The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

splitenz

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

 

marillion

 

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

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

enobrian70s

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

 

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

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

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

thompsonrichard

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

 

 

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

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

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

jethrotull

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

Type Uno

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

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

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

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

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

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

A First Time For Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gabrielpeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What a way to START a concert!

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

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

nelsonbill74

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Type Dos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

pretenders

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

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

 

 

Forward…into the future!

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

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

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

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

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the damage is done… (long-lost blog draft #1)

March 6th, 2016:

Sometime back now, I attempted to compare the two different versions of the Sylvian-Fripp live masterpiece,”Damage: Live” more commonly known as “Damage” – the live album record of one of the most remarkable musical collaboratations of the last century – “Sylvian-Fripp” – the band.  I’d owned the Robert Fripp mix/version for several years, when I then had the opportunity to pick up David Sylvian‘s mix/version, released some years later.

I then sat down and listened to both records, first, in linear fashion, then, as an “A-B” – i.e. track by track, where possible. The differences are interesting – it’s not often that you get the chance to compare the “ear” of two such brilliant musicians, and it is interesting to hear how they interpret the same live show into a finished disc.

Anyway, from the first of the “long-lost blog drafts’, I now present to you, “the damage is done”, my freshman attempt at comparing two different versions of the same recordings…wish me luck!!

 

Additions, edits, and final proofing done on March 6, 2016.

 

 

Unfinished Blog Draft #1 – last edit (until today) was December 21st, 2014:

 

TRACK: “DAMAGE”

“Damage” (song) is the opening track on the RF (Robert Fripp)-produced version of the “Damage” album, whereas, on the DS (David Sylvian)-produced version of the “Damage” album, it’s moved to fifth position.

That’s not the only difference, however, it’s the only position change.  There are the omissions, one song omitted from each disc – the RF disc is missing “Jean The Birdman”, while DS has included that track; and the DS disc is missing the 10.47 “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)”, while RF has included that track.

To me, the omission of “Darshan” really harms the DS version, and I can’t imagine what the reason for not including what is surely one of the highlights of the concert – the super long and full version of amazing-Fripp guitar, “Darshan” – I couldn’t believe it when I first realised that the DS version did not contain it !

For RF to omit “Jean The Birdman” is not nearly as distressing, it was, supposedly, the band’s “single” if such a thing could be, for a band like Sylvian / Fripp.

Doing an A/B compare of the two records is very revealing, but, it’s tricky, because of advances in technology, the DS version is much “louder” than the RF version, so each time I switch from RF to DS, there is an increase in volume, punch, bass – everything.  I basically am trying to ignore that, and consider the content itself – the music.

Both versions of (title track) “Damage” are very, very beautiful, I can’t point to anything about either of them that I dislike, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful song, and OK, possibly, the vocal might be a tiny bit louder in the DS mix; and the guitars may be a tiny bit louder in the RF mix – but I would expect nothing less – the vocalist wants to hear the vocals, the guitarist, wants to hear the guitars.

Out of all of the tracks on the record, the two versions of the song “Damage” are probably “the most alike”, hence, I haven’t really said much about them, or their differences.  They a

As for the poor bass player, well, he just has to hope that the mix will be kind to him – and in this case, both mixes are, when Trey (Gunn) comes in finally near the end.  On the RF disc, “God’s Monkey” is track two, but on the DS Version, it’s the opening track (due to “Damage” being moved from track 1 to track 5 on the DS version).  Now, I don’t know the reasons for this radical change to the running order, except to say, maybe DS is using the real running order, and Fripp used some artistic license in placing the two “quiet” songs as bookends of the concert – and DS wanted to make a point by restoring “Damage” to its rightful place in the centre of the concert – I do not know.

 

TRACK: “GOD’S MONKEY”

RF’s version of “God’s Monkey” starts with Trey’s distinctive bass riff, and the bass is nicely up in the mix, as are both Robert’s (Fripp) and Michael’s (Brook) guitars (not surprising, again – a guitarist is mixing the album!) but you can hear the vocals fine in this mix, maybe just because it’s the “familiar one” but I really like the way this is mixed, the vocal is up, the bass is up, the drums are good, and the guitars are powerful or quiet as required…it’s very well balanced.

Even Trey’s harmony vocal on the chorus, is very clear and concise, and having that vocal harmony reproduced live, is very helpful to the overall feel of the song, which ends in clouds of harmonizer / soundscape loop guitars from Robert, and a piercing, beautiful solo as well, with Sylvian and Brook supporting him beautifully – Trey is simply a rock on the bass at this point, as RF shreds his way up the octave doubler – fantastic speed and clarity, an awesome solo – then back to that great chorus, replete with Trey’s lovely harmony – you can’t go wrong with this mix, and Fripp is way up front during the final solo – but not annoyingly so – it’s just right.

Then, we have the DS mix – with all trace of the audience removed at the start – unlike RF’s mix, which starts with audience reaction to Damage still going on.  So it sounds almost like a studio track, because of the removal of the crowd sounds – in the intro, the guitars seem quite loud, and there is some nice stereo Fripp, too.  The vocal is clean, clear, and not any louder than in RF’s version – in fact, the balance between instruments is not terrifically different, I would say that possibly, you can hear the Sylvian and Brook guitar parts a little bit better in this mix, but other than that, they both give a satisfying reading of the awesome triple guitar attack of Sylvian / Brook / Fripp – I was lucky enough to catch their performance at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in the early 1990s, so I got to see and hear first hand, what a powerful triple-guitar-entity they could be.

When you add Trey into that mix, you really almost end up with Trey representing the fourth guitarist, as a lot of Stick or Warr guitar does involve multiple tapped parts that are not necessarily all in the “bass” range – so sometimes, it’s a FOUR guitar attack.  The main guitar interlude sounds fantastic, Fripp’s ambient loops sound great, it’s really not that different from the RF version, except for the strange, slightly sterile EQ that makes this undeniably live track, sound a little bit more like it was created in a studio – which it absolutely wasn’t, but just the act of removing the crowd sounds from the track’s start, makes a huge difference in perception.

The final guitar solo, is mixed in a similar way to RF’s – Fripp is definitely featured, but the helper guitars from Sylvian and Brook are a bit louder than they are in the RF mix, or so it seems, but again, it’s just, in both cases, coming up with a sound balance and a “sound” for each track as they hear it, as an engineer, it’s surprising, I would have thought that these mixes might be radically different, and there are some audible differences, I think EQ and other treatments may have been used by either or both parties, to “improve” the sounds of any of the instruments, and there are some sonic tonal differences that are hard to pin down, even with an A/B test.

TRACK: “BRIGHTNESS FALLS”

“Brightness Falls” is our next victim on the table, in our dissection of these two disparate mixes of one of the best live albums of all time, “Damage” by Sylvian-Fripp – certainly one of the very best collaborations that Robert ever involved himself in.

I loved “The First Day” (“Sylvian-Fripp’s studio debut album) when it came out, it was amazing to hear Fripp’s guitar and compositional skills behind the ever soulful vocals of Sylvian, it just sounded great – that is, until “Damage” appeared a year later.  It blew me away; on “Damage”, the songs from “The First Day”, were already transmutated from iron into gold, already transformed And wonderfully mutated into amazing live musical experiences by this remarkable band – there’s never been another band quite like this one – a wonderful compilation of individual musical characters, who’s sum was much greater than the parts, always. The live versions by far transcend “The First Day” as a whole, “Damage” is quite simply light-years ahead in terms of song development.

It’s almost as if “The First Day” was a test pressing, a musical sketchbook to sketch out the songs in a basic, crude form, but then, in rehearsals and in performance, on the tour,mine songs blossomed and grew legs, arms, feet, tentacles,and became immortal versions of those primitive sketches.  I still to this day, struggle to listen to “The First Day”, if I should, it would be immediately followed by “Damage” to set the record straight. “Damage” shows the definitive versions of all of these songs, which just happens to make “The First Day” fade away into nothingness…

 

Along with revitalised tracks from “The First Day”, played with explosive excitement, there are also tracks from both Sylvian’s and Fripp’s back catalogues, including some where both musicians played on a track together – such as the tracks taken from “Gone To Earth”.

The RF mix has a lovely, lovely ambient outro, “Brightness Falls” live was incredible, with Robert building up an amazing live loop, which made the track more and more ambient as it went along, with the band keeping time beautifully with a lovely slide guitar part from Michael, and a constant and steady riff from DS himself.  The song fades into just Frippertronics, or rather, a soundscape, and gradually disappears – until it suddenly transforms into a track originally on the “Rain Tree Crow” album, “Every Colour You Are”.

But we still have the DS mix of “Brightness Falls” to contend with, this time, I would say, all four guitars have been EQ’d or treated, and the lack of crowd sounds again, gives a sterile and studio-like sound that is both brilliant, but slightly disturbing – it’s almost as if there is too much detail revealed, I would say in the case of this song, DS’s mix is definitely a bit “clearer”, the definition between the three guitars and bass, is stunning, really, it sounds great – and when Robert takes a short solo, it’s just amazing – it sounds fantastic – panning madly across the stereo field – and then, back to the quiet, four guitars in perfect harmony mix level – as the vocalist works through the chorus again.

I think in almost every song here, that maybe, the vocals are a little louder, a little clearer, on the DS mixes, whereas on the RF mix, there may be some murky moments, and sometimes, the balance between the 3 guitars and bass, is not as clean and definite as it is in DS’s mix, but – to Fripp’s credit, DS had both, better, newer equipment, and – more time, probably – to tinker with the album – and in the case of “Brightness Falls” that tinkering has truly paid off – I am hearing things leading up to the middle section, that I have never heard properly on the RF version – the found voices that David was triggering from his synth, are much more audible here – really clear and nice.

The long outro with Soundscape, is just as beautiful as in the Fripp version, or maybe even a little nicer, because you can hear the samples a little better on the way out.  It’s such a lovely, long fade down, you can’t really go wrong, it just sounds great in BOTH mixes – no clear winner here, although the DS does seem a bit clearer in terms of the guitars to bass balance – it’s clean.  But RF’s mix is no slouch, either – Fripp’s mixes are as they always are, accurate, precise, and, with Fripp pretty far up in the mix ;-).

TRACK: “EVERY COLOUR YOU ARE”

So we now get to “Every Colour You Are” from the “Rain Tree Crow” – which was, of course, an unofficial “Japan” reunion – they (all of the members of Japan) all play on the record, but, they didn’t want to call it “Japan” – so, because this was a new band making a new record, they became “Rain Tree Crow” for this one album.  It spawned a number of great new David Sylvian songs, and it’s great to hear the S/F band interpreting them on the live “Damage” album – now available in two delicious flavours.

Some slightly wonky delay slide guitar from Michael is mixed down a bit to try and distract attention from it, but he soon gets things together, and then that same slide guitar becomes a crucial component of the song – and there is then, that amazing drum roll from heaven, when Pat Mastelotto makes his presence known suddenly – that no one expects – right there in the middle of that beautiful solo – and then, the song settles back down to the two chord motif, and that amazing verse about the family man, who puts a torch to his house and warms his hands by the fire…remarkable.

I haven’t spoken much yet about the contribution of drummer Pat Mastelotto, because it’s just one of those things that you sort of take for granted, and maybe that’s the easiest thing to say – that he is solid, reliable, spot on, but still capable of lots of percussive surprises. He’s the perfect drummer for this sadly short-lived monster of a band, unobtrusive when he should be, powerful, precise and utterly, utterly focused on the beat, and on the song…and doing what is appropriate every single time.

