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the damage is done… (long-lost blog draft #1)
March 6th, 2016:
Sometime back now, I attempted to compare the two different versions of the Sylvian-Fripp live masterpiece,”Damage: Live” more commonly known as “Damage” – the live album record of one of the most remarkable musical collaboratations of the last century – “Sylvian-Fripp” – the band. I’d owned the Robert Fripp mix/version for several years, when I then had the opportunity to pick up David Sylvian‘s mix/version, released some years later.
I then sat down and listened to both records, first, in linear fashion, then, as an “A-B” – i.e. track by track, where possible. The differences are interesting – it’s not often that you get the chance to compare the “ear” of two such brilliant musicians, and it is interesting to hear how they interpret the same live show into a finished disc.
Anyway, from the first of the “long-lost blog drafts’, I now present to you, “the damage is done”, my freshman attempt at comparing two different versions of the same recordings…wish me luck!!
Additions, edits, and final proofing done on March 6, 2016.
Unfinished Blog Draft #1 – last edit (until today) was December 21st, 2014:
“Damage” (song) is the opening track on the RF (Robert Fripp)-produced version of the “Damage” album, whereas, on the DS (David Sylvian)-produced version of the “Damage” album, it’s moved to fifth position.
That’s not the only difference, however, it’s the only position change. There are the omissions, one song omitted from each disc – the RF disc is missing “Jean The Birdman”, while DS has included that track; and the DS disc is missing the 10.47 “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)”, while RF has included that track.
To me, the omission of “Darshan” really harms the DS version, and I can’t imagine what the reason for not including what is surely one of the highlights of the concert – the super long and full version of amazing-Fripp guitar, “Darshan” – I couldn’t believe it when I first realised that the DS version did not contain it !
For RF to omit “Jean The Birdman” is not nearly as distressing, it was, supposedly, the band’s “single” if such a thing could be, for a band like Sylvian / Fripp.
Doing an A/B compare of the two records is very revealing, but, it’s tricky, because of advances in technology, the DS version is much “louder” than the RF version, so each time I switch from RF to DS, there is an increase in volume, punch, bass – everything. I basically am trying to ignore that, and consider the content itself – the music.
Both versions of (title track) “Damage” are very, very beautiful, I can’t point to anything about either of them that I dislike, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful song, and OK, possibly, the vocal might be a tiny bit louder in the DS mix; and the guitars may be a tiny bit louder in the RF mix – but I would expect nothing less – the vocalist wants to hear the vocals, the guitarist, wants to hear the guitars.
Out of all of the tracks on the record, the two versions of the song “Damage” are probably “the most alike”, hence, I haven’t really said much about them, or their differences. They a
As for the poor bass player, well, he just has to hope that the mix will be kind to him – and in this case, both mixes are, when Trey (Gunn) comes in finally near the end. On the RF disc, “God’s Monkey” is track two, but on the DS Version, it’s the opening track (due to “Damage” being moved from track 1 to track 5 on the DS version). Now, I don’t know the reasons for this radical change to the running order, except to say, maybe DS is using the real running order, and Fripp used some artistic license in placing the two “quiet” songs as bookends of the concert – and DS wanted to make a point by restoring “Damage” to its rightful place in the centre of the concert – I do not know.
TRACK: “GOD’S MONKEY”
RF’s version of “God’s Monkey” starts with Trey’s distinctive bass riff, and the bass is nicely up in the mix, as are both Robert’s (Fripp) and Michael’s (Brook) guitars (not surprising, again – a guitarist is mixing the album!) but you can hear the vocals fine in this mix, maybe just because it’s the “familiar one” but I really like the way this is mixed, the vocal is up, the bass is up, the drums are good, and the guitars are powerful or quiet as required…it’s very well balanced.
Even Trey’s harmony vocal on the chorus, is very clear and concise, and having that vocal harmony reproduced live, is very helpful to the overall feel of the song, which ends in clouds of harmonizer / soundscape loop guitars from Robert, and a piercing, beautiful solo as well, with Sylvian and Brook supporting him beautifully – Trey is simply a rock on the bass at this point, as RF shreds his way up the octave doubler – fantastic speed and clarity, an awesome solo – then back to that great chorus, replete with Trey’s lovely harmony – you can’t go wrong with this mix, and Fripp is way up front during the final solo – but not annoyingly so – it’s just right.
Then, we have the DS mix – with all trace of the audience removed at the start – unlike RF’s mix, which starts with audience reaction to Damage still going on. So it sounds almost like a studio track, because of the removal of the crowd sounds – in the intro, the guitars seem quite loud, and there is some nice stereo Fripp, too. The vocal is clean, clear, and not any louder than in RF’s version – in fact, the balance between instruments is not terrifically different, I would say that possibly, you can hear the Sylvian and Brook guitar parts a little bit better in this mix, but other than that, they both give a satisfying reading of the awesome triple guitar attack of Sylvian / Brook / Fripp – I was lucky enough to catch their performance at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in the early 1990s, so I got to see and hear first hand, what a powerful triple-guitar-entity they could be.
When you add Trey into that mix, you really almost end up with Trey representing the fourth guitarist, as a lot of Stick or Warr guitar does involve multiple tapped parts that are not necessarily all in the “bass” range – so sometimes, it’s a FOUR guitar attack. The main guitar interlude sounds fantastic, Fripp’s ambient loops sound great, it’s really not that different from the RF version, except for the strange, slightly sterile EQ that makes this undeniably live track, sound a little bit more like it was created in a studio – which it absolutely wasn’t, but just the act of removing the crowd sounds from the track’s start, makes a huge difference in perception.
The final guitar solo, is mixed in a similar way to RF’s – Fripp is definitely featured, but the helper guitars from Sylvian and Brook are a bit louder than they are in the RF mix, or so it seems, but again, it’s just, in both cases, coming up with a sound balance and a “sound” for each track as they hear it, as an engineer, it’s surprising, I would have thought that these mixes might be radically different, and there are some audible differences, I think EQ and other treatments may have been used by either or both parties, to “improve” the sounds of any of the instruments, and there are some sonic tonal differences that are hard to pin down, even with an A/B test.
TRACK: “BRIGHTNESS FALLS”
“Brightness Falls” is our next victim on the table, in our dissection of these two disparate mixes of one of the best live albums of all time, “Damage” by Sylvian-Fripp – certainly one of the very best collaborations that Robert ever involved himself in.
I loved “The First Day” (“Sylvian-Fripp’s studio debut album) when it came out, it was amazing to hear Fripp’s guitar and compositional skills behind the ever soulful vocals of Sylvian, it just sounded great – that is, until “Damage” appeared a year later. It blew me away; on “Damage”, the songs from “The First Day”, were already transmutated from iron into gold, already transformed And wonderfully mutated into amazing live musical experiences by this remarkable band – there’s never been another band quite like this one – a wonderful compilation of individual musical characters, who’s sum was much greater than the parts, always. The live versions by far transcend “The First Day” as a whole, “Damage” is quite simply light-years ahead in terms of song development.
It’s almost as if “The First Day” was a test pressing, a musical sketchbook to sketch out the songs in a basic, crude form, but then, in rehearsals and in performance, on the tour,mine songs blossomed and grew legs, arms, feet, tentacles,and became immortal versions of those primitive sketches. I still to this day, struggle to listen to “The First Day”, if I should, it would be immediately followed by “Damage” to set the record straight. “Damage” shows the definitive versions of all of these songs, which just happens to make “The First Day” fade away into nothingness…
Along with revitalised tracks from “The First Day”, played with explosive excitement, there are also tracks from both Sylvian’s and Fripp’s back catalogues, including some where both musicians played on a track together – such as the tracks taken from “Gone To Earth”.
The RF mix has a lovely, lovely ambient outro, “Brightness Falls” live was incredible, with Robert building up an amazing live loop, which made the track more and more ambient as it went along, with the band keeping time beautifully with a lovely slide guitar part from Michael, and a constant and steady riff from DS himself. The song fades into just Frippertronics, or rather, a soundscape, and gradually disappears – until it suddenly transforms into a track originally on the “Rain Tree Crow” album, “Every Colour You Are”.
But we still have the DS mix of “Brightness Falls” to contend with, this time, I would say, all four guitars have been EQ’d or treated, and the lack of crowd sounds again, gives a sterile and studio-like sound that is both brilliant, but slightly disturbing – it’s almost as if there is too much detail revealed, I would say in the case of this song, DS’s mix is definitely a bit “clearer”, the definition between the three guitars and bass, is stunning, really, it sounds great – and when Robert takes a short solo, it’s just amazing – it sounds fantastic – panning madly across the stereo field – and then, back to the quiet, four guitars in perfect harmony mix level – as the vocalist works through the chorus again.
I think in almost every song here, that maybe, the vocals are a little louder, a little clearer, on the DS mixes, whereas on the RF mix, there may be some murky moments, and sometimes, the balance between the 3 guitars and bass, is not as clean and definite as it is in DS’s mix, but – to Fripp’s credit, DS had both, better, newer equipment, and – more time, probably – to tinker with the album – and in the case of “Brightness Falls” that tinkering has truly paid off – I am hearing things leading up to the middle section, that I have never heard properly on the RF version – the found voices that David was triggering from his synth, are much more audible here – really clear and nice.
The long outro with Soundscape, is just as beautiful as in the Fripp version, or maybe even a little nicer, because you can hear the samples a little better on the way out. It’s such a lovely, long fade down, you can’t really go wrong, it just sounds great in BOTH mixes – no clear winner here, although the DS does seem a bit clearer in terms of the guitars to bass balance – it’s clean. But RF’s mix is no slouch, either – Fripp’s mixes are as they always are, accurate, precise, and, with Fripp pretty far up in the mix ;-).
TRACK: “EVERY COLOUR YOU ARE”
So we now get to “Every Colour You Are” from the “Rain Tree Crow” – which was, of course, an unofficial “Japan” reunion – they (all of the members of Japan) all play on the record, but, they didn’t want to call it “Japan” – so, because this was a new band making a new record, they became “Rain Tree Crow” for this one album. It spawned a number of great new David Sylvian songs, and it’s great to hear the S/F band interpreting them on the live “Damage” album – now available in two delicious flavours.
Some slightly wonky delay slide guitar from Michael is mixed down a bit to try and distract attention from it, but he soon gets things together, and then that same slide guitar becomes a crucial component of the song – and there is then, that amazing drum roll from heaven, when Pat Mastelotto makes his presence known suddenly – that no one expects – right there in the middle of that beautiful solo – and then, the song settles back down to the two chord motif, and that amazing verse about the family man, who puts a torch to his house and warms his hands by the fire…remarkable.
I haven’t spoken much yet about the contribution of drummer Pat Mastelotto, because it’s just one of those things that you sort of take for granted, and maybe that’s the easiest thing to say – that he is solid, reliable, spot on, but still capable of lots of percussive surprises. He’s the perfect drummer for this sadly short-lived monster of a band, unobtrusive when he should be, powerful, precise and utterly, utterly focused on the beat, and on the song…and doing what is appropriate every single time.
I think Sylvian’s voice is equally compelling in both mixes, and despite some differing EQ’s and treatments on both records, it’s consistent and strong throughout, on both mixes. On RF’s, it’s mixed up well, along with the solo guitars, which are just beautiful – Fripp plays a blinder of a clean solo up to the insanely cool ending – I love that ending ! Dissonance shown as beauty…only Fripp can pull that off successfully (courtesy of that amazing, high-pitched, 2 octaves up reverse guitar) – and he does, indeed, pull it off, with the remarkable ending of this track.
This time, the DS mix does contain audience sound, but it’s the sound from the ending of “Brightness Falls” which abruptly ends, “Every Colour You Are” begins, again, with it’s odd EQ sort of studio-sound, which is then confused by an eruption of spontaneous crowd noise when they recognise what song it is – a lovely, very real moment, and both mixes include it – it’s a nice moment, and it works within the context of the song, because this song has a lot of space in it.
TRACK: “JEAN THE BIRDMAN” (DAVID SYLVIAN MIX ONLY)
Now, we have arrived at the point where the discs differ, in this case, RF Mix does not contain the next track, which DS mix does – the live version of “Jean The Birdman” – I can understand why Sylvian wanted this track, it was the single, and I think he wanted it to do better than it did (there was a single release of it) and to be fair, it’s actually really, really beautifully done, with sparkling guitars throughout, including really beautiful reverse guitar solos from Fripp – a great live version of a much-underrated song. Unfortunately, I can only comment on the DS version, according to Wikipedia, “Jean The Birdman” “replaced” “Darshan” from the earlier Fripp mix – but no reason is given.
In a way, it’s a bonus, because now, in a way, we get two unique live tracks – if you only had one of these discs, you would only have one of those two songs, so, it’s worthwhile having both mixes – if just to get “Jean The Birdman” live, if nothing else – it’s very, very well done.
Now we are back in comparison land, and it’s “Firepower”, another track that started life on “The First Day”, but is utterly re-vitalised, featuring a killer, exciting, vocal; fantastic drum rolls popping from Mastelotto’s snare; Trey’s bass is supercharging the rhythm section, while the Sylvian / Brook / Fripp “Axis of Guitar Power”, continue to dominate, Fripp playing another blinder of octave up distorted guitar solo, followed by an incredible, dissonant solo with some very odd goings-on, samples from David’s keyboards, a lot of fabulous detail in the background – with Fripp’s guitar definitely in the foreground!
A snappy ending – that isn’t an ending; the song then starts over, with a Fripp Soundscape, Trey’s beautiful bass riff, and a nice, extended outro that is really, really lovely – just a great mood, Pat is steady, Fripp’s soundscape is being built brick by brick, Michael makes strange guitar sounds periodically, and David has his many samples – odd to watch him, in concert, holding down one key at a time, to trigger samples – but, that’s how it works. More ON FIRE guitar from Mr. Fripp, really beautiful Digitech Whammy II high pitched guitar work – this was also, for many years – my pitch pedal of choice, it’s not perfect, but, if you work at it, you can make it sound quite good.
The DS mix of “Firepower” – while perhaps, a slightly thinner sound, it comes blasting in, guitars a bit more up front, Fripp razor sharp guitar sounding even more razor sharp, the fabulous guitar solo, the dissonant section that follows it, sounding great – a bit cleaner mix maybe, and again, Fripp’s awesome high-pitched guitar melodies just buzz through the atmosphere – and at the end of the solo, a part that I don’t remember being on the RF version, just before the famous “false ending” (at 2:58) – a great riff (at 2:40 to 2:44) that brings the track down to its outro just beautifully – a very heavy and very precise riff, bringing perfect closure to both an amazing Fripp guitar solo, but also, an amazing guitar trio – especially the dissonant part of it – and it seems like the main body of the song is ending, but, instead, after 3 minutes of “song with guitar solos” we now move purely into the instrumental realm – “guitar, guitars, and more guitar!” – for another four minutes; with a lazy, beautiful rhythm from Trey and Pat, over which Fripp gets to stretch out once again with a very long, very lovely solo.
The long outro after that false ending, with Fripp’s beautiful sustained solo, could not fail to sound great no matter who mixed it when, and it sounds just as wonderful in the new DS mix as it does on the “old” RF mix – both are great renderings, they really are – and, a great performance of the song, too, from the whole band – that certainly helps :-).
And during that outro, be sure to check out what Pat gets up to, he reminds us, gently, of the power and majesty that he can inject into the proceedings at any time – and he doesn’t do so often, he is very careful never to overplay – always, subtle appropriate drumming – which he does so well – so when he does cut loose for a moment, here and there, it’s even more impressive than it might normally be – so, restraint much of the time, but, bursts of incredible drumming, with a rhythmic musicality that only Mastelotto can provide – he is unique, and I love his drumming style.
TRACK: “GONE TO EARTH”
Next comes a somewhat oddball song, “Gone To Earth”, which must take incredible concentration to sing, it has the oddest melody; and the oddest guitar parts, I hear it start and all I can think is, “what a weird, difficult, odd yet wonderful song!” but it has that beautiful vocal refrain, and the found voices over Fripp harmonics – wow, that’s just so beautiful…an oddity, yes, but I am so glad they dug it up, the title track of one of David’s most famous albums, and it’s mostly famous for its roll call of amazing guitar guest stars, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp (on the same album – I mean, wow!) and Fripp is on a decent number of the tracks on the album – so he is able to reprise his parts as well, with better guitar technique, and more experience and technique of his own.
The DS mix of “Gone To Earth” differs a bit, the vocal is definitely higher in the mix, with Robert’s unique guitar intro comes flying in, quite a bit louder than on the RF mix, his distorted stereo lead guitars clearly to the fore in the very beginning of the track. The found voice samples are also a bit higher in the mix, which is great, I think in this case, despite my usual complaint about slightly weird EQ in the beginning of the songs, this may be superior to the RF version in some ways – although I love both versions. Sylvian’s vocal is particularly good on this track, and I don’t know how he gets his pitch “live”, but he does a beautiful job of performing this often-overlooked mini-ambient masterpiece from “Gone To Earth”.
TRACK: “20TH CENTURY DREAMING”
Now, we come to the fabulous, riffalicious “20th Century Dreaming”, one of my favourite tracks, originally from “The First Day” – as David sings – “social, economical, spiritual – I’m moving to the House of Love…” and he sounds very convincing. Fripp’s mix is very clear, bass and drums throbbing in the centre of the mix, while the three-guitar attack is blazing away in glorious, confusing stereo in the background. There seem to be three rhythm guitar parts during the verses – and then of course, Robert begins his ominous, low-pitched solo, and it suddenly moves into double time, razor-sharp, biting, beautiful, and intense in that way that only Fripp can be intense – one of his best solos, and in this live rendition, it rivals anything he ever played under the name “King Crimson” – I was so excited by this band, that when I saw them, I walked around for months afterwards saying that Sylvian-Fripp were very nearly as good, or possibly, better than King Crimson (I know – a moment of madness) – but, there is some merit to that opinion.
A fantastical Frippertronics soundscape underpins a long, ambient “non-solo”, with quiet vocals, quiet guitars, quiet bass and drums, the whole band sinks down, but, still playing with intensity, which then, once the vocals pause – builds in intensity again – “dreaming….dreaming lying down”… and Pat starts in with the most constant snare drum you ever heard, until suddenly, all hell breaks loose as David is moving, moving, moving to the House of Love – and Fripp and co are literally propelling him there – with some of the most amazing music I have ever heard. This song is so difficult to describe with mere words, the ambient parts, the soundscape is so incredibly beautiful, and Fripp soloing away, even when the drums and bass have silenced themselves, so it’s Fripp playing lead guitar, and reverse guitar, two octaves up, along with his soundscape…and suddenly, silence.
The David Sylvian mix of “20th Century Dreaming” again, has a different guitar sound, the stereo image of the guitars differs from the RF mix, which does make them feel fuller – not sure what adjustments were made, but, Sylvian’s mix does sound “different” – but it’s never “bad different” – it’s always “good different”. This song is a very, very long, very detailed piece of music, with a lot of elements to it, and capturing those elements, and mixing them well, was certainly a challenge, moreso than some of the shorter, more straightforward songs.
The Axis Of Guitar Power, that triple-threat of electric guitars, with two masters and one very capable rhythm keeper, young David Sylvian himself, it’s just the most astonishing sound you could imagine; Fripp, ominous, capable of blinding speed, and amazing displays of speed and musical accuracy, while Michael Brook provides anything from second rhythm guitar, on up to lead guitars, sounds, infinite guitar, ambient guitar, and just plain strange guitar, which compliments David’s very straight parts, and Robert’s intense solos, but, of course, there are really a couple more guitarists here, in the form of “loopers” – so Robert has his Soundscapes, which are used a lot on the album, and also, here in live performance, they are a critical ingredient to the success of the music played on “Damage” – it would NOT be the same without them.
So really, you have a quartet of guitarists, one of them, a beautiful, musically complex Soundscape loop, played over by our three heroes. “20th Century Dreaming” gives all three of them a workout, and Sylvian’s vocal is really beautiful here, the guitars and Soundscapes flying around in stereo around his head…a miraculous mass of music that should be overcrowded, but instead, just sounds perfect – in either mix, I love them both, no contest, this is such a good track, that you could just about NOT mix it and it would probably STILL sound amazing. A lot of work has gone into both mixes, I can tell, and it’s paid off, because there IS a lot of great guitar detail to bring out, and Fripp’s performance on here is just stunningly good – one of those where you shake your head and think “how on earth does he do that?
Now we return to the “Gone To Earth” album, for one of its loveliest songs, “Wave”, which features what can only be described as an “Heroes”-like, long sustained guitar riff, which makes repeated appearances, alongside various other guitar solos using various guitar sounds, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Fripp use so many different sounds live, in one song – he is changing his sound mid solo, even – but it sounds great. The Fripp mix is excellent, the lead guitarist is again featured, but, never overpowering the singer, it’s great to witness that in both mixes, Fripp never drowns out Sylvian’s vocal, and Sylvian never drowns out Fripp’s guitar – so there is obviously, mutual respect for the musicianship of each other there.
This is almost straightforward as a song, when compared to some of the very complex songs preceding it – with a few long verses, followed by Fripp’s “two different voices” solo, it begins with a strange harmonizer patch, then switches back to the trademark distorted, high-pitched, sustained guitar sound – a beautiful solo, and then back to David’s impassioned vocal, I am always surprised by “Wave” – “I’ll never let you down” – is followed by the most astonishing, “St. Elmo’s Fire” style Fripp “spinning guitar” at speed, and during the last few solos, Robert is absolutely scorching, wiping the floor with his guitar, I love this solo more than almost any other on the record – it’s just sublime – and, it takes us right to the end of the song.
Moving now to the DS mix, the drums in the beginning, sound completely different, and, it sounds almost as if vibrato has been added to the guitars in the intro. Fripp’s guitar, volume and tone, seems identical to the earlier RF mix, but boy, those drums sure sound odd in the beginning! In Fripp’s mix, they are mixed down to almost nothing, and their volume only comes up when the guitars start, in Sylvian’s mix, he has cranked the four bars of solo drums intro, up so far that it sounds like a different song at the start! Personally, I like the fact that I can now hear what Pat played in the beginning of the song, and I am not sure why RF would have turned it down so far !
David’s mix otherwise, like Robert’s before it, is true to the spirit of the original song as it was on “Gone To Earth” – in fact, all of the songs taken from “Rain Tree Crow” or “Gone To Earth” have all been faithful reproductions of the original studio works, with of course, better and more interesting vocals and guitars – particularly, Robert Fripp excels in the live environment, so what sounded good on “The First Day” – sounds GREAT on “Damage”; and at the same time, what sounded good on “Gone To Earth” sounds GREAT on “Damage”…superlative improvements plus live guitaring.
So in the case of songs from “The First Day” – there are changes, there are improvements, the songs are MUCH better across the board, on “Damage”, whereas, the songs from “Rain Tree Crow” and “Gone To Earth” are much more faithful renditions, sounding pretty much exactly like the originals…but better.
BRIEF INTERLUDE – (OUT OF SCOPE):
“Exposure”, which they also played at live shows, also sounded much like it did on Robert’s breakthrough album “Exposure” – except with David Sylvian singing the song instead of Terri Roche. Or, Peter Gabriel, as the version of “Exposure” on “Peter Gabriel 2” has. I loved hearing Sylvian sing that, and play the “E”, “X”, etc. samples from his keyboard, while Fripp reprised his loops and guitar – it’s such a shame that no take of “Exposure” was deemed good enough to put onto the “Damage” album – a real loss, as for me, at the live show I saw in Los Angeles, it was a huge surprise, and, a real highlight.
Note: there are bootleg recordings of Sylvian-Fripp concerts that DO include “Expoaure” the song, unfortunately since that track does not appear on either of these official releases of “Damage” that we are comparing here, it is outside the scope of this discussion.
>>>>>>>>>>>>>Return to album comparison>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
So from “Wave”, we move to another track from the same album, “Riverman”, beginning with a very strange, ambient section, which then gives way to the song’s lovely, swaying two note bass motif, and wonderful, strange guitars in the background, Michael plays rhythm guitar and slide guitar, while Fripp plays high-pitched notes which become Soundscapes; Trey comes in with a lovely vocal harmony on the chorus, an underrated singer, I think he harmonises beautifully with Sylvian, and that is no mean feat, as David’s voice is utterly unique, and probably not easy to sing along with!
After the first verse and chorus, Fripp takes a very intense, heavy solo, that seems almost too heavy for such an otherwise quite gentle song, “run with me, holy man…” quite dissonant, a beautiful solo – then back to normal music – it works beautifully, it’s dead serious, quick, intense – and then, back to beautiful, super-high pitched notes being dropped into a loop. And then comes another short guitar solo, distorted, low pitched, with reverse elements, sounding just right – and again, back to the Soundscapes from heaven…drift away on clouds of ambient guitar.
This is the “slow moment” in the concert, or one of the “slow moments”, most of the band’s songs are uptempo, so it’s nice to have something that’s at a lower bpm, so we can hear this group of musician’s playing at something less than the speed of light, on a few tracks. Fripp is just great on this track, filling in the areas between the verses with powerful guitar solos, and then falling back into those atmospheric sounds, the wonderful high pitch notes that appear and then group together in a loop, then fade, then return…really beautiful guitar work, and, loops at the same time – an immaculate process, and Fripp really knows how to work these live-built soundscapes into a piece of music. An almost “Elephant Talk” two-note-Fripp-guitar calls a halt to the proceedings – and “Riverman” is over.
David’s mix, well, the intro is mixed up a bit more as usual, so you can hear the strange elements that the beginning is made up of, a bit better than you can discern them on Robert’s mix. Sylvian’s voice sounds more “present”, as if he has moved closer to us, which could be the result of almost anything in the studio, simply upping the vocal level, changing the stereo field, applying EQ – I don’t know what he does, but he always make his voice sound great, and, I also feel, he makes his three guitarists sound great – he manages to crank up Fripp and Brook, even more than Fripp cranked up Fripp in his mix, and that’s unusual, normally, Fripp’s mix would ALWAYS have the loudest guitars, by default, because he is a guitarist, of course, but not here, I think Sylvian likes these guitars so much, that he really cranks them up so he can enjoy them!
The solos in “Riverman” are brilliant, it’s yet another great rendition from the “Gone To Earth” album – in fact, the tracks presented here from that album, demonstrate that it’s a quality record that stands the test of time – and it really does. It’s probably my favourite David Sylvian album of all, although I am also very fond of “Brilliant Trees”.
TRACK: “DARSHAN (THE ROAD TO GRACELAND)” (ROBERT FRIPP MIX ONLY)
Then we come to our second anomaly, another song for which there is no comparison, in this case, we only have Fripp’s mix, and, it makes me feel very happy – this is the almost eleven minutes of “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” and all I could think when I saw David’s running order did not include “Darshan” – I could not believe my eyes, or my ears. Removing that song…well, to me, it borders on sacrilege; because it represents Sylvian/Fripp at their most bleeding edge, testing the limits of a live groove with flying shards of screaming Fripp “Sailor’s Tale” or “Hendrix” style guitar, Fripp pushes himself, and this song, through an almost exhausting, and terrifically exhaustive, set of long, amazing distorted chords, delivered at speed, sliding up and down the neck with aplomb, bouncing of the fretboard – playing with it, pushing his own boundaries.
The band, is in an amazing groove, that runs pretty much without stopping, for the entire length of the song – giving both Sylvian and Fripp, plenty of time to do their individual singing and soloing. Sylvian is great on this song, I love his vocals, I love the chant of “Darshan” and “leaving on the road….to Graceland” that recurs many times, whilst Mr. Fripp is almost in a world of his own with his super extended impossible sliding chord exercise / solo. It is remarkable to hear, and, if you don’t have the Fripp mix, at this point, you should put DOWN your David Sylvian mix, and go order the Fripp version, so you can HEAR THIS SONG. That’s the best endorsement I can give, it’s absolutely worth it, to buy a whole CD, to get this one song.
At 6:45, there is an incredibly “interplay” solo between Michael Brook and Robert Fripp, that is just sublime, there are so many great moments of guitaring on this record…this particular back and forth is just awesome! Brilliant guitar work from both Fripp and Brook.
It should also be noted, that if you just have the Fripp mix, you should avail yourself of the Sylvian mix, so you can get a most excellent version of “Jean The Birdman” – which Fripp did not include.
But “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” – is an absolutely remarkable song, and this performance, available on the RF Mix of “Damage” only, is a must-have recording if you love the music of Sylvian or Fripp, or both (as in my case).
TRACK: “BLINDING LIGHT OF HEAVEN”
Moving now toward the end of the disc, we come to a personal favourite of mine, at the time of the original Damage coming out, Damage was the only record in Sylvian’s canon that contained this next song, the incredibly beautiful and semi-erotic “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – which to me, is a real highlight on this record, it has some wonderful guitars, although nothing can top the aforementioned “Darshan” – Fripp’s solos in “Darshan” are absolutely off the scale, especially the final one – which you have to hear to believe….
But, back to the “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – it starts with a rocking beat from Pat, and a two note “Hendrix” hammer-on, some sliding guitars, and then, it acquires a great disco (really, I’m not being funny here – it’s really cool!!) rhythm guitar courtesy of David Sylvian, while Robert and Michael play great guitars in the background. “I’m in the shade, she’s in the blinding light of heaven….” And “…now she stands before me opening the buttons of her coat….I found myself, wrapped in the open arms…of heaven”.
It’s deceiving, it has a funky beat, with an almost-disco guitar, but to me, it’s a strange and wonderful piece of almost prog guitar work, especially when the second verse ends, and Fripp takes his first solo, which includes him TAPPING, and it’s just the most amazing, ripping solo, with those amazing trills, that slide right off the top of his top note on his top string – astonishing solo.
Fripp’s mix is very good, the guitars are getting louder, Sylvian is well audible but not up as much as in the DS mix, and now, here comes the second Fripp solo, this time, using the octave up pedal, and the tapping again, then – song over.
A great, great and sudden ending from Robert, such a concise little wonder of a song – “The Blinding Light of Heaven” indeed. The Blinding Guitars of Robert, more like. Now, to David’s version, his mix starts the same way as Robert’s (well it would, wouldn’t it) but again, the stereo on the guitars is better, Sylvian’s guitar has been re-EQ’d a bit, and the sound overall is a bit different, I think Fripp’s guitars may have had some stereo chorus added to brighten them up, otherwise, the vocal is a tiny bit higher, but not criminally so, if anything, Sylvian’s mix features loud, loud guitars, maybe louder than on RF’s mix.
This vocal, this vocal melody, is one of his best, and I think now, finally, you can get a “studio version” of this song, but I haven’t done so yet, because…I love this live version so much, so, very, very much, that I am not sure I want to HEAR any other version. Great bit in the middle, where the two note Hendrix hammer-on happens again, DS just cranks it up, it’s right before Robert’s even-more-impossible second guitar solo. And I love that sudden ending – it’s just brilliant! Great song, great performance – two great mixes, you can’t lose, you really can’t.
TRACK: “THE FIRST DAY”
Finally, we come to “The First Day” which is mainly a vocal piece, with sparse keyboard and soundscape backing, some short, long low distorted notes from Robert, the simple piano melody the perfect backdrop for one of David’s most heartfelt lyrics – the RF mix, was always lovely, and Sylvian’s vocal on this, the way it ties in with Robert’s very careful 2 octave up volume-pedal guitar, David sings “bring out the stars….on the first day” – and after the word “stars”, Fripp plays four descending notes, up high, that parallel the vocal rhythm of “bring out the stars”… and it’s just the perfect moment, it’s why these two work together so well, because ultimately, both of them live to serve the music, to serve the song, and this lovely Sylvian ballad is even nicer than the title track, in my opinion, I love Fripp’s clouds of soundscapes here, and Sylvian’s understated keyboards – both supporting that gorgeous, honeyed voice “on the first day…the first day” – which is a great way to end an album, with a song about the very beginning.
The first verse ends, and a beautiful piano and soundscapes section follows: a frozen moment of pure music, until David’s warm, warm voice comes back to melt the frozen moment, and then – a beautiful, beautiful high register piano sequence, with the most beautiful soundscape in the universe behind it – those little interludes between the verses just knock me out, they are very, very beautiful indeed, and this is truly a “Sylvian-Fripp” song, for me, it really represents the co-operation of two great artists, and Robert’s final, massive, distorted one note ending is simply sublime. And, yes, I have over-used the word “beautiful” in this paragraph, but it was the only way to properly describe it: truly beautiful.
