Emotional Responses To Specific Pieces Of Music – how and why do they happen?

Today I am going to write about how a certain song,  might – and can – trigger powerful emotional responses in human beings, and – for a future, related piece – I am also interested in how an “emotional connection” can form with regards to a specific piece of music – a song, an album sometimes – and how the interplay of time, distance, nostalgia, longing, sorrow, joy, alienation, hope and a myriad of other powerful emotions can be and often are experienced by listeners – and under what conditions and circumstances does this occur?

While I have spoken to other musicians, acquaintances and friends about this phenomena from time to time over the years, it’s only recently, when hearing certain pieces of music for the first time in many months – or, in a few instances of hearing pieces after many years of not hearing them – that I’ve had a remarkable emotional experience – and up until now – I have never really explored the “how” and the “why” of this.

Given that I only have my own emotional responses to hand as a reference;  I am going to cite just one recent example today – where I experienced a very powerful, emotional response during the playback of a particular song.   I think I will leave the “emotional connection” issue for a future discussion – and concentrate on and just look at the sudden and inexplicable emotional response alone in this blog – it’s a mystery enough on its own!

I’ve been “listening to music” now actively for several decades, and that experience, over time, has changed, and changed again.  In the past, I’ve had strong emotional responses to songs, and more recently – some really, truly powerful ones – and I feel that the time has come to try to gain a better understanding, to gain in some cases any understanding – of how and why both powerful emotional responses (as well as the less emotional but no less interesting emotional connections to songs) occur – I want to attempt to gain any understanding at all – because a lot of the how and why is just not clear to me so far.

It’s my hope, too, that by broaching this somewhat personal and sensitive topic, that others might “weigh in” and share with us,  their own experiences with emotional response  to music – so that we might all better understand what happens to us when we are powerfully “affected” by the simple act of hearing a particular piece of music.

The only way we can begin to understand the powerful, emotional experiences I am referencing here, is to describe one such experience in as much detail as possible – which is both embarrassing and also, very personal – because I think – and I don’t really “know” this – but I think – that each of us unique individuals is different – and therefore, each of us will have a very specific and very personal experience based on our own individual emotional “make up” if you will – and I would break that down thusly as a sort of background to the discussion in general:

  • Some individuals may experience a powerful emotional response to a piece of music – while others, may not. For those who never have experienced this – well – this may not be a very interesting blog to read lol (my apologies), unless you happen to know someone like me – who this DOES happen to from time to time – and / or you are curious to want to understand more as to the “how and why” of these emotional responses – what is actually causing them – how do they occur – why do they occur – none of these are simple questions with simple answers – so the more data we have – the better.

 

  • The “symptoms” or “affects” of the emotional response will also vary greatly between individuals – in some, it might just be a wistful feeling, it might be a smile or a happy feeling, it might be a sad feeling –  perhaps a welling up of tears but no actual physical response – right on up to and including some truly powerful and inexplicable emotional responses such as suddenly bursting into tears unexpectedly or sobbing uncontrollably a moment or two after a “particular” song begins to play (or when a playing song reaches a certain point in its musical and lyrical narrative) – the exact “when” of the response is somewhat indeterminate.   So the level of the reaction will vary greatly between experiencing individuals.

 

  • So – the term I am using – “emotional response” – clearly runs a gamut from mild – to medium – to incredibly powerful feelings “evoked” by a particular song – the most extreme reactions I would term “powerful emotional responses” while the milder ones I would just deem to be lesser “emotional responses”.  That is about as far towards “defining” this experience that I have got to date – “emotional responses” and “powerful emotional responses”.  Not much of a definition – but it’s a start, and it’s a place from which a more definite definition can grow I hope with some further data and some further descriptions of other experiences should those appear in response to this blog.

 

  • In some cases, the “trigger” for the response, might just be “part” of a song rather than the entire song – a chorus, a verse, maybe just the lyrics – who knows? For me, it usually “feels like” it’s the whole song, like it is a true mixture of
    • the music playing and it being heard and understood – and
    • the vocals and lyrics sung being heard and understood…

…but, sometimes, within that experience – one particular musical phrase or one particular lyric – can sometimes impact the listener with a further, even more powerful response – so some parts of the song are more powerful “evokers” – than others.  It’s very difficult to articulate this point clearly – I would say, as example, that during the experience that I had – that the” level” or “intensity” of my emotional response definitely increased at certain crucial points which seemed to correlate with certain words, certain tones in the singers voice, or certain emotions that the lyrics and the vocal performance produced in me – it wasn’t just – a flat response, but more like a very short, very powerful emotional roller coaster ride – with certain parts of the song (i.e. “…and once when I was so drunk” and especially “she was strong…and she lifted me…”) caused a much stronger emotion for a few fleeting seconds – as part of what was already a highly charged and very emotional experience – peaks of intensity, might be one way to describe this.

 

 

So… bearing the above in mind, here is a recent “powerful emotional response” that I had to a song.   I have attempted here,  to set up some background so you can understand the context better – because the onset of the response was so sudden, so unexpected  – that I want to understand that background as well as possible myself – in the hopes of reaching some kind of understanding as to how and why this very sudden, very, very unexpected, and incredibly powerful emotional experience happens – and even stranger – why does it only happen on certain occasions, under certain sets of circumstances – and not every time I hear that particular song?

 

EXAMPLE SONG – “The Girls In The Flat Upstairs” by Martin Newell – taken from his 1995 record “The Off-White Album” – it’s the final track on the record – featuring a two guitars-bass-and drums rock band with a real string quartet added for an amazing pop sheen – it’s a cracking tune! (I recommend this song and this entire album to anyone who likes high quality pop or rock music with thoughtful, intelligent lyrics – by all means – give it a listen if you can).

 

NOTE: A full transcript of the song’s lyric is provided at the very end of this post – please see below.

 

Background

In the early 1990s, in about 1993, via my longstanding admiration of the band XTC and probably through the auspices of “Chalkhills” – the official XTC website (admirably built, run and maintained for many, many years now by my friend and fellow Level  One Guitar Craft partner, the remarkable Mr. John Relph – mandolinist extraordinaire) – I learned about an album called “The Greatest Living Englishman” by an artist named Martin Newell with whom I was not familiar with at that time.

My initial interest in this album was due to the fact that one Andy Partridge (of the band XTC)  had played a lead guitar solo on one of the tracks (“We’ll Build A House”) – and being a huge fan of Andy’s guitar playing – I simply wanted to hear that solo.  And on a more human level – I wanted to hear any album by a friend of Andy Partridge – and by someone who Andy admired enough to take the time to support the album by playing on it – that definitely piqued my interest in the record.

So I got that album (and, incidentally, I subsequently learned that “We’ll Build A House” guitar solo note for note – it’s not terrifically difficult but it’s quite subtle and beautiful – you should have a go if you are a guitarist!) – and that – the purchase of and enjoyment of buying that album – then – later on, led me to automatically buying the next Martin Newell release – “The Off-White Album”  from 1995 – which, curiously – features a fantastic guitar solo by the OTHER guitarist from XTC – the remarkable Dave Gregory.

By the mid-1990s then – approximately 25 years ago now – I collected these two albums by Martin Newell – and I played them both a lot – and over the years, neither has been neglected – they both have a lot of great songs on them – and in fact, as John Relph of Chalkhills pointed out – Martin Newell is a proponent of something I think he called “Jangly Pop” (or is it “Jangle Pop” – I am not quite sure now) – which is an apt-enough description.

I would, however, hasten to add – that this description does not mean this music is frivolous in any way – and while some songs are definitely excellent examples of “Jangly” or “Jangle Pop” – some of the songs are also hard-hitting social commentary and are moving in the extreme – and are still relevant and hard-hitting after 25 years – in my personal opinion.

These two albums are pop albums, made mostly with a sort of two guitars bass and drums approach – featuring the excellent socially aware and often fairly biting social commentary of Martin Newell’s lyrics – mixed in with songs of love and loss and all of the familiar topics that get covered on the more serious less frivolous pop music or singer / songwriter releases.  Martin himself,  happens to also be a very well-read and well-respected poet of no mean skill – so he brings a poet’s sensibilities to his” jangly” pop music and to his more serious lyrics, too – a potent and attractive combination of factors.

In fact it was the element of storytelling, and the obvious poetic bent of some of the lyrics on both of these mid 90s albums – that made them stand out from the crowd at the time – and finding out later on that Martin Newell was in fact very well known for his poetry – well, when I learned that, the lyrics of these two albums made even more sense to me than they already did – they have a somewhat deeper meaning I believe, because of the way they are presented – as living stories with a poetic lilt – that’s maybe not quite it – but it’s something like that.

Not your typical “I love you why don’t you love me” kind of boy-girl pop song lyrics – but in fact, Martin’s lyrics loaded with meaning – foresight, foreboding, hindsight, regret, fear, alienation – insight – it’s all there in Martin’s words – not to mention, a wicked sense of humour which can be seen in some of the wonderful titles and puns that abound in Martin’s work – for example the title of the album that the example song in this blog comes from “The Off-White Album” – which happens to contain a track that clearly pays tribute to a George Harrison song – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – from “The White Album” by the Beatles – I mean come on – “The Off White Album” – that is a great album name and a funny one, too – a great slightly off-kilter view of a pop album –“Off-White” rather than “White” – brilliant!

 

As with all albums, there is a real mix of tracks on both records, and you get some very sentimental, lovely songs and some powerful, dark, socially aware songs where Martin is clearly less than pleased with the way the government is doing things, with the politics of the day, or with the attitudes of real folk he has encountered while busking – such as “Queen Phyllis of Colchester” – [which as noted above –  is a nearly direct copy of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – from Martin’s “The Off-White Album”] – which happens to be the track where Dave Gregory unleashes his own inner Eric-Clapton-psycho-guitar solo – so the albums both contain songs ranging from very light-hearted to much more serious – and everywhere in between.

 

If you are by chance, familiar with these records, then this example will make more sense to you perhaps – but if not, if it’s possible, if you are able to hear “The Off-White Album” once or twice so you get the feel for what kind of music this is – an excellent work of true quality I would say – nothing particularly unusual about it that might make it good music to evoke an emotional response – just a good quality album, by a good artist who writes excellent lyrics and makes good records.

What’s not to like?

 

I suggest a listen to “The Off-White Album” by Martin Newell then, because that is the album that contains the track that affected me so deeply in this example.  Barring that – a listen to the actual song in question – “The Girls In The Flat Upstairs” by Martin Newell – taken from his 1995 record “The Off-White Album” – would also help set the scene for this incident.

 

THE INCIDENT

2019 has been a strange, strange year for me – and it has been a transitional year for me in a lot of ways – for example, over the past three to four months, I’ve been undergoing a physical and mental transformation of my music work space and my working method in my head – with a view to doing things a bit differently going forward – please see my previous blog regarding, among other things – a new approach to music making that I am in the process of formulating this year (2019).

Because of the work being done on physical infrastructure / sound systems and the like, I pretty much didn’t have a lot of ready access to my library of recorded music for a few months while I was doing a lot of the physical re-construction work – or –  it was available rather, but I was not – so while normally, throughout my life, I have always listened to recorded music as part of my pretty much daily experience of music – to some degree, during the first half of 2019 – I did not listen to as much music as I might have normally – so I was feeling a bit disconnected perhaps, because of that – I don’t know.

 

So –  one of the first things I did during my physical set up of my new office space, was to make sure that the sound card and speakers were in working order, and that I had my new favourite music player up and running (FOOBAR 2000 – a great player – get it!) and I then did start listening to items from my catalogue of recorded music again – from my main CD library.

During this time, I also did some serious upgrading of the data for my recorded music – i.e. I fixed my internal song tags over a period of weeks…so I was going back through a lot of catalogue items, updating and correcting the tags – which left my entire collection in such better condition in terms of its data being far more useful , correct and clear now compared to what it has been historically since I started collecting my music digitally in about 2008.

 

Having a much more modern and capable music player such as FOOBAR 2000, allowed me to visually “see” a lot of problems in the data and in the tagging – which led to me getting a great tagging tool – “MP3Tag” – so I used that tool to make corrections and apply categories and add missing content – and so on – and in just a few weeks, the quality of my music tags went from liveable to extremely well organised and documented.

As a result of all of the above, as the year progressed, I began listening to more and more music again, as you do when you’ve had a time away from it – you want to hear things again that you have missed hearing, and so on.

It was nearer the beginning of this process, when I didn’t have the sound card and speakers set up, and I had not been able to listen to much recorded music for a few months – this is when this occurred, and it surprised me in an incredible way – it was just out of the blue.

I was working on installing music software or getting programmes and samples and synths to do my bidding or some such tedious set up tasks (loading software, joy of joys), when I decided to put on some Martin Newell music – which I hadn’t heard for a couple of years perhaps.

 

When I reached the final piece of music on “The Off-White Album” – which is a lovely song about some kindly neighbour girls who looked after the singer of the song when he was really drunk – “The Girls In The Flat Upstairs” that I suddenly realised that I was sobbing uncontrollably, just crying like a child at this ordinary story of life as told by Martin Newell.

I have always liked that song – but it had never, ever had an effect like THAT on me before!  It happened so suddenly, and it was such an intense feeling – really upsetting! – it took me completely by surprise – completely.

 

My brain immediately went into “analysis mode” and I tried to think – what on EARTH just caused that?  What on earth…

And what is even really stranger is that I absolutely had never had any comparable or “relate-able” experience – I’ve never had any personal incident like the one depicted in the song or anything even close to that experience described.

I have never had an incident where I got a bit too drunk and my neighbours or friends or something – had to get me into the house and put to bed – but the way Martin tells this story – it sounds like he did have such an experience – or at the very least, his song writing talent has allowed him to “invent” this wonderful story of the neighbours helping him when he could not help himself.

There must be something about the lyrics, I thought – but then part of me thinks that it’s the real string quartet that is featured in the song – those string parts – perhaps it is those really affect me (??)  Even when I am not having a powerful emotional response to the song – but I am just unsure as to what it really, precisely it is that causes this sudden, uncontrollable emotional experience.  My brain desperately tried to find an explanation, a reason – for such an outburst – and I came up with nothing – no answers.

 

I keep going back to the lyric of the song – and also, the way in which Martin sings those lyrics – he describes his upstairs flatmates in the first part of the song – and then suddenly the scene shifts, and he is talking about “once when I was so drunk…she was strong – and she lifted into my room and put me to bed…” – he goes on to describe how she (one of the girls from the flat upstairs, of course) took care of him and left him a drink “for next day” when he woke up – and  there is absolutely no correlation to my own life here – so I have to begin to believe that in this particular example – that the sobbing and the tears and the heartbreak I experienced when hearing this song again after some time away from it – is (perhaps?)  an “EMPATHIC” response on my part.

 

i.e.  I feel  emotion not for myself (since I have no frame of reference for an experience like this one in my own life) but on behalf of the recipient of the care and kindness of “The Girls In The Flat Upstairs”  – there is real emotion in Martin’s voice when the strings preface his vocal and he says “and once, when I was so drunk…she was strong” – I am not entirely sure, but I believe that that particular line – “she was strong…”  is possibly the “trigger” that in this case, led me to burst into tears spontaneously and cry all the way through to the end of the song.

 

What an extraordinary and completely surprising thing to happen – and – why didn’t it happen, on the previous dozens of listens to that song over the period from 1995 through to this very different listening experience of early 2019?

Why now?  And – and why DIDN’T I react to it emotionally for the first 24 years of listening to it?

 

NOTE:  Since that time, I have out of curiosity – played the song again – since the early 2019 “emotional event” I have just described – to see if anything would happen.  I didn’t experience the extreme reaction again – but I did feel something akin to it under the surface – and remarkably, when writing the paragraphs above, recounting the actual incident –  I did briefly become overwhelmed with tears and again when trying to write out the lyrics.

So that was a recurring emotional response – something about that line “once when I was so drunk…she was strong…” somehow, those words, sung so beautifully by Martin and supported so beautifully by his band and the real string quartet he used on the session – somehow – that was the trigger – I think.

 

From here forward then – I have nothing but questions. I’d very much welcome your opinion here – any ideas or thoughts you might have about this incident, the how and why of it – I’d be very interested indeed to hear – because music is a very powerful yet mysterious thing – and this was an unforgettable experience for me personally – a beautiful experience despite the very real sense sorrow and sadness accompanying my reaction.

 

  • How did it happen that a song I know well, that I’ve heard dozens of times over 25 years – how is it that suddenly, in the here and now of 2019 – how did it happen that hearing it caused a powerful emotional response in me this time – and not on many other listening occasions?
  • Why did this occur – has something changed, does the lyric now hold meaning for me that it did not previously?
  • Did my perception of the song itself change – am I hearing it in some “new way”, that “allows” for an additional layer of perception which is emotional upset? (Like going from 2D to 3D video?)
  • Did I somehow gain a new or different understanding of the lyrics – or somehow detect emotional content in the singing or in the lyrics that I was perhaps, not able to detect 25 years ago when I first heard the song?
  • What on earth caused this to happen?
  • Why this song – why not a hundred, a thousand others? Why not really famous songs about very naked emotions – “Yer Blues” or something like that – why THIS beautiful song?
  • I would have understood this better, had the lyrics of the song affecting me be something relating to an experience that I had had in my life – but in this case, there is absolutely no relationship to any personal experience I’ve had – I’ve never needed to be carried to my bed and put to bed because I am too drunk to get their myself; I’ve never had flatmates or neighbours who went out of their way to help me or care about me – the song could in fact, be a total invention (as it turns out, it is partially autobiographical – please read on below) – but regardless of that – it does NOT relate to any similar real incident in my life.
  • I would have expected a song that recounts an experience – probably an emotional one like being in love, or, of losing a love or maybe some other kind of recounting of some other emotional or other trauma – to be something that would trigger such a response – that makes sense, because you can “relate” to the characters in the song, something nearly identical or very similar may have happened to you in your life – so you can relate and therefore, that song might suddenly strike you as being “exactly about you” and “all about you” – and that very similar experience that you had that apparently, the singer of the song had to.
  • Not so in this example – I have no relatable anything between my life, and the events and the story of “The Girls The Flat Upstairs” by Martin Newell.
  • So – how – and why – did this happen?