I think Sylvian’s voice is equally compelling in both mixes, and despite some differing EQ’s and treatments on both records, it’s consistent and strong throughout, on both mixes.  On RF’s, it’s mixed up well, along with the solo guitars, which are just beautiful – Fripp plays a blinder of a clean solo up to the insanely cool ending – I love that ending !  Dissonance shown as beauty…only Fripp can pull that off successfully (courtesy of that amazing, high-pitched, 2 octaves up reverse guitar) – and he does, indeed, pull it off, with the remarkable ending of this track.

This time, the DS mix does contain audience sound, but it’s the sound from the ending of “Brightness Falls” which abruptly ends, “Every Colour You Are” begins, again, with it’s odd EQ sort of studio-sound, which is then confused by an eruption of spontaneous crowd noise when they recognise what song it is – a lovely, very real moment, and both mixes include it – it’s a nice moment, and it works within the context of the song, because this song has a lot of space in it.

TRACK: “JEAN THE BIRDMAN” (DAVID SYLVIAN MIX ONLY)

Now, we have arrived at the point where the discs differ, in this case, RF Mix does not contain the next track, which DS mix does – the live version of “Jean The Birdman” – I can understand why Sylvian wanted this track, it was the single, and I think he wanted it to do better than it did (there was a single release of it) and to be fair, it’s actually really, really beautifully done, with sparkling guitars throughout, including really beautiful reverse guitar solos from Fripp – a great live version of a much-underrated song.  Unfortunately, I can only comment on the DS version, according to Wikipedia, “Jean The Birdman” “replaced” “Darshan” from the earlier Fripp mix – but no reason is given.

In a way, it’s a bonus, because now, in a way, we get two unique live tracks – if you only had one of these discs, you would only have one of those two songs, so, it’s worthwhile having both mixes – if just to get “Jean The Birdman” live, if nothing else – it’s very, very well done.

TRACK:  “FIREPOWER”

Now we are back in comparison land, and it’s “Firepower”, another track that started life on “The First Day”, but is utterly re-vitalised, featuring a killer, exciting, vocal; fantastic drum rolls popping from Mastelotto’s snare; Trey’s bass is supercharging the rhythm section, while the Sylvian / Brook / Fripp “Axis of Guitar Power”, continue to dominate, Fripp playing another blinder of octave up distorted guitar solo, followed by an incredible, dissonant solo with some very odd goings-on, samples from David’s keyboards, a lot of fabulous detail in the background – with Fripp’s guitar definitely in the foreground!

A snappy ending – that isn’t an ending; the song then starts over, with a Fripp Soundscape, Trey’s beautiful bass riff, and a nice, extended outro that is really, really lovely – just a great mood, Pat is steady, Fripp’s soundscape is being built brick by brick, Michael makes strange guitar sounds periodically, and David has his many samples – odd to watch him, in concert, holding down one key at a time, to trigger samples – but, that’s how it works.  More ON FIRE guitar from Mr. Fripp, really beautiful Digitech Whammy II high pitched guitar work – this was also, for many years – my pitch pedal of choice, it’s not perfect, but, if you work at it, you can make it sound quite good.

The DS mix of “Firepower” – while perhaps, a slightly thinner sound, it comes blasting in, guitars a bit more up front, Fripp razor sharp guitar sounding even more razor sharp, the fabulous guitar solo, the dissonant section that follows it, sounding great – a bit cleaner mix maybe, and again, Fripp’s awesome high-pitched guitar melodies just buzz through the atmosphere – and at the end of the solo, a part that I don’t remember being on the RF version, just before the  famous “false ending” (at 2:58) – a great riff (at 2:40 to 2:44) that brings the track down to its outro just beautifully – a very heavy and very precise riff, bringing perfect closure to both an amazing Fripp guitar solo, but also, an amazing guitar trio – especially the dissonant part of it – and it seems like the main body of the song is ending, but, instead, after 3 minutes of “song with guitar solos” we now move purely into the instrumental realm – “guitar, guitars, and more guitar!” – for another four minutes; with a lazy, beautiful rhythm from Trey and Pat, over which Fripp gets to stretch out once again with a very long, very lovely solo.

The long outro after that false ending, with Fripp’s beautiful sustained solo, could not fail to sound great no matter who mixed it when, and it sounds just as wonderful in the new DS mix as it does on the “old” RF mix – both are great renderings, they really are – and, a great performance of the song, too, from the whole band – that certainly helps :-).

And during that outro, be sure to check out what Pat gets up to, he reminds us, gently, of the power and majesty that he can inject into the proceedings at any time – and he doesn’t do so often, he is very careful never to overplay – always, subtle appropriate drumming – which he does so well – so when he does cut loose for a moment, here and there, it’s even more impressive than it might normally be – so, restraint much of the time, but, bursts of incredible drumming, with a rhythmic musicality that only Mastelotto can provide – he is unique, and I love his drumming style.

TRACK: “GONE TO EARTH”

Next comes a somewhat oddball song, “Gone To Earth”, which must take incredible concentration to sing, it has the oddest melody; and the oddest guitar parts, I hear it start and all I can think is, “what a weird, difficult, odd yet wonderful song!” but it has that beautiful vocal refrain, and the found voices over Fripp harmonics – wow, that’s just so beautiful…an oddity, yes, but I am so glad they dug it up, the title track of one of David’s most famous albums, and it’s mostly famous for its roll call of amazing guitar guest stars, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp (on the same album – I mean, wow!) and Fripp is on a decent number of the tracks on the album – so he is able to reprise his parts as well, with better guitar technique, and more experience and technique of his own.

The DS mix of “Gone To Earth” differs a bit, the vocal is definitely higher in the mix, with Robert’s unique guitar intro comes flying in, quite a bit louder than on the RF mix, his distorted stereo lead guitars clearly to the fore in the very beginning of the track.  The found voice samples are also a bit higher in the mix, which is great, I think in this case, despite my usual complaint about slightly weird EQ in the beginning of the songs, this may be superior to the RF version in some ways – although I love both versions.  Sylvian’s vocal is particularly good on this track, and I don’t know how he gets his pitch “live”, but he does a beautiful job of performing this often-overlooked mini-ambient masterpiece from “Gone To Earth”.

TRACK: “20TH CENTURY DREAMING”

Now, we come to the fabulous, riffalicious “20th Century Dreaming”, one of my favourite tracks, originally from “The First Day” – as David sings – “social, economical, spiritual – I’m moving to the House of Love…” and he sounds very convincing.  Fripp’s mix is very clear, bass and drums throbbing in the centre of the mix, while the three-guitar attack is blazing away in glorious, confusing stereo in the background.  There seem to be three rhythm guitar parts during the verses – and then of course, Robert begins his ominous, low-pitched solo, and it suddenly moves into double time, razor-sharp, biting, beautiful, and intense in that way that only Fripp can be intense – one of his best solos, and in this live rendition, it rivals anything he ever played under the name “King Crimson” – I was so excited by this band, that when I saw them, I walked around for months afterwards saying that Sylvian-Fripp were very nearly as good, or possibly, better than King Crimson (I know – a moment of madness) – but, there is some merit to that opinion.

A fantastical Frippertronics soundscape underpins a long, ambient “non-solo”, with quiet vocals, quiet guitars, quiet bass and drums, the whole band sinks down, but, still playing with intensity, which then, once the vocals pause – builds in intensity again – “dreaming….dreaming lying down”… and Pat starts in with the most constant snare drum you ever heard, until suddenly, all hell breaks loose as David is moving, moving, moving to the House of Love – and Fripp and co are literally propelling him there – with some of the most amazing music I have ever heard.  This song is so difficult to describe with mere words, the ambient parts, the soundscape is so incredibly beautiful, and Fripp soloing away, even when the drums and bass have silenced themselves, so it’s Fripp playing lead guitar, and reverse guitar, two octaves up, along with his soundscape…and suddenly, silence.

The David Sylvian mix of “20th Century Dreaming” again, has a different guitar sound, the stereo image of the guitars differs from the RF mix, which does make them feel fuller – not sure what adjustments were made, but, Sylvian’s mix does sound “different” – but it’s never “bad different” – it’s always “good different”.  This song is a very, very long, very detailed piece of music, with a lot of elements to it, and capturing those elements, and mixing them well, was certainly a challenge, moreso than some of the shorter, more straightforward songs.

The Axis Of Guitar Power, that triple-threat of electric guitars, with two masters and one very capable rhythm keeper, young David Sylvian himself, it’s just the most astonishing sound you could imagine; Fripp, ominous, capable of blinding speed, and amazing displays of speed and musical accuracy, while Michael Brook provides anything from second rhythm guitar, on up to lead guitars, sounds, infinite guitar, ambient guitar, and just plain strange guitar, which compliments David’s very straight parts, and Robert’s intense solos, but, of course, there are really a couple more guitarists here, in the form of “loopers” – so Robert has his Soundscapes, which are used a lot on the album, and also, here in live performance, they are a critical ingredient to the success of the music played on “Damage” – it would NOT be the same without them.

So really, you have a quartet of guitarists, one of them, a beautiful, musically complex Soundscape loop, played over by our three heroes.  “20th Century Dreaming” gives all three of them a workout, and Sylvian’s vocal is really beautiful here, the guitars and Soundscapes flying around in stereo around his head…a miraculous mass of music that should be overcrowded, but instead, just sounds perfect – in either mix, I love them both, no contest, this is such a good track, that you could just about NOT mix it and it would probably STILL sound amazing.  A lot of work has gone into both mixes, I can tell, and it’s paid off, because there IS a lot of great guitar detail to bring out, and Fripp’s performance on here is just stunningly good – one of those where you shake your head and think “how on earth does he do that?

TRACK: “WAVE”

Now we return to the “Gone To Earth” album, for one of its loveliest songs, “Wave”, which features what can only be described as an “Heroes”-like, long sustained guitar riff, which makes repeated appearances, alongside various other guitar solos using various guitar sounds, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Fripp use so many different sounds live, in one song – he is changing his sound mid solo, even – but it sounds great.  The Fripp mix is excellent, the lead guitarist is again featured, but, never overpowering the singer, it’s great to witness that in both mixes, Fripp never drowns out Sylvian’s vocal, and Sylvian never drowns out Fripp’s guitar – so there is obviously, mutual respect for the musicianship of each other there.

This is almost straightforward as a song, when compared to some of the very complex songs preceding it – with a few long verses, followed by Fripp’s “two different voices” solo, it begins with a strange harmonizer patch, then switches back to the trademark distorted, high-pitched, sustained guitar sound – a beautiful solo, and then back to David’s impassioned vocal, I am always surprised by “Wave” – “I’ll never let you down” – is followed by the most astonishing, “St. Elmo’s Fire” style Fripp “spinning guitar” at speed, and during the last few solos, Robert is absolutely scorching, wiping the floor with his guitar, I love this solo more than almost any other on the record – it’s just sublime – and, it takes us right to the end of the song.

Moving now to the DS mix, the drums in the beginning, sound completely different, and, it sounds almost as if vibrato has been added to the guitars in the intro.  Fripp’s guitar, volume and tone, seems identical to the earlier RF mix, but boy, those drums sure sound odd in the beginning!  In Fripp’s mix, they are mixed down to almost nothing, and their volume only comes up when the guitars start, in Sylvian’s mix, he has cranked the four bars of solo drums intro, up so far that it sounds like a different song at the start!  Personally, I like the fact that I can now hear what Pat played in the beginning of the song, and I am not sure why RF would have turned it down so far !

David’s mix otherwise, like Robert’s before it, is true to the spirit of the original song as it was on “Gone To Earth” – in fact, all of the songs taken from “Rain Tree Crow” or “Gone To Earth” have all been faithful reproductions of the original studio works, with of course, better and more interesting vocals and guitars – particularly, Robert Fripp excels in the live environment, so what sounded good on “The First Day” – sounds GREAT on “Damage”; and at the same time, what sounded good on “Gone To Earth” sounds GREAT on “Damage”…superlative improvements plus live guitaring.

