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……

Having A Friend Like Michael Dawson…

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

the joy of kaoss

I have to admit, of all of the few unusual instruments I have run across, the Ibanez RG Series Kaoss model guitar is one of the best in so many ways.  It’s simply fun to play, and what you can do with one electric guitar that interfaces with one set of 100 (yes, that is One HUNDRED) kaossilator effects to give you one of the most tactile and hands on guitar to synth “instant treatments” experiences since Brian Eno ‘treated’ Phil Manzanera‘s guitar on stage with Roxy Music back in the early 1970s.  No longer do you need to run your guitar through a very large and very expensive VCS3 synthesiser, but you can do the ‘treatments” by yourself, as you play – and the sounds you can get out of it are simply amazing if you just work at it….

What more could I ask for?  What more could any guitarist who also happens to be a Kaossilator Pad player, who also is a synthesist – ask for?  This is the inexpensive way into a Kaoss-pad-controlled-by-a-guitar or rather, by-a-guitarist – you.

Before I try to describe the experience of playing this unique instrument, I should probably approach the negatives – of which there are one or two – depending on your viewpoint.  The guitar is deliberately built down to a price, it’s possibly, the cheapest Kaoss guitar on the market – and that is possible the way Ibanez and Korg wanted it – who knows?  So some of the features you might expect in an expensive electric guitar simply aren’t really here in this guitar.  Like super low super easy action.  Not here – you have to work to play this guitar.  I am going to need to take it in, and see what can be done about the action – which is less than ideal.  I end up thrashing the fingers on my left hand every time I play it – but I am determined, so I don’t let something as unimportant as somewhat high action bother me – I just play anyway, and ignore it.

One alleviating factor or solution I have found, is to go to an extra light gauge of string.  This DOES help a little bit, when the guitar you are playing has action that is too high – for me, it seems to help on the higher strings, but no so much on the lower strings.  It was strange – I hadn’t tried an .009 on my high E since I was about 13!  But I find it helpful to switch from, in my case, Regular Slinky, to, Super Slinky – with a .009 top rather than the .010.

The other thing that I really miss, is a whammy bar.  I think that alongside the awesome distortion circuit built into the guitar, that a whammy bar would have been just the ticket – switch on that fuzz and start yourself a crazy whammy solo….but not this time.   So – two negatives; it’s hard to play, and, no whammy fun – but I can easily forgive both – there are actions I can take, I can get the guitar set up, I can put lighter strings on it, I can even get the neck fretted or shaved – I mean, there is room to improve the action, that is for sure – but it needs investment, and a good luthier too.

Getting over the whammy is easier, for one thing, you have 101 on board sounds to replace it with, the first being, the very usable on board distortion circuit which I really like, it isn’t the most amazing distortion box in the world, but, it gives you plenty of sustain when you want a sudden kick-ass solo – and so easy to switch it in!

So that is the 101st effect, I would say, and then what you have is 100 more on the kaoss pad, to make up for that missing whammy.  For example – may I suggest, voice 16, “vinyl break” – that gives you the ultimate dive bomb, and you can have it at any speed imaginable – very quick indeed, or, very very slow…taking a high note down to a low note that my 12 inch guitar speakers have trouble delivering it’s so lowl!

Or really, instead of thinking of it as 101 effects – the built-in distortion plus 100 Kaoss sounds, you could actually look at it as 201 sounds – the built-in distortion is 1, then you have 100 kaoss sounds with clean guitar, and, 100 kaoss sounds with heavy distortion – and some of these Korg sound respond very well to clean or distortion, and, behave differently depending on what is chosen.

So now that I have got through the tricky stuff, I can go on about how much fun it is to actually PLAY this guitar – and, you have to understand, the kaoss pad that is built into it, is not like the kaoss pad “synths” (like the little hand held pink synth kaoss pad I started out playing a few years back) you buy to play on stage – it is instead, an “effects” kaoss pad, a “Mini-Kaoss pad” – and it’s been made into part of the guitar’s circuitry – it has actually been embedded into the guitar’s DNA – being at the end of the guitar’s audio output.

I think that learning how to play this guitar effectively is something that has to be learned over time, and each time I pick up the Kaoss guitar, I learn a little bit more about what is best in terms of technique – and a lot of the sounds aren’t totally suited to using them like a normal effect, they actually seem to work the best as sudden events in between notes, or, at the end of phrases.

Vinyl Break, good old number 16, is suitable for either, and I had a blast just suddenly DROPPING a note, a millisecond after playing it, down a few octaves, and the real beautiful of the Kaoss pad becomes apparent in the amount of control you have over the timing of that event, of that note drop – if you do it at the “top” of the pad (i.e. the edge nearest the strings, rather than the edge near the edge of the guitar’s body) the drop is incredibly fast, and you are at that low, low tone so fast you can hardly believe it.

If you drop it in the centre of the pad, it drops substantially more slowly, but still at a pretty good speed, and you can learn to “time” these smoother, more elegant drop curves to suit your musical taste…it becomes quite an art, can I make this note drop really smoothly down to it’s lowest tone and then still hit the next note in my solo or improv at the “right” moment, and most times, I can.  It’s a huge amount of fun, trying to control the duration of a note drop event, and get it to work in a really musical way.

Finally, if you choose to drop at the bottom of the pad, well then you are going to get the longest drop of all, possibly a bit too slow to be very musical, but just as useful – and everywhere in between, you get all the different speeds. So to put it into phonographic terms, it can be like dropping from 78 to 16 rpm in a millisecond, or from 78 to 16 rpm in a second, or maybe take five seconds to get there – or, you can stop the process anywhere along the way, so maybe you might just go from 78 rpm down to only 33 1/3rd rpm, instead of all the way down to 16 – it’s entirely up to you.

The pad is physically pretty tiny, and you have to learn to use it … sort of… “in between” your notes, or, at the end of a series of notes – it CAN be used while you are playing, but that is hard – it’s possible, with some of the more standard sounds, like a jet flanger or a nice phaser, you can hold a finger on the pad while you are strumming or picking, but – it’s a difficult act of co-ordination, and really, you would be a lot better of concentrating on playing your notes properly, and using your stomp box flangers or phaser, and they very probably will sound better – and, they stay on, too, until you shut them off, whereas, the pad stops working as SOON as your finger or fingers lift off of it – and that makes it tricky to use as a “regular” effect (whatever THAT means lol).

However, the real strength of the Kaoss guitar, isn’t the more “standard” effects, but the ones that work well when used in between notes and in between phrases, like my best friend the vinyl break, but also, the large selection of various loopers are truly useful and give you some remarkable effects if used well.  It’s tricky, but, it’s do-able.

