The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

Most of the musicians I know, share with me, a general sense of … horror is really the only word that suits, although it’s not exactly the right word…at the memory of the music of the 1980s – which included but was not limited to – everything bad about the emerging synthesizer, synths badly played and not sounding very good at all – and all of the other early musical crimes of the early and middle 80s.
synthpop

A lot of bad, bad music was made in the name of quickly producing a hit MTV Video – trying to cash in on the video craze – and things were decidedly NOT about the music, as they definitely HAD been in the 1960s and 1970s.

 

I try not to remember some – or even most – of those songs and bands, and when I hear them – they make me uncomfortable at best, and downright unable to listen in others – they are just not the best songs nor are they, for me, the best musical memories – those will always belong to the late 60s / early 70s when Prog ruled the land – and I looked out at the 70s Music Scene – my own “70s Scenario” – and saw that it was good.
poison

Meanwhile, over on the hard rock scene, another disturbing trend was emerging, again, fuelled by MTV videos – albeit part of a different demographic – one populated mainly by teenage boys – within that demographic “MTV Video enthusiasts” –  and with a clear desire to cash in on the video craze – Hair Metal (later known as “Glam Metal” – fair enough) had arrived, and it looked like it was trying to stay (thankfully – it did not) – or at least – it did not stay for long.

Bands that I literally could not understand the appeal of, whose music was made so cheaply and nastily (and that was, unfortunately, reflected in the SOUND of that music, too!), just so another air-brushed group of four hooligans with MASSIVE HAIR could make a few million dollars at our expense – and the punishment for us, was having not only to hear this vapid form of “metal”, but to SEE these ridiculous “hair” bands, who were all clearly about the size and curliness of their perm, and definitely NOT all about their skill as writers or musicians – let’s face it, a lot of those bands – could not write a song to save their life, and their musicianship ranged from barely adequate to definitely sub-par.

With the emergence of a whole new breed of Hair Metal bands on the one hand, and the pop / synth / Revolution Of The Synthesizer that was coming to our TV screens and to our ears mostly from Great Britain – there was a lot to answer for “musically” during the 1980s.   Across the pond (where I live now) in this Synth Revolution – a similar and parallel activity was apparent – pop songs written just so a synth or synths could be used in the video, but which probably had no other good reason for existing.

Back in the 1970s (which suddenly looked pretty darn good to me) synths were used in the arena of Progressive Rock, but they were wielded by men and women of skill and talent, and used on songs that were finely crafted and worked on for often, many weeks or even months – until perfected.  Music created for the sake of music, of pure musicianship made by real artists – craftsmen – people who had studied their instruments and knew how to use them – finely crafted songs, that were challenging and often quite difficult to perform – but rewarding in every sense – there is nothing on earth quite as satisfying as a musical composition that works on every level – including, exciting to perform and hear, in live performance.  I missed that, especially within the recorded music of the 80s, I didn’t at first, feel there was much around of any real quality.

I got the feeling that with the whole Synth Pop Revolution (which, while it did have it’s roots in the late 1970s, to my mind, is mostly, a 1980s phenomenon) coming from Britain and the Hair Band revolution emerging from LA – that they would have spent just a few days on each piece, and no more – clock is ticking, time is money – and meanwhile, again mostly in LA “…and I have to go and get a new perm, so please let’s wrap this up”.  I can just about picture any session by one of these bands – where a lot of time is spent pouting into mirrors, and gazing adoringly at your own magnificent curly blond locks – or whatever it was.

But – as the 1980s wore on – there was a quiet musical revolution going on in the background.  It didn’t belong to any one group or any particular type of group, but rather, was a combination of a number of interesting events and occurrences in the 1980s, that were probably not brought to the fore in the news coverage (or, the MTV News Coverage) of the day.  This was not, however – a revolution of recorded music – but instead – of live performance.

I am thinking in particular of two cases or scenarios – or “types” if you wish – one, where established artists who had worked very hard in the 1970s or even 1960s, to establish themselves and their musical credentials – some of these artists, after being vilified and ridiculed by the punk movement – waited out the last few dismal years of the 1970s (as progressive rock was nearly wiped from the map by first, punk, in Britain, and then New Wave in the U.S) waiting for an opportune moment to put their head above the parapet to find out if they were still as resoundly resented as they had been…

But I think that those established artists, whether ordinary rock artists or progressive rock “musos”, it didn’t matter, they were all realising that they could not only survive in the unfriendly 1980s – but in some cases, in many instances – they could thrive.  In particular – on the live concert circuit.  And live performance is exactly what that first of two groups of musicians I am thinking of has in common with the second group – new emerging bands, who, while their music may have been “born” in a calendar year that indicated that it was in fact, still the 1980s – while that was undeniable, what was also very apparent, was that there was a kind of “backlash” – there was a hankering for the recently-departed 1960s and 1970s.

Some bands were not afraid to boldly embark on brand new careers, in the 1980s, playing music that on paper, did not and would not “work” in the wonderful “look ma I’ve got a synthesizer” world of MTV, or “look ma, I got me a perm and now the Record Company has given us a $500,000.00 advance on our album” heady days of the early Eighties – that was still going on, although perhaps to a lesser degree in the latter half of the 1980s – but at the same time, my two Secret Musical Forces – were also at work, working hard to bring out music of quality in the Decade That Quality Forgot.

And to their credit, they did it.  What tipped me off to it, was a strange but undeniable fact – OK, I had been fortunate enough to have seven years in the 1970s, when I was witness to some of the most amazing live music ever performed anywhere at any time in history – I was lucky enough to be alive and be old enough, to attend shows by now-legendary Progressive Rock and Rock acts – and there will never be a time like the 1970s again.  What I had noticed – was that, the quality and availability of good live music, seemed to be on the rise in the 1980s – NOT declining as you might have thought.

Punk gave us the good shake up we needed (in hindsight, that is undeniable), and as much as I resented the damage that punk and to a lesser degree, New Wave, did to Prog – I needn’t have worried, because not only was Prog alive and well in the 1980s, but there was also an entire parallel music scene, that you could choose to attend, so for every Eurhythmics show that I didn’t attend, there was a show built on the basis of quality music – whether that be Prog Bands from the 1970s, or other 70s act, adapting, surviving and even flourishing, during the musically-depressing 1980s.

 

splitenz

I could, in the space of a few weeks, attend shows by Crowded House (the remnants of New Zealand progressive rock heroes “Split Enz”) – who I also happened to see play live in 1981 – one of the first shows I attended in the 1980s – and in a way, you could not really get more prog than that in 1981…

 

marillion

 

…despite the band making a very poppy record – 1980’s “True Colours” – they had a still-beating prog heart – and their natural successor, Crowded House, who later went on to even more dizzying heights of success – but – as a pop band – not a prog band – or – stalwart live performers like ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson; or new bands like Marillion, whose music sounded like it was straight out of 1974 – and yet – strangely – it was 1985 – now that was a surprise!

A diverse and exciting mix of live performers then – all out touring, all bringing in large audiences, all being quietly successful while MTV continued to trumpet the “news” that the world was now ruled by Synthesizers, and informing us that “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” (or whatever it’s called) was a really, really good song (it isn’t).

enobrian70s

Brian Eno himself, the once-flamboyant feather-adorned synthesizer-player of the legendary art-rock outfit Roxy Music, stated that punk was “a breath of fresh air” and over time, while at first unsure – I did come to totally agree with that sentiment.  Prog was in need of a shake up – but the media portrayed it more like a death in the family, so for a couple of very depressing years – we were left with an apparent void, which was being filled by the practitioners of punk and new wave from say, 1978-1980.

 

But – once the air had been cleared, there was no reason in the world for the rock or prog bands that had been swept up in the Great Cleansing – to lay down their instruments and quit – and in fact – most of them did not give up – they may have taken time off during a period in which it might have been difficult to fare well, but…

…eventually – sometimes sooner, sometimes, much, much later – they would in fact, return – and, join a growing number of newly emerging 80s artists who were neither Synth-playing robots nor Hair Metallists – but in fact, were just playing different kinds of rock music – from an only slightly-disguised version of progressive rock (Marillion channelling early Genesis) to a band like Crowded House, who took their prog Split-Enz roots (see what I did there!) and mutated into one of the finest pop bands the world has ever known.

For me – I was even fortunate enough to see one example of these two “groups” of mine – the two Secret Warriors Of Quality Music – on the same bill at the same show – as I was fortunate enough one year, during the 80s, to see Crowded House playing – with the great Richard Thompson as “support act” (!!).  On paper – that just seemed all wrong to me – but as a concert – it was actually brilliant – Thompson is a guitarist extraordinaire, a consummate master, and to have someone of his skill and experience opening for the less-experienced but really, no less talented Finn Brothers (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame) was strange but wonderful – and actually, an inspired idea.

thompsonrichard

Even more remarkable was the fact that during Crowded House’s set, Richard Thompson came out with his guitar to play on one of their songs – so here we had a standard-bearer from the long-ago 1960s, an ex-member and founding member of the great Fairport Convention – on stage with a bunch of musical upstarts from New Zealand.

 

 

I got a genuine laugh at the time, from hearing young Neil Finn taunting Thompson verbally, calling him a “guitar hero” and so on – it was hilarious.

crowdedhouseSome combinations of musicians, you think to yourself – “that could never happen” – and there I was, hearing Richard Thompson improvising a solo to “Italian Plastic” by Crowded House.  Very strange times indeed – but, at that moment – and during countless other 1980s concert moments – the quality of this live music – drove all thoughts of big hair and synth robots right out of my head – and I could live in the moment again, and experience quality live music again.

It was almost as if,  the 1960s and 1970s had just carried on without interruption. almost as if punk and new wave had never happened – and by the mid 1980s, I felt that the old bands were definitely on the way back “in” (I mean, just look at the massive resurgence of interest and huge popularity of both Jethro Tull and of ZZ Top – two bands definitely of the previous decade – yet, in 1987, 1988 – enjoying an immense and very real popularity that required no hype from MTV to propel it) – if anything, these bands began to turn the tables on MTV, and by 1987 – you were far more likely to see an awesome video by ZZ Top or Jethro Tull, than you were to see the dread “Don’t You Want Me (Baby)” video.

jethrotull

But what groups am I talking about here, in my two imagined groups?  Well, the easiest way for me to document that, is to turn first to my setlist.fm entries for the period of time, to get a sense of the shows I was attending – and once I have refreshed my failing memory there, I will be able to jot those down as I hope, valid examples of the two types:

Type Uno

– (Existing) Prog Rock or Rock bands and artists returning to music in the 1980s – at first, possibly more represented by concert appearances than by records, but by the end of the 1980s, they were producing smash hit albums that sold very, very well and were often award-winning and more popular than anything that we now consider to be “Classic 80s Rock” or “Classic 80s Dance” or whatever.  It was Jethro Tull, not Billy Idol or Gary Numan, scooping up awards for best album – and if that isn’t a shock result, I don’t know what is!

But what a brilliant result – I was very, very happy for Ian Anderson and co – to have survived punk, then, to have survived – and then, defeated the 1980s – that is testament to the commitment and vision of Ian Anderson – he managed, somehow, to keep Jethro Tull afloat through all that tribulation – and then, emerge successfully. at the end of their ordeal – with an award-winning hit record – I have to heartily congratulate him on that feat of persistent vision.  Brilliant work!

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

The great ZZ Top carved an equally impressive path through the myriad labyrinth of late 1980s music, and even did so with an only very-slightly updated sound – I remember seeing them in 1975, a raw, powerful blues band with real talent and skill – and here it was now, some 12, 13 years later, near the end of the 1980s – and they were back with…guess what – powerful, bluesy music – with several massive hit records included in their late-1980s successes.  Another brilliant success story almost exactly parallel to the story of Jethro Tull in the late 1980s.

But Jethro Tull and ZZ Top are highly visible, very popular groups – there were a surprising number of other bands in this category – and now I am referring to my setlist.fm listing for the 1980s – one of those bands, is the remarkable Queen.  1980 saw Queen produce an arguably very unique record in their canon, the much-overlooked “Jazz” album – and I was lucky enough to get a ticket to see them, very last-minute – and I am so, so glad that I did – again, it was in live performance where these rock and prog bands of the 1970s excelled, and Queen always put on an impressive performance.

maybrianBrian May to me, is one of the most interesting guitarists that Britain ever produced, with a very, very different and very, very unique guitar sound that no one else has ever really successfully replicated.  Queen built a whole new reputation during the 1980s – moving from the dramatic, prog-inspired heavy rock of their early and mid-70s albums, to much more sonically challenging records such as 1980s “Jazz” – and a host of other brilliant records – so again, very popular band in the 1970s – somehow managed to catapult themselves into massive popularity and success during the 1980s.

A First Time For Everyone

Split Enz – the precursor to the above mentioned Crowded House, Split Enz was New Zealand’s premiere progressive rock band in the 1970s, with a huge underground following and some of the most interesting and quirky music ever created in any country – by 1980, they had gradually been leaving the trappings of prog rock almost entirely behind, and by the time I saw them in in early 1981 – their “True Colours” album was riding high in the charts, a huge pop success thanks mostly to the tune “I Got You” – sung, incidentally, by Neil Finn, the future leader of Crowded House – rather than by Tim Finn – the actual (original) lead singer of Split Enz.  Well – one of two lead singers in the original band is perhaps, more accurate.

finnneilI will never forget being at that show, sitting there in the audience – I could clearly see the muscles in the then-very young Neil’s throat moving, moving as in a panic response – in pure fear, as he opened his mouth to sing this huge hit song – I believe this was the band’s first trip to America, and very possibly, their first show of the first tour of America – and the poor guy was scared half to death.  He needn’t have worried – the song, and the band, were received rapturously by the audience – I was absolutely blown away by the quality of musicianship (and, it was the first time I got to see the amazing Eddie Rayner on keyboards – the man is a genius) and seeing Split Enz – even in their later, “pop” persona – was a wonderful and utterly unforgettable experience – one of my favourite bands of all time.

