The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

splitenz

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

 

marillion

 

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

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

enobrian70s

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

 

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

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

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

thompsonrichard

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

 

 

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

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

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

jethrotull

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

Type Uno

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

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

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

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

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

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

A First Time For Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gabrielpeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What a way to START a concert!

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

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

nelsonbill74

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Type Dos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

pretenders

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

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

 

 

Forward…into the future!

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

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

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

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

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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It was 45 years ago today…

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

EPISODE 1:  The 1970s

 

It actually was – 45 years ago TODAY, literally – today – May 28, 2018 – or for me. in this first of a number of upcoming concert reminiscences – it was actually, May 28, 1973 – and as my first blog of 2018 (finally!) and the first in a series of blogs about live music, concerts, tickets stubs, setlist.fm, and associated items – this one kicks off with a doozy:

The mighty Led Zeppelin – performing live at the San Diego Sports Arena !

Sports Arena

San Diego Sports Arena

The first real ROCK CONCERT I ever went to – I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Grossmont High School, in La Mesa, California – an incredibly gawky, awkward teenage boy with long, straight hair half-way down my back, six foot six of far-too-skinny raging metabolism…and there I was.  Standing up there in the CRUSH at the foot of the stage of the San Diego Sports Arena, waiting for Led Zeppelin, my favourite band – to walk onto the stage.

It was all new to me.  I’d never been in a crowd that large before – never.  I’d never smelled that much…herbal scented smoke before.  I’d never seen the sight that became commonplace for me over the next several years – at the Sports Arena in particular – the sight of dozens of Frisbees flying back and forth, criss-crossing across the length and breadth of the place – and the wonderful haze created by that same scented smoke that cast a mysterious fog over the entire proceedings.   And quite possibly, over my state of mind.

Sports Arena - Seating Chart

San Diego Sports Arena – Seating Chart

People playing, talking excitedly, yelling – cheering – bouncing giant beach balls back and forth, mixed in with the endless frisbees…and all the other fun stuff that people do to pass the time while they wait for their favourite band to come on.  This is one of those experiences that you look back on, and you can quite clearly recall the real sense of excitement that was in that place on that day – this wasn’t just any concert – it was Led Zeppelin – all the way from Britain – to play for San Diego!

 

During the show, I saw a few MORE things I had never seen before – like an attractive girl sat on her boyfriend’s shoulders, proudly displaying both of her bare breasts so that Led Zeppelin, presumably, could have a look at them – along with the other 35,000 people in the audience, of course.  This was a girl – who was NOT shy.  Another first for me.

 

For a 15 year old boy, a boy who was already a guitarist, already trying to be the “NEXT Jimmy Page“, already learning Zeppelin songs and riffs – many of which, I still play to this date – 45 years later – I kept trying to “be” Jimmy Page for a number of years, when I finally decided it might be better to try to be myself on the guitar rather than copy someone else – even someone as talented as Jimmy Page.

 

But as a formative influence – along with Eric Clapton, Robert Fripp, and others – you can’t beat a bit of Mr. Page – a very interesting and very capable guitarist, musician and writer.  If you think too, about the development of Led Zeppelin, just as one example, from the relatively simple chord patterns of  the songs from Led Zeppelin I, say, something like “Communication Breakdown” to the incredibly complex guitar parts that make up the opening track on the band’s fifth album “Houses of the Holy” – the truly remarkable “The Song Remains The Same” – still a personal favourite of mine even after all of those years.

Meanwhile…back in 1973 – there was the long build-up to the show, the endless waiting outside which, eventually and suddenly, became a mad sprint to try to get as close to the stage as possible before everyone else did – once let into the Arena (reserved seating at rock concerts being more a thing of the future, back in 1973) – and then, finally settled in your “spot” inside, the noise and the tension, the sound of the crowd mounting with each passing moment…

 

HousesOfTheHoly-AlbumCoverIt was all incredibly exciting…and finally, when the band did hit the stage – it was another first for me – the first time I had ever heard a real rock band, a PROPER rock band, mind you – the mighty Led Zeppelin no less, in their prime, in the year 1973, touring behind their just-in-the-shops fifth album “Houses Of The Holy” – I’d never heard a proper rock band play rock music AT VOLUME.  And it was…LOUD.  To this day, 45 years later exactly…I am not sure I’ve heard a louder band.

 

Except perhaps – for Led Zeppelin themselves when I saw them again – twice – in 1975!!

Each year, the PA stacks at the Sports Arena seemed to grow ever larger. the number of and the size and power of the speakers increasing each time, the power behind the systems getting to be more and more each year – so it seemed to me, that if anything, that bands got LOUDER as the 70s went on – until the PA systems sort of began to plateau as Super Huge Size – where they all pretty much sound the same – from a distance, anyway.

 

Led Zeppelin IV-Album Cover

But – intense volume aside – I was hooked.  Seeing this show – set me up for a lifetime of concert going – and what a way to start!  Seeing my favourite band, playing amazing live versions of the songs that I loved – was such a positive experience for me – and after seeing Zep, I embarked on a journey that now, when I look back on it over the long, long span of time – 45 years ago today – when it all began – I just feel so, so thankful, fortunate – even lucky – to have had those concert experiences.

 

 

This series of blogs then, of which this is the first – will attempt to document my concert-going experiences decade by decade, until such time as I reach the present day.  Having the analytical and basic set list / concert listing tools available via setlist.fm has been so incredibly useful when it comes to bringing these memories alive, I would encourage you to go and have a look at the list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm to see the full list of concerts attended not only in the 1970s, but from 1973 to the present day – an invaluable resource to me throughout the process of preparing and formulating this series of music blogs.

