a busy life, because during his entire career, he only found time to make three solo records – but what records they are – if you are a serious student of synthesis, or a lover of progressive music – or both – these records might be something you would want to check out.

powell’s first solo record is a period masterpiece: “cosmic furnace”, from 1973, is absolutely spot-on, it has serious titles, serious musical themes, and is using the available technology to it’s utmost.  when I listen to this record, I recognise that it cannot have been easy to make, synths being very unruly beasts back then, but there is no hint of struggle, and powell effortlessly layers his synths to great effect on this record.

the playing – well, it’s sort of techno-proto-utopian, it seems somewhat familiar, but I consider it to be more akin to the mothers of invention at their creative best, than related to the work powell was doing at the time with utopia.  it’s too complex, too serious – for utopia, and I’m glad that powell chose to sit down and make his first serious keyboard solo record at this point in his career, it’s confident, assured, and will sit well with your gentle giant, mothers, zappa, elp and yes – and of course, utopia cds.

we had to wait a long, long time – seven years – for the next roger powell record, made in 1980, “air pocket” is a giant leap forward, a snapshot of the state of the art of synthesis as the seventies came to a close – just before the advent of cheap synthesizers brought us into the musical debacle that was the 1980s – ugh.  When synthesizers passed from the hands of musicians, into the hands of bands.  I’ve written elsewhere about this subject, but powell’s farewell to the seventies stands up really, really well even today, and of his three albums, “air pocket” might be my personal favourite.  it does contain the original studio versions of a couple of tracks that utopia used to play on stage, namely the remarkable and powerful “emergency splashdown” as well as the less known “landmark”.

this record is far more accessible and slightly less musically serious than “cosmic furnace” was, but it’s still an amazing demonstration of skill and sensitivity.  a lot of synthesists struggle to make synthesizers seem human, but powell is better than most at humanising the instrument – I don’t know how he does it, or why I feel that way, but his sounds, his timbres, his tones – even his melodies – connect better with me than someone like emerson – who is more about skill than emotion, while powell, I feel has a better balance of skill and emotion.

the amazing, powerful synth solos that echo powell’s impassioned vocal performance on the studio version of “emergency splashdown” are just amazing, I would rate this album a ten for this track alone – nasty, snarling, visceral lead synthesizer as you want it to be – dirty, wild, spinning, with pitch bend and modulation going mad throughout – and such a brilliant variety of synth voices used in harmony, along with the main melodic synth themes – the solos, arpeggiators, and harmonies all work together as a monstrous orchestra of synthesizers, proving in this track, that you really, really don’t need guitars – it can all be done from the keyboard – if your name is roger powell.  this track is really so, so powerful – and it was equally remarkable in concert, where roger reproduced most of what is on the studio track in the live setting with ease – and doing it all from the portable “powell probe” controller whilst roaming the stage as if it were his own.

“air pocket” also features the original version of another utopia stage staple, the remarkable pop masterpiece “windows” – and you really need to hear this in both it’s studio incarnation and performed live with utopia – beautiful sweeping arpeggiators shimmy about in stereo over the main chordal theme, a really, really catchy pop song that is really all about synthesizers, the central solo is full of reverse and other ethereal, beautiful sounds – a brief glimpse of heaven before we return to that ridiculously catchy chorus – and it’s one of those songs that once you hear it, you just can’t get it out of your head – “you feel yourself, becoming someone else…” – a great pop song, and it proves that powell could have been very popular indeed if he had pursued this line of more pop-oriented material.

it’s actually damnably difficult to make a synthesizer “sing”, to make it sound warm and human, but through some curious bending and oddly-chosen moments of modulation; through his selection of voices, somehow, roger manages this nearly impossible feat.

the title track from the “air pocket” record is a case in point, it’s actually quite reminiscent of a bill nelson synth-driven piece from this same period, with a really emotive, almost oriental sounding lead synthesizer sound, used as the main repeating, melodic theme of the piece – which really creates the most extraordinary mood against an almost funky bill nelsonesque synth bass and snare drum riff – and then, when it gets to the first solo, roger uses a subtly different sound, to differentiate the central section of the piece – and eventually returns to the emotive oriental melody to round the piece out – it’s simple, it’s clean – it’s brilliant!

an even better surprise on this record is the inclusion of a “studio version” of the utopia live classic “mr. triscuits” (which utopia recorded live, but never performed in the studio) so powell makes up for that omission with “dragons’n’griffins/mr. triscuits” – and the glorious melodic themes of this prog masterpiece are reinvented in a most amazing way in this studio tribute.