(Note: Split Enz / Crowded House is the only band to appear in both the Type Uno and the Type Dos categories – because Split Enz was an existing Progressive Rock Band from the early 1970s, while Crowded House was a New, Emerging Band in the early 1980s that just happened to be made up of ex-members of Split Enz – so they get entered once – very early 1980s – as “Existing Prog band” and once again – early 1980s), as “New Emerging Pop band”.  A remarkable feat – being the only band that managed to straddle two very dissimilar groupings!).

zappafrankA man who needs no introduction, the late, great Frank Zappa – I honestly don’t think that any change in musical styles ever affected the forward velocity of this man – one of our greatest modern composers, and a genius at getting bands to play impossible music with impossible chops – there is nothing on earth like a Frank Zappa led and directed live performance.

I place him in the “existing Prog” category although Prog isn’t exactly the right way to describe the sheer genius of Zappa – I really think he remained unaffected by punk, unaffected by MTV – unless there was some aspect of it that he could manipulate to further his own aims – in which case – he would.  I think of all of the “existing artists” out there – that Frank just sailed through the 1960s. 70s and 80s without batting an eye – all just water flowing under a large musical bridge – while Frank was busy composing, arranging, or playing the most amazing lead guitar the planet has ever experienced – only Fripp and Hendrix are in the same league – and he could have taught those two a thing or two I feel certain lol.

So while I include FZ in this category – he was gloriously unaffected by the basic stupidities of (most) 1980s music.  Lucky guy, I would say.

This list of Existing Prog bands that came back in the 1980s (that is, if they were ever really “gone” in the first place) would not be complete without both the redoubtable and resilient Yes, who continued to make music in the 1980s, undergoing a radical musical transformation that I personally, in the main, do not enjoy (I was left cold by the Drama album and tour – a 70s-meets-80s experiment that in my opinion, simply did not work) but I have to acknowledge, it gave them a new lease on life that carried them far into the future, while Genesis, the Hardest Working Band In Prog (maybe) were being led by their undeniably charismatic “new” lead singer, one “Phil Collins” – and the success that Collins and co enjoyed during this decade where Prog was NOT King – is undeniable – and must have been so, so galling to the various departed members of the band who had only been with the band during the years of debt – among those, being original lead singer Peter Gabriel and renowned but long departed original guitarist Ant Phillips.

Gabriel is another one on this list, who fits right into this category very comfortably – an ex-progressive rock lead vocalist, revered for his seminal early and mid-70s progressive output on classic Genesis albums such as “Selling England By The Pound” and “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” – leaving Genesis at the height of their then-success in early 1975 to pursue a solo career.  Said career definitely took some interesting musical twists and turns, sometimes veering sharply away from prog (the first “Peter Gabriel” album for example), other times, returning to embrace it once again (the second, Robert Fripp-produced, “Peter Gabriel” album) – but, by the time of the 1980s – Gabriel‘s solo career was in full swing.

gabrielpeter

He became a star in his own right, without  Genesis, and was extremely popular with prog rock fans plus a whole new generation of fans that came to his music first, through his now-famous series of eponymously-titled albums – the first three (or four – see below) albums all being entitled “Peter Gabriel” – the fourth, finally getting an “actual” title – “Security” – although according to Wiki – it’s actually called…”Peter Gabriel”.  So there are four – not three !

Note: the fact that the first four Peter Gabriel albums had no title beyond “Peter Gabriel” (with the exception of the final one, which was ‘sometimes also known as “Security” ‘), was apparently really just too difficult for some people to understand or relate to – so interestingly, to make it easier for those who found this concept (which was Gabriel‘s idea – he wanted it to be like a newspaper – the same paper, with the same headline – but coming out at different times with different stories in them) too difficult – so people invented “names” for the albums based solely on the cover art – so strangely, many people “know” these three classic records as “Car” (Peter Gabriel I”)“Scratches” (Peter Gabriel II) and “Face” or “Melting Face” (Peter Gabriel 3).   For the fourth – well, it somehow acquired the “name” “Security”.

Personally – I like the original titles and the idea of it having the same title every time – that was unique – but – apparently this was too much of a stretch for some possibly less-pliant minds – so they invented these somewhat lame cover-art related “names” – for three albums that already had perfectly good names – or, rather, a perfectly good name.  It’s funny what lengths people will go to, to “force” something unusual or out-of-the-ordinary into terms that they are comfortable with – great lengths, it would seem, sometimes.

So along with Yes, Genesis, and Peter Gabriel, the 1980s was also an amazing time for one of the most underappreciated and hugely talented individuals that early 70s (or in this case, actually, late 1960s) progressive rock ever produced – and of course I am talking about the remarkable Peter Hammill, of the band Van Der Graaf Generator (which, incidentally, is still going strong after re-forming in 2005) – the 1980s saw Hammill evolving his solo performances, which were originally, just himself sat at the piano or sat with an acoustic guitar, singing “solo versions” of Van Der Graaf Generator songs (the bulk of which, were written by Hammill – the main writer and only lyricist in the band) as well as, singing songs from his rapidly-expanded selection of solo albums.

hammillpeterI was lucky enough to see Peter Hammill on several occasions, in differing musical settings, during the 1980s, and while I truly wish I had been able to see Van Der Graaf Generator play live “back in the day” – seeing these solo performances was actually, in a way, a far more powerful and intimate experience.  I have had the good fortune, for example, to witness Hammill, on his own at the piano, playing his remarkable suite of songs which make up the second side of his 1980 solo album “A Black Box” – a song called “Flight” – which is so difficult to play, that I was only able to work out, myself – on the piano – the first part of the song.

By far the simplest part of “Flight”- “Flying Blind” is the first of the several shorter songs that make up “Flight” in it’s entirety – whereas, Hammill reeled off the thousands and thousands of notes and chords of the entire 20 plus minutes long piece – as if it were nothing, all the while singing in that incredibly powerful, moving voice of his – seeing him play and sing “Flight” – live – by himself – as the encore of a remarkable live show – was an absolutely unforgettable experience for me.

hammill-potter-mcintoshA few years later, I was fortunate again, to see Hammill bring one of his small “ensembles” to Los Angeles, back to the Roxy which was where he always seemed to play when he was here in the US – this small group included just two other members, former Van Der Graaf bassist Nic Potter, and “pub musician” Stuart Gordon on violin.

But these two musicians – were no ordinary musicians, and I had no idea what an amazing musical experience we were all about to have – with Potter anticipating every phrase, every pause, in Hammill‘s incredibly strange vocal arrangements – and coming in on time, unfailingly – to Stuart Gordon’s “square wave violin” (my mental term for it – his violin run through guitar effects to achieve some unbelievably beautiful and/or dissonant effects) and the renditions that this band did of tracks such as “Cat’s Eye / Yellow Fever” – with it’s throbbing bass line, power chord guitar (provided by Hammill, of course!) and wild super-effected/treated violin gyrations.

I had never heard just three people sounding like a full on prog outfit on a tiny stage like the stage at the Roxy was.  What a show (you can hear a version of that show, on the Hammill album “Room Temperature” – Live – and well worth the investment I would say) it was – absolutely unforgettable – a brilliant experience.

In some ways, then, the 1980s portion of Peter Hammill’s career, moving through the amazing solo records of the early 1980s – starting with “A Black Box” (which, to give you some perspective, in 1980, this was Hammill’s TENTH solo album!) and then moving on to his very popular and quite hard rocking 1981 offering “Sitting Targets” – and then as the decade progressed, I saw tours for albums such as 1986’s “Skin” which was at yet a whole ‘nother level – the man is incredibly prolific, and each time, has a larger and larger back catalogue of songs to draw on – so that towards the end of that time, the range and power of songs that he could pull from that remarkable inventory of sensitive, emotional, moving songs became extraordinary in the extreme.

Each concert became the showcase for such a broad range of emotions and such an incredibly diverse and remarkable selection of songs, that it was just almost too much to take. What an extraordinary range and depth of feeling this man commands from the stage, with this intense and wonderful body of work that is “the Peter Hammill solo catalogue”…and it is still growing today (as of June 6, 2018 the count of his solo albums is 37 in Wikipedia), as he continues to produce albums regularly despite now being in his 70s.  What a remarkable character!

My 1980s was inhabited by all of these kinds of musical heroes – so my interest in, and my time spent listening to, what was supposedly currently popular “music” – began at a wane and pretty much disappeared completely as more and more of these amazing bands and artists from the 1960s and 70s, arrived in town in the 1980s to remind me that they were far from gone – that they were, in fact “alive and well and living in….” to phrase a coin (thanks, Ian!).

utopiaBut the list is far from complete – Todd Rundgren, and, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia – the popular 1970s comedic band “The Tubes” (they of “White Punks On Dope” fame) – so many bands from the 70s, were doing so surprisingly well in the 1980s – and, were out there on the road – proving that their music was truly alive and was far, far more real than what MTV was presenting to us as purportedly, the music of the times – that was not MY experience of the 1980s.

 

KingCrimson-1973It was only starting in 1981 that even more significant groups began to return, still working in Type Uno here – and this was a real surprise entrant – the return of the mighty King Crimson – after a seven year hiatus – Robert Fripp had returned, with only one former member of any former version of the band (Bill Bruford, on drums and electronic percussion) in tow – having created a totally re-imagined version of the band, and the success of their debut album (1981s total return to form, “Discipline”) and tour cannot be underestimated.

 

 

kingcrimson1981I can remember myself and the guys in my band, we were FLABBERGASTED at the idea that King Crimson was on tour, and was going to be playing in San Diego – at the UCSD gymnasium, of all places – but hey – we didn’t care – it was KING CRIMSON – alive and well.  This new version of King Crimson, featured bassist and Chapman stick expert Tony Levin, and the unstoppable Adrian Belew on lead guitar and lead vocals.

 

This “new” band, the utterly revitalised and recharged King Crimson – was nothing short of extraordinary.

To see a concert, in 1981, by what was supposedly at this time, a “dinosaur” band like “King Crimson” – a concert that had more musical quality in it’s worst moment, than some 1980’s “bands” could produce in an entire show – this concert was really, in comparison to most concerts – an experience of almost high art – rock music, progressive, intelligent music – elevated to a new plane of existence, with the interlocking musical gamelan of the Fripp & Belew Lead Guitar Axes Of Power – over one of the most powerful and unique rhythm sections ever envisioned – this was four of the best musicians on the planet, getting together to play a dozen or so of the most amazing songs that you had never heard.

 

The band did also include one or two “old” King Crimson songs, thrown in – probably more for the sake of nostalgia – or, more likely, because the new members of the band wanted to PLAY those songs lol – this concert was a sublime musical experience, that absolutely blew my mind – I could think of nothing else, for weeks, but that amazing, beautiful music I had witnessed – and I listened to the album constantly, trying (and failing, dismally) to unlock it’s musical secrets – what an extraordinary musical document.

GenesisI think for me – that was the turning point – seeing King Crimson play for the first time ever; and seeing Peter Hammill and Bill Nelson and Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel and Genesis and Yes – all playing music in the early 1980s – when television might have you believing that something called “Billy Idol” was ruling the video-waves – the air-waves having now been superseded by the medium of Music Television.

Or – by someone called “Gary Numan” who apparently, was the next big thing – and I am not in any way disrespectful towards these artists – I very much respect their achievements and enjoy their music, too – and yes, they did make records in the 1980s, and sell records, and become “very popular” and so on.

But behind the scenes, in the background – were truly great (often very under-appreciated) musicians, with far more experience (and skill, I am afraid, too) who were out on the road, proving that their music was very real indeed,  given concerts displaying consummate skill and musical vision – and perhaps – at least slightly more real, than the perceived vision of what music was as presented by “MTV” and “MTV News”.

But sometimes, you have to judge by a different yardstick, and increasingly for me, it was a very, very musical yardstick – i.e. did this concert move me to tears?  Was the guitar playing such remarkable work of impassioned quality, that it will haunt my memories for years to come?  Those were the kinds of questions that I was walking away from concerts asking myself – concerts mainly by the supposedly long-dead “dinosaurs” of music – the progressive rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s.  It was no longer really about what was supposedly popular – for me, it was becoming just about music, quality music – and nothing much else mattered.

And that is how I have really remained, to this day – I am not interested in what band sells the most records.  I am interested in what band or artists or guitarist or other instrumentalist – can do something never done before, or something unique, or something truly beautiful or skillful or ingenious.  Or – in some rare cases – all of the above.

That is what I was already evolving into in the 1980s, because I was seeing all of these amazing bands, behind the scenes – behind the very false, fabricated MTV Video World of “Music” and the MTV “Video Music Awards” and so on – none of that was what was real – what was real, were the opening notes of the title track of “Discipline” – the first piece played by the new King Crimson at their concert here held at UCSD gymnasium.

kingcrimson-disciplinecoverTo start a concert, with the final piece and the title track of your first album in over seven years – that is very probably the single most difficult to perform out of an entire album of truly difficult to perform songs – coming out and playing that song FIRST, makes a statement – that says “we can do THIS” – and “THIS” – is simply the part you had to hear, you had to be there – to believe – perfectly interlocking guitars over a sinuous and sliterhing bass part with an insistent, cymbal-less beat throbbing behind it – modern music taken to a whole new level, in a time-signature that I still can’t count to this day.

