Post-GuitarCraft Depression? Is that a thing?

Hello again

I’m recently returned from my latest Guitar Craft adventure, working for a short week and then giving a live performance, along with 61 other “Symphony of Crafty Guitarists” guitarists, that was stratospheric in every way.

It was an incredible experience, and my first impulse was to write at length about it – which I may well do in the future, but right now, I wanted to ask a question – I am wondering if any other attendees of Guitar Craft (or, Guitar Circles, I am now beholden to say as well) courses, suffer from this (possibly imaginary) malady, not just now, but over time – across the years – which maybe I am the sole inventor of, I don’t know.

My life is pretty ordinary – I live in an ordinary town, I have an ordinary job in that ordinary town, and ordinarily, I work on music at home, with the occasional Internet collaboration, because of a disability that makes performing very difficult indeed.

So attending Guitar Craft courses, which I’ve done in a very, very intermittent way, over many, many years (since September, 1988 in fact!) is a huge, huge privilege and it’s a real highlight – a rarity, for a number of reasons:

  1. A chance to socialise with like-minded musicians and others
  2. A chance to practice Alexander techniques – great for highly strung or stressed out people (i.e. me, a lot of the time) or, do Tai Chi – and, meditate regularly, too
  3. A chance to perform with like-minded musicians and others
  4. A chance to spend one week in a very positive, very safe, very forward-looking environment
  5. It’s something enjoyed only rarely, recently, every five or six years perhaps – therefore, a huge treat for me
  6. It’s something very memorable
  7. It’s an occasion where you meet up with old friends, and renew those friendships (yes, I’m talking about you, Frank, and you, John Lovaas, and you, Ray Peck)
  8. It’s an occasion when you meet new friends, some of which, will stay so for many, many years (I’m talking about you, Pablo, and you, Jules, and you, Jamie! – you all know who you are!)
  9. It’s something very special in an otherwise very ordinary life

So when you only experience this once every five or six years, that strange, strange feeling – that people think you are a good guitarist, that people look up to you and respect your musical ability, that people want to jam with you, that people want to hang out with you – whereas, in your normal life, where there are few to no like minded musicians or people – doing any of those things is very difficult to downright impossible.

Recently then, since it’s now almost a week since the end of the course, I began to have moments where it all became a bit too much for me, and I really wished I could be back in that house, back at Koos Vorrink, in Lage Voorsche, in Holland – you just wish that the course could maybe run a bit longer, or you could somehow bring that environment back with you, and continue to live among like-minded colleagues, whom you respect, and, who respect you.

I am one of the most isolated of all Crafties, being the only Crafty guitarist in the northern part of Britain, and my disability prevents me from any chance of any regular meetings with those very few other Crafties who do reside in Britain – mostly, waaaay down south where that round yellow thing * can be sometimes seen in the sky.

Other symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • no desire to hear music of any kind
  • no desire to play or perform music of any kind
  • no desire to work on music of any kind
  • a craving for silence – silence is what I crave – silence as experienced at the course I was just on

So it can be daunting, coming back to that ordinary life, and not putting away the stack of spare strings you took with you to the course, or the gig flyer, just leaving them on your desk to remind you, to make you feel like you are still there.  Don’t get me wrong though, I am so, so glad to be home, home is where the heart is, and I truly missed home while I was away in Koos Vorrink.  I am very glad to be home, and especially glad to no longer be parted from my partner.

I am not depressed in the normal sense, I am fine, but there is an odd feeling to life now, I miss the routines of Guitar Craft, the communal feeling at meals and at other times of shared work or play – and I’ve rarely seen a course run so smoothly as this one did, the kitchen was amazing, Fernando should be crowned king and…some of those desserts – wow!  What can I say?  As a veteran of many, many Kitchen Craft courses, I know exactly what it takes to run a kitchen for a large group like this, and the hard work and intense effort that goes into it, is almost invisible when you are on the receiving end of yet another amazing dish or dessert – it’s flawless.

The quality of that performance, absolutely inspired and fed into the quality of the musical performance of October 15th, 2015 (at Koos Vorrink, Lage Voorsche, Holland) which for me, was one of the single most amazing things I have ever been a part of, in my entire life – simply astonishing.  I’ve never heard or seen anything like it before, even my original “Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists (I)” course performance in Sant Cugat, in 2009 – which was brilliant – was not quite the performance that THIS was.

And here I am now, talking about the course, rather than about my reaction(s) to the course – my recent feeling of being adrift in the ordinary world, so I will have to reign that impulse in, and not describe that amazing performance right now – that’s for another time.  At the moment, I want to say, I can remember this strange feeling from other courses – I remember after one California course, I had to go shopping in a brightly lit, clean supermarket, with very few people in it – and each time I came around the corner of an aisle, I fully expected to see one of the 75 faces that I’d just spent the last 8 days with – and inevitably, I would feel disappointed to find that it was just a stranger – I expected the face of a Crafty, maybe holding a guitar, maybe clearing away dishes, but – someone I knew.  those [however many] people on your course, become the whole universe, and when you walk out of that universe – it’s very, very odd indeed.  Disconcerting, even!

This feeling persists for days, you keep expecting to see __________ – put in the name of anyone you were just on the course with here, you expect to see that face, I expect to see Fumi coming around a corner, with that huge, huge grin on his face, always laughing, or perhaps it’s one of the Vicious Queens, intent and intense, on the way to a VQ meeting, or Fernando, worrying about the menu, but secretly, thinking about the dessert…

so – there are things that remind you – I am washing the strawberries…and I notice they are from Holland.  sigh.  I see the waffle cookies in the cupboard, which evoke every memory of Holland – too sweet, too good, too delicious to believe.

reminders, and then, going back to work, and remembering that this is my reality 99.9999 percent of the time, and Guitar Craft is some tiny, tiny minuscule part of my life – but, the impact it has, is absolutely not minuscule!  not at all.  It does stay with you, for weeks, for months, for years – and that’s both good and bad.  hopefully, I will have, perhaps, finally learned the right way to hold my pick.  I get Robert to fix it every time I see him, he fixes it, and, I get closer to the ideal, every time.  It’s progress, although it can be painfully slow progress.  But that is still preferable to nothing!  It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, I truly wouldn’t – but I just wonder if it affects other Crafties the way it sometimes affects me – it’s not so much a negative, as just a reminder of how ordinary life outside of Guitar Craft can be.  And how it makes you feel when quite suddenly, thanks to the extreme time compression of the Guitar Craft experience, you are thrust back into the ordinary world, and you start having to worry about connections and planes and trains and cabs and all that.

it’s jarring, it’s difficult to re-adjust, and after about a week, I don’t feel as if I have quite settled back into my ordinary life. Perhaps that is because I was part of an absolutely extraordinary group of people, that rehearsed and put on an absolutely extraordinary performance – probably.  Yes – that will be why.  And also knowing, that I won’t be able to take part in SOCGII – because it’s in South America, which is both a practical and a physical impossibility for me.  So that’s it – I was at the debut of the Symphony, but it’s doubtful that I will attend any future SOCG courses or circles.  It has just become too difficult, and, too geographically challenging.

sigh.  meanwhile, coming from a place of slight melancholia now – please let me know if you have experienced any post-Guitar Craft feelings of any kind, or, what other “reactions” you may have had within the first week or so after returning from a Guitar Craft or Guitar Circle course.  I’d like to compare notes, find out if others have had this kind of feeling before, upon returning to their normal life.  🙂 – whatever “normal” means, I suppose!

another sigh, then, before I go…

all the very best to everybody – thanks TEAM SOCGI, wherever you have scattered to now…

dave

* the sun

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learning the beatle repertoire…

After a childhood dominated by the Beatles (I only had four long-playing vinyl LPs – all by the Beatles!) and their music, when I returned from Africa in 1971, armed with a rudimentary, self-taught knowledge of the guitar, one of the first things I did, was seek out other musicians to work with.  it came as no surprise, somehow, that we already had something in common – we all loved the songs of the Beatles, and in almost every band I was ever in as a young teenager, we tried to learn Beatles songs – with varying degrees of success, I must hasten to add.