So in the case of songs from “The First Day” – there are changes, there are improvements, the songs are MUCH better across the board, on “Damage”, whereas, the songs from “Rain Tree Crow” and “Gone To Earth” are much more faithful renditions, sounding pretty much exactly like the originals…but better.

BRIEF INTERLUDE – (OUT OF SCOPE):

“Exposure”, which they also played at live shows, also sounded much like it did on Robert’s breakthrough album “Exposure” – except with David Sylvian singing the song instead of Terri Roche.  Or, Peter Gabriel, as the version of “Exposure” on “Peter Gabriel 2” has.  I loved hearing Sylvian sing that, and play the “E”, “X”, etc. samples from his keyboard, while Fripp reprised his loops and guitar – it’s such a shame that no take of “Exposure” was deemed good enough to put onto the “Damage” album – a real loss, as for me, at the live show I saw in Los Angeles, it was a huge surprise, and, a real highlight.

Note: there are bootleg recordings of Sylvian-Fripp concerts that DO include “Expoaure” the song, unfortunately since that track does not appear on either of these official releases of “Damage” that we are comparing here, it is outside the scope of this discussion.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>Return to album comparison>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

TRACK: “RIVERMAN”

So from “Wave”, we move to another track from the same album, “Riverman”, beginning with a very strange, ambient section, which then gives way to the song’s lovely, swaying two note bass motif, and wonderful, strange guitars in the background, Michael plays rhythm guitar and slide guitar, while Fripp plays high-pitched notes which become Soundscapes; Trey comes in with a lovely vocal harmony on the chorus, an underrated singer, I think he harmonises beautifully with Sylvian, and that is no mean feat, as David’s voice is utterly unique, and probably not easy to sing along with!

After the first verse and chorus, Fripp takes a very intense, heavy solo, that seems almost too heavy for such an otherwise quite gentle song, “run with me, holy man…” quite dissonant, a beautiful solo – then back to normal music – it works beautifully, it’s dead serious, quick, intense – and then, back to beautiful, super-high pitched notes being dropped into a loop.  And then comes another short guitar solo, distorted, low pitched, with reverse elements, sounding just right – and again, back to the Soundscapes from heaven…drift away on clouds of ambient guitar.

This is the “slow moment” in the concert, or one of the “slow moments”, most of the band’s songs are uptempo, so it’s nice to have something that’s at a lower bpm, so we can hear this group of musician’s playing at something less than the speed of light, on a few tracks.  Fripp is just great on this track, filling in the areas between the verses with powerful guitar solos, and then falling back into those atmospheric sounds, the wonderful high pitch notes that appear and then group together in a loop, then fade, then return…really beautiful guitar work, and, loops at the same time – an immaculate process, and Fripp really knows how to work these live-built soundscapes into a piece of music.  An almost “Elephant Talk” two-note-Fripp-guitar calls a halt to the proceedings – and “Riverman” is over.

David’s mix, well, the intro is mixed up a bit more as usual, so you can hear the strange elements that the beginning is made up of, a bit better than you can discern them on Robert’s mix. Sylvian’s voice sounds more “present”, as if he has moved closer to us, which could be the result of almost anything in the studio, simply upping the vocal level, changing the stereo field, applying EQ – I don’t know what he does, but he always make his voice sound great, and, I also feel, he makes his three guitarists sound great – he manages to crank up Fripp and Brook, even more than Fripp cranked up Fripp in his mix, and that’s unusual, normally, Fripp’s mix would ALWAYS have the loudest guitars, by default, because he is a guitarist, of course, but not here, I think Sylvian likes these guitars so much, that he really cranks them up so he can enjoy them!

The solos in “Riverman” are brilliant, it’s yet another great rendition from the “Gone To Earth” album – in fact, the tracks presented here from that album, demonstrate that it’s a quality record that stands the test of time – and it really does.  It’s probably my favourite David Sylvian album of all, although I am also very fond of “Brilliant Trees”.

TRACK: “DARSHAN (THE ROAD TO GRACELAND)” (ROBERT FRIPP MIX ONLY)

Then we come to our second anomaly, another song for which there is no comparison, in this case, we only have Fripp’s mix, and, it makes me feel very happy – this is the almost eleven minutes of “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” and all I could think when I saw David’s running order did not include “Darshan” – I could not believe my eyes, or my ears.  Removing that song…well, to me, it borders on sacrilege; because it represents Sylvian/Fripp at their most bleeding edge, testing the limits of a live groove with flying shards of screaming Fripp “Sailor’s Tale” or “Hendrix” style guitar, Fripp pushes himself, and this song, through an almost exhausting, and terrifically exhaustive, set of long, amazing distorted chords, delivered at speed, sliding up and down the neck with aplomb, bouncing of the fretboard – playing with it, pushing his own boundaries.

The band, is in an amazing groove, that runs pretty much without stopping, for the entire length of the song – giving both Sylvian and Fripp, plenty of time to do their individual singing and soloing.  Sylvian is great on this song, I love his vocals, I love the chant of “Darshan” and “leaving on the road….to Graceland” that recurs many times, whilst Mr. Fripp is almost in a world of his own with his super extended impossible sliding chord exercise / solo.  It is remarkable to hear, and, if you don’t have the Fripp mix, at this point, you should put DOWN your David Sylvian mix, and go order the Fripp version, so you can HEAR THIS SONG.   That’s the best endorsement I can give, it’s absolutely worth it, to buy a whole CD, to get this one song.

At 6:45, there is an incredibly “interplay” solo between Michael Brook and Robert Fripp, that is just sublime, there are so many great moments of guitaring on this record…this particular back and forth is just awesome!  Brilliant guitar work from both Fripp and Brook.

It should also be noted, that if you just have the Fripp mix, you should avail yourself of the Sylvian mix, so you can get a most excellent version of “Jean The Birdman” – which Fripp did not include.

But “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)”  – is an absolutely remarkable song, and this performance, available on the RF Mix of “Damage” only, is a must-have recording if you love the music of Sylvian or Fripp, or both (as in my case).

TRACK: “BLINDING LIGHT OF HEAVEN”

Moving now toward the end of the disc, we come to a personal favourite of mine, at the time of the original Damage coming out, Damage was the only record in Sylvian’s canon that contained this next song, the incredibly beautiful and semi-erotic “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – which to me, is a real highlight on this record, it has some wonderful guitars, although nothing can top the aforementioned “Darshan” – Fripp’s solos in “Darshan” are absolutely off the scale, especially the final one – which you have to hear to believe….

But, back to the “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – it starts with a rocking beat from Pat, and a two note “Hendrix” hammer-on, some sliding guitars, and then, it acquires a great disco (really, I’m not being funny here – it’s really cool!!) rhythm guitar courtesy of David Sylvian, while Robert and Michael play great guitars in the background.  “I’m in the shade, she’s in the blinding light of heaven….” And “…now she stands before me opening the buttons of her coat….I found myself, wrapped in the open arms…of heaven”.

It’s deceiving, it has a funky beat, with an almost-disco guitar, but to me, it’s a strange and wonderful piece of almost prog guitar work, especially when the second verse ends, and Fripp takes his first solo, which includes him TAPPING, and it’s just the most amazing, ripping solo, with those amazing trills, that slide right off the top of his top note on his top string – astonishing solo.

Fripp’s mix is very good, the guitars are getting louder, Sylvian is well audible but not up as much as in the DS mix, and now, here comes the second Fripp solo, this time, using the octave up pedal, and the tapping again, then – song over.

A great, great and sudden ending from Robert, such a concise little wonder of a song – “The Blinding Light of Heaven” indeed.  The Blinding Guitars of Robert, more like.  Now, to David’s version, his mix starts the same way as Robert’s (well it would, wouldn’t it) but again, the stereo on the guitars is better, Sylvian’s guitar has been re-EQ’d a bit, and the sound overall is a bit different, I think Fripp’s guitars may have had some stereo chorus added to brighten them up, otherwise, the vocal is a tiny bit higher, but not criminally so, if anything, Sylvian’s mix features loud, loud guitars, maybe louder than on RF’s mix.

This vocal, this vocal melody, is one of his best, and I think now, finally, you can get a “studio version” of this song, but I haven’t done so yet, because…I love this live version so much, so, very, very much, that I am not sure I want to HEAR any other version.  Great bit in the middle, where the two note Hendrix hammer-on happens again, DS just cranks it up, it’s right before Robert’s even-more-impossible second guitar solo.  And I love that sudden ending – it’s just brilliant!  Great song, great performance – two great mixes, you can’t lose, you really can’t.

TRACK: “THE FIRST DAY”

Finally, we come to “The First Day” which is mainly a vocal piece, with sparse keyboard and soundscape backing, some short, long low distorted notes from Robert, the simple piano melody the perfect backdrop for one of David’s most heartfelt lyrics – the RF mix, was always lovely, and Sylvian’s vocal on this, the way it ties in with Robert’s very careful 2 octave up volume-pedal guitar, David sings “bring out the stars….on the first day” – and after the word “stars”, Fripp plays four descending notes, up high, that parallel the vocal rhythm of “bring out the stars”… and it’s just the perfect moment, it’s why these two work together so well, because ultimately, both of them live to serve the music, to serve the song, and this lovely Sylvian ballad is even nicer than the title track, in my opinion, I love Fripp’s clouds of soundscapes here, and Sylvian’s understated keyboards – both supporting that gorgeous, honeyed voice “on the first day…the first day” – which is a great way to end an album, with a song about the very beginning.

The first verse ends, and a beautiful piano and soundscapes section follows: a frozen moment of pure music, until David’s warm, warm voice comes back to melt the frozen moment, and then – a beautiful, beautiful high register piano sequence, with the most beautiful soundscape in the universe behind it – those little interludes between the verses just knock me out, they are very, very beautiful indeed, and this is truly a “Sylvian-Fripp” song, for me, it really represents the co-operation of two great artists, and Robert’s final, massive, distorted one note ending is simply sublime. And, yes, I have over-used the word “beautiful” in this paragraph, but it was the only way to properly describe it: truly beautiful.

The David Sylvian mix, as always, is a few dbs louder overall, as the entire mix is louder than the original RF mix, and while I suppose that’s “progress”, I am personally a fan of CDs that don’t blast your socks off, this quiet meditative song, isn’t improved by being louder, in fact, my instinct is to turn it down, so it’s closer in level to the RF mix that I just heard, but I refrain, I let it play out at volume, and it’s no less beautiful than Robert’s mix, if truth be told, those musical interludes between the verses are just as beautiful, the vocal is so present, so real, so central to the song, and this beautiful live performance, is yet again captured in this new mix as a beatific moment trapped in time, capturing the spirit with which Robert and David approached this project, as a team brought to life to give this music life, and this song, possibly above all others, is the perfect example of co-operation, bringing only what is necessary for the song to the song.

This mix does sound different, I can hear what must be Michael Brook, making some swooshy sounds with his guitar, that I didn’t really hear in RF’s mix very well, as always, the “guitars” mix in Sylvian’s mix seems to be a bit different, but in a good way.  Since Trey and Pat don’t play on this track, you can hear the two guitars very well indeed, and especially in David’s mix – it sounds really lovely.

One thing I do love about David’s version of “The First Day” that is missing from RF’s version – is the very loud, very long applause that occurs after the end of “The First Day”, a very polite applause, respectful, which for some reason was removed from Fripp’s version – there is just silence after the track ends on RF’s mix.  So it’s nice to hear the audience’s reaction, if for no other reason than to confirm that they saw a similar show to the one I saw, and I get all the confirmation I need from that applause.

