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 !!

 

 

what we’re listening to – roxy rule, ok?

well, it finally happened, because I’ve been going through many, many cassettes of early works for the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page, my curiosity got the better of me, and I had a quick look into the “other” box of tapes – the one with the live concerts in it – and lots of other music as well – in it.

in particular, I was looking for (and found) a live recording called “foolproof” by roxy music – which is the first roxy music I ever heard, and it made a huge impression on me – at first, I didn’t even know or realise why I liked it so much (because a man with amazing chops had just joined the band, straight from his stint with king crimson, adding john wetton to roxy was an absolutely inspired move – incredible) but later I realised, it’s because wetton is the bass player, and that makes the whole band try harder. the presence of eddie jobson certainly helped, too, and the whole band really rose to the occasion – and the music, for that brief period, was truly remarkable.

roxy live was always a mixed bag, but this concert stood out in my mind as being more together, more like what the band was truly capable of, than other live performances I’ve heard.  and for me, there are some great moments too, for wetton – quietly singing harmony to bryan ferry’s a cappella end piece of “mother of pearl” – but best of all, in “re-make/re-model” – when it comes to wetton’s turn to take a brief solo – the monstrous, distorted, sliding, slamming piece of fuzz bass he chooses to play, is so extraordinary it puts all the other solos to shame – it’s fantastic – it rocks!

so I took the time last sunday to digitise the concert – and, at the same time, sadly, I learned that it’s not one concert – it’s two, and, it is (of course!) cut into pieces – so two tracks from a 1975 new york show, then three from newcastle, uk, the previous year, then back to two more from the 75 new york, then the balance from newcastle.

so even though the “concert” is contrived, it’s still a great representative showing of just how good roxy could be when they tried hard. in particular, the four tracks from new york 1975 really shine (now that I understand what and where they are) but all of it is fantastic – the other concert that was used, the newcastle show, is the source show for their official live album “viva” – so you can extrapolate from that that the band thought that shows from this era were good, too.  🙂

there are also some rarer live tracks here, that you don’t hear in every roxy live show, such as “she sells” – and one of my personal favourites, from the “siren” album – “whirlwind”, where phil manzanera pulls off a tour de force performance, in fact, phil is on fire through out this tape, and occasionally, the precision and power of some of his riffs makes you really sit up and take notice – “wow, I didn’t realise he was that good”.  but he is, and I think having wetton there was a kick in the pants for phil in particular (they seemed to strike up a great and lasting friendship after that in any case) and for the  other existing band members.

the bass player “seat” in roxy had been a revolving-door gig from the very beginning, but now, the current occupant of the hot seat, by sheer chance, happened to be a world-class bassist at the height of his performing powers (don’t forget, he’d just left the most successful and amazing king crimson lineup of its time – where playing with fripp for two years had honed his bass playing skills to incredible heights of capability) so suddenly, the bass parts in roxy music songs – began to matter!  you could hear them, and they made a difference to the songs.

this concert then to me, is sort of like roxy music’s version of “the move live at the fillmore east 1969” – a concert that vindicates them, that dispels any feeling that sometimes, live, they maybe weren’t all that together – and it shows us a sort of “dream” live roxy that really did exist for a few months anyway.  I love it, and hearing this again – well, I had it on vinyl originally, so this cassette was a master cassette recorded from the vinyl – but amazingly, given that it’s not the original vinyl, but a copy of it – the digital version came out very, very well – all it needed was a little bit of a level boost, and one very carefully done bass boost – and that was it, I didn’t want to change it’s sound too much.  remarkably, there is no evidence to my ears anyway, of the vinyl lineage – no snap, crackle or pop – but that may be because there are really no quiet moments – the audiences are loud and enthusiastic, the band, loud and on fire!

starting out with “love is the drug”, it moves through a strange selection and mixture of “new” songs from “siren”, including unlikely deep album tracks such as “whirlwind”, as well as a few big hits – “editions of you”, “do the strand”, and “re-make/re-model” among them – so really, something for everyone. 🙂

hearing this again, after so, so many years of not hearing it – it was like having an old friend back that you hadn’t seen for 30 years – a really wonderful experience, and, even live – roxy do rule – ok?

the way we listen

over on the pureambient music group on facebook, we’ve been talking about the different ways that different people perceive a piece of music.  (by the way, please feel free to drop by and join in the conversation – everyone is welcome!). obviously, every single human being “hears” a particular song in a “different way” – but to me, it’s fascinating to try and understand what those “different ways” are, and if I am hearing a song in a particular way, can I break that pattern and “hear” it in a completely different “way”?

