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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King Crimson – Symphony Hall, Birmingham, UK – 20150914

for us, the first of three 2015 King Crimson concerts from the UK / Europe leg of the tour, took place in the elegant Birmingham Symphony Hall, on Monday evening, September 14th, 2015. We travelled down to Birmingham on the train, and spent a couple of relaxing days pottering about the place, taking photographs, reading, and for me in any case, drinking far too many Starbucks soya Mochas….

curiously, just a few hours before show time on Monday afternoon, on the DGM site, we noticed an advert for booking a pre-show talk with David Singleton, so we were privileged to get an extra 45 minutes of Crim-related material, courtesy of the very knowledgeable Mr. Singleton.

David discussed some of the recording processes and the challenges therein, and played examples of “before” and “tracks” (of “Lament” among others), where the board recording was mostly drums and vocals, and the rest of the concert was pitch-matched bootlegs, and, with a lot of patience and sonic necromancy, these are careful remixed so you can actually hear the individual instruments. It was a very interesting talk indeed, and David even treated us to some unreleased fly on the wall recordings from the forthcoming “THRAK” box set, we heard a session where “One Time” was being developed, and that was very cool.

At the end of the talk, which touched on King Crimson, Robert Fripp solo, orchestral soundscapes, the Vicar, and everything DGM, David then took questions, most of which were about forthcoming or existing releases, but some interesting points were raised.

Then, quite suddenly, it was time, show time, so the forty or fifty of us who signed up for the talk, dispersed to our seats in anticipation of seeing the legendary “seven-headed Beast of Crimson” perform live, at last. I’d been anticipating this moment for many months, and could not quite believe that it had finally arrived, at long, long last.

And I have to applaud this venue, there was zero stress, no queuing, no waiting, we sat in Starbucks drinking coffee (which was located inside the Symphony Building, a few steps away from the venue’s doors) prior to the show, made the obligatory visit to the merchandise stand, and then into the venue and our seats…which afforded us of a great view of the band, at approximately the same vertical “level” as the Crimson back line – i.e. at eye level of Collins, Levin, Jakszyk, and Fripp, with the three drummers at the “level” just beneath us.  The ideal place to see and hear from 🙂

For me, this tour is like a dream version of the band, with Mel Collins back in the fold, and the opportunity then that this gives the band, to recreate a large number of archival Crimson songs requiring flute, soprano, alto, or tenor sax – along with the presence of Jakko Jakszyk, whose knowledge of and mastery of King Crimson material 1969 – 1974 is absolutely unparalleled, he knows these songs as well as or even, dare I say it, better than RF himself – due to his involvement with the 21st Century Schizoid Band (of which, Collins was also a member). I was fortunate enough to see the 21CSB live in San Juan Capistrano which was in itself, a remarkable experience, so I’ve seen, and heard, first hand just how well Jakko knows his Early Crimson 🙂

So with the flutes and saxes more than ably handled by Collins; and lead vocals and the “other” lead guitar handled by Jakszyk, that’s a firm foundation to build on, especially when tackling the earliest Crimson material. The sparkle there though, comes from the fact that for a number of those pieces, it was Collins who originally played them, in the studio and live, so the horn and flute parts are very historically accurate but actually, better, because of course, Mel has grown as a player, he is better than ever and his contributions to this band, cannot be underestimated.

A lot of my excitement and anticipation for these songs was around having the impossibly ever-young looking Mel Collins back in the band with Robert, and watching them trade solos, with big smiles on their faces…it was almost as if the intervening time ( some 43 years since they last shared a stage!! ) had somehow magically disappeared, and we were back in 1972 – especially during something like the sonically raging “Sailor’s Tale” – the guitar / sax interplay and soloing was mind-bendingly good.