to round out an all around remarkable record, “air pocket” concludes with powell’s amazing synth version of the all guitars classic “pipeline”, entitled “pipeline 76” so I assume recorded in that year – almost as if to prove a point – these new-fangled synth-o-sizers can do anything a gee-tar can do – and in powell’s capable hands, that actually becomes a truth.  the sounds might not be guitar sounds, but they work – they tell the story of “pipeline” just as well as the guitarists do, including some fabulous distorted “guitar solos” that are just brutal in their intensity – great stuff!

give me these three records over a dozen wakeman solo records anyway – there is nothing here that isn’t visceral, real and honest – I really like these three records a lot!

if we thought we waited a long time for “air pocket”, roger’s other commitments over time meant that his third and most current solo record, “fossil poets” was really a long, long, long time coming – it was originally released in 2006 – and perhaps, that 26 year gap between records was a time to consolidate everything roger had learned and experienced, and then, he finally sat down to make another record.

and it’s a lovely disc, once again, completely different from the other two, and with twenty-six years of progress in the field of synthesis, the voices and sounds that are now available to powell to express himself on this record are mind-boggling; he chooses wisely, and it’s another successful, rounded record – I think in this case, less is definitely more – OK, if I really want to hear roger soloing his heart out, I will find some vintage live utopia from 1976 or 1977, or I will put on one of the official utopia records – but when I want serious, intricate, thoughtful synthesizer music – it would be to these three records that I will always turn.

“fossil poets” is a grower, it’s much more about subtlety, texture – this is a such a different sounding record from either of his two previous solo albums or the utopia catalogue – it sits almost in a unique and unusual sonic world of it’s very own.  I love it, there are some bizarre and wonderful synth tones that you do not hear every day, and they are used in challenging and interesting ways – the weird intro to “fallout shelter” being one example, a nervous, shifting rhythm with a wonderful, tactile solo raging over the top of it, bending and stretching through impossible frequencies…as bill nelson says “the frequencies…shift”.

it’s absolutely fascinating too, to compare the aural experience of these three albums, each, as it were, representing an “era” of synthesizer development: 1973, the tones are more basic, the classic sine, saw, square, triangle waves all have their part to play lfos other modulation are definitely from a more limited palette than on the later records – although, given the primitive state of synthesizers in 1973 (compared to 2006 or even 1980) powell really does coax a lot of fairly subtle and advanced tones from his 1973 machines – it’s brilliant.

come 1980, and the entire vocabulary has shifted, arpeggiators are to the fore, we have some early beginnings in terms of more subtle sonic textures, even ambience, although not to the extent that ambience plays a part in the 2006 offering.  “air pocket” is like a mid-term exam, technology had come a long, long way since 1973, and roger takes full advantage of the new tools available to him in 1980 – he has the answers to the exam, and he passes with flying colours – every track on air pocket oozes confidence and quality.

finally though, we reach “fossil poets”, a modern-day record made with the latest hardware and software synthesizers.  tasteful use of real basses and guitars flesh out what is still, mostly, a keyboard extravaganza, and in the background, there appear everything from synth basses to fender rhodes (or similar) to clavinets (or similar) – or, a sudden hammond organ style solo will appear from nowhere – and curiously, quite often, the voices seem to have been run through a wah pedal or filter – which just goes to show you, technology does not have to be new and fancy to work – the wah-wah was the world’s first portable filter – and synth filters work in a very similar way indeed.

synthetic percussion is present too, and in this percussion, we can hear the progress – similar percussive sounds on “cosmic furnace” sound cheap and simplistic, here, they are fully evolved, they sound like drums, but, synthesized drums – they way they should sound, tasteful sounds that accurately emulate real drums.

the biggest difference though, for “fossil poets” are pads, sounds that “wash” over you, beautiful, ambient chords and drones – all of the ambient sounds and moods, that are completely absent from “cosmic furnace” and only partially in place by the time of “air pocket” – are fully realised here, so from a standpoint of mood, emotion, texture, and beauty – “fossil poets” probably “wins” hands down.

I love the fact that powell uses rhodes-like and hammond-like sounds on this record – why mess with what works? – he could invent or develop really weird synth or piano sounds, but he has the wisdom to not mess with perfection – so the rhodes, hammond, string and even percussion voices, sound good – because he hasn’t messed with the formula that says “use a rhodes sound, and your track will sound good”.

another favourite track of mine on this particular record is “underwater city” – which somehow, sounds exactly like it’s title – it starts out with subtle, ambient keyboards stalking you in stereo, then, ominous guitars layer on top of really ominous synth bass as the song develops – a muffled, strangled bassy drum beat accompanies the lead guitar, while roger plays odd sound effects and wonderfully textured synth accompaniment in the background.  then the song takes some odd turns, some beautiful short chord progressions, and it enters a wonderful, dreamlike state that would simply have not have been possible on “cosmic furnace”.  it’s like bluesy delayed guitar on top of space age ambience – a lovely combination. the use of stereo in this track is phenomenal, and the synth effects and one-off sounds are absolutely fantastic – I love it.