The David Sylvian mix, as always, is a few dbs louder overall, as the entire mix is louder than the original RF mix, and while I suppose that’s “progress”, I am personally a fan of CDs that don’t blast your socks off, this quiet meditative song, isn’t improved by being louder, in fact, my instinct is to turn it down, so it’s closer in level to the RF mix that I just heard, but I refrain, I let it play out at volume, and it’s no less beautiful than Robert’s mix, if truth be told, those musical interludes between the verses are just as beautiful, the vocal is so present, so real, so central to the song, and this beautiful live performance, is yet again captured in this new mix as a beatific moment trapped in time, capturing the spirit with which Robert and David approached this project, as a team brought to life to give this music life, and this song, possibly above all others, is the perfect example of co-operation, bringing only what is necessary for the song to the song.
This mix does sound different, I can hear what must be Michael Brook, making some swooshy sounds with his guitar, that I didn’t really hear in RF’s mix very well, as always, the “guitars” mix in Sylvian’s mix seems to be a bit different, but in a good way. Since Trey and Pat don’t play on this track, you can hear the two guitars very well indeed, and especially in David’s mix – it sounds really lovely.
One thing I do love about David’s version of “The First Day” that is missing from RF’s version – is the very loud, very long applause that occurs after the end of “The First Day”, a very polite applause, respectful, which for some reason was removed from Fripp’s version – there is just silence after the track ends on RF’s mix. So it’s nice to hear the audience’s reaction, if for no other reason than to confirm that they saw a similar show to the one I saw, and I get all the confirmation I need from that applause.
CONCLUSIONS AND COMMENTS
For a long, long time, after see Sylvian-Fripp play live, I walked around saying to everyone that seeing Sylvian-Fripp live was almost as good as King Crimson live – blasphemy!! – but in some ways, it really was superior – more human, and, Fripp’s guitar playing is absolutely on form, particularly on the “loud” numbers (i.e. the whole album, basically, since there are really only two or three “quiet” numbers); the quality of the soundscaping is brilliant; and the guitar solos, from the amazing “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” to “20th Century Dreaming” to “Firepower” to the not-present-on-either-mix “Exposure” – Fripp just excels, and also, the inclusion of earlier Sylvian works, in particular, the sublime “Gone To Earth” album, as well as Fripp’s back catalogue in the form of “Exposure” – that really rounded out the performance – the core of which, was the new material from “The First Day”, but mixing in a Fripp classic like “Exposure” (and, getting to hear David Sylvian SING it !!!), plus a few of the best tracks from “Gone To Earth”, plus, a “Rain Tree Crow” track – what a great set list, totally involving, and featuring an incredibly broad spectrum of truly remarkable music from across the distinguished careers of both David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.
So, it’s odd but interesting to get this David Sylvian “version” of “Damage”, I had no complaints whatsoever about the Fripp original, none, but, in hearing another vision of the album, it’s really fantastic, actually, because David “hears” the vocal mix and the guitars mix, a bit differently to the way Robert “hears” the mix – so you get some fascinating variations of guitars, especially – but in the end, all it means is, I’ve now got two very personal, very brilliant mixes, by two of my favourite musicians of all time, of one of my very favourite live albums EVER. Normally, you only ever get to hear one version of a live album, so it’s just double the pleasure, if you ask me.
So – a great set of music, if I had to make a complaint, it would be David removing the essential track “Darshan” from his mix – I really don’t get that, unless he was truly unhappy with the track from some strange reason – and for my second and final complaint – the omission from both versions, of the band’s live rendition of Fripp’s “Exposure” – which was a highlight of the live show, at least for me, because I never dreamed in a BILLION TRILLION years that I would see and hear Robert Fripp playing the song “Exposure” – live. I just – never thought it could happen.
And then, there I was, at the Wiltern Theatre, in Los Angeles, California, 1994, with Bryan Helm of the Dozey Lumps sat beside me, and suddenly, that two note guitar riff started up – and “Exposure” was underway. So those two “complaints” would be my only criticisms, otherwise, I’d say, if you like this band at all, you should absolutely buy both of these, because for one thing, that’s the best way to get the largest “set” possible, buying both gives you BOTH “Darshan” and “Jean The Birdman” – so it’s well worth the extra expense.
In conclusion, I absolutely enjoyed both mixes enormously, hearing them side by side, I could hear distinct differences, and wonderful similarities, and both Robert and David did an excellent job of representing one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen, on one of those great, unknown live albums, “Damage” for me, is an absolutely brilliant live performance, and now, I can listen to it in two completely excellent mixes – more music, more different viewpoints – a nice addition to the very small “Sylvian-Fripp” section in my CD library – but, very unexpected, I didn’t even KNOW there was a David Sylvian-mixed “Damage” until I noticed it on the Burning Shed website.
A great band, a great performance, and one of my top ten live albums of all time – maybe top five, not sure, as I have never written down my top ten favourite live albums. Get them both – you won’t be sorry !
So – bring out the stars… on the first day
on the first day.
King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924
For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.
I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:
November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus
August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego
June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University
(eleven years pass)
then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:
June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA
July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).
(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).
(nineteen years pass)
which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…
this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.
but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:
September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland
but I am getting ahead of myself…
the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.
the Soundscape faded down briefly. Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area. Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage. This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what. Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.
so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.
the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time. to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).
it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.
that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.
at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different. There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too. The “guitars” mix was better, too.
so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.
when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.
then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo. the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.
I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.
once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.
then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.
I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”, etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!
speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.
I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.
I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.
the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.
Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.
from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.
oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision. I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.
did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas. A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”. Shivers.
I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable: he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band. Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night. He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂
with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect. Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what? I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.
this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.
I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs. Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.
and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track. Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers. Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!
the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.
A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.
meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.
finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.
the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.
the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.
my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…
the melodies stay with you for days. you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.
its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.
and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody. sigh.
I had a notion…
on August 3rd this year, I went from having Notion for IPad as my main compositional tool and constant companion, to sitting here once again, rebuilding the instrument database yet again, and after a full ELEVEN DAYS of having no working Notion, and the score I was working on, which was truncated and horribly damaged, has now been “repaired” three times by Presonus themselves…I’m now walking muttering to myself “well, I had a Notion…”.
I hadn’t realised how very under my skin this handy little app had gotten, I was locked into a happy routine of working on a score almost every day (for something like two years now!) and truly looking forward to that time, too. To suddenly be without it, and, to have a two month old score ripped into pieces by the app that gave birth to it…I was nearly traumatised by that, to be honest.
Why did this happen?
I can answer that with just two words:
Presonus rolled out a massive, sweeping update to Notion for IPad, at a point in time that for me, was and still is, utterly disastrous. A two month old score, more than 90 percent complete…
Woke up one day, turned on Notion…and 90 percent of my score just disappeared. Like magic, but not the good kind of magic. The bad kind. The kind where you push “play”, and the first eight bars roll by as usual, you hear the familiar glockenspiel and timpani introduction with the crashing, distorted guitar chord…and then, while the music is still playing…
the screen goes blank. Bars 9 thru 200 and something, are now just a big, white, empty, probably scrolling sheet of nothing.
Panic. I never made a single audio mix of the track. Not one. Why would I? … When it wasn’t finished.
Right now, I am really wishing I had, because I will consider it to be a minor miracle if I do fully recover this piece of alternative jazz-rock-something genre music…which still remains unknown.
Several very unhappy email exchanges with Presonus later, I just received the “fixed” file from their support guy. I just played it back now.
There’s good news and other news. The good news is, they did manage to rebuild the score’s notation, the frightening empty white pages are gone, and the piece is complete again. Huge relief there, the piece may survive…
However…almost all of the sounds, have defaulted back to pianos. Both guitars, became pianos. The jazz trumpet part…became a piano. Both of the Jazz trumpets, I should say, 1 and 2…now pianos. The solo trumpet,whose unmistakably voice was critical to one part of the song…is now a piano. The really good news? Hmmm. The English Horn still works, and, it even still sounds good. Unlike the rest.
The drums seem ok. The bass guitar is absent, so I guess that it, too, is now…a piano
I re-installed the app a couple days ago, while the guy was “fixing” my score.
I had tried to re-download or restore / re-load the instruments a couple times, you have to leave your iPad on and open until it completes, which, when you have the “all” bundle…takes a few hours. I left it on all night as usual…
Then the fun part comes. You get a message saying: “All your sounds have successfully downloaded”. Ha ha ha ha ha!!! VERY funny. Not even true, either, usually. Not reliable.
So you try your broken score again…but the glockenspiel is missing. And you then find that in reality, NOT all your sounds have downloaded. So you have to restart the process…again. And sometimes, again. Before you can even try to save your piece.
Why is the glockenspiel missing? Why because, it’s not part of the “all” package, it’s a separate download, because it’s “free”. Only in this case, “free” means, you can have this instrument, but you need to “register” with your full name and email address. So that’s a cost, you have to give up your personal info, if you want the “free’ glockenspiel. That’s actually, more like mild extortion.
Truth be told, right now, the way I feel…I’d rather I’d just paid too much for it, than get it for “free”. Jumping through Presonus’ hoops once, mildly annoying. Twice, quite annoying. Thrice, very, very effing annoying. And when you have to enter your details that fourth or fifth time….you’d rather eat your own hair by then.
They don’t think about that,about what an annoyance and what a waste of precious time, it is, to type in your email address over and over and over and over and OVER again. When you are already, maybe, the most unhappy customer a vendor could really possibly have. Why would you put a good customer through that?
Haste makes waste. It’s not like I am using one of my old IPad 2s, here. I’m running this app on state of the art hardware. It should be perfect in this clean environment. Instead, it’s not just messed up, it’s majorly messed up.
They’ve done one update…the one that wiped out my score, and they are doing another one “soon” to fix these issues. In my humble, unsolicited opinion…that app was FAR FROM READY to see the light of day. Not even close!! Clearly, it cannot have been tested properly? I expect better from my vendors, and I am feeling mightily disappointed right now.
To their credit, they are trying to make it right. But the disruption it’s caused me, the trauma of my nearly complete breakthrough-new-genre-defying piece of music being so damaged, but worst of all, my daily compositional time is taken away, for almost two weeks.
And now, I am waiting for instruments to download…waiting. Still waiting…
I had a Notion.
Yet…I love this product. It enabled me to (re)learn notation, which I did understand, but had never written. My first half a year with it, I wrote notation, and in that first full year, I learned that I could write classical music, I could write jazz, I could write alternative music…with notation, much was possible than was not possible in my pre-Notion pre-IPad days.
I’ve gained skill as a serious composer of serious work, I am now on my fifth piece of classical music, thanks to Notion, so until they broke it, it had been a real game-changer for me…a brilliant piece of kit.
The beauty of the IPad version, was that portability. Work on your pieces anywhere, anytime, thru headphones, thru Bluetooth speaker…fantastic. Hear your changes instantly. Compose on the fly…truly brilliant. I am really missing that, and I hope I can go back to it, soon,
However. I have not been idle during the unfolding of this great Notional drama.
Some good things have been happening, too. Believe it or not.
A new song in Gadget, which utilises the new Korg iM1, their beautiful emulation of the classic M1 synthesiser, heavily. It’s only perhaps, a minute or so in length so far, but it’s really coming along nicely. I can’t really describe it, except to say it has a quasi classical / jazzy fender Rhodes intro, and from there, breaks into M1 drum kits, mellotron emulation and nothing quite sure what else is happening, but it’s definitely going to be a song,,,I can just tell! Watch for that eventually, “from hero to zero” it’s called, on the Gadget eternal album.
Work continues apace on “the complete unknown”, my first long form piece of progressive rock, made with mostly real instruments. It’s currently at stereo reduction version 8; which means in lay terms, that the acoustic guitar duo-then-trio, has been built (including a final eight hour acoustic recording session last Saturday, ouch), and, along with an extemporaneous live iPad improv using the remarkable TC-11 touch controlled synth, those two pieces have bridged the second intentionally silent section, meaning that this is the first version to play continuously (i.e. no silences) ; the first version featuring the acoustic guitar / TC-11 synth bridging piece; and the first version to be at the extended current running time of 15:57. The previously tested mix, Version 5, was a minute or so shorter.
What does it sound like…well, it’s still early days in some respects, but there are Rickenbacker basses (dedicated to the late, great Chris Squire, who was a huge inspiration to me as a guitarist, I thought of him constantly whilst composing the bass guitar parts of this song) – so maybe, at a stretch, you could say, “Yes-like basses”…at a stretch,
Powerful drum parts, in the Dave Stafford style, with two silent sections that were back filled later on…and lots and lots of vintage keyboards…Hammond organ, mellotrons, and featuring a keyboard quartet of vintage keys, a one minute-14 second “intro” to the piece proper…but, no electric guitars yet, or guitar synths.
That’s next; wish me luck!!
Best of all, as of a few days ago, Phase One of a Very Large Ambient Music Project is now complete.
Because of that, I’ve now increased the number of scapes available on the scape eternal album, to a nice round 100 !! So please, go and have a listen…always free to listen.
So until I can change “I had a Notion” back into “I have a Notion”, and my composing ritual can be safely re-established, you will have to make do with reports of other projects, of which, as always, there are many, and, a rather large number of new Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers samples to delight in, contained with the last 30 or 40 scapes uploaded…happy ambient Eno/DNA/ambient dreaming…
“you wake up one morning…w”
strangely, today, I find myself working on audio mixes, not that that in itself is strange, but in this case, it’s audio mixes of live performances of a song that I never, ever dreamed that I would perform in any context, anywhere – but there it is: my second attempt, too – I’d tried it out originally, during the recording session of 20150222, but couldn’t get a take that I was happy with, so I let it go for a while – until april 19th, to be exact – when I sat down specifically to record a little-known, rare Van Der Graaf Generator b-side entitled “W”.
I had only just re-discovered this track, when I was working on other acoustic Hammill songs, it suddenly struck me during the February sessions, I should see if I can capture one of my strange renderings of this song – so I did try. And while some of the takes were close, none were good enough to properly do justice to this rather unusual song.
hence – trying again later, which in this case, is a dedicated session to “W” – twelve takes in all, about an hour and ten minutes of session time, doing live take after take, working out the arrangement, working on the vocal – and just trying to get to a version that would indeed, do justice to the song, at least, as well as I can with my strangely gentle, twangy California accent – hardly the accent to tackle the Peter Hammill canon, but – that’s what I do – I spent many years, learning many, many Hammill and Van Der Graaf songs, and now, I find, I’d like to record them – all of them, although the amount of relearning needed my be prohibitive in some cases, while age lowering my voice might make others impossible…who knows??
but for whatever reason – I found myself trying to do this song, live, with one acoustic guitar – or rather, with an acoustic guitar substitute, which is my roland gr-55 guitar synth. because my real acoustic guitar is unhappy, I had to use the synth instead, which, admittedly, does look a bit odd, in the video, but it had to be – and it does a reasonable job, I have to say – not bad. It certainly sounds acoustic on playback, and of course, I can’t resist giving it a bit of “sparkly”, by using the Waves Reel ADT plug in on it – give it some Beatles chorus or flanging – which is about the right era, “W” might have been written in the late 60s, I don’t really know, in fact, I only have two versions of it – one is the live version (from 1971) that I “grew up with”, which, oddly enough, has only just recently been released officially, on the new Van Der Graaf Generator CD “After The Flood” – At The BBC 1968 – 1977 – that live version,which is to me, an absolute Van Der Graaf rarity, coming from a rare 1971 John Peel concert, which had only previously been available on bootleg – which is where I had heard it.
years later, I also acquired the “studio” version, which again, isn’t that easy to find, but it’s out there, and of course, I had to have it – beyond that, I don’t know if there are a lot of other live versions out there, I doubt that they played it much after 1971, I am not sure about the song’s history, but I am sure of one thing: the effect it had on me, as a young Peter Hammill fan, I just think it is an amazing performance, led initially by Dave Jackson’s amazing horn playing, and it’s odd and wonderful to hear Hammill singing and playing live on acoustic guitar – with the rest of the band, playing in a subtle and wonderful way, Hugh Banton coaxing some of the oddest and most wonderful harmonics from his Hammond drawbars – I love the organ playing on that live version, I love everything about it – it’s just one of those odd tracks that sticks in your head for some reason- I really loved that particular bootleg – it had the first three Van Der Graaf songs I ever heard on it, in this order:
Which is actually reverse order from the real session, but that’s just bootlegs for you (in this case, “Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – what a title!).
And while all three tracks were absolutely mind-blowing to this young man, who was just discovering this remarkable band, over time, it’s “W” that has stuck with me the most – although “Man-Erg” is a close second – I just love these performances, it’s a great session, and it’s really great to have it officially released at LAST – thank you. That is not to downplay “Killer”, but I can’t perform “Killer”, although I can play the main riff – the connection is, over the years, I have learned, practised, and performed both “Man-Erg” and “W“ – while with “Killer”, I can only sit and listen in astonishment – especially when David Jackson takes THAT solo – wow. Amazing stuff.
So – at a session meant to capture “acoustic guitar songs” by Peter Hammill, where I’d performed both “Shingle Song” and “Again” – it suddenly struck me – hey, you could play “W” !!! Or – could I?
My first attempts were spirited, but flawed, mostly, it’s the guitar playing that got me, although the vocal does present certain challenges….so I abandoned the 20150222 takes (reluctantly) and am now currently embracing the 20150419 takes – which give us a completely different story – more of an embarrassment of riches, than anything else.
By this time, after about three warm-up takes, both the guitar arrangement, and the carefully designed vocal part (where I have to omit at least one high note that I can ALMOST hit, but I don’t want to risk – so I have made a slight change to the melody in one place, so as not to embarrass myself every time) have come together pretty well, they are both reasonably well developed – and starting with take four, and going on through take 12 – the takes are all good!! With tiny variances, very difficult to note, and making it very, very difficult to “choose” between takes, when they are mostly all, so very good. Basically, there are 8 good takes out of 12, with five of those being near perfect or with only very slight faults, and the other three, only slightly less perfect.
Every take has something of merit, so I have really had my work cut out for me here: how do you, when you have eight out of twelve good takes, make any decisions at all – how to know which one is “the” take. The answer: listening. Of course…once you start really listening, all of the tiniest errors find their way to the surface – which, allows you to cast out more and more takes for more and more small reasons – until you are left with what is, truly, “best”.
You have to listen and listen, perhaps focusing in on one aspect of the performance each time – for example, it was important to me that the guitar take contain a clean four bars of introduction, and that the same four bars, when repeated later as an instrumental “solo” of sorts, that those are also as flawless as possible – and also, the ending is important, I’d added on this crazy “Fripp”-chord as the final ending, and the quality of it varied on every track – with a few most excellent, others, just OK, and then, of course, I wanted a take with a really good vocal…luckily for me, there isn’t as much variation between the vocal takes – so in the end, it was really about where the best, most consistent, guitar playing was, and it had to be a whole take, obviously – with one exception – I could, potentially, since there is a silence while I sing the last line of the song – I could potentially “swap out” the ending chord, if for example, I had a great take (like Take 11, for example) but the ending chord was a bit better, a bit cleaner, on Take 12 – then, maybe, I might take a slight liberty and improve the audio, by having a better, cleaner chord – which of course, I would tell my listeners (if I decide not to use an entirely live take, then I would say “live performance of take 11 – except for the final chord – which was borrowed from take 12” – or whatever I had done) – or maybe, I would just decide to keep whatever ending the “best” over all take had – it depended on what sounded best.
I wanted what sounds best, so I really have to trust my ears, and say ” this take, this one is it” – and then stick by that decision – then, do everything in my power as both producer, and as engineer, to make this take sound as humanly good as possible – or as humanly possible. At this point in time, during my second or third re-assessment of the 12 takes, I believe that Take 11 is the master – I can’t find much fault with it, but, I do tend to like the end chord of Take 12, very much indeed – and, Take 11 itself is not bad – so I need to decide between these two, I think.
I get to this point, and then I think – yes, but, what about those early takes, where I was a bit unprepared, but maybe there is a bit more spontaneity, maybe…so I find myself back again, listening to take four, take five, and so on – trying to rule these “earlier” takes out for one reason or another – but it’s difficult, because they are good. I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t produce two or three of these – and that is a distinct possibility, it’s definitely do-able, because these takes are so uniformly good – it’s strange, because I had such a struggle playing the song on February 22, 2015, but on April 19th, I had no such issues, and every take from take four onwards, has a life and a feel of it’s own. Heck – maybe I should produce ALL of them, warts and all…it’s such a temptation, it really is. But I really want to pick just one, and I really need to narrow it down – so I just keep doing the only thing a good producer can do – listen, listen, and then, listen again.
After a long afternoon of listening, and then listening again, I was forced to exclude the majority of the earliest takes – 4 through 9, basically – because the guitar intros and solo sections were too imperfect. Even take 11, which is closer to perfect, is still imperfect, but, it’s so much better than takes 4 through 9, that it makes enough of a difference – it’s a good take! So now, it’s pretty much going to be a race between Take 11 and Take 12…
Finally then, some full on tests, with levels properly set, limiter on, and the final, finishing touch – my beautiful Waves Reel ADT Plug-Ins – a stereo one for the vocal, and another stereo one for the guitar – and just adding those on, makes such a huge difference to the sound – it’s just remarkable.
And what this meant was, that, the imperfections in Take 11, seemed worse, while the relative perfection of Take 12 – seemed apparent, so adding the Reel ADT plug in, made it possible finally, to choose between the two “best” takes – and 12 – the very last take of the session – has it all, at least, to the extent that anyone can “cover” such an unusual song with one guitar synth, set to “acoustic guitar”, and a shure sm-58 vocal mike !!
Not that it’s particularly difficult to play, the chords are easy enough – but the lyrics certainly are not. “double you” – seeing yourself from another perspective, as other things occur to the other “you” – is a strange point of view for a song; you wake up one morning, and there are two of you, which makes you twice as unhappy (as it would, if you were unhappy) a strange tale told of this man, immobilised, almost, only able to look out the window, and see the smoke “billowing across the lawn” or only able to drag himself downstairs, to specifically find out that “you are gone…!”.
At the end of the song, you wake up (again) – look to your left, but you see no reassuring head – you then stayed in bed all day, when, at six o’clock, you realised – that you’re dead. A short, unhappy tale, with a strange atmosphere, strange lyrics – definitely one of the oddest of all Peter Hammill-penned songs. But at the same time – a strangely compelling one.
A very strange perspective, the classic sort of “seeing yourself laid out on the table”, and realising that it’s you, it’s YOU that are dead – that’s very odd, and it’s no wonder the band didn’t perform this often, what with it’s somewhat cheerless lyrics – not the most cheerful tune ever written by the sometimes-unusually-morbid Hammill (as he could be, back then) – who, while known for tackling difficult, or uncomfortable subjects, rarely tackles a subject like this one, in such an inflammatory way, too – practically a primer for how to leave your body, which some might view as the ultimate “suicide” song – I don’t, I view it as a man having the odd experience of seeing his own body, suspended in space, whilst realising that the body is dead – not having realised it earlier in the day. more metaphysical than death wish, if you know what I mean. but I think each listener has to decide for himself or herself, what the song means – because even though I am singing it here – I absolutely do not know.
So the sort of day-long purgatory of trudging around the house, knowing something is wrong, dragging yourself downstairs – and finding that you are gone…that longest day finally ends in the sudden realisation that there is a very specific reason that there are two of you, that you have woken up and it’s a “double you” situation – “W” – because, you have passed away, of course!
The rate that our hero realises at, well it take a few minutes, which gives the song time enough to get through it’s purgatory phase – and then, it’s all over, in a blinding flash of – well, in the real live version, it’s a wonderful, sonically crushing organ chord and bass note, accompanied by a crashing horn note from David Jackson – which I have chosen, for unknown reasons only known to the other half of me, to represent in this version with a very long, loud, dissonant “Fripp” chord – that was the only thing I could do, safely, on an acoustic guitar, that might work as a facsimile organ/sax ending – and I suppose, sonically, it could be worse – it’s a decent choice. originally, back in February, I wasn’t returning on the guitar at the end, after the final two words – I was just letting the last two words, be the last thing you heard in the song – but I think the frantic, crazy guitar chord is just the ticket, and it was an absolute joy to try to play – even though, I only got it “right” about once in every 12 attempts 🙂
I was as happy as I could be with the guitar arrangement, and the vocal arrangement, and then, it was just down to the playing – and luck – and in the end, “practice made perfect” or at least, practice made it bearable…and I finally stayed with Take 12, and started working with the track – until I got a sound I liked, and was happy enough with – I mean, it is live, and it’s only as good as it’s two simple components, so there is not much you can do to improve the performance itself – it is what it is.
I think you can tell that I love this song, that I love to sing it – I hope that comes across in the video, it was an incredible surprise to me, that I could actually play it, and I so much enjoyed singing and playing it, it was a real pleasure – and I am really glad that I did learn this song so many years ago, because at least it came back pretty quickly – which is great. What a nice surprise, to have an old friend like this turn up out of nowhere – and still be unchanged, as familiar as when I first knew them – a good, good surprise!
In the end, it took me almost two full days of work, and four attempts at getting the right sound, before I could produce an audio track of “W“, completely live (I decided, in the end, that the completely live take 12 was the best bet, no messing about – warts and all – not quite perfect – but, not too bad!) that I am happy enough with, and now, I am assembling not just the video for “W” live, but also, a strange special bonus video – what happened directly AFTER the end of the successful take.
so I’ve produced two audio tracks, and am working on two videos, one for the live version of “W“, using the whole of take 12 as it’s master, and the second, which I am calling “improv on a theme – stone free (james marshall hendrix) – live – post take 12” which is approximately one minute worth of digital recording time directly following the final “Fripp” chord that ends take 12 of “W” – for the first time ever, I’ve decided to release some “non-song” footage, featuring a spontaneous jam on “stone free” by jimi hendrix – notably, a song that I have never played, never learned, and have no idea how it goes!!
it’s only really “on theme” for about the first 17 seconds, and it then wanders off into random imaginary hendrix octave playing – and then dissolves completely into a fatigue-driven crazy, climbing riff of uncertain description – remember, I’d just spent an hour and ten minutes filming, and recording, no less than 12 complete or near complete takes of “W” by peter hammill – so I was pretty tired. but the hendrix tune just sounds so good with that odd, acoustic guitar tone, and having the whammy available on the “acoustic” sound is so strange, too – so I just thought – why not?
so for the very first time anywhere, about 54 seconds of “what happened after the last take” has been included, which, I should warn you, some pretty lame guitar playing at the end – I plead fatigue, and I wasn’t really trying to play anything – this Hendrix thing appeared – and then just as quickly – disappeared – leaving me with nowhere to go but out. I just thought it was OK, an interesting glimpse, an epilogue if you will, to the best live take of “W“, and it shows a little bit about how my mind works – or maybe – doesn’t work – I am working on a serious Peter Hammill song, and yet, during the break – I jump into “Stone Free” by Jimi Hendrix.
I begin to think that it’s been far, far too long since I was in a band.
“under the influence” (beatlesque)
I wanted to take a little time to try to give some indication of the vast scope and reach of the influence of the Beatles, and in particular, their influence on other musicians. This has inspired everything from direct Beatle parodies such as “The Rutles” (featuring Neil Innes and Eric Idle) to tracks that sound very Beatle-like (such as any number of Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, The Move, Roy Wood, Knickerbockers, songs – and many, many others – see lists below) to whole albums of Beatles tribute (such as Utopia’s brilliant and very musical Beatles spoof album, “Deface The Music”, from 1980).
Even the world of jazz was invaded by the music of the Beatles, from Wes Montgomery and other guitarists of the day, inventing their own jazz versions of Beatles tracks, or someone of the stature of Ramsey Lewis, making, in 1968, an entire album of Beatles covers, all taken, amazingly, from the Beatles then-current 1968 “White Album” – in a completely unique and extremely jazz way.
Awesome inspiration, across all genres of music – the music of the Beatles actually can be called “universal” in its appeal, given the strange and disparate characters who breathe new life into a huge, huge range of covers and tributes and sound-alikes, from the very ordinary covers, to the truly bizarre spoofs, jokes and odd variations that abound the world over – everybody under the sun has had a crack at covering a Beatles song – and some go much, much further, either creating amazing near-carbon copies of Beatles songs (such as 1976’s “Faithful” album by Todd Rundgren – his “faithful” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is exquisite) or creating music that sounds so much like the Beatles, that it is actually thought to be by the Beatles (for some unknown reason, “Klaatu” was one such band, where folk thought that it was actually the Beatles, performing anonymously six or seven years after they had broken up…but, it was not).
For my money, there are other artists who create original music that is much, much closer in content and feel than the music of “Klaatu” (but, don’t get me wrong, “Klaatu” are a remarkable, very capable, and very interesting band to listen to – and, little-known fact, they are the actual authors and creators of the original version of the Carpenters’ hit single, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” – not too many people know that in that case, the Carpenters were doing a cover of…“Klaatu” !
I think, though, that in many ways, that the Beatles, and to a somewhat lesser extent, The Beach Boys, had a huge influence on musicians all over the world. From Apples In Stereo to XTC, there are so many musicians, including some pretty unlikely characters, that have either covered Beatles songs faithfully (or unfaithfully in some cases), or have created either songs and/or albums of songs that mirror, mimic or even mock, the sound of the Fab Four.
I think that it’s very true what they say, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if that is true, then the Beatles have been flattered until they are completely flat, because so, so many musicians have cited them as a major influence, and have unashamedly copied their songs, their sound, their harmonies, their guitar playing, their bass playing, their song structures and so on – and the list of people who do cite the Beatles as a musical influence is just simply too long to print in this forum.
What always surprises me is the number of extremely progressive musicians who claim a serious Beatle influence, when you listen to the music of a band like Yes, or King Crimson – you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think “Beatles” – but Yes were obviously fans of the band, in the early days, they covered the Beatles “Yes It Is”, and I believe that both Steve Howe and Chris Squire have said they are fans of the Beatles music. Robert Fripp has also acknowledged the influence of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on him upon hearing the whole album on his car radio one fateful evening, and Beatles references are embedded, sometimes deeply, into the music of King Crimson – “Happy Family” from the third Crimson album, “Lizard” is an unconcealed tale of the Beatles breakup, penned by then-Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.
So sometimes, there are Beatle-influenced bands and musicians, where the music made by those musicians, music sounds nothing like the Beatles to our ears – but for them, the Beatles still loom larger than life, buried deep in their internal, musical DNA – just waiting to get out, in the form of new songs that are about the Beatles, influenced by the Beatles, or simply sound like the Beatles, intentionally (usually) or not (occasionally). Perhaps yet another splinter-list should be “Songs That Sound Like The Beatles But Their Composers / Performers Did Not Intentionally Try To Sound Like The Beatles – It’s By Complete Accident” but I feel that my already non-legendary non-skills as a list producer have already fallen flat, and that’s too complicated for me to work out who did or did not “intend” to sound like the Beatles! I don’t think I can write that list – but if you can – please do, and please send it in, and if it’s complete enough, I will post it here.
Speaking now as a guitarist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guitarist who did not care for the guitar playing of John Lennon or George Harrison, nor have I ever met a bassist who did not respect the massive skills of Paul McCartney on the bass guitar – the absolute, indisputable master of melodic bass playing – and when I listen to Chris Squire play, I do hear echoes of Paul McCartney’s style in his playing – especially the “high register” bass work. This famed skill at playing beautifully in the higher and highest pitch ranges of the bass guitar has been imitated by many, but for me, well, it’s Todd Rundgren’s “Determination” that showcases this technique in an incredible way (see below for more on “Determination” ).
The same can absolutely be said for drummers admiring Ringo Starr, everyone knows that Ringo is not a “flashy” drummer, he doesn’t often “show off” but what Ringo has that many, many drummers do not have, is the steadiest tempo imaginable, and, a sense of when to play, and when not to – he always provides just the right amount of percussion to any given song, never overplays – just what is required. This is borne out when you hear live sessions by the Beatles, while John, Paul and George make error after error in the earliest takes of any given song, it’s rare indeed to hear the almost metronome-like Starr make an error.
Even guitarists who also play bass get the whole “Paul McCartney high-register bass playing” concept, as can be evidenced by the multi-talented Todd Rundgren, from his 1978 solo album “Hermit Of Mink Hollow”, there is a brilliant track called “Determination” , which not only features pitched up, trebled up, “jangly guitars” but a beautiful, beautiful, McCartney-esque bass line, that just pulls the heartstrings as it flies beneath the open chords, beginning in the high register, and then sweeping down to become a bass again – McCartney’s early adoption of unusual styles such as playing bass melodically, playing bass in the very high registers, or playing bass in any number of innovative ways, not always melodic – playing with his low E string slightly detuned (as in the song “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”) or, playing the low E string so hard that it detunes as he plays (as can be heard in parts of the song “Helter Skelter”) – has not gone unnoticed by Todd, and any number of other McCartney imitators. Speaking of McCartney imitators, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries also recognise the genius of the Beatles front line which is evidenced by songs that closely resemble Beatles songs in form and content, lyric and guitar styles.