 

 

I would love to hear your own experiences if any – like this, and what conclusions, if any, you came to in trying to understand why your response occurred.  Please don’t be shy – speak up – I think it is an interesting demonstration of the power of music – but it’s an “intangible” quality of music – it’s definitely not in the score “add extreme emotion HERE” – and that intangible quality isn’t easy to pinpoint or describe or explain – and yet – it exists, and it can be very surprising and very powerful indeed.

 

This is just one example of such an incident;  I’ve had a few other similar ones here and there over the years – but not one so powerful, so recent, and so utterly inexplicable.

I could now listen to that song over and over – and I would feel nothing more unusual than the very pleasant experience of listening to a well-written and well-recorded piece of pop music that I happen to admire.  It seems odd to me that on just one occasion, really, that this song should have such a profound and upsetting effect on me – it was quite, quite upsetting to say the very least.  I’m actually, very glad that it doesn’t happen every time – or I would spend far too much time sobbing over a song instead of just enjoying listening to music as I always, always have.

Having said that – I am also very glad it happened, because while it was upsetting at the time – for three or four minutes only so not a big deal – it was actually a unique and wonderful experience that is quite rare, so it was interesting and memorable for me in that regard.

 

In considering this still further, spending still more time thinking about it – I can come up with but one tentative, half-baked “theory” as to why this song may affected me so much that day – which is this – it could possibly be due to a sort of – for lack of a proper description – a “long-delayed short bout of self-pity” (hopefully, I just invented that – but it sounds quite unpleasant) – and this is only a theory – I am not sure I believe this – but, many years ago, I did tend to drink a bit too much myself – [a lot of young men and women, too, do this] – but in recent years I am basically 100 percent sober – once a year I might have a glass of wine – or a Guinness Stout – but then I might let two years lapse before I do that again.  So now, for the past eight or nine years – I have had very, very little to drink, and I no longer use alcohol as a pain-killer – which I admit I did do back in the day – this is not uncommon – especially among musicians I am afraid.

 

But back in the day, quite a few years ago now – I drank quite a bit of beer and wine and sometimes even stronger alcohol (including a few months where I drank copious quantities of Tia Maria – don’t ask me why – because I have no idea lol) – and now –  I don’t.

For health reasons only, I do regret that I drank so much – I used to really knock back the white wine – which also makes you gain huge amounts of weight by the way) – but now, in hindsight (which is always 50/50 of course!) I don’t think the drinking ever “helped” me  with anything and I think my body – which I now take care of much better than I used to – didn’t need all that alcohol.

It’s alleged “pain killing” qualities aren’t really there – it pretty much just damages you although short term, you can get some great illusions that you are “feeling no pain” and that you have somehow (by poisoning your system?) managed to “drown your sorrows” – I hate to break it to you – but there is very little of the factual in that notion or even in the notion that drinking kills your pain –  it kills your brain cells – but it doesn’t kill pain.

So with that background… my thought was – OK, when Martin sings so mournfully, so beautifully “and once when I was so drunk…”  maybe – just possibly, I was suddenly transported back in time – and was suddenly identifying with my “25 years ago heavy drinking persona” – and feeling the heartache of how futile drinking yourself into a stupor actually is – and maybe a “long delayed short bout” of the dreaded “long delayed self-pity” is what triggered my response – I may never know.

I suppose it could have been something like that – but somehow, I don’t feel like that could be it at all – because it’s the story – the “reality soup” that Martin created – and the sounds of the guitars and the string quartet – the feeling of the song – that made me feel that emotion – not the fact that I used to get “so drunk” a long, long time ago – so – that theory is more of a question than an answer – but it’s one remote possibility.  So having presented my one vague, uncertain and only vaguely possible theory as to how and why – I am prone to just retract it again and go back to the place where I was when I started down this particular rabbit hole – wondering just how on earth what happened to me that day – how did that HAPPEN to me?

 

 

This then, leaves me once again – with a lot of questions and not any definite answers at all – it’s still a mystery to me – and may always remain so.

 

 

We may never know.

 

 

Dave Stafford

August 28, 2019

 

 

CREDITS AND ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

 

 

Meanwhile – credits (and edits, too) are due where credits are due…

Author’s Notes and Commentary:   When it came time to prepare this blog, I found to my surprise that one could not obtain the lyrics to Martin Newell’s song  “The Girls The Flat Upstairs”  on the Internet – since apparently,  no one had ever bothered to transcribe them. Very remiss indeed!

 

The final transcription below, is actually a composite transcription worked up by myself with assistance from John Relph and then finalised by Martin Newell himself at my request – originally, I had transcribed it “by ear” (and my ears are NOT what they once were lol) and then, uncertain on quite a few points – I took my first draft of the transcribed  lyrics to my old friend John Relph – yes – the chalkhills.org John Relph – who then made a few subtle improvements and suggestions to the lyrics – and then also suggesting that if I am still unsure (and I was still unsure on a few of the words even after a few iterations of drafts) – “why don’t you just ask Martin?”

 

So, since I wanted the lyrics to be transcribed with 100 percent accuracy – that is exactly what I did – I took the composite Dave Stafford / John Relph “unofficial rough transcription” from August 2019, and asked Martin Newell to cast his eye over it – which he very promptly and very kindly did – and I am proud to say that the “by ear” transcription that John Relph and I worked on – only contained two minor errors – just two words incorrect – out of the entire lyric – so we did pretty well for ourselves there.   Amateur transcribers – clearly on the way to future glories…

 

This version, however, below contains Martin’s final corrections so is in fact a 100 percent accurate lyrical rendering of the song “The Girls In The Flat Upstairs” from “The Off-White Album” by Martin Newell.

 

In his response to me just a couple of days ago, Martin also added the following insights into the song’s creation:

 

“This song was what we call a kind of ‘reality soup’…  it’s fictional, but has many elements taken from life experience and mixed up together in the lyric.

It was written in 1994 and recorded in December of that year but remained unreleased until April 1996. The album went mostly un-reviewed and un-listened to at the time. Liberacion in France gave it a glowing review (Nick Kent, no less). Some people said they preferred it to the Greatest Living Englishman. I left music a while later for three years, because my poetry was doing so well”.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

 

I am very happy to have a properly-approved and fully corrected, fully accurate lyric as well as some provenance and comments from Martin regarding this song – because I feel it helps us to begin to understand the song as well as possible, so that we might be able to then try and “figure out” why on earth this song – and these lyrics – evoked such an unexpected and powerful emotional reaction in myself.

 

 

And I would be very curious to hear from you regarding this topic – has this ever happened to you? – that totally out of the blue, you are listening to a song you’ve heard many times before, that you have no particular connection or relationship to – and yet, it suddenly affects you in a truly powerful, unforgettable and meaningful way?

 

In my case – I will never listen to this song the same way again, I can tell you that – it will always bring the memory of that powerful experience – so I am glad the song exists – because it triggered something unique and something that was definitely not a “typical” day to day listening experience.

 

I think that we’ve seen, on many, many occasions – over time – that music can be a very powerful force indeed.  As to exactly how music does this – that may never be known – but the emotional response I had was well worth the price of admission – I didn’t mind, because it elevated the piece beyond being “just a song” to now becoming a part of my life’s emotional experience – and that really is something significant – at least to me.

 

Please let me know if you have had any kind of similar experience – I can’t be the only one.

 

Until next time…

 

I remain

Dave

 

 

[Full lyric transcription – approved by Martin Newell himself – follows]:

 

 

 

The Girls In The Flat Upstairs

Martin Newell – December 1994

 

 

Ah Lindy sometimes got down

and she worked in a club,

doing drinks or the door…

 

She’d say “I’m tired of this town –

of the farm-boys and jerks

and their fights on the floor”

 

“And one day I will break out

And I’ll save…

I’ll buy some B&B and me and Sheila will live

And we’ll drink till we drop

On a Saturday night”

 

The girls who lived in the flat upstairs…

The girls who lived in the flat upstairs…

 

And Sheila was so alive…

she would laugh and she’d curse, and say outrageous things,

she drove a big motorbike…

she wore leather and jeans, and she had lots of rings

 

And once when I was so drunk…

She was strong…

And she lifted me into my room and put me to bed

With a washing-up bowl, and a drink for next day

 

The girls who lived in the flat upstairs…

The girls who lived in the flat upstairs…

 

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

And wherever you are, you better watch your chemicals, girls

 

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

And wherever you are, I hope you watch your chemicals, girls

 

 

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…   (oh, oh no…)

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

 

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on…

Carry on, carry on, carry on, carry on……

scorched !!

or – “Dave Gregory – home at last…”

I suddenly realised, after many months of hearing the name “Tin Spirits” (but never, sadly, hearing their music – until now, that is…) the penny finally dropped: this is DAVE GREGORY’S band. Yes – that Dave Gregory, the one who used to play stunt guitar in that little ole’ band from Swindon, the redoubtable XTC. For 19 years, across 12 studio albums, from “Making Plans For Nigel” in 1979 (from the remarkable ‘Drums And Wires (1979)‘), to “Senses Working Overtime” (from the remarkable ‘English Settlement (1982)‘) on up to the celebrated “Apple Venus (1999)” (the last XTC album that Dave appears on).

Dave Gregory established himself as a stellar lead guitarist capable of precision-engineered, well-crafted and very creative guitar solos, including some truly unforgettable ones all the way from “No Language In Our Lungs” (from the remarkable “Black Sea (1980)“) to “The Ugly Underneath” (from the remarkable “Nonsuch (1992)“) and all points in between.

If Dave was the “quiet Beatle” of XTC, he wasn’t so quiet when it came to his solos, and if Andy Partridge wrote the songs and had that crazy, boundless energy, then Dave was the thoughtful musical foil to Andy’s uh, “Extrovert” personality. Dave also has an amazing collection of legendary electric guitars, vintage guitars and amps, and always had a few amazing vintage guitars to hand at every session, always the right guitar for the right solo – always well prepared, and always sounding just right for the song in question – whichever it may be. Yes, that’s a lot of “always”, but you count on Dave to come up with a great guitar solo for almost any song, no matter how strange, or how beautiful…

Don’t forget, too, that Dave was also in “The Dukes Of Stratosphear”, along with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding of XTC, and his brother, Ian Gregory, on drums, the amazing 60s psychedelic rock parody band, and later on, worked with Steve Hogarth (and was a regular member of his touring band, too) and Dave has also appeared on albums by the Bournemouth prog band “Big Big Train”, and of course, pre-, during and post-XTC, he has always been in demand as a session guitarist, too.

As the old reliable wikipedia put it: “Since leaving XTC, Gregory has been much in demand as a session musician with a number of artists, including Peter Gabriel, Aimee Mann, Cud, Marc Almond, Bingo Durango, Johnny Hates Jazz, Jason DonovanMartin Newell, Louis Philippe, Lulu, Mark Owen, R. Stevie Moore and others. Gregory, who has been regularly involved in Steve Hogarth‘s h-Band, has also contributed to works by Porcupine Tree, including string arrangements on their sixth album, Lightbulb Sun, and for Dublin group Pugwash.

On 16 August 2009, English progressive rock band Big Big Train announced on their official blog that Gregory would be appearing as a guest musician on their sixth studio album, The Underfall Yard.[1] Gregory subsequently appeared on Big Big Train’s Far Skies Deep Time EP and is listed as a full band member on English Electric Part One (2012)”

That demonstrates just how in-demand Dave’s services as guitarist, arranger and musician are – one of Britain’s “most desirable” guitar note-slingers.

Dave’s newest band, Tin Spirits, first got together in Swindon, UK in the summer of 2008, when Aussie import, guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt from TheGigRig invited former XTC guitarist (and musical hero) Dave Gregory to a local studio to video record an ‘amp shoot-out’ with Dan’s band The Hi-Fidels, comprising bassist Mark Kilminster and drummer Doug Mussard. The rest, as they say, is history…

Me saying “Stunt guitar” is absolutely short-changing him, Dave played a huge, huge part in helping Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding to create the “XTC sound”, and if anything, not nearly enough credit goes to Dave, for his outstanding contributions to both their albums, and to their live shows – for two decades.

I remember when I saw XTC live, show 9 of the “English Settlement” tour, and I recall watching Dave playing, off to the side of the stage; he was multitasking in a really cool way, and when he reached over to play the squiggly synth line that follows Andy’s lyric “just a spineless wobbly jelly fish…” from “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” (from “Drums And Wires (1979)”) – Dave makes the “jellyfish” sound on his little synth – and then, right back to lead guitar…my jaw hit the floor, and I spent most of the night, trying to see around the incredibly energetic Partridge, to see and hear what Dave was doing back there – it all just sounded amazing! All good.

That show, XTC live at the California Theater in San Diego, California, (my then-hometown) on April 3, 1982 turned out to be the 9th and final show of the US leg of the tour, the rest of which was completely cancelled due to “illness”; but the well-publicised breakdown of Andy Partridge (just hours after young 1982 Dave Stafford saw them play live!!) was the real reason the tour was halted. The band never toured again, occasionally, some years later, doing a small number of acoustic shows on radio or television, or the odd TV appearance here and there…

Dave had joined XTC at just the right moment, just as they were breaking away from their frenetic “dance band” persona, and with the departure of the sometimes alcohol-fuelled organist Barry Andrews, they were, much to their own surprise, already becoming “serious musicians” – recording and touring behind “Drums And Wires” – an album that I still listen to often, well, for me, that’s where it all started.

I have been a fan of XTC since the late 70s or early 1980s, indeed, I was fortunate to be at that very last live show they ever did, in San Diego back in ’82. That’s the only time I ever saw XTC or Dave Gregory play live, but the experience stuck with me, and based on seeing them that year (they were AMAZING!) I continued to collect their albums, and to follow their progress, as they moved into their own version of the Beatles’ “Studio Years” – when touring becomes a burden, and the decision is, let’s (still) make records, but, not play live.

This was mostly down to bandleader Andy Partridge, it was Andy who ended up so stressed out that he called time on live performance just HOURS after I saw him play a blinder of a show, and everyone was disappointed, because XTC live was one of the most energetic and interesting bands you could see live, in the early 1980s – they didn’t really have a lot of competition, especially once they had delivered both the most excellent “Drums And Wires (1979)” and it’s excellent follow-up, “Black Sea (1980)” – followed by the very excellent “English Settlement (1982)” – by the next excellent album, ‘Mummer 1983‘, it was time for Terry Chambers the drummer to go – and go he did, to Australia to marry his girlfriend, and, after playing with the Australian band “Dragon” for a couple of years, after that, he never really returned to the music business.

Now drummer-less, it did not in any way phase the remaining three members of XTC, who were all long-time friends from Swindon, and Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding and Dave Gregory, carried on through the rest of the 1980s, and into the 90s, until eventually, Dave could stand no more, and he left – and, then, XTC was a duo – and Andy and Colin went on to make more albums, although for me, once Dave left – they were lacking that spark – sure, Andy is damn near as good a player as Dave is (they are both amazing guitarists, let’s face it) when he makes the effort, and, he did make more of a real effort with the lead guitar parts on the ‘post-Dave’ albums, because I am sure he was conscious of the shadow and the memory of Dave sitting there in the studio, quietly ripping through some more amazing lead guitars for the latest XTC disk. The amount of lead guitar on records post-Dave, is noticeably less – Andy plays a few good solos, here or there, but it’s just not quite the same….

But the eventual fate of XTC is a story for another time, for now, suffice to say, that Andy and Colin went on to create a very respectable canon of work after the departure of Dave, who suddenly found himself at loose ends – playing on sessions, playing wherever he could, for a quite a few years after he left XTC. Things were almost beginning to plane out, Dave was almost forgotten, and could easily have faded from the ever-quick-to-forget music fans, but luckily, a chance encounter with a trio of Genesis / XTC fans ended up in more invitations to jam, and over time, Tin Spirits, was formed as a four piece, two-guitars-bass-and-drums band – with Dave Gregory on lead guitar.

So – once I realised that I had been missing the boat completely for a few years, that this amazing band, Tin Spirits, had toured the UK (and I could have SEEN THEM live – extreme dismay!) and indeed, they had been, and, much to my eternal frustration, on their earlier tours, they did a lot of covers of prog and other music that they had a shared love for, including Genesis “Back In NYC” from “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and other songs by Rush, Yes “Roundabout”) and even Frank Zappa.  You can view some videos of some of these amazing prog covers on the Media page of the Tin Spirits official website.