And…the inclusion, in this concert, for me, of two tracks from my personal favourite “early” King Crimson album, the much-maligned and misunderstood “Islands” (the fourth KC album from 1971) made my experience complete…I got to see Collins and Fripp play their way through both “The Letters” and the incredible “Sailor’s Tale” – two amazing tracks from a great album. But I am getting ahead of the story here…

When we entered the venue, the first thing that strikes you is the new front line: three drum sets, a DW Drums set (Mastelotto), a Gretsch set (Rieflin – who also doubled as the main mellotronist throughout) and a SONOR set (Harrison) set up in what is a first in rock music: a front line of three co-ordinated drummers. The drum arrangements ( as arranged by drum section leader Gavin Harrison ) were absolutely amazing: precise, powerful, and innovative.

I happen to know what the brief was from Robert, to the drum section – in just three words:

RF: “Re-invent Rock Drumming”

In my opinion, after seeing this concert, I feel that the three drummers have done exactly that, no less. A remarkable musical achievement – truly unusual and wonderfully creative and innovative. In a word – awesome!

The drum duties were spilt up in the most unusual ways, I remember for example, that for “Sailor’s Tale”, Pat and Gavin fell silent, leaving just Bill Rieflin to re-create Ian Wallace’s “flying cymbals” drum part, so that track had a unique sound: one drummer!

For most tracks, two or all three would be active, each taking different parts, maybe one would be on hi hat, another, on snare, another on low tom-toms, however it was arranged, it worked, and it worked really well. The drum section was extraordinary, and they sounded great being in the “front line”, really powerful and incredibly well organised in sound.

Bringing up the “back line” then, from left to right, were Mel Collins; the redoubtable and very tall Tony Levin on bass guitar, stick and harmony vocals; Jakko Jakszyk on guitar and lead vocals, and finally at far right, young Robert Fripp on lead guitar. The idea of having the bass guitar, and the three “soloists” in the back line is an extraordinary idea, and visually, it was a very striking arrangement. For the audience, it meant that you got the rhythm first, and the melodies and harmonies, second…very odd, but, it works.

The only slight sonic disappointment was that for some reason, the bass was sometimes quite inaudible ( very upsettingly, in particular, during the bass solo of “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part I” ), which, after a taped introduction, was the first number the band played.

Regarding that Introduction, first, we got the recording of the band asking us not to take photos      during the show, followed by the “Islands Rehearsal” clip from the very end of the “Islands” album, which the band played live over, a short flute solo, a few guitar sounds….leading up to Robert Fripp’s voice, teleported from 1971, counting in the orchestra with a droned “1 2 3, 2 2 3” after which, the drum section launched into a brief drum performance which quickly mutated into the familiar Jamie Mui-led intro to “LTIA Part I”. This is the same intro as used on the official live album “Live At The Orpheum“.

I had never dared dream that I would ever see any version of King Crimson play “LTIA Part I”…I never saw the 70s or 60s Crimson play live, my first KC concert was 1981’s “Discipline” tour, I saw the band then in 1981, 1982, and 1984, and then again, in 1995, I saw the double trio, who did play “21st Century Schizoid Man”, “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, but I really didn’t think there would ever BE a King Crimson that COULD play “LTIA Part I” – until now.

It was a real shock, and when the full force of three drum kits slammed in, with Jakko and Robert doubling the heavy metal power chords, well, I about jumped out of my seat – the sheer power and volume after the very quiet percussion beginning was great. And you can bet that I zoomed in with my brand new binoculars to watch Robert Fripp play those fantastical riffs…which he did, with aplomb…no problem. That impossible Fripp-riff from 1973, perfectly executed in New Standard Tuning in 2015!! Those guitar parts are just amazing, and both guitarists really shined on this piece, Robert playing the coda with real clarity…Jakko playing both violin melodies and guitar parts, it was a really good performance of a notoriously complex and difficult piece of music – amazing!!!

Next up, the band launched immediately into “Red”, which in its lifetime, has undergone a few different “live” iterations, first, the very wild Adrian Belew v Robert Fripp “guitars” version played by the 80s band, then again, in 1995, the double trio adding two basses and two drummers to the patented live “Red” formula; mutating it further still from the studio version…,until now, finally, in 2015, when it underwent it’s most radical transformation.