There are different ways to approach it, and I keep trying new things, or picking one of the 100 voices I am not as familiar with, and trying to see what I can do with it over a longer period of time – high pass filter, low pass filter, mid filters, you name it, it’s all there, there is even a decimator, which is an amazing patch – I absolutely love the decimator, it’s a brilliant sounding effect.  Most of the effects sound really good, but some of them are hard to use in the sort of “momentary” way you need to use this guitar to it’s best effect (no pun intended).

One trick I have found helpful, in making sure I co-ordinate playing a note or chord, and then, immediately applying the pad (before the more or chord fades away so much that the pad then does NOTHING to it – very embarrassing!) is by likening the pad to a whammy bar in your brain – a whammy bar used, of course, in the more usual way, where, at the end of a phrase or chord, you use it – well, the Kaoss pad works best that way.

Just as with the whammy, of course, you CAN whammy WHILE you are playing – but it is more difficult to do, and the results might not always be consistent.  So if you tell yourself to use it in the same times you might use your whammy -and if you are fortunate, it will work well – although there is no guarantee.  And that’s where you can have surprising and dismaying failures – let’s say you’ve worked out a part where, you stop playing and then do a move on the pad, a really dramatic move like a drop or a pitch shift of some kind, and you do it say, for four bars in a row, once each bar….and on the fourth one, you are a tiny bit too late on the pad – and out comes….silence.

That can be embarrassing, and even disappointing, because maybe that fourth amazing Kaoss swoop – should have been the most flamboyant and remarkable of the four in a row – but instead, you play three good ones, and the fourth one – just isn’t meant to happen.

So you lose an entire perfect take, because you timed your Kaoss sound off by nanoseconds – and that resulted not in an error, but instead, in a fail – a silence when your audience would clearly be expecting some kind of fantastical Kaossilator effect – and that is annoying!  I have lost solos and takes because of one failed or less than spectacular Kaoss swoop.

The remedy for that, of course – is more practice, and, of course, the more you practice, the less likely these time-based mishaps will haunt your kaoss playing.  No one said this would be easy – but sometimes, it is pretty easy to make the pad sound good, on other occasions, not so much so – but if you work at it, you can play some truly extraordinary and more importantly, utterly unique chord patterns, notes, guitar solos and sound effects – I mean, with 100 sounds to choose from, you have an enormous palette of high quality Korg effects with which to modify your beautifully clean or very distorted Ibanez guitar – and that to me, is a winning combination.

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part two

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

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

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

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

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

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

(eleven years pass)

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

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

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

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

(nineteen years pass)

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

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

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

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

studio diary – 20150115

as always, there is a lot going on here at pureambient, I never quite know where to begin – so I will just start, and see what happens!

Dave Stafford – Concerto No. 4 in F Major for Harpsichord & Strings (approx. 27:30)

first of all, I am very happy indeed to report that the third movement of my fourth concerto is now complete, it required one last harpsichord theme to be reverse engineered as a piano theme with harpsichord support, from its original form of being a harpsichord theme with piano support. once I had transmogrified the section, I inserted it into its appointed spot somewhere near the end of the third movement – and voila, the movement, and therefore, the entire concerto – is done!

I don’t have my notes in front of me, but I can ascertain from looking at the score in Notion, that I began work on the concerto on November 6, 2014, completing it three days ago on January 12, 2015 – so two months and one week, approximately – and that is almost certainly a first – the longest time I’ve spent on any Notion project, the longest time I’ve spent on a single classical composition (not counting the first concerto, but as that was made painstakingly slowly anyway, note by note, using the guitar synth) – in the pre-Notion days – I can’t really count it – that was an absolutely insane process, and I am so glad that I now have Notion which allows me to score, and test my ideas instantly, without the whole “record a bar”, “record another bar”, etc. the very tricky manual playing of each part using all of the different instruments available on the guitar synth.

this long gestation time for the fourth concerto actually doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I was doing something a bit different, up until the fourth, I’d always used a lot of woodwinds and or horns in my classical pieces, and often, classical guitar, too – but this time, I kept both of those out of the score deliberately, and worked with strings, harpsichord and some piano, too – and, with these very different parameters, a very different kind of concerto has emerged, slowly, patiently – all twenty seven and a half minutes of it. I am astonished at how lengthy this piece has grown; it was really, as it always is, down to the creative processes when working on the final movement – somehow, the first two movements are always less fluid, they appear, they are set, that’s the way they are – but the third, the third is the place for soloing, it’s the place for wild new themes and ideas to appear and just as quickly, disappear, it’s the place where a lot of interesting instrumental passages occur, moods are set, and, a bit of a surprise to me: the string section with its mad harpsichord leader, proved to be a powerful musical tool.

I even wrote a section featuring unaccompanied solo harpsichord, something that, in the past, I would never have been so bold as to attempt, it just seemed right, and I felt that the soloist really wanted his moment in the sun, so there it is – almost impossibly quick, but still actually playable (by Johann Sebastian Bach or someone else at his capability level – a REALLY good soloist!!) – this “solo” harpsichord is one of my favourite parts of the piece. (For those of you following along in the score, the harpsichord solo, included in movement one, begins at bar 257).

so if all goes well, I will be able to mix and master the piece soon, although that process could take some time – it’s always very difficult to get your levels correct when you have so many instruments doing so many different things. I hope to have the piece out and published to both the Notion and the Classical eternal albums, hopefully no later than the end of January, if I am fortunate, significantly sooner.

Dave Stafford – sliver – live improv (2:14)

The next Kaoss Guitar video has been prepared and assembled, and was actually uploaded to the pureambientHD channel on YouTube on Tuesday night, January 13th, 2015. This is the third in the current Kaoss Guitar series, entitled ‘sliver‘, this one is all about power chords travelling backwards, with another go at the “slicer” patch, or rather, a variant of “slicer” called ‘mid slicer” I produced this little sliver of music using the “mid slicer” patch, which is a similar sound to the one used on the song ‘slicer‘, which was made with the “slicer” patch – if that makes sense. 🙂

I really am looking forward to both, producing the remaining videos in this series, but even more so, filming some new ones, where I push the boundaries of what can be done with the Kaoss Guitar – in one of my very first test sessions, which was, sadly, neither filmed nor audio recorded, I played some very, very chaotic and “damaged” pieces, where tools such as the decimator and the wonderful “grain shifter” literally destroy the sound of your guitar briefly, then, it comes back, only to be further tormented and tortured in the most wonderful way. 🙂

If you prefer your Dave Stafford music a bit on the quieter side, the first Kaoss Guitar video, ‘shiver‘, is in a much more ambient vein…which proves that Kaoss can be Ambient, too 🙂

Note: I have since begun work on Kaoss Guitar video number four, which is entitled ‘slider’. This should be forthcoming within the next few days, also on the pureambientHD channel. It is a decidedly completely more sonically radical affair, featuring the “grain shifter” patch which absolutely warps and wefts the sound of your guitar…to territories unexplored. I can’t wait for this video to be published, this is bleeding edge guitar sound…courtesy of the amazing Ibanez RGKP6 Kaoss Guitar.

