the music of the moment – fairlight fifty

this is just to say, that the first of a number of applications-based albums is well underway, it now has a title “fairlight fifty” (many thanks to colin bathgate for that title), and there are a number of completed compositions now ready to go on to the mix/mastering stage, and more new tracks are appearing all the time….

three things have spurred me on to commit totally to this project:

1)       the bizarre and unique nature of the compositions I am doing on the fairlight pro is an absolute inspiration, the tracks are utterly unique; like nothing I’ve ever done before and like nothing on earth that I’ve ever heard before

2)       I accidentally filmed some birds the other morning, including crows and jackdaws, which became my latest video and the newest upload on the new applicationHD channel, presenting the first single from the record, “feast for crow

3)       I realised that for some strange reason, the average length of an average dave stafford fairlight pro track is about two minutes or less (one or two tracks stretch out to a lengthy three or even four minutes long, but in the main, they all seem to be right around the two minute mark); originally, I jokingly said “I will just wait until I have fifty and then I will release them” but now – I take that completely seriously, because if the most recent tracks are anything to go by, when I reach fifty, there will be then be fifty of the most bizarre and unique tracks I’ve ever recorded…

why not?  at the moment, I am planning on an early 2013 release, as only about a dozen of the required fifty tracks even exist, and I have several other projects that I really want to complete and get under my belt this year – so I can have the freedom to then turn to the fairlight pro project and complete it hopefully in time.

during the mastering of the audio for the “feast for crow” video, I also re-assessed the last few pieces that I have recorded, “unwinding prophecy”, “guitarilla”, “fun with cardboard”,  “petroglyph”, and a brand new, partially completed piece entitled “seagulls” – I realised that these pieces are even more unusual, unique, strange, weird and bizarre than my usual fare, and frankly – thanks to the amazing design of the fairlight pro application, with it’s strange approach of triggering real samples of real instruments and controlling note pitch, volume, duration, pan, etc. as you sequence the samples – that  these pieces of music make up a very special group of songs, each one made with a different customised eight part instrument – and that to gather up fifty of them as an album would be a very, very interesting sonic experience indeed, I hope, ending up as utterly unique as the dozen existing tracks sound now…I just can’t resist the temptation – so, an album there shall be!

fairlight fifty – I like it! (and so – the fairlight fifty album project is officially born…).

on monday night, after having mastered the audio for “feast for crow” on sunday, I assembled the video using the footage that I had taken just a few mornings previously at the end of april.  the video was a lot of fun to make, demonstrating an epic struggle of nature, with the more intelligent crows ending up in possession of the prize – the feast – and the dullard seagulls were defeated once again due to their overwhelming desire to posture and flap their wings and fight and chase each other off – while the crows patiently wait, eat what they can, and end up with the food anyway because the gulls had basically all chased each other completely away – a really cool avian slice of life/real-life bird video to accompany this most peculiar of songs.

best of all, the “lead crow” then does a victorious hopping exit stage left at the end of the video, which I just loved – you would almost believe that they knew I was filming, the way they behaved…

feast for crow” is one of the very, very first songs I created with the fairlight pro app, and given that I didn’t really know or quite understand what I was doing at the time, it came out quite, quite well all things considered.  I believe that for the album, I am going to record these pieces utterly flat, with no EQ or reverb or any alterations except to match levels – because I love the way they sound flat!  I experimented with adding reverb, EQ and other effects when working on “feast for crow” but in the end, decided against anything, so I reverted it back to the basic captured track and mastered from that.

I am seriously thinking I will do the whole album that way – but, possibly, with a twist – once completed in it’s “plain vanilla” version, I might then take “breeze” or other effects, and really go wild on copies of all fifty tracks – reverb them, flange them, chorus them, delay them, echo them, because while I love them plain – I am also sure that some of them at least, would really, really benefit from some serious “treatments” – I can’t wait!

another possibility is doing a single energy-bow guitar overdub of each track, which might be a very interesting musical experiment indeed – but we will see – I really feel that these unusual tracks have so much potential, so I do plan on spending a lot of quality time in the studio with them, to see what is…possible.

that would mean producing two masters of each track, but the tracks are so short, it will be easy to do that – so I think I will move forward on that basis.

I guess that means then that we will have both “fairlight fifty” and “fairlight fifty (enhanced)” – and maybe – “fairlight fifty (energy bow jam version)” too –  to look forward to next year.  I can’t wait!!!

what we’re listening to: roger powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

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

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

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

journey through the past (how we gather around what is precious)

I’ve been so pleased with the progress made on the pureambient blog audio companion page, and I am really excited about the music that is still to come as well, discovering all this historic music is both interesting and challenging.

those were simpler times – but I’m constantly amazed by the quality of what these young people (ted holding and dave stafford, and their various friends and musical co-conspirators) accomplished. I am even more impressed by what they accomplished without the benefit of technology more complex than a teac 3340-s – the four-track reel-to-reel recorder of choice in the 1970s.  that was all we had, ted had a 3340-S when we were recording from approximately age 15 – 19, and sometime later, I ended up with a 3340S of my own, which I made many, many records on – all the way up through 1995 when I got my first pc.  so the state of the art in 1975, well, we had the four-channel deck, ted had good quality mixers, a monster power amp, and giant homemade speaker cabinets to play back through – heaven for two teenage musicians!

the next set of tracks that I am working on will again, reveal a whole new musical direction for holding & stafford, we are now going to veer away from pop, into the fascinating territory of progressive rock improv; with ted holding demonstrating that his ability on hammond organ meets or even exceeds his remarkable capacity as a vocalist or pianist – it’s really an extraordinary set.

I notice now, though, that something else begins to happen: I publish the tracks, people hear them – other people who were there, who remember Ted and his amazing voice, and his amazing songs – and those people then join in, they begin to contribute to the process – in fact just today I received a remarkable recording from joe norwood, featuring ted on a cover version of an ambrosia track – so with joe’s permission, we can very probably add that track to the pages at some point for everyone to enjoy.

this phenomena is really one of the most positive aspects of the internet, for us, uh, more mature folk, it gives us the chance to locate our oldest friends and share with them music or events from the far distant past, no matter how far apart we have become physically.

and when we run across something really special, like the original music of ted holding, well, for me, it made me sit up and notice, “this is something truly special” – so you want to share that, you want people to hear this music that means so much to you, that means a lot to you because you were part of it’s creation – but, that aside, it’s important because it is truly, truly music of quality.  it demands to be heard.

then, people who knew the music’s creator appear, and the whole experience just becomes even more enriching, moving and compelling…

when I began the audio cassette restoration project, I never dreamed for one minute that it would be anything more than digitising some cassettes, and hearing and posting on my web site, some of the music from my past.  I never dreamed it would then take on a life of it’s own, eliciting such positive responses, and also allowing me to reconnect with some of the other players who were either there at the time along with us, or folk who knew the composer later on in life – the whole thing really has surprised me, in a really positive way – it’s been fantastic.

I can’t wait to get the next batch of music processed and put up on the audio companion page, and watch and listen as this musical story unfolds, and this section, the section featuring my best friend, ted holding, has been my absolute favourite chapter so far, and I know that there are many more pieces featuring ted that will come to light and will add to this online collection of historical, archival releases.

please join us, stop by and have a listen to some of ted’s songs, and our performances of those songs – I would hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the songwriting, the passion and power of the vocal performances, and the obvious love that we have for the act of music.

as we then move the audio cassette restoration project into the 1980s, the audio companion page will track my own development, first, as a pianist, then, on hammond organ, up until 1988, when guitar really took over completely as my main instrument, I did a lot of really interesting work with both piano and organ, and a lot of this music has never been heard – everything from noise experiments involving a pedalboard that could make music with no guitar attached, to covers of the songs of the day, the music I loved, played on guitar, piano, organ and often, with vocals.  so really, a whole new side of dave stafford is about to be unveiled – over time.

 

when it came time to look at my back catalogue in terms of digitising the work, so, originally, I could produce physical CDs, and latterly, so I could produce portable versions of the music in MP3 form to make them available as downloads, there was absolutely no way at the time (1995) that I could go all the way back to these earliest works.

so I picked an arbitrary cutoff year, and decided that everything before 1992, I would not digitise (at the time) and most of everything after 1992 (with a few notable exceptions, such as 1994’s “worldview” cassette) I would digitise.

it was really an accident then, that my 1992 album “voices from the desert” became my “first” album – which is actually inaccurate, I had created albums on cassette in the 1980s, but since all of that material was before the arbitrary cutoff date – well, “voices” has remained as my oldest released record until now.

the cassette restoration programme, and the reel-to-reel restoration programme slated for 2014 (or sooner, if it can be managed) will aim to change all that, and I hope eventually to “meet in the middle” – as my published CD catalogue works back from the present to 1992’s “voices from the desert”, the dave stafford works to be published on the pureambient blog audio companion page will work forward from 1971 (my oldest recorded music) up to 1992, when “voices” was created”.

 

it should be noted that 1992 is just the cutoff for dave stafford “solo” works, for bindlestiff and the dozey lumps, well, the former goes back to about 1991, while the latter stretches back to 1988 – but those were exceptions to the rule, and needed to be digitised and included in the currently available back catalogue, which can be downloaded from the pureambient store.

as I noted above, good things start to happen when you share music, and I cannot be more pleased than I already am about unearthing and presenting the remarkable music of theodore landis holding, musician and friend, and I am so glad I have taken the time to clean up and present this work on the audio companion page – a labour of love, as peter hammill might say.

 

the original songs of ted holding presented here are a tribute to my friend and musical partner, and are dedicated to his memory.

 

 

journey through the past – holding & stafford

I’ve now completed the 1975 mixes of ted holding and dave stafford in the studio, and the ted holding band live at helix high school, and latterly, some 1977 ted holding band/holding and stafford mixes as well.  being already mixed; being from cassette; being 38-year old recordings; they posed some real challenges, and it took quite some time just to deal with these three quite short pop songs.

the first one, from the 1975 tape, is a cover of a song by the band chicago (before they disintegrated into one of the crappiest am radio one-hit wonder bands later on – ugh), a track called “questions 67 & 68” that ted and I both really liked, we played it often, and one day, we decided to record it properly.   this is probably the first multi track recording we ever made together, and given the very limited technology available to us, it’s really quite mature and well thought out – for two 17 year old musicians.

the track features:

part 1:

ted holding: lead vocal and upright piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm guitar – live take

that was the standard live arrangement, so that would have been the first part recorded

part 2:

ted holding: double-tracked lead vocal and farfisa organ – overdub

part 3:

ted holding: double-speed piano solo

part 4:

ted holding: double-speed farfisa organ solo

so this quickly became more of a fun experiment, because of course we had hit on the same trick george martin used of the dual piano solo in “in my life” – playing the backing track at half-speed, playing the solo at normal speed, and then when you speed up the tape, the solo plays back at double speed – and is an octave higher.

I assume what happened here is that parts 1 and 2 were bounced to one stereo pair; resulting in a basic stereo track of piano, farfisa, rhythm guitar, and double-tracked vocal, and then onto that, on two separate channels, first the piano solo, and then amazingly, doubling the same solo on the farfisa on the one remaining empty track.

because double-speed piano was on one channel and double-speed organ on another, ted was also then able to mess about with the stereo imaging, creating a fantastical sound – a piano and organ racing along at impossible speed – a great solo, completely invented by ted (it certainly doesn’t feature on the chicago version!) – all I could do is sit back and admire the creativity, the talent, that allowed ted to envision, record and double-speed that solo – a hugely creative and successful idea.  it’s a shame that the track is otherwise so simple, but we only had the instruments we had, and clearly, this track was recorded some months before “we’ll shine” and “you’ve gone away” were – the presence of the hammond on “we’ll shine” gives that away, the presence of the farfisa on the chicago track clearly indicates it’s an older piece – possibly even recorded the year before, in 1974, but there is no way to tell, so I’ve included it with the other 1975 in studio session piece –  “we’ll shine”.

the 1977 tape (blessedly) adds to the somewhat meagre offering on the 1975 tape, adding in a third song and a remade version of “we’ll shine”, so we at least have a fairly decent representation of the three ted holding original songs currently available.

the main trick in dealing with these pre-mixed cassette versions of the tracks is removing the hiss without damaging the music.  the hum is easily enough targeted and removed, but hiss is a problem – not so much during the pieces, but at the end, during the natural fade out of the instruments.

one track in particular, a ted holding original called “we’ll shine”, gave me a lot of grief, I could make the track sound good, but the fade out was just so, so noisy – the cassette is, of course, a mix down from a reel to reel, where there were three sets of two live instrument/voice combinations, so: a lot of hiss on the source reel because of the bouncing. this meant that by the time it reached the cassette, the noise build up was pretty extreme.

yet, if I hiss reduced the whole track, it just killed it – the crisp quality of ted’s voice, the bright piano just sounded too dull, too lifeless – so I had to find another way to target just the fade out section of the song, while preserving the amazingly bright, trebly sound from the tape (I can’t believe how bright this track is after 38 years on a cassette!).

I eventually hit on a technique that worked – I’ve used a similar technique to add reverb to just the end of a song – I split the last part of the track into 11 very short sections – perhaps 3 or 4 seconds long each (well after the vocals are finished, so posing no threat to their good sound), covering perhaps 30 odd seconds of music, and then added a separate graphic equaliser to each section – and then gave each one a progressively stronger amount of reduction of the frequencies in question (4400, 4800, and 5200 Hz), so starting with a 2 db cut, then 4 db, then 6 db…eventually ending up, during the last few seconds of the song where the hiss is most severe, at minus 18 db.

this is the same process as with the reverb-adder, where you add a tiny bit, then a bit more, then a bit more, until at the very end, there is enough reverb to give the ending something to “drop” into – works great.  once you have the pieces eq’d (or reverbed) to your satisfaction, you just bounce all the split clips back into one, and you are finished!

the effect this has is quite decent; the whole track remains bright, then, as it nears the end, that brightness fades quite gradually (not suddenly as it does if you just split it into two), the track getting imperceptibly duller and duller until at the end, the hiss reduction is severe – but it makes a huge, huge difference, it’s not perfect, there is still noise, but it’s much, much better than the version without the “staggered hiss reduction” I applied.  (I’m calling this “shr” my new staggered hiss reduction technique!) – by using the staggered or gradual technique, you don’t “notice” a “sudden” change from bright to dull, it just happens pretty organically – and it works!

in listening back though to these ancient recordings, these three tracks have come out really, really well – in particular considering the age of the tapes – they sound like they were made last week. of the three tracks, “we’ll shine” is the most fully produced – and it demonstrates just how good holding & stafford could be, given time in a studio situation.