Earlier this year, I had my 60th birthday, and for some unknown reason, during that week, I started looking into just what concerts I HAD been to, and what they were, when they were and where they were.  I had no idea that this vague thought I had had – “I wonder how many concerts I’ve actually been to over the years…” would lead to the experience that it has – which has been extremely eye-opening for me in so many ways.  This “thought” eventually culminated in the completion of my list of my attended concerts at setlist.fm as well as the completion of cataloguing and photographing my quite substantial collection of concert ticket stubs, which will be presented photographically along with these live concert experience blogs.

So while it started in 1973 – it still hasn’t ended, and later this year (2018), it will be more shows from the incredibly powerful King Crimson live, one of the most remarkable progressive rock groups spawned originally during the 1960s – when Led Zeppelin was also born (1968 was a good year to start a band).   I am very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Crimson again – each year, they come up with more and more “unlikely early repertoire”,  not to mention some pretty credible new repertoire – to absolutely amaze and delight me and the other long time fans of the band.

So – the act of listening has moved forward through time with me, I continue to engage with artists old and new whose music I respect or revere even, and I am all the richer for it – there is nothing on earth, for me, as exhilarating as a quality live performance by musicians who are committed fully to their craft.

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

This includes bands or artists such as:

…and the like – all bands or artists that I never did see when I lived in the United States – and I spent the majority of my adult live, utterly convinced that I would never, ever get the chance to see some of these remarkable musicians and performers – and yet, somehow – it has happened!  Much to my ever-lasting astonishment and delight.  So I’ve managed to make up for a lot of gaps in my musical education just by merit of living in Central Scotland!

Building Up The List Of Concerts Attended

Thanks to some modern / technological innovations, even the act of “figuring out” what shows I have attended over the years, is supported and made possible – in the main instance, I began, that same week of my 60th birthday, to use a tool with which many of you may be familiar – the website known as “setlist.fm”.

setlist.fm is, simply put, a remarkable web site dedicated to preserving the memory of musical performances, but doing so in such a way that each user – that’s you and me – anyone – everyone – can easily find the concerts they attended, and “add them” to the list of shows that they have personally attended.  It also allows for setlists to be built, too, so that the songs that were played at each gig, if they are known – can be input, stored, and then viewed by subsequent users.

It also gives us the opportunity to rectify errors that have been made historically, or clarify points about a performance or performances or artists or any number of details about an event.  So with this kind of capability, I find that setlist.fm is really the ideal tool for building up your own personal history of concert-going, which is also then of course. possible to share with others, too – since each profile is public.

It also gives you a lot of insight into your own experiences of concert-going, that you would not have been aware of.  For example – this blog, is focusing on the 1970s – when I first began attending live concerts – and in the seven years of the 1970s that I was actively going to concerts (1973 – 1979), I am able to determine from setlist.fm that I attended at least 55 concerts in that first seven year period (I only began going to live concerts in 1973, so of course I have zero concerts for the years 1970, 71, and 72).  You can also view programmed statistics that can tell you a lot about your own experiences – and, the experiences of others, too.

The featured image (see below) for this blog is a photograph of the surviving concert ticket stubs – my own personal collection – of at least some of the ticket stubs that I managed to save out of the approximately 55 shows I attended during the 1970s.   I wish now that I had kept all 55, but if you think about it – it’s a small miracle that even the handful of survivors DID make it across 45 years, a continent, and an ocean – to be then collected and photographed as part of the preparation of this series of blogs.  Each decade brings a different set of bands, and a different set of ticket stubs from my own personal collection to accompany the blog for each specific decade.

As one example of how that can turn out to be interesting – when I was busy working on my own list of attended concerts at setlist.fm I began to notice something – that a certain other user, with an initially unfamiliar username – seemed to always be shown as someone who had attended many, many – an unnaturally large number of – the exact same San Diego and surrounding area concerts that I had attended.  I mean – this person was ALWAYS in the list.

I began to wonder if this was someone I knew, perhaps someone who I had gone to school with or even had been in a band with, perhaps – or any number of possibilities. After about a week or so of continually seeing this person’s username, every single time I entered another concert I had attended in or near San Diego, California – that I sent them a message, explaining who I was and asking them whether I knew them, since they had so obviously been at so very many of the same live shows that I had been to.  Curiously, a day or so after I wrote to them, I found that they had actually written to me a day or two before I contacted them – but I had not noticed the email for some unknown reason.

UK-TrioAs it turned out, I didn’t previously know this person, but as we corresponded, and started talking about some of our shared concert experiences via email – including some truly and memorable events, such as the day we were both at Licorice Pizza records in San Diego, where we met the band U.K. – on one of those “in-store” appearances, on the day of their concert that night – where they were actually opening for the mighty Jethro Tull.

 

For people like my new friend (who still lives in the San Diego area to this day) and myself – it was a rare chance to meet and interact with some of the musicians who we admired.  And it did seem strange to me, to have shared so many extraordinary experiences with someone that I have never “met” – but in fact, I pretty much feel like we’ve been friends for years – possibly because of those vintage, shared memories – who can say?

JohnWetton

For me personally, getting the chance to meet a former member of King Crimson, the late John Wetton – certainly one of the most innovative and remarkable musicians of our time,  an amazing bass player with a unique and very beautiful voice – speaking with John Wetton was a very interesting and enlightening experience for a young, hopeful musician such as myself.

