A blast from the past as it were, sometimes, when you are involved in one project too many, various routine tasks (such as, uploading completed pieces of music) slip through the cracks. This is the story of one of those projects – a project that was actually completed at the end of October, 2014, was rough mixed on November 1, 2014, but is only just now seeing the light of day. The rough mix was acceptable, but for reasons unknown, the final mix was not made, and the piece just sat in the completed masters section of the database – done, complete – but not published!
That would be, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings“, my third concerto, but, the first to feature piano and strings, I’d always worked with horns before, specifically, oboes (my lead instrument of choice it would appear – see concerto no. 1 [in e minor] and concerto no. 2 [in a minor] – both for guitar and oboe – do you see a pattern emerging there?) so I wanted to test some uncharted waters, and see if I could “say” as much with just piano and strings. It was challenging, but in the end, I believe I have succeeded quite well in that particular aspiration. But I will let you be the judge of that…
A curious melody, sounding for the life of me, like a lost European folk melody, begins the piece, but then, suddenly, a banging and clashing of strings and timpani takes over, with urgent, repeating “morse-code”-like bursts, which then settle to almost ambient, mellotron-like strings, which wash over the listener in beautiful, deep waves…or so I hope, anyway!
That folk melody established at the very beginning, then re-occurs in various places within the larger work, as do other themes – I really like to try and establish a number of different, short musical themes or ideas, in the first (and sometimes, second) movement, and then, reiterate them, often in totally re-arranged or re-configured ways, at various points during movements 2 and 3 – I like to always refer “back” to earlier themes wherever possible, I find that gives you a cohesiveness that can otherwise, be lacking – you can hear the relationship between the movements, as well as their own unique characteristics.
What I found was, that of course, you can’t really have the strings or the piano “soloing” endlessly, so various interesting musical events probably “take the place” for me, of the missing oboe, short instrumental passages, plain and simple chord sequences; lovely pizzicato sections (I find pizzicato strings to be absolutely gorgeous, and I will use any excuse to include them in my work – I really will); but what I found very interesting was that I continued to turn to the percussion section, to take over sections of melody!
In particular, I began to rely heavily on the timpani, to express musical ideas, that normally might have fallen to a more common solo instrument (my missing oboe again, or clarinet, or flute…) – so I found that timpani alone, or, timpani with xylophone, became my new weapon of choice, and even better, when you contrasted those two percussive instruments against the best percussion instrument of all, the piano – it sounds great!
So I found myself playing xylophone a la Ruth Underwood, taking my cues from the world of Zappa jazz more than from the world of serious classical music, and I tried to think like a Zappa would (not an easy task) – however, I will say, that this concerto has a far more…”modern” sound to it, it’s far closer to jazz then my previous two works (in places), and normally, I am not a huge fan of modern classical composers or modern classical music, but I learned here, that it can be very invigorating and indeed, a joy to take those sort of almost jazz-like flights of fancy, and then keep bringing back to earth with the strings and piano, making sure that the normal classical motifs and forms are still in place, so that it still retains a flavour of non-modern classical music – elements as old as the hills – the piano, leading the way, the strings, supporting, questing – I really enjoyed the composition process in this instance, as I always do, and each time I produce a new piece, I learn something – actually, not “something” – many, many things – new.
Then, it’s almost as if the percussionists have temporarily “lost the plot”, as they seemingly almost wander off onto a strange melodic quote from “the firebird suite” – played on the xylophone in a humorous style [between 5:59 through 6:25].
More Ruth Underwood-style solo xylophone follows, which then resolves into the most incredibly ambient section of strings I’ve ever scored, which is the long, flowing section that ends the first movement – in such an incredibly calming, slow, and luscious way, and, the first time I’ve used a long fade out in a classical piece– the calm after the modern jazz storm I would almost say.
A strident string and piano theme begins at 6:42, but very quickly, loses its stridency, and becomes calmer, with pizzicato “dropped chords” occasionally appearing, long, deep strings, fade gradually along with the ever-calmer piano melody, which is now dream-like, almost ambient – eventually, the piano disappears altogether, leaving those gorgeous strings on their own for the last few moments running up to 08:07; until the first movement fades to complete silence, when another “first” is to immediately follow; the start of the second movement, has an even longer “fade in”, which then becomes a new piano theme (which, curiously, had originally been part of the first movement, had been rejected and removed to the outtakes section – and then, because I really liked it, re-instated as the first new piano theme in the beginning of the second movement; which then begins to merge and intertwine with more timpani and more xylophone, but, fleetingly; once again, the long, beautiful ambient “string chords” threaten to overwhelm, they just flow over what is happening whenever they will, often, at unexpected moments, and I really like the sound of those long, string section held chords – simple, effective.
Then we have a section of string madness, where more new themes emerge, including a brief, bowed solo from the bass (another first for me, I think) I have tried to be a bit more bold in terms of allowing individual players to have more solo “moments” – and probably, more solo piano than in any other piece. Some really lovely violin and viola leading up to ominous bass notes, long, held notes.
At some point, we are briefly re-visited by the opening “European folk music” theme, which is a nice place for a re-iteration, tying the first two movements together nicely.
Normal string melodies, trade off with pizzicato ones, followed by more moments of madness, from 11:18 thru 11:29 for example, when the lead violinist, begins playing high speed pizzicato riffs way above the top of his/her normal range, a piece of musical joyousness I simply could not resist, which started out as just one instance, and soon grew to a full 12 seconds of high pitched pizzicato madness – a temporary loss of sanity on the first violinist’s part, no doubt. 🙂
The second movement then settles into a sort of strange mixture of piano, timpani and xylophone, in more supporting roles, as violin, viola, and cello play interlocking lines, this section gave me a lot of grief at the time, but it was worth the pain, I persevered, and it all came out well in the end. Some sprightly up and down arpeggios for both the piano and for the xylophone are interspersed, accompanied by powerful timpani, the pianist playing with some wonderful flourishes and beautifully underpinning the piece with subtle low bass notes, while his/her right hand is playing double-quick arpeggios in the top octave of the piano keyboard.
Our familiar D suspended 4th to D major theme re-occurs too, extending out into a timpani–led improv section, followed by more mournful, long mellotron-like string parts that bring the second movement to its inevitable conclusion…
…the third movement begins immediately, without the customary rest between movements, at 16:02 on an eerie, ominous minor chord, with the bass alternating with a short-duration minor chord, a cello melody begins, and we are once again, away…
More new themes are immediately presented, piano and strings being featured heavily throughout this movement, we then move into some “octave” piano work, followed by a beautiful, strange almost Rundgren-esque chord sequence [17:31 – 17:42], involving both major seventh chords and bass notes that are not the root note – as example, C major 7th with a G bass, or C major 7th with an E bass – anything but a C bass!! (two of Todd Rundgren’s trademark devices, the major seventh and the 3rd or 5th in the bass – why not!) – which are then reiterated briefly by the strings –and then on into the next emerging theme, a descending chord motif…which then resolves to a piano theme first introduced in the first movement; our bright, major key sequence of D suspended 4th to D Major chords once again; which then resolves to a really stark, honest solo piano section that I am inordinately proud of [19:51 through 20:30].
A tension-building exercise is next, using a new piano riff to drive home a musical concept via repetition, and I love the powerful way that works, once again, resolving back to a reprise of that stark solo piano piece with its odd tempo slow-down [the one just referenced, from 19:51 through 20:30] – I love the fact that the tempo changes so often in this piece.
Again, the tension-building riff, but this time, for a shorter amount of time, it then dissolves into a piano and strings section that builds and builds in volume, until finally I reach my “Beethoven moment” [22:41 – 22:47] which while it may sound simple, it actually took some doing to get that part to sound right.