 

What a way to START a concert!

So it was truly musical experiences like this, that really take you out of yourself, and really make you consider the nature of what is beautiful, what is dissonant, how and when dissonance can be in itself, beautiful, and so on – music that MAKES you think – and think, and think.  That is how the music of “Discipline” made me feel at the time.  What a great way to celebrate the return of the much-missed King Crimson – we were SO glad they were back, and this career was to be short lived, but, would lead to ever-evolving versions of the band – this particular version, what has become to be known, curiously enough, as “the 80’s Crimson” did the bulk of it’s work, first as the band “Discipline” in 1980, and then, as “King Crimson” in 1981 – lasting just four years and producing three fine albums.

But there is still more to this story – still more former prog or former rock musicians, coming out of the woodwork now, re-inventing themselves in startling and remarkable ways.  Bill Nelson, former leader, lead singer, and lead guitarist of the 1970s prog/rock band “Be-Bop Deluxe” was out and about in the 1980s, fronting various versions of his 1979 creation “Bill Nelson’s Red Noise” and I saw one of these post-Red Noise concoctions play live at the Whisky in Los Angeles – and because it was the Whisky, and, Bill Nelson was one of my favourite English guitarists at the time – I took the opportunity to situate myself just in front of his pedalboard (which absolutely fascinated me, it was very, very long and thin and had about a dozen pedals on it, most of which, I was utterly unfamiliar with) and once again, I proceeded to have my musical thought processes melted away and re-formed several times during the evening’s proceedings.

nelsonbill74

Nelson is just one of those people that is ridiculously talented, and can make music with anything he turns his hand to.  Tonight though – it was all about the guitar, and actually seeing him play, at such close range, was a rare privilege indeed for me – to be able to watch how he created the chord shapes and guitar parts that made up these songs that I so, so loved – “A Kind Of Loving” or “Do You Dream In Colour” or even the bizarre “Youth Of Nation On Fire”.

 

 

He played an outrageously cool selection of songs from his first couple of solo records – and it was again, an absolutely unique and totally unforgettable musical experience.  What a show!

This show also included a real moment of drama, as Bill‘s beautiful pedalboard FAILED after one song, so, philosophically, he watched the technician hauling away his entire bank of effects – and saying something about how it may be difficult later on, when he gets into some of the more complex changes of sound… he then turned around, with a determined look on his face – plugged his guitar lead directly into his Music Man combo amp – tested a nice, chunky, distorted power chord – and launched into the next song – sans all effects.

Hearing that song played with raw, straight, unaffected guitar – was an absolute revelation for me – an amazing experience – of a true artist’s grace under pressure –  he handled it like a pro – no problem – just got on with the song, sang and played it beautifully, and then happily, took delivery of his now-repaired pedalboard just in time for the next song to begin.

nelsonbill1980sThey never really missed a beat – the whole “incident” only slowed the show by literally, two minutes – and what a unique and unusual thing to witness – that made it particularly unforgettable – getting to hear the absolutely raw – guitar-straight-into-amp Bill Nelson style – and it ROCKED.  He didn’t lean on his pedals for support to hide weak playing, as some players (myself included – I hasten to add) do – he used them to enhance and improve the sound of his guitar.   But – I could have happily watched and listened to the whole show with the guitar-directly-into-amp scenario, too – with – or without a big pedalboard full of exotic gutiar effects – either way is absolutely fine by me.

 

I would say that during the first few years of the 1980s, that Bill Nelson re-invented himself and his music, on a par and very much in parallel, with the way Robert Fripp re-invented and re-imagined his own role in the new King Crimson.  Gone were the trappings of “rock star” / Be-Bop Deluxe frontman Nelson – no more costumes or make-up or TV appearances were needed – no more limousines – just – music – music as experiment, and I can remember buying his first solo single, the aforementioned “Do You Dream In Colour?” on 7 inch vinyl which included two B-sides that I liked even better than the A side – and that was the start of a truly remarkable series of records – that moved through areas of music that I can scarcely describe using just words – those words would be “GO now, and listen, ye, to these two albums”:

  1. Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam by Bill Nelson
  2. The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart) by Bill Nelson

See – now I don’t need to try and describe how incredibly diverse and musically amazing those two early solo records are – not to mention – some of the most astonishing lead guitar work I had ever heard Nelson play – even on the opening track of “Quit Dreaming…” a song called “Banal”, ironically enough – there is a solo so dramatic, so silken smooth and flowing – so, NOT “banal” in any way – and I think that is the point – you have this hard-edged, almost frightening riff playing throughout this song  – but when it finally bursts into this solo – you get a few moments of the old 1970s Be-Bop Deluxe sweet sweet flowing lead guitar on 1980s steroids – simply amazing guitar work on this record – other pieces of note include one of my personal favourites of Bill’s – another strange one, “U.H.F.” which has a beautifully-flanged lead vocal, and again, absolutely amazing, dissonant / unique lead guitar throughout – this one is another that is just astonishing in terms of the quality and passion of guitar playing – it’s off the scale, it really is.

nelsonbillrecentSo Bill Nelson – in the early 1980s – was in every way, an ever-exploring pioneer of new kinds of musics, and his bands were hand-picked to deliver that music with the greatest impact.  I was so, so fortunate that I was able to drive up to Los Angeles to see that gig – what an absolutely unforgettable night that was!!  Standing there, just a few feet away from someone with such consummate skill with the guitar – it seemed effortless to him – autopilot on, and now – play.  sing.  perform.

 

But – it was a faultless, unbelievably professional, polished performance – Bill took his bands and his music very seriously indeed, and this outfit was more than road-worthy – they played his music – the way it was meant to be played.

 

I have now, I believe, spent more than enough time talking about Type Uno artists – however – believe it or not, I didn’t even make it past about 1983 in assembling the examples above.  If I were to continue on in this vein for the rest of the 1980s, I would add in another dozen or so examples of Type Uno artists – those ex-rock or ex-prog musicians who, for the most part – trod a very different path in the 1980s, from what their previous careers back in the 1970s had been.

And sometimes, as in the case of both King Crimson and Bill Nelson – that led to some absolutely extraordinary music and, live concerts that represented that recorded music.  I felt so, so fortunate to have been there to witness that – especially the re-birth of King Crimson  – that was almost miraculous.

Crimson was one of several bands, that I literally thought I would never, ever get to see – because from my perspective – they had suddenly disbanded in 1974 – never to return as far as we knew.

So that was a welcome return to form – along with, experiencing the new musical directions of Bill Nelson, Peter Hammill or any number of existing, surviving rock and prog people – all of them, doing so incredibly well (who knew???) in the supposedly-musically-“dead” 1980s!  The more I thought about it – the more I realised, that in some ways, the 80s were almost MORE musically rich for me than the 1970s were – for one thing, I got in a FULL 10 years of concert-going, versus the seven I had managed in the 1970s (and that was only due to my age – not through choice) – so I had an “extra” three years in which to have even more incredible 1980s concert experiences.

For another thing – these artists – who were AMAZING during the 1970s – had come back, bringing new ideas; new technologies; new ways of thinking about music; new recordings; and most importantly to me – concert tours where their faithful, loyal fans could still go and see and hear them play – and as often as not, I was totally surprised by how much these artists had grown and evolved – always, in such a positive way – that I now view the 1980s as a really, really positive decade – in terms of my overall, over-time concert experiences.

Who else, then – would I place into the Type Uno category – before I delve into Type Dos – well, a quick further check of setlist.fm’s listing for user “pureambient” (that’s me, by the way) reveals that the illustrious company noted above would also be joined by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, populists Hall & Oates (who I only became interested in, after hearing Daryl Hall’s remarkable collaboration with Robert Fripp, “Sacred Songs” from 1980 – another overlooked Fripp-produced masterpiece – and Fripp was so insistent that Hall was so good – that I had to go and see for myself.  He was.  He was an amazing singer).

roxymusicThen, there was the early-80s version of Roxy Music which, by 1983 when I saw them for the second time, had mutated so far away from their original Prog roots, that they seemed to be a completely different band – one that very well might have been better named “The Bryan Ferry Orchestra” and be done with it – with Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay physically present at the concert, but, reduced to the roles of glorified sidemen by the rather large ego of one Bryan Ferry…

 

The only redemption, for me, was that Phil Manzanera was permitted to perform ONE of his songs – and chose to play “Impossible Guitar” which I absolutely love – so I was fortunate to get to see that rarely-performed-live piece of brilliant guitar work – made an otherwise difficult to stomach Roxy concert, much more bearable.  By way of contrast,  when I saw Roxy in 1979, four years earlier – they were then already on their way towards this not-so-good musical place, but – there was still some prog left in them, and they played a few good versions of a few older tunes back in 79.  Not so at the 1983 concert that I saw – which was pretty disappointing to say the least.

belewadrianAdrian Belew – well, he was around in the 70s, although more in the role of very talented sideman to either Frank Zappa or later, David Bowie – and I felt very, very fortunate to get to see him with his original band, “Gaga” – at the wonderfully tiny San Diego State venue of The Back Door (a music venue so small, that even ***I*** have performed there in the past – lol).

Belew and his band were absolutely unbelievably talented, funny and skilled – and it was a truly memorable evening for fans of the eccentric electric guitarist – the only true successor to the performance spaces that Jimi Hendrix used to inhabit – Belew fills that void to some degree.

More gigs for guitarists – now this was another aspect of the remarkable, the impossible things that happened in the 1980s – that you would have thought, would either be impossible, or only could have happened in the 70s – but – not so – I am talking about now, one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen – Paco De Lucia, Al DiMeola, and John McLaughlin – what a line-up.  Three legends of the guitar – each with their own style – and the combination of the three together, performing a variety of impossible pieces – was like nothing I had ever seen before and I am not likely to ever see again – everyone I know who went to this – will know what I am talking about – this was about skill, passion and grace – and these three gentlemen had lots of all of those things.  It was…amazing.

guitartrio1A year later, the trio returned – and this time, joining them on steel string acoustic guitar – was none other than future Deep Purple lead guitarist and Dixie Dregs alumnus Steve Morse – a guitarist I have seen many times – with the Dixie Dregs (another group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s)

morsesteveLater, Morse created the “Steve Morse Band” (yet ANOTHER group that is in this category, that I was lucky enough to see during the 1980s), I even got to see Morse performing at a guitar clinic in a local music store – an immensely skilled and talented player. Adding Morse to that trio (DeLucia, DiMeola, and McLaughlin) – created the single most remarkable mini-orchestra of guitarists that the mind could imagine – the Impossible Quartet – and that show was even better than the standard trio show that I saw the previous year.  What an experience!

And then – I went to see Allan Holdsworth.  I was beginning to get into jazz, a little bit – I’ve never really played it, but, I do have huge respect for those that play it well – the “Pat Metheny”s and so on in this world – but – Allan Holdsworth – who, again, was around in the 1970s, so he definitely falls into the Type Uno category – is a guitarist on an entirely different Guitar Planet.  To this day, I have never before or since seen a modern jazz guitarist, or in fact, any guitarist outside of the classical tradition, with the kind of a) encyclopedic knowledge of scales, modes, chords and….everything there is to know about a guitar fretboard and b) incredible, incredible, speed – I’ve never found another like Allan Holdsworth.

holdsworthI can remember sitting on the edge of the stage, just watching his left hand, trying so hard to figure out what on earth chords he was playing – as he played through one of my very favourite of his pieces – “The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun)” – and there is this beautiful beautiful chord progression, that he “swells” into a big delay and reverb setting – and it’s just sublimely beautiful,

And as I watched, I realised, that even with my twenty some odd years of guitar playing experience at that time – that I literally, had absolutely NO idea what those shapes indicated – I could not understand WHAT CHORDS the man was playing.  I knew one thing though – they are beautiful.  Still are.

Later, I found out why – when I got ahold of an Allan Holdsworth music book – and the title of the book pretty much explains why a guitarist of 20 years plus experience, had no idea what it was that he was seeing and hearing when watching Allan Holdsworth play – the book is called “Reaching For The Uncommon Chord”.  THAT is why.  Because he uses inversions that most people can’t even FORM with their fingers.  “Uncommon” is exactly the right word – and seeing him play, hearing him do this – live – opened my eyes to whole new UNIVERSE of sounds and ideas that I think, I am still absorbing today – almost thirty years later.

What a remarkable guitarist – and a really nice person too, very approachable. Sadly, Allan passed away very recently – and it was a huge, huge loss to the guitar-playing, and listening, community.  An absolute Hendrix-Order, Zappa-Order, Higher-Order guitarist unique in so very many ways.  Not, however…for the faint of heart – Holdsworth is possible a musician best appreciated by other musicians as his playing style may be too intense for the public to absorb or appreciate.  If there ever was a “guitarist’s guitarist” – it was Allan Holdsworth.

Every time I think I have exhausted the list of possibly Type Unos – I find still more to add to the list – the aforementioned Richard Thompson whose career soared during the 1980s – including a lot of excellent performances both on acoustic guitar and with full “electric” band – I was lucky enough to see both types – and also, the aforementioned band Richard used to be in, Fairport Convention, who also enjoyed a resurgence of their own during the late 1980s, possibly thanks to their close touring association with the unstoppable Jethro Tull.