I don’t know, I think I can.  when I actually think about it, the way I listen to most music is strangely analytical.  instead of hearing it as a “whole composition”, I usually break it down mentally into it’s component parts.  so if I were listening to king crimson, circa 1974, I would think, when I hear the electric piano playing a distorted power chord during a live performance, “oh, that’s david cross” and I would be, momentarily, focussed on what david is doing in the piece in question.

invariably, a moment later, john wetton would pull off some amazing, sinuous, powerful bass run – and then, I am just hearing john, really – sure, I can still hear bill’s snare drum popping on the 3, or whatever it is he’s up to, but during this section of the song – it’s all about what john is doing.  and probably, I am at least mentally, if not physically, playing air bass along, trying to figure out what notes are in that incredible bass run – and probably failing 🙂

so I might listen to that song, and be in “wetton” mode, and pretty much pay attention to the bass, the bass, and … the bass.  on another day though, it might be all about what fripp is doing on the song – maybe he’s done something unusual, played a part in an odd way (compared to the studio version) or he might do some tapping (he does this more often than you would think) or some kind of impossible slide/hammer/whip round that I cannot get my head around…so that same song, is now heard in a totally fripp-centric way.

or – on yet another day, I might be in “bruford” mode, and while I can hear the rest of the band, I am listening to that tightly tuned snare pop, I am waiting to guess where the downbeat will fall in this particular measure (hint: not where you think it will!) and I am hearing the track “drum-centric”.

and – a normal person (i.e., not a musician!) would listen to this same song, and hear…a band playing, a song, not the individual parts, just the entire composition, as a holistic and organic whole.  after years of analysing songs, of focussing sharply on one player’s part, it’s become very, very difficult for me to just “hear a song” or “hear a band” as a whole entity, I have to really work at it to not focus on one element, and, it gets more difficult every year.

so for example, if I want to hear king crimson live from1974, let’s say I decide to put on “usa” – I know what will happen, I will be irresistibly drawn to “asbury park” immediately, because the drums in asbury park – well, if you like crimson, you already know about this drum part – it’s all about bill, and i’d say that when I listen to that song, it’s initially to hear what bill does.  that is…until wetton and fripp enter the fray.  then – my attention shifts – bill is still there – but now, john and robert are there too, and it’s hard to say which one of the three is the most amazing – not to downplay david’s role in the song, I actually love what david does on the piano here, but the problem is – john and robert are so fracking amazing on this song.  so I am torn – who do I listen to? who do I focus on?  that razor sharp guitar, that is suddenly blazing out 128th notes that are so brittle and sharp and they just fly atop that thunderous, murderously powerful bass line – to me, asbury park may be the single most powerful live performance by these four men that there is – although i’d have to think about that – I can’t immediately think of any other that blows me away quite like this one – especially in the first two or three minutes of the song – the power and the glory, wetton and fripp – and, underpinned by a snare drum that is snapping so hard it sounds like the drum head is in imminent danger of being split into a thousand fragments with each driving, smacking sound…

so some songs defeat my ability to focus on one element, and asbury park is one of those – maybe then, I am listening to that song in an almost normal way – almost as a whole – but not quite, because while I may not be focussing on a single element throughout the piece, I am probably shifting back and forth between the main players, maybe even every few seconds! maybe that says that I have a problem with my attention, I don’t know – either I am great at dividing my attention between various elements, or, I am unable to focus and keep attention on one attribute – fantastic !! 🙂

seriously though, I do find it interesting, the way people “hear” music, and as we were saying over on the pureambient music group on facebook, different people hear different influences in your own music, and that can be very revealing – when I get input from people, and they say “this reminds me of…bill nelson’s ambient work, “crimsworth”” or “this song reminds me of eno” then that interests me, I want to understand what it is about that song that brings that reaction – so I then go back and listen again as “see”, or “hear” rather, if I can “hear” what they are talking about.  it’s very strange that other people can hear the influence of artists that you admire in your work that you were not conscious of.  that always gets me, because when I listen again, I have that eureka moment, “oh…i see – yes, that bit does sound like eno, it really does” – which I might never have been aware of had someone not pointed it out.

that’s actually very valuable to me, for one thing, I don’t ever really want to plagiarise or create works that are too derivative, that sound “too much” like artist a or b.  that’s a tall order, because there are only so many chord progressions, so many melodies, so many harmonies, available – they’ve almost all been tried, performed or recorded over the centuries – so it’s really more down to other factors – performance, tones, ambience – that help make even an ordinary chord progression work well and sound unique to you.

tone and atmosphere are extremely important to me in the writing process – a piano, with no effects on it, is one thing, but a piano in a subtle, beautiful reverberant room – suddenly, the sound of the instrument starts to influence the song, and the notes, the chord progressions, the music itself become less important, and the atmosphere, which alters the standard tone of the instrument, and the timbre / atmosphere combination, create a mood that is somehow beyond the actual tune itself. the problem that this creates though is that I tend to want to hear that atmosphere or tone or timbre while I am recording – which is at odds to the accepted practice of recording “dry” and adding all effects post-production – oh well – sometimes, to get a particular result, you have to ignore what is “right” and go with what sounds right…

there are ways around this, and I am able now to record dry and play back with atmosphere added so it’s not so much of an issue now, but it used to be that I would just put the effect on while I was recording – because I couldn’t really play the piece “dry” – particularly, let’s say, if it was a loop recording of energy bow guitars – because the reverb or echo or phase shifting or chorus or flanger or delay was integral to the composition – and there are still times when I record guitar that is heavily effected – because I simply can’t play the piece live and then “add the effect later” – I just can’t play it without hearing the effect already there!

I am learning to, but sometimes…I might just do it “wrong” to make it “right” 🙂