“we’ll shine” features:

part 1

ted holding: lead vocals and fender rhodes electric piano – live take

dave stafford: rhythm and lead guitar – live take

that’s probably what the first pass was, because of course this is recorded in a series of three stereo passes.

part 2

ted holding: harmony vocal 1 and hammond organ – overdub

dave stafford: facsimile bass – overdub

I am extrapolating this from the way I believe we would have done this, in conjunction with my failing memory of the session – it’s a long, long time ago now!

part 3

ted holding: harmony vocal 2 – high harmony – arp omni string synthesizer – overdub

dave stafford: harmony vocal 1 – low harmony

we both worked on the arrangement, and in particular, the vocal harmonies which were expertly mixed in stereo by ted – I love the stereo separation in this mix, and the backing vocals just sound so, so good – we worked on that for ages and ages, and then when you add in the stereo placement – you get pop vocal heaven.  ted’s one-take lead vocal is perfectly framed by three harmony vocals done as overdubs – ted doing all but one of them himself.  I am honoured to have been allowed to sing on this track, I really am, since my voice is no match for ted’s!

the first time the background vocals come in, every time I hear it, it just sends a shiver down my spine, it’s so perfect, so beautiful – probably the best single vocal harmony I’ve ever been involved in.  of course, that is mostly down to the fact that it’s 80 percent ted’s voice and you can barely hear my two low notes of harmony !!

it’s possible that there are four rather than three harmony vocals, depending if I possibly “sang as I played” on part 1 or part 2, but I can’t tell – there are certainly three at a minimum, but even so, it sounds incredibly full and rich – really stunning background vocals, that take this song to a whole new level.

the third and final track from this rather disjointed collection of tracks from 1975 is a live track, and of course, that made it much, much easier to master, because the crowd is so noisy that any noise at the beginning or end is totally masked anyway – so it was just a case of trying to optimise the sound of the band and the vocals.

this one has an expanded line up, the ted holding band, which included ted on piano and lead vocal, myself on rhythm and lead guitar (including slightly nervous solo), our friend jeff slater on bass and harmony vocal, a drummer whose name I do not recall, and strangely, the helix high school choir director on extra harmony vocal – and he adds in some very strange and wonderful harmonies during the end part of the song – and, in the special “surprise” additional coda that we played on this occasion only – we arranged this just before the show, that we would count in the track again and play just the chorus one last time – and, we didn’t tell the choir director, so he was taken completely off guard – but, he just jumped straight in and did a beautiful job of rounding out the piece.

we played this piece either two nights running or three, I don’t remember, and on the earlier nights, we just played the song “straight” – but on the third night, since the piece was going down really well with the audience (based on the first two nights’ experience) we made the decision to have this secret, surprise extra ending – and I am so, so glad that the one recording of this song happens to be the one with the extra coda – that’s a real stroke of luck.  I’m slightly hopeful that somewhere, on a reel to reel tape, that there might be other versions of “you’ve gone away” – but if that hope is in vain, then I am quite, quite happy with this one lone version – it’s a heartbreaker, it really is.

of course, if I **am** able to adapt my old TEAC 3340s to 50 hz operation – which I don’t yet know, and if the multi track masters still have sound on them, I may be able to improve on these mixes – if there are multi track versions of any of these songs – which I would happily do, this music is a huge part of my teenage years, despite it being “pop music” it means a lot to me, so I am glad to have spent the time making these mix downs presentable, and by the same token, I would happily spend more time doing the same to any multi track masters that may exist – which would give us even better versions of these songs.  so – stay tuned – an upgrade could be in the works.

I am also secretly hopeful that I can expand the number of ted holding-related tracks I have by gaining access to the reels, I believe that somewhere, there are recordings of holding and stafford playing and singing a cover of the beatles “no reply”, and I would love to present that along with the rest of the ted holding related material.  we shall see…

that would give us two covers – one by chicago, one by the beatles – and three ted holding originals – a mini album if you will

right now, the tracks featuring ted, complete tracks discounting fragments, look like this:

from 1974

froggy’s holiday (stafford / holding) – three takes

from 1975

questions 67 & 68 (lamm) – cover of a chicago song, multi track

we’ll shine (holding) – official studio version, multi track

you’ve gone away (holding) – live at helix high school with the ted holding band

from 1977

ted holding band

we’ll shine (remake) (holding) – recorded live in the studio

a variation of the ted holding band – the core band – ted & dave;  jeff slater on bass, plus special guests jim whitaker on guitar and rick corriere on congas – this is a completely different version to the original studio version recorded in 1975 – and I had no memory of this session until I heard this tape! – I had no idea that we’d remade this song with a live band!!!  this provides a really interesting glimpse into ted’s compositional thought processes – various improvements have been made to the song’s structure, even up to including an almost todd rundgren-style philadelphia whoop during the take – I think right at the end of jim’s solo.  making use of the presence of two guitarists, too, ted expanded the solo section to allow a solo from both myself and jim; the whole song has undergone a makeover.

holding & stafford

love and I can hide (three takes) – live studio run-through

the third and last of the ted holding original songs to be presented here, when I listen to the potential in these songs, I just wonder what else ted might have gone on to write…there is no mastered, mixed version of this track (at least,  not that we’ve found yet) but these live run-throughs feature some startlingly mature playing – we are 19 now, after all – and I am playing a real bass (no idea whose – I did not own a bass until I was in my late 20s or early 30s), and some of the endings especially are absolutely amazing, where ted found something amazing on the piano, while I was doing my best to be a very melodic chris squire in the high registers of the bass – and we’d reach the end, and you could feel us holding our breath, a pin-drop ending I call them, where you don’t want to make a sound lest you spoil that perfect, ringing combination of notes.  a shiver and a sigh…

 

still to come:

from 1977-1978

holding, stafford & corriere – live in the studio, instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx. 30 minutes worth

holding, stafford, corriere & morgan – live in the studio,  instrumental prog rock improvisations – approx 30 minutes worth

these are probably the first recordings that demonstrate my interest in prog rock, where I am playing lead guitar now with some degree of confidence (although with quite underpowered equipment and effects) and in conjunction with two drummers and the remarkable keyboard skill of ted holding, these recordings are a good indicator of what was to come – my brief journey into the world of progressive rock began right here.

I can’t wait to process these tapes – these sessions were enormously enjoyable, and they capture a fantastic moment in time – 19 years old, really starting to be able to play…it’s finally really happening! and the facility that ted displays on the keyboards on these prog improvs is just amazing – no matter how well I do, he is light-years ahead of me.

given how much time has passed, and the fragility of the medium of tape, I think it’s an absolute miracle that so much material from this era has survived.  I am also deeply, deeply grateful that they did survive, since my friend ted passed away in 1975, if they had not survived, his music would not have ever, ever been heard by anyone.  and after a thirty eight year silence, I am so, so happy that this beautiful music can be shared with and experienced by his surviving family and his brother and sisters.

so by chance, because I saved a bunch of old tapes that I made when I was a teenager, this music does exist – and in particular, those three ted holding original compositions – songs from the heart, all three of them love songs or songs of unrequited love – are still here with us now.  even better – in multiple versions – two different versions of “we’ll shine” – one studio, one live; one version of “you’ve gone away” – live, and three wonderful, rough versions of “love and I can hide” – live in the studio.

at the time – this is just what we did, we were musicians – ted had these songs, I was his friend and his main guitarist up until about 1978 (when ted moved on to playing with a much better guitarist than I was, joe norwood), – we had the songs, so we recorded them.  I had forgotten just how much time and effort we put in to these songs, but it’s clear from the tapes: we absolutely did; we worked really hard on these songs, we cared about them; the arrangements, the playing, the singing – we were proud of them, and ted’s skill as singer, writer, musician, producer and engineer cannot be overstated – I learned so, so much from him, he made me a better pianist, a better engineer, a better singer, a better producer – he had more talent in his little finger than I do in my whole body.

I was the guitarist, the bassist, the occasional harmony singer – the second keyboard player – and I was happy to support my friend, because even though I later went off and got heavily into progressive rock, and then ambient, and then guitar craft, looping and so on – at the time, those serious, heavy pop songs meant the world to me – and I’m so, so proud to have been such a significant part of their creation – ted accepted my contributions and assistance, we worked on the arrangements together, and I did everything in my power to make the songs succeed.

a few nights ago now, I heard both the remake of “we’ll shine” and the three live in the studio takes of “love and I can hide” for the first time since we recorded them back in 1977.

and it seemed particularly poignant, the takes of “love and I can hide” are a bit rough, ted’s voice maybe not at it’s angelic best, a little cracked, but – once the take starts, we both play as if our lives depended on it – and I am very surprised too, because I am playing a real bass, and I sound like I really mean it, I’m trying very hard to play a perfect and complimentary part to ted’s almost automatic piano playing.

I should say a word about that playing – during all these takes, on his own songs – I am constantly amazed at how mature, complex and beautiful ted’s piano (and organ, and string…) parts truly are – these do not sound like piano parts composed by a 17 or 19 year old boy, and the playing (and the songs) belie ted’s young age – this was, clearly, an old soul in the body of a teenage boy. I felt a real sympathy with ted, I could feel the real emotion in the songs (and you can absolutely hear ted’s emotion in the sound of his voice) as we played them – for that moment, we both were living the pain of unrequited love or love gone wrong – and these three fantastic ted holding original pop songs are amongst my proudest moments as a young musician.

the only song we ever truly co-wrote was our very early instrumental “froggy’s holiday” – which was really mostly my song, I had these chords, and then together, we worked out an arrangement, so it became a collaboration.  even though I did work on the details, on the arrangements and parts of the three ted holding originals, in my mind, those three songs will always be “ted’s songs” and I wouldn’t dream of taking a writing credit for any of them – they are his, his alone, and as such, I am so happy and proud to present these three beautiful, beautiful pop songs from the genius mind of a wonderful young musician, mr. ted holding.  I hope you can hear these buddy, you should be so, so incredibly proud!

the passage of time (and how music changes during that time)

for a long time now, I’ve been aware of a strange perception issue that I have with my own music.  first and foremost, I am always, always overcritical, of everything I record, and that’s always been the case.

I think I realise now, though, that the passage of time has a real effect on my perception of music that I have recorded.  very rarely do I record a piece of music and think “that went really well, it has no errors, it’s a great piece” – instead, I tend to focus on any and every fault I can find: faults in the performance – anything from poor timing, to missed notes, to fluffed notes, to being out of tune or out of time in any way; or, faults in the recording, too quiet, too loud/is clipping, not in sync with tracks I am overdubbing to, etc.

but recently, I have realised that once some time passes, and I have some distance from the act of music, from the actual performance if it’s a live piece or session if it’s a multi-track/studio piece – that with distance in time, my harsh judgement of certain tracks has actually changed, and sometimes changed quite a lot.

I think there is probably a mathematical equation you could set up that would demonstrate my condition, something to do with the more distance in time I have from a work, the less harsh my judgement of it becomes; of course, some percentage of that attitude will come from the inevitable mellowing that occurs as we age, but some of it comes from the simple fact that – I hope – I am less judgemental than I used to be, and perhaps, more forgiving.

the sort of “inverse way” to look at that is, I might record a live take, or work on a studio piece, and think, the moment I am finished with the take or session “well, that’s OK, but it’s not really good enough to release, I like it OK but it’s not the best thing I’ve ever done”. then, I do my backups, save the session or tracks, and forget all about it.  fast forward three months, and, not having heard the piece for 90 days, and having recorded, and mixed, and heard so much music in the ensuring three months – when I go back to the piece, and listen to it now – suddenly, it’s true quality is apparent – this IS a good piece, a REALLY good piece – why did I think it wasn’t good???? what on earth is wrong with it? – nothing!

I had that kind of surprise when I went back to the late december korg kaossilator sessions to create a master mix of “zencourage”. now in this case, I actually do know why I did not think too much of this piece, because, I had only had the korg for one day, and that afternoon, with basically zero playing experience, I recorded an entire piece of music, with multiple drum, bass and synth parts – all done with the kaoss pad.  I absolutely assumed that because I did not have any experience, that the recording must not be up to snuff.  plus, I had the experience of playing about 20 live takes with the device two days later, which I felt were fairly good, so I guess I thought that the live sessions from the 27th had to be far superior to a zero-experience-assembled studio piece using the kaoss pad.

normally though, I go back after days or weeks or months, and listen to something, and I have no idea why I thought it wasn’t good – none whatsoever.  and it’s true quality emerges then.

in this case, though, with “zencourage”, I was just wrong. sometimes, having no experience is good, sometimes, coming in cold to play guitar after other business or illness has kept me away from it for days or weeks, sometimes those “going in cold” sessions produce the most amazing music you can imagine – because there is zero expectation, zero pre-conception – you are just playing, nothing less, nothing more – and that works.

imagine my surprise then, going back to this piece, and expecting a mess borne of inexperience, but finding instead, something with a mysterious, dark feel; some bryan-helm-inspired dropped bass notes, and some of the weirdest but most wonderful synthesizer melodies I’ve ever played – and played not on keys, or even on guitar, but on a tiny x-y pad on one of the most remarkable portable synthesizers ever made – the korg kaossilator.

and the rough mix that was already there, was brilliant, smooth transitions between different drum rhythms, a very linear but slowly mutating bass part, and very unusual and odd sounding melodic synthesizers on top, pinning the whole thing together somehow…the new mix was extremely straightforward and hardly any different than what I envisioned on-the-fly on christmas day when I made the original recording.

that was my first day with this incredible instrument, my first and only studio kaoss pad recording – and I just shelved it (!!), thinking “ah, that can’t possibly be any good” simply because I didn’t have much experience with that instrument.

I am so, so glad that I went back then, to reassess it, a few days ago, and once I’d heard it, realising that it was far, far better than I had remembered (or thought, rather!) – I then built up a video to go with it, and added it to the live performances from December 27th on the kaossilatorHD channel up on you tube – the crowning multi-track studio song that preceded those 12 live videos, released at last, and those now 13 tracks – one studio, 12 live – encompassing and now fully representing a fantastic few days’ worth of recording time – just brilliant.

update – now there are 14 tracks on the channel.

 

but as far as this perception, and the way that perception changes over time, well…

 

sometimes, it’s good to be wrong!!!

the music of the moment – application-based music

the music of the moment – application-based music

another really unusual piece has appeared on the fairlight pro, this time, an oddly cheerful little ditty called “fun with cardboard” – which I am actually thinking might end up becoming the title track of my proposed/future fairlight pro composition album.

 

strange though it might seem, the title appeared to me sometime last weekend as a possible album title, but then when I sat down to compose on the ipad, specifically, to work on a new fairlight piece, it just hit me, this piece must be “fun with cardboard”. and then the track appeared with frightening speed, practically writing itself – it was done very quickly, with just a few tweaks to the sequence the following day – clearly, it was meant to be, and – this will sound very unusual – it actually sounds like “fun with cardboard” – if you were, somehow…having fun with cardboard…this is what it would sound like!  really.