I wish more drummers were like Ringo, well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – Zak Starkey, Ringo’s eldest son. Zak is a remarkably talented drummer in his own right (I was fortunate to see him perform with an early incarnation of “Ringo Starr’s All Stars” (a show which also happened to feature the above-mentioned Todd Rundgren) and, hearing Zak and Ringo Starkey nail the complex drum part of Todd’s “Black Maria” live was absolutely fantastic – Zak made it his own, but carried the band of mostly older musicians, through the set with his unshakeable rhythm, and he has certainly inherited Ringo’s steady hand – but Zak is also a thoroughly modern drummer, and in some ways, he goes far beyond his famous dad – which is what you might expect – I mean look at Jason Bonham, it’s the same thing, drummer with a famous drummer dad, and with that burden of being the son of a legend, they try that much harder to sound unique, and go beyond the “oh, he’s the son of Ringo…” or “oh, he’s the son of Jason” – and I am justifiably proud of both of them, for carving their own musical paths, and not relying on “dad” for their fame or ability, but making it on their own laurels.
witnessing one of the variations of “Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band”, on the 1989 tour featuring Todd Rundgren, it was remarkable to see Zak take sole control of the drums when Ringo went front and centre to sing, so for some of the classic Beatles songs that the band played, it was Zak on the drums rather than Ringo himself, but it absolutely mattered not, Zak did an amazing job on tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “It Don’t Come Easy” – and at other times, father and son played together, and that was truly a joy to see – amazing !
Two generations of Starkey’s, doing what they do best – playing the drums, and playing the music of the Beatles too – among other items from the various band members such as the aforementioned Todd cover – and “Black Maria” live with Zak AND Ritchie Starkey is not something I shall forget any time soon – fantastic”!
And, because it was Todd’s big moment, Ringo was free to join Zak on drums, so it was the pair of them behind Todd – and you could see in Ringo’s face how much he enjoyed playing the song (I believe it was included in the set list, because Ringo always had liked the song, so much so that he insisted that it be the “Rundgren” moment in the concert – it being his favourite track off of Todd Rundgren’s seminal 1972 album, “Something / Anything”) and Zak was just head down getting on with the drum part – and that is the only time I’ve ever seen the song performed with two drummers – and if those drummers are Ringo and Zak Starkey, you know it’s going to go well – and it was an excellent cover, absolutely spot-on, and a real highlight of the show.
I don’t think anyone can argue that the Beatles had a very, very significant influence on musicians of many generations, and new generations of players are discovering the Beatles anew even now, in 2014, and are translating their experience of hearing Beatles material into their own new “musics” – so the process continues, of hearing songs influenced by the Beatles, even in new music created by young musicians – because, in 2014, maybe they just heard “Revolver” for the first time, and it absolutely blew their minds – just like it blew our minds back in 1966 when we (now, unbelievably, now we’re the “older generation”!) first heard it.
And – it’s undeniable – this is unforgettable music, genius music from the writing to the playing to the singing and even to the packaging – Beatle imagery is also something that has been oft-copied, and some of their most famous album cover designs have been copied again and again by so many bands.
Some of those copies are more on the side of parody, for example, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention classic Beatles parody, made not that long after the original came out, “We’re Only In It For The Money” is directly made to look like a bizarre “version” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and in some ways, the cover is the biggest part of the joke – the music on the album (which is brilliant, by the way – one of my favourite early Zappa / Mothers records) is not nearly as important to the parody as the album design was. But the whole effect is…kind of hilarious 🙂
In particular, some of the most famous Beatles album covers, such as the “bendy” photographs of the band that graces the cover of their innovative “Rubber Soul” album have been imitated by many other bands, time and time again. Even in the earliest days, the unusual photographs of photographer Robert Freeman (as in, the classic shot of the Beatles silhouetted against a dark background) as on “With The Beatles” (UK) or it’s US counterpart, “Meet The Beatles” has been copied many times over the last few decades. But revolutionary cover art is difficult to come up with, so bands just borrow from the best…The Beatles.
No article about Beatles’ influence would be complete without mentioning two gentlemen from different eras of pop music, firstly, the ridiculously talented eric stewart of 10cc, who has performed Beatles songs live in concert with 10cc, and also has an undeniable streak of “beatlesque” harmony and sound on various tracks throughout the long career of 10cc – the best example is probably part 1 and part 3 of 10cc’s pop opus, “feel the benefit” – very “dear prudence” if I don’t mind saying so myself :-). the other gentleman in question is from a couple of decades later, from the 1990s and beyond, and that is Jason Falkner; unwilling conscript into pop genius band “jellyfish”, after he escaped their clutches, went off on a very successful if low-key solo career – and again, the sound of his vocal harmonies, the beautiful chord progressions in his music tell me one thing: he, like Eric Stewart before him, is under the influence of the Beatles. Personally – I cannot get enough of the music of 10cc or Jason Falkner, two generations apart, perhaps, but, united in their love for Beatle harmonies, jangly Beatle guitars, beautiful Beatle chord progressions, and even Beatle-like lyrics.
I started out writing this edition of the Beatles’ story by trying to create various lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, and then, albums inspired by the Beatles, and I was really only able to touch upon a very few – I know that I have missed out so, so many – and everyone has a different “take” on what bands sound like the Beatles, what albums are directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles and so on.
Regarding my attempts at filling in these lists – I am ultimately not satisfied by my primitive attempts at “list-making”, and in searching the Internet for valid lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, I kept finding lists that made no sense to me, personally – that would always include every big rock band of the day, so it would always be “Pink Floyd”, “The Who”, “Jimi Hendrix” – and I don’t think any of those bands sound like the Beatles at all ! Yet, site after site would cite (ha ha, get it – site – cite) Hendrix or Pink Floyd as a Beatle sound-alike – but I cannot bring myself to agree with this, yes, Hendrix loved the Beatles, he played bit of Beatle melody in the middle of his own songs, he covered many Beatles songs – but, he doesn’t really SOUND like the Beatles, does he? Maybe very vaguely, on a song like “Crosstown Traffic” perhaps – but, I’d say, if anything, that Hendrix influenced the Beatles, as much or more than the Beatles influenced Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix sounds like…Jimi Hendrix, and no other, really – he is utterly unique. Hendrix did absolutely love the Beatles, and would indeed, often insert a perfect bar of George Harrison lead guitar, into one of his own original songs, in live performance – and then give a little laugh, like it’s an “in-joke” – “here’s a cool melody that I nicked off of the new Beatles disc, it’s called “Revolver…”.
As for Pink Floyd, it would take some real convincing for me to add them into the list – I love a bit of early Floyd as much as anyone, but I do not hear echoes of the Fab Four in their music (you saw what I did there….”Echoes”…Pink Floyd – and, it was completely unintentional!) I am afraid I just don’t get it, these constant references to Pink Floyd sounding like the Beatles – maybe they are talking about the odd Syd Barrett track, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem right to me….so I did not add them in :-). Yes, the Beatles and Pink Floyd did both play psychedelic music, but it was very different in nature – so, no, I don’t see the connection, musically.
So – please send in your additions and corrections to any of the lists, and I will update them periodically to reflect world opinion – I am not a Beatle expert (although I have read extensively about them, in particular, I started out years ago with Hunter Davies’ remarkable biography of the Beatles; in later years, I’ve studied the remarkable works of Mark Lewissohn, whose “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is like the Bible, to me, one of my most cherished and most often re-read Beatles information sources).
I will read anything and everything written about the Beatles, even now – and I cannot possibly compile complete lists of the type I am presenting here, so any and all input from readers would be much appreciated – please comment, and in your comments, submit corrections or additions to any of the lists, and every few months, I will compile all of the comments and update the lists – so over time, maybe, these lists will become relatively complete – which would be great, because we would be creating a useful, accurate, and complete Beatle resource – or rather, a resource of bands and albums that SOUND like the Beatles, anyway – why not?
Meanwhile, on the subject of the Beatles music, I’ve been very happily really enjoying my two latest Beatle purchases: from 2013, the two-double-CD “Live At The BBC” – volume 1 (from 1994) completely remastered, and a new volume 2 entitled “On Air” which is a fantastic addition to this wonderful series – four CDs chock full of radio performances, studio out-takes, and the Beatles chattering – a fantastic Beatles music resource, of early live tracks and one demo, and at this point I say, thank God for the BBC ! Luckily, they kept all of these Beatle recordings, so now they have been compiled for future generations to enjoy.
My other purchase, “The U.S. Albums” is a 13 disc monstrosity, but hearing the albums in the U.S. running orders for the first time since I was a child, is just remarkable – even though John Lennon condemned Capitol for messing with the Beatles’ carefully considered running orders, the odd, arbitrary, Capitol-created running orders are unfortunately for we Americans, what we grew up hearing, so even now, I am still startled by the UK releases – because the songs don’t arrive in the order my brain expects they will. So now I have complete choice – if I want the real thing, I consult the Stereo and Mono boxes from 2009. If I want the Capitol versions – I consult the US Albums from 2014 – very exciting stuff for Beatle-maniacs such as myself 🙂
The last time I bought this many Beatles CDs all at one go, was in 2009, when the long-awaited stereo and mono re-masters appeared – and of course, that was an essential purchase. Following that, though, I am truly amazed, and at the same time, very grateful indeed, that in 2014, I can almost casually pick up 17 “new” Beatles albums – four from the BBC, and 13 from Capitol – and that just makes my Beatles catalogue so much more complete and containing even more variations on their remarkable catalogue of music – beautiful, rockin’ Beatle music.
So we’ve gone down an alternative path this time, a path taken by the many, many musicians who revere the Beatles, and admire their music enough to copy it exactly, partially, or, some aspect of Beatle music has entered into their own songs, anything from a guitar riff to some high register bass work of a melodic nature, or a steady Ringo Starr back beat – so sometimes, you may have a completely unique song, but there is a section of it that REALLY recalls the Beatles very strongly – so, five percent of the song is 98 percent Beatle-like – but, the REST of the song is not !
As a musician and a guitarist, I do hear a lot of these “stand-alone” Beatle moments, it might be a few bars of music in a Jason Falkner or Michael Penn pop song that strongly remind one of the Beatles, or just a 10 second passage in a song on the radio – you hear “Beatlesque” bits of music almost every day, and I am often fascinated by them, sometimes, you work in your mind to try and figure out which Beatles song or songs is being referenced – sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes, it’s impossible to determine – but you do know, just by hearing, when something has the quality of being “Beatlesque”.
Lists Of Bands That Sound Suspiciously Like The Beatles
Bands Or Artists That Always Sound Like The Beatles:
Bands Or Artists That Often Sound Like The Beatles:
Badfinger – an Apple band
James McCartney – son of Paul McCartney
The Move – featuring Roy Wood
Raspberries – featuring Eric Carmen
The Swinging Blue Jeans
Bands Or Artists That Occasionally Sound Like The Beatle
Apples In Stereo
The Bears – featuring Adrian Belew
Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) – solo artist
Electric Light Orchestra – featuring Jeff Lynne
Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish) – solo artist
Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison
Jellyfish – featuring Jason Falkner
Julian Lennon – son of John Lennon
Jeff Lynne – Electric Light Orchestra – Harrison’s producer / member of Traveling Wilburys
Aimee Mann – solo artist
Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) – solo artist
Nazz – featuring Todd Rundgren
The New Number 2 – featuring Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison
Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)
Michael Penn – solo artist
Michael Penn & Aimee Mann – couple (they did an incredibly lovely cover of “two of us” – gorgeous track)
Todd Rundgren – solo artist
Teenage Fanclub – Scottish pop band
Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren
Roy Wood (ex-Move) – solo artist
XTC – featuring Andy Partridge
Bands That Sound Suspiciously Sort Of Like The Beatles
Oasis – (in their dreams, anyway!)
Albums That Are Directly Inspired By The Beatles
Fresh – Raspberries – 1974
Faithful – Todd Rundgren – 1976 (all covers album, including Beatles covers)
The Rutles – The Rutles – 1978
Archaeology – The Rutles – 1996
Deface The Music – Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren – 1980
We’re Only In It For The Money – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – 1968
– visual parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Well-Known Known Admirers Of The Beatles – Musicians
Jon Anderson (ex-Yes)
Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson)
Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries)
Robert Fripp (King Crimson)
Liam Gallagher (ex-Oasis)
Noel Gallagher (ex-Oasis)
Steve Howe (Yes)
Eric Idle (ex-Rutles)
Graham Gouldman (10cc)
Jimi Hendrix (may he rest in peace)
Neil Innes (Rutles)
Aimee Mann (solo artist)
Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)
Michael Penn (solo artist) – brother of Sean Penn
Todd Rundgren (solo artist) – w/Nazz, Utopia
Chris Squire (Yes)
Eric Stewart (10cc)
Alan White (Yes)
Please – agree or disagree with my choices; send in additions, recommend deletions, recommend changes – and if there is enough input, I will periodically re-published updated versions of any Beatles lists that have appear in this blog series based on your input.
Meanwhile, maybe there are some artists noted here that you were not aware of, that have obviously studied the music of the Beatles and learned from it, and I am always happy to listen to any musician or band that sounds like the Beatles – so, if I have missed any truly obvious ones – please let me know, and again, I will update the list, too.
Happy listening – the influence of the Fab Four runs deep, traverses the entire globe, and only seems to be on the increase over time, as successive generations re-discover their music (often prompted by their parents, but still…) and then integrate parts of it into their own new kinds of music – a process that I hope goes on forever.
Nothing would make me happier, “in the year 2025” (another 60s pop joke for the older folk in the audience!!), let’s say, to hear a brand new song on the radio that sounds very original, but, completely Beatlesque at the same time – that would please me no end, because we then will know – young people are still listening to the greatest rock band that ever was – the fabulous Beatles – and they rock!!
I don’t know about you, but I am definitely under the influence of the Beatles – always have been, always will be – my favourite band from childhood, the first band I truly appreciated, and in actual fact, I literally “grew up” with them and their music, it’s a joy to still be listening to them now, in the year 2014, and feeling just as happy about it as I first did back in 1963, when I must have heard them on the TV, on the Ed Sullivan show – being only five then, I don’t directly recall it, but as it was repeated on TV every year or more often every year thereafter, I feel like I do remember it – and I do remember their later TV appearances directly.
What a remarkable group, and what a remarkable influence they’ve had on a remarkably talented group of very respectful and creative musicians – my peers I am proud to say, who also “grew up” with the Beatles. There’s no better way to end up “under the influence…”
learning the beatle repertoire…
After a childhood dominated by the Beatles (I only had four long-playing vinyl LPs – all by the Beatles!) and their music, when I returned from Africa in 1971, armed with a rudimentary, self-taught knowledge of the guitar, one of the first things I did, was seek out other musicians to work with. it came as no surprise, somehow, that we already had something in common – we all loved the songs of the Beatles, and in almost every band I was ever in as a young teenager, we tried to learn Beatles songs – with varying degrees of success, I must hasten to add.
Two early bands, both joined when I was still in Junior High School, provided the vehicle – and I was one of the few who purported to play lead guitar (and I could, but, very, very haltingly, and, very, very slowly, and…not very well at this point in my life, age 13 – 14) I was “in” – it’s difficult to recall, and in fact, I have no idea what the name of either of these bands are, but for the sake of reference, I will call them the “Mike Lewis Band” and the “Stafford / Monaco” bands, respectively, because those were the alleged “leaders” of the two budding beat groups 🙂
There is even a recording of the “Stafford / Monaco” band, an amazingly good cassette tape (considering the age and the quality of the tape – recorded by my older brother John on a poor quality 120 minute tape, no less) of a live performance, where we tackle some Beatles numbers, and I even have a go at singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” – the verses only, no bridge 🙂
This is a perfect example of great enthusiasm for the material, from a group that did not have the chops or ability to play the songs particularly well – but – we were all just thirteen, so, I don’t really expect much out of either of these bands, to be honest! So if a few of our songs were missing bridges or the odd verse, it’s just the way things worked out…
I think the “Mike Lewis Band” was the first band I was in, Mike was a gregarious, friendly bass player / acoustic guitarist who spent his entire life forming bands, writing songs, and playing in bands – he was determined if not incredibly talented. I remember though that he and I did reach some dizzy heights, such as our attempts to play the beautiful acoustic guitar balled “Julia” from the Beatles “White Album” – I am happy that there is no tape of that ! But we even took turns singing the verses, so we could do the overlapping vocal bit – very sophisticated. But – “Julia” was not part of our repertoire, Mike and I would tend to play acoustic guitars just for fun, playing the songs of the day, and singing, and I can remember we learned and played “The Needle And The Damage Done” by Neil Young, which was also very popular at the time.
In the “Mike Lewis Band”, we started out as a three-piece band; I think, with Mike Lewis on bass and lead vocals, Mike Brooks on drums, and myself on lead guitar. Then Mike announced that he was going to bring around this amazing pianist that he knew of, to see if he would join our band. That was when I first met Ted Holding, who later on, would become my very best and dearest personal friend, but at this point in time, Ted was quiet, unassuming, with his long, straight blond hair hanging in his face – but when he sat down at the piano – it was a different story.
Ted had the voice of an angel, a far, far better voice than Mike (which I am sure didn’t please Mike too much) – but, Mike was smart enough to know that bringing in someone of Ted’s calibre truly strengthened the musicality of the band, so he set aside any feelings of inferiority – he had such bravado anyway, that he would probably never admit that Ted was miles beyond us all in terms of ability and talent. Ted on the piano – even at age 13 ! – was a revelation, and as we grew up together in the early 70s, I was privileged to watch Ted graduate from pop music, Beatles music, on through (of course) Elton John, and then, onto prog: learning the music of Genesis, ELP and so on, on the piano. I watched, I imitated, I begged him to teach me songs – so really, my own keyboard ability came along in leaps and bounds directly as a result of working with Ted – may he rest in peace.
I don’t remember that the “Mike Lewis Band” played a lot of gigs, although we must have played some, I’m really not sure – I remember practicing in the back bedroom at Mike’s parents’ house, spending a lot of time there either with the band, or working with Mike on new repertoire for the band. And that would have included some Beatles covers, although with this band, since it’s the farthest back, I literally cannot remember a single song that we actually played – the memories are gone, I’m afraid.
But – I do remember the “Stafford / Monaco” band a bit better, partially because of the taped show, and because it was later – I don’t know what happened to the “Mike Lewis Band”, but I ended up joining up with this kid Rick Snodgrass, and many an hour was spent at his parents’ house, learning songs and working out our repertoire. I brought along one of my new pals, who lived in my neighbourhood, around – our drummer (who also sang) – the very talented Brian Monaco.
Our set list included everything you would expect from a cover band in 1971: the Beatles (of course!), Creedence Clearwater Revival (of course!), the aforementioned John Lennon (and our half-cover of “Imagine”), and Santana, that kind of thing. For a band whose four members age was all exactly 13, we were remarkably accomplished. In those days, as was always the case in the early days of most bands it seems, there was a shortage of bass players – so we just didn’t have one. To compensate for this, we went from a standard two guitars and drums to a really confusing three guitars and drums – but somehow, we made it work – Rick brought in a friend of his on third guitar, so we had one rhythm guitarist (Rick) and two lead guitarists (myself and Tommy). Rehearsals could be a real row if we weren’t all in tune !
Excerpts from this rare concert are available on the pureambient blog companion page, where you can actually hear the “Stafford / Monaco” band’s primitive renditions of Beatles and other popular songs of the day – here are the tracks that have been uploaded so far (the rest will probably not be uploaded – but maybe someday), but even this partial set list is stacked very, very heavily in favour of our favourite band – the Beatles:
Stafford / Monaco Band Live At Johnson’s, 1971
3 Back In The U.S.S.R. – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco
7 Imagine – (the verses only, no bridge) – guitar & lead vocal, Dave Stafford
9 And I Love Her – (Instrumental Version)
16 Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco
17 Honey Don’t – acoustic guitar & lead vocal, Rick Snodgrass
22 Evil Ways
Tracks 1, 9 & 16 – Lennon / McCartney
Track 7 – Lennon
Track 10 – Fogerty
Track 13 – Hartford
Track 17 – Perkins
Track 20 – Medley / Russell
Track 22 – Henry
Now, one shouldn’t approach this as a great musical tribute to the Beatles or any of the bands we covered, we were very, very young, very inexperienced, but I will say, we were enthusiastic, and Rick’s parents were endlessly supportive, too, giving us advice, listening, and making suggestions – it was a very positive experience overall. What we lacked in experience and proficiency, was made up for by our burning desire to play the music that we loved – and, in later years, when I was in my late teens, I did participate in Beatles covers that sound much, much better than these very primitive versions, with typical very-old-cassette bad sound quality. When I hit 19, 20 – I was playing in cover bands, and playing Beatles songs, reasonably well, every night for a couple of years.
But – learning these songs – what a struggle it could be ! I think what amazes me most about the the “Stafford / Monaco” band’ set list is the fact that we tackled two very musically complex tracks; one from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and one from the “White Album” – which, for a group of 13 year old boys, was incredibly ambitious. I am especially proud of Brian Monaco, for his remarkably accurate drumming and his lead vocal on the rather difficult to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. I only wish the guitars were even close to the original – they are not ! But Brian’s performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is really remarkably good, all things considered.
The earlier Beatles tracks and covers that we did, were not much easier to learn – I do recall that our instrumental arrangement of “And I Love Her” – an early favourite track of mine, was especially arranged by myself for the band, and we worked very, very hard to be able to perform this song as well as we did on the cassette. Of course, the straight-ahead rock numbers are a little bit easier to learn, the bread and butter of every cover band that ever existed – “Honey Don’t” featured Rick, while “Twist And Shout” was another Monaco lead vocal – a real rocker!
The inclusion, oddly, of Glen Campbell’s huge hit, “Gentle On My Mind”, is down to Rick, who was a huge fan. While it’s not a track I would have picked – it actually works quite well.
Santana, of course, were huge at this time, so our final track of the evening, “Evil Ways” – again, featuring the unstoppable Brian Monaco on drums and lead vocal – made good sense.
There were several Creedence numbers in the set, of which “Born On The Bayou” was one of the most popular, this band had just skyrocketed to fame, and every band of teenagers with guitars was learning this now-classic piece of rock music – ourselves included. This was one of the first proper “lead solos” I learned – two notes of it, anyway.
I cite these two bands as the earliest examples of myself learning Beatles music, a process that began when I was 13, and continues to this day (I recently recorded, but did not release, a live cover of “I’m So Tired” on piano – piano and voice) – and I plan to work on the track until I do get a releasable version – so even now, in my mid-50s, I am STILL learning, playing and singing songs by the amazing Beatles. As I got older, my ability to play the guitar improved somewhat, and by age 16 0r 17, I could do a much better job of covering a Beatles tune than my 13 or 14 year old self could – that’s for sure! By age 19, I could confidently reel off a three part Beatle medley that was part of the repertoire of another band I was in – Slipstream.
By the time I was 20 or 21, I had learned so much from the remarkable Ted Holding, that my piano playing skills were way beyond what they had been – which of course, opened up opportunity to learn Beatle songs on the piano, too – a whole new world of songs.
So where did this go next? Time passed, school went on, friends, and fellow musicians, came and went – in fact, for example, I was in many, many different bands formed by the also-unstoppable bass player Mike Lewis – we remained friends, and he would pretty much bring me into every band he formed for a number of years (whether I really wanted to be in that band or not, sometimes!). Some of these, unfortunately to my ever-lasting shame, were Christian rock bands – a place that neither Ted nor myself belonged or felt comfortable in, but – we did it for our friend, Mike. Later on, in high school, we teamed up with a new rhythm section, Mitch and Kent, and that was yet another Christian rock band, with the horrific name of “Soul Benefit” (and we could not play soul at all, so a complete misnomer) – but, Ted and I did it for our friend Mike, and, to play with superior musicians – Mitch played bass far better than Mike, so Mike switched to acoustic guitar/lead vocal/rock star, and Mitch took over the bass parts, Kent, the drums. We were together for a couple of years, needless to say, except for “fun”, we didn’t cover the Beatles in those two bands 🙂 I do remember us playing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple really, really loud one night rehearsing in a church!
Mike had a system, he really, really needed Ted’s talents on piano and vocals, so in order to convince Ted to join whatever crazy band Mike was forming this week; Mike would first get me to agree to be in the band, and then, we would work on Ted, get him to come along, and then, and only then, things would start to sound really good. Ted’s ability on piano absolutely took off; he progressed far beyond his years, and his voice also just got better and better. To be frank, he made Mike look pretty bad, and his piano playing was far, far beyond any of us – we were not as skilled on our chosen instruments.
The years after Junior High school are more of a blur, for my 14th year on the planet, I would have been moving on from those earliest bands into more sophisticated bands, and while I still worked with Mike Lewis on his many projects, I began to work more directly with Ted Holding, who happened to also love the music of the Beatles. I began to hang around at Ted’s house, and we worked on music incessantly – all the time, for hours and hours and hours, usually just the two of us– I would play bass, or guitar, or even organ – and Ted would play the piano. We would sing Beatles songs – Ted singing lead, me attempting harmonies – and it was just fantastic fun.
This became several different bands, some quite imaginary, like “Ted & Dave” (also known as: “Holding & Stafford”) and others more substantial, like “Ted & Dave & Rick & Jennings” (also known as: “Holding”, “Stafford”, “Corriere” and “Morgan”) – I was in a lot of configurations of these “for fun” bands – and it was enormous fun! It really was. “Ted, Rick and Dave” (also known as “Holding”, “Corriere” and “Stafford”) was probably my favourite, but who is to say – no, wait, my absolute favourite had to be the “Ted & Dave” configuration, because we could play every kind of music possible, from Elton John to the Beatles to Ted’s own original songs and so on – an absolute blast and one of the happiest times of my life. By the way, Rick Corriere was a junior high friend of Ted’s and mine, an accomplished drummer, and when we were all about 18, 19, 20 years old, we would stage “progressive rock” style improv sessions in Ted’s studio that were just amazing – please see the pureambient audio companion, see the entry for 1977 – for more on this particular prog wannabe band.
One day, in the “Ted and Dave” configuration, Ted and I decided to try and work out a favourite Beatle track of ours, the beautiful, heartbreaking “No Reply”. We decided we would record it (we must have been about 16 by now) on Ted’s brother’s reel-to-reel recorder, which had an amazing ability that was new to me – “multitracking”.
So we laid down basic instrumental tracks, Ted on piano, myself playing nylon string classical guitar (my first acoustic guitar purchase – a beautiful little guitar that I still have to this day) and we worked very hard to get it sounding just right. Then – we overdubbed vocals. When I say we…I mean, mostly Ted, I think I do sing on the track (I don’t actually know, it hasn’t been transferred from analogue yet) but I think he does the majority of the voices – and trying to work out the exact harmonies that the Beatles sang, was difficult, challenging, and exhilarating at the same time – we were so pleased with the result – it really sounded extraordinary to us – I mean, multitrack tape – incredible!. Once this is eventually converted, I will add a link to the “Ted & Dave” version of “No Reply” – for now, I don’t have the track available – yet.
I hope one day to go through the reel to reel tapes (which Ted gave to me many years ago, because I wanted to preserve this music) and present this piece – but it is on a long list of analogue-to-digital conversions that need to be done, and I do not have a reel to reel deck set up at the moment. So it’s a minor mystery, does it really sound as good as my memory tells me it does? Hopefully, one day, I will find out.
But it was the process that was so fascinating – when you “took apart” any Beatles song, to try and learn the parts – first of all, it always amazed me how quite tricky many Beatles tracks are – not easy to learn, deceptively difficult, and maybe you would know the chord sequence, but for some reason, even though you THINK you are playing the exact, right chord sequence, it never sounds quite as good as the Beatles version!
Next up, was one of the more challenging Beatles tracks for me, this was still early on, I was probably 15 or 16 at this point, back in the famous downstairs bedroom studio once again and not yet such a great lead guitarist that I could easily learn the quite tricky solo in “Ticket To Ride”. I remember struggling mightily with it, but luckily, Ted saved the day, he worked out the exact notes, figured out where and when to bend the strings – and eventually, I got it – I was so pleased! I can remember him standing in front of me, almost WILLING me to learn it, telling me when to bend, pointing at the guitar neck to show me what note to play next – my first true decent almost-right lead guitar solo – and, I get to do it twice during the song (or was it three times? – not sure – that’s the problem with memory).
Another memory from this time involves a different session at Ted’s house, this time, a couple of years later, aged, approximately 17 – and, we’d moved from his large downstairs bedroom studio, into the much larger garage space, probably because Ted was also working in other bands, often with his then brother-in-law, Joe Norwood. One day, Ted and I were trying to learn “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” and Joe, who was a few years older than we were, and himself, an extremely good lead guitarist (from whom I learned a lot) – stopped by – and then to our amazement, joined in with his guitar, working out the Eric Clapton parts that I was really not-quite-yet-able to emulate – so I happily switched to rhythm guitar, and held down the basis of the song with Ted, provided vocal harmonies, and let Joe wail away a la Clapton.
That was the beauty of being a young musician, with a lot of really quality musician friends, you always ended up playing music, often, with players far better than you (and for me, both Ted and Joe were far beyond my modest abilities – as pianist, and as lead guitarist) – Ted taught me almost everything I know about piano – that I didn’t teach myself, and, I learned a lot from watching and listening to Joe play lead guitar, and also, he spent time explaining a lot of things to me, about music, about guitar, and I owe a debt of gratitude – here was this really cool older dude (he was probably like, 19, or 20, maybe 21!) and I was a scruffy 17 year old wannabe lead guitarist – but Joe Norwood very kindly and patiently shared his knowledge and expertise with me – a good friend, and a great blues guitarist, by the way. a video of Joe’s music can be found here. Joe also sold me one of my best guitars, my Ibanez destroyer, which I still play to this day.
It was fantastic fun, “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” is certainly one of George’s best-known tracks, and I think, quite a remarkable tune. It’s very difficult to play well, the basic riff is one thing, but that bridge “I don’t know how, nobody told you…” is so, so hard to sing – George’s voice was really at his best in 1968, he was still young enough to hit some really high notes with relative ease, yet by then, he was an experienced enough lead singer to really write and sing some amazing songs – and on the “White Album”, George’s range of song contributions is absolutely remarkable: “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Savoy Truffle” – you could not get four more “different” songs – the sadness, longing and truth of “Guitar Gently Weeps”, the wonderful harpsichord and political satire of “Piggies” – incredible creativity there, and sense of humour; “Long, Long, Long” one of George’s unrecognised masterpieces, a love song of such beauty and intensity (I remember performing “Long, Long, Long” at a wedding reception with my friend, drummer Rick Corriere) that I really feel it’s an overlooked masterpiece, and George’s ode to Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, the wonderful, rockin’ “Savoy Truffle”, with it’s almost sleazy horn arrangement and awesome lead guitar work from George – and that sinister vocal “you know that what you eat you are, but what is sweet now, turns so sour…” – brilliant, ominous – George at his cynical best!
Another earlier recording / jam session back in Ted’s bedroom studio focussed on the fantastic pop song, “I Should Have Known Better” – with Ted on piano, and myself on guitar and harmonica – and, we shared the vocal duties. I loved playing this tune, it’s always been a favourite, and it was easy enough to learn (for a change!) and it was fun trying to play harmonica and guitar at the same time – because I didn’t have one of those harmonica holders – I never have had one. But that didn’t stop us, we just…did it, somehow. I loved doing harmony vocals to Ted’s confident lead vocals, “and I do – hey hey hey – and I do !” – and, I got to play the fab guitar solo, which was fun to learn and even more fun to play.
When I look back at this time, from 1971 to perhaps, 1979 – so basically, the 1970s – I was 12 when they started, and 21 when they ended – I am looking back at one of the most creative, fun, exciting times in my life, and during those “difficult teenage years”, I was too busy playing guitar, playing piano, singing, and just having a great time playing music, with so many different bands and players – it was an absolutely amazing time to be involved in music. And while the Beatles had broken up at the beginning of the 70s, their music had had such an incredible impact on the world, we were still reeling from the shock of their transformation, from innocent 50’s rockers, to 60s pop icons, to the musical revolution that was the “Beatles Studio Years” – beginning with “Rubber Soul” and carrying on through “Revolver”, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the “White Album” – the sheer musical change that the band underwent was absolutely astonishing, and I think the world was still absorbing this, sort of thinking “what the hell did they DO?” – how did they GET from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in just three years’ time??? How could a band of self-taught teddy boy long-haired art-school drop-outs from Liverpool, end up in Abbey Road Studio No. 2 with a 40 piece orchestra, recording the incredibly complex and musically amazing “A Day In The Life”?? How can this have even HAPPENED?
It’s almost enough to believe that at some point in 1965, aliens landed, and planted seeds in the Beatles’ collective brains, which sent them on the musical journey that they then embarked on. OK, maybe not aliens, but certainly, Bob Dylan, who introduced them to…”tea”, had an influence, but it can’t just be the ”tea” – surely, that music was already somewhere deep inside the Beatles, it just needed the right catalyst to bring it out. In my opinion, one of the biggest and most significant catalysts was none other than the good Sir George Martin – who had the most influence over the Beatles, and encouraged them, even from the earliest days, to try new things. And try them, they did.
