You have a choice – of what you listen to…

 

Sometimes in the world of music, strange things happen that don’t make an enormous amount of sense to me.

 

 

One of those things – which happens regularly, and has almost certainly become much worse over time – is the odd and very wrong correlation between truly good, truly inspirational or truly meaningful music – and an artist’s “popularity” – whether that is reflected in record sales, media exposure – it doesn’t really matter – this undeniable fact remains:

The “music industry” rewards and promotes artists that produce a particular “kind” of product, which seems to have but one criteria:

“Can this ‘product’ make us money (and lots of it)?”

 

The industry has always been interested in money, while over time, showing less and less interest in the actual music.

The inevitable upshot of this, unfortunately, is huge media exposure and significant sales for the “right kind” of artist (according to their entirely greed-driven “criteria” of course!) – usually (not always but often) an artist with only a modicum of musical ability or actual talent – the Industry wants as many of these “money-making” artists as possible – and consequently – the rest of the bands and musicians in the world, who do not meet this “Magical Money Making Criteria” – well, they struggle in such an environment (a harsh, cruel demanding environment).

Artists with genuine skill – with real talent – whether that be the mastery of an actual music instrument, or a singer with real vocal skill and dexterity – or artists who have unique and notable skill as songwriters or producers of cutting-edge, modern forward-thinking music – are first of all, always in the minority in the minds of the record companies, and during the last couple of decades, many of them felt so uncomfortable or unhappy with this “business arrangement” – that they sought other ways to move through the marketplace – ways NOT dependent on being signed to a major label, and in fact, NOT dependent on a record company or the music industry in any way shape or form – and that is a good thing.

So rather than having to kowtow to the system, and beg on bended knee for a “record contract” that won’t be favourable or good (unless you happen to be one of the one-in-a-billion who actually meet the Magic Money Making Criteria) – so they either formed their own independent labels (one example of which is Robert Fripp & David Singleton’s remarkable DGM – Discipline Global Mobile – an artist-centric label if there ever was one) or moved to labels that support quality music over sheer money-making prowess.

 

The above merely states a problem that exists, and of course, it’s subjective – there are exceptions, of course, to every “rule” or “theory” – and this theory of mine is no exception to having exceptions.

Of course, there are a number of bands, artists and performers, who sell enormous amounts of records, get massive media exposure – AND they are real musicians of quality – they actually play their own instruments, they have studied music or been working musicians for the majority of their lives and have learned from the sheer experience of being on the road in a working band for 30, 40, 50 years or more – that end up in the same financial space as the “Money Making Artists” who do not necessarily have the actual skills, talents, or abilities that make them admirable to fans of real music and the more discerning listeners.

 

One of the biggest issues here, I think, is the traditional “record company” or “music industry” view of artists as “money-making machines” – but more specifically, their view that CDs, DVDs, and other saleable items that present music – are “products” – and of course they are products – but the record companies, over time, seem to have shifted from viewing an “album” or a “CD” as a record, a recording of music – it it’s simply become a “product” – they have transformed it from an object of joy and wonder into a simple and depressing object of commerce – a product (ugh) in the most negative sense – and then it gets dealt with like a product:

 

  1. How many can we produce as cheaply as possible to maximise profit?
  2. How many can we sell at as high a price as possible to maximise profit / greed / etc.
  3. How can we sell as much of this “product” as possible / in what ways can we “market” this to maximise profit?

You can just about see the common denominator there… hmmmm.

I can remember in the 1970s (and farther back than that, I am afraid) that there was still the “illusion” that music and albums were about….music and artists – and music itself – songs – albums – mattered – and record companies (in some limited cases at least) actually cared about the music that “their” artists produced – as music – and NOT just as a “product”.

 

But – the view of album or CD as “product” – WAS always there – it’s just that over the past several decades – that idea has grown and grown – and the ideas for maximising profit go even farther back – which is why there were so many cases of musicians and bands receiving literally a few pennies for each album sold – while executives and record company board members and owners, skimmed 97 percent off the top – these “recording contracts” or “deals” were just atrocious and utterly unfair to musicians who worked (often all of their life – and sadly, often ending in poverty and dying alone and forgotten) at music – for their entire life time, dedicating every hour to writing, performing, and living and breathing music that they truly believed in.

 

So as the “music industry” and “record companies” have more and more viewed the output of musicians as “product” – the idea that music is anything but a money-making tool has all but disappeared from their minds.

In other words, if artist isn’t selling x million “units” of their “product” then the industry is no longer interested in that artist. Artists were regularly “dropped” from labels for not shifting enough “product” – some who had in fact, sold very well for the first ten years of their career – when that 13th album failed to shift a million – the record company would just terminate the contract because the artist was no longer producing the kind of money (not – the kind of music) they are interested in – large amounts of money.

That artist would have been faithful to that company for decades, making lots and lots of great records that sold well – but as soon as the sales fall away even a little bit – and the cash cow doesn’t look to be able to generate massive income as it had done – it was “out the door” for that artist – who then had to scrabble around and find a new or different record label with the stigma of having “just been dropped by one of the majors” which means their ability to negotiate with their new label is automatically negatively compromised…they are not a “hot property” anymore, because the record company kicked them to the kerb.

The really ironic thing there, is that the example of “that 13th album” I gave – that mythical 13th album would very probably be a musical and artistic triumph – a “critical success” – i.e. the critics loved it, the fans loved it even more – but it did not make enough money to satisfy the greed of the industry.

It might even have been that band’s musical masterpiece and the pinnacle of their career – which might have spanned 20, 30 years – they reach a point of musical maturity and consummate skill – they make an AMAZING, beautiful record that their fans and followers absolutely love – even the critics like the album – and their “reward” is – being dropped from the label and finding themselves out on the street with no label support.

 

As noted above and elsewhere – artists and bands that ended up in this situation, have dealt with this problem in many, many different ways:

  • Some simply moved house to another traditional label and carried on their career on a new label.

 

  • Some could no longer stomach the product-centric, money-centric, and let’s face it – greed-centric attitudes and practices of the music industry, and moved to an ethical company such as DGM.

 

  • Some decided that the best solution was to become their own record company – and would either form an actual company to produce records, market those records, take care of distribution, etc. themselves – and, getting dollars per CD, instead of pennies which I view as a positive thing.

 

  • Others created a sort of “cottage industry” where they form a “record company” of sorts – or a record label – and some aspects are dealt with via external contracts – but control is still central and still belongs to the artist.

 

Others…possibly – lost heart to such an extreme – that they did none of the above, and after having their faith in their 20 or 30 year relationship with a major label so badly shaken by being suddenly, and without warning, “dropped” because their 13th album was the first one that DIDN’T sell one million copies…causing them, sadly – to just give up.

They stopped playing music, and perhaps, changed to another artistic pursuit (a lot of musicians seem to end up as painters – artists still, but using a paintbrush instead of a plectrum to make their art) or even dropped music altogether and got a “normal job” – and left the greed and corruption and disappointment – behind – forever.

 

Kicked to the kerb, surplus to requirements – dropped by your label.

But in these cases, the length of their career as a major label star, that sells millions – is limited to merely month rather than decades as it was previously. So “stars” are made, the money is sucked out – and then they are dropped in a now-very-rapid-turnover-scenario that literally ingests hapless singers or rappers or whatever – pushes them through a pre-defined process producing some of the most lifeless, vapid “music” ever made – said music is marketed in an extreme way – a LOT of money is made (and the musician will see very little of it proportionally) – and then – they are dropped when their next song does not succeed – and more, “fresh talent” is sought, brought in – processed – dropped – repeat ad nauseam forever – a very, very sad and pathetic cycle that is even worse than the record company behaviours of yesteryear.

 

Whereas – in contrast – today’s modern musicians, who have learned to play actual instruments and taught themselves to write and perform their own music – do not depend on the record industry for anything – and simply produce music that means something to them – presented to the world through both YouTube and a plethora of different social media outlets – and we instantly have a new and amazing world where lesser-known musicians can compete with the biggest stars – and often surpass them in musical achievement.

 

The other upshot of this truly unfortunate situation, besides how discouraging it is for these “ordinary” musicians (who generally speaking, are anything but) – is that artists with amazing talents are often ignored, missing in action, cannot sell records easily, or are otherwise downplayed in the marketplace simply because they are not artists with the magic “this artists is gonna make us RICH” formula – instead, they offer honest, heartfelt music that they make because they love music – not because they want to get rich – they want to earn a living as a musician – and hope that some will hear and appreciate their music.

But, sadly, so much of this good music is so far under the radar, or at best, hanging on at the periphery of the normal “music industry” – outside the pale – it’s an unfortunate situation but it’s difficult in this day and age – to get music of quality heard or appreciated because the world is geared towards the shifting of product rather than, the sharing of inspirational and beautiful music.

And – via the gradual but insistent brainwashing of the record-buying public by the music industry – who pretty much “force feed” us the latest records by “popular artists” (their opinion – not mine!) such as but not limited to Juslake Beaver, Tailor Sweeft, Ariande Latte Grande, Ed Sneeran, Lady BlahGah, Smiley Cyprus and on and on – big names maybe – but I have questions

  • How many of these folks can actually write a decent song?

 

  • Which ones can actually play a real musical instrument?

 

  • How many of these can actually sing – and I do not mean sing through a pitch correcting vocoder or other technology that can easily take a poor or even downright bad singing voice and at least, force it into “tune” – whether that has any actual qualities worthy of our admiration – is in doubt in some cases.

 

Sure – some of the people that I have poked gentle fun at by naming them in a slightly disrespectful way – actually – I find it difficult to speak these names aloud or write them out properly – because I actually find a fair percentage of them slightly objectionable – because they are making millions, by “singing” or “playing” – while countless hundreds of thousands if not millions of real musicians, who have real skill on an instrument, real singing ability, real song writing or production skill – are ignored, not heard of, cannot sell records – because they are outside the system – the system that produces these “products” made by these “big name” artists.

Sigh.

 

None of this is very cheering, but there is always hope. I think a lot of artists have handled this transition really gracefully, and seem to be more settled and much, much happier running their own affairs as compared to their previous experience of “record companies” and the “music industry” – they seem far happier, and well-adjusted – making music on their own terms – and having their own destiny in their own hands.

 

I think that is fantastic – more power to them, and I can only send my best wishes and hope that their music will be heard by those who need to hear it – and I also think that his mass-migration of musicians from the major labels to either, ethical labels or to their own self-created labels, companies or cottage industries – is one of the best and most positive outcomes of this entire dark, negative “the product rules” attitude and practice of the music industry – because it has effectively, de-centralised what was a terrible monopoly held by the major record companies, where the amount of control that they held and exerted over their artists was a truly awful, almost evil thing – and by walking away, by closing that door – and opening a new way – these artists have set the stage for a real revolution of self-producing, non-record-company-depended truly “independent” artists – and I think that is absolutely wonderful – and about time, too.

A lot of musicians have suffered a lot – many literally ending up in true poverty because the record company took most of the money that was made – and some of these poor musicians ended up in the worst situations imaginable – especially back in the 1950s and 1960s when most of the greedy machinations of record companies were not as publicly known as they are nowadays – much has come to light during the past few decades – often through the personal stories of the musicians themselves (have a read of Robert Fripp’s Diary at DGM Live for one such tale) – who, after suffering at the hands of the music industry for decades – finally came forward to tell their horror stories – so gradually, the truth of the behaviour of these large record companies has come to light – and it is not a pretty story at all.

 

I don’t generally like to focus as much on negative behaviour as I’ve had to in this blog, but I felt it was important to set the scene for some of my upcoming blogs  – what I am really here to write about – and that is one of my ongoing stories regarding musicians that are NOT as well known.

In writing the above…I hope I have expressed and explained the kind of roadblocks and difficulties that so many great (but possibly not very well known, sadly) musicians have had to endure and then, eventually – thankfully – overcome – and I literally believe this to be a real triumph of the human spirit – and a great example of a great good coming out of a bad evil.

 

Really, the bad behaviour and greed of these companies – when brought to light by the sad facts of their behaviour and the way they treated “their” artists for so, so long – well – there is some vindication now – music is triumphing, and the record industry – has almost nothing to do with that.

In the past – you “had to” have a record deal to make records – or CDs – and you “had to” be signed to a label if you wanted to have the ability to manufacture, market, and distribute your music on any scale small or large – you had no choice.

 

Now – there are choices – and I think, that getting a “record contract” or “signing with a major” is probably the worst of those choices. Sure – they have massive distribution channels, and massive marketing departments that CAN and do promote albums on to sell in massive numbers – and for the “popular artists” of the day, those few that actually meet the criteria of “money making magic” – i.e. they “feel” lucrative to the record companies – because they sense the millions and millions of dollars that will probably soon be lining their pockets the next time they create a “product” for one of these “popular artists” – and that product then sells in the millions thanks to the machinery of the record industry.

 

But – “the times they are a-changing” – and the biggest change of all is certainly the Internet – which has enabled a number of extremely talented musicians – and artists and sculptors and wood-workers and people engaging in crafts of many, many diverse types – musicians can now gain massive popularity – and gain a large audience – if their music is good, if they are a sincere and committed artist – simply by producing and performing their own music and broadcasting it over the Internet – and then letting the people decide – what music do I love?

 

For me – the choice is clear – I am interested in music that is created by skilled, talented, committed musicians who primary interest and goal is CREATION – creating music that is beautiful, inspiring, or very, very unusual, using groundbreaking techniques and technologies that were previously unimaginable – especially in the world of the “traditional” record company – who are set in their ways and methods – and they can carry on doing what they do – but I don’t really care.

 

Because I will just seek out real music, made by real musicians – and I will NOT be seeking out “product” produced by “record companies” – any more – except in those rare cases where real music, made by real musicians – happens to also be extremely popular, and happens to sell in huge numbers – rare, but not impossible (please see my final remarks below regarding the extraordinary musician Billie Eilish for a working example of this rare possibility).

 

I’d prefer that it happens (massive success of music – not products) where the artist is NOT signed to a major label, and that those artists can actually sell millions of CDs or more likely, downloads – without a greedy pocket-invading record company attached at the hip, taking 95-plus percent of the proceeds when it was the artist that actually did 105 percent of the creation of the music.

As time has gone on, I find more and more that most of the music I am interested in – is produced by ethical record companies, artist owned companies or distribution networks or even direct from the artist to consumer sites of which there are more and more and more every day.

That’s how it should be – it needs to be about the music – not about “product” and how much of that product can we shift and how much ridiculous money can we make from that “product” – that is old world thinking and in the brave new world of 2020 and beyond – I am so, so happy and glad to see things changing in this way – so that we can get back to what is important – the music itself.

 

It needs to be about the music.

 

I think that some people just “like music” in a very vague and general way, and they don’t care about what music is playing – they will happily listen to what the radio is playing, and they will learn to like artists not based on their skill, talent, or song writing ability – but because they have been told “this is good music” – when in reality – what that actually means, is “this is the music we want to sell and make a LOT of money from, so we want you to like it – so you will buy it – and make us wealthy”.

I was always amazed by this type of person – and I would say to them “you are content to listen to what the radio tells you is ‘good music’ – wouldn’t you rather explore the actual sound of different bands and artists yourself, and make up your own mind ?? – instead of allowing someone (the record company) who is driven by one non-musical idea – greed – to DICTATE to you “what good music is” and “what you should be listening to”??

 

They would generally just give me a blank look and profess to not really knowing what the hell I was talking about.  But I have given this a lot of thought, for a long time – and I am finally now finding time to suggest these ideas and I hope they can be received and used in a positive way that brings a lot of new, creative, inspirational, unique and beautiful music to a lot of listeners who may well be missing out on a lot of great listening experiences – because they just haven’t considered this question of “who” is telling them “what” music is good and “what they should be listening to” or liking – and I truly believe that this choice should come from within – and not from the record industry’s rather obviously money-driven “suggestions”.

 

I learned to love music by first, hearing it on the radio – but there is stopped – sure, I went out and bought records that I had heard on the radio – back when I was a kid or a teenager.

But very, very early on – in my early twenties certainly – I began a much more organic process of music discovery – which is basically – word of mouth, discussing the merits of various artists with strangers you meet in your local record store (and some of them becoming life-long friends, as it turns out – such as my good friend Michael P. Dawson – who I met in Off The Record on El Cajon Blvd many, many decades ago now) – reading about artists in music magazines – the method was not important – but what is important, I think, is that I was CHOOSING my own music.

Meaning too – that NO one else – was choosing for me, or choosing on my behalf – it was 100 percent of my own volition, my choice of music, of artists that resonated with me personally, what sounded great to my ears, what sounded beautiful – what sounded unique – and I just ignored – and still ignore to this day – what the record industry or what record companies – “recommend” – no thank you – I can make my own choices here!

 

Additionally, by listening to one group, I might then discover another (or many more in some cases) and then from that artists, another – and the process over time – over the past few decades in fact – has led me to learn to love and spend a lot of time listening to a lot of artists that are really not that well known – but I personally find them infinitely more satisfying to listen to than the “popular music” “products” that the music industry is “recommending” – selling to you regardless of whether you actually really love the music or not – they do not care about that at all – as long as you buy a copy.

 

If you really sit down, and listen – listen with your ears, your brain, your whole body – close your eyes, listen with your heart, if you will – and listen to the qualities of the music you are listening to – you will realise very, very quickly – that a lot of these mass-produced, mass-marketed “musicians” (and I use the term very dubiously there – to my mind, many of these popular, massive-selling musicians are not musicians but almost more like imaginary “singers” who can’t play any instrument, don’t even know what a scale is – and just “got lucky” or “had a lucky break” and got themselves a lucrative money-making contract with a major record label) – and sadly – that has very, very, VERY little to do with music.

That might seem like an extreme position – but I would challenge you to compare side by side, music made by million selling artists who do not play an instrument, who do not write songs, but simply do as they are told and play their part in the creation of “products” (not music, but money making noise a lot of the time) that are quickly and mass-produced with a view to cash in on the short-half-life that some of these artists have – they have one huge “hit song” – MILLIONS are made by the record company – and then they disappear when their follow up song “fails to chart” – and the same old cycle takes over…with the music of lesser known, unfunded, self-sufficient real musicians who play actual instruments, sing beautifully, have real skill at modern production or some kind of actual ability, talent or skill – and I think that the latter group will consistently sound beautiful and inspirational – and for me, anyway – the majority of those “artists” inhabiting the former group – feel “manufactured” and sound thin and lifeless by comparison.  That is how it sounds to me, that is how it feels to me…lifeless.  Uninspired.

 

 

During this “Inner Revolution” of empowered artists making their own media and presenting it on YouTube and via Social Media – I have begun to enjoy and listen to a huge number of artists that previously I was unaware of – had never heard of. A lot of truly beautiful, absolutely amazing music is now available on YouTube and on the Internet – endless, beautiful, real music made by astonishingly talented and creative musicians.

And nary a record company in sight – thank the Gods.

Now back in the day – before the Internet – early on I decided that while there was the occasional song on the radio that I liked or even liked a lot – that radio, and other media controlled by the music industry – did NOT have my best interest at heart. They wanted me to like certain artists so that I could join the millions who blindly, and without thinking AUTOMATICALLY buy every release by popular artist Artist Name Goes Here – because they have been TRAINED and GROOMED to do so – subconsciously perhaps but trained nonetheless – by the music industry.

They wanted me to like, and then BUY – the million selling artists that they wanted to make more of, sell more of – and that was once again – just to satisfy their endless GREED!