Sonic devastation is more than possible with the Kaoss Guitar, it’s almost unavoidable – which I also hope will be featured in my next studio composition, which I started work on January 10, 2015.

Dave Stafford – Return Of The Native (working title only) (7:36) – Track 01 – of the as-yet-untitled studio rock / prog album – the follow up to 2012’s “gone native”.

Begun on January 10, 2015, I basically sat down and started recording a new studio album for 2015; beginning in the traditional way – with a drum track. I spent the entire day working on this rather tricky drum track, which has a lot of very interesting things going on in it, I wanted something that is quite heavy, I am going to introduce some elements of metal, I think, I’ve used a sort of “nu-metal” drum motif, but with many, many different permutations, to be used to create different sections of the song, for specific solos, one section for a keyboard solo, a few sections for various guitar solos or duets or trios or harmonising guitars, or..,Kaoss Guitars…maybe one section for a reverse guitar section, maybe one section for an ebow solo – a variety of guitar sounds and possibilities.

I always find this process to be very, very abstract – it’s very, very odd, constructing a drum part without any chords, melody, or idea what will go on top of the drum part. I’ve given up trying to imagine, although occasionally, something in the drums will suggest something. In this case, there is a pause, where a single cymbal builds up the beat again, back up to the full rock and roll feel – so in my head, I’ve designed an Allan Holdsworth- style clean-volume-pedal-chords-into-reverb part, like some of the amazing chordal work on Allan’s first solo record, I.O.U. – really atmospheric stuff, beautiful, strange chords floating over a huge reverb – delicately swelling up with a volume pedal, layering over each other – maybe I can do this, maybe not……..

Within this piece, which I arbitrarily gave the working title of “return of the native” to it on the first day, just so it had a name, there are various sections that can be assigned to various instrumental or solo passages. But when I am actually creating the parts, beyond trying to use logical numbers, so, an even number of bars of the same or similar beats, so 8 bars or 16 bars or whatever, but also, with interesting fills to break things up, and, a few specially-designed drum measures of my own, I feel that it’s OK to work with pre-made MIDI grooves, if they are of sufficient quality, but it gives you a much more “human” feel if you put in a few extra, non-groove non-approved bars of music here and there, just to get you to notice, or maybe, so you don’t notice – the drummer is then human, he plays something simple, so as to not make him or her to appear to be a faceless automaton, a machine (which, unfortunately, he or she IS) – anything to break up a drum part that could become too rigid.

I did then begin working on a bass part, I spent a lot of time playing with the almost endless tones available to me via the scarbee Rickenbacker bass instrument, once I found a basic tone that I am reasonably (but not totally) happy with, I did lay down a few unconvincing bass parts early on Monday morning – which came out OK, but not fantastically – it’s a start, and it gives me a launching point for the introduction of melody into the piece. Further work and I am approaching something usable. I will need to work on the tone more, and get some of the notes to sustain better, but it’s coming along OK now…

But before I put any bass down, and before I’d thought of the Allan Holdsworth clean guitar chords idea, or the other ideas for how to use all of the contrasting sections – it’s just odd, because I spent what, six or seven hours creating a seven minute and thirty-six second drum part – and if you sat there, and played that back – it is impossible to imagine what music might go on top of it – literally impossible. Yet – I am sure it will work out fine, because this is exactly the same procedure used by myself for a few of the songs on “gone native”; – and this “blind drum part” followed by “blind bass part” often evolved into some of the best pieces I have ever recorded – the title track of “gone native”, or “wettonizer”, or “sinuous thread” – in those cases, and others, there was this same moment, where I had just a drum track – and absolutely nothing else – and I literally could not imagine what would work “on top” of such a beast (aka “beat”) – especially this drum track, which is quite heavy compared even to “wettonizer” or “sinuous thread” – but, I am hopeful, I am sure it will turn into something good or awesome or unusual, if I just take my time and don’t try to rush any of the parts.

So I have a long, long way to go with this piece, but I have started the ball rolling, at some point, in the next couple of years, I will embark on the fourthteenth or seventeenth and final track of the album, and I will release the album at that point – when I know it is finished. It’s a nice process, a traditional process, that can operate happily at the same time that I am contributing to multiple eternal albums in real time as pieces of music, like the concerto mentioned above, get completed – and personally, I think that’s fantastic, because now (finally) I have the best of both worlds – I can create an album, which is a creative statement of the state of my music as of 2015, in the traditional way, track by track, until I am happy and I release it (on download only, I am afraid – no CD release this time unfortunately) and at the same time, I can continue to expand and build on the eternal albums that I’ve been working on – in two ways – by adding new eternal albums, to support new apps or pc-based music software packages – and, by continuing to produce music created with apps or pc software that already has an existing eternal album.

As of the end of 2014, I had created no less than 16 eternal albums; the first five, in 2013, the latter 11, during 2014 – so I would hope that I can at least, fall somewhere in between that this year, of course, I’d love to do one every month, but that just hasn’t worked out – I will try, but I would be very happy to create, say, nine more this year – 9 more for 2015 ! If I can get that closer to 12 – I will – but I’m happy with nine.

That would put me just past two dozen, although with the number of music apps out there, and the amount of pc music software, I could go a lot farther than 25 – with eternal albums, the sky is the limit. There are already several high quality apps that I’ve owned for several months, that I’ve done good quality recordings with – but these remain unreleased, simply because I’ve not had time to locate and master the tracks nor have I had time to create another eternal album on Bandcamp for that app. I do have this down to a process now, so if I can find myself a window in time, I will do my best to get app or pc app up – number 17 – soon. I look forward to it.

Once I have 30 or 40 eternal albums up there, I can literally sit back and just create – I can take my pick of the best of the best of the apps or pc softwares, I can spent time creating tracks in Diva, or Bazille – and knowing where to put them – up onto the u-he eternal album. A place for everything!

What Eternal Albums Can We Expect In 2015, Then?