At the end of the 1980s, re-emerged one of the first of the many, many, many different re-configurations of the band Yes – which featured the classic five man lineup of Yes without bassist Chris Squire.  I went to see this strange band in 1989, whose first and only album was pretty underwhelming, largely because of the possibility of seeing these four ex-members of Yes, playing older Yes material live in concert.

It was – interesting.  Originally, they had Tony Levin as their stand-in replacement for the very difficult to replace Chris Squire – and that was what I had been looking forward to – only to find out, that Levin had dropped out early on, and had been hastily replaced by Jeff Berlin.  Now – Jeff Berlin is one of the most amazing bass guitarists on the planet.  I’ve seen Berlin play in a tiny club with Allan Holdsworth and Chad Wackerman, and Berlin was actually, clearly, the bass-playing equivalent of Allan Holdsworth – they were a match.  How Wackerman ever kept up with those too, will always be a mystery – stunning musicianship.

But Jeff Berlin is more of an improviser’s improviser, so the idea of him playing Chris Squire’s very inventive but, very structured bass parts – well, to my mind, it just seemed like a WEIRD idea.  And in concert – well, Jeff was fine.  Jeff played all the right notes – but the feel, was all wrong – he played with a jazz, loose feel, which did not suit Squire’s intended style – so it just sounded so odd to my ears.  Not entirely successful – four experienced prog guys – with a super jazzy improvising loose bass player – no.  I wished I’d seen the Levin version…but alas.  ABWH were short-lived, and I think that is possibly a good thing.  Yes is just not Yes without Chris Squire – let’s face it.  It’s just not quite right without him.

Finally, again near the end of the 1980s, we had some glimpses of the future – Adrian Belew’s pop project, “The Bears” started making records and went out on tour, and I for one was very much enamoured of their approach – I loved the idea of two lead guitars, bass and drums, where often, both of the guitarists were playing “backwards guitar” as they sang and played live – I loved that.  I have always been a huge fan of reverse guitar, and seeing the huge grins on the faces of Rob Fetters and Adrian Belew while they were both playing backwards – it’s as much fun to do, as it is to hear!  I saw The Bears a number of times, and they are an extremely quality pop group as you would expect – excellent music.

And then – Robert Fripp and the League of Crafty Guitarists – not a “band” in the traditional sense, this latest Fripp invention – was simply Fripp performing in public on acoustic guitar, with a group of the then-best Guitar Craft students.  The repertoire was written in part by Fripp, and in part by members of “the League” and it’s a most interesting presentation – playing in Fripp’s “new standard tuning” for guitar – this was a most inspirational group to witness playing live – but in one sense, it’s also one of the most radical of re-imagining’s possible – to get from King Crimson in the 1960s and 1970s, to the League of Gentlemen in 1980, to the League of Crafty Guitarists in the late 80s and also, on into the future – that was Robert Fripp – always moving forward on so many different musical planes.

Type Uno groups that I did NOT see – the list is just staggeringly long, I am sure, but while I am on the subject – Robert Fripp’s “dance combo” the aforementioned League of Gentlemen” were one of the hottest musical properties of the year 1980.  A four piece led by Fripp and ex-XTC keyboard wizard Barry Andrews – that is one band I really, really wish I had the opportunity to see play live.  Ach well as they say…

 

Type Dos

– New, emerging bands, or, complete rebuilds of older bands that mutated into new bands – so in this category the most obvious is the one I have already mentioned, Marillion, and, the other one I have already mentioned, Crowded House.

This category does include a few bands that may well have existed in the very last part of the 1970s, but I would still class them as new not so much in that they are brand new in the 1980s, but they were not necessarily full-established or very experienced when compared to most of the Type Uno bands – many of whose roots went all the way back to the beginning of the 1970s or even into the 1960s.

There is a huge difference in an artist who formed a band in 1968, coming back to perform live and make records in the 1980s, and a band formed in 1979 that then continues on into the 1980s as part of their natural evolution – those to my mind, are “new emerging bands” – I have just taken slight poet license on when they emerged – and if I were to just adjust the time period, this silly concept of two types would work a bit better – but for now, it’s what I am working with.

The first half of the 1980s, for me – according again to my setlist.fm list of concerts attended – was a pretty sparse time for new bands with new music.

I did see a few of the most important bands of the 1980s, most notably, the great XTC, but there were far far more bands that I never did see – because mainly, to be totally honest – I was spending my time and my money, attending concerts by Type Uno artists – artists I knew and loved, and, who I knew would not let me down by giving a poor concert.

So I continued to attend concerts with a definite 1970s mindset – and that worked for me – and if you look at the list above compared to this listing of Type Dos shows attended – it’s absolutely pathetic in comparison.  I was only making an almost-token effort to include Type Dos bands in my concert-going – but if truth be told – that was mainly because – there were not that many Type Dos bands that I really enjoyed the sound of.

In some cases, I wonder exactly why I went – for example, I attended an outdoor summer extravaganza, three bands playing live, beginning with Madness, then, Oingo Boingo, then, headliners The Police.  Now this was a competently-performed set, all three bands had something to offer – but, in hindsight – I believe I enjoyed Madness far more than I enjoyed The Police.  I was never that huge of a fan of The Police, and I think it was more about peer pressure – everyone at the place I was working was going to the show – so would I go?  Sure – why not?

I have never, ever been a fan of the music of Danny Elfman, leader and creator of Oingo Boingo, and I just think it’s absolutely silly music – not for me, at all – meant to be “funny” – but – it isn’t.  Madness were terrific – great energy, good chops – a lot of fun, and a lot of musical credibility.  Then I suffered through Oingo Boingo.  Then, I did enjoy the set by The Police but it was more about wow look at that drum kit or, wow, Sting really can play the bass AND sing at the same time – look – he’s doing it.

Or rather – doing part of it – they did have three background singers, which makes the whole idea of being “just a trio” a bit silly – and I felt it was really unnecessary.  It seemed to me, that it would have been much, much better if we could have heard what JUST the three of them could do, live – now that might have been interesting. They played a competent set, with songs from every album including the then-new “Synchronicity” which for them, was ultra-complex.  They did a credible job – but that’s what it seemed like, more of a chore, a task, a job to be done – they didn’t seem like they were having any fun at all – and their lack of enjoyment was contagious.

I hope that others will remember that concert more happily than I do, but my overall impression was of being underwhelmed by The Police, and not liking Oingo Boingo one bit (I still don’t).  But – every cloud has a silver lining – at least I got to see Madness – they were great – awesome performance.

Still sticking with the mainstream, again, not really sure WHY I went – outdoor show in summer time?  nice weather?  for some inexplicable reason, I went to see Men At Work.  It was not particularly memorable.  I still do not know why I went.  In this same category, I would place The Motels, a group I barely remember – and I don’t remember a particular song I like or anything – no idea.  Those two shows – which I did attend – just flew past almost unnoticed.

I did also, however, see some very real and very powerful live performances – the aforementioned XTC among them – but I would say one other of those, was Gang Of Four.  Now – this was a band I knew absolutely nothing about, I had not heard them play – and the other guitarist in my then-band, Slipstream absolutely INSISTED that I should go to this concert – so, we went – it was a long, long drive up to LA I remember – and I was absolutely transfixed and shocked by the band once they started playing.  I have never before or since seen a band quite like this one – dark, powerful, with a lot on their minds – and deadly serious about what they were playing, and what they were saying.

With tunes like “(Love Like) Anthrax” or “Armalite Rifle” and heavily politically inspired lyrics, I found it to be a very powerful and musical experience.  The music was  – jarring.  But – this “post punk” outfit – really stuck in my memory, and I am grateful to my pal in the band for being so insistent that I attend – because I am glad that I did.  I hadn’t seen much or many bands that had a political agenda (unless you count U2 – which come on, you can’t seriously count U2???) so it was a breath of fresh air in that sense – not you ordinary love songs here – but songs that meant something.  It was a really different musical experience too, and one that was thought-provoking at the very least.

xtcliveMost important to me, was seeing XTC play live in what turned out to be, their last ever live performance – they played in San Diego where I saw them – and then, in LA the next night – they did not show up, because Andy Partridge was on his way home to escape a world of nightmares from touring and over use of prescription medications.

They never did really return to the stage – but – it also ushered in their “XTC’s Golden Age of Studio Recordings” – where, much like the Beatles – their music really, really changed once they left the stage behind for good.

XTC’s performance itself ,was absolutely amazing:  Andy was filled with so much incredible energy, and the band were animated and lively – Dave Gregory was especially amazing – bouncing back and forth between lead guitar and lead synthesizer – and the band’s vocals were also great – Colin and Andy sounded so, so good together.  I am so, so glad I went to this – I had been getting more and more into their music, and I thought why not – that should be a good show.  I never dreamed for a moment, that I would witness the last live concert by the band – wow.  What a shock to find out after the fact, that Andy had fallen very ill and returned to the UK – swearing that he would never perform live again.  Sadly – he kept that promise – mostly.

After seeing Gang Of Four first, and then, XTC, in the first part of the 1980s – was unfortunately, for me, the highlight – the rest of my Type Dos experience wasn’t quite so memorable – but I will have a go anyway:

Starting with Asia – now, in one sense, you could almost class Asia as a Type Uno band – except – what band would that have been back in the 1970s?  King Crimson?  Yes?  ELP?  Because they were not a direct descendant of one particular band – I have to class them as Type Dos – but the music they brought to the mid-80s, definitely had more of the feel of a Type Uno band.

JohnWettonAsia then – as a new “prog” band – with ex-Family, ex-King Crimson bassist and vocalist John Wetton on bass and lead vocals, with Steve Howe. ex-Yes on lead guitar, and with Carl Palmer, ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer on drums – and, some guy called Geoff Downes on keyboards – this was a “new” band, playing “new” music.  Oh – I so, so wanted this band to be good…

 

Their debut album was a bit confusing – slightly proggy, but overlaid with a sort of sickly sheen of popiness that felt forced at best.  It was just – weird.  But I went to the show, to see the PLAYERS – not so much for the band, and certainly not for the album.  And – the players were good – again, Wetton is more than competent he played and sang well – it was fine.  Steve Howe did his usual high quality lead guitar work, nothing disappointing there – and Carl was a fine drummer for the outfit.

Perhaps it’s better if I just leave it at that – rather than try to analyse it any further – this SHOULD have been a great band, but I remember being so disappointed by everything – the album, the show – that I never bought (or heard) their second album, or anything they ever did after that.  I just lost interest immediately.  A missed opportunity.  A failed attempt at commercial success?  Something funny going on there – I don’t really know what.  But somehow – it just did not work.

On a couple of occasions during the 1980s, I went to see Elvis Costello play, usually with the Attractions in tow – and this was one of those weirdly unsatisfying things – it should have been excellent – but it was just OK.  They played well – very well.  The songs are good – but something about it – it just did not have the excitement, nothing urgent, in a lot of ways, it did not seem like “live” music – but more, an accurate re-creation of studio music.  I know that must sound weird – but I hope you can get what I am meaning.

On the surface – Elvis Costello and the Attractions put on a really good concert. But below the surface, there was something dissatisfying about the whole experience, that one could not put one’s finger on – I don’t know WHAT it was – but I felt let down, I felt disappointed – I think I thought that he would be amazing – and when he turned out to be just some guy with a guitar – well, I ended up feeling a sense of disappointment.

Then, things took a slightly upward turn, and the quality of the Type Dos bands I was going to see play, started to improve again – and that began with a gig by the revitalised Pretenders.  I am so, so glad that I got to see this band play in 1984, and I think that Chrissie Hynde is absolutely a musical genius – to write these songs, to go to Britain and put this band together – and then to succeed so well – I am so so happy that she did this.

pretenders

It didn’t last long – my personal favourite record of theirs being the astonishing Pretenders II – I think after those first two remarkable records – that things began to go downhill a bit – but when I saw them – they were at the height of their powers – and those were not insignificant.  Chrissie herself, is a powerful performer, and her approach to her vocals and her guitar playing – stick in the brain, and she definitely left a good impression on me.  I am very glad that I  chose to go see this band play live – an awesome experience.

 

The Pretenders’ opening / support act, however, the much hyped The Alarm – left me pretty cold.  I felt like they were competing for musical space with U2 – and to be honest – no one was, or is, competing for that space (!) – it’s not really a desirable musical space to inhabit !!!  But they seemed to me, like a third-rate impersonation of U2 – and while that may be overly-cruel on my part – I cannot think of a kinder way to express what for me, is a true assessment of how The Alarm sounded – “68 Guns” – maybe – but none of them were loaded.  Or they only brought 49 of those guns with them on this night – I am not sure.

Another double bill of new, emerging bands was Big Country with support from the forgettable Wire Train – and I think that my interest in Big Country was probably almost entirely derived from the fact that Stuart Adamson had been a huge fan of Bill Nelson = something he held in common with me.  The band were fine, nothing wrong with them – but nothing hugely memorable, either.  I can’t really remember Wire Train at all – much as I would like to say something about them – I cannot – I have absolutely no idea.  So this was another one that just flew past me, almost unnoticed…

I have to mention (by contract I am afraid) that I did see the band Berlin, or at least, I saw part of their set – but I hasten to add this disclaimer – going to see Berlin was never my intention – I was going for one reason, and one reason alone – not to see Terri Nunn or hear her telling us about all the roles she could play – but to hear the opening act – Bill Nelson – with a full band, on the very short “Mountains Of The Heart” tour.  And Nelson was amazing – he was not happy that night, as Berlin had used up all of the sound check time, leaving Nelson NO time to sound check his own band.