So when it came to “Rubber Soul” – they tried new things. Acoustic songs, folk-rock songs, volume-knob lead guitar. But to my mind, the biggest transformation is “Revolver” – from that first count-in preceding George’s “Taxman” (which of course, is not from “Taxman”, but never mind – it was added in to the front of the song, later on) to the dying notes of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, curiously, was last on the album, but recorded first in the album sessions).
I personally think that “Revolver” may be the “best” Beatles album (if such a thing is even possible!!!). It’s certainly one of my very, very most favourite records of all time, not just, favourite Beatles record. Favourite records, full stop!
Almost every Beatle album has any number of unusual or interesting musical facts about it, and George’s brilliant tirade against the 95% tax imposed on early Beatle earnings, has the curious story as told by one Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, who, upon finally meeting George Harrison after many, many years, the first thing out of Lindsay’s mouth was “George, I loved your amazing guitar solo on “Taxman” – it’s fantastic!” to which George laconically replied “oh – that was Paul, actually”.
And that story, amazing as it is, was heartbreaking even for me, although it made my admiration for Paul McCartney increase, I had, like Lindsay Buckingham, for 20 years or more, had always thought that since it was George’s song, and George was the lead guitarist of the Beatles – that George had played the amazing, Indian sounding solo – only to find out years and years later, that it was the very capable McCartney who had actually done so!
But if you step back, and think about Beatle repertoire, and think about the content and song structure of “early” Beatles work, and then, compare and contrast that to some of the startling new kinds of music that began emerging on ““Revolver” in particular – I mean, even Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” was a complete shock, like nothing else the world had ever heard – some say it’s a successor to “Yesterday”, but in my opinion, while “Yesterday” is a deservedly famous and uncontestably beautiful ballad, with a lovely string arrangement, “Eleanor Rigby”, by comparison, is high art – a heart-wrenching story-song, and George Martin’s string arrangement here, is absolutely sublime – so incredibly beautiful (which I was absolutely delighted when they included the live take of the strings alone, as recorded in the big room, Abbey Road Number 2 studio, on “The Beatles Anthology” – what a sound!).
So what happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, that he would be able to write “Yesterday” one year, and the next, come up with something that is an order of magnitude more intense, more complex, and is certainly more musically amazing: “Eleanor Rigby”. It’s almost like two different people, as if his brain did a re-boot and said “what if I wrote a song like THIS…” – and the rest is history.
“Revolver” also gives us Paul‘s astonishingly tender and beautiful “Here, There & Everywhere” – surely one of the best love songs of ALL TIME. A song that John Lennon so liked, that his only comment was, “I wish I’d written it”. One of Paul’s very best and most beautiful songs, with a vocal that is just heartbreaking (including John’s delicate harmonies…”watching her eyes…”) and the chord progression – wow – this is not actually that easy to play, either.
And yet – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There & Everywhere”, for all their increased sophistication – are not even the “unusual” or “different” or “strange” tracks on “Revolver” – they are the “normal” sounding tracks !!!! The most normal of all the tracks on the record.
Something definitely happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, but at the same time, both John and George were experiencing a remarkably similar brain transformation. “She Said, She Said” with it’s odd time signatures, and fabulous, distorted guitars, is one of John’s best and most amazing tracks, I love the whole sound of it, it just takes me somewhere, immediately – and when I think’I want to hear “Revolver”‘ it’s usually “She Said, She Said” that I am thinking of – but when I get to the album, it’s then generally going to be George’s songs that I actually start with – “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You” and the redoubtable “Taxman” – three of George’s very best Beatles songs, and, that amazing combination of heavy fuzz guitar and Indian instrumentation on “Love You To” just knocks me out – it’s an amazing idea – mixing traditional classical Indian instruments with rock music – but it works, and, it works really, really well.
John’s brain was maybe the most altered of all, and besides the aforementioned “She Said, She Said”, his contributions to “Revolver” are among his very, very best Beatles output: the incredibly beautiful “I’m Only Sleeping” – where George spent ages recording two “reverse guitars” – and that song is responsible for my own obsession with playing reverse guitar (or – “backwards guitar” – which is now available at the touch of an effects pedal) – which, in 1966, could only be achieved by turning the tape over, playing “forwards” while the song played “backwards”, then, turning the tape back over (I know this, because that is how I had to record reverse guitars in my own music for many, many years -a great technique!), and HOPING that your resulting melody line “forwards”, has resulted in a musically pleasing “backwards” guitar – a very hit or miss proposition; but Harrison painstakingly wove two guitar tracks into one of the most beautiful examples of reverse guitar ever created – and while many have tried, no one has every really quite captured the beauty of reverse guitar in the way that George Harrison did on John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – which is an incredible song in it’s own right, the reverse guitars are just the icing on a very, very sweet cake.
Even though Lennon dismissed it in the “Playboy Interviews”, he was also mostly responsible for one of my very favourite Beatle tracks from “Revolver”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with it’s amazing dual lead guitar part that just drives the song so beautifully, when I first heard this song, I could not BELIEVE the guitar parts, and to this day, I still can’t quite imagine how they worked this out! The interplay of the twin guitars with the rhythm section is just perfect, and Paul’s bass just soars in between the cascading, rising and falling lead guitars – plus, one of the best harmony vocal works on the album, I love the vocals on this song too – they just fly over the top of those guitars, which seem to be playing almost continuously throughout the song – and again, I can’t imagine how they worked out the vocal parts – but the end result is astonishing – a great song, often overlooked.
It’s no accident that this part of my memories of the early days of learning Beatles songs suddenly has become dominated by a somewhat-useful-but-far-from-complete review of the “Revolver” album, but, it does tie in (believe me, it really does!) because I would cite “Revolver” as the album where it first became utterly impossibly to replicate the songs live – well, some of them could be rendered, maybe, but in the main – they have become so complex as to not be easy to replicate on stage, or, by other musicians either.
So – none of my bands, ever played anything from “Revolver”, although I do recall privately playing “Got To Get You Into My Life” with Ted on piano – just for fun. And I spent a lot of time studying the chords to, and learning as best I could, Paul’s very lovely “Here, There & Everywhere” – a truly beautiful and remarkable song. I’ve also played and sang “I’m Only Sleeping” on acoustic guitar, and I learned the main riff of “And Your Bird Can Sing”on a Guitar Craft course (at the 21st anniversary course in Argentina, no less), in the new standard tuning for guitar, no less! That was hugely fun, playing “And Your Bird Can Sing” with other guitarists, “Crafty”-style – remarkable – a totally unique and unforgettable experience.
But most of “Revolver” – especially songs like “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were so advanced, even “She Said, She Said”, were so incredibly strange and new, and so musically intriguing – that you can only really listen, you can’t really imitate – sure, Paul has now performed some of these songs with his live band, in the 2000s, but, it’s not the same, really – and while he has every right to play Beatles material live in the here and now – it’s never going to sound like the original sound of “Revolver” – one of the most distinctive sounding Beatles records of all time, and in my mind, the “turning point” from normal rock music, into the exciting and mostly uncharted territories that they experimented with from “Revolver” on out.
It is remarkable then, that at age 13, in 1971, the second band I was ever in, the “Stafford / Monaco band” played one track from the “White Album” and one track from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – two records made after the turning point, and while our versions are not musically accurate, the fact that we even TRIED these songs is remarkable – we tried! It was down to a shared love of the Beatles, and to be honest, almost every musician I ever worked with in the 70s, loved the music of the Beatles.
Almost every drummer in almost every band, would at some point, sit up a bit straighter on their drum stool, and bash out a version of Ringo’s famous drum solo from the end of the “Abbey Road Medley” – every drummer worth his salt had learned that solo, inside out – and it was instantly recognisable – so there was a great love for the Beatles, and for Beatles music, in the musical community that I worked with in the San Diego, California area in the 1970s.
The Beatles were the benchmark to which every other group would be compared, even if that group broke a Beatle record, I don’t mean vinyl here, I mean, for example, that a band like Creedence Clearwater Revival might have surpassed Beatles sales figures from the 60s, in the 70s – certainly, bands like Led Zeppelin surpassed a lot of the Beatles‘ accomplishments, such as “largest audience”.
But the interesting thing here is, such news was ALWAYS announced, with a backwards reference to the Beatles, so it would be “In 1973, hard rock band Led Zeppelin sold out a show in Tampa, Florida, with over 56,000 people in the audience – the largest audience at a rock gig since the previous record set by the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965”.
Every new sensation, every new “record” was always compared back to the originals, to the masters, to the boys who did it first – the Fab Four. It always amazed me, for example, Zeppelin were (rightfully) very proud of the fact that they had broken a record set by the Beatles – it was an honour, somehow.
Everything was bigger in the 1970s, in the 60s, large concerts were a thing of the future, and as the infrastructure of rock grew ever-larger in the 1970s, it was unavoidable that most of the then-rather amazing records that the Beatles did set in the 1960s – were easily surpassed by their more sophisticated 1970s successors – like the incredible Led Zeppelin – who for example, did no less than NINE US tours between the years of 1968 and 1971. In the 70s – all records were utterly blown away by the eventual emergence of “stadium rock” – with Led Zeppelin leading the way to ever larger and larger productions.
The Beatles never had that infrastructure, and the technical aspects of their live performances were pretty primitive and often, quite dismal, with underpowered PA systems and insufficient monitors, you can see them in the film of the Shea Stadium concert, struggling to hear themselves sing and play over the screaming. But of course, the screaming was always there, and that did eventually cause the Beatles to lose heart in the idea of live performance – which, while heartbreaking for the legions of fans who never got to see them play live (myself included, sadly) was actually, very, very beneficial – because escaping the terrors of the road, and moving permanently into Abbey Road Studio No. 2, meant that the Beatles could now blossom creatively – and by God, blossom they did. An explosion of growth – demonstrated by the insanely fast musical progress made by the Beatles, across the albums spanning 1966 – 1969, a musical journey of unprecedented scale and scope – leaving one of the most remarkable catalogues of music ever created in it’s unstoppable wake.
Note: I have actually seen three of the Beatles live, but, as solo artists; first, George, at the Forum in Los Angeles with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra and Billy Preston in 1974, then, “Wings Over America”, Paul, at the San Diego Sports Arena, either in 1976 or 1977, and finally, twice, Ringo‘s All Stars, sometime in the 1990s, one of them featuring Todd Rundgren.
Every year, we would be treated to a new Beatles album (just one now in most years; not two a year as Brian Epstein and the record company had pressed the Beatles to do back in the early 60s) and each year, it would be a totally different musical experience – and if again, you step back and look at it – it’s absolutely astonishing; I view it like this:
1965 – “Rubber Soul” – the beginning of “the change”, Lennon starts singing and writing in a much more personal way, under the influence of a) Bob Dylan and b) ”tea” supplied by Bob Dylan – with songs such as “Nowhere Man”, “Girl” and the amazing “In My Life” – a complete and radical re-invention of the man & musician, John Lennon.
1966 – “Revolver” – a radical re-imagining of rock music, including heartbreaking string arrangements, classical Indian instruments integrated with heavy guitar rock, progressive bass playing, and the one-chord / one-note drone / raga style music concrète” sonic experiment, “Tomorrow Never Knows” – which was actually the first piece recorded for the new album – a groundbreaking record in so many ways
1967 – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – the world’s first concept record, with the famous photo montage on the front cover – and the lyrics on the back (a world “first”, there, too!) but to me, it’s just a bunch of truly great songs – and some of the best moments are maybe not the most famous, for example, the detuned and distorted lead guitar solo in “Fixing A Hole” is absolutely astonishing in it’s complexity and beauty, for a guitarist like myself, it was a revelation – and while after this, everyone began to use detuned guitars – created via a device called “Automatic Double Tracking” or ADT – the birth-device that all flangers and choruses since, have come from – the Beatles were really the first to come up with this kind of radical guitar sound in the studio – absolutely marvellous. George and John begin to experiment with truly distorted and detuned sounds after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform – and you can hear it on tracks such as the reprise version of the title track – the lead guitars are really powerful. And of course, the closing song is the absolutely unbelievably beautiful “A Day In The Life”, featuring what is surely one of the most beautiful John Lennon vocals ever recorded – George Martin said about John’s dreamlike vocal on the track – something like: “a voice…from the heavens”. I agree with Sir George Martin – a truly beautiful song with an incredible Lennon vocal.
[1967 – “Magical Mystery Tour” – OK, this year, they made two records. “Magical Mystery Tour” is highly underappreciated, I absolutely love it – especially the wonderful “Hello Goodbye”, the title track, the wonderful only-instrumental “Flying” and even “Your Mother Should Know” – there are no bad songs on this record – much overlooked and underappreciated. But then, “Sgt. Pepper” and then, the “White Album” really stole MMT’s thunder – hard to compete against those two behemoths.]
1968 – “The Beatles” (aka The “White Album”). A complete change. Minimalism. Stark white cover. The pageantry and grandeur of “Sgt. Pepper” is wiped away, by 30 darker, more experience-driven songs, a strange batch of songs, no doubt, but with that amazing diversity that you get when you have three strong players and three strong singers and three strong writers in the band – and I shouldn’t downplay Ringo – he very much tried to hold his own (imagine, having to complete with the two impossibly powerful songwriting teams, the “Lennon-McCartney” team AND “Harrison” who was practically a team in his own right – that can’t have been easy !!!) and this album has two cracking Ringo tracks on it, “Don’t Pass Me By”, and the really beautiful “Good Night” which is maybe one of his most beautiful vocals – a lovely tune.
[1969 – “Yellow Submarine” – honourable mention. OK, they made two records this year, too.]
1969 – “Abbey Road” – I am intentionally leaving out “Let It Be” because of it’s chequered past. I love “Let It Be”, but, even though it was recorded before “Abbey Road” – it was then shelved, and eventually emerged in 1970, hanging it’s head in shame, but, gloriously re-invented by Lennon and Phil Spector as a grandiose strings and choir kind of record. However, I think that “Abbey Road” is truly the band’s swan song and legacy – they went into the studio, stopped arguing (for the most part) and recorded an album of songs “like they used to”. The album was a compromise: to please John, side one of the vinyl LP was “songs”, to please Paul, side two of the vinyl LP was a suite of “connected” songs, the so-called “Abbey Road Medley” – which is a minor masterpiece in it’s own right. The maturity of songwriting on display here is absolutely startling, especially in George (who, at this point, is about to blossom musically with his upcoming triple album “All Things Must Pass” – but that’s another story for another blog) who produced not just the awe-inspiring love song “Something”, but also, the fantastic, irrepressible “Here Comes The Sun” – featuring the Moog synthesizer, and the most beautiful, sparkling guitars imaginable – a great song, one of George’s best, and personally, I probably actually like and respect “Here Comes The Sun” actually more than “Something”. (I should give honourable mention for George’s guitar solo in “Something”, however; it was played live by George during the strings overdub on the song, remarkably – beautifully underpinned by one of the best, most melodic bass guitar parts ever recorded – really incredible work from Sir Paul).
I’ve played both pieces many times, usually, I play “Something” at the piano, while I would always play “Here Comes The Sun” on guitar – and I love them both – but it’s difficult to say which one is “better” – they are both fantastic, and showed the George could actually compose right at, or even better than, the level that John and Paul had been composing at all along. He caught up, and in a way, with those two tracks, even surpassed John and Paul – and certainly, his first solo album, the redoubtable “All Things Must Pass”, shows us even more examples of his songcraft, and overshadows all of the debut solo releases by all of the other Beatles – it basically wiped the floor with the other Beatles’ post-Beatle output, selling millions – I bought two or three copies over the years in various formats.
Right up to the end, the Beatles kept writing and producing the most amazing catalogue of original music in the world of rock, that the world had ever seen. Songs that became more and more sophisticated, and for musicians such as myself, became more and more difficult to play, or imitate – but it was sure fun to try !
Over the years, I’ve played a LOT of Beatles songs, a huge range of them, and learning them, was often quite a bit of work, but once learned, playing them was just sure joy. Just for fun, I’ve attempted to write down every Beatle song (including both songs that they composed, and, their cover versions of songs that they also performed) that I’ve ever learned, and / or, performed or recorded – just to see how many I can come up with:
Baby It’s You (with the Mike Packard Band – successor to Slipstream – circa 1979)
Twist & Shout (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
I Should Have Known Better (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
I’ve Just Seen A Face/Ticket To Ride/Help! Medley (with Slipstream – circa 1978 / 1979)
And I Love Her (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
No Reply (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Eight Days A Week (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Honey Don’t (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971 – and other bands, too)
I’m Only Sleeping (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Here, There & Everywhere (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Got To Get You Into My Life (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
A Day In The Life (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Back In The U.S.S.R. (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (w/ the Holding / Stafford Band feat. Joe Norwood- guit. – circa 1973)
I’m So Tired (solo piano & vocal – unreleased – 2013 live -in-the-studio piano & vocal demos)
Blackbird (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1968 – the first“finger-picked” song I ever learned; summer 1968)
Rocky Raccoon (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Julia (acoustic guitar duet & vocal – circa 1972 – the second “finger-picked” song I ever learned, circa 1972 – with Mike Lewis, acoustic guitar and vocal)
Helter Skelter (electric guitar – various times, 1970s – present)
Long, Long, Long (piano & vocal – with Rick Corriere, percussion – circa 1970s)
Cry Baby, Cry (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Something (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (electric guitar & vocal – w/ Jim Whittaker, guitar – circa mid 1970s)
Here Comes The Sun (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
You Never Give Me Your Money (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Golden Slumbers (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Carry That Weight (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
Two Of Us (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)
Let It Be (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
The Long And Winding Road (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)
So – remarkably, thirty one songs – which surprises me, I would not have thought it would have been as many as that, but it’s also NOT surprising, because, the Beatles‘ catalogue is something that musicians almost always “fall back on” at one time or other in their careers, and if you cover Beatles‘ songs, you are guaranteed that at least people will know the song, although they may not love your version of it – or, they may – but they are one of the groups most “covered” over time – not to mention, that in a list of the top ten covered songs of all time, the Beatles not only hold the top two spots, but they actually have four tracks out of the ten, plus, John Lennon’s “Imagine” makes five – so, either the Beatles or a Beatle own the record for most covered song, for HALF of the top ten – amazing!
Before I continue, I have to say, that even to the present day, there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at the piano with a Beatles songbook, and having a go at a Beatles song you’ve never tried – or, for that matter – one you’ve played a million times. Or – get out your electric guitar, turn up the distortion, and work on your Beatle rock riffs – “Hey Bulldog”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Helter Skelter” and so on. And of course, that makes me realise that there are actually probably quite a few “partial” Beatles songs I know, or just the main riff, and, a few that I have learned and then completely forgotten because I didn’t keep up with them (including the amazing “Yer Blues” – with the guitar solos actually learned from tab – brilliant tab! – something I never normally use, tabs, but this one was spot-on – excellent) – but I REALLY wanted to learn that solo. So really, “Yer Blues” makes it 32…but if I start adding in fragments of songs, I will never finish the list – so there it shall sit 🙂
I would say, that growing up, for those nine or ten years from 1971 to 1979, learning, singing, and playing Beatles songs, along with a healthy helping of Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and so on, was the best musical education I could get – far better than going to music college, instead, just dive in and learn the music that you love. That’s what I did – and I am glad of it. Huge chunks of Led Zeppelin I are still in my fingers’ memory, and huge chunks of Hendrix music, too – I could play those two bands’ music all day long, along with the Beatles But, the Beatles had the most profound impression, because of their incredible melodic values, and the hard-won vocal harmony which really, were what set them apart at first.
So while Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix really, really rocked, they never quite had the songwriting skill and stamina that Lennon, McCartney, or Harrison did (and that may be why I found myself drawn to progressive rock fairly early on – seeking better songcraft – and often finding it) – although some of the late Cream and later Zeppelin, are pretty musically advanced. But those are the successors, the Beatles, I think, wisely disbanding before the heavy metal bombast of Stadium Rock took over the world – by then, they were gone…
Having the Beatles so central to my education, music or otherwise, was hugely important, and it’s also simply given me a world of personal satisfaction and enjoyment, I will never forget the day I finally mastered Paul McCartney’s quite difficult “Blackbird”, the first guitar piece using fingerpicking that I ever learned, at age 10, no less – it took me a couple of weeks (being taught by a 16 year old girl, who had in turn, been taught the song by somebody else…) but eventually, I “got” it – and that was wonderful, because any time I was out with an acoustic guitar, I could play it – and everyone around me INSTANTLY recognised it, and responded positively – I never got a negative response to playing a Beatles song – ever. People in general, either really like them, OK, maybe some younger people, don’t really know their the Beatles were the best band in the world, from 1963 to 1969, unchallenged.
At the same time, during 1969, was that “other” best band in the world that I like so much, King Crimson – whose leader, guitarist Robert Fripp, has described a personal, musical epiphany that he had one night, hearing back to back on the radio first, music by Bela Bartok, and then, the last part of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – with “A Day In The Life” – and it was the impetus of that, that eventually led him towards the pursuit of the creation of King Crimson – so, unlikely though it seems, one of the heaviest and most complex of all “progressive rock” bands – actually started out by a young guitarist being utterly struck with the incredible piece of music that the Beatles‘ “A Day In The Life” is.
I can just imagine Fripp, in his car, as the final orchestra part builds and builds, so loud, overwhelming the whole song…and if you think about it, on the first few Crimson albums, of course, the dominant sound (besides Fripp’s amazing lead guitar) is the mellotron – which they had two of – and they used it to create Beatle-like string sections in live performance – so again, inspired by “A Day In The Life”, young Robert Fripp imagined a band with two mellotrons in it – and then, he built it. Repeatedly.
It’s amazing the number and diversity of musicians either directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles, some of them wearing their inspirations out on their sleeve, others, are more hidden or difficult to discern – but they are still there. So, you get a band like Oasis, who unashamedly try to sound like a modern day Beatles (and mostly fail at it, in my opinion) although I quite like a lot of their songs anyway, on over to a band like Klaatu, who people thought might BE the Beatles, secretly reformed and making records under a mysterious new name in the 70s. As it turns out, Klaatu are just some guys from Canada, who made Beatlesque music (I really enjoy Klaatu, especially their first three albums).
There are so many others who obviously admire the Beatles, from Todd Rundgren, his first band The Nazz, and the latter-day versions of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, to any number of other latter-day Beatles soundalikes – the Raspberries in the early 1970s, Badfinger – an Apple band, discovered by the Beatles, and far too many others to even mention. Perhaps I will attempt a “list of bands that sound suspiciously like the Beatles” – but I am not quite sure I can do such a thing. I will have a “think” about that…meanwhile, back to the subject of cover versions…
Here are the Beatle tracks and their positions in the list of “most covered songs of all time” – of course, these lists change all the time, and it was very difficult to find a list that seemed properly representative – this list, from 2008, contained no less than 5 Beatle-related tracks as “most covered”:
1) Eleanor Rigby ***
4) And I Love Her
6) Imagine (John Lennon)
Apparently, for a long, long time, “Eleanor Rigby” was second to “Yesterday”, it was only in recent years when it knocked “Yesterday” out of the top spot.
I was surprised to NOT find George Harrison’s “Something” in these lists, I had thought it was one of the highest covered songs of all time – but I might be remembering that old Frank Sinatra joke, where he introduced “Something” as the finest song ever written by Lennon-McCartney – in all seriousness, he actually did not seem to know or realise that it was written by George Harrison. That’s a famous story there!
***However…the Wiki contains some conflicting information here, because it also states, on the page for the song “Something”, that the song has more than 150 cover versions, which means it’s the second most-covered song after “Yesterday”. So somebody needs to do some counting, and really find out a) what the top ten most covered songs of all time REALLY are, by all artists, and b) what the top ten most covered Beatles songs are – what song is REALLY, currently in the top spot – make up your minds !! 🙂
For those who might be interested, there is a very interesting page here on Wikipedia, that lists many of the most significant cover versions of Beatles songs
When I say significant, that refers to all of the real musicians in the list, it does not, however, actually refer to the included “group” called “Alvin and the Chipmunks” who did a whole album of Beatles covers in 1964, so they have twelve entries in the chart ! I am sure that’s a really, really good album (if you are a fan of sped-up vocals, that is). But – it’s an interesting list, Chipmunks aside…and it includes some of my very favourite cover versions of Beatles tracks: containing everything from:
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass to 10cc to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones to Adrian Belew to David Bowie to The Carpenters to Johnny Cash to Cheap Trick to Bryan Ferry to Neil & Liam Finn to Peter Gabriel to Jimi Hendrix to Allan Holdsworth to Eddie Izzard to Tom Jones to King Crimson to Sean Lennon to Marillion to Pat Metheny to Keith Moon to Nazz to Harry Nilsson to Oasis to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to Phish to Radiohead to Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Residents to Todd Rundgren to The Sandpipers to Santana to Peter Sellers to The Shadows to Sandie Shaw to Frank Sinatra to Elliott Smith to The Smithereens to Soundgarden to Stereophonics to The Supremes to James Taylor to Teenage Fanclub to They Might Be Giants to Richard Thompson to Transatlantic to Travis to Ike & Tina Turner to Utopia to U2 to the late, great Sarah Vaughan to The Ventures to Rick Wakeman to Paul Weller to Jack White to Roy Wood to XTC to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Yellow Magic Orchestra to Yes to Neil Young to Dweezil Zappa to Frank Zappa and I told you it was a great list – this is just a tiny portion of artists represented on the entire list.
A truly interesting resource for an incredibly diverse set of Beatles covers – and the diversity of artists who have covered the Beatles is immense, yet, they all share the same love we feel for the band – a love for Beatles music, reflected in the fact that they took the time to learn, perform, or record a Beatles track or tracks. Shared love = love of the Beatles‘ music = All You Need Is Love – that’s an equation that I can understand and believe in – and I do.
“Love, love, love – love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”
– from “All You Need Is Love” – June 1, 1967
see you next time ~~~~~
“whisper words of wisdom…”
leave it to robert fripp
leave it to robert fripp. only fripp could do this.
since 1968, robert fripp has produced some of the most consistently challenging, musically advanced work of the modern age of rock music. musicians have marvelled at his guitar playing in a huge range of very different settings: as de facto leader and muse of the great king crimson; as tape-recorder experimenter buddy of the remarkable brian eno; as the guitar-sparring partner of andy summers; as the leader of an amazing 1980 “dance band” called “the league of gentlemen”; as the secret weapon of david bowie on various tracks from the “berlin years”…the list goes on and on, fripp’s own solo records, many of which feature him on “soundscapes”, meaning, fripp, a guitar, and whatever guitar / looping system he has on at that moment, to the remarkable “exposure” (in it’s many, many guises) with it’s many, many singers and crop of amazing songs…the list just goes on and on…even in the strange late 60’s trio “giles, giles, and fripp” – robert fripp played a lot of really very remarkable guitar on the band’s odd records – their one official release, and the more recent and very interesting “the brondesbury tapes”…
…fripp was also the onboard lead guitarist (remarkably, sharing that role with michael brook) in the absolutely underrated “sylvian / fripp” (as the name hints, a collaboration between fripp and japan leader david sylvian) – and the even more obscure yet fascinating “sunday all over the world” – fripp’s first of two bands that feature his wife, toyah wilcox, on vocals…and all the while, many, many versions of “king crimson” would form and dissolve, form and dissolve…
some of these releases, are “division one” releases, large scale, well marketed, well received – others, more low key, or “division two” releases, but no less significant for that. it didn’t matter how much or how little media fanfare accompanied any particular fripp or fripp-related release; you knew, if a new album came out from robert fripp, say, entitled “a blessing of tears” – that it was going to be good – really good. over time, based on your very real experience – you recognise that works by this artist, are generally, works of great quality.
and somewhere amidst all of this work, amidst all of these remarkable and interesting collaborations, amidst the ongoing work with king crimson – the most incredible, most astonishing release of all appeared, with no fanfare whatsoever – and I am not really sure just how many people know about it.
this is what fripp has done – he’s released a masterwork, a really, really important work – one of the earliest examples of the use of looping on stage – with almost no fanfare whatsoever. to my mind, that’s similar to miles davis releasing “sketches of spain” but not mentioning it to anyone; just letting a few fans discover it, but not really bothering to acknowledge that it’s a key work in his canon – one of the best albums he ever produced.
THAT is what fripp has done – basically, he has released the best (guitar) album he has ever done, bar none, without really mentioning it to anyone !
I was late to it – I found out about it by accident, months after it was released. I immediately downloaded it, all of it, and set out to listen to it. thirteen hours later – I was still reeling from the shock of just how perfect, just how beautiful, just how intense, this amazing release truly is.
I am speaking, of course, about the frippertronics tour of europe, which kicked off on may 7, 1979 in amsterdam and completed in madrid on june 1, 1979 (although no recording exists for that show – the last recorded show being the may 29th show from zurich, switzerland – we think) and these 15 long, live frippertronics looping performances – are simply staggering in their scope, diversity and incredible beauty. overpowering beauty, musical intensity of a kind you rarely, rarely ever get to hear or witness – loop music as it was in the beginning. (and shall be, looping without end, amen, forever).
leave it to robert fripp to release 15 mind-bogglingly good shows of live frippertronics, after allowing them to sit, unreleased for decades – all that time – I had assumed that the tapes did not exist, were not viable, or had just been lost or forgotten – but, they were handed to alex mundy, dgm’s resident necromancer, and alex has lovingly restored the solos to the loops, the lectures to the looping… there are a few remaining bits of robert’s spoken portions, in one or two of these shows, but this is mostly just guitar, guitar and more guitar – heaven for someone like myself – as it was seeing fripp play at tower records that made me want to become a looper – which I did, about a decade later – and I’ve never stopped since.