I refused this. I did not want ANYONE to tell me:

  1. What kind of music I like to listen to
  2. What kind of music I enjoy
  3. What kind of music I should purchase (with my hard earned money)
  4. Which artists are “good” and that I should like them because – they SAID they were good (whether they actually were or NOT) – and usually – they were NOT good – not talented – not capable of much of anything except – creating product, selling product, and being on a very short roller coaster ride of “fame” that will almost certainly DAMAGE them more than it will ever help them
  5. No company – or individual – has any right to dictate to me what I do, what I listen to, what I like, or what I buy – they can “suggest” but I for one – I refuse this – and I want to MAKE UP MY OWN mind

 

For some strange reason – I decided this very, very early on – when I was a teenager or just shortly thereafter in fact – and I have stuck to this tactic ever since. I don’t generally like what is “popular” (because “popular” is artificial – it’s dishonest – and it’s totally contrived and fed to you by greed-driven record companies – they do NOT care about you – except as a source of MONEY) and I want to form my own opinions.

 

Pre-Internet, this could be accomplished in a number of ways – through conversations with other real listeners to real music, from reading about music and bands and artists where that reading then led to listening – and so on.

As one random example of this – one of the bands I happen to like is Roxy Music, who you have probably heard of – and since I am a guitarist, I really like Roxy’s guitarist Phil Manzanera – he has a unique and beautiful style of playing guitar, and I have always enjoyed his playing.

 

[AN EXAMPLE of the word of mouth – follow the players “method” follows]:

 

I had a few Roxy Music albums early on – starting oddly, with an unofficial one called “Foolproof” (an amazing amalgamation of two great live performances)…

 

That then led, to me purchasing “solo albums” by Phil Manzanera and listening to those.

Reading the album sleeves and notes revealed the other musicians playing on the record.

One of the Phil Manzanera records I bought, noted “Tim and Neil Finn” on vocals on various tracks (this is 1978’s remarkable “K-Scope” – one of Manzanera’s lesser-known absolute master works – a must have for anyone who likes creative guitar playing) – and I had heard of them – they were in a band called “Split Enz”.

So reading the album jacket of Phil Manzanera, led me to Tim and Neil Finn – which led me to Split Enz.

A few months later – I had fallen in love with that band; purchased all of the albums I could find by them – and even got to go see them play live on their first U.S. tour – I absolutely love Split Enz – thanks to Tim and Neil being on a little known Phil Manzanera album from the late 70s !

 

Of course then years later – my interest in Split Enz meant that I would then follow Neil Finn’s later band “Crowded House” – which later included Split Enz alumni older brother Tim Finn and keyboardist extraordinaire Eddie Rayner.

So entirely by osmosis – I got into all of the following bands simply by following the names of certain musicians that kept cropping up until I got curious to hear them – and bought a record.  Which would often then – lead to still more artists. In this one example – you could argue that because I liked Roxy Music , that I then over a very short period of time began to enjoy the music of and collect recordings by

 

 

 

 

 

And on and on and on – a wonderful snowball effect of one great musician leading to another to another to yet another…

 

And at the same time – Phil Manzanera’s album “K-Scope” ALSO was a further pointer to me to further explore a number of OTHER musicians who appeared as guests on K-Scope that I was already aware of – such as

 

 

  • Brian Eno (and therefore, of course – back to Roxy Music, to Eno’s voluminous and amazing solo career, and to Fripp and Eno – which of course leads back to King Crimson AND John Wetton…endless inter-connectivity).

 

So by following just a handful of musicians who I admired – I could then learn and grow and experience the bands and records that those musicians had worked on – all because I read one record sleeve.

 

One thing leads to seventeen others – and what a great, great way THAT was – to discover new music.

[EXAMPLE ENDS]

 

Finding the music of Split Enz was a huge positive experience to me – and that was based on the fact that I really, really like the vocals that Tim Finn did on Phil Manzanera’s “K-Scope” album – so much so, that I had to go and find out about Tim Finn’s own band – Split Enz – who I had heard of but never heard.

Tim Finn has a truly beautiful singing voice, and Phil Manzanera recognised this and asked him to sing on “K-Scope” – and the fact that Manzanera did that – led me directly to one of the most astonishing and rewarding collections of music in the current age – the discography of Split Enz.

 

Of course – now – with the Internet – it’s even EASIER to do all of this “cross-pollination” of artists – you see a video and you like the singer – you find out their name and then, what band they came from – you listen to or watch THAT band and you fall in love with that – and it just carries on, and you learn about – and enjoy – more and more and more amazing music by making your own choices – identifying certain musicians whose playing or singing you really enjoy – and then following out to their branches in the “musical family tree” as it were.

 

Regarding what you listen to – and whether you allow radio or social media or anyone besides yourself  “decide” what you are listening to or are going to listen to…I just think that you just can’t believe what much of what you are told.

Just because the record company wants me to buy the latest record (by anyone in my tongue-in-cheek, quasi-fictionalised list of “big name artists” above) – does not mean that (if I am sensible, and thinking for myself – instead of letting them do my thinking for me) that I should buy them.  And I don’t!

 

I think it makes much more sense – to start with music that you truly love – that you found on your own – you were not TOLD to like it – let’s say you grew up listening to your dad’s collection of Marillion records- and you actually really liked them – because they are real musicians who really play real instruments and they write their own songs – and they are pretty good at what they do – so starting there – instead of following what ANYONE told you – you made a decision for yourself – “I like this band – I really enjoy hearing their music (thanks, DAD!) – so that then, can easily lead you to a huge, huge world of related music, similar music, or even dis-similar music that has some relation to the music of Marillion – or, to early music via the bands and artists that Marillion themselves love – the bands that THEY loved and were inspired by.

So you read about early Marillion, and you find out that they were influenced by a couple of the most important and well known “Progressive Rock” bands that started out in the late 1960s – in this case – early Genesis with Peter Gabriel as their singer – Fish from Marillion makes no denial that he pretty much based his entire style on Gabriel-in-early-Genesis – alongside the additional influence of Van Der Graaf Generator founder and vocalist Peter Hammill.

(Interestingly – I was at the Steve Hackett concert in Edinburgh just last night – November 25, 2019 – and Fish walked past me a couple of times – he was in the audience to see Steve Hackett’s recreation of Genesis’ “Selling England By The Pound” – so that confirms that there really was a very strong influence on Marillion by early Genesis – not that there was ever any doubt about that – but Fish was there – listening.  Still.  That’s a nice affirmation of one’s influences – it was why I was there too – because Hackett was a huge early influence on my own guitar playing back in the early 1970s – he was so different, and seeing him live in 1975 performing “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” with Genesis changed me forever in a lot of profound ways – and it set me down a much different course in terms of the music I love, and, the kind of guitar melodies and ideas that I like to play – a massive influence.

 

So from making your own decision that you actually really enjoy the music of Marillion – that could easily lead you to discover the brilliant early music of early Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator – and if you follow those two trails, you will end up at Robert Fripp, King Crimson, John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and a host of other extremely capable, talented brilliant musicians – but who they are does not matter – what DOES matter – is that the choice needs to be YOUR choice and yours alone – and NOT the choice of radio programmers, or TV, or what the record companies would very much like you to buy so they can get themselves a few more houses in a few more countries and some extra sports cars and swimming pools and so on – and because I am a contrary old son of a gun – I want to THWART that – I don’t want the record companies to get rich – ESPECIALLY if they are taking MY money from me (as well as taking away my choice!) to do so – I want my money to go to the artists that create the beautiful music that I love – NOT to a disassociated, greedy executive that wouldn’t know “good music” if it hit them right between the eyes.

 

I want to make the choices – and I choose MUSIC over PRODUCT – every time.

I choose what I like – not what anyone TELLS ME I like – every time.

 

Listen with your heart – really listen, and if you don’t already hear and see it – you will soon see that the list of big name, top-selling artists – that a lot of their music is of a much lesser quality than the music of real musicians who are not part of the Record Company Contract Machine Process any more.

There is so, so much amazing music available now – and not nearly enough time to listen to it all.

 

You can avoid a lot of the bad music – by deliberately refusing to participate in the brainwashing exercise that the music industry and the record companies is forcing onto you – telling you what to listen to, what to buy, what artists are “good” – it’s all nonsense – YOU should be deciding these things – not some faceless, greed driven company.

 

I say – do not listen to what they say to listen to; do NOT buy what they say – but instead – listen to a LOT of diverse and interesting music – and buy what YOU like – not what they tell you to like.  Buy what speaks to your heart, what makes you happy, what music makes you feel good – the music you have chosen for yourself to enjoy.

 

 

You have a choice – please use it – and support artists and musicians directly whenever possible – and do not support a bad business model that was always unfair to artists and in many cases, was extremely damaging to them – and please do not let a faceless corporation tell you what to listen to and what YOU like – only YOU can truly decide that – but it means some effort – you have to listen to a lot of different music and then make up your mind what you want to spend your precious time actually listening to.

 

Today – I’ve been listening to the remarkable Martin Newell (in particular, the 1995 EP “Let’s Kiosk” and the 2000 album “The Spirit Cage”) – as well as selections from various albums by the remarkable singer / songwriter Sam Phillips – both very independent artists who have carved a path through the minefields of corporate greed and the music industry and come out on top – and boy am I glad, because I love listening to this music – I’m very, very glad it is available – and I do not have to buy from a major label to get it, either.

That’s the best of both worlds – I am making my own choice of who I listen to – AND I am supporting the artists I love directly whenever possible by buying direct from their websites or web stores.

You have the same choice, and I think a lot of times it would be better – that it is better – to try some new artists that you have chosen because YOU like them – not because some faceless money-making entity TELLS YOU that you like them…when really, maybe they are not all that good – and really, probably – there are a large number of hardworking and very talented musicians out there making truly inspirational and beautiful music – and you may be missing it if you allow your choices to be made “for you”.

 

I just think that listening to lesser-known music can be incredibly rewarding – and I don’t want anyone miss out on the beautiful and moving music that I have found and enjoyed since I consciously started making my own choices many years ago.  Don’t miss this stuff – it’s truly worth it.

 

As a final note – sometimes, artists that appear to be in the “money making / record industry” mould that I have discussed here – happen to be as valid, as serious, as moving and as inspirational – as these lesser-known non-power-money funded artists I am talking about – and a perfect example of that would be Billie Eilish – an extraordinarily talented singer and songwriter – who has had an absolutely meteoric rise to huge popularity and “fame” – but mostly done outside the confines of the worst excesses of the industry.

I have huge respect for people like this – who have the vision, the talent, and the songwriting chops to just “be good” wherever they happen to be placed in the “business spectrum” of the music industry – talent is talent, skill is skill – and for me, an artist like Billie Eilish – who has a much, much larger following than most of the artists I follow – is equally as important and vibrant as the many less-known musicians that I also follow, listen to and admire – so it is POSSIBLE (although it does not happen often) that an artist can straddle those two world effectively without compromising their soul or their music – so that needed to be said.

 

Other artists that are products of the “we really want to make a lot of money camp” – can be as untalented or even vacuous as anything – not pleasant, not worth listening to – but propped up and supported by the love of the Almighty Dollar – it’s those that I find difficult to deal with.

 

Choose well – and I hope you enjoy your listening even more now – listening to music is one of the greatest pleasures in life for me – and I’ve thought long and hard about it over time – and things are starting to fall into place – you can see through the cracks – and easily get at what is true, honest, good and also – beautiful.

 

 

 

Have a great day!

 

Dave

 

 

davestafford.bandcamp.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was 45 years ago today…

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

EPISODE 1:  The 1970s

 

It actually was – 45 years ago TODAY, literally – today – May 28, 2018 – or for me. in this first of a number of upcoming concert reminiscences – it was actually, May 28, 1973 – and as my first blog of 2018 (finally!) and the first in a series of blogs about live music, concerts, tickets stubs, setlist.fm, and associated items – this one kicks off with a doozy:

The mighty Led Zeppelin – performing live at the San Diego Sports Arena !

Sports Arena

San Diego Sports Arena

The first real ROCK CONCERT I ever went to – I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Grossmont High School, in La Mesa, California – an incredibly gawky, awkward teenage boy with long, straight hair half-way down my back, six foot six of far-too-skinny raging metabolism…and there I was.  Standing up there in the CRUSH at the foot of the stage of the San Diego Sports Arena, waiting for Led Zeppelin, my favourite band – to walk onto the stage.

It was all new to me.  I’d never been in a crowd that large before – never.  I’d never smelled that much…herbal scented smoke before.  I’d never seen the sight that became commonplace for me over the next several years – at the Sports Arena in particular – the sight of dozens of Frisbees flying back and forth, criss-crossing across the length and breadth of the place – and the wonderful haze created by that same scented smoke that cast a mysterious fog over the entire proceedings.   And quite possibly, over my state of mind.

Sports Arena - Seating Chart

San Diego Sports Arena – Seating Chart

People playing, talking excitedly, yelling – cheering – bouncing giant beach balls back and forth, mixed in with the endless frisbees…and all the other fun stuff that people do to pass the time while they wait for their favourite band to come on.  This is one of those experiences that you look back on, and you can quite clearly recall the real sense of excitement that was in that place on that day – this wasn’t just any concert – it was Led Zeppelin – all the way from Britain – to play for San Diego!

 

During the show, I saw a few MORE things I had never seen before – like an attractive girl sat on her boyfriend’s shoulders, proudly displaying both of her bare breasts so that Led Zeppelin, presumably, could have a look at them – along with the other 35,000 people in the audience, of course.  This was a girl – who was NOT shy.  Another first for me.

 

For a 15 year old boy, a boy who was already a guitarist, already trying to be the “NEXT Jimmy Page“, already learning Zeppelin songs and riffs – many of which, I still play to this date – 45 years later – I kept trying to “be” Jimmy Page for a number of years, when I finally decided it might be better to try to be myself on the guitar rather than copy someone else – even someone as talented as Jimmy Page.

 

But as a formative influence – along with Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp, and others – you can’t beat a bit of Mr. Page – a very interesting and very capable guitarist, musician and writer.  If you think too, about the development of Led Zeppelin, just as one example, from the relatively simple chord patterns of  the songs from Led Zeppelin I, say, something like “Communication Breakdown” to the incredibly complex guitar parts that make up the opening track on the band’s fifth album “Houses of the Holy” – the truly remarkable “The Song Remains The Same” – still a personal favourite of mine even after all of those years.

Meanwhile…back in 1973 – there was the long build-up to the show, the endless waiting outside which, eventually and suddenly, became a mad sprint to try to get as close to the stage as possible before everyone else did – once let into the Arena (reserved seating at rock concerts being more a thing of the future, back in 1973) – and then, finally settled in your “spot” inside, the noise and the tension, the sound of the crowd mounting with each passing moment…

 

HousesOfTheHoly-AlbumCoverIt was all incredibly exciting…and finally, when the band did hit the stage – it was another first for me – the first time I had ever heard a real rock band, a PROPER rock band, mind you – the mighty Led Zeppelin no less, in their prime, in the year 1973, touring behind their just-in-the-shops fifth album “Houses Of The Holy” – I’d never heard a proper rock band play rock music AT VOLUME.  And it was…LOUD.  To this day, 45 years later exactly…I am not sure I’ve heard a louder band.

 

Except perhaps – for Led Zeppelin themselves when I saw them again – twice – in 1975!!

Each year, the PA stacks at the Sports Arena seemed to grow ever larger. the number of and the size and power of the speakers increasing each time, the power behind the systems getting to be more and more each year – so it seemed to me, that if anything, that bands got LOUDER as the 70s went on – until the PA systems sort of began to plateau as Super Huge Size – where they all pretty much sound the same – from a distance, anyway.

 

Led Zeppelin IV-Album Cover

But – intense volume aside – I was hooked.  Seeing this show – set me up for a lifetime of concert going – and what a way to start!  Seeing my favourite band, playing amazing live versions of the songs that I loved – was such a positive experience for me – and after seeing Zep, I embarked on a journey that now, when I look back on it over the long, long span of time – 45 years ago today – when it all began – I just feel so, so thankful, fortunate – even lucky – to have had those concert experiences.

 

 

This series of blogs then, of which this is the first – will attempt to document my concert-going experiences decade by decade, until such time as I reach the present day.  Having the analytical and basic set list / concert listing tools available via setlist.fm has been so incredibly useful when it comes to bringing these memories alive, I would encourage you to go and have a look at the list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm to see the full list of concerts attended not only in the 1970s, but from 1973 to the present day – an invaluable resource to me throughout the process of preparing and formulating this series of music blogs.

Earlier this year, I had my 60th birthday, and for some unknown reason, during that week, I started looking into just what concerts I HAD been to, and what they were, when they were and where they were.  I had no idea that this vague thought I had had – “I wonder how many concerts I’ve actually been to over the years…” would lead to the experience that it has – which has been extremely eye-opening for me in so many ways.  This “thought” eventually culminated in the completion of my list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm as well as the completion of cataloguing and photographing my quite substantial collection of concert ticket stubs, which will be presented photographically along with these live concert experience blogs.

So while it started in 1973 – it still hasn’t ended, and later this year (2018), it will be more shows from the incredibly powerful King Crimson live, one of the most remarkable progressive rock groups spawned originally during the 1960s – when Led Zeppelin was also born (1968 was a good year to start a band).   I am very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Crimson again – each year, they come up with more and more “unlikely early repertoire”,  not to mention some pretty credible new repertoire – to absolutely amaze and delight me and the other long time fans of the band.

So – the act of listening has moved forward through time with me, I continue to engage with artists old and new whose music I respect or revere even, and I am all the richer for it – there is nothing on earth, for me, as exhilarating as a quality live performance by musicians who are committed fully to their craft.

I simply love live music, and really, there can never be enough good concerts each year – 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 such as:

…and the like – all bands or artists that I never did see when I lived in the United States – and I spent the majority of my adult live, utterly convinced that I would never, ever get the chance to see some of these remarkable musicians and performers – and yet, somehow – it has happened!  Much to my ever-lasting astonishment and delight.  So I’ve managed to make up for a lot of gaps in my musical education just by merit of living in Central Scotland!

Building Up The List Of Concerts Attended

Thanks to some modern / technological innovations, even the act of “figuring out” what shows I have attended over the years, is supported and made possible – in the main instance, I began, that same week of my 60th birthday, to use a tool with which many of you may be familiar – the website known as “setlist.fm”.

setlist.fm is, simply put, a remarkable web site dedicated to preserving the memory of musical performances, but doing so in such a way that each user – that’s you and me – anyone – everyone – can easily find the concerts they attended, and “add them” to the list of shows that they have personally attended.  It also allows for setlists to be built, too, so that the songs that were played at each gig, if they are known – can be input, stored, and then viewed by subsequent users.

It also gives us the opportunity to rectify errors that have been made historically, or clarify points about a performance or performances or artists or any number of details about an event.  So with this kind of capability, I find that setlist.fm is really the ideal tool for building up your own personal history of concert-going, which is also then of course. possible to share with others, too – since each profile is public.

It also gives you a lot of insight into your own experiences of concert-going, that you would not have been aware of.  For example – this blog, is focusing on the 1970s – when I first began attending live concerts – and in the seven years of the 1970s that I was actively going to concerts (1973 – 1979), I am able to determine from setlist.fm that I attended at least 55 concerts in that first seven year period (I only began going to live concerts in 1973, so of course I have zero concerts for the years 1970, 71, and 72).  You can also view programmed statistics that can tell you a lot about your own experiences – and, the experiences of others, too.

The featured image (see below) for this blog is a photograph of the surviving concert ticket stubs – my own personal collection – of at least some of the ticket stubs that I managed to save out of the approximately 55 shows I attended during the 1970s.   I wish now that I had kept all 55, but if you think about it – it’s a small miracle that even the handful of survivors DID make it across 45 years, a continent, and an ocean – to be then collected and photographed as part of the preparation of this series of blogs.  Each decade brings a different set of bands, and a different set of ticket stubs from my own personal collection to accompany the blog for each specific decade.