SPECIAL NOTE: since we are for now only producing recordings of the full concertos (previously, we have offered both the full concerto; and recordings of the individual movements, but we have discontinued that practice, and for the foreseeable future, we will be producing only complete, full versions of the concertos online) – here are the start times for each movement, and the total time as well, for those who like to know such things:
- Beginning Of First Movement 00:00 Approximate Duration: 08:07
- Beginning Of Second Movement 08:07 Approximate Duration: 07:55
- Beginning Of Third Movement 16:02 Approximate Duration: 13:09 (13:15 with added silence at the end of the piece)
- Overall Duration 29:11 (29:17 with added silence at the end of the piece)
As is my custom, it would seem, the third movement of every concerto I do, seems to always end up to be by far the longest of the three; I do not know why this is, I am not intentionally doing this, it just works out this way – partially, I suppose, because I want to add in themes from the first movement, and sometimes the second, that if all three movements started out life roughly equal, that the third would always end up having several minutes added, because, first of all, I want to re-insert certain earlier themes, but also, there just seem to be more emerging new themes, as well as sometimes, I like to re-arrange or sometimes, radically modify earlier themes, to present them with all new instruments, or with one instrument taking the lead and another a background part, the reverse of how they were in movement one, and so on – a place to experiment, a place to really stretch out both compositionally but also, as a player.
The piano parts are where I get to compose what I would love to sit out there in front of that audience and play, so they are special to me – I do tend to spend inordinate amounts of time working on the piano parts, solos and other instances of piano – which I use for everything – bridging sections, supporting the strings with some percussive, piano “rhythm” – I love to play piano, but I have also learned – that I love to score piano – it’s a real delight, and I love it when things work out well, and it ends up sounding just as I “hear it” in my mind – and that is an accomplishment, it’s not often easy for musicians to do that, but Notion is an app that actually does allow me to do that – it lets me wander compositionally where perhaps my mere, human hands maybe never really quite could – but my mind – my mind can!
To date, then, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano and strings”, also remains, as of January, 2015, in any case, the longest in duration of my published concertos, although the Concerto No. 4 is nearly as long, clocking in at 27:22. I think this longer form suits better, allowing me more chances to introduce new themes or refer to existing ones…
In this case, the third movement of the third concerto becomes a vehicle for a fair amount of solo piano, which appears repeatedly in between other musical events; in my humble opinion, the piano solo in the third movement is one of the most surprising bits of music that I have come up with in recent times, it really surprises me, and, it contains a wonderful slow-down of tempo at one point, which really drives home the melody playing at that moment. After the long piano improv, a longish section of strings, with cello and viola soloing over the top of short chord bursts of strings, follows, again, this time, gradually slowing in tempo, with the cello leading the way to a long, long final sad chord…and then, back to the bright, beautiful string section with piano, theme of D major suspended fourth to D major, repeating, that originally appears in the first movement.
That piano theme fades away completely (I seem to really, really be on a “fade in / fade out” kick at the moment), or is that, rather, a “fade out / fade in”?? – the latter, in this case, and a completely new section, mostly piano-led, appears very gradually, fading in – to take us away into the lands of solo piano once again, repeating the wonderful “slow-down” tempo section, and then – to an incredibly Peter Hammill-esque duet between the lower registers of the piano and the string bass – it really, really is reminiscent of early Hammill there for a moment. [from 26:23 – 26:50 and beyond…] – I like how the piece lingers in this very lower register, where things are dark and deep – but then, moments later, the sun emerges again in the form of that persistent, sunny D suspended 4th to D major melodic section – what a swing of mood that is!
So many different moods and emotions are present here, especially in the third movement, which becomes a very rich and complex juxtaposition of themes, but somehow, I manage to make all of those recurrences, alternate versions, variants and mutations, all fit – and all work together nicely. It was sometimes not easy to fit it all together, at times I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but in the end, I made it work – and, I think I have some nice tension built in certain places, that resolves into some of the quietest, most ambient sections that to date, I’ve been able to include in a classical work.
Notion has been absolutely instrumental in helping me to learn how to score, but by the time I reached concerto no. 3 (September – October 2014) I had gained enough skill with Notion, and with scoring, that I could, somewhat playfully I admit, insert these short sections of odd music just for the sheer fun of it – and when you listen, you might think, hey, wait a minute, did I just hear…the firebird suite, by Igor Stravinsky, played on a solo xylophone? I am afraid the answer to that question is – “yes, you did”. Or “hey, wait a minute, wasn’t that Todd Rundgren on the piano there?? “yes – I am afraid so!”.
You are not imagining it, it’s really happening!
Therefore, I present, better late than never; completed on November 1, 2014, but not uploaded until January 2015, with a great amount of pride and happiness, here is my third major classical work to date, “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings” by dave stafford – we hope you enjoy it.
or – “Dave Gregory – home at last…”
I suddenly realised, after many months of hearing the name “Tin Spirits” (but never, sadly, hearing their music – until now, that is…) the penny finally dropped: this is DAVE GREGORY’S band. Yes – that Dave Gregory, the one who used to play stunt guitar in that little ole’ band from Swindon, the redoubtable XTC. For 19 years, across 12 studio albums, from “Making Plans For Nigel” in 1979 (from the remarkable ‘Drums And Wires (1979)‘), to “Senses Working Overtime” (from the remarkable ‘English Settlement (1982)‘) on up to the celebrated “Apple Venus (1999)” (the last XTC album that Dave appears on).
Dave Gregory established himself as a stellar lead guitarist capable of precision-engineered, well-crafted and very creative guitar solos, including some truly unforgettable ones all the way from “No Language In Our Lungs” (from the remarkable “Black Sea (1980)“) to “The Ugly Underneath” (from the remarkable “Nonsuch (1992)“) and all points in between.
If Dave was the “quiet Beatle” of XTC, he wasn’t so quiet when it came to his solos, and if Andy Partridge wrote the songs and had that crazy, boundless energy, then Dave was the thoughtful musical foil to Andy’s uh, “Extrovert” personality. Dave also has an amazing collection of legendary electric guitars, vintage guitars and amps, and always had a few amazing vintage guitars to hand at every session, always the right guitar for the right solo – always well prepared, and always sounding just right for the song in question – whichever it may be. Yes, that’s a lot of “always”, but you count on Dave to come up with a great guitar solo for almost any song, no matter how strange, or how beautiful…
Don’t forget, too, that Dave was also in “The Dukes Of Stratosphear”, along with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding of XTC, and his brother, Ian Gregory, on drums, the amazing 60s psychedelic rock parody band, and later on, worked with Steve Hogarth (and was a regular member of his touring band, too) and Dave has also appeared on albums by the Bournemouth prog band “Big Big Train”, and of course, pre-, during and post-XTC, he has always been in demand as a session guitarist, too.
As the old reliable wikipedia put it: “Since leaving XTC, Gregory has been much in demand as a session musician with a number of artists, including Peter Gabriel, Aimee Mann, Cud, Marc Almond, Bingo Durango, Johnny Hates Jazz, Jason Donovan, Martin Newell, Louis Philippe, Lulu, Mark Owen, R. Stevie Moore and others. Gregory, who has been regularly involved in Steve Hogarth‘s h-Band, has also contributed to works by Porcupine Tree, including string arrangements on their sixth album, Lightbulb Sun, and for Dublin group Pugwash.
On 16 August 2009, English progressive rock band Big Big Train announced on their official blog that Gregory would be appearing as a guest musician on their sixth studio album, The Underfall Yard. Gregory subsequently appeared on Big Big Train’s Far Skies Deep Time EP and is listed as a full band member on English Electric Part One (2012)”
That demonstrates just how in-demand Dave’s services as guitarist, arranger and musician are – one of Britain’s “most desirable” guitar note-slingers.
Dave’s newest band, Tin Spirits, first got together in Swindon, UK in the summer of 2008, when Aussie import, guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt from TheGigRig invited former XTC guitarist (and musical hero) Dave Gregory to a local studio to video record an ‘amp shoot-out’ with Dan’s band The Hi-Fidels, comprising bassist Mark Kilminster and drummer Doug Mussard. The rest, as they say, is history…
Me saying “Stunt guitar” is absolutely short-changing him, Dave played a huge, huge part in helping Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding to create the “XTC sound”, and if anything, not nearly enough credit goes to Dave, for his outstanding contributions to both their albums, and to their live shows – for two decades.
I remember when I saw XTC live, show 9 of the “English Settlement” tour, and I recall watching Dave playing, off to the side of the stage; he was multitasking in a really cool way, and when he reached over to play the squiggly synth line that follows Andy’s lyric “just a spineless wobbly jelly fish…” from “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” (from “Drums And Wires (1979)”) – Dave makes the “jellyfish” sound on his little synth – and then, right back to lead guitar…my jaw hit the floor, and I spent most of the night, trying to see around the incredibly energetic Partridge, to see and hear what Dave was doing back there – it all just sounded amazing! All good.