Of course, it will not bother me one bit, if instead of these covers, that if we do get to see them (and I really, really hope we can…) that we might have to “endure” listening to them play most of the tracks from their new disc “Scorch” – and I will tell you, much as I would have loved to see and hear Dave Gregory play “Back In NYC” with his new band, it would be NO hardship whatsoever to sit and listen to Tin Spirits play some or all of the “Scorch” album – no hardship at all. 🙂

I have heard Scorch about four times now, and each time I hear it, I just end up feeling so uplifted, and it really, really makes me want to play the guitar (and only the very best guitar albums have that effect on me); it also really makes me want to write on guitar again (not something I’ve done a lot of since ‘gone native‘) and one thing that Tin Spirits have been extremely effective at, is creating a very full, very prog sound, without the use of keyboards – none whatsoever were used on “Scorch”, it’s all guitars, bass and drums – as it should be, really.  Dave himself is an accomplished keyboard player, but I applaud their determination, and “Scorch” is proof positive that you can make a big, big prog sound just with two guitars, bass and drums.  Of course, guitar technology has come a long, long way, and the lines between guitars and synths, continue to blur.

But the main difference between Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of XTC, and Dave Gregory, amazing lead guitarist of Tin Spirits – is that in the former, he didn’t really get to play much at all – a solo here, a solo there, a keyboard solo, the odd guitar bit here or there – but nothing that he could really get stuck into – whereas in the latter, he doesn’t just get stuck in – he excels, explores and explodes – you can hear that Telecaster cutting through the air during the epic “Garden State”, and the extended solos that Dave is now not only allowed to take, but should be legally REQUIRED to take, will knock your guitar-playing socks off.

This is really a master class for lead guitarists, and we could all learn more than one thing from listening to ”Scorch” – and the rest of the musicians in the band are not slouching, in any way – guitarist / vocalist Daniel Steinhardt (also a pedal board/guitar controller inventor – the inventor of the amazing TheGigRig) is damn near as experienced and as capable as Dave is, so it’s a remarkable pairing, almost, but not quite, like having two Dave Gregorys in your band – and that, my friends, is a VERY good thing.

Bassist / lead vocalist Mark Kilminster and Doug Mussard (drums and vocals) are one of the most experienced and adaptable rhythm sections I have ever heard, and the way they slot in their backing, providing rhythmic support for the two interlocking guitar wizards – this would be, a “sort of” analog / mirror of the prog / pop “version” of Levin and Bruford supporting Fripp and Belew – I cannot think of any other truly analogous pairing of “amazing rhythm section” with “two remarkable and innovative guitarists” – I can happily and honestly say that about both King Crimson, and, about Tin Spirits.

And, another thing – the “no keyboards” rule has been faithfully followed, so somehow, Tin Spirits have created truly Progressive Rock, without the use of the dread synthesizer, and to me, to use just the guitar technology available, to be able to write for two guitars, bass and drums, and create the complex, intricate and beautiful music that is contained on “Scorch” – that is quite an accomplishment.

I am absolutely gobsmacked by just how goodScorch” is, to the point where I plan to sit down this weekend, and order their first album, so I can have their entire recorded catalogue :-). I know that the first album is not rated as highly as “Scorch” is – but I am prepared and ready anyway, open ears and mind, and I am sure I will enjoy it.  If this video is anything to go by (link below), it’s going to be excellent – a 13 minute plus epic from that first album, “Wired To Earth”; here is “Broken” – this bodes well, sounds good to me!

I bought “Scorch” without having heard one note by Tin Spirits – and, as sometimes happens, it was an incredibly GOOD ‘blind’ decision. This album is currently rocking my world, and finally, after 19 years of tantalising glimpses of Dave Gregory’s genius, from the guitar solos on “That Wave” from the remarkable “Nonsuch” to his brilliant work on “Drums And Wires”, “Black Sea”, “English Settlement”, and so many other brilliant XTC albums; “The Big Express” is a huge favourite of mine, really, I love all of XTCs catalogue, one of the most enduring in this genre (start out punky, and then gradually mutate into the new Beatles – you know, THAT kind of band!) not to mention the 1986 smash hit “Skylarking” album, produced by Todd Rundgren – an amazing body of work, but now, Dave has started another one – and this one is the guitar band for guitarists who REALLY LOVE GUITAR – “Tin Spirits”. Album Two, “Scorch”, is fantastic. I haven’t heard Album One yet (“Wired To Earth”), but, I will be ordering it this weekend.

From those tantalising glimpses of brilliance provided by a great solo from Dave on a really good XTC song, to this: where Dave is utterly set free, where he can solo for as long as he likes, and, this record is full of extended, and super-extended, and ridiculously super-extended guitar solos, many of them by Dave – and the range of playing, from Hendrix ballad style drenched in prog beauty to scathing Telecaster lead lines, I could just listen to the guitar solos, and duos, on this record over and over and over – and, don’t get me wrong, the band has EXCELLENT vocals, but right now, I am bathing in the glory of a finally-unleashed, finally-unchained, doing it the way HE wants to, nearly endless guitar solos from Dave Gregory – FINALLY !!!!!!!!! If only Andy had let Dave play like THIS in XTC, we might have seen them become a brilliant Prog band too…

This boy can PLAY. He can PLAY good. He knocks my socks off on this particular disc, if you haven’t picked up “Scorch”, I recommend it highly – it’s the guitarist’s guitarist guitar album of the future, and I love what I am hearing – finally, freed from the 30 second XTC mini-solo, when Dave stretches out on album closer “Garden State”, it’s like getting to hear Hendrix practicing beautiful guitar for “Angel” or “Drifting” or “Little Wing” that’s all I can think about, when I hear the fluid, sinuous, sounds of Dave’s guitar, and his tones are pure liquid fire, they are musically SCORCHING, there is absolute purpose, and serious musical intelligence there, and never has there been a more aptly named album.

I will let others do the song by song analysis of “Scorch”; I am really more interested in conveying what an extremely excellent album “Scorch” is, and, also, trying to give it the back story it deserves, and how it fits into the chronology of both XTC, as well as Dave Gregory‘s long and very distinguished career as a great guitarist, arranger, and all-round musician, vintage guitar enthusiast, and now, playing in the band of his dreams – Tin Spirits.  And for me, even though I’ve started at the wrong end of their short and sweet catalog, “Scorch” is an amazing musical document, and it is absolutely worth checking out.

I will say, the album opener, “Carnivore” sets the mood brilliantly, it’s a proggy instrumental with lots of great guitar, but it’s when we move into the next few songs, and you start to get to where there are well-defined guitar solos…and you suddenly “hear” Dave, you KNOW it’s Dave just by the sound – and to my mind, the only guitarist that I think is similar to Dave, is the late, great Jimi Hendrix (but probably, the gentler, more melodic “side” of Jimi) – who is clearly, clearly a huge influence on Dave.  So when that first “Gregory” solo hits your ears – you are suddenly really paying attention, and it does not disappoint – instead, it reels you in, you want more – and you don’t just get more – you get a LOT more – more Dave Gregory guitar on this album than you will find on any three XTC albums ! And that is saying something…

The gentle, pastoral guitars of “Little Eyes” from “Scorch”, take you everywhere from an almost King Crimson “Discipline”-style “interlocking” or what I call “gamelan guitars” to fluid, beautiful, liquid Hendrix guitar solos – the whole effect is so uplifting, positive sounding – a brilliant track, “Little Eyes” gives you a very good idea of the basic quality of the album – it’s just a perfect little song – lovely.  It’s long instrumental outro, is a great showcase for Dave’s amazing guitar style, and in this solo, you hear him reaching for the stars – and finding them, sparks flying – just one of those so-perfect solos, that then merges perfectly right back into the rhythm of the song…seamless, timeless – beautiful.

Take someone like Dave Gregory, with his massive collection of amazing vintage guitars, his knowledge of how sounds were created in the past, and his ability to recreate very specific guitar tones by using particular combinations of guitars, amps and effects, add in his many, many years of guitar playing, almost always, as a lead guitarists in one form or another – and you have a mature, powerful, guitar-force-to-be-reckoned with: Dave Gregory; in 2014 – suddenly, I can hear the culmination of that career, a player at the top of his game, the craft of guitar is relaxed, confident, powerful – you can hear it – in the beautiful guitar solos that are featured in almost every track on “Scorch“.  Remarkable!  And really, really beautiful, too.

Get “Scorch” now, if you love prog, if you love pop, if you love guitar music, if you loved XTC, if you love the guitar work of Dave Gregory – heck, just get it – I bet you will like it! In Europe, you can get it from Burning Shed, in America, probably Amazon. This be rocking! I’m going back to listen to it again right now…ah…sonic bliss 🙂

SKYLARKING – XTC – a mini review – yes, the polarity, and a few other things, have been corrected!

Hello. This is a review of the re-released ‘Skylarking’ CD by XTC, written in a new style that I like to call, ‘stream of consciousness’. In headphones, my very first listen to the ‘new’ ‘Skylarking’. I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

Ahhhh…..I am back now in “SUMMER’S CAULDRON” – drowning here, in actual, fact, sonically drowning in my headphones, at least! – with the insects buzzing in rhythm all across the sharpest stereo field of any version of “SKYLARKING” I’ve ever heard – from the moment the disc begins, I realise that ANDY PARTRIDGE is right – the original release does sound “thin and distant” – but that has now been sorted by original album engineer JOHN DENT, who, after discovering the album’s polarity issues, then applied just the right amount of 2013 technology to the problem, this strange problem of “incorrect polarity” – but whatever that really is, it’s been fixed, let me assure you – the backing vocals of “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, so clear and clean, the vocal harmonies layered so beautifully, TODD RUNDGREN’S melodica part drifting beautifully through this wonderful, clear new mix – the insects and birds constant throughout, and then we are suddenly brought into “GRASS”, with its swaying, utterly beautiful violins introduction, one of COLIN MOULDING’S best pop songs, ever, from any album – and the guitars, finally, the XTC GUITARS have arrived – jangly, bendy, wonderful guitars – and there seem to still be some crickets lurking here and there in this song – with its double entendre about being “on grass” – lying on grass, or, is it lying on grass whilst BEING on grass – “the things we used to do on grass”…what a lovely tune, and when that big vocal harmony comes in near the end, and the violins switch back from pizzicato to legato – and then, the birds and insects return to help the feedback guitar to gently end the piece in their long fade out. Producer Todd Rundgren’s wonderful “musical” programmed birds and insects sound amazing throughout “SUMMER’S CAULDRON”, and then when they reappear at the end of “GRASS” in full, finally fading away so that we can all meet up in “THE MEETING PLACE” – this one is so, so quirky, but I love it, it’s just fantastic – with its gently moving up and down form, and that irresistible descending guitar riff, COLIN MOULDING supplying some wonderful PAUL MCCARTNEY style high register riffs as is his habit, and then “THE MEETING PLACE” gives away to ANDY PARTRIDGE’S ode to superwoman, “THAT’S REALLY SUPER, SUPER GIRL” – a fantastic and underrated piece of pop music, very complex background harmonised vocals, wonderful Electro-Harmonix phaser shifter style sounds, great effects on all of the vocals – this song is really all about harmony, and even counterpoint – the layering of main vocal, background vocals, and harmonising vocals is exquisite – and then, we get the first proper lead solo on the record, an absolutely snappy gem, ending with some truly sublime whammy bar bending, a super (sorry, there’s just no other word to describe it!) clean, super concise lead solo, the kind that XTC have become known for, ever since childhood friend and guitarist DAVE GREGORY joined the band, on their third album, the much lauded “DRUMS AND WIRES”. But now we are back to ANDY PARTRIDGE, and a song that has a very special place in my heart, as I spent many, many hours working up my own very special cover version of the song, for one of IAN STEWART’S wonderful XTC cassette compilations, this one entitled “SKYLACKING”. My version of “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY” wasn’t meant to sound anything like the XTC version, I built the music for the song entirely out of ebow guitars, working in harmony, to emulate the pianos and guitars of the original – and then, I sang a very tenuous, uncertain lead vocal on top of the ebows – but, even if imperfect, working on this song just sent my admiration for XTC through the ceiling – the vocal arrangement, when those background vocals appear, and the amazing piano in the background, not to mention ANDY PARTRIDGE’S remarkable lead vocal performance – what an incredibly beautiful voice…and with the words “slow descending grey” a phalanx of violins introduces us to our next tune, “1000 UMBRELLAS” which features an all strings backing, very, very intense strings, which underpin Andy’s strangely agonised vocal, he seems at the point of desperation here, a huge contrast to the easy and beauty of the previous track, “BALLET FOR A RAINY DAY”, which just shows you how multi-talented he is – this vocal is practically a different persona – and then, hope returns at the end, the strings cheer up a tiny bit…Andy’s voice of desperation changes to beautiful pop mode again…and then suddenly, a slow ritard to our all-strings extravangza ending, and it’s the circus-accordion into to the bouncy, jaunty, and extremely fun “SEASON CYCLE” – “pushing the pedals on the season cycle – summer changed by autumn….” this piece is very, very PAUL MCCARTNEY to my mind, like something that belongs next to “GOOD DAY SUNSHINE” – but in this case, “SEASON CYCLE” has a curious central bridge section that is suddenly very solemn and serious, taking the mood down several notches briefly – before returning to the bright and wonderful refrain of this remarkable pop tune from ANDY PARTRIDGE. A very short silence now, for the first time, and suddenly, the incredibly powerful beginning of what may be my personal favourite track on the album, “EARN ENOUGH FOR US”, which every man seeking employment or a better job or a better paying job can instantly relate to, having a wife and family to worry about, but this age-old story here is told to the absolutely popping snare of ex-TUBES then-TODD RUNDGREN drummer PRAIRIE PRINCE, who plays drums on a number of these tunes (and completely kicks ass on this particular tune – it really is an amazing piece of drumming) – and this song, to me, is just THE perfect power pop song – it rocks, that’s all there is to it, it has a really strong drum part, and then, powerful, power-chording and lead guitar playing from both ANDY PARTRIDGE and DAVE GREGORY, a fantastic chord progression that the BEATLES would have been proud to use, it’s just an incredible piece of power pop / rock craftsmanship – and there a million reasons why it’s my favourite – COLIN MOULDING’S bass part is amazing, again, with those PAUL MCCARTNEY like high register sections, working perfectly with the drums – very REVOLVER-like at the end – this song just wakes me up, it’s bright, it’s message, while somewhat dark, is framed in the brightest of sounds – a wonderful dichotomy, and I can’t say enough good about this song. Amazing, beautiful vocals, too. “I’ve been praying I could keep you – and, to earn enough for us” – no sooner has it arrived, then the hopeful, beautiful pop masterpiece “EARN ENOUGH FOR US” has to end…leading into the a cappella start of “BIG DAY”, Colin’s foreboding warning to newlyweds everywhere, which while lyrically is not perhaps the most genius on this record, or as a song – this song still has a lot going for it, including that odd intro, which repeats during the song, which actually comes to a complete stop to allow this burst of harmonised “BIG DAY”S to repeat. I like the stop start feel of the track, it’s nice that it stops, and each time that vocal section plays, it gets odder and odder, the second repeat, a strong tremolo is applied to the vocals, and there are lots of lovely psychedelic sounds in the background…the tremolo then is applied to the verse itself – maybe it’s more of an auto-panner, difficult to tell sometimes, but a great effect nonetheless, this song is all about sonic imagery – and the sounds do evoke a lot of mental, visual images – so it succeeds wildly on that scale. The next song is one of the most eerie, beautiful songs that ANDY PARTRIDGE has ever written, with a vocal that is so remarkable, and has such beautiful effects applied to it – what an amazing piece of music is “ANOTHER SATELLITE” with it’s beautiful delay lead vocal, which then leads to other islands of different types of vocals, including some lyric-less “ta-ta” sounds, then, glockenspiel or similar arrives to accompany our spaced-out lead vocal, the rhythm is sort of drum machine, but with those big ringing, heavily chorused guitar chords ringing out in the background, it sound alive, not machine like – marimbas now appear, to tie up the verses – and then, a long outro of repeated choruses ‘don’t need “ANOTHER SATELLITE”…’ on and on into the distance, which then leads up to…the lovely (and for a time, the “omitted”) “MERMAID SMILED” a beautiful acoustic guitar number, with insane, high speed percussion courtesy of ex-TUBES percussionist MINGO LEWIS, another awesome musician who participates on this amazing album, due to the RUNDGREN-EX-TUBES axis of power. Meanwhile, muted trumpets, and intense bass part, and some just amazing melodic and chordal ideas, bring “MERMAID SMILED” inexorably to its all-too soon ending…but then, more MINGO LEWIS mad percussion begins another one of the albums standout tracks “THE MAN WHO SAILED AROUND HIS SOUL” – with its hippie flutes and jazzy piano and bass parts, this is just an odd, odd song, but somehow, it absolutely belongs here – and it also sounds incredibly “JAMES BOND” – high pitched strings, heavily-reverbed “spy” guitars – in fact a lot of cliché spy guitar here and there in this piece – and then back to those jazz breaks – it’s so odd – but I love it to bits, what an amazing and unique ANDY PARTRIDGE piece – MINGO LEWIS popping the fastest bongo solos you ever heard, PRAIRIE PRINCE’S drumming is insanely clever, a mad break in the middle, then, back to bongo’s and flute for the outro, with Andy singing a lone refrain of the title…an absolute classic, with a perfect spy ending. And then – the other controversial song on the album, the incredibly poignant, sad and musically perfect “DEAR GOD”, this song is the first thing I heard from this album, except, at the time, it was just a single, it wasn’t actually ON the original album, it has only been added in in later years (and some purists object to its presence on these later releases – this one included) but personally, I can’t imagine listening to the rest of SKYLARKING without it. In this short, pop masterpiece, ANDY PARTRIDGE has a long chat with GOD, and he challenges him on several burning issues, whilst amazing, Beatle-like TODD RUNDGREN strings drift in sheer beauty in the background, a great tune – fantastic string arrangement, and ANDY PARTRIDGE’S acoustic guitar and vocals are absolutely sublime – and then, a strident, powerful bridge, where ANDY PARTRIDGE seems fairly disgusted with GOD’S performance – and finally, to an ending that mirrors the song’s beginning, both the beginning lines, and the final line, both being sung by a young girl named JASMINE VEILLETTE that TODD RUNDGREN suggested for the part. The amazing GOD-questioning “DEAR GOD” is followed, suitably, by COLIN MOULDING’S remarkable song, “DYING”, which features among other things, a sort of clip-clop horse-like rhythm (but not quite) some fragmentary acoustic guitar chords, a serious bass part, and then, a beautifully arranged bridge, with lovely clean electric guitars, and a lot of beautiful ATMOSPHERE – and finally, a clarinet during the songs fade out, “DYING” is a song full of regrets, and a song full of forlorn longing, not wanting to end like his beloved relative did – “I don’t want to die like you…” – very, very serious subject, but a wonderful and rewarding song…sitting in the penultimate position on the album, “DYING” is followed by yet another COLIN MOULDING tune, the very unusual “Sacrificial Bonfire” – with yet another absolutely incredible, truly beautiful orchestral arrangement from TODD RUNDGREN, which in the middle part of the song, threatens to overcome the vocalist with its power and presence. Luckily, COLIN MOULDING holds his own throughout, the song is based around a very simple acoustic guitar and bass figure, but it then builds to a fantastic crescendo thanks to TODD RUNDGREN’S orchestral contributions. In 1986, when the album first came out, I admit, I struggled with both “DYING” and “SACRIFICIAL BONFIRE”, but over time, as is their wont to do, their particular magic has worked on me, and I eventually realised just how beautiful, and just how important they are to winding your SKYLARKING experience in just the right way – it can’t all be triumphant highs, and COLIN MOULDING provides just the right amount of sober realism to create a rounded, beautiful end block of two remarkable songs. The contrast between the writing and performing styles of ANDY PARTRIDGE and COLIN MOULDING has always been one of the most important aspects of why the music of XTC is so successful – they each write in a very individual style, but by gracefully peppering a bunch of ANDY PARTRIDGE tracks with a smaller number of COLIN MOULDING tracks – you end up with the perfect masterpiece pop album – and SKYLARKING is damn near perfect in every way – I can’t think of a more consistent, more creative, and frankly, more beautiful pop extravaganza – 15 remarkable tracks by two writers who over time, have become national treasures in Britain – I just wish they were still writing together. So – SKYLARKING – Polarity Corrected version – get it- you won’t regret it. A beautiful setting-straight of the record, this is the way it was meant to sound, and, the way it was meant to look – and now that Andy has the rights, he has set right a grievous error, the release of the thin and distant, incorrect polarity version, from 1986 through to 2014 – it’s now, in 2014, finally “right”. Enjoy the fruits of ANDY PARTRIDGE’S labours: a new, improved, thick and lustrous SKYLARKING. 🙂