CONCLUSIONS AND COMMENTS

For a long, long time, after see Sylvian-Fripp play live, I walked around saying to everyone that seeing Sylvian-Fripp live was almost as good as King Crimson live – blasphemy!! – but in some ways, it really was superior – more human, and, Fripp’s guitar playing is absolutely on form, particularly on the “loud” numbers (i.e. the whole album, basically, since there are really only two or three “quiet” numbers); the quality of the soundscaping is brilliant; and the guitar solos, from the amazing “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” to “20th Century Dreaming” to “Firepower” to the not-present-on-either-mix “Exposure” – Fripp just excels, and also, the inclusion of earlier Sylvian works, in particular, the sublime “Gone To Earth” album, as well as Fripp’s back catalogue in the form of “Exposure” – that really rounded out the performance – the core of which, was the new material from “The First Day”, but mixing in a Fripp classic like “Exposure” (and, getting to hear David Sylvian SING it !!!), plus a few of the best tracks from “Gone To Earth”, plus, a “Rain Tree Crow” track – what a great set list, totally involving, and featuring an incredibly broad spectrum of truly remarkable music from across the distinguished careers of both David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.

So, it’s odd but interesting to get this David Sylvian “version” of “Damage”, I had no complaints whatsoever about the Fripp original, none, but, in hearing another vision of the album, it’s really fantastic, actually, because David “hears” the vocal mix and the guitars mix, a bit differently to the way Robert “hears” the mix – so you get some fascinating variations of guitars, especially – but in the end, all it means is, I’ve now got two very personal, very brilliant mixes, by two of my favourite musicians of all time, of one of my very favourite live albums EVER.  Normally, you only ever get to hear one version of a live album, so it’s just double the pleasure, if you ask me.

So – a great set of music, if I had to make a complaint, it would be David removing the essential track “Darshan” from his mix – I really don’t get that, unless he was truly unhappy with the track from some strange reason – and for my second and final complaint – the omission from both versions, of the band’s live rendition of Fripp’s “Exposure” – which was a highlight of the live show, at least for me, because I never dreamed in a BILLION TRILLION years that I would see and hear Robert Fripp playing the song “Exposure” – live.  I just – never thought it could happen.

And then, there I was, at the Wiltern Theatre, in Los Angeles, California, 1994, with Bryan Helm of the Dozey Lumps sat beside me, and suddenly, that two note guitar riff started up – and “Exposure” was underway.  So those two “complaints” would be my only criticisms, otherwise, I’d say, if you like this band at all, you should absolutely buy both of these, because for one thing, that’s the best way to get the largest “set” possible, buying both gives you BOTH “Darshan” and “Jean The Birdman” – so it’s well worth the extra expense.

In conclusion, I absolutely enjoyed both mixes enormously, hearing them side by side, I could hear distinct differences, and wonderful similarities, and both Robert and David did an excellent job of representing one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen, on one of those great, unknown live albums, “Damage” for me, is an absolutely brilliant live performance, and now, I can listen to it in two completely excellent mixes – more music, more different viewpoints – a nice addition to the very small “Sylvian-Fripp” section in my CD library – but, very unexpected, I didn’t even KNOW there was a David Sylvian-mixed “Damage” until I noticed it on the Burning Shed website.

A great band, a great performance, and one of my top ten live albums of all time – maybe top five, not sure, as I have never written down my top ten favourite live albums.  Get them both – you won’t be sorry !

 

 

So – bring out the stars…      on the first day

 

on the first day.

studio diary 20150501: back into the world of scape…

suddenly, I found myself there again, after a long, long pause – a two year pause – I’d acquired the “Scape” application very, very early on, worked with it over a very, very intense but quite short period of months, and just as suddenly, stopped creating scapes when I reached about 1100 in total approximately – I found myself listening to “scapes” again, every day.  In 2015.

 

back to 2012 for a moment, then – after the fairlight and scape, I moved on to learn about, and explore other ambient, generative and synth apps, from the wonderful mixtikl to the equally fabulous drone fx (huge news – drone fx for the desktop – awesome news!) and on and upwards and on to some of the truly strange apps, the VOSIS and the TC-11 (huge news – TC-11 is at V2 now – MORE awesome news!!) and so many weird and wonderful apps to learn about, attempt to master, make recordings of…

“Scape” was my second “long session” with an app, my first “long session” was with the fairlight, or what is now known as the peter vogel cmi  – but to me, it will always be “the fairlight” – “the fairlight” of peter gabriel – [this link is to a pretty interesting video of Peter and The Fairlight, and how he used it on the song “The Rhythm Of The Heat”] – and kate bush fame [and this link it to a very rough but very interesting Kate Bush and The Fairlight clip] .

but “Scape” was the first ambient app I worked with – and what a great place to start – an ambient app, where BRIAN ENO was one half of the design team, and, where he played some of the samples and worked with his app-making partner musician PETER CHILVERS to design, produce, and market scape – a device that has a wonderful simplicity to it, you have an empty palette, and you have tools – which you can drag out onto the canvas, and when you do – music begins.  each tool is a different sound, or background, or filter for the whole piece.  there are bass sounds, synth sounds, melodic sounds, dissonant sounds, buzzing sounds, just your general sound palette that you might find on many a BRIAN ENO album.

in other words, sonic heaven in an app.  the app reveals itself to you slowly, so, you start with a few instruments, a few backgrounds, a few filters.  as you make and save more scapes, the app then present new tools to you, which you can then use to create “scapes” with new sounds in them, or, use them in conjunction with the older sounds that you are already familiar with.  OK, yes, it is very, very simple, but, once you work with it for a while, at least, for me, I began to approach working with it more compositionally.  sometimes, I would draw scenes, you know, mountains and clouds and bushes just to see what a “painting” would sound like.  then, I began trying symmetry, then, asymmetry – to see what results that brought.

later on, I tried minimalism – just one background, say, and no instruments.  I also developed certain techniques of my own, my favourite of which, was to create a scape I liked with one filter, and then copy it over to the next “slot” and change just the filter, then do it again, so I would have the orange version, and the green version and the blue version – the same basic “scape” – but through completely different filters.  I would often record these one after the other, and it’s truly interesting to hear the differences between the filters (those being the tools on the right hand side of the palette, that seem to control what is done to the whole piece, so I call them “filters” – and that’s another wonderful thing about scape, there is no standard terminology, therefore, everyone calls the objects by different names! which is fantastic, I think.  awesome.

working with “scape”, for the three or four months that I did, was a remarkable time.  to have produced 1100 “scapes”, I would never have dreamed of – but, that is what I did – and I was quietly amazed, privately amazed, at how incredibly complex and wonderful some of the later creations became, when there were perhaps, double the tools that you start out with – when you have, finally, the full selection of tools, and there are, no more new tools – then, you can combine things in amazing combinations of the old and the new, the new, the middle period, and the earliest – whatever your heart desires.  want dissonance? bring in one of the “crosses” – they all sound horrible!  wonderfully horrible.  want a nice sounding scape?  use a lot of the “letter shapes” “E” “H” “I” etc., the yellow melodic shapes, and use the green or dark pink backgrounds.  green is the nicest background of all.  dark pink, a wonderful second.  some of the other backgrounds are a bit more active, including some quite “jittery” ones, so it really does make a difference which background you run your “scapes” through.

but that is all getting a bit into the history, I wanted to recount to you the events that lead up to this sudden re-surgence.

at the time I began working with scape, in late, 2012, I had a decent enough home studio.  I worked out a reasonable way to record a scape, and to this day, that is the single-most asked question that I get “Dave, how do you record the scapes”?  It  wasn’t easy to figure out.  But it wasn’t hard, either!

I later on learned, that Eno and Chilvers intentionally didn’t leave a method for scape to be recorded (which also explains why it’s one of the few apps that is NOT Audiobus-compatible) – in fact, I learned, they didn’t mean for people to even “keep” “scapes” – but of course, many of us crazy musicians, wanted to keep them anyway.  I don’t want to let Brian and Peter down here, and I always feel like I have disappointed them, by not just enjoying the “scapes”, and then throwing them away – but I will tell you know, why I can’t do that.  Because they are so incredibly beautiful.

It’s that simple.  These scapes are such unique, precious pieces of music, and to me, they are amazing in so many ways, because of the high, high quality of the samples, because of the brilliance of sample selection, because of the genius programming of the app – I could go on.  No matter what – it boils down to this – even the strangest, most dissonant of “scapes” – is a unique thing of beauty.  For a very, very intense several months, I experienced from one to several of these amazingly lovely songs almost every single day.  And I was mesmerised.  I wanted people to HEAR this beautiful music, to hear what I had heard, to be able to experience my four month trip with “Scape”, for themselves.

I set out boldly, to record and upload as many “scapes” as I could.  at the time, that turned out to be just 41.  at first, I made videos for each one.  very quickly, as I reached the 800s or something, I realised, I was not going to be able to make 850 videos.  I really enjoyed making those videos, and I used the single screen shot of the art for each scape, as the starting point of each video.  So then I worked on audio only, but I soon ran into space issues, I didn’t really have the set up or the disk space, to record unlimited numbers of “scapes”.

Until 2015, that is.

Now, with larger, faster, better hard drives, a much better client, SONAR X3, and a good, fast system – I can record scapes en masse.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but for some reason, a few weeks ago, I started to think – I would really, really like to recover, and record properly, the “rest” of the 1100 “scapes” that I had recorded all on my first decent ipad, an ipad 2.  so one evening, I set up a 24 track session, recording 24 bit 48K audio, and began recording.

It takes time; “scapes” run anywhere from 3 to 4 t0 close to 9 minutes, and what I tend to do is, the moment I get in, I set up the session, and start recording, while I am going about other business. and when I can, I stop by, stop a recording, and start the next recording.

Every few weeks, I sit down, and trim, master and produce the tracks, and then, as time permits, I upload them to the dave stafford “music for apps: scape – an eternal album” eternal album.  I recently uploaded a handful of these “newly recorded old scapes”, and I think it’s lovely to finally, be able to hear the work I was doing in 2012 / 2013, now, in 2015 – it’s about time.

Over the next several weeks and probably months, I will continue to upload as many of these as I can master, and if we are all lucky, I will actually make it to the end this time – maybe.  We shall see…

If I can stay the course, and, to be honest, I do not know at this point, if I can – then, eventually, I should think, maybe I might actually “finish” the job.  I would love that, because if I actually could finish – well, two things would come out of that:  you would get to hear a thousand plus scapes done at all different stages of app “growth”, from simple to more complex to most complex and back again, and, I would be free, after discharging my duty to myself to complete the work I began, I would be free to make NEW “scapes” in real time, in 2015, to add to the collection.

And I think that might be the most interesting thing of all – to start all over, and go through the process again, and see what happens “this time around”.

But right now, well, it’s early days yet – at this moment, I am recording “scape” 138, which is an impossible construction that has 18 bass players and 13 yellow letter melodic events – and it’s a cacophonous mess, but oh, so incredibly unique!  some of the scapes I’ve heard over the past couple weeks of recording, have blown me away – they are either so strange, so weird, so unique, so powerful, but often, just so, so intensely beautiful, usually in an ambient way, but sometimes, in a fairly active way, too.  This particular scape is ever so slightly overloaded, and I know the app has protection against this (if you reach the max number of instruments, it begins to remove the earliest instrument as you add the latest) but I actually managed to create a “bass overload” in this case, one of the few times where I beat the system – my poor JBL monitors are baffled because they have never had 18 eno or chilvers fretless bass riffs all starting within microseconds of each other, and it’s overwhelming for the poor speakers!

but it’s an utterly unique “scape”, and I can’t wait to see if I can even make a usable master with that much bass content…we shall see, that one will be a test of my skill, it truly will.  terrifying bass overload!  power, power, power – and you just don’t expect a piece like this, it’s truly out there, but – ANYTHING can, and does happen, when you are “scaping” – trust me.  I’ve been there.  what an incredibly strange piece of music, which is now receding gracefully into the land of fade out…

so for the past two weeks and a few days, I’ve been hearing “scapes” again for the first time really, since 2013, when I actually uploaded the 39 existing scapes many months after they had been recorded in late 2012 and early 2013 – the scapes came before the bandcamp pages did.  but now we are somewhat caught up, we can now return to this arena, and see what we can see, or – hear what we can hear, rather.