That show, XTC live at the California Theater in San Diego, California, (my then-hometown) on April 3, 1982 turned out to be the 9th and final show of the US leg of the tour, the rest of which was completely cancelled due to “illness”; but the well-publicised breakdown of Andy Partridge (just hours after young 1982 Dave Stafford saw them play live!!) was the real reason the tour was halted. The band never toured again, occasionally, some years later, doing a small number of acoustic shows on radio or television, or the odd TV appearance here and there…
Dave had joined XTC at just the right moment, just as they were breaking away from their frenetic “dance band” persona, and with the departure of the sometimes alcohol-fuelled organist Barry Andrews, they were, much to their own surprise, already becoming “serious musicians” – recording and touring behind “Drums And Wires” – an album that I still listen to often, well, for me, that’s where it all started.
I have been a fan of XTC since the late 70s or early 1980s, indeed, I was fortunate to be at that very last live show they ever did, in San Diego back in ’82. That’s the only time I ever saw XTC or Dave Gregory play live, but the experience stuck with me, and based on seeing them that year (they were AMAZING!) I continued to collect their albums, and to follow their progress, as they moved into their own version of the Beatles’ “Studio Years” – when touring becomes a burden, and the decision is, let’s (still) make records, but, not play live.
This was mostly down to bandleader Andy Partridge, it was Andy who ended up so stressed out that he called time on live performance just HOURS after I saw him play a blinder of a show, and everyone was disappointed, because XTC live was one of the most energetic and interesting bands you could see live, in the early 1980s – they didn’t really have a lot of competition, especially once they had delivered both the most excellent “Drums And Wires (1979)” and it’s excellent follow-up, “Black Sea (1980)” – followed by the very excellent “English Settlement (1982)” – by the next excellent album, ‘Mummer 1983‘, it was time for Terry Chambers the drummer to go – and go he did, to Australia to marry his girlfriend, and, after playing with the Australian band “Dragon” for a couple of years, after that, he never really returned to the music business.
Now drummer-less, it did not in any way phase the remaining three members of XTC, who were all long-time friends from Swindon, and Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory, carried on through the rest of the 1980s, and into the 90s, until eventually, Dave could stand no more, and he left – and, then, XTC was a duo – and Andy and Colin went on to make more albums, although for me, once Dave left – they were lacking that spark – sure, Andy is damn near as good a player as Dave is (they are both amazing guitarists, let’s face it) when he makes the effort, and, he did make more of a real effort with the lead guitar parts on the ‘post-Dave’ albums, because I am sure he was conscious of the shadow and the memory of Dave sitting there in the studio, quietly ripping through some more amazing lead guitars for the latest XTC disk. The amount of lead guitar on records post-Dave, is noticeably less – Andy plays a few good solos, here or there, but it’s just not quite the same….
But the eventual fate of XTC is a story for another time, for now, suffice to say, that Andy and Colin went on to create a very respectable canon of work after the departure of Dave, who suddenly found himself at loose ends – playing on sessions, playing wherever he could, for a quite a few years after he left XTC. Things were almost beginning to plane out, Dave was almost forgotten, and could easily have faded from the ever-quick-to-forget music fans, but luckily, a chance encounter with a trio of Genesis / XTC fans ended up in more invitations to jam, and over time, Tin Spirits, was formed as a four piece, two-guitars-bass-and-drums band – with Dave Gregory on lead guitar.
So – once I realised that I had been missing the boat completely for a few years, that this amazing band, Tin Spirits, had toured the UK (and I could have SEEN THEM live – extreme dismay!) and indeed, they had been, and, much to my eternal frustration, on their earlier tours, they did a lot of covers of prog and other music that they had a shared love for, including Genesis “Back In NYC” from “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and other songs by Rush, Yes “Roundabout”) and even Frank Zappa. You can view some videos of some of these amazing prog covers on the Media page of the Tin Spirits official website.
Of course, it will not bother me one bit, if instead of these covers, that if we do get to see them (and I really, really hope we can…) that we might have to “endure” listening to them play most of the tracks from their new disc “Scorch” – and I will tell you, much as I would have loved to see and hear Dave Gregory play “Back In NYC” with his new band, it would be NO hardship whatsoever to sit and listen to Tin Spirits play some or all of the “Scorch” album – no hardship at all. 🙂
I have heard Scorch about four times now, and each time I hear it, I just end up feeling so uplifted, and it really, really makes me want to play the guitar (and only the very best guitar albums have that effect on me); it also really makes me want to write on guitar again (not something I’ve done a lot of since ‘gone native‘) and one thing that Tin Spirits have been extremely effective at, is creating a very full, very prog sound, without the use of keyboards – none whatsoever were used on “Scorch”, it’s all guitars, bass and drums – as it should be, really. Dave himself is an accomplished keyboard player, but I applaud their determination, and “Scorch” is proof positive that you can make a big, big prog sound just with two guitars, bass and drums. Of course, guitar technology has come a long, long way, and the lines between guitars and synths, continue to blur.
But the main difference between Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of XTC, and Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of Tin Spirits – is that in the former, he didn’t really get to play much at all – a solo here, a solo there, a keyboard solo, the odd guitar bit here or there – but nothing that he could really get stuck into – whereas in the latter, he doesn’t just get stuck in – he excels, explores and explodes – you can hear that Telecaster cutting through the air during the epic “Garden State”, and the extended solos that Dave is now not only allowed to take, but should be legally REQUIRED to take, will knock your guitar-playing socks off.
This is really a master class for lead guitarists, and we could all learn more than one thing from listening to ”Scorch” – and the rest of the musicians in the band are not slouching, in any way – guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt (also a pedal board/guitar controller inventor – the inventor of the amazing TheGigRig) is damn near as experienced and as capable as Dave is, so it’s a remarkable pairing, almost, but not quite, like having two Dave Gregorys in your band – and that, my friends, is a VERY good thing.
Bassist / lead vocalist Mark Kilminster and Doug Mussard (drums and vocals) are one of the most experienced and adaptable rhythm sections I have ever heard, and the way they slot in their backing, providing rhythmic support for the two interlocking guitar wizards – this would be, a “sort of” analog / mirror of the prog / pop “version” of Levin and Bruford supporting Fripp and Belew – I cannot think of any other truly analogous pairing of “amazing rhythm section” with “two remarkable and innovative guitarists” – I can happily and honestly say that about both King Crimson, and, about Tin Spirits.
And, another thing – the “no keyboards” rule has been faithfully followed, so somehow, Tin Spirits have created truly Progressive Rock, without the use of the dread synthesizer, and to me, to use just the guitar technology available, to be able to write for two guitars, bass and drums, and create the complex, intricate and beautiful music that is contained on “Scorch” – that is quite an accomplishment.
I am absolutely gobsmacked by just how good “Scorch” is, to the point where I plan to sit down this weekend, and order their first album, so I can have their entire recorded catalogue :-). I know that the first album is not rated as highly as “Scorch” is – but I am prepared and ready anyway, open ears and mind, and I am sure I will enjoy it. If this video is anything to go by (link below), it’s going to be excellent – a 13 minute plus epic from that first album, “Wired To Earth”; here is “Broken” – this bodes well, sounds good to me!
I bought “Scorch” without having heard one note by Tin Spirits – and, as sometimes happens, it was an incredibly GOOD ‘blind’ decision. This album is currently rocking my world, and finally, after 19 years of tantalising glimpses of Dave Gregory’s genius, from the guitar solos on “That Wave” from the remarkable “Nonsuch” to his brilliant work on “Drums And Wires”, “Black Sea”, “English Settlement”, and so many other brilliant XTC albums; “The Big Express” is a huge favourite of mine, really, I love all of XTCs catalogue, one of the most enduring in this genre (start out punky, and then gradually mutate into the new Beatles – you know, THAT kind of band!) not to mention the 1986 smash hit “Skylarking” album, produced by Todd Rundgren – an amazing body of work, but now, Dave has started another one – and this one is the guitar band for guitarists who REALLY LOVE GUITAR – “Tin Spirits”. Album Two, “Scorch”, is fantastic. I haven’t heard Album One yet (“Wired To Earth”), but, I will be ordering it this weekend.
