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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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journey through the past – gear evolution – getting my gear together

so as a teenager, I was very, very fortunate, to have been born into the time I was, when prog rock was king and instrumental prowess was respected. to have met and worked with so many excellent musicians, to have learned from some brilliant players – and friends – jim whitaker, joe norwood, rick corierre, and my best friend and the most amazing keyboard player I’ve ever known, the late, great, amazing ted holding – may he rest in peace. to have the time to jam, learn, share to our heart’s content – and just play. all the time! what a luxury – I was very, very fortunate.

and then…life happened.  I’ve been trying to puzzle out how to describe what happened next, and it’s not simple or easy – but basically, while I’d worked an assortment of jobs starting when I was 15, when I was 20, I reached the point where I really needed to work full time – so by accident, I got myself hired on at a place where a friend of mine, jon pickerd (aka pfingsten), worked.

little did I realise then, that this would occupy the next 11 – 12 years of my life, that I would very quickly rise up through the ranks from general dogsbody to running the parts department to eventually becoming the service co-ordinator and second in command of the entire business. nor did I really realise the impact of having a full time job, what a negative impact that would have on music – well, at least an impact on how much time was available to play music.

the first thing I needed to do, was sort out my equipment. I’d bought a beautiful ibanez destroyer guitar (near exact copy of a gibson explorer) from my friend joe norwood (an amazing blues and slide guitarist) with, strangely, a customised pickguard made by none other than my friend and former band mate, mitch chavira, who often was the bass player in the same band that joe norwood and ted holding were in (joe was ted’s brother in law, and they were in many, many bands together during this time) – mitch was at the time, working for a plastics or manufacturing house, and joe had him make a special custom pickguard for the guitar, which looks much nicer than the strange, stock white pickguard that ibanez put onto the guitar originally.

I also changed the pickups, a couple of times – ending up with d’marzio pafs (patent applied for humbuckers) – which are still on the guitar today, some 34 years later 🙂

since I was now working, and had a little bit of money, I slowly started to put together some decent guitar equipment for the first time ever.  during the teenage years, I had never really owned an amp, well, for a brief period I did own a fender super eeverb, but other than that, I’d never needed one, I would usually play through ted’s carvin bass head, into one of ted’s homemade speaker cabinets.  effects were limited too, although at various times I owned a tattered second hand, but proper, arbiter red fuzz face (the same one hendrix used – of course) and the thomas organ version of the vox wah (so, a direct copy of the one hendrix used – of course) – but other than that, the only other “effect” I owned was my reel to reel tape deck with it’s “delay” switch – that I used as a guitar delay! – in the ted rick & dave (& jennings) jam sessions.

so slowly, I built up some reasonable gear.  quite quickly, I realised (partially from a lot of very, very good advice from joe norwood, who by this time was working at a series of various guitar shops – and he would let me trade gear up, it was great having a “pal” in the guitar store, I can tell you) that I didn’t really want or need a “guitar amp” – what I wanted was a clean power amp and stereo speakers.  so I bought some really good quality 12 inch celestion speakers, and two cabinets, and joe installed them for me – so I had my 2 1X12 celestion cabinets, and eventually, I was using an A/B single rack space power amp with them. (of course, fast forward to now, 2012, and I am feeling like I missed out – I want guitar amps – a fender, a marshall, a boogie, a roland jc-20…the list goes on.  when I win the lottery, I shall have at least one of each of these!).

that way, I would use devices, whether that was a preamp (I tried many, including the boogie preamp – the silver one, whose name escapes me) or multi-effects units (I had variously, a digitech dsp-128, robert fripp’s old roland gp-16 as well) until I eventually, much later, ended up with a digitech tsr-24S – a 24-bit reverb and multi-effects unit! imagine that – which was the state of the art at the time.

as time went on, I began to get delays capable of more and more delay time.  after having the dd-2 for many years, with it’s one second of delay, I set my sights on a digitech 8 second delay – at that time, that was the longest time available in a decently priced device (although I found it to be very, very expensive at the time – I think perhaps $240.00? or thereabouts) – but I eventually did get it (thanks again to joe norwood), so to suddenly go from 1 to 8 seconds of delay – wow.  and, you could even loop with it, using the special footswitches.  heaven!

