I’ve got this notion…

After recently completing a couple of new tracks in the “music for apps” series, one piece done in korg’s  remarkable gadget app, entitled “fair play (advanced version)”, and the other, a very new piece made in my old friend nanostudio , entitled “treeclimber” – my most recent application-based work to be uploaded – I was thinking about what I should work on next.

I always have in my mind, a massive backlog of ideas for work with apps, and there are still a number of apps that I have not had the chance to record with – and in some cases it’s almost criminal, because they hold so much promise.  And I promise that I will get to them – borderlands granular being but one of them – an amazing ambient music application.

This is my current, “off-the-top-of-my-heid” list of apps that I own, but have simply not had an opportunity to record with yet:

borderlands granular

sector

moog’s animoog  – (note – I have quite a lot of material recorded using animoog, which dates back to the earliest times, almost three years back – that I have yet to publish any of – and it’s an incredibly beautiful application, one of the absolute best)

nave

thor

arturia family: imini and isem and iprophet

not to mention…

synergy

addictive synth

nlog pro

sliver

alchemy

arctic pro

and, no doubt, a host of others 🙂

 

And maybe what this list is…is the list of my next half dozen or so “eternal albums” series for 2015 – possibly.  I need to look at this carefully, and recently, I have been working with my app data (i.e., a mass of audio recordings made over the past few years, involving applications – and lots of them!!), of which there was such an overwhelming amount, created so quickly, over the first couple of years using apps, that I am just now sorting out the data (this is the curse of being prolific and incredibly inspired all at once, I dove head first into apps, recording so much video and audio, that my backlog has at times stretched out to about two years – and it’s only very slowly being worked through now, very slowly indeed! – it will take a long, long time to “catch up” – if I ever do!), and seeing what I have to present to you – and there is quite a lot sitting here, just waiting for me to find time – and I am constantly torn between the need to present this backlog of interesting application-based music, and playing new app-based music which will then also need to be presented – it’s always a choice, a choice I don’t want to make – I truly wish I had time to do both, but as it is, I am constantly bouncing back and forth between… – music of the past, music of the present, music of the pastmusic of the present.

 

Before I could sort through my mental files and choose one of these neglected apps to work on, another thought appeared in my head, which I kept trying to push away, I kept resisting it – until I realised, that I am much happier if I always have a project going in notion. So – without any remorse or hesitation whatsoever, I dived in, and began a new piece in notion, with a temporary title of “quartet in d major for four guitars” – it is another work in the classical genre, but this time, I am [temporarily, I assure you] moving away from the concerto form, and I am trying something new.

 

I have worked with notion and guitars before, in fact, my very first notion piece, “notionally acoustic”, was scored for two acoustic steel stringed guitars, as was the later “once more (into the fray)”, but to date, never really in the Classical genre, so I loaded up four nylon-stringed, classical guitars into notion – and began writing.

 

Very soon, I realised, that this is an amazing opportunity to apply some of my very limited Guitar Craft knowledge, in a writing situation, being very aware of the place that Guitar Craft already has within classical performance – i.e. where groups such as the Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists (and their predecessors, the League Of Crafty Guitarists) and the California Guitar Trio, have used the new standard tuning, and, techniques such as “planned circulations” when performing classical works from Bach to Beethoven to Bartok.

 

With that strong history – and I was there, when the California Guitar Trio started doing a lot of classical repertoire, arranged by the remarkable Bert Lams, a musician that I respect more than most, and those early performances were the first time I had seen circulations used to play the very trickiest portions of some of these compositions – which might just about be “impossible” for three guitarists to play without using the circulation to share out the workload.  So any passage that is too incredibly quick or complex for a single guitar to play – can be shared across the three guitars, which makes the piece performable.

 

Or – it might also be, that in some cases, it’s not because it’s a tricky section of the piece, it’s rather that, Bert takes real joy in breaking up these melodies and harmonies into their component notes, and sharing them out between himself, Hideyo and Paul – and I was astonished the first time I saw this – it’s truly impressive, a remarkable way to perform classical music, and one of the most innovative I’ve ever seen.

 

Bert’s “planned circulations” truly inspired me, and now, while I cannot, unfortunately, work in new standard tuning (NST) in notion (I really, really wish they would add this capability to the application; then my life would be absolutely complete!! But it would involve new samples for all of the missing notes, that would have to be matched to the existing notes…not an easy ask, I am afraid), I can work with circulations.  I learned how to notate a circulation when I was working on my alternative track “once more (into the fray)”, so I already know how to do it – so I realised, when I set up this piece, that this is an opportunity to really expand this experience, and I plan to use “planned circulations” whenever and wherever I can within this new piece.

 

Of course, there is already a small one (a circulation, of course!) in place (!!) in the first section of the piece, the earliest melodies and ideas arrived very quickly and sorted themselves out very easily, so I am perhaps into minute two by now – a brand new composition, but, one that is already using circulations – I think it’s very exciting.

 

A chance to blend what I learned in Guitar Craft, actually, one of the single most important and beautiful things I learned in Guitar Craft, the “circulation” (where a single note is passed around a circle of guitarist, improvised or planned) – with classical music – something which, at the time, I did not have the skill, inspiration or tools to write – but now, fast forward to 2015 – and I have all three – amazingly.

 

Which means – at last – I can integrate the beauty and delight of the circulation form, into any classical composition I do involving guitars – so, four guitars, and of course, since I am notating sampled guitars in notion, rather than notating for real guitars in the real world, I use another tool to simulate the presence of four real players, an old, old piece of technology that I think is often criminally overlooked:  panning, or stereo placement.

 

OK, I am not able to do this in 5.1 (yet) or build up a 3D model a la Dolby Atmos, but – I can begin with what I’ve learned from the world of recording – if you want to simulate the physical position of different players, especially in a classical piece, you have to give careful thought to their stereo placement.  Now, in this case, it happens to be wonderfully simple, I set the four guitarists up like this:

 

Guitarist 1           Hard Left

Guitarist 2           30 degrees left of centre

Guitarist 3          30 degrees right of centre

Guitarist 4           Hard Right

 

Incredibly simple, but also, incredibly important – and I think, that this very simple technique, sounds wonderful – if you have a nice reverb room for all four players, and you put on the headphones and close your eyes…the stereo is simply amazing, and you really start to be able to pick out each player, and hear each distinct contribution to the piece.

 

It means too, that I can work in pairs – but not just the obvious, but in every possible configuration.