“tribe by fire” really throws in a complete kitchen sink of synthetic sound, there is so much going on, so much texture, so many melodies, so much wonderful ambience – sudden ethnic synth squeals – then peaceful, beautiful electric piano – slithering, snake-like synth leads – then, suddenly, the sound goes dry, and odd flute-like events and percussion take over – it’s as if the track is mutating from one song into another – but, every 17 seconds or so.  I really like this one, too…

“peaceful uprising” is a real centrepiece of this record, with it’s insistent beat, and wonderful layering of synths over a very beautiful ascending, positive sounding chord progression – synth leads harmonise with lead guitars over a vaguely arabic-feel backing – I really, really love this piece, it’s so intricate, so carefully arranged, and it’s all about harmony and texture; texture and harmony – the rhythm stops occasionally and the piece goes very ethnic, little islands of quiet before that insistent rhythm picks up again, driving the song onwards and upwards, it’s absolutely fantastic!

it’s strange too, how your own tastes change – originally, my favourite synthesizer record was undoubtedly “the six wives of henry viii” by rick wakeman; and I still do love that record, but I don’t tend to actually listen to it – whereas, I still find myself putting on the three powell albums quite frequently – often, I just select “play all” and listen to the whole suite – and when you do that, it really hits you what this man can do, what he has accomplished – the brilliant, atmospheric opening to “lunar plexus”, the lead-off track of air pocket, just sounds to me like science fiction/future synth music, I just love it (“air pocket” was the first powell record I owned, cosmic furnace was very difficult to find for a long, long time) but if you play the three back to back – the range, the diversity, the amazing sounds, sequences, arpeggiations – the amazing solos – the quiet piano breaks…the quiet, determined intelligence behind these records speaks volumes – this is how synthesizer music should be!

“cosmic furnace” is entirely instrumental; while “air pocket” sports a few very excellent roger powell vocals, with a return to the instrumental approach for “fossil poets” – and I actually really like roger’s voice, it’s underrated, I’ve seen and heard him sing at a number of utopia concerts, and he turned in some amazing live performances – especially on his own tracks, such as the live versions of “emergency splashdown” or one of his showcase pieces, “caravan” where he trades synth leads with rundgren’s guitar leads to great effect, all the while singing the lead vocal of the piece, to his remarkable “solo section” in the lengthy and complex “singring and the glass guitar” taken from 1977’s “ra” album by utopia – roger on stage was a revelation; even better than in the studio, and the range of expression he wrenches from his keyboards is one of the most significant – sure, wakeman gets a lot of great sounds, but somehow, with powell, it seems more personal, more indicative of his personality and style – wakeman is saying “I can make all these sounds” while powell is saying “these sounds represent how I feel” – and therein lay the difference.

the main difference in the 2006 offering though is probably the presence of real texture and real ambience – those things were harder to achieve earlier on in the development of synthesizers, but none of it is a problem for roger powell – the great unknown contender to the possibly unwanted throne of “prog synth wizard” – I think, if people listened to “another live”, “ra”, “oops, wrong planet” and “adventures in utopia” – along with these three records – they would be blown away by this quiet scientist of synthesis, the amazing roger powell.

I cannot recommend his music more highly to you if you enjoy the sounds made with synthesizers.

what we’re listening to

todd rundgren & the metropole orchestra – live in amsterdam

 

a good friend and fellow todd/utopia fan sent me this show, and I have to say, I went in with medium to low expectations, and came out very, very pleasantly surprised.  todd’s live performance history is plagued with problems – under-rehearsed bands, a tired broken voice that he hasn’t taken good care of – except sometimes – a lot of missed notes, forgotten guitar solos, you name it, todd has suffered it – yet, he still persists.  he’s got that – he keeps on playing and singing, and for a man approaching retirement age, shall we say, he really sounds very, very good on this fine recording.

 

ok, there are a couple moments where his voice cracks, but that’s just his age, and maybe not taking as good a care as he should have of his voice.  but that almost makes it better, because if it was perfect, it would be boring – so having his voice break a little during a very rare and precious take of an early classic todd ballad, “wailing wall” – well, it’s purely beautiful.

 

the first part of the show actually really rocks, and he plays a fair bit of very good and very accurate guitar in there.  I do find myself enjoying the songs that I am not as familiar with, in particular I quite like ”property” (from “no world order” – an album I am not wild about) and “mammon” (from “liars” another album I am not wild about!), and even songs that I don’t like as much, like “fascist christ” or “the smell of money” hold up quite well, because – well, the orchestra is frickin’ brilliant. arrangements, performance, sense of humour – they have it all.