Led by a new sort of “lolloping wave” drum part, where the three drummers in turn played a riff across the toms, one after the other, while the back line valiantly worked to keep the bass, chords and other melodic parts of ‘Red” in sync, it was a wonderful new way to experience “Red”, and I for one liked the new almost anti-Bruford drum part….the drum section’s new interpretation of what “Red” requires in the percussion department was radical and inspired – excellent. Visually it was quite unique too, because it formed a real “wave” as the drummers each took a turn, from one end of the drum section through to the other, it looked and sounded amazing.

After this initial opening salvo of a track from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” and the title track of “Red”, it was time for new 2015 King Crimson material, with which I was, and still largely am, utterly unfamiliar with. The first of a number of “new” King Crimson songs followed “Red”, which was also the first song of the evening to feature vocals from Jakko, “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” caught me off guard, I wasn’t really ready, but there it was.

Jakko was in fine voice, I know he is not considered to be an incredible vocalist by some, but I think he accounts for himself quite well, especially given that basically, he is playing lead guitar and singing lead vocals at the same time, as well as on some of the earliest material, playing Fripp’s original acoustic guitar parts using an ‘acoustic guitar” simulator effect of some kind. So he has a lot on his plate, a lot of responsibility, but he has the quiet confidence to pull this kind of musical multitasking off without incident.

“Suitable Grounds For The Blues” was no exception to this, Jakko delivering a flawless vocal while playing complex guitar lines, interlocking lead guitars with Robert Fripp while singing is a talent, and Jakko sounded great on this track. For me, I was a bit underwhelmed by it, there was no super memorable guitar parts or vocals to bring it up to above average, and I remember thinking that despite the fact that they played the piece very well, that for me, it seemed like one of the more or even most non-descript pieces of music that Crimson has ever done…nothing really remarkable or unique about it, nothing that really sticks in memory. I hope that in time, I discover more that is unique and good about the new material – it takes time sometimes with newer, unfamiliar songs.

This was followed immediately with another new vocal number, “Meltdown”, which again, the band played well, but myself being unfamiliar with the piece, I found it, once again, slightly underwhelming as a song, although the performance was excellent. Another good vocal from Jakko, very professional and very well done.

Following these two new tracks, the concert’s chronometer switched from 2015 Crimson to 2000s King Crimson, where we were treated to two of the best and most recognisable of tracks fromI A that time period: “The Construction Of Light” followed immediately by the powerful, ominous drive of “Level Five”.

I love the new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light”, featuring new parts for Mel, mostly on flute, have been integrated into the song perfectly; Jakko demonstrating that he can not only imitate Robert Fripp really well, but also, Adrian Belew, and he made short work of the interlocking Belew / Fripp melodic interwoven guitars that dominate “The Construction Of Light”, while other important changes were made: the vocals are entirely removed, and as the track nears the end, where normally Adrian Belew sang the tune out, suddenly, his missing vocal is replaced by a small blinder of a Mel Collins flute solo, and then the song is over,..but, after a very shirt silence, the awesome Tony Levin bass line that powers “Level Five” is underway, and this gives the shared lead guitar team of Jakszyk and Fripp, an even more complicated and serious lead guitar workout than the very intricate, complex “The Construction Of Light”.
So, from the very, very difficult to the very nearly impossible they go, with the lone bass line of Tony Levin beautifully and easily underpinning the twin lead-guitar attack for the duration of “Level Five” – a song rumoured to possible actually be, “Larks Tongues In Aspic Part V” but this is unconfirmed at press time. I always think I don’t particularly care for this song, until I see them play it, and I realise that it has become a modern Crimson “classic” – “Level Five” live, in 2015 – was simply brilliant!!