I was lucky enough to witness a live frippertronics show myself, on the US leg of the tour later that year (and I am hoping that this will eventually be released, assuming at least part of it does… 🙂 at a tower records store in san diego, california where I lived at the time, so I had a very personal interest in hearing the first live performances, in europe, of frippertronics – a tape-based looping system developed with the help of fripp’s friend and musical partner, brian eno. I was also fortunate enough to see a “lecture” at mandeville auditorium at UCSD in 1983, which turned out to be…a frippertronics show – this time, as we entered the hall, robert was already looping…amazing. I’ve just noticed that DGM have that show in their download archives, so that’s one I will definitely download…sigh. but anyway, returning to the earlier, european version of frippertronics…
the set up was straightforward: two full-sized revox tape decks, with a large space between them, and a long piece of tape (the “tape loop”) running between the two machines; a black gibson les paul guitar, and a very small, minimal guitar pedal board – amplifier and speaker cabinets – that was the entire thing, but the one ingredient that really brought this “small, intelligent unit” to life, was it’s creator and operator: robert fripp himself.
with only an astonishingly short “four to six seconds” of loop time available to him via the revoxes; fripp was able to use his knowledge of music, counterpoint, and harmony to introduce notes, phrases or even “pickup selector switch switching sounds”, into the loop in the appropriate way as to build up pieces that were alternately serene, terrifying, beautiful, or very, very dissonant. most of the frippertronics loops are on the serene, beautiful side; with the occasional leap over to the dark side, and some of those “dark” loops are some of the best performances here.
but, whether you prefer the heavenly, melodic, beautiful waves of sound that robert often performed, or if you prefer the dark, dissonant, disturbing pieces he sometimes favoured – there is something for everyone in this 15-show set. I love all of these loops, dark, light, and every musical shade in between, and the beauty of the loops themselves, is set off wonderfully by the confident, high-speed, accurate solos that fripp almost casually layers over the top of the loops.
he is so confident, so accurate, that it’s almost miraculous to behold – and there are a lot of surprises – notes you don’t expect; sudden endings you don’t expect, and so on…it’s quite surprising sometimes. a sudden, very loud low note will, out of nowhere, underpin what was moments before, a lovely, high-pitched floating cloud of beautiful looped guitar…
that dark, powerful note overwhelms and overtakes the lovely floating cloud; turning light to dark momentarily, but perhaps, allowing for a different kind of overlaid solo to then occur. fripp steers the compositions where he wants to; altering the running loop on the fly to change it’s character; and then launching into another impossibly fast crimson-esque guitar solo – you could just about hear the wheels turning in fripp’s head, it all comes out – every idea, every doubling of a note, every harmony, every intentionally dissonant harmony – it’s all to plan, and that plan is executed with frightening precision and overwhelming confidence – the power of robert fripp, lead guitarist, is absolutely laid bare on this series of live, loop and solo recordings.
as a looper myself, albeit with about 10 years’ less experience than fripp, I can speak first hand to just how difficult it is to loop with only a four second loop! four seconds is a very, very short space of time in music. one of my first digital loopers, the digitech rds-8000, sported just eight seconds of loop, and working with that was possible, but never easy 🙂
as the technology improved, the digital loopers became more capable – I moved from 1 second to 8 seconds and eventually on up to 196 seconds (with the remarkable echoplex digital pro) – quite a leap, from eight seconds to over three minutes! – and once you have a looper with that kind of capability, the problems mostly disappear (although, very long loops have their own challenged). fripp used his four to six seconds, with the revoxes, off and on for about four years.
while fripp did embrace digital loopers, it wasn’t until the early / mid 1980s, so for these performances – it was done strictly with the tapes, and four seconds was all robert had to work with. and what he does in those four seconds, is simply remarkable guitar playing.
oh my god – what fripp can do with a four second loop; it’s absolutely astonishing, and I am quite certain that many weeks or months of meticulous rehearsal preceeded this short tour – when he starts out on his first loop of that first amsterdam show – it’s with complete and utter confidence, and he sounds relaxed, well practiced and so, so accurate – he builds up a loop, it ends up smooth, beautiful and lovely – and then, begins to solo, but not just any solo, truly beautiful, melodic, thick sustained-notes soloing, as only fripp can – and to have these performances restored – loops and solos – is a sonic miracle, but to my mind – these performances demonstrate the true quality of robert fripp, the guitarist, that even his best work with king crimson could not quite demonstrate.
because here – there is no john wetton or tony levin (king crimson bassists at different times) thundering away in the low frequencies; there is no cymbal splash or electronic percussion madness from bill bruford (king crimson drummer since 1973, on and off), and there is no david cross (violin) or adrian belew (lead guitar, vocals) to “spar” or harmonise with – all of that is gone, and in it’s place – a four second span of time; to be filled with beautiful, harmonising notes, or to build up loop counterpoint, or to layer long, sustained notes or trills – and then, this loop becomes the band, it becomes the music that robert then solos over – but we can now really hear what he is playing, far more clearly than one can in some king crimson recordings – and while these recordings are of varying quality, the beauty and simplicity of what fripp accomplishes here is not diminished in any way, shape or form – it’s guitar heaven, it’s undoubtedly one of the première examples of man v machine where both win; fripp has taken what eno (and others) developed, and made a few modifications to the system to make it as suitable for guitar as possible – and has created a brand new kind of music: frippertronics.
fast forward twenty years, and a similar, yet wildly different, kind of solo fripp music emerged: the soundscape. this is the modern-day equivalent to frippertronics. and while I love and admire both forms, frippertronics and soundscapes; for me, my money is on frippertronics – because it involves the pure sound of a gibson les paul (whereas, soundscapes are more guitar synthesizer-oriented, therefore, less guitar-like) and the fripp pedal board, captured, looped, and soloed over with an intensity and capability that few musicians ever reach – fripp worked very, very hard at this – and he got it right, and if you listen to these 15 shows back to back – you will not be disappointed – and in fact, that is exactly what I did, I downloaded them all on a friday night; then on the saturday, I put them on – and let them play in sequence, all day long.
at ten pm that night, it finally came to an end – and I was left speechless, breathless, and utterly, utterly impressed – OK, I knew it would be good – but I never dreamed – my 34 year old memory of the 1979 frippertronics show I had seen, and the 30 year old memory of a second show at mandeville auditorium, told me “this will be incredible” but even those memories could not have prepared me for the reality of the speed, dexterity, power, and beauty of these live guitar loop and solo performances – they are out of this world, and for guitarists, are an absolute lesson in what can be accomplished with a very, very finite set of equipment, set up for one purpose – and then there is the way that robert plays.
it’s so, so powerful, because really, it was not that long before, barely five years, that he was onstage with wetton, bruford and cross, playing lead guitar night after night after night, and the power of his time with king crimson (ten remarkable albums in the short space of 1969 – 1974) – and the power of his playing in those various “king crimsons” (plural) is now matured; amplified; calmed; organised; and it’s so precise now, there is very little bending (something he would give up almost completely, eventually) and the melodies he plays are just exquisitely beautiful – especially when played over loops of incredible precision and beauty.
so to my mind, even just speaking as an average guitarist – this is the best guitar album I have EVER HEARD. I have no other words, no other way of describing what it’s like to sit and listen to robert fripp solo for 13 hours over tape loops that he made on the fly; in a record store, restaurant or other non-traditional venue on this first-ever frippertronics tour. there is simply no other music on earth like this, and it truly shows the talent, power and sheer chops that fripp has developed over time.
by eschewing traditional venues, and bringing the music directly to the people – and even more remarkable, by TALKING to, and with, the people – fripp bucked the whole system, which I am sure pissed off his record company and everyone else who would now not be able to make a buck off of these performances – this was a real dialogue now, between robert fripp and those who love the music he creates – and at every show, there was a question and answer session (and that just blew my mind, I could not believe that we were sitting on the floor of tower records, and fripp, a few feet away with his les paul still slung around his neck – was taking questions from the audience!).
an audience that was stunned, or I would say more accurately, completely fucking blown away, by what they had just seen and heard. the power of robert fripp’s lead guitar playing alone is enough to frost your socks; passages of great speed and precision, wonderful melodies that fly from the fretboard – but also, a new component, those enticing, amazing loops – that support and blend with the solos so perfectly; hypnotic, repetitive – and the perfect musical “bed” over which to solo.
but – the loops weren’t static, they were often “changed” by fripp, who would solo for a minute or two, and then, add more notes to the loop, and then, go back to soloing over this “new” altered loop – and he might do this several times within one looped performance – change the loop, solo, change the loop, solo more, etc. – to beautiful effect.
I learned a lot from watching this process, a lot which I later put to use in my own work, but what I also learned was, just how difficult this process is – the concentration required, the precision required – it’s intense, and few people could pull it off.
leave it to robert fripp.
this is a link to the first show from the frippertronics european tour, may 7, 1979, follow the right arrows to find the rest of the shows (and much more). there is also a link where you can purchase all 15 shows as a bundle (recommended – this is what I did).
I know that fans of king crimson and robert fripp have their favourite albums, tracks, and live performances by robert, working in king crimson, or, guesting on other albums by other well known artists such as david bowie, or, in collaboration with people like david sylvian. I am one of those fans, and I can remember arguing about very important topics such as “which is the best version of ‘schizoid man’ ” or whether red or usa was the best late period king crimson album (at the time) and so on.
I am not ashamed or embarrassed in any way to say I love the music of king crimson, robert fripp, as well as “sylvian / fripp”, “the league of gentlemen”, the league of crafty guitarists, and the current working group, the orchestra of crafty guitarists (which I was, briefly, a member of) – I love all of that, and I would defend it’s high quality and musicality – these are works of quality. their common denominator, is, of course, robert fripp.
however – as much as I love say…“exposure”, as much as I love king crimson, and would defend their amazing catalogue against any naysayers, with songs as beautiful as “starless” or “the night watch” – well, it puts a lot of other “prog bands” to shame, if I am honest – this music is so intense, and so, so beautiful…
…but in some ways – this 15-show frippertronics european tour, is the best album that fripp never made, and never made a big deal of. it’s release was incredibly low-key, it just appeared on the dgm website one day, but there was no marketing push, no attempt to big this up at all – it just appeared – and those of us who realised what it WAS – well, we snatched it up immediately. but then – we KNEW – we knew what this contained.
because they (these live performances) are so real; because they are the first ever recordings of robert fripp creating live loops to solo over; because the soloing is so absolutely incredible, I would say that now, this is my favourite robert fripp recording – of all time.
I know – that seems like sacrilege. how could anything be “better” than, say, “in the court of the crimson king” ? the answer is, of course, it can’t, really, but, when I hear this music, I realise – this is really the kind of music that fripp was playing all along, but you couldn’t always hear it, because the band was playing so loud!
this is the “real” fripp – hypnotic layers of intense, dark sound, guitars screaming like seagulls over the top, ominous low notes bending via the services of a tuning key, notes “played” by switching the pickup selector switch from “off” to full on (with the bass pickup turned all the way down, and the treble pickup, turned all the way up) – the selector switch becoming a rhythmic device that adds to the loop – fripp using his fuzz tone, the wah-wah pedal, and his other devices to add texture and form to the loops – and once happy, he would then let that loop play – and solo his heart out with an intensity at least as powerful as “1969 to 1974 king crimson”.
you think that the guitar solos on “USA” are pretty darn powerful and quick (you are right – they are) ? you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think that nothing can top what fripp plays on “red” in songs like “red”, “fallen angel” and “starless” – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think what you hear on “the great deceiver”, a four CD live fripp-wetton-bruford-cross king crimson albujm, is a lot of amazing robert fripp lead guitar (you are right, it is)? You should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.
about 13 hours in total, I believe, something like that – and a large portion of that, is robert soloing his heart out, at length, over those amazing four second loops. I have since played these shows on a saturday, just letting them run all day long, and it really, really makes for a great “mood” – you would love the way it takes an ordinary saturday, and turns it into an amazing day and night of pure, pure music – the frippertronics way.
so, so beautiful – the best album that robert fripp never made. 15 live shows – this is the one album that is pure testament to the intense, quick, and breathlessly beautiful way that robert fripp plays lead guitar – truly, this is where you can really hear genius at work, on the fretboard of a black les paul guitar – at the hands of the master, robert fripp.
now – for the non-guitarist, it’s likely that you may continue to regard the “band” works of robert fripp more highly than this “guitar” based fripp work. but for me, as a musician and as a guitarist – this is simply the ultimate fripp documentary, which might have been lost to us, but blessedly, dgm have taken the time to resurrect these shows (and others, as well) and release them via the dgm website (these are download only) – and I for one, thank alex mundy at dgm for doing this work, and I thank the big guy in the sky (whoever that may be this week) for preserving those fragile tapes for all those years until alex could do his magic with them.
I can only imagine how it felt to alex, and to robert, to hear these for the first time in 34 years – and it’s criminal that these were never really released in any form (except for the occasional loop based record such as “let the power fall” – which gives you an inkling of what these tour performances were like – but one short album of loops is no substitute for the real thing – the real 13 hours of music!) – please forgive me if I am repeating myself now – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.
you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.
in search of…a few good sounds
today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.
in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects. I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:
uni-vibe (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)
that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.
hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo…
while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers, phase shifters, reverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow…
today’s guitarists – have too many options. too many effects. too many choices…
I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.
for a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.
then came the era of the rack mount. stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).
fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound. and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?
the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering. let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects. that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.
the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took – but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…
and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller? all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…
I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology; and with it, you can do so, so much…
but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest. in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!
eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those good sounds, and ignore the rest.
well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system. I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful. this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach. a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…
so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb. the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches. via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.
the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound. but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.
so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…
for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound. they are of equal importance.
but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform. that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂
over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.
so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.
since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂
I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.
so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂
sam phillips – a wizard, a true star
maybe that’s a strange title for an article about sam phillips, but I think todd rundgren’s well known album title / phrase (from the album of the same name, aka “AWATS”) fits sam perfectly.
sam phillips writes and performs pop songs of the highest quality, often using the simplest of tools, but there is definitely wizardry afoot (albeit of a different nature to todd’s) – and when she brings in other players to flesh out her acoustic guitar/voice or piano/voice compositions, a lot of really interesting things begin to happen. first of all – only sometimes, do they perform the traditional roles of backing musicians, and as time goes on, they are called upon to contribute more and more unusual items – van dyke parks‘ contributions to “the indescribable wow” being the first of many.
THE EARLY YEARS
but I will start at the beginning. once upon a time…there was a young singer who was part of the then fairly significant christian music scene. at that time, sam was known as “leslie phillips” – and in 1988, roughly coinciding with a major change in her music, her fourth and last album for myrrh (purportedly one of the main christian labels responsible for what was known as contemporary christian music) delivered, and she wanted to distance herself from the “leslie phillips” persona – so her forename changed: from “leslie” to “sam”.
because of the timing of this, that actually makes it very easy to delineate the two main parts of her career – part one, leslie phillips, christian record labels, devotional/pop music, part two – sam phillips, secular themes with a strong undercurrent of faith – less devotional, darker, but still amazing pop music.
I don’t believe that I have every leslie phillips or sam phillips song in my music collection, but I have most of them, and I enjoy them all. the oldest record I have is “dancing with danger”, which is from 1984 (this is her second album for the myrrh label – I was never able to locate a copy of her first album, “beyond saturday night”) and despite the sheer beauty of the then young “leslie phillips” voice – the arrangements cannot, unfortunately, help but sound VERY dated – not just because of the sound of 1980s synthesizers (mostly, not good sounds) and string machines, but also because for some weird reason, “christian artists” were expected to sound a certain, very well defined “way”. production values, on christian pop records from this era (not just leslie phillips albums, but pretty much all christian artists – with of course a few exceptions), are strange – well – just sort of stilted, predictable, as if every song is a power pop ballad whether it is or not, or worse, they take a smarmy pop song…and somehow, god only knows, they make it sound MORE smarmy…by (over) “producing” it (shudder).
leslie was never comfortable with the image that the christian labels had given her, calling her (bizarrely) “the christian cyndi lauper” – odd, since her music sounds NOTHING LIKE cyndi lauper. but – that’s what they did – and I think she suffered it for four albums, and then finally said goodbye to myrrh and the idea of working as a “christian artist” – she needed to express herself simply and clearly, and for that, she needed a new partner in crime – and that turned out to be legendary producer t-bone burnett.
so on some/most/all of the earliest material, there are issues with the arrangements, issues with good songs being arranged with the “I am a christian artist” sound, which to my mind, unfortunately, makes what could have been quite beautiful, very, very difficult to listen to and enjoy in 2013. of course, there were obligatory duets with male christian singers, and, nothing wrong with a duet, but that again, was part of what the christian labels expected, and possibly demanded, from many of their artists…
interestingly, “dancing with danger” ends with a special reprise version of “by my spirit” – the “radio version” – and instead of the routine, obligatory duet-with-male-christian-singer version – you get the whole song sung just by leslie (thank god, another chance to hear this song – without the annoying “duet” format!!!)
however – having said all that – I can still listen to “dancing with danger”, and it’s follow-up, 1985’s “black and white in a grey world” – which I prefer to “dancing” – in fact, really, sam is one of those artists that literally got better and better with each album. but – be forewarned, if 1980s production values, PLUS christian-label production values drive you mad…you may have difficulty listening to these records 🙂 when I do listen to them, I have to ignore a lot, and concentrate on the quality of the songs, and sam’s voice – not the production values, which are downright upsetting in some cases, such poor choices are made, production-wise. oh – they are slick, they are clever – but very dated sounding now, and I doubt sam phillips, 2013, would disagree…I do not know 🙂 I can tell you – starting with “the turning”, things begin to sound much, much better. and, most of “recollection” does not suffer from overproduction. all albums “the indescribable wow” forward have production values that you would expect of their time – not bad ones, just, of their time – and that is a good, good thing.
despite the very dated, very christian-label production values, there are some truly spine chilling vocal performances from sam on these early albums; and even the occasional great lead guitar solo (such as one of those aforementioned duets, an early version of “by my spirit”) – which also has a FANTASTIC vocal from leslie…really beautiful, and worth the pain of admission just to hear this track. her voice is simultaneously the strongest, the most passionate, and at the same time, incredibly vulnerable sounding in the world – an extraordinary sound. so if you seek this particular track out, ignore the obligatory male duet vocalist, ignore the arrangement, and just listen to leslie’s voice and the guitar solo. goose bumps – almost guaranteed.
I should spare a few moments for 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”. it starts with the almost funky title track, with leslie singing as if her life depended on it, with a strangely desperate / urgent sound to her voice – and, a really good lead guitarist, dan huff, trying hard to keep up with her vocal. in some ways, this record is just a continuation of “dancing with danger” – it does share a very similar ethos, although the production values are better, less disastrous, which makes it simultaneously much less dated sounding than “dancing with danger” and therefore, a lot more listenable.
I personally really like this record, and it contains the early, “produced” versions of some of the very best songs on “recollection” (including “when the world is new”, “your kindness”, “walls of silence” and “love is not lost”), so it’s nice to be able to compare and contrast them – fully produced versions on “black and white in a grey world” – demo or alternate versions on “recollection”. for me – the demos and stripped down versions are ALWAYS going to win – always.
what you are also witnessing, if you listen to these records in chronological order, is the amazing growth of sam phillips as writer, performer, engineer and producer. with each step forward, slowly at first, but gradually gathering her own momentum, until she eventually broke her relationship with the christian record labels – I assume because she realised how much they were dictating, and that she wanted her records to express her personality, her writing, her songs – so she took action. she moved to a different producer, and got away from the christian labels. and that saved her career, if she had continued down that road, I believe that the christian labels would have just ground her down until she quit or gave up in utter disgust.
luckily for us, sam’s determination and will are strong, very, very strong, and once she moved from the christian music world to the “secular” music world – well, amazing things began to happen, and also, we began to hear the real sam phillips, rather than the leslie phillips trapped within a sort of strange christian…wall of sound – and that’s when and where it all starts to really happen for her…
it was in 1987 that she had her first breakthrough, still as leslie rather than sam, but a transitional record, perhaps – which is a very remarkable album – strangely, a collection of demos and early works, called “recollection” that finally brought the “real leslie phillips” to light.
LOVE IS NOT LOST
“recollection” is the record that made me sit up and say to myself – this girl has something special. at first, it was little things that I noticed, such as the incredibly beautiful backing vocals on “love is not lost” (the version on “recollection”, I mean, not the one on “black and white in a grey world”) – this was the first time (and possibly, only time…) in my life that I ever felt chills from a BACKING VOCAL ! it was uncanny, and then I started noticing other very carefully worked out backing vocals on other tracks, and for myself, I found that the sound of this “leslie phillips” singing passionate melodies over the most incredibly beautifully crafted backing vocals in the universe – so five or more “leslie phillips'” at once…shivers, chills, and pure emotion put into music – incredibly stripped back versions, guitar, bass, drums, a bit of backwards guitar – and you have a work of true genius… “love is not lost”. indeed.
the lead vocal of “love is not lost” was smoking hot too, it’s a beautifully concise, really driving pop song – and for me, the best of the leslie phillips era, is mostly encapsulated on “recollection” – a fantastic collection, and stripped of much of the unnecessary “production”, the songs are startling in their simplicity, straightforward, girl-with-acoustic-guitar who wants to change the world – and does. repeatedly. over and over again. if any song every could be described as having “pop urgency” it’s “love is not lost”…a pop gem, and the haunting voice of leslie-soon-to-be-sam is chillingly beautiful in both the lead and backing singer roles…like a wave of beautiful vocal energy.
while I may prefer the later records, if you like sam’s music at all, you owe it to yourself to seek out these older records, despite the best efforts of the christian record labels to bury sam’s voice in some incredibly overproduced pop monsterpieces, there is still a huge value to going back and listening to these early, devotional pieces – she means every word, and her voice is just an incredible instrument of beauty.
released as “leslie phillips” –
beyond saturday night (1983)
“dancing with danger” (1984)
“black and white in a grey world” (1985)
“the turning” (1987)
“recollection (best of / compilation)” (1987)
which means that I still need to properly address both “the turning” and “recollection” – probably my favourite two albums made under the name “leslie phillips”.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CHANGE…THE TURNING
“the turning” is exactly that – her fourth album for christian label myrrh, but her first collaboration with producer, and future husband, t-bone burnett. so despite still being on a christian label, “the turning” is a very, very different sounding album to any of it’s predecessors, burnett bringing out the very best in leslie. no more over-produced christian label induced musical nightmares, the album seems (to me anyway, but I am an atheist, so I am probably incorrect about this) mostly secular in it’s themes, with a few obvious exceptions such as the not particularly inspiring album closer, “god is watching you”, which strangely, was penned by burnett.
besides that, the songs on “the turning” are once again, straight from the heart, straight to the heart, hard hitting, serious, beautiful pop music – the first of many successful burnett / phillips collaborations. obviously, 1987 was a pivotal year for sam – she released two albums, began a relationship with burnett as both producer and romantic partner…change was in the air, and in my personal opinion – it was all change for the better. leaving myrrh was the one of the best things that ever happened to phillips, from what I can tell…
the album also contains one of my favourite leslie phillips performances, the lovely “libera me” (also penned by burnett – but this time – a cracking little pop song) – a track that also appears on “recollection” in a different guise.
in fact, there are a large number of songs that phillips has recorded, re-recorded, and then released a demo or alternate of – as if she is never, ever satisfied – every year, she tries again, to see if she can get a “better version”. but that “never satisfied” thing is good for us, the listeners, because sometimes it means you get two or three different great versions of a really good song – such as “love is not lost”, “libera me”, “walls of silence” and many others – she just seems to want to “better” the previous version each time, so I would count this obsession of hers as a positive…and I hope, for her sake, that if she has “re-done” one of her songs two, three or four times – I hope that she is happy with at least one of the versions! my tendency is to like all the versions, but not equally. when in doubt – the version on “recollection” will be the best 🙂 I can pretty much guarantee that !
“the turning” was decidedly different, it did very well both in the christian and the secular markets, and some folk feel that it is her “high point” – the album that she cannot “top”. I am not sure I agree with that, I am mightily fond of certain later albums – in particular, “martinis & bikinis”, and, more recently, “don’t do anything”. but if we are just talking about the leslie phillips era (and not considering her later output as sam phillips) – well, I would rate “recollection” as number 1, with “the turning” a close second. which really makes “the turning” first – because “recollection” is, after all, “just” a collection / best of (but…what a collection it IS !!!).
as her final album in her “overtly christian” phase, as leslie phillips, “the turning” still contains songs of faith, but you can feel change in the wind, the songs have an edge to them not previously notable beneath the massed christian / production values. as noted above, and there is some song recycling going on – notably, one of my favourite of leslie’s songs, “love is not lost” appeared first on 1985’s “black and white in a grey world”; again, reworked, for 1987’s “the turning”, and, in still a different form, on 1987’s “recollection” – but I don’t mind that in the slightest – I absolutely love and adore that song, so I am happy because I have three versions instead of one! the more the better, when it comes to leslie or sam phillips tracks…and on all of the versions of that song, the combination of her lead vocal and the flowing, liquid beauty of her backing vocals all melt together in one absolutely stunning pop confection – wow. what a beautiful vocal arrangement.
“the turning” is also the only “leslie phillips” album that was re-released later under the name “sam phillips“, which is interesting, because that shows that, moreso than the first three records, that “the turning” is important to sam, or more important, than the first three – and she wanted it recognised to be part of the “sam phillips” era rather than the “leslie phillips” era – so to me, that says that in her mind, it was her first “true” record, the first one where she felt as if her personality and her actual self were finally coming through in the music the way she wanted. it’s also odd, because I personally always felt that “the turning” had more in common with the albums that came after it – “the indescribable wow” being the first one to follow it (the first for virgin, the first more secular album, the first where her name is sam not leslie) – than it ever did with the previous three records. it just…belongs with the sam phillips (and therefore, does NOT belong in the leslie phillips) catalogue. that makes sense to me, musically, too.
burnett’s production style, as we have learned over the past several years since he’s become much more high profile, was an absolute boon to phillips. burnett instinctively knew how to get the best out of her voice, and his arrangements (some of which are quite strange and unorthodox) – were an absolute breath of fresh air compared to the first few myrrh releases. suddenly…we could REALLY HEAR sam, and what she was saying, more importantly, we could hear her vision for her songs, as interpreted through burnett (who basically, I think, stood back and let sam do what she wanted…and captured it on rolling tape) and it all just became so much clearer…everything became clearer. not dissimilar to a famous 1968 david crosby moment, as producer of her first solo album, when crosby had joni mitchell play and sing for a few of his (very lucky) friends for the first time…saying to them “listen to THIS….” – a shiver and a sigh. burnett would have known that with phillips, he was on to an extraordinary talent, while working with burnett gave sam the freedom to express her true self on record for the first time. and what a powerful musical cocktail that is…shaken, not stirred 🙂
leslie’s lead vocals seem higher in the mix; the title track has a wonderfully stark feel to it, and burnett’s contributions (excepting the rather predictable “god is watching you”) – a co-writer on the beautiful album opener, “river of love” and the writer of the very poppy “carry you” – adds another element to a great batch, the final batch if you will, of ten songs from leslie phillips. from my viewpoint – well, there is value in all of the “leslie phillips” catalogue, but I can recommend first “recollection”, and then “the turning” – as the most developed, least overproduced of the lot – well worth a listen – recommended most highly. “recollection”, in particular, is essential listening…
THE BIG CHANGE
and that brings us to the moment of the big change. 1988, free of myrrh, and newly signed to virgin records, “leslie” is reborn as “sam”, and sam phillips moves gracefully, almost unnoticed, from “christian artist” to mainstream pop artist on major label. her first record for virgin, 1988’s “the indescribable wow” is a fantastic debut from what must have seemed to the world like a “new artist” – the leslie phillips persona played down completely, and sort of “starting over” with a new forename, a new record label, a new producer and husband in t-bone burnett, and, a new record.
ten new songs (no re-runs here!!), eight from sam, and two co-written with t-bone burnett. burnett would, in the end, go on to produce every sam phillips album from 1987’s “the turning”, to 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – and here was literally, a perfect marriage of producer and artist – in the studio, and in life – a fantastic musical couple. I like this first album for virgin a lot, but I will say – it’s the same effect – beginning with “the indescribable wow” – each record just gets steadily better and better.
the urgency of the lead vocal on the second track on the album, an urgency that now seems purer, less desperate than before… “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you”, with yet again very beautiful backing vocals…is startling, her voice insistent, you can feel the sense of being ripped apart, the fact that she literally cannot say goodbye to someone she loves – for three minutes and nineteen seconds…you are there, you are feeling those feelings – everyone has lost someone they love – and letting go, as we know…is incredibly difficult. sam takes that age old struggle – and turns it into a three minute pop masterpiece. to me, a song like “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” is damn near as perfect a piece of pop music as you can get. and her voice… indescribable, vulnerable, anxious, urgent, hurting…unable to let go…but knowing she has to. awesome!
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
and that brings me to an odd observation about the music of sam phillips. sometimes, not always, she does something that shouldn’t really be possible. she takes a serious lyric, about a serious topic, that perhaps represents disappointment or fear or unhappiness – and dresses it into an upbeat, positive sounding (musically, I mean – major key, bright, etc.) pop song. so the words are “down”, but the melody and chords and arrangement are “up” – so you get this weird, indefinable melancholia about some of the songs…a very sad lyric wrapped in a very happy “sounding” piece of music. a wonderful musical dichotomy.
I think that’s a great quality, and not ever pop writer can do this – usually, pop songs are either up (think, the beatles, “ob—la-di, ob-la-da”), or down (think, the move, “blackberry way”) – more rarely do they embrace down lyrics with up music. but somehow, sam does this not once, but often – and it’s just brilliant. certainly “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you” falls into this strange “lyrics down / music up” container, with it’s uber thin beatlesque guitar figure and lush background vocals, and chiming finger picked guitars – and the most insistent snare drum beat – and when that bridge hits you, her voice is just so full of pain and hurt – and the music is…happy ! it’s the oddest thing, but I love it.
a few other tracks on this and on other albums – “I can’t stop crying” is another one, although it’s not quite such a dichotomy, it’s more like “down lyrics with neutral music” 🙂 but I think this is genius, when it hits the chorus, it’s a bright, positive melody as she is singing the words “I can’t stop crying” – brilliant! dark against light, or light against dark…
“flame” is clearly the son of the beatles “and I love her” – and while this is a sam phillips tune, the arrangement seems pure t-bone burnett to me – and it’s a great atmosphere – first, just the verse, with only one voice – the percussion tapping gently away to sam’s strummed acoustic guitars, lead acoustic guitar, and then…the magic starts to creep in, first, a stunning bridge, with one of those goose bump-inducing vocal melodies…then back to our gentle chorus…with great guitar accents added in, a really, really beautiful song despite it’s strong resemblance to a certain beatles song !
and then we have something new, in a song like “remorse” – a rocking, hard hitting band – who play at speed – sam can barely spit the words out the tempo is so demanding – but the background vocals, again, steal the show – spine chilling beauty each time they appear…what an amazing vocal sound, so now we have really hard hitting power pop, flying bass, snapping snare drum – and sam – flying in over the top – and when those waves of backing vocals arrive – and later on in a really strangely syncopated break – wow, it really is the “indescribable wow” – a fantastic major label debut – “and me so sorry…”.
fantastic guitar, both rhythm and lead – take the song to a strange instrumental plane, there was NEVER a “leslie phillips” song as strange as this! really amazing guitar work from t-bone burnett, who is surely one of the most underrated guitarists around. then, the last part of “remorse” is this strange, languid guitar instrumental – that’s just weird – definitely not part of any “formula” pop song with a verse / chorus / verse / bridge / chorus / verse arrangement.
“what do I do” is another oddity, super multi-tracked vocals atop a moving bed of strings – a hundred sam phillips floating above this strange bed of acoustic guitar and strings…I’ve never heard a pop song as odd as this before. every song on this record is like a little mini pop symphony, but burnett always wisely showcases his new secret weapon: the awe-inspiring vocal chords of ms. sam phillips or maybe I should say “ms. sam burnett” 🙂
once again, perhaps even moreso than on “the turning”, sam’s voice is front and centre, burnett making the most of her incredibly expressive pipes. “the indescribable wow” is an absolute success – a fantastic achievement and a great introduction to sam “definitely not a christian artist anymore” phillips, and her beautiful pop songs – a really lovable record, and always a favourite. it’s strange too, because while burnett produced both sam’s last christian record and her first “secular” record the next year – those two albums could not really sound much more different! OK the answer to that mystery might be right there in the sentence, one of them is christian, the other “secular” – but even production-wise, they are very, very different animals – a lot of “the turning” is somewhat stark, while a lot of the indescribable wow is very lush, layered and sporting a new melodic and harmonic beauty that was only glimpsed before – now, it invades practically every song 🙂 – and that is a good thing
“the turning” is serious, moody, intense, while “the indescribable wow” is a bright, poppy, snappy kind of record – possibly the “most upbeat” record sam has ever made…but lyrically, still fairly dark and always inquisitive – always questing, always questioning – that’s always been the way. and this difference is just one example of sam moving from style to style, musical persona to musical persona – in an almost bowiesque way – well, perhaps not as extreme as that, but each new album brought something new to the table, as both phillips and burnett hone their respective roles as artist and producer…although t-bone really almost always seems to end up playing some instrument on some songs on his production projects.
having produced, basically, six albums over six years – five for myrrh, one for virgin, finally, a gap appeared between albums. this is a healthy sign – no artist or band can produce an album a year for long, without burning out or becoming very repetitive – so I for one was happy to wait a couple years for sam’s next album to arrive. and when it did, I was not disappointed – because once again, while “the indescribable wow” is a very good album, sam’s sixth studio album, “cruel inventions”…is even better. well worth waiting a mere two years for.
POP INVENTIONS AND AN ELVIS SIGHTING
starting out with a truly awesome guitar riff, the lead off-track of sam phillips‘ sixth studio album “cruel inventions”, entitled “lying”, let’s us know right away that sam has undergone yet another miraculous musical transformation – on the first track, she starts out the lead-off song singing in a really strangely low pitched voice, which only rises up for the “I’d be lying…” chorus – then, more great lead guitar (this time, on this new sam phillips record, it’s both burnett and the great marc ribot on guitar – but, as it turns out, it’s none other than elvis costello playing the awesome guitar riff on this track!!) – and then, suddenly, the very, very strange “bridge with strings” comes out of nowhere – but, those strings aren’t strings – well, they are, sort of – they are created from a keyboard called a “chamberlin” (a relative of the mellotron) as arranged by and played by the remarkable van dyke parks – and how burnett and phillps managed to get parks to not just arrange, but to actually play on their album – well, that ups “cruel inventions” musical ante considerably, as amazing “cellos” and virtual “string sections” appear from nowhere, not to mention eerie chamberlin flute and voice clones as on the title track…
and all over this remarkable record. the presence of parks, and the chamberlin, puts this particular phillips release into a class of it’s own – and the “string” arrangements here, are not like any others…beautiful work.
the chamberlin is a really lovely and unique, but little heard instrument that impacts the sound of this album heavily – giving it a character unlike any sam phillips album before or since.
the second track on “cruel inventions”, “go down”, is so incredibly wonderful and strange, I seriously doubt that I have words to describe this piece – which, strangely, among many odd musical events – features background vocals that are panned hard to one side (something I’ve never noticed before on any record – fabulous idea!!) and a circular vocal that can only be described as being like the sam phillips version of a gentle giant circular vocal – except instead of five gentlemen from portsmouth singing in a modern day “round”, it’s five sam phillips’, singing an incredible vocal creation – just fantastic.
more highly developed, circular and just plain beautiful vocal harmonies abound on this record, again, on the very catchy “standing still” (one of my favourites from the album) – this is an album of vocal and instrumental experimentation, and it’s wonderful hearing sam sing through a thick flanger, in the very cool “tripping over gravity”, which also features a very innovative vocal arrangement; where a chorus of “sams” is dropped into a huge delay over and over again – while the dry flanged lead vocal soars far above. “missing….logic….tripping over gravity” – a very atypical and very unexpected piece of music, unlike any song sam has done before or since. if I didn’t know better, I’d almost think it was inspired by progressive music – but who knows what music sam listened to at this, or any time – you can’t really tell by listening to her records, because she is a force unto herself – she’s sam.
the presence of marc ribot also increases the musical cache of this record, his guitars are tasteful, beautiful, and essential to the success of this record. “tripping over gravity” becomes a hypnotic, almost ambient ecstasy; the delayed voices joined by beautiful, beautiful chamberlin strings…a mesmerising chorus that seems to go on forever and ever and ever…which then suddenly ends with two or three very odd loops playing out the tune – absolutely bonkers arrangement, more science fiction than normal pop music…if there was such a thing as “progressive pop” – this song would probably qualify as the first proper example of the genre…
“now I can’t find the door” – a tale of insomnia, not induced by alcohol, but by some kind of night time anxiety – this is a straight ahead rocker – with it’s beautiful “away from you, comrade…away from you, baby”… fantastic lyrical imagery, delivered with a strange throwaway quality, but underpinned by the classic phillips vocal urgency. sam’s voice, now more mature, so world-weary, always filled with passion, the human embodiment of the perpetually-broken heart – and this mostly drumless piece rocks, s0 when the snare does finally enter – more circular gentle giant style vocals appear on an unexpected, beautiful centrepiece / bridge – music magic from phillips and producer burnett.
