You have a choice – of what you listen to…

 

Sometimes in the world of music, strange things happen that don’t make an enormous amount of sense to me.

 

 

One of those things – which happens regularly, and has almost certainly become much worse over time – is the odd and very wrong correlation between truly good, truly inspirational or truly meaningful music – and an artist’s “popularity” – whether that is reflected in record sales, media exposure – it doesn’t really matter – this undeniable fact remains:

The “music industry” rewards and promotes artists that produce a particular “kind” of product, which seems to have but one criteria:

“Can this ‘product’ make us money (and lots of it)?”

 

The industry has always been interested in money, while over time, showing less and less interest in the actual music.

The inevitable upshot of this, unfortunately, is huge media exposure and significant sales for the “right kind” of artist (according to their entirely greed-driven “criteria” of course!) – usually (not always but often) an artist with only a modicum of musical ability or actual talent – the Industry wants as many of these “money-making” artists as possible – and consequently – the rest of the bands and musicians in the world, who do not meet this “Magical Money Making Criteria” – well, they struggle in such an environment (a harsh, cruel demanding environment).

Artists with genuine skill – with real talent – whether that be the mastery of an actual music instrument, or a singer with real vocal skill and dexterity – or artists who have unique and notable skill as songwriters or producers of cutting-edge, modern forward-thinking music – are first of all, always in the minority in the minds of the record companies, and during the last couple of decades, many of them felt so uncomfortable or unhappy with this “business arrangement” – that they sought other ways to move through the marketplace – ways NOT dependent on being signed to a major label, and in fact, NOT dependent on a record company or the music industry in any way shape or form – and that is a good thing.

So rather than having to kowtow to the system, and beg on bended knee for a “record contract” that won’t be favourable or good (unless you happen to be one of the one-in-a-billion who actually meet the Magic Money Making Criteria) – so they either formed their own independent labels (one example of which is Robert Fripp & David Singleton’s remarkable DGM – Discipline Global Mobile – an artist-centric label if there ever was one) or moved to labels that support quality music over sheer money-making prowess.

 

The above merely states a problem that exists, and of course, it’s subjective – there are exceptions, of course, to every “rule” or “theory” – and this theory of mine is no exception to having exceptions.

Of course, there are a number of bands, artists and performers, who sell enormous amounts of records, get massive media exposure – AND they are real musicians of quality – they actually play their own instruments, they have studied music or been working musicians for the majority of their lives and have learned from the sheer experience of being on the road in a working band for 30, 40, 50 years or more – that end up in the same financial space as the “Money Making Artists” who do not necessarily have the actual skills, talents, or abilities that make them admirable to fans of real music and the more discerning listeners.

 

One of the biggest issues here, I think, is the traditional “record company” or “music industry” view of artists as “money-making machines” – but more specifically, their view that CDs, DVDs, and other saleable items that present music – are “products” – and of course they are products – but the record companies, over time, seem to have shifted from viewing an “album” or a “CD” as a record, a recording of music – it it’s simply become a “product” – they have transformed it from an object of joy and wonder into a simple and depressing object of commerce – a product (ugh) in the most negative sense – and then it gets dealt with like a product:

 

  1. How many can we produce as cheaply as possible to maximise profit?
  2. How many can we sell at as high a price as possible to maximise profit / greed / etc.
  3. How can we sell as much of this “product” as possible / in what ways can we “market” this to maximise profit?

You can just about see the common denominator there… hmmmm.

I can remember in the 1970s (and farther back than that, I am afraid) that there was still the “illusion” that music and albums were about….music and artists – and music itself – songs – albums – mattered – and record companies (in some limited cases at least) actually cared about the music that “their” artists produced – as music – and NOT just as a “product”.

 

But – the view of album or CD as “product” – WAS always there – it’s just that over the past several decades – that idea has grown and grown – and the ideas for maximising profit go even farther back – which is why there were so many cases of musicians and bands receiving literally a few pennies for each album sold – while executives and record company board members and owners, skimmed 97 percent off the top – these “recording contracts” or “deals” were just atrocious and utterly unfair to musicians who worked (often all of their life – and sadly, often ending in poverty and dying alone and forgotten) at music – for their entire life time, dedicating every hour to writing, performing, and living and breathing music that they truly believed in.

 

So as the “music industry” and “record companies” have more and more viewed the output of musicians as “product” – the idea that music is anything but a money-making tool has all but disappeared from their minds.

In other words, if artist isn’t selling x million “units” of their “product” then the industry is no longer interested in that artist. Artists were regularly “dropped” from labels for not shifting enough “product” – some who had in fact, sold very well for the first ten years of their career – when that 13th album failed to shift a million – the record company would just terminate the contract because the artist was no longer producing the kind of money (not – the kind of music) they are interested in – large amounts of money.

That artist would have been faithful to that company for decades, making lots and lots of great records that sold well – but as soon as the sales fall away even a little bit – and the cash cow doesn’t look to be able to generate massive income as it had done – it was “out the door” for that artist – who then had to scrabble around and find a new or different record label with the stigma of having “just been dropped by one of the majors” which means their ability to negotiate with their new label is automatically negatively compromised…they are not a “hot property” anymore, because the record company kicked them to the kerb.

The really ironic thing there, is that the example of “that 13th album” I gave – that mythical 13th album would very probably be a musical and artistic triumph – a “critical success” – i.e. the critics loved it, the fans loved it even more – but it did not make enough money to satisfy the greed of the industry.

It might even have been that band’s musical masterpiece and the pinnacle of their career – which might have spanned 20, 30 years – they reach a point of musical maturity and consummate skill – they make an AMAZING, beautiful record that their fans and followers absolutely love – even the critics like the album – and their “reward” is – being dropped from the label and finding themselves out on the street with no label support.

 

As noted above and elsewhere – artists and bands that ended up in this situation, have dealt with this problem in many, many different ways:

  • Some simply moved house to another traditional label and carried on their career on a new label.

 

  • Some could no longer stomach the product-centric, money-centric, and let’s face it – greed-centric attitudes and practices of the music industry, and moved to an ethical company such as DGM.

 

  • Some decided that the best solution was to become their own record company – and would either form an actual company to produce records, market those records, take care of distribution, etc. themselves – and, getting dollars per CD, instead of pennies which I view as a positive thing.

 

  • Others created a sort of “cottage industry” where they form a “record company” of sorts – or a record label – and some aspects are dealt with via external contracts – but control is still central and still belongs to the artist.

 

Others…possibly – lost heart to such an extreme – that they did none of the above, and after having their faith in their 20 or 30 year relationship with a major label so badly shaken by being suddenly, and without warning, “dropped” because their 13th album was the first one that DIDN’T sell one million copies…causing them, sadly – to just give up.