As one example of how that can turn out to be interesting – when I was busy working on my own list of attended concerts at setlist.fm I began to notice something – that a certain other user, with an initially unfamiliar username – seemed to always be shown as someone who had attended many, many – an unnaturally large number of – the exact same San Diego and surrounding area concerts that I had attended.  I mean – this person was ALWAYS in the list.

I began to wonder if this was someone I knew, perhaps someone who I had gone to school with or even had been in a band with, perhaps – or any number of possibilities. After about a week or so of continually seeing this person’s username, every single time I entered another concert I had attended in or near San Diego, California – that I sent them a message, explaining who I was and asking them whether I knew them, since they had so obviously been at so very many of the same live shows that I had been to.  Curiously, a day or so after I wrote to them, I found that they had actually written to me a day or two before I contacted them – but I had not noticed the email for some unknown reason.

UK-TrioAs it turned out, I didn’t previously know this person, but as we corresponded, and started talking about some of our shared concert experiences via email – including some truly and memorable events, such as the day we were both at Licorice Pizza records in San Diego, where we met the band U.K. – on one of those “in-store” appearances, on the day of their concert that night – where they were actually opening for the mighty Jethro Tull.

 

For people like my new friend (who still lives in the San Diego area to this day) and myself – it was a rare chance to meet and interact with some of the musicians who we admired.  And it did seem strange to me, to have shared so many extraordinary experiences with someone that I have never “met” – but in fact, I pretty much feel like we’ve been friends for years – possibly because of those vintage, shared memories – who can say?

JohnWetton

For me personally, getting the chance to meet a former member of King Crimson, the late John Wetton – certainly one of the most innovative and remarkable musicians of our time,  an amazing bass player with a unique and very beautiful voice – speaking with John Wetton was a very interesting and enlightening experience for a young, hopeful musician such as myself.

 

 

So one of the stranger “side-effects” of the setlist.fm experience, in my case was the strange but rather interesting fact that I had spent time with my new pal, in the same room, talking to the same people – even, in the same conversations – and yet, we did not know each other!  And to meet someone now, anyone, who attended some of these same unique gigs that I had been to, after a forty-five year period where there was no such person with whom I shared these experiences to speak to about them – it’s truly remarkable.

 

Unique Musical Events In The 1970s – and at no other time

We have gone on to discuss the long-forgotten details of events such as Robert Fripp‘s amazing appearance at a small Tower Records store (on El Cajon Blvd – now long gone – but – another strange memory – it was right next to the North Star Motel – which is not in itself remarkable, but, “North Star” is one of the standout songs from Fripp’s album of that time, “Exposure” – and that amazing live introduction to Frippertronics, is what set me on a long journey to become a looper, and later, a looping ambient guitarist – I fell in love with the process of looping electric guitar that day – a truly memorable event – and now, I have a new friend with whom I can share the detailed memories of these very special events.

So from a list of concerts on a special web page – you can learn and experience a lot more than what you would think a list of concerts might do.  It was an immensely satisfying task, and I probably did the bulk of the list over a three to four week period, after that, I continued to add just the odd show here or there – ones newly remembered, or ones where I had been missing details – until I finally reached my current total – and it has stayed somewhere around that total (currently as of May 28, 2018 – 209 concerts by 129 different artists!).  That in itself was a surprisingly large number – I had really not expected it to be that large.

 

TheBeatlesIn this blog, I want to touch briefly then, on some of the highlights of the 54 or 55 shows that I attended during the 1970s, which were mostly a mix of rock and progressive rock – I was heavily into and heavily influenced by prog, as it is known, and I was so, so fortunate to live in the times that I have lived – I was born at the end of the 50s, and grew up in the 1960s with the music of the Beatles as the soundtrack to both my childhood and my adolescence.  As the 1970s approached, I broadened my previously-held view that the Beatles were the only band worth listening to, and I began to hear other kinds of music being made, by a whole new kind of musicians – many of whom, were extremely was too young to go and see the Beatles live,influenced by the Beatles themselves !!!

 

 

 

HendrixI was too young to go and see the Beatles live,and just a bit too young to go and see Jimi Hendrix, both of whom played San Diego back in the day, those two bands being my very favourite two bands of the 1960s/70s – a real shame, but – I could NOT have been more perfectly placed on the timeline of my life, to experience fully and enjoy thoroughly, the music of the next generation of rock – the Led Zeppelins, the earliest and best of the proggers, Yes and Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and the like.

 

 

That unique gathering of incredibly diverse and powerful progressive rock titans, was a once in a century event, and I was the perfect age (15) to begin enjoying these amazing rock and progressive rock as they made their way around the world, stopping at San Diego often, and therefore entertaining me with often, repeat performances year after year.  Starting out with Yes, then moving rapidly upwards and onwards through Genesis (with and later, without Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, Strawbs, Roxy Music, E.L.P., U.K. , and Utopia.

What an incredible time to be young and to be able to go and see these amazing progressive rock acts performing – all in the same seven year period – and then, also, onwards through time in the 80s and 90s, too – adding King Crimson to the mix in 1981 – 1984, and again, in the 1990s; and then finally, fast forward to the present day where I was able to see Van Der Graaf Generator multiple times (in both quartet, and in trio format) as well as the absolutely astonishing Thijs Van Leer performing with his band Focus – a band I loved dearly in the 1970s, but did not get to see until much, much later.

I did in fact, manage to almost make up for not seeing the Beatles, by embarking on a side plan of trying to see all four Beatles playing solo concerts – so at least I could hear my biggest musical heroes of all time, singing and playing their instruments live.  I was not disappointed, starting out with my first ever trip to Los Angeles (first time I drove to LA myself) to see the great George Harrison, who put on an absolutely amazing show, that began with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra (my introduction to live Indian music – another great love of mine that I have continued to pursue whenever it was possible) and continued with getting to see and hear George playing a fantastic selection of both his own solo records and songs previously played by the Beatles.

Then, next up, in 1976, I was able to catch Mr. McCartney, on the famed “Wings Over America” tour – which was another totally memorable experience, and the selection of solo numbers and Beatles songs that Paul chose to play, were unique; quite different to George’s choices, and wonderful to experience.

Then followed a long, long gap until I did eventually manage to see my third and final Beatle – the remarkable Ringo Starr.  Again – a performance of solo songs and selected Beatles songs – but truly enjoyable, and the concept of the “All-Starr Band” worked brilliantly – Zak Starkey was the main drummer, with Ringo sometimes joining him on double-drums when the singing duties allowed him to – and with a guitarist of the calibre of Todd Rundgren on hand, no less – well, it was a great night of fun, exciting Ringo and Beatle music.  I will cover these events more specifically when I reach their performing decades (which turns out to be from 1989 thru 2018 – as the “All Starr band”) – but with the sad, sad exception of John Lennon – when in 1980, events took away everyone’s chance of seeing John play live – forever – I did, in time, get to experience first hand, the music of three fourths of the greatest rock band of all time – the boys from Liverpool – the amazing Beatles!

 

The Journey Continues…

However – returning to my journey through the featured decade of the 1970s – I truly feel now that I was indeed, very, very fortunate, the whole decade was so perfectly timed for me – in hindsight, I would not change a thing about it – and although I have always regretted not seeing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the live stage – in another sense, I don’t regret it – because by being too young to go and see those bands – that made me land at the perfect age for that absolutely unique and wonderful decade of true Progressive Rock – from 1967 to 1976.  That was the golden era, the sweet spot, where the impossible-to-exist thing that Prog was, existed in spite of that truth – and I landed nicely near the tail end of that era – beginning my own “concert journey” in May 1973 – exactly 45 years ago today.

Now – at the beginning of this episode, I spoke a bit about my experience at my very first concert, the Led Zeppelin show at the San Diego Sports Arena held on May 28, 1973.  That was however, only the first in a long, long string of shows that I went to – all of them in San Diego I think with one exception which was the George Harrison concert I mentioned earlier – held at the Forum in Los Angeles.

But it was not just limited to Rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Prog bands like Yes and Genesis – there were other experiences, and right off the mark, I went to see one of the finest “southern rock” bands that ever existed – the absolutely brilliant “Allman Brothers“.  Little did I realise, that just a few years later, I would be performing one of their best songs, the lovely “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” with my own band, Slipstream – and that was one of the songs that the Allmans played that night at the Sports Arena.

 

Diversity In 70s Rock:

Actually, when I look at the full list of concerts attended, I actually started out with an incredibly diverse set of bands – they were NOT all of the same genre at all – and I think that is a contributing factor to me liking so many different kinds of music over time.  Those first few shows looked like this:

May 73 – Led Zeppelin (what can I say – it ROCKED!)

September 73 – Boz Scaggs / The Allman Brothers (white soul followed by the precision jamming of the remarkable Allmans – sadly, sans Duane – but they were still incredibly powerful live at this point in time)

March 74 – Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans tour – quadraphonic sound – classic line up Rick Wakeman still in the band)

June 74 – Steely Dan (with, weirdly, Kiki Dee opening – what a strange combination) – this remains, to date, one of the most astonishing musical performances I have ever seen or am ever likely to see – the sheer musicality of this gig was absolutely mind boggling – including two amazing guitarists in Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter – not to mention the insanely talented Donald Fagen on grand piano and – gasp – a synthesizer!

November 74 – Ravi Shankar / George Harrison – please see my comments above.  A mind blowing introduction to live Indian music, followed by my favourite Beatle on lead guitar, slide guitar, and beautifully hoarse vocals – which did not bother me a bit – because I was hearing my favourite Beatle playing slide guitar – and I feel that in some ways – George was the master of the slide – in his own style and in his own way – not in the “Duane Allman” super technical slide playing way – but in a beautiful, careful, lovely way that set George apart from all other slide players.  I loved seeing George and I loved seeing Ravi – a brilliant day!)

January 75 – Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway Tour with Peter Gabriel) – Part of me still can hardly believe that I got to witness this unique musical event – a full four album sides performed without a break – and this then-brand new work was stunning both musically and visually – I had thought that Yes were amazing live, but Genesis were very diverse in their approach to songwriting and quite different – Yes does not have any tunes quite like “Broadway Melody of 1974” or “The Waiting Room” or “Anyway” or “The Light Dies Down On Broadway” – and it was an eye-opening experience for me – realising that there was more to Prog than just the music of the mighty Yes – much, much more, I found out later on…

So from this half-dozen standout shows that I saw in the first couple years of concert going, when I was 15, 16, maybe 17 years old – absorbing musical ideas like a giant sponge – I learned an awful lot from watching rock and prog guitarists play – and solo extensively sometimes – and it was the best possible “music school” I could have gone to – of these half dozen first shows, the diversity of type of music is nothing short of remarkable:

Heavy Rock (Zeppelin)

White Soul (Scaggs) / Southern Rock (Allmans)

Progressive Rock (Yes)

Intelligent Pop (Steely Dan)

Classic Rock (George Harrison)

Progressive Rock / Unusual (Genesis with Peter Gabriel)

Then, if you continue on looking at how my 1970s concert experiences progressed, the musical diversity just goes off scale – taking in many different and unique artists; witnessing live concerts by the amazing Frank Zappa (with Captain Beefheart opening)  or the amazing German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (with British folk-rock legends Strawbs opening – and that was actually, who I was there to see!) or progressive rock giant Todd Rundgren‘s Utopia (the RA tour) or from Britain, Be-Bop Deluxe (featuring guitarist Bill Nelson) or 10cc (featuring guitarist Eric Stewart) or Peter Gabriel (formerly of Genesis) or 60s classic rock greats The Kinks or new wave artists Blondie or the art-rock genius of Roxy Music (featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera) and onto the truly unique musical events such as the aforementioned Robert Fripp at Tower Records “Frippertronics” demonstration – Robert Fripp of King Crimson, playing his guitar through a pedalboard, into two Revox reel-to-reel tape decks, and demonstrating the tape-loop technique introduced to him by Brian Eno back in the UK.

You want diversity – musical diversity – genre diversity – then the experience of those seven years, from 1973 through 1979 – included enough eye-opening musical, technical and performance diversity that for me, well, I do not believe that I could have HAD a better musical education, and as you may notice, the single recurring theme in the artists mentioned in this blog, in particular, in the set of bullet points just above, and in the previous paragraph – and that is – bands with amazing, technically and musically proficient guitarists.

 

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, contained just in the bullets above and that paragraph of diverse artists – is staggering in itself:

It’s interesting to consider what an effect seeing that many astonishingly talented and brilliant musicians, witnessing the different musical approaches and technical prowess of these amazing players – had on me, as a guitarist – I think that I absorbed a lot, and it was only years later that the eventual effect of this was felt – I became an amalgam of my own influences, when I listen to myself play guitar now, I can hear the influence of many of the guitarists in the list above – and those influences will stay with me forever, because I absorbed them, mostly, during my teenage years (I turned 20 in 1978 – near the end of my 7-year 1970s concert experiences) when my brain was still pliable enough to do so.

But even years later, I will recall things that I witnessed certain guitarists doing back in the 70s or really, at any time I’ve seen a great guitarist – and I will bring back whatever I can from that memory, into my current performance.  It’s extremely beneficial to have these particular experiences – because seeing these guitarists, in these intensely creative bands – has had a profound effect on both me personally (in terms of the awe and respect in which I hold many of these artists) as well as on my guitar playing – I aspired for many years, to learn and adapt and modify these incredibly diverse guitar influences, into my own playing – and eventually – my own style began to emerge – but, it’s still based on those early experiences.

If I had not spent many, many hours wearing out the vinyl of my copy of Led Zeppelin III, or any other classic 70s album that I loved, studied and tried to learn to play – including songs from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” by King Crimson – and over on the piano, too, I was learning and absorbing music by Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill, Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel – so there was an entire second side of influence, through piano-based songs – I even learned Tony Banks songs (such as “Anyway” for example) – with the help of my best friend Ted Holding, may he rest in peace – songs and bits of Keith Emerson and so on – anything to enrich the pool of musical ideas that I could then draw from for the rest of my life.  Mostly on the guitar, but – a significant amount of time was invested in learning piano and keyboard based songs – which I think helps to round me out as a musician – I am not “just” a guitarist (thankfully!!).

I had an absolute blast in the 70s, and if there is anything to regret, it would simply be that I did not go to MORE concerts during the 70s (and 80s and 90s for that matter) – my experiences would then just be all the richer for it.   I am not complaining by any means – I could not ask for a richer experience than this one – I am just greedy, I loved seeing these bands and artists playing their music, and I simply want more – there can never be enough good music in one’s life.  Never!

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 70s were an absolutely unique and utterly amazing time, when I got to see some of my very, very favourite players and bands – from the mighty Led Zeppelin to the amazing Steve Howe of Yes (the man who could jump from guitar-to-guitar-to-pedal-steel-guitar-and-back-to-guitar-again mid-song, mind you – mid-song!) to having my mind permanently opened by the power and mystery of Steve Hackett‘s amazing guitar parts for Genesis“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to seeing Frank Zappa play in his unique, groundbreaking guitar style – there is nothing on earth like Frank Zappa, there was only one, they absolutely broke the mould that time.

Moving from the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, on up eventually, to the end of the 70s with Blondie and the emergence of New Wave, it was an amazing musical journey – I learned a lot, but I also 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, 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 –

 

 

Dave Stafford

May 28, 2018 – 45 years to the day from the day of my very first concert experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live at the San Diego Sports Arena – it now seems, that in some ways, that it all just happened yesterday…

 

 

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

The Dreaded 80s – Not as bad as we remember

 

1970s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)
Dave Stafford - Concert Ticket Stubs - 1970s

Concert Ticket Stubs – 1970s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having A Friend Like Michael Dawson…