now, this description of dave’s gear isn’t really following a strict timeline, nor do I have any idea what devices I got when…I just know, that a long, long series of experiments, changes, always trying different configurations, eventually I ended up with…whatever I ended up with!  I have broken the time into roughly 9-10 year “chunks” so I can have a point of reference, but after a while, it all becomes a big blur of pedals, racks and controllers 🙂

so ten, fifteen years of trying out different gear, different ideas, until I got a sound I was happy with – stereo, always, although that was mainly for my own listening pleasure – I see no point in having auto-panners, choruses, flangers, phasers, or reverbs if you can’t hear them in true stereo – no point at all.  playing guitar in stereo was rare back then – most players still used the “guitar plugged into fender or marshall or whatever” model that had been the standard for so long – but joe norwood was one of the first to have a stereo rig (with not a guitar amp in sight), and I immediately followed suit – and, joe – thank you!

I never looked back. it really was a case of searching for the right gear for the right sound, and over the long haul, as my playing evolved from regular rock guitarist into ambient loop guitarist, the gear slowly mutated with me – so I ended up, in my 30s, with – finally – some half decent equipment.  about time!

I didn’t have a lot of money, so there were a lot of things I would have liked to have tried, but never did – particularly effects, effects with mysterious and wonderful names, like “electric mistress” or “doctor q” or “memory man” – but over the period of the   “second period of gear evolution”, which I am placing very roughly at 1979 – 1988 (so, age 21 to age 30, approximately), I owned mostly boss stomp boxes at first, starting with things like the ce-2 (my first chorus, ever) and then the bf-2 (my first flanger, ever) – and at that time, in my early to mid 20s, these were like technological marvels compared to what had been available in the 70s when I was a teenager – I can remember being so, so thrilled, particularly, with the bf-2, that I plugged a microphone into it and sang bill nelson’s “uhf” into it, using the resonance control to make my voice sound like bill does on his vocal (note: I just found the tape of this, and while it doesn’t really sound like bill’s uhf…it sounds very wickedly cool – I loved that song, and now, my bf-2 could make me sound just like bill! astonishing technology.

I felt no compunctions about recording vocals through a stompbox – I didn’t know any better – and it sounded good to me!  so I just…did it. now, I probably wouldn’t do that – I would add the flanger after recording the vocal, of course, during post-processing, having recorded it “dry”.  but sometimes, not knowing that you “don’t do that” – was a great way to learn, and I achieved some remarkable sonic highs using these most primitive stompboxes to effect and treat tracks and even whole songs.

following these now-primitive modulation devices, after the chorus and the flanger, came the heavy-hitters – delays.  I went through so many delays – again, started with the most basic one, the dm-2, which did well under a second of delay – but still, a stomp box that was quality for it’s time, and eminently usable – I recorded not just my guitar, but also vocals with it…and then, a couple years later, I was thrilled when the dd-2 came out, because it boasted one full second of delay – and loop – unimaginable!  that was really impressive, and I actually had both pedals in my rig for a long, long time.

then there was the distortion side.  I tried many fuzz boxes and overdrives, and I used, variously, the boss hm2, the heavy metal pedal, and another one whose model number escapes me – maybe a dm-2…I think at one point, I may have had as many as eight boss pedals (why not?) hooked up in a long, long line – I also had a vibrato pedal, a vb-2 (of course!) and I am really not quite sure what else.  always a wah of some kind, usually, a clone of the cry baby – nothing fancy.

I did also at one point fairly early on, maybe even during the “first period of gear evolution” from 1971 – 1978 (so, from age 13 to 20, approximately), a mu-tron wah-volume, which was a very modern device, it was pretty cool.  I have no idea what happened to it! I do remember using at one very good live recording session with my friend rick corierre (of “ted, rick and dave” fame), a friend from junior high school who was an excellent drummer – we did several takes of the jimi hendrix song “drifting” which I then took home and overdubbed vocals on – such a beautiful, beautiful song.