“under the influence” (beatlesque)

I wanted to take a little time to try to give some indication of the vast scope and reach of the influence of the Beatles, and in particular, their influence on other musicians.  This has inspired everything from direct Beatle parodies such as “The Rutles” (featuring Neil Innes and Eric Idle) to tracks that sound very Beatle-like (such as any number of Raspberries, Badfinger, Todd Rundgren, The Move, Roy Wood, Knickerbockers, songs – and many, many others – see lists below) to whole albums of Beatles tribute (such as Utopia’s brilliant and very musical Beatles spoof album, “Deface The Music”, from 1980).

Even the world of jazz was invaded by the music of the Beatles, from Wes Montgomery and other guitarists of the day, inventing their own jazz versions of Beatles tracks, or someone of the stature of Ramsey Lewis, making, in 1968, an entire album of Beatles covers, all taken, amazingly, from the Beatles then-current 1968 “White Album” – in a completely unique and extremely jazz way.

Awesome inspiration, across all genres of music – the music of the Beatles actually can be called “universal” in its appeal, given the strange and disparate characters who breathe new life into a huge, huge range of covers and tributes and sound-alikes, from the very ordinary covers, to the truly bizarre spoofs, jokes and odd variations that abound the world over – everybody under the sun has had a crack at covering a Beatles song – and some go much, much further, either creating amazing near-carbon copies of Beatles songs (such as 1976’s “Faithful” album by Todd Rundgren – his “faithful” version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is exquisite) or creating music that sounds so much like the Beatles, that it is actually thought to be by the Beatles (for some unknown reason, “Klaatu” was one such band, where folk thought that it was actually the Beatles, performing anonymously six or seven years after they had broken up…but, it was not).

For my money, there are other artists who create original music that is much, much closer in content and feel than the music of “Klaatu” (but, don’t get me wrong, “Klaatu” are a remarkable, very capable, and very interesting band to listen to – and, little-known fact, they are the actual authors and creators of the original version of the Carpenters’ hit single, “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft)” – not too many people know that in that case, the Carpenters were doing a cover of…“Klaatu” !

I think, though, that in many ways, that the Beatles, and to a somewhat lesser extent, The Beach Boys, had a huge influence on musicians all over the world.  From Apples In Stereo to XTC, there are so many musicians, including some pretty unlikely characters, that have either covered Beatles songs faithfully (or unfaithfully in some cases), or have created either songs and/or albums of songs that mirror, mimic or even mock, the sound of the Fab Four.

I think that it’s very true what they say, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, if that is true, then the Beatles have been flattered until they are completely flat, because so, so many musicians have cited them as a major influence, and have unashamedly copied their songs, their sound, their harmonies, their guitar playing, their bass playing, their song structures and so on – and the list of people who do cite the Beatles as a musical influence is just simply too long to print in this forum.

What always surprises me is the number of extremely progressive musicians who claim a serious Beatle influence, when you listen to the music of a band like Yes, or King Crimson – you wouldn’t necessarily immediately think “Beatles” – but Yes were obviously fans of the band, in the early days, they covered the Beatles “Yes It Is”, and I believe that both Steve Howe and Chris Squire have said they are fans of the Beatles music.  Robert Fripp has also acknowledged the influence of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on him upon hearing the whole album on his car radio one fateful evening, and Beatles references are embedded, sometimes deeply, into the music of King Crimson – “Happy Family” from the third Crimson album, “Lizard” is an unconcealed tale of the Beatles breakup, penned by then-Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield.

So sometimes, there are Beatle-influenced bands and musicians, where the music made by those musicians, music sounds nothing like the Beatles to our ears – but for them, the Beatles still loom larger than life, buried deep in their internal, musical DNA – just waiting to get out, in the form of new songs that are about the Beatles, influenced by the Beatles, or simply sound like the Beatles, intentionally (usually) or not (occasionally).  Perhaps yet another splinter-list should be “Songs That Sound Like The Beatles But Their Composers / Performers Did Not Intentionally Try To Sound Like The Beatles – It’s By Complete Accident” but I feel that my already non-legendary non-skills as a list producer have already fallen flat, and that’s too complicated for me to work out who did or did not “intend” to sound like the Beatles!  I don’t think I can write that list – but if you can – please do, and please send it in, and if it’s complete enough, I will post it here.

Speaking now as a guitarist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a guitarist who did not care for the guitar playing of  John Lennon or George Harrison, nor have I ever met a bassist who did not respect the massive skills of Paul McCartney on the bass guitar – the absolute, indisputable master of melodic bass playing – and when I listen to Chris Squire play, I do hear echoes of Paul McCartney’s style in his playing – especially the “high register” bass work.  This famed skill at playing beautifully in the higher and highest pitch ranges of the bass guitar has been imitated by many, but for me, well, it’s Todd Rundgren’s “Determination” that showcases this technique in an incredible way (see below for more on “Determination” ).

The same can absolutely be said for drummers admiring Ringo Starr, everyone knows that Ringo is not a “flashy” drummer, he doesn’t often “show off” but what Ringo has that many, many drummers do not have, is the steadiest tempo imaginable, and, a sense of when to play, and when not to – he always provides just the right amount of percussion to any given song, never overplays – just what is required.  This is borne out when you hear live sessions by the Beatles, while John, Paul and George make error after error in the earliest takes of any given song, it’s rare indeed to hear the almost metronome-like Starr make an error.

Even guitarists who also play bass get the whole “Paul McCartney high-register bass playing” concept, as can be evidenced by the multi-talented Todd Rundgren, from his 1978 solo album “Hermit Of Mink Hollow”, there is a brilliant track called “Determination” , which not only features pitched up, trebled up, “jangly guitars” but a beautiful, beautiful, McCartney-esque bass line, that just pulls the heartstrings as it flies beneath the open chords, beginning in the high register, and then sweeping down to become a bass again – McCartney’s early adoption of unusual styles such as playing bass melodically, playing bass in the very high registers, or playing bass in any number of innovative ways, not always melodic – playing with his low E string slightly detuned (as in the song “Baby, You’re A Rich Man”) or, playing the low E string so hard that it detunes as he plays (as can be heard in parts of the song “Helter Skelter”)  – has not gone unnoticed by Todd, and any number of other McCartney imitators.  Speaking of McCartney imitators, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries also recognise the genius of the Beatles front line which is evidenced by songs that closely resemble Beatles songs in form and content, lyric and guitar styles.

I wish more drummers were like Ringo, well, there is one that immediately comes to mind – Zak Starkey, Ringo’s eldest son.  Zak is a remarkably talented drummer in his own right (I was fortunate to see him perform with an early incarnation of “Ringo Starr’s All Stars” (a show which also happened to feature the above-mentioned Todd Rundgren) and, hearing Zak and Ringo Starkey nail the complex drum part of Todd’s “Black Maria” live was absolutely fantastic – Zak made it his own, but carried the band of mostly older musicians, through the set with his unshakeable rhythm, and he has certainly inherited Ringo’s steady hand – but Zak is also a thoroughly modern drummer, and in some ways, he goes far beyond his famous dad – which is what you might expect – I mean look at Jason Bonham, it’s the same thing, drummer with a famous drummer dad, and with that burden of being the son of a legend, they try that much harder to sound unique, and go beyond the “oh, he’s the son of Ringo…” or “oh, he’s the son of Jason” – and I am justifiably proud of both of them, for carving their own musical paths, and not relying on “dad” for their fame or ability, but making it on their own laurels.

witnessing one of the variations of “Ringo Starr‘s All-Starr Band”, on the 1989 tour featuring Todd Rundgren, it was remarkable to see Zak take sole control of the drums when Ringo went front and centre to sing, so for some of the classic Beatles songs that the band played, it was Zak on the drums rather than Ringo himself, but it absolutely mattered not, Zak did an amazing job on tracks like “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “It Don’t Come Easy” – and at other times, father and son played together, and that was truly a joy to see – amazing !

Two generations of Starkey’s, doing what they do best – playing the drums, and playing the music of the Beatles too – among other items from the various band members such as the aforementioned Todd cover – and “Black Maria” live  with Zak AND Ritchie Starkey is not something I shall forget any time soon – fantastic”!

And, because it was Todd’s big moment, Ringo was free to join Zak on drums, so it was the pair of them behind Todd – and you could see in Ringo’s face how much he enjoyed playing the song (I believe it was included in the set list, because Ringo always had liked the song, so much so that he insisted that it be the “Rundgren” moment in the concert – it being his favourite track off of Todd Rundgren’s seminal 1972 album, “Something / Anything”) and Zak was just head down getting on with the drum part – and that is the only time I’ve ever seen the song performed with two drummers – and if those drummers are Ringo and Zak Starkey, you know it’s going to go well – and it was an excellent cover, absolutely spot-on, and a real highlight of the show.

I don’t think anyone can argue that the Beatles had a very, very significant influence on musicians of many generations, and new generations of players are discovering the Beatles anew even now, in 2014, and are translating their experience of hearing Beatles material into their own new “musics” – so the process continues, of hearing songs influenced by the Beatles, even in new music created by young musicians – because, in 2014, maybe they just heard “Revolver” for the first time, and it absolutely blew their minds – just like it blew our minds back in 1966 when we (now, unbelievably, now we’re the “older generation”!) first heard it.

And – it’s undeniable – this is unforgettable music, genius music from the writing to the playing to the singing and even to the packaging – Beatle imagery is also something that has been oft-copied, and some of their most famous album cover designs have been copied again and again by so many bands.

Some of those copies are more on the side of parody, for example, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention classic Beatles parody, made not that long after the original came out, “We’re Only In It For The Money” is directly made to look like a bizarre “version” of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and in some ways, the cover is the biggest part of the joke – the music on the album (which is brilliant, by the way – one of my favourite early Zappa / Mothers records) is not nearly as important to the parody as the album design was.  But the whole effect is…kind of hilarious 🙂

In particular, some of the most famous Beatles album covers, such as the “bendy” photographs of the band that graces the cover of their innovative “Rubber Soul” album have been imitated by many other bands, time and time again.  Even in the earliest days, the unusual photographs of photographer Robert Freeman (as in, the classic shot of the Beatles silhouetted against a dark background) as on “With The Beatles” (UK) or it’s US counterpart, “Meet The Beatles” has been copied many times over the last few decades.  But revolutionary cover art is difficult to come up with, so bands just borrow from the best…The Beatles.

No article about Beatles’ influence would be complete without mentioning two gentlemen from different eras of pop music, firstly, the ridiculously talented eric stewart of 10cc, who has performed Beatles songs live in concert with 10cc, and also has an undeniable streak of “beatlesque” harmony and sound on various tracks throughout the long career of 10cc – the best example is probably part 1 and part 3 of 10cc’s pop opus, “feel the benefit” – very “dear prudence” if I don’t mind saying so myself :-).  the other gentleman in question is from a couple of decades later, from the 1990s and beyond, and that is Jason Falkner; unwilling conscript into pop genius band “jellyfish”, after he escaped their clutches, went off on a very successful if low-key solo career – and again, the sound of his vocal harmonies, the beautiful chord progressions in his music tell me one thing: he, like Eric Stewart before him, is under the influence of the Beatles.  Personally – I cannot get enough of the music of 10cc or Jason Falkner, two generations apart, perhaps, but, united in their love for Beatle harmonies, jangly Beatle guitars, beautiful Beatle chord progressions, and even Beatle-like lyrics.

I started out writing this edition of the Beatles’ story by trying to create various lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, and then, albums inspired by the Beatles, and I was really only able to touch upon a very few – I know that I have missed out so, so many – and everyone has a different “take” on what bands sound like the Beatles, what albums are directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles and so on.

Regarding my attempts at filling in these lists – I am ultimately not satisfied by my primitive attempts at “list-making”, and in searching the Internet for valid lists of bands that sound like the Beatles, I kept finding lists that made no sense to me, personally – that would always include every big rock band of the day, so it would always be “Pink Floyd”, “The Who”, “Jimi Hendrix” – and I don’t think any of those bands sound like the Beatles at all !  Yet, site after site would cite (ha ha, get it – site – cite) Hendrix or Pink Floyd as a Beatle sound-alike – but I cannot bring myself to agree with this, yes, Hendrix loved the Beatles, he played bit of Beatle melody in the middle of his own songs, he covered many Beatles songs – but, he doesn’t really SOUND like the Beatles, does he?  Maybe very vaguely, on a song like “Crosstown Traffic” perhaps – but, I’d say, if anything, that Hendrix influenced the Beatles, as much or more than the Beatles influenced Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix sounds like…Jimi Hendrix, and no other, really – he is utterly unique.  Hendrix did absolutely love the Beatles, and would indeed, often insert a perfect bar of George Harrison lead guitar, into one of his own original songs, in live performance – and then give a little laugh, like it’s an “in-joke”  – “here’s a cool melody that I nicked off of the new Beatles disc, it’s called “Revolver…”.

As for Pink Floyd, it would take some real convincing for me to add them into the list –  I love a bit of early Floyd as much as anyone, but I do not hear echoes of the Fab Four in their music (you saw what I did there….”Echoes”…Pink Floyd – and, it was completely unintentional!) I am afraid I just don’t get it, these constant references to Pink Floyd sounding like the Beatles – maybe they are talking about the odd Syd Barrett track, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem right to me….so I did not add them in :-).  Yes, the Beatles and Pink Floyd did both play psychedelic music, but it was very different in nature – so, no, I don’t see the connection, musically.

So – please send in your additions and corrections to any of the lists, and I will update them periodically to reflect world opinion – I am not a Beatle expert (although I have read extensively about them, in particular, I started out years ago with Hunter Davies’ remarkable biography of the Beatles;  in later years,  I’ve studied the remarkable works of Mark Lewissohn, whose “The Beatles Recording Sessions” is like the Bible, to me, one of my most cherished and most often re-read Beatles information sources).