Next, we were treated to the very short but very excellent, “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which is a fascinating drum / percussion / electronics solo piece from Gavin Harrison ( who is also the track’s writer ). I was familiar with this new piece of Crimson music because it appears on the official “Live At The Orpheum” live CD, and it’s actually a really nice little tune – performed both effortlessly and flawlessly by Harrison, who showed no trace of nervousness at any point in the proceedings.
After the gamelan-like sounds of Gavin’s solo piece, the introduction of the astonishing “Pictures Of A City” just frosted my socks, with Mel honking away furiously and joyously on his tenor sax, playing the fabulous “spy’ melodic lines in perfect unison, harmony or counterpoint with Robert Fripp, who reprised his original contributions on guitar. Jakko had the pure joy task of singing yet another brilliant Peter Sinfield lyric, and for me, this track, this performance, was a true musical highlight of the night, another song that I never dreamed I would experience “live” in my lifetime, but, there it was: a great vocal and guitar from Jakko, fantastic bass, guitar and sax precision “spy” parts, excellent new three drummer drum part – a sprawling, complex and very musical arrangement of the song, from 1970, that tried to top 1969’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” for complexity – and very nearly succeeded in doing so.
This was a really powerful performance, with both Fripp and Collins on absolute top form, playing with precision and grace – a fantastic moment in time, an unforgettable version of “Pictures Of A City” sung with passion by Jakko, and played with so much power by the whole band – an ensemble performance, perfectly co-ordinated between the seven players – a true team effort, a huge win in my book – a real highlight for me. Beautiful work.
Then the time machine dialled us ever further back, back from 1970 to 1969, and for me, the first of two tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” that I simply was not expecting at all – the first of which, was “Epitaph”. This one featured Jakko’s encyclopaedic knowledge of early Crimson, where he simultaneously played Robert Fripp’s acoustic guitar parts, while doing a very credible imitation of Greg Lake’s classic, mournful vocal. Fripp played beautifully on this one, recreating his fast strummed parts perfectly, while Jakko handled all of the “acoustic” picking duties. But then, the band’s secret weapon was revealed, Bill Reiflin, his back now to us as he turned away from his drum kit towards his mellotron, loaded with all of the authentic “Streetly” mellotron samples, very, very precisely and carefully reproducing the original parts as played by Fripp and Ian MacDonald.

The historical accuracy of both the samples used (making the strings, flutes, horns or choir voices sound exactly like the 1969 album, and, the accuracy with which Rieflin plays the mellotron parts, perfectly copying the parts on the original album)…the addition of this super accurate and authentic mellotron part, coupled with Jakko’s impassioned vocal performance, really brought an amazing sparkle to a song with such a serious lyric. I never, ever dreamed, in a billion, billion, years, that I would see and hear King Crimson play “Epitaph” – but I just did, last night. I still can’t quite believe it, I’m pinching myself…”Epitaph” live.  I really heard and saw that! Last night.

Now this is where things get a bit hazy. There were quite a number of “drum solos” during this performance, some of which I understand, are actual songs with titles, and the next piece, as far as I was able to ascertain, was called “Hell Hounds Of Krim”. Now you know just about as much as I do about this song, every time this trio of drummers played, it sounded amazing, and these “all drums” songs were no exception – they sounded great! Three of the most inventive players around, each with their own style and sound, working together on a three part drum performance – it was simply magic. Another top notch performance of new material.

I know I keep saying “I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear King Crimson play THIS SONG”…well. I can tell you…and I will, over and over again…I never dreamed in a million, trillion years, that I would witness them playing “Easy Money”, but there it was. Again. Jakko did a very credible imitation of John Wetton’s vocal, while Fripp took on the difficult guitar parts. When it got to the first guitar solo, Robert got an amazing guitar tone out of his Axe-FXII, a very accurate 70s cracked-Wah liquid sustained “Frippy’ solo sound, and he played a vintage style “solo” using that amazing sound. It was phenomenal, and I was absolutely flabbergasted by the quality of that solo, and of all the parts – Fripp absolutely nailing the high speed violin riffs near the very end, with perfect timing and expert intent, absolutely on the mark…”just making easy money”…this is where Pat then fires off the “laughing box” at the end, just like on the original record.  but Robert was smoking hot and I won’t forget that amazing solo any time soon.