 

the arrangements really are pure class, they ooze class, but at the same time, the band rocks.  it actually makes sense to orchestrate these songs now, todd is not a kid anymore, his songs are nearly as old as he is, so it is time to start taking them a little more seriously.  even the concert-worn minor hit “can we still be friends” benefits hugely from the orchestration (including the strange, beautiful ambient horn arrangement at the end – wow) – it’s awesome, and I really don’t care that much for that song – but hearing all these songs with “grown up” arrangements – it makes you realise overall, just how good a songwriter todd is.

 

the show is also a really great overview of a long, brilliant and erratic career – and a career I’ve enjoyed greatly.  sure, todd has his share of failures – particularly on stage – but when todd is good, he is good. and this show is one of those cases, where everything goes right (for a change) – well, not quite everything, he’s laughing so hard at the orchestra during “onomatopoeia” that he fluffs the words completely, in both takes – but it’s such an amazing performance by the metropole, that you don’t really notice – because they are on fire.  they play the song once, then, they play it again – but faster, the second time – and it’s mind-bendingly fast – a stunning performance, and like “wailing wall”, I think this might be the first time “onomatopoeia” has ever been performed live – so right there, that puts this show into a special class.

 

for me, in particular, having the deadly serious and incredibly beautiful arrangement of “wailing wall” –hearing this song live, at long last – well, it’s the high point of the show in my opinion, but only because I have a long relationship with this song – it’s one I learned and played on the piano at the time, and always loved to sing, so to finally hear todd himself have a go at it, it’s just fantastic.

of course, the obligatory “big hits” are all present, “hello it’s me”, “i saw the light”, but, a bit more unusually, also “we gotta get you a woman” arguably one of todd’s best early pop songs – and again, all three of these, which at a normal todd concert, for the first two, you would sort of go “oh no, not this again…” – you don’t feel that way at all, in fact, having the orchestra present on these songs turns them from ordinary to extraordinary.

 

I don’t know who arranged the orchestra parts, but whoever it was, it’s pure genius…lots of unexpected solos, odd instrument choices, but at the same time, string arrangements that bring instant goose bumps, because they are so perfect, and so, so beautiful.  when the strings enter in “wailing wall”…you can hear exactly what I am talking about.  shivers.

 

i think that todd must have been really awed and touched by the level of detail (for example, the sound effects in “onomatopoeia”) within the orchestrations, and the way the arrangements really highlight the quality of the song writing.  sometimes unexpected things happen, you get horns where you’d think “strings” but that just keeps me engaged, surprised…you never know what is coming next!  unfortunately, he enjoyed the orchestra’s onomatopoeic sounds so much that he ends up laughing at them throughout the entire take (and it really is funny!) as he tries to sing, and during the extra fast tempo version as well, but it’s enormous fun anyway.

 

todd has embarked on a huge number of projects in the last few years, from reliving his past as a blues guitarist to projects like this one, and as always, he’s had varying success depending on how well rehearsed the band his, how well he has re-learned his guitar parts, or how well he’s currently taking care of his voice.

 

I sometimes get very frustrated with todd, because he is capable of so, so much, and yet, he’s had a lot of trouble on stage, with potentially brilliant  shows (such as the recent performances of “todd” and “healing” in their entirety, or the utopia mark ii reunion shows) marred by so much going wrong…which is such a shame, it really is.  but none of that nonsense this time, they get it right, and besides a few problems with the words on one or two tracks, it’s a pretty flawless and frankly remarkably good performance from the erratic but brilliant rundgren.

 

I should note, that if you are not familiar with todd’s work, that during the late 60s and early 70s, he produced some absolutely amazing records which if you haven’t heard, you owe it to yourself to give it a chance – to hear some of the best prog around – 1974’s “todd rundgren’s utopia”, 1975’s “another live”, or 1977’s “ra” for three – as well as a lot of very interesting pop/prog/bizarre records like 1974’s “todd” or 1973’s “a wizard, a true star”.  don’t let “hello it’s me”, “I saw the light” and ” can we still be friends” fool you – this man rocks, and his guitar playing, well, there are very few american guitarists that I feel are actually better.  only frank zappa springs to mind – todd at his best can scorch anything from nasty blues to 30 minutes of complex prog – no problem!

if you like pop – well, to me, todd makes the best pop records around – from his early nazz recordings (although the nazz also ranged from very, very pop to really, really heavy – a strange dichotomy), onto amazing, ground-breaking pop solo masterpieces like 1972’s “something/anything” (where todd plays all the instruments, as he often does on records – where do you think I get the idea that I can play everything on dave stafford records?) or even the more relatively-unknown records from the later versions of his band utopia – who could switch between prog and pop and rock without batting an eye – todd’s recorded career is full of a lot of really, really amazing music.

 

 

four out of five stars then, for this most satisfying live recording 🙂

 

thanks mr. p !!