I will read anything and everything written about the Beatles, even now – and I cannot possibly compile complete lists of the type I am presenting here, so any and all input from readers would be much appreciated – please comment, and in your comments, submit corrections or additions to any of the lists, and every few months, I will compile all of the comments and update the lists – so over time, maybe, these lists will become relatively complete – which would be great, because we would be creating a useful, accurate, and complete Beatle resource – or rather, a resource of bands and albums that SOUND like the Beatles, anyway – why not?

Meanwhile, on the subject of the Beatles music, I’ve been very happily really enjoying my two latest Beatle purchases: from 2013, the two-double-CD “Live At The BBC” – volume 1 (from 1994) completely remastered, and a new volume 2 entitled “On Air” which is a fantastic addition to this wonderful series – four CDs chock full of radio performances, studio out-takes, and the Beatles chattering – a fantastic Beatles music resource, of early live tracks and one demo, and at this point I say, thank God for the BBC !  Luckily, they kept all of these Beatle recordings, so now they have been compiled for future generations to enjoy.

My other purchase, “The U.S. Albums” is a 13 disc monstrosity, but hearing the albums in the U.S. running orders for the first time since I was a child, is just remarkable – even though John Lennon condemned Capitol for messing with the Beatles’ carefully considered running orders, the odd, arbitrary, Capitol-created running orders are unfortunately for we Americans, what we grew up hearing, so even now, I am still startled by the UK releases – because the songs don’t arrive in the order my brain expects they will.  So now I have complete choice – if I want the real thing, I consult the Stereo and Mono boxes from 2009.  If I want the Capitol versions – I consult the US Albums from 2014 – very exciting stuff for Beatle-maniacs such as myself 🙂

The last time I bought this many Beatles CDs all at one go, was in 2009, when the long-awaited stereo and mono re-masters appeared – and of course, that was an essential purchase. Following that, though, I am truly amazed, and at the same time, very grateful indeed, that in 2014, I can almost casually pick up 17 “new” Beatles albums – four from the BBC, and 13 from Capitol – and that just makes my Beatles catalogue so much more complete and containing even more variations on their remarkable catalogue of music – beautiful, rockin’ Beatle music.

So we’ve gone down an alternative path this time, a path taken by the many, many musicians who revere the Beatles, and admire their music enough to copy it exactly, partially, or, some aspect of Beatle music has entered into their own songs, anything from a guitar riff to some high register bass work of a melodic nature, or a steady Ringo Starr back beat – so sometimes, you may have a completely unique song, but there is a section of it that REALLY recalls the Beatles very strongly – so, five percent of the song is 98 percent Beatle-like – but, the REST of the song is not !

As a musician and a guitarist, I do hear a lot of these “stand-alone” Beatle moments, it might be a few bars of music in a Jason Falkner or Michael Penn pop song that strongly remind one of the Beatles, or just a 10 second passage in a song on the radio – you hear “Beatlesque” bits of music almost every day, and I am often fascinated by them, sometimes, you work in your mind to try and figure out which Beatles song or songs is being referenced – sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes, it’s impossible to determine – but you do know, just by hearing, when something has the quality of being “Beatlesque”.

 

Lists Of Bands That Sound Suspiciously Like The Beatles

 

Bands Or Artists That Always Sound Like The Beatles:

The Rutles

Bands Or Artists That Often Sound Like The Beatles:

Badfinger – an Apple band

The Knickerbockers

James McCartney – son of Paul McCartney

The Move – featuring Roy Wood

Raspberries – featuring Eric Carmen

The Swinging Blue Jeans

 

Bands Or Artists That Occasionally Sound Like The Beatle

10cc

Apples In Stereo

The Bears – featuring Adrian Belew

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson) – solo artist

Electric Light Orchestra – featuring Jeff Lynne

Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish) – solo artist

Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Jellyfish – featuring Jason Falkner

The Kinks

Klaatu

Julian Lennon – son of John Lennon

Jeff Lynne – Electric Light Orchestra – Harrison’s producer /  member of Traveling Wilburys

Aimee Mann – solo artist

Bob Mould (ex-Husker Du) – solo artist

Nazz – featuring Todd Rundgren

The New Number 2 – featuring Dhani Harrison – son of George Harrison

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn – solo artist

Michael Penn & Aimee Mann – couple (they did an incredibly lovely cover of “two of us” – gorgeous track)

Todd Rundgren – solo artist

Teenage Fanclub –  Scottish pop band

Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren

Roy Wood (ex-Move) – solo artist

XTC – featuring Andy Partridge

 

Bands That Sound Suspiciously Sort Of Like The Beatles

Oasis – (in their dreams, anyway!)

Tame Impala

 

Albums That Are Directly Inspired By The Beatles

Fresh – Raspberries – 1974

Faithful – Todd Rundgren – 1976 (all covers album, including Beatles covers)

The Rutles – The Rutles – 1978

Archaeology – The Rutles – 1996

Deface The Music – Utopia – featuring Todd Rundgren – 1980

We’re Only In It For The Money – Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention – 1968

– visual parody of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

 

Well-Known Known Admirers Of The Beatles – Musicians

Jon Anderson (ex-Yes)

Adrian Belew (ex-King Crimson)

Eric Carmen (ex-Raspberries)

Robert Fripp (King Crimson)

Liam Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Noel Gallagher (ex-Oasis)

Steve Howe (Yes)

Eric Idle (ex-Rutles)

Graham Gouldman (10cc)

Jimi Hendrix (may he rest in peace)

Neil Innes (Rutles)

Aimee Mann (solo artist)

Andy Partridge (ex-XTC)

Michael Penn (solo artist) – brother of Sean Penn

Todd Rundgren (solo artist) – w/Nazz, Utopia

Chris Squire (Yes)

Eric Stewart (10cc)

Alan White (Yes)

 

Please – agree or disagree with my choices; send in additions, recommend deletions, recommend changes – and if there is enough input, I will periodically re-published updated versions of any Beatles lists that have appear in this blog series based on your input.

Meanwhile, maybe there are some artists noted here that you were not aware of, that have obviously studied the music of the Beatles and learned from it, and I am always happy to listen to any musician or band that sounds like the Beatles – so, if I have missed any truly obvious ones – please let me know, and again, I will update the list, too.

Happy listening – the influence of the Fab Four runs deep, traverses the entire globe, and only seems to be on the increase over time, as successive generations re-discover their music (often prompted by their parents, but still…) and then integrate parts of it into their own new kinds of music – a process that I hope goes on forever.

Nothing would make me happier, “in the year 2025” (another 60s pop joke for the older folk in the audience!!), let’s say, to hear a brand new song on the radio that sounds very original, but, completely Beatlesque at the same time – that would please me no end, because we then will know – young people are still listening to the greatest rock band that ever was – the fabulous Beatles – and they rock!!

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely under the influence of the Beatles – always have been, always will be – my favourite band from childhood, the first band I truly appreciated, and in actual fact, I literally “grew up” with them and their music, it’s a joy to still be listening to them now, in the year 2014, and feeling just as happy about it as I first did back in 1963, when I must have heard them on the TV, on the Ed Sullivan show – being only five then, I don’t directly recall it, but as it was repeated on TV every year or more often every year thereafter, I feel like I do remember it – and I do remember their later TV appearances directly.

What a remarkable group, and what a remarkable influence they’ve had on a remarkably talented group of very respectful and creative musicians – my peers I am proud to say, who also “grew up” with the Beatles.  There’s no better way to end up “under the influence…”

I bought a flat guitar tutor

one of the oft-overlooked songs from the first godley and creme-less 10cc album, 1977’s stewart and gouldman-led “deceptive bends”, is a short little song, penned by eric stewart and graham gouldman, that in 1977, struck me as being every bit as good, or better, as anything from the first four 10cc albums featuring the classic line-up of godley, creme, stewart, and gouldman – the song with the unlikely title of “I bought a flat guitar tutor”.

ok, “deceptive bends” does contain “the things we do for love”, and even more embarrassingly, “modern man blues” but I can forgive the latter, and actually admire the former – as a pop song, it’s a cracker, and as a guitarist, I admire it’s concise and very  lever guitar solo.  the story about kevin godley, throwing his complimentary copy of “the things we do for love” against a tenement wall may or may not be true, but in hindsight, it’s actually a pretty damn good pop song despite kevin’s alleged “reaction” to it.

so while many might criticise “deceptive bends” because it is more poppy, it is more straight ahead, and it does not contain arty, clever songs like the ones godley & creme used to pen for the band – there are hidden gems on the album, and this song is the brightest one.

it took a few listens, but I quickly realised that eric’ and graham’s clever little 1920s jazz number is really an in-joke for guitarists, being nothing more than a lyrical listing of the guitar chords that eric was playing as he sings the song!  an elaborate joke, a word play, puns, call them what you will – set to seriously beautiful and clever music.

strangely, and remarkably, the song’s lyrics very nearly contains enough information for a savvy guitarist to play the song without seeing the chords – just follow along with what eric sings !

and that would be cool enough, if he just listed A major, or A flat, or A minor…but no, eric goes for the gold, and includes as many odd chord types as possible: suspended, diminished, augmented – and as he sings the chord name – his fingers move to that chord.  all of this crammed into a 1:47 masterpiece that should go down in history as the coolest guitar tutorial ever conceived, if nothing else – you can just about see how this works from this crude representation of the song’s lyrics, with the actual chord names above the lyrics in question:

|A|        |Ab|

I bought a flat

|Abdim|        |Bdim|    |E|

diminished responsibility

|D9|                              |C|

you’re de ninth person to see

|Bsus4-B-Bsus2|      |A7|

to be suspended in a seventh

|Amaj7|           |E|

major catastrophe

|Am|                     |G|

It’s a minor point but gee

|Gaug|                 |G#aug|

augmented by the sharpness of your

|C#|

see what I’m going through

|A|   |B|     |E|

ay to be with you

|Ab|            |C| |C/B|

In a flat by the sea

|C/Bb| |Bm| |Bm/A|

_________________________________________

…and it may not be obvious to non-guitarists, but some of the words that match the chords aren’t words at all, but, letter sounds at the end of a word, that still equate to a chord, so for example:

|Abdim|        |Bdim|    |E|

diminished responsibility

“E” major chord corresponding to the “e” sound at the end of the word “responsibility”…

|Amaj7|        |E|

major catastrophe

“E” major chord corresponding to the “e” sound at the end of the word “catastrophe”…

and OK, “a flat by the sea” is great because of “a flat” equating to an Ab (A flat) chord, but I love even more that the word “sea” falls on the chord C – C major – that’s just brilliant, really clever I think.

and farther on, again, “see what I’m going though” where “see” equates to C major

and then “Ay to be with you” where it moves from A major to B major – that is just so, so clever!

I am also very fond of this bit:

|D9|                     |C|

you’re de ninth person to see

because by changing the article “the” to “de”, you then get the “D ninth” chord – pronounced “de ninth” of course.

this section is really tricky, too:

|Bsus4-B-Bsus2|      |A7|

to be suspended in a seventh

|Amaj7|           |E|

major catastrophe

because the chords just follow perfectly – the suspended chord on the word “suspended”, the seventh chord on the word “seventh”, and the major seventh chord on the word “major” – that’s two of the cleverest two lines of lyric ever written – I really wish I’d thought of this!!

I can remember playing this for my friend jim whitaker, who really loves a good jazz chord, and he was really knocked out by it – we both found it to be extraordinary.   but for me, it wasn’t just the clever word-play – although that is really appealing, it’s also the amazing, 1920s django reinhardt-style solo that runs the song out – that’s what blew my mind, that this mild-mannered pop star could knock off a solo that would not have sounded out of place on the second steely dan album – world class guitaring – this elevated eric stewart in my eyes, to an extraordinary degree.

I already knew he was a great guitarist, and an even greater slide guitarist, from his work on the first four 10cc albums (10cc, sheet music, the original soundtrack, and how dare you!) but this song – this was something new, beautiful vocal, beautiful jazz chords (with built in instructions!!!!), jazz SOLO – and what a solo it is.

the solo is partially double tracked, comp-ed with piano and with vocals – but I truly think if it had sat next to “through with buzz” or “charlie freak” on a steely dan record, I would never have noticed that it was out of place. the difference being that eric has a beautiful, melodic voice that donald fagen does not.  don’t get me wrong, I love donald fagen as a vocalist, but for a song like this – you want eric stewart singing, you really do.

the song begins with a short whistled section, followed by a perfect, beautiful vocal from eric, ending in a beautiful, high “whoo-oo” as he then moves into that incredible solo – which I just can’t get out of my head, it’s just gorgeous – and the solo runs through the entire chord sequence again, in place of a second verse – and as it follows all those chords, the suspended, the diminished, the augmented – it goes some amazing places – I absolutely love it.

the last part of the solo is not double tracked, I reckon, because it’s too fast, and it needed to be solo – so it’s very cool, as the solo goes on, first the double tracking drops away, then, the piano and vocals take a back seat – and eric just flies, really difficult and incomprehensible figures – a solo I don’t think I can learn (although at some point, I do plan on giving it a try!).

I do find it difficult, because it’s clearly a cut above the songs that surround it – preceded by the acceptable, quite clever (and with a monster guitar riff, too)  “honeymoon with b troop” and followed by the forgettable “you’ve got a cold”, you could almost miss it, at less than two minutes – but, I believe it to be the absolute high point of the album with only one possible exception – the last song on the record, the incomparable pop masterpiece “feel the benefit (parts 1, 2 & 3)” – which is a significant point on the record, and indeed, a notable highlight of 10cc’s late 1970s output in general.

so do not blink, or you might miss it; but on this otherwise very straightforward pop album, “deceptive bends”, there’s a beautiful piece of jazz guitar, at a steely dan level of quality, hidden away between the usual 10cc pop.  It immediately became my favourite track on the album, the beautiful “feel the benefit” notwithstanding, “I bought a flat guitar tutor” will always be my favourite post-godley and creme 10cc song (well, OK, there are a few on “bloody tourists” that might compete for that spot – “tokyo”, “old mister time” and “everything you always wanted to know about !!!”); my favourite song from “deceptive bends”;  and it’s also the main reason, along with “feel the benefit” that I didn’t give up on 10cc, and I tried to follow them all the way into the 1980s (unsuccessfully, I might add).

certainly, I also love their 1978 studio release, “bloody tourists”, and remain very happy that I saw the “bloody tourists” tour – that was a high point of the late 70s for me.  and I recently dissected the 1977 live documentation of “deceptive bends”, “live and let LIVE” in a previous blog, and I would still say to this day, that there is very nearly as much musical value in those three albums, from 1977-1978, as there is in the holy “first four” with the original lineup.

I think that “I bought a flat guitar tutor” is a unique piece of music, that stands above and outside of the main work of 10cc – and it showed me that eric stewart is no flash in the pan pop star, he’s a serious musician with real chops (and when you hear this solo, I think you will agree) and the guitar/piano/vocal solo at the end of the piece is totally surprising and quite, quite amazing – you would never think for a moment that this is the same band that made “the things we do for love” – but it is.

the things we do for music.

in researching my last piece on the live 10cc album, I ran across a quote from eric stewart, where he spoke of wanting to go for the more grandiose, complex pieces of music, but that the demands of “you need a hit single” always outweighed that, and he always, unfortunately, at least to some degree, bowed to that pressure.