MUSIC FOR APPS/COMBOS: THE AUDIOBUS SESSIONS (or similar name)

One of the proposed eternal albums for next year is “music for apps/combos: the audiobus sessions” – this would be for sessions like the ones I did with the ITablaPro app, where I enlisted the use of ITablaPro and then played one or even two different synth apps on top of the tabla beat and tanpura drone; the wonderful NLog Pro being one of those synths – huge fun, but what do you call it? You can’t say it’s “iTablaPro” music, because there is a lot more to it than that.

Three different apps were used – so it has no real name, except a name expressing something about the music – like my “synthraga” series for example – rather than the apps – nothing wrong with that, but, I felt that there will be more and more sessions where I am using audiobus to work with more than one app or effect – so it would make sense to have an eternal album where ANY combination of instruments and effects is allowable, which will be a wildly experimental album, but, it will also contain tracks of captivating beauty – like those beautiful iTablaPro tracks – in fact, those would be the first tracks to probably go up there, followed by a track made with Korg Electribe and another app whose name I can’t currently recall. Ah to be young again, and have a young memory that never, ever fails. What was I talking about? Oh yeah…

MUSIC FOR APPS: SECTOR

Next up, an amazing, amazing app created by one of my very, very favourite developers, the great Jonatan Liljedahl – creator of Audio Share, AUFX: Dub, AUFX: Space and many others – that I have actually done both audio and video recording with, but simply never had time to master any releases or put up the eternal album for it – and that will be “music for apps: sector” – “sector” is very difficult to explain, but when you hear it, you will get it – it’s out of this world.

It’s a beat slicer, it’s great for chopping up loops but that description doesn’t really do it justice, it’s absolutely one of the most amazing looking apps of all time, working with it is almost mesmerising, and it’s very intuitive, you just work the beat using the most unusual tools that are provided, and the results musically, are absolutely out of this world – so SECTOR is absolutely on my “to-do” list for eternal albums – no doubt about it.

MUSIC FOR APPS: SLIVER

Then there is SLIVER – another very interesting, very beautiful app, I’ve done a couple of audio recordings of this one, and I definitely want to create an eternal album for this app. The app store says that “Sliver is a powerful tool for soundscape and sonic texture creation” and I personally, would not disagree with that sentiment. It’s a bit tricky to get used to, but once you get started, you will find yourself getting lost in what this app can do – another definite choice for a high quality 2015 eternal album.

When I look at this list of possible musics, of eternal albums as yet unmade, I just get a bit annoyed – the video backlog ate up so much of my time last year, I could have released at least a few tracks on each of these apps’ albums – if only I’d had the time to create the albums!! Och well, ces’t la vie, etc…time. Time the avenger…

The possibilities…are simply endless.

back to the beginning …again

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish in this new year, 2015, and I think one of the most significant objectives I have in mind, is to create “songs” in the old-fashioned way – using some new-fashioned tools to do so.

My last CD, “gone native”, from 2012, was a very, very enjoyable experience because it took me back to the idea of creating “songs” – I’d been so used to improvising, I’ve been playing largely improvised music since about 1995 when Bindlestiff disbanded amicably – once I became a “solo artist” again – and you really get into that “live” mindset – you have a guitar; a looper, a nice reverb – and your ebow – and you hit record, and you play.

If you are fortunate – music comes out.  Often – it did.  Sometimes, I am not quite sure what it WAS that came out – but, it was something, and, it’s a very, very enjoyable process.

Come 2012, and I challenged myself to make an album that is mostly “rock” oriented (which is about as far away from ambient loop guitar as you can get, really) and I believe that with “gone native”, I really succeeded quite well – the first ten tracks on the album were the core of my “band” or “rock” pieces, and some of them, were quite intense (such as “Wettonizer” which at one point, was as large as a 53-track multitrack master – which was toned down to about 35 tracks for the final mix!) others, such as “This Is A Test” came together very quickly, using existing elements (in that case, a guitar solo – around which I built a backing track by adding drums, bass and guitar synths) – but in every case, they were identifiable as “songs” – because for one thing, they all have rhythm sections – bass and drums – and also, some form of song structure, like repeating choruses or whatever – despite the fact that the album is, as most of my records are, entirely instrumental.

So composing the songs for “gone native” was a great experience, and as another example, the title track “gone native”, was fantastic fun to create, and I got to play a LOT of guitar, with a lot of nice guitar sounds – including once again, that wonderful roland gr-55 guitar synth, which can provide anything from a rainstorm in a teacup to a poly sitar in space – a fabulous instrument for adding colour, and with the track “gone native” I used it for several good effects, including the introductory cello which was just played over the existing intro – wham, there it was – it just happened one day.

I learned a lot during that experience, and, it was probably my last major work involving SONAR 8.5, sure, I’d used it since then for the “scorched by the sun” album for example, and for various improv loops or video music, but eventually, I upgraded to SONAR X3, which is a far better product – and now that I am running X3, I am truly set to record “songs” in multitrack – but with all mod cons – I have at my fingertips Guitar Rig Pro, and now, also, from Waves, I have GTR3 – which I can use instead of or in addition to my hardware effects pedals, I also have the rest of Komplete, which gives me an entire range of orchestral, African or other bizarre sampled and synthesized sounds – just about anything you can imagine, is probably available with Komplete – and of course, my beloved gr-55 is still there for a bit of that wonderful guitar synth colour.

On top of all that, though, I do have other new musical weapons in my arsenal, including the fabulous Kaoss Guitar, the Ibanez RGKP6 – which I absolutely plan to incorporate into my songs, not to mention, my original kaossilator, as well as my new Korg Monotron, a wonderful mini-analog synth – so sound colouration will not be an issue – I can knock out the basics using real guitars – my drums will still be virtual, but will be a vast upgrade from BFD2 (which is what I was using at the time of “gone native”, that and the stock SONAR drum kit) – I have all of the Abbey Road kits in Komplete, as well as Studio Drummer plus a host of electronic percussion available in various packages such as Evolve (by Heaviocity) or Evolve Mutations

So I can have a complex drum track using additional electronic percussion, or even african percussion if I want to break out the West Africa module…then, I can either play my real bass, or, design a Komplete bass part using a Rickenbacker 4003 or a Fender Precision or even a disco funk bass clone sample – just to get those amazing tones, I would happily give up the sheer fun of playing the bass part – or rather, I might play the bass part, and then REPLACE  it with a Rickenbacker or Fender !  That would be fun.