 

 

So one of the stranger “side-effects” of the setlist.fm experience, in my case was the strange but rather interesting fact that I had spent time with my new pal, in the same room, talking to the same people – even, in the same conversations – and yet, we did not know each other!  And to meet someone now, anyone, who attended some of these same unique gigs that I had been to, after a forty-five year period where there was no such person with whom I shared these experiences to speak to about them – it’s truly remarkable.

 

Unique Musical Events In The 1970s – and at no other time

We have gone on to discuss the long-forgotten details of events such as Robert Fripp‘s amazing appearance at a small Tower Records store (on El Cajon Blvd – now long gone – but – another strange memory – it was right next to the North Star Motel – which is not in itself remarkable, but, “North Star” is one of the standout songs from Fripp’s album of that time, “Exposure” – and that amazing live introduction to Frippertronics, is what set me on a long journey to become a looper, and later, a looping ambient guitarist – I fell in love with the process of looping electric guitar that day – a truly memorable event – and now, I have a new friend with whom I can share the detailed memories of these very special events.

So from a list of concerts on a special web page – you can learn and experience a lot more than what you would think a list of concerts might do.  It was an immensely satisfying task, and I probably did the bulk of the list over a three to four week period, after that, I continued to add just the odd show here or there – ones newly remembered, or ones where I had been missing details – until I finally reached my current total – and it has stayed somewhere around that total (currently as of May 28, 2018 – 209 concerts by 129 different artists!).  That in itself was a surprisingly large number – I had really not expected it to be that large.

 

TheBeatlesIn this blog, I want to touch briefly then, on some of the highlights of the 54 or 55 shows that I attended during the 1970s, which were mostly a mix of rock and progressive rock – I was heavily into and heavily influenced by prog, as it is known, and I was so, so fortunate to live in the times that I have lived – I was born at the end of the 50s, and grew up in the 1960s with the music of the Beatles as the soundtrack to both my childhood and my adolescence.  As the 1970s approached, I broadened my previously-held view that the Beatles were the only band worth listening to, and I began to hear other kinds of music being made, by a whole new kind of musicians – many of whom, were extremely was too young to go and see the Beatles live,influenced by the Beatles themselves !!!

 

 

 

HendrixI was too young to go and see the Beatles live,and just a bit too young to go and see Jimi Hendrix, both of whom played San Diego back in the day, those two bands being my very favourite two bands of the 1960s/70s – a real shame, but – I could NOT have been more perfectly placed on the timeline of my life, to experience fully and enjoy thoroughly, the music of the next generation of rock – the Led Zeppelins, the earliest and best of the proggers, Yes and Genesis, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant and the like.

 

 

That unique gathering of incredibly diverse and powerful progressive rock titans, was a once in a century event, and I was the perfect age (15) to begin enjoying these amazing rock and progressive rock as they made their way around the world, stopping at San Diego often, and therefore entertaining me with often, repeat performances year after year.  Starting out with Yes, then moving rapidly upwards and onwards through Genesis (with and later, without Peter Gabriel), Peter Gabriel, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, Strawbs, Roxy Music, E.L.P., U.K. , and Utopia.

What an incredible time to be young and to be able to go and see these amazing progressive rock acts performing – all in the same seven year period – and then, also, onwards through time in the 80s and 90s, too – adding King Crimson to the mix in 1981 – 1984, and again, in the 1990s; and then finally, fast forward to the present day where I was able to see Van Der Graaf Generator multiple times (in both quartet, and in trio format) as well as the absolutely astonishing Thijs Van Leer performing with his band Focus – a band I loved dearly in the 1970s, but did not get to see until much, much later.

I did in fact, manage to almost make up for not seeing the Beatles, by embarking on a side plan of trying to see all four Beatles playing solo concerts – so at least I could hear my biggest musical heroes of all time, singing and playing their instruments live.  I was not disappointed, starting out with my first ever trip to Los Angeles (first time I drove to LA myself) to see the great George Harrison, who put on an absolutely amazing show, that began with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra (my introduction to live Indian music – another great love of mine that I have continued to pursue whenever it was possible) and continued with getting to see and hear George playing a fantastic selection of both his own solo records and songs previously played by the Beatles.

Then, next up, in 1976, I was able to catch Mr. McCartney, on the famed “Wings Over America” tour – which was another totally memorable experience, and the selection of solo numbers and Beatles songs that Paul chose to play, were unique; quite different to George’s choices, and wonderful to experience.

Then followed a long, long gap until I did eventually manage to see my third and final Beatle – the remarkable Ringo Starr.  Again – a performance of solo songs and selected Beatles songs – but truly enjoyable, and the concept of the “All-Starr Band” worked brilliantly – Zak Starkey was the main drummer, with Ringo sometimes joining him on double-drums when the singing duties allowed him to – and with a guitarist of the calibre of Todd Rundgren on hand, no less – well, it was a great night of fun, exciting Ringo and Beatle music.  I will cover these events more specifically when I reach their performing decades (which turns out to be from 1989 thru 2018 – as the “All Starr band”) – but with the sad, sad exception of John Lennon – when in 1980, events took away everyone’s chance of seeing John play live – forever – I did, in time, get to experience first hand, the music of three fourths of the greatest rock band of all time – the boys from Liverpool – the amazing Beatles!

 

The Journey Continues…

However – returning to my journey through the featured decade of the 1970s – I truly feel now that I was indeed, very, very fortunate, the whole decade was so perfectly timed for me – in hindsight, I would not change a thing about it – and although I have always regretted not seeing the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix on the live stage – in another sense, I don’t regret it – because by being too young to go and see those bands – that made me land at the perfect age for that absolutely unique and wonderful decade of true Progressive Rock – from 1967 to 1976.  That was the golden era, the sweet spot, where the impossible-to-exist thing that Prog was, existed in spite of that truth – and I landed nicely near the tail end of that era – beginning my own “concert journey” in May 1973 – exactly 45 years ago today.