I’d like to talk for a moment, though, about the visual aspect of “scapes”, which isn’t something that many folk speak about, for me, when I was heavily into this process, how I constructed a “scape” visually was very much an art, I tried to use the skills I had as a musician, to “compose” my “scapes”, and I was particularly enamoured of using symmetry, or putting instruments in long, diagonal rows (as in the next “scape”, “scape” 140, that I am working on now… see below).  I just wanted to say, you can follow what is happening in the music, by looking at the image of each “scape”.  In the early days, you can see that I drew nice little scenes, trying to make art, and trying to make that art into music, and, it worked, to a degree, and then, as more object become available, you can “see” the “scapes” getting more complex, you can see my experiments with symmetry, and as you identify the various instruments, you will learn, just like I did, what causes what.  a square turned to have it’s corner pointing up, is a bass instrument of some kind – several different kinds, from normal bass guitars to fretless guitars, to some longer fretless phrases, and so on.  so you will be able to “see” in “scape” 138 and in “scape” 140, where I have lined up a whole series of basses into a long, diagonal line – and the resulting chaos that this approach brings.

I am now onto scape 140, which is apparently, another “bass overload” test, this time, with 13 bassists, two melodic events, and one descending arrow complex synth event.  the cascading bass players are just amazing, a single, slinky, throbbing, ever changing bass note, made up of 13 horribly overlapping notes, grinds across the musical landscape, while bell-like melodic tones appear and disappear randomly in the background…it’s madness once again, but a beautiful, mental landscape.

Carrying on with the discussion of the visual aspect, you would then be able to see, and hear, for example, in scape 141, that there is only ONE bass part, which plays occasionally, and the three melodic letter shape instruments carry this tune instead of the basses as in 140.

Scape 141 is fairly minimalistic, but there are others even more so, so when you run across a truly minimalistic scape, it will be obvious, again, from the “track” image I upload, which is actually, the map or the “artwork” that created the sound of that scape – you will see an empty workspace, with just a speckled background – that is literally, just a background, with no instruments, so you end up with a very, very ambient, minimal piece.  So if you look at each piece of art, that comes along with each uploaded scape, you will be able to literally “see”, the journey I took, see the paintings I made, to produce the sound you are hearing.

That means, that when I get to one of my “filter series” – where I take the same “scape”, and run it through five or six or nearer to the end, perhaps seven different “filters” – the exact same painting, except the filter is a different colour, and you will see that – first the pink, then the green, then the grey, then the orange, and so on – until I’ve run that one “scape” through every possible filter.  you will also be able to HEAR the differences, and realise, that green filter makes one sound, while pink filter, makes a different sound, while orange filter, maybe, is a delay or whatever.  you get to know them, and you get to know what they will do “to a piece”, and this is the best test of all – try the same song, through each one of the various filters, and see what happens then…

Another kind of series, involves using the same “background” on different filters, or, different backgrounds against one type of filter.  The combinations, and the possibilities, are actually, almost limitless, they really are.

So for me, the fact that a visible artefact, a “painting” that I did – that’s actually, a huge bonus, and this is why: I sometimes struggle to describe music with words, but, describing it with a piece of artwork comes pretty naturally to me, so I love the fact that if someone asks me, “hey, how did you make “scape” 844, anyway?” my answer is right there and I can say – have a look at the track art for the piece, that is the actual piece of art I made, which creates the sound of “scape” 844…that uploaded track art, IS the answer to the question “how was this track made”? – answer – “this is what I drew, in “Scape”, to get that sound that you are hearing…”.

Additionally, if you really, for example, fell in love with a beautiful, ambient “scape” that I have made (something I do regularly) there is nothing on earth stopping you from buying “Scape”, the app, looking at the track art that I used to create the beautiful, ambient scape, and then, recreating it in your “Scape”, on your own ipad – by mimicking what I did in my “painting”.  I am sure that as long as you got it close, that it would end up sounding very, very similar to my version – very similar indeed, but not identical.  Very close.

At the same time, if you like my unattractive, sonically bizarre and / or dissonant “scapes”, you can easily “see” the tools selected to get that sound – and in no time, you will be able to control what “Scape” does, in the same way that “I” control it – although “control” is a dubious word – you will be able to do similar things, if you copy the art in my track art, the uploaded artwork for my “scapes”.  Or if you like my super minimalistic “scapes” – you can easily re-create those, as they are very simple to make!

A whole lotta nothing.  But sometimes, small input means big output, in terms of beauty.  Some “scapes” are not particularly beautiful, but then, they may have other charms that appeal to other senses, so it’s not a requirement that they BE beautiful.  A constantly ringing bell might actually remind one a bit too much of that early morning alarm, and when you have several of these admittedly, more melodic alarm clocks going off at once, it can be a bit overwhelming.  But – still beautiful in it’s own way, in the way the bells land within the composition, how they fit together, and so on.  Scape 145 is a perfect example of that, it’s all bells all the time, ringing incessantly, but – there is still something about it that I really like, a freshness, a randomness, and sometimes, those bells hit some nice accidental harmonies.  then, they start to fade away…only, it’s a false alarm (get it?) and then they are back, ringing like mad again…over and over,  you think the piece is about to end, and it’s not – it’s just wonderful repetition, and scape always does whatever I don’t expect it to – it’s full of surprises.  you just never quite know what you are going to get, but, I can guarantee one thing – it will ALWAYS be interesting!  always.

I don’t know exactly how many “scapes” I have recorded over the past couple of weeks, in this new burst of scape activity for 2015, but I do know one thing, I’ve been astonished at the quality, the variety, the different moods, the different techniques, the different results, that this remarkable tool can produce, and while I’ve maybe heard something like a hundred scapes, in two weeks or so – and there has been such an intense variety of music, from the most ambient to the most incredibly overbearing to the most powerful to the most jarring to the most fantastic of melodic, beautiful, ambient composition – it’s really just an amazing success, and it proves that generative music is here to stay, it proves too, that the inventor of ambient, is also, one of the master practitioners of ambient – because, decades have passed since those groundbreaking Eno ambient records – Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (to name but four of my favourite Eno titles) and there it was, 2012, and out comes “Scape” – which to my ears, SOUNDED like Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli  all rolled into one beautiful set of ambient samples, and each “scape” I created, sounded like a new track from a new, unpublished Eno album – priceless, beautiful, unique.

To add gravitas to my words, I am now recording “scape 146”. which features what was then, the “new” filter, a very squelchy filter, so this scape, which is bells playing in waves, over this amazing distorted, squelchy backing – is like alien music from the future, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s a remarkable and unique composition – generated by this app, based on my instructions – but, guided, ever guided by the ambient hearts and minds of mssrs. Eno and Chilvers – what an amazing juxtaposition of sound sources, I can’t explain it in words, but when you eventually hear “scape 146” – you will know exactly what I am talking about…

I really do hope that I can make it through all thousand plus recordings, for one thing, after a two year absence, it’s really, really been interesting to “re-live” my intensive several-months long experience, but without the intensity of actually creating, hearing it at leisure, as I record it two years later – it’s a very, very nice feeling indeed, it truly is.  If you don’t own the scape application, I would heartily recommend it to you now, and I would also recommend – don’t cheat, don’t do what some people do, which is find out how to expose all of the tools at once, and begin using the maximum toolset from the beginning.  I strongly urge you instead, to do what I did, to discover the app in the same way I did, one new tool at a time, this gives you a chance to get used to each type of tool, gives you time to play with each type of tool, and then, you recall better too, what each one does, whereas if you start with the whole lot exposed – which is an option – then, you lose the fun and the excitement of being presented with new tools periodically, and you also lose the experience that Eno and Chilvers wanted for you – they felt that the full toolset was too much to start out with, that learning “Scape” in the “slow learn” mode was the best way to learn the toolsets thoroughly, and give you the best, least overwhelming user experience – so I strongly recommend doing it that way.

I can’t imagine doing it the other way, it just doesn’t feel right to me, I guess I am more patient than some, and I’d rather get new tools every few days, along with the lovely, lovely written suggestions, which are of course, modified oblique strategies – I found those suggestions to be gold, and I did indeed, try many of them out, exactly when and how they suggested that I do – and I was always very, very pleased with the results.  the tips are good, they are good ideas, and I suggest paying heed to them as you are able to – it makes for an even more enriching experience.

I personally, though, doubt you could have a “bad” experience with “Scape” – because it’s a good tool !  You can’t really go wrong.  I think it’s well designed, and if you start slow and build up your instrument library as suggested, you will learn what each tool does, what each instrument does, what each background sounds like, what each filter sounds like – and you can then, tailor your “scapes” to use all of the backgrounds, instruments and filters that you love the most!  I think that is brilliant.  It’s almost easy to forget, too, that this is a generative instrument, one of the first of it’s kind, a very different generative instrument compared to something like “Mixtikl”, which gives you perhaps, too much choice, whereas, “Scape” limits your choices somewhat, but there is so much scope for inventiveness, and the generative programming is far superior to anything previously seen – so that scape can create music so complex, so unique, that almost no other generative instrument can compete.

Many months after I finished my first go-round with “Scape”, and, after I’d had time with “Mixtikl” and “Drone FX” respectively, I wavered a bit on what generative app I love the most.  In “Mixtikl”, I created 61 quite complex utterly customised pieces of music over a several month period, which I think stacked up comparably to the much more prolific 1000 plus that I did with scape in the period previous to that one.  At the time, I slightly favoured “Mixtikl” over “Scape”, but in hindsight, I would have to say, “Mixtikl” requires some knowledge of mixing at least, and music, preferably, while “Scape” requires neither.  All “Scape” requires is that you can draw a picture with shapes, and backgrounds, and filters – and just about anyone can do that.  The other requirement is that you listen…

So for ease of use, for amazing programming, for the most amazing samples, and for the overall best generative app, after hearing just the first hundred or so of the 1000 plus “scapes” I have recorded – I absolutely would say that “Scape” is the “better” app, although, having said that, they are BOTH utterly remarkable and amazing, and on some levels, I don’t really think comparing them is truly fair – I love them both, I will hope to make more music with both as time goes on, and, once I put right the “wrong” of not releasing these scapes, then we can see where we are with ambient apps, and where we are with generative apps, and indeed, where we are with ambient, generative apps…and, really, who knows what the future may hold???

I certainly do not !