So, as retaliation (which, while juvenile in the extreme. was actually, appropriate under the circumstances) Bill decided to extend his set by an extra six or seven minutes – making Berlin wait, making Berlin late to get on stage – and he did this, much to MY good fortune, by taking a super-extended, in the spotlight, energy bow guitar solo – which was extraordinary – I’ve never heard of Bill Nelson doing this before or since – the last song had ended – but he continued playing his beautiful, powerful sustained e-bow sound – and he played and played and played – I was absolutely overjoyed.  Eventually, he relented, thanking the audience and apologising for the short set – MADE short by the thoughtlessness of the people in the band Berlin.

So while I went to a Berlin concert – it was not to see Berlin, and I actually left during one of the first few songs of their unremarkable set.  Going home was preferable to seeing Berlin play live.  Seeing and hearing Bill Nelson play an amazing short set of fantastic songs, followed by a really long “spite” guitar solo – was absolutely astonishing.  A fantastic experience!

marillionPerhaps the single most significant of all of the Type Dos bands – would be Marillion.  Bursting onto the scene in the early 1980s, but apparently believing that it was actually, still 1974 – this remarkable band of Englishmen led by one slightly mad Scotsman – became quite successful despite the fact that their music was a direct throwback to the 1970s – people didn’t seem to mind, because Fish and Marillion were brilliant on stage, Fish was incredibly friendly and personal both on and off stage, and the time that they flourished – up until 1987, when singer Fish left the band after the classic album “Clutching At Straws”.  This was a great time in music.

Fish, having his remarkable, very, very prog-sounding outfit out on tour, making retro-prog albums, playing retro-prog live and everyone loving it – what a fantastic and probably impossible thing to happen.

I really enjoyed the music of Fish and Marillion during the 1980s, and even though they SOUNDED like a Type Uno band – they are definitely the archetype of a Type Dos band – a new emerging band with a unique presence and quality music, too.

On a short trip to Britain, by complete accident, I happened to go to see a Japanese heavy metal band, Vow Wow, playing at the Marquee in London.  I wasn’t really meant to be there, I went almost by accident, but it was an enjoyable-enough experience – the band were OK, not great, but not bad – but for me, just being in the room where all of my Type Uno heroes had played – from the Move to King Crimson – was enough – at least I can say I’ve seen a show at the Marquee – OK, I wish it had been by a band that I knew, or that I liked – but – it was better than nothing lol.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. was another attempt at a sort of Asia-style supergroup, the ill-fated GTR.  Now – I never did get the first GTR album – because after I saw them play – I would not have, and did not, want to have it.  Again – this was touted as an amazing new group, led by two of the best guitarists in progressive rock – Steve Howe and Steve Hackett.  To me – that was an irresistible combination of talent and skill – it HAD to be good !!  It wasn’t.

There was nothing good about it – singer Max Bacon was so unremarkable, that all I remember is his name.  I also do not know who else, apart from the two famous guitarists – was in the band.  None of that mattered – because they just were not very good.  I don’t remember or know a single song by them.  It’s almost as if history, ashamed of itself, has erased most of the memories of this band – to hide it’s shame.  And I am part of that – eager to believe in these two superhero guitarists – in practice – it was nothing but a huge let down – a real disappointment.  Not recommended – at all.

Towards the end of the 1980s, I ended up seeing a truly mixed bag of new, emerging artists – Type Dos artists – which included the then-very-popular Suzanne Vega, a lesser-known but far more talented singer called Maria McKee, as well as, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of female singers – the band X from LA.  I won free tickets to see X – which I enjoyed far more than I thought I might – I particularly enjoy John Doe’s singing.

Then came what I might term as the Unavoidable Event – part of you, really did not want to go – but – you felt like you were obliged to – everyone you knew – was going – so I held out for a long time – and then ended up getting really, really horrible seats for – at the back of the Sports Arena, in literally, the VERY top row – so far up, I am surprised I did not get nosebleed – and that didn’t help my enjoyment of the show.

Having a point of view from behind the stage did have advantages, I could see what The Edge was doing really well, and his confidence and obvious skill, along with his basic humility – well, his was an impressive performance.  But sadly, U2 is not really about The Edge – it’s about one man, who I shall call, for the sake of humour – Knucklehead Smith.  That guy – the leader of said band – was just as over the top, as loud, as not funny – as we all expected him to be.  For me – he was the low point of the show.  The band could play.  But could he sing?  Sort of.

It was OK.  I wasn’t bad.  Some of the songs were pretty exciting, and the guitar work could not be faulted.  I suppose I am glad in a way, to give me a more well-rounded view of what the 1980s were all about – that I saw U2 live.  But I could have done without Knucklehead Smith – he is one crazy dude.

The last concert I remember from the 1980s, was held in a tiny club, a concert given by a new guitarist on the scene, who was just releasing his very first album, which he called “Surfing With The Alien” .  Once again, not quite sure why I was there – but I am very glad that I was – because I got to see the original, the most humble, the most basic Joe Satriani – before he became a “big star” – and it was a good, good concert – very modern, the guitar sounds were great, it was clear he was a really good player – and I left quite impressed with this young man and his guitar.  The fact that he went on to such incredible heights of fame – and that it all began with that one album – and I was lucky enough to have been there, to see the birth – to see the very beginning of Joe’s very successful career as a guitarist – more power to him.

That – my friends – was my 1980s concert experience!

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – or each decade for that matter – there is always someone that I missed out seeing “back in the day” or newer artists that I want to check out live – there is always something going on.  I feel very fortunate indeed that I have been able to see so many great concerts.  Moving to Britain was also a hugely fortunate thing in terms of me being able to see bands performing live that did not regularly play in far-off San Diego, California (where I lived for the first half of my life) and so many bands that I never got the chance to see when I lived in California, I have not only seen but in some cases, I have been able to see performing live several times.

This includes bands or artists – and mind you, these are bands or artists that I firmly believed I would never, ever get to see play live –  such as:

  • Caravan Caravan
  • Gong       gong
  • Muse  muse
  • Neil Young     neil

 

 

To my ever-lasting astonishment, I did eventually get to see these four bands – and it was difficult to believe it was happening until the actual moment – came – and for example, with Neil Young, whose music I had loved since I was a teenager – at age 13, two of his songs were among the songs that the very first band I was ever in’s repertoire, so I basically grew up with Neil Young as the soundtrack to my life – but everytime he played in San Diego, I couldn’t go, or I didn’t find out until too late, or it sold out or any number of things – and I ended up never seeing him play.

Little did I imagine that I would see him years and years and years later, in Glasgow, Scotland, playing one of the most amazing sets of original music I have ever seen, with his new band “Promise of the Real”.  It was an extraordinary night, and a long-held dream come true – and, he played so many of the songs that I truly, truly loved, including “Alabama” and “Words (Between The Lines Of Age)” from the 1972 classic album “Harvest”.  I just could not believe it was happening…I was seeing Neil play in this surreal situation, thousands of miles away from California where I would have thought and expected that I would see him play.  It’s funny how things work out.

I can’t remember feeling so happy, so very satisfied with a concert – the songs were all good, the band was extremely good and Neil was just Neil – a remarkable man full of the most remarkable songs but also, a world-class lead guitarist with a style that is as unique in it’s own way, as a Zappa or a Hendrix might be – there is only one Neil Young, unmistakable, as he takes “old black” through it’s paces – and I was lucky enough to hear and see him soloing quite a bit that night.  Really fortunate.

So in cases like these four, and others I mentioned in my previous blog – it seems that dreams really, really can come true.

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

I was a guitarist then, and I am still a guitarist now;  so it’s only natural that I would follow and enjoy music by the world’s most talented and capable guitarists – and the list of guitarists that I was lucky enough to see in the 1980s is a pretty staggering list of remarkable, talented musicians:

 

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 80s were a far, far more exciting time musically, for me, than I actually had expected it to be – because I largely ignored what the media would have had me believe was “my experience of music” in the 1980s – and instead, I spent my time and money on going to live music concerts put on by both Type Uno and Type Dos artists – which gave me a great mixture of very, very experienced musicians from the 1960s and 1970s, updating and renewing their sound for the tech of the 1980s, while the Type Dos shows gave me an idea of what new bands were around, what they sounded like, and how they compared to the more familiar Type Unos that I knew so very well.

Starting my decade with the musics of Frank Zappa, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Queen, Genesis, and Yes – and that was just in the FIRST 10 months of 1980 – on up to and including Peter Hammill, King Crimson, XTC, Bill Nelson, Allan Holdsworth, and Peter Gabriel – and finally, up towards the end of the decade, the Dixie Dreg’s, Adrian Belew’s “The Bears”,  Richard Thompson (electric band this time!) and Robert Fripp with his League of Crafty Guitarists  – and many, many more – once again, I had an enormous amount of fun – and I realise now that for me, that my idea of “fun” is quite different from that of most people – I have a lot more fun when I am watching and listening to an incredibly talented lead guitarist (or in some cases, a pair of amazing guitarists – like Robert Fripp & Adrian Belew of King Crimson – or Adrian Belew & Rob Fetters of The Bears), playing as part of an incredibly talented band that has worked out an amazing repertoire of impossibly beautiful, and possibly technically demanding songs – now – that’s MY idea of fun!

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

Next time on Decade By Decade – The Live Concert Experience / Overview:

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!

what we’re listening to – neil young – archives vol. I

I hadn’t heard this for a long time, and I suddenly thought, oh, I really, really need to hear that right the way through.  my wife had surprised me with it, brought it home with her from glasgow, this extraordinary box full of the mysterious earliest history of someone who was, and still is, a huge influence on me – neil young.  like every kid, I had harvest, but then I started buying more of neil’s records, and over time, I ended up with quite a few – but I was never prepared for the mass of material presented in this exquisite first archive box.

so I started at disc 0 track 1, and I’ve been slowly moving through neil’s earliest years, and it’s such an amazing trip – right now, he’s playing lead guitar in an instrumental surf number “kahuna sunset” from buffalo springfield,  but at any given moment, you might find neil young almost anywhere – with an orchestra, behind a piano singing, with his acoustic guitar, singing early versions of “nowadays clancy can’t even sing” or rocking the lead guitar on the electric version of “mr. soul” from the underrated, under appreciated buffalo springfield.

the double lead guitar attack of stephen stills and neil young was unstoppable, and on “mr. soul” they trade solos just to prove it – with neil taking a strange, almost indian raga kind of solo at the end of the middle section – beautiful!

or you get something grand and orchestral like “expecting to fly” – so uncharacteristic, I think neil is channelling brian wilson on this number, the orchestration is very, very reminiscent of wilson’s “let’s go away for a while” – a tune that we know young favours, since it’s the closer on his “journey through the past” album. this piece is on such an epic scale, with it’s mournful mood and even more mournful vocal – but, this is and was miles beyond a boy from canada strumming his guitar, it’s neil using the studio and orchestra like a giant song dream machine, taking an ordinary song and re-imagining it in an incredible way, I love the strings in “expecting to fly” and if neil is channelling brian wilson, I don’t care – that’s a GOOD thing in this case.

another very interesting piece from this time is the very oddly constructed “broken arrow” – a great song, broken up with circus organs and other silly things – but a really nice tune, with a little waltz bit in it – it’s genius. “did you see him….? ….did you see him in the river, he was there to wave to you, could you tell that the empty quiver, brown-skinned indian on the banks that were crowded and narrow – held a broken arrow?”

it’s a weird, weird pastiche of sound effects, strange interludes, it’s very weird, but it does keep returning to the beautiful waltz time section with neil’s plaintive vocal just cutting across all the strangeness – determined to tell the story in between the madness – next strange section – some clarinet jazz with piano…making no sense with the rest of the song – but, great piano solo…and then it just fades away – the end – but not, then, it’s an amplified heartbeat – and that is the end!  what a weird song!  but I love it.

of course, there are lots of “normal” songs like the lovely, naïve, “I am a child” – a really, really beautiful piece of music, gentle, beautiful vocal, wonderful lyrics, nice shuffling beat – classic neil young, and when I think of neil, it’s often “I am a child” that comes to mind – anything from his first album, like “I’ve been waiting for you” – things like that.

then you also get wonderful things like “previously burning” – more instrumental guitar music, but with a full orchestra – probably the same orchestra that’s on “expecting to fly” – but this lovely piece is really just a guitar backing for an unfinished song I’d say.  really nice mood, doesn’t sound unfinished – just sitting there waiting for a lyric that never arrived.

it’s quite a wild ride, but what it is constant, is that voice – and the songs – and that amazing lead guitar style.  I used to say that north America only really produced two truly great guitarists: frank zappa and neil young!  each has an idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable sound, and both are really amazing players – who both grew enormously as musicians during the late 60s and early 70s – to the point where no one could touch them.

my two favourite american (I know, neil is canadian – it’s in north america already!) guitarists then, zappa and neil young – and I listened to them both a lot, and learned a lot from both as well…probably more from neil, since when I was a young guitarist, learning zappa was a bit beyond what I was capable of.  later, I did learn a few zappa tunes, but neil young – he was easy to imitate.