I met my friend Michael, in a thing called a “record store” called “off the record” which was located on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, California, when I was about 20 years old – I am guessing – it was a long time ago, I can tell you that!
I don’t know what year it was, I really don’t – perhaps Michael knows.  But it was a long, long time ago, and Michael is one of the very, very few people that I have known continuously during that entire timespan.  For the record then, (not, off the record lol) that’s at least 35 years, probably a bit more.
I was buying, or re-buying rather, a few records that I was hoping would have less surface noise, and fewer clicks and pops, than the copies of them that I already had at home – I was trying to get a better sounding version by re-buying LPs that I already owned – sometimes, had owned more than once already.  This was one of the problems with vinyl – it was scratchy!  Surface noise, clicks and pops and other soul-destroying sounds damaging the precious music, which should be pure and pristine – it was still a long way to the age of compact discs.
Anyway, among other newer releases, I was holding prog rock classics by Genesis and I am not sure who else – and this tall, very skinny person, with a short, tidy beard and distinctly reddish hair, who was standing nearby as I was checking out, who spoke with an unforgettable, deep voice full of character “those (he said, nodding towards the albums that I was holding) “are  three of my favourite albums of all time”.
So that started a conversation, that has been going on, off and on, on and off, ever since – and a friendship that just grew organically out of that first meeting.  I’d seen Michael in the store before, it was a favourite haunt of both of ours, but this was the first time he’d ever spoken to me, and it turned out, we did share a lot of artists in common that we both really, really loved – and he just couldn’t help himself saying so when he saw some of HIS favourite records in my sweaty grip 🙂
It started out then, first by sharing our love of music, I can remember many a trip over to Michael’s, to listen to records (and he had a LOT of records back then, I mean – a lot of records!) and he introduced me to a lot of things with which I was then unfamiliar – for example, Marillion, who I had never heard of, who were actually playing prog in the middle of the very un-prog-friendly 1980s – so that must have been in about 1985 that he played me parts of “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi” – which I found to be quite remarkable, and of course, I started collecting Marillion albums myself then.
The story gets a bit blurry here, but since I’d found out that Michael was a fellow musician, it only followed that we should at some point, sit down and play some music together.  Michael was (at that time) primarily a bassist, which suited me perfectly as I was, as always, a lead guitarist; but he also played a lot of other instruments, including flute and saxophone, to name but two.  I can remember inviting Michael over to my place, and also, visiting him where he lived, and we did start a band, whose name I cannot recall – it was a trio, of myself on guitar, Michael on bass, and a friend of Michael’s whose name I do not remember (I am definitely getting old lol!!), on drums.
What did we play?  I can remember a couple of the titles:
Roxy Music “Love Is The Drug”
Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”
and an original piece in 5 that I couldn’t really master (composed by Michael, I believe).
At that time, pre-Fripp, I was strictly a 4/4 kind of rock and roll wannabe prog guitarist, and playing in anything but 4 was mostly, beyond me.  It wasn’t until I started going to Guitar Craft, starting just a few years later, that I actually was able to play in the odd meters – 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 etc.
I think we also wanted to learn “Crying Wolf” by Peter Hammill, but we didn’t get far with that one.  We were trying to play music that we loved, rather than resort to playing the popular music of the day – we wanted to play GOOD music, hence the selections we made.  I don’t really know why, but this band never really amounted to anything – we rehearsed, and then I think the drummer lost interest and left, and we couldn’t replace him – so I moved on, and that was the end of our attempt at being in a band together.  We never played even one gig, which always makes me a bit sad – a lot of good rehearsals, a huge potential – and then, for whatever  the reasons – it just never comes to fruition.
But – I am proud to say, to this day, that I was in a band with Michael Dawson !  It was great fun, because it was one of the first times that I got to play music I really loved in a band, instead of the dreaded “covers” – so that was fantastic.  I can remember really enjoying playing Phil Manzanera‘s chord sequence on “Love Is The Drug” – it’s a really nice piece of guitaring.
Michael is a very good bassist, and he had a quality bass, a Rickenbacker, which I wasn’t used to – most of the bassists I had played with up till then, had played Fenders or other basses like Music Man or whatever – but he had a real Rickenbacker, and it sounded amazing. That was really a great selling point for me, having a truly prog “bass” in the band – that’s the way it should be.  There wasn’t much else “prog” about us, we didn’t have a lead singer or a keyboard player, although I seem to remember that I did sing the songs off mike just as a reference (not the first time, or the last time, I was called upon to become the de facto lead vocalist in a band – I will say that!).  But that is another story for another time…
After that band broke up, life went on – I still saw Michael down at Off The Record, and we remained friends – to this day.  Not too many years after this, Michael moved up north, to Northern California, where he got the day job that I believe, he still works at to this day.
I remained in Southern California, but, we still occasionally got together – most often, to go see live concerts together, I can remember giving him a lift to some concert in the back of my pickup truck, which was not a good experience for Michael – but at least we got to the concert.  Not sure who we were going to see – it could have been just about anyone.
One of the nicest things about Michael is his incredible kindness and his infallible generosity, of which I will speak in a moment.  He is a remarkably kind and gentle person, and I was glad to have such an intelligent and well-read friend – he had, and has, far more culture and education than I ever did!  He was also an artist, I remember he was always painting, which was something I did not even approach until I was much, much older.
He has often “turned me on” to new artists that I knew little or nothing about; one of those would be the indomitable Richard Thompson – I remember that Michael was the one who first played Richard Thompson albums for me, and got me hooked on his amazing guitar playing – to the point where, alongside collecting his many solo albums, I then went to see him play multiple times at multiple gigs, including one very, very small, intimate acoustic gig (in a restaurant, no less) and once, I managed to see him with full electric band – and that was amazing.    I became a big, big fan for quite a number of years, and I still love and respect his music to this day.
I would have done none of those things – if it weren’t for Michael P. Dawson.  I would have no Marillion, and no Richard Thompson in my musical life.   He also introduced me to Gryphon, based on our shared love of Gentle Giant – so that added yet another brilliant branch of prog to my ever-expanding experience of progressive rock music.  He also introduced me to the music of Bi Kyo Ran, remarkable King-Crimson-cover-band-turned-professional-prog-band from Japan.
So even for adding those four amazing musicians / groups to my musical repertoire and experience (and it was many, many more than just those four!), just for that, I am forever in Michael’s debt.  He always knew the kind of thing that I would like, and he was always, forever saying “listen to THIS, listen to this guitar solo, here…” and I would be hooked once again, on a new musician that up until I’d met Michael, I knew nothing about.  He was a great friend in that way, he genuinely did not want me to miss out on these incredible listening experiences that he was having, he wanted to share the music, not keep it to himself – and for that, I am very grateful indeed – indebted!
I mentioned that Michael was generous.  One day, about 20 years ago, I was sitting at my day job, when a VERY large cardboard box arrived for me – and I was not expecting anything that I had ordered, so it was completely out of the blue – and upon opening it, I discovered that is was a Washburn Bass guitar – that Michael had just SENT to me, gratis – he was going to get rid of it, and rather than sell it; he’d remembered me saying that I wished I owned a bass – so he thought of me, and he very, very generously gave me his old bass!  I could not BELIEVE that – I had never had a friend, or known anyone as generous as that – he could have made money off of it, he could have sold it for cash – but instead, he remembered his old friend Dave – and Dave not ever having a bass guitar of any kind – and he just mailed it to me one day.
I didn’t expect it, and I had no way to reciprocate, all I could do was send an astonished THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU note to Michael, and try to express what it meant to me to have a real bass to record with and play.  Many years later, when I was recording multi-track progressive rock tracks, I actually used “Michael’s Old Bass” as I call it, in the recording of several tracks – one of which is “Wettonizer” (a tribute to the late, great John Wetton) which was recorded back in about 2008 or 2009).  It’s actually, a really nice bass to play, and it’s short scale and easy to play neck really inspired me when it came to do the distorted bass solos in”Wettonizer” – and really, that song and the others that included the bass, possibly would not have been made, if it weren’t for the fact that Michael provided me with a bass to use and play. when he knew I did not have one.
That was such an incredibly surprising and generous act, which I never, ever forgot, and to this day, I have to smile when I look at that bass sitting in the corner of my studio – I do tend to use sampled basses now just for the speed and convenience, and also so I can get classic Fender or Rickenbacker tones – but if I wanted to do any real bass tracks – I would still absolutely, happily record them on “Michael’s Old Bass” – I mean, can you believe it – he just put it in a box, and sent it to me, from San Jose, California, to San Diego, where I lived back then.  And it then traveled with me, all the way to Scotland – where it lives now.
How often in your life, do you get a Bass Guitar in the mail?  If you have a friend like Michael Dawson, then the answer is, surprisingly – once.
[Meanwhile, back in the present day for a moment:]  Imagine my total surprise then, when, just a few days ago, a parcel arrived for me at home – and I recognised the handwriting on it immediately, and said to my wife – “that’s from Michael Dawson” and wondered aloud, what on earth has he sent me?? (even while, my brain was telling me “effects pedal, effects pedal…”) and in fact, what it was, indeed, was and is, an effects pedal – a lovely, mint condition, Earthquaker Devices Organizer pedal.
A week previously, on a Sunday, I had published my recent blog about watching guitar effect pedal demonstration videos.  In California, Michael read that blog of mine on a Sunday, and on the following Monday, packed up and shipped this effect pedal to me, and on the following Saturday, five days later – it arrived with the mail here in Scotland.
Now, I was utterly blown away when he gave me the Washburn bass, and no one else has ever just given me a musical instrument before.  But to receive what is basically, a brand new effects pedal (which when queried, he said he wasn’t using it, and he wanted someone to own it who would make good use of it – me) which is just the nicest thing – but it absolutely blows me away, that he would read an article about me lusting after these effects, and just to make me happy, just so I could then own an Earthquaker Devices-manufactured pedal – he pulls one out of thin air and ships it half-way around the world to me!!  That is so thoughtful, so good – I wish I were that generous and that thoughtful!
Unbelievable generosity, and an unbelievable kindness in the thought that “Dave would like this pedal – he could do something good with this” – that just blows me away, and, it’s not like we have been close of recent years, we exchange emails only occasionally, and as happens, we have led pretty separate lives – although we have always remained friends, and we have never fallen out – we’ve always been friends.  I would say, it had probably been a year or more since we had emailed, when this EQD pedal appeared again, totally out of the blue – which absolutely shocked me to the core – what a nice thing to do, what an amazing friend – what a great and kind act – to indulge my desire for endless effects pedals – wow, that is truly amazing.
But I don’t have any other friends that are that astonishingly generous, Michael is the only one who has consistently blown me away with his kindness, thoughtfulness, and his good, good heart – he’s just a good man, a nice chap, and I am proud to know him, proud to call him my friend, proud of him as a fellow musician – he’s a brilliant player – and I would also say, you should absolutely check out some of his music – he’s been sharing his own albums with me from early on, and he makes the most incredible music you have ever heard – you really must try it – it’s amazingly cool.  It’s mostly beyond my comprehension, Michael is a serious composer when compared to me, I just mess about with songs, and improvs, but Michael writes real music, serious music, and I have a huge respect for that.
A few years back, I released a live improv on the internet, which I believe featured energy bow guitar and music created with Brian Eno’s “Scape” application for the ipad. A few days after I released it, Michael released a video of himself, overdubbing a live flute solo and flute part, onto, on top of, my improv !!!
I was then able to share this with people as a collaborative effort (our first, since that attempt at a band – way, way back when) and I was and am, incredibly proud of that little improvised number – and to be honest, I absolutely prefer Michael’s version – to my own. The flute parts and solos that he plays, are just perfect for the improv, and I was so surprised and really pleased that Michael had done this.
That was yet another very kind thing, that he has done – the ultimate compliment, he must have liked the piece quite well if it inspired him to play the flute along with it, so by adding his live flute overdub, he was taking a decent piece of mine, and elevating it to a much, much higher level – I think it succeeds far better with his parts added, than it ever did by itself.  That is the power of Michael Dawson – adaptable, and very adept with a multitude of instruments – I wish I could play half as many different instruments as he does.
I would say that like so many musicians, that Michael is a “musician’s musician” – and I would encourage any of you that are musicians (or not, artists, or anyone, really!), to have a listen to any of Michael’s existing published works – he is a brilliant and intelligent composer, and he creates albums celebrating creatures and features of the natural world that have to be heard to be believed – he excels when it comes to synthesizers, which he often employs in his compositions, but he plays all manner of instruments, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone (in at least two different flavours) and a multitude of others too numerous to mention.
He is a remarkable and talented musician – and I believe, you can also hear him play live on the sort of “jam night” scene near where he lives – I believe he now sits in on saxophone or flute at these live, impromptu musical events.  I envy him that – I am currently not performing – so he is really fortunate to have that musical outlet available to him.
He is also a very creative person, I remember he played one of his new songs (and by that, I mean, what was a “new song”, thirty years ago 🙂 ) for me, and it had a most unusual sounding lead instrument, it sounded slightly Indian or eastern in some way, but I just could not place it, so I said “Michael, what is that instrument that you are playing the main melody with?” and he then revealed what it was – it was his flute – but played through extreme distortion – he’d played it through a fuzz box and it sounded truly out of this world.  So there is really no limit to the creativity that he employs when he creates his solo works, they are full of surprises and I don’t think you can find a more original, progressive, modern composer around – and if that isn’t enough, his love of the music of the late, great Frank Zappa is more than apparent when you hear many of Michael’s pieces – Zappa being the only artist that I could really comfortably compare Michael’s work too – he sounds like he listens to a lot of Zappa.
And that is probably, because he does.  I have always loved the music of Frank Zappa, but I have only ever put my toe into the water, whereas Michael jumped headfirst into the Zappa pool many, many years ago.  And that has paid off, and rubbed off, on the styles of music that he has created over the years – and you couldn’t really ask for a better influence – I’d love to be compared to, or even audibly / heavily influenced by,  Frank Zappa !
Michael turned me on to a whole world of new music, and that changed my life in a good way, and we shared a lot of musical experiences together, everything from just chilling and listening to records, or later, compact discs, to going to the occasional concert together.  His influence on me musically, over the last 35 years or so, has been immense, and I am grateful to him for enriching my musical life by sharing so openly from his vast library of recorded music.  In so very many ways, Michael is a really, really good friend to have – and good friends, they say, are hard to find, and I would imagine – even harder to keep, which is why I feel so blessed and fortunate to have a friend like Michael Dawson – he is one of a kind, a true gentleman, and I am proud to be able to say once again, “my good friend Michael Dawson” as I so often seem to find myself saying whenever I sit down to write about music.
I felt it was high time that he got the recognition he deserves, and this blog is a very public “thank you” to a true gentleman and musical scholar, Mr. Michael P. Dawson. Long may he reign over the flute solo in “Girl From Ipanema”; and any other pieces that he attempts, live or studio, on any instrument – just keep on jamming, Michael !!!

“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.

I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much.  Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions.  After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.

Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band.  Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.

 

Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.

And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.

Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get.  By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.

It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits.  But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.

 

That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue?  Was it really on that day?

Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.

It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.

So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.

Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus.  I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did.  I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.

The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid.  Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.

So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version.  Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.

I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too.  Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.

In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).

So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.

Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track.  This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.

It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.

I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.

But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.

So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band.  I think that is absolutely brilliant!  And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.

I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.

If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other.  if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.

It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”.  The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.

 

 

 

“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

King Crimson – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland – 20150917

This then, is the second of three King Crimson gigs we are attending, the first of two shows at Edinburgh’s lovely old Usher Hall, on September 17th, three days after the first show we attended in Birmingham on 20150914; while boasting a similar set list to the show from the fourteenth, the Usher Hall Edinburgh show had a number of significant differences that are well worth noting.

First of all, is perspective; in Birmingham, we were off to the left side of Symphony Hall, slightly elevated, and back some distance from the stage, whereas in Edinburgh, we were in the stalls in the fourth row – directly in front of Pat’s drum kit with Mel just behind him…not bad at all.  So this time, still to the left but way up close in the stalls – we noticed quite a bit more detail – simply because we were so much nearer.

But first things first, the set list, which was pretty much unchanged from the show three days previous:

Taped Introduction (including the “Islands Rehearsal” snippet from the outro of the “Islands” album – in other words – the standard 2014/2015 Elements Tours taped intros – the “no photos please” vocal montage, followed by “Islands” rehearsal, and finally, the 1971 Voice Of Robert Fripp intoning the count of “1 2 3, 2 2 3″…) – which becomes the count in for:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I

Red

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

Meltdown

The Construction Of Light

Level 5

Hellhounds Of Krim (??)

Pictures Of A City

Epitaph

Easy Money

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

Interlude (Taped audience sounds)

Starless

(Encore – after a well-deserved standing ovation for “Starless”:)

Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (??)

The Court Of The Crimson King

21st Century Schizoid Man

 

Since the set list is essentially identical to the Monday night Birmingham show, I will focus in on differences and details that I observed this time, that I might have overlooked with the excitement of that first show on Monday night; plus, sitting so close at the Edinburgh show, I was able to see the players in incredible detail. My new 10x binoculars helped significantly with this – if I wanted to see in close-up, what notes Robert or Jakko or Tony were playing – the binoculars allowed me to get in really close on the action, and observe chord patterns, note patterns, and playing styles in intense detail. Being in the fourth row gave us a great view of the band, but having the binoculars on top of being so close, gave me super-close up HD Guitar Vision – it was brilliant.

They all played well in Birmingham on Monday, but in Edinburgh last night…they played even better.

There were a couple of mishaps, so I shall get those out of the way, some mysterious mid to low frequency feedback was plaguing the band during “Pictures Of A City”, it was quite persistent and it ran for perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, a low, irritating non-musical tone; the band forged on as if it wasn’t happening, until eventually, the sound man (presumably) quenched it.  It returned again later, I think during Epitaph, for a shorter period of time, but that was the last of it, thankfully.
The beginning of “Easy Money” was slightly marred by an out of tune guitar (Jakko’s, I think) but then turned out fine, in fact for me, it’s a huge highlight because it’s one of the only instances where RF really tries to play a 70’s style Fripp sustained guitar solo, and that solo was a cracker, really beautiful, liquid distortion and cracked Wah pedal action…gorgeous guitar tone from Robert’s Axe FXII.

 

One of the other instances of that beautiful sustained guitar tone is Robert playing the exquisitely beautiful melody of “Starless”, however, at the end of one of those solos, his final bend ended up in a truly bum note – a rarity for Fripp.  Ever the professional, he simply looked at Jakko, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Possibly because we were sat so close to Pat and Mel, I really noticed their playing this time, and I would say that Mel played even more spectacularly amazing sax and flute in Edinburgh, than in Birmingham, where he was awesome.  So better than perfect, really – the solos were so tight, so intense, and he absolutely steals the show with his soloing in “Pictures Of A City”, “The Letters”, “Sailor’s Tale” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” – his playing was absolutely stellar on those tracks in particular, he was consistent and excellent throughout.

Pat – well, what can I say, Pat is the master, and is my personal favourite of the three extraordinary drummers.  His intense, powerful playing on “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” once again, channelling the great Michael Giles…was simply astonishing to witness at close quarters. Pat was amazing throughout the show, and I could really appreciate his contributions to the drumming really well indeed at this particular gig.

And, impressively, this time, we could hear the bass and the Stick, much, much better, so bring able to hear what Tony was playing, better than on Monday night, was great – I particularly love the verve with which he attacks the lolloping bass line of “Sailor’s Tale” – he sounds great at all times, really in tune and doing very musical, very good work on the electric string bass, the Stick, or the bass guitar, Tony always sounded really good.

But then, this is a band where everyone sounds good, all the time, and the amount of care and detail that goes into the band’s sound is truly overwhelming. Just watching the percussion section during the opening number, the incredible 2015 rendition of the 1973 classic “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” is a lesson in musical co-ordination; all three drummers are playing many different percussion instruments to add atmosphere and ambience during the quieter sections, then sitting down simultaneously to come charging in for the heavy metal section.

Watching Pat was a revelation during this, he had clearly studied the original track well, and he picked up a myriad of strange percussion devices, and operated them at certain points in time during the “lulls” in the song – with military precision.  Then that heavy metal section would come up again, with Jakko wailing away on the high, bendy lead guitar notes, Robert, playing the chords (and often, during this concert, that was the case) and the three drummers all come in on the downbeat, and also, end each bar with a cymbal smack – and hearing the three of them, playing their hearts out underneath that ominous set of power chords – just sounded amazing.

“Red” followed immediately, and again, the band was confident, Jakko playing the long, ascending sustained lead guitar line, while Robert handled the chords; Robert played the flanged “stand-alone” chords on the “middle section”, leaving Tony and Jakko, with some assistance from Mel, to handle the beautiful melody that plays over the flanged guitar chords – and then, back into that wonderful E to F# progression, which then finally leads back to the wonderful ascending guitar from Jakko – and Mel joins in for the last few notes, so they both end up on a stretched high note that is held for just the right amount of time…perfection.

I can’t really add a lot to my previous blog’s comments on the “new” songs that appear at this point in the set, although I did find myself liking “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” a bit more than the first time I’d heard it, way back on Monday night – it, and it’s companion, “Meltdown” – are just not as convincing to me as the earlier material is.  And therein lay the difficulty – the repertoire they are playing, spans 1969 – 2003, and includes some of the most incredible of Fripp compositions and other writers’ contributions – the lyrics of Peter Sinfield are a huge part of the tracks that they perform from 1969’s “In The Court Of ‘The Crimson King”, 1970’s “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, and 1971’s “Islands” (sadly, no live versions of anything from 1970’s “Lizard”, the third album) and other contributors such as Adrian Belew, whose guitar parts on “The Construction Of Light” are absolutely brilliant – but, fair dues – Jakko played them just as perfectly and just as beautifully as Adrian ever did – and to be honest, as much as I love the music of Adrian Belew, and I liked his role in King Crimson – I am actually of the belief that Jakko is a better choice, because of his knowledge of the early catalogue, and he’s a fine, serious singer, too.

So I like the fact that Jakko is there, for example, his acoustic guitar emulations on the two quieter tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” are just so spot on, he does the finger picking perfectly WHILE he sings the beautiful Greg Lake vocal melody with beautiful lyrics from Peter Sinfield!  A very beautiful example of multi-tasking – Jakko gives us the acoustic guitar, and the lead vocal, leaving Robert free to play the beautiful lead guitar parts on both “Epitaph” and “The Court Of The Crimson King” – beautiful work from both guitarists.

I am still astonished by the unexpected presence of “Easy Money” in this band’s set list, but there it is, and after a shaky beginning with an out of tune guitar, it quickly turned into one of the best songs of the night, because of Robert‘s amazing 1970s style lead guitar playing, not to mention Jakko’s brilliant vocal, and Tony doing his best to play like John Wetton – and mostly, succeeding at it.  A great rendition of a great song – complete with laughing machine at the end from Pat – just like on the album.

My favourite part of the concert then arrives – the two songs from “Islands”, and again, a delicate, beautiful rendition of “The Letters” with Fripp playing super high octave chords with a beautiful guitar sound, and Jakko playing the other picked part in time, and singing the beautiful, beautiful vocal – one of Boz’s best vocals, I believe – and then, there is an incredibly powerful part, where Robert plays some amazing, super sustained “Frippy” guitar lines, before the song begins to go…a bit mad courtesy of the amazing saxophone skills of Mel Collins, who blows his way through both “The Letters” and the second of the two tracks, which follows immediately, the instrumental “Sailor’s Tale” in astonishing form, with powerful, melody, and grace.