[warning – author now goes on a short but necessary diversion describing the other very important song on “”deceptive bends”, “feel the benefit” – and never really returns to the blog’s original subject]:

I wonder what would have happened if he had ignored that pressure, and had spent his time designing massive, complex and beautiful pieces of music – like “feel the benefit”.

speaking of “feel the benefit”, that’s the other reason – along with “I bought a flat guitar tutor”, that I held out hope for this “new” version of 10cc – the guitars, oh my god those guitars, and the incredibly beautiful orchestration, and the bass part, too! – and the vocals!… – of “feel the benefit” take 10cc to a new level of beauty and complexity, that the original band never really quite got to (although they got close, in pieces like “une nuit a paris”) – they never came up with a beatlesque anthem of the order of “feel the benefit”; which still gives me goose bumps as eric sings “ what would we feel…………..” just before that amazing double guitar solo begins…

and then, that solo just floors me – studio or live, it rocks the house.

another moment from “feel the benefit” that is absolutely earth-shatteringly beautiful, is the “bridge”” which occurs at 2:30 beginning with “you’re like a cloud behind the sun…” and ends with the incredibly beautifully sung “the wanderer soon returns and finds the colour of the grass is just the same…on the other side of the tracks” (eric spanning at least two octaves across this short lyric) and then all hell breaks loose – a final “oh – oh” as the orchestra swells and stirs magnificently, recalling if anything, “a day in the life” – I can think of no other song to even compare this to – leading to an almost godley and creme like orchestral section that climbs up to the first guitar solo…

but the way eric sings that one line, oh my god, the passion, the beatlesque glory, the fire in his belly – and the orchestra, the string parts following “…on the other side of the tracks” just give me the worst goose bumps imaginable, it’s so incredibly beautiful.

so these two songs, are for me, what makes “deceptive bends” so valuable and important, and it definitely began when I noticed what a clever little tune “I bought a flat guitar tutor” was.

the appreciation for “feel the benefit” came almost simultaneously; but it’s beauty is perhaps more obvious (it’s quite popular out there in you tube land, for example), whereas I feel that “guitar tutor” has definitely been overlooked over time – perhaps because of course, it was never performed live – more’s the pity.

part of me hopes that eric has been secretly working on a triple album of unfinished masterpieces, which he will eventually release, sort of like george harrison did when he finally released “all things must pass” – an album full of genius (and songs that never got made until lennon and mccartney got out of george’s way…) – three albums full of 10, 15, 20 minute masterpieces that make both “une nuit a paris” AND “feel the benefit” pale by comparison.

eric?   over to you now mate…

🙂

uh, while I am dreaming, eric, could we also please have:

a master edition of the FULL 11/11/1975 10cc live in Santa Monica / King Biscuit concert

10cc live at the civic theatre, san diego, california, 1978 – full concert

10cc live any other full “original soundtrack” tour shows

10cc live any live performances of anything from “how dare you!” – even rehearsals, alternate takes – anything

10cc live, any full “sheet music” tour shows

10cc live, more 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1978 live shows – especially material from “how dare you!”

if you need more ideas, please just ask 🙂

the worst band in the world

a few months ago, I tidied up a portion of my music collection that had lain dormant for a long time; I completed the partially complete task of loading the entire 10cc catalogue onto my mobile device.

thus prepared to re-engage with one of the most interesting bands of the 1970s (were they art rock? were they pop? were they prog?), yesterday, I put on a record that I haven’t listened to a lot since 1977, when it came out, but I am stunned just now, hearing it in headphones for a start, but just hearing how good it is…”live and let LIVE” by 10cc.  this album…is an absolute corker.

despite the absence of the uh, stoned geniuses, kevin godley & lol creme, this newly-reinforced and revitalised version of 10cc, led by the very straight eric stewart and graham gouldman, the two remaining original members…is astonishingly capable, the set list is amazing, considering that godley & creme aren’t there…and what a performance !! stunning musicianship, and the vocals are so, so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s live.

I myself was fortunate enough, to see 10cc live in 1978, so, the tour after this one; at the san diego civic theatre, this was the “bloody tourists” tour, and while it was a slightly different band (I got to see them with the amazing duncan mackay on keyboards, whilst “live and let LIVE” features tony o’malley on keys) it was essentially the same group as you hear on this official live album…

there is a live album made by the original 10cc; the quartet version, featuring eric stewart, graham gouldmanlol creme and kevin godley – which is available under different titles, but it’s basically “king biscuit live 1975” and it was in support of “the original sound track”, so quite “early”, recorded at the stage where they have just three records out – and while it’s a great album, because it’s the original band…it does not have the production values that 10cc – ”live and let LIVE” does.

of course, ”live and let LIVE” was recorded a full two years later, with a revitalised eric stewart in charge – and the difference is noticeable.  two great live albums, but the difference was something like, well, we’ll record this 1975 santa monica gig for fm radio – and maybe release it some day; whereas with ”live and let LIVE” was intentional, more “let’s go out and play these songs really well, really professionally, and record the whole tour until we get a perfect version of every song, or one perfect show” kind of thing;  the planning and execution is something akin to the invasion at normandy – planned to musical perfection by eric stewart, executed to near perfection, live on stage, by the “new 10cc“.

and yes, if you go onto you tube (or if you buy the “tenology” box set) you can see fantastic live videos of the original four piece, playing deep album tracks such as “oh effendi” or “old wild men” – and, it is a bit sad, that those kinds of ultra creative / proggy tracks are long gone from the repertoire by 1977.  the original quartet was unbeatable, studio or live, their four studio albums are all top-notch, so when eric stewart sat down to build “deceptive bends” without godley & creme, he knew he was facing a challenge.  but, he stuck with what he knew best: songs.  and, he penned the undeniably catchy “the things we do for love”, which meant that “deceptive bends” was going to be a big success.

so what does this “brave new 10cc” play, then?  first of all, you need to remember that this is the stewart-gouldman 10cc, therefore, the “poppier” 10cc, not the darker, stranger 10cc featuring godley & creme, so it does tend towards pop, and towards the “hits” – but there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of great tracks from all different phases of the band’s long career.  and, a few performances of classic original 10cc tracks – in particular, the show opener, a hard rocking version of a stand-out track from the band’s third album, “the original soundtrack” – an absolutely kick-ass version of “the second sitting for the last supper” that is shocking in it’s musical prowess.

also from that original series of four albums (10cc, sheet music, the original sound track, “how dare you!” – that was all they did before godley & creme split – well, five if you count “king biscuit 1975” I suppose) a very cool version of “art for art’s sake” plus eric stewart’s best contribution to “how dare you!”, the overlooked pop classic “I’m mandy, fly me”.  an unavoidable choice, also from “the original soundtrack” album, is the fm radio classic “I’m not in love” – also a stewart track.

but, here’s the full set list for this double live album:

the second sitting for the last supper                  [dave – (!! – a storming way to begin the show !!)]

you’ve got a cold

honeymoon with b troop

art for art’s sake

people in love

wall street shuffle

ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)                    [dave – (listen to eric stewart on slide – harrison and allman, look out)]

I’m mandy, fly me

marriage bureau rendezvous

good morning judge

feel the benefit                        [dave – beatlesque perfection, stonking dual lead guitar outro…)]

the things we do for love

waterfall

I’m not in love

modern man blues

before I look at the show itself, I should explain the difference between the bands:  the original 10cc line-up of stewart / gouldman / godley / creme was nominally a quartet, but often, because drummer godley had so many lead vocal duties, they had a second drummer in paul burgess – so the “original” live quartet was actually a quintet:

eric stewart – lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

kevin godley – drums, lead vocals

lol creme – electric guitar, gizmo, piano, lead vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

with the departure of godley & creme in 1977, who went of to concoct their triple album, progressive rock masterpiece “consequences”, which utilised their invention, the “gizmo”, throughout – a “gizmo” orchestral work, if you will (which includes performances from the late sarah vaughan and the late peter cook) – stewart and gouldman had to then rethink the band – and enable it to play both the very complex (and often quite strange) back catalogue, as well as the current material (at this point, the new 10cc only had one “new album” – the very respectable “deceptive bends”) – and I think that eric stewart now, ironically, faced the same problem that kevin godley did back in the original band – he played so many different parts on the album, multiple lead and rhythm guitars notably, as well as now being the main keyboardist in the studio band, so he needed to have a band with enough capability to free him from trying to play all those complex parts himself – and let him concentrate on either lead vocals, lead guitar, or occasionally electric piano or real piano as required.

so – faced with this problem, the solution seemed obvious – hire an extra guitarist who can also play bass (in the person of rick fenn); hire a second keyboard player so that they can replicate tracks where there are more than one keyboard (in the person of tony o’malley); and for some reason, hire an extra drummer (in the person of stuart tosh) (maybe because they were accustomed to having two drummers on stage?) – not really sure why – but that is what they did.  the new, expanded 10cc looked like this, then:

eric stewart– lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

rick fenn – lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals

tony o’malley – keyboards, acoustic and electric piano, vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

stuart tosh – drums & percussion                 [dave – formerly of the pop band “pilot” – oh they of the one hit “magic”…]

(It is interesting to note, and perhaps a comment on how difficult they were to replace, that basically, it took four people – fenn, o’malley, burgess and tosh – to replace two departed original members – so four people to replace two very talented, capable people – that’s kind of “telling”, isn’t it??).

this band, with duncan mackay replacing tony o’malley, was the 10cc that I was fortunate enough to see in 1978 playing the live version of “bloody tourists” – and I would say, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, they played all the really excellent deep tracks from the new album (including some real beauties, “tokyo”, “old mister time” and others), and also including a very proggy number called “everything you’ve always wanted to know about !!! (exclamation marks)” (my personal favourite track from the album) which features an amazing end section of duncan mackay and eric stewart playing more like members of yes or gentle giant, than a “pop” band – serious chops – I kid you not – it was musically stupendous.

and…clearly, without a doubt, this was the band with the best live vocal sound I’ve ever, ever heard, incredible six part harmonies (when needed) and the most perfectly arranged, and in tune, and in time, background vocals imaginable.  just…stunning.  only the beach boys or the beatles in the studio are better.  hearing them sing like this, live, in 1978, was something that left a strong impression on me – and made me realise just how important having properly arranged vocal harmonies is to the live sound of every band.  if you are going to do harmonies – do them right.  hit the notes.  be in tune… !!

it’s fortunate for 10cc that the technology of 1977 and 1978 allowed them to re-create six part harmonies and complex background vocals on stage in a way that in 1966, the beatles, then the world champions of rock vocal harmony, could not (not due to any shortcomings on their part as vocalists, but totally because the technology just wasn’t there in ’66).  I think that eric stewart secretly wanted his band to be like the band that the beatles could have been live, had 1966 technology allowed them to hear what they were singing.

I watch the film of the beatles playing “nowhere man” in munich, germany in 1966, and it’s the closest thing we get to them singing their perfect LP harmonies, live; whereas on ”live and let LIVE” – stewart manages to recreate the studio vocals on every single track, beautifully and damn near perfectly – on stage.  If only the beatles had arrived ten years later…but then, that wouldn’t have worked out for other reasons, so I shouldn’t wish such things really…

and on ”live and let LIVE” – it’s pretty much the same as what I saw a year later with the 1978 version of the band – the vocals are unbelievably perfect.  just like the record – only – live.  this perfectionism is obviously the work of eric stewart, who was always the guy who arranged, recorded, and mixed all of the original 10cc albums; with godley & creme gone, stewart took over as de facto leader with gouldman as his willing lieutenant…and together, they forged a new, better, more in tune, less unpredictable live version of the band.

one of the stand-out tracks on the record is the 13 minute rendition of  “feel the benefit”, the long suite in three parts from the then-new “deceptive bends” album – this is a very beatlesque song to begin with, having a “dear prudence” like guitar intro (and coda) that evolves into a very string-laden ballad, which features the incredibly beautiful lead voice of eric stewart, clearly the “heir apparent” to paul mccartney (and strangely, later on, he joined mccartney’s band for a while, appeared in mccartney videos, and on a few mcartney tracks here and there – appearing on a few different mccartney albums over time) – what an incredible lead vocal on this track!

and then, when the background voices join in, it’s literally goose-bump inducing; it’s so perfectly like the album, but with the added excitement of being live – and stewart is the star throughout (thirteen minutes on his very best game) – sitting at the piano, singing the lead vocals, and then at the end, jumping up to play his half of the dual lead guitars, a beautifully distorted guitar duo – complete with graham gouldman doing his very best bright, chris squire imitation behind them – that chime their way out through the end of the song – a totally beatlesque and very very beautiful song, rendered with incredibly precision – even the silly centre section, the second of three parts, entitled “a latin break” meaning – “latin break in A major”, very punny indeed, is perfectly performed, including a live fade out of part two with simultaneous fade in of part three (something I have NEVER heard on anyone’s live album, EVER – amazing performance!!!), which is a return to the coda version of the “dear prudence” guitars…fantastic.

the album is worth it just to hear this one 13 minute pop masterpiece – the vocals are astonishingly in tune and in time, almost to the point where it seems impossible that any band could sing that well live. but – my experience in 1978 proves it, this live album, ”live and let LIVE” proves it – one band could – 10cc.

“feel the benefit” also reveals something that few people know – well, people who have seen 10cc play live probably know it – that graham gouldman is a world-class bassist.  he takes an extended and incredibly virtuoso bass solo during “feel the benefit” that sounds more like chris squire than something you’d expect from a “lightweight pop band” like 10cc.  gouldman wields his rickenbacker bass with an almost careless charm, a sort of, “oh, yeah, I’m actually pretty damn good with this thing” attitude – and I believe that he shares the perfectionism that stewart is known for.

I think that stewart felt a little frustrated with the godley & creme “version” – or “vision”, perhaps, of 10cc, he could see the potential – on the records, he could make the vocals sound perfect – but on stage, he could not control godley and creme, and it’s well known that while godley & creme were / are more than a little fond of a little ganja…while we also know stewart is not, stewart wanted to play straight, it was all about the music for him, and nothing else – so with them out of the picture, we could now have the “vocal perfect” version of 10cc live – and this album shows that not only did he succeed in this desire, he excelled – the band excelled.

I think too, that the public’s perception of what kind of band 10cc was flawed – the “hits” made them seem very, very poppy – “I’m not in love” being a very atypical track, the rest of “the original soundtrack” sounds NOTHING LIKE “I’m not in love” – which of course was then swiftly followed with the REALLY poppy “the things we do for love” (not to mention, also, the even smarmier, but wonderful, ballad “people in love”….) – and this gave a somewhat skewed impression of what the band really were.

I thought of them as progressive, but more along the lines of a very poppy / prog / beatlesque / strange kind of band, I thought they were maybe competing a bit with queen (“un nuit a paris”  – from “the original soundtrack”– a godley & creme track, of course – pretty much out-queens queen themselves – in a good way, I promise you!) while if you listen to “sheet music”, “the original soundtrack”, and “how dare you!” – these are deep records, with songs embracing many, many styles, pop, rock, prog, r&b, blues even, indescribable genres…) that cannot really be pigeon-holed even as prog, definitely not as pop (despite the obvious pop “hits”) – you really have to just listen to those three albums to understand what 10cc were – and a huge part of that legacy still spills over into 1977, and into this new band, especially on stage – stewart and gouldman carrying on the 10cc name and tradition by adding “deceptive bends” as the poppier follow-up to “how dare you!” – and it still flows, sure, the magic of godley and crème is gone, but stewart and gouldman are no slouches as musicians, writers or performers – and I think “deceptive bends” proudly belongs right where it is – the next album after “how dare you! despite the serious and life-changing personnel changes.

sure, as with almost all live albums, there are the very, very occasional gaffes, which stewart has wilfully left in the mix – a missed chord in the outro of the otherwise impeccable rendition of one of the very best songs from the final “original 10cc” album, “how dare you!” – stewart’s wonderful ode to an air hostess, “I’m mandy, fly me” – another extremely difficult, extremely beatlesque track, once again, rendered to perfection vocally and musically – leaving that one slipped chord in to perhaps say “look, we are human after all…”- it’s hard to say.

but it isn’t easy to find mistakes on this record, you have to look really hard – because really, it’s a flawless live snapshot of their current record, “deceptive bends”, peppered with a range of hits (from “wall street shuffle” to “I’m not in love” to “the things we do for love”) and the occasional surprise track from the distant past (“waterfall” and “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they)” – from the first album era) – as well as tracks from all four of the original 10cc albums.

still – it seems quite odd to hear the words coming from the stage… ‘here’s one from “how dare you!”’ when the band that made “how dare you! never played a note from that album live that I know of.  however – I am still appreciative that at least, we get to hear a track from “how dare you! done live – even if it is by this strange new sextet version of 10cc.

for me, even though I understand the necessity, I found it a bit frustrating that in a number of instances, because eric was very busy playing electric piano or real piano, and singing lead vocal, that signature guitar solos that are very, very much “eric stewart guitar solos” – were of course, played live by the very capable and enigmatic rick fenn  I had to console myself with the tracks where eric did play lead guitar – and those were smokin’ hot.  note to all guitarists out there:  if you think eric stewart is that wimpy guy who wrote and sang “the things we do for love” – sure, you are right, but if you heard and saw him play slide guitar on “ships don’t disappear in the night”, or if you saw him switch from piano and vocal to lead guitar at the end of the impossibly cool “feel the benefit” – this guy can play lead guitar, and he’s also an amazingly good slide player – trust me.

so it would be “the wall street shuffle” – one of my all-time favourite 10cc tracks, and in fact, the track that got me into the band – and eric would be singing and playing the piano – so when it came time for the lead solo, that beautiful, concise, perfect eric stewart-channelling-george-harrison guitar solo…there came rick fenn to play it.   and, to his credit – he played that solo, and almost every other eric stewart guitar solo that he was called upon to play – with care, with precision, with beauty – but – it wasn’t eric playing it!  that, I found a little difficult to get used to…but, technically, I suppose it just had to be that way – no one can swap instruments that often on stage (except steve howe perhaps, but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme – and, he doesn’t have lead vocalist duties while he’s swapping guitars repeatedly…), so I applaud this decision – play the song well, play the electric piano part perfectly, sing the hell out of it – and trust your new guitar stand-in to play that amazing little solo just right.

but then I would forget all about that, when I saw and heard eric himself, during the thunderous ending of “feel the benefit” or witness the precision slide guitar-fest that is “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)” – eric stewart letting go and showing us how being in the best pop band in the world doesn’t hold you back from having prog-rock like chops – I swear, stewart and gouldman are both far better players than their recorded catalogue would indicate – which is why this live album is so important – for example, a rare early b-side, called “waterfall” is an opportunity for the band to stretch out on a three chord jam, and play the song in a million different ways, as vocal blues, as total reggae, but more importantly, as total three chord jam with fantastic guitar solo interplay between fenn and stewart – including an amazing extended “burn out” where o’malley leads the two guitarists into the final chords of the song – just brilliant.  this track just rocks – and I think we often forget that 10cc really could, and can, rock when they wanted to.

and you should hear the audience response to “waterfall” – they are louder than the band.

sure, there are so many songs from the back catalogue that I wish were on this live record, and of course, there are a few slight missteps (like the somewhat uninspired gouldman tune “marriage bureau rendezvous” or the somewhat plodding and predictable “modern man blues” which is the encore – both from “deceptive bends”) – other than that, the choices are solid, and the pieces are really well performed…and it’s a very even mix of hits, oldies, and a decent chunk of the “new” album – “deceptive bends”.

every single fan of every band has their own wish list of songs that they wish their favourite band would play when they do a live show or album, and with 10cc it’s very difficult, because with half of the band gone, and, the half that was considered to be the very creative, “arty” half – that immediately makes it very, very difficult to recreate the repertoire from those original albums, without the unique voices of godley & creme, and their unique musical contributions, too…there are not too many “gizmo” players out there from which you could find a replacement for “gizmo” inventor lol creme – who is also an accomplished pianist.