mostly, though, I was into boss pedals, the small stomp boxes – they were relatively cheap, very durable, small, portable (although I can remember spending so many hours messing with making them powerable – making sure each power lead was exactly the required length – I almost never use batteries in effects) because back then, you could only really buy an adapter, you didn’t have products like the voodoo labs power supplies that they have now.  so many an hour was spent soldering connectors onto zip cable, and making customised extension plug strips full of adapters for pedals.

if you currently had eight pedals in your pedalboard – then you had extension strips with eight individual power supplies, each with a custom length cable to minimise hum and noise.  a nightmare to build and keep running, but I got pretty good at it in the end.

speaking of pedalboards – well, I will need to create a special edition of the blog that deals with pedalboards, because right up until 2005, when I stopped, I spent a huge amount of time, designing, re-designing, building, and re-building pedalboards.  I learned, and learned, and learned some more – what works, what doesn’t, and so on.  and slowly – the boards got better and better, the sound got better and better, and I made progress. I tended to photograph each one, so hopefully I can create a “stafford pedalboards through the ages” photo page on the audio companion page.

some of the first ones were horrible!  very primitive, I really struggled to make them work, but as I went on, eventually, I hit on a very simple but effective method of making them…in brief, a thin rectangle of plywood, spray painted black (several coats, so it would stay black as long as possible – they got beat up pretty quickly) – double-sided tape – multiple power leads from a single supply – short, custom length cables – and that was that.

so when I think of this decade, I think of slowly improving gear (and consequently, slowly evolving and improving sounds…) and a lot of hard work, designing pedalboards to handle whatever the latest technology was…routing considerations…cables, cables, cables, I used to make all my own cables so there would not be one inch of unneccesary cable in any of my boards – so that was hours of work in itself, and I became quite adept at making cables.

as time went on, better power supply options appeared, better routing options – better switching options – so it would be, ok, first, we have this a/b switch, so there can be two paths within one pedalboard – genius!  maybe one for the distortions and the modulators, and one for the reverb – or some other mixtures – like having two pedalboards on one, that you could switch back and forth between.  and then, a couple years later, another miracle product – the a/b/c switch – wow, three paths, really useful.  and for the rack mounted effects, special 3-switch digitech prorietary switches (I had two of them on my board, with 3 switches each) so I could control my rack devices from the floor…heaven.

of course, it wouldn’t be until the “third period of gear evolution” roughly 1989 – 1998 (from age 31 to 40, approximately) that we had things like dedicated MIDI pedals, when we then got complete control of rack devices, but, whatever the method, I was always the king of the pedalboard, because I wanted the flexibility of sound, and it was critical that both hands were free…

journey through the past – on the way to 21 and beyond

in trying to mentally catalogue all the bands I was in and projects I worked on during this time, it continually amazes me because I think I am done listing them, that I have listed them all, and then yet another comes to mind – of course, on the web site, I do mention “slipstream” * – a covers band I was in when I was about 20 or 21 (so, 1978 -1979) but, also in my early 20s, I was in a band with my friend michael dawson, a bassist who also plays many, many other instruments – he excels at bass, flute, sax, piano – we had met in a record store a long time ago now, both being very much into prog, so we formed this band – and it was a bit different from most of the bands i’d been in, because I picked some of the material – we played roxy music; “love is the drug” and talking heads; “psycho killer” – it was a trio, bass, guitar and drums, and is yet one more example of a band that I was in, for some period of time – and then maybe the drummer would quit, so I would move onto the next band or project…

*slipstream mark I lineup:

mike packard – guitar / lead vocals

elen maisen – lead vocals

dave stafford – lead guitar, keyboards, lead & harmony vocals

pat garrett – bass

lee walters – drums

(notes: later on, after the first year, we had a third guitarist briefly, but only for a few months – John, I believe – but the above lineup was the core group – also, elen couldn’t always rehearse and perform with us due to other commitments so she is on some recordings, and not on others).

we are hopeful that some live and studio tracks from slipstream will eventually appear on the “pureambient blog audio companion” web page which has been set up, but doesn’t yet have any audio content – we are working on that as we speak…

the dave stafford “cassette restoration project” is of course, bringing to light many, many interesting archival recordings, so once some basic cleanup is done with the digital captures from the cassettes, we will start posting samples of the music that we are speaking about here in the “journey through the past” series on the audio companion page.