Now – at the beginning of this episode, I spoke a bit about my experience at my very first concert, the Led Zeppelin show at the San Diego Sports Arena held on May 28, 1973.  That was however, only the first in a long, long string of shows that I went to – all of them in San Diego I think with one exception which was the George Harrison concert I mentioned earlier – held at the Forum in Los Angeles.

But it was not just limited to Rock bands like Led Zeppelin or Prog bands like Yes and Genesis – there were other experiences, and right off the mark, I went to see one of the finest “southern rock” bands that ever existed – the absolutely brilliant “Allman Brothers“.  Little did I realise, that just a few years later, I would be performing one of their best songs, the lovely “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” with my own band, Slipstream – and that was one of the songs that the Allmans played that night at the Sports Arena.

 

Diversity In 70s Rock:

Actually, when I look at the full list of concerts attended, I actually started out with an incredibly diverse set of bands – they were NOT all of the same genre at all – and I think that is a contributing factor to me liking so many different kinds of music over time.  Those first few shows looked like this:

May 73 – Led Zeppelin (what can I say – it ROCKED!)

September 73 – Boz Scaggs / The Allman Brothers (white soul followed by the precision jamming of the remarkable Allmans – sadly, sans Duane – but they were still incredibly powerful live at this point in time)

March 74 – Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans tour – quadraphonic sound – classic line up Rick Wakeman still in the band)

June 74 – Steely Dan (with, weirdly, Kiki Dee opening – what a strange combination) – this remains, to date, one of the most astonishing musical performances I have ever seen or am ever likely to see – the sheer musicality of this gig was absolutely mind boggling – including two amazing guitarists in Denny Dias and Jeff Skunk Baxter – not to mention the insanely talented Donald Fagen on grand piano and – gasp – a synthesizer!

November 74 – Ravi Shankar / George Harrison – please see my comments above.  A mind blowing introduction to live Indian music, followed by my favourite Beatle on lead guitar, slide guitar, and beautifully hoarse vocals – which did not bother me a bit – because I was hearing my favourite Beatle playing slide guitar – and I feel that in some ways – George was the master of the slide – in his own style and in his own way – not in the “Duane Allman” super technical slide playing way – but in a beautiful, careful, lovely way that set George apart from all other slide players.  I loved seeing George and I loved seeing Ravi – a brilliant day!)

January 75 – Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway Tour with Peter Gabriel) – Part of me still can hardly believe that I got to witness this unique musical event – a full four album sides performed without a break – and this then-brand new work was stunning both musically and visually – I had thought that Yes were amazing live, but Genesis were very diverse in their approach to songwriting and quite different – Yes does not have any tunes quite like “Broadway Melody of 1974” or “The Waiting Room” or “Anyway” or “The Light Dies Down On Broadway” – and it was an eye-opening experience for me – realising that there was more to Prog than just the music of the mighty Yes – much, much more, I found out later on…

So from this half-dozen standout shows that I saw in the first couple years of concert going, when I was 15, 16, maybe 17 years old – absorbing musical ideas like a giant sponge – I learned an awful lot from watching rock and prog guitarists play – and solo extensively sometimes – and it was the best possible “music school” I could have gone to – of these half dozen first shows, the diversity of type of music is nothing short of remarkable:

Heavy Rock (Zeppelin)

White Soul (Scaggs) / Southern Rock (Allmans)

Progressive Rock (Yes)

Intelligent Pop (Steely Dan)

Classic Rock (George Harrison)

Progressive Rock / Unusual (Genesis with Peter Gabriel)

Then, if you continue on looking at how my 1970s concert experiences progressed, the musical diversity just goes off scale – taking in many different and unique artists; witnessing live concerts by the amazing Frank Zappa (with Captain Beefheart opening)  or the amazing German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk (with British folk-rock legends Strawbs opening – and that was actually, who I was there to see!) or progressive rock giant Todd Rundgren‘s Utopia (the RA tour) or from Britain, Be-Bop Deluxe (featuring guitarist Bill Nelson) or 10cc (featuring guitarist Eric Stewart) or Peter Gabriel (formerly of Genesis) or 60s classic rock greats The Kinks or new wave artists Blondie or the art-rock genius of Roxy Music (featuring guitarist Phil Manzanera) and onto the truly unique musical events such as the aforementioned Robert Fripp at Tower Records “Frippertronics” demonstration – Robert Fripp of King Crimson, playing his guitar through a pedalboard, into two Revox reel-to-reel tape decks, and demonstrating the tape-loop technique introduced to him by Brian Eno back in the UK.

You want diversity – musical diversity – genre diversity – then the experience of those seven years, from 1973 through 1979 – included enough eye-opening musical, technical and performance diversity that for me, well, I do not believe that I could have HAD a better musical education, and as you may notice, the single recurring theme in the artists mentioned in this blog, in particular, in the set of bullet points just above, and in the previous paragraph – and that is – bands with amazing, technically and musically proficient guitarists.

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

I was a guitarist then, and I am still a guitarist now;  so it’s only natural that I would follow and enjoy music by the world’s most talented and capable guitarists – and the list of guitarists, contained just in the bullets above and that paragraph of diverse artists – is staggering in itself:

It’s interesting to consider what an effect seeing that many astonishingly talented and brilliant musicians, witnessing the different musical approaches and technical prowess of these amazing players – had on me, as a guitarist – I think that I absorbed a lot, and it was only years later that the eventual effect of this was felt – I became an amalgam of my own influences, when I listen to myself play guitar now, I can hear the influence of many of the guitarists in the list above – and those influences will stay with me forever, because I absorbed them, mostly, during my teenage years (I turned 20 in 1978 – near the end of my 7-year 1970s concert experiences) when my brain was still pliable enough to do so.