 

I still cannot get over the weird and wonderful process that occurs each time I begin composing with fairlight pro, it’s just pure strangeness – I never have any idea what I am writing, I just try melodies and harmony, and if it works; fine, if not, I delete the offending bars and try to find something better.

 

if it sounds good, then I keep it; if it doesn’t, or it seems boring; I dump it, and I just keep replacing any bad bars with good until all the bars are good – simple!

 

sometimes, it’s just not selecting the right notes – and, it can be tricky, because most melodies actually stretch across two or more patterns; or, sometimes, the instrument you chose for instrument 3 is just no good; so you have to stop and find something more suitable.  once the instruments are right, then you can carry on creating.  but this time – the instrument was fine, it required no changes, and I was able to work very quickly indeed.

 

I found in this case, I could create a really fulfilling sequence using very, very few individual measures, it has more repetition, and fewer “unique” bars – normally, the ending and the measure or measures leading up to it tend to be unique, but otherwise, compositional fragments get re-used a lot during this particular track.

 

even stranger, writing intentionally in a minor key – e minor, with one brief excursion to a minor – you would think that the piece would take on the normally-perceived characteristic of the minor keys, and sound “sad” – but for whatever reasons, the reverse is actually true, and this piece oozes happiness and joy, it’s decidedly, almost annoyingly, cheerful. which I think is great, usually when I record in e minor, I want a dark mood; a not-cheerful mood – but this time, it backfired, and due to a combination of tempo, instrumentation, and the random process of dave’s haphazard “compositional technique”…it came out sounding really happy. and, with a sudden, snappy, unexpected ending too – which is a real bonus.

 

of course, that makes me happy too, because I have lots of dark, creepy, strange/soundtrack music already recorded with the fairlight, so there need to be some more melodic, cheery pieces to counteract that.  but – not too many – because we love our dark atmospheres, don’t we?

 

I actually don’t know if I have spoken about the piece before this, written a couple weeks back (it’s been so, so busy!) entitled “guitarilla” – a track that really has got me thinking about the true potential of fairlight pro.  the fairlight has a lot of great guitar samples in it, so I use them – and in this case, I developed some riffs that eventually, I turned into a song.

 

it took some doing, but I now have it sorted out, the whole piece is based on riffs, but some sections have a series of chords that plays out behind some of  the riffs– but, the overall effect is of a clear sketch, or prototype, of a fairly heavy guitar piece.

 

after thinking about this piece for some time, I realise that I could actually design riff-based guitar songs on the ipad, with fairlight pro, rather than on guitar – and then just learn them; or even overdub the fairlight track with real guitars (which is my plan for “guitarilla”).  however, I always have the option; once I have a good recording on “real” guitars – of just erasing the Fairlight track – use it like a disposable template.

 

I’ve never been great at writing on guitar, I do not know why – most of what I write is on keyboard or on piano.  I can improvise on guitar all day and night, but, I don’t sit down and work on riffs, or riff-based songs, like I might have when I was 22.  having the fairlight now, though, with it’s awesome selection of heavy, heavy guitar sounds, will allow me to compose in riff mode once again.

 

I doubt that’s what the designers had in mind, but I really think this will become a great tool for doing quick sketches, for working out my riffs and ideas and even chord changes – and then taking that to the daw and fleshing it out with real guitars – possibly then discarding the entire original fairlight template piece in the process.  or keeping it – whatever sounds the best.

 

I’ve only had this tool now for about four months, but as with so many of these synthesizer/recording apps, I really can’t imagine myself being without it, it’s so flexible, it’s so fun to create with, and some truly unusual pieces have appeared out of nowhere using the fairlight pro. some of that is down to the samples, which are mostly really quality, but some of it is down to knowing how to best concoct a good instrument (8 voices) to use for your creation, and some of it is down to the actual bar-by-bar compositional approach – all of that combines, somehow, into creating an atmosphere where the unusual can happen – and it usually does.

the future of pureambient – two modes, two paths: one musician

I’m a guitarist, first and foremost – except, really, that’s not quite accurate; I was playing the piano ten years or more before I ever picked up a guitar.  it’s just that guitar, and guitar synth, are my instruments of choice, it’s what I love to do the most – especially if it involves looping, creating on the fly – or using the energy bow – I love doing live looping with the ebow.  but years ago, there was a time when I played piano as much as guitar (or more, for a short period of time).  and over the years, the piano gave way to the synthesizer.  until very recently, I had a fairly limited set up – a 77-key keyboard with plastic keys, the soft synths within sonar, and my trusty mellotron – m-tron pro.  but now – that has totally expanded, and I mean really expanded, to the point where I have so much amazing possibility – so I do want to take advantage of that.

now that the pop and click problem is solved, to try to equal out the “guitar to keyboard” session ratio, I suppose! – I can foresee doing a lot more synthesizer sessions, using the 88-key keyboard in particular (either on it’s own; driving soft synths in sonar; or driving app synths on the ipad) – it really opens things up in terms of possibilities.  I am really pleased with how well the midi is integrated on most of these apps, I have full control of the app from the remote keyboard, and that’s a true joy – I can now run any soft synth in the world from sonar, and/or, from the ipad – thousands and thousands of synth voices available at the push of a button – it’s heaven for the dedicated synthesist. 🙂

but now, now that I finally have a full-size keyboard again, for the first time in over 35 years (I know, that is really hard to believe) I am finding that I really, really enjoy playing synthesizer.  I feel that it’s a completely different effort and oeuvre than my main body of work, it’s almost like a “different” dave stafford is the guy that plays these mad,  inspired pieces on addictive synth (and – the name is apt, once I start playing on this synth, I just can’t stop – the arpeggiators in particular fascinate me, the musical possibilities that they open up…). and more recently, I’ve been using some of the free synth apps I’ve got – one of which, alchemy, is a monstrously cool app – it has two x-y pads, and the way they have been programmed is just stunning – to be able to control not just the usual parameters, but now, they are giving me panning, so I can create my own custom stereo image as I play the track, or reverb room size or level, or effects panning – so you can play the keyboard with your right hand, and with your left, simultaneously effect two different parameters on the two x-y pads in real time – how excellent is that????  so maybe I could be changing the low frequency oscillator with one finger, while changing the reverb level with the other, while my right hand plays the piece.  alchemy is a blast – I love it.  that’s one where I might well spring for the full version.

I am finding more and more synth apps, and a good percentage of them have unique features that set them apart from the others, in some, like alchemy, it might be particularly good x-y pad control – in others, such as addictive synth – it might be a lot of really well-programmed arpeggiators.

I would hasten to add…I don’t use arpeggiators to “cheat” – I try to use them in a more creative way – as we were recently discussing over on the pureambient group, but to create music that my fingers could not possibly play – using the machine to create music, rather than trying to pretend it’s me doing it myself – the camera won’t lie, you will see what my fingers do, and I think it’s fascinating to see how playing an arpeggio, or a chord, or running 3 notes continuously, to see, and much more importantly, hear, how that triggers and changes what the arpeggiator is doing at any given moment during a performance…it’s absolutely cool what you can cause an arpeggiator to do if you really work at it.  you have to play it, not let it play the song for you.  the human is the boss; the machine does the processing…

so over the coming months, I see two different, separate bodies of work evolving: one, the continued work with guitar and guitar synth, in the pureambient vein – meaning both ambient and active work, of course, which I will continue to present on the pureambienthd channel on youtube.  that will involve continuing the explorations with the guitar synth, which, after a year and a month, I still feel I am only just beginning with – it’s such a complex and wonderful instrument, and when I think how many sounds I can get with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and then I think about the soft synths in sonar, and then I think of all the synths I now have on the ipad – well, my head spins.  musically, I can get just about any sound in existence, and if I don’t have it, I can sample it 🙂

then there is this new body of synthesizer work, completely different in nature, it’s as if I can express something completely different to what I am trying to do with my guitar work – and there is a two-pronged approach to this, one, the work with the kaossilator, which I really want to develop and enhance; and two, this new line of synthesizer pieces – those two forming a whole new branch of music that I can work on in the future.

I already set up the kaossilatorhd channel to accommodate the korg kaossilator pieces I’ve recorded, but a few days ago, I set up a brand new channel (which isn’t available just yet) called synthesizerhd, which will feature video of some of the new synth pieces I’ve been recording.  so pureambienthd will handle all of my ambient work, and all of my guitar synth and active guitar work – it’s all about the guitar.  while kaossilatorhd and synthesizerhd will handle the kaoss pad and synth work respectively. I thought about putting all of it onto pureambient, but I think that would make for a very confusing video channel – one minute, totally ambient loop guitar, the next, mad loud synthesizer work – no!

I’m using a new video framing technique for synthesizerhd, too: instead of the typical room shot I use when playing guitar, which is an act really involving the whole body anyway, since playing keyboard is possibly a bit more about the hands, I have set up the video to film my hands playing the keys, a lovely long shot down the entire length of the keyboard – so you will be able to see how the music is created – I rather like this new approach for the synthesizerhd channel.  over on the pureambient channel, the format won’t change, I will still do the set as whole room, but I like the idea of having a fundamentally different format for the two channels – or rather, to be precise, it will be full room for pureambienthd and kaossilatorhd, hands on the keys for synthesizerhd.

and on my other as-yet-unpublished channel, ablackboxhd – well, there is no format decided ahead of time, because on that channel – anything goes.  so – any format goes 🙂  it will mostly end up being about normal songs, covers of work I admire, that sort of thing.  so now, I have two unopened, unpublished youtube channels, that I am working on getting set up –please be patient, but, ablackboxhd and synthesizerhd will exist this year!

this past weekend, I have recorded yet another set of synthesizer videos, this time featuring clickless, popless audio, so I have quite a lot of video review to do now – and a lot of tracks to choose from with which to populate my two new youtube channels.

I am committed to doing this, of course, my main commitment is to ambient, and to continue the work done with the 50 videos now sitting on the pureambienthd channel – I see no reason to stop – now that I have a process going!

the ongoing work of music – application-based music

even though I hadn’t then solved my pops & clicks problems (I have now) – recording continued – even in the face of adversity.  ken and I eventually eliminated possibilities for what was causing the pops, until we found the problem – so hopefully I  now emerge with a less buggy process, and I won’t end up with so very many, many damaged tracks to repair 😦 – or abandon 😦 :-(.

on april 7th, I recorded 9 pieces direct from the ipad to sonar, then, on april 9th, I recorded an additional 15 pieces using the 88-key m-audio keyboard to drive the ipad – and thence to sonar.

the good news is, having all of the amazing voices of all the synth apps on the ipad available to use, from an 88-key keyboard…is fantastic, I’ve literally doubled or tripled or quadrupled the number of individual synth voices I have available with which to make music. with sonar, you get a large number of synthesizers, everything from true piano onto some of the strangest and most wonderful patches imaginable. adding in 8 or 10 full-bodied apps from the ipad – just increases that number to what feels like almost infinite possibility.

the bad news is – all 24 of these pieces (plus, an earlier batch of songs made with the animoog) – all have clicks and pops that will have to be removed.  in a few cases, those may be so severe that a perfectly good ambient track may not end up presentable.  that is upsetting and frustrating in this case, because the worst possible scenario has come true: damaged recordings, when I actually played very well, performance-wise. every musician’s nightmare: you finally get it right – and… there’s something wrong with the tape???????????  or the more up to date version – there’s something wrong with the files?????????

so I am trying to get past the damage, but it’s not pretty, and the amount of extra time and effort it might take to “save” these tracks – may just not be worth it. that is a huge, huge shame, because for whatever reason, this batch of songs is truly unique, I think that having the new keyboard now for a couple of months, and doing quite a bit of playing, including the sketches for the new orsi-stafford album project – well, that just prepared me to sit down and play something really good. and that’s what I did.

let’s then get to those performances…first things first, the ambient ones – whether I can save these (because of course, the quietest tracks have the most damage) or not, what I have learned is that in two of the ipad apps in particular, I have musical tools of great, great beauty – specifically, addictive synth and animoog – between these two synths alone, even if I just ignored all the rest, I could coax sounds of both great beauty, atmosphere and ambience out of them, as well as the less ambient voices, which are suitable for a whole range of active work.

these recordings favour the addictive synth – one, because it’s new to me, sure, but it’s fast becoming one of my very favourite synths in the whole world, for two reasons: great sounds, and, the single most amazing arpeggiator I have ever worked with.  whoever programmed this arpeggiator – I take my hat off to you, you can select from a broad range of incredibly musical, complex preset arpeggios, as well as totally controlling them manually – make your own. it is fantastic!  the animoog is, however, running a close second, because it has some stock voices of absolutely compelling beauty. and lately, I would now add in mini synth pro as a close third – a really beautiful and adaptable synth…

 

all three of these synths allow you to use an x-y pad to modify sound on the fly, so they are equal in that regard.  for the first session, I did a number of addictive synth and animoog takes, playing directly on the ipad.  for the second, using the 88-key m-audio keyboard, I worked with more synths: starting with addictive synth, then animoog (trying out some of the new patches there), then, curiously, I did a few takes with the dm-1 app, which is a drum machine, but it’s got an enormous number of really unique kits with some amazing sounds, and finally, I did one take with minisynth pro, using a really lovely sine patch reminiscent of the sound used in the beatles’ “here comes the sun”.