From those tantalising glimpses of brilliance provided by a great solo from Dave on a really good XTC song, to this: where Dave is utterly set free, where he can solo for as long as he likes, and, this record is full of extended, and super-extended, and ridiculously super-extended guitar solos, many of them by Dave – and the range of playing, from Hendrix ballad style drenched in prog beauty to scathing Telecaster lead lines, I could just listen to the guitar solos, and duos, on this record over and over and over – and, don’t get me wrong, the band has EXCELLENT vocals, but right now, I am bathing in the glory of a finally-unleashed, finally-unchained, doing it the way HE wants to, nearly endless guitar solos from Dave Gregory – FINALLY !!!!!!!!! If only Andy had let Dave play like THIS in XTC, we might have seen them become a brilliant Prog band too…
This boy can PLAY. He can PLAY good. He knocks my socks off on this particular disc, if you haven’t picked up “Scorch”, I recommend it highly – it’s the guitarist’s guitarist guitar album of the future, and I love what I am hearing – finally, freed from the 30 second XTC mini-solo, when Dave stretches out on album closer “Garden State”, it’s like getting to hear Hendrix practicing beautiful guitar for “Angel” or “Drifting” or “Little Wing” that’s all I can think about, when I hear the fluid, sinuous, sounds of Dave’s guitar, and his tones are pure liquid fire, they are musically SCORCHING, there is absolute purpose, and serious musical intelligence there, and never has there been a more aptly named album.
I will let others do the song by song analysis of “Scorch”; I am really more interested in conveying what an extremely excellent album “Scorch” is, and, also, trying to give it the back story it deserves, and how it fits into the chronology of both XTC, as well as Dave Gregory‘s long and very distinguished career as a great guitarist, arranger, and all-round musician, vintage guitar enthusiast, and now, playing in the band of his dreams – Tin Spirits. And for me, even though I’ve started at the wrong end of their short and sweet catalog, “Scorch” is an amazing musical document, and it is absolutely worth checking out.
I will say, the album opener, “Carnivore” sets the mood brilliantly, it’s a proggy instrumental with lots of great guitar, but it’s when we move into the next few songs, and you start to get to where there are well-defined guitar solos…and you suddenly “hear” Dave, you KNOW it’s Dave just by the sound – and to my mind, the only guitarist that I think is similar to Dave, is the late, great Jimi Hendrix (but probably, the gentler, more melodic “side” of Jimi) – who is clearly, clearly a huge influence on Dave. So when that first “Gregory” solo hits your ears – you are suddenly really paying attention, and it does not disappoint – instead, it reels you in, you want more – and you don’t just get more – you get a LOT more – more Dave Gregory guitar on this album than you will find on any three XTC albums ! And that is saying something…
The gentle, pastoral guitars of “Little Eyes” from “Scorch”, take you everywhere from an almost King Crimson “Discipline”-style “interlocking” or what I call “gamelan guitars” to fluid, beautiful, liquid Hendrix guitar solos – the whole effect is so uplifting, positive sounding – a brilliant track, “Little Eyes” gives you a very good idea of the basic quality of the album – it’s just a perfect little song – lovely. It’s long instrumental outro, is a great showcase for Dave’s amazing guitar style, and in this solo, you hear him reaching for the stars – and finding them, sparks flying – just one of those so-perfect solos, that then merges perfectly right back into the rhythm of the song…seamless, timeless – beautiful.
Take someone like Dave Gregory, with his massive collection of amazing vintage guitars, his knowledge of how sounds were created in the past, and his ability to recreate very specific guitar tones by using particular combinations of guitars, amps and effects, add in his many, many years of guitar playing, almost always, as a lead guitarists in one form or another – and you have a mature, powerful, guitar-force-to-be-reckoned with: Dave Gregory; in 2014 – suddenly, I can hear the culmination of that career, a player at the top of his game, the craft of guitar is relaxed, confident, powerful – you can hear it – in the beautiful guitar solos that are featured in almost every track on “Scorch“. Remarkable! And really, really beautiful, too.
Get “Scorch” now, if you love prog, if you love pop, if you love guitar music, if you loved XTC, if you love the guitar work of Dave Gregory – heck, just get it – I bet you will like it! In Europe, you can get it from Burning Shed, in America, probably Amazon. This be rocking! I’m going back to listen to it again right now…ah…sonic bliss 🙂
I wanted to take a little time to try to give some indication of the vast scope and reach of the influence of the Beatles, and in particular, their influence on other musicians. This has inspired everything from direct Beatle parodies such as “The Rutles” (featuring Neil Innes and Eric Idle) to tracks that sound very Beatle-like (such as any number of Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, The Move, Roy Wood, Knickerbockers, songs – and many, many others – see lists below) to whole albums of Beatles tribute (such as Utopia’s brilliant and very musical Beatles spoof album, “Deface The Music”, from 1980).
Even the world of jazz was invaded by the music of the Beatles, from Wes Montgomery and other guitarists of the day, inventing their own jazz versions of Beatles tracks, or someone of the stature of Ramsey Lewis, making, in 1968, an entire album of Beatles covers, all taken, amazingly, from the Beatles then-current 1968 “White Album” – in a completely unique and extremely jazz way.
Awesome inspiration, across all genres of music – the music of the Beatles actually can be called “universal” in its appeal, given the strange and disparate characters who breathe new life into a huge, huge range of covers and tributes and sound-alikes, from the very ordinary covers, to the truly bizarre spoofs, jokes and odd variations that abound the world over – everybody under the sun has had a crack at covering a Beatles song – and some go much, much further, either creating amazing near-carbon copies of Beatles songs (such as 1976’s “Faithful” album by Todd Rundgren – his “faithful” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is exquisite) or creating music that sounds so much like the Beatles, that it is actually thought to be by the Beatles (for some unknown reason, “Klaatu” was one such band, where folk thought that it was actually the Beatles, performing anonymously six or seven years after they had broken up…but, it was not).
For my money, there are other artists who create original music that is much, much closer in content and feel than the music of “Klaatu” (but, don’t get me wrong, “Klaatu” are a remarkable, very capable, and very interesting band to listen to – and, little-known fact, they are the actual authors and creators of the original version of the Carpenters’ hit single, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” – not too many people know that in that case, the Carpenters were doing a cover of…“Klaatu” !
I think, though, that in many ways, that the Beatles, and to a somewhat lesser extent, The Beach Boys, had a huge influence on musicians all over the world. From Apples In Stereo to XTC, there are so many musicians, including some pretty unlikely characters, that have either covered Beatles songs faithfully (or unfaithfully in some cases), or have created either songs and/or albums of songs that mirror, mimic or even mock, the sound of the Fab Four.
I think that it’s very true what they say, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if that is true, then the Beatles have been flattered until they are completely flat, because so, so many musicians have cited them as a major influence, and have unashamedly copied their songs, their sound, their harmonies, their guitar playing, their bass playing, their song structures and so on – and the list of people who do cite the Beatles as a musical influence is just simply too long to print in this forum.
What always surprises me is the number of extremely progressive musicians who claim a serious Beatle influence, when you listen to the music of a band like Yes, or King Crimson – you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think “Beatles” – but Yes were obviously fans of the band, in the early days, they covered the Beatles “Yes It Is”, and I believe that both Steve Howe and Chris Squire have said they are fans of the Beatles music. Robert Fripp has also acknowledged the influence of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on him upon hearing the whole album on his car radio one fateful evening, and Beatles references are embedded, sometimes deeply, into the music of King Crimson – “Happy Family” from the third Crimson album, “Lizard” is an unconcealed tale of the Beatles breakup, penned by then-Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.
So sometimes, there are Beatle-influenced bands and musicians, where the music made by those musicians, music sounds nothing like the Beatles to our ears – but for them, the Beatles still loom larger than life, buried deep in their internal, musical DNA – just waiting to get out, in the form of new songs that are about the Beatles, influenced by the Beatles, or simply sound like the Beatles, intentionally (usually) or not (occasionally). Perhaps yet another splinter-list should be “Songs That Sound Like The Beatles But Their Composers / Performers Did Not Intentionally Try To Sound Like The Beatles – It’s By Complete Accident” but I feel that my already non-legendary non-skills as a list producer have already fallen flat, and that’s too complicated for me to work out who did or did not “intend” to sound like the Beatles! I don’t think I can write that list – but if you can – please do, and please send it in, and if it’s complete enough, I will post it here.