But even years later, I will recall things that I witnessed certain guitarists doing back in the 70s or really, at any time I’ve seen a great guitarist – and I will bring back whatever I can from that memory, into my current performance.  It’s extremely beneficial to have these particular experiences – because seeing these guitarists, in these intensely creative bands – has had a profound effect on both me personally (in terms of the awe and respect in which I hold many of these artists) as well as on my guitar playing – I aspired for many years, to learn and adapt and modify these incredibly diverse guitar influences, into my own playing – and eventually – my own style began to emerge – but, it’s still based on those early experiences.

If I had not spent many, many hours wearing out the vinyl of my copy of Led Zeppelin III, or any other classic 70s album that I loved, studied and tried to learn to play – including songs from “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” by King Crimson – and over on the piano, too, I was learning and absorbing music by Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill, Todd Rundgren, Peter Gabriel – so there was an entire second side of influence, through piano-based songs – I even learned Tony Banks songs (such as “Anyway” for example) – with the help of my best friend Ted Holding, may he rest in peace – songs and bits of Keith Emerson and so on – anything to enrich the pool of musical ideas that I could then draw from for the rest of my life.  Mostly on the guitar, but – a significant amount of time was invested in learning piano and keyboard based songs – which I think helps to round me out as a musician – I am not “just” a guitarist (thankfully!!).

I had an absolute blast in the 70s, and if there is anything to regret, it would simply be that I did not go to MORE concerts during the 70s (and 80s and 90s for that matter) – my experiences would then just be all the richer for it.   I am not complaining by any means – I could not ask for a richer experience than this one – I am just greedy, I loved seeing these bands and artists playing their music, and I simply want more – there can never be enough good music in one’s life.  Never!

 

Forward…into the future!

So in conclusion – for me, the 70s were an absolutely unique and utterly amazing time, when I got to see some of my very, very favourite players and bands – from the mighty Led Zeppelin to the amazing Steve Howe of Yes (the man who could jump from guitar-to-guitar-to-pedal-steel-guitar-and-back-to-guitar-again mid-song, mind you – mid-song!) to having my mind permanently opened by the power and mystery of Steve Hackett‘s amazing guitar parts for Genesis“The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” to seeing Frank Zappa play in his unique, groundbreaking guitar style – there is nothing on earth like Frank Zappa, there was only one, they absolutely broke the mould that time.

Moving from the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, on up eventually, to the end of the 70s with Blondie and the emergence of New Wave, it was an amazing musical journey – I learned a lot, but I also had an enormous amount of fun – and I realise now that for me, that my idea of “fun” is quite different from that of most people – I have a lot more fun when I am watching and listening to an incredibly talented lead guitarist, playing as part of an incredibly talented band that has worked out an amazing repertoire of impossibly beautiful, and possibly technically demanding songs – now – that’s MY idea of fun!

Until next time then –

 

 

Dave Stafford

May 28, 2018 – 45 years to the day from the day of my very first concert experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live at the San Diego Sports Arena – it now seems, that in some ways, that it all just happened yesterday…

 

 

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

The Dreaded 80s – Not as bad as we remember

 

1970s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)
Dave Stafford - Concert Ticket Stubs - 1970s

Concert Ticket Stubs – 1970s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 !!!

more app magic… and there’s a last time for everything

well, I am here again to talk about ios applications, which have become such a part of my life, that I can hardly recall the fact that four years ago, I knew absolutely nothing of them.

 

one of the first and most lasting of ios applications, has been the subject of a quiet revival over the past few months for me, and that would be, the remarkable scape, by brian eno and peter chilvers.

scape was one of the first applications of any kind that I downloaded (at some point in late November 2012!!), and I proceeded to work with it, following it’s “hints”, watching my tools and palettes grow organically, and recording scape after scape after scape after scape.  every time a new tool arrived – I would record new scapes.  a new “background” arrives – and I must records scapes, including, a scape with just that background, nothing else, in it.  and – some of the most incredibly minimal and amazing scapes were created that way.

in fact, I was so incredibly excited about the app, that back in the day,  the I authored no less than three blogs in a row that were mostly about…scape; scape week one, scape week two and scape week three…followed by a fast forward to week five of scape!  during scape week two, I noted that in the short time of just two weeks, that I had created something like 146 scapes.  most of which did not see the light of day until very recently, in early to mid 2015.

in 2012, and during early 2013, though, still feeling my way through the scape processes; I would take a new tool, and mix it up with the familiar, to see what kinds of crazy combinations of instrumentation I could come up with, mixing bells with synths with basses with just plain strange sounding samples.  some times, I would work in a very, very minimal space, one or two objects, very quiet, super ambient – on other days, I would load the scapes to capacity, hmmm, let’s see, what happens if I insert 20 or 30 bass guitars into one scape?  interesting!

so this went on, for a number of months, perhaps, six months – until, one day, abruptly, I stopped.  I had made around 1100 scapes by then, and at the time, I did take the time to record the first 30 or so, so that the world could hear how beautiful this app truly is.  I published those 30, I think I added a few more later on, and there they sat – until 2015.  for some unknown reason, I got the idea into my head, sometime near the beginning of this year, that I should capture ALL 1100 scapes, record every single one of them, capture each and every scape image (and, of course, it’s that “image” that “is” the music – the shapes, generate the music)…I would record them all.