 

Then it comes to guitars – well, I would insist that these be real – but of course, with all the processing at my fingertips, from the remarkable and complex Guitar Rig Pro, to various hardware stomp boxes and other effects processors – and the amount of possibility I have in re-amping and post-processing of guitar signals is now approaching the ridiculous – guitar tone is not an issue any more, I can take even just a clean guitar signal and re-amp it into the most beautiful overdriven Mesa Boogie tone you ever heard, and then run it through the amazing Guitar Rig jet phasers so that I end up sounding like a latter-day Todd from the Nazz, circa 2015, with my distorted, swooshing jet aeroplane guitars…

Of course, I now also have ipad apps aplenty, including one game-changing ipad app for the guitar – the absolutely stunning FLUX:FX from Adrian Belew, mobgen and elephant candy.  I’ve been using FLUX since it finally arrived this past December (2014) and I am in love – it’s a dream to work with, it’s hands-down the best guitar effects processor for ipad, it surpasses by far even my very favourite apps, which would be Bias and AmpKitPlus from Peavey – both great apps, but what Adrian Belew has helped to design in FLUX:FX, just wipes the floor with ALL of the other guitar apps – they will be hard put to catch up with what FLUX is capable of.  It’s built for live performance, and I will absolutely play with it in my own version of a live setting – the live music video – but it will also work admirably as a very quickly configurable guitar effects processor in the studio, but, it has one amazing advantage over most effects boxes – it has the ability to run sequences of effects, so you can run a complex pattern of effects changes, where your guitar sound mutates WILDLY every few seconds – and you just play – and let the sequencer take care of all the wonderful morphing.

It’s fantastic to use, and it sounds so, so good – I love this idea, the idea of applying different effects over time, using a sequencer type arrangement – and it’s so easy to use, for any effect you are using, there is a default set up, so you can literally just hit the “sequencer” on button, and your “static” effect – suddenly becomes a moving target, a living, breathing, ever-changing, morphing kaleidoscope of sound – you have to hear it to believe it.

Belew has always been the king of strange guitar sounds, and FLUX:FX has some of those, too, in fact, there is an entire section of presets devoted to animal sounds – something Adrian Belew knows all about (The Lone Rhino, anyone? – Elephant Talk? – Ballet For A Blue Whale?) – and speaking of presets, never in my life have I ever seen or heard such an amazing collection of truly unique, unusual and eminently USABLE presets on any such device – it’s fantabulous, there are so many, it takes a long, long time to preview them all, but it’s worth it just to hear what is possible – and the answer to that is “just about anything”.   There are THIRTY basic effect algorithms, and you can have five (or is it six – I can’t recall) going at any one time.  And – they are very, very editable – each one has a deep edit screen, where you can edit and save your sounds endlessly – a lot of editing capability.

 

So FLUX:FX gives me an entirely new palette of guitar effects sounds and sequences (what a strange thing to be saying “effects sequences” – that is just weird!) and in combination with Guitar Rig Pro (and/or GTR3 from Waves), and my hardware devices, my guitar tone, in 2015, is going to sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  If I drive that with the Ibanez Kaoss Guitar– well, then, I am throwing synthesized real-time guitar effecting into the mix, so between using the Kaoss pad on the guitar, at the same time, FLUX:FX could be running an exotic effects sequence that I am playing the Kaoss pad “against” – and that could just go into the worlds of sonic wildness such as we’ve never heard before.  Re-processing that whole thing on the fly in Guitar Rig Pro, of course! – Why not?

I have then, a lot of sonic possibilities that I did not have when I made “gone native”, which in fact, I did not have last year – so having all of these new possibilities, means that the kind of songs I create, can be something new as well – sure, they will have a rhythm section – which will be played on drums recorded at Abbey Road, on a beautiful Fender Precision bass or on a nicely distorting Rickenbacker 4003 bass… and guitars – but those instruments will be processed and tweaked like never before.

And then – there is the keyboard section.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, I really wouldn’t.  Within Komplete, I have many, many choices of keyboard – every vintage organ, clavinet, harpsichord, fender Rhodes, grand piano, etc. that you can imagine – and again, on the ipad, I also have an extremely large collection of keyboards, keyboard samples, and so on – so between those two, I have worlds of possibility – and I really want to incorporate more keyboards into my work, yes, I am primarily a guitarist, but I love to play piano, I love to play Hammond organ, I love to play the synthesizer – and God only knows how many of those I have now – between Komplete and the iPad – an incalculable number of synths are available to me in 2015.  I can’t wait – so many amazing sounds, so many vintage and even ancient sounds – which will sound fantastic in new songs.

This will allow me to make some of the most curious juxtapositions of sounds imaginable – say a solo section that rotates between a hurdy-gurdy drone/solo, an electric guitar synth raga/solo, and a distorted, leslie’d Hammond solo – why not?  In my latest classical piece, I am even experimenting with the idea of doing circulations using keyboards, and in that piece, I have a section where an entire section of keyboards is played note by note, first the harpsichord, then the piano, then the celeste, then back to the harpsichord, then piano, then celeste…this circulation goes on for a couple of minutes, and since one of those is in the centre of the mix, and one is full left, and one is full right, you can “hear” the circulation effect thanks to the stereo positioning of those particular instruments…

Since I now know that a keyboard circulation works effectively, I plan to use them in my rock compositions – why not, again, I think it’s a great way to play a melody – sharing it between instruments, and letting perhaps five or six different instruments “play” a melody, each one taking it’s turn, moving across and back and forth across the stereo field as it does so.

There are so many techniques and possibilities available to me, but, I also plan to stand on tradition:  I plan on, in most cases, starting with a drum track.

Then, once I am happy with the drum track, I would turn to the bass guitar – mostly likely using one of the remarkably high quality Scar-bee instruments, or possibly, playing the part on my bass – or maybe, doubling it up so that both are present – real and Komplete – that might be interesting!

Then, once I have bass and drums complete…then I start overdubbing guitars and ebow guitars and guitar synth and Kaoss Guitar.  For days and days.  And with all the sonic possibilities, this should be a hugely fun and exciting process – what sound to use today?  The choice is nearly infinite already, it really is…incredibly huge number of possible sounds given the effects I can bring to bear on a poor, lonely guitar signal 🙂

Then – keyboards, if desired, same thing – too much choice, amazing choice, so as long as I’ve left “space” for it – or for them – I can add in one or more keyboards to this emerging “song”.

 

Finally – does it want percussion?  More synth flourishes?  Special effects courtesy of Komplete or the roland gr-55 guitar synth?  A Korg Monotron solo?  Live percussion?

It’s all possible.  At some point, I will have a song on my hands, and if I spend the time, and tweak the mix until you can hear every instrument well but at the same time, they are nicely blended for smooth, clear listening…then I will know that the first piece of my 2015-initiated album is nearly done, and I can start thinking about the SECOND piece for the album…something totally different, probably.