Mel is so amazing on both of these tracks, the accuracy with which he’s tried to re-create the original parts, while at the same time, improving and updating them – it’s just an astonishing effort on his part, and his playing breathes new life into these two songs.  Jakko’s vocal on “The Letters” is possibly my favourite vocal of the night, I love the way he sings this song, right up to the a cappella ending –  which he does just perfectly – a brilliant performance.

Once the band have played “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, two tracks from my personal favourite of the early King Crimson records, I could die happy, but, things progress, and we end up in the beauty of “Starless”, where I must mention the remarkably talented Bill Rieflin, who plays mellotron on so many of these tracks, the accurate arrangements he uses are a testament to how much he cares about getting it right, and the mellotron sounds are perfect, and the playing is perfect – and on “Starless”, it’s so, so beautiful – with Robert‘s amazing, thick sustained lead guitar line, and Mel’s sinuous horn parts snaking in between, it’s a huge highlight of the night, and the excitement of the final section, after the long instrumental build up, is undeniable.

Despite Robert’s unfortunate note in the middle of the verses, this version of “Starless” brought the band to standing position, and, brought the audience to it’s feet as well – and the applause was truly thunderous as we’d just been assaulted by a dozen of some of the most amazing progressive music ever written.  And when the band walk off, the crowd is clapping in rhythm for their return – until they do return, to play us out with the last two offerings, both from that famous debut 1969 album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – the title track, as the penultimate offering, followed by “21st Century Schizoid Man” complete with recorded intro (the “Wind” sessions result) – and this was another great rendition of “Schizoid Man”, with one slight disappointment – I hadn’t really noticed this at Birmingham, but I am definitely sure about it at Edinburgh – there is no guitar solo!

Robert plays the beginning of the original solo, and then does a short descending lead guitar, which is an intentional bridge to Mel, who picks up the notes from Robert, and then takes the solo proper – and Mel is great at this, he always had a solo on “Schizoid Man” back in the day, so he is the perfect player for the job, and this was no exception – he played a blinder.  But then, as the song progressed, there was a drum solo, and then, they came back in to play the “precision section” – which went flawlessly – and then to the last verse and the ending – which was dead silence at the climax of sustained rock-burn-out noise – brilliant!!  The crowd loved it, and it was a great version – but, strangely – no guitar solo.  It worked, it’s great with Mel handling the solo, but I would have loved it if Robert and Mel had each had a solo (as they used to, back in 1972) – but, this is the 2015 arrangement, so I guess that’s how it goes now 🙂

Overall, despite some annoying feedback and the very, very rare issues with the music, this was a really well-played show, and it just makes me look forward to our next and final of three shows, in Utrecht, Holland, on September 24th – I can’t wait !!

One of the things I’ve noticed about previous versions of King Crimson is that, if you listen to a series of concerts over time, you generally speaking, find improvement – parts are played better, arrangements are tweaked and re-saved, and musicians find better and more perfected ways to do things – so, over time, they tend to get better – and I realise I haven’t so far heard much of a series, but I can say, that over the three day period between Monday and Thursday. that there is improvement.

One thing that was easy to observe, was the difference in audience reception. In Birmingham, the applause was not nearly as loud or persistent after the main set, there was no rhythmic clapping to call the band back to the stage, while in Edinburgh, the Scottish crowd were on their feet and shouting for more, applauding really loudly, then, clapping rhythmically – a much much better audience response, which in turn, made the players respond positively – so while in some ways, the Birmingham show might have been more technically “polished”, here in Edinburgh, there was more emotion, more audience interaction, and in the case of one Mr. Mel Collins, some incredibly passionate horn soloing – really beautiful work, just out of this world solos on every track – the man is impossibly talented.  And when Robert Fripp and Mel Collins join forces to solo, one at a time, or together / trading / overlapping solos – it just rocks.

Both concerts had high points and low points, but I felt that the Edinburgh show was more relaxed, with a much more receptive audience, so at least in that sense, it was a “better” show – but in my mind – both of these concerts were absolutely remarkable musical experiences, once- in-a-lifetime – except, I get to see it three times in a life time 🙂

 

 

See you at Utrecht on the 24th !!!!

Happy Krimsoning !!

 

 

Dave

 

 

 

 

universe of sound (the komplete world)

after forty-odd years in the music business, we decided at the start of this new year, that we would acquire a software suite called komplete 9 ultimate for use at the pureambient studio. the software comes from a remarkable german company called “native instruments”, who are truly the masters of sampling technology – and a few other things, too –

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – OVERVIEW & PRE-APOLOGY

 

this acquisition was intended to fill a few glaring omissions in our capabilities, such as proper strings, horns, basses, percussion, and so on, as well as providing the main elements for extending the classical music that we began releasing last year on the eternal album “classical”. this tool will allow for a speedier construction of classical pieces, rather than relying on the more piecemeal approach used on my first piece of classical music, “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar” – which was constructed almost line by line, using nothing but a guitar synthesizer.

 

as well as supporting classical music over the coming years, komplete 9 ultimate is also a natural for, and is eminently suited for, the production of music for films, which is another area that we hope to expand into over the coming years. this acquisition also bolsters the worlds of ambient music, as well as pop, rock, funk, jazz, and countless others – it’s hugely supporting in all genres, especially ambient.

 

we’ve only been using it for a short while, but already, we can see the enormous potential that this software suite has for adding quality sounds to the pieces that we create here.   and, it’s infinitely expandable, too, native instruments have purchased third party sound libraries and bundled them into komplete 9 ultimate, but you can also purchase other third party programs which you can play using komplete 9 ultimate “kontakt” sample player. so we will also be looking to acquire some of the best ambient libraries, which will also greatly expand our capability.

 

before I speak more specifically about what komplete 9 ultimate can do musically, I’d like to apologise to all early adopters and those who own komplete 9 ultimate or “kontakt” or both, I freely admit I am an absolute novice, I’ve been studying the suite in detail, learning the processes, slowly, over the past few weeks, and I do have a basic understanding in principle for most of what can be done with komplete 9 ultimate.   forgive me in advance if I say anything that shows just what a rookie I am at this, or I otherwise put my foot in my mouth – learning something like this can be a somewhat slow and painful process, even more painful when you are no longer young as I am. and – komplete 9 ultimate users – feel free to jump in and correct me, or offer advice or expand on anything I mention here – we are all of us learning at all times…and it’s best to share such knowledge freely.

 

my friend and collaborator ken mistove, my partner in saffron matted voids (the band), is a long time “komplete” user (I am talking about really long time – ten years! – and he has been doing electronic / digital music for longer still), and he warned me that I would be overwhelmed by this program – and, he could not have been more correct. in fact, weeks after it’s arrival, I continue to find more and more incredibly well-thought-out functionality, as well as becoming familiar with the synthesizers and the sample content. and it is almost totally overwhelming – it seems, almost, as if there is nothing this device cannot do…everywhere I turn, everywhere I look, I find something else that makes my jaw drop…

 

 

 

KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – THOSE AMAZING SYNTHESIZERS

 

[ULTIMATE INDEED!]

 

 

so – where do I begin?   well, when it came down to it, even though I was incredibly excited about the sample library, and the sample player (which allows multiple instances of many, many instruments in one session – I had fourteen instruments loaded into a session yesterday, and the software coped beautifully) – it was the synthesizers that I gravitated to initially – because, perhaps, I knew they would be easy to set up and use – familiar. before we purchased komplete 9 ultimate, I had read in detail about the synths, so I couldn’t wait to hear them in person – and I was right about the ease of set up and ease of use: within seconds, I was up and running with “absynth”, a personal favourite synth that seems to favour ambient and atmospheric sounds.

 

but “absynth” is a drop in the bucket, a handful of stars in this incredible universe of sound, and while it features hundreds and hundreds of truly beautiful preset sounds, it’s just one of nine synthesizer models built into komplete. the entire list of available synths looks like this:

 

  • absynth
  • fm8
  • massive
  • monark
  • razor
  • skanner xt
  • reaktor (modular synth system – containing many synths)
  • reaktor prism
  • reaktor spark
  • retro machines (which contains no less than 20 classic synthesizer instruments within)

 

so far, I’ve only truly managed to hear and use five of these synths, absynth, fm8, massive, reaktor prism, and retro machines, but even so, I’ve been utterly impressed with the build quality and the amazing attention to detail – this is precision german engineering like we used to have back in the 60s and 70s!

 

I have created a few test pieces in absynth (consequentially falling in love with it); I created an entire suite of 23 pieces using the fm8 synthesizer dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, I’ve created one very complex ambient piece (which is incredibly atmospheric) using massive “wanders down to the sea”, and for fun, I’ve played some of the classic organs, electric pianos, etc. in “retro machines” – “synths within a synth” which is a strange way of working, but I am getting used to it 🙂

 

in every case, the attention to detail, and the extremely fine level of control over sound in every one of these synths, has been overwhelming and most, most welcome. I have a lot of soft synths, but this collection of nine software synths kind of…blows away the competition, and as my friend ken mistove also said: “you will never need to buy another instrument” – and I can already see the truth in that.

 

while I might not “need” to, of course, there will still be some cases where I will “want” to – I am especially interested in some of the available third party ambient sample libraries, but that will have to wait – in the meantime, I have an awful lot to learn and trial just with the komplete 9 ultimate package itself.

 

after my initial very positive experience of playing and using “absynth”, I moved on to “massive”, and I decided to lay out and record a track using four instances of “massive”, each set to a different sound – and I then did a somewhat clever arrangement where I muted sections of each track, to allow other parts to shine through, creating a sort of ever-changing mood – a dark mood, with the sound of wind and seagulls crying and a vision of a bleak, grey storm-tossed day – again, I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could set up four instances in my host (my somewhat antiquated SONAR 8.5) and it coped beautifully – no problem.

 

I also created a short ambient piece within “reaktor”, using the “reaktor prism” synth; a portion of this track remains, entitled “fragment of a lonely molecule” – a truly beautiful sounding synth, which I plan to revisit often and use much, much more…

 

encouraged by the success of “wanders down to the sea” in “massive”, I then turned my attention to “fm8”, in which I created a whole series of tracks (“the rings of saturn”) from “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths”, as well as some arranged “suites” where I took a set of smaller files and mixed them into long, linear sequences – providing a blended view of the basic tracks, as opposed to the individual view of each piece.

 

a few hours later, I realised I had created no less than 23 tracks using “fm8”, and I am so enamoured of this synth, it has a lot of great, visceral sounds, and a lot of charming, melodic, or dissonant, or strangely jazzy, arpeggiators, and the sheer range of voices available within fm8 is mind-boggling. It was a fun session, and as such, I made the decision to create two eternal albums for komplete: one for “komplete synths” (LINK) and one for komplete samples (LINK).   These have both been up and running for a couple of months now, and while the “komplete synths” album has a reasonable number of tracks, I’ve been very slow to create using the “samples” – but, I will get there, I will – I just need time! 🙂

 

the 23 tracks made with “fm8” and the one piece made with “massive” “wanders down to the sea”, are all uploaded to the “dave stafford – music for pcs: komplete synths” eternal album. I plan on working with each of the synths in turn, and uploading the results, so you can hear what each one of these remarkable sound creation tools can do. If I have my way, by the end of this year, the “komplete synths” eternal album, will have dozens of tracks made with a myriad number of available synths – and I hope I can just keep creating and creating – those are 9 amazing synths, each a master of the domain it covers, and I can’t wait to create more music with all of them – the synthesizers built-in to komplete 9 ultimate are absolutely brilliant!

 

THE HIDDEN GEM WITHIN KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE – GUITAR RIG 5

before I continue on to the samples section, I must not forget to mention one of the biggest selling points of komplete 9 ultimate, for me, which is the presence of “guitar rig 5 pro” – I had been underwhelmed by an earlier version of guitar rig, which I got bundled with SONAR, “guitar rig 3”, so I’ve now uninstalled that and I am using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead.

 

what a difference. the preset library is vastly improved, and the range of effects, and the flexibility provided in setting them up in the rack, are simply astonishing – to me, this is one of the most important pieces of guitar software to come along. so after working with the synths, purely for fun, I recorded a handful of pieces using “guitar rig 5 pro” – and I am more than impressed with the sound quality and the presets – it’s an awesome and powerful guitar amp and speaker cabinet emulator, and it has a huge range of high quality guitar effects as well. a couple of these pieces may see the light of day, but they were mostly for reference, and just a way of trialling certain patches and sounds.

 

this is now to the point, since “guitar rig 5 pro” is clearly superior to many guitar processing devices in both the hardware AND the software arena – I am at the point, where I can now happily retire my ailing “line 6 x3 live” hardware pedalboard guitar effects processor, which is now basically redundant (it has served me very well since 2008, but it’s now time to be retired at long last).

 

because I can pretty much re-create every sound in the line 6 using “guitar rig 5 pro” instead, and more – so that’s actually a blessing – no more effects on the floor (although I will always have my faithful “output chain” of hardware effects, harmonizer, delay, reverb at the end of my signal chain) I believe I will now use “guitar rig 5” for most of my guitar sounds, and anything it can’t handle, I can program into my gr-55 guitar synth – so guitars, and guitar signal processing – are covered! and I mean…covered.

 

it’s always very difficult, because over time, you have various tools that you use to record guitar or synths with, and eventually, better tools come along. and, you can run both old and new, that’s not an issue, if you want to – but my preference is to keep effects units down to a dull roar – so I am going to TRY to retire the line 6 x3 live – I mean, it is six years old, which in dog years, is, I don’t know, 70 years or something – and technology has moved along SO FAR since the X3 Live was designed…

 

so for the first week of my fledgling native instruments life, I learned about the synthesizers and I learned how to run “guitar rig 5 pro” – and that was a huge amount to learn, but, I have the basics down, and I can rely on both the set of nine included synthesizers (plus 20 more vintage instruments within “retro machines mk II”) and the extremely impressive “guitar rig 5 pro” interface. I could have gone on working with the synths and guitar rig for weeks and weeks, but I wanted then to shift gears and look at the sampling capabilities of “komplete”.

 

SAMPLING – THE HEART AND SOUL OF KOMPLETE ULTRA

[REAL INSTRUMENT SOUNDS – AT LAST!]

 

the list of sample-based instruments is even more impressive than the list of synthesizers:

 

  • kontakt – the main user interface / sample player for all sampled instruments:

 

kontakt is a very powerful environment, that allows you to load multiple instruments (built by native instruments, and many other vendors as well), which can then be routed either each to their own output (for maximum recording flexibility) or they can be routed to various stereo or mono sub-mixes – really, whatever your heart desires. you can save overall “presets” in kontakt itself, so if you hit upon a winning combination, say, “abbey road drums 1960s” and “scar-bee rickenbacker bass” and “guitar rig 5” you can save that configuration, including whatever output configurations you have, as well as the specific settings of each device – to a kontakt “preset” – for easy recall / re-use..

 

another positive aspect of the kontakt sample player is it’s ability to play not just native instrument plug-in instruments, but also, instruments made by third party vendors such as soniccouture, waves, scar-bee, g-force, and many, many others.

 

each instrument that is loaded into your kontakt session, also has a page for it’s settings, where you can choose instrument presets, adjusting the sound of the instrument until you are happy with it – then, you save your changes – then, you save your kontakt preset – and all of the instrument settings are saved as part of your “overall” kontakt saved preset – fantastic. so you can create very complex presets, that contain your favourite instruments, set just the way you want them, which can be recalled instantly in any combination – it’s absolutely outstanding.

 

here is the seemingly never-ending list of sampled instruments that come with komplete 9 ultimate.

 

  • action strings
  • session horns
  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • evolve
  • session strings pro
  • evolve mutations
  • evolve mutations 2
  • battery 4
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa (a personal favourite)
  • balinese gamelan (another personal favourite)
  • maschine drum selection
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • rammfire
  • scarbee jay-bass
  • the giant
  • vintage organs
  • alicia’s keys
  • george duke soul treasures
  • scarbee a-200 electric piano
  • scarbee mark I electric piano
  • scarbee clavinet/pianet
  • berlin concert grand piano
  • new york concert grand piano
  • vienna concert grand piano
  • upright piano

 

bear in mind that each one of the above instruments, has a broad range of “presets” giving you as many different optional sounds for each instrument as is possible, “muted”, “picked”, “fingered”, and so on – so it’s not just a “rickenbacker bass” – it’s a rickenbacker bass that can be configured from anything such as a very timid, high pitched highly eq’d clean bass sound, to various much louder presets that emulate different sounds that this bass is capable of, and that includes both DI and “amped” sounds, so you get an enormous range of flexibility with every instrument listed above!

 

as explained elsewhere, those settings can be saved as part of a kontakt “preset”, so you could have one set up with a super clean, thin sounding Ricky bass, and another with a very distorted Ricky played through an emulated British amp – two EXTREMELY different “bass guitar” sounds from the same instrument.

 

In the classical world, the options are of course, much different to the options for a rock instrument, so for violins, you would have a huge range of various playing styles or articulations, legato, staccato, pizzicato, and so on – and just about any kind of articulation you can imagine, including some rather obscure ones, and also, it’s incredible to get these precision articulations, and of course, as with all quality samplers, there are also extreme velocity choices, so that you can emulate the velocity that you would apply to the real instrument, on the keys of your keyboard instead. all of these options are on every instrument where they exist, although some instruments may have just a handful of possible presets or articulations, others may have dozens – maximum real-life playability issues have been addressed as much as humanly possible.

 

 

…not to mention a massive range of high quality software effects and audio processing tools included in komplete 9 ultimate:

 

  • solid EQ
  • solid bus compressor
  • solid dynamincs stereo compressor
  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • vari comp compressor
  • enhanced EQ Equaliser
  • passive EQ Equaliser
  • transient master Equaliser
  • driver distortion unit
  • VC76 FET compressor/limiter
  • VC2A electro-optical compressor/limiter
  • VC160 drum compressor
  • the finger – live performance and remix tool
  • the mouth – generates melodies and harmonies from any audio input
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect

 

 

for full details, have a look at the product page on the native instruments site:

and here is the effects page on the native instruments site:

 

 

my first foray into the world of sampled instruments was a piece I created using various sampled elements, entitled “the giant’s causeway”, which contains three sections:

 

1)     “the giant prelude” features “the giant” cinematic instrument (a cinematic / orchestrator / ambient piano kind of sample set) – I played one take, which was best, and that became “the giant prelude” – perfection.

 

2)     “allegro in a minor” features “action strings” (which include moving passages of strings created with an “animator” function – which is truly awe inspiring)

 

3)     “giants on the causeway” following, the third and final section of the piece; features a manually played drum part;/ the scarbee “rickenbacker bass”; and a truly beautiful flute and strings mellotron sample, plus a short solo on a vintage organ.

 

“the giant” instrument just blew me away, I did a take one take of a sort of reverse piano strings/unknown kind of sample, and it came out totally usable – in one take!!! I will absolutely be revisiting this instrument, and I could see creating large, ambient compositions using JUST this instrument.

 

once “the giant” section was recorded, I added in the “action strings” instrument, and spent quite some time writing and laying out a short violin quartet piece in the key of a minor. note: this is where the “staff” view in SONAR becomes invaluable!) while short in duration, the SOUND is amazing, it sounds so incredibly real (because, let’s face it – it IS real!) because of the use of the strings animator – which gives you real “sections” or “passages” of bowed strings – in a significant number of styles, legato, staccato, pizzicato and more. this section took me a while to complete, but eventually, I did finish it to my satisfaction.