I could not really believe that I’d just heard and seen “Easy Money” live. Perhaps to give me time to recover, they then played “Interlude” which was just about one minute of tape, of an audience clapping and talking. Now at this point, based on previous set lists, one of two things could have happened, the next two tracks, might be, “The Talking Drum” followed by “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part II”, in other words, following “Easy Money” that would be the whole of side two of the original vinyl “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” album, or, they could divert back from 1973 to 1971, and “go Islands”…

I said aloud, during the last few seconds of Interlude ‘please be ‘The Letters”‘ and an instant later, “The Letters” started up. For me, this was it, the high point of the concert. Jakko’s voice is most similar to Boz’s voice, and I think he sings this song really well, which really adds to the historical accuracy. Both Fripp and Jakszyk play really delicate picked guitar chords during the verses, and the whole band played this piece with such delicacy…until the super loud fuzz guitar and honking tenor sax part that is…which is really sudden, and really powerful yet another awesome demonstration of dynamics, from the whisper to the scream…

The song then moves on until it reaches its remarkable vocal climax, where Jakko is “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…this song is so intense, and so strange, but the band gave it everything, took it seriously, and delivered it well, in a beautiful, unforgettable (for me, anyway) rendition.

and then I held my breath one more time, according to previous set lists, the next track should be “Sailor’s Tale” – so as the Bill Rieflin-powered, perfectly reproduced mystery mellotrons of “The Letters” faded out, I had a long moment of fear…until suddenly, Tony Levin and Bill Rieflinh » started up the fabulous bass and drum backing of “Sailor’s Tale” – which then gave the three back line soloists the chance to truly shine…first, the awesome sax riff, with dual long sustained guitar notes from our two guitar heroes…after a few precision reiterations of that, it then gets to the truly exciting bit, where both Collins and Fripp solo wildly, trade solos, play together, play crazily…it’s a truly wonderful instrumental jam. So here is my “broken record” speech again: I never dreamed in a million years that I would see and hear not one, but two amazing tracks from “Islands” my personal favourite of the early King Crimson albums.

so the double whammy shock of “The Letters / Sailor’s Tale” left me reeling, Mel’s screaming saxes and Robert’s wild lead guitar playing, including bends…it was very odd to see RF bending strings again in tracks like “Sailor’s Tale” or “Epitaph” – these two “Islands” songs, brought back in 2015 from 1971, probably at the suggestion of Jakko, who like myself, is also very fond of “Islands”, just made my evening complete, I was so pleased that this was an “Islands” night rather than a “Larks’ Tongues” night…although I do also hope to see the set list with “The Talking Drum / LTIA Part II”, but after tonight, now I can die happy!! because I saw and heard both “The Letters” AND “Sailor’s Tale” live – something I literally would have thought impossible until THIS King Crimson formed.

Then the time travel machine jumped forward again, to the beautiful, exquisite piece that is 1974’s “Starless” – more perfect mellotron parts, Mel Collins effortlessly re-creating both his own horn parts but also, Ian McDonald’s horn parts, creating a perfect amalgam of both…Jakko, tackling another difficult-to-imitate John Wetton vocal.

When the song reaches the slow buildup section, with the long, long picked guitar notes with bass figure, there was a slight problem with tuning at the start of that section, which eventually sorted itself out by the time we got to the very exciting conclusion of the song…Fripp playing that amazing, liquid, distorted lead guitar melody, again, with string bending, sharing the melody with the horns, a beautiful song, great vocal by Jakko, great bass from Tony, and beautiful soloing from Robert and Mel. Now, I had previously seen a version of “Starless” live, when I saw the 21st Century Schizoid Band play it, with the late ian Wallace on drums….but now, it’s “Starless” with Robert Fripp AND Mel Collins, it was just wonderful as performed by the new “Seven-headed Beast Of Crim”, a truly lovely performance, nicely done.