this became then, the great project in the background.  I would work on my progressive rock song – still unfinished – and then, record a few dozen more scapes.   I would spend a Saturday working on my data, or cleaning up my music data – and, the whole time, I would be capturing dozens more scapes.  I developed tools, in SONAR, a special scape “template”, or actually, two of them – one that covered the first 50 numbers of a hundred, and the second, which covered the second 50 numbers in a hundred – which then meant, you only had to choose the appropriate template, and change the prefix from 101, to 401, or whatever you were “up to”.  soon enough, my prefixes started looking like “801”, or “901” and eventually, “1001” – and I then knew the end was in sight.  a few more weeks, and finally – they were all recorded.

of course – the work doesn’t stop there.  each file, has to be lovingly trimmed, removing the header and the tail, and then normalised to -3 db to match all of the previously released scapes – all of which have been normalised to -3.  basically, it’s the simplest mastering job in the universe, because I don’t add EQ, I don’t add reverb (tempting though THAT might be!) – I leave them untouched, exactly the way they come out when the app generates them.  they sound good enough, without me tinkering with them.  however, even though that’s a simple job, I still work on them file by file, one file by one file, to make sure there are no problems (a few stray “pops” have had to be removed from one or two captures – and occasionally, I may have to go and re-capture scapes if they have significant problems – try again – although thankfully, I’ve not had to do that yet…) and that they sound as perfect and as pristine as they can.

the best part of it though, exceeding all, has been HEARING them again.  and looking at the images used to create them, and remembering my thought processes – for example, one thing I loved to do, was, create a “basic scape” – a scape with certain elements, and then, simply copy it over and over again, each time, just changing one aspect of it – which was almost always, the “effects” – the coloured icons on the right side of the GUI, which add flangers or tremelo or chorus or whatever.  originally, that was maybe four or five different “treatments” of the same scape – but towards the end, some new effects – bright orange, and a pale blue, if I recall correctly – arrived, so towards the end, if I did a full sweep, you might get seven or eight “versions” of the same scape.

and – if it was a particularly lovely scape in it’s initial incarnation – then – you ended up with eight absolutely outstanding scapes.  so it was a good technique – take something that is proven sounding good, and then “treat” it seven different ways – and then, pick your favourite of the eight, too.  often, for me, that would either be the deep pink effect, or, the dark, mysterious green – and the green effect, whatever it is, is definitely my favourite.

I could “see myself” thinking up these processes, I could “see myself”, just by looking at the icons, the paintings that I did, that powered the scapes, what I was thinking – here was a section, where everything was COMPLETELY about minimalism.  a single effect, with nothing else.  a single background, with nothing but an effect.  two backgrounds, mixed together.  a single “E” yellow “note”, playing atop a single “mountain” or pyramid.  I could see, that often, I was stuck in “minimalist mode” for days at a time, and then, I would go back to much louder, much crazier scape designs, especially those that contain far too many bass guitars, and yet, still, somehow, work, others, where I intentionally used the most dissonant “elements” possible, to try to create a more “index of metals” vibe, and in fact, I have made a note somewhere, that one of my scapes does sound a bit like “an index of metals” sans Fripp.

as I recorded them, I would occasionally note down the names (of course, I mean the “numbers” of the scapes, since none of them have names!!) of certain scapes that I particularly liked.  then, when I moved into the mastering stage, I would do the same – so I now have a document that I’ve officially started, that is my “scapes of note” document, and once I have completed the mastering (at the rate I am going right now, that will be sometime in 2017 but who knows?) I will publish that list on the music for apps: scape eternal album on the bandcamp site – because believe you me, if you sit and listen to those “chosen” scapes in one sitting, it will blow your mind – it will be like hearing a lost, super excellent super ambient eno album that you never knew about.

for me, in the real world, it’s the equivalent of getting the remastered “neroli”, so that I could get the previously unreleased second disc – a “new”, long form eno ambient piece called “new space music” – which is right up there with “neroli” and “thursday morning” and “music for airports” in terms of being supremely beautiful and supremely ambient.  hearing those chosen scapes, will be not unlike, the first time I heard “new space music” – 50 minutes of previously unheard long-form eno ambient music – it does not really get a lot better than that.

if you had a LOT of time, my recommendation would be – listen to them ALL, from the beginning.  basically, I’ve just done that….listened to over a thousand scapes, and it was the most relaxing, beautiful experience…really relaxing.  with the odd moment of dissonance.

why?  because in my innocent, quiet way, I followed their rules – I did not jump ahead like so many scape users did – and in fact, when I found out there was a hack that allows you to expose all of the instruments, sounds and treatments in one fell swoop – I deliberately didn’t take note of it, and I have never ever done that with any scape install – I would NEVER spoil the journey of discovery that eno and chilvers worked so hard to create.  that’s just me…some want to get to all the toys right away…I was happy to wait.

the advice that the app gives you, and the way you keep receiving more and more amazing sounds, all the time, and the excitement you would feel, when you realised you had just got a truly beautiful eno fretless bass line, or, an amazing floating eno synthesizer riff – every other day, every 20 or 30 scapes – you would get another “present” – it is an amazing way to grow with the application, instead of “cheating” and going to the end…OK, for some, that’s the way, I get it – but, I can tell you – if you listen to these 1100 scapes – what you will hear, is first, a limited palette of sounds.  that directly affects the sound of the resulting scapes, and for a while, it was almost impossible to create a loud or annoying scape.  as you got more voices, and you had more ability to mix voices – then the chances of cacophony or dissonance, or both, increased significantly.

in the middle period, in the 400s and 500s, you get a medium to large compliment of instruments, and, the scapes get more complex, denser – although, I still go on self-imposed minimalist streaks, using the newer tools to create new minimalist scapes even right up to the very end.  and of course, during the last few hundred, I am finally, using ALL of the instruments, and I was receiving no more new updates – I had at last, revealed all of the instruments, backgrounds, and treatments – and then, I kept going…until one day, I just…stopped.

and then, three or four years passed, and I thought – hmmm, I really, really wish I had recorded all of those scapes.  and then that other voice, the one that thinks big, says “well, why don’t you…” and that was that.

four, five months down the road from that internal conversation – and I have them all captured and recorded.