 

The most obvious two pairs would be Guitarist 1 and Guitarist 4, which gives you a very wide separation, and when Guitarists 2 and 3 fall silent, you get a particular ambience with just 1 and 4 playing.  At the same time, the second most obvious pair, Guitarists 2 and 3, sound almost as if they are in mono, wonderfully blended, being closer to the centre, and when 1 and 4 fall silent, this pairing have a completely different ambience, which provides a wonderful contrast to the wide separation of 1 and 4.  (Note, obviously, if you had a fifth instrument in this scenario, it would, of course, be set to dead centre).

 

Of course then, I am able to do any of the other remaining possible pairings, 1 and 3, 1 and 2, and 2 and 4 – so that’s five basic pairings…but for me, the most satisfying thing of all, personally, musically, and aurally – is when I run a planned circulation using all four players.  That means, if I score the notes starting with Guitarist 1, and then moving through the other three players in order, that you get the notes moving right across the stereo image from Hard Left to Hard Right (or, moving across your speaker system, or, moving across and through your head, in your stereo headphones) which just sounds wonderful to my ears!

 

If it is a particularly quick series, this almost then becomes a wonderful blur of musical motion, as the notes splay across your headphones, first, from left to right, then, back, but there is also the possibility of changing direction at any point in time, and sending the notes into almost any sequence – the most obvious being 1, 2, 3, 4, then the reverse of that, 4, 3, 2, 1 but there is no reason at all that I might not use other more unusual “orders” such as 2, 1, 4, 3 or 3, 1, 2, 4 and so on.  It’s also interesting the way these circulations “resolve”, when you are working on them, and you get to the end of the four bars or whatever, and you hear the way the circulation “works” within the large composition – it’s fascinating.

 

The possibilities are many, and I am very, very excited to see what works, what sounds good, what doesn’t work, what makes the most musical sense – what also pleases the aural senses the most.  I think it’s amazing that I am able to create this unusual sense of space, where you can distinctly hear each of the four players, and when they begin to “circulate”, you can follow the notes in “stereo space” which lends interest to the performance, while it adds sparkle to the music itself – do I play it straight, where the guitarist just “play” the notes, or do I put in the extra effort, and get them to work out quality “circulations” that do the most aural, and musical, justice to the piece?  I have the options, and I love it – these possibilities are truly exciting for a composer, which is what I’ve become, and I believe that because of this, I will probably begin to use circulations much, much more in my compositions, because I can, mostly!

 

There are a number of ways to accomplish this in notation.  Probably the simplest, and this is the way I do it, is, I write out a section of music, let’s say its four bars, in regular notation.  I then copy that across all four instruments, and then I simply decide who will play the first note – and I turn the other three guitarist’s corresponding notes into the equivalent rest.  Then I figure out who plays the second note, and I then turn the other three into rests.  Continue to the end – and you have a circulation.  Then – play it back.  If it doesn’t work – start over.  Or – make adjustments.  Sometimes you need to work on these a bit, because they don’t sound right – I’ve even decided to change notes in one or two of the copies to provide some alternate notes – so the circulation will then be subtly different from the original four bars of “straight” music that I had written.

 

That is just one way to do it, you can also decide what your notes will look like, by creating entire sequences of dummy bars, containing all rests, i.e., if you are in 4/4 time, then you would have four quarter rests per measure, or 8 8th rests, etc.  Then, you can go in and add notes manually, overwriting the rests, with the notes.

 

I’ve done it both ways, and both work fine, although I tend to use the “notes to rests” version rather than the “rests to notes” – it’s just my personal preference.

 

Another possibility, is to run two paired circulations – so, get Guitarists 1 and 4 playing one series of notes, while Guitarists 2 and 3, play a different one, perhaps in counterpoint or as a round – I haven’t really tried that, yet, so that might be interesting.

 

I just think that circulations and classical music were almost made for each other, and I love the idea of combining classical composition, with one of Robert Fripp’s best ideas ever.  It just works for me, and I believe that this new piece is going to really shine because of it – I am already very pleased with the first several bars, and their little “mini-circulation”, and my mind is racing ahead to imagining massive four-part guitar solo sections, no chords, just the four guitarists all soloing like mad – and then, cut it up into a circulation.

 

Imagine streams of 32nd notes or 64th notes, descending across four guitars, moving back and forth like a jagged triangle across the page, from guitarist 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 then back through them all to 1 again – like a wave of music, shared by these four players – I can’t wait to get to this imagined “solo section” – wherever it will be.

 

I am having to restrain myself a bit here, and make sure that I also have the piece centred and still based in the classical tradition, where I do have long stretches of music that are played “normally” – in fact, I want “normal” playing to dominate the piece, not the circulations – they need to be the exception rather than the rule.  They need to remain special, and I think that whenever they do appear, even if it’s fairly regularly – that they ARE special – and I am pleased and proud to have them available to me as an interesting tool that will hopefully, make my classical works more interesting and more unique – of course, any other “Crafty” that writes notation and is aware of circulations, might well also be crafting classical music including circulations, and frankly, I hope they are.

 

I really feel that the beauty of the circulation, is something that should be much more widely heard, and much more widely understood – the first time I was involved with one, in my very first live Guitar Craft circle – it absolutely blew my mind, I realised that I was a human being, being used by Robert Fripp in a live experiment in looping – and it was basically, a massive circulation involving 30 people, with Fripp directing and deciding what each player should play. Incredible, and, unforgettable – once you’ve been a part of such a unique thing.

 

That was in 1988, a long, long time ago now, but, I’ve carried that with me all this time, and now, the excitement I felt, that feeling of discovery – and later, at other Guitar Craft courses, I was fortunate enough to participate in many, many “unplanned” circulations, and planned ones, too – and sometimes, the absolute beauty of what happened in the “unplanned” ones especially, was just almost too much to bear, I would go to bed literally shaking my head at what a beautiful piece I had had the great fortune to be a part of.  A good circulation is a tonic, it literally heals me, it feels amazing, and it’s one of the most satisfying musical forms I have ever encountered.

 

The unplanned ones, where you have 20 or 30 players – or sometimes, in more intimate circumstances, with 7 or 8 players, as in some of the kitchen teams I have worked with (I made Kitchen Craft part of my Guitar Craft experience at almost every course I ever attended) where amazing things happen that you just can’t forget – “you remember that circulation we did that night, after we did the breakfast prep – that was astonishing?!!…” – all I can remember is that amazing circulation magic, and shaking my head in astonished disbelief – what an experience.

 

It does stick in your brain, and of course, there were those amazing early performances by Bert and the trio, and hearing Bert’s remarkable, unique arrangements of standard classical works, was a huge inspiration to me too, because I could then see the power of the “planned circulation” within all music – especially, in classical music.  It was interesting too, to watch and listen as the California Guitar Trio developed, more and more circulations crept into their work, so some of their later CDs and live performances still feature Bert’s special circulation-filled arrangements of classical, and other styles of performance, too.  To my mind, the trio are the best of the “Crafty spin-off groups”, because of the incredible variety of styles and pieces they perform, but also, because of the amazing arranging skills of Bert Lams.

 

I couldn’t write notation back then, in fact, I finally learned how thanks to the remarkable notion application, and I am still very much a beginner, but, I can now write it well enough – and it’s pretty easy to “hear” too, I do have “an ear” for music, so having Notion is such a blessing – I can write it, and instantly, I can HEAR it – get a good preview, and then I can “hear” if it is right or wrong – and make the appropriate adjustments – and try again.

 

It works.  It’s a good process, and I am so glad that I worked it out – it will definitely mean that I will want to create more repertoire for Guitar Craft, both classical and non-classical, I also plan to use circulations in some of my “alternative” works featuring steel-stringed acoustic guitars rather than nylon-stringed classical guitars – and in fact, one of my recent compositions, “once more (into the fray)” was done in this way – in that case, featuring two acoustic steel-stringed guitars.

 

In any case, the new piece is well under way, and I am hopeful that I can feature circulations in it in a fairly substantial way, without going over the top, and produce a pleasant, intriguing composition that will be enjoyed by all.  That would be a good thing.

 

notion was in constant use for the first year or so that I had it, so much so that I had to take a break from it, I did not want to, and it’s been a struggle keeping away from it all this time, many months, because I wanted to give the other apps a look in – which, to some extent, I have managed to do – except for the ones that I have yet to work with – but at least, I am keeping my hand in by working on existing eternal albums such as music for apps: “music for apps: gadget” and music for apps: nanostudio.

 

During my self-imposed “break” from notion, I did have a chance to sort out my data of stored music for applications, which allowed me to clean up, prep and upload the music for apps:  thesys eternal album, I also have set up sector as the next catalogue of recorded music to look at – sector is a remarkable application – and also during that time, I completed the two songs I mentioned earlier, “fair play (advanced version)” in gadget and “treeclimber” in nanostudio – and then, I lost my will power, I felt it calling to me, and suddenly, I am back in the world of notion once more (ahhh-bliss!…) – and feeling extremely happy about it, too, I truly enjoy working with this app, and writing notation, and having the instant feedback of being able to play back your music instantly, seconds after you put note to page – and that is hugely invaluable to a composer.

I’ve now already made significant progress with my new “four guitars”-driven quartet, and I am very excited about the possibilities for this piece – it’s sounding pretty good already, which is unusual – often, embryonic music refuses to take shape, or you struggle mightily to bring it into the shape you see in your head – but not this piece, it flows, it doesn’t require much tweaking, or at least, not so far – I am perhaps, two or three minutes in now – just working through the details :-).

 

I missed you, notion, I feel “normal” now – because for so many months, I always had at least one notion piece “on the go”, sometimes, two or even three, and I feel that music for apps: notion is one of my strongest works.  I am busy working on the next piece that will form a part of this ongoing eternal album and I am very excited indeed, about the musical possibilities inherent in a piece like this, when using classical notation mixed with the very potent Guitar Craft / Robert Fripp “circulation” – to my mind, that is quite a combination!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

pre-orders – remasters – alternative mixes – a boon or a curse?

Now that the good Steven Wilson has succumbed to the temptation to remix almost every important pop, rock or prog band that ever existed, in glorious 5.1 surround sound, with instrumental mixes, and extra tracks galore, I am afraid that I have succumbed to a new technological phenomena – the “pre-order”.

It was probably Amazon, bless their cotton socks, that started this trend (with my personal new favourite CD Store, Burning Shed, also well onto the pre-order bandwagon): order your favourite re-master or 5.1 expanded version of your favourite re-master, or an exciting new release, ahead of time, and you have the advantage of receiving it on the release date. That’s definitely a positive, it means you can get to the important bit all that much sooner: listening.

I mostly consider this concept a boon, my pocketbook, however, views it as a curse, especially since the advent of Burning Shed here in Europe, a specialist shop featuring all of the music candy that I cannot, cannot stay away from – so now, it’s a double curse – if Burning Shed don’t have it, Amazon probably do.

This is the problem though, another part of the curse, which might be labelled as “The Curse Of The Crimson King” because King Crimson (or rather, Robert Fripp) is guilty of this as much or more than many bands, as time goes on, they re-release their classic 60s or 70s music catalogue over and over and over again; on the one hand, taking advantage of the leaps and bounds of technological advance, so we can get ever-cleaner, ever more amazing-sounding renditions of our favourite music, on the other…making us buy it over and over and over again… Sigh.

At first, it made sense – so, using King Crimson as an example – I totally understood why: in the earliest days of the compact disc era, Fripp’s record company produced CDs of the original 10 King Crimson albums on CD when CDs came out, and they did a pretty poor job of transferring this very important music – so, Robert Fripp invented “The Definitive Editions” which were the first truly good-sounding versions of King Crimson CDs, and I had no issue at all with paying again, for something I had bought multiple times on vinyl, and then, on cassette, and then, on bad transfer CD, and finally, on Definitive Editions.

The problem is, more time passes, more technological leaps and bounds occur, and it’s that time again; time to remaster every King Crimson album yet again. Until finally, in 2014, we get what really is the definitive edition: the Steven Wilson remasters, in normal or deluxe versions. We get to hear the original multitrack tapes rendered into state of the art 5.1 surround sound, by someone who if he wasn’t already, is fast becoming the guru, the master, of the arcane science of 5.1 mixing, the remarkable Steven Wilson – who started out tackling one of the most difficult catalogues of all, the King Crimson catalogue; everyone held their collective breath, but, Steven was sensitive, understanding and very kind to these songs that we all grew so attached to in the early 1970s or even, the late 1960s.

This, begins to cost some serious money, and, I am not complaining, no one held a gun against my temple, but…if I had known, I would have just kept my chrome cassette tape of my import Crimson vinyl, until such time as the Steven Wilson expanded box 5.1 surround sound sets became available; if I had skipped the first three CD generations I would have saved, literally, hundreds of dollars / pounds i.e. a shed load of MONEY, on King Crimson alone :-(. I shudder to think how much money I lost across the entire Prog genre over the years :-).

But that brings me from one of the worst curses, which is not in any way limited to King Crimson, almost every prog band in the universe has immediately jumped on this same cash cow bandwagon, from Jethro Tull to Gentle Giant to Caravan, to one of the best boons – and that is the 5.1 experience itself. Now, when I was in my 30s, I decided to invest in a 5.1 system, mostly so I could watch films with their proper sound tracks, in theatre style. Audio 5.1 was a rarity for a long, long time, I was always interested in it, but, there really wasn’t much to buy for the longest time – so we had to be content with our wonderful sounding movies…

Of course, change is good, and the change came – now, 5.1 surround sound audio is becoming as common as nails, on both DVD and even nicer, on Blu-Ray (my personal favourite format) and I for one welcome it, and I say “boon”, it’s a good, good thing, it allows you to hear your favourite music in startling new ways, ways that can make you jump out of your seat they are so surprising and revelatory, ways that I cannot really describe using words – you have to hear it. I started getting into this seriously when the King Crimson 40th Anniversary / Steven Wilson editions albums started coming out, I got my 5.1 surround sound system back out of the box and set it up, because at last, I had something to actually LISTEN to on it….

And listen I did, and I do – and the Crimson catalogue is while an early triumph for Wilson –it’s still one of the very, very best jobs he ever did of re-configuring a strange and wonderful catalogue, into the 5.1 surround sound format, and of course, at the same time, unearthing all manner of remarkable rarities, from outtakes to alternate versions to previously unearthed live versions to, in one case, on Starless (either version, either the 2-disc Starless & Bible Black 5.1 package, 2 discs, or the new 27 disc version – yes, I said 27!) unearthing a live track that no one into the band could remember. Luckily, their lyricist did remember, so now we have the piece of Prog delight that is King Crimson’s “Guts On Our Side” – a remarkable track, rehearsed for a few days, performed once, dropped from the set, forgotten for 27 years, and now – it’s back!! You want to talk about bonus material – you need to see the new giant Starless box set, it is simply amazing.

But – also – see this brand new disc, just released on October 27, 2014, and arriving on that day via of course, my Burning Shed pre-order – the 1979 classic album “Drums And Wires” by XTC. Wilson already had one XTC disc under his belt, the most excellent 1992 album “Nonsuch”, but he was just using that to warm up, and now, in 2014, he has delivered what may be his master work – “Drums And Wires”. I sat down last night, and listened to the entire album in 5.1, plus, a generous helping of B-sides in 5.1 surround sound, and then, taking up over two hours of my evening, from the Blu-Ray edition, a massive number of “bonus tracks” – sessions, live tracks, and a full rehearsal session that is every XTC fan’s dream – including discussions, instrumental run-throughs, and a remarkable timeline of music that leads up to the recording of the actual album.

In the case of XTC, that series of sessions and rehearsals was really the sound of the band transforming, butterfly-like, from the “old” XTC of the madcap organ and piano of the ever so slightly deranged Barry Andrews, to the beautiful, all guitars attack of “Drums And Wires” – with new member Dave Gregory undergoing trial by fire, learning a massive number of songs – including some, from an early session, that sound very much like the “old” XTC, and it’s a wonderful thing indeed, to hear the band evolving at speed, and to hear Dave’s contributions to the songs – and, the leap of confidence that Colin Moulding underwent, with his song writing and performance “double whammy” of “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Life Begins At The Hop” – fronting the band, and changing the dynamic once again – his songs, of which there are several, suddenly leaping ahead into a new maturity that no one really expected, while Andy Partridge, as always, up his own song-writing game by several thousand percent – as always.

But if I leave aside the glorious batch of extra songs, including several I’ve never heard, and, including two wonderful promo videos that I’d never seen – and I just concentrate on the album itself – oh my. It’s a real beauty, it really is. Everything about this already amazing sounding record is amplified, enhanced, emboldened, and I nearly did jump out of my chair at several points, surprised, because I was for one thing, hearing this music in a way I never had done before, and, at the same time, Steven Wilson had pushed certain elements to the fore in the mix, making a lot of great choices on instrument placement in the 5.1 surround sound field – an amazing job this time, maybe his best (excepting the King Crimson catalogue possibly) – a lone tom-tom hit from Terry Chambers, bounces off of the rear right speaker, into a huge cloud of reverb that then pours across to another speaker…two astonishing, unexpected cymbal crashes during the first few notes of one of the songs, scared the life out of me – I swear I have never heard those in any other version of this album I’ve owned, or rather, I’d never heard them so well.

Then there was the instrumental version, and that’s something that over time, I’ve gotten really, really interested in, and I am so glad that apparently, Steven Wilson feels the same way – for example, the instrumental version of Gentle Giant’s “The Power And The Glory” is absolutely mind-blowing, it is so powerful, so precise, and yet, so full of the joy of music – Kerry Minnear is an incredibly joyful player – and that is the sound of a band at the height of their powers, captured perfectly across five speakers by the very talented Mr. Wilson.

Of course, there are others out there, re-mastering and re-mixing prog, pop and rock classics into 5.1 surround sound, including such luminaries as Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson, but right now, it’s all about Steven Wilson – and who knows where he will turn his ‘magic 5.1 wand’ next?

Some bands don’t seem to want to go down the 5.1 road, at least, not yet, but, they are interested in re-masters, sometimes, re-masters that we the listeners have waited for, for a long, long time – and this time, it’s Mr. James Patrick Page that I need to wag my finger at, for making us wait until 2014 to hear the re-mastered Led Zeppelin catalogue! Torture. But, worth waiting for.

The first three albums arrived a couple of months ago, but, Led Zeppelin IV (an absolute classic rock album) and Houses Of The Holy (Led Zeppelin does prog – or something akin to it, anyway) – arrived as part of the October 27, 2014 pre-order event, this time, from Amazon, and while there are no 5.1 mixes to drool over, the re-masters themselves are absolutely pristine and exquisite, done only in the incredibly perfectionist / with painstaking attention to detail, and – lots of guitars – that Jimmy Page can.

Each re-mastered Zeppelin disc comes with a second disc full of out takes, alternate takes, and various other musical delights, and as the albums have been arriving, the quality of those bonus tracks has just improved and improved, with these two – “Led Zeppelin IV”, and “Houses Of The Holy” feature the most amazing bonus material of all, from gentle acoustic guitar and mandolin tracks for songs like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Going To California”, to instrumental versions of “The Song Remains The Same” (replete with lots of extra lead guitar – as if the song didn’t have enough lead guitar in it already!) and “Over The Hills And Far Away” – a song I used to play in Pyramid, the band I was in when I was about 20 years old – hearing just the instruments, reminds me of the hours we spent learning the song, I had to do the solo, so I spent hours and hours with this track – and I know it backwards and forwards – so it’s great to hear it, with Robert Plant set to “mute”, and just the band, and of course, Jimmy’s many, many overdubbed guitars – the master of the overdubbed guitars if anyone is.

OK, I can forgive how long it took, regardless if this was due to a small, or even medium-sized monkey on Jimmy Page’s back, or just his loose, lackadaisical way of working – but I have to smile, when I hear the alternate version of the strange, disco-funk track that is “The Crunge”, the guitar part just cracks me up, it’s so unlike anything Page played before or since – and the rhythm section rocks, as Plant moans over the top of this funky mess – and then there are those amazing John Paul Jones synthesizers, sounding absolutely astonishing in this alternate version of the song – we all used to argue about this song, was it rubbish, was it great – I would tend to vote for great, myself, and it’s fantastic to hear alternate versions of all of these songs.

Hearing the multi-tracked lead solo of “Dancing Days”, the band are just kicking it, and such an unusual rhythm, too – I’ve always loved the odd “meter” of this track, and it sounds absolutely wonderful in this “new” version, in the vocal-less “No Quarter”, John Paul Jones’ keyboard masterwork, is brilliantly renewed in this alternate mix, I’ve always loved this song, I’ve played it on the piano or on electric piano or synth, for many, many years – another very, very progressive track – and Page’s sinister guitar riff is fantastic, while Jones plays wah-wah electric piano – fantastic, and, with the vocal focal point taken away, sounding absolutely remarkable.

I can still remember the day the original vinyl Houses Of The Holy was released, in 1973 – I went to the store, which was just a department store, that had a records section, that was nearest to my house, I was still in school at the time – the store was a White Front (because, the front was white) and I was there when the opened, had to wait while the staff un-boxed the album – and, there were a LOT of boxes – and a lot of us waiting to buy the album – this would be the per-cursor to the pre-order, back in the vinyl days – going to the store on release day, to get the record within the first five minutes of it being available. Fantastic. The strange Hipgnosis artwork fascinated me, it’s a truly beautiful record visually, too – and I took it home, and played it and played it, and then – played it some more.

What had happened to Robert’s voice? In the two years since Led Zeppelin IV, something happened, it just sounded so weird, until you got used to it. Pagey and the rhythm section, as always, made up admirably for any inconsistencies in Plant’s vocal performance, but in hindsight, I think he did a great job of the vocals on this record – they are excellent, especially on the rockers – like the wonderful “The Ocean”, another one that Pyramid learned and played, an absolute BLAST to play on guitar – what a rocker. “Got no time to pack my bags, my foot’s outside the door….”

The outro of the alternate UK mix in progress of “The Ocean” is absolutely amazing, with Plant singing in a very high register indeed – vocals that do NOT appear on the original album, but that are quite brilliant – so singing live, in this mix in progress, we catch a glimpse of the erratic vocal genius of Robert Plant – a great set of extra material this time, on both of these new Zeppelin re-master releases – they just get better and better and better. I am really amazed, and I really give Page a lot of credit for taking the time to produce this catalogue, and, to do such a meticulous, pristine, careful job of it – Jimmy Page is probably / possibly the 1960s equivalent to today’s Steven Wilson, maybe.  Or maybe, Steven Wilson is the 2010’s Jimmy Page – who knows?

I don’t know about you, but personally, I can’t wait for the re-master of Physical Graffiti – that should be another event entirely – and, for me, it’s the last “good” Led Zeppelin album – after that, they were never the same. But this period – 1971 to 1973 was awesome, two of their very best records, while really, from 1970 to 1974, was ALL sheer genius, on the road, and in the studio – well, really, starting with Led Zeppelin III – for me, this is the Holy Trinity of Led Zeppelin albums:

This is the 1970 – 1975 version, which does give a good overview of the changes the band went through…

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Houses Of The Holy
3) Physical Graffiti

Or, the “Super-Purist” Led Zeppelin Fan version which covers the timespan 1971 – 1973, and this was an amazing short period of sheer creativity, on a scale that they never really got back to after delivering these three amazing records:

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Led Zeppelin IV
3) Houses Of The Holy

It was at the end of this period, in 1973, that I saw the mighty Zeppelin, live at the San Diego Sports Arena, getting to delight in a tour that was half a tour in support of “Led Zeppelin IV” and half, the tour that saw some of the tunes from Houses Of The Holy being previewed for the first time ever. I then saw them again, twice in one week, remarkably (due to insane levels of ticket demand – on a Tuesday night, and then, on the Friday night of the same week – in 1975, which gave me the view from Physical Graffiti looking back). Both tours were amazing, and unforgettable, and the 1973 concert, also happened to be the very first rock concert I had ever attended, at the tender age of 15, but I was already rocking then, and starting out with Led Zeppelin live is not a bad way to start at all – it has stayed with me, and I try to remember that youthful energy now when I play the guitar – a few years on.  🙂

But, whether I like it or not, whether it is a boon, or a curse, or both (probably both, I am betting) the pre-order is here to stay, at first, I did tend to resist it, but now, I take advantage of it every time, so I can get that “waiting for the store to open to pick up my new album, by my very favourite band at the time” feeling again. Wonderful days, when I just had The Beatles, and then Led Zeppelin, and not a whole lot else, to listen to.

Starting out as a lead guitarist, for me, Led Zeppelin was a great grounding for the aspiring rock lead guitarist, learning all of those songs – some, simple enough, sometimes, it’s quite easy to imitate Jimmy Page (say, on “Tangerine” or “The Ocean”) – including some really difficult ones, like “Ten Years Gone” from Physical Graffiti, in trying to learn that bastard of a song, my respect for Jimmy Page went through the roof – he was really a very, very serious guitarist capable of a huge range of expression, and he wrote some cracking good songs, too!

Will we ever see or rather, hear, Led Zeppelin on 5.1? I don’t know. But I do know, now that I have a collection of 5.1 audio discs started, that I would probably be the first 15 year old kid, in line at a digital “White Front” called “Amazon”, no longer in 1973, to get my brand new shiny 5.1 version of “Houses Of The Holy”. I will be there.

Please.

 

Meanwhile, I would have to agree that pre-orders; re-masters with expanded bonus tracks, sessions, mixes, takes – are both boon and curse, the curse being, I haven’t really got the kind of money to buy all the AMAZING stuff that is coming out on CD – for example, I have my eye on the new five CD box from original Genesis guitarist Ant Phillips – but I don’t know if I can afford it, so I have not yet ordered it. I can’t decide, I know I would like it, that’s not an issue, it’s just the cost. So the curse, which started with having to buy multiple versions of the same King Crimson albums, over and over again, year after year – now continues with a positive river of reissues, re-masters, 5.1 expanded editions, box sets and rarities collections – and my mind says “I want it all, all of it” but my pocketbook does not agree with me, it does not automatically say “yes” to every new release.

Would that it would or could. But hey – if I skip one five CD set, maybe then I can afford a nice affordable 2 disc set? Or, I can save up to buy REV, the latest software instrument for Komplete / Kontakt, that I have had my eyes on for several months – I really should just lay off of CD buying for a while.

But – I probably won’t, because invariably, burning shed will send me an email, with just ONE thing I want, I will go to the website, and find another four or ten things that I really, really want – and I try to compromise, maybe buy two, or three, but not eight, or ten or 12.

This is so complicated. Almost like a Complicated Game. And then, you get pre-orders. Sure, they are handy; they mean you get the disc quickly, you can also get special promotional items if you are one of the first to order, I have both a beautiful “The Power And The Glory” postcard from the Gentle Giant set, and, a beautiful “Drums And Wires” postcard, personally autographed by the good Andy Partridge. That can go with my full set of autographed 2009 XTC re-masters, I suppose. Except…they are re-mastering them again. With the right music, with more of the music, much more, with the right artwork – I am so, so glad that Andy Partridge created APE records, and has put right the many questionable activities of his former record company Who Shall Remain Nameless.

And perhaps the one thing that APE records and Andy Partridge have “put right”, is in creating this absolutely powerful new version of “Drums And Wires”, which is visceral as all hell, and so powerful when rendered into 5.1 surround sound by the good Mr. Steven Wilson, I was truly riveted throughout both the 5.1 album version, and the 5.1 instrumental mix – utterly fascinating, and it really does give you an absolutely new appreciation for the songs, you really do “hear things you’ve never heard” when you hear a good Steven Wilson 5.1 mix.
In my humble opinion, not speaking as a musician now, but just as a fan of music, and a fan of the band XTC for many years – I was so, so lucky, to see the very last live show the original quartet (the one with Dave Gregory, so not the original, the almost-original, quartet) in San Diego, before Andy packed it in for touring – that this 5.1 version of “Drums And Wires”, is, to date, the BEST of the Steven Wilson 5.1 mixes.

He takes a great, well-made album, and turns it on its head, making you hear things that were there all along, but, that you never quite appreciated because you were too busy listening to Andy sing or listening to one of Dave’s incredible solos…but, the amazing musical touches of the original production team, and in particular, the power and majesty of the now long-departed Terry Chambers on drums, coupled with the rapidly becoming-McCartney bass playing of Colin Moulding, well, those two are an INSPIRED rhythm section, and you don’t realise just how good they are, until you hear this in 5.1 – providing the perfect rhythmic bass and drums “bed” for the two guitarists to work over – and, work they do.

A supreme effort for Mr. Wilson, then, (and a proud rendering of what is almost certainly the band’s masterpiece) and I for one, offer a tip of the hat for his amazing work on this disc, it floored me, I am so, so glad I opted for the Blu-Ray, it just sounds SO incredibly good – it really does.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming:

October 27, 2014

Three Pre-Orders Arrive in One Day:

1) XTC / “Drums And Wires” – The Surround Sound Series – Steven Wilson 5.1 Mix
2) Led Zeppelin / Led Zeppelin IV – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.
3) Led Zeppelin / Houses Of The Holy – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.

CDs for the collection, or rather, four Led Zeppelin CDs and one XTC Blu-Ray full of 5.1 mixes and bonus tracks, and one XTC CD – so, five CDs and a beautiful Blu-ray – not a bad evening at all, a very nice thing to come home to, I should say!

And I do say.

Let’s have then, next, along with the obviously-hopefully-forthcoming Physical Graffiti from Mr. Page, how about XTC – The Big Express – followed by XTC – English Settlement – two of my personal favourites, from Mr. Wilson?

This would be a boon to my ears, and a curse to my pocketbook – but never mind, it is all about the music – and it is the music that matters, as you will know, if you regularly hang around in the land of pureambient as I do.

I guess I will continue to do pre-orders; which means that more and more, I will be expecting x number of items to arrive on a certain date, which will mean then, an evening of listening, learning and exploring – for example, I saw two videos that I’d never seen, and I heard several XTC songs that I had never heard before, when I sat down to explore the “Drums And Wires” Blu-ray at some length – and that was a wonderful experience, the videos were hilarious, with our heroes goofing around in classic style, but again, it was hearing all that music, music I’d never heard, early sessions, a rehearsal – so much effort going into the preparation of the album – and finally, making the album, with a long series of abandoned tracks and ideas scattered in their wake – but, still ending up with a couple of dozen truly excellent, and often startlingly innovative, tracks, enough for the album and for any number of B sides as well – plenty of songs to go around.

Well – when you put it like that…OK, dammit, boon. Not curse, boon. Sigh.

 

[expensive boon?] 🙂

the beatles – in the beginning

I have been remiss.  While I have written at length about so many great bands and artists, and – OK, I have mentioned the Beatles at times, but what an omission – this band dominated my musical world for six years, from the age of 9 through 15, for me, there was only one band, and that was John, Paul, George and Ringo – my beloved Beatles.

So when I had an unusual request arrive in my email inbox the other day: a nice lady in Las Vegas, asking me if I would be interested in writing in my blog, about the Beatles – well, how could I refuse?  In fact, it struck me, why on EARTH have I not dedicated a single blog to the four lads from Liverpool who started it all for me?…(and, for so many others, too!).

Oh my God, I thought, I can’t believe that I’ve done a hundred plus blogs in just over a year’s time, and I’ve never dedicated one to the Fab Four!!!

That is a grievous error on my part, and this kind soul who asked me so innocently if I would write about my favourite group of all time – she will eventually end up with more words than she ever, ever dreamed of.  Just – give me a few years, and I will make this up to you all – and, I will add to her ever-growing collection of Beatle memories (what a job – I’d love to collect Beatle memories as part of my “day job”!).

Strangely, though – Las Vegas has been on my mind of late: because one of my strongest wishes in terms of my ongoing relationship with the Beatles, is to visit Las Vegas for the sole purpose of attending the Cirque du Soleil‘s remarkable Beatles “LOVE” production.  I really, really want to see and hear this musical and visual spectacle (and I absolutely love the innovative “Love” CD that George and Giles Martin worked so incredibly hard on) – it’s a great album, it just is – an uncanny juxtaposition of some of the best songs ever recorded by anyone -the music of the Beatles, totally reinvented for the purpose of supporting the Beatles “LOVE” production.

This also provided us with the first alternative remixes of Beatles tracks from an official Beatles source (most fans were delighted, some cried “blasphemy” – but I am firmly in the former category) – I approve of the alternative approach of these remixes, Giles Martin especially worked very hard to create something really unique and wonderful from there tracks; so, in 2006 – George and Giles Martin  gave the world 80 minutes of new Beatle music – which is simply brilliant.

If you watch the 2008 DVD documentary video about the making of “LOVE”; it looks like it’s going to be an amazing live performance (and we already KNOW the music is good…) – so, hopefully, one day, we’ll travel to Las Vegas and check it out.

But already – I digress.  Back to the business at hand, by all means! 🙂

 

Consider this then, to be the beginning of a series of articles about the Beatles, as a group, and possibly, also as solo artists, although that’s another story – however, I do reserve the right to write at length about my favourite Beatle, George Harrison, at great length; out of sequence; at any time in his life – because George was the quintessential Beatle to me – he had it all, that wry humour, a winning smile, advanced prowess with the lead guitar, the most beautiful slide guitar sound of all time – truly amazing slide guitar sound and technique – George was just an all-around cool guy…may he rest in peace.

However, George will be the subject of a future series of Beatle-related posts, this time, however, I am writing about the Beatles as a group – and I intend to begin at the beginning, and just see where we travel to.  or, possibly, as George said: “arrive without travelling…”.  Sigh.  Note – I only just realised, from reading the wiki entry for the song, that the bansuri (Indian classical flute) player on “The Inner Light”, is none other than the remarkable Hariprasad Chaurasia, one of my favourite Indian musicians – a brilliant player – imagine that, I had no idea!

But now it’s time, finally, to talk about the Beatles .  And when it comes to the Beatles , well…

 

It all begins with memories.

One of my earliest memories of all, is a memory of standing in the front yard of my house on Mineral Drive, in San Carlos, a suburb of San Diego, California, in about 1965 or 1966, as a young child, and hearing “Nowhere Man” playing on a transistor radio, and feeling utterly transfixed and transported – frozen in time, almost mesmerised, while this heavenly music played, sounding literally like musical magic…  (which, in my opinion – it simply is).

the memory is kind of…mixed up in my mind, I mainly remember the incredible sound of the vocal harmonies (although at 7 or 8 years old, I had no concept that that sound was “vocal harmony” – that knowledge came much later) – but, that sound is mixed up with bright, bright sunshine, on a late afternoon, with late afternoon shadows behind me from the house, but bright, bright sunshine in my eyes – standing there, looking out at the street – and just listening to “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles.  What a beautiful, mournful, wistful, heartbreakingly beautiful sound.

To this day, “Nowhere Man” gives me shivers – without fail, when they hit the chorus the first time…it’s the sound of heartbreak, the sound of sympathy, the sound of empathy, the sound of joy at hitting a perfect harmony…a song so complex, so far ahead of it’s time – what a beauty – and I think this song encapsulates the beauty of the song-writing and singing of John Lennon in particular, who just excels on this tune – until that amazing dual lead solo comes along, that is, when the good George joins in with John to absolutely steal the show with their amazing, concise, super bright guitar solo or I should say, duet – ending with that magical-sounding harmonic – a great piece of guitar playing from both players, if you ask me.

Of course, at that age, I already knew who the Beatles were, I had been aware of them probably since I was about 5, but it wasn’t until a couple years later, when I recognised “Nowhere Man” for what it was, a beautiful, yearning, shiver-inducing slice of perfect pop music.

like so many kids did in the States, I watched the Beatles cartoon as a young boy, and I saw the Beatles themselves on our tiny black and white television, although I was just a little too young to see the live performances on the Ed Sullivan Show (actually, I probably did see it, as I imagine that my parents watched it); they did watch the Ed Sullivan Show show regularly at least in it’s later years, not sure about in 1963 – but I would have only been five at the time (1963), and I have few memories from before kindergarten (i.e. about age 5).

the Beatles performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show for the final time on august 14, 1965, but, for a few years following that, they would regularly send Sullivan other video artefacts, like the much, much more sophisticated colour videos that the Beatles shot and sent to the show (since they could not possibly schedule live performances at the time, their schedule was absolutely insane – so they sent their data instead!).

I remember in particular, the video of “Rain” (which was shown along with three other later tracks, “Paperback Writer”, “Penny Lane”, and “Strawberry Fields Forever”) – [apologies for any annoying ADVERTS at the beginning of any or all of the preceding video links] – and specifically, with regards to “Rain”, I can recall being absolutely gob-smacked by the increased complexity of that song, Lennon’s beautiful, dreamy vocal – and George looked so, so cool with his Gibson SG, too.   And why were they all wearing sunglasses, I wondered?

It was years later that I found out the answer to that one:  “tea”.  They had been…having “tea”.  Lots and lots of “tea”. 🙂

 

When I was about 8 or 9 (so, 1966 / 1967), my parents started allowing me to buy long playing vinyl albums for the first time.  I may have had some 7 inch singles of a more juvenile nature, but my first actual LPs were Beatles albums – starting, strangely, with, “The Beatles Second Album” and then, “Meet The Beatles”, followed by “Beatles 65” and later on, the truly awesome “Yesterday And Today”

– of course, being an American, and living in the U.S. at the time, meant that I had the doubtful “joy” of owning the somewhat inferior US pressings, courtesy of Capitol Records, USA – fewer songs, and incorrect running orders, changes to the original albums not sanctioned by the Beatles at all.   these four Capitol albums were, for a number of years, the only albums I had – and I really didn’t ever have the money to buy them all until I was an adult – so sadly, I never owned “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” on vinyl (perhaps my two favourite mid-period records!) but eventually did on CD, (nor did I ever own most of the other early to mid period albums – “Please Please Me”, “With The Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Beatles For Sale”“Help”, and many others – on vinyl) – I think “Sgt. Pepper” and then the “White Album” were some of the first “later” Beatles albums that I finally acquired, and eventually, as part of the remastered box sets that finally “set the record straight” for beatles recordings, with the beautiful stereo and mono box sets – finally, I had the bulk of the Beatles output.

I have just now, during the research for this blog, supplemented that CD catalogue by ordering both the “US Albums” box set, as well as the two-double-CD remastered “Live At The BBC” discs – can’t wait for those to arrive – Vol. 2 is all previously unreleased material, so more LIVE Beatles on the radio is a good, good thing…more “new” Beatles music – especially excited about hearing the “new” music from Vol. 2.

Regarding Capitol’s uh, “adjustments” to the Beatles catalogue without their consent, I remember reading the John Lennon interviews from Playboy in book form, wherein he was aghast at being handed the U.S. albums to discuss by the interviewed, and explaining to him how very hard they (the Beatles and George Martin) worked on presentation, running orders, and so on – only to have Capitol America just ignore it all, and release inferior, shorter “versions” of Beatles albums – to make MORE money – fewer tracks, more records sold for fans to get all the tracks – simple arithmetic, probably made them millions – Capitol I mean, not so much the Beatles.

 

It wasn’t until the Beatles full catalogue were first released on CD, that I finally became truly familiar with the real Beatles catalogue, which took some real getting used to since I was so, so accustomed to “The Capitol Albums”.  However, now, even though I do own Vol. I of “The Capitol Albums” mainly for sentimental reasons, I vastly and totally prefer the British releases – with the correct running orders, and songs all intact – plus the singles – which in the US, were sometimes added to albums, too, I believe – rather than mirroring the British releases.  I can recall, too, that the VERY first compact disc I ever bought, ever, was “White Album” – bought from the Price Club for $20.00 – what a way to start your CD collection!  For me, it was almost like hearing the album for the first time, the lead guitars on “Good Morning, Good Morning” practically LEAP out of the speakers, while George Martin’s impeccably-arranged horn section on George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle” came through the mix with a hitherto unheard brightness and clarity – sounding fantastic!

I am well aware I’ve not really spoken much about the band’s individual talents, from the rock-solid drum beats invented by Ringo Starr, to the absolutely remarkably talented Paul McCartney, possibly the best melodic bass player of all time, and an absolute innovator on the bass guitar (not to mention, what a voice!!!) – so many “firsts” for Paul, the high register passages, the strange note at the end of “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the “sticking” or repeated bass line in the outro of “taxman” – Paul is simply an amazing and extremely innovative bassist – and when you matched him up with the rock steady, unflappable Starr – you had the best rhythm section in rock music – with two genius guitarist, songwriter, singers on the front line with them.  what an amazing group – literally the first, and the best, at just about everything.

 

Of course, we now have the much more recent (2009) “Stereo” and “Mono” ultimate remasters box sets, which truly are incredible – and I am so, so glad that they did not mess with the catalogue in terms of the albums themselves, and the two aforementioned box sets really get it right when it comes to preserving the legacy of the Beatles amazing catalogue of music – and, bonus of all bonuses – in stereo and in MONO, too – and I personally especially love the “Mono” box set, even though it’s not for everyone – I’ve never owned the mono mixes; I’d heard a few of them, most of them came as a surprise to me – some amazing variations from the much more familiar “Stereo” versions.  But – as I am want to do when I get excited about the music of the Beatles – I digress.

 

The next phase of my earliest Beatle memories come from an unlikely time and place: Uganda, East Africa, where between 1967 and 1971, I lived with my parents and my two brothers– my parents were both teachers, and my father had won a place on a US Aid sponsored opportunity to move your family to Africa for two years to teach (in a program called “TEEA” – Teacher Education In East Africa) – basically, teaching teachers how to teach – which was then extended to four years.

 

My schooling during those years was a bit erratic, but my next early Beatle memory is of me, having no way to copy the lyrics from the AMAZING poster included in the Beatles most ambitious album to date, the “White Album” – I was boarding in Kampala, at Makerere University, with an American family (so I could attend school), and they had the album – which I played all the time – but my specific memory is of  writing out, by hand, ALL of the lyrics, of all of the songs, onto yellow foolscap paper – because I WANTED THOSE LYRICS !!!  I believe that somewhere in a box of keepsakes, I may still have those handwritten yellow sheets from 1968!

 

At age 10, I was not really aware of copiers, and in Kampala, Uganda, in 1968, they would not have been commonplace – so the only way I could “take a copy” of those lyrics, was to write them out longhand – which used up an enormous amount of paper, and my right had ached horribly from the effort – but I was determined, and after a couple of days, I had them all – and since it was a long time before I actually owned a copy of the “White Album” – I would often read those mysterious words from my yellow lined paper, hearing those beautifully picked electric guitars in my head, even after we returned to California from Uganda:

“She’s not a girl, who misses much….”

Next time: we will discuss the joys and frustrations of trying to learn, and perform, and occasionally record, the music of the Beatles – beginning with the very first proper band I was in – just about every band I was in from that time forward, played at least one Beatles song – at least, up until I got into Guitar Craft, Looper’s Delight and looping – but that was my strange career choice, to become an ambient looping guitarist; the time I am talking about, I am still at the tender age of 13, so with only a couple of years of self-taught guitar (and I later found, I had not done a particularly good job of teaching myself!) experience, I was finding that it was quite difficult to learn, remember, and play even the simpler Beatles songs – and it was during this time that my admiration for the skill of George Harrison in particular changed from admiration, to admiration and immense respect – that tricky little, bendy lead solo in between the verses of “Ticket To Ride” was at the time, one of the most difficult riffs I ever had to learn.

With just a couple of years of playing chords, I was not yet a lead guitarist, but learning that incredibly difficult riff, and then, learning more and more Beatles songs, also truly helped my own playing – when you imitate the best, you can’t help but sound good sometimes 🙂

So until then, I will leave you with that shiver-inducing refrain, the one I heard that day back in the mid-60s, that probably changed the course of my life for ever – because I seriously doubt, that I would EVER have become a musician, if it weren’t for the inspiration that the Beatles, as a group and as individual musicians, too, provided to me, all the time, through their amazing music:

 

“nowhere man – please listen

you don’t know – what you’re missing

nowhere man – the world is at your command…”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

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

 

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

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

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

maybe his best early work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

no rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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