 

starting with the april 7th session then:

I began with an ambient piece in the key of e minor, using one of my instant favourite voices from the addictive synth, “mare tranquilitatis” – it’s difficult to describe, it’s sine based, but also, complex, the longer you hold down a key, the more that happens – from subtle white noise whooshing in to strange, quasi-distorted and strangely detuned events – a really beautiful, subtle and complex patch, and perfect for playing ambient music.  it really does sound like the music you would hear while visiting the sea of tranquility.

while the piece is supposed to be ambient, I kinda push the envelope, playing some very fast parts in the later parts of the song, so it moves from very ambient to semiambient, but the overall effect is lovely, and this is one of those patches where you could play just about anything, and the sound of the patch is so beautiful, that you can’t go wrong.  play well – and it ends up really enhancing your performance. I love this patch, and that becomes obvious, because I do one of the nine takes here using it, and three of the fifteen from the later session using it 🙂 – so four out of 24 takes using just one patch – I must like it. 🙂

then, I select a few voices from the addictive synths choices: sponky, terry reilly, tonka, siderial 2 – and I decide to play a piece where I am changing the arpeggiation fairly constantly, while I move through the four chosen voices.  it’s not entirely successful, there are some awkward transitions particularly moving in and out of the siderial2 voice, but mostly, it’s fantastic – because these voices are brazen, loud, and top notch in terms of the way they’ve been set up.  I can say without hesitation that out of all the synth apps I’ve got, out of the box, as-is, the presets in addictive synth are the best presets of any device so far – and, there are 160 of them!  I can’t wait to see what I can do when I start creating my own voices using some of their best voices as a starting place…

the third piece begins with another new favourite sound from the addictive: resozz. it’s just such a visceral, wonderful sound that grabs you hard, and you can’t stop it – it’s relentless. again, this piece is a mixture of different voices and therefore moods, starting with a very active sequence from resozz, then, moving to a voice called water flute, it takes a left turn into a strange, disquieting land of ambient…then back to the mad patterns of arpeggiation again, but this time, driven by a patch called constant change – a wonderful and unique musical journey – unlikely, but it works.

piece four using yet another set of pre-chosen voices, beginning with repercussions, then moving on through resozz; dank; crunk; dropsy; bepu-bepu; and others, and this journey is simply mind-blowing, the texture, this synth oozes texture, and pushing that key and hearing all of these patches in one song, each with it’s own special arpeggiation pre-programmed – you cannot fail – it’s just a thunderingly cool set of sounds. this is one of the most well developed of the pieces, it’s also 4:25 in length, and it changes voice every 30 seconds or so, so it’s a mad, arpeggiator-ruled trip to synthesizer texture heaven – some of these sounds should be locked up for sounding too damn good, this is seriously an amazing synth!  and, it’s addictive – literally.

I could see taking a complex piece like this, and either playing live drums to it, or programming a drum track to “fit” it – despite some very odd tempo changes – and turning what is currently a solo, into a full song with drums, bass and possibly even guitars.  again, it would be reverse engineering, because essentially, this piece is a four minute twenty five second long synth solo..but it’s also like a mini-suite of different moods, rhythms, and textures – all accidental, all unplanned, but really sounding intriguing and full of possibility.

and the most remarkable thing about track four is this: it was played from the ipad itself – no external midi keyboard – and to me, to be able to get a piece this diverse, with this much melodic, harmonic, and textural variance, without a real keyboard – it just doesn’t seem possible.  an amazing accident, dave stafford just moving from sound to sound, and playing whatever he felt was appropriate – and finding that, on this day at least, the stars all lined up, the gods smiled – and music appeared.

for track five, I decided to have another go with a modified version of track 2, at least in terms of instrument choices, so I expanded the original selection – which was sponky, terry reilly, tonka, siderial2, and I added in other instruments as well; another long piece, over four minutes again, and, because it uses different voices than track four, a completely different journey through a completely different set of moods, rhythms, textures – a weirder, quirkier still journey, but, just when it starts to get really strange, I begin to manipulate the x-y pad, and that takes a normal arpeggiating pattern, and warps it in wonderful sonic ways – the pad is a fantastic tool, and really allows you to do some strange things to the music as you are playing…and it’s a lot of fun to warp those sound bryan helm-style (if you’ve heard “loud” by bindlestiff, you will know what I am talking about).

track six is all change.  I move now to the animoog, my other top favourite app for making synthetic noise. moog just recently released a new set of voices, which I had loaded but not tried out, so I took this opportunity to test them out.  they are some what…gaseous in nature (no other way to describe them, it’s intentional on their part, as you will see) – and on this first animoog take, I just move through a series of these new sounds, and play for a minute with each different voice.  it’s not quite the same journey as the ones taken with the addictive synth, it’s darker, moodier, no arpeggiation – but, just as much mystery, and some of the new sounds are very sinister, dark and wonderful.  these pieces are shorter, this one ends up being under two minutes, but, a lot of phat moog texture and synth attitude is displayed in that short time.

piece number seven, and I’ve chosen a new favourite – a single voice used as part of take 6, a patch called “industrial gases”.   it is very very creepy, a really beautiful texture, really difficult to explain in words! – lovely delay, the low notes are totally frightening and very sinister indeed, and there are shuddering noises, whistling feedback, a cornucopia of intense, synthetic sound all emanating from one voice.  this piece is superb: my only complaint is how short it is – again, just over two minutes…I wish is were ten – this is a great patch, and I plan to do some longer form pieces with it.

eight is a longer piece, clocking in at 3:45, this uses just two voices, “carbonated frog” (and I swear, that is exactly what it sounds like, believe it or not) and my old favourite “industrial gases”.  using these two voices in tandem, this longer piece has a great mood to it, during the course of these last few pieces I had developed a sort of very creepy bass line, and by repeating that theme, I actually sort of created an intentional piece of music.  I use the carbonated frog voice for the first part, establishing my theme, then move to the more complex industrial gases voice, with the feedback squealing and all those strange sci-fI sounds going on – and I re-itereate that bass line…but a lot of this “song” is just me holding down one low note, and then altering the sound with the x-y pad and the keys themselves – again, all on the ipad itself in this instance.  this is a truly superior piece or music, it resolves really nicely, as if it were planned – which it truly was not – I picked the two voices, and pressed record – and then what came out, came out…that was the take.

the ninth and final piece is the longest, and the best, of the nine – well of the eight active takes I should say – but to me, I think this is my favourite.  I move away from the new voices, and go back to the tried and true voices already on the animoog, and the result is stunning – I use several patches on this piece: evading question; phase inverter; lightcycles; fireflies; and a number of others, resulting in a mesmerising, ever-changing song full of beautiful moods and textures, and that’s really down to the astonishing job moog has done with this synth – this is another one, that right out of the box, the presets are remarkable.  and the ability to alter parameters both on the keypads and on the x-y pad, gives you so much flexibility.  I can’t wait to take this piece into sonar and see if I can develop it into a full on song, it’s just so full of unexpected twists and turns…an amazing trip through a sonic forest of previously unexplored sound – I was so lucky, changing randomly, between voices I didn’t know that well – but the resulting 5:17 song is one of the most beautiful accidents I’ve ever had. I love this synth – both of these synths – ALL of these synths!

 

moving on to the april 9th session now:

 

(note: the first eleven of the fifteen tracks in this session were all made with addictive synth.)

 

because I had such a remarkable success with the track created using the patch “mare tranquilitatis” on the addictive synth two days previously, the first thing I did at this new session (now armed with a full 88 key keyboard, mind you) was do three takes using it.  all three came out quite, quite well, each is subtly different from the other – all are infused with a quiet, peaceful ambience that just drips from this particular preset – what a sound.  if they were not marred by pops and crackles, I wouldn’t hesitate to release them immediately in some form.  they have everything you want from a live performance: mood, ambience, feeling, mystery – this patch is so, so beautiful and subtle, you really could play almost anything and it would make you sound good.  so by playing very carefully, with real intent, I was able to use that quality, and it turned my careful ambient key pushes into something very, very beautiful indeed.

 

track four moves back from the quiet, the peaceful, the totally ambient, into the land of wild arpeggiation, and again, I go back to a new favourite voice discovered during the april 7th session: terry reilly, creating a piece just over three minutes long using just this single voice, and the result is really delightful, the arpeggiated rhythm gets in your brain, and having the 88 keys makes it possible to really push the arpeggiator to do some very unusual sequences, all manipulated by the way I am playing.  I really like this little piece, it came out really well – and it has a fabulous long fade out, too.

 

number five then carries on this new idea of using just one voice, in this case “tonka”, concentrating on one texture, which gives me more chance to learn how to manipulate it: by changing the way I play to force the arpeggiator to do what I want; by using the x-y pad to totally alter the sound of the chosen voice as I am playing – this is a shorter piece, just over two minutes, but I love this sound almost as much as the terry reilly sound, it works really well for an active piece like this.

 

track six, same concept, single voice for the whole track, this time, it’s my other favourite for active arpeggiation: sponky. another short piece, under two minutes, this one has a great little low, low bass section that sounds so totally tribal, followed by some very odd forcing-the-arpeggiator-to-respond-a-certain-way synth riffs – very off the wall, but I really like this one too – another great voice from the addictive synth.

 

for number seven, I return to the “many voices” approach, in this case, three great patches, each with it’s own amazing, customised arpeggiator: repercussions, dank and resozz. then, two minutes ten of fantastic, bouncing, melodic synth madness follows, and I found as I played, that I was actually developing some technique for getting the arpeggiators to do what I wanted – I learned the effect of playing chords, or arpeggios, or single notes – what effect that had on the output, so I could influence the way the song went.  this one is a corker, great textures, including some fantastic x-y pad manipulations, I really like this particular track, it’s very unique, and the addition of the warping x-y pad work really adds to that uniqueness.

 

track eight is another “multi-voice” track, I discovered another great preset that I hadn’t used previously, and, it does exactly what it says on the tin: oriental techno.  to this amazing voice, I also added a dose of crunk, some bepu bepu (one of my favourite new ingredients) and stirred gently until another fantastic synthetic mixture took place.  the textures in this one, and the changes from sound to sound, really work well for me, it’s quite mad, a bit over the top, but a lot of fun, and again, just when things are about to get predictable, I use the x-y pad to alter events to an alternate sonic universe for a while…and then back to our visceral, resonant one…this is another hugely successful piece, with a really snappy ending, too.

 

no. 9 is back to the “single voice” concept, 2:14 of yet another huge favourite voice – bepu bepu.  a lovely, detuned, strange waveform, I just push it through an enormous number of pitch changes, and here, the 88 key keyboard really comes into play, and the x-y pad, and the amazing manipulations possible give me the gift of something that sounds like a cross between george duke’s classic synth solo in frank zappa’s “st. alfonso’s pancake breakfast” and something roger powell or m. frog labat did with arpeggiators during live utopia prog jams – like “utopia theme” or “the ikon”.  powell meets duke, rundgren meets zappa, stafford channels them all – and, another perfect ending just leaves my jaw hanging open – I am starting to “get” this process.

 

suddenly – number 10, and number 11, take us back to a completely different world.  time stops.  quiet, peace, slowly, slowly – these two tracks both us an even more beautiful addictive synth voice “ethereal” – and that is exactly what it is, a gentle, reverberant pad that I fell instantly in love with.  again, if these two tracks were not marred with clicks and pops, I would put them up immediately, but, they will require repair and loving care and attention if they are to make it.  sigh.

 

track 12 now takes us in a completely different direction, on a whim, I wanted to see how the dm-1 drum machine would respond to midi control, and, it worked beautifully – tracks 12 through 14 use the dm-1, and I switched between many, many unique and wonderful “kits” – it’s so odd, I just cannot get used to playing drums on a keyboard, so musically, these three tracks are maybe not quite up to scratch, but sonically – there are some absolutely wonderful sounds in these kits, especially the dm-1’s own set of kits, really retro, really unusual “drum” sounds – anything from a bit of reverse percussion to some of the oddest percussive timbres you can imagine.  great sounds – I just need to learn how to “play” them better.  but – I will get there.

 

that leads us to the final track, number 15, using another new synth that I have not had much time to work with yet, the mini synth pro.  I chose a lovely, “here comes the sun” like sine patch, called ohsine, and played a really nice, melodic piece of music – unfortunately, again, pops and clicks have damaged this – which is why I stopped at 15, else, I would have gone on to develop this piece in particular. the patch inspired me to play something really melodic and lovely, and though imperfect and undeveloped, there is a great seed here, for a really beautiful piece of music.  so once I have resolved the problem, I am going to return to this synth, this patch, and the song that began to appear just as I detected that I was still getting pops and clicks – so, stay tuned – this isn’t over yet!

 

 

today’s listening – after I assessed these sessions again, I then fired up “bloom”, brian eno’s ambient music app, and I’ve been listening to the “neroli” patch all afternoon long.  very, very peaceful, very calm – I love it, it’s different from the album, but very similar in it’s effect – relaxation, calm, peace…

what we’re listening to

todd rundgren & the metropole orchestra – live in amsterdam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

thanks mr. p !!

 

 

holding & stafford – a remarkable institution!

happy birthday to my business partner and good, good friend, ken mistove (who shares a birthday, by sheer coincidence, with my best friend from when I was a teenager, ted holding – who is featured in today’s blog).  ted would have been 54 today.

 

so: continuing on with the cassette restoration project, last weekend, I mastered ten new tracks from a 1974 session featuring myself and pianist/vocalist ted holding, playing live in the studio.  this is, so far, the earliest “holding & stafford” session I’ve been able to locate (at least, within the cassette archives – the reels, which we are going to look at next year, are a completely different story – there could be earlier sessions there).

I am considering now, too, re-publishing some of the earliest episodes of the “journey through the past” – now that the actual music they talk about is finally becoming available – either that, or “start the story over” – probably the latter, so re-tell the story but this time, being able to link to the audio evidence, as well as any other visual media I might have from each session. this post then is new, but also a part re-telling of earlier blog entries from the “journey through the past” series.