They stopped playing music, and perhaps, changed to another artistic pursuit (a lot of musicians seem to end up as painters – artists still, but using a paintbrush instead of a plectrum to make their art) or even dropped music altogether and got a “normal job” – and left the greed and corruption and disappointment – behind – forever.

 

Kicked to the kerb, surplus to requirements – dropped by your label.

But in these cases, the length of their career as a major label star, that sells millions – is limited to merely month rather than decades as it was previously. So “stars” are made, the money is sucked out – and then they are dropped in a now-very-rapid-turnover-scenario that literally ingests hapless singers or rappers or whatever – pushes them through a pre-defined process producing some of the most lifeless, vapid “music” ever made – said music is marketed in an extreme way – a LOT of money is made (and the musician will see very little of it proportionally) – and then – they are dropped when their next song does not succeed – and more, “fresh talent” is sought, brought in – processed – dropped – repeat ad nauseam forever – a very, very sad and pathetic cycle that is even worse than the record company behaviours of yesteryear.

 

Whereas – in contrast – today’s modern musicians, who have learned to play actual instruments and taught themselves to write and perform their own music – do not depend on the record industry for anything – and simply produce music that means something to them – presented to the world through both YouTube and a plethora of different social media outlets – and we instantly have a new and amazing world where lesser-known musicians can compete with the biggest stars – and often surpass them in musical achievement.

 

The other upshot of this truly unfortunate situation, besides how discouraging it is for these “ordinary” musicians (who generally speaking, are anything but) – is that artists with amazing talents are often ignored, missing in action, cannot sell records easily, or are otherwise downplayed in the marketplace simply because they are not artists with the magic “this artists is gonna make us RICH” formula – instead, they offer honest, heartfelt music that they make because they love music – not because they want to get rich – they want to earn a living as a musician – and hope that some will hear and appreciate their music.

But, sadly, so much of this good music is so far under the radar, or at best, hanging on at the periphery of the normal “music industry” – outside the pale – it’s an unfortunate situation but it’s difficult in this day and age – to get music of quality heard or appreciated because the world is geared towards the shifting of product rather than, the sharing of inspirational and beautiful music.

And – via the gradual but insistent brainwashing of the record-buying public by the music industry – who pretty much “force feed” us the latest records by “popular artists” (their opinion – not mine!) such as but not limited to Juslake Beaver, Tailor Sweeft, Ariande Latte Grande, Ed Sneeran, Lady BlahGah, Smiley Cyprus and on and on – big names maybe – but I have questions

  • How many of these folks can actually write a decent song?

 

  • Which ones can actually play a real musical instrument?

 

  • How many of these can actually sing – and I do not mean sing through a pitch correcting vocoder or other technology that can easily take a poor or even downright bad singing voice and at least, force it into “tune” – whether that has any actual qualities worthy of our admiration – is in doubt in some cases.

 

Sure – some of the people that I have poked gentle fun at by naming them in a slightly disrespectful way – actually – I find it difficult to speak these names aloud or write them out properly – because I actually find a fair percentage of them slightly objectionable – because they are making millions, by “singing” or “playing” – while countless hundreds of thousands if not millions of real musicians, who have real skill on an instrument, real singing ability, real song writing or production skill – are ignored, not heard of, cannot sell records – because they are outside the system – the system that produces these “products” made by these “big name” artists.

Sigh.

 

None of this is very cheering, but there is always hope. I think a lot of artists have handled this transition really gracefully, and seem to be more settled and much, much happier running their own affairs as compared to their previous experience of “record companies” and the “music industry” – they seem far happier, and well-adjusted – making music on their own terms – and having their own destiny in their own hands.

 

I think that is fantastic – more power to them, and I can only send my best wishes and hope that their music will be heard by those who need to hear it – and I also think that his mass-migration of musicians from the major labels to either, ethical labels or to their own self-created labels, companies or cottage industries – is one of the best and most positive outcomes of this entire dark, negative “the product rules” attitude and practice of the music industry – because it has effectively, de-centralised what was a terrible monopoly held by the major record companies, where the amount of control that they held and exerted over their artists was a truly awful, almost evil thing – and by walking away, by closing that door – and opening a new way – these artists have set the stage for a real revolution of self-producing, non-record-company-depended truly “independent” artists – and I think that is absolutely wonderful – and about time, too.

A lot of musicians have suffered a lot – many literally ending up in true poverty because the record company took most of the money that was made – and some of these poor musicians ended up in the worst situations imaginable – especially back in the 1950s and 1960s when most of the greedy machinations of record companies were not as publicly known as they are nowadays – much has come to light during the past few decades – often through the personal stories of the musicians themselves (have a read of Robert Fripp’s Diary at DGM Live for one such tale) – who, after suffering at the hands of the music industry for decades – finally came forward to tell their horror stories – so gradually, the truth of the behaviour of these large record companies has come to light – and it is not a pretty story at all.

 

I don’t generally like to focus as much on negative behaviour as I’ve had to in this blog, but I felt it was important to set the scene for some of my upcoming blogs  – what I am really here to write about – and that is one of my ongoing stories regarding musicians that are NOT as well known.

In writing the above…I hope I have expressed and explained the kind of roadblocks and difficulties that so many great (but possibly not very well known, sadly) musicians have had to endure and then, eventually – thankfully – overcome – and I literally believe this to be a real triumph of the human spirit – and a great example of a great good coming out of a bad evil.

 

Really, the bad behaviour and greed of these companies – when brought to light by the sad facts of their behaviour and the way they treated “their” artists for so, so long – well – there is some vindication now – music is triumphing, and the record industry – has almost nothing to do with that.

In the past – you “had to” have a record deal to make records – or CDs – and you “had to” be signed to a label if you wanted to have the ability to manufacture, market, and distribute your music on any scale small or large – you had no choice.

 

Now – there are choices – and I think, that getting a “record contract” or “signing with a major” is probably the worst of those choices. Sure – they have massive distribution channels, and massive marketing departments that CAN and do promote albums on to sell in massive numbers – and for the “popular artists” of the day, those few that actually meet the criteria of “money making magic” – i.e. they “feel” lucrative to the record companies – because they sense the millions and millions of dollars that will probably soon be lining their pockets the next time they create a “product” for one of these “popular artists” – and that product then sells in the millions thanks to the machinery of the record industry.

 

But – “the times they are a-changing” – and the biggest change of all is certainly the Internet – which has enabled a number of extremely talented musicians – and artists and sculptors and wood-workers and people engaging in crafts of many, many diverse types – musicians can now gain massive popularity – and gain a large audience – if their music is good, if they are a sincere and committed artist – simply by producing and performing their own music and broadcasting it over the Internet – and then letting the people decide – what music do I love?

 

For me – the choice is clear – I am interested in music that is created by skilled, talented, committed musicians who primary interest and goal is CREATION – creating music that is beautiful, inspiring, or very, very unusual, using groundbreaking techniques and technologies that were previously unimaginable – especially in the world of the “traditional” record company – who are set in their ways and methods – and they can carry on doing what they do – but I don’t really care.

 

Because I will just seek out real music, made by real musicians – and I will NOT be seeking out “product” produced by “record companies” – any more – except in those rare cases where real music, made by real musicians – happens to also be extremely popular, and happens to sell in huge numbers – rare, but not impossible (please see my final remarks below regarding the extraordinary musician Billie Eilish for a working example of this rare possibility).

 

I’d prefer that it happens (massive success of music – not products) where the artist is NOT signed to a major label, and that those artists can actually sell millions of CDs or more likely, downloads – without a greedy pocket-invading record company attached at the hip, taking 95-plus percent of the proceeds when it was the artist that actually did 105 percent of the creation of the music.

As time has gone on, I find more and more that most of the music I am interested in – is produced by ethical record companies, artist owned companies or distribution networks or even direct from the artist to consumer sites of which there are more and more and more every day.

That’s how it should be – it needs to be about the music – not about “product” and how much of that product can we shift and how much ridiculous money can we make from that “product” – that is old world thinking and in the brave new world of 2020 and beyond – I am so, so happy and glad to see things changing in this way – so that we can get back to what is important – the music itself.

 

It needs to be about the music.

 

I think that some people just “like music” in a very vague and general way, and they don’t care about what music is playing – they will happily listen to what the radio is playing, and they will learn to like artists not based on their skill, talent, or song writing ability – but because they have been told “this is good music” – when in reality – what that actually means, is “this is the music we want to sell and make a LOT of money from, so we want you to like it – so you will buy it – and make us wealthy”.

I was always amazed by this type of person – and I would say to them “you are content to listen to what the radio tells you is ‘good music’ – wouldn’t you rather explore the actual sound of different bands and artists yourself, and make up your own mind ?? – instead of allowing someone (the record company) who is driven by one non-musical idea – greed – to DICTATE to you “what good music is” and “what you should be listening to”??

 

They would generally just give me a blank look and profess to not really knowing what the hell I was talking about.  But I have given this a lot of thought, for a long time – and I am finally now finding time to suggest these ideas and I hope they can be received and used in a positive way that brings a lot of new, creative, inspirational, unique and beautiful music to a lot of listeners who may well be missing out on a lot of great listening experiences – because they just haven’t considered this question of “who” is telling them “what” music is good and “what they should be listening to” or liking – and I truly believe that this choice should come from within – and not from the record industry’s rather obviously money-driven “suggestions”.

 

I learned to love music by first, hearing it on the radio – but there is stopped – sure, I went out and bought records that I had heard on the radio – back when I was a kid or a teenager.

But very, very early on – in my early twenties certainly – I began a much more organic process of music discovery – which is basically – word of mouth, discussing the merits of various artists with strangers you meet in your local record store (and some of them becoming life-long friends, as it turns out – such as my good friend Michael P. Dawson – who I met in Off The Record on El Cajon Blvd many, many decades ago now) – reading about artists in music magazines – the method was not important – but what is important, I think, is that I was CHOOSING my own music.

Meaning too – that NO one else – was choosing for me, or choosing on my behalf – it was 100 percent of my own volition, my choice of music, of artists that resonated with me personally, what sounded great to my ears, what sounded beautiful – what sounded unique – and I just ignored – and still ignore to this day – what the record industry or what record companies – “recommend” – no thank you – I can make my own choices here!

 

Additionally, by listening to one group, I might then discover another (or many more in some cases) and then from that artists, another – and the process over time – over the past few decades in fact – has led me to learn to love and spend a lot of time listening to a lot of artists that are really not that well known – but I personally find them infinitely more satisfying to listen to than the “popular music” “products” that the music industry is “recommending” – selling to you regardless of whether you actually really love the music or not – they do not care about that at all – as long as you buy a copy.

 

If you really sit down, and listen – listen with your ears, your brain, your whole body – close your eyes, listen with your heart, if you will – and listen to the qualities of the music you are listening to – you will realise very, very quickly – that a lot of these mass-produced, mass-marketed “musicians” (and I use the term very dubiously there – to my mind, many of these popular, massive-selling musicians are not musicians but almost more like imaginary “singers” who can’t play any instrument, don’t even know what a scale is – and just “got lucky” or “had a lucky break” and got themselves a lucrative money-making contract with a major record label) – and sadly – that has very, very, VERY little to do with music.

That might seem like an extreme position – but I would challenge you to compare side by side, music made by million selling artists who do not play an instrument, who do not write songs, but simply do as they are told and play their part in the creation of “products” (not music, but money making noise a lot of the time) that are quickly and mass-produced with a view to cash in on the short-half-life that some of these artists have – they have one huge “hit song” – MILLIONS are made by the record company – and then they disappear when their follow up song “fails to chart” – and the same old cycle takes over…with the music of lesser known, unfunded, self-sufficient real musicians who play actual instruments, sing beautifully, have real skill at modern production or some kind of actual ability, talent or skill – and I think that the latter group will consistently sound beautiful and inspirational – and for me, anyway – the majority of those “artists” inhabiting the former group – feel “manufactured” and sound thin and lifeless by comparison.  That is how it sounds to me, that is how it feels to me…lifeless.  Uninspired.

 

 

During this “Inner Revolution” of empowered artists making their own media and presenting it on YouTube and via Social Media – I have begun to enjoy and listen to a huge number of artists that previously I was unaware of – had never heard of. A lot of truly beautiful, absolutely amazing music is now available on YouTube and on the Internet – endless, beautiful, real music made by astonishingly talented and creative musicians.

And nary a record company in sight – thank the Gods.

Now back in the day – before the Internet – early on I decided that while there was the occasional song on the radio that I liked or even liked a lot – that radio, and other media controlled by the music industry – did NOT have my best interest at heart. They wanted me to like certain artists so that I could join the millions who blindly, and without thinking AUTOMATICALLY buy every release by popular artist Artist Name Goes Here – because they have been TRAINED and GROOMED to do so – subconsciously perhaps but trained nonetheless – by the music industry.

They wanted me to like, and then BUY – the million selling artists that they wanted to make more of, sell more of – and that was once again – just to satisfy their endless GREED!

I refused this. I did not want ANYONE to tell me:

  1. What kind of music I like to listen to
  2. What kind of music I enjoy
  3. What kind of music I should purchase (with my hard earned money)
  4. Which artists are “good” and that I should like them because – they SAID they were good (whether they actually were or NOT) – and usually – they were NOT good – not talented – not capable of much of anything except – creating product, selling product, and being on a very short roller coaster ride of “fame” that will almost certainly DAMAGE them more than it will ever help them
  5. No company – or individual – has any right to dictate to me what I do, what I listen to, what I like, or what I buy – they can “suggest” but I for one – I refuse this – and I want to MAKE UP MY OWN mind

 

For some strange reason – I decided this very, very early on – when I was a teenager or just shortly thereafter in fact – and I have stuck to this tactic ever since. I don’t generally like what is “popular” (because “popular” is artificial – it’s dishonest – and it’s totally contrived and fed to you by greed-driven record companies – they do NOT care about you – except as a source of MONEY) and I want to form my own opinions.

 

Pre-Internet, this could be accomplished in a number of ways – through conversations with other real listeners to real music, from reading about music and bands and artists where that reading then led to listening – and so on.

As one random example of this – one of the bands I happen to like is Roxy Music, who you have probably heard of – and since I am a guitarist, I really like Roxy’s guitarist Phil Manzanera – he has a unique and beautiful style of playing guitar, and I have always enjoyed his playing.

 

[AN EXAMPLE of the word of mouth – follow the players “method” follows]:

 

I had a few Roxy Music albums early on – starting oddly, with an unofficial one called “Foolproof” (an amazing amalgamation of two great live performances)…

 

That then led, to me purchasing “solo albums” by Phil Manzanera and listening to those.

Reading the album sleeves and notes revealed the other musicians playing on the record.

One of the Phil Manzanera records I bought, noted “Tim and Neil Finn” on vocals on various tracks (this is 1978’s remarkable “K-Scope” – one of Manzanera’s lesser-known absolute master works – a must have for anyone who likes creative guitar playing) – and I had heard of them – they were in a band called “Split Enz”.

So reading the album jacket of Phil Manzanera, led me to Tim and Neil Finn – which led me to Split Enz.

A few months later – I had fallen in love with that band; purchased all of the albums I could find by them – and even got to go see them play live on their first U.S. tour – I absolutely love Split Enz – thanks to Tim and Neil being on a little known Phil Manzanera album from the late 70s !

 

Of course then years later – my interest in Split Enz meant that I would then follow Neil Finn’s later band “Crowded House” – which later included Split Enz alumni older brother Tim Finn and keyboardist extraordinaire Eddie Rayner.

So entirely by osmosis – I got into all of the following bands simply by following the names of certain musicians that kept cropping up until I got curious to hear them – and bought a record.  Which would often then – lead to still more artists. In this one example – you could argue that because I liked Roxy Music , that I then over a very short period of time began to enjoy the music of and collect recordings by

 

 

 

 

 

And on and on and on – a wonderful snowball effect of one great musician leading to another to another to yet another…

 

And at the same time – Phil Manzanera’s album “K-Scope” ALSO was a further pointer to me to further explore a number of OTHER musicians who appeared as guests on K-Scope that I was already aware of – such as

 

 

  • Brian Eno (and therefore, of course – back to Roxy Music, to Eno’s voluminous and amazing solo career, and to Fripp and Eno – which of course leads back to King Crimson AND John Wetton…endless inter-connectivity).

 

So by following just a handful of musicians who I admired – I could then learn and grow and experience the bands and records that those musicians had worked on – all because I read one record sleeve.

 

One thing leads to seventeen others – and what a great, great way THAT was – to discover new music.

[EXAMPLE ENDS]

 

Finding the music of Split Enz was a huge positive experience to me – and that was based on the fact that I really, really like the vocals that Tim Finn did on Phil Manzanera’s “K-Scope” album – so much so, that I had to go and find out about Tim Finn’s own band – Split Enz – who I had heard of but never heard.

Tim Finn has a truly beautiful singing voice, and Phil Manzanera recognised this and asked him to sing on “K-Scope” – and the fact that Manzanera did that – led me directly to one of the most astonishing and rewarding collections of music in the current age – the discography of Split Enz.

 

Of course – now – with the Internet – it’s even EASIER to do all of this “cross-pollination” of artists – you see a video and you like the singer – you find out their name and then, what band they came from – you listen to or watch THAT band and you fall in love with that – and it just carries on, and you learn about – and enjoy – more and more and more amazing music by making your own choices – identifying certain musicians whose playing or singing you really enjoy – and then following out to their branches in the “musical family tree” as it were.

 

Regarding what you listen to – and whether you allow radio or social media or anyone besides yourself  “decide” what you are listening to or are going to listen to…I just think that you just can’t believe what much of what you are told.

Just because the record company wants me to buy the latest record (by anyone in my tongue-in-cheek, quasi-fictionalised list of “big name artists” above) – does not mean that (if I am sensible, and thinking for myself – instead of letting them do my thinking for me) that I should buy them.  And I don’t!

 

I think it makes much more sense – to start with music that you truly love – that you found on your own – you were not TOLD to like it – let’s say you grew up listening to your dad’s collection of Marillion records- and you actually really liked them – because they are real musicians who really play real instruments and they write their own songs – and they are pretty good at what they do – so starting there – instead of following what ANYONE told you – you made a decision for yourself – “I like this band – I really enjoy hearing their music (thanks, DAD!) – so that then, can easily lead you to a huge, huge world of related music, similar music, or even dis-similar music that has some relation to the music of Marillion – or, to early music via the bands and artists that Marillion themselves love – the bands that THEY loved and were inspired by.

So you read about early Marillion, and you find out that they were influenced by a couple of the most important and well known “Progressive Rock” bands that started out in the late 1960s – in this case – early Genesis with Peter Gabriel as their singer – Fish from Marillion makes no denial that he pretty much based his entire style on Gabriel-in-early-Genesis – alongside the additional influence of Van Der Graaf Generator founder and vocalist Peter Hammill.

(Interestingly – I was at the Steve Hackett concert in Edinburgh just last night – November 25, 2019 – and Fish walked past me a couple of times – he was in the audience to see Steve Hackett’s recreation of Genesis’ “Selling England By The Pound” – so that confirms that there really was a very strong influence on Marillion by early Genesis – not that there was ever any doubt about that – but Fish was there – listening.  Still.  That’s a nice affirmation of one’s influences – it was why I was there too – because Hackett was a huge early influence on my own guitar playing back in the early 1970s – he was so different, and seeing him live in 1975 performing “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” with Genesis changed me forever in a lot of profound ways – and it set me down a much different course in terms of the music I love, and, the kind of guitar melodies and ideas that I like to play – a massive influence.

 

So from making your own decision that you actually really enjoy the music of Marillion – that could easily lead you to discover the brilliant early music of early Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator – and if you follow those two trails, you will end up at Robert Fripp, King Crimson, John Wetton, Bill Bruford, Brian Eno and a host of other extremely capable, talented brilliant musicians – but who they are does not matter – what DOES matter – is that the choice needs to be YOUR choice and yours alone – and NOT the choice of radio programmers, or TV, or what the record companies would very much like you to buy so they can get themselves a few more houses in a few more countries and some extra sports cars and swimming pools and so on – and because I am a contrary old son of a gun – I want to THWART that – I don’t want the record companies to get rich – ESPECIALLY if they are taking MY money from me (as well as taking away my choice!) to do so – I want my money to go to the artists that create the beautiful music that I love – NOT to a disassociated, greedy executive that wouldn’t know “good music” if it hit them right between the eyes.

 

I want to make the choices – and I choose MUSIC over PRODUCT – every time.

I choose what I like – not what anyone TELLS ME I like – every time.

 

Listen with your heart – really listen, and if you don’t already hear and see it – you will soon see that the list of big name, top-selling artists – that a lot of their music is of a much lesser quality than the music of real musicians who are not part of the Record Company Contract Machine Process any more.

There is so, so much amazing music available now – and not nearly enough time to listen to it all.

 

You can avoid a lot of the bad music – by deliberately refusing to participate in the brainwashing exercise that the music industry and the record companies is forcing onto you – telling you what to listen to, what to buy, what artists are “good” – it’s all nonsense – YOU should be deciding these things – not some faceless, greed driven company.

 

I say – do not listen to what they say to listen to; do NOT buy what they say – but instead – listen to a LOT of diverse and interesting music – and buy what YOU like – not what they tell you to like.  Buy what speaks to your heart, what makes you happy, what music makes you feel good – the music you have chosen for yourself to enjoy.

 

 

You have a choice – please use it – and support artists and musicians directly whenever possible – and do not support a bad business model that was always unfair to artists and in many cases, was extremely damaging to them – and please do not let a faceless corporation tell you what to listen to and what YOU like – only YOU can truly decide that – but it means some effort – you have to listen to a lot of different music and then make up your mind what you want to spend your precious time actually listening to.

 

Today – I’ve been listening to the remarkable Martin Newell (in particular, the 1995 EP “Let’s Kiosk” and the 2000 album “The Spirit Cage”) – as well as selections from various albums by the remarkable singer / songwriter Sam Phillips – both very independent artists who have carved a path through the minefields of corporate greed and the music industry and come out on top – and boy am I glad, because I love listening to this music – I’m very, very glad it is available – and I do not have to buy from a major label to get it, either.

That’s the best of both worlds – I am making my own choice of who I listen to – AND I am supporting the artists I love directly whenever possible by buying direct from their websites or web stores.

You have the same choice, and I think a lot of times it would be better – that it is better – to try some new artists that you have chosen because YOU like them – not because some faceless money-making entity TELLS YOU that you like them…when really, maybe they are not all that good – and really, probably – there are a large number of hardworking and very talented musicians out there making truly inspirational and beautiful music – and you may be missing it if you allow your choices to be made “for you”.

 

I just think that listening to lesser-known music can be incredibly rewarding – and I don’t want anyone miss out on the beautiful and moving music that I have found and enjoyed since I consciously started making my own choices many years ago.  Don’t miss this stuff – it’s truly worth it.

 

As a final note – sometimes, artists that appear to be in the “money making / record industry” mould that I have discussed here – happen to be as valid, as serious, as moving and as inspirational – as these lesser-known non-power-money funded artists I am talking about – and a perfect example of that would be Billie Eilish – an extraordinarily talented singer and songwriter – who has had an absolutely meteoric rise to huge popularity and “fame” – but mostly done outside the confines of the worst excesses of the industry.

I have huge respect for people like this – who have the vision, the talent, and the songwriting chops to just “be good” wherever they happen to be placed in the “business spectrum” of the music industry – talent is talent, skill is skill – and for me, an artist like Billie Eilish – who has a much, much larger following than most of the artists I follow – is equally as important and vibrant as the many less-known musicians that I also follow, listen to and admire – so it is POSSIBLE (although it does not happen often) that an artist can straddle those two world effectively without compromising their soul or their music – so that needed to be said.

 

Other artists that are products of the “we really want to make a lot of money camp” – can be as untalented or even vacuous as anything – not pleasant, not worth listening to – but propped up and supported by the love of the Almighty Dollar – it’s those that I find difficult to deal with.

 

Choose well – and I hope you enjoy your listening even more now – listening to music is one of the greatest pleasures in life for me – and I’ve thought long and hard about it over time – and things are starting to fall into place – you can see through the cracks – and easily get at what is true, honest, good and also – beautiful.

 

 

 

Have a great day!

 

Dave

 

 

davestafford.bandcamp.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overlooked & Under Appreciated: Master Works by Oft-Overlooked Artists – Sam Phillips

In today’s edition of this as-yet-non-existent series – this being the first in the series (ahhhh – now it exists)  – we are looking at 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips.

 

I could easily see myself writing any number of blogs with this title – and it may well transpire that over the coming time, I do just that, because I am listening more, and I am listening more often – and I am going back and listening to records that I loved ten, twenty, thirty years ago – and finding that in some cases, they are so much better than even I thought – hindsight, and the passage of time, reveals them to be absolute works of genius.  Which more often than not, comes as quite a surprise to me – OK, I knew it was good…but I had NO IDEA it was that good….

 

Maybe at the time I knew that it was something very special – or thought that – or maybe not – obviously, when music is new, you form an impression of it – you listen to it – maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe obsessively – then time passes, you listen to other music – but eventually, you find yourself coming back to certain artists, to certain albums, to certain songs – to certain lyrics – to works of what are now, with the benefit of hindsight – clearly, far beyond other contemporary works by other artists – and these realisations just keep hitting you and hitting you and hitting you – oh my God, you wonder, how on EARTH did I NOT SEE (or more accurately, how on EARTH did I NOT HEAR) that this record is an absolute impossible musical miracle – like nothing before and like nothing since.

You can’t easily or readily see that or hear that when a record is new – and sure, some records instantly reveal themselves as having qualities that we love, that we know in time will just be more and more appreciated – but it’s still difficult – the work is NEW.

But this strange thing that human beings experience – the passage of time – well, for me at least, the passage of time changes my perception of music – and sometimes the changes are slow, gradual, and orderly, but in other instances – the new or changed perception LEAPS out at you and it’s almost a shock – here is a record I’ve heard dozens of times – maybe hundreds of times – that I’ve always loved, respected – but today, today, because of “the passage of time” – today that record is revealed in an entirely new light.

You see and hear it for what it actually is – and you probably unconsciously “knew” all along that it was significant or important or meaningful or all of the above – but it takes that additional trigger – time passing – usually, a LOT OF TIME passing…to bring the sudden realisation – that “oh my God, this is genius” moment – a moment that could be 30, 40 years in the making.

 

This morning, I sat quietly, doing absolutely nothing else, and listened to Sam Phillips’ mostly acoustic offering from 2001, “Fan Dance” – which, at the time, I liked it very much, it is clearly one of her best and most enduring works and it stands up really well now, some 18 years later – really, really well – it sounds like it could have been made yesterday – and in fact,  just after I listened to the entire “Fan Dance” album, I then put on a somewhat later work – 2013’s “Push Any Button” and while the music has changed – the messages – and the feeling of hope I get from the lyrics – remains – these are songs of hope.

 

A SLIGHT DIGRESSION – TRENDS IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Some artists who don’t have really sweet worldwide distribution deals, have no choice but to operate at the periphery of the “music industry” – which actually, I think is the better  place to be – because of the well-documented and really oppressive ways that companies control and manipulate their artists – time and time again we hear the stories of how artists were robbed of their royalties, given the worst deals imaginable, and the view over time of “record companies” and the “recording industry” has naturally, due to these depressing and oppressive facts, developed as a very negative view indeed – my personal view of record companies has undergone a massive transformation over the past 40 years – and my view now is that anyone who can operate OUTSIDE of the confines of the “music industry” – is the better for it.  Myself included.

 

When I was 16 – I wanted a record deal. By the time I was 25, 30 – I never ever wanted a record deal – because I saw how these “deals” negatively affected the musicians I loved and even some that are friends or acquaintances – it was heart-breaking to see what happened to them because of their “record deal” – but it was also a cautionary tale for me and for us all – be careful – be very careful – what you wish for.  An all-expenses paid trip to – being enslaved, being used or abused – and your music denigrated to the point of being a product and a product only – and when your music becomes a “product” – you know that trouble is with you.

 

A very large cross section of extremely talented and capable musicians have been burned, and burned again, by the music industry – and the horror stories go on and on, from the earliest exploitation of artists being given a few pennies for their work, while music industry “executives” and management skim 98 percent “off the top” and put it straight into their own pockets…to the lapses in good judgement and other “business practices” perpetrated by the music industry onto both artists and the record-buying public, too – just too many bad stories that I really am not sure I want to hear too many more of – we know what happened – so now – how do we move beyond that into a better future for musicians and for music lovers?  How does it work, now?

So – musicians made music in good faith, trusted their “record label” to take care of them, to promote their music – and to pay them fairly and treat them fairly – and in practice – that happened so rarely, that everyone just assumed the worst – and rightfully so – about the behaviour of the “greedy leaders” of the “music industry” – sure, there were always a few exceptions who really cared about music – but not many.

Meanwhile – the good faith of musicians, who trusted their record labels. …was rewarded with exploitation, outright theft – and the bad, bad faith of record company and music industry executives – who, sadly, it turns out, are as uncaring about music as many oil companies are uncaring about the environment – it just demonstrates one of mankind’s ugliest traits – greed, greed, greed – and more greed, and it becomes all about taking and taking and taking – and never about giving anything back or supporting the musician who creates this “income” in the first place.

 

It’s no wonder then, that so many musicians and artists have taken back their music and their art – sometimes at huge personal expense – being forced to pay to recover the rights to their own musical creations – and then re-presenting them to their fans directly, via direct-to-artist purchase websites and online stores.

I applaud this approach – I feel much, MUCH happier, giving £40.00 pounds directly to the artist who created the work – making sure they get PAID for the work they have done – I feel very uncomfortable and very unhappy when I realise how much of the money I spent buying records, cassettes and CDs over this past half a century – I regret how much of that money went straight into the greedy pockets of executives who created nothing, and who exploited, used and harmed the musicians who music they stole.

OK – the above is probably really a separate topic for a separate blog – but much is known about this now, thanks to the stories told by the artists themselves – who basically come directly to the fans and say “look – I am not on a record label anymore.  You used to buy my records from the record company – but now, I am making my own records without a label – or, on my own personal label – and I want to deal DIRECTLY with you.  I produce a CD of music, a DVD of a concert, or other media that you want to hear and see – and instead of giving 90+ percent to a record company, and a few pennies to me (if I am lucky) – you can now pay me directly for the CD or DVD that I created for you to enjoy”.  This makes ME feel very, very happy indeed.

It’s sad the reasons for it – as alluded to above – but in the end, it’s such a good, good thing – because it means I can SUPPORT the artists I love, by putting my money into THEIR pockets (so they can make more records, create more art – share more of their art with us) for the first time – I know where my money is going – NOT into a black hole or the pockets of a greedy executive who cares nothing for music or the artists that I really love, and whose music means very much indeed to me.

So that all being said – nowadays, many artists who used to be wholly captured by and in thrall to  and who were horribly used by the music industry – have freed themselves from that corporate grip, and now are dealing directly with the fans – which is probably, the way it should have been all along!

 

And it’s not any particular type of artist – I like a fairly diverse array of music, from pop to the heaviest prog metal and everything in between – and seeing the creative ways in which these very creative people have walked away from the traditional models and found other ways and better ways to share their art with their fans – it’s an amazing and remarkable phenomena – and it’s odd to think that it came out of oppression, out of being under the thumb of a record company, it’s due to being robbed and used by purveyors of corporate greed – and the artists have totally turned this around – and made it be about the ART again – the music, the songs, the films, the performances – the things that made them start out to become a musician in the first place. We are back to the source, to the root – to the music.

The approaches to rebuilding and reconnecting to their audiences are as varied as the artists who have freed themselves – on the one hand, you have highly organised individuals like Robert Fripp – whose highest level projects such as King Crimson, operated on the world stage, through traditional record company and music industry practices – with all of the infrastructure and the bad deals that came with it – and after being betrayed by his long term business partners – Fripp took the time to think this through, and instead of just going to a “sell direct to the fans platform” – as many, many other excellent artists have done – he decided to create his own label, DGM which might be easily called the “world’s first ethical record company”.  They don’t have written contracts – they work on the honour systems – a handshake is the “contract” and honesty and fairness are the terms.

DGM supports much more than just Robert Fripp and his side projects, so the creation of DGM and the fact that DGM could then become “home” to other artists – that’s a brilliant accidental by-product of the very negative impetus that drove Fripp to create DGM in the first place.  So now – instead of only having “traditional” record companies to deal with – musicians and artists can make an ethical choice, and go to a unique company like DGM and find success – and a direct connection to their fan base – so it is win-win-win in that scenario.

Other artists – I am thinking now about the remarkable cottage industry put together by singer / songwriter Sam Phillips – the actual subject of this blog believe it or not! – who has never been comfortable with the music industry – and once the oppression of regular record labels became too much – she left, and set up her own website and started selling directly to her fans via that website.

Initially, she did this via a subscription service called “The Long Play” which I wrote about in some detail in this blog here.

The positive response to “The Long Play” was so overwhelming, personally I think it is fantastic to be able to deal directly with the artist in these cases, and the way Phillips has developed her media and marketing is honest, straightforward and admirable indeed – and I feel happy, because the money I spend to buy her records – goes back into her industry, into her team – which will only bring more amazing records, DVDs and downloads – it’s now a very positive, good circle of fair commerce – rather than a negative record industry style experience.

 

AND SEVERAL DAYS LATER I AM MAGICALLY BACK ON TOPIC…DIGRESSION ENDS

As is my way, I have initially at least, really diverted away from today’s topic with my little discourse on independence from record companies – but that is the background from which today’s actual topic emerges – at last.

In recent years, with the emergence of artist-run and artists-selling-direct-to-fans sites, often that artist will re-acquire the rights to their entire catalogue (where possible) which means it’s easy enough nowadays, to go to www.samphillips.com and to purchase a CD or a download of a thirty year old record.  I know that Bill Nelson and other artists who previously had very, very complex and scattershot distribution – has made a real effort to bring back all of the earliest parts of his catalogue so his entire life in music can be viewed and heard and acquired in one place – his own website – and I am always very happy when I read that artists have managed to re-acquire lost catalogue items – and can hopefully, built out a full catalogue that represents the entire body of their entire life as a musician.

 

In this particular case, I already had the record I am going to discuss here, which is 2001’s “Fan Dance” by Sam Phillips but it was actually the fact of me going to purchase more recent works by Sam (in particular, 2018’s “World On Sticks” which I had just missed last year due to circumstances beyond my control; and even more spectacular – the audio and video versions of “Live At Largo” – fantastic recent releases from Sam)  – trying to complete my collection, which in fact goes way, WAY back to the very earliest days – in acquiring more recent records – it drew my attention back to some of her earlier works – so I have been  listening to a LOT of Sam Phillips lately, both modern and earlier works – and it’s been an absolutely incredibly enjoyable and joyous experience.

These songs – whether they be from last year or thirty years ago – these songs have something in them that is immensely attractive to me – and I think that just now, in 2019 – in going back and listening to a few key releases, that I have possibly figured out what it is that appeals to me with regards to the music of Sam Phillips – and it can be summed up into one very important word:

 

Hope.

 

Whether I am listening to “Love Is Not Lost” from “Recollection” (in that instance, going really, really far back into the mists of time) or the latest studio and live tracks just downloaded from www.samphillips.com – there is one common theme in this music – and it is hope.

I believe that subconsciously at least – I knew that already – and I have known it for a long time.  But it took that curious thing I alluded to earlier – the passage of time – to suddenly and very, very clearly show me that it’s HOPE that drives this artist forward – hope for something better, something beyond the ordinary – something beyond the hurt and heartbreak of life.

Like many singer / songwriters – Sam does write about pain – emotional pain – the pain of just existing in a baffling and inexplicable world – and that is one thing – but if you really listen, and if you then allow the passage of time to sink in – and then really listen again – you will hear it.

You will feel it and know it – that no matter how sad or depressing those real-life stories can sometimes get – in the uplifting way that Sam writes, and sings, and harmonises (oh my dear God, those harmonies!) and in the uplifting way that Sam presents her lyrics – you can clearly see and hear the hope in her heart – and for me, that helps me to realise that yes – there is hope – when I struggle – and I think that this knowledge is such a powerful thing.

Sam Phillips is a serious musician, who writes serious songs about many, many topics – some, the more expected or ordinary (for lack of a better word – there is nothing ordinary about any of Sam’s songs really!) “singer-songwriter” fare – i.e. love songs, songs of loss, songs of longing, wistful songs, and so on – but she also writes a lot of other types of songs – some of them, very, very dark indeed (I am thinking of “The Black Sky” now, from the remarkable “Martinis And Bikinis” album from 1994 – which, by the way, features a few tracks with Colin Moulding of XTC on bass guitar – don’t miss that one!) – songs about mankind’s ability to destroy and fuck up the world while we sit and watch in horror – so her writing runs a real gamut from being all about love to the most biting social commentary possible – but no matter what the song is about, for me, somewhere  in there, in some turn of phrase or lyrical invention – there is HOPE.  Or possibly, a warning that a lot of bad things are happening, and we NEED some hope.

Over the past 20, 30 years or more, there has been a LOT of music produced, by a lot of artists – that holds little or no hope whatsoever.  It’s all the darkest, most real, most terrifyingly true stuff – it’s real, it is happening:  and musicians and artists are looking at events and reporting them through their art – and it’s just terrifying because it’s TRUE.

And – in that massive outpouring of musical truth – there is a lot of great music, OK – it is true that lyrically some artists and some bands almost seem  to espouse or prefer a “THERE IS NO HOPE” kind of ethos within their music – and because that is also usually the absolute truth – it does appeal , it is of interest and I love a lot of that music – probably because it DOES tell the unvarnished truth – and I will always prefer hard, honest music over something less real…

However – within the lyrics that Sam Phillips writes – and it’s not often overt at all – I just get an intense feeling of hope from what she is saying.  A sense of hope…and this is the really important point here – that I do NOT get from many, even from most, artists no matter how good or how much I might really love their music – other artists rarely make me feel the way listening to the music of Sam Phillips makes me feel.

It took me a long time to realise that, and even longer to articulate it (until just now, in actual fact).

I think that the human being’s enjoyment of music is an incredibly complex, multi-faceted thing that it is not easy to understand, describe or understand easily.  For me, every piece of music has components that I listen to in different ways, for different reasons – there is no single standard “way” of listening because often, a certain element or elements leap out at me and attract me where for another listener – those same elements hold nothing for them, they do not move them or affect them as they affect me.  And there is nothing wrong with this – just as each human being is a unique individual, I think that each listener has his or her own “way” of listening to any particular song, album or artist – and the perception of each song is going to be different each time, for each listener – that’s what makes listening to music such a unique and such a very “personal” thing – because the same song – can have a huge array of very different effects on each different listener.

Some listeners will love a song because of the vocal.  Or the words.  Or the bass guitar.  Or the drum sound.  Or the way that one splash cymbal hits just before the vocal chorus begins…

Other listeners will find other components that stand out or appeal to them – and you end up with thousands and thousands of different yet all valid “reasons” why we like a song.

 

But beyond that personal interpretation – sometimes, there are globally available energies that we could ALL tap into if we were aware they are present.