“raised on promises” features a sinister spy movie / sci fi guitar riff, and a bittersweet voice that is possibly singing a bit autobiographically…with terrific “ahhhhh” background vocals – brash and impudent backing voices – then, as the song builds up, more and more vocal harmonies are added in, until the “massed sams” absolutely overwhelm the listener, with their insistent beauty. when the bridge arrives, the secret weapon appears again – van dyke parks and his chamberlin – with 17 seconds of incredibly beautiful orchestral sound – and then he’s gone again, or at least, mixed back down…these sudden mysterious bursts of chamberlin just add to the mystery and beauty of this record.
the album’s closer, it’s the string-driven van dyke parks “miracle string sound” again, with “sam phillips pop song” dropped on top – it’s almost as if she wrote the songs to fit the strings, rather than writing the song and then having parks add the strings – this string arrangement is really cool, and the title-as-chorus really sticks in your head “that’s where the colors don’t go” – and another amazing bridge, with fabulous orchestrations – and then, van dyke parks “takes a solo” – and you get four bars of absolutely amazing orchestra (via the chamberlin keyboard, of course) including, a “penny lane” style “trumpet” as the chorus repeats in an endless, joyous fade out – an amazing juxtaposition of pop song, amazing pop singer, amazing pop producer, and genius string / orchestral arranger – working in perfect harmony.
THE BASS MAN COMETH – LIGHT INTO DARK
for the next album, 1994’s “martinis & bikinis”, the longest gap between phillips albums ever, a full three year pass before this masterpiece is unveiled. and that says it all – the album opener, a very short track called “love and kisses”, which contains the title in it’s lyrics (“martinis and bikinis for our friends…”, well let’s put it this way, I love that little song so much, that I actually did a cover of it on my TEAC 3340S, which has never been released. that’s the only sam phillips cover I’ve ever done, and I did a very, very faithful rendition of it – all 0:56 seconds of it. one of the most enjoyable mini projects I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.
viewed by many as her musical high point (particularly, within the “sam phillips” years), again, some say that “martinis & bikinis” is the height of sam’s achievement, and in some ways, I can’t really argue with them. featuring an even more amazing band than last time, this time, there is no van dyke parks (well, one cameo role, he arranges the strings on “baby I can’t please you” – but other than that, nothing), but, along with phillip’s stalwart sidemen t-bone burnett (guitars, basses, and many others), mickey curry (drums), david masfield (violin, multi-instrumentalist) and jerry scheff on bass, is added the suddenly out of work colin moulding , of XTC (coming off of the 1992 pop XTC masterpiece, “nonsuch”), getting melodic pop bassist extraordinaire moulding was an absolute coup. he was free – sam asked him to play on the album, so he did.
that might not seem like a big deal, but the bass guitar playing on this session, practically drives the entire album – it simply rocks, in a “I am the OTHER paul mccartney” way – moulding at this point, was a very accomplished bassist and writer in his own right, confident, melodic – and knowing a thing or two about pop music, too – and he also is the only other producer that sam ever worked with during the t-bone burnett years – colin co-produced the very infectious pop single “baby I can’t please you” – which, had it been sung by andy partridge or colin, would have sounded somewhat like a lost XTC track.
but the poppy then moves to the deadly serious, as “circle of fire” with it’s shockingly odd guitars, sticks in your brain, and the biting, deadly, sinuous vocals, with their tight harmony – followed by the most spastic slap back echo guitar solo I’ve ever heard – it’s absolutely over the top –and is PERFECT for the song – meanwhile, mickey curry on drums is working in perfect rhythm with colin moulding’s flying bass…it’s just perfect, the perfect rock vehicle for sam’s strident, serious tune. her voice sounds quite brittle on this track, I love it when she really reaches for a low note – and nails it..fantastic.
then we have one of the most beautiful sam phillips songs ever, the delicate, heartbreaking “strawberry road” – which again, contains instrumentation that had not previously been featured a lot on sam phillips records: harpsichord, hammond organ, and cello – and used to great effect, I love the harpsichord part in this piece, and her vocal is heartbreakingly beautiful…leading us to the road – the “strawberry road, where the dream fades, down between our longing and desire…”
beautifully chorused guitars work with organ, and then cello, for a very serious, almost pseudo-classical coda, that gradually fades to nothing. a pop gem, a really lovely little song…oddly peaceful, like a personal song about a place of sanctuary.
then comes what is another of my favourites from this record, or rather, (along with the aforementioned “love and kisses”), and that is the pop master class of “when I fall”. sam’s trademark “chorus repetition”, a constant ride cymbal, colin moulding on the bass…simple, straightforward guitar lines and leads, but it’s that voice, something about the way the second and third “when I fall” is sung, something catches in my throat, and I can almost feel sam falling – you almost feel how hurt and lost and frightened she seems, and her desperation to not fall, but she knows she is falling – but, “I think you’ll be there when I fall…” so there is hope…but it’s tenuous. the sound of sam’s voice on this song is a heart stopping sound…really sensitive and really lovely.
amazing “ahhhs” appear from nowhere, more insanely beautiful backing vocals – for the lovely little bridge, which is followed by really beatlesque / xtcesque lead and reverse guitar solos…leading to the final verse and chorus, colin’s bass climbing around subtly in the background, the hammond reappearing to give it some glory, the beatle guitars chiming…it’s fabulous!
more beautiful backwards guitar in the repeating chorus coda, and a long fade with hypnotic guitar and organ finally takes “when I fall” to it’s lovely conclusion.
“same changes” is another real rocker, with colin’s bass pulsing and throbbing beneath another fabulous tight harmony chorus from sam, her voice so confident on this record, just singing her heart out, and making her songs come alive with the help of the best band she ever had – I mean come on, colin moulding of XTC on bass !!!!!, mickey curry on drums – and t-bone burnett – yes, there are additional players, but that “core band” – they just rock – and “same changes” is one of the best, love the drum part, love the bass, love the guitars, love sam’s massed vocals…including a strange circular bridge where the band hangs back, and then dives into a great lead solo, that just rocks – a fantastic tune – including some trumpets mixed in there for effect! very strange.
then…comes the moment of terror, with the truly frightening “black sky” – a flat out dirge/tirade against the culture of nuclear war, and “diggers, drillers and sellers…” – with the clear message of the chorus:
“we won’t stop…until we’re underneath the black sky”.
the ultimate destruction of mankind via the horrific weapons that mankind invented – missiles are mentioned, but the craziest thing is this “la la la” chorus that follows the chorus proper – it’s so dark, there is none of the characteristic sam phillips here, especially in a song that contains the line “the forest raped into desert” – you can tell that in this case, this isn’t a light pop song, but a deadly, deadly serious, questioning, warning song – utterly apocalyptic – that warns us, that if we continue down this path of weapons and oil, money and not taking care of our planet – that we WILL end up with nothing, having destroyed everything via our greed, and our desire for power.
against an eerie backing of strange, strange guitars and throbbing drums, and not much else, sam’s stark warning vocal just stops you in your tracks – the album having gone from pop / happy / light to darker than dark in the space of one song – “black sky”. heed it’s warning, there is nothing frivolous about this lyric, or this amazing vocal performance…and once again, sam has come up with a song unlike ANTHING she ever, ever did…before or since… a true one-off, an utterly unique song and performance, which I think is fantastic.
“the black sky” is so strange, so unique – and that’s the genius of sam phillips – you are listening to a great pop record, everything bright, happy and positive – and then suddenly, you are plunged into the pitch black darkness, the world ends with a black sky, the stars gone – and it’s of course, all down to what mankind has been getting up to…and sam’s voice is the voice of truth, chilling truth, and when you hear the condemnation, the summing up of the crimes – well, be prepared, it isn’t pretty – not at all.
TRIUMPHANT… JOYOUS… YET LONGING
sam then returns to pop mode with the most excellent “fighting with fire”, which is then followed by another real favourite track of mine, the obviously (at least somewhat) autobiographical “I need love” – which follows the sam phillips pop song formula perfectly, but the urgency of her voice on the “I need love” chorus grabs you right by the throat and doesn’t let go – and interestingly, we have one of the few open references by sam, regarding her departure from the christian labels when she sings “I need God…not the political church” – in a somewhat “telling” variation of the chorus.
“the wheel of the broken voice” to me is a strange choice of penultimate track, but over the years I’ve grown to love it – I think it’s more about burnett than phillips, but that’s just an impression I have – I could be entirely wrong. it used to be my least favourite song on the record, but now I like it a lot, so – go figure. it’s perhaps a bit rhythmically strange, so placing it that near the end maybe harms the perfect, driving pace of the record up till this point.
ALL I WANT IS THE TRUTH
then, to finish off this most remarkable of albums, sam does something completely unexpected: she covers a john lennon song, turning in what must be one of the very, very best covers of this song out there, the hard-hitting “gimme some truth” (from the “imagine” album) – which lyrically at least, fits right in with the themes of this record. not an easy song to cover, and burnett wisely chooses to not even attempt to emulate george harrison’s amazing slide guitar parts, instead opting for a lovely, psychedelic pop version – and he let’s sam’s voice carry the arrangement.
which it really does, I mean, no one can hope to “top” the vitriol and anger that john put into his original version (which is purported to be about the vietnam war – which is believable, given the time frame of it’s writing, 1971), and I don’t think phillips and burnett are in any way trying to “top” it, but you do feel that sam agrees very much with the sentiment of the lyric – and when she gets to that chorus, practically spitting out the words, “just gimme some truth” – even though it’s the (normally) gentle, lovely voice of sam phillips – the anger at being lied to, by the government, maybe by the church, or by people she trusted who let her down – comes through loud and clear. “just gimme some truth…all I want is the truth…”
“martinis & bikinis” might well be my favourite sam phillips recording, and possibly my favourite sam or leslie phillips recording…it’s difficult, I change my mind all the time, one day it’s “recollection”, the next, it’s “martinis…” so I will just have to leave it open-ended for the time being. but I do recommend this album to anyone who loves good quality pop music, and, the presence of xtc bassist colin moulding gives it that extra pop sheen that for me, is irresistible.
not to mention, it’s a collection of some of the very best songs ever written by sam, and it’s just outstanding in terms of composition, arrangement, performance and mixing – a great record, a classic pop masterpiece. with one terrifying break in the form of “the black sky”, this is an album of urgent, driving pop music with some of the most beautiful vocals you will ever hear, underpinned by one of the masters of melodic bass playing – you can’t really go wrong.
FROM DARK…TO DARKEST
it was another two years to the next sam phillips record, during which time, once again…everything changes. “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” has to be the oddest of the odd within this collection of pop albums. it’s the most “difficult” of albums for me to connect with personally, it’s very, very much of it’s time, and it embraces technology as only an album made in 1996 can – wholeheartedly. in an ever-not-so-slightly over-the-top way. so for those of us who had grown familiar with the sam phillips catalogue – it was a shock to the system. a complete change.
gone are the gentle acoustic guitars, the pianos, the lovely background vocals – and in their place, a stark sounding, almost alien sam phillips sings strange melodies over odd, electronic, robotic backings – album opener “entertainmen” is a perfect example…this is not the sam phillips we were just getting used to – this is yet another sam phillips, electronic music explorer extraordinaire.
now, if I detach myself from the history, if I set aside all of the albums from 1987 – 1994, if I put “martinis & bikinis” out of my mind, and I listen to “omnipop” as if I’d never heard sam phillips before – well, I would probably like it a whole lot better to begin with! it’s not a user friendly album, and I’d be curious to hear what sam has to say about it now, in 2013.
the dissonant musical slap in the face that is “plastic is forever” is another strange entrant to this new “just how strange can this get” song writing competition, and while it’s clever, it’s not particularly melodic or memorable. speaking of memorable, the third track, “animals on wheels” is certainly that, and the mental imagery that this odd song creates is certainly unique – and odd though it is, it’s quite catchy, and you do find yourself singing it for the next few days after listening to the album. it’s the first song on the album that really appeals to me, so it’s a bit less strange and more recognisable – but just barely. almost a melody…
the rest of this album is like a blur to me, when I play it, I remember the songs, but when I leave again – they are instantly forgotten, expect perhaps for the catchy “animals on wheels”. even the jaunty rhythm of “zero zero zero” fails to move me, and I just find myself wanting to move on through the tracks – yes, there are some decent songs, some even great vocal performances, but overall – this album is just a bit strange for my taste.
“help yourself” is really, really too much for me – with a very, very dissonant arrangement of jazz instruments, that grow horribly out of nowhere, over and over again. “your hands” has a beautiful vocal, but the melody seems flat, dead – terrorised. on “your hands”, her voice feels choked and halted, and I just don’t connect with these rather strange arrangements of potentially good songs – it’s definitely a “kitchen sink” approach – they had all kinds of awesome new studio technology available – and by god, they were determined to use every bit of it. and sometimes, sam’s lovely vocal, just gets swallowed up and lost in all the tech.
finally, “power world” actually sounds like a sam phillips song again – thank god, an ordinary pop song, with drums, bass, guitars and vocals – love it. a bright spot in an otherwise odd sea of musical ideas -“our ideas of perfect are so imperfect…” – how beautiful is that? I think that is a great line, a great lyric – so there is some redemption, but why do we have to sit through six very, very weird songs to get to something recognisable? that makes “omnipop” hard going.
and then you get to something like the song “(skeleton)” – which, if it were on an adrian belew album, would make perfect sense – but as a sam phillips track, it doesn’t really convince…first of all, it’s instrumental, and I love it – but it just seems misplaced.
“where are you taking me” is another return to pop form (or at least, pop form 1996 style), and includes some great flute mellotron or chamberlin, but as a song, it’s a bit scary – sam sounds simultaneously terrifying and terrified – a very, very odd song – with some great guitars, but not a song you want to put on if you feel you need cheering up 🙂
then you get an odd little pop gem like the also out of place “compulsive gambler” – which at 0:48 seconds in length, is basically over before it starts – but I love it.
“faster pussycat to the library” is a cool and intelligent pop song (great title, too – I love the way she titles her songs), another improvement, with beautiful carnival chamberlin (or similar) sounds atop a sparse rock backing. a lovely vocal, too, but as a tune – nothing you can whistle along to…”if you don’t know what to do, I’ll make it up for you…” – lovely strings and flutes, warped and crazy…kind of cool.
album closer “slapstick heart” is slinky, and features a beautiful vocal – in fact, even though I find this record to be a bit strange, I can’t fault the sound of her voice – which is always compelling, no matter what the musical context.
if you bought all of the other sam phillips records and liked them all – then there will be a lot for “omnipop” to offer you – but if you are not a die hard fan, this might be the one album you might give a miss – but you would be missing out on something that is utterly unique and of it’s time – and with a title like “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” – well, that should be warning enough not to expect a “typical” pop album – and indeed, this is about as atypical as they come.
COMPILING, COMPILING AND COMPILING…
a previously unreleased track called “disappearing act” starts us out on our first collection of sam phillips song’s, “zero zero zero” from 1998. a strange reverse guitar, an oddly wailing female voice in the background, and sam’s voice with a lone bass and acoustic guitar…it’s a nice little song, a pleasant start to a somewhat odd journey through the last few albums.
moving from the new to the strong, the powerful “I need love” from 1994’s “martinis & bikinis” gets us off to a good start – a good choice from her strongest album.
this is followed by “holding onto the earth”, from “the indescribable wow”, another nice bit of phillips musical history. this is presented in a very different musical arrangement from the original album version, although it’s not marked as “alternate”, I believe it is…another example of sam re-writing her own history, by making changes to songs over and over again, always seeking that perfect version.
next is another pop masterpiece from “martinis & bikinis” – the very catchy “signposts”, again with that trademark colin moulding bass line – brilliant.
an alternate mix of the lovely “where the colors don’t go” follows – but, not terrifically different to the album version – just subtly different, but again, she can’t resist to do something different with an existing song, which I think is so cool – and I’m very pleased to have two different versions of this lovely song, taken from 1991’s “cruel inventions” album.
next, representing 1996’s “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” is the very strange but very catchy “animals on wheels” – a very cool and very odd song.
leaning heavily on the brilliance of “martinis & bikinis”, a third track from that record, the previously described anti-war dirge “the black sky” – a chilling condemnation of nuclear war and other related sins of mankind. this is an essential track, so I’m very glad it’s included on this compilation – a good choice.
next is another remix, this time, another track from “the indescribable wow”, the intensely beatlesque “flame”, and while it’s not miles away from the original mix, it’s great to have two different versions of this excellent early sam phillips track.
then we have something very, very unusual “ribot tripping over gravity” – “ribot” referring to her lead guitarist, this some kind of very cryptic, odd mix featuring his guitar, but again, at 1:15, it’s more of an impression of a song rather than an actual song – and it bears very little resemblance to the original “tripping over gravity” – an enigmatic, strange remix – just adding to the mystery and privacy that surrounds phillips’ music – closed sessions, no cameras – just musicians (which is really how it should be, probably…).
this is followed by an odd little song, “hole in time”, that I wouldn’t have chosen, but again, this is not your typical compilation, it’s very, very unusual, and the strange choices of songs along with the enigmatic remixes, alternates and altered versions – makes “zero zero zero” a must-have collection.
the next track, entitled “you lost my mind”, is another unreleased piece, with a driving drum beat, and a lovely fast shuffle feel, it feels more like a demo than a finished track, but it’s raw, it’s real, and it fits right in on this strange, strange compilation. a great harmony vocal bridge graces the centre of the piece, which has a really snappy rhythm section – love the bass and drums, whoever they are played by…
the very poppy title track of 1991’s “cruel inventions” is next, with an almost fripp-like repetitive guitar riff, which is quickly overwhelmed by beautiful chamberlins and massed sam phillips background vocals – this is a great pop song, with it’s fabulous hand claps and melodic guitars…
another one that I would not have picked, “fighting with fire”, which is a great song, but it might not be my first choice for a “best of” – but “zero zero zero” is really not a “best of” – it’s a compilation, and these unusual track choices, odd remixes and so on, make this such a unique and excellent record.
an alternate version of “lying” is next, with that trademark elvis costello guitar, is an absolutely spot on choice, another one from “cruel inventions” – a great song in any version, fantastic lead vocal – love it. happy to have two versions of this one, too…
finally, bringing all of these disparate musical strings together with one beautiful, anthemic song – the only song, the only possible choice for the final position – the exquisite “strawberry road” – just a lovely, lovely song, and a vocal to die for – sweet with a sense of longing – what a perfect way to end 1998’s “zero zero zero”, and the string arrangement is just heartbreaking, as are sam’s amazing backing vocals…just stunning song craft, I wish I could write a song half this good.
since “zero zero zero” was an “obligatory compilation” that was “owed” to virgin, it was not a real surprise when virgin dropped sam after the release of “zero zero zero”.
INTO THE VOID…
then…silence. touring, living her life, no more albums from virgin, who had by this time, dropped sam – five years pass.
newly signed to nonesuch records, finally, in 2001, sam produced a new album – the much more personal, stripped down, acoustic-based “fan dance”.
after the odd mis-step of 1996’s “omnipop”, “fan dance” is a return to roots, a back to basics record if there ever was on, so now we have an almost complete absence of technology – it’s just lots of acoustic guitars, and sam’s now mature voice – a lot less vibrato, and a new purity – the lead off track, which is also the title track, is like a palate refresher, instantly washing away the excesses of the virgin years, and giving sam a fresh start – and it feels great, her voice is in perfect shape, and the stripped down arrangements really suit. compared to the work of the late 90s – the albums made after 2000, mostly are much starker, the instrumentation is careful, never overdone, really appropriate and well-chosen. sam obviously learned a lot from her long association with t-bone burnett, and she has put it to good use ever since.
this track has an almost oriental feel to it, “when I do the fan dance…” and I love the sound of it, it’s just so pure, and so real – it’s like we just got back the sam phillips of “martinis & bikinis” or “cruel inventions” – and it’s nice to have her back.
“edge of the world” starts with a piano, which leads the piece, an absolutely beautiful sound– an old upright (or digital version of an old upright) – and the chorus “at the edge of the world looking up…” a beautiful descending melody – I can’t say enough good about this fantastically beautiful piano and acoustic drama, great vocal, evocative piano, the simple arrangement – it’s truly, exquisitely beautiful – a hidden gem in sam’s catalogue – and the sudden, odd piano ending is breathtaking. exactly three minutes long – the perfect quirky, wonderful pop song.
“five colors” is just bass and acoustic guitar – and that VOICE. when the harmonies come in, when the “massed sam phillips voice choir” brings in that undeniable harmony – it’s just all about the shivers and the goose bumps, and it’s really more about these songs, which are so good – this song almost sounds like a beautiful crowded house or finn brothers song – and the vocal harmonies are absolutely exquisitely beautiful. I can’t say enough good about this song or about this album – it’s back to basics, back to reality – and it’s all about the songs…and that voice.
a strange ambient non-solo takes us out, to the end of “five colors”, and onto the next track, which is the string quartet “wasting my time” – which again, is a great device, we’ve moved from acoustic guitar, to piano led, to acoustic guitar, and now, for the fourth track, it’s a string quartet – so a different approach for each track, but still a back to basics technique, and it works great – her voice sounds amazing atop the strings, and there is no other pop song in the universe quite like it – and the string arrangement, which is quite odd, a bit quirky in places, is a unique musical experience in itself…and the string outro is just the weirdest thing yet…
next comes “taking pictures”, which is dark and mysterious, with piano, guitar, some kind of leslied guitar or similar, this is quite beatlesque and is just pleasant and lovely – “places I go are never there…” and “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” are just two of the lyrical ideas here, and the whole beatle-y mood of the piece is quite compelling – and, at 1:53, it’s gone before it really gets started.
“how to dream” – acoustic guitar and vocals, lots of harmonising vocals “when we open our eyes and dream…” – straightforward acoustic guitar song, with beatlesque over tones, bass guitar, minimal drum kit – it’s all about the voice, and when the harmonies are present, the voices – a really catchy chorus, and those “ahh, ahh, ahh ahh ahhs” are simply to die for…I absolutely love this song, with it’s weird guitar sounds, and super tight harmonies – it’s exquisite.
then comes something completely different, the very unique “soul eclipse”, an odd bluesy guitar atop a noisy plodding rhythm, sounding like a scratchy 1930s blues record, racing along, with some suddenly appearing then disappearing again, great fuzz chords dropped in – and all the while, sam’s voice floats over the top – calm, reasonable, questioning…a fantastically odd arrangement, but it works. one of the very oddest of all sam phillips songs, but somehow, it works…
“incinerator”, a title I might expect from rammstein, but not from sam phillips – but there it is – another one with an odd, vintage, old-timey feel to it’s backing – which features a lot of stuff going backwards, while an oddly-thin-strangely-EQ’d guitar line travels along – the whole EQ of the piece is odd, with only sam’s voice sounding like it should – the backing is purely strange, but absolutely perfect for the song, I love this odd, odd track – which clocks in at just over two minutes and then is suddenly gone.
back to beatlesque pop, with acoustic guitars, bass and drum kit – the exquisite “love is everywhere I go” – a really, really beautiful song – possibly the most beautiful on the album – it totally channels late 60s beatles, really beautiful overlapping vocals, with a really simple chord progression – then, a mind-blowingly unique and wonderful bridge takes us right back to that irresistible chorus – genius, and again, at just over two minutes, nothing is wasted.
“below surface” is next, and it sounds like it’s title – tremelo guitars in a huge reverb room, and even sam’s voice is partially overwhelmed by the underground cavern feel, the entire song seems to be drenched in this wonderful reverb, giving it an odd other-worldly quality – and this one again, at 1:41, is gone before it gets started.
“wasting my time” returns in it’s “reprise” version, is the next to penultimate track on “fan dance”, which I tend to prefer to the “real” version, this time, no strings, but just a great straight ahead pop band: drums, bass, guitars, and reverse guitar I think – I love this version, it’s very beatles, and I think that this should be the real version, and the string quartet version should be the reprise – but it’s not up to me 🙂
the penultimate track, has a fantastic home made, demo feel about it, and a strange title to go with it, “is that your zebra” is a great little calypso / pop song, with a lovely whispered vocal, which is more about formless “ahhs” than actual lyrics, given this track a wonderfully unfinished feel – almost an afterthought – a great way to end the album.
the album closer, “say what you mean”, is a dark and lonely, sad blues song, slow, dirgelike, but utterly compelling – this reminds me of a song from godley & creme’s “consequences” – entitled “sailor” – which has a similar chord progression and lonely, sad, ethos – here, beautiful, clean, bluesy / jazzy lead guitars grace this very serious piece of blues music – something new for sam phillips, but she sings it like she’s a world-weary 1940’s chanteuse – with grace, passion and sorrow.
what a fantastic album, not a bad song on it, and yet, it remains one of her largely more-unheard works. there is no other record like “fan dance”, which I cannot recommend highly enough – it’s a real beauty.
LOSS AND LOVE
“I was broken when you got me” is the opening line from “how to quit”, the first track from 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” – another low key, acoustic affair, three years on from “fan dance” – and sam is still, thankfully, staying away from the tech excesses of records like “omnipop”, and instead, still sticking to what she does best – sings. so this record is mostly about acoustic guitars and vocals, both of which have come on from “fan dance” – a few more years’ experience, with every album, you can hear sam’s confidence grow, and both her ability on guitar (and piano) – not to mention orchestration, production, engineering… and her voice, just gets better and better each time.
the internet is not entirely forthcoming about the actual chronology of events, but it seems that phillips and burnett divorced in 2004, yet, he stayed to finish the album (“a boot and a shoe”) and they have worked together since the divorce, so while sam’s lyrics do suggest a painful, difficult separation – they still seemed to remain in contact. it seems to be generally acknowledged that “a boot and a shoe” is her record about the divorce, but how much is autobiographical and how much is musical fiction, we will probably never know. sam phillips is a private person, and I think it’s wise that we respect that privacy and not pick at the details of the divorce, except to say, she seemed very “broken” by it – hence a lyric like “I was broken when you got me…” which is heartbreaking on so many levels. I have always tried to judge “a boot and a shoe” as the next sam phillips album, and not colour it as “the break-up album” but that’s not always entirely easy to do.
“all night” is a strange one, with it’s thumping bass, and sharply strummed steel string acoustic guitars, a sort of sordid tale of woe, “all night, all night, all night I’ve been looking for you” being the repeated chorus, a mysterious little pop song – full of desire, “ I’ve been wanting to touch you since we met – you don’t give a girl a chance to forget…” and longing. this piece does take repetition to the very limit (if sam has a downfall, it might be, sometimes, just a little bit, repeating chorus a few too many times in one song…) but it’s still cool, with a great bass part, too.
“I dreamed I stopped dreaming” is a lovely, jazzy tune, with beautiful orchestration, a lovely, lovely piece – maybe my favourite track on the album – another short, enigmatic piece that clocks in at 1:51, but in it’s brief course, it moves you and touches you – and is gone before you know it.
“open the world” follows, another amazing harmony vocal – with the barest of accompaniment, acoustic guitar, bass, drum kit – and the voice from heaven. her voice is so beautiful on this, any imperfections in the song are just overlooked, because of that voice…a great, slow, beautiful, reverberant lead guitar solo takes over briefly, before the incredible harmonies return – and again, before you realise, 2:18 – it’s over.
“red silk #5” is another one that seems almost unfinished, more like a thought than a song, and I love the fragmentary nature of this and some of the other pieces, almost as if it’s not quite a song, but it was too good of an idea not to put forward, so they do a rough sketch, and that gets released – although this piece is probably more finished than I think. sam’s voice is sultry, dark, full of promise, full of mystery – “red silk five….” – talk about enigmatic!
“reflecting light” takes us back to the land of major key, pop, with lovely strummed acoustic guitar chords, a wistful vocal, “I’m reflecting light…” – accordion or something similar, sweeps along behind the mcartney-esque bass guitar and strummed acoustics – “now that I’ve worn out, I’ve worn out the world…” the imagery in this song is just gorgeous. a string quartet enters to take the place of a “lead solo”, playing a lovely middle section, until sam’s vulnerable voice returns, full of hope and joy and fear and a little bit of magic – “stand alone and misunderstood…” – this is a beautiful, wistful, sad, joyous piece of music.
another one with a title that seems more rammstein than phillips, “infiltration” is a face paced shuffle, with string quartet shoehorned on top (somehow) while the drum kit drives the piece forward. sam’s voice is somewhat overwhelmed by the odd instrumentation, but she holds her own – and somehow, this odd arrangement works beautifully, it’s inexplicable – it seems like it shouldn’t work – but it does.
“drawman” is next, another one that sounds more demo than complete, with a great, shuffling, bluesy acoustic guitar feel, and a thin, distant vocal – “hey baby, you’re a drawman…” this piece has a relentless beat, and a lovely 1920s feel to it, a lot of the songs on this record sound like period pieces from a long gone age of acoustic music, and this one has a bit of a shock – an utterly distorted fiddle solo – which is not what I would have expected, but fits in perfectly – it sounds like it came straight off of a 78 rpm record recorded in 1914, and was pasted over this decidedly more modern track – and it reoccurs near the end of the song again.
“I wanted to be alone” follows, a slow waltz with great stereo drum kit (including the best crash cymbal ever recorded – it’s just sublime), bass guitar and acoustic guitars – for this tale of lovers who want to be alone with different partners. a formless, solo-less section forms the ending – and it’s gone.
“love changes everything” is an upbeat, pop song, with down lyrics “we can’t fix what’s broken…” and a great “ba ba ba ba” chorus, just irresistible. another very straightforward acoustic guitar, bass and drums arrangement, as always, simple yet effective – and sam has clearly realised, during the course of recording both her last record, 2001’s “fan dance” and this album, 2004’s “a boot and a shoe” that it’s best to stick with what you are best at – and a straight rendering often is the key to the more successful sam phillips songs.
next comes the simplest arrangement of all – acoustic guitar, voice and later, strings, for “if I could write” – which has a great, simple vocal, and a lovely string arrangement…this could easily have been produced by sir george martin – and it’s a lovely, lovely song. “don’t think I’m coming back…coming back…coming back…”
next up is “hole in my pocket”, a modified waltz as played on acoustic guitar, which then mutates into a really beautiful pop song, the waltz figure starting out each verse, which then moves into time, and sam’s beautiful, clear voice really carries this tune, which is another incredibly short piece of music – gone before it really gets started.
“one day late” – another one of those sam phillips songs where you wish it had just a few fewer repetitive choruses, a lovely enough little song, light hearted, and with a beautiful vocal – but I do feel that the chorus outgrows it’s welcome, after about the fifth repetition, but other than that, I have no complaints, it’s a nice little song.
so as “a boot and a shoe” is the final album in a long string of sam phillips records produced by t-bone burnett, stretching from 2004 all the way back to 1987’s “the turning” when sam was still leslie phillips – a seventeen year collaboration between musician and producer – which is not something you see much of in the music industry.
SAM AS PRODUCER
an “a cappella” beginning, starts out the 2008 album “don’t do anything” – and, with another four years gone by, now divorced from burnett, this is sam’s first self-produced record, and this opening track “no explanations” has an ominous, marching drum beat, distorted guitars, and a creepy, sinuous vocal – a very striking song, and a great way to start the record – with ominous menace.