 

here then is today’s “journey through the past”:

 

going back to this 1974 holding & stafford session, it’s a real corker, it is live to cassette – no overdubs, and it’s a very interesting glimpse into a long-forgotten time – 1974 – when prog ruled the earth, and enormous amounts of very creative bands were around – and you even can hear,  a little bit,  how they influenced us on this tape.

for equipment for this tape, what we had was so, so simple: clean guitar played through a carvin bass amp and homemade speaker cabinet (courtesy of ted) and clean, upright piano – just the basics. at age 16 there wasn’t really any money for things like guitar effects, although I did have an old arbiter fuzz face, and a used echoplex – that was it. I didn’t even own a guitar amp, I was still in my phase of playing through whatever was around, and, while ted had lots of awesome p.a. equipment, the only choice for me was the carvin bass head, through a homemade speaker cabinet, one of many, many cabinets that ted built himself!

ted had the best homemade p.a. system I’d ever seen, he had a massive power amp that got really, really loud, and he built all his own crossovers and cabinets of a bewildering variety, always, bigger speakers, better speakers – better sound.  but the tired old Carvin, which didn’t even have reverb (because it was, after all, a bass amp) was all I had – I can remember using it for years, at gigs, and so on – someone had left it at ted’s, so we just adopted it and used it – that was that!  it wasn’t until years later that I ever owned a real guitar amp. it was incredibly kind of ted to let me use it for so long, but ted was endlessly patient and generous.

anyway, this earliest-so-far holding & stafford tape starts out as a session to capture a new composition of ours, a tune that I came up with, that we both contributed to, and we do three proper takes of the track.  since it is a new tune, we barely know it, and, none of the takes capture the track properly – sadly, though, because I am not aware of any other versions of this song anywhere – these three live, early takes is probably all that there is of this song, which has the charming title “froggy’s holiday” – a piano and electric guitar instrumental by dave stafford and ted holding.

those takes are quite serious; we are both trying very hard to nail this piece (which has a very, very tricky “continuous” run at the end – which we nearly get right sometimes!). but, after take 3 is finished, we just start to “play” – and it’s very random, it was never meant to be published – it’s imperfect, we both make “mistakes” – but I went through and tried to pull out some excerpts that would make sense now, as history, not as perfect recordings, but two good friends having fun, just jamming on piano and guitar.

so we run through songs that we don’t really know; we play fragments of songs that we don’t know at all, and it’s very free, very casual jamming – the “set list” such that it is, looks like this:

froggy’s holiday – take 1

froggy’s holiday – take 2

froggy’s holiday – take 3

call it stormy monday (but tuesday’s just as bad) – excerpt 1

call it stormy monday (but tuesday’s just as bad) – excerpt 2

while my guitar gently weeps – excerpt 1

while my guitar gently weeps – excerpt 1

piano improvisation / bennie & the jets – fragment

the wall street shuffle – fragment

rikki don’t lose that number – fragment

it’s quite an emotional experience for me, hearing ted and I run through these songs, hearing ted laughing and joking and knowing that he won’t ever get to hear this tape, which is such a shame – but it’s just one of those things, the timing was wrong, it wasn’t to be…

so this unruly set of songs, none of which were ever meant to be released, have just been uploaded to the audio companion page, which is finally beginning to resemble what it is intended to be – a history of the music of dave stafford, from the earliest days up to the present.

hearing music from 1974, it really is a bit like a message from another planet – and this set is curious indeed, – ted is the accomplished vocalist, yet I sing lead vocals on the majority of the songs we play – ted only finally making an appearance, part time, as lead vocalist on “rikki don’t lose that number”.  hearing us attempting some harmony (remember, these are very rough, off the cuff renditions, not rehearsed, not planned, so some spontaneous harmony singing has mixed results – some brilliant, some not so good) warms my heart, and I do remember singing a lot with ted – I mean, my voice is no match for his, he was a million times the singer I was, but, we were not shy about singing, or self-conscious – it was part of making music, and that was what we did – made music.

it’s amazing to me too, the simplicity of our set up – for example, I had exactly two effects devices, used very sparingly indeed – the red arbiter fuzz face (which you can hear on the three takes of “froggy’s holiday”) and – I’d forgotten I even owned this until I heard these recordings – an echoplex!!! yes, the tape kind.  you can hear a little bit of echoplex during the somewhat disorganised takes of t-bone walker’s “call it stormy monday” – which we play as an instrumental for some reason.

the reason we both played this particular song, is that it was one we both knew – joe norwood, who was a big, big fan of the allman brothers – still is, in fact – taught me how to play it (and of course, I learned some good chords as a result – a great chord progression, a classic blue progression with that great G A Bm Bbm bit) and ted knew it from playing it in the band with joe – so it was something we could both play.  and it is interesting to me to hear myself playing lead guitar in earnest, just jumping in and playing solos, quite furiously sometimes – on both “while my guitar…” and “stormy monday” I take quite a few solos – and, for someone who is just 16, with less than 3 years of playing experience – I am actually quite, quite surprised by the levels of proficiency I am demonstrating on these tapes.  the guitar solos – are decent.  not, of course, to the standard of later recordings, particularly, recordings made when I was 18, 20, 22 and so on, but for age 16 – not bad at all.

for whatever reason – because he had to look at the music possibly (I am fairly certain we had books open for the beatles and the steely dan songs, in any case, as well as for our original), more than I did – I sang the most of lead vocals – on the george harrison song (and these performances in particular are remarkable – me, at age 16, singing this harrison classic confidently if imperfectly, and then ripping into quite good guitar solos – it’s strange to hear, it’s like getting to meet my 16 year-old self).  I did have to remove the recording of the bridge section of the harrison track – the vocal part defeated my limited range – but I do well with the verses and solos that remain in these excerpts.

I also sing lead vocal on the fragment of “the wall street shuffle” – but I was very glad when ted jumped in to take the lead vocal – or share lead vocal duties with me actually – on “rikki don’t lose that number” – his piano parts on this are impeccable, but his voice on the first verse is really beautiful – he loved the music of steely dan, and you can hear this even in this unrehearsed impromptu take – unfortunately, the tape runs out as I take over for the second verse, and as I sing “we could go driving on slow hand road…” that’s it, the tape ends, the session ends, and this fascinating glimpse of an impromptu improvisation session, recorded in ted’s studio 38 years ago – thirty-eight years! – is over.

I really enjoy everything on this tape, even the fragment of “bennie & the jets” – ted, being a pianist, and, it being 1974, was a huge elton john fan, and while I was not, I had no problem playing the material – we used to do the opening suite from his 1974 album “goodbye yellow brick road” live (“love lies bleeding”, including the entire opening piano piece – ted knew it, note for note – it was absolutely remarkable), we even played it at gigs – the opening piano solo then followed by “love lies bleeding” – I am not aware of any recordings of that existing unfortunately – but they may do – we have so many more tapes to sort through so I don’t rule out the existence of anything at this point. I actually enjoyed playing “love lies bleeding” – because it had a decent rhythm and lead guitar part.  it was fun – and, it’s probably elton john’s best song anyway – possibly.

and strangely, without knowing how it went, I managed to play, by ear, the odd guitar riff from “bennie” (I just pulled it out of the air in response to ted playing a fragment of the piano solo from the song) – ted could play the whole song – I didn’t know it – I remember he could play the entire piano solo note for note – which was no mean feat, because that was when elton was at his best on piano – the highest point of his career – I’m not a fan, but I do not mind the album “goodbye yellow brick road” – in fact, like almost every teenager in 1974 did – I owned the album, although I do not own it now.

my tastes ran more towards prog, or towards unusual pop bands like 10cc, and right after we play our little bit of “bennie & the jets”, I respond by playing, and singing rather badly, a very short fragment of “the wall street shuffle” – I song I had just heard on the radio, liked the riff from, and I’d learned a few of the parts – so that was my contribution to “what we were listening to” 1974-style.  I did not yet own the album, I taught myself the basic chords of the song just from hearing it on the radio – I liked it a lot, so I figured it out.  later, I bought the album – and all the 10cc albums, and then, godley & creme – but at that point, both 10cc and “the wall street shuffle” were absolutely brand new experiences to me – and yet, there I am, 16 years old, playing it like I really, really know it.  sigh.

I think it’s interesting; it is sort of like a microcosm of our styles – ted was pop, he was brilliant at pop, he could have been the next daryl hall if anyone had heard how good he was.  so the music of elton john – that was perfect for him, and he could play and imitate elton’s style with amazing accuracy.  on the other hand, I went for quirkier material, I was into 10cc, todd rundgren and todd rundgren’s utopia – slightly off the middle of the road pop leaning towards prog.  so in these two fragments (ted’s improvised solo, and fragment of “bennie and the jets” – my fragment of “the wall street shuffle”), we demonstrate our personalities – ted, the pop guy, me, the proggy guy – it’s quite revealing. it is also so strange to think that in 1974, those two songs were brand new – which is now 38 years ago.

and over the following years, ted and I went down increasingly divergent paths – he stayed more in the pop/rock arena, he played in many top 40 bands (I was only in a few comparatively) and I ended up going heavily prog, then guitar craft, then ambient – a career that could not have been more different.  despite ever-growing differences in musical taste – we remained friends.  I used to go along to watch and listen to ted play in bands with his then-brother-in-law, joe norwood.  I can remember going to many, many gigs, when ted was in different bands – always what we would call “top 40” bands, bands that played the music of the day – I remember one of his bands played “green earrings” by steely dan, which is not an easy piece to cover.  I also, occasionally, was allowed up on stage as guest guitarist, which I very much enjoyed – my own top 40 band, “slipstream” only existed for a couple of years but I followed ted’s bands for many years, even after he and I stopped working together regularly.

in fact, the infamous musical entity known originally as “ted, rick and dave” or “trd” (which I have now re-dubbed more sensibly as “holding, stafford and corriere” – we got our band variant by “borrowing” a second drummer, the drummer from ted’s then-top forty band, jennings morgan, who would join us for friday night jam sessions at ted’s house.  and those sessions literally rocked the house – two drummers, ted with his arsenal of keyboards, and myself playing electric guitar through my tape recorder (to get tape delay) – fantastic sound, fantastic fun. “holding, stafford, corriere and morgan” was even more fun than the original trio.

so it was handy that ted was in a band, I could get into clubs without paying the cover charge (I was notoriously poor in my early 20s and teen years) by “being with the band” and we had the services of jennings as second drummer, too for our “prog rock jam sessions” (which I cannot wait to master and post here) – such an amazing time to be a musician – the mid 70s, and I learned so, so much from my friend ted, and also from joe norwood (still the best unknown slide guitarist in the west), and all the other brilliant musicians I went on to work with: jim whitaker, mike & elen packard, michael dawson, and many, many others – too many to name individually.

I am very much looking forward to the next few releases on the audio companion page, this casual, live in the studio session is very interesting, but it’s not rehearsed, planned or carefully recorded – we just popped in a cassette and roughly captured what we played.  the next recordings, which include properly overdubbed recordings made using a teac 4-track reel to reel recorder, show the true brilliance of ted holding as singer, songwriter and pianist – songs of pop genius, songs that should have been hits – but, we were struggling unknowns, and it’s my great pleasure now to at least share this music with the world now, so we can hear a remarkable artist emerging, and perhaps reflect on what “might have been”.

also featuring in the upcoming recordings are not only the aforementioned trio and quartet “prog jam session” tracks, but also, an amazing live performance of one of ted holding’s most poignant, most intensely beautiful love songs – absolutely a piece of pop genius – a track called “you’ve gone away”.

this section, right now, of the audio companion is really all about my friend ted.  currently we are in the year 1974, but the work with ted will continue on through the end of the 70s and beyond.  sure, I am “the guitarist” and sometimes co-arranger of this music, or I was there to engineer and mix, but it’s really about this amazing talent, and I am so lucky that I am the guy who got to be there and hear it all, and play guitar along with ted as he did the performances of his life – and the one live track in existence will indeed demonstrate this enormous talent beyond any doubt – I was working with someone who could have been huge, had the world only listened to his amazing talent.

so while this is ostensibly a history of the music of dave stafford, there were times when dave stafford just stepped back and played a supporting role, and played that 20 second long guitar solo, so he could experience and enjoy the most remarkable pop music I’ve ever had the honour of working on in my entire life – what an experience!

hold on to your seat, holding and stafford are one thing, but ted holding live at the helix high school choir concert, with electric full band (including myself on lead guitar) – is another. studio tapes of two holding originals show a remarkably developed compositional and performance sense, far beyond our 16 years of age…following that, in an improvisational context, we will then hear ted ripping it up on the hammond organ, and the arp omni string synthesizer, playing with the speed, chops and musical skill equal to any of the prog greats – ted’s organ playing on the “holding, stafford and corriere/morgan” recordings is truly out of this world…