I mentally consider that this “learning period” really ended when I was 20 or 21, because that was the time in my life where I had to “get serious” and get a regular day job, and of course the moment you do that, you lose a lot of time that was previously available to you to work on music.  i’d had jobs before, part time, full time, from when I was about 16 – 17 onwards, but once I was 20, I started serious work at a “real” company – and that led to not being able to practice, rehearse or perform nearly as much as I had in the prolific seven year period from 1973 – 1979.  which then, and still, now, I find very frustrating.
i still played in bands whenever I could, it just meant late nights during the week and then still having to get up and go to the day job, but luckily, when you are in your 20s, you still have enough energy to both work full time and play in a band.  or at least, sometimes I did.  so another set of bands went by, I was in a sort of hard rock band, two guitars, bass and drums, and we played a lot of material that was a bit strange for me – the who, ufo, cheap trick, things I ordinarily wouldn’t listen to or play – but that was a fun band, and we did a few good gigs in the beach area – it was based near the beach, although I have no recollection of who was in the band or what we were called!  no idea.

i also think the band with michael dawson, again, name unknown, was during this period of the early 20s…i was probably already working steadily when we met at the record store, and it was some time later that we actually started to play in a group, so I was maybe 22, 23 when we did that project.  I don’t think we ever recorded, and, similarly to pyramid, I don’t think we played any gigs (well, pyramid played gigs, but not their real, prog repertoire) and the band with michael had no repertoire except quasi-prog or things like the talking heads, so we never played any gigs at all!  but whether the band gigged or not, whether the band ever recorded or not – I learned something from each experience.  in some cases, I even ended up fronting the band – and one instance of that would be olympus, the prog band I was in.

this band was formed by an english guitarist and writer who played nylon string guitar – he had a bass player and drummer, and they brought me in to play guitar and keyboards.  but very quickly we realised that I had probably the best voice in the band, the writer/leader couldn’t really sing his own songs, so I asked him if he minded if I sang them.  he agreed (reluctantly, I think) so I would sing these songs, his lyrics, but making up my own melodies to suit whatever chord progression he had for each piece.  we had just two or three long songs that we really struggled to learn, and our drummer had a curious sense of time that made life difficult sometimes.  I remember doing a great live jam of “black magic woman” that was excellent – in fact, there were two guitarists, as well as the nylon guitar, bass and drums, so it was a good, full sound.  I did find myself in the curious position of fronting a very prog sounding band, so I adopted a singing style that was like my own weird cross between peter hammill and fish – with a california twang no doubt added in unavoidably.

i loved it.  I sang the songs with venom, I played keyboards, I played guitar solos using my new digitech dsp128, a great little unit, and we had a blast.  we worked really hard (somewhere, I have some rehearsals recorded) on our original music – and then one day, the singer just melted down.  he didn’t like the arrangements.  he didn’t like what i’d done to “his” songs, he didn’t like the way I sang them (only because he couldn’t) – he basically wanted to get rid of me, get rid of the drummer, and go back to his core three piece of nylon guitar, electric guitar and bass.  so he did.

again, as the “journey through the past” series unfolds, we hope to uncover the recordings of “olympus” and possibly present some of them on the “audio companion” page as the series continues over the new few months.

i was a little bit pissed off about the breakup of olympus in particular, because i’d invested a lot of time and sweat into this band – and then we just break up, without…you guessed it, yes, once again….ever playing a single gig.  the story of my life it would seem!  I was quite unlucky with bands, but, part of that has to be down to the essential unreliability of many musicians – (uh, no offence to anyone living or dead) let’s face it…musicians are not always the most reliable people 🙂

a few of the bands I was in lasted a year or so, slipstream managed maybe two if you count all the different versions – so at least some of the effort, the long rehearsals, lugging guitars and amps and drums about for years on end, paid off – well, not in financial terms, but in sheer enjoyment – even the worst moments, being in a cover band playing a song that you despise, for example (let’s say, an eagles or a fleetwood mac song) – can be vindicated when you get to play a song you love (let’s say, an allman brothers or a steely dan song) – and then, it’s all worthwhile – for that ten minutes or whatever it is, while you get to play the music that you love…