Speaking now as a guitarist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guitarist who did not care for the guitar playing of John Lennon or George Harrison, nor have I ever met a bassist who did not respect the massive skills of Paul McCartney on the bass guitar – the absolute, indisputable master of melodic bass playing – and when I listen to Chris Squire play, I do hear echoes of Paul McCartney’s style in his playing – especially the “high register” bass work. This famed skill at playing beautifully in the higher and highest pitch ranges of the bass guitar has been imitated by many, but for me, well, it’s Todd Rundgren’s “Determination” that showcases this technique in an incredible way (see below for more on “Determination” ).
The same can absolutely be said for drummers admiring Ringo Starr, everyone knows that Ringo is not a “flashy” drummer, he doesn’t often “show off” but what Ringo has that many, many drummers do not have, is the steadiest tempo imaginable, and, a sense of when to play, and when not to – he always provides just the right amount of percussion to any given song, never overplays – just what is required. This is borne out when you hear live sessions by the Beatles, while John, Paul and George make error after error in the earliest takes of any given song, it’s rare indeed to hear the almost metronome-like Starr make an error.
Even guitarists who also play bass get the whole “Paul McCartney high-register bass playing” concept, as can be evidenced by the multi-talented Todd Rundgren, from his 1978 solo album “Hermit Of Mink Hollow”, there is a brilliant track called “Determination” , which not only features pitched up, trebled up, “jangly guitars” but a beautiful, beautiful, McCartney-esque bass line, that just pulls the heartstrings as it flies beneath the open chords, beginning in the high register, and then sweeping down to become a bass again – McCartney’s early adoption of unusual styles such as playing bass melodically, playing bass in the very high registers, or playing bass in any number of innovative ways, not always melodic – playing with his low E string slightly detuned (as in the song “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”) or, playing the low E string so hard that it detunes as he plays (as can be heard in parts of the song “Helter Skelter”) – has not gone unnoticed by Todd, and any number of other McCartney imitators. Speaking of McCartney imitators, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries also recognise the genius of the Beatles front line which is evidenced by songs that closely resemble Beatles songs in form and content, lyric and guitar styles.
I wish more drummers were like Ringo, well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – Zak Starkey, Ringo’s eldest son. Zak is a remarkably talented drummer in his own right (I was fortunate to see him perform with an early incarnation of “Ringo Starr’s All Stars” (a show which also happened to feature the above-mentioned Todd Rundgren) and, hearing Zak and Ringo Starkey nail the complex drum part of Todd’s “Black Maria” live was absolutely fantastic – Zak made it his own, but carried the band of mostly older musicians, through the set with his unshakeable rhythm, and he has certainly inherited Ringo’s steady hand – but Zak is also a thoroughly modern drummer, and in some ways, he goes far beyond his famous dad – which is what you might expect – I mean look at Jason Bonham, it’s the same thing, drummer with a famous drummer dad, and with that burden of being the son of a legend, they try that much harder to sound unique, and go beyond the “oh, he’s the son of Ringo…” or “oh, he’s the son of Jason” – and I am justifiably proud of both of them, for carving their own musical paths, and not relying on “dad” for their fame or ability, but making it on their own laurels.
witnessing one of the variations of “Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band”, on the 1989 tour featuring Todd Rundgren, it was remarkable to see Zak take sole control of the drums when Ringo went front and centre to sing, so for some of the classic Beatles songs that the band played, it was Zak on the drums rather than Ringo himself, but it absolutely mattered not, Zak did an amazing job on tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “It Don’t Come Easy” – and at other times, father and son played together, and that was truly a joy to see – amazing !
Two generations of Starkey’s, doing what they do best – playing the drums, and playing the music of the Beatles too – among other items from the various band members such as the aforementioned Todd cover – and “Black Maria” live with Zak AND Ritchie Starkey is not something I shall forget any time soon – fantastic”!
And, because it was Todd’s big moment, Ringo was free to join Zak on drums, so it was the pair of them behind Todd – and you could see in Ringo’s face how much he enjoyed playing the song (I believe it was included in the set list, because Ringo always had liked the song, so much so that he insisted that it be the “Rundgren” moment in the concert – it being his favourite track off of Todd Rundgren’s seminal 1972 album, “Something / Anything”) and Zak was just head down getting on with the drum part – and that is the only time I’ve ever seen the song performed with two drummers – and if those drummers are Ringo and Zak Starkey, you know it’s going to go well – and it was an excellent cover, absolutely spot-on, and a real highlight of the show.
I don’t think anyone can argue that the Beatles had a very, very significant influence on musicians of many generations, and new generations of players are discovering the Beatles anew even now, in 2014, and are translating their experience of hearing Beatles material into their own new “musics” – so the process continues, of hearing songs influenced by the Beatles, even in new music created by young musicians – because, in 2014, maybe they just heard “Revolver” for the first time, and it absolutely blew their minds – just like it blew our minds back in 1966 when we (now, unbelievably, now we’re the “older generation”!) first heard it.
And – it’s undeniable – this is unforgettable music, genius music from the writing to the playing to the singing and even to the packaging – Beatle imagery is also something that has been oft-copied, and some of their most famous album cover designs have been copied again and again by so many bands.
Some of those copies are more on the side of parody, for example, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention classic Beatles parody, made not that long after the original came out, “We’re Only In It For The Money” is directly made to look like a bizarre “version” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and in some ways, the cover is the biggest part of the joke – the music on the album (which is brilliant, by the way – one of my favourite early Zappa / Mothers records) is not nearly as important to the parody as the album design was. But the whole effect is…kind of hilarious 🙂
In particular, some of the most famous Beatles album covers, such as the “bendy” photographs of the band that graces the cover of their innovative “Rubber Soul” album have been imitated by many other bands, time and time again. Even in the earliest days, the unusual photographs of photographer Robert Freeman (as in, the classic shot of the Beatles silhouetted against a dark background) as on “With The Beatles” (UK) or it’s US counterpart, “Meet The Beatles” has been copied many times over the last few decades. But revolutionary cover art is difficult to come up with, so bands just borrow from the best…The Beatles.
No article about Beatles’ influence would be complete without mentioning two gentlemen from different eras of pop music, firstly, the ridiculously talented eric stewart of 10cc, who has performed Beatles songs live in concert with 10cc, and also has an undeniable streak of “beatlesque” harmony and sound on various tracks throughout the long career of 10cc – the best example is probably part 1 and part 3 of 10cc’s pop opus, “feel the benefit” – very “dear prudence” if I don’t mind saying so myself :-). the other gentleman in question is from a couple of decades later, from the 1990s and beyond, and that is Jason Falkner; unwilling conscript into pop genius band “jellyfish”, after he escaped their clutches, went off on a very successful if low-key solo career – and again, the sound of his vocal harmonies, the beautiful chord progressions in his music tell me one thing: he, like Eric Stewart before him, is under the influence of the Beatles. Personally – I cannot get enough of the music of 10cc or Jason Falkner, two generations apart, perhaps, but, united in their love for Beatle harmonies, jangly Beatle guitars, beautiful Beatle chord progressions, and even Beatle-like lyrics.
I started out writing this edition of the Beatles’ story by trying to create various lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, and then, albums inspired by the Beatles, and I was really only able to touch upon a very few – I know that I have missed out so, so many – and everyone has a different “take” on what bands sound like the Beatles, what albums are directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles and so on.
Regarding my attempts at filling in these lists – I am ultimately not satisfied by my primitive attempts at “list-making”, and in searching the Internet for valid lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, I kept finding lists that made no sense to me, personally – that would always include every big rock band of the day, so it would always be “Pink Floyd”, “The Who”, “Jimi Hendrix” – and I don’t think any of those bands sound like the Beatles at all ! Yet, site after site would cite (ha ha, get it – site – cite) Hendrix or Pink Floyd as a Beatle sound-alike – but I cannot bring myself to agree with this, yes, Hendrix loved the Beatles, he played bit of Beatle melody in the middle of his own songs, he covered many Beatles songs – but, he doesn’t really SOUND like the Beatles, does he? Maybe very vaguely, on a song like “Crosstown Traffic” perhaps – but, I’d say, if anything, that Hendrix influenced the Beatles, as much or more than the Beatles influenced Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix sounds like…Jimi Hendrix, and no other, really – he is utterly unique. Hendrix did absolutely love the Beatles, and would indeed, often insert a perfect bar of George Harrison lead guitar, into one of his own original songs, in live performance – and then give a little laugh, like it’s an “in-joke” – “here’s a cool melody that I nicked off of the new Beatles disc, it’s called “Revolver…”.