I always enjoyed neil’s playing more than his greatly lauded partner/companion/friend/competitor? stephen stills.  stills is a great guitarist – I know, because I’ve seen him live – but for my money, neil is the more interesting guitarist, and, the most consistently good lead player in the buffalo springfield and in CSNY – for me, it was always neil young. you always knew when neil took a solo!

disc 1 starts with a very odd, acoustic guitar filled version of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is just so, so cool.  a very different arrangement to the version we know and love on the album, but I love it when artists do this – they have two or more completely different versions, and somehow, they pick one to put one there album.  this on has something like a flugelhorn solo in the middle of it, and synthesizers where the background vocals should be – it’s totally bizarre, but really wonderful.

and then we get to the songs from the first solo neil young album, starting with a song that hits me so, so hard, “the loner” – the attack of the guitars, the beautiful, whammied lead guitars – the perfect Hammond organs and then those guitars that I believe have been run through the organ’s leslie speaker – creating an amazing sound.

but the song itself “know when you see him, nothing can free him – step aside, open wide…it’s the loner…” and then you get the gentle little acoustic guitar melody with beautiful strings accompaniment – then back to the very, very hard verses with all their beautiful guitars, guitars upon guitars, with the strings in the left channel only, acoustic guitar in the right – that lovely 60s complete separation – fantastic.  I could listen to “the loner” all day long..

archives is so full of surprises, such amazing alternative versions of songs that are very familiar – for example, there is a very different version of the song “birds” – which ended up on the “after the goldrush” album many years later, but this early version is charming, simple and very, very beautiful.

another odd thing is neil’s voice – it’s not that wonky! It’s pretty normal on a lot of the songs, serious, no dramatics, he just sings the songs in a really beautiful way – no effects, just neil.

even that strangest of neil young songs, “last trip to tulsa” is enjoyable, it’s a stoner’s dream – a long, long story about chopping down a palm tree – what’s not to like?

then we return to electric music, and the sublime, beautiful, flanged, slow-panning slow motion thick as molasses guitar solo in the centre of “I’ve been waiting for you” – which is such a beautiful song anyway – my one complaint about the song – it’s not nearly long enough – fantastic leslie guitars along with buzzing lead guitars start us out, a chorused electric guitar accompanies neil’s beautiful vocal, bass and piano support perfectly – drums build tension to that beautiful chorus…”I’ve been waiting for you…and you’ve been coming to me….for such a long time now…” and then that SOLO, that amazing solo that wanders slowly from left to right and back several times as it flies through your brain…I love this song!!!

the stereo lead guitars during the fade out are just so urgent, full of life, warped and crying out “such a long time now” just as much as his voice is…beautiful.

maybe his best early work.

then the very serious songs, that are almost awkward in their seriousness – “the old laughing lady” being a case in point – nothing funny about this song; you need to be in a serious listening mood if you are to “get” this number – it’s serious!  another lovely orchestration though, lovely, lovely strings.

a song like “here we are in the years” is so pastoral, so normal, just wonderful in it’s innocence…the slow beauty of the country, how the stupid city slickers can’t relate to the slower pace of life in the country – a fantastic little piece of music…a synthesizer appears to play a few notes, then back to neil’s story, complete with beautiful strings, harmonies and chiming guitars…I love this song, it’s just so full of hope and sorrow and acceptance…here we are, in the years…and then it just fades away as if it isn’t done, but it needs to go…

“I’ve loved her for so long” – an amazing, high pitch vocal, and an orchestra from heaven, then a strange gospel choir appears, but neil’s vocal is so good that it doesn’t really bother me – when he sings in this register, it’s just unbelievable – really lovely.  A really weird arrangement, bass, drums, electric piano – and then the screaming choir in one speaker, the massed strings in the other…it’s just strange – but cool.

archives vol. 1 contains so much amazing material that I would have to write a novel to even describe it approximately, so I am literally picking a few highlights to try and describe – and the one I am listening to now is just astonishing, a previously unreleased live version of “broken arrow” – just neil and his guitar, and it’s an absolute revelation – this is the song, stripped of it’s odd orchestrations and overdubs, and in this simple, unadorned form, with a beautiful, melodic vocal, you get the true essence of “broken arrow” – it’s just astonishing, I’ve always loved this song, but this version, to my mind, is actually superior to the released buffalo springfield version, because the vocal is better, and despite the fact that I love all the weird overdubs on the studio version, it’s this one that I cherish – the surreal, acid-like lyrics, but it’s just the simplicity of the arrangement, straight chords, pure vocal – it’s really a thing of beauty.

the same set of live tracks, “live at the riverboat 1969”, from disc 2, contains other “solo” versions of songs that we know well from the Springfield catalogue, including a similar revelatory version of “expecting to fly” – another one that works far better with the orchestras and overdubs removed – I guess this means I like my neil young without overdubs, just the songs – and it’s the songs that really are so, so powerful “if I ever lived without you, now you know I died – if I ever say I loved you, now you know I tried – babe…now you know I tried…babe…now you know I tried”.

disc 3 propels us into a stark and amazing future, the carefully harmonised, beautifully arranged studio version of “cinnamon girl” is a far cry from neil and his guitar at the riverboat – a man, and a band, transformed, in just a year’s time – a mutation as startling as the beatles evolving from the dylanesque bits of “rubber soul” straight into the full-tilt psychedelic aspects of “revolver” – neil was undergoing a very, very similar transformation – picking up crazy horse as his band, an incredibly shrewd move, and then there is that heavy, heavy guitar solo at the end of cinnamon girl – which I can remember at the time really surprised us, the song was over – but the song wasn’t over, until neil had a little fling with his guitar…

so this third disc is more about crazy horse, and neil as band leader, and it includes songs from “everybody knows this is nowhere” and “after the goldrush” – so some of the most familiar of neil young material, but when I compare this in my mind to the material on the first two discs – the distance that neil young travelled musically, from say, 1968 to 1970 – is indeed comparable only to something like the transformation the beatles underwent.

a brilliant short version of “birds” by crazy horse is followed by “everybody’s alone” with a great vocal, and here comes that neil young guitar tone, the whammied, distorted guitar that we would come to know and love – sweet chord progressions, a totally earnest vocal, but when he takes one of those solos, you just stop, it’s so, so pure, so raw, a great guitar sound, and a sound that I never tire of…

disc 3 also includes one of my favourite neil young songs, performed by crosby, stills, nash & young – featuring Stephen stills on lead guitar, with neil on organ – and singing harmony with graham nash, close harmony – brilliant harmony – I love everything about this tune – “all I need is your sweet, sweet lovin…fill my life with happiness, all I want is your heart – everytime I think of you – mine falls apart” – this track was originally on the woodstock sound track, but I feel it never got it’s due – it’s a cracking little number.

another forgotten masterpiece, “country girl” by crosby, stills, nash & young is included here, and it’s a very formal arrangement, with the four-part vocal harmony to the fore – but despite being slightly over-produced, it’s still a very, very beautiful song – a very powerful song I think – I’ve always loved it “no time to stay the same…too young to leave…” – more neil young lyrical magic “find out that now was the answer to answers that you, gave later – she did the things that we both did before now, but who – forgave her?”.

a surprisingly heavy guitar ominously appears in the last section, playing single low notes on top of the chords…and then suddenly that positive, beautiful chorus “country girl, I think you’re pretty…” with neil’s voice now suddenly to the fore – a great revolving coda with, bizarrely, a reverb-drenched harmonica solo! of all things playing the chorus out…perfection.

the end section of disc 3 features the somewhat rough but very wonderful live at the fillmore east – crazy horse live – including the title track of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is a huge highlight for me, love the song, love the fantastic whitten & young lead guitars – they both rock “gotta get away from this day-to-day runnin’ around – everybody knows this is nowhere” – crazy horse are just perfection here, they just play the song – the spark comes from young’s lead vocal and lead guitar – as always, he’s chosen the perfect foil the perfect instrument – to play his songs.  crazy horse never overplay, they never get in the way – they just PLAY.  It’s rock and roll perfection if you ask me, the bass and drums support the rhythm and lead guitars – that’s how a four piece rock band SHOULD work – and despite being top-heavy with the very talented neil young on lead vocals and lead guitar, that formula still operates beautifully – I love this band, live or studio – either way.

this also includes “winterlong” – a tune from this time that never ended up on a studio album, so having it here is nice – it was part of the live show, and the vocal harmonies are fabulous for live and for the time – it’s pretty cool! but for my money – of course – it’s the renditions of the songs we know – including not only “everybody knows…” but also, “down by the river” and “cowgirl in the sand” – with their lovely guitar workouts, when we first heard that “I’ll just play one note over and over again” neil young lead guitar style – and it’s fantastic, in a way, neil young is really an incredibly innovative guitarist – he plays like no one else, he has an utterly distinctive, instantly recognisable sound – as much the “neil young sound” as frank zappa is “the frank zappa guitar sound” – you just know it, and it was during this period that young really started to push his own boundaries, and only he could make playing one note, over and over and over, sound really, really good!  it works…and it’s refreshingly different to the way most guitarists play lead guitar.

I am the first to admit that overall, I prefer british and european guitarists to american guitarists – but there are three american guitarists that I really, really admire (yes, I know he’s Canadian, I mean north American guitarists, of course!): neil young, frank zappa, and todd rundgren.
zappa was utterly unique, and outside almost any conversation involving normal music and normal songs, and of course, both rundgren and young were huge anglophiles, with a well known love of british music – so maybe that’s why I like them, because they were trying to BE british!

disc 3 continues with the lovely songs from “after the goldrush” notable for the strange concept of a young guitarist named nils lofgren being drafted into the band – and then being told to play the piano – an instrument he barely knew – but neil young knew, he knew that this would work – and my god, does it ever work.  the title track, with it’s prominent, blocky piano chords – is so instantly recognisable, so “just right” for the song – and what a song, that sci-fi, dream lyric, the incredibly high pitched lead vocal – I will always love that song.

another huge favourite song of mine is here, “only love can break your heart”, with it’s heart-stopping vocal harmonies on the chorus – I always felt this should have been a huge, huge hit for neil young, kinda like his version of todd rundgren – pop perfection, like “hello it’s me” or “I saw the light” – but it was destined to remain just another brilliant album track from the very, very popular and successful “goldrush” album.

a tour of the songs of this time has to end up with the amazing, immutable “southern man” – another work of guitar genius, this is so intense, and really fun to play – I used to jam on this for ages, I remember one gig where I was a stand-in lead guitarist, and we didn’t know any songs – so I taught the band “southern man”, and we then played it for 25 minutes – that amazing progression from D minor to Bb to G – great to solo over, and on the record neil plays an incredibly fast and spastic solo that is pure genius – of course, live, csny used to jam out on this one too, but whatever the version – “southern man” is a song of genius, with a great lyric, a beautiful, incredibly beautiful vocal harmony – and then – THOSE GUITARS!  This rocks.

“lillie belle your hair is golden brown, I’ve seen your black man, coming round – swear by god I’m gonna, cut him down – I heard screaming, and bullwhips cracking, how long – how long?” – that is just intense, the imagery, and the fierceness of young’s lead vocal takes you by surprise – he is singing with a passion heretofore unheard of – and it’s amazing to behold.

“when will you pay them back?” – probably never, I am afraid.

and then – another pop masterpiece, another should have been a rundgren-style number one: “when you dance, I can really love” – my god, I just love this, harmonies on the verses are brilliant, distorted guitars throughout – but that lovely, harmonised vocal is such a shining, beautiful thing – then, some great chiming lead guitars, and then back to more of the most beautiful vocals on the planet – “I can love, I can really love, I can really love…”.  an insistent piano, an ominous bass and guitar chordal pattern near the end – and then it fades away as quickly as it first appeared.

“when you dance…I can really love” – a simple message, with awesome guitar breaks between each verse – what a cracking tune.  another totally under-appreciated pop masterpiece – at this point in his career, neil could really do no wrong.

now – things turn political, things get very serious – but to neil young, watching soldiers gun down innocent students at kent state was just too fecking much – so we have the really frightening “ohio” – “soldiers are cutting us down…” a shivering testament to a horrific incident – peaceful protesters, shot down for no reason “what if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground”.

apparently, this was written very, very quickly – and was released just days after the incident, young was so incensed, so angry that such a thing could happen, that he really wanted to point the finger – and he does – at richard nixon, at the senseless death of innocents – heavy, heavy stuff – but you know what, I am not normally a fan of mixing politics and music, but in this case, it actually works in an incredible, shivering way – “why? why? how many more?”… an impassioned david crosby can be heard, seriously lamenting, meaning every word…during the outro of this incredibly powerful song.

a live version of “only love can break your heart” with crosby and nash comes out just beautiful, acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony – shivers – this is just so, so beautiful, and a great reading of a great song – I absolutely melt when I hear this incredibly beautiful vocal arrangement – these three voices just work – and the song…”what if your world should fall apart?”…it doesn’t get better than this, this is real music – it’s just the song, with neil’s heartbreaking lead vocal prominent, but the exquisite harmonies of crosby and nash make this into a sublime, remarkable musical happening – they really get it, and the whole effect is just stunning – what a thing to witness or to be a part of…sigh.

similarly, a live version of “tell me why” again with crosby and nash – just works so, so well, these two tracks almost put the “official” album versions to shame – especially in the vocal department, where, amazingly, the live vocals are better and more inspiring than the studio ones…excellent!  this song never knocked me out on the album, but hearing this live version totally changes my opinion of the song – it’s brilliant – but, it has to be THIS live version…no other!

speaking of david crosby – you also get the strange live rave-up/mess that is “music is love” – a song from one of crosby’s solo album, that heavily features neil young – and despite the stoned hippie approach to the performance, it’s still kinda cool – although ultimately, this song is more about crosby than young – I quite like it, it’s like a messy, stoned raga – “everybody’s saying that music is love” – a bit obvious.  a strange but essential addition to this disc…

then we move back to something of such delicate, transcendent beauty – a very underrated but very beautiful song – one of my all time favourites of neil’s – done solo at the piano, live – “see the sky about to rain” – this is one that you just have to hear to believe, such a lovely melody, just an incredibly pleasant, wistful, almost mournful song.

as disc 3 comes to a close, we get “on the way home – live” – and from the applause at the beginning of the track, it really hits you what a huge, huge star neil young had become – and here he is, just a few years on from the buffalo Springfield years – playing one of their songs on acoustic in front of a huge audience.