“can’t come down” follows with it’s fantastic “ I’ve got a great work to do, and I can’t come down” couplet, with sam using that lovely, deep, low pitched voice that she can now conjure up with such ease – acoustic guitar, bass drum, electric guitar – a pretty simple arrangement, but also a bit strange – some odd percussion sounds support more ordinary drum sounds – a non-solo takes the place of a guitar solo – and as with many of the tracks on her previous album, this one clocks in at less than 2:00 – just suddenly stopping at a point you would not expect.
next comes “another song” which starts out with a very distorted sample of a piano song – which then disappears, and turns into an “in the present” piano song, with it’s heartbreaking “did you ever love me” line – this is a really sad little song – and it has some odd time signature changes which are really lovely.
the title track, “don’t do anything” has the best lyrics ever, the amazing “when you’re useless – I love you more – when you don’t do anything” and as a song, it’s tremendous, with glorious strummed guitars, orchestra, and pounding drums, it’s an absolute triumph.
“little plastic life” follows, which is another piano tune, with a great vocal melody that then dissolves into the most amazing harmonised chorus ever, “burned it all, to the ground…burned it all..to the ground” – that is the most shiver inducing, goose bump causing moment, it seems like a jaunty little pop song – and then, slam, “burned it all – to the ground” flies out – and once again, I’m gobsmacked by the pop genius of the mind of sam phillips – it’s brilliant – with it’s telecasting guitars and final piano chord – wow, what a song.
“my career in chemistry” is even better – a rocking little song, with great lyrics, and a really exciting drum part, a drum part that seems to start up over and over again, but never really takes off – the lyrics are so clever, with another of those “ba ba ba ba ba” bits that just rocks – I’m not sure, but I think it might be sam herself playing the drums – and if so, it’s fucking genius. even if not – it’s fucking genius. I really love this amazing song – a show-stopper.
“flowers up” is the beautiful piano ballad, and is a song so beautiful, I don’t know if I have words to describe it, beatlesque, a perfect vocal, a perfect string arrangement, and a song that’s just pure beauty – with a “la la la la la” part that is again fantastic, this is a song you have to hear “diamond eyes spread in silk…” … “day palms and wind machines…” – imagery, vision, sound, beauty – maybe the most beautiful song yet from this remarkable young woman, fading out as the string parts overtake the rest of the song…
“sister rosetta goes before me” – another sam phillips acoustic guitar waltz, precedes the quite shocking “shake it down”, with it’s wonderfully distorted electric guitars and risqué lyric…this record is so personal, so real, that when I first got it in 2008, I really could not stop listening to it for many weeks…an unlikely banjo solo, then back to the five chord wonder that “shake it down” is.
next is “under the night” – more wonderfully distorted electric guitars follow the acoustics, and a low level, low pitched vocal is barely audible behind the wall of guitars, at least until the harmonies come in, when things become more audible. this is a dark arrangement, dire, dreach, and moody – not to be trifled with.
“signal” is another hybrid string quartet/acoustic guitar waltz (which sam seems to really favour on this record – but not necessarily a bad thing!) with a lovely vocal, a really beautiful vocal melody against the acoustic guitars “I gave you who I am…” – wow, that’s fantastic “looking for a signal, underneath my face…” – beautiful string arrangement too.
“watching out of this world” – back to the distorted electric guitars again, a strange, up and down in mood, odd anthem, with a really catchy chorus – if you can make it out underneath the dirtiest electric guitars ever recorded on a pop album – the arrangement threatens to bury the beautiful vocal, but luckily, the vocal wins.
this is a moody record, a very, very personal record, and it finds sam exploring some new techniques, and using a lot more distorted electric guitars on her backing tracks, as well as work with strings and orchestration – but overall, it’s a very, very beautiful record with a lot of naked emotion, and incredibly moving vocals, with very personal arrangements from sam.
it was at this point in time, 2008, that I temporarily lost track of sam’s music, although I continued to play “don’t do anything”, which I picked up on a trip to california in 2008 (sam phillips CDs being a bit rare here in scotland), quite a bit over the past few years, and of course, I am always willing to dip into the back catalogue at any time too…
until a few days ago, when john relph, curator of chalkhills, and many others, casually mentioned that sam phillips “long play” subscription service was about to close down…and so many people responded, that the website actually crashed (it’s being rebuilt now as we speak…seems to be OK now) and I was one of those “better late than never” subscribers, I’d heard about “long play” back in the day, but hadn’t acted – but now, realising I might miss out on three years’ worth of sam’s work – it was a no brainer decision to download the “long play” series.
I downloaded “long play” but I’ve only heard it twice in it’s entirety – and all I can say is…it’s incredible, it’s beautiful, creative, and fascinating, and I am so glad I decided to get it….but, I will have to continue this dissertation on the music of “long play” somewhere down the road, once I’ve had a chance to hear and become familiar with the five EPs, one LP, and several singles that sam released to subscribed fans since 2009 – it was originally meant to run for one year, but ended up existing all the way up to may 1, 2013 – which is good, because that gave those of us who missed it the first time around, a chance to get “caught up” with sam’s music. I for one am the gladdest of all – because while “don’t do anything” is a great, self-produced album, the body of work represented by “long play” is even more musically rewarding – and best of all, there is no record company involvement.
you pay the subscription directly to sam – and she gives you…music. funded by you, written for you, really.
my first (and second) impressions of long play is that it is gobsmackingly beautiful…it is really, really a remarkable body of work, and over the three years it was recorded, sam developed, and matured and grew as a musician in an incredible, but unsurprising way…it’s really so lovely – even after just two “listens”, I can absolutely recommend it so, so highly. a work of incredible beauty.
but I am not surprised 🙂 because, her entire career before her, where she progressed musically not in a linear way, but almost by leaps and bounds, embracing, then rejecting, technology, and always returning to what is key, what is at the heart of the music – her voice, the guitar, the piano – the simple arrangement, the honest song…so I am unsurprised now that the more mature sam phillips, is both master of her craft, and master of her instruments.
in the meantime, at least in this blog, I’ve thoroughly covered the records made between 1987 and 2008, and in part two, of course, I will cover 2009 to the present (whenever that might be) 🙂 I will see you some time in 2014 with the second instalment, I recognise that absorbing and becoming familiar with “long play” is going to take me some considerable time 🙂
starting out with “recollection” by leslie phillips, and eventually growing to a personal collection that contained the majority of her albums under both the leslie phillips and the “sam phillips” names, I’ve really enjoyed being on this particular musical journey…
to me, sam is both a serious songwriter, and a pop genius, with a truly unique and beautiful voice (not to mention great skill at vocal harmonies and vocal arrangements, too) and if you are a fan of quality pop music, then you will probably like some or all of her music, too. her records are always engaging, interesting, covering a broad range of production styles and mixing techniques – and she is without doubt, one of the most unique and interesting voices, with a remarkable catalogue of music, in our time, that I know of.
please give her a listen if you get the chance…you may be pleasantly surprised!
released as “sam phillips” – the “secular phase”
“the indescribable wow” (1988)
“cruel inventions” (1991)
“martinis & bikinis” (1994)
“omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound, lambchop)” (1996)
“zero zero zero” (1998)
“fan dance” (2001)
“a boot and a shoe” (2004)
“don’t do anything” (2008)
EPs and LPS from “long play”:
“hypnotists in paris EP” (2009)
“cold dark night EP” (2009)
“magic for everybody EP” (2010)
“old tin pan EP” (2010)
“days of the one night stands EP” (2010)
“cameras in the sky LP” (2011)
“solid state: songs from the long play LP – compilation” (2011 – compilation of the best songs from across “long play”)
(see the full “long play” chronology below for “long play” singles’ release information)
“long play” chronology (in reverse chronology, most recent first):
October 1, 2011 plastic is forever – alternate version
2011 Single I don’t know why – what it all means – trouble live
August 11, 2011 “solid state: songs from the long play”
February 12, 2011 “cameras in the sky” – full length album
December 8, 2010 single it doesn’t feel like christmas
2010 single go on alone – when you’re down
August 24, 2010 “days of the one night stands EP”
June 18, 2010 “old tin pan EP”
2010 single heart on wheels
February 11, 2010 “magic for everybody EP”
November 24, 2009 “cold dark night EP”
October 1, 2009 “hypnotists in paris EP”
2009 single when you’re down
2009 single I need love – 2009 version
(thanks to john relph for the basis of the above)
the return of progressive rock…
I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music. I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.
as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.
“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to): “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.
it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”, the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock. king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.
prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation. it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.
in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977. if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co. in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.
if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying. an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened. the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless. and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…
I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog. I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson, “the power & the glory” by gentle giant, “the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill: “the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer, “exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum, “hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi) a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…
my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s camel, jethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.
of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…
I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelin, jimi hendrix, zz top and so on, and then eventually through yes, genesis, gentle giant, king crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:
concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)
concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)
and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…
eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson. as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band. I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears. I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”. the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.
the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belew, robert fripp, tony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours. 80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t. some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer. of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…
rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone. except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)
and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tull, king crimson, genesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other. arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band? because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway). was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?
none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock. even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…
so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so. in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).
a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre. genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it. those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.
fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!
first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips. and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in. but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music. but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull ! a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?
if you know what I mean.
so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth. and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good. but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK. the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the man, the dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush. I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.
meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfm, le orme, and banco; france, ange, gong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…
and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.
I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂 what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dream, faust, can, popol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“. if there could be such a thing…
another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose. but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.
some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).
gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that! they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.
speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.
some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.
of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows. prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years. it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakeman. g force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…
all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre. I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common! and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.
having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.
speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre. “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs, loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.
some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania. and that is indeed, a shame. some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day. that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…
so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.
what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today. I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978. because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on. that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 ! this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂
I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult. because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies. at least, that’s been my experience so far. I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.
in a way, I just don’t…need new prog. it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging. but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth. I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…
and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted. I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson. but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”. I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups. van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.
after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing. a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task. remarkable.
so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…
I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands. I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog. don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them. an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!
but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake. I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren. and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂
prog is an enormous topic. I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before. a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before. and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.
scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smith, peter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.
some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works. classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.
but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic. the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band. or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.
anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands; to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves” – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable. just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.
a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tone, wah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.
fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.
so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.
so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974. and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…). so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK. for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there. for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.
and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂
animoog – jam up pro – loopy hd – riding the audiobus :-)
well, I finally had a chance to do a “proper recording” using audiobus – and I am not disappointed in any way.
I made it simple – I just used one synth, albeit a synth with a huge vocabulary of amazing sounds – the recently expanded animoog.
I quickly gave myself a refresher in loopy hd, I re-taught myself how to use it, because I hadn’t really “got it” before (I had used it exactly once, a couple weeks back), and now have a degree of competence in it’s use.
then…I fired up audiobus, loaded and “woke up” my input (animoog) my effects (jam up pro xt) and my output (loopyhd) – and then, switching to animoog, recorded my first loop in no time. elapsed time: less than two minutes.
then I began to record overdubs on other loop channels in loopy hd, and within perhaps seven or eight minutes, I had all six loops populated and playing a very jolly little tune in the key of c major – bright and beautiful. five melodies, and one sort-of bass part/slidy thing.
I used five or six different voices from animoog, some from the standard menu, some from the metallic set, some from the richard devine library – all, very, very beautiful indeed – animoog is the secret synth weapon on my ipad, without a doubt.
another minute adjusting final volume levels.
another minute adjusting pan to get some nice stereo going on.
result, in less than 10 minutes, a beautiful stereo multi-track loop of the highest quality.
a final mix in audition, adjust it’s levels, and maybe a tiny spot of reverb (it already has some nice reverb and delay courtesy of the jam up pro xt, but maybe it would like a tiny bit of reverb – maybe). it’s quite, quite lovely the way it is, to be honest, so I may just leave it as is.
(note: in the end, I left it as-is – nothing added – no additives or preservatives used 🙂
based on my experience here, and thinking about all those inputs that are already compatible with audiobus, I am imagining using six different input devices, and recording six loops – each totally different, one with a bass line, one with a drum machine, and then four different synthesizers – to get four utterly distinctive melodic sounds…but that’s just in the world of loopy. when auria comes on line (note – it since has!)….then the sky’s the limit.
or, of course, guitar could be one or two of them, so maybe…bassline, drum machine, synth 1, synth 2, guitar 1, guitar 2. and of course, you can have more than six loops in loopy, so there is no limit – and the quality recording that came together so quickly by just using one synth…is brilliant, so I can see almost no limits to what can be done with this device.
the beauty of using loopy hd is that in this case, it actually brings the record button from loopy onto the animoog page, so I never had to leave animoog – I could trigger, stop and start loops without ever going to loopy !!. I did go there – to clear loops and try again, but mostly, I just stayed in animoog; trialled different sounds, found the one I wanted, hit record, recorded another good loop…what a great experience, and such a different experience to the last time I tried recording with several different apps (the synthraga orchestra sessions). much simpler, much easier, and – it just WORKS! brilliant.
in fact, I am kinda…stunned by how well it does work, and how quickly I adapt to using it – as if I’d had it all along. it just becomes natural – switch to the looper. do what you need to do. now back to the synth. play another melody. now play a harmonising part. back to the looper, adjust the levels. back to the synth – new voice, new part – and so on. smooth, beautiful, easy – and the results are stunning – a really, really nice piece came out of my ten minute six loop audiobus experiment – and that is perhaps, the most impressive thing of all – from this new technology – music has emerged.
and – even better – it’s quite beautiful music, too – always a plus. I have posted the piece on sound cloud just now, it’s entitled “the sixth sense” – six animoog loops working together to create a mini-symphony of looping synthesizers – all thanks to the miraculous and very, very clever idea that is audiobus.
creating this piece using audiobus, and realising just how quickly, easily, and painlessly I was able to build up a really nice piece of music, I feel very excited about the future – and about being able to just endlessly layer different sounds from different instruments, in such a fluid and live atmosphere – that is just brilliant. now that auria has come on line, over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on a new multi-track master – and it’s been an even better experience than my first try with loopy HD.
using audiobus, with auria as my recording device – I was quickly able to lay down a full length drum part using korg ielectribe, and then I set out to build a bass part – but, I wanted to build it in sections, using many different sounds – so I set up several tracks in auria in my 24 track master, and then, calling up different synthesizers, one by one, and adding, bit by bit, my “composite” bass part (which for the record, is comprised of magellan, animoog and korg ims-20 synths). a couple of hours work, at the most, over a few days, and I have now completed the bass part from end to end – and it all worked so well, so flawlessly – and now I have a great basic track, over which I can overdub guitars, synths, you name it.
I had a great time playing with loopy HD, which, after all, is a brilliant live looping device, really well designed, so there is no harm in learning the best looper I have on the ipad. but I am even more excited after having used audiobus to create a full on proper recording session in auria – that is just brilliant.
drums, bass synths, hell, real basses via jam up pro xt, stompbox and eventually, ampkit + (once it’s compatible), real guitars via same, any number of synths and synth-like applications, you name it – kaoss pad in the form of the ikaossilator – anything that a) makes sound and b) has been made compatible with audiobus. and now I’m even happier, because one of my very, very favourite guitar applications, stomp box – is now audiobus compatible! so I am looking forward now, to setting up some awesome guitar sounds in stomp box, and overdubbing my new drum and bass part with real guitars. I am waiting for ampkit plus, to give me that third set of guitar set-up possibilities – but I am well set up now with stompbox and jam up pro – that’s a great start.
I can’t believe that in the space of 13 months (the time I’ve used ipad applications), I’ve gone from having two synths, the fairlight pro and korg ims-20, to having a full on recording studio with more instruments than I have time to learn…the growth of music apps on the ipad has to be one of the most exponentially staggering growths of technology ever to have occurred. during this last year, we’ve been given things like ipolysix from korg; the amazing auria multi-track recorder, like jam up pro, like audiobus – and each one, in it’s own way, a game-changer…
first, it was multi-track recording. now, it’s being able to near-seamlessly move between inputs, effects and outputs during live performance or live recording via audiobus…not to mention the two amazing generative music tools, mixtikl and scape, as well as the super educational and extremely useful and beautiful itabla pro, which gives me tablas in a large palette of very real and very realistic presets and modes – and the drones, those beautiful, beautiful tanpuras…
and then I step back and realise, this huge, huge palette of instruments, effects, processing, recording, drums, tablas, bass lines, and synthesizers galore can now be ADDED to all of the other “normal” instruments I have available, so the combinations that are available to me, as a creative musician, haven’t doubled or trebled or quadrupled or quintupled, they have…seventeenified. I’ve seen the tip of this iceberg in my most recent studio set up, the “all instruments” set up, which demonstrated to me, during the last couple of sessions – that just about anything is possible now.
choices to the seventeenth !
or, to the thirty-fourth…
I used to be a bit skeptical about technology, but when I see what they have done with it at audiobus, for example, I just fall in love with it, it’s brilliant, clever, amazing. part of me thinks I am dreaming – I keep asking myself, how can a £7.99 synthesizer on a tablet sound so fucking GOOD? the answer is: it can. it does. it will.
In just over a year, I’ve gone from technophobe to technophile, and there is no looking back, take no prisoners, I can play hard rock/metal detuned guitar through a tablet – I don’t need that marshall stack I could never afford anyway – I can rock with a tablet – and now that I have two guitar apps, soon to be three –stomp box and jam up pro XT, hopefully followed soon by ampkit plus, please…I know I keep saying this, but…the sky’s the limit for guitar sounds.
so the old set ups are out, the new, in, guitar to ipad to auria, via audiobus – hit record.
I am also so, so pleased to announce the return of an old, old friend, adobe recently made version 3 of adobe audition available for free on their website, so how could I say no – after all, this is the direct successor to “cool edit pro” – the first audio multi-track I ever owned, and upon which I remastered all my analogue tape albums with – so as well as having the most tricked out ipad around, I also have my favourite audio multi-track recorder back, for free – a good price.
now I will be using adobe audition for pop and click removal, and also, removal of clipped audio, and especially for it’s FFT style noise reduction, which is a beautiful and very effective “old” technology. so – hats off to adobe for their very, very thoughtful free gift to us all. an old adobe program is probably better than a lot of very expensive NEW products…and for me, it’s like getting back an old friend – a friend named “CoolEditPro”.
I am so, so pleased ! 🙂
and recording with audiobus, using loopyHD or auria as the recorder – could not be easier or more fun – it’s absolutely brilliant.
audiobus rules, and if you haven’t tried it, I can heartily recommend it. it’s not perfect, very occasionally, auria will stall or crash, but I am running it on an ipad2, so some exceptions have to be made – and the code will only get better – they’ve just had an upgrade giving us buffering options in case of stuttering, so they clearly care about the user experience.
it works so well already, in it’s infancy, that I really look forward to using it when it’a a mature and robust application – I cannot wait!
music making has changed forever with the ipad, but the innovation of audiobus has now propelled both live performance and on-ipad multitrack or loop recording – into the distant future…right now. the future of ipad music making has arrived…and it’s called “audiobus”.
or so it seems to me. 🙂
king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get
more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.
despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir. every note ever recorded !
I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.
at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse. so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works: while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.
brilliant ! so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio. this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.
so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency. how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…
the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.
so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!). those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.
even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing. you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.
sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.
but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!
having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say. I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.
it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.
but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson. 60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride. some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!
this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.
and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.
the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).
bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.
speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.
a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.
the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”. when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).
some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!
having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers. it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.
musically, it works. two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.
in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it. so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.
what about the guitarist then? I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings. for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.
I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.
for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton. wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.
sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron. or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-). I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably. I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa. unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.
moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).
or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record. wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together. fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose. “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!
on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.
by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since. and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.
I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about. sigh.
this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely. it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly. it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.
so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.
and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius. not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!
moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.
unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.
from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.
I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.
at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”. even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.
this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.
the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!
at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery. it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).
I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense. “my my”…
it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go. there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.
muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.
and then there were four.
those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).
but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.
the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday. the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.
my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon. utterly dependable.
I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me? absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic. and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get? it was, shall we say – most upsetting!
so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.
…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you. I am finally getting to see and hear this record. for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂
meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!
the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.
the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.
the new 2012 stereo mix – well. it’s beautiful. I love it. but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.
so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good. I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).
I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!
…fast forward to week 5 of ‘scaping’…
I am in week 5 of scaping now, and I have just completed scape 785 in my latest session (much to my amazement – I mean, come on, how many other tools would let you capture 785 unique generative ambient compositions in under six weeks?). it’s one of six variants, saved in six different moods, of a really interesting scape – no background, and, a set of randomly thrown out “E” shaped yellow note elements – this is a note that bends very strangely, and with about 30 of them in the mix, you get this wonderful, very fripp like dissonant cloud of bendy notes all blended together, arriving in dense, frippy-clusters of sound, and it’s so beautiful I could just listen to it forever.
fantastic notes…so bendy (up, down, sideways, every which way), so quizzical, so odd – so questioning. never really resolving, just wandering in and out of the musical landscape in beautifully random clusters…
this is the single strangest scape I’ve ever made, it’s so dissonant, so random, the pitch is all over the place, yet, it’s so incredibly beautiful, too – I can’t quite come to terms with scape 785 ! at times, it fades out as the note clusters continue to collide and wander…fading almost to silence, then suddenly waking back up again, coming up to full volume one more time.
listening to this scape is kind of like drifting in and out of consciousness, it comes and goes, like a beautiful but strange dream that you are dreaming, which then goes away; – comes back – almost disappears; then re-appears, meanwhile, the note clusters get really strange, appearing at the oddest intervals, landing on top of each other, large spaces in between….it’s just one of the most unusual, and oddest, experiences I’ve ever had – and it took about five seconds to create.
I literally open the yellow note element area, grabbed the “E” shaped note, and dragged about 30 of them out into the workspace; randomly, onto the screen, totally at random – creating a jumble of notes filling most of the screen. no sense of order whatsoever, just randomly dispersed notes – but the overall effect, the sound of the resulting piece – is just wonderful. sigh.
I am extremely pleased with this piece, although because of my backlog, and because this tool is so incredibly prolific, it may be a while before you hear this piece…I hope not too long.
lately, scapes have tended to be much more complex – although, sometimes I will still really strip things back and create some very sparse, minimalist scapes, because I now have so many tools, so many new backgrounds, new elements, I am always wanting to add in my favourites – a new descending arrowhead, the “quiet sun” bell, the buzzing two sided triangle/mountain, the new orange/blue mood – so quite a few of the last couple hundred or so have been very, very active pieces indeed.
I really wish there was a way I could instantly publish all 785 of my scapes onto the internet – I really do, because, having so far managed to put up just six of them, I feel very frustrated that you can’t hear the work I am doing right now – and, I am frustrated too that you can’t hear all the new sounds and sound combinations that I am coming up with, too. all in good time as they say…
I began by publishing my first few scapes onto soundcloud, but of course with their two hour time limit, I am only maybe going to get 20 or so up there…so I decided, rather than add endless channels on soundcloud, to switch to youtube (leaving the soundcloud scapes up, of course!!!) – so for a while, there will be a parallel process – scapes will go up as audio to soundcloud, and as audio with some kind of “video” to you tube at the same time – but eventually, soundcloud will fill up, where as you tube will continue.
at this moment in time, scapes 1 through 7 are up on soundcloud; number 8 should go up tonight – while on youtube, since I started that project a bit later, just the first three are up; number four is ready to go up later today – and, I am working on the next three already as well, so I hope to get “caught up” soon….and I do just plan to continue as time permits – I will make very simple videos for the pieces (nothing fancy) and I will just keep uploading them to the purescapes channel on you tube – although other projects may mean that I have to take breaks from uploading scapes – but if I am able, I will always persist with this – this is one of the most remarkable collections of music I have ever recorded, but it’s also very frustrating, in less than five weeks, I have almost 800 pieces of music!!! it arrives so, so quickly, and so much of it is so, so lovely – but the quantity is staggering, and almost unmanageable in terms of recording and/or uploading the tracks – how long will it take me to make 785 scape videos, and then upload them?
and by the time I do – I will then have another 800 scapes recorded…and the cycle will never end!!! I don’t think I’ve ever had an instrument that could create beautifully complete pieces of music, finished songs, at this incredible rate – it takes far longer to record them then it does to actually create them!
another thing that intrigues me about the app, something about scape that I am…unsure of…is the effect of visual symmetry on the sound output. it does seem, that if I take a lot of time, and line up my objects into really beautiful symmetrical patterns, that the resulting sound of the scape is…more organised, more musical – than if I randomly disperse various elements without ANY sense of order or symmetry. maybe.
but then something like scape 785 comes along, and knocks this theory on it’s head – a completely at-random, very hastily-assembled set of elements – with a beautiful output, as beautiful or more beautiful than the output of scapes that I spent far more time on, with lots of symmetry…so I just can’t tell – both very tidy, very carefully created scapes, and almost randomly created scapes – sound good!
so that theory is obviously no good, although I might say, that if you order your elements with precision symmetry, that this may make your scape sound particularly orderly and beautiful – possibly! that’s about all I can say so far…
the other thing that really fascinates me about scape are the hidden, secret, internal “rules” – which for the life of me, I can’t really figure out any of!!! events are triggered by events, actions taken based on how you set things up – but we really don’t understand much of it.
I’ve learned that you can create a scape that you like, and then save copies of it in “each” of the available moods. So for example, scape 785 is in the new orange/blue mood, however, I also saved it in several other moods, and, my ear can somewhat discern what those other moods “do” to the piece.
if I then shift to the “green” mood version of the same piece, scape 783, there is a different reverb, there is a short delay with several repeats, and the pitch of the notes is a few steps at least, lower. so the same piece sounds quite “different” in green mood, but also it’s still recognisably the same piece.
if I then shift to the “pink/violet” mood version of the piece, scape 784, there is a much larger room reverb and a different short delay with a longer repeat – and the pitch is somewhere in between the pitch of the “orange/blue” and “green” moods.
but as far as the other “rules”, how instruments interact, what happens when you add a second bass note in, what happens when you “chain together” eight bells – I just don’t know. and in a way, it doesn’t matter – because it works !! – they sound like pieces of music, as if composed by a human – but, they are in fact, generative – so only guided by a human. I am, however, happy to be one of those human, to herd eno and chilvers’ samples into ever more sophisticated musical forms, in a seemingly endless variety of beautiful sound working with beautiful sound…
I can’t believe the intelligence and sophistication built into this instrument, it’s only the second generative tool I’ve tried over the years (I did work briefly with an early version of koan, but it was very, very primitive compared to scape), but I don’t know that I would want any other – until they come out with the frippertronics version, that is. in the meantime…
scape – week two – eno and chilvers’ masterpiece
well, I’ve now been working with scape for a couple of weeks, and I have to say, it’s been an absolutely remarkable experience.
I’ve never had a tool that “grows” as you use it, but scape not only grows but the new backgrounds, palettes, and elements that appear, just get better and better.
scape seems to be getting a very good reception, with some very positive press, such as this item from the guardian.
yesterday’s session was an absolutely mind-blowing one, with a new “spearhead” shaped tool appearing, that makes an incredibly complex synthesizer sound, and with the addition of this new tool, even though I am pretty sure there is quite a bit more to come – now, the scapes I can create, are just astonishing in their complexity.
and speaking of complexity – that’s one of three new “controls” that have recently appeared – “density” – “complexity” – and my personal favourite “mystery”.
I’ve always wanted a slider to control “mystery” – and now I have one.
new tools in the bass register are also a huge hit with me, and I can’t wait, each day, to press the “create new scapes” button and see what the next set of amazing tools will be.
this was already the most innovative ambient music creation tool I’ve ever used even in it’s basic, starting configuration. I could have happily created many, many unique and beautiful scapes, ambient, sinister, active, strange, bizarre – with just the simple controls, backgrounds and sounds that I had during week one. but each time you press the “create a scape” button – the app delivers more, new, and exciting, tools to you to use.
but now, now that I’ve been amazed over and over again at the new sounds and backgrounds that appear, I begin to realise just what a complex and clever creation scape is. this is fast becoming not just my favourite music application to create ambient music with, but in some ways, my favourite music application of ALL time.
using my own imagination, coupled with creating scapes based on eno and chilvers’ suggestions, I have, in two weeks time, created 146 individual scapes and several playlists, that, if recorded and played back in their entirety, represent many, many hours of music, and compositionally, for me, represent in some cases, what would equate to several complete albums of music – and all created in just two weeks of work, 30 to 60 minutes a day maximum.
and when I listen to scapes I’ve created, most of them work very, very well indeed, there are very few that I feel are “substandard”. the scapes made in the last couple of days in particular, are so incredibly rich, complex and beautiful – and it’s not me, it’s the tool, of course – I am just putting the elements together, and then marvelling at the sound that comes out.
also – I find, I am starting to work visually. creating landscapes, and not worrying about the sound until I am done, letting the vision of the elements drive what the sound is – and that’s a new experience for me. I was always in control, I played THAT bass part or that synth or that guitar – with scape, you can just “paint” – just make pictures with mountains and the sun and notes hovering in the air…
I find myself creating scapes that are very…symmetrical, and those are often the most beautiful of all, but, even the most random visual effect can also translate into a piece of incredible beauty. at one point, I created an empty backdrop, and then placed random sound objects in an ugly circle in the “air” – and it sounded really good. so you can spend a long time, creating a beautiful painting, and get good results – or, work very quickly/randomly, and also get…good results.
I will say, I think the more I work on the visual aspect; the “better” the scape, but, even the most randomly created scapes still sound good. sigh…
at this point in time, I am half of a mind to simply record each of my 146 scapes (note: now, over 200 scapes as of blog press time), and start loading them up to sound cloud, because I will never have the time, money or resource to bundle these amazing compositions into traditional albums. and that would now be something like…20 albums.
I want people to hear scape, not so much for my compositions, but just to hear what it is capable of.
I do believe, that the scapes I’ve been creating, are working very, very well for a number of reasons. the first and foremost, is the amazing, intuitive tool itself, and, the fact that you can “draw” a picture, and that then triggers an amazing piece of music…visually created music. secondly, and important in my case – I’ve been creating ambient music myself since about 1989, and I really feel an affinity with this instrument, and it’s strange method of composition – as unique in it’s own way as “looping” was back in 1989. I feel that my experience, makes me the right person to be using a tool like this, and I have worked very hard on my first 146 scapes, building them to the suggestions from the instruments’ creator; building scapes of my own design, but just flying, too, as I did in the looping days – you just push “record” and you go, and you start looping – and sometimes it works amazingly well, other times, you have to try again.
scape is no different, you start out with a blank palette, and you add elements. usually, it works very, very well – occasionally, you have to scrap a scape and start over. very occasionally.
so…in a way…scape is the looper of the “naughties”. or is it the “tens”, now.
if you had asked me 18 months ago if I thought I was a likely candidate to be championing the use of ipad apps to make music with, I might well have laughed. I am not laughing now – scape takes application music-making to a whole new level, and brian eno and peter chilvers, and opal, have done an AMAZING job with this “organically-growing-as-you-work” application.
just the idea that the app gives you oblique strategy-like “instructions”, the idea that, when you go to “create” – you are immediately rewarded with new, raw materials with which to create, that you did not have available the day before – that’s intelligent design, that’s startling – because suddenly, one day, you get, two or three new tools, and that…changes everything.
constantly evolving, constantly becoming more and more capable, and right now, I think I have the world class, the best of breed, the most remarkable, the most creative, the most flexible ambient music creation tool that there ever was – right here in my hands.
I’ve already done some experiments using scape as a “live backing” for live recording with guitar or guitar synth, and I can see a huge future opening up where I can play live…as scapes evolve organically, live, while I am improvising along. it’s really the ability to have “those” sounds, those amazing brian eno borne sounds, that makes scape so addictive and so wonderful to work with.
but – I can also see, in the recording studio, hybrid scape- and traditional- instruments blending really well together, using scape for entire ambient sections of music, overdubbing scapes with looped ebows – unlimited potential for both live performance and studio integration.