Why not?  The amount of sonic choice available to us now, as technology finally catches up with music and musicians – it’s simply astounding, and I plan to take full advantage – it’s there, so I will use it, and I hope that my 2015 “songs” come out even better than my 2012 “songs” did – I am absolutely certain that they will.

Update: yesterday, January 10, 2015, I began work on the first song – working title “return of the native” – for the new as-yet-untitled rock album circa 2015 – a seven hour session has resulted in a very interesting 7:36 drum track, which is the start of…something.  we shall see what happens next…

 

To be honest, sometimes, when I am working on improvs, when I am looping, or playing apps in a solo or duet setting, or whatever I am working on – I really, really miss the “song” form – so that’s why I want to make an album of songs, or at least, start making an album of songs, this year.

I started out as a “rock” musician, playing in bands, now, I am my own band, I play all of the instruments, and I can create songs of a complexity and subtlety that I could not have even imagined in the bands I was in when I was 15, 16, 17 years old – it would be beyond our comprehension, back then, the idea that I could “play” an Abbey Road drum kit on the keys of a keyboard, the idea that I can choose between a Fender or a Rickenbacker bass guitar, again, played on the keys of a MIDI keyboard…unthinkable!  Not POSSIBLE!  Insane idea…how could that ever be?  I really wish I could go back, and show 15 year old Clapton- Hendrix- Gibbons- Steely Dan-loving rock guitarist Dave Stafford just what 2015 technology looks like – just to see the look on his face!

So – technology has really, truly changed everything, and the fact that I have both a powerful music computer with one set of amazing music tools, and, a portable, adaptable tablet device with an entirely different but equally wonderful set of amazing music tools – that is just astonishing, and it seems impossible to me even now, even though I know it’s not only possible, but, it’s up and running – and I can access it at any time, night or day.

Fantastic Technology – maybe that’s what I should call the album, if Reeves Gabrels and Bill Nelson can call their album “Fantastic Guitars” then I can call mine “Fantastic Technology” – I suppose.  I think I like their title better to be honest!!  By the way – that is a fantastic album that you really should hear – if you like Reeves Gabrels, if you like Tin Machine (featuring Reeves Gabrels and that other guy, oh – uh, David Bowie), if you like Bill Nelson, if you like The Cure (featuring Reeves Gabrels) – then you WILL like “Fantastic Guitars” – available via Bill Nelson’s web site.

 

Of course, this does not mean that I will stop doing improvised sessions – I absolutely will continue with those.  Some of the sessions pioneered during 2012 – 2014 were truly inspirational to me, such as, playing two instances of the TC-11 touch controlled synthesizer application on two different ipads, doing a “live duet” using two tablet devices – was huge fun, and I hope I can work out many other interesting ipad duets during 2015.

The recent series of “Kaoss Guitar” videos is also very enjoyable, and I want to hook up a looper next time, so I can really layer some awesome kaoss/guitar sounds in a live setting – and then be able to solo on top, too, with those fantastic harmonisers, decimators and other kaotic sonic madness that the Ibanez RGKP6 makes possible – a very interesting instrument, so I hope to work a lot more with the Ibanez during 2015, too.

 

Vintage and even ancient instruments, I’ve become very interested in these, as well as things like “glassworks” which features glass instruments designed by people like Harry Partch and Ben Franklin – fantastic instruments, and also, things like the “EP 73 Deconstructed” which is a 1973 Fender Rhodes Stage piano taken down to it’s component level, with five different basic sounds, key, pluck, mallet, bowed and FX – and this sound, the way this thing sounds, is nothing short of extraordinary, it takes me right back to my pal Ted’s home studio, in the early 70s, and playing his Rhodes and listening to him play it – a great instrument, and now, for the price of software, I have one too!

So I will be working with the Rhodes (which I have actually, a number of different sample sets for) as well as a number of other ancient and vintage instruments, including such rarities as the Ondes, and the Novachord, amazing early keyboards with extraordinary sound palettes (both from the wonderful Soniccouture – makers of the most amazing software instruments in the universe) – some of these early synthesizers were truly out of this world.

From the Conservatoire Collection, another Soniccouture act of genius, I have the beautiful beautiful baroque guitar, the amazing hurdy-gurdy, some lovely Flemish harpsichords, and some truly remarkable baroque timpani – which sound like no timpani I have ever heard – an astonishing sample set there.

Of course, there is always my familiar ambient loop guitar set up, with its counterpart, the “all instruments” set up, which includes a whole bunch of live instruments that I try to use in the loop or the solos over the loop, all in the space of one performance – it’s quite a challenge.  Ambient loop guitar should be better than ever, I have the best looper, the best reverbs possible, and a small but wonderful collection of ebows – and there is nothing quite like the energy bow out there, it’s a one of a kind sound source, and I also look forward to playing some ebow Kaoss Guitar – early tests proved very successful.

 

Right there then, are a series of possible live improvs or duets, using a broad range of current, vintage or ancient sounds – what a range of sounds it is – and I am so fortunate as to be here to bear witness to it all.  What a remarkable product Komplete is, and I really enjoy using it, and hearing the sounds of yesteryear brought to life as if it were yesterday – the Ondes and the Novachord in particular, are both astonishingly beautiful sample sets, and I can’t wait to do more work with both instruments – or maybe, both together, who knows?

 

Beyond all that, I am sure as the year goes on, that I will be able to add new “eternal albums” to the ever growing library of “music for apps” or “music for pcs” or other music data sets, and that I will be able to add more content to the existing albums, too.  Most recently, I’ve been adding several tracks to the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, tracks that I had completed but never had a chance to upload – I’ve been trying to get caught up, and slowly, I am…

Addressing the video backlog – well, during 2014 – I finally had to just give up, in one sense, and I have started publishing videos that were recorded recently, in some cases, very recently, and I have back-burnered the older videos that should have gone up to maintain the chronology.  I decided in the end, that I can easily control chronology by providing you with dated sessions, so that you can view the sessions by date, so as I am able to backfill the older videos, that you can still experience the live videos in chronological order, while at the same time, we can start to feature what is really happening NOW in the studio – rather than videos that were made two years ago!

I want to put up those older videos – in some cases, they contain truly ground-breaking footage, and they do deserve a spot up there, but – time is of the essence.  I’ve also reluctantly undertaken the decision to reduce the number of takes-per-session that get built and uploaded, so, if a session has say, nine good takes, in the past, I would have produced all nine as videos, and uploaded all nine tracks.  Now – instead – I will re-assess the nine tracks, and attempt to pick out the “best four” or “best five” and I will build and upload those, instead of all nine.  Depending on the session, this number (actually uploaded) may vary wildly from 1 or 2 to 9 or 10 (if there are 30 takes, then 10 isn’t very many takes, percentage-wise!!).