I can’t wait! I am really excited about these recordings… the first ones are up now if you are curious.

~~~~~ happy birthday ted (and ken!) – you are on the internet at last; and the rest of your music will be heard… ~~~~~

piano-based music

I’m mostly known for my guitar music, but, both the archival piano music that is set to appear on the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page, and a series of piano recordings that will become part of the new stafford / orsi project, will change that perception, I hope – while piano hasn’t been my prime focus in more recent years, I still love to play and I think, unfortunately, that most of my piano work has gone completely unnoticed, it’s fallen off the radar (not through any fault of it’s own, as much of it was never released – but I hope to change that now).

so I really hope that by presenting some of the archival work (recorded, luckily, when I was at the height of my keyboard prowess) and some of the current work as well, that I can change this perception for the better, and show and demonstrate a better balance between guitar-based work and keyboard-based work.

there was a time when I would have spent probably double or triple the time I spend playing the guitar, playing the piano instead.  this would have been all through my teenage years, and especially from about 18 to 21 years of age (the early 1980s) – at that point in my life, I just played piano all the time.

all the practicing paid off, I had a pretty fluent piano vocabulary, with my speciality being the long arpeggio – as many as six octaves sometimes, as well as tricks such as running four octaves and then nailing a single root note at the top – and usually, hitting it with precision.  if you do exercises and scales like this often enough, you can nail them every time – it’s just getting the fingers familiar again…

I also owned and played a hammond organ for many, many years, and there are a large number of archival recordings of hammond music that I spent a lot of time composing and performing and recording, so I look forward to beginning to release some of these organ works later this year, along with many, many piano improvisations as well.  you’ll hear a side of my playing that is totally unexpected, and totally unlike the more commonly-perceived ambient loop guitarist that most listeners are familiar with.

it’s remarkable to me too, how very different a musician I was back then, with no formal training, badly-self taught originally, but as luck would have it, at age 13 I met a remarkable musician from whom I learned an enormous amount, and that musician was ted holding, who I’ve mentioned before – ted was my best friend in junior high/high school, I spent a lot of time working on music with him, making many studio recordings, live in studio recordings, and even live performance recordings – ted was the pianist, and I was the guitarist.  where ted went and played, I was there to play the guitar parts.

it just worked out that way, but for me, it was a win-win situation, because ted was the ultimate friend – a person with a talent so huge, that I was always in danger of feeling inferior, someone so skilled at piano that when I would watch and listen to him play, I would almost always say afterwards, “you have got to show me how you did that!” and I would make him show me, note by painful note if necessary, until I could play it too.

or at least, something close to it – if the piece was particularly difficult, something like “take a pebble” by emerson, lake & palmer – well, I could play the notes, but not with the clarity, assurance, confidence, speed and power that ted could.  he could figure out just about anything – I sat and watched while, by ear, he taught himself (and later, me) large chunks of genesis’ “the lamb lies down on broadway” album – including all of “anyway” and parts of “lilywhite lilith” and “the lamia” – and at that point, those were, to be honest, some of the most complex and musically developed piano parts that tony banks ever wrote – and ted could knock them off as if they were nothing – very impressive.

I still play “anyway” to this day, and when I do, I send a silent “thank you” to ted, without whom, I would not have got past the first four bars of “anyway” – a beautiful track from side 3 of “the lamb”. I’m not sure, but there is at least one take of “anyway” featuring me playing the piano part, so I hope to, fairly soon, publish that and other similar piano pieces onto the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page.

the piano was such a huge part of my early life, we always had one at home, and then, as a teenager, over at ted’s place, we both played the piano and learned together – and we were like musical sponges, I would learn songs and teach them to ted, he would learn songs and then teach them to me…and our playing improved and improved – mine, somewhat less so than ted, although I did reach surprising levels of proficiency for such a young person – at 21, 22 years old, I could play piano really, really well – later though, my attention turned more to guitar, and as I moved into my 30s and 40s – I played much more guitar than keyboards.  it is only recently that I’ve begun to take a renewed interest in playing the piano; of course, having the right gear helps a lot, being able to run true piano in sonar and have an 88-key controller with semi-weighted keys.

I’m currently reviewing some of the first recordings made with the new keyboard in early february, and while in my opinion, I’m quite rusty, it’s possible that a few takes might actually be useable – I am considering publishing them anyway, even if imperfect – and if I get a better version of the same song later, I can just post it anyway, later – these piano pieces are intended to be the first entrants to pureambient’s fourth music channel on youtube, a new channel dedicated to the unknown, to any and every performance that isn’t part of my main ambient music…so hopefully, I can locate and mix a piano/vocal number to kick off this new youtube channel – ablackboxhd, named in honour of my favourite peter hammill solo album – and the first piece I plan to upload is a piece from the album, entitled “flying blind” – my own piano and vocal arrangement of it – so that seems appropriate to me.

after that, I would plan to upload many types of unusual performances that are not ambient looping guitar or guitar synth/loops – this channel will feature mostly piano music, vocal music (all the things I’m not known for at all, but that I really do) or anything outside “the norm”…whatever that is!

 

 

“the norm…the average – what is this??” – peter hammill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

application-based music – day of reckoning

I decided to capture and copy everything that I’ve done with the fairlight pro application into sonar, and create a full set of 24-bit master mixes, so I could assess what I’ve achieved with this particular instrument since mid to late December.

in just three short months, I’ve created 17 (naturally) sessions in fairlight pro, containing 10 unique songs.  one of those “songs” was my first ever test piece, which is not quite music – it’s listen-able, but not particularly wonderful, so it doesn’t really “count” – I used it to figure out how the app worked.

that then leaves nine, but one of the pieces, “resolve” is so far, unresolved 🙂 …

so that means I have eight pieces that could be considered to be finished, they are all final mixes, although I’ve basically just copied them without doing anything else to them – just a basic capture, but even in this utterly raw form, with no reverb or any overdubs or any processing of any kind – the tracks really are very, very unique, and I think that’s down to two things, basically: one, the unique and strange samples that come with the fairlight – so many unusual instruments and non-instruments to choose from, and two, the actual creation method – bar by bar, using your “eight-instrument virtual-instrument” to compose very, very slowly and methodically, measure by measure.

 

the latest and newest fairlight piece, recorded over the last two days, is entitled “unwinding prophecy” and it features yet another unique, new virtual “instrument” – this time, consisting of the later fairlight samples (from the “III” library, a library I haven’t used much before, most of my pieces to date have been done with the standard sample library) so that alone gave this piece a unique sound:

 

prophecy10

prophecy_3

prophecy_4

prophecy_8

cymbals02

choir03_012

bellfinger11

pianothumb12

 

(so, visual evidence of part of the inspiration for the piece’s title – the other part, “unwinding”, comes from the lyrics of “emergency splashdown” – a song from a roger powell solo album that was performed live by todd rundgren’s utopia – the line in question is “life chain unwinding…I’ve got split-second timing…” and curiously, the powell album also has on it, a song called “prophecy” – but really, I have NO idea how I reached this title – the prophecy part obviously came from the instrument names, but how I arrived at “unwinding prophecy” and the whole roger powell connection – well, all I can say is, the human brain works in strange, strange ways…)

 

speaking of humans, I don’t think I have ever used the “humans” bank of instruments before working on “unwinding prophecy”, and the samples of choirs are excellent indeed, really nice sounding, so having a sort of “thumb piano / bell / choir” approach worked very well for this new piece.  based on this experience, I am absolutely going to use the “III” bank of samples much more in future, and of course, mix up the originals with them too – why not?

 

in fact, I do have at least one existing piece that uses voices from both the original and the later sample banks.

the new piece, “unwinding prophecy” has a really interesting, alternating-between-two-main-lead-instruments sound, where the bell finger sound carries most of the melody, but it’s coupled with, and occasionally replaced by, the thumb piano sound, and it’s an unlikely yet highly successful pairing.  and I never dreamed I would “write” a thumb piano solo, but the middle section of the song is basically an accompanied thumb piano solo – a very strange little piece of music in the middle of a very strange medium sized piece of music 🙂

 

 

so I set out last night to capture every single fairlight pro track I’ve created to date; including all of the early mixes, prototypes, and alternate mixes.  obviously, most of those will end up as curiosities, some of them are quite different from the “finished” versions, others are just early fragments and so on – but I find those to be almost as satisfying as the “real” versions.

 

what struck me most, immediately, is how short in duration most of the pieces are – a few of them, seem to end up around the one minute mark, others, maybe two minutes, and I think in the end, that only two tracks ended up being longer – “president evil” which is the longest of all the tracks, clocking in at around four and a half minutes; and, I’m not sure…I think perhaps the final mix of “the instruments of death” might be over three minutes.

 

otherwise, most of the pieces are surprisingly short (note to fairlight pro programmers: having a small timer display somewhere would be a helpful addition to the app!) but to my ear, that actually makes sense – these pieces are full of mood, strange, strange sampled sounds, arranged almost mathematically in some cases (such as “president evil” with it’s nearly symmetrical structure) but for some reason, tracks made with fairlight pro…sound like nothing else on this earth.  they pack a lot of musical information into a small space, so you can “say” a lot in one minute – because of the powerful, unique, and very “real” sound of the fairlight sample library. so you can “say” in a minute with the fairlight sounds, what it might take you two or three minutes to “say” with a more traditional instrument – if that makes any sense to you!

 

it’s very odd, but they really are in a sort of “sound area” all their own.  once you hear a piece made with the fairlight pro app, you will know what I am talking about (and yes, I do want to find a way to publish or otherwise make these tracks available, but – there is not enough material for an album yet – so it’s going to have to wait I am afraid…) – they just “sound” a certain way, very moody, very much like movie soundtrack music – for which they have not yet invented a cool enough movie.

 

I am loving working with this app, for one thing, it taught me to sequence, a skill I never really learned in all those years – up until last december, I always “played” music – but now, I can compose either way, by playing and or by sequencing – and I think that’s a useful skill.  learning and understanding the composition process in fairlight pro, is what then consequently made it much easier to learn the sequencing part of the korg ims-20.  speaking of the ims-20, I’ve been doing some work on a new dave stafford template there, so hopefully, that will become a backing track for a completed piece of music – eventually.  it takes me longer to work on ims-20 pieces, but it will be worth the wait, I promise – I love that synth!

 

so I have become a huge fan of the fairlight pro app, and even though, for example, something like nanostudio is a fantastic place to compose using drum pads or a synthesizer keyboard (where of course, you “play” the parts), where you can just play parts with really high quality sounds, and get instant gratification – what you play is what you get – but…more and more, I continually find myself turning back to the fairlight pro, and find myself wanting to compose bar by bar using the fairlight. 🙂

 

In the end, of course, I am sure I will use both equally, but lately, I’ve tended to favour the fairlight pro over nanostudio (something if you asked me two months ago, I would have said – no way, nanostudio is the best – and it is – it’s a fantastic app, like the sonar of the ipad at the moment – if only you could add audio tracks, it would be the very best, but that will come I am sure) – but, I just love working with nanostudio and with the fairlight pro app.

 

 

when I did the initial capture of the tracks last night, this is what I ended up with:

 

davetest1 (test)              my original app test piece from december, kept for posterity

feast for crow (three versions)

happy bird orchestra (two versions)

vainglorious (two versions)

resolve (incomplete)

leap day (two versions)

president evil

the instruments of death (three versions)

nefertiti

unwinding prophecy

 

 

so when I remove the test piece and the incomplete piece, for the moment, that leaves me with these eight final mixes:

 

feast for crow

happy bird orchestra

vainglorious

leap day

president evil

the instruments of death

nefertiti

unwinding prophecy

 

which to me, if albums were, you know, 20 minutes long, then this would be my new album!! all of these are basically complete, they are final mixes – so really, they are ready to go.

 

I think that since this process is working so well (and hearing all seventeen takes last night confirms and validates this for me), that I will just continue to create new pieces until I have enough for an album – and because many of the pieces are by nature quite brief, I think that may end up being a 25 or 30 track album – which I think would be fantastic. these eight pieces are among the most unique I have ever composed, I really can’t express in words what they sound like, all I can say is, I can’t wait to hear the eventual album! I am assuming from the success of these first eight tracks, that if I continue to compose in a similar way, that I will end up with 25 or 30 very unique / interesting “soundtrack tracks with no movie” as it were.

 

in fact, I’d venture to say, that the piece I just finished yesterday, “unwinding prophecy”, is in some ways the best piece so far – with it’s alternating bell finger and thumb piano lead, and a couple of very strange turns of time, where I put the fairlight to the test (and it passed with flying colours), this song is so, so strange – some of the odd melodies and even odder timings that you can create when you sequence instead of “play” a melody – that’s the beauty of the sequencer, because of course, it is like slowing down time – so a very quick melody with odd timing might be very difficult to “play” with your hands, but it’s very easy to sequence – because you can “play” that melody very slowly and then it do the playback “at speed”.

 

 

I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to whether I should add other instruments to these finished fairlight tracks, and after thinking about it, I’ve decided that doing so is mostly, not a good idea.  the charm of these tracks really lay in the unique “set” of instruments chosen in your “virtual instrument”, so to add to that with other, non-fairlight instruments – would probably spoil it, and the mood created by the “all sample, all sequenced” approach would be ruined.

 

having said that, there are one or two pieces that use sampled guitars, and I think for those, I might create alternate, “hybrid”, versions and just add in some “real” rhythm guitars, just to augment those awesome power chords with some real guitar sound.  so maybe, one or two pieces, some slight augmentation – I don’t know.  I do know that most of these tracks are perfect as they are, they are “done” and I know better than to mess with them – they won’t get better than they are!  I just need to trust my original decision, when I reached that point where I say to myself “this is the final version” – “that’s it.”  You just know when that moment arrives…

 

later this week, I plan to do a similar exercise with all tracks recorded in nanostudio, there are perhaps, fewer tracks overall done in nanostudio, but, they are more elaborate, most have a constructed drum track and several synthesizer overdubs, and of course nanostudio has a mixer where you can add in individual or overall effects chains, so you can create a very sophisticated, high quality mix without moving the tracks to sonar.  if you want to move the tracks and use the power of sonar, of course, you can…

 

again, though, most of these feel “finished” to me, and I believe that I may be developing a sort of “policy” with app-based music – originally, I had thought I would develop a piece in nanostudio or the fairlight, then, take it to sonar, add to it, enhance it, and that I would then have many pieces that are hybrid “app-based” and “daw-based”.  the more I listen, though, to completed tracks made in the fairlight or in nanostudio, the more I feel they are “done”, they are fine as-is, and there is little or nothing I could do in sonar, beyond adding reverb using the “breeze” plug-in – so it may be, that my basic policy is that music made in applications, gets finished and final mixed in applications, and there is no need to create hybrids – and, music created in the DAW, probably doesn’t need anything brought in from the world of apps.

 

there will be exceptions – absolutely.  I can already imagine it – if I have a rock track in sonar, and I need a hammond organ solo – well, why wouldn’t I dial up one of those amazing hammond sounds in garage band, hook up my 88-key keyboard to garage band, and have at it?

 

so for things like that, sure, hybrid “app-daw” tracks will absolutely have to happen (with this app on a tablet technology, all lines are beginning to blur – and really, almost anything is possible!).  but I also tend to believe that for most tracks, they will remain separate (at least, for me, that’s my preference at the moment, anyway) – which is really testament for how complete the app-based music making experience is – you can create, mix and finish tracks without moving to you daw.

 

at the moment, the only reason I see to even move app-produced tracks to sonar is to allow me to add reverb/atmosphere to them – that’s about it.  and to create the 24-bit master wav file too, I guess.

the way we listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to – special edition – the move live at the fillmore 1969

you’ve probably already heard my initial reaction to the release of this record, which to me, as a long-time fan of the move, and as a fan of late 60s pop and rock music, is a huge event…

I knew that the move had played the fillmore on their one and only us tour in 1969, because there were two tracks from the show on the 40th anniversary box set – two amazing tracks, that made me wonder “where is the rest of this concert?”.