(for a moment, back on stage again, eyes closed, playing the guitar solos from “in memory of elizabeth reed”…)

special announcement – the pureambient blog “audio companion”

hello, this is a special announcement to formally introduce both the pureambient.com “cassette audio restoration” programme, as well as to introduce the brand new dave stafford / pureambient audio companion.

there are no audio files on the audio companion just yet, as we are just beginning to pull them off of the cassettes and catalogue them, but we’ve set up the structure of the page, and there are already some notes, photographs, and so on – we are very excited about the “audio companion” (please use the link to your right on the blog side bar to access this feature of the blog) as this will be a place where we can upload historic audio clips, recently digitised from cassettes, which will be real time examples of the projects, bands and performances dave has been describing in the “journey through the past” series of posts about the early days of his music.

at first, we will be “catching up” a bit, we’ll be presenting some of the very earliest examples of dave stafford music, as described in previous blog posts in the “journey through the past” series, and then as things proceed, we will gradually move through the various bands and cover bands that dave was in, on up into the late 80s and the beginnings of the dozey lumps and bindlestiff.  you’ll hear the struggle to learn the instrument, you’ll hear dues being paid in the form of “having to” perform songs that are not to one’s personal taste, and you’ll hear triumph when rock, prog rock and experimental music are the order of the day, evolving over time into looping, ambient and a host of other very personal musical forms.

the “cassette audio restoration” programme will also lead up to and incorporate the creation of the planned “lost” 1994 bindlestiff album, “longest”, so we are excited that we are moving towards the beginning of that ongoing virtual release – a large number of rehearsal tapes were made that year, with a lot of good music on them, none of which has ever been captured or heard since – so that’s another very exciting aspect of the “audio companion”.

of course, the official releases are all available on the pureambient store at any time, and, you can hear free audio samples of many of the same tracks on the various discography pages for each artist, but it’s our hope that by adding in another stream of rougher, “audio verite” performances captured via the medium of the cassette, that it will increase the musical richness of the standard catalogue through alternate takes, live versions, prototypes, sketches, covers of other artists, even comedy – there is absolutely going to be something for everyone both in the written word of the ongoing “journey through the past series”, but at the same time, in the songs, ideas, and realistic view of an artists’ life – the good, the bad, the ugly and the ridiculous – all presented in the finest digital sound available for free streaming or download on the  brand new “audio companion” page.

additionally, all of the tracks will receive a basic cleanup – boosting levels, removing hiss and hum, but some of the material may be presented in both it’s raw form, and in enhanced form – there is the opportunity to do something unusual here, and I could easily see myself adding new parts, or vocal harmonies, or new solos, to material I, or one of my groups, recorded back in the distant past.  it should be a lot of fun – please come along for the ride !!!

see you there…on a journey through the past

on getting older…on reaching post 17

waking up today to yet another birthday in what seems to be now, an almost endless stream of birthdays…

I think though, that my attitude towards growing older has changed like everyone else, as each year is “ticked off” because another birthday has arrived, you are left wishing that it was a birthday year starting with a “2” instead of a “5”, but the more I think about that…I actually don’t wish that.

I am actually quite happy to have a birthday involving a “5” as it’s starting number: it’s  OK with me.  I feel quite calm about it, and really, I don’t think I would want to go back to being, say, 24 again…because for me, even though they often say “life begins at 40” – for me, “life begins at 50”. absolutely.  there is a feeling that most of the struggle is behind, and now, hopefully, I can make music – and I now go forward gladly, into the fray 🙂

I also am quite, quite pleased, that by complete, unplanned accident, that this is the seventeenth post, and how incredibly appropriate that my seventeenth post would fall on my birthday…that pleases me no end for some unkn0wn reason. but then, there are reasons why 17 is my lucky number, always has been, always will.

so today, I am looking back and looking forward: and I have a gift to enable each of those.  the first, looking back, is a very small gift, but a huge one for me: a usb cassette player.  so finally, I am able to open the cassette vault, and I can begin to look back at the music that has been locked away on that quite obsolete but still most precious of devices: the cassette.  I have…a lot of cassettes, and I mean…a lot…with a lot of music on them. so this gift, the usb cassette player, will allow me to retrieve and hear again, and where appropriate, share with you, music that for the past couple of decades has been essentially lost to me.