 

the third part of this unfinished piece was a rickenbacker bass line, set against some manually played drums, finished off with a live mellotron take, flutes and strings – plus a short solo on a vintage organ – and I have to say, the scarbee rickenbacker samples are out of this world – there’s even a “british” setting which gives you a roaring live distorted chris squire sound that just blows you away. even on the clean settings, this instrument screams “I am an authentic ricky bass” – and the distorted scarbee bass part just SOUNDS amazing…

 

this piece remains unfinished, but I always considered it as a test piece, a learning curve, a learning tool, a learning experience. I did rough mixes, and kept the three sections separately as demos, but I don’t believe that this piece will be published, but if it does, it would definitely be “the giant” piece, possibly the string quartet, and doubtful, probably NOT the rickenbacker section…which SOUNDS great (especially the distorted ricky bass line!), but wasn’t (necessarily) a great piece of music…

 

so “the giant’s causeway” went onto the shelf, however, since it was my very first piece (beyond playing a few synths) – proper piece – done with komplete – I was happy enough with it. I learned…

 

I will very, very probably attempt the piece again; I would retain the original part one, since it’s a live, take one, that is basically flawless, I would rebuild and expand the string section, and completely revamp the “prog trio” of drums, bass and mellotron/organ at the end. so – I am keeping the shelved demo as a reference…for now.

 

I then turned to an instrument that I was very, very curious about, “west africa” – I lived in east africa for four years, and learned to appreciate african music back then (especially congolese music) so having high quality samples of african instruments was a very exciting prospect to me.

 

I first constructed a “duet” of two koras; one, playing midi patterns emulating a rhythmic picking cycle, and another kora, where I played melodies “free hand” on top of the moving background. I did two takes, both of which I enjoy, but since I am not entirely happy with the melodic content on either (although the second take is actually quite good) I have also shelved those – and since then, much more recently, I sat down again with the kora duet template, and create a third piece, another kora duet, entitled “the heart of africa” – and this take, I think is quite decent – and I thoroughly enjoyed working with these amazing sounds.

 

I plan to practice on all of the west african instruments, and I hope to arrange more complex pieces of music involving west african drums, flutes and stringed instruments…a side project that will keep me busy for years! I would never have dreamed that I would have a sideline in african music one day – but I will, because I love african music, and the more I work on it, the better I will get at emulating it…

 

after the two shelved kora duets, which were followed very recently by the successful kora duet, I then turned to my first use of “multi” instruments, and, with the invaluable assistance of ken mistove, I eventually learned and understood how to create multiple instruments within a single instance of kontakt – and once I “got” that, I could sit down and attempt a full on piece of sampled music.

 

I randomly selected a preset “multi” instrument from the evolve mutations instrument, and it proceeded to load 12 instruments that created one of the most atmospheric, eerie “drum kits” I have ever heard.

 

it took a couple of tries, but eventually, I got a good quality drum track, and then I turned to the other instruments. a proper bass part was in order, so I loaded up the scarbee pre-bass (amped version) and got a nice, full bass sound – recorded a bass part to go with the drum part – and again, very impressed with the scarbee instruments, they seem to do a very good job of getting the authentic sound of classic instruments sampled to perfection – the “pre” bass (i.e. based on the classic fender precision bass guitar) is another one that is of the highest quality, as the scarbee rickenbacker bass samples are as well – Native Instruments has scooped up two fantastic bass instruments from scarbee, and it’s a great acquisition – I hope they adopt more scar-bee products, I really do.

 

finally, I worked at overlaying a section of grand piano, courtesy of the “george duke soul treasures” instrument, an absolutely stunning set of riffs recorded on grand piano, electric piano, organ and other keyboards – and all simply classic – great sounding samples!

 

in this case, I actually reached the maximum possible number of instrument that can be crammed into one “kontakt” session – so once again, familiar theme emerging…I abandoned the piece unfinished – again. in order to complete it, I will need to mix down the drums and bass together from the unfinished session, and move to a new session to overdub many george duke piano samples atop the pre-mixed (bounced) bass and drums – and at that moment, I didn’t feel like going through that process.

 

instead, I set it aside, and I moved on to my next test piece, my next “komplete” learning experience.   I wanted very much to try the “session horns”, so I built a short introductory piece, entitled “softly, softly we go”, which featured a group of horns, in a nice reverb room, with a “soft” instrument setting, playing a mock classical theme – a lovely sound, and as far as it goes – a good intro or lead-in piece to some larger production.

 

to follow the horn intro, I wanted a drum track, using the abbey road 60s drummer (because I wanted to learn how to compose drum tracks) so using this instrument, I built a nice long drum part, with various sections, and some fancy fills, and I have to say, although completely unadorned, it’s one of my best pieces yet.

 

finally, I sat down and re-made my kora duet, creating a much better backing track, and, hopefully, performing better melodic lead parts atop the pattern generator rhythms.   that, “the heart of africa”, and my unadorned abbey road 1960s drum part, is where I am right now with sampled instruments – and using kontakt to create drum parts, using the abbey road 60s drummer – could not have been easier – in short order, I had the process down, to where I could build an intelligent, varied and interesting drum part quite quickly – the whole thing took less than an hour.

 

but – the piece remains unfinished, again, I have kept two separate demos, one of “softly, softly we go” – my gentle, quiet horn intro – and another of the untitled-so- it’s-called “abbey road drums 1960s” aka “run into town – run 1” for reference, I hope to probably re-make the horn part, make it more concise, and create more space in it, and of course, I then need to decide what goes on top of my beautiful, recorded in abbey road studio no. 2 drums. sigh… (note: eventually, of course, a Rickenbacker bass part went on top of the drum part – and then, a host of live energy bow guitars…),

I also had an absolute blast doing a bass solo with the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, “amber waves of grain” – over 10 minutes of sheer Rickenbacker tone.

another aspect of komplete 9 ultimate is the undeniable fact that it is making certain instruments and software, no longer useful, it is literally making them redundant – as komplete can do the job more easily, with better samples, with a mature GUI (kontakt) than earlier third party apps can, or, better than older hardware effects can L.

 

so in this case, for example, while I will probably install my old drum machine software, which is called “BFD2” (this was utilised heavily during the making of “gone native”), I will only do so, so I can see and use the drum kits / samples it contains – which I would use via kontakt within komplete – NOT through the much more difficult to learn, and use, BFD GUI.

 

in a way, I really don’t NEED BFD any more, because I have several sampled kits from abbey road studios, plus, I have “battery 4” and a few other percussion based instruments – there is functionality and samples far beyond what BFD offers. so as I say, I would still use their kits (which sound great) but not their interface J.

 

so, if I am honest, komplete has made the following software and hardware items redundant:

 

redundant software:

 

bfd2 drum machine software + sonar’s session drummer 3 drum machine software – replaced by:

 

  • damage (industrial and orchestral, cinematic drums and percussion)
  • battery 4 (massive drum machine / sample player, with many, many drum kits)
  • abbey road vintage drummer
  • abbey road 60s drummer
  • abbey road 70s drummer
  • abbey road 80s drummer
  • abbey road modern drummer
  • studio drummer
  • west africa
  • balinese gamelan
  • maschine drum selection

 

note: both bfd2 and session drummer 3 are still available to use, either by using their kits from komplete / kontact, or by using their own GUIs if desired – but, not sure I would ever use either again given the list above.

 

redundant hardware:

 

 

line 6 “x3 live” guitar effects pedalboard – replaced by: guitar rig 5 pro, plus, sampled guitars and basses:

 

  • guitar rig 5 pro
  • rammfire
  • scarbee rickenbacker bass
  • scarbee funk guitarist
  • scarbee mm-bass and mm-bass amped
  • scarbee pre-bass and pre-bass amped
  • scarbee jay-bass

 

 

 

“digitech” TSR24-S hardware 24 bit reverb unit – replaced by:

 

  • rc-48 reverb
  • rc-24 reverb
  • reflecktor high performance reverb effect
  • galbarnum breeze 2C reverb (reverb plug-in for SONAR) – additional reverb choice “outside” of komplete itself
  • all four of these reverbs can be “called” from within SONAR, so it’s very, very useful to have access to these high quality effects, even for improving content that was not created in komplete 🙂

 

plus

 

  • eventide “space” hardware reverb – this is part of a permanent installation of three hardware four hardware effects that sit at the “end” of my mixer output chain – so, the final stereo output of the mixer, goes directly to these four hardware plug ins, and THEN to the sound card.

 

I’ve learned over time, that certain effects sound best in “front” (so just after the guitar, as part of your mix, occupying two or three stereo pairs on the mixer) while other effects work best “after” the mixer (such as pitch units, delay units, and absolutely, reverb units).

 

so, reluctant as I am to do so, it’s probably time to retire the “digitech”, and rely on the three high quality reverb units within komplete 9 ultimate – as well as galbanum’s 2c “breeze” reverb software – which in itself, was and is probably a replacement for the ancient tired “digitech” rack mount 24 bit reverb, not to mention the eventide “space”, which again, in itself, is probably a replacement / improvement over the digitech.

 

In a perfect world, I’d love to just run everything, and in some respects, I have been doing so, I’ve certainly kept a number of hardware devices running that I have replaced several times over – so I have to bite the bullet now, and actually remove the older, noisier technology, and whether I will or not, it seems that software synths and software effects are gradually taking over my set up, which is actually not unwelcome, and I hope that this summer, when the studio is moving, I can re-arrange the studio to support a less-hardware dependent sonic environment.

 

Purchasing komplete 9 ultimate gives us a lot of that software, bleeding edge software synths and effects, awesome high quality samples, and other factors, such as the emergence of very sophisticated applications for the ipad tablet and also, for the PC. In future, I will probably end up using a very hybrid system, were some tracks are created on the ipad (and eventually, too, mastered and mixed – tools have emerged…), and then moved into komplete, and then mastered and mixed in SONAR and/or komplete and/or Adobe Audition (where I do a lot of my simpler mastering now). The fact that I can do these processes in multiple “places” gives us an enormous amount of choice, it’s absolutely fantastic what can be accomplished.

 

Other tracks would be created wholly on the PC, using PC software only to create, master, and mix them.   Still others would involve the use of “real” instruments, guitar, synthesizer, keyboard, kaoss pad, percussion, etc. which can be processed through software packages such as “guitar rig 5” and also, the studio quality effects within komplete 9 ultimate. The RC-24 and RC-48 reverb units are especially absolutely lovely, they sound great, and I am really enjoying them.

 

The appearance of a massive army of music applications on the apple ipad, has changed forever the way I make music. Over the past few months, I’ve been scoring classical, acoustic guitar, and alternative music using a notation application called “notion” – and I can see myself exporting tracks from notion, and then importing them into komplete, to add the highest quality sampled instruments to the basic instrumentation created by my original score on the ipad.

 

I will absolutely be using a combination of pieces:

 

  • music created wholly on the iPad (which WILL include guitar and loop work, not just synthesizers – thanks to some truly quality guitar applications such as BIAS, Ampkit+, and GuitarTone)

 

  • music created using the ipad and my guitar or guitar synth

 

 

  • music created entirely on the PC, not utilising any ipad applications, the kaoss pad, or any “physical instruments” such as guitar or bass

 

  • music created using the ipad, the korg kaossilator, my guitar or guitar synth, bass guitar, live keyboards courtesy of various software synths, and anything else I can throw into the mix

 

(I call this last one the “all instruments” set up – it allows me to use, in a completely live setting, guitar, keyboards, kaoss pad, ipad, and of course, a lot of effects units, including loopers). The looper captures the live performance, and the output of the looper is optionally run through the pitch pedal, the delay, and the reverb (my standard set of output live hardware effects pedals), and finally recorded in SONAR.

 

The arrival of application-based music meant that my record-keeping was really thrown askew, because you can create so much amazing music so quickly with applications, I realised early on, I would need a special forum to create them in, so before things got out of hand, I split my recorded music collection into two distinct areas:

 

Music Dave Stafford – the traditional home of most traditional recordings, anything involving real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, and looping thereof – which may also include the occasional ipad or kaoss pad in a guest starring role – they are not banned, it’s just this is the home of more traditional instrumentation.

 

App-Based Dave Stafford – there is a folder for each app, containing both sessions and finished product, I am so glad I did this now, because now whenever I complete any piece in an app, I have a specific place to store it, from which to upload to Bandcamp, or Soundcloud, or to my website – or for whatever purpose I need it for.

 

This means that any very hybrid music, that crosses over between these two broad categories, I’ve chosen to move that kind of music into the “Music Dave Stafford” folder, because it contains the real instruments, which is really the main characteristic of the music in this folder – the presence of real instruments, played in real time or looped.

 

The arrangement is working well so far, I am not surprised by how many app folders I already have, and as time goes on, there will just be more and more, but I think that’s brilliant – and the emergence of more and more sophisticated application music creation tools, is almost irreversibly moving me more towards app-based music – my next eternal album is focussed on one of my more recent app acquisitions – the iVCS3 , a perfect replica of the 1969 beast of a synth that powered the sound of early roxy music and early king crimson – one of the first truly sophisticated modular synths, and the application version is uncanny for it’s realism – it’s a fantastic, primitive, visceral, wonderful device that spits and fires, drones and warbles, and has a fantastic set of pre-sets, too – including the famous never-ending synth pattern of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” – and it’s very, very odd to hear that playing on your ipad, from an emulation of the device it was originally created on!   The makers have included the Who session as a preset – amazing!

 

I’ve been playing the iVCS3 recently, and I have recorded a number of tracks, which while not quite ambient, I am happy enough to give them the name “drones” – so, some elements of ambient, then, but, some other, harsher elements too.

 

I believe I recorded about a dozen tracks, a few of which turned out to be somewhat substandard (clearly a beginner with the device, you can’t win them all!) but I believe that about eight tracks have survived and are some cracking representations of what this amazing synthesizer is capable of. I’ve mastered three of the tracks, and I hope to work on the rest this weekend, with a view to get the album posted before Monday – that’s my hope, difficult to say if I really will make that date – I shall try.

 

The pieces recorded are simply remarkable, no thanks to me, my involvement is minimal, but, I did need to be involved, it’s strange, in that when you “play” the iVCS3, you don’t often really use the keys, you more often use the knobs to create variation of a running theme. I was very intent on getting some excellent tracks out of the device, so I very, very carefully and very gingerly turned knobs, until I understood what each one did…and then I felt free enough to really experiment, so I really branched out on the last few numbers, which were all longer-running pieces, one of them extending to over ten minutes.

 

So I have momentarily, turned away from working with komplete, but that’ not to say I have stopped, in any way – it’s my intent to work with komplete as much as my schedule with allow me – and my first goal, is to take a complete bass and drum track, that I did a lot of work on, and see if I can create a proggy version of it, complete with precision prog guitaring – that is my goal for this piece. So komplete is waiting for me, and as soon as I get back to it, you can expect a slow but constant stream of music, of many, many kinds and styles, to be built with the remarkable toolset available within komplete 9 ultimate – an awe-inspiring piece of music software that if you had told me about it 20 years ago, I would not have believed you, I would have said it was impossible for such a thing to exist, on a computer…

 

But – exist it does – and we really wanted to step up a bit, and have the capacity and ability to create a much, much broader range of sounds than we previously had available – and the nine synths and the many, many sampled instruments within Komplete, gives us just that! And – the future – there are many amazing instruments available that will run in Kontakt, so we do plan to pick up some of them over time – the first acquisition will be a very special tool, meant to bolster the ambient sampling capability of the studio – soniccouture’s remarkable “geosonics” instrument.

 

This remarkable third-party instrument, which runs in kontakt without issue, manufactured by soniccouture, is comprised of four different musical “sections”, each one representing a season, and many of the sounds have been sampled from nature, all over the world, and compiled into this unique instrument – and some of the “combinations” of sounds they have created are truly remarkable. So I have “geosonics” on my wish list…and I also have a large number of other third party instruments that I would love to add to my sample player set up 🙂

 

In any case, I cannot recommend native instruments highly enough; who have patiently worked on kontakt, reaktor, and all the instruments that plug into them; and Guitar Rig, one of the most amazing software guitar processing packages I have ever seen –and their choice of subcontractors, i.e. companies that have created unique and very special instruments, which native instruments have added to their product offering to make it more attractive. That includes but is not necessarily limited to Soniccouture (whose “gamelan” instrument is included in komplete 9 ultimate – one of my favourite instruments so far – have a listen to my gamelan-created track “bird of paradise”), Scarbee, who make the amazing “rickenbacker bass” instrument (and several other bass and guitar emulations, too!) – which you can hear on “run into town – run 1” or “run into town – run 2”– that thing is just so amazing sounding, completely authentic, and when you couple it with a high quality sampled drum track, it sounds completely real – because of course, it IS completely real.

 

That…is the beauty of sampled instruments. They are real ! Therefore…they SOUND real.   Which is a good thing 🙂

 

on the road to red…

Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.

Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.

The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen!  It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.

now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.

It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.

There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.

I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night.  Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.

Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…

And sometimes, what happens is remarkable.  There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.

For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.

Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”.  This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”.  The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.

Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.

But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music. 

And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !!  It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.

I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.

Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions.  You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.

The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).

That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows.  So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record.  It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.

For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set.  Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.

This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade.  it’s starless…and bible black.

I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.

Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.

I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).

It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly.  “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂

I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”.  Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.

All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.

I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened.  Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play.  And play – he does.  With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.

Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing.  They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that.  The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !

But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.

You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.

Available in fine music shops everywhere.

leave it to robert fripp

leave it to robert fripp.  only fripp could do this.

since 1968, robert fripp has produced some of the most consistently challenging, musically advanced work of the modern age of rock music.  musicians have marvelled at his guitar playing in a huge range of very different settings: as de facto leader and muse of the great king crimson; as tape-recorder experimenter buddy of the remarkable brian eno; as the guitar-sparring partner of andy summers; as the leader of an amazing 1980 “dance band” called “the league of gentlemen”; as the secret weapon of david bowie on various tracks from the “berlin years”…the list goes on and on, fripp’s own solo records, many of which feature him on “soundscapes”, meaning, fripp, a guitar, and whatever guitar / looping system he has on at that moment, to the remarkable “exposure” (in it’s many, many guises) with it’s many, many singers and crop of amazing songs…the list just goes on and on…even in the strange late 60’s trio “giles, giles, and fripp” – robert fripp played a lot of really very remarkable guitar on the band’s odd records – their one official release, and the more recent and very interesting “the brondesbury tapes”…

…fripp was also the onboard lead guitarist (remarkably, sharing that role with michael brook) in the absolutely underrated “sylvian / fripp” (as the name hints, a collaboration between fripp and japan leader david sylvian) – and the even more obscure yet fascinating “sunday all over the world” – fripp’s first of two bands that feature his wife, toyah wilcox, on vocals…and all the while, many, many versions of “king crimson” would form and dissolve, form and dissolve…

some of these releases, are “division one” releases, large scale, well marketed, well received – others, more low key, or “division two” releases, but no less significant for that.  it didn’t matter how much or how little media fanfare accompanied any particular fripp or fripp-related release; you knew, if a new album came out from robert fripp, say, entitled “a blessing of tears” – that it was going to be good – really good.  over time, based on your very real experience – you recognise that works by this artist, are generally, works of great quality.

and somewhere amidst all of this work, amidst all of these remarkable and interesting collaborations, amidst the ongoing work with king crimson – the most incredible, most astonishing release of all appeared, with no fanfare whatsoever – and I am not really sure just how many people know about it.

this is what fripp has done – he’s released a masterwork, a really, really important work – one of the earliest examples of the use of looping on stage – with almost no fanfare whatsoever.  to my mind, that’s similar to miles davis releasing “sketches of spain” but not mentioning it to anyone; just letting a few fans discover it, but not really bothering to acknowledge that it’s a key work in his canon – one of the best albums he ever produced.

THAT is what fripp has done – basically, he has released the best (guitar) album he has ever done, bar none, without really mentioning it to anyone !

I was late to it – I found out about it by accident, months after it was released.  I immediately downloaded it, all of it, and set out to listen to it.  thirteen hours later – I was still reeling from the shock of just how perfect, just how beautiful, just how intense, this amazing release truly is.