Time now for more “drum solos” that are apparently songs, this time, it’s (apparently) “The Devil Dogs Of Desolation Row” again, this trio of ultra professionals could make any percussion piece sound great. So another high quality 2015 percussion workout from Pat, Bill and Gavin. Great stuff.

For the final number of the main set, another impossible track from the distant past – the title track from 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, again, featuring the historically and musically accurate Jakko Jakzsyk on mock-acoustic guitar and lead vocals. Another standout vocal from Jakko, singing some of Peter Sinfield’s most famous and most amazing lyrics…perfect reproductions of the original flute parts from Mel…Robert reprising his original lead guitar parts in a really accurate and beautiful way…another classic Crimson number from the renowned first album.

And that was that, the end of the show, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” and I wanted to mention something interesting, planned into the drumming, for all of the tracks that originally featured Michael Giles on drums, I got the feeling that Pat Mastelotto felt it was his duty, his calling, to emulate sone of the incredibly powerful Giles drum rolls, and with real power…and he did just that. On several occasions, I was watching him play through the binoculars, when he would let loose an inhuman burst of speed, playing in the same uncanny, impossible way that Michael Giles used to. It was an astonishing thing to witness, and you could feel Pat’s desire to emulate what Michael played, because it was so much about the drums, in those classic pieces (I am thinking of “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” here).

Often during the long outros of the songs, Giles would suddenly play something impossible…and Pat did exactly the same thing, on a few different occasions during the night. So it was awesome that Pat did this, a real, living tribute to the critical part that Michael Giles (who, by the way, is Jakko’s father-in-law) played in the original music from that first album, his long powerful rolls were critical to the early Crimson’s sound.

To be fair, there were moments when each of the drummers did things equivalent to this, channelling Ian Wallace, channelling Bill Bruford,and young Gavin Harrison very nearly equalled Pat’s power and majesty – nearly.  I would say that ex-Ministry Bill Rieflin is the gentlest of the three, with the lightest touch maybe; but it’s unfair to compare, as he had to leave the drums and play mellotron for much of the set. So Gavin and Pat got the lion’s share of the power drumming :-), but when Bill was free to join them, he rocked just as hard…the three of them are really well matched in every way.

The band left the stage to standing ovations, and then returned for one final song: “21st Century Schizoid Man’ – which rocked the house. Tony was especially good on this one, doing his best to out-play Greg Lake on the bass…while everyone else took a turn at soloing, including the drummers…Mel took an amazing sax solo, and both Robert and Jakko played some great guitar. And then, there was the famous “precision part” near the end,  where the band play a riff, stop, okay a riff, stop, and so on, and of course, the seven of them knocked that bit on the head…Jakko had a great time with the vocal on this one, I think he sounded really good on it.

All in all…a show full of surprises, full of unexpected joys, full of songs that I never dreamed in a billion, trillion, gazillion years I would ever get to see my favourite band in the world play – but last night, I did…I really did.

This remarkable group of seasoned musicians have worked together to create something truly unique, a group where the three drummers are out front, and those who normally solo or support, become the back line…and that strange strange configuration – works. Really, really works. The selection of songs, old and new, is remarkable, and the sense of history here is so strong, carried forward by musicians, old and new – this is also remarkable.

A really, really good show. Enjoyable on so many different levels, superb musicianship, passionate delivery, and a first ever look back across the entire King Crimson catalogue, this band with its front and back lines strangely swapped, really gives you a run for your money – and just about anything might happen – a flute replaces a voice; a guitar becomes a violin, and Robert Fripp bends his strings again, most beautifully, on “Starless” and “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King”.

Indeed.

turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave