what we’re listening to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to

aka favourite musicians and albums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so, working backwards:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1)      exp

2)      up from the skies

3)      spanish castle magic

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

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

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

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