As for Pink Floyd, it would take some real convincing for me to add them into the list – I love a bit of early Floyd as much as anyone, but I do not hear echoes of the Fab Four in their music (you saw what I did there….”Echoes”…Pink Floyd – and, it was completely unintentional!) I am afraid I just don’t get it, these constant references to Pink Floyd sounding like the Beatles – maybe they are talking about the odd Syd Barrett track, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem right to me….so I did not add them in :-). Yes, the Beatles and Pink Floyd did both play psychedelic music, but it was very different in nature – so, no, I don’t see the connection, musically.
So – please send in your additions and corrections to any of the lists, and I will update them periodically to reflect world opinion – I am not a Beatle expert (although I have read extensively about them, in particular, I started out years ago with Hunter Davies’ remarkable biography of the Beatles; in later years, I’ve studied the remarkable works of Mark Lewissohn, whose “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is like the Bible, to me, one of my most cherished and most often re-read Beatles information sources).
I will read anything and everything written about the Beatles, even now – and I cannot possibly compile complete lists of the type I am presenting here, so any and all input from readers would be much appreciated – please comment, and in your comments, submit corrections or additions to any of the lists, and every few months, I will compile all of the comments and update the lists – so over time, maybe, these lists will become relatively complete – which would be great, because we would be creating a useful, accurate, and complete Beatle resource – or rather, a resource of bands and albums that SOUND like the Beatles, anyway – why not?
Meanwhile, on the subject of the Beatles music, I’ve been very happily really enjoying my two latest Beatle purchases: from 2013, the two-double-CD “Live At The BBC” – volume 1 (from 1994) completely remastered, and a new volume 2 entitled “On Air” which is a fantastic addition to this wonderful series – four CDs chock full of radio performances, studio out-takes, and the Beatles chattering – a fantastic Beatles music resource, of early live tracks and one demo, and at this point I say, thank God for the BBC ! Luckily, they kept all of these Beatle recordings, so now they have been compiled for future generations to enjoy.
My other purchase, “The U.S. Albums” is a 13 disc monstrosity, but hearing the albums in the U.S. running orders for the first time since I was a child, is just remarkable – even though John Lennon condemned Capitol for messing with the Beatles’ carefully considered running orders, the odd, arbitrary, Capitol-created running orders are unfortunately for we Americans, what we grew up hearing, so even now, I am still startled by the UK releases – because the songs don’t arrive in the order my brain expects they will. So now I have complete choice – if I want the real thing, I consult the Stereo and Mono boxes from 2009. If I want the Capitol versions – I consult the US Albums from 2014 – very exciting stuff for Beatle-maniacs such as myself 🙂
The last time I bought this many Beatles CDs all at one go, was in 2009, when the long-awaited stereo and mono re-masters appeared – and of course, that was an essential purchase. Following that, though, I am truly amazed, and at the same time, very grateful indeed, that in 2014, I can almost casually pick up 17 “new” Beatles albums – four from the BBC, and 13 from Capitol – and that just makes my Beatles catalogue so much more complete and containing even more variations on their remarkable catalogue of music – beautiful, rockin’ Beatle music.
So we’ve gone down an alternative path this time, a path taken by the many, many musicians who revere the Beatles, and admire their music enough to copy it exactly, partially, or, some aspect of Beatle music has entered into their own songs, anything from a guitar riff to some high register bass work of a melodic nature, or a steady Ringo Starr back beat – so sometimes, you may have a completely unique song, but there is a section of it that REALLY recalls the Beatles very strongly – so, five percent of the song is 98 percent Beatle-like – but, the REST of the song is not !
As a musician and a guitarist, I do hear a lot of these “stand-alone” Beatle moments, it might be a few bars of music in a Jason Falkner or Michael Penn pop song that strongly remind one of the Beatles, or just a 10 second passage in a song on the radio – you hear “Beatlesque” bits of music almost every day, and I am often fascinated by them, sometimes, you work in your mind to try and figure out which Beatles song or songs is being referenced – sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes, it’s impossible to determine – but you do know, just by hearing, when something has the quality of being “Beatlesque”.
Lists Of Bands That Sound Suspiciously Like The Beatles
Bands Or Artists That Always Sound Like The Beatles:
Bands Or Artists That Often Sound Like The Beatles:
Badfinger – an Apple band
James McCartney – son of Paul McCartney
The Move – featuring Roy Wood
Raspberries – featuring Eric Carmen
The Swinging Blue Jeans
Bands Or Artists That Occasionally Sound Like The Beatle
Apples In Stereo
The Bears – featuring Adrian Belew
Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) – solo artist
Electric Light Orchestra – featuring Jeff Lynne
Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish) – solo artist
Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison
Jellyfish – featuring Jason Falkner
Julian Lennon – son of John Lennon
Jeff Lynne – Electric Light Orchestra – Harrison’s producer / member of Traveling Wilburys
Aimee Mann – solo artist
Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) – solo artist
Nazz – featuring Todd Rundgren
The New Number 2 – featuring Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison
Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)
Michael Penn – solo artist
Michael Penn & Aimee Mann – couple (they did an incredibly lovely cover of “two of us” – gorgeous track)
Todd Rundgren – solo artist
Teenage Fanclub – Scottish pop band
Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren
Roy Wood (ex-Move) – solo artist
XTC – featuring Andy Partridge
Bands That Sound Suspiciously Sort Of Like The Beatles
Oasis – (in their dreams, anyway!)
Albums That Are Directly Inspired By The Beatles
Fresh – Raspberries – 1974
Faithful – Todd Rundgren – 1976 (all covers album, including Beatles covers)
The Rutles – The Rutles – 1978
Archaeology – The Rutles – 1996
Deface The Music – Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren – 1980
We’re Only In It For The Money – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – 1968
– visual parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Well-Known Known Admirers Of The Beatles – Musicians
Jon Anderson (ex-Yes)
Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson)
Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries)
Robert Fripp (King Crimson)
Liam Gallagher (ex-Oasis)
Noel Gallagher (ex-Oasis)
Steve Howe (Yes)
Eric Idle (ex-Rutles)
Graham Gouldman (10cc)
Jimi Hendrix (may he rest in peace)
Neil Innes (Rutles)
Aimee Mann (solo artist)
Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)
Michael Penn (solo artist) – brother of Sean Penn
Todd Rundgren (solo artist) – w/Nazz, Utopia
Chris Squire (Yes)
Eric Stewart (10cc)
Alan White (Yes)
Please – agree or disagree with my choices; send in additions, recommend deletions, recommend changes – and if there is enough input, I will periodically re-published updated versions of any Beatles lists that have appear in this blog series based on your input.
Meanwhile, maybe there are some artists noted here that you were not aware of, that have obviously studied the music of the Beatles and learned from it, and I am always happy to listen to any musician or band that sounds like the Beatles – so, if I have missed any truly obvious ones – please let me know, and again, I will update the list, too.
Happy listening – the influence of the Fab Four runs deep, traverses the entire globe, and only seems to be on the increase over time, as successive generations re-discover their music (often prompted by their parents, but still…) and then integrate parts of it into their own new kinds of music – a process that I hope goes on forever.
Nothing would make me happier, “in the year 2025” (another 60s pop joke for the older folk in the audience!!), let’s say, to hear a brand new song on the radio that sounds very original, but, completely Beatlesque at the same time – that would please me no end, because we then will know – young people are still listening to the greatest rock band that ever was – the fabulous Beatles – and they rock!!
I don’t know about you, but I am definitely under the influence of the Beatles – always have been, always will be – my favourite band from childhood, the first band I truly appreciated, and in actual fact, I literally “grew up” with them and their music, it’s a joy to still be listening to them now, in the year 2014, and feeling just as happy about it as I first did back in 1963, when I must have heard them on the TV, on the Ed Sullivan show – being only five then, I don’t directly recall it, but as it was repeated on TV every year or more often every year thereafter, I feel like I do remember it – and I do remember their later TV appearances directly.
What a remarkable group, and what a remarkable influence they’ve had on a remarkably talented group of very respectful and creative musicians – my peers I am proud to say, who also “grew up” with the Beatles. There’s no better way to end up “under the influence…”
I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music. I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.
as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.
“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to): “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.
it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”, the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock. king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.
prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation. it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.
in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977. if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co. in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.
if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying. an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened. the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless. and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…
I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog. I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson, “the power & the glory” by gentle giant, “the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill: “the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer, “exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum, “hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi) a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…
my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s camel, jethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.
of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…
I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelin, jimi hendrix, zz top and so on, and then eventually through yes, genesis, gentle giant, king crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:
and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…
eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson. as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band. I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears. I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”. the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.
the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belew, robert fripp, tony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours. 80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t. some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer. of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…
rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone. except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)
and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tull, king crimson, genesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other. arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band? because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway). was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?
none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock. even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…
so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so. in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).
a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre. genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it. those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.
fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!
first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips. and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in. but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music. but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull ! a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?
if you know what I mean.
so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth. and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good. but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK. the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the man, the dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush. I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.
meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfm, le orme, and banco; france, ange, gong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…
and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.
I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂 what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dream, faust, can, popol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“. if there could be such a thing…
another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose. but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.
some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).
gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that! they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.
speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.
some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.
of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows. prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years. it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakeman. g force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…
all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre. I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common! and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.
having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.
speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre. “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs, loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.
some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania. and that is indeed, a shame. some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day. that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…
so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.
what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today. I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978. because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on. that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 ! this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂
I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult. because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies. at least, that’s been my experience so far. I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.
in a way, I just don’t…need new prog. it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging. but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth. I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…
and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted. I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson. but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”. I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups. van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.
after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing. a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task. remarkable.
so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…
I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands. I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog. don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them. an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!
but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake. I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren. and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂
prog is an enormous topic. I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before. a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before. and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.
scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smith, peter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.
some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works. classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.
but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic. the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band. or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.
anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands; to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves” – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable. just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.
a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tone, wah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.
fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.
so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.
so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974. and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…). so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK. for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there. for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.
and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂
this is the first batch of “new” andy partridge songs we’ve heard in a long, long time, even if they are delivered by collaborator and mega fan mike keneally, rather than partridge himself – who declined to perform on the record (even though some of his samples did survive the process), wanting instead to ensure that it is viewed as a keneally solo album.
the story of how this record came to be is well documented elsewhere, how whilst keneally was in frank zappa’s band, their bassist, scott thunes, had the audacity to invite partridge to a zappa concert in the uk – and much to their surprise, he actually turned up – and both a friendship and a writing partnership was born. there were two discrete sessions where the two actually sat down and worked on these songs, but it was left to keneally alone to create “wing beat fantastic”.
it seems to me that this must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in the world, similar to a scenario where lennon and mccartney said “here, take these songs, we can’t be bothered to record them – YOU DO IT” – and keneally not only rises to the challenge…he hits the ball out of the park.
first of all, it’s clear to me that keneally is not just familiar with xtc’s style, but that he must have studied it in minute detail, or else this record would not sound the way it does – as if it were the next XTC album. and that is exactly what it sounds like, and at some moments, when the vocal harmonies are particularly sweet, you can close your eyes and EASILY forget that this is mike keneally, because what your ears hear, especially on a tune like “you kill me” – is pure andy partridge.
as with all zappa band alumni (such as steve vai, adrian belew, etc.) keneally has more than excellent chops on guitar, meaning that he has the skill to sound like a dead ringer for the very capable partridge OR xtc’s other (former) guitarist, dave gregory. But the real surprise here are the absolutely amazing vocal arrangements, and sheer beauty that keneally manages – that study paid off – and ALL of the trademark xtc vocal tricks are here, revolving vocals, beach-boys-like harmonies, delicate, beautiful solo vocals – we knew that keneally could sing, but we never knew he could sing like THIS.
so – partridge picked the right person, the exactly perfect person, to work up these demos into proper songs. and what a batch of songs they are!
keneally has wisely interspersed the partridge songs with some tunes of his own, and I have to say, some of those are so beautiful that they easily rival the songs co-written with partridge, and they fit in perfectly. the opening track, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part one” clocks in at exactly one minute, a keneally tune rather than a keneally/partridge, but it’s one minute of incredibly melodic, beautiful guitar music – including amazing slide guitar reminiscent of the master – george harrison. so my first feeling for the first song, was that it was very harrison-like – a great way to start, and certainly a good indication of what was to come…
I’ve been a fan of mike keneally’s music for a long time, beginning way back when with his groundbreaking “hat” cd (“thank you for buying hat”…) which is utterly unlike “wing beat fantastic” – it’s more like a zappa album, lots of impossible guitar, funny vocals – but, with the occasional moment of sheer beauty. those occasional moments have now, in this new album, been transformed into an ENTIRE ALBUM of sheer beauty. I kid you not, this album is a completely atypical album for keneally, but oh my god, I wish he’d done this before, and I hope he does it again – perhaps with an entire album of his OWN pop masterpieces.
and when that first guitar solo comes in on the second track on the album, the gorgeous “I’m raining here, inside” – well, that’s it, it’s absolutely perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s seamless, flawless – and so very like the very best andy partridge or dave gregory guitar solo imaginable – it’s cut from the same cloth – just as the vocals are, even the bass and drum parts remind me of xtc – every song on this record sounds like an xtc song, or occasionally, a george harrison song or a beach boys song – hey, wait a minute, that’s just like you would get on an xtc album.
I do imagine though, that mike and his crew would have studied existing xtc album’s, because the production values, the use of phasers and flangers, the song arrangements, the guitar solos, the vocal harmonies – it just SCREAMS “xtc” – the title track, the third track, is a perfect example of this, it’s so much like xtc it’s not funny, acoustic guitars chiming, passionate, layered vocals, harmonies to die for, great chord changes…it’s perfect, an imitation maybe, but actually, a beautiful creation in it’s own right – as if keneally were some sort of musical genetics engineer, taking the xtc “dna” and re-arranging it into new, cloned musical lifeforms – xtc through the mind of keneally.
and then another amazing guitar solo, this one jagged, clean, lovely – comes flying through the song, as the flanged vocals build and build, a lovely descending figure that you can’t get out of you brain, amazing “oohs” – then, a serene, heavenly bridge ending in a beautiful high note – and it’s over.
next comes track four, a 30 second reprise of the opener, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part two” – which is even more enigmatic and beautiful than the first version – just beautiful, mike.
I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to have these songs in hand, in demo form only, and then sit down in your leucadia studio and say “right, how are we going to do this then?” – and the answer is the result – the album “wing beat fantastic” – IS fantastic, totally fantastic…and the next song “you kill me”, track five, is just staggeringly beautiful – even just the introduction is so beautiful I can’t believe it, a great guitar riff, followed by chord changes that you don’t expect, that give you the shivers before the song proper has even begun. a clean pair of lead guitars leads us into the vocal – and those vocals – I would ask AGAIN – who knew that mike keneally could sing THIS beautifully?
the harmonies are straight from every xtc album from “skylarking” onwards – really, really complex, really, really beautiful vocal arrangements – and from a distance, if you don’t dissect it too closely, you would NEVER KNOW it wasn’t andy partridge singing. an almost zappa-like “linking riff” repeats irresistibly in between the choruses, a tiny reminder that this is a zappa band alumni – but the sound overall, is not zappa at all – it’s PURE xtc.
in fact, I played the record for my partner, who doesn’t really know the music of xtc that well, and she said “that guy sounds EXACTLY like the guy in xtc” – and I could not agree more.
this album is an unqualified success for keneally, and I think that this album will do well for him, even if it didn’t have the songs of andy partridge, it would do well, but having that extra kick – not to mention many, many xtc fans ravenous for “new” andy partridge fans (myself included – and just about everyone I know pre-ordered the CD).
track six, “friend of a friend” is a very short little linking piece, 0:49 of acoustic guitars that works beautifully as a lead in to the next track…in fact, it almost sounds like the introduction of track seven, rather than a piece in it’s own right – the two fit together so well.
the album now moves into some really wonderful uncharted musical territory, as exemplified by a song such as track seven, “that’s why I have no name” – a song that is so very strange, with a lot of unusual reverse sounds burbling in the background, and a lot of wonderful clean jazz and reverse guitar (that is probably forwards guitar played through a reverse guitar patch, using something like a line 6 dl-4 delay modeller set to “reverse guitar”) as well, a very strange chord progression, very odd, almost dirge-like vocal, the whole piece is very…minor key, almost jazzy – but again, even though UTTERLY different from the preceding pop masterpieces – even this very odd songs screams “I sound like xtc!” at the top of it’s musical lungs.