I think given the cataclysmic personnel change that the band had just endured, that this new stewart / gouldman led sextet did really well.  first of all, the recovered in the studio, with “deceptive bends” (personnel: eric stewart, graham gouldman, and the redoubtable paul burgess) – and finally, expanding that studio trio to a sextet for a wildly successful tour for that album.

note: additional players on “deceptive bends” – little known fact, a very young “terry bozzio” is on “drums” – it doesn’t say on which track or tracks unfortunately – source – wikipedia (what else?).

  • del newman — string arrangement
  • jean roussel — organ, keyboards, electric piano
  • tony spath — piano, oboe
  • terry bozzio — drums

the wiki page goes on to explain that this album was actually begun while godley & creme were still in the band; at one of their last UK concerts, at knebworth on 21 august 1976, they debuted an early live version of “good morning judge” and there was also an “awful” studio version of “people in love” (strangely, known as “voodoo boogie” – which was included on the recently released – and apparently, already out of print !! – “tenology” box set) – so at least two of the songs actually date back to the original band – something I did not know until I researched this blog!

apparently, the rough mix of “voodoo boogie” was so awful, that godley & creme left shortly thereafter, leaving it to stewart to pick up the pieces and try to build an album that did justice to the name 10cc.  I for one, think he not only succeeded, but he took the band into a new era, a short-lived era, but a very successful and high profile era – and the three late 70s albums – “deceptive bends” and ”live and let LIVE”, both from 1977, and “bloody tourists” from 1978 (which features the massive worldwide hit “dreadlock holiday” – plus a bunch of great album tracks that were the last great batch of stewart / gouldman compositions) – all three of these records are outstanding, excellent examples of quality musicianship.

for me, 1980’s “look hear”, and it’s follow-up, “ten out of 10 – as we moved further into the 1980s…it just wasn’t the same – it became formulaic, and it was also the beginning of the end for one of the best bands that the 1970s produced – everything changed in 1980, and it was hard for 1970s bands to thrive in the synth / robotic era of the 1980s.  gouldman as much as admitted that the last time they had been “hot” was 1978, and he has expressed his displeasure with the 1980s output – and the fans seem to agree, since the 1980s albums did not chart…whereas 1978’s “bloody tourists”, did – the last 10cc album to do so, I believe (I could be wrong about that!).

but for one shining moment, 1977 / 1978, the band re-grouped and went out there and showed them how to do it right…with brilliant tours supporting both studio albums, and luckily, the first one was recorded intentionally for a live album – the oft-overlooked but absolutely brilliant ”live and let LIVE”…pronounce the title however you like, but listen carefully to what is perhaps one of the most meticulously performed and produced live albums of all time – created by the master: mr. eric stewart – long may he sing, play that slide guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric piano, record, arrange, engineer, produce and mix… 🙂

whatever happened to… the grays ??

once upon a time, many years ago, in the year of our lord 1994, there was a short-lived power pop band, with progressive rock leanings and complex, four part harmonies,  named “the grays”.

I had come to know of their music via the music of member jason falkner (also of jellyfish, and briefly, the three o’clock – a band credited with being part of los angeles’ “paisley underground” scene – before that) and I purchased their album, which has the odd title of “ro sham bo” – and found myself playing it often, and I very much enjoyed it – threedifferentwriters, each one singing their own songs, full on three or more part harmony…and just a great sounding power pop album.

quirky, odd songs that stick in the brain. intelligent guitars, perfectly arranged harmonies and backing vocals.  great singers – great songs.

fast forward to 2013, and my good friend pete greeson pointed me to a second grays “album” – which isn’t so much a real album as a really great bootleg, full of rehearsals, alternate versions of songs from the official album, and live / acoustic radio shows and interviews, “companion” is exactly that, something you need to hear if you are a fan of the band – or maybe, if you aren’t a fan.

“the grays” were sort of a power pop super group, a reluctant one, since most of it’s members, particularly jason falkner, didn’t want to be in bands…but it happened anyway – one of the interviews included on “companion” alludes to the fact that someone heard the band jamming in a rehearsal space, and then spread the news about the band – and then, it was just about which label to sign with.  epic was the eventual choice.

to demonstrate how little is known about this now-defunct group, I have just copied the entire wiki entry for “the grays” here (it won’t take you long to read!):

The Grays were a short-lived rock band comprising singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Jon Brion (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass), Jason Falkner (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Buddy Judge (vocals and guitar), and Dan McCarroll (drums). They only released one album, the out-of-print but highly regarded Ro Sham Bo (1994) on Sony/Epic Records.

Their musical style featured careful composition married with pop-friendly melodies influenced by The Beatles but with a harder edge. Their songs also contained musical surprises such as atonal harmonies (“Is it Now Yet”), backwards vocals (“Everybody’s World”), and dissonant ukelele-like solos (“Oh Well Maybe”) mixed in with traditional rock instrumentation.

(instruments played added in by me – d.)

that’s it.  It’s accurate enough I suppose, but I find it astonishing that this rather significant pop experiment only rates two tiny paragraphs – to me, “ro sham bo”was one of the highlights of the year, particularly because of the presence of jason falkner and jon brion – this band had real potential, and I think it’s a real shame that they only existed for such a short time – I would have loved to have heard a few more records by the band.

and now, in 2013, in the form of “companion”, I guess I am getting to hear that – well, I’m getting to hear something besides the very familiar (I played this album – I mean “ro sham bo” now –  constantly when it came out) songs from their one album.  and “companion” delivers, and in the case of “blessed”, a fantastic pop song with a vocal by falkner and an astonishing guitar solo from…someone. and it sounds like a live in the studio take, although it may not be – it’s difficult to tell, and it just fades out at the end, so we may never know.

another interesting track on “companion” is a frankly bizarre power pop cover of joni mitchell’s 1968 classic track, “both sides, now” – and hearing this song, sung again by falkner, and re-arranged with power pop harmonies, and delivered at speed – the band is rockin’ on this track (as they pretty much are on every track they recorded) – it’s very strange, a strange choice of cover, but once committed – they do a great job of it! it’s fabulous.

“outside miner” is another odd track on “companion” that has so much potential, and it just makes me wonder how many other songs were started, rehearsed, and then nearly disappeared forever…which makes me doubly glad that “companion” exists. how very strange, too, to “get”, after nineteen years, a second “album” from a band that in your mind, only has existence through it’s one official release.

and, if the wiki entry for “the grays” is short, the entry for buddy judge is literally non-existent.  besides playing on “bachelor no. 2” by aimee mann, there is just not very much information out there about buddy judge, except of course his own web site. this is one of those rare situations where the wiki lets you down, and you then have to look further afield for information. the brief bio page on his web site show that along with the aforementioned aimee mann session, buddy has contributed to albums by michael penn, liz phair, and the wallflowers. in recent years, buddy seems to have moved almost entirely into film and tv music.

his involvement with “the grays” is summed up in one short sentence, “he was a singer / songwriter in the grays, with jon brion and jason falkner”.  that’s it – I kid you not.  so it seems that buddy has really moved on, and really isn’t still working in the power pop arena – whereas falkner and brion seem to remain as integral components of it to this day.

the aimee man connection weaves in and out of this story, in 1993, brion, now moving into the world of production, produced his then girlfriend aimee mann’s “whatever” (1993) album, as well as it’s follow up, “I’m with stupid” (1995).  brion has also been involved in some very high profile film scores, notably “boogie nights” (which he also had a cameo role in the film), 1999’s “magnolia” (whose soundtrack heavily features a lot of aimee mann songs) and “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” (2004) – and many, many more – brion’s list of sound tracks is impressive, his list of production credits, equally so.

for many years, brion had/has a residency at “largo”, a popular dinner club in los angeles, where he performs music without a set list, using drum loops made on the fly, and then building up loops of other instruments – all based on audience suggestion.  this has proved to be incredibly popular, and has resulted in many, many interesting live collaborations with a long list of well known musicians who have joined brion on largo’s stage and performed live along with his on-the-fly loops and songs.

oddly, falkner, who seems the most prolific of the three (at least in terms of number of releases) – is the only one of the three who has not really gotten heavily into film music, in the way that brion and judge have – although recently, he has begun to do so – and is currently credited with two recent high profile soundtracks, “ocean’s 13” (2007) and “the informers” (2009) so it may be that falkner will now turn mostly to film work as both brion and judge seem to have done – although I doubt that falkner will ever stop making pop records – which is a very good thing, indeed.

this of course is the problem, you have three guys who each in their own right can make monster records and/or film scores – falkner being perhaps the most “high profile” of the four, but jon brion is also very well known as a studio musician extraordinaire contributing to albums by the wallflowers, sam phillips and marianne faithful, among others, and writer of many, many file soundtracks –  so, the expectations are high.  and the band did not disappoint, musically, maybe the only power pop supergroup that actually succeeded, albeit only for one year.

falkner himself has a long resume of musical collaborations and contributions, serving briefly in the three o’clock while still a teenager, being in the band jellyfish for the first album and tour (after which he left, due to not being allowed to develop his songwriting within the band) and went on to work on many, many sessions, for aimee mann, beck and travis, to name a few.

the “new” songs from “companion” make up the first half of the record, but then you get several acoustic sessions, in many cases, acoustic versions of songs from “ro sham bo” – and that is quite a revelation.  a song that on the official album is a fully produced power pop masterpiece, such as “same thing” (which appears in two separate acoustic performances on “companion”) is quite startling when re-invented as an acoustic track – and the vocal work in particular is excellent – trading lead vocals, harmonies, backing vocals – all pulled off live in a seemingly almost effortless way – very impressive.

then – a vocal line follows a descending guitar line, as solo outro – and this “new” acoustic version of “same thing” is over.

the acoustic version of “nothing between us” is just beautiful, it’s such a great song anyway, but it’s absolutely fantastic to hear these songs, which are all beautifully produced on the album…in this raw and primitive form – yet, you can hear exactly what goes into the songs, and the transition from acoustic to full on power pop is made transparent – at least to some degree.

vocals are important, and “the grays” take that seriously – the harmonies are meticulously worked out (as they were in jellyfish, too) and performed in these acoustic renditions as if their lives depended on them being perfect – and they damn near are.  I am always positively impressed by a band that can a) play their songs well on acoustic instruments and b) recreate studio multi track harmonies in a live setting, and do it with a sense of quality.

“both belong” acoustic is really lovely, and jason’s voice is in great form, and this song is such a pop gem, falkner’s performance here is really relaxed, the vocal pure and in tune, the guitars supporting, background vocals impeccable as always. the truly beautiful and quite beatlesque acoustic guitar interplay at the start of this song reminds me very strongly of the sparkling acoustic guitars in the beatles “here comes the sun” – and of course, being power pop, being a jason falkner song, I expect a beatles influence.

in a recent, rare interview, jason recalls his experience of working with paul mccartney, and the obvious awe that he holds mccartney in says it all – the beatles are clearly an influence, although on this song it’s george harrison’s influence more than mcartney’s that shines through.

I would imagine this would have been a difficult situation to be in, having three strong songwriting / guitarists (and one drummer – who was probably a bit bemused to watch the three writers struggle for dominance…) all of who would naturally want “their” songs to be on the album – but somehow they worked it out, and managed to select a great set of songs to include on “ro sham bo” (surely one of the worst album titles of all time??).  the title is based on one of the many words for the children’s game most commonly known as “rock-paper-scissors”.  there – now you know as much as I do about the album’s title.

when you look at the writing credits, while you might think that falkner and brion would dominate, but in fact, the writing credits are shared out almost perfectly evenly between falkner, brion and judge – but I have an inkling that this wasn’t easy to arrive at – it’s very, very difficult for bands to act as true democracy – but it would appear that they managed to do it, at least for this one album.  I believe a second album didn’t happen because they could no longer agree on whose songs should be included – but it’s unknown how far, if at all, the band moved towards actually making a second album.

falkner very famously swore he would never be in a band again after his experience in jellyfish, but, in 1994, was persuaded to join jon brion in the grays – they had met during session work, and hit it off – but it was once again, personality clashes, and writing differences, (as it had been in jellyfish) that meant a sadly early ending to a band with enormous potential.

I think that jon brion has been too busy doing session work to make many albums, so while falkner has released many solo albums and two albums of beatles covers, brion’s catalogue is mainly down to “meaningless” from 2001 (his only solo record to date), which is a great little pop record in it’s own right.  I have to confess to not being as familiar with brion’s work, except for his contributions to sam phillips albums and the one solo album, “meaningless”, which I only just recently acquired.  I do know that the people he works with speak incredibly highly of him, and I believe he is very well respected as a guitarist and all around musician who has contributed to a lot of great records…

meanwhile, falkner was the guitarist / songwriter for all seasons, contributing to albums by the great brendon benson (jack white’s partner in crime in the criminally overlooked and most excellent band, the raconteurs) – and a pop genius in his own right, he also worked on a susanna hoffs album (I am not a fan), and many others.

the sudden and very, very unexpected appearance of “companion” really raised a lot of questions in my mind…this is absolutely one of those “what if” moments, what if…the band had stayed together, and made a dozen albums over 10 years?  given the quality of the songs on “ro sham bo” and the additional very intriguing material available on “companion”, I really feel that they might well have succeeded very well indeed, and become even bigger than the much-lauded but strangely unsuccessful jellyfish.

I believe though, that it’s a basic problem to have more than one strong writing presence in a band, and the grays had not one but three, which inevitably leads to arguments about whose songs go onto the album, and whose fall by the wayside…so I think that these sort of “pop supergroups”, while a great idea on paper (three great voices, three great guitarists, three great writers – should be fracking amazing – and they often were!) in real life, it causes conflict, and in reading a very detailed recent interview with falkner, he alludes to this and it’s clear that he is most comfortable on his own – he is better off not being in a band.

it’s a bit telling that in one of the interviews included on “companion”, the interviewer asks the band a question about how the songwriting is divvyed up…and instead of answering, the band sort of mumble “let’s play another song” – because it wasn’t a question that they really wanted to answer!

I for one, am glad that falkner broke his own rule, the one he keeps breaking, the one about not really wanting to be in a band – and decided to give it a go with the grays, and while it only lasted for one album, all four members played and sang as if their very lives depended on it.  with passion, with heart, and with the highest standard of musicianship, too.  in the case of the grays, they absolutely were greater than the sum of their parts – and when you have four very talented parts, and they come together in a musical union that for some reason, just resonates – then you get something greater than the individual parts – the beatles had it, and with the beatles as one of their biggest influences, the grays had it too.  not too many bands really do – but this time, you can just hear it – from the first note of the first song – this band just works.

and given the strength of falkner’s albums, band and solo, well – for me – the solo albums win, hands down – especially the trio of “jason falkner presents author unknown” (my personal favourite), “can you still feel?” and the remarkable “necessity: the four-track years” – a collection of demos and alternate tracks, many from “author unknown” that is a fascinating glimpse into the creative process – home made four track versions of songs that were later recorded and mixed in a proper studio – “necessity” is essential listening to anyone who wants a master class in pop songwriting – it’s simply brilliant, although if I had to choose just one, it would absolutely be “author unknown”, a record that I listened to non-stop for about two years! given the strength of his albums – it’s no surprise that the grays profited so much from jason’s participation – and in this band, there was no restriction on jason contributing songs, either. 🙂

I just recently saw, for the first time EVER, an “official video” by the grays, (in this case, the most excellent lead-off track from the album, “the very best years” – one of jason’s best songs, a really lovely power pop anthem that has long been a personal favourite grays and falkner track) – which really caused mixed emotions in me – it was very odd, after almost 20 years, to actually “see” the band playing (I never had before 2013) – for me, there was just…the album, and that was all.  it was great to see them “in action”, and it also struck me again just how good they were, and what a shame it is that so few people ever got to hear this remarkable music.  we are lucky that we have what we have.

“ro sham bo” is currently out of print – but is available second hand or on import.

thanks again to pete greeson for his contributions to this article, and for increasing the number of grays fans in the world – good man.

what we’re listening to – wing beat fantastic – mike keneally (featuring the songs of andy partridge)

one of the most-anticipated albums of the year among fans of both keneally and xtc (and their ace songwriter, andy partridge), “wing beat fantastic” does not, in any way, disappoint.