 

 

 

 

 

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

playing peter hammill

I’ve been thinking lately, about my long, long association with the music of peter hammill (and of course, his band, van der graaf generator), and I am finding it a bit difficult to comprehend just what an effect his music had on me back in the day, and how it still resonates so very strongly with me, now, many, many years later.

it all started with a “bootleg” – a live vinyl recording of van der graaf generator called “fellow travelers (all watched over by machines of loving grace)”, a band I’d heard about, but hadn’t ever heard.  this was a strange bootleg, with just three long live van der graaf tracks on it, and then some  rarities or what were rarities at the time: “firebrand” – a very early van der graaf generator single from about 1968 and also it’s “b side”, “people to you were going to”.  sandwiched in between those two songs, are three live or possibly “live at the bbc” peter hammill solo tracks, “rubycon/a louse is not a home” and “red shift” – live; with david jackson on some or all of those 1974 tracks.

but the songs that were on this record – wow.  “man-erg”, “w”, and “killer”.  that’s all I remember really, I played side one of that record over and over and over…  I set out to learn “man-erg” on the piano, and many, many days or possibly weeks, I am not quite sure – later, I could actually play it.  that’s a track that I do intend to re-work, and I have done rehearsal versions of it quite recently…but it is not an easy one, I can tell you that much for free.  I do have it written out, chords and lyrics, but having it written down is one thing; being able to play and sing it live – is quite another!

those three live tracks had a huge effect on me, so I immediately went out and bought a studio lp – which was “h to he who am the only one” (because I wanted to hear the studio version of “killer”, mainly…).  this album, then, did not leave my turntable for many months, and I very quickly acquired all of the other van der graaf albums as well.  where I could – I tried to learn or teach myself how to play the songs.  “man-erg” was probably the first van der graaf song I ever attempted, followed by “w”.

following that, I remember tackling the songs from “still life” – including the rather difficult to sing title track, and the rather difficult to sing “my room (waiting for wonderland)”.  I learned those, then, “the undercover man”, which I spent quite some time trying to make a decent recording of (playing real piano, real hammond organ, and singing) and then finally, I got up the nerve to try something really difficult…

much, much later, perhaps a year or two later, I approached “the siren song”, a song which haunts me on two levels, no, three levels – one, it’s a very, very difficult piece of music to play and sing, perhaps the single most difficult of any ph or van der graaf generator songs that I have attempted…two, it’s personally haunting, musically and lyrically, and three, it haunts me because so far, well I am not quite sure, because the last session may have yielded a take, but this is a song that has proven very, very elusive in terms of getting a live take.  then…and now.

in fact, many if not most peter hammill and van der graaf generator songs are very difficult to perform unless you are peter hammill – that’s all there is to it.  I am the first to admit that I am not particularly good at it, however, I love these songs, I spent a lot of time learning them, and I am determined, after all that work, to try and capture live performances of at least some of them.

I’m happy to say that I’ve recently re-recorded three tracks from the ph/vdgg canon, which were “flying blind”, “my room (waiting for wonderland)” and most recently, “vision”.  two peter hammill tracks and one by van der graaf generator.

I am currently rehearsing three van der graaf songs: “the siren song”, “man-erg”, and “still life”.  these are all extremely difficult, and I may rehearse for many months and still never get a decent take.  in some cases, I may eventually be forced to record the piano on it’s own, and then record the vocal live – so far, I’ve avoided that, but there may come a day.  right now, my feeling is that if I can just get through one take of “the siren song” (from 1977’s “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album – a re-jigged van der graaf without the “generator” in their name – stripped down and with graham smith absolutely wailing on massed electric violins) where nothing goes disastrously wrong, I will be very, very pleased.

why is that song (“the siren song”) so difficult?  well, I don’t really know, it’s not in an “easy key” for one thing – so I am not really used to playing in d flat (or c sharp, I don’t actually know which it is – only peter hammill knows for sure), so it’s physically challenging on the fingers – and of course, it has quite a few “odd chords” i.e. chords that have an unusual bass note – a third or a fifth in the bass, and that takes some getting used to (strangely, todd rundgren also uses this musical device a lot, many chords where the bass note is NEVER the root note of the chord – always something else! – so I do have some experience with this, but it’s still very awkward and often quite tricky to execute these special chords) and then there is that “solo section” which is just bloody difficult!  I have now (after MUCH rehearsal!) got it down to a science, but of course, if I play through the solo section correctly (something I do about one in ten tries, if I am honest!), invariably, I mess up the final verse – you know how it is.

I do have one more day’s worth of takes to listen through, having already been through two or three “siren song” sessions and found all the takes wanting in one way or another…some are close, but none close enough for my demanding ear – so, it’s once again, back to the drawing board…and, I insist on a completely live performance, so that really leaves no margin for error – it has to be right, vocal and piano.  and for that song – well, let’s just say, I am really struggling to achieve that!

but – I persist, and as I persist, and, luckily, my knowledge of the song increases with each rehearsal (I feel I actually understand it much, much better than I ever have before – in my head, I “know” how it goes!), and eventually, I will win.  I hope 🙂

now – in sitting down to reflect on the music of peter hammill, and his amazing group, van der graaf generator – I know that the start was that live bootleg, but now, after some 30 – 35 years of listening to this man’s music – what songs did I learn, and which ones can I still play – I am not even sure, so I am going to attempt to document this now – just so I can see where I am with this remarkable body of music – one of the most unusual and varied I’ve ever heard, from any artist.

figuring out the songs I’ve learned from the van der graaf generator part of my peter hammill repertoire will probably be the easier task (as opposed to the solo canon! which is massive…) so I will tackle that first.

from the first van der graaf generator album, and the second album, just one track each, and then, none from the third (although I did used to play parts of “house with no door” and “lost”, and even a few bits of the remarkable “pioneers over C” on the piano, but I never learned a whole song from “h to he” unfortunately – possibly because they are all bloody impossible to play!).

from “pawn hearts” – just one, although you could call it two as “w”, a single, is roughly from that period  – so approximately one song per album seems to be the pattern.  I also learned a few portions of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” but of course, not enough to play through even a fraction of the whole piece.

honourable mention:  from “the quiet zone/the pleasure zone” I did learn how to play “last frame”, but not well enough to consider it complete, so I’ve left that off – unfortunately, since I really love that song – a classic!  I learned fragments of songs like “patient”, and I also worked on “lifetime” from “trisector” – the only “late” period van der graaf I have ever attempted, but I never finished learning it so that’s another one I started, but can’t really claim, as I never did finish learning it 😉

I was quite certain that the van der graaf list will end up to be considerably shorter than the peter hammill list; and indeed, it did – here is the van der graaf generator list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. afterwards
  2. out of my book
  3. refugees (added to this list on 20130101)
  4. man-erg
  5. w
  6. the undercover man
  7. still life
  8. my room (waiting for wonderland)
  9. the siren song

remarkably short, really, but then, these are not easy – I sometimes think peter saved up his most devilishly impossible-to-play songs for van der graaf, keeping the “easier” ones for his solo catalogue – but that’s probably a fallacy – I am sure that some of his solo pieces are just as difficult as the most difficult van der graaf generator piece.

here is the peter hammill list (in chronological order, of course!):

  1. vision
  2. the birds
  3. the lie (bernini’s saint theresa)
  4. forsaken gardens
  5. again
  6. been alone so long (chris judge smith)
  7. shingle song
  8. airport
  9. crying wolf
  10. time heals
  11. the mousetrap (caught in)
  12. if I could
  13. mirror images
  14. flying blind (being a portion of “flight”)
  15. stranger still (added to this list on 20130101)

I think that’s it – I seemed to have just stopped at the tenth album – which will roughly hold true for van der graaf, too, I stopped with “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” which will be just short of the tenth van der graaf album (it’s the eighth, apparently)…although you could argue that since that album is really a different band, “van der graaf” that it’s the first of two – it, and “vital” – but, a moot point, in any case, no matter how you argue it; with the release of “vital”, in 1978, the band stopped playing for a long, long time!

I’ve never done this before, sat down and tried to figure out what peter hammill songs I’ve learned in total, this is the very first time I’ve attempted to compile a complete list – which turns out to be, in the end, well, this number keeps changing, so I will give you the current figure here: twenty four tracks, nine van der graaf and fifteen solo peter hammill works – all learned when I was a young man, from perhaps age 20 to age 30 – which for me, is the decade between 1978 and 1988.

for many years after that, I was without a piano and without any 88-key keyboard, until very recently (february 2012) so for many years, I didn’t really play the piano – which meant, I did not play these songs.  in some cases, not since I first learned them.  not playing really, really complex pieces of music for thirty years – well, I can tell you – re-learning them in some cases is almost as difficult as learning them the first time – it wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now!

so at this point in time, I would say that from the above list, that I can still perform the following (so far):

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

…so thirteen of the twenty-four have survived the passage of time, and if I were to sit down and work at it, I am sure I could relearn most of the others.  however, for some songs, in some cases, I am no longer sure that my voice can hit the high notes any more, particularly in pieces like “the undercover man” where even when I was young, I could not hit the high notes, so it would be impossible now – even if I could relearn the keyboard part.

so I would probably leave “the undercover man” out, which is unfortunate; because I really love it…I love all of these songs, they are like old friends that comforted me then, and they still comfort me now, but in a different way…they are a link to an emotional kind of song writing that I personally never really embraced in my own musical career, I opted for guitar craft, the ebow, and years of looping, and more lately, to rock and prog guitar with the release of “gone native” – so sitting down at the piano or acoustic guitar and “writing songs” is actually a fairly alien process for me – I can do it, but I really don’t do it – or at least, not often.

being able to sit down then, and bash out a peter hammill song on the piano, is a great, cathartic, experience, and I can happily re-live all the feelings and emotion of these songs from a place of maturity and relative calm – at the time, when you are young, things are a bit tumultuous and turbulent in your life, and these songs helped me through many a dark night – but I needed them then, now, I merely want them, just to remember, really.  and they do bring back a wealth of amazing memories, each time I play them.

of course, I might well decide to learn some “new” van der graaf or peter hammill songs, there are so, so many I would love to tackle, including some very unusual ones, like “the jargon king” – I’ve often performed this a cappella, but I am mentally preparing some kind of live version involving heavily treated vocals, loops and I am not sure what else.  it may never come to pass, but I’d love to do some version of it – in fact, I’d really like to learn as much as possible from “a black box”, the tenth peter hammill solo album, from 1980, which might be my single most favourite peter hammill solo album…and I had made tentative starts to learning “golden promises” and “the spirit” – two fabulous songs from that period.

then there is the question of “arrangement” – when you go to perform a peter hammill or van der graaf song – what “model” do you use to arrange the piece?  the studio version?  the live version?  the bootleg live versions?  alternate versions?  your own arrangement?  I think the answer is clearly, “all of the above”.

early on in my musical life, I worked very, very hard at very literally, “imitating” the music of others – I felt that if I was going to play a piece of music by anyone, that it “should be” “just like the record”.  that works sometimes, but other times, it can be a disaster, and part of learning to be a better musician was letting go of ideas like this, learning that actually, it doesn’t have to be “just like the record” at all – in fact, sometimes, that’s the worst thing you can do.

so if we listen to early recordings of my peter hammill covers, they sound very much like his versions, as much as possible given the modest gear I have compared to what he has available…I can remember recording “airport” using a borrowed steel string acoustic guitar – something I couldn’t afford until a decade later.  to my eternal shame, I didn’t know the words, so I just sort of made them up – incorrectly, it turns out – but, oh well, live and learn.  I didn’t have a sax and couldn’t play a horn part, so I used an organ horn stop with a chorus pedal to emulate a horn part.  it’s actually quite a spiffing version of “airport”, considering the limitations of my gear and experience.

back to arrangements – I feel I am very, very fortunate here, because not only do I have the records, and the live records, and even a few live recordings of peter hammill and van der graaf, I am also lucky enough to have seen/heard peter play in many, many situations, from solo guitar / piano performances at the roxy in los angeles, in the late 70s/early 80s, or performances with nic potter on bass and the amazing stuart gordon on violin, and later still, with the reformed van der graaf generator – so I’ve been very fortunate in hearing many, many different arrangements and techniques – many possibilities – for arranging these songs.

and the way I play them, is a total hybrid – part studio, part live, part made up – I tend to play the piano in my own strange style, so some of my idiosyncrasies creep in, too, so you get “dave stafford” flourishes and arpeggios thrown in where they really do not belong, or silences, or bass notes that “aren’t on the studio version” – some through design, some, probably through accident, because, perhaps, I don’t totally understand a certain chord or passage (bear in mind, that with no peter hammill songbook, that I’ve learned every one of these 24 songs “by ear” – and with songs as complex as these…well, it’s not straightforward much of the time!) – although now, I do try to make sure I am at least playing the right chords and the right bass notes, regardless of flourishes, embellishments, and mad arpeggios.