I hate to do that, but I truly do not have the hours in the day available to do all nine or all 12 or all 30 tracks – make a master audio mix and then make a video for each track – any more – in fact, because I was being so completest, and so chronological – that’s what got me to where I am – hopelessly behind – so I need to break the cycle, produce recent videos so you can see and hear what we are doing now, in early 2015 – and as time becomes available, I will backfill the missing videos from 2012, 2013 and 2014 until they ARE caught up.

By reducing the “upload-per-session” count to half or less, this will allow me to work through the backlog more quickly, which in turn, will allow me to get “caught up” sooner – which will be good when it eventually happens.  Once I am there – I won’t get out of sync again, I will just keep up!!  I promise!

If I post a truncated session, where I have made videos for just three or four of nine or ten good takes, if there is enough of a public outcry, i.e. “Dave, please let us see the other 7 videos from this session, please please” I will absolutely consider going back and filling in the blanks later.

 

In the meantime, those four or five videos will at least represent the spirit of the day’s or evening’s session, and will give a good idea of what happened during those sessions.  I will absolutely check and ensure that I select the very, very best of the tracks, so that the tracks with the highest quality, the most beautiful, the best improvs, are the ones that get their videos made, while less interesting takes do not have a video produced – that’s about all I can do, really.

All of these changes and adjustments are designed to gradually move the focus of studio events from a backwards-looking backlog view, to a view of current activities with occasional blasts from the past as time permits – hopefully, bringing everything up to date in a more “current” way, while still addressing the backlog as best as I am able given the circumstances.

 

Theoretically, at least, this will also leave me with MORE TIME to work on a number of the newer initiatives I’ve been talking about here, from more Kaoss Guitar work to more ipad duets to more applications videos to more new and unusual forms of ambient and looped, and, ambient looped, guitar and other instruments.  The more time I have for experimenting, for exploring new instruments, for improvising new music for new instruments – the better – I’d always rather be looking forward, then looking backwards – always.

I am definitely looking forward to a 2015 full of music from past, present and future – and hopefully, hit upon some new ideas, musical forms, formats and instrument combinations, that will enhance what we do here and bring some new and innovative joys of music to your ears.

And – also – the follow-up to “gone native” shall be begun in this New Year (note: was begun on January 10, 2015) – I am really looking forward to that, and with all of the new instruments, new technologies, new effects, new processing possibilities – I can extend the “guitar album” into the realms of the “amazing, extended, expanded guitar+++++ album” – 2015 style.

studio diary 20141230 – year’s end – the view to 2015 from here…

as the year end approaches, we are wrapping up a number of small projects, continuing work on others, and preparing for a very, very musical 2015 indeed,  the last few months have seen a lot of change, a lot of good change, and we are now more fully equipped to make music – a lot of music – on the fly, or with meticulous planning and execution, or maybe even, singing Todd Rundgren ballads at the piano, who knows?? – a little bit of everything, no doubt.

 

GLASSWORKS by Soniccouture

 

before we talk more about what is to come, we wanted to catch up with recent musical events, of which there are many.  on the mind at the moment, are the “Glassworks” instruments, there was a session recorded on December 6, 2014, using two different sampled glass instruments, one an emulation of an instrument invented by Harry Partch, the first track using the instrument called “cloud chamber bowls” the second one,  “armonica”, invented by none other than Ben Franklin (yes, the guy on those bills you never see any more) – we managed to upload the first track from the session, which was simply titled “cloud chamber” in honour of the “cloud chamber bowls” Harry Partch-based patch used to create the track – and it was at that point in time that events just caught up with me, and I did not, at that time, complete two other mixes from the session, both of which were made with the “armonica” tool.

 

I’ve now dealt with that issue, I’ve spent this entire morning – December 29th, 2014 – mastering these two remarkable and remarkably delicate recordings, I’ve been working very, very hard to retain the eerie beauty of the “armonica” instrument, it’s a very ghostly, ethereal sound to begin with, sort of like a floating pipe organ from heaven.  words are not really very useful when it comes to trying to describe Harry Partch‘s instruments, really the best way is to hear them – they are utterly unique, and in the case of the glass Partch instrument included in Soniccouture‘s “Glassworks” offering, they are also uncannily beautiful, fragile and other-worldy, ancient and somehow, because they are so ahead of their time, literally, they represent the future, too, Soniccouture have truly surpassed themselves with the “Glassworks” package, and I can easily see myself, and hear these instruments, making their way into future compositions – easily.

 

all three tracks from the December 6th “Glassworks” session are now up and loaded onto the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, the track listing for the three tracks is as follows:

 

21 glassworks – cloud chamber – recorded using the “cloud chamber bowls” instrument  2:07

22 glassworks – quiet grace – recorded using the “armonica” instrument  2:51

23 glassworks – quiet passion– recorded using the “armonica” instrument  3:00

 

these have subsequently been uploaded to the appropriate “eternal album” on bandcamp, which in this case is SSDL1751 “music for pcs: komplete samples”

 

all tracks recorded 20141206 by dave stafford for pureambient records

all rights reserved © & ℗ 2014 / 2015

 

 

 

REV by Output

 

and then there was REV.  I am very, very excited by the sonic possibilities that rev offers, I am still very much a new user, but I have indeed, set aside some time to work with rev, and I was not in any way disappointed.  on December 27, 2014 I sat down and recorded a few pieces using just multiple instances of rev, which is clearly one of the most innovative of all sample based instruments.  I actually agree with their marketing information, which states that this is not the sound of a few guitars going backwards, it has been designed from the ground up to be a playable instrument, with the option in every case, of using the reversed or the forward sample – it is left up to the user.

 

the reversed samples that have been utilised, are simply beautiful to listen to; and I can tell this because if you just sit and “trial” the voices, it sounds utterly amazing, almost like a beautiful song.  so they are right, this thing is way beyond a few reversed samples, it is a unique and beautiful instrument in it’s own right.

 

as with soniccouture’s “glassworks”, I can see myself using the rev library and instruments for many, many years in compositions and in on-the-fly improvs like these tracks.  I set up two instruments, one loop, and one “rise” and at first, I was so blown away by the sounds, I just sat there playing, drifting away on ambient clouds of reverse acoustic and electric guitars.