I have, as of a few days ago, mastered 187 of them (which took me up to scape 200 – the numbers don’t match because several scapes were lost, i.e. when you erase a scape, you lose it’s auto-generated “number” – so the track number no longer matches the scape number), and as time permits, I master more and more and more and more.

Until I finish.  And then, once mastered, I upload.  Actually, as I master, I try to upload, because the more I upload, the clearer the decks are for more scapes, to upload later…to date, about 118 of them have been uploaded.

So the sound of scape, and the musical DNA of brian eno and peter chilvers, has been filling the studio monitors for many, many months, weeks and days, and it’s so strange, I’ve listened to well over 1000 scapes this year, all recorded in late 2012 / early 2013.  and just hearing them – it was so mesmerising, it was so, so incredibly relaxing – I would have scapes playing all day long, all weekend long – as I captured them – and after a day or two of listening to scapes being captured, I would be so chilled, so relaxed – they really are like a tonic, I swear – there is something about them, they are ALL so incredibly reminiscent of brian eno’s music, no matter what weird things happen in the scape – it just sounds like eno…they ALL sound like eno.  even the really strange ones – eno.

normally, it’s the ambient eno, but occasionally, you get the really strange, really dissonant eno – or other eno’s – not always pleasant.  but most of the time – you get real ambient beauty – with the very occasional journey into slightly more alternative types of ambient.  it’s a trip worth taking, and if you don’t mind waiting – well, the first hundred and some are up there, free to listen to, on bandcamp – so go have a listen – those top secret never-before-heard brian eno ambient albums are just there waiting – it’s uncanny, how after you hear 20 or 30 0f these scapes, that you get the uncanny feeling that you were just privy to a top secret performance of an unreleased eno ambient masterwork – they just sound great, to me, it will always be the best of the best generative music apps, and it’s difficult to believe sometimes that it IS generative – that the songs are literally created, by creating a visual input, of shapes, colours, backgrounds and effects that are colour-based.  but – that is how it works – you paint a picture, or, you randomly throw shapes onto a canvas – either way, it works if you spend hours meticulously building something very visually appealing, or, if you very randomly add different shapes together, or even on top of each other – or whatever, no matter what the input – it ALWAYS sounds good.

often, I would spend time working on carefully composing and arranging the shapes, more often than not, there would be a plan, a purpose, a desire to make a beautiful visual piece of art…that also happens to generate really beautiful music.

Only very occasionally would I work randomly, when I did, I’d still get good results, but I always preferred creating something beautiful and intentional, trying to make a good piece of art.  scape always rewarded me with interesting, challenging ambient music no matter what the input; I do like to think that taking time to create more meticulous art resulted in better scapes, but I can’t prove it.

 

and now for something completely different.

I told you last time about my frustrations with Notion.  It seems to be working again now, and I have managed to salvage and finish my interrupted recording, but, I am still not going to publish it yet – as I want to move it from the iPad to the desktop, to see if I can get some better instrument sounds for it – I am just not happy with some of the sounds in Notion for IPad, and I am hoping that via some process, I will be able to create a new mix of the track, using BETTER sounding instruments – so the song is on hold, I won’t release it until I’ve had time to research this.  it’s complete, it’s alternative / jazz, it’s about 8:00 long, and I’m really really happy with it – working title “abstraction distraction retraction”.  though it will be delayed, I hope to have it finished one way or the other and published this year – it’s a good track.

I have started a new track in Notion, another guitar quartet, but this time, steel string guitars rather than nylon strings, as the last guitar piece I did (“fantasy no.1 in d major for four guitars”) was. it’s only a few bars long, but it’s off to a good start, it’s in 7/4 time to start, so that makes it unusual.  working title (likely to be changed) is “relentless refraction of light”.

now that I think of it, I have a number of new tracks in various stages, from embryonic to complete; besides one complete Notion track and one just started, there is also a new proggy piece in Gadget, which is coming along nicely, and a very interesting piece, featuring vocoder vocals recorded in Attack, my new favourite drum machine, I love it!

so there is a lot of music in progress, but given my commitments over the next two months, most of these tracks wont appear until November or December – but, they will all get done, and they will all come out…

and of course there is my song made with real instruments, “the complete unknown” which is probably about 85% complete, that one may need more time, because I am in the middle of real guitar overdubs, which do take time.

I’m very happy though, that one of my very best works in a long time, “abstraction distraction retraction” is done, I do want to see if I can improve the instrumentation, but if I can’t better it, then I will just do the best I can with the existing tools.

in fact, I would dearly love to re-record ALL of my non-classical Notion tracks, with better instruments – I really would.  But – we shall see, time will tell…and all that kind of stuff…

 

so setting the problem of improving the instrument sounds in Notion for a while, I want to talk about two newer apps that I’ve been playing with, that are both in their own way, quite exciting.