I am sure that part of him could not believe it was really happening, the huge success of csny took all four of it’s members by surprise, and they didn’t deal well with it.  I think of the four of them, neil weathered the strange storm of adulation and nonsense that is being a part of the record industry programme – they had become huge stars at this point, the audiences were huge, and with it, came all the responsibilities and problems of anything that grows far too big far too fast – I think that really, neil kept his head pretty well, all things considered – he just kept doing what he did best, playing that acoustic guitar and singing.

this section is live from massey hall, so neil’s on home territory here, playing in Canada – and as well as “on the way home” he plays “new” songs, and in this case, one of those, “old man”  is presented, and neil’s awe of the song’s subject, the ranch foreman of his ranch, is clear – he respects the man’s knowledge – and how odd is that – writing a song about a guy that works for you, a 70 year old man – and comparing your 24 year old self to him.

the whole thing must have been quite, quite surreal – 24 years old “live alone in a paradise, that makes me think of two…” – having so much money that he could just buy a huge ranch in california “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you…” – I think writing about something real, helped to keep neil grounded – and “old man” is a brilliant piece of music, very deserving of praise – one of many great, great tunes from the very popular harvest album – which was brand new at this point in time.

to be so hugely successful at age 24, but to still be able to write clear, concise, meaningful songs about very real things – the level-headed neil young sticks to the programme – keep it real.

beautiful – and this live version just sparkles – and gets such a respectful, wonderful hand of applause – sensational.

a live version of “helpless” gets a great reception, because of course, it mentions canada, which, of course, makes the canadian audience at massey hall respond like mad – but it’s a lovely song, even without the trademark csny harmonies – it’s a beautiful song.  somewhere, I have an amazing cover of this song done by yukihiro takahashi and bill nelson – it’s absolutely fantastic – they trade vocals, each taking a verse – wow! a great cover of a great, great song.

a long rambling story about an imaginary neil young movie prefaces a rare live showing of one of the most heartbreaking of all of neil young’s songs, the beautiful, exquisite “a man needs a maid” – a tale of loneliness, sadness, and real heartbreak – on the harvest album, with a fantastic orchestral score – but here – just neil and his piano…and the lyrics are not all there yet, because he sings “a man feels afraid” – instead of the final version “a man needs a maid” on the album.

“when will I see you again” he asks plaintively, as this very, very sad tale unfolds – “a maid…a man needs a maid” – [crashing imaginary orchestra] – but on the piano, stark, naked – it’s even better for all the vulnerability that’s on show – then, it segues effortless into a piano version of “heart of gold” – that’s one odd medley!

“cowgirl in the sand” on solo acoustic is just as beautiful as “cowgirl in the sand” live with the raucous but wonderful crazy horse – I love it either way, and here, he pulls these amazing guitar notes on the acoustic – this one note, he keeps playing, in the middle of strumming – this note keeps appearing – it’s just fantastic, a hint of what the electric version holds.

one great thing about archives, is that you do get to hear truly alternative versions of songs, sometimes, you get the same song in three or four completely different guises – and that is fantastic in the case of neil young, the different versions are rarely similar, in fact, usually they are totally different, and often, surprisingly so – I love hearing the “what ifs…” and neil is a master of this, reinventing song with completely different instrumentation and arrangements – and that is brilliant in itself, but it also shows just how good the songs are – because in most cases, they easily can withstand the varying treatments – they are, quite simply, really, really good songs – and they sound great in solo acoustic settings, band settings, pump organ versions – you name it – it all works.

two of the sets in archives vol. one were also released separately – the live crazy horse set, and the live at massey hall concert, but they are essential to this set, and coupled with the rest of the amazing material on offer here – this is one of the best introductions to the genius of neil young, early period, that you could ever want.

“don’t let it bring you down – it’s only castles burning…”

what we’re listening to – the quiet zone / the pleasure zone – van der graaf

1977 was such a pivotal year in music, sure, in ’76, we had the beginnings of punk, the uncertain rumblings that said “this is gonna change…” and, soon enough, it did all change.

but the established artists of the day just kept working on music, and let the punk tide wash over them and around them – but, critically, importantly – just kept going.

that’s exactly what young peter hammill did – he kept going.  the classic four-man organ-based van der graaf generator had broken up for good after a series of disasters, including a disastrous yet successful “tour” of north america and canada, but hammill, as standard-bearer, decided to reinvent the band – completely.

with guy evans still present on drums, [always present thank god], hammill proceeded to and managed to completely change van der graaf’s sound; he even removed the “generator” to give the band a more stripped down identity in this year of great change: they would henceforth be known as “van der graaf” – no longer  “van der graaf generator”.

with the organ, bass and horns slots all empty, hammill started from scratch: bass player – he retrieved van der graaf’s original bassist, nic potter, so that was sorted; he brought in graham smith on violin, from string driven thing – and immediately, that became the core of the new van der graaf.

so suddenly, those beautiful church organs were gone, and hammill’s stark piano and acoustic guitar songs were now framed by violin solos, strings, real bass – fuzz bass! and these changes completely altered the fabric of van der graaf’s sound.  in a very, very good way…

a new year; a new band; a new album “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” by the new, string-driven, stripped-down van der graaf.  this one…rocks!

the album’s opener, “lizard play”, an acoustic guitar-driven vocal and violin extravaganza, sets the scene for the entire album – a supremely well organised sound, fantastic and very complete vocal overdubs – a great bass’n’drums rhythm section with snapping hi-hats, slithering bass, tight drum rolls, fabulous drum fills…and peter’s voice begging, begging “will you dance with me…?” – and then the secret weapon appears – david Jackson, the on-again off-again member, makes an appearance in the very last moments of this song on sax – so really, you have three of the original “classic lineup” – but the presence of potter and smith manage to change the sound of the band so completely, you would almost never know – so, a very similar band, a very different band – but – a really completely unusual, unique album in the hammill canon, unlike ANY other – I am adamant about that.

we move on to “the habit of the broken heart” – a listless, sad violin accompanies a lonely acoustic guitar, but then guy comes in with a steady drumbeat, and nic joins in with a very accurately repeated sequence – the perfect background for hammill’s vocal, and, on this tune in particular, I think it is lyrically really cool “I’m so sorry that he hurt you, but don’t throw yourself away”…and “you’re so special, such sadness seems a shame” – a straight ahead little rocker, with a central solo section of banshee-wail-smith-violin, just to make sure you are still with us…the violins are used then after the solo, as a sort of drone to build and build tension, the drums go mad at the end, guy is breathtaking on this piece – it’s worth it just to hear the drum part!

“the siren song” is next, and is, perhaps, the most beautiful song here, an epic poem, with fantastic nautical allusions, “lashed to the mast” – done only as hammill can do, but, utterly sincere, utterly heartfelt, and very, very beautiful indeed – I spent many, many hours teaching myself to play this song, and I will tell you, as an amateur pianist of no mean skill – this song is really, really difficult to play and sing – it’s very, very well written.  I love every word, every chord, every sound in this song – I could play “the siren song” over and over and over again, because it has an absolutely unique “feeling” unlike any other song I know – and that’s the genius of peter hammill at work.  the vocal – half-whispered at first, then, stronger and stronger and more and more full of agonised passion – “laughter – in the backbone – laughter – impossibly wise – that same laughter that always comes, every time I flash, on that look in your eyes…” that is brilliant!

“and time, will smash every theory I devise” – “nothing really matters, NO, nothing really matters very much….” – shivers.

then, oddly, a fast section, a lovely little piano bit with a nice, clean violin solo on top, this shouldn’t really work but it works really well, it doesn’t seem likely, but there it is, a nice length, a full run-through of a nice long chord sequence, ending up in a great little electric guitar riff (those AMAZING flangers again) and then … somehow, back to the original song’s theme, back to an almost dead stop, and a final, heartbreaking verse, with tinkling electric piano and more passionate violin helping it along until the very, very end.

it helps that these songs are good, really good, some of ph’s best – like “the siren song” – sure, that helps, but the band – they just sound fantastic.  guy is totally on form, underpinning the songs with his powerful, yet musically rich and complex drum parts, there is no other drummer that could have done these songs justice – it had to be guy.

and it’s on the rocking numbers that guy comes to the fore, propelling the songs forward – “last frame” is the first track that’s wholly electric in nature, featuring some beautiful distorted, thick-sounding lead guitars from hammill – but it’s guy’s drumming that draws me back to this song over and over again – nic’s contribution on distorted bass is awesome, and then hammill and smith handle all of the totally insane soloing necessary (the extended solo section, with it’s multiple overdubbed violins and multiple lead guitar melodies, is a true masterpiece of prog heaviosity – it’s a must-hear solo section).

“last frame” is a real sleeper, you don’t really notice it’s power, but then weeks and months later, you find it’s in your head – a really, really powerful song, using the idea of photography as an analog to a relationship, with hammill in various stages of alienation and grief, “hanging back from that last frame…in case it doesn’t show you, the way I used to know you…” – in hindsight, one of the best tunes on this record, but as I say, you tend to take it for granted.  “there you are – your eyes laced with secret pleasure – saying that you’re on the way – to change – devouring, in inordinate measure, every diversion that’s arranged….”.

The final allusion to photography “but then, I only have a negative of you…” gives way to a great descending coda, that quickly fades away into the distance…

smith is quite a furious player, and on this record, he mostly demonstrates a very powerful, very loud, very electric style of violin playing – which is fabulous – except when suddenly, he reaches deep and produces clean string parts of startling beauty – such as the violins within “the siren song” (perhaps my personal favourite track from the album) or the string parts for “the wave” – so not a one-trick pony, sure, the manic, mad, crazy, insane high speed distorted violin solos on this record are brilliant, but I tend to like the quiet songs even more, and smith does a brilliant job of switching between these two totally opposite styles – impressive.

if we hark back to the vinyl version, “last frame”, track four on our CD, would have been the end of “side one” of our vinyl, meaning that track five of our CD is track one on “side two” of our vinyl, and that is the very, very beautiful “the wave” – which never used to knock me out for the longest time, it seemed perhaps too obvious, but now – I consider this to be a hugely important track, with amazing violin overdubs filling out all the spaces of this piano ballad – and a heartbreaking, truly beautiful vocal from hammill – the drama of his lyrics brought into technicolour presence by smith’s amazing, shuddering overdubbed violins – sudden burst of acoustic piano filter through, and in the background, as always, nic and guy pinning this remarkable little piece of music down into a final form.

on both the “loud” songs and the “quiet” songs, the tension built up by the use of the violin (as opposed to the beautiful, melodic organ playing of the now-departed hugh banton) is stunning, and hammill uses the instrument to make these hard-hitting songs pack even more weight than they do as “just songs” – the arrangements on this album, to me, are just top notch, he’s taken everything he learned in the previous incarnations of the band – and distilled them into this remarkable album.

the other standout rocker on this song, is the absolutely amazing “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – a fantastic piece of distorted guitar/fuzz bass/string section that has to be heard to be believed.  hammill’s super flanged electric guitar is balanced by nics crazed fuzz bass octave parts, while guy is flying across the skins at an absolutely impossible speed…then hammill layers on the background vocals creating an incredibly lush and complex vocal arrangement that stems from his angry, powerful lead vocal – it bounces between the power and the glory, all the while, graham smith is sawing away, soloing, building and releasing the musical tension – then, a quiet, minor key section appears, multiple, heartbreaking gypsy solo violins appear as the chord progression is carried forward mostly by nic (guy stops completely to allow this serious piece of music play out) which slowly winds down to the end…this song, out of all the songs on this record, is such a powerful piece of music, and I think it’s one of hammill’s best songs of all time – bar none.

“the sphinx in the face” has long been one of my very favourite hammill/van der graaf songs, in part because of this fantastic lyric “I’m gonna head to the island when the summer’s out, I’m gonna do all the stuff that I can – drink like a fish in a waterspout…” – that’s genius! beginning with an awkward but cool guitar riff, when the rhythm section enters, with nic potter’s fuzz bass full of confidence, ploughing on through – I love that sound! this is one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for days.  it has a heavily overdubbed vocal chorus, which hammill uses later in the reprise version “the sphinx returns” – as “the sphinx in the face” fades out, the instruments gradually disappear, leaving the multilayered falsetto led vocal harmonies – a great effect.  and they then begin the reprise version, giving us really good sense of continuity, despite being separated by “the chemical world”, it’s as if this song were playing the whole time in the background.