speaking of arpeggios, they form a huge part of my odd arrangement of “vision”, the track I just completed a few weeks ago, at the end of november, 2012, and released on the “ablackboxhd” channel on youtube, and I really worked hard on that arrangement – I could have played it safe, with a very minimal piano part, but I wanted to do something creative with the piano part, while leaving the basic structure (hopefully) intact.  so that’s a case where I play fast and loose with the arrangement, whereas on other tracks, for example, “the siren song”, I keep such changes to a minimum, well, maybe not a minimum, but with that song, it’s hard enough just to play it through unembellished, much less play it with additional, difficult piano parts added – well, either way, to be truthful, it’s just bloody difficult.

what was required there, though, was rehearsal, and lots of it – and now, after two months of practice, I can play it fairly well – and I may have captured it in my last session, I can’t wait to find out.  if I did not – well, it’s well-embedded in my memory now, so I can sit down and perform it again with no problem now – I am sure I will “get it” eventually, through repetition and rehearsal, if none of the takes from the other day are any good.

unlike many artists, who publish song books of their music, there is no “101 peter hammill classics” for me to refer to, so of course, the only way for me, is to use my ear, and teach myself each song, chord by chord, note by note, using only my ear as a guide.  I wish there was a song book, but maybe I should publish one, since I already have “24 smash hits by peter hammill” learned – which I could “write down” courtesy of the notation view in sonar – if I can capture a decent performance of each one, I suppose I could publish a ph songbook – what a strange idea !!!

other artists whose songs I learned, I was fortunate enough to find an actual song book – so I learned a lot of todd rundgren songs from my “best of todd rundgren” song book, including many I might not have taken the time to learn by ear, so I am very thankful I had that book – but it gives me an unfortunate advantage, and having song books for todd, roxy music, steely dan, and even artists as unusual as allan holdsworth – remarkably, there is an allan holdsworth song book (believe it or not!) – although I could only learn tiny bits of songs, never a whole song – from that one! having those books was a real help and a real blessing…but when it came to van der graaf generator or peter hammill songs…I was totally, totally on my own.

I can remember, too, the titanic struggle, the hours and hours of patiently writing out chord charts, again and again, the agonising work of trying to understand and get written down, for example, the bizarre and strange series of chords at the very end of “man-erg” – that really took some work and a lot of patience. it’s amazing how patient I was, how endlessly willing I was to spend unlimited time working on these songs, just so I could play them, not for any other reason but my own enjoyment of them.

nowadays, I wouldn’t take that much time, I can’t imagine spending not just hours, but actual days of work on one song, trying to work out what those odd bass notes are, or how a linking section works, or what on earth is that melody – and songs like “man-erg” were so, so hard to work out, because part of me wanted to play the piano part, another part of me, the hammond organ, that beautiful organ part; and another part of me still thought I was david jackson, playing the beautiful horns in between the verses…so my arrangement is actually part piano, part organ, part horn…because I tried to get the whole band into my arrangement, to get it to sound like the song the way they played it on that live recording.  and not really succeeding, except in the most rudimentary way.

“the undercover man” also gave me a lot of grief, now, in that case, I was, at the time, actually making a four-track multitrack recording of it (on my TEAC 3340-S 1/4 inch reel to reel deck, of course!), with piano, organ and vocal – so I first had to play the piano part correctly, and then go back and overdub an organ part, and when I say “an” organ part, I mean that literally, I couldn’t really play what hugh played, I am sure, so I just did the best I could with the skill I had at that age (mid twenties, perhaps).  working out the chords, working out how the piano and organ worked together, was both fascinating and very, very difficult – but very rewarding in the end, because I did learn it, I could play it all the way through…and I did get it recorded, although that was one where my vocal range just could not quite cope with one of hammill’s amazing vocal performances – I just couldn’t quite hit the notes in one part of the song, which is such a shame.  but the music was enormous fun to learn, practice, arrange and record – what a beautiful song!

“still life” is the third in the “very impossible” category, I loved this song from the moment I first heard it, and I was determined to learn it, and learn it I did – every word, every chord, every screaming emotion – a raw, passionate poem of questioning, questioning – demanding an end to all things of infinity.  this song, perhaps, has the best hammill lyric ever – it asks so many important questions, questions that I still want answers to today – and will never get answers to.  it’s such an amazing musical observation – and one of peter’s most emotional and most amazing songs, ever.  I love performing “still life”, despite how difficult it is to play.

as with “man-erg” and “the undercoverman”, “still life” took an enormous amount of time, and effort, to learn, it was really a challenge, but eventually, I worked it all out.

“my room” while perhaps a little bit “easier” than “man-erg”, “still life” or “the siren song” was nonetheless not easy to learn, not easy to sing, and I immediately put it into the “quite difficult” category with the other four difficult pieces I decided to attempt.

so those four, plus the very difficult “the siren song” were the most difficult to learn, meaning that these five, then…

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

…made the other four that I learned “seem easy” by comparison:

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

although to be fair, really, only “afterwards” is “easy” – and that’s because it’s a very, very early song, when peter had only strummed a few chords, although his development on piano and guitar over those first few albums is absolutely astonishing to witness – so I would expect “afterwards”, from the very first van der graaf record, to be “easy” (relatively) – but for example, despite being from a quite early period (1970-ish) “out of my book” is actually very difficult in it’s own way, the vocal is not easy, and it’s one of those that seems simple, but when you try to play and sing it, you find out it’s actually not that simple…

conversely, the fifteen peter hammill “solo” songs that I learned, were relatively uncomplicated (of course, with a few exceptions) when compared, in general, to the selections from the van der graaf generator canon, those exceptions being “the lie” (which I’ve forgotten almost completely by this time), “forsaken gardens” (many, many chord changes, none difficult in themselves, but getting through the whole piece is a real challenge – I’ve also, unfortunately, lost my ability to play this – although I have it written down) – and, for me, a rare guitar song, “if I could” – that’s fairly tricky, and also, of course, “flying blind” – very, very challenging indeed, approaching “van der graaf” level of complexity.

the rest of the ph songs I have learned are relatively simple, but really, none of peter’s songs are that simple – it’s just relative.  after the hellish progression that is “the siren song” – well, if I then sit down to play “vision” – well, it does seem easy by comparison!

I have noted that the majority of these 24 songs are “piano songs”, with just a few being “guitar songs” and I was wondering why that was, and I just don’t have an answer.  I think possibly, for me, it’s simply comfort – I am quite comfortable just sitting down at the piano and singing a song, whereas, I am not quite as used to singing while playing guitar – sure, I can do it, but, normally, I always played lead guitar, and when you are playing lead guitar, it’s not always easy to sing at the same time, so that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t learn more peter hammill “guitar” songs.

two out of nine of my van der graaf generator covers, “out of my book”, and “w” are guitar songs, while a more respectable six peter hammill solo pieces are guitar songs:

“again”

“been alone so long” (which is really not a peter hammill song, but a chris judge smith song)

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

…are guitar songs, leaving a remarkable nine as piano songs – that’s a lot!!

in total then, for all 24 ph/vdgg pieces learned, 8 are on guitar and 16 are on piano – so my repertoire is seriously biased in favour of the piano songs – that’s just the way it’s worked out.

maybe that’s telling me that I should learn more peter hammill guitar songs 🙂

moving back now to the question of arrangements, in thinking about the way I approach the performance of these songs now, I think it’s a really good thing that I’ve totally “let go” of that early view that the song should be as much like the studio version as possible, and I’ve instead, embraced a very free and very unusual style of performance with these pieces – which in a lot of cases, is more about my memory of the song, my impression, my emotional take on the song – rather than re-creating every single note, nuance and vocal twist – I just try to sing and play these songs with the kind of passion and beauty that they deserve.

I think in the end, that’s all you really can do, and if you are just true to what you know, what you know you can play, and what makes you feel good about the song – if I play this a certain way, if I leave a long silence here, if I sing this note here instead of here…that your own flourishes, embellishments, and changes actually make the performance better, because you are taking a good song, and making minor changes that hopefully enhance and grow the song, making it more than it would be if left “exactly the way it is on the album” – there would just be no point in that!

also, if I sit down and do a very serious, analytical “comparison” of my version to peter’s version – well, it’s immediately hopeless – my versions are so incorrect, they are just impressions…I didn’t write these songs, so I can’t possibly play them like peter does – so they are dave stafford impressions of peter hammill songs, rather than really good copies of peter hammill or vdgg songs – I will leave that task to someone else !!

I look back at my career of learning, performing and recording many van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs, as quite strange – it has almost nothing to do with any and all of the other music that I play and record.  yes, I am a bit diversified, what with the many different types of guitar I play, and the various synthesizer, application and kaoss pad pieces too, and all the hybrid combinations thereof – somehow, this catalogue of vocal and piano, or vocal and guitar, pieces by the amazing peter hammill, sits in there too, as part of the basic dave stafford musical dna.

for me, after initially being caught up first by the music of yes, and then, by early (peter gabriel period) genesis – I then found van der graaf generator, and their music was unlike any I had ever heard, and in a way, classing it in with “progressive rock” didn’t make a lot of sense, but I suppose it was closer to “prog” than many other forms of music.  but it turned my head around, it wasn’t “nice” or comfortable, at all, it was edgy, uneasy, uncomfortable – but, at the same time, brutally honest in a way that yes and genesis possibly were not.  and I found that very attractive, and that changed me, it brought a more dissonant playing style to me on the keyboard and guitar, and a more dissonant vocal style too – peter hammill did things with his voice that were like nothing I’d ever heard any singer do – so that also had a profound effect on me.

but, curiously…it didn’t really make me want to write songs that sounded like van der graaf or peter hammill, I just wanted to play those 21 peter hammilll songs (and one chris judge smith song), because I loved them, along with the other piano/vocal and guitar/vocal songs I knew from other artists, such as todd rundgren, steely dan, genesis, bill nelson, roxy music, roy harper, nick harper, peter gabriel, beatles, and many, many others – but out of all of the “covers” I’ve done, it’s the peter hammill/vdgg catalogue that has had the most unique effect on me, because it’s such a remarkable canon of very, very special and extraordinary music.

when I did finally get a decent keyboard again, and “had back” the full scale piano (but now, it’s a sampled grand piano, not a tired old out of tune upright) I began the slow, slow process of re-learning the first few hammill pieces – of which I’ve managed to complete three in less than six months, and a couple more are very close to being “good enough” to publish.

I will continue with this process (of attempting to capture live performances of van der graaf generator and peter hammill songs) until I reach the point where I feel that I’ve done the songs justice.

back in the day, I couldn’t always record, so some of these were never, ever recorded, while some of these do have existing tracks from back then (usually recorded under the worst sonic conditions imaginable, using the most primitive equipment imaginable, I am afraid); some useable, some, probably not – so eventually, I will publish the “old versions” too, for comparison – which will be odd – to hear first, the 1979 or 1980 dave stafford cover of a peter hammill song, and then, the 2012 dave stafford cover of the same song – that will be very, very strange!

that will demonstrate something interesting, though, the effect of aging thirty-three years in an instant; the effects of age, the effects of maturity as a musician and as a pianist (certainly, my skill now must exceed my skill then, on the piano?), my ability as a vocalist (questionable at all times, which is why I play instrumental music in the here and now) – all of these will factor into the “33-year test” that I am apparently (unconsciously) conducting.