this tool will also allow me to share audio examples of the sounds and songs and improvs that I am talking about here, of course, they don’t, unfortunately, go back to my earliest teen years, but there is good, strong coverage of projects from 1989 onwards – in particular, “lost” dozey lumps performances (one of which, is merrily being recorded from the cassette to digital as we speak) as well as the material that will make up the bindlestiff live rehearsal project I announced last year, the virtual “album” “longest”, the material for the album being approximately 74 cassettes taken from the weekly bindlestiff rehearsals during 1994, that have been waiting patiently in one of the big boxes full of cassettes.  so we are very excited about acquiring this particular tool, as it will enable us to digitise, and then share, a lot of dave stafford, dozey lumps, and bindlestiff music. and other music by other musicians, including some long lost concerts that I’d taken from vinyl and stored on cassette.

the gift for looking forward is something I’ve needed for many, many years: an 88-key keyboard (an m-audio prokeys sono 88) to replace my 40 year old yamaha dx7s, which passed normal retirement age about 17 years ago – the dx7s been my main keyboard for the past 30 years or so (and a brilliant one, and even useful to drive software synths despite it’s great age – midi is midi), but the time has finally come.  so a couple of days ago, the new keyboard arrived, it’s a modest, bare-bones affair, but to me, it’s a dream, because I’ve been missing having a full keyboard for so, so long – and those 61, plastic unweighted keys on the dx7s were just no good for playing proper “dream piano” – which is something I spent many, many hours doing as a teenager on my real upright piano – long since gone, I am afraid. so to be able to sit down and play a full arpeggio, starting at a low c and ending on a high c…it’s just amazing, I really, really missed that feeling.

and of course, all the problems of a real piano just go away – it’s always in tune, there are no broken hammers or strings or other impediments, you can literally just sit down, switch it on, and play.

so yesterday, I sat down and made some test recordings, and interestingly, because the keyboard also has it’s own internal sounds, I decided to record both via MIDI and via audio – so one track of MIDI with the keyboard driving a mellotron; and another track recording the same sequence but as audio using the internal sound of the synth.  it made for some interesting recordings, one of the odd things being the fact that the mellotrons, since they are sample based, of course have only a limited range of the keyboard upon which they play, so as you are playing piece involving both mellotron and say, strings (or, strings and choir, since you can run two internal voices at once!) while you are in the centre of the keyboard, you hear and record both the MIDI and audio – but when you play “outside the range” of the mellotron, of course only the audio records – so sometimes, you are playing three keyboard parts with your left hand, and two with your right – the density and beauty of the combined sounds is awesome, not to mention the very odd sensation (and sound) of the mellotron(s) playing on some notes, but not on others…uncanny, but quite, quite lovely.

and then of course, I realised that I could clone the MIDI tracks, select a second, different mellotron voice for the cloned tracks – and then record two different mellotrons (of the same sequence) on two MIDI tracks, and one audio (of the same sequence) – and of course, you could go on forever cloning tracks, so if I really wanted to, I could stack up ten different mellotron sounds – play ten or any number of mellotrons simultaneously, an orchestra of orchestras.  or stack my midi grand piano with my external grand piano, and so on…the possibilities are nearly limitless.  having semi-weighted keys is also a lovely sensation after 30 years without them – pressure sensitive, just like a real key – so when you push softly, you get a soft sound (again, just like a real piano – brilliant!) – unreal, just excellent.

so the usb cassette is already at work, transcribing a concert I’ve wanted to digitise for a long, long time: the dozey lumps “live at goddard’s” on july 15, 1989 – and I can tell you, from 2012, it’s a very, very odd sensation indeed to hear myself speak from 23 years in the past, and to hear bryan and I introducing the band – and then launch with extreme confidence and vigour into the nearly impossible dozey lumps repertoire – but, this is the twist on this show – we also decided to play electric material – which is fine, except – we had no such material.  so during rehearsals, we worked out a number of “untitled instrumentals” – or at least, the framework upon which we would improvise.  and finally, a choice selection of…cover versions, mostly, of utterly impossible-to-perform (but that fact did not stop us!) songs by our favourite progressive rock heroes, so I am quite keen to see if any of them have stood the test of time, and might be sonically and performance wise, worthy of some kind of release.