well, the answer to that question arrived in the post yesterday, and I am now sitting listening to the album for the second time, I heard the whole thing last night through the “good speakers”, and now, I’m hearing it in headphones…and the excitement, the quality of the music…it’s just purely exuberant !!! an absolutely stunning, remarkable performance.

the story behind this album is one of heartbreak for one of the members of the band, their charismatic and incredibly talented lead singer, carl wayne – carl had always felt that the public really did not know or understand just how good the move were.  he believed, however, that the concerts taped at the fillmore west in 1969, in particular, proved beyond doubt his theory – but for various reasons, they sat, in his possession, for many, many years – unreleased, until in the 2000s, he began work on restoring them.

technical problems with the tapes frustrated these attempts, and really in the end, it was a question of having to wait until the technology had developed enough to deal with the problems that the tapes had – so while the tapes were being worked on, sadly, carl passed away, and he never got to hear the final product or see his beloved live tapes released.

however, his widow, sue wayne, and his son, continued the work, and with the co-operation of the rest of the move, the cleanup and production work on the tapes was done, the album was assembled and released last month, in february, 2012 – some 43 years after these historic concerts took place. so I found out, yesterday, “what happened” to the rest of the tracks from the concerts – they are here, to finally vindicate carl and his theory that these tapes “proved” just how good the move were in live performance.

don’t get me wrong, they are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination – the pa system at the fillmore, in 1969, sounds a little underpowered, and sometimes the lead vocals, and all the vocals, are a bit clippy, but given that it’s a 43-year old recording, it’s not bad at all !

you can hear everything, including the absolutely stunning vocal arrangements, the exquisite harmonies which faithfully reproduce the vocal approach used in the studio – which to me is a real rarity – because as a band, they were moving away from their earlier, more pop-oriented persona, to a much heavier, power-trio-with-vocalist approach – but not just lead vocals and a power trio – a power trio that can play hard, loud and fast – but sing like angels when required.

there are several a cappella segments, during “cherry blossom clinic (revisited)” for example, where the music stops, and you hear the move’s voices only – and then, the harmonies, are just exquisite, in tune and wonderful.

sometimes, during the songs, the harmonies do stray a bit, and interestingly, it’s often roy himself that seems to be a little bit out of tune – but I’d say it’s completely understandable – given the fact that it’s a 1969 pa system; the monitors were almost certainly insufficient – and, he’s having to play rhythm guitar, lead guitar, sing some lead vocals and sing harmony vocals the entire time while he tries to play those incredibly diverse and difficult guitar parts.

and since we are on the subject, let’s talk about roy’s guitar playing – right now, they are whipping through the “classical section” of “cherry blossom clinic (revisited)” and it’s just roy on 12-string electric, rick on bass, and bev on drums – but it sounds like a lot more than 3 players, it’s incredibly full – and then, they launch into the madcap “vocal version” of the classical theme, a bizarre and very difficult to execute vocal exercise that just amazes me – they are so faithful to the album arrangement, but – it’s live, and in many, many instances, the guitar playing far exceeds the original…

last night when I was listening to this on speakers, and roy got to the middle section of “fields of people”, and played his “banjar” (half banjo/half sitar) duet with bev – and I listened to the speed and clarity and amazing lead guitar ability of roy – and it struck me, ok, it’s 1969 – the beatles are currently making first, let it be, and then, abbey road – which are of course, brilliant, classic albums – but at that same moment, far, far from home, miles from the familiar, a 23-year old roy wood is standing onstage at the bloody fillmore west, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt, that as a live performance unit – that (and this is just my opinion, please don’t throw things at me now!!!) that they wiped the floor with the big three – the beatles (who had stopped performing in 1966 – because they couldn’t faithfully reproduce their more complex material “live” – which is slightly proved by the japan concerts where the harmonies are a bit lacklustre…) the stones (if you’ve heard them live at hyde park, 1969 – you will understand what I am talking about) – and the kinks – the kinks being the one unknown, I would say that they were probably actually the biggest competition that the move had as live bands go – the beatles were actually out of the picture, and the stones were struggling with the changeover from brian jones to mick taylor – so only the kinks were out there playing their hearts out – which you can hear on record – but joining them now, is the other “great sixties band” – at least, 43 years late, but I think that carl has now got his “proof”, and even ray and dave davies would have to admit, roy wood and the move were a dynamite live act!

and I personally think that this concert really does prove how good the move were, and it’s absolutely amazing that they were so unknown in the us (especially since they were huge in the uk and europe) – it’s just inexplicable, of course, some americans loved the move, and followed their music, but their records never really sold well in america – I think they arrived there too late, and the sixties were almost over anyway – so one us tour – and that’s it.

according to bev bevan, they had tried to go over to america a couple of times, years earlier, but something always stopped them, and it wasn’t until 1969 that they finally did make it over there – and then they played only a handful of shows.  and consider this:  they had one crew – one man, and the four guys in the group, to drive across america to california – so five guys, in a rented car pulling a large u-haul trailer with all their gear in it – this is the move we are talking about !  but – no limousines, no planes – they drove across america, carl and their roadie sharing the driving duties.

I find that astonishing when you think about rock and roll tours by famous bands now – what the move did was unheard of !  they flew to new york, went to manny’s music, and bought guitars and drums, rented a trailer, and started driving…what an experience for five young guys from birmingham!  it sounds like they had a blast, a week’s residency on the sunset strip, then up north to play a few nights at bill graham’s fillmore west – third on the bill behind little richard and joe cocker – can you imagine?

they don’t play like they are third on the bill anywhere, they play with such confidence, obviously, they know these songs inside out, they have done work on the arrangements – some of the songs are actually seriously expanded and improved over the originals – the ten minute plus “I can hear the grass grow” being one case in point, you have to hear it to believe it – it’s so far beyond the original single, it’s basically mutated into a mini-prog-rock-masterpiece – and roy and bev in particular are just extraordinary on it – it’s a monster.

and that brings me now to bev, I always thought bev was a good drummer, but now I believe that I was wrong about that, he’s a fucking brilliant drummer 🙂

his playing on this album, the snap of those brand new slingerland drums – his rolls and tom tom work is so powerful, he literally propels these songs into life.  some of the rolls in “fields of people” seemed impossibly fast even on the studio version, but here, they move at light speed – and I would spend a moment talking about this song, “fields of people” – first of all, it clocks in at an astonishing seventeen minutes (because of the banjar/drum duet in the middle mostly) but it’s an incredible arrangement, the vocals are just like the record – not easy to perform, but they do a very credible job of it – meanwhile, roy’s twelve string rings out so beautifully throughout – and then, suddenly, it’s all about rick price – he turns up that bass, and with a beautifully distorted sound, launches into the quick section that begins around the three minute mark.  every note is so well rehearsed, and it’s such an unusual and strange song, it features one of the best and most unusual lead vocals I’ve ever heard – carl is improvising, speaking lines, and generally showing us that he can do far, far better than the record – and then there’s rick with that almost chris squire-like bass riff…

and then it starts happening – the whip-quick-lightning-fast snare rolls – starting at about the five and a half minute mark, bev starts whipping his drums into an absolute frenzy, rolling across the toms so fast you think he will miss one – but he doesn’t, he’s precise, he’s fast – and his drumming brings real excitement to all of the pieces.

then – carl takes all the attention – by singing one beautiful, powerful long, extended note – on his own, a spellbinding, pure, amazing, unexpected, perfect note – that leads into an amazing, new, extended section – a bass and drum solo, that is just smoking hot – which is really just a bridge to allow roy enough time to switch from 12 string to the “banjar” (half-banjo, half-sitar) for what may be the most amazing moment of this whole show.

and now…it’s raga time, it’s very much like the album – only, much better.  and bev plays an amazing, ethnic sounding accompaniment on the tom toms, with mallets I believe, which does a great job of emulating tabla – it’s amazing! but what is truly astonishing is the powerful, melodic, prowess that roy displays on this strange instrument, he “gets” indian music, he really does, and this raga shows his skill as a multi-instrumentalist in no uncertain terms – he is in command, utterly confident – bev adds a bell tree for a moment – the drums become more and more fierce, as roy winds up towards the end of the song – the audience must have been glued to their seats, transfixed (i would have been) – as if george harrison himself had got out on stage and played the sitar solo in “within you without you” – that is what this is like – but the difference was, the beatles had become a studio only band, deciding not to take their more complex music on the road – but roy and the move did take their complex music on the road, and actually played it better than they had in the studio!

finally, rick joins back in on the bass, as the song comes to it’s dramatic conclusion, last night, hearing this for the first time – I thought, hmmm, I hate to think this, but, let’s be brutally honest – when did john lennon or george harrison (don’t get me wrong, two of my biggest guitar heroes) ever play something as amazing as this?  answer: never, and, especially, not live !!  shocking, but true.

I’ve never compared any guitarist to lennon or harrison, but I seriously think that in terms of playing ability, compositional ability, arranging ability (don’t forget, the move had no “george martin” – roy had to fill those shoes for the move) that roy, at the height of his powers, let’s say from 1967 through 1970, was unstoppable, and actually, the better guitarist of the three (now I am really gonna get it, but – it had to be said) – I am not being sacrilegious here, I have nothing but respect for lennon and harrison (especially harrison!!!) but you have to hear this – the banjar solo that makes up the last, I don’t know, seven minutes of “fields of people” live…it’s the perfect juxtaposition of indian and pop music, played by four men who were confident, committed, and clearly having the time of their live bashing through this amazing electric raga – astonishing!

when I first saw the set list for this album, I nearly fell out of my chair – reading eagerly through the set list, my eyes immediately fell onto three pieces in particular – one, and most important of all – “fields of people”.  I mean – I had just assumed that this song was a studio-only production, it had the sitar solo at the end, very complex vocals – how could they possibly reproduce all that in a live setting?  answer: listen to this album.

secondly, “don’t make my baby blue” – another “wow”, they play this live? moment…and not only do they play it, you actually get a second version on disc 2, so you get to hear this amazing, powerful song twice – I have always loved this track especially, it’s a real highlight on the “shazam” album, and again, I never thought they would play it live – but they do, and again, you get two versions – so it’s a double, double miracle if you ask me!!!

third and finally in the “knock me over with a feather” department, is the beautiful ballad “the last thing on my mind” – yes, once again, two versions! – and a really wonderful arrangement, with chiming 12-string electric, and roy faithfully – somehow – mimicking the reverse guitar solo that is a huge feature on the studio version – this track is a massive highlight for carl too, his vocals on it cannot be underestimated, in many ways, his performance alone “makes” the track, it’s heartfelt, melodic, classic carl wayne.  he clearly loves this song, and he really makes you believe that he didn’t want to let you down – it was the last thing on his mind.  roy plays it so faithfully, I just couldn’t believe they even played it live (i know, I keep saying that and saying it…i can’t believe it, I can’t believe it…) but not only do they play it live, once again, it’s really better than the original (if such a thing could be) – these performances, in really, every case, make significant or even massive (as in the case of the astonishingly re-arranged “fields of people”) improvements – making already great songs absolutely sublime – the roy wood arrangement wizard (pun intended) !

and for me, during this song, which is mostly sung by carl, there is a really beautiful moment, when roy takes over briefly to sing lead on one small section, and carl and rick switch over to harmony/backing vocals – just stunning.  roy does sing lead vocals in several places, and his voice, when singing lead, is really very good and I feel he’s quite underrated as a singer.

the 12-string lead guitar solo/reverse guitar emulation solo on this track, in both versions, is an absolute highlight of the entire concert, and the fact that you get two of those solos, from two different nights – shudders with delight.  beautiful high speed wah-wah 12 string freestyle raga lead guitar – that’s ok with me J

then, next, there’s an absolutely mind blowing a cappella introduction to “goin’ back” – another cover, like so many of these actually are (there are only three roy wood songs performed at these concerts – just three) a really complex and beautiful a cappella intro and then very sophisticated vocal arrangement throughout the song, which just flows by beautifully – another completely different musical experience…

I know this is already a long post, and I’ve waxed profound about how brilliant the move are before this, all day yesterday in fact! but believe it or not, I am really only hitting the super obvious highlights, there is so much to explore and enjoy in this 2 disc concert – for example, “hello susie” just rocks like a normal rock song, propelled by bev into proto-metal territory – “rock and roll the day away – come on everybody!!!….”

but it sounds fantastic, hugely fun, and again, i’ve never heard or dreamed of a live version of “hello susie” – and it’s really good!

the show starts and ends with a nazz (todd rundgren) song, which shows that the band were obviously big fans of the nazz (as I am) – so they start with a heavy, beautiful version of “open my eyes” – heavier than the way todd used to play it live I’d say – but the real gem is the final number of the night – a cover of the less-well-known nazz song “under the ice” – which, they take and expand and re-arrange to an amazing degree, until todd wouldn’t recognise it, but, it’s genius, and roy plays amazing rock lead guitar, with the wah-wah flying throughout, really beautiful, playing, as if he’d held back all his best chops to use in this song – it may have the single “best” lead solo on the entire record, it’s just classic rock, three piece, rick and bev holding down the rhythm while roy plays and plays and plays some more – it’s an absolute stunner.

then, strange things begin to happen.  bev changes up the rhythm, starts soloing a bit himself with some very snappy rolls, meanwhile, roy’s wah-wah guitar style is starting to threaten even jimi himself – or rather, it sounds to me, like roy had been listening to hendrix records the night before, and is having a go at some hendrix like wah work – the footwork is fantastic…then, it mellows out, and roy starts using the wah as more of a filter, almost fripp like – then, he starts playing octaves, with gentle feedback at the end of each, as bev and rick vamp along behind him, suddenly, it’s nearly jazz, but not really, it’s just amazing lead guitar – a beautiful, tricky section of octaves (never easy to play) and roy is revealed to be a remarkably complex guitarist, capable of subtleties that I never expected – this long, long solo really reveals so much about his thought processes – ok, it’s not perfect, it has a couple of tricky notes here and there, but it’s so good that it’s not even fair to really mention those minor imperfections…

and as the solo evolves, through this long, “quiet” section, then suddenly there are some sharp rhythmic punctuations, where all three of the players hit some coordinated “smacks” together – and then, it’s more freestyle, lots of cymbals, back to the super-quick-foot-wah sound that roy seems to be a major pioneer of, i’ve never heard a wah move so fast, but it’s not a one-trick pony, he uses the device in a really, really clever way – utilising every tonal trick a wah pedal is capable of – and now, the track veers into a sort of “quasi-take-five” sound – now the band is stopping and starting – the amount of work on this arrangement is staggering.

roy starts playing a descending riff that seems familiar, but doesn’t quite gel – except, you know it’s “norwegian wood!!!”…then, suddenly, we are in full on “rock” mode again, mad lead solo over insanely fast drumming, we are in the solo of “under the ice” again, after a five minute musical detour that covered so much ground I’m still in shock from it, the interplay of wah guitar of the most creative kind, and an incredibly able and sympathetic rhythm section that is utterly supportive of what roy is playing…

and what roy is playing on this final piece is almost indescribable – you just have to hear it to believe it!  suddenly – bev demands your attention with some drum smacks, and we are back, somehow…at the coda of under the ice – which draws the show to a shuddering close.

then – continuing on through the second disc now, you get the “extra” versions of songs from the other night’s performances – just three songs, three the same as in the main set – “don’t make my baby blue”, “cherry blossom clinic (revisited)” and “the last thing on my mind” – and to my mind, ok sure, I’d rather have the whole show – but I am nothing if not grateful for these three extra tracks, and the versions have some very interesting variations from the ones in the main show presented – particularly in carl’s vocals – which seem quite different somehow on the extra tracks – I can’t pinpoint why, but it sounds great – and all three are welcome additions to the pitifully small live legacy of the move.

the album concludes with a ten and a half minute track featuring bev bevan recounting details of the tour, which is certainly historically interesting if nothing else, a glimpse back to a remarkable time for a remarkable group of young players.

the move do, of course, have another live album, an album recorded early in their career at the marquee club in london, and that, along with the occasional very rare bootleg, is pretty much all we have had, except of course for bbc sessions – so one live album, and a set of bbc recordings – and that was it.  the early live album was fraught with technical problems, and it was originally truncated and released as an ep (i remember buying it on vinyl – “something else” by the move – with a shiny picture sleeve) but was later recovered and painstakingly remade (and improved and expanded in the process) for the 40th anniversary box set – but still, even though it’s a great album – it wasn’t really the detailed live legacy that the move deserved.