 

this is the first batch of “new” andy partridge songs we’ve heard in a long, long time, even if they are delivered by collaborator and mega fan mike keneally, rather than partridge himself – who declined to perform on the record (even though some of his samples did survive the process), wanting instead to ensure that it is viewed as a keneally solo album.

the story of how this record came to be is well documented elsewhere, how whilst keneally was in frank zappa’s band, their bassist, scott thunes, had the audacity to invite partridge to a zappa concert in the uk – and much to their surprise, he actually turned up – and both a friendship and a writing partnership was born.  there were two discrete sessions where the two actually sat down and worked on these songs, but it was left to keneally alone to create “wing beat fantastic”.

it seems to me that this must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in the world, similar to a scenario where lennon and mccartney said “here, take these songs, we can’t be bothered to record them – YOU DO IT” – and keneally not only rises to the challenge…he hits the ball out of the park.

first of all, it’s clear to me that keneally is not just familiar with xtc’s style, but that he must have studied it in minute detail, or else this record would not sound the way it does – as if it were the next XTC album.  and that is exactly what it sounds like, and at some moments, when the vocal harmonies are particularly sweet, you can close your eyes and EASILY forget that this is mike keneally, because what your ears hear, especially on a tune like “you kill me” – is pure andy partridge.

as with all zappa band alumni (such as steve vai, adrian belew, etc.) keneally has more than excellent chops on guitar, meaning that he has the skill to sound like a dead ringer for the very capable partridge OR xtc’s other (former) guitarist, dave gregory. But the real surprise here are the absolutely amazing vocal arrangements, and sheer beauty that keneally manages – that study paid off – and ALL of the trademark xtc vocal tricks are here, revolving vocals, beach-boys-like harmonies, delicate, beautiful solo vocals – we knew that keneally could sing, but we never knew he could sing like THIS.

so – partridge picked the right person, the exactly perfect person, to work up these demos into proper songs.  and what a batch of songs they are!

keneally has wisely interspersed the partridge songs with some tunes of his own, and I have to say, some of those are so beautiful that they easily rival the songs co-written with partridge, and they fit in perfectly.  the opening track, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part one” clocks in at exactly one minute, a keneally tune rather than a keneally/partridge, but it’s one minute of incredibly melodic, beautiful guitar music – including amazing slide guitar reminiscent of the master – george harrison.  so my first feeling for the first song, was that it was very harrison-like – a great way to start, and certainly a good indication of what was to come…

I’ve been a fan of mike keneally’s music for a long time, beginning way back when with his groundbreaking “hat” cd (“thank you for buying hat”…) which is utterly unlike “wing beat fantastic” – it’s more like a zappa album, lots of impossible guitar, funny vocals – but, with the occasional moment of sheer beauty.  those occasional moments have now, in this new album, been transformed into an ENTIRE ALBUM of sheer beauty.  I kid you not, this album is a completely atypical album for keneally, but oh my god, I wish he’d done this before, and I hope he does it again – perhaps with an entire album of his OWN pop masterpieces.

and when that first guitar solo comes in on the second track on the album, the gorgeous “I’m raining here, inside” – well, that’s it, it’s absolutely perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s seamless, flawless – and so very like the very best andy partridge or dave gregory guitar solo imaginable – it’s cut from the same cloth – just as the vocals are, even the bass and drum parts remind me of xtc – every song on this record sounds like an xtc song, or occasionally, a george harrison song or a beach boys song – hey, wait a minute, that’s just like you would get on an xtc album.

I do imagine though, that mike and his crew would have studied existing xtc album’s, because the production values, the use of phasers and flangers, the song arrangements, the guitar solos, the vocal harmonies – it just SCREAMS “xtc” – the title track, the third track, is a perfect example of this, it’s so much like xtc it’s not funny, acoustic guitars chiming, passionate, layered vocals, harmonies to die for, great chord changes…it’s perfect, an imitation maybe, but actually, a beautiful creation in it’s own right – as if keneally were some sort of musical genetics engineer, taking the xtc “dna” and re-arranging it into new, cloned musical lifeforms – xtc through the mind of keneally.

and then another amazing guitar solo, this one jagged, clean, lovely – comes flying through the song, as the flanged vocals build and build, a lovely descending figure that you can’t get out of you brain, amazing “oohs” – then, a serene, heavenly bridge ending in a beautiful high note – and it’s over.

next comes track four, a 30 second reprise of the opener, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part two” – which is even more enigmatic and beautiful than the first version – just beautiful, mike.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to have these songs in hand, in demo form only, and then sit down in your leucadia studio and say “right, how are we going to do this then?” – and the answer is the result – the album “wing beat fantastic” – IS fantastic, totally fantastic…and the next song “you kill me”, track five, is just staggeringly beautiful – even just the introduction is so beautiful I can’t believe it, a great guitar riff, followed by chord changes that you don’t expect, that give you the shivers before the song proper has even begun.  a clean pair of lead guitars leads us into the vocal – and those vocals – I would ask AGAIN – who knew that mike keneally could sing THIS beautifully?

the harmonies are straight from every xtc album from “skylarking” onwards – really, really complex, really, really beautiful vocal arrangements – and from a distance, if you don’t dissect it too closely, you would NEVER KNOW it wasn’t andy partridge singing.  an almost zappa-like “linking riff” repeats irresistibly in between the choruses, a tiny reminder that this is a zappa band alumni – but the sound overall, is not zappa at all – it’s PURE xtc.

in fact, I played the record for my partner, who doesn’t really know the music of xtc that well, and she said “that guy sounds EXACTLY like the guy in xtc” – and I could not agree more.

this album is an unqualified success for keneally, and I think that this album will do well for him, even if it didn’t have the songs of andy partridge, it would do well, but having that extra kick – not to mention many, many xtc fans ravenous for “new” andy partridge fans (myself included – and just about everyone I know pre-ordered the CD).

track six, “friend of a friend” is a very short little linking piece, 0:49 of acoustic guitars that works beautifully as a lead in to the next track…in fact, it almost sounds like the introduction of track seven, rather than a piece in it’s own right – the two fit together so well.

the album now moves into some really wonderful uncharted musical territory, as exemplified by a song such as track seven, “that’s why I have no name” – a song that is so very strange, with a lot of unusual reverse sounds burbling in the background, and a lot of wonderful clean jazz and reverse guitar (that is probably forwards guitar played through a reverse guitar patch, using something like a line 6 dl-4 delay modeller set to “reverse guitar”) as well, a very strange chord progression, very odd, almost dirge-like vocal, the whole piece is very…minor key, almost jazzy – but again, even though UTTERLY different from the preceding pop masterpieces – even this very odd songs screams “I sound like xtc!” at the top of it’s musical lungs.

I was not surprised to realise that this is a keneally song, not one of the tracks co-written with partridge, and I think all of the “solo” keneally pieces fit in beautifully with the co-written ones – a beautiful job of integration.

a remarkable, ascending clean jazz guitar solo is as startling in it’s appearance as it is in it’s intelligence, and then, it suddenly mutates into a reverse guitar solo of extraordinary beauty – keneally uses every bit of skill he has, but any very strange or very dissonant elements that we might have got on a zappa-influenced record like “hat”, have been replaced with a melodic sensibility of almost uncanny proportions – this solo just TAKES FLIGHT, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the song, drifting waves of reverse guitars float over the top of a steadily building background, the clean guitar returns for a moment – and then we are back to the verse once again.

the end section features all of it: the jazzy guitar, volume pedal guitars, reverse guitars – and it’s just perfect – and it then STOPS on a dime. perfection, but – strange perfection.

then it gets weirder still, with the very odd vocal melody of “your house”, track eight, and it’s incredibly melancholic mood – but very quickly, you realise, this is sort of like the “chalkhills and children” of this album, an odd, unusual vocal melody, which then moves into really beautiful moments “drawn by some strange magnetic pull…” it’s so weird, that you can’t get it out of your head “I know this is crazy, cause after all, it’s only…your house”.

this song sounds resigned, final, triumphant, sad, uncertain “I walked slowly at first, tried not to break into a run…I knew that was your house at the end of the road…”.

I feel like I already knew all these songs, because in a way, I have heard them all before – in those last ten or twelve xtc albums – because keneally heard those records too (in fact, he was in the studio during the making of “oranges and lemons” which xtc recorded in los angeles – which is where the partridge-keneally partnership really began to blossom), and he knew EXACTLY how to inject the magic xtc dna into these songs – and he’s done it!

then we have track nine, “miracle man and woman”, which has the most remarkable vocals, a very, very unusual vocal arrangement – and this is the weird thing, it features a lot of really, really good acoustic guitars – which remind me of gentle giant, the vocals too, are almost gentle giant-like in places – until you get to the godley & creme “deep”/”creepy” backing vocal – beautiful synths (which might well be guitar synths) accompany a strangely equalised vocal section…what a wonderful musical construction!

the middle section of the song is some sort of synthesizer duet, with tinkling piano in the background – and then, here it comes, the kevin godley vocal “ahhhh” from heaven (remember the backing vocals on “I’m not in love” by 10cc?? – like that) – a wordless vocal accompaniment to the middle section – which resolves into a synth-backed acoustic guitar solo, that is SO gentle giant it isn’t funny – like an odd outtake from an early giant album like “acquiring the taste” or maybe “octopus” – and then that crazy, ominous godley & creme creepy vocal returns to end the song on a note of pure creepiness – brilliant!

next is “inglow”, track ten, and it’s very serious indeed, a slinky rhythm overlaid with carefully bendy guitar notes, then, a cheerful, clean, simple melodic solo – a beautiful introduction, resolving on a really wonderful chord – and then starting again, this time with multiple lead guitars, the acoustics gently swaying behind them – a magical instrumental, that makes me think of tropical islands and sunsets and evening closing in – a slowly fading in, mysterious, wordless vocal appears and disappears – the clean melodic lead guitars continue their beautiful journey – what a fantastically beautiful composition, I just find the mood and feeling in this piece to be remarkable – a lovely interlude indeed, and one of keneally’s most mature and respectable guitar compositions ever.

eventually, the vocals begin, and if the first half of the song can be attributed to the genius of mike keneally – then the second half, the vocal section – well, that’s pure andy partridge, but realised by keneally – so they are both brilliant.

track 11 is one of my favourites, “bobeau” – which is a snappy little number with a funky horn arrangement, and a very complex layered vocal arrangement – not to mention great guitars and basses from keneally – then, a fantastic, sing along chorus, with great piano and horn backing – sort of this album’s equivalent to something like “extrovert” from the xtc canon, that’s the only thing I can even imagine I can compare it to – then, a very, very weird vocal melody, backed by ocean sounds and wonderful ghostly background vocals – leads us, via a very odd bridge, towards the song’s remarkable conclusion – which is all about the guitar.

after the final verse, we get another chance to experience the incredibly mature skill of keneally as a lead guitarist, or actually, in this case, as a slide guitarist – for me, the last section of “bobeau” is a huge highlight, during the second chorus, you start to get some lead guitar bits – but then, it starts, a sinister bass and drums, with creeping horns, backs an amazing, slapback slide solo, which is either double tracked or remarkably delayed – but it’s a scorcher, and then keneally really starts to mix things up, with a heavily syncopated guitar riff that is sinister, killer and fucking brilliant.  I love it!

then suddenly, it stops, the ocean sounds and seagulls return for a moment…

“land”, track 12, the final track on this amazing album, is another keneally-only piece, which makes a great end piece for the record, and it contains one of my favourite lyrics on the entire record “you understand, finally that, you don’t understand…” which I think is…fantastic.  wing beat fantastic, maybe…

it seems to be cut from the same genome that the keneally-partridge co-writes are, almost as if it were inspired by the other songs, it has a bit of everything, including some really beautiful acoustic guitar – short and sweet, just over two minutes, but a perfectly constructed finale for one of the most important pop records – ever.

“wing beat fantastic” is a remarkable achievement, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, where a well known ex-zappa lead guitarist takes away a handful of andy partridge songs, and creates an album that is so xtc-like as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and that is clear praise, mike, you did an amazing job with this, you transformed these demos into a thing of real beauty, a succinct and very musical album that successfully captures the spirit of xtc beautifully, in a very respectful, and perfectionistic, way – every detail has been considered and reconsidered, the vocal arrangements, the vocal harmonies, are absolutely among some of the most beautiful I have ever heard on any album – and if keneally were now to switch hats permanently (no pun intended) and just make beautiful pop records, I would love every one of them.

I know that when andy partridge first heard the completed keneally project, he was absolutely overwhelmed by the result, in fact, literally moved to tears, and I understand why that is.  this is a gorgeous record, it would have fit seamlessly into the xtc catalogue anywhere between “skylarking” and “apple venus” (either part) and no one would have been the wiser – OK, you can tell it’s mike keneally singing, not andy partridge, but beyond that – the guitar work is top notch, the guitar solos are simply amazing, and the songs – wow, the writing, the lyrics, the tunes, the arrangements – it’s all good!

there is not a bad or even lesser tune on this record, keneally has done the impossible, he has almost “out-xtc’d” xtc themselves.  but it’s done so respectfully, so tastefully, it’s imitation as sheer flattery – but perfect imitation, glorious, beautiful, joyful music – music like the music that xtc themselves produce.

 

a pop masterpiece, not to be missed – genius.  “wing beat fantastic” truly is, fantastic.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

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

 

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

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

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maybe his best early work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to: roger powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

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

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

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what we’re listening to

todd rundgren & the metropole orchestra – live in amsterdam

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

thanks mr. p !!

 

 

what we’re listening to – roxy rule, ok?

well, it finally happened, because I’ve been going through many, many cassettes of early works for the dave stafford / pureambient blog audio companion page, my curiosity got the better of me, and I had a quick look into the “other” box of tapes – the one with the live concerts in it – and lots of other music as well – in it.

in particular, I was looking for (and found) a live recording called “foolproof” by roxy music – which is the first roxy music I ever heard, and it made a huge impression on me – at first, I didn’t even know or realise why I liked it so much (because a man with amazing chops had just joined the band, straight from his stint with king crimson, adding john wetton to roxy was an absolutely inspired move – incredible) but later I realised, it’s because wetton is the bass player, and that makes the whole band try harder. the presence of eddie jobson certainly helped, too, and the whole band really rose to the occasion – and the music, for that brief period, was truly remarkable.

roxy live was always a mixed bag, but this concert stood out in my mind as being more together, more like what the band was truly capable of, than other live performances I’ve heard.  and for me, there are some great moments too, for wetton – quietly singing harmony to bryan ferry’s a cappella end piece of “mother of pearl” – but best of all, in “re-make/re-model” – when it comes to wetton’s turn to take a brief solo – the monstrous, distorted, sliding, slamming piece of fuzz bass he chooses to play, is so extraordinary it puts all the other solos to shame – it’s fantastic – it rocks!

so I took the time last sunday to digitise the concert – and, at the same time, sadly, I learned that it’s not one concert – it’s two, and, it is (of course!) cut into pieces – so two tracks from a 1975 new york show, then three from newcastle, uk, the previous year, then back to two more from the 75 new york, then the balance from newcastle.

so even though the “concert” is contrived, it’s still a great representative showing of just how good roxy could be when they tried hard. in particular, the four tracks from new york 1975 really shine (now that I understand what and where they are) but all of it is fantastic – the other concert that was used, the newcastle show, is the source show for their official live album “viva” – so you can extrapolate from that that the band thought that shows from this era were good, too.  🙂

there are also some rarer live tracks here, that you don’t hear in every roxy live show, such as “she sells” – and one of my personal favourites, from the “siren” album – “whirlwind”, where phil manzanera pulls off a tour de force performance, in fact, phil is on fire through out this tape, and occasionally, the precision and power of some of his riffs makes you really sit up and take notice – “wow, I didn’t realise he was that good”.  but he is, and I think having wetton there was a kick in the pants for phil in particular (they seemed to strike up a great and lasting friendship after that in any case) and for the  other existing band members.

the bass player “seat” in roxy had been a revolving-door gig from the very beginning, but now, the current occupant of the hot seat, by sheer chance, happened to be a world-class bassist at the height of his performing powers (don’t forget, he’d just left the most successful and amazing king crimson lineup of its time – where playing with fripp for two years had honed his bass playing skills to incredible heights of capability) so suddenly, the bass parts in roxy music songs – began to matter!  you could hear them, and they made a difference to the songs.

this concert then to me, is sort of like roxy music’s version of “the move live at the fillmore east 1969” – a concert that vindicates them, that dispels any feeling that sometimes, live, they maybe weren’t all that together – and it shows us a sort of “dream” live roxy that really did exist for a few months anyway.  I love it, and hearing this again – well, I had it on vinyl originally, so this cassette was a master cassette recorded from the vinyl – but amazingly, given that it’s not the original vinyl, but a copy of it – the digital version came out very, very well – all it needed was a little bit of a level boost, and one very carefully done bass boost – and that was it, I didn’t want to change it’s sound too much.  remarkably, there is no evidence to my ears anyway, of the vinyl lineage – no snap, crackle or pop – but that may be because there are really no quiet moments – the audiences are loud and enthusiastic, the band, loud and on fire!

starting out with “love is the drug”, it moves through a strange selection and mixture of “new” songs from “siren”, including unlikely deep album tracks such as “whirlwind”, as well as a few big hits – “editions of you”, “do the strand”, and “re-make/re-model” among them – so really, something for everyone. 🙂

hearing this again, after so, so many years of not hearing it – it was like having an old friend back that you hadn’t seen for 30 years – a really wonderful experience, and, even live – roxy do rule – ok?