I am speaking, of course, about the frippertronics tour of europe, which kicked off on may 7, 1979 in amsterdam and completed in madrid on june 1, 1979 (although no recording exists for that show – the last recorded show being the may 29th show from zurich, switzerland – we think) and these 15 long, live frippertronics looping performances – are simply staggering in their scope, diversity and incredible beauty. overpowering beauty, musical intensity of a kind you rarely, rarely ever get to hear or witness – loop music as it was in the beginning. (and shall be, looping without end, amen, forever).

leave it to robert fripp to release 15 mind-bogglingly good shows of live frippertronics, after allowing them to sit, unreleased for decades – all that time – I had assumed that the tapes did not exist, were not viable, or had just been lost or forgotten – but, they were handed to alex mundy, dgm’s resident necromancer, and alex has lovingly restored the solos to the loops, the lectures to the looping…  there are a few remaining bits of robert’s spoken portions, in one or two of these shows, but this is mostly just guitar, guitar and more guitar – heaven for someone like myself – as it was seeing fripp play at tower records that made me want to become a looper – which I did, about a decade later – and I’ve never stopped since.

I was lucky enough to witness a live frippertronics show myself, on the US leg of the tour later that year (and I am hoping that this will eventually be released, assuming at least part of it does… 🙂 at a tower records store in san diego, california where I lived at the time, so I had a very personal interest in hearing the first live performances, in europe, of frippertronics – a tape-based looping system developed with the help of fripp’s friend and musical partner, brian eno.  I was also fortunate enough to see a “lecture” at mandeville auditorium at UCSD in 1983, which turned out to be…a frippertronics show – this time, as we entered the hall, robert was already looping…amazing.  I’ve just noticed that DGM have that show in their download archives, so that’s one I will definitely download…sigh.  but anyway, returning to the earlier, european version of frippertronics…

the set up was straightforward: two full-sized revox tape decks, with a large space between them, and a long piece of tape (the “tape loop”) running between the two machines; a black gibson les paul guitar, and a very small, minimal guitar pedal board – amplifier and speaker cabinets – that was the entire thing, but the one ingredient that really brought this “small, intelligent unit” to life, was it’s creator and operator: robert fripp himself.

with only an astonishingly short “four to six seconds” of loop time available to him via the revoxes; fripp was able to use his knowledge of music, counterpoint, and harmony to introduce notes, phrases or even “pickup selector switch switching sounds”, into the loop in the appropriate way as to build up pieces that were alternately serene, terrifying, beautiful, or very, very dissonant.  most of the frippertronics loops are on the serene, beautiful side; with the occasional leap over to the dark side, and some of those “dark” loops are some of the best performances here.

but, whether you prefer the heavenly, melodic, beautiful waves of sound that robert often performed, or if you prefer the dark, dissonant, disturbing pieces he sometimes favoured – there is something for everyone in this 15-show set.  I love all of these loops, dark, light, and every musical shade in between, and the beauty of the loops themselves, is set off wonderfully by the confident, high-speed, accurate solos that fripp almost casually layers over the top of the loops.

he is so confident, so accurate, that it’s almost miraculous to behold – and there are a lot of surprises – notes you don’t expect; sudden endings you don’t expect, and so on…it’s quite surprising sometimes.  a sudden, very loud low note will, out of nowhere, underpin what was moments before, a lovely, high-pitched floating cloud of beautiful looped guitar…

that dark, powerful note overwhelms and overtakes the lovely floating cloud; turning light to dark momentarily, but perhaps, allowing for a different kind of overlaid solo to then occur. fripp steers the compositions where he wants to; altering the running loop on the fly to change it’s character; and then launching into another impossibly fast crimson-esque guitar solo – you could just about hear the wheels turning in fripp’s head, it all comes out – every idea, every doubling of a note, every harmony, every intentionally dissonant harmony – it’s all to plan, and that plan is executed with frightening precision and overwhelming confidence – the power of robert fripp, lead guitarist, is absolutely laid bare on this series of live, loop and solo recordings.

as a looper myself, albeit with about 10 years’ less experience than fripp, I can speak first hand to just how difficult it is to loop with only a four second loop!  four seconds is a very, very short space of time in music. one of my first digital loopers, the digitech rds-8000, sported just eight seconds of loop, and working with that was possible, but never easy 🙂

as the technology improved, the digital loopers became more capable – I moved from 1 second to 8 seconds and eventually on up to 196 seconds (with the remarkable echoplex digital pro) – quite a leap, from eight seconds to over three minutes! – and once you have a looper with that kind of capability, the problems mostly disappear (although, very long loops have their own challenged).  fripp used his four to six seconds, with the revoxes, off and on for about four years.

while fripp did embrace digital loopers, it wasn’t until the early / mid 1980s, so for these performances – it was done strictly with the tapes, and four seconds was all robert had to work with.  and what he does in those four seconds, is simply remarkable guitar playing.

oh my god – what fripp can do with a four second loop; it’s absolutely astonishing, and I am quite certain that many weeks or months of meticulous rehearsal preceeded this short tour – when he starts out on his first loop of that first amsterdam show – it’s with complete and utter confidence, and he sounds relaxed, well practiced and so, so accurate – he builds up a loop, it ends up smooth, beautiful and lovely – and then, begins to solo, but not just any solo, truly beautiful, melodic, thick sustained-notes soloing, as only fripp can – and to have these performances restored – loops and solos – is a sonic miracle, but to my mind – these performances demonstrate the true quality of robert fripp, the guitarist, that even his best work with king crimson could not quite demonstrate.

because here – there is no john wetton or tony levin (king crimson bassists at different times) thundering away in the low frequencies; there is no cymbal splash or electronic percussion madness from bill bruford (king crimson drummer since 1973, on and off), and there is no david cross (violin) or adrian belew (lead guitar, vocals) to “spar” or harmonise with – all of that is gone, and in it’s place – a four second span of time; to be filled with beautiful, harmonising notes, or to build up loop counterpoint, or to layer long, sustained notes or trills – and then, this loop becomes the band, it becomes the music that robert then solos over – but we can now really hear what he is playing, far more clearly than one can in some king crimson recordings – and while these recordings are of varying quality, the beauty and simplicity of what fripp accomplishes here is not diminished in any way, shape or form – it’s guitar heaven, it’s undoubtedly one of the première examples of man v machine where both win; fripp has taken what eno (and others) developed, and made a few modifications to the system to make it as suitable for guitar as possible – and has created a brand new kind of music: frippertronics.

fast forward twenty years, and a similar, yet wildly different, kind of solo fripp music emerged: the soundscape.  this is the modern-day equivalent to frippertronics.  and while I love and admire both forms, frippertronics and soundscapes; for me, my money is on frippertronics – because it involves the pure sound of a gibson les paul (whereas, soundscapes are more guitar synthesizer-oriented, therefore, less guitar-like) and the fripp pedal board, captured, looped, and soloed over with an intensity and capability that few musicians ever reach – fripp worked very, very hard at this – and he got it right, and if you listen to these 15 shows back to back – you will not be disappointed – and in fact, that is exactly what I did, I downloaded them all on a friday night; then on the saturday, I put them on – and let them play in sequence, all day long. 

at ten pm that night, it finally came to an end – and I was left speechless, breathless, and utterly, utterly impressed – OK, I knew it would be good – but I never dreamed – my 34 year old memory of the 1979 frippertronics show I had seen, and the 30 year old memory of a second show at mandeville auditorium, told me “this will be incredible” but even those memories could not have prepared me for the reality of the speed, dexterity, power, and beauty of these live guitar loop and solo performances – they are out of this world, and for guitarists, are an absolute lesson in what can be accomplished with a very, very finite set of equipment, set up for one purpose – and then there is the way that robert plays.

it’s so, so powerful, because really, it was not that long before, barely five years, that he was onstage with wetton, bruford and cross, playing lead guitar night after night after night, and the power of his time with king crimson (ten remarkable albums in the short space of 1969 – 1974) – and the power of his playing in those various “king crimsons” (plural) is now matured; amplified; calmed; organised; and it’s so precise now, there is very little bending (something he would give up almost completely, eventually) and the melodies he plays are just exquisitely beautiful – especially when played over loops of incredible precision and beauty.

so to my mind, even just speaking as an average guitarist – this is the best guitar album I have EVER HEARD.  I have no other words, no other way of describing what it’s like to sit and listen to robert fripp solo for 13 hours over tape loops that he made on the fly; in a record store, restaurant or other non-traditional venue on this first-ever frippertronics tour.  there is simply no other music on earth like this, and it truly shows the talent, power and sheer chops that fripp has developed over time.

by eschewing traditional venues, and bringing the music directly to the people – and even more remarkable, by TALKING to, and with, the people – fripp bucked the whole system, which I am sure pissed off his record company and everyone else who would now not be able to make a buck off of these performances – this was a real dialogue now, between robert fripp and those who love the music he creates – and at every show, there was a question and answer session (and that just blew my mind, I could not believe that we were sitting on the floor of tower records, and fripp, a few feet away with his les paul still slung around his neck – was taking questions from the audience!).

an audience that was stunned, or I would say more accurately, completely fucking blown away, by what they had just seen and heard.  the power of robert fripp’s lead guitar playing alone is enough to frost your socks; passages of great speed and precision, wonderful melodies that fly from the fretboard – but also, a new component, those enticing, amazing loops – that support and blend with the solos so perfectly; hypnotic, repetitive – and the perfect musical “bed” over which to solo.

but – the loops weren’t static, they were often “changed” by fripp, who would solo for a minute or two, and then, add more notes to the loop, and then, go back to soloing over this “new” altered loop – and he might do this several times within one looped performance – change the loop, solo, change the loop, solo more, etc. – to beautiful effect.

I learned a lot from watching this process, a lot which I later put to use in my own work, but what I also learned was, just how difficult this process is – the concentration required, the precision required – it’s intense, and few people could pull it off.

leave it to robert fripp.

 

this is a link to the first show from the frippertronics european tour, may 7, 1979, follow the right arrows to find the rest of the shows (and much more).  there is also a link where you can purchase all 15 shows as a bundle (recommended – this is what I did).

I know that fans of king crimson and robert fripp have their favourite albums, tracks, and live performances by robert, working in king crimson, or, guesting on other albums by other well known artists such as david bowie, or, in collaboration with people like david sylvian.  I am one of those fans, and I can remember arguing about very important topics such as “which is the best version of ‘schizoid man’ ” or whether red or usa was the best late period king crimson album (at the time) and so on.

I am not ashamed or embarrassed in any way to say I love the music of king crimson, robert fripp, as well as “sylvian / fripp”, “the league of gentlemen”, the league of crafty guitarists, and the current working group, the orchestra of crafty guitarists (which I was, briefly, a member of) – I love all of that, and I would defend it’s high quality and musicality – these are works of quality.  their common denominator, is, of course, robert fripp.

however – as much as I love say…“exposure”, as much as I love king crimson, and would defend their amazing catalogue against any naysayers, with songs as beautiful as “starless” or “the night watch” – well, it puts a lot of other “prog bands” to shame, if I am honest – this music is so intense, and so, so beautiful…

…but in some ways – this 15-show frippertronics european tour, is the best album that fripp never made, and never made a big deal of. it’s release was incredibly low-key, it just appeared on the dgm website one day, but there was no marketing push, no attempt to big this up at all – it just appeared – and those of us who realised what it WAS – well, we snatched it up immediately.  but then – we KNEW – we knew what this contained.

because they (these live performances) are so real; because they are the first ever recordings of robert fripp creating live loops to solo over; because the soloing is so absolutely incredible, I would say that now, this is my favourite robert fripp recording – of all time.

I know – that seems like sacrilege.  how could anything be “better” than, say, “in the court of the crimson king” ?  the answer is, of course, it can’t, really, but, when I hear this music, I realise – this is really the kind of music that fripp was playing all along, but you couldn’t always hear it, because the band was playing so loud! 

this is the “real” fripp – hypnotic layers of intense, dark sound, guitars screaming like seagulls over the top, ominous low notes bending via the services of a tuning key, notes “played” by switching the pickup selector switch from “off” to full on (with the bass pickup turned all the way down, and the treble pickup, turned all the way up) – the selector switch becoming a rhythmic device that adds to the loop – fripp using his fuzz tone, the wah-wah pedal, and his other devices to add texture and form to the loops – and once happy, he would then let that loop play – and solo his heart out with an intensity at least as powerful as “1969 to 1974 king crimson”. 

you think that the guitar solos on “USA” are pretty darn powerful and quick (you are right – they are) ?  you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. you think that nothing can top what fripp plays on “red” in songs like “red”, “fallen angel” and “starless”  – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.  you think what you hear on “the great deceiver”, a four CD live fripp-wetton-bruford-cross king crimson albujm, is a lot of amazing robert fripp lead guitar (you are right, it is)?  You should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

about 13 hours in total, I believe, something like that – and a large portion of that, is robert soloing his heart out, at length, over those amazing four second loops.  I have since played these shows on a saturday, just letting them run all day long, and it really, really makes for a great “mood” – you would love the way it takes an ordinary saturday, and turns it into an amazing day and night of pure, pure music – the frippertronics way.

so, so beautiful – the best album that robert fripp never made.  15 live shows – this is the one album that is pure testament to the intense, quick, and breathlessly beautiful way that robert fripp plays lead guitar – truly, this is where you can really hear genius at work, on the fretboard of a black les paul guitar – at the hands of the master, robert fripp.

now – for the non-guitarist, it’s likely that you may continue to regard the “band” works of robert fripp more highly than this “guitar” based fripp work.  but for me, as a musician and as a guitarist – this is simply the ultimate fripp documentary, which might have been lost to us, but blessedly, dgm have taken the time to resurrect these shows (and others, as well) and release them via the dgm website (these are download only) – and I for one, thank alex mundy at dgm for doing this work, and I thank the big guy in the sky (whoever that may be this week) for preserving those fragile tapes for all those years until alex could do his magic with them.

I can only imagine how it felt to alex, and to robert, to hear these for the first time in 34 years – and it’s criminal that these were never really released in any form (except for the occasional loop based record such as “let the power fall” – which gives you an inkling of what these tour performances were like – but one short album of loops is no substitute for the real thing – the real 13 hours of music!) – please forgive me if I am repeating myself now – you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows. 

seriously.

you should listen to these 15 live frippertronics shows.

king crimson – larks’ tongues in aspic (40th anniversary super deluxe edition) – the album I almost didn’t get

more three months after the rest of the world, i’m finally enjoying my super deluxe 15 disc edition of king crimson’s seminal 1973 album, “larks’ tongues in aspic” – the 40th anniversary version.

despite the difficulties I had in acquiring the super deluxe 14-disc larks’ tongues in aspic cd box set, in sitting down to listen to it, well – it’s worth the wait – it’s worth any wait – and as the last of the 40th anniversary series from the “classic” crimson period (1969 – 1974) (save – “USA”, which has been through various re-issues, currently up to 30th, not sure what the future holds for “USA”). I can see why they took their time with it – it’s a massive undertaking, basically, it compiles every single note ever recorded by the quintet version of the band: robert fripp, john wetton, bill bruford, david cross, jamie muir.  every note ever recorded !

I won’t delve into a lot of specifics here (although the temptation to do so is overwhelming – there are a lot of remarkable performances in this box!) but instead, will attempt to speak in generalities – which, when faced with 84 pieces of music that revolve around one album, is really all one can do – well, to start, I will offer just two words “astonishing musicianship”.

at a time when most rock bands worked in a very, very predictable and formulaic way, king crimson worked in reverse.  so, where most rock bands would go into the studio, write music, record music, and then go on tour in support of that record – fripp’s idea of how a band should work was completely different, completely innovative, and very, very intelligent: – and, the proof is in the pudding – the concept is simple, but it works:  while on the road, develop songs, play them in, improvise on them – and then, once you know the repertoire inside and out – then, and only then, go into the studio and record the material.

brilliant !  so the six tracks on the album were all pieces that the band had been playing for a number of months…honed to perfection, battle-tested, altered, mutated, fully road-tested until the perfect incarnation could then be conceived and executed once in the studio.  this approach actually makes a lot of sense, because you work out all the issues in the songs on the tour, then you sit down in the studio and say, “OK, what have we learned about this song over the past x months  – how does “easy money” go?” – and, instead of talking about it – they can just play it until they get the version they want.

so it’s fitting that first, you get to live with the band for several months, in an astonishing series of live recordings, some only recently unearthed, as they “work through” these songs, and at the same time, have a blast playing long, complex and sometimes bizarre live jams of almost indescribable variety and consistency.  how much live material ?? – well, if you download the bonus two-disc live show that you get a coupon for in the box (including a disclaimer concerning it’s very poor sound quality – but, it’s a good show, so I am glad I downloaded it…), you end up with exactly 60 live tracks, which start with the band’s first live gig at the zoom club in germany in october, 1972, and ends just prior to the recording of the studio album itself in early 1973…

the remaining 24 “studio” tracks are divided up as follows: a copy of the 30th anniversary mix (the original mix remastered for the 30th anniversary), the 2012 new mix of the album, a full disc of alternative versions (either alternative takes or alternative mixes, including one incredibly revealing piece – the jamie muir track, solo, of his performance on “easy money” – an astonishing revelation, which clearly shows what an important part muir played in creating the extremely unique percussion sound that this band had) – and, finally a fascinating nearly 80 minute “session reel” that contains the first take of each piece on the record, as well as various run-throughs and bits – absolutely fabulous stuff.

so – a record with six songs, represented by a massive box set, 15 discs, 84 songs, (the box also contains various 5.1 mixes, a video shot in Germany, in both regular and blu-ray flavours – and hearing the album in 5.1 is yet another remarkable revelation, I can tell you that for free!).  those six songs had a lot that went into them, and if you sit down and listen to the 60 live tracks spanning some five months, you hear each one of those six songs go through transformation after transformation – and, you begin to understand how they came to slowly mutate into the final form that they eventually reached in the studio.

even if you follow the journey of just one of the songs, from the shortest “book of saturday” – also known as “daily games” – or a song like “easy money” – the amount of creative change that the pieces go through is astonishing.  you can just about imagine the band meetings after the gig – “OK, that went…OK tonight, but tomorrow, we are going to try doing it this way…” and, night by night, the songs…improve.

sometimes they take unusual courses to get to their final form, changing, and changing again, some early sections end up disappearing altogether (as in “easy money”) while others have more subtle refinements on their path to the making of the actual album.

but there is a lot to be said for fripp’s method of “playing in” a record in the live setting, and he went on to do this successfully with many, many different versions of king crimson over the years – playing the material live first, and then recording the album…it just works!

having said that, it might not work for other bands, it might only work for king crimson – that’s difficult to say.  I don’t know what other bands may have tried a similar technique, but certainly, some very famous albums are mostly “road” albums, written on the road, learned on the road, then recorded in the studio (led zeppelin II leaps to mind) – but I think in the main, most groups stuck to the “formula” – i.e. they did what the record company said, “make the record, then go tour it and make us a million dollars”.

it’s a credit to fripp’s integrity that he refused to tread that well-worn path, refused time and time again, and the albums produced by this “working in reverse” method are a testament to the method’s success – larks’ tongues in aspic, and it’s followup, “starless and bible black” – another largely live album – are two prime examples of this technique working very, very well indeed.

but getting back to the matter at hand – sixty live tracks of the quintet 1972 – 1973 version of king crimson.  60 tracks of any band live is a lot to wade through, but if you have the patience (and in some cases, it does require patience – the majority of these shows are restored audio bootlegs – from cassette – so sound quality is sometimes an issue) it’s a more than rewarding ride.  some of the live CDs have been available before, either as crimson club releases, or as downloads from dgm, some, are heard here for the first time anywhere – but as always with every version of the band, what you get is…amazing musicianship. truly amazing musicianship!