“the chemical world” – this is one of the strangest songs hammill has ever done, and it takes a while to warm to.  it’s quite…odd, and it also contains a fast section with some very, very heavily warped vocal effects, which makes it end up sounding like a lost transmission from the planet klingon during that section.  But over time, I’ve realised that it’s a really, really well done piece of music, with a great acoustic guitar/gypsy violin part that recurs – and then there are those strange, strange vocals! Weird as green milk, but really, nothing else would suit – and then when the “normal “ vocal returns it sounds awesome – a great back and forth between the totally alien and the relatively normal J  it’s a chemical world … after all.  and it’s gonna blow up in your face…  graham smith is extremely excellent on this with some otherworldly violin playing and effects, this song is so effects laden that it’s not funny, but they are done in a tasteful and wonderfully experimental way – there is no other song on earth like this one!  none.  it’s just the drug … it doesn’t last.

the aforementioned “the sphinx returns” as noted, begins where “the sphinx in the face” left off – in reverse, beginning with the naked vocal harmonies, the band comes back in, but this time, at a furious pace with an insanely beautiful, screaming david jackson sax solo – it is phenomenal! Jaxon is only on this record in a few places, but I think even hammill realised the importance of keeping just a little bit of the “signature” van der graaf generator “sound” in his new generator-less “van der graaf” – and including jaxon here, particularly on this song – is an inspired act of genius, because he takes this piece to another level – it already rocks, just because when you have multiple overdubbed peter hammills, vocals and guitars, on top of that very powerful rhythm section, nic and guy; when you add jaxon to that equation – it really just ROCKS – that’s the only way I can explain it – this is just a very brief reprise, with sax, of one of the very best tunes on the record – no wonder hammill decided to put it on twice!

the remastered CD then brings us an absolutely delightful rarity: the studio version of “door”, a song we’d only ever previously heard on 1978’s live album “vital” – and one of the few studio tracks featuring what was to have been the next incarnation of van der graaf – “vital”, and this track, and the studio version of “ship of fools” – that’s most of what is available from the expanded band, which included synthesizer wizard charles dickie (and his work on both “vital” and on the two aforementioned singles has to be heard to be believed – it’s brilliant) as well as an expanded string section.  it’s such a shame that they didn’t go on, and in 1978, van der graaf ceased to exist after only a two-year run, producing exactly one studio album and one live album.

“door” in the studio is absolutely fantastic, it has a very similar heavy feel to it as does the “ship of fools” single – which sounds like proto-metal to my ears – I love the direction this band was going in when it suddenly disappeared.  stay away from the door…

the penultimate track on the re-master is an alternate version of “the wave” – with no vocal, and stripping away the layers of vocal reveals a remarkable sensitive and beautiful basic track, with a great, great peter hammill piano part, and then there are those strings…another graham smith masterpiece if you ask me. “the wave” has always been a dark horse, the song that I never thought that much of – until you hear it like this – it’s truly, truly one of the most beautiful songs on the album, in either incarnation.

finally then, we come to the holy of holies, the studio version of “ship of fools” – this song very nearly leaves me speechless, you just have to hear it to believe it, an impossible, convoluted but incredibly powerful guitar riff is central, that goes without saying, but you have never, ever heard hammill play – or sing – like this…he is on fire! – it’s just out there,  the vocal and lyric is incredibly powerful – a bizarre slapback echo on the drums, the best bass part nic potter ever played – and hammill, hammill, hammill finally coming into his own as a shockingly powerful rock rhythm guitarist and a surprisingly good lead guitarist too – sure, we’d heard the live version of this on “vital”, which is really, really good – it opens that record – but this, this is a song that I can’t get enough of – “dispensing platitudes and junk”…”there’s no rules”.

no rules.

this then, in 1978, out rocks, out punks, most of what punk itself was putting forward.  we all know the story about how john lydon idolises peter hammill – well, this song is one reason why he probably does – “ship of fools”, live or studio, is the perfect blueprint to start a punk revolution from – just copy this, or any of the similarly punk-like songs on hammill’s fifth solo album, “nadir’s big chance” – and you got yourselves a musical movement.

this song is a powerful argument for the concept that it was really peter hammill, not john lydon, who started the punk revolution – although it was via lydon – who loved the music of van der graaf and peter hammill – he just channelled hammill in his own way – and a genre was born!  when you hear “ship of fools” – you will know exactly what I mean J

it’s rare that a bonus track becomes my favourite song on an album, but in this case, it’s probably a draw between the remarkable “cat’s eye/yellow fever” and this stunning, last-gasp-of-this-van-der-graaf single, “ship of fools” – these songs rock hard, have brilliant lyrics and vocals, heavy, heavy guitars – everything a boy or girl needs to have fun.

1978 was a bad, bad year for prog rock – but by 1977, with the release of “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” hammill showed us, over two years, two albums, and these amazing singles – that not only had he already moved on, but he was creating a startling, new, heavy kind of music that possibly was key as an influence on none other than johnny rotten – that’s quite an accomplishment for someone who would have been classed by those self-same punks as a “prog rock dinosaur” – hammill shed that skin, and grew a brand new one – and walked away unscathed from the punk revolution – one of the very, very few proggers to survive it.

it’s a ship of fools.  (there’s no rules!!)

“I was looking for something good, clean, straight – but instead I found – the bunker wall – and gate”.

what we’re listening to – anthology (40th) – the move – movements (30th) – the move

it’s no secret that I am a fan of roy wood and his first very successful band, the move, and over the years, I’ve collected first move records, then move CDs, but I must say, that the two large anthologies released more recently get a lot of airplay with me.

“movements” (30th anniversary compilation) was the first – three CDs including quite a few most excellent rarities – and for me, some of them are just precious beyond belief, such as an early version of “curly” that is just fantastic, the Italian version of “something” and so on – a really, really great set.  I was and am extremely happy with “movements”, because it’s a really good overview of the band, but they also included enough rarities, alternate takes, and so on, for fans as well – another first is the full length ending/fade-out of “omnibus”, which has always been truncated on every other release, and finally saw the light of day on “movements” – and just to hear roy’s actual guitar playing during this full outro is fantastic – any recovered roy wood guitar is so, so worthwhile if you ask me.

I feel that roy is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, and if you have doubts about that, I would refer again to the new “live at the fillmore west 1969” cd which proves to me that roy was the george harrison of the move, but he was also the john lennon – he did it all, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, lead vocals – and his lead playing I feel is fantastic.

he’s also the only other british guitarist besides george harrison (well, that I know about any way – only “famous pop guitarist” I should probably say) to seriously learn indian music, and the banjar solo in the middle of “fields of people” on the new live album is a fantastic demonstration of his skill in this area.

ten years after “movements” was released, came the four-disc “anthology” (40th anniversary compilation) – and if I thought “movements” was good – this record is unbelievable.  in some ways, if you have these two releases, these seven discs, then you have what you need to understand the move completely and utterly.  “anthology” has even more amazing rarities than “movements” did.

an early version of “fire brigade” that features piano over guitar, an alternate version of “I can hear the grass grow”, various un-dubbed and partially dubbed songs that you know but in different guises – and perhaps best of all, a fully restored and repaired version of the live marquee show which is just fantastic – this show was always damaged, but they found a way to repair it properly, and it now also features all of it’s tracks instead of just some, and they have also thrown in a couple of the original live mixes as well for a couple of the tracks – ALL of disc 2 is live tracks, from the marquee in 1968.

add those to the tracks from the new live album, and you have a lot of great live move performances!

of course, if you are a completist like me, then you need to pick up the 40th anniversary re-masters of the original albums as well, because on those – you guessed it – you get STILL MORE bonus tracks and rarities.  My favourite of these remasters is probably “shazam” – an amazing record in it’s original incarnation, but this one has some real beauties hidden away in the bonus tracks – including an amazing, amazing alternate version of my favourite move b-side “this time tomorrow” – with a vocal from carl wayne (instead of david morgan, who sings the original version) – a beautiful, beautiful song – arranged in a completely different way from the “official” version – and I love hearing things like this, it’s kind of like roy thinking “well, what if it went like…this”.  Or…this.  Or….this?

so after 40 years has passed, that single I bought way back in 1969, of “curly” on the a side, and “this time tomorrow” on the b-side, is now on CD, and I get an alternate version of both songs to contemplate and enjoy – I would have never dreamed of this amazing set of extra, rare, behind-the-scenes material back then!!!!

of course, I didn’t really get a good sense of the move just from having that single, that’s just how I started, and when I returned to the US after four years in africa, all I could find were compilations – and the vinyl version of “something else” – which was the truncated, bad sound quality live album from the marquee. for years, that was all I had for years…you just couldn’t get “real” move albums.

so I felt like I was missing out for a long, long time, eventually, I tracked down things like “message from the country” and so on, and then finally, over the past few years, I collected the 40th anniversary stuff – and I probably play “anthology” much, much more often than many, many records I have – and it’s fantastically arranged, too – do I want early move? disc 1.  do I want rough and ready live move? disc 2.  do I want psychedelic mid-period move? disc 3. do I want late period/jeff lynne move? disc 4.

I really seriously feel that the move got such a bad deal in the press, and their releases were in a shambles for years, and while those have been sorted, the damage to their reputation hasn’t been, which to me is a huge, huge shame.  I absolutely feel that the move SHOULD have been as big as the beatles, the stones and the kinks were – because musically, they were equals.  roy wood was like lennon, harrison, mccartney, brian jones and ray davies all rolled into one. a quintuple threat, he could write, he could sing, he can play lead guitar, rhythm guitar, piano, organ, drums, sitar, sax, oboe, banjar, banjo, bagpipes – ANYTHING.  the beatles, the stones and the kinks – none of those bands had a single person capable of all that.

if you listen to roy wood’s solo albums, where in the main, he plays every single instrument (doing a “todd rundgren” before todd rundgren did a “todd rundgren”) you can’t fail to note what an incredibly capable and talented man roy really is – I recommend both “mustard” and “boulders”, I love those records, and I really think that todd took a leaf out of roy’s book – I think that the move was a huge influence on todd and the nazz, it obviously was, because todd did indeed cover “do ya” on his live 1975 utopia album, “another live” – and roy also liked todd, because the move had not one but two nazz songs in their live 1969 set list – so it’s difficult to say who influenced who – but both todd and roy are the master of walking into a studio, and playing every part themselves, and creating amazing pop and rock music out of thin air.

on the “boulders” album, there is an amazing song called “all the way over the hill (an irish loafer and his hen)” which is a perfect example of…pop perfection, with amazing background vocals, drums, bass, guitars – including harrison-like lead guitar – but then in the middle of the song, out of nowhere, a brief but astonishing sitar solo that mutates into a reverse guitar and then…back to the song – I would give anything to come up with songs half as clever as this one…and then at the end, roy plays live strings, cello, viola, violin – and does this whole irish jig /outro thing – again, where does this stuff come from – like five little songs all rolled into one four minute song.

from the “mustard” album – well it’s just strange, surreal, the title track is some kind of 20s track with female voices (or sped up roys?) featuring a great horn solo from roy, I love this little song, it’s so bizarre…but it’s the second track that I truly love “any old time will do” – piano based, great drums – another one that would have fit right onto any early todd album – a song of unrequited love, roy singing from the heart, perfect background vocals, a beautiful melody – and every note, every sound made by roy.  the guitars, the slide guitars…are bliss, this song just bursts with pop joy, it’s such a shame that these albums never made much impact on the charts – because if you like the move at all, then roy wood solo is like getting to the man behind the scenes – I really wish roy had made more solo albums, I wish he would make an old-style pop album right now.

I felt so, so fortunate, a couple years ago now, I had the chance to see the roy wood band live, and it was sublime, it was really, really good – the band was great, straightforward, crack players – and of course, even though I didn’t expect him to, he did six or seven move songs – so I was able to see and hear him play those amazing riffs, like that really strange one from “I can hear the grass grow”, and for me, that was just as special, and just as utterly surreal and unbelievable – as seeing george harrison (one of the BEATLES ffs!) play in 1974 – to me, those are my top two live british guitarist sightings, more enjoyable than things like…eric clapton in 1975, who just underwhelmed me – but george and roy – both did fantastically live.  george had lost his voice – but his guitar playing was astonishingly good – as was roy’s.  I can’t believe that I actually got to see roy wood play – I waited a long, long time for that one!

but, if you don’t have any of the move’s albums, and you want to hear the most under-appreciated pop band that SHOULD have been the “other beatles”…hear them properly – then you cannot, cannot go wrong with the 40th anniversary package – and it’s a beautiful, beautiful disc – I love the packaging, it’s totally deluxe, but more importantly, it really gives a very complete overview of the band and it’s music, and I could listen to just those four discs over and over and over again – I never tire of the music of roy wood and the move – and I should say too, what an amazing singer the move had in the late carl wayne, his performances in the studio, and on stage (as proved beyond a doubt on the new live album) are just remarkable, so that gave the band a great live vocal sound – because they had not one but two very, very strong lead vocalists (kinda like that other pop group, what was their name again?) and the live harmony vocals were a move trademark, they took their vocals very, very seriously indeed – and sounded great for the extra effort they made.  so carl’s contribution to the band should absolutely not be overlooked – roy wrote the songs – and sang some of them, but carl drove the band forward, and sang most of the time, so roy could concentrate more on guitar – so that’s a win/win situation if there ever was one.

I am not quite sure why the music of the move resonates so strongly with me, possibly because I associate it with my childhood in africa, a happy time, I don’t know, but they always were, and probably always will be, my favourite pop/rock combo just below the beatles – or maybe, just beside them 🙂

what we’re listening to: roger powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

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

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

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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