 

Two early bands, both joined when I was still in Junior High School, provided the vehicle – and I was one of the few who purported to play lead guitar (and I could,  but, very, very haltingly, and, very, very slowly, and…not very well at this point in my life, age 13 – 14) I was “in” – it’s difficult to recall, and in fact, I have no idea what the name of either of these bands are, but for the sake of reference, I will call them the “Mike Lewis Band” and the “Stafford / Monaco” bands, respectively, because those were the alleged “leaders” of the two budding beat groups 🙂

 

There is even a recording of the “Stafford / Monaco” band, an amazingly good cassette tape (considering the age and the quality of the tape – recorded by my older brother John on a poor quality 120 minute tape, no less) of a live performance, where we tackle some Beatles numbers, and I even have a go at singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” – the verses only, no bridge 🙂

 

This is a perfect example of great enthusiasm for the material, from a group that did not have the chops or ability to play the songs particularly well – but – we were all just thirteen, so, I don’t really expect much out of either of these bands, to be honest!  So if a few of our songs were missing bridges or the odd verse, it’s just the way things worked out…

 

I think the “Mike Lewis Band” was the first band I was in, Mike was a gregarious, friendly bass player / acoustic guitarist who spent his entire life forming bands, writing songs, and playing in bands – he was determined if not incredibly talented.  I remember though that he and I did reach some dizzy heights, such as our attempts to play the beautiful acoustic guitar balled “Julia” from the Beatles “White Album” – I am happy that there is no tape of that !  But we even took turns singing the verses, so we could do the overlapping vocal bit – very sophisticated.  But – “Julia” was not part of our repertoire, Mike and I would tend to play acoustic guitars just for fun, playing the songs of the day, and singing, and I can remember we learned and played “The Needle And The Damage Done” by Neil Young, which was also very popular at the time.

 

In the “Mike Lewis Band”, we started out as a three-piece band; I think, with Mike Lewis on bass and lead vocals, Mike Brooks on drums, and myself on lead guitar.  Then Mike announced that he was going to bring around this amazing pianist that he knew of, to see if he would join our band.  That was when I first met Ted Holding, who later on, would become my very best and dearest personal friend, but at this point in time, Ted was quiet, unassuming, with his long, straight blond hair hanging in his face – but when he sat down at the piano – it was a different story.

 

Ted had the voice of an angel, a far, far better voice than Mike (which I am sure didn’t please Mike too much) – but, Mike was smart enough to know that bringing in someone of Ted’s calibre truly strengthened the musicality of the band, so he set aside any feelings of inferiority – he had such bravado anyway, that he would probably never admit that Ted was miles beyond us all in terms of ability and talent.  Ted on the piano – even at age 13 ! – was a revelation, and as we grew up together in the early 70s, I was privileged to watch Ted graduate from pop music, Beatles music, on through (of course) Elton John, and then, onto prog: learning the music of Genesis, ELP and so on, on the piano.  I watched, I imitated, I begged him to teach me songs – so really, my own keyboard ability came along in leaps and bounds directly as a result of working with Ted – may he rest in peace.

 

I don’t remember that the “Mike Lewis Band” played a lot of gigs, although we must have played some, I’m really not sure – I remember practicing in the back bedroom at Mike’s parents’ house, spending a lot of time there either with the band, or working with Mike on new repertoire for the band.  And that would have included some Beatles covers, although with this band, since it’s the farthest back, I literally cannot remember a single song that we actually played – the memories are gone, I’m afraid.

 

But – I do remember the “Stafford / Monaco” band a bit better, partially because of the taped show, and because it was later – I don’t know what happened to the “Mike Lewis Band”, but I ended up joining up with this kid Rick Snodgrass, and many an hour was spent at his parents’ house, learning songs and working out our repertoire.  I brought along one of my new pals, who lived in my neighbourhood, around – our drummer (who also sang) – the very talented Brian Monaco.

 

Our set list included everything you would expect from a cover band in 1971: the Beatles (of course!), Creedence Clearwater Revival (of course!), the aforementioned John Lennon (and our half-cover of “Imagine”), and Santana, that kind of thing.  For a band whose four members age was all exactly 13, we were remarkably accomplished.  In those days, as was always the case in the early days of most bands it seems, there was a shortage of bass players – so we just didn’t have one.  To compensate for this, we went from a standard two guitars and drums to a really confusing three guitars and drums – but somehow, we made it work – Rick brought in a friend of his on third guitar, so we had one rhythm guitarist (Rick) and two lead guitarists (myself and Tommy).  Rehearsals could be a real row if we weren’t all in tune !

 

Excerpts from this rare concert are available on the pureambient blog companion page, where you can actually hear the “Stafford / Monaco” band’s primitive renditions of Beatles and other popular songs of the day – here are the tracks that have been uploaded so far (the rest will probably not be uploaded – but maybe someday), but even this partial set list is stacked very, very heavily in favour of our favourite band – the Beatles:

 

Stafford / Monaco Band Live At Johnson’s, 1971

 

3 Back In The U.S.S.R. – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco

Imagine – (the verses only, no bridge) – guitar & lead vocal, Dave Stafford

And I Love Her – (Instrumental Version)

10 Born On The Bayou

13 Gentle On My Mind

16 Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds  – drums & lead vocal, Brian Monaco

17 Honey Don’t – acoustic guitar & lead vocal, Rick Snodgrass

20 Twist And Shout

22 Evil Ways

Credits:
Tracks 1, 9 & 16 – Lennon / McCartney
Track 7 – Lennon
Track 10 – Fogerty
Track 13 – Hartford
Track 17 – Perkins
Track 20 – Medley / Russell
Track 22 – Henry

Now, one shouldn’t approach this as a great musical tribute to the Beatles or any of the bands we covered, we were very, very young, very inexperienced, but I will say, we were enthusiastic, and Rick’s parents were endlessly supportive, too, giving us advice, listening, and making suggestions – it was a very positive experience overall.  What we lacked in experience and proficiency, was made up for by our burning desire to play the music that we loved – and, in later years, when I was in my late teens, I did participate in Beatles covers that sound much, much better than these very primitive versions, with typical very-old-cassette bad sound quality.  When I hit 19, 20 – I was playing in cover bands, and playing Beatles songs, reasonably well, every night for a couple of years.

 

But – learning these songs – what a struggle it could be !  I think what amazes me most about the the “Stafford / Monaco” band’ set list is the fact that we tackled two very musically complex tracks; one from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and one from the “White Album” – which, for a group of 13 year old boys, was incredibly ambitious.  I am especially proud of Brian Monaco, for his remarkably accurate drumming and his lead vocal on the rather difficult to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.  I only wish the guitars were even close to the original – they are not !  But Brian’s performance of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is really remarkably good, all things considered.

 

The earlier Beatles tracks and covers that we did, were not much easier to learn – I do recall that our instrumental arrangement of “And I Love Her” – an early favourite track of mine, was especially arranged by myself for the band, and we worked very, very hard to be able to perform this song as well as we did on the cassette.  Of course, the straight-ahead rock numbers are a little bit easier to learn, the bread and butter of every cover band that ever existed – “Honey Don’t” featured Rick, while “Twist And Shout” was another Monaco lead vocal – a real rocker!

 

The inclusion, oddly, of Glen Campbell’s huge hit, “Gentle On My Mind”, is down to Rick, who was a huge fan.  While it’s not a track I would have picked – it actually works quite well.

 

Santana, of course, were huge at this time, so our final track of the evening, “Evil Ways” – again, featuring the unstoppable Brian Monaco on drums and lead vocal – made good sense.

 

There were several Creedence numbers in the set, of which “Born On The Bayou” was one of the most popular, this band had just skyrocketed to fame, and every band of teenagers with guitars was learning this now-classic piece of rock music – ourselves included.  This was one of the first proper “lead solos” I learned – two notes of it, anyway.

 

I cite these two bands as the earliest examples of myself learning Beatles music, a process that began when I was 13, and continues to this day (I recently recorded, but did not release, a live cover of “I’m So Tired” on piano – piano and voice) – and I plan to work on the track until I do get a releasable version – so even now, in my mid-50s, I am STILL learning, playing and singing songs by the amazing Beatles.  As I got older, my ability to play the guitar improved somewhat, and by age 16 0r 17, I could do a much better job of covering a Beatles tune than my 13 or 14 year old self could – that’s for sure!  By age 19, I could confidently reel off a three part Beatle medley that was part of the repertoire of another band I was in – Slipstream.

By the time I was 20 or 21, I had learned so much from the remarkable Ted Holding, that my piano playing skills were way beyond what they had been – which of course, opened up opportunity to learn Beatle songs on the piano, too – a whole new world of songs.

So where did this go next?  Time passed, school went on, friends, and fellow musicians, came and went – in fact, for example, I was in many, many different bands formed by the also-unstoppable bass player Mike Lewis – we remained friends, and he would pretty much bring me into every band he formed for a number of years (whether I really wanted to be in that band or not, sometimes!). Some of these, unfortunately to my ever-lasting shame, were Christian rock bands – a place that neither Ted nor myself belonged or felt comfortable in, but – we did it for our friend, Mike.  Later on, in high school, we teamed up with a new rhythm section, Mitch and Kent, and that was yet another Christian rock band, with the horrific name of “Soul Benefit” (and we could not play soul at all, so a complete misnomer) – but, Ted and I did it for our friend Mike, and, to play with superior musicians – Mitch played bass far better than Mike, so Mike switched to acoustic guitar/lead vocal/rock star, and Mitch took over the bass parts, Kent, the drums.  We were together for a couple of years, needless to say, except for “fun”, we didn’t cover the Beatles in those two bands 🙂  I do remember us playing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple really, really loud one night rehearsing in a church!

Mike had a system, he really, really needed Ted’s talents on piano and vocals, so in order to convince Ted to join whatever crazy band Mike was forming this week; Mike would first get me to agree to be in the band, and then, we would work on Ted, get him to come along, and then, and only then, things would start to sound really good.  Ted’s ability on piano absolutely took off; he progressed far beyond his years, and his voice also just got better and better.  To be frank, he made Mike look pretty bad, and his piano playing was far, far beyond any of us – we were not as skilled on our chosen instruments.

The years after Junior High school are more of a blur, for my 14th year on the planet, I would have been moving on from those earliest bands into more sophisticated bands, and while I still worked with Mike Lewis on his many projects, I began to work more directly with Ted Holding, who happened to also love the music of the Beatles.  I began to hang around at Ted’s house, and we worked on music incessantly – all the time, for hours and hours and hours, usually just the two of us– I would play bass, or guitar, or even organ – and Ted would play the piano.  We would sing Beatles songs – Ted singing lead, me attempting harmonies – and it was just fantastic fun.

This became several different bands, some quite imaginary, like “Ted & Dave” (also known as: “Holding & Stafford”) and others more substantial, like “Ted & Dave & Rick & Jennings” (also known as: “Holding”, “Stafford”, “Corriere” and “Morgan”) – I was in a lot of configurations of these “for fun” bands – and it was enormous fun!  It really was.  “Ted, Rick and Dave” (also known as “Holding”, “Corriere” and “Stafford”) was probably my favourite, but who is to say – no, wait, my absolute favourite had to be the “Ted & Dave” configuration, because we could play every kind of music possible, from Elton John to the Beatles to Ted’s own original songs and so on – an absolute blast and one of the happiest times of my life.  By the way, Rick Corriere was a junior high friend of Ted’s and mine, an accomplished drummer, and when we were all about 18, 19, 20 years old, we would stage “progressive rock” style improv sessions in Ted’s studio that were just amazing – please see the pureambient audio companion, see the entry for 1977 – for more on this particular prog wannabe band.

 

One day, in the “Ted and Dave” configuration, Ted and I decided to try and work out a favourite Beatle track of ours, the beautiful, heartbreaking “No Reply”.  We decided we would record it (we must have been about 16 by now) on Ted’s brother’s reel-to-reel recorder, which had an amazing ability that was new to me – “multitracking”.

 

So we laid down basic instrumental tracks, Ted on piano, myself playing nylon string classical guitar (my first acoustic guitar purchase – a beautiful little guitar that I still have to this day) and we worked very hard to get it sounding just right.   Then – we overdubbed vocals.  When I say we…I mean, mostly Ted, I think I do sing on the track (I don’t actually know, it hasn’t been transferred from analogue yet) but I think he does the majority of the voices – and trying to work out the exact harmonies that the Beatles sang, was difficult, challenging, and exhilarating at the same time – we were so pleased with the result – it really sounded extraordinary to us – I mean, multitrack tape – incredible!.  Once this is eventually converted, I will add a link to the “Ted & Dave” version of “No Reply” – for now, I don’t have the track available – yet.

 

I hope one day to go through the reel to reel tapes (which Ted gave to me many years ago, because I wanted to preserve this music) and present this piece – but it is on a long list of analogue-to-digital conversions that need to be done, and I do not have a reel to reel deck set up at the moment.  So it’s a minor mystery, does it really sound as good as my memory tells me it does?  Hopefully, one day, I will find out.

 

But it was the process that was so fascinating – when you “took apart” any Beatles song, to try and learn the parts – first of all, it always amazed me how quite tricky many Beatles tracks are – not easy to learn, deceptively difficult, and maybe you would know the chord sequence, but for some reason, even though you THINK you are playing the exact, right chord sequence, it never sounds quite as good as the Beatles version!

 

Next up, was one of the more challenging Beatles tracks for me, this was still early on, I was probably 15 or 16 at this point, back in the famous downstairs bedroom studio once again and not yet such a great lead guitarist that I could easily learn the quite tricky solo in “Ticket To Ride”.  I remember struggling mightily with it, but luckily, Ted saved the day, he worked out the exact notes, figured out where and when to bend the strings – and eventually, I got it – I was so pleased!  I can remember him standing in front of me, almost WILLING me to learn it, telling me when to bend, pointing at the guitar neck to show me what note to play next –  my first true decent almost-right lead guitar solo – and, I get to do it twice during the song (or was it three times? – not sure – that’s the problem with memory).

 

Another memory from this time involves a different session at Ted’s house, this time, a couple of years later, aged, approximately 17 – and, we’d moved from his large downstairs bedroom studio, into the much larger garage space, probably because Ted was also working in other bands, often with his then brother-in-law, Joe Norwood.  One day, Ted and I were trying to learn “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” and Joe, who was a few years older than we were, and himself, an extremely good lead guitarist (from whom I learned a lot) – stopped by – and then to our amazement, joined in with his guitar, working out the Eric Clapton parts that I was really not-quite-yet-able to emulate – so I happily switched to rhythm guitar, and held down the basis of the song with Ted, provided vocal harmonies, and let Joe wail away a la Clapton.

 

That was the beauty of being a young musician, with a lot of really quality musician friends, you always ended up playing music, often, with players far better than you (and for me, both Ted and Joe were far beyond my modest abilities – as pianist, and as lead guitarist) – Ted taught me almost everything I know about piano – that I didn’t teach myself, and, I learned a lot from watching and listening to Joe play lead guitar, and also, he spent time explaining a lot of things to me, about music, about guitar, and I owe a debt of gratitude – here was this really cool older dude (he was probably like, 19, or 20, maybe 21!) and I was a scruffy 17 year old wannabe lead guitarist – but Joe Norwood very kindly and patiently shared his knowledge and expertise with me – a good friend, and a great blues guitarist, by the way.  a video of Joe’s music can be found here.  Joe also sold me one of my best guitars, my Ibanez destroyer, which I still play to this day.

 

It was fantastic fun, “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps” is certainly one of George’s best-known tracks, and I think, quite a remarkable tune.  It’s very difficult to play well, the basic riff is one thing, but that bridge “I don’t know how, nobody told you…” is so, so hard to sing – George’s voice was really at his best in 1968, he was still young enough to hit some really high notes with relative ease, yet by then, he was an experienced enough lead singer to really write and sing some amazing songs – and on the “White Album”, George’s range of song contributions is absolutely remarkable: “While My Guitar Gentle Weeps”, “Piggies”, “Long, Long, Long”, “Savoy Truffle” – you could not get four more “different” songs – the sadness, longing and truth of “Guitar Gently Weeps”, the wonderful harpsichord and political satire of “Piggies” – incredible creativity there, and sense of humour; “Long, Long, Long” one of George’s unrecognised masterpieces, a love song of such beauty and intensity (I remember performing “Long, Long, Long” at a wedding reception with my friend, drummer Rick Corriere) that I really feel it’s an overlooked masterpiece, and George’s ode to Eric Clapton’s chocolate addiction, the wonderful, rockin’ “Savoy Truffle”, with it’s almost sleazy horn arrangement and awesome lead guitar work from George – and that sinister vocal “you know that what you eat you are, but what is sweet now, turns so sour…” – brilliant, ominous – George at his cynical best!

 

Another earlier recording / jam session back in Ted’s bedroom studio focussed on the fantastic pop song, “I Should Have Known Better” – with Ted on piano, and myself on guitar and harmonica – and, we shared the vocal duties.  I loved playing this tune, it’s always been a favourite, and it was easy enough to learn (for a change!) and it was fun trying to play harmonica and guitar at the same time – because I didn’t have one of those harmonica holders – I never have had one.  But that didn’t stop us, we just…did it, somehow.  I loved doing harmony vocals to Ted’s confident lead vocals, “and I do – hey hey hey – and I do !” – and, I got to play the fab guitar solo, which was fun to learn and even more fun to play.

 

When I look back at this time, from 1971 to perhaps, 1979 – so basically, the 1970s – I was 12 when they started, and 21 when they ended – I am looking back at one of the most creative, fun, exciting times in my life, and during those “difficult teenage years”, I was too busy playing guitar, playing piano, singing, and just having a great time playing music, with so many different bands and players – it was an absolutely amazing time to be involved in music.  And while the Beatles had broken up at the beginning of the 70s, their music had had such an incredible impact on the world, we were still reeling from the shock of their transformation, from innocent 50’s rockers, to 60s pop icons, to the musical revolution that was the “Beatles Studio Years” – beginning with “Rubber Soul” and carrying on through “Revolver”, and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the “White Album” – the sheer musical change that the band underwent was absolutely astonishing, and I think the world was still absorbing this, sort of thinking “what the hell did they DO?” – how did they GET from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” in just three years’ time???  How could a band of self-taught teddy boy long-haired art-school drop-outs from Liverpool, end up in Abbey Road Studio No. 2 with a 40 piece orchestra, recording the incredibly complex and musically amazing “A Day In The Life”??  How can this have even HAPPENED?

 

It’s almost enough to believe that at some point in 1965, aliens landed, and planted seeds in the Beatles’ collective brains, which sent them on the musical journey that they then embarked on.  OK, maybe not aliens, but certainly, Bob Dylan, who introduced them to…”tea”, had an influence, but it can’t just be the ”tea” – surely, that music was already somewhere deep inside the Beatles, it just needed the right catalyst to bring it out.   In my opinion, one of the biggest and most significant catalysts was none other than the good Sir George Martin – who had the most influence over the Beatles, and encouraged them, even from the earliest days, to try new things.  And try them, they did.

 

So when it came to “Rubber Soul” – they tried new things.  Acoustic songs, folk-rock songs, volume-knob lead guitar.  But to my mind, the biggest transformation is “Revolver” – from that first count-in preceding George’s “Taxman” (which of course, is not from “Taxman”, but never mind – it was added in to the front of the song, later on) to the dying notes of “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, curiously, was last on the album, but recorded first in the album sessions).

I personally think that “Revolver” may be the “best” Beatles album (if such a thing is even possible!!!).  It’s certainly one of my very, very most favourite records of all time, not just, favourite Beatles record.  Favourite records, full stop!

Almost every Beatle album has any number of unusual or interesting musical facts about it, and George’s brilliant tirade against the 95% tax imposed on early Beatle earnings, has the curious story as told by one Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, who, upon finally meeting George Harrison after many, many years, the first thing out of Lindsay’s mouth was “George, I loved your amazing guitar solo on “Taxman” – it’s fantastic!” to which George laconically replied “oh – that was Paul, actually”.

And that story, amazing as it is, was heartbreaking even for me, although it made my admiration for Paul McCartney increase, I had, like Lindsay Buckingham, for 20 years or more, had always thought that since it was George’s song, and George was the lead guitarist of the Beatles – that George had played the amazing, Indian sounding solo – only to find out years and years later, that it was the very capable McCartney who had actually done so!

But if you step back, and think about Beatle repertoire, and think about the content and song structure of “early” Beatles work, and then, compare and contrast that to some of the startling new kinds of music that began emerging on ““Revolver” in particular – I mean, even Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby” was a complete shock, like nothing else the world had ever heard – some say it’s a successor to “Yesterday”, but in my opinion, while “Yesterday” is a deservedly famous and uncontestably beautiful ballad, with a lovely string arrangement, “Eleanor Rigby”, by comparison, is high art – a heart-wrenching story-song, and George Martin’s string arrangement here, is absolutely sublime – so incredibly beautiful (which I was absolutely delighted when they included the live take of the strings alone, as recorded in the big room, Abbey Road Number 2 studio, on “The Beatles Anthology”what a sound!).

 

So what happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, that he would be able to write “Yesterday” one year, and the next, come up with something that is an order of magnitude more intense, more complex, and is certainly more musically amazing: “Eleanor Rigby”.  It’s almost like two different people, as if his brain did a re-boot and said “what if I wrote a song like THIS…” – and the rest is history.

 

“Revolver” also gives us Paul‘s astonishingly tender and beautiful “Here, There & Everywhere” – surely one of the best love songs of ALL TIME.  A song that John Lennon so liked, that his only comment was, “I wish I’d written it”.  One of Paul’s very best and most beautiful songs, with a vocal that is just heartbreaking (including John’s delicate harmonies…”watching her eyes…”) and the chord progression – wow – this is not actually that easy to play, either.

 

And yet – “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There & Everywhere”, for all their increased sophistication – are not even the “unusual” or “different” or “strange” tracks on “Revolver” – they are the “normal” sounding tracks !!!! The most normal of all the tracks on the record.

 

Something definitely happened in Paul McCartney’s brain, but at the same time, both John and George were experiencing a remarkably similar brain transformation.  “She Said, She Said” with it’s odd time signatures, and fabulous, distorted guitars, is one of John’s best and most amazing tracks, I love the whole sound of it, it just takes me somewhere, immediately – and when I think’I want to hear “Revolver”‘ it’s usually “She Said, She Said” that I am thinking of – but when I get to the album, it’s then generally going to be George’s songs that I actually start with – “Love You To”, “I Want To Tell You” and the redoubtable “Taxman” – three of George’s very best Beatles songs, and, that amazing combination of heavy fuzz guitar and Indian instrumentation on “Love You To” just knocks me out – it’s an amazing idea – mixing traditional classical Indian instruments with rock music – but it works, and, it works really, really well.

 

John’s brain was maybe the most altered of all, and besides the aforementioned “She Said, She Said”, his contributions to “Revolver” are among his very, very best Beatles output:  the incredibly beautiful “I’m Only Sleeping” – where George spent ages recording two “reverse guitars” – and that song is responsible for my own obsession with playing reverse guitar (or – “backwards guitar” – which is now available at the touch of an effects pedal) – which, in 1966, could only be achieved by turning the tape over, playing “forwards” while the song played “backwards”, then, turning the tape back over (I know this, because that is how I had to record reverse guitars in my own music for many, many years -a great technique!), and HOPING that your resulting melody line “forwards”, has resulted in a musically pleasing “backwards” guitar – a very hit or miss proposition; but Harrison painstakingly wove two guitar tracks into one of the most beautiful examples of reverse guitar ever created – and while many have tried, no one has every really quite captured the beauty of reverse guitar in the way that George Harrison did on John’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – which is an incredible song in it’s own right, the reverse guitars are just the icing on a very, very sweet cake.

 

Even though Lennon dismissed it in the “Playboy Interviews”, he was also mostly responsible for one of my very favourite Beatle tracks from “Revolver”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, with it’s amazing dual lead guitar part that just drives the song so beautifully, when I first heard this song, I could not BELIEVE the guitar parts, and to this day, I still can’t quite imagine how they worked this out!  The interplay of the twin guitars with the rhythm section is just perfect, and Paul’s bass just soars in between the cascading, rising and falling lead guitars – plus, one of the best harmony vocal works on the album, I love the vocals on this song too – they just fly over the top of those guitars, which seem to be playing almost continuously throughout the song – and again, I can’t imagine how they worked out the vocal parts – but the end result is astonishing – a great song, often overlooked.

 

It’s no accident that this part of my memories of the early days of learning Beatles songs suddenly has become dominated by a somewhat-useful-but-far-from-complete review of the “Revolver” album, but, it does tie in (believe me, it really does!) because I would cite “Revolver” as the album where it first became utterly impossibly to replicate the songs live – well, some of them could be rendered, maybe, but in the main – they have become so complex as to not be easy to replicate on stage, or, by other musicians either.

 

So – none of my bands, ever played anything from “Revolver”, although I do recall privately playing “Got To Get You Into My Life” with Ted on piano – just for fun.  And I spent a lot of time studying the chords to, and learning as best I could, Paul’s very lovely “Here, There & Everywhere” – a truly beautiful and remarkable song. I’ve also played and sang “I’m Only Sleeping” on acoustic guitar, and I learned the main riff of “And Your Bird Can Sing”on a Guitar Craft course (at the 21st anniversary course in Argentina, no less), in the new standard tuning for guitar, no less!  That was hugely fun, playing “And Your Bird Can Sing” with other guitarists, “Crafty”-style – remarkable – a totally unique and unforgettable experience.

 

 

But most of “Revolver” – especially songs like “Love You To”, and “Tomorrow Never Knows” were so advanced, even “She Said, She Said”, were so incredibly strange and new, and so musically intriguing – that you can only really listen, you can’t really imitate – sure, Paul has now performed some of these songs with his live band, in the 2000s, but, it’s not the same, really – and while he has every right to play Beatles material live in the here and now – it’s never going to sound like the original sound of “Revolver” – one of the most distinctive sounding Beatles records of all time, and in my mind, the “turning point” from normal rock music, into the exciting and mostly uncharted territories that they experimented with from “Revolver” on out.

 

It is remarkable then, that at age 13, in 1971, the second band I was ever in, the “Stafford / Monaco band” played one track from the “White Album” and one track from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – two records made after the turning point, and while our versions are not musically accurate, the fact that we even TRIED these songs is remarkable – we tried!  It was down to a shared love of the Beatles, and to be honest, almost every musician I ever worked with in the 70s, loved the music of the Beatles.

Almost every drummer in almost every band, would at some point, sit up a bit straighter on their drum stool, and bash out a version of Ringo’s famous drum solo from the end of the “Abbey Road Medley” – every drummer worth his salt had learned that solo, inside out – and it was instantly recognisable – so there was a great love for the Beatles, and for Beatles music, in the musical community that I worked with in the San Diego, California area in the 1970s.

 

The Beatles were the benchmark to which every other group would be compared, even if that group broke a Beatle record, I don’t mean vinyl here, I mean, for example, that a band like Creedence Clearwater Revival might have surpassed Beatles sales figures from the 60s, in the 70s – certainly, bands like Led Zeppelin surpassed a lot of the Beatles‘ accomplishments, such as “largest audience”.

 

But the interesting thing here is, such news was ALWAYS announced, with a backwards reference to the Beatles, so it would be “In 1973, hard rock band Led Zeppelin sold out a show in Tampa, Florida, with over 56,000 people in the audience – the largest audience at a rock gig since the previous record set by the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965”.

 

Every new sensation, every new “record” was always compared back to the originals, to the masters, to the boys who did it first – the Fab Four.  It always amazed me, for example, Zeppelin were (rightfully) very proud of the fact that they had broken a record set by the Beatles – it was an honour, somehow.

 

Everything was bigger in the 1970s, in the 60s, large concerts were a thing of the future, and as the infrastructure of rock grew ever-larger in the 1970s, it was unavoidable that most of the then-rather amazing records that the Beatles did set in the 1960s – were easily surpassed by their more sophisticated 1970s successors – like the incredible Led Zeppelin – who for example, did no less than NINE US tours between the years of 1968 and 1971.  In the 70s – all records were utterly blown away by the eventual emergence of “stadium rock” – with Led Zeppelin leading the way to ever larger and larger productions.

 

The Beatles never had that infrastructure, and the technical aspects of their live performances were pretty primitive and often, quite dismal, with underpowered PA systems and insufficient monitors, you can see them in the film of the Shea Stadium concert, struggling to hear themselves sing and play over the screaming.  But of course, the screaming was always there, and that did eventually cause the Beatles to lose heart in the idea of live performance – which, while heartbreaking for the legions of fans who never got to see them play live (myself included, sadly) was actually, very, very beneficial – because escaping the terrors of the road, and moving permanently into Abbey Road Studio No. 2, meant that the Beatles could now blossom creatively – and by God, blossom they did.  An explosion of growth – demonstrated by the insanely fast musical progress made by the Beatles, across the albums spanning 1966 – 1969, a musical journey of unprecedented scale and scope – leaving one of the most remarkable catalogues of music ever created in it’s unstoppable wake.

 

Note: I have actually seen three of the Beatles live, but, as solo artists; first, George, at the Forum in Los Angeles with the Ravi Shankar Orchestra and Billy Preston in 1974, then, “Wings Over America”, Paul, at the San Diego Sports Arena, either in 1976 or 1977, and finally, twice, Ringo‘s All Stars, sometime in the 1990s, one of them featuring Todd Rundgren.

 

Every year, we would be treated to a new Beatles album (just one now in most years; not two a year as Brian Epstein and the record company had pressed the Beatles to do back in the early 60s) and each year, it would be a totally different musical experience – and if again, you step back and look at it – it’s absolutely astonishing; I view it like this:

 

1965 – “Rubber Soul” – the beginning of “the change”, Lennon starts singing and writing in a much more personal way, under the influence of a) Bob Dylan and b) ”tea” supplied by Bob Dylan – with songs such as  “Nowhere Man”, “Girl” and the amazing “In My Life” – a complete and radical re-invention of the man & musician,  John Lennon.

 

1966 – “Revolver” – a radical re-imagining of rock music, including heartbreaking string arrangements, classical Indian instruments integrated with heavy guitar rock, progressive bass playing, and the one-chord / one-note drone / raga style music concrète” sonic experiment, “Tomorrow Never Knows” – which was actually the first piece recorded for the new album – a groundbreaking record in so many ways

 

1967 – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – the world’s first concept record, with the famous photo montage on the front cover – and the lyrics on the back (a world “first”, there, too!) but to me, it’s just a bunch of truly great songs – and some of the best moments are maybe not the most famous, for example, the detuned and distorted lead guitar solo in “Fixing A Hole” is absolutely astonishing in it’s complexity and beauty, for a guitarist like myself, it was a revelation – and while after this, everyone began to use detuned guitars – created via a device called “Automatic Double Tracking” or ADT – the birth-device that all flangers and choruses since, have come from – the Beatles were really the first to come up with this kind of radical guitar sound in the studio – absolutely marvellous.  George and John begin to experiment with truly distorted and detuned sounds after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform – and you can hear it on tracks such as the reprise version of the title track – the lead guitars are really powerful.  And of course, the closing song is the absolutely unbelievably beautiful “A Day In The Life”, featuring what is surely one of the most beautiful John Lennon vocals ever recorded – George Martin said about John’s dreamlike vocal on the track – something like: “a voice…from the heavens”.  I agree with Sir George Martin – a truly beautiful song with an incredible Lennon vocal.

 

[1967 – “Magical Mystery Tour” – OK, this year, they made two records. “Magical Mystery Tour” is highly underappreciated, I absolutely love it – especially the wonderful “Hello Goodbye”, the title track, the wonderful only-instrumental “Flying” and even “Your Mother Should Know” – there are no bad songs on this record – much overlooked and underappreciated.  But then, “Sgt. Pepper” and then, the “White Album” really stole MMT’s thunder – hard to compete against those two behemoths.]

 

1968 –  “The Beatles” (aka The “White Album”).  A complete change.  Minimalism.  Stark white cover.  The pageantry and grandeur of “Sgt. Pepper” is wiped away, by 30 darker, more experience-driven songs, a strange batch of songs, no doubt, but with that amazing diversity that you get when you have three strong players and three strong singers and three strong writers in the band – and I shouldn’t downplay Ringo – he very much tried to hold his own (imagine, having to complete with the two impossibly powerful songwriting teams, the “Lennon-McCartney” team AND “Harrison” who was practically a team in his own right – that can’t have been easy !!!) and this album has two cracking Ringo tracks on it, “Don’t Pass Me By”, and the really beautiful “Good Night” which is maybe one of his most beautiful vocals – a lovely tune.

 

[1969 – “Yellow Submarine” – honourable mention.  OK, they made two records this year, too.]

 

1969 – “Abbey Road” – I am intentionally leaving out “Let It Be” because of it’s chequered past.  I love “Let It Be”, but, even though it was recorded before “Abbey Road” – it was then shelved, and eventually emerged in 1970, hanging it’s head in shame, but, gloriously re-invented by Lennon and Phil Spector as a grandiose strings and choir kind of record. However, I think that “Abbey Road” is truly the band’s swan song and legacy – they went into the studio, stopped arguing (for the most part) and recorded an album of songs “like they used to”.  The album was a compromise: to please John, side one of the vinyl LP was “songs”, to please Paul, side two of the vinyl LP was a suite of “connected” songs, the so-called “Abbey Road Medley” – which is a minor masterpiece in it’s own right.  The maturity of songwriting on display here is absolutely startling, especially in George (who, at this point, is about to blossom musically with his upcoming triple album “All Things Must Pass” – but that’s another story for another blog) who produced not just the awe-inspiring love song “Something”, but also, the fantastic, irrepressible “Here Comes The Sun” – featuring the Moog synthesizer, and the most beautiful, sparkling guitars imaginable – a great song, one of George’s best, and personally, I probably actually like and respect “Here Comes The Sun” actually more than “Something”. (I should give honourable mention for George’s guitar solo in “Something”, however; it was played live by George during the strings overdub on the song, remarkably – beautifully underpinned by one of the best, most melodic bass guitar parts ever recorded – really incredible work from Sir Paul).

I’ve played both pieces many times, usually, I play “Something” at the piano, while I would always play “Here Comes The Sun” on guitar – and I love them both – but it’s difficult to say which one is “better” – they are both fantastic, and showed the George could actually compose right at, or even better than, the level that John and Paul had been composing at all along.  He caught up, and in a way, with those two tracks, even surpassed John and Paul – and certainly, his first solo album, the redoubtable “All Things Must Pass”, shows us even more examples of his songcraft, and overshadows all of the debut solo releases by all of the other Beatles – it basically wiped the floor with the other Beatles’ post-Beatle output, selling millions – I bought two or three copies over the years in various formats.

 

Right up to the end, the Beatles kept writing and producing the most amazing catalogue of original music in the world of rock, that the world had ever seen.  Songs that became more and more sophisticated, and for musicians such as myself, became more and more difficult to play, or imitate – but it was sure fun to try !

 

Over the years, I’ve played a LOT of Beatles songs, a huge range of them, and learning them, was often quite a bit of work, but once learned, playing them was just sure joy.  Just for fun, I’ve attempted to write down every Beatle song (including both songs that they composed, and, their cover versions of songs that they also performed) that I’ve ever learned, and / or, performed or recorded – just to see how many I can come up with:

 

 

Baby It’s You (with the Mike Packard Band – successor to Slipstream – circa 1979)

Twist & Shout (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

I Should Have Known Better (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

I’ve Just Seen A Face/Ticket To Ride/Help! Medley (with Slipstream – circa 1978 / 1979)

And I Love Her (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

No Reply (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Eight Days A Week (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Honey Don’t (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971 – and other bands, too)

I’m Only Sleeping (solo acoustic guitar & vocal  – circa 1970s)

Here, There & Everywhere (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Got To Get You Into My Life (with the Holding / Stafford Band – circa 1972)

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

A Day In The Life (solo piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Back In The U.S.S.R. (with the Stafford / Monaco Band – circa 1971)

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (w/ the Holding  / Stafford Band feat. Joe Norwood- guit. – circa  1973)

I’m So Tired (solo piano & vocal – unreleased – 2013 live -in-the-studio piano & vocal demos)

Blackbird (solo acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1968 – the first“finger-picked” song I ever learned; summer 1968)

Rocky Raccoon (solo acoustic guitar & vocal  – circa 1970s)

Julia (acoustic guitar duet & vocal – circa 1972 – the second “finger-picked” song I ever learned, circa 1972 – with Mike Lewis, acoustic guitar and vocal)

Helter Skelter (electric guitar – various times, 1970s – present)

Long, Long, Long (piano & vocal – with Rick Corriere, percussion – circa 1970s)

Cry Baby, Cry (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Something (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (electric guitar & vocal – w/ Jim Whittaker, guitar – circa mid  1970s)

Here Comes The Sun (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)

You Never Give Me Your Money (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Golden Slumbers (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Carry That Weight (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

Two Of Us (acoustic guitar & vocal – circa 1970s)

Let It Be (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

The Long And Winding Road (piano & vocal – circa 1970s)

 

So – remarkably, thirty one songs – which surprises me, I would not have thought it would have been as many as that, but it’s also NOT surprising, because, the Beatles‘ catalogue is something that musicians almost always “fall back on” at one time or other in their careers, and if you cover Beatles‘ songs, you are guaranteed that at least people will know the song, although they may not love your version of it – or, they may – but they are one of the groups most “covered” over time – not to mention, that in a list of the top ten covered songs of all time, the Beatles not only hold the top two spots, but they actually have four tracks out of the ten, plus, John Lennon’s “Imagine” makes five – so, either the Beatles or a Beatle own the record for most covered song, for HALF of the top ten – amazing!

 

Before I continue, I have to say, that even to the present day, there is nothing more satisfying than sitting down at the piano with a Beatles songbook, and having a go at a Beatles song you’ve never tried – or, for that matter – one you’ve played a million times.  Or – get out your electric guitar, turn up the distortion, and work on your Beatle rock riffs – “Hey Bulldog”, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, “Helter Skelter” and so on.  And of course, that makes me realise that there are actually probably quite a few “partial” Beatles songs I know, or just the main riff, and, a few that I have learned and then completely forgotten because I didn’t keep up with them (including the amazing “Yer Blues” – with the guitar solos actually learned from tab – brilliant tab! – something I never normally use, tabs, but this one was spot-on – excellent) – but I REALLY wanted to learn that solo.  So really, “Yer Blues” makes it 32…but if I start adding in fragments of songs, I will never finish the list – so there it shall sit 🙂

 

I would say, that growing up, for those nine or ten years from 1971 to 1979, learning, singing, and playing Beatles songs, along with a healthy helping of Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and so on, was the best musical education I could get – far better than going to music college, instead, just dive in and learn the music that you love.  That’s what I did – and I am glad of it.  Huge chunks of Led Zeppelin I are still in my fingers’ memory, and huge chunks of Hendrix music, too – I could play those two bands’ music all day long, along with the Beatles  But, the Beatles had the most profound impression, because of their incredible melodic values, and the hard-won vocal harmony which really, were what set them apart at first.

So while Cream and Zeppelin and Hendrix really, really rocked, they never quite had the songwriting skill and stamina that Lennon, McCartney, or Harrison did (and that may be why I found myself drawn to progressive rock fairly early on – seeking better songcraft – and often finding it) – although some of the late Cream and later Zeppelin, are pretty musically advanced.  But those are the successors, the Beatles, I think, wisely disbanding before the heavy metal bombast of Stadium Rock took over the world – by then, they were gone…

 

Having the Beatles so central to my education, music or otherwise, was hugely important, and it’s also simply given me a world of personal satisfaction and enjoyment, I will never forget the day I finally mastered Paul McCartney’s quite difficult “Blackbird”, the first guitar piece using fingerpicking that I ever learned, at age 10, no less – it took me a couple of weeks (being taught by a 16 year old girl, who had in turn, been taught the song by somebody else…) but eventually, I “got” it – and that was wonderful, because any time I was out with an acoustic guitar, I could play it – and everyone around me INSTANTLY recognised it, and responded positively – I never got a negative response to playing a Beatles song – ever.  People in general, either really like them, OK, maybe some younger people, don’t really know their the Beatles were the best band in the world, from 1963 to 1969, unchallenged.

 

At the same time, during 1969, was that “other” best band in the world that I like so much, King Crimson – whose leader, guitarist Robert Fripp, has described a personal, musical epiphany that he had one night, hearing back to back on the radio first, music by Bela Bartok, and then, the last part of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – with “A Day In The Life” – and it was the impetus of that, that eventually led him towards the pursuit of the creation of King Crimson – so, unlikely though it seems, one of the heaviest and most complex of all “progressive rock” bands – actually started out by a young guitarist being utterly struck with the incredible piece of music that the Beatles‘ “A Day In The Life” is.

I can just imagine Fripp, in his car, as the final orchestra part builds and builds, so loud, overwhelming the whole song…and if you think about it, on the first few Crimson albums, of course, the dominant sound (besides Fripp’s amazing lead guitar) is the mellotron – which they had two of – and they used it to create Beatle-like string sections in live performance – so again, inspired by “A Day In The Life”, young Robert Fripp imagined a band with two mellotrons in it – and then, he built it.  Repeatedly.

 

It’s amazing the number and diversity of musicians either directly or indirectly inspired by the Beatles, some of them wearing their inspirations out on their sleeve, others, are more hidden or difficult to discern – but they are still there. So, you get a band like Oasis, who unashamedly try to sound like a modern day Beatles (and mostly fail at it, in my opinion) although I quite like a lot of their songs anyway, on over to a band like Klaatu, who people thought might BE the Beatles, secretly reformed and making records under a mysterious new name in the 70s.  As it turns out, Klaatu are just some guys from Canada, who made Beatlesque music (I really enjoy Klaatu, especially their first three albums).

 

There are so many others who obviously admire the Beatles, from Todd Rundgren, his first band The Nazz, and the latter-day versions of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, to any number of other latter-day Beatles soundalikes – the Raspberries in the early 1970s, Badfinger – an Apple band, discovered by the Beatles,  and far too many others to even mention.  Perhaps I will attempt a “list of bands that sound suspiciously like the Beatles” – but I am not quite sure I can do such a thing.  I will have a “think” about that…meanwhile, back to the subject of cover versions…

 

Here are the Beatle tracks and their positions in the list of “most covered songs of all time” – of course, these lists change all the time, and it was very difficult to find a list that seemed properly representative – this list, from 2008, contained no less than 5 Beatle-related tracks as “most covered”:

 

1)      Eleanor Rigby ***

2)      Yesterday

4)      And I Love Her

6)      Imagine (John Lennon)

8)      Blackbird

 

Apparently, for a long, long time, “Eleanor Rigby” was second to “Yesterday”, it was only in recent years when it knocked “Yesterday” out of the top spot.

 

I was surprised to NOT find George Harrison’s “Something” in these lists, I had thought it was one of the highest covered songs of all time – but I might be remembering that old Frank Sinatra joke, where he introduced “Something” as the finest song ever written by Lennon-McCartney – in all seriousness, he actually did not seem to know or realise that it was written by George Harrison.  That’s a famous story there!

 

***However…the Wiki contains some conflicting information here, because it also states, on the page for the song “Something”, that the song has more than 150 cover versions, which means it’s the second most-covered song after “Yesterday”.  So somebody needs to do some counting, and really find out a) what the top ten most covered songs of all time REALLY are, by all artists, and b) what the top ten most covered Beatles songs are – what song is REALLY, currently in the top spot – make up your minds !! 🙂

 

 

For those who might be interested, there is a very interesting page here on Wikipedia, that lists many of the most significant cover versions of Beatles songs

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cover_versions_of_the_Beatles_songs

 

When I say significant, that refers to all of the real musicians in the list, it does not, however, actually refer to the included “group” called “Alvin and the Chipmunks” who did a whole album of Beatles covers in 1964, so they have twelve entries in the chart !  I am sure that’s a really, really good album (if you are a fan of sped-up vocals, that is).  But – it’s an interesting list, Chipmunks aside…and it includes some of my very favourite cover versions of Beatles tracks: containing everything from:

 

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass to 10cc to Bela Fleck & The Flecktones to Adrian Belew to David Bowie to The Carpenters to Johnny Cash to Cheap Trick to Bryan Ferry to Neil & Liam Finn to Peter Gabriel to Jimi Hendrix to Allan Holdsworth to Eddie Izzard to Tom Jones to King Crimson to Sean Lennon to Marillion to Pat Metheny to Keith Moon to Nazz to Harry Nilsson to Oasis to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to Phish to Radiohead to Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Residents to Todd Rundgren to The Sandpipers to Santana to Peter Sellers to The Shadows to Sandie Shaw to Frank Sinatra to Elliott Smith to The Smithereens to Soundgarden to Stereophonics to The Supremes to James Taylor to Teenage Fanclub to They Might Be Giants to Richard Thompson to Transatlantic to Travis to Ike & Tina Turner to Utopia to U2 to the late, great Sarah Vaughan to The Ventures to Rick Wakeman to Paul Weller to Jack White to Roy Wood to XTC to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Yellow Magic Orchestra to Yes to Neil Young to Dweezil Zappa to Frank Zappa and I told you it was a great list – this is just a tiny portion of artists represented on the entire list.

 

A truly interesting resource for an incredibly diverse set of Beatles covers – and the diversity of artists who have covered the Beatles is immense, yet, they all share the same love we feel for the band – a love for Beatles music, reflected in the fact that they took the time to learn, perform, or record a Beatles track or tracks.  Shared love = love of the Beatles‘ music = All You Need Is Love – that’s an equation that I can understand and believe in – and I do.

 

 

 

“Love, love, love – love, love, love

 

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…”

 

 

 

 

– from “All You Need Is Love” – June 1, 1967

 

 

 

see you next time ~~~~~

“whisper words of wisdom…”

scorched by the sun – “dreamtime” – first pureambient release of 2013

the first release of 2013 for pureambient is a new album, from a new band, namely “dreamtime” from “scorched by the sun” (released as download only on january 17th, 2013, by pureambient records – available on bandcamp right now) and we could not be more pleased and proud.  this record represents a new kind of ambient music, made with new techniques and a lot of experience and history, too.

veteran ambient musicians bryan helm and dave stafford (who “are” “scorched by the sun”) bring a lot of experience to the table: both students of robert fripp’s guitar craft, they formed a crafty acoustic guitar duo in 1989, “the dozey lumps”, that worked mostly in a live setting, for a few years, creating a remarkable repertoire of original acoustic guitar music comprised of about 25 unique and very special songs, before they gradually transformed / mutated into a completely different musical entity: “bindlestiff”.

bindlestiff” was many things – a precursor to “scorched by the sun”? absolutely.  more a studio entity than a live performance entity, paradoxically, most of the material they recorded, whether it be on stage or in the studio…is live, absolutely live, 100 percent real, live, looping, without the benefit of MIDI sync – just doing it manually.  at that time, 1991 – 1995 (with an extended posthumous life that carried them forward to 1997) – and of course, the obligatory “best of” CD in the early 2000s, “enlighten” – “bindlestiff” could be said to be quite innovative, because of course during the late 90s and throughout the 00s – the “noughties” as we say – everyone was syncing up their MIDI clocks and all “playing live” to a click track…something we never did.  we just counted in (or not, once we really knew a piece, we would just start cold with no count in!), and played – our loops might not have technically been in sync, but we both have a good “ear” for music, so that meant we didn’t really “need” technology to enable us to loop – we just…looped.

a very, very straightforward and real proposition – we just played the tunes, and the loops took care of themselves.  perhaps a bit surprisingly, very few loop disasters occurred, but occasionally – they did.  when you listen to bindlestiff’s 1994 live album (entitled “live”, unsurprisingly) you don’t really hear any evidence of any loop trouble – and that’s because really, there was none.  because much of what we recorded in the studio was also live, the “live” album doesn’t actually sound terrifically different to the “studio” albums – we sounded the same, studio or live, because we were a live performance unit.  the only real difference on the studio takes was that there wasn’t an audience, and, we could play the piece as many times as we liked until we got the “best” version possible.  a very, very few tracks, a handful out of the total, actually involved overdubbing, which was normally just doubling up by playing a second live pass on a second stereo pair, to add additional colouration.  you could count those overdubbed tracks on less than ten fingers…

so: bryan and I have a shared musical past: three very difficult years writing 25 really, really difficult to play songs in robert fripp’s new standard tuning for guitar, and playing them…then, the amazing transformation from crafty acoustic duo to electronic looping duo – so moving from a very difficult instrument, the ovation 1867 acoustic guitar, to much easier instruments – for me, electric guitar, and ebow guitar, and looper; for bryan, drum machine, korg synthesizer and looper.

that change was really dramatic, and it really “freed” us – it gave us enormous scope to create (and the first bindlestiff album, “early” is testament to that freedom – what a strange collection of wonderful musical experiments!) and that sense of freedom carried on through the very important recordings of 1994 and 1995 – “live”, “quiet”, “LOUD” and “distant” – our four most important records, perhaps.

we explored the world of looping – both of us – both as a group within the very loose confines of “bindlestiff” as well as in our own individual solo careers – so this was a double education for us, and I felt I could do one kind of looping in the band, and some very different kinds of looping on my solo records – which really gave my output a broad span sonically, and the same applies to bryan – all the while we were in the band, we both carried on making our own recordings, as well…which is how it should be.

we also fully explored the world of ambient, and there are major ambient works on every “bindlestiff” record, from “early” to “enlighten”.  that also carried over into our respective solo careers – for example, since “bindlestiff” tended to make a lot of long form live ambient improvs, I decided to make an album of extremely short loops (“other memory / sand island”) – and it worked out really well.  so one decision in one area, affected another area positively – it was a brilliant and very, very creative time.

then, in 1995, bryan made the difficult decision to move from california to colorado, a move which effectively ended bindlestiff (although we did make two more albums, “distant” and “late” – and that inevitable compilation CD, “enlighten”, too) and simultaneously, launched my solo career!  but that was fine, bryan and I were very good friends for many, many years, and I respected his decision – for the sake of his family, he needed to be in colorado – so that is where he went.

the next thing that happened was…life.  time passed.  a lot of time.  bryan made recordings, bryan set up his most excellent blog and web presence, “my life in sound”.  I carried on making solo albums of many types, working on collaborations such as “drone forest” or the work with my musical and business partner, ken mistove, “saffron matted voids” – and we both kept very busy with music – bryan was in a couple of different bands, including one where he played upright piano (of course, as guitarist/synthesist – when you join a band, you play the piano – why not?) – and also worked on various collaborative recordings.

of course, we stayed in touch all through this long, long period of time.  we talked about recording again, but somehow we knew that since we could not work physically in the same room (because by this time, I had moved permanently to scotland, while bryan remains in colorado) – we knew that “bindlestiff” could not really make more records.

we talked about making a new record in some format, but then it would get set aside, somehow, we never started actually working on it.  we agreed that with the amount of time that had passed, and with the experience gained, that making an album now would be very interesting and exciting.  still – we couldn’t seem to figure out how to actually make the record.

then one day, an email arrived from bryan with a link to a download page, that had 12 pieces of music on it.  I downloaded these, and when I listened to them, I knew that at last, we had our album.  in a similar way to how leaving behind the acoustic guitars freed us to do the very creative “bindlestiff” material, having these great tracks delivered to me all in one go, absolutely freed me to use some very, very creative approaches when playing “my parts” on the record.

the approach I took surprised even me.  the first thing I did, after only hearing each of the pieces once or twice, was lay them out into a final running order, in sonar, but not in the order that bryan had numbered them, so I re-ordered them according to what I thought would “flow”…12 pieces, set up and ready to overdub.

this created for me, a huge blank musical canvas to work on.  I did a rough mixdown of the 12 bryan tracks, and listened to that for a few days, before attempting to work on the actual piece.  that helped, because it got me familiar with the music, and, it gave me ideas for what I might play…

but that was the interesting part…since so much time had passed, I now had a huge selection of instruments and sounds available, everything from soft synths to the guitar synthesizer, and of course, my trusty ebow and loopers.  I reckoned that I would just do what I always did; what bryan had done was mostly synth-based, so I would add parts that were mostly guitar based, or, I would (as always worked so well on all of the bindlestiff albums) – I would play the ebow.

this proved to be erroneous, uninformed thinking – it was just wrong; and when I tried to do this, it backfired horribly, it just did not work.  a day or two of this, and I realised – this will never work like this.  so I stopped, because I knew it would not “work” – and in thinking things through, I realised that I truly needed to view this as a new band, a new kind of music – and therefore, it demanded a very different approach indeed. on reflection, I should have realised earlier, that “falling back” on “what I knew” was just a bad idea; of course, playing looped ebows worked perfectly for “bindlestiff” – the old technique for the old band, but for this new band, which at first, did not have a name, and then gradually became “scorched by the sun”, I realised I had to approach it another way.

a few days of wringing my hands and worrying later, thinking, what am I going to do? one day, I was listening to the 12 tracks again, and it suddenly came to me – three words – “play the mellotron”.

and that was the answer.  I realised, that with my late 2011 album “sky full of stars”, that I had very successfully created an entire album of music using just the m-tron mellotron software synth – no other sound source of any kind – and that record for me, is one of the most beautiful and effective that I have ever created.  it just hit me, that what would work with bryan’s beautiful tracks – was the m-tron.  and that was the problem solved.

with one exception, every sound on