now that we have the addition of this “only” full-length move concert to add to the legacy of “something else” and the bbc sessions, we finally have some justice, a cohesive body of live music that truly demonstrates the musical prowess and confidence that the move had on stage.  roy wood, who notoriously suffers from terrible stage fright, sounds as if he is ultra confident throughout the proceedings – you would never know he was terrified from the quality of his playing.

but this body of work – if you were to sit down, and play the full length restored version of what was released as “something else” in the states, followed by the bbc concert, followed by live at the fillmore 1969 – you would really hear the full story, from the earliest days represented by the marquee concert to the glory of the fillmore performances – the entire, true and exceedingly beautiful live legacy of the move, live in concert.

now – if only I had a live version of “curly”…oh well.

…or “this time tomorrow”.

I came to the music of the move a bit late, I started with “curly” and “this time tomorrow” and worked backwards.  and then forwards, into the jeff lynne years.  but by then, the original bright spark, that was the move in it’s original line up, and in middle period lineups featuring both roy and carl, was gone, the addition of lynne did see a great partnership in wood and lynne, but the music they made was darker, weirder, and in my opinion, not quite as good at the move 1967 – 1969.

but when I heard about this album, quite recently, I knew that carl’s concerns would finally be dealt with, the record that proves how good the move were, now exists, for generations of new fans to explore and enjoy – and to my mind – marvel at – because this kind of music only existed for a very brief moment in time – the late 60s are utterly unique in the history of music – and the move can now hold their heads high and know that they have a part of that, that their powerful, sincere performances of a great set of songs that they knew and loved, are now available for the whole world to enjoy – and it would be my hope, that when people play “abbey road”, which of course is one album that is forever associated with 1969 – they will also play “live at the fillmore 1969” so that the other great pop/rock band, the move, will get credit where credit is due – for doing what the beatles wouldn’t do – going out there and playing their most complex, most difficult, most musically and technically challenging music – and doing it very, very well indeed.

the move have meant a lot to me over the years, they really have, I don’t know why, I think in some ways, they were a bit of an underdog, always falling slightly behind the more visible beatles, kinks and stones – yet, making music so unique, so creative, and if you listen to roy wood for any length of time, music of undeniable genius.

i was fortunate enough to see roy perform with the roy wood band a couple of years ago here in glasgow, and I thought, well, maybe he will play one or two move songs.  to my everlasting astonishment, they did about six or seven during the set – it was fantastic!  and his guitar playing – wow, it was so effortless, and to actually see him play the riff from “i can hear the grass grow” – that was an absolute joy, his voice was great and his playing even better – and I never dreamed in a million years I would ever see roy wood play live – it just never crossed my mind – but since I moved to britain almost seven years ago now, i’ve been so lucky as to see and witness music I would never have seen had I remained in distant san diego, california…

besides roy wood then, I’ve also managed to see van der graaf generator three times and peter hammill once (although I had seen hammill in los angeles in the early 80s a few times) being here enabled me to see the re-formed van der graaf at the height of their musical power, and for that, I feel eternally grateful that I decided to become british!

I also recently realised, that almost by accident, I have managed to see a huge percentage of the sixties musicians who influenced me so profoundly as a young musician – three of the beatles (all except john), the kinks, roy wood – and I didn’t used to be a big stones fan, so i’ve never seen the stones – although curiously, I have really started to like their music a lot over the past ten years or so – I guess it took me a while 🙂

3 beatles, 2 kinks, and 1 move member – not bad since I wasn’t really trying to see “all of the beatles” or anything like that – I nearly managed it anyway.  seeing george harrison was a profound and most amazing experience, especially when he sang and played a john lennon song – in my life – that was really something else!!! to coin a phrase J

for those of you who are not move fans, I apologise for this strange detour from our normal programming – the next instalment of the blog will indeed be one of our regular features…I do not normally ever “review” cds or other releases, but since I have a long, long history with this band, and I always felt that their reputation was sold short because of the way their album catalogue was a bit…mismanaged shall we say…and the lack of a cohesive and complete presentation of their live skill was mostly absent, it was important to me to say “a great wrong has been made right here” and I am especially glad that carl finally got his wish, even though he didn’t live to see it – thankfully, the musical legacy, the power and the glory of the move in live performance mode, is now preserved in digital format for generations to come, for them to enjoy.

bless carl too, for keeping those tapes all those years, for working to get them restored, and for believing in the project enough to at least plant the seeds that later got the project done – or else we would have been left with little indeed to remember this very talented group of guys by.  and that would have been a real shame.

I like it when the little guy wins – and carl really wanted the world to have a better opinion of his band than they did – he knew they had been sold short – and he set out to rectify that.  I believe this album proves his theory, and rectifies that shortselling in an absolutely complete and devastating fashion.

last night, hearing the whole concert, played loud, I was just enthralled, each new moment of music (music played on a stage, 43 years ago, in california) a huge surprise, the twists and turns of the “new” arrangements, the expanded and altered arrangements, the amazing quality of roy and bev’s playing – even rick on the bass is a revelation at times – and carl, the glue that holds the whole thing together – the focal point, a determined, serious, individualistic singer who had a dream about proving just how good his band was to the whole world.

sometimes, dreams do come true!

🙂

thank you for indulging me here…next time, it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming 🙂

what we’re listening to

frank zappa, who I started listening to when I was 15, so that would have put it around early 1974, is absolutely in my top five guitarists of all time (not that I could say who those are at any given moment…). the first album I ever heard by frank was “apostrophe” which blew me away then and it blows me away now – the guitar work alone is astonishing, and yes, OK, this is maybe not the best version of the mothers (the late 60s / early 70s versions of the band were probably better than the apostrophe band, but to me, the music was no less remarkable) but when it’s your first album by an artist, it occupies a special place in your heart.

only it wasn’t actually on an album – it was actually an 8 track tape belonging to one of the guys in the guitar house…and I always found it really frustrating to listen to “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” because right at the most exciting moment of the solo, when the synth and the marimba are playing at lightning speed in unison…the eight track’s volume faded down to zero briefly while it “turned over” so you missed the best part of the solo!  it wasn’t until many, many years later, when I finally bought the album on CD for the first time, that I heard that solo properly, although I half-expected the volume to go down at that point.

apostrophe absolutely does have a huge place in my heart, from the beautiful melodies and piano of uncle remus, to the rocking jack bruce fuzz bass and zappa guitar on the title track to the aforementioned remarkable synth-and-marimba “schizoid man style” precision solo during “st. alphonso’s pancake breakfast” there is not a dull moment on this record, and for me, zappa was the odd man out of guitarists, there was no one like him, and maybe never, ever will be again – with one possible exception: his son dweezil, who has become a force to be reckoned with playing his father’s music in his own band, “zappa plays zappa”.

the old saying “like father, like son” was never more appropriate, and watching and listening to dweezil grow as a player has been an amazing experience – frank would be so, so proud.

frank was utterly unique, and had a playing style that developed at an absolutely mind-boggling pace, even as a very young man, he already had very respectable chops, but as you listen to his lead guitar style through the mid-sixties, it is almost as if he had been given some kind of mysterious guitar/dna growth hormone – until by the late 60s, he was rivalled, in america at least, only by jimi hendrix.  in britain and europe, there was some strong competition, mostly from people like robert fripp or steve howe, but in america – zappa reigned supreme.

then probably the most amazing few years of his development occurred, from 1970 – 1974, for my money, in 1974, all there really was in the world of truly intelligent, truly remarkable young lead guitarists was zappa and fripp – since jimi was by that time gone.  zappa was innovating on top of the innovations of those who went before him, those amazing guitar tones, the use of the pignose amps on apostrophe…and his amazing ability as a composer and arranger and bandleader – he was unsurpassed.  and then…there was the way he played lead guitar.

sure, we still had todd rundgren, and steve howe, and steve hackett emerged as a contender in the world of prog rock, and steve morse, the third steve, and so many other brilliant guitarists in the early 70s…but when frank started playing the guitar, you stopped what you were doing, and you listened.

and frank shone equally well in the studio and in live performance, one particular favourite show of mine is the live swedish television broadcast from august 21, 1973, where the band is astonishing…but frank is even better – you can catch most of this performance on youtube – and I could watch it over and over again, even just to listen to zappa and violinist jean-luc ponty trading solos – sublime!

words aren’t really the right thing to use to describe the guitar prowess of frank zappa, the only way you can really experience is to listen to the albums, watch the videos – and try to learn something in the process.  listen, and prepare to realise that you know nothing about the guitar – nothing.

we’ll absolutely delve further into the music of frank zappa and talk a lot more about his guitar playing in future editions of “what we’re listening to” – but if you haven’t listened to frank properly – do yourself a favour and try a few albums for yourself – you may be surprised.

what we’re listening to

aka favourite musicians and albums

another topic that I feel is worthy of it’s own mini-series within the larger context of the blog, is the work of other musicians, and their influence on the music and my own playing style.

I spend a significant amount of time listening to music, over the years I have built up a modestly large collection of music now, on cd and also in portable mp3 format, and during times when I cannot actually work on my own music, I listen, for many hours a day sometimes, to the recorded works of other musicians.

as a musician, I have a sort-of multi-tiered listening experience, which ranges from pure enjoyment, mindless enjoyment, music to just put on and enjoy with no other agenda or purpose – to deep analysis of individual player’s parts within a piece within an album – the detailed nuances of certain preferred players, which I listen to perhaps with a keener ear (always wanting to learn something new about my chosen instrument) than if I am just listening to something for pleasure.

there can be a profound difference in the experience of music too, some music just seeps into your consciousness (such as ambient, I am thinking now of the classic ambient albums by brian eno, such as “thursday afternoon” or “music for airports”) while other music uses almost a beat-down-the-door/sledgehammer approach to get it’s message to your brain (for example, mahavishnu orchestra, right now, I happen to be listening to a blistering live version of “birds of fire” which is absolutely demanding my complete attention – no seeping into consciousness there – it’s more like “listen to this!!!”)…so different music places different demands on the brain.

I sometimes do find it very, very hard to just “listen” to music – although if I am very relaxed, I certainly can – so sometimes these two listening styles merge, and I am both listening for sheer pleasure, while at the same time, I am analysing like mad with another part of my mind – how did that person do that? what scale was that? can I learn that riff and integrate it into my vocabulary? can I make that sound using the devices I currently have to modify the sound of my guitar? how was that effect created? what device was used to create that sound? and so on – it is sometimes difficult to actually turn all those questions off 🙂

I also have a somewhat strange view of music where I might enjoy the music of a certain band, not so much because I really like that band, but because of one particular player that is in the band that I do like very much, so possibly, when I put an album on by certain bands, it’s not that band or that album I really want to hear – it’s that particular musician playing a particular instrument that I admire or am interested in, and I want to hear them play – so I might even dislike the rest of the band! but I persevere, because I want to listen to and learn from a particular individual that I “follow”. it might even not be a guitarist, I might listen to one band because I love the bass player, or I think they have a unique or particularly interesting keyboardist – it could be anything or anyone.

that specific quirk of mine, picking out individual musicians and “following them” on to other albums and bands, and even guest appearances on totally unrelated releases, actually led me to discover a lot of great music that I might not have otherwise listened to.  most people learn about bands they like through certain well-established “methods”:  they hear it on the radio, they hear it in their local record store, they hear it online, or – from peers, a friend told them, they read a review, it could be a number of things.

but for me, this “follow one individual method” is yet another way to find new music and new bands, here is an example of a real chain of events that got me, eventually, from brian eno to split enz…with phil manzanera really being the key:

brian eno, I first heard him on the album “801 live” – but I had all the early solo albums from “warm jets” onwards…

same for phil, first heard him either on a Roxy bootleg or on 801 live, had all his solo albums…

so, working backwards:

  • 801 leads to eno and manzanera
  • eno and manzanera leads to roxy music
  • roxy music leads back to phil manzanera solo albums
  • phil manzanera has tim finn (and neil finn and eddie rayner) as guests on the “k-scope” album
  • tim finn leads to … split enz – starting with the first album, “mental notes” – and then I just kept buying their records, because they were all superb!

so thanks to hearing 801, I also subsequently worked my way to roxy music, phil manzanera, eno, and split enz – not to mention godley & crème who also guested on phil manzanera albums – but whom I had to got to through early 10cc – so all roads lead to phil it would seem…

I would find a musician I enjoyed, and I would just buy any and every record they performed on, and that would lead to other interesting sounding musicians – I loved tim finn’s vocals on the “k-scope” album, so I found out what band he was from…tracked those records down (and found an even more rewarding batch of records by a phenomenally talented group, early split enz), and so on…a fantastic, and very, very rewarding, process of musical discovery…all down to following single musicians from album to album, band to band!

once you start doing this, you kinda don’t need radio play or even word of mouth (although word of mouth can be a very rewarding and valuable method of learning about great artists, musicians or bands) – you just keep getting more and more spin-off artists that you can then follow down their own paths to discover still more – it never ends.

right now, lately, I seem to be in a heavy “lead guitarists” phase of listening: I’ve been listening to a lot of frank zappa; a lot of jimi hendrix; and a smattering of john mclaughlin (mahavishnu orchestra – this morning’s listening) – I don’t really ever get tired of this kind of music, and I could listen to jimi or frank play for days on end and not get tired of their very individual styles.

I think what we’ll do then is, in a similar vein to the historical aspect of the “journey through the past” series, we will use the “what we’re listening to” moniker whenever we want to chat about what’s currently on the stereo, or on our ipod playlist, at any particular moment…

…which this past week or so, has happened to be mass quantities of live jimi hendrix:  first, the complete winterland concerts which is a fantastic “three-shows two-shows-a-night” of the experience live in 1968, and it’s fascinating to hear the band play six shows in a row, and the variations between the six shows…including some real oddities, like a guest flautist on “are you experienced?”.

as well as the winterland shows, we’ve also been listening to a collection of hendrix shows from scandinavia, basically, every show hendrix played in sweden or denmark during 1967 – 1970, and within those tapes was a real surprise; though marred by poor sound quality, I was absolutely blown away by the amazing fact that in one of the early shows, around the time of the release of the “axis: bold as love” album, that the band actually performed the first three tracks from “axis” – including the spoken dialogue and feedback strangeness of track 1 “exp”, in the exact, correct sequence of what was side one of the original vinyl album – and I did a double take when I saw the track listing:

1)      exp

2)      up from the skies

3)      spanish castle magic

because I had always assumed that both “exp” and “up from the skies” were studio creations – and that turns out to be an incorrect assumption, because the band played through all three tracks, in order, before breaking off the sequence and moving to an older track from the first album.

even with the poor sound quality, hearing jimi play the part of the arriving space alien in the live spoken word dialogue of “exp” was a remarkable experience, and then, once the dialogue part was over, jumping in with his guitar and doing a credible imitation of the feedback sequence – very similar to the record – on this amazing piece of history. the version of  “up from the skies” was also a real treat, with jimi continuing in his role of the space traveller returning to “find the stars misplaced…” – and playing awesome, clean wah-wah guitars as well.

obviously, as with many guitarists from my generation, jimi hendrix had a huge, huge influence on me as a young guitarist and even up until the present day, because even now I am hearing recordings I wasn’t previously privy too, and sort of re-discovering the amazing guitar work of jimi hendrix – and enjoying every moment – certainly jimi is one of the most influential and remarkable musicians of our time.

next time on “what we’re listening to”: a completely different but contemporary guitarist to hendrix, with a unique and remarkable talent: frank zappa.