I can take looping, which I’ve been doing for so, so long, and blend it with this brand new ambient music creation tool – and I think the amount of flexibility that will give me, is going to be a game-changer. I can imagine the kinds of hybrid music that will be available to me now, with tools like this…the mind reels at the nearly endless possibilities…
for me, one of the most exciting exercises was when I was given the instruction to “create a scape that works with another application”. this was way back during scape week 1, when I barely knew what I was doing, but of course, I chose “itabla” – my other favourite music application, and I was quickly able to “tune” “itabla” down to c natural so it would work with scape, and I created a “tabla/tanpura” piece first, and then a scape to go with it.
when I play them back together…it’s bliss, pure, ambient, tabla, raga, ambient, bliss. like no music I have ever heard. this is a piece that I will be recording and presenting somewhere, because it’s just an astonishing piece of music – and, created by following the instructions/suggestions made by eno and chilvers. I continue to use the instructions, even if they repeat, and as time goes on, my efforts to “create a storm” or “create confusion” or “work with colour” or “create contrasting textures” or “use only one type of element” – get better and better as the days go on.
some of the playlists I’ve developed, I’ve let play on repeat for many hours, and they sound like (funnily enough)…eno albums. which is not surprising, given that the music within scape is mostly played by eno. but – by intent or not – he has given us the actual DNA of his style of ambient music.
If I had designed a “dave stafford” version of scape, it would be all about ebows, ebows, and more ebows – you folk could construct “dave stafford”-sounding scapes out of recorded pieces of – energy bow guitar. in fact, I’d love to do that, and I’d love it if you could get different “versions” of scape with different sample libraries – like the robert fripp version, which would have two modes: “frippertronics” and “soundscapes” – and you could “build your own” fripp soundalike pieces. or the “ravi shankar” version, where you can create your own ragas, using real pieces of music from the master himself…
sometimes, I wish I were a developer – because I keep imagining these apps, but I can’t build them…
I don’t mean to, in any way, downplay this one, because the samples in this one are beautiful, really, really beautiful – but just imagine, a whole range of creation tools featuring sound bytes from all of the master musicians of the day – you could even do one based on jimi hendrix, so rock guitarists, who are not usually that much into ambient, could have a version to work with. luckily, I happen to embrace both disciplines, being a rock guitarist turned ambient guitarist turned back to a rock guitarist – so I would be equally happy with the eno version and/or the hendrix version.
“scape” is like having a selection of the best sounds from “music for airports”, “thursday afternoon”, “neroli”, and any other classic eno ambient record you care to name, available for you to reconfigure into your own eno-like yet *not* eno-like pieces.
in fact, despite the fact that the samples are all played by eno or chilvers, it’s very easy to add in your own influence, by creating artistic, visual designs that they didn’t think of (or didn’t happen upon, is maybe a better way to put it) – and I’ve done some very, very strange visuals which created some very, very unique scapes – that I feel, in some cases, say more about my personality (I hope), rather than all sounding just like eno-soundalikes. if you work at it, you can inject your own personality into the resulting sonic compositions.
I guess what I am saying is, if you just throw a few shapes onto the page, and push play – you will get eno and chilvers; chilvers and eno; eno and chilvers. but if you take time to learn what each element does, and how the backgrounds and filters affect each scape, you can manipulate events, usually visually, to impart your own personality into the pieces.
by trusting in their suggestions, I’ve found that those suggestions often reward me greatly – they would know – and some of the best scapes are scapes based on the inbuilt suggestions. equally though, I find I can manipulate the visual palette to realise my own musical ideas – because I know, or at least I am learning – what to expect from the backgrounds, elements, and filters, so I can forge a “dave stafford” sound using “brian eno” elements – and further to that, if I then play live improvs along with a “dave stafford-ised” scape, or use same in studio works – I think the sky is the limit.
of course, I can, and have, and always will, build my own ambient pieces using the normal methods – synths, ebows, for me, mellotrons (reference: sky full of stars, an ambient album made entirely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – that goes without saying really. however, having this sort of…purpose-built ambient music making machine, that can create lush, beautiful, enoesque tracks very, very quickly indeed, on the fly, live, or studio – well, that just is the icing on the cake, it gives me an amazing new vocabulary of ambient sounds to incorporate into my music, live or studio…OK, the method of creating the sound is visual, which is a change – but I learned to make music without keys or strings when I got my first kaoss pad – now, I can make music by creating visual works of art in the scape creation window – so that’s just the latest way to create music – I just add it to all the rest – nothing surprises me now, in fact, this visual method of creation, I think, is fabulous, and kudos to eno and chilvers for making it work so very, very well.
did I mention that I ***love***this application? scape is “the” ambient music application, and maybe, just maybe, my very favourite music application of all…we shall see.
I can’t believe how quickly you can conceive, execute, and complete new pieces, I can’t believe I’ve created 146 long form, ambient masterpieces in two weeks flat, the speed at which one can work with scape is incredible, and the results, sonically, are equally astonishing – words don’t do it justice, you have to hear it, see it, use it – and especially, use it – to experience the “growth”.
it looks great, it **sounds** great, and the way it “grows” as you work with it is undeniably an addictive and fantastic feature – wow. each day – you get new tools with which to make ever-better, evolving, music. because of this evolution – the pieces I made yesterday, are light-years, musically, beyond the pieces I made ten days ago.
and then… there was today’s session, the most productive of all, taking my total number of “scapes created” to over 200 – so about 50 created just today – and again, some, made to suggestions, some, made completely randomly, or based on newly-appearing elements – but, 200 + amazing pieces of ambient music, probably something like 20 full ambient albums made in just two weeks – that’s astonishing.
I love it.
what we’re listening to – live at brighton – king crimson – kc club 30 – 10/17/1971
the king crimson club releases have been an amazing resource for fans of the band, a behind-the-scenes look at both crimson “live” and also in the studio – but for me, it’s always been about the concerts, hearing how this remarkable band made it’s way through the world, with changing personnel and changing times…
I was in the original king crimson club the very first year it appeared, and I collected all the titles up to a certain point; then later, when they changed to an ordinary purchase versus the original subscription service, I would occasionally “top up” my collection, by hand-picking any live concerts I was missing.
a couple of years ago, I went in and looked up what titles I was missing, and duly ordered half a dozen cds, mostly from the 1971 band, and one from the 1973 – 1974 band, but among them was a little gem that I did not then know about: brighton, october 1971: the islands band live. you may be surprised to learn that, over time, this particular line-up has actually become my favourite line-up of all – possibly because of the absolutely magical connection between master guitarist robert fripp and master flute/sax/mellotron player mel collins, who were magic in the studio together, and transcendent together, with boz and ian, on the stage.
this is not to downplay the crucial role of bassist boz burrell and drummer ian wallace, the former, famously a singer that fripp taught how to play bass, note by note, by rote; the latter, the pioneer of the vcs3-treated drum solo (in conjunction with the synth’s operator, peter sinfield) – and I will say right now, I actually feel the opposite of what robert has often said (which is that boz “did not convince” on the quieter pieces) – I think he was a great rock singer, but even better at the “quiet pieces” – I love the quieter pieces, and I love the way boz sang them both on record and live, especially live – he could be so gentle, so serious, so lovely – and then belt out a bluesy, funky, vocal rave up the next – and, he was a solid, clean bassist. sadly, both boz and ian have recently passed away – but their musical legacy has not – the collector’s club has immortalised this most excellent, but lesser-known, king crimson line-up.
that five-man line-up – four on the stage – one at the back with his lighting board and his vcs3 synthesizer – played a long, long series of really, really powerful concerts over a relatively short; but very, very intense period.
so why is this concert, among so, so many live king crimson concerts out there, so special then?
well, for two reasons, the main one which is: they play the song “islands” live. so far, this is the only recording of this song from the stage that we know of, and it’s stunningly beautiful (questionable sound quality of the whole concert aside). it’s incredible, delicate, and even though mel gets a bit loud on the mellotron at one point, well…it’s a live version of the song “islands”…what can I say? the second reason is less important but still significant, because there was a time when bands would record an album, and then go out and play that album, and that’s what is happening here: the second reason is this is the ONLY king crimson concert where the band plays the entire “islands” album live (well, as close to “entire” as it ever could be, of course, track five of the original studio album is an orchestral piece, “song of the gulls” which I am not counting, because unless they could pack along an orchestra, there would be no way for them to perform this song) – so when I say “all”, I mean, all five of the five songs that they actually could play – the sixth, “song of the gulls”, never being a contender for live performance due to the fact that the band never played it anyway – it was recorded by mostly session musicians, although it’s probably that collins plays on it, and possible that wallace does too!
for me though, it was a complete shock, I had assumed, for many, many years, that king crimson never played the song, the title track of “islands”, live…so I was just looking at the cds when they arrived, and I saw the word “islands” at the end of the disc 1 running order, and I thought, that can’t be right, it must be a mistake…imagine my surprise, my excitement – because this is one of my favourite songs in the entire crimson canon, I just love the mood and I also think it’s one of peter sinfield’s best and most beautiful lyrics – I simply love “islands” – so I could not believe, after all that time – that I had thought wrong – that they DID play it live, at least, for a short time – obviously, it was dropped from the set pretty early on, for reasons unknown, because it does NOT appear later in the many, many club cds featuring the “islands” band – it’s just not there.
this is quite an “early” performance for this lineup, it’s at least 3 gigs into a late 1971 british tour, as fripp mentions the “last three gigs” and boz announces “formentera lady” as a “new song”, so it’s possible that the album wasn’t even done at this point, but obviously, it was close to being done, since they do play all five songs within this concert. compared to an earlier still show, live at plymouth guildhall in may of the same year, where only three of the songs from “islands” seem to exist – this is the first full reading of the album in it’s entirety (minus “song of the gulls” of course – as close as we will ever get to a full live version of the album).
now, before I go further, I do need to say – this is a bootleg, it’s taken from what sounds like an audience cassette, so the sound quality does leave a lot to be desired (as do a lot of the club cds unfortunately, but they are only able to work with what they have). I’ve heard far worse, you can hear all of the players clearly enough, and it’s an amazing show in my opinion – I have a huge, huge soft spot for this lineup, the funkiest and most potent crimson lineup – I really love the way they play live.
so spotty sound quality doesn’t bother me – but it might bother you, so I did need to make the disclaimer. 🙂
having said that – this show just rocks from beginning to end, it really does, and I find it to be most rewarding, a very, very early glimpse of the full “islands” album, before it was entirely formed, and the arrangements here are closer to the album than I’ve heard on any other live show from the time.
the show starts out with the gentle lapping of waves – courtesy of peter sinfield, the band’s lighting technician, on the vcs3 synthesizer, over which fripp makes a strange announcement about someone in the audience calling out for “wally” – whom he assumed must mean drummer ian wallace…which then moves smoothly onto the dramatic introduction of “cirkus” – a very heavy tune in concert, with that incredibly slow mellotron riff – I really love the way this band plays this song, with both fripp and mel collins playing fantastic mellotron, as well as fripp on comedy electric piano – it’s really quite amazing. a very complex song in the studio, but live, this simple arrangement, using various mellotron voices, strings, flutes, whatever is required to recreate that sound – it works really well, the mellotron is such an adaptable and useful tool.
and the rhythm section, with boz playing heavy bass line and singing the vocal with such passion, and the aforementioned ian wallace slugging the shit out of his drum kit, at a strangely slow pace – it’s a great reading of “circus” and of course, when mel collins switches to sax, it’s gets funky fast, his playing on this piece is simply out of this world, it totally rocks…and then it’s suddenly very, very beautiful, a singing, lithesome sax solo floats over fripp’s mellotron backing…with the bass and drums dreaming along…what a mood!
the audience is dead silent during the super quiet mellotron and cymbals break; where the volume goes way, way down (this band has always, always been known for it’s dynamic range – from a whisper to a scream in the blink of an eye) – an eerie and wonderful, almost creepy section and then wham – the loud, dissonant section, with some very strange mellotrons indeed – the last part of this song is such a row – until we get to that fantastic bit, where fripp comps chords on his electric piano, and mel plays the most amazing, funky sax solo you ever heard – and it just rocks in this version – then back to the double mellotron attack – until we reach the explosive ending – this song is always good live, but this is a particularly rousing and wonderfully fun version – wallace, at the end, with his double bass drums pounding is awesome – and then it’s suddenly over.
from the “lizard” album then, we move back to “in the wake of poseidon” for a strong reading of “pictures of a city” – that album’s successor to the more famous “21st century schizoid man” – for my money, it’s a more challenging piece of music, and this demonstrates that the fripp-collins musical partnership is already really well established at this time – mel had been in the band for a long, long time before he ever played a gig with them – and it’s clear that this piece of early repertoire is not just comfortable, but it’s in their bones, the parts are embedded in their musical dna – they know this song, backwards, forwards, and sideways – and it’s an incredibly convoluted musical journey…and a fantastic one too.
I love this song live, and this is again, a superior version, with both fripp and collins pushing the boundaries of this already impossible to play piece, and it’s an absolute joy to hear their musical banter – back and forth and every which way, with collins demonstrating what a world class player he really is, and fripp just being fripp, impossible, unexpected, wild, controlled, remarkable. I love how it moves from precision to insanely out of control and then back to precision in a heartbeat, as if those are two ends of a special musical spectrum that only king crimson circa 1971 understood.
at the same time, that special musical spectrum that I mentioned, that was really just fripp and collins moving off and on the beat in some pretty spectacular way, moving in and out of syncopation, and probably a few bits of fripp timing magic that there are no musical terms for, too. 🙂
then the concert moves onto it’s first selection from the new album, “islands” – “formentera lady”, which boz introduces as a song that they have “just finished recording” – which is interesting, because we know from earlier 1971 concerts that some of the songs from islands had existed for a while – “ladies of the road”, “sailor’s tale” and “the letters” at least – but “formentera lady” was apparently quite a latecomer to the album if it was only finished in september or october 1971. a lot of people are not keen on this song, but I think it’s absolutely beautiful, and fripp’s guitar part is sublime, I’ve never heard such use of chord inversions with melodies weaving in between in a constant stream of picking, strumming and more picking – beautiful chord inversions, really beautiful guitar playing – and then of course, mel collins has switched to flute for the first time in the show, and his ability on that instrument meets or exceeds his ability on sax – he is extraordinary on the flute, and he proves it on this first outing.
boz does a great job with the vocal, as ian wallace pounds out the vocally-referenced “indian drum”…and then collins, does a perfect descending flute motif to demonstrate “dark circe” falling – the instruments literally spelling out the lyrics of the song. meanwhile, I can hear fripp adding in a missing string bass part in between his own parts – doubling up because in the studio, there are a lot of additional instruments – yet, this four piece arrangement is very nearly the equal, and is incredibly faithful to it – moreso than any other live version I have heard.
boz even has a go at the soprano and other wordless vocals at the end of the song, and the whole thing is just so wonderful and atmospheric, often in a concert situation, this piece sort of degenerates into a not so good generic jam session, but this one stays focused, stays real jazz – with collins switching to sax somewhere in there, and robert playing his very cool jazz chords, working with and against the drums, boz, the only constant, on his one note bass part, while the rest of the band is in cool jazz heaven, collins again showing his considerable skill on sax – fripp gets quite frantic with his wild chord progressions – and then suddenly, it’s all stop, as wallace plays the unmistakable cymbal intro to “a sailor’s tale” – and really, this is one of the very few versions where they stick to the plan, they play “formentera lady” without it disintegrating into a common jam, they kept it straight, and then did the segue into “sailor’s tale” just as it is on the record. for me, that’s fantastic, because I grew up listening to the studio album, and those two songs always belonged together, with formentera ending gracefully; ian wallace plays his cymbal riff; and that distinctive drum and bass part, the beginning of the musical madness that is “a sailor’s tale” starts up…heavenly. that thundering bass riff, the pounding drums – and waiting, waiting for that sax and guitar to come in together…
fripp has only a second to switch from clean jazz guitar to that thick, molten bass pickup lead guitar sound that he made so, so famous, and then hit the mark with collin’s most insane sax solo ever, screeching, screaming high pitch flying down to a beautiful wild melody – they come in together, stay together, and then collins is totally away – until it’s robert’s turn, collins switches suddenly to beautiful, mysterious mellotron, while robert explores yet another variant of the sharp edged, angular, slapback echo guitar that is the wild and crazy solo of “sailor’s tale” ending in that signature “slide up” the neck dissonant chord, a la jimi hendrix – but done in that inimitable fripp way – then boz and wallace return with that fabulous drum and bass part…and the song drives away, with the mellotrons getting more and more intense as it goes…a long section where the rhythm section just cooks with that awesome riff, and the dual mellotrons battle for minor supremacy and eerie strangeness –and then, that crazy ascending trademark mellotron ascending madness – to a dead stop. brilliant! one of my favourite tracks from the “islands” album, and almost always very good in concert – as it definitely is this time around.
without a break then, without a word, they proceed to “the letters” – so at this point, they have now played the first three songs from islands in the same order as they are on the album – which to me is just remarkable – brilliant. this is the vinyl “side one” of islands – played entirely live. “the letters” is another strange, strange song that I just love, with it’s odd, jagged rhythmic centre, surrounded by beautiful, minor key verses – this tale of infidelity and pain, with a wicked sax from mel collins, and boz’s vocal is so, so beautiful, too – even though the words seem to change and mutate every week, never ever quite the same as the album – most of them are there – and in this rendition, the middle section of the song ends in absolute sonic madness, which ends up as total distortion on the tape for a minute or two – you can’t really hear what’s going on, but eventually, it resolves, and we get to the amazing final verse, with a tantalising mellotron leading to a cymbal – and then boz – totally a cappella, sings the final verse “impaled on nails of ice – and wait for emerald fire…the wife with soul of snow – picks up her pen and slowly writes – I’m still, I need no life…to serve on boys and men…what’s yours was mine is dead…I take my leave of mortal flesh”. (of course, these lyrics changed and changed again – on the studio version, it’s “raked with emerald fire” – either way, awesome imagery from peter sinfield).
this was recorded back in the day when fripp still made quite a few stage announcements, and this is one where he speaks quite a lot, and usually, ends up making the audience laugh quite a lot – so fripp announces the next number, which is the title track of the new album – there is an awkward pause – and then you hear him, clearly, off mike but not off mike… “mellotron, mel?” because obviously, robert has noticed that mel is not prepared to play the mellotron, – another short silence follows…and then mel’s response “oh!” – and gradual audience laughter ends in a round of applause…(someone else in the band then gives mel a hard time and the band are all laughing).
then it starts – just beautiful, beautiful clean chords from robert, boz on vocal, gentle flute from mel – no drums yet, the title track of islands…the loveliest lyric sinfield ever wrote, and as I mentioned before, robert always said later on, that boz didn’t convince on the quieter material, but I utterly disagree, he has a lovely, beautiful, tuneful voice, and he always did a great job of singing the ballads and quiet songs live, if anything, I think boz doesn’t always convince on the loud songs! here, his voice is so perfect, so beautiful, so hushed, and the very simple guitar arrangement on the verses is perfect – when the chorus arrives, then mel gets to play those mellotrons (which do get a bit too loud in places, but nothing could really spoil this amazing song!) boz comes in with a really melodic and sensitive bass part, and fripp plays wonderful sliding chords interspersed with lovely little guitar melodies…
back to the verse, it’s just robert’s guitar, flute and vocal again, with cymbal bell taps from wallace – who does play on the choruses, but otherwise lays back, this is all about the guitar and flute, and that amazing vocal – I love it, I can’t believe it exists, and it exceeds any dream or expectation of how this song might sound live – it’s just magical, and you must, must hear it if you like “islands” at all – it proves what a great song this is, that the four of them can play what was played in the studio, a very heavily multi-tracked piece with many, many guest musicians – but with the mellotron, and the brilliance of fripp’s guitar…they are just not necessary, and the four of them pull this off beautifully – an amazing effort. sigh.
I am just so, so glad that one person had a tape rolling on one of the few occasions that the band played this – I feel so grateful that I am getting to hear this now – because it’s a precious moment in time, a very rare piece, played so seldom – and so far, this is the only known live recording of this song (per sid smith – this is all we have) so it’s a great honour indeed, and it lifts this concert up as unique and wonderful in a way no other “islands band” concert is – it’s a first, and, since they also play the whole album – it’s a fantastic way to get to know this remarkable record.
of course, by placing islands (the track) here, that puts things out of order vinyl running order wise, but they do get back around to playing the one remaining piece, in fact, it’s next – at the beginning of disc 2, the redoubtable “ladies of the road” – in a strangely unsatisfying version, collins is always good on this, but I feel like robert is struggling with his guitar, that weirdly slapbacked sound, the strange chords he is playing, it sounds a bit laboured compared to other more seamless live versions – but, this is a minor complaint – he still does well, but not insanely well as sometimes happens – a respectable effort if not the best version of this song ever performed. a solid effort.
having said that, I still very much enjoy this rendition, with it’s screaming saxes and out and out rude lyrics – it’s very, very naughty indeed, which is very refreshing – because it’s just honest, it’s real, it’s about something real, and fripp even dedicates it by saying “this is a song about rude ladies…” – going on to elaborate about exactly what kind of ladies he means. boz is brilliant on the lead vocal, but the chorus vocals fall to bits as they often do, ian wallace singing lead at the end of each stanza, but all of the band laughing so hard at the dissolving choruses as to make both of them non-viable – a bit of a shame, because on the record, it’s a lovely little vocal, almost beatlesque arrangement – but, you can’t have everything, and every concert has it’s low spots – this might be it for this one.
so after a slightly lacklustre “ladies of the road” comes “groon” – now “groon” started out life as a giles, giles and fripp song, which was later co-opted by king crimson in live performance – but it’s very much open-ended, there are a couple of riffs that are mostly a robert fripp solo guitar piece, although the band do well enough following that riff, but once that’s been played a couple of times, it just becomes a jam. And that can be bad or good, in this instance, though, it turns out to be very good, in fact, a very satisfying jam, which includes a very long and very good drum solo from ian wallace, of course featuring the vcs3 synthesizer which was a brand new device, eno had one, king crimson had one, edgar winter had one – and it was used to great effect by peter sinfield to process wallace’s drum solos (during “groon” and sometimes other numbers) – this must have been such an amazing experience for the audience, because what starts out seeming to be an “ordinary drum solo” soon becomes something absolutely extraordinary, a synthesizer solo of amazing proportions.
but it’s kept secret for a while, wallace plays a long, untreated and excellent drum solo (proving ably that he doesn’t need the synth to be a great drummer, but that it’s use makes him a remarkable drummer), and then eventually, after several minutes, when you least expect it (this piece is in excess of 24 minutes, almost 25, so plenty of time for development) suddenly, sinfield, out of nowhere, begins to “treat” the drums with the vcs3 – and then you get an entire OTHER solo, this time, with the VCS3 treatment – and it’s absolutely mind blowing. variable pitch drums ? in 1971 ? white noise, pink noise, modulation…sure, a few years later, this stuff became commonplace, but back then, it was absolutely revolutionary, no one had EVER heard a “drum solo” quite like this one – and king crimson were right there, at the forefront of the modern, electronic drum kit – but doing it with one of the first synths available that you could use to process the sound of instruments with – brilliant!
so “groon”, which could just have disintegrated into a crappy, banal jam session, is actually a real highlight of this concert – and in fact, it’s often a highlight – simply because of this insane, remarkable, unique and utterly fascinating drum solo – and it does NOT sound like drums for very long – it just becomes a maelstrom of amazing electronic sound – like nothing else on earth – it’s fantastic. at one point near the end, the audience explodes into spontaneous applause – you can tell they are simultaneously stunned and amazed…
what do you follow something like that with – well, of course, what else – your heaviest piece of repertoire – from the first album, “21st century schizoid man” – and now, after that inspirational version of “groon”, the band are both totally warmed up and totally on fire, in fact, when Robert comes in with his first solo, he plays something so crazy, it’s just the weirdest guitar part I’ve ever heard him play, what a solo!! and at one point, the band stops, and he is playing this beautiful, beautiful note – and then, they are away again, boz doing his level best to play the very, very difficult bass part as well as he can, and doing a great job, ian wallace, absolutely kicking it on the drums – great vocal, great solos – and once robert finishes his first blistering solo, he turns it over to collins – who then just screams and screams and screams, totally inspired, it gives me goose bumps the way this man plays – robert’s solo was totally amazing, so mel just goes into sax hyperdrive, and plays a blinder – what a great, great live version of one of this band’s best songs.
robert plays the riff that signals the beginning of the famous “precision part”, causing mel to return to earth – a crazy vcs3 sound follows along briefly, then, the band play this famous segment PERFECTLY, note for note, just like the album – as they pretty much always do – the part that was once called “studio gimcrackery” but which instead is very, very real – they play it perfectly, then, back into the final instrumental section before the last verse – which trundles along like a pregnant dinosaur, full of intense, powerful feeling – double bass drums thumping, and boz, singing like a distorted alien, there is nothing on this earth quite like an “islands-band” era version of schizoid man – and this is a good one!
after three very loud, very progressive, very amazing performances, the show is almost over, but, not before ian wallace does his famous “mr. gumby” imitation…a bit of levity to relief…”my hobby – by ian wallace” – something which has to be heard to be believed… this time, he can’t get the words out – he can’t remember the name of the band he is in…it’s just madness – wallace screaming like an insane person – very odd indeed!
but all part of crimson 1971, robert gives a last announcement, a “good night” from king crimson, and they launch into the ultra creepy, begun with a vcs3 “explosion”, snare drum and double mellotron intro to “mars” – a piece of live repertoire from the 1969 band, originally from the “in the wake of poseidon” album – this is one of the most amazing mellotron duels ever performed, and it’s interesting to compare this live version, with collins and fripp doing the dual mellotron honours, to the original live performances of mars where it was ian mcdonald and fripp performing the double mellotron party trick.
the main difference isn’t just the presence of collins instead of mcdonald, it’s the presence of the vcs3 – with sinfield introducing massive “explosions” at key points in the piece – that was certainly something not present in the 1969 live versions. this song takes ages and ages to build up to it’s climax, and it’s so, so creepy – it just creeps me out every time, this is wicked, wicked mellotron – intense – and then in the middle section, some AMAZING frequency/filter sweeps from the vcs3 take this weird and wonderful piece to a whole ‘nother plane of existence – it’s weird enough with just the two mellotrons against that ominous, persistent, bass and snare, that just goes and goes and goes – but adding in the strange ascending and then descending vcs3 sound effects is an act of genius – it just enhances an already remarkable live instrumentation, adding in something mysterious and strange to this brooding mellotron masterpiece. another fantastic rendition – if only we had a clear, clear recording of this concert, but even from this recording, you get a real feeling for how terrifying and beautiful this piece is live – it’s a real monster.
it’s quite odd too, because there is no flute, no sax, and no guitar – it’s just snare drum, single note bass, the two mellotrons, and sinfield on vcs3 – what a strange idea, what a sound – and at the end, it’s just cacophony, with both robert and mel abusing their mellotrons physically, slamming the keys, just making noise – it’s amazing, there is no sound on earth like it! I think sometimes, that these classic crimson ascending dual mellotron endings are maybe meant to emulate the big orchestral build up of “a day in the life” – I can’t think where else on earth fripp would have got the idea to do that!
the piece suddenly ends with a swirling keyboard riff and the return of the ocean sounds (thanks to peter sinfield, still the “fifth member” of crimson, operating the vcs3 synthesizer from the light board at the back of the hall) heard at the very beginning, with the crowd clapping for an encore that never arrives…sigh.
maybe not the “best” “islands band” concert probably (a very subjective topic surely – who can say, all concerts have highs and lows, and I never have tried to decide which concert by any band is my favourite, I just enjoy them all!), but mostly, a very, very good performance – and, including a delicate, heartfelt, beautiful rendition of the delicate and ultra rare title track – so that’s enough for me. I love this record – and I am so glad dgm decided to release it – after all those years of thinking that “island” live did not exist, I have never, ever, EVER been more glad to be wrong…
dave stafford solo album, “gone native”, released, download only, worldwide on august 1, 2012
this is just to let everyone know that “gone native” is now live on both the pureambient store and on bandcamp, which means you have a broad choice of download formats, from the standard mp3 320 on up through FLAC and even WAV if you so desire.
a proper physical CD release is being prepared as we speak, which will be available later on in the year, but I really felt that these songs deserve to be out there where they can be enjoyed.
I’m very happy, too, that the tracks have been added to bandcamp, which is a great resource, and the bonus there is, you can listen to the album before you buy – always a big plus in my book.
I hope you will take a little time, and go and listen to some of these tracks – this is my dream album, by my dream band – and to make sure the parts were played right, I just played them all myself – another lifelong dream, to follow in the footsteps of todd rundgren and other musicians who “do it all” themselves…it was a joy to play, to be the drummer, to be the bassist, to play the mellotron – and then when the tracks were ready, to sit down and play the guitars. ALL of them! including lots of energy bow guitar, lots of lead guitar, lots of rhythm guitar, lots of guitar synth – which meant, of course, playing oboes and flutes, as well as many very eclectic, strange and wonderful synthetic voices courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synth.
this record was an ABSOLUTE BLAST to make, hard work at times, painstaking effort went into the tracks, working out a precision ending for “open to anything” involving the most precise bass part I could conceive of, in fact, I spent a lot of time trying to achieve really excellent endings on several other tracks as well, it became a bit of an obsession – the lead guitar figure at the end of “force of nature” – even the title track, which features a sped up, super tempo bass, drum, guitar and mellotron finale – fun! (but not easy!).
I am very proud of this record, because it very nearly never happened – I was content, in 2008, to continue working on ambient, looping, ebow – but then I got the idea for “gone native” – starting with a remarkable “take one” live guitar part, which was “thanks, frank” – and from there, it was a real rediscovery of the joy of just playing the guitar! I played that solo, and it seemed so complete, so right – that I really got inspired to do even better on the rest of the record. slowly but defiantly, I collected these tracks together, testing many mixes, making improvements – until I ended up with the 19 tracks that are on the final album today.
when I was a teenager, I played the music of my time – hendrix, clapton, cream, camel, zz top, zappa, nektar, king crimson, todd rundgren, etc. – all of that, and even though that was really just for about six or seven years of time, that music stayed with me, and I still played lead guitar, even if all my albums did go down either a crafty or an ambient path – that “lead guitar guy” was still there inside me. wanting to rock, wanting to play a little prog, wanting to just let go and have fun playing guitar – and, that is exactly what I did!
In 2009, then, inspired by the one take “thanks, frank”, I kitted myself out for rock guitar, and began to record – learning first sonar 4, then, sonar 8.5 in the process, and really coming to terms with digital recording and mixing – let’s face it, before that, I didn’t need to know how to mix, because I never worked multitrack – it was always “two live tracks – stereo” – I was playing live, loops, ebow, whatever, so there really was no “mix” per se.
but that all changed with “gone native” – and learn to mix I did. “wettonizer” went through about 10 different major mix session over many weeks, until I was satisfied that it is at it’s very, very best – and it is. tracks such as “sinuous thread” had very carefully orchestrated, layered mixes, and I really enjoyed both the process and the results. I really feel now that sonar is the absolute equal of pro tools, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! 🙂 it’s a great toolbox with a huge range of tools available for building, mixing and producing really high quality music. some of the plug ins are absolutely outstanding, and those tools really made a difference to the tracks with really dense mixes – I could mix a LOT of tracks together, but still have clarity for all of the instruments – brilliant!
I am so glad that I decided to have one more go at being a “lead guitarist” and writing “songs” (albeit all “instrumental” songs, but, songs nonetheless – as opposed to live, improvised loops) – it was very strange and surreal, to be building multi-track rock music, instead of just hitting record and doing a loop. but I got used to it, and over 2009, built up the first half dozen or so tracks that eventually became the album.
in the meantime, I had acquired the guitar synth (in march, 2011) and I immediately began to incorporate it’s huge arsenal of amazing sounds into both the songs in progress, and into a number of new compositions made entirely with guitar synth, which, for the record, are: “caladan”, “sun willow quartet”, “junction”, “salusa secundus”, “desert power I – drone mix”, and “cinematique I” – although “caladan” and “sun willow quartet” also feature sonar’s “session drummer 3” on drums 🙂
I also incorporated some guitar synth into a couple of the earlier compositions, notably, the title track, as well as many guitar synth/atmospheric overdubs on the reverse-engineered 2009 guitar solo that is “this is a test”. so the guitar synth really expanded my guitar vocabulary, and it was quite remarkable to be playing a flute part, or an oboe solo, or the dual “nylon string guitars” on a track like “caladan” – really an extraordinary experience.
and last but not least, I managed too, to incorporate two other more recent innovations into the project: on “zencourage”, the korg kaossilator – hand-held x-y pad synthesizer, is the only instrument heard – it’s many kaoss pad loops all worked together into a larger composition; and then also, ipad applications – I used a guitar application called “ampkit+” to record one of the tracks, which is an active energy bow solo, entitled “wide open spaces”.
so this really is a remarkable batch of 12 songs and 7 sonic experiments, and if you want to hear an unusual rock album, with a definite ambient influence, then please visit the bandcamp site and have a listen…start at the beginning, and just let all the tracks play – it is my sincere hope that you will really enjoy this work.
three and a half years in the making, but really, 41 years playing experience went into the making, and here is it at last (well, the download version, for the moment! – the CD version is on it’s way…): “gone native” by dave stafford.