 

my first test of most new music software or sample instruments is usually ambient in nature, basically, I want to know if this sample set, or this synthesizer, or this generative device, is capable of producing beautiful, calming ambient music ?  happily, in the case of rev, the answer is a resounding “yes” – it did beautifully, and I feel that the two ambient tracks I produced using it were excellent – totally down to the instrument, not the player!!  rev is awesome for ambient music, but I can also already tell, it will rock in active music, too – it’s just a brilliant sounding instrument, and I cannot recommend it highly enough – it’s a fantastic and very musical instrument!!

 

on the day, I actually recorded at least three tracks, two ambient, and one active, which I have just now mixed and am in the process of uploading – it’s called “perpetual grunge” and it could not be more different to tracks 24 and 25 – hold onto your hats…

 

 

24 rev – time waits for no woman – recorded using the rev “instrument”, category: complex pad, patch: “beautiful”  2:50

 

25 rev – timeless – recorded using the rev “instrument” including  cctwo patches: both category: simple pads, first patch “electric guitar harmonics” and second patch: “acoustic guitar harmonics”  2:40

 

26 rev – perpetual grunge – recorded using two patches: first, a loop from the factory category called “pulses mid” run through effect “filter gate 1”; second, a rise from the factory category called “4 Bars + Tail” run through effect “rewind”  1:50

 

these have subsequently been uploaded to the appropriate “eternal album” on bandcamp, which in this case is SSDL1751 “music for pcs: komplete samples”

 

all tracks recorded 20141227 by dave stafford for pureambient records
all rights reserved © & ℗ 2014 / 2015

 

 

 THE IBANEZ RGKP6 KAOSSILATOR GUITAR

 

our other new star is this remarkable new instrument, that combines a normal electric guitar with the synth / effects processing power of a korg mini-kaoss pad, the mini-kaoss 2s – which, when used on the guitar, gives guitarists (in this case, me!) unparalleled ability to manipulate the sound of their guitar in realtime and in near-realtime, meaning, as you play, or, directly after you play when effecting notes or chords that are still “ringing”.

 

Either way, it’s an absolute joy, pure dead good fun to play, as I hope the videos demonstrate.  While I initially put it to the test with a fairly ambient guitar improv, as soon as I switched on the built-in distortion circuit…that’s when the real fun begins.  With a more sustained signal, the mini-kaoss 2s really comes into it’s own…it does WILD things to your guitar sound.

 

With 100 basic patches available, the pad allows you to slice and dice and squash and decimate and rip apart your normal guitar sound in more than 100 ways. Each patch can be tweaked by the user, and of course your technique also has a huge effect on “what come out”.  It’s such a simple but genius arrangement, only really made possible by the fact that korg decided to create “Effects” style kaossilators like the mini-kaoss 2s to complement their existing range of “synthesizer” kaoss pads…so the original idea was, you buy a normal kaoss pad, which is a mini-synthesizer with an xy input pad (instead of keys or strings) and then, you buy an “effects” kaoss pad and you plug the two together, running the synth thru the effects, to get the best of both worlds……

 

Ibanez simply replaced the mini synth in the above set up, with an electric guitar!! So instead of a synth, you get the guitar, which is your input / sound source, and it runs thru the “effects” kaoss pad which is of course, embedded physically on the guitars where your pick guard would normally be 🙂

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

 

not forgetting the enormous amount of work done over in the arena of APPLICATIONS, we’ve worked on a huge range of projects from sample based PC apps like Komplete ultimate, to performing live duets using two instances of tc-11, a touch controlled app for the ipad.

 

THE FUTURE AND BEYOND…

 

So – what is to come in 2015?

 

refining and improving what i’ve learned in 2014 (and, a few of the years just before 2014!!) so I will be working in all of the arenas we’ve been looking at the recent history of:

 

1) More Kaoss Guitar videos, plus, the use of Kaoss Guitar in other compositions providing unusual textural guitar for solos or backings…long live the Kaoss Guitar !!

 

2) More work, both solo and combining sampled instruments, basically, diving deep behind the covers of komplete 9, native instruments effects, native instruments sample instruments, soniccouture instruments, waves audio effects, scar-bee sample instruments and anything we can get our happy sampling hands on, basically – a massive world of very, very real sounds – because – they ARE real – they are samples!

 

3) Much more visibility for the native instruments synthesizers, of which I have done so little with – there is a huge, beautiful, terrifying sound world there – that I plan on visiting soon…

 

4) Much more use of Guitar Rig 5, one of or possibly the best of the software guitar system emulators, I used Guitar Rig on the sessions for the Ibanez RGKP6 Kaoss Guitar; and it sounded great – more work with that, for sure.

 

5) Working with applications – a whole phalanx of them, existing, new and future – if it makes sound, I want to hear it, if it sounds good, I want to record it.  At the moment, I have planned a few sessions involving newer apps, probably starting with the mysterious and ambient “VOSIS” application, which I very much want to do more tracks with.  Also, I want to explore the relatively new world of the Korg Module iPad application, and how it is realised through their existing iPad music app “Gadget”Korg Module features world class samples, available through Module or in limited form, thru “Gadget” – so I have sessions planned for Module and “Gadget”, too.

 

6) Nearest and perhaps dearest to my heart – with all of the exciting new technologies I’ve been trying to absorb (with “trying” being the very most appropriate verb in this case) I feel that 2015 is the year to take all of those technologies, and use them to build an old-style, non-eternal dave stafford guitar album made mostly with real guitars, real basses, real keyboards, real kaoss pads, and so on…a normal album, in the style of “gone native” perhaps, or maybe one active album and one ambient album – I am not quite sure yet, and, it would be a case of starting such a venture 2015, but it might not be completed for quite a while…well, we shall see.  But – definitely – guitar based songs, and ambient dreaming music – will be here beginning in 2015.

 

7) Finally…both Bryan Helm and myself have made the commitment in time to begin work on the second “scorched by the sun” album – in our discussion so far, we are thinking we might do a “loud” or active album, instead of ambient, or maybe, as we sometimes used to do, one that starts out loud, and then gets gradually more ambient, with the final track being full on ambient.  The content is up in the air, and again, it will just be a beginning in 2015, it might take time to complete, but – we really want to work together more, we really enjoyed the process of making the first album, “dreamtime” – so it follows that it’s time for “scorched by the sun” to make their second record!  It is time.

 

 

 

 

So the new year looks to be our most active and intense to date, but we are gonna give it our best shot.  Meanwhile…have a safe and prosperous and happy, happy New Year – see you on the other side…

 

 

Peace And Love To All

 

D. 🙂

 

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… 🙂

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.

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.

the return of progressive rock…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

if you know what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