 

the first one is a free app (well, it was temporarily free anyway) called “YouCompose” and at first, I scoffed – when I realised what it’s premise was – this is it:

you record a melody using a keyboard to input it, and there are various templates you can use, I used a stock quartet of horns, so my solo instrument was a saxophone – so, I played a sax melody to the best of my ability – and then, I pushed the “harmonise” button – and, in just a second or two, literally – it produced three horn harmonies – and damned if they didn’t sound half bad !!

I tried again, with a longer, more complex melody – and again, the almost instant four part harmony – well, three part harmony to your input melody – came out quite well – almost palatable.  With some difficulty, you are able to edit the  parts, you can erase bad notes, change notes with the wrong durations, and so on – it’s not too bad, although it’s no Notion when it comes to editing !

today then, I had a second session with it, and I did a session with guitar harmonics, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and distorted guitar 2.  I did the harmonics part first, and let the rest be created by the master of harmony, YouCompose.  this time, it was quite a flop – it couldn’t seem to really figure out what to do with just harmonics for input.

so – to give it a better chance – I took command of Distorted Guitar 2 – and recorded a fake “lead solo” with no accompaniment.  pushed the magic “harmonize” button again – and this time, it produced the goods – bass, guitar and harmonics, that accompanied the lead solo really quite well.

it’s fine for free, but it does leave a lot to be desired – I tried to copy my harmonics clip into the bass slot, and it refused to paste it where I placed the cursor – it would only paste it AFTER the two existing clips of harmonics – not alongside or on top of them, as I was wanting to do (I wanted to create some counterpoint, by having the bass “follow” the harmonics – but the app simply would not let me.

so until it’s a bit more flexible with editing, moving, copying, and manipulating clips, I will continue to view it as a fascinating toy – sometimes, it does an AMAZING job of harmonising, but, there is an equal or better chance, that it will produce something quite plodding, or quite inappropriate, that does NOT sound good – and I found that I tended to delete more of it’s harmonisations than I ever saved – I only saved a few, where it had worked particularly well.  And even then – I would probably go into every clip, and make changes, to make it a bit more…human?

It is, however, an amazing experience – to play a series of notes, a melody, on your own, and then, literally two or three seconds later, you have a fully notated set of complex harmonies.  The rules for this thing must have been an absolute bastard to write, and it does operate in different keys and time signatures, as well as having some basic tempo controls (I kept selecting “lethargic” – the slowest tempo – which resulted in some dire and terrible four part harmonies, going by at dirge pace – yuick!) but I do admire the sheer bravado of it – it is hit or miss, but for me, it’s just fun, it’s kinda like spinning the wheel of fortune – will it come out beautiful, plain, or awful?  will it be OK, but flawed in places?  will it, and this is very rare – will it be achingly beautiful?  maybe, once every 100th attempt.

I don’t think that ANY computer can make up harmonies as well as a human computer, but – it can sure do it FASTER.  And if you don’t like the “detail” work of having to write out harmonies for your melodies – well then, this may be the tool for you.

I do find myself gravitating towards it when I don’t feel like working on serious music – hoping, I guess, that the magic three second harmony creator button, might create something truly amazing…and very occasionally – it does.

 

now, to my final recent discovery, I ran across this last night on the old app ticker – it’s called, I kid you not, “play the golden gate bridge” – and again, at first, I thought – this must be a joke – but it’s not, it’s actually a project by the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble (which you can buy on CD) where they have literally, sampled the bridge (and, the app has a special page with nine of the original samples, which are simply amazing) and then there is the actual app, which allows you to play the cables of the golden gate bridge in the manner of a harp – but, using a selection of more than a dozen possible sounds, including “fog horn” (my personal favourite), “waves”. “railing”, “lamp post”, “cable thock”, “cable click”, “south tower”, and another favourite “reverse hit” – you can select any of these amazing voices, which are developed from the original samples – and that sound becomes the sound you play on the “harp” – which is of course, the golden gate bridge, set against a cloudy sunset sky – a lovely image, and it makes beautiful, beautiful sounds.

it also allows for recording, and in fact, it has a little second page where you can record up to four different parts – so it’s like having a four channel TEAC tape deck or something, right there in your app, to overdub parts with – I think that is really excellent, and I can see myself writing pieces for this odd “instrument”, and doing videos of performances with it, too, because it is an absolutely unique way of performing (the only other app I have that is anything like this, is “VOSIS”, where you “play” a marble statue) and it’s actually a lot of fun to play.

also, some of the sounds are so beautiful, really ambient, really natural, strangely – even the metallics, all of them have a wonderful, organic feeling to them – and to me, this is such a beautifully made app – you can just about feel the love that went into it’s making – and, it’s apparently a long-standing tradition with this ensemble – their CD, celebrates the 50th anniversary of playing the bridge, while the app, celebrates the 75th anniversary – so these samples are clearly, in their blood, but also as clearly – in their minds and hearts.  there is also a beautiful art film of the bridge featuring the Ensemble’s music.

this app gets my vote, beautiful, useful sounds coupled with excellent design and playability, I can see myself performing and recording with this app for many years to come – it will especially be great for live performances.

 

what a wonderful sounding app, and so much fun to play, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

playing peter hammill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

van der graaf generator songs:

man-erg

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

peter hammill songs:

vision

the birds

again

shingle song

airport

time heals

if I could

mirror images

flying blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

man-erg

the undercover man

still life

my room (waiting for wonderland)

the siren song

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

afterwards

out of my book

refugees

w

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

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

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

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

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

“again”

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

“shingle song”

“airport”

“crying wolf”

and the exquisitely beautiful “if I could”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

that’s very probably, a very good thing 🙂

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

the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

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

 

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

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

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.