I was not surprised to realise that this is a keneally song, not one of the tracks co-written with partridge, and I think all of the “solo” keneally pieces fit in beautifully with the co-written ones – a beautiful job of integration.
a remarkable, ascending clean jazz guitar solo is as startling in it’s appearance as it is in it’s intelligence, and then, it suddenly mutates into a reverse guitar solo of extraordinary beauty – keneally uses every bit of skill he has, but any very strange or very dissonant elements that we might have got on a zappa-influenced record like “hat”, have been replaced with a melodic sensibility of almost uncanny proportions – this solo just TAKES FLIGHT, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the song, drifting waves of reverse guitars float over the top of a steadily building background, the clean guitar returns for a moment – and then we are back to the verse once again.
the end section features all of it: the jazzy guitar, volume pedal guitars, reverse guitars – and it’s just perfect – and it then STOPS on a dime. perfection, but – strange perfection.
then it gets weirder still, with the very odd vocal melody of “your house”, track eight, and it’s incredibly melancholic mood – but very quickly, you realise, this is sort of like the “chalkhills and children” of this album, an odd, unusual vocal melody, which then moves into really beautiful moments “drawn by some strange magnetic pull…” it’s so weird, that you can’t get it out of your head “I know this is crazy, cause after all, it’s only…your house”.
this song sounds resigned, final, triumphant, sad, uncertain “I walked slowly at first, tried not to break into a run…I knew that was your house at the end of the road…”.
I feel like I already knew all these songs, because in a way, I have heard them all before – in those last ten or twelve xtc albums – because keneally heard those records too (in fact, he was in the studio during the making of “oranges and lemons” which xtc recorded in los angeles – which is where the partridge-keneally partnership really began to blossom), and he knew EXACTLY how to inject the magic xtc dna into these songs – and he’s done it!
then we have track nine, “miracle man and woman”, which has the most remarkable vocals, a very, very unusual vocal arrangement – and this is the weird thing, it features a lot of really, really good acoustic guitars – which remind me of gentle giant, the vocals too, are almost gentle giant-like in places – until you get to the godley & creme “deep”/”creepy” backing vocal – beautiful synths (which might well be guitar synths) accompany a strangely equalised vocal section…what a wonderful musical construction!
the middle section of the song is some sort of synthesizer duet, with tinkling piano in the background – and then, here it comes, the kevin godley vocal “ahhhh” from heaven (remember the backing vocals on “I’m not in love” by 10cc?? – like that) – a wordless vocal accompaniment to the middle section – which resolves into a synth-backed acoustic guitar solo, that is SO gentle giant it isn’t funny – like an odd outtake from an early giant album like “acquiring the taste” or maybe “octopus” – and then that crazy, ominous godley & creme creepy vocal returns to end the song on a note of pure creepiness – brilliant!
next is “inglow”, track ten, and it’s very serious indeed, a slinky rhythm overlaid with carefully bendy guitar notes, then, a cheerful, clean, simple melodic solo – a beautiful introduction, resolving on a really wonderful chord – and then starting again, this time with multiple lead guitars, the acoustics gently swaying behind them – a magical instrumental, that makes me think of tropical islands and sunsets and evening closing in – a slowly fading in, mysterious, wordless vocal appears and disappears – the clean melodic lead guitars continue their beautiful journey – what a fantastically beautiful composition, I just find the mood and feeling in this piece to be remarkable – a lovely interlude indeed, and one of keneally’s most mature and respectable guitar compositions ever.
eventually, the vocals begin, and if the first half of the song can be attributed to the genius of mike keneally – then the second half, the vocal section – well, that’s pure andy partridge, but realised by keneally – so they are both brilliant.
track 11 is one of my favourites, “bobeau” – which is a snappy little number with a funky horn arrangement, and a very complex layered vocal arrangement – not to mention great guitars and basses from keneally – then, a fantastic, sing along chorus, with great piano and horn backing – sort of this album’s equivalent to something like “extrovert” from the xtc canon, that’s the only thing I can even imagine I can compare it to – then, a very, very weird vocal melody, backed by ocean sounds and wonderful ghostly background vocals – leads us, via a very odd bridge, towards the song’s remarkable conclusion – which is all about the guitar.
after the final verse, we get another chance to experience the incredibly mature skill of keneally as a lead guitarist, or actually, in this case, as a slide guitarist – for me, the last section of “bobeau” is a huge highlight, during the second chorus, you start to get some lead guitar bits – but then, it starts, a sinister bass and drums, with creeping horns, backs an amazing, slapback slide solo, which is either double tracked or remarkably delayed – but it’s a scorcher, and then keneally really starts to mix things up, with a heavily syncopated guitar riff that is sinister, killer and fucking brilliant. I love it!
then suddenly, it stops, the ocean sounds and seagulls return for a moment…
“land”, track 12, the final track on this amazing album, is another keneally-only piece, which makes a great end piece for the record, and it contains one of my favourite lyrics on the entire record “you understand, finally that, you don’t understand…” which I think is…fantastic. wing beat fantastic, maybe…
it seems to be cut from the same genome that the keneally-partridge co-writes are, almost as if it were inspired by the other songs, it has a bit of everything, including some really beautiful acoustic guitar – short and sweet, just over two minutes, but a perfectly constructed finale for one of the most important pop records – ever.
“wing beat fantastic” is a remarkable achievement, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, where a well known ex-zappa lead guitarist takes away a handful of andy partridge songs, and creates an album that is so xtc-like as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and that is clear praise, mike, you did an amazing job with this, you transformed these demos into a thing of real beauty, a succinct and very musical album that successfully captures the spirit of xtc beautifully, in a very respectful, and perfectionistic, way – every detail has been considered and reconsidered, the vocal arrangements, the vocal harmonies, are absolutely among some of the most beautiful I have ever heard on any album – and if keneally were now to switch hats permanently (no pun intended) and just make beautiful pop records, I would love every one of them.
I know that when andy partridge first heard the completed keneally project, he was absolutely overwhelmed by the result, in fact, literally moved to tears, and I understand why that is. this is a gorgeous record, it would have fit seamlessly into the xtc catalogue anywhere between “skylarking” and “apple venus” (either part) and no one would have been the wiser – OK, you can tell it’s mike keneally singing, not andy partridge, but beyond that – the guitar work is top notch, the guitar solos are simply amazing, and the songs – wow, the writing, the lyrics, the tunes, the arrangements – it’s all good!
there is not a bad or even lesser tune on this record, keneally has done the impossible, he has almost “out-xtc’d” xtc themselves. but it’s done so respectfully, so tastefully, it’s imitation as sheer flattery – but perfect imitation, glorious, beautiful, joyful music – music like the music that xtc themselves produce.
a pop masterpiece, not to be missed – genius. “wing beat fantastic” truly is, fantastic.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough.
in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.
I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.
the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.
I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song. and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did. and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.
a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.
of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.
as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!
but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.
early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.
“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…
“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”
I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.
when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!
so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…
I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos. tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.
even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…
sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…
as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on. I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.
there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…
their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!
I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.
I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.
try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.
I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.
this is a day for hearing bagpipes
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.
sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me
and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.
I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…
I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…
“I can see you
I can feel you
I can see…see
normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.
“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…
clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”
“clouds in the memory…”
karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !
early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks
if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…
black sheep wall
clear to me
you chase the light
wonder of birds
and hiding away
sorry and glad together
now in this hush
bright as yellow
that was another country
happy, the end
everything’s different now
where does the time go?
beautiful pop heaven playlist…