what covers? well…and this is going to seem so odd, but, I was deep into my peter hammill phase, so there are a couple of ph songs on vol. II or III of the cassette, I believe, “mirror images” and “flying blind”.  and then, because this was really well before bindlestiff formed, so what covers we chose was based on the music we both loved, so along with my two peter hammill covers (both on electric piano), we also did songs by peter gabriel, split enz  and king crimson – lofty company for our humble dozey lumps acoustic numbers and homespun electric improvs!  so a concert that was pretty much a “full” dozey lumps songs, with a couple of bryan’s instrumentals added in; our “untitled instrumental” series, and – unusually for this period, a couple of electric versions of dozey lumps tunes in one of the sets from that night – and then, finally, sprinkled in between – the prog covers.  a very, very odd set list indeed.

possibly the strangest aspect of it, besides that I did not expect to hear it any time soon, and now I can, is hearing my 31-year old self play, from uh, 20 some years in the future…I could not resist the temptation of “listening in” during the transfer of the beginning of cassette 2 from the 3-tape set, on the first couple of verses of our peter gabriel cover, “indigo”, wherein bryan takes the lead vocal; while I play his korg synthesizer, in electric piano voice.  and from what I heard – well, it’s a very solid performance, or at least, the section I heard was…but it’s the confidence with which we launch into it, as if we’d played a million times (when in fact, I think we’d played it about four times across two rehearsals) – but, I’d learned it months before, because I used to sit at the piano and sing it, so I knew “my” part, and bryan knew the vocal – so we just did it ! but I’m not only “playing” the keyboard part, which believe me, for someone who is basically a guitarist, is not easy to play (nor was it easy to learn, but I did eventually work it all out) but I’m also embellishing it, and playing slurs that don’t belong, in between chords, and so on – and it sounds good – so that was a very odd experience hearing myself have a proficiency and uberconfidence playing a difficult, difficult piece on piano – a proficiency that I no longer have, unfortunately.

I think at the time, when we would “roll the tape back” we would be very, very overcritical of how we “did” on the performances; especially on the covers, but that’s because these were artists that we really revere, and we wanted to do these basically impossible covers of impossibly difficult songs, as well as we possibly could – do them justice if you will.  but now – many years later – listening to the young dave stafford and the young bryan helm, playing music that they are obviously passionate about, and playing with such confidence and a clear love for the material – I don’t feel ultracritical any more, and I could probably even forgive any small imperfections that might be present, just because it’s remarkable that these “pre-bindlestiff” improvs and especially covers, even exist – that they are impossible, difficult, prog rock classics, played by two people with no massive prog rock ensemble behind them – it was a good indicator of what a good band bindlestiff was about to become…once we finally recognised, sometime in 1991, that we had changed from the dozey lumps into bindlestiff, and we then started “writing” our own original electric/loop music.

so what a gift: not just a usb cassette player, but a tool that brings a forgotten, nearly lost past back from the brink of magnetic death, and preserves some remarkable music that might well have been lost forever.

I’ve had time today to think about these recordings, too, and what a blessing it is that I now have some 17 years experience of working with digital audio, what a blessing it is that I now have the proper tools and effects to take these raw recordings, clean them up, make minor enhancements to their sound if appropriate, and help them realise their full sonic potential – whereas, had I published them in 1995, when I was a complete novice at digital music, I would not have had the tools and experience to do them justice – so, the timing is right, despite the long, long delay in examining the tapes for possible release – now, we can examine them, and, if they are worth releasing, we can quickly and effectively process them with minimum effort using the modern tools we now, luckily, have available.

so yesterday, these were half-forgotten shows and recordings from years past, now, today, they’ve been and are being transferred into the digital realm as we speak, where we can easily work with them, so maybe, thanks to this brilliant little tool, we’ll get to hear some of these most unusual improvs and cover versions.  we shall see…