this band was put together very, very quickly indeed, before the ashes of the “islands” line-up had even cooled – that band stopped performing live in early/mid 1972, and by october 1972, fripp had re-formed (mostly via a chance meeting with wetton) this entirely new line up and had them out and playing by october 1972 – there is apparently, no rest for the wicked.

and while I personally have huge, huge respect for the “islands” band line up, I can’t deny that the “larks’ tongues” line up is a dramatic upgrade in terms of sheer musical prowess – fripp now attracting the best young players of the time, and the group he gathered around him this time is no less than magical.

the fierce, aggressive power of wetton’s bass playing, which spans an incredible range of emotion – from beauty to fear to raw power and back to beauty again – alone is remarkable and unique and unlike anything you will hear anywhere else in rock, but add to that, a man with a beautiful, smoky voice capable of expressing great emotion (some of the takes of “exiles” or “book of saturday” are just heartbreakingly beautiful – wetton’s voice is so, so beautiful – something not too many people notice) – and you have an incredibly talented bassist / singer, and a very experienced, capable player as well (coming most recently from 13 months with family, and a long string of other bands prior to that, wetton was a seasoned veteran by the time he and fripp decided to finally form a band together (something they had discussed numerous times previously, but never did until 1972).

bill bruford’s musical pedigree can hardly be argued – and his move, from leaving the very, very successful “yes” to join the totally unknown, “dark horse” that this brand new king crimson incarnation represented, has often been remarked on – but, bruford is primarily interested in music, so he went where the music was likely to be best, not where commercial success was in the offing.

speaking of “dark horses”, the two other new members of this new band, david cross on violin, flute, mellotron and electric piano, and jamie muir, drums, percussion, all sorts – well, while neither was as well known at the time, but when you hear the live tapes, you will immediately hear how crucial these two “dark horse” players’ contributions are – particularly muir, whose strange stage antics, and ever-increasingly large collection of kitchen implements and sheets of metal and so on threatened to make the band’s set up the longest on record – muir’s contribution to these performances is incalcuable.

a track like “larks’ tongues in aspic part I” would be nothing without muir, and in the video, you see why – he is a whirlwind of percussive motion, and yet, on cue, lands on the drum kit seat to bash out the power chord coda of the track along with a frankly admiring bruford – for bruford, muir represented a kind of free playing that he himself could not quite get to until later on, long after muir left the band.

the fact that muir left the band after only a very short time, meant that this line-up was very, very short-lived indeed, measuring in months, and leaving the band to the more familiar quartet line-up that went on to tour and record the next crimson record, “starless and bible black”.  when it all became too much for david cross, the band ended up life as a strange, progressive rock power trio, for their final (studio) release “red” (and, posthumous live document “usa”, too).

some might argue that the three of them – fripp, wetton, bruford – were the core, and – yes, they were, but in the case of larks’ tongues in aspic, it was really more about those five people coming together at the same moment, to make the music that was in the air – and I really feel that both david cross and jamie muir have tended to have their roles’ downplayed – but I am hopeful that with this extensive “proof” (which is exactly what this super deluxe box is) of just how good this band was live, that opinion will change and we will understand that this was indeed, a quintet, not a power trio with two extra players!

having only ever seen the original beat club broadcast verison of “larks tongues in aspic part 1” video prior to owning the LTIA box, it was a revelation to see the properly filmed version (along with two other full tracks that are on the included mono video) because I’d never really realised just how much real drums jamie muir played (and he plays trombone on stage t00 – amazing!!) – and he and bruford together, were for robert fripp, replacing the long-departed michael giles – whom fripp has said could not be replaced with one person, so he decided that the only way to get the drum sound he wanted, to replace what michael giles had brought to the 1969 king crimson – was to work with two drummers.  it’s a testament to both giles’ skill as a drummer and the level of fripp’s respect for giles as a musician, that it took two drummers of the calibre of bruford and muir, two excellent drummers, one, a brilliant percussionist, too – to replace him – that’s quite a compliment from fripp, really.

musically, it works.  two drum kits sometimes, at all other times, one drum kit and one most unusual collection of percussion “instruments”, many of which were found percussion items, sheets of metal, kitchen implements, and so on – non-traditional percussion implements – was just what the 1972 king crimson needed to set them apart both live and in the studio – and, set them apart, it did.

in some ways, it’s a shame that it only lasted for one tour and one album, but at least we have that – and now, it’s well, well documented (the box includes a long interview with robert fripp, as well as a most excellent essay from king crimson historian sid smith) – but really, to fully understand the contribution of jamie muir, you need to see the full film, and also, to hear his performances on the live shows and in the studio – the solo alternate version of easy money, which is just muir’s part isolated, is remarkable – I’ve never heard anything like it.  so personally, I would not have minded another tour and another album including jamie – but, it was not to be.

what about the guitarist then?  I would not know where to begin, fripp here has upped his personal game once more (the one about playing guitar from an intelligent standpoint), building on what he learned during the lizard / islands era, and, with a very different kind of band, sets out here to bring a new kind of fripp guitar to the proceedings.  for me, in some ways, this was the first time we really heard fripp let the cat out the bag – sure, we heard some of it in the live 1969 concerts, but here, he has four more years of playing experience to draw on – and draw on it he does.

I will never forget the day I first heard this album, at about 8 am in the morning, I bought the cassette and drove over to the drummer in my bands’ house – we put it on – and when that first set of power chords came in, we about jumped out of our chairs – this record was something else.

for me though, as a guitarist, to hear fripp’s solos, chords, comping, jamming, bending, scraping – he does it all – but this time, for the first time since greg lake, he has a musical equal in the band – john wetton.  wetton’s proficiency on bass is arguably better than lake’s (no flame wars please, I love the bass playing of greg lake, he is amazing – I just happen to slightly prefer wetton! – personal preference only), although they are both very, very good players, for my money, wetton is the more creative player (despite it being lake who came up with the nearly impossible bass part for “21st century schizoid man”) and I think that fripp and wetton had a much longer time together to really work out their style together – as evidenced by the blistering very late 1974 live recordings, such as “asbury park” from the USA album – by then, wetton and fripp are like a well-honed improvising machine – but even back in 1972, and all through 1973, the two soloed, harmonised, battled, clashed, flowed, dreamed and worked beautifully together – fripp on lead guitar, wetton on lead bass.

sometimes though, that would be wetton on melodic lead bass, and fripp on flute mellotron.  or other unusual combinations…but with fripp on lead guitar, and wetton on lead bass, with those amazing fuzz tones and monster bass cabinets – that’s the set up that I prefer :-).  I think fripp solos with such confidence and authority on these recordings, and indeed, throughout the life of this band in all of their incarnations – and that confidence immediately rubbed off on wetton, who felt challenged and then upped his own game considerably.  I think that they challenged each other, so the higher fripp flew, the higher wetton flew, and vice versa.  unavoidably, this results in some insanely amazing guitar/bass solos, some of which are just unbelievably fluid and well executed.

moments of peace though, are equally important, as evidenced by many, many lovely versions of “book of saturday” (aka “daily games”) where fripp plays quiet, complex chord based guitar, and wetton sings and plays melodic bass – a very quiet, very beautiful musical space (and personally, my favourite piece from the album – and somewhere, eventually to be put up on the blog companion page – there is a live performance of byran helm and I playing “book of saturday” together at a bindlestiff gig).

or on the beautiful “exiles”, again, a pastoral, beautiful, melodic song with great lyrics from the rarely mentioned lyricist, richard palmer-james (a school friend of wetton’s), who provided really lovely lyrics for this record.  wetton and palmer-james worked together on the songs, and both “book of saturday” and “exiles” are beautiful examples of their work together.  fripp’s guitar contributions to those two tracks are the icing on the cake, and I love those two songs in some ways, above the “loud” more obvious choices that a lot of other fans might choose.  “book of saturday” in particular has a very special place in my heart, since I worked for so many weeks on learning it (and while I could play it, I couldn’t really play it correctly or very well – ever!) it is deceptively difficult – as fripp guitar parts often are !!!

on the earliest live quintet recordings, wetton sounds like he’s just been released from prison (note, I am not suggesting that the bass player role in the band family is akin to prison!) – he is a bit wild, he sings along to his bass lines as if he is a jazz bassist, he is soloing in an almost uncontrollable way – singing really powerfully but almost in a very funky way at times – the very first shows are extremely strange! but as time goes on, wetton very quickly finds his place, and he begins to calm down, and fit in – and that’s when the magic happens.

by the end of the quintet, wetton had moved from world-class bassist to universe-class bassist…which is where he’s been ever since.  and really, in 73 and 74, he reached even more dizzying heights of bass playing.

I know I said I wouldn’t single anything out, but “a boolean melody medley” (taken from the november 25th performance at new theatre, oxford, uk) is one live track I do want to single out – coming out of a performance of “book of saturday”, the band move into this amazing piece of quasi-classical music, and suddenly, this band is transcending, I’ve never heard anything so beautiful…wetton is playing beautiful, melodic bass while fripp and cross soar over the top with the most gorgeous, astonishing solos I’ve ever heard either do – fluid, beautiful, astonishing – and the two drummers are quietly playing along, almost afraid to intrude – and for me, it’s moments like this, that it all becomes worthwhile – for every slightly dodgy improv, for every slightly imperfect moment that can and does occur in other king crimson live shows – when you get an improv THIS beautiful – this is what it’s all about.  sigh.

this piece was new to me, and it’s as if “book of saturday” suddenly-yet-gradually “turned into” this giant, beautiful improvisation – it just floors me, completely.  it moves from quasi-classical, to a bass solo, and then an almost jazzy kind of jam – but it’s just stupendous, and all five players are amazing on it – I cannot recommend this piece more highly.  it goes completely wild, and then somehow, near the end, the quiet part returns – or a quiet part returns after it had reached maximum sonic madness – and it then quietly wends it’s way along towards it’s conclusion – after an astonishing twenty minute improv – the conclusion is to seamlessly move into the beginning of “exiles”.

so – the band are basically playing the three songs that made up what was “side one” of the vinyl album, in the same order as they appear on the album – with the slight detail of an impossible, beautiful, classical, jazz, rock, improv – a 20 minute improv – appearing out of nowhere, being placed between “book of saturday” and “exiles” – that is just nothing short of remarkable.

and to me, the bit where they move out of the improv, and then moving onto to “exiles” as if nothing had happened – that is sheer genius.  not to mention, that the band had only played a handful of shows at this point in time, they had been on the road for perhaps, five or six weeks, when this miraculous piece of music appeared – that’s astonishing – some bands practice and perform for years and never play a blinder like this one. a totally awesome, totally amazing, totally beautiful piece of music!

moving back to the world of generalities, generally, this band played very, very well live – sure, there were problems, for one, the tuning between the electric instruments and the acoustic violin was often a problem, as of course was the problem of the tuning between two mellotrons, and between said mellotrons and the rest of the band – but, for the most part, this is not a problem – just occasionally, and the violin is notoriously difficult to keep in tune in the fast moving environment of progressive rock or jazz rock.

unfortunately, when they filmed the video, the first long improvised piece, “the rich tapestry of life” is quite out of tune at the start, and takes a while before it gets a bit more in tune – but that’s life, it’s just the way it goes – at least there is film of the band – the first time, really, that this group was ever properly filmed – otherwise, we have nothing except the french television performance that was included in the “red” 40th anniversary box set, but that’s a much later version (1974, near the end of their seventies career) of king crimson.

from the classic 1969 band, there is that tantalising clip from the hyde park gig – less than a minute of footage I think, a tiny excerpt from “schizoid man” that the TV crew happened to film – which has since been synced to it’s bootleg sound – from the next three records – nothing – except perhaps the odd tv clip here or there – this time though, you get three full tracks, including one very long improv – so this film does add significantly to the recorded visual history of king crimson.

I should also mention here, from the long, long line-up of live performances, an incredibly spirited performance from glasgow, from december 1, 1972 – where the audience are louder and more vocal than on any other performance (scottish audiences are not renowned for their reticence) but this, uh, verbal communication from the audience, spurs the band onto a brilliant performance – so sometimes a bit of heckling can have a very positive result.

at one point one audience member gets a huge round of applause for swearing, which I must admit, is a much loved pastime of “we scots”.  even as a transported/imported brit, I find myself swearing much more than I used to, since emigrating to scotland nearly ten years ago – I do swear more than I used to.

this glasgow gig contains a variant of “a boolean melody medley” with the even more unlikely title of “a vinyl hobby job”, which ends up more like a scottish reel, with a long, droning violin section which is quite lovely and quite hypnotic – a very different version from the original done at the oxford show; but starting out in a very similar way – moving from “book of saturday” into the boolean improv, but this time taking a very different path indeed, featuring an excellent performance by cross – playing in a way I’ve never heard him play before or since – most excellent.

the glasgow show has a completely different feel to the other shows, during “exiles”, fripp plays a normally distorted guitar solo with a much cleaner guitar tone; then we have the very violin-centric drone/raga improv, it’s just an odd gig – with a very vocal audience!

at this point in time, december 1, 1972, then, jamie muir had only a handful of december gigs, the making of the album, and one gig only afterwards before he left the band for good, to retire to a scottish monastery.  it’s odd to think that only a few months in…he was already on his way out – but his participation, particularly in the recording of the album, pivotal in live performances – is key, so while short-lived, it’s still amazing the contributions jamie muir made to the band – on stage, the “wild man” of king crimson, biting on blood capsules and spitting blood, smashing his pieces of metal plate…in the studio, innovative to the highest degree – and ultimately, not cut out for the rock and roll lifestyle (as so many of us are not).

I about fell out of my chair when I first heard his tour de force one-take live percussion run through for “easy money” (included as the “alternate mix” for that track on the “alternates” disc) – you don’t realise when you listen to the finished track just how much input muir had into that track – but when you hear his “solo” performance of “easy money” – which is absolutely impossible to describe with words – it all makes perfect sense.  “my my”…

it’s not really surprising though, that muir left after just a few months as part of the quintet version of king crimson – I am sure he fulfilled his desire to have a brief dalliance with the rock world (coming from a very sort of avant garde/experimental musical background) and I am sure he had a blast playing with bruford and the rest of the band, but the level of energy, the level of commitment – it was probably quite exhausting, so I think he had just had enough, and decided to go.  there was some kind of injury, too, a broken ankle on stage or something, which probably tipped the already-weighted scales.

muir did re-emerge briefly, once, in the 1980s, curiously, to record an album with ex-crimson alumni michael giles in about 1983, titled “ghost dance” but beyond that, after his short but very memorable time with king crimson – he left music behind, never to return.

and then there were four.

those four still had another 18 months of music ahead of them, including, for the quartet, the followup to “larks’ tongues in aspic”, 1973’s “starless and bible black”, and for the trio, two albums, 1974’s “red” and 1975’s posthumous “USA” (david cross appears on all of the tracks on USA, but tracks 2, 3 and 7 included “in the studio” overdubs from violinist eddie jobson – for reasons never stated).

but for many, it’s “larks’ tongues in aspic” that resonates the most, and until now, I never really totally understood why it stands apart from the rest of the 1972 – 1974 king crimson’s catalogue – and really, the reason it does boils down to two things: the presence of one very remarkable individual, jamie muir, who took the percussion and drums side of things to a new extreme, and, the combination of those five men in that place at that time – those two factors, made this album what it is – one of the best and most unique examples of forward-thinking, intelligent, truly progressive rock – a masterwork of the genre.

the 40th anniversary version of “larks’ tongues in aspic” is available in three different versions, although the super deluxe box set is a limited edition of I believe, 7000 – and I very nearly didn’t get one – dgm managed to lose my copy in the post, and then failed to replace it (for reasons I will never understand) which eventually forced me to cancel my order, and buy it from a more reliable, local vendor – who delivered it in one day, on a saturday.  the abject failure of dgm to honour my order (which was one of the very first placed, a pre-order in fact, which should really guarantee you a copy) very nearly caused me to not get a copy – which would have been disastrous indeed.

my “box of saturday”, if you will 🙂 – delivered by the best and most reliable vendor ever: amazon.  utterly dependable.

I feel really disheartened by what happened, it has really disappointed me pretty seriously – it was so, so important to me to make sure I had reserved a copy, so I was first off the mark – I rarely ever pre-order anything, but it was that important – and what did that pre-order get me?  absolutely nothing; sheer frustration; months of waiting, with no product ever delivered – and after having to wait all that time, I then had to cancel the order and re-order it from amazon – just to be SURE that I got it…that’s really pathetic.  and can you imagine how heartbroken I felt, each time one of my friends across the world would post a picture of their happy, smiling face, holding aloft the box set – the one I very, very nearly did not get?  it was, shall we say – most upsetting!

so I decline to celebrate, you will not see me holding up my copy in victory, because that moment came and went a long, long time ago – and listening now to it, the happiness I feel at hearing this music will actually be, ever so slightly, forever marred by the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing “experience” I had of trying to chase up my “pre-order”.

…but – luckily for me, there is that “little shoppe on the corner” (called “amazon.co.uk”) that is very dependable, very reliable, and they got me my copy in 24 hours – after waiting in vain for over three months and repeatedly receiving nothing whatsoever from dgm – so at long, long last I can join all my friends who have been listening to and enjoying the album for the past three months…I’ve finally caught up with you.  I am finally getting to see and hear this record.  for a while there, during december 2012, there was a time when I began to believe I might NEVER hear it – until I wised up and ordered it from a reliable vendor 🙂

meanwhile, since I began listening to it last Saturday, it’s hardly been off heavy rotation – and I am currently listening to all 60 live tracks in chronological order, which is a remarkable experience in itself, to say the least!

the 5.1 mixes, too, are an absolute revelation, and I could sit in that sound field forever listening to music that is utterly familiar, yet, configured in a new and very unfamiliar way – with fripp’s ominous power notes at the beginning of “larks’ tongues in aspic, part I” slowly revolving across all five speakers – a wetton bass part emerging behind me – just beautiful, and steven wilson deserves all the praise the world has been heaping on him – as does robert fripp, who also worked on these mixes along with wilson.

the video, while not of my personal favourite live performance, is essential, if not at least so that you can visually see just how important both cross and muir were to this line-up – in fact, muir is so visually interesting, that the camera spends most of it’s time on him – and wetton, you hardly see at all, by comparison.

the new 2012 stereo mix – well.  it’s beautiful.  I love it.  but for my money, you cannot go wrong with the steven wilson / robert fripp team, they have done a stupendous job on every one of these 40th anniversary re-issues, and this one is no exception – it’s very possibly the best, although personally, I would say that “in the court”, “islands” and “larks’ tongues in aspic” are all tied for first place…in the “most absolutely stunning, astonishing, amazing and thorough re-issue” category.

so as robert fripp wends his way up the scale for an amazing lead guitar solo in the live verison of “easy money” from december 1, 1972, from the glasgow green’s playhouse (a really unusual and remarkable live performance, with a lot of audience interaction), I go now to immerse myself in the never-ending live world of “larks’ tongues in aspic”…a beautiful experience from any and every angle – and, with up to 60 live tracks and 24 studio/live tracks on offer, you can’t really go wrong – it’s all good.  I mean – it’s king crimson, after all :-).

I waited a long, long time for this record, and then I was made to wait three months longer than that, but now that I finally have it, I would have to say it takes the prize, it’s all folk have said and much, much more, and I am happy to add my voice to those who support it – a most excellent effort indeed from team wilson / fripp – bravo!

highly recommended.

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.

what we’re listening to

todd rundgren & the metropole orchestra – live in amsterdam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

thanks mr. p !!