I am not sure just how many songs, or which songs, I have recordings of (certainly, “out of my book”, “airport”, “the undercover man” and a few others), from “back then”, and how many I would/will also be able to play and record in the “here and now” – so it may be a very short-lived experiment, but even if I can’t do a direct comparison of certain songs, at least we can compare over all…

I look forward to seeing where things go with my 24 piece catalogue of peter hammill songs in the coming years, and I am hopeful that perhaps some of the “new versions” that I manage to capture (and any “old versions” I also put up for comparison purposes), will be enjoyable to fans of peter hammill’s music – I am sure they are, as the videos of the ph songs I’ve done so far have done quite well over a very short time, as enjoyable as playing and singing them again has been to me – I love these songs, and I am hopeful that my affection for them will be self-evident from viewing and hearing the performances – these are good songs, meaningful songs, songs that endure, and by playing them, I am stating that, I am saying “this work has value, please listen to it” – meaning, the songs of one peter hammill – which have had such a strong and lasting impact on my musical life and even my personal life, and very nearly sent me onto a whole new musical course…but, luckily for the world, I opted to be an ambient loop guitarist instead of a prog rock/singer/songwriter/pianist/guitarist like peter hammill.

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

you can hear the latest dave stafford “cover version” of a peter hammill song here, in this instance, “vision”, originally from “fool’s mate”, 1971, peter’s first solo album, which also happens to feature one very young robert fripp as guest lead guitarist on a few tracks.

fairlight fifty-one – the first dave stafford “application-based” album

even with all the other projects that I am working on, and the list just seems to grow and grow, I am still finding time to work with my beloved fairlight app.

so in between the synthragas and the scapes, and being “scorched by the sun”…I’ve still been finding time to use my favourite sequencer, the fairlight.

a number of new pieces have emerged in late october and early november 2012, including a halloween-themed piece called “hallowed evening sequence” which uses some very unusual sounds (such as “wild boar” and “elephant”) to create a dark, haunted feel – I’m not normally a big fan of creepy music, but the fairlight does creepy so well – well, I just couldn’t help myself.

the piece alternates between the strange strangled cries of, alternately, the wild boar, then the elephant, then both – and a lovely, halting electronica/synth piece – including a very quick section that comes as a complete surprise in the context of the otherwise slow-moving piece.  I am getting used to the idea now, of composing music for “instruments” that range from animal to submarine, from cutlery to machinery, so having wild boar and elephant as my two main instruments, does not seem as strange to me as it once did.

it turns out, actually, that they are eminently suited for a halloween-themed piece of music, because of the similarities to the sounds of panicking, screaming humans – I know that may sound a bit odd, but trust me, it just works!  it does seem a bit strange still, to have “sword” and “whoop” as accompaniment – and I make good use of the “sword” sound – which is simply the sound of a sword being unsheathed, but used as a melodic device, it works great.

next up is a sprightly, [or spritely :-)] little piece called “question mark?” that features a bassoon as it’s lead instrument, with “metal01” as the main percussion instrument – these are then joined by bass organ, electric bass, english horn and, the rest of the “drum kit”: crash cymbal, woodblock and snare. I have to admit I did struggle with this piece: I liked the composition, but I was not happy with the instrumentation, and I changed out several instruments over a couple of days until I reached this arrangement – which works so much better.

normally, I would not do that, and it’s only been on one or two occasions that I ever changed an instrument – usually, once I set it (and that’s the first thing I do) the instrument stays the same throughout the process – so, the composition may change, but the instruments do not.  not this time – it was the reverse – the composition stayed the same, and the instruments changed until the composition sounded right to my ears.

“question mark?” reminds me a bit of something from XTC’s “homo safari” series, it would fit in well between “frost circus” and “procession towards learning land” – somewhere in there 🙂

next we have a real favourite of mine, “the imperial” – featuring wah synth, bell synth, three different prophecy synth sounds, synth5ths, synbass and cymbsyn – so, initially, all about synthesizers – and yes, it does have a bit of a “synthy” sound because of this, but the composition itself ends up with a strangely human quality – I often use the wah synth as a lead instrument, and it works well here again, but the presence of the three prophecy synths gives this piece an amazing late 80s feel – with all the excitement of these “new” prophecy sounds.

“the imperial” burbles along, then hits a short organ-like break, then, some sort of utopian stop/start music – and then away into the high-speed chase solo section – one of the longest, most complex sequences I’ve ever created – I don’t know what came over me, but I was adding bars to this piece at a phenomenal rate – the music just flew directly from my brain into this very roger powell-like piece of music.  if you put “the imperial” into a playlist that included powell’s “air pocket” album, you probably wouldn’t even notice it’s presence – it does have a fantastic high-quality 80s synth feel about it.

I’m also very proud of it as a piece of music, as a composition, because it’s quite mature, it has a number of very logical sections, and then a long and complex solo, which then resolves beautifully back one of the main themes.

next is “electric gambit” a quickly little piece that features and alternating chimes and vibes melody, back by synth toms, a bell tree, snare and orchestra. I had originally intended for this to be a lengthy piece, similar to “the imperial” but as it’s ended up, it’s quite, quite short – concise – and I realised that if I add any more, it might spoil it – I reached a logical conclusion, using the orchestra (strings) to wind the piece down – and it just “felt” like the end – so I decided to stop.

it’s fast-paced, and the variable pitch, very roto-tom like syntoms sound great, the bell tree adding a lovely percussive/melodic element periodically, but it’s the ever-switching chimes then vibes, vibes then chimes melody that I really like – it’s bright, cheerful, melodic – and the roto-tom accompaniment is just perfect – it frames the melodic content beautifully.  I felt very, very fortunate on this one – it arrived quickly, practically arranging itself, and when I heard the string outro, it felt like the perfect ending that I should not mess with.

I think over the years, that the one skill as a musician that is the hardest to develop, is to know when to stop.  it’s often really difficult to know when!  I do think I’ve gotten better at recognising this now, whereas when I was younger, I would just keep going until excess got the better of me, nowadays – somehow, and I don’t know how – I just “know” when it’s finished – and “electric gambit” absolutely fell into that category – I reached what seemed like an ending, and I very quickly realised that even though I had meant to sequence quite a bit more – that the song had told me it was over – so it was over!

the most recent piece, that I’ve been working on over the past few days, bears the somewhat odd title of  “time wounds all heels” and is probably the most XTC-like piece I’ve managed (I am talking about “pop” XTC now, not “experimental” XTC!), using any instrument – it has a funky drum and bass part intro that really reminds me of a classic XTC track – but of course, with that fairlight twist.  I used a different approach on this piece – I decided to work out the drum track first, and then go back and add instruments.

that’s something I’ve never done with the fairlight, try to do things in the traditional drums first, ten bass, then instruments – the fairlight doesn’t naturally lend itself to that approach, but I thought I would try it anyway – and, it was surprisingly successful.

but of course, the best laid plans…I laid out half a drum track, and as I worked on the second half, I started adding in instruments (so much for the “drums first” approach!) – acoustic bass and a horn; and then, strangely, submarine and jet – so I ended up with a skeletal drum part for a minute or so, followed by a nearly complete second half – a very odd way of working…

I worked out the second half of the song quite thoroughly, and built up some very “prog-like” bass and horn parts, the second half is much faster than the first, so it goes then from XTC-pop to Yes-like prog in the blink of an eye.

that was the first day of work, then, on day two, I was faced with filling out the instruments in the first half…and hoping that as I did, that they would “meet up with” and complement the second half.  again, I went to the acoustic bass, and I created some alternate versions of the drum bars – first, drums and bass only, then, drums, bass and horn – and that gave me repetition and variance – the drum parts the same, the accompaniment, different.

as it turned out, I need not have worried, in no time, I had reached the “already finished” section – and a quick playback revealed that the transition was seamless – you would never know where the two halves joined up!  I could not have been more pleased, and I feel that “time wounds all heels” is one of my best works to date – and speaking of the date, I also realised that I am getting very, very near the required number of tracks to assemble an album!

nominally, I want 51 tracks for the album, and I am currently at track 056, however, a few of those won’t make the cut, so my plan is to continue, perhaps up to 60 tracks in total, which will then allow me to leave off a handful of tracks that are perhaps a bit too strange to “work” on the album.

I don’t know yet – I did put together a CD a couple of weeks back so that I could hear all the completed tracks to date, and, I was mostly very, very pleased with it – with one or two exceptions – but it actually boils down to “how strange do I want this record to be?” – an odd position to be in.

because a few of the songs are so, so strange, both in content and composition, that they do not make for what I would call – “comfortable” listening!  I might like them, because I enjoy the process of creation regardless of the final outcome, but when it comes time to put together the best 51 tracks – it might be best if some of my strangest pieces are omitted.

I suppose I could build a small cache of out-takes – for the really brave of heart – and have the 51 main tracks be the album, and then have the out-takes available at a reduced price or as some kind of bonus package, I don’t know – I am sure I will figure something out.

as this unintentional album project draws to a close, I feel very excited about the eventual end result. I believe I am going to present these tracks in absolute audio verite, with no processing or added effects – possibly a small amount of reverb? – I don’t yet know, but the fairlight samples are so unique, that even without effects, they sound very cool – so I am thinking that I will literally just record the pieces, as-is, with no processing – and that will be the album.

I’m also teetering on a decision about running order. most of me wants to stick to a strictly chronological running order, which would then allow the listeners to parallel my own journey of learning this instrument, and this running order does allow for the pieces of most sophistication to end up at the end, where I have the most proficiency.  but lately, I’ve begun to think that it might be better to try and work out a running order based on the sound of the songs – so not chronological at all, but based on how the piece sound.

generally speaking, when I master an album, I do neither of these things: I don’t believe I’ve ever presented pieces of music in a strictly chronological order, nor have I ever presented an album with no processing or mixing of the tracks – so these would both be firsts.  I have a lot of thinking to do…J.

of course, there is a basic “mix” right in the fairlight, every instrument has volume and panning, and indeed, I do have a job of work particularly with panning – normally, I set the instrument balance as I compose, adjusting the volume of individual instruments up or down as I go, but I haven’t set the panning for most of the pieces – I just leave them all default stereo to start.

so I will have to go back and work on the panning where I haven’t done so, because it really does add to the overall effect – when you only have eight instruments, stereo placement becomes somewhat crucial…

in any case, it’s actually fortuitous, as we approach december, 2012 – it was in december 2011 that I first got the ipad, and the fairlight was one of the first apps that I purchased – so as I approach my one-year anniversary of learning how to sequence, using this remarkable app (and, hats off to peter vogel – who has done a brilliant job on the app) – basically, I have a nice body of work to show for it – 51 unique and unusual pieces of music – and this is music, I guarantee you, like you have never, ever heard before.

when I first got the app, I never dreamed I would make an album with it, that was the farthest thing from my mind, but then, “feast for crow” happened, and I was away.  a month or two in, and I was so, so “hooked” on the device, it’s really so much fun to learn and use.  at first, it is difficult, but as with anything, you learn what to do and you learn what not to do – and your pieces get better.

I think everyone uses instruments and applications differently, but I have a strange approach, because of the rather unique skill set I’ve developed over the years, I don’t think that I … think the same way as other musicians do, and I think that’s actually a blessing – I just do things “my way” and often, I disregard the “proper way” – which can have great results, or disastrous results, depending 🙂

in the case of the fairlight, the whole concept was completely new and alien to me, but, I just got stuck in, and taught myself – only reading the manual when I absolutely had to – and I learned.  I’d never really worked with a sequencer of any kind before (even though I had played and owned synthesizers since I was about 18) so I had to learn how to compose bar by bar.  once I figured that out – it became quite easy.

sure, some of it is tricky – say you want to have a long melody line, you have to then split that melody across three or four bars – that’s odd, but, you get used to it, and there are a couple different ways of going about it on the fairlight.  as the year progressed, so did my knowledge, and now, at the end of the year, I am finding it easier than ever to create on the device – I feel at home, comfortable, so now I worry less about how to do it and I just get on with the pieces – and these last four or five have been a real pleasure to create.

the fairlight – otherwise known as “peter vogel cmi” – as used by kate bush and peter gabriel – I love it !!