I think that the quality of “HOPE” which is not tied directly to just one song or one lyric or one bass note or one piano chord – but in fact, this quality seems to exist ALMOST independently of the song itself (unlikely as that seems and as counter-intuitive as that seems) I think that the feeling of hope that I get comes from some underlying mechanism – something about the lyrics, the way she has written each lyric – and if you just judged them on the surface – you might not “get” the feeling of hope.

So while I am sure it (the hope) is mostly contained in the lyrics – I am also quite sure that (the hope) is NOT in the lyrics or rather, not in the lyrics alone.

 

 

Somehow – and this is the feeling I’m getting these past couple of days in revisiting the “Fan Dance” album of 2001 so closely – somehow it’s not just in the lyrics, but the hope I am now seeing, now hearing now FEELING properly and completely for the first time since 2001 when this record appeared – that hope is tied to the ENTIRETY of the performance.  I will try to say what I mean here:

It is in the warmth of the tone of Sam’s voice as she sings the melody

It is in the amazing blending of voices that occurs when Sam harmonises with herself

It’s also in the unique and lovely background vocals and harmonies which seem straightforward on the surface, but can be often quite sophisticated and complex – as one example, the song “Love Is Everywhere I Go” contains a lead vocal, a second, overlapping vocal “response” (“looking through you…”) and background vocals – and somehow – this is all woven into an incredible single vocal “tapestry” if you will – along with, an astonishing transition from the “bridge” back to the chorus – which I don’t really even understand how she DID that – but it’s amazing.

The vocal layering and complexity – with an ultimately very simple sounding and straightforward output as “the vocal” – of a track like this – it also contains a lot of this hope I am now detecting – somehow – woven into this elaborate and beautiful tapestry of interwoven voices.

 

It’s also in the CARE that is shown in the playing – in the deliberate, slow, precise strokes of the acoustic rhythm guitar – which is then mirrored in perfection by the deliberate, slow drum beats and then  to the details of that following percussion – when that crash or splash cymbals DOES hit just before the chorus begins again – the band is so tight, so together as to be performing as if one body – those drum parts mirror those Sam Phillips rhythm guitars which mirror the bass and atop which sits the Magic Vocal Tapestry Full Of Hope – it’s in THERE.

The HOPE I am hearing and feeling and experiencing now, that I did perhaps feel in a lesser, more clouded way back in the day – it’s so much a part of each and every song on each and every Sam Phillips record – it’s definitely there – but as you can see, articulating “where” it is within a particular song is very, very difficult, if not impossible!

 

So I know the hope is very real, I can feel it absolutely – but I don’t exactly (or even inexactly) know where it is “coming from” in any given song, or on any given album – but – one thing I do know –  it that it is definitely there – and it’s my hope – that if you like the music of Sam Phillips – it would be my hope that you have heard this feeling of hope coming through her music,  too.

 

For me, this quality sets Sam apart from many other musicians – where I don’t feel that hope in others’ music – I just don’t feel anything even akin to hope in a lot of modern music.  And maybe it’s there too, in the music of those other artists – but it’s harder to see.  Or will take longer to see.  The “passage of time” – that’s a variable that is not in my control – or anyone’s control – and in this case, a certain amount of “a passage of time” has allowed me to see, hear and experience something within this music that I already loved – that I had never really seen, heard or experienced until I listened again to the “Fan Dance” album yesterday and again, today.

I am very glad that this happened, because we can all always use a little more hope – and, I’m also happy to report, that it doesn’t feel like just a little hope – often with Sam’s songs and Sam’s records –  it feels like a great big, joyous, hopeful hope – and that has made me feel very happy indeed.  Now when I hear these songs – I am given an extra gift, I am uplifted – and you don’t get that every day.

 

What a remarkable experience this has been – and it’s all down to perception, the passage of time, and suddenly recognising something important – something very important – that was actually there all along but I just did not realise it.

It’s all about the hope.

 

Note:  for the purposes of this blog I listened to the “Fan Dance” CD a few times, but in terms of direct inspiration and for me, having the most readable, easiest to see, hear and feel – in terms of the hope theme I am talking about – I relied upon these particular tunes, with their particular lyrics – and it is upon these particular tracks that I formed the opinions expressed in this blog – and that is not to discount any of the songs NOT named – the entire album is a brilliant expression of not just hope, but of a visionary singer songwriter who writes with a rare, rare honest and forthrightness that frankly, I think – the world could use a lot more of.

 

My specific, particular song by song inspirations then – from the “Fan Dance” record – for this article – were:

 

Edge Of The World

Five Colors

Wasting My Time

Taking Pictures

Love Is Everywhere I Go

 

Also useful is this discography of Sam’s work

I could cite any number of Sam’s lyrics (or songs or albums) to try and demonstrate that underlying hope – which perhaps, on the surface – when you just read it – flat, on a page – (as below)  – maybe the sense of hope doesn’t come through as strongly – but if you put on the record, and listen – I think that then – I believe then you will hear it, you will feel it – and the lyrics themselves will take on a new meaning  that comes from your deeper understanding of the song as a whole.

The lyrics alone then, are not responsible for the perceived sense of hope – it’s actually the entire construct of the song – the music,  the instruments, the rhythm, the harmonies – the singing, the phrasing – the feel – many intangible properties making up a whole musical experience that in these cases – also house the secret weapon of Hope – real perceptible hope – it’s there for all to experience – and I am so, so glad that I took the time to go back and really listen to these songs… because that allowed me to have this extra experience that I am not sure all listeners of “Fan Dance” have yet had.

 

It would then be my hope that what I have written, might help unlock that same hope for any or all of you wanting to experience more than just “listening to a few songs” – for me, this new hope has huge value – underlying or not, visible or not – I am so glad it’s there – and I am so glad I happened across it in my music listening experience.

 

“There is no end to the good”.  Just think about that one crucial line – which appears right at the start of the song – bringing so much positivity, so much real hope – there is NO END to the good.  It is forever – it is always there – it is always available – I think that is part of what Sam is telling us.  A big part of it – have hope, there is hope, I know there is hope – so – you my patient audience – please have hope too.

 

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Love Is Everywhere I Go

Sam Phillips – 2001

 

 

Going down this road again
I finally know
There is no end to the good

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Burning light inside my dreams
I wake up in the dark
The light is outside my door

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

Chasing every fragment I see
Looking through you
Love is looking for me
Breaking open the clouds
I’m not stranded in time

Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you
Love is everywhere I go
Looking through you

 

________________________________________________________

 

 

“There is no end to the good”.

 

 

Dave Stafford

September 1, 2019

whatever happened to… the grays ??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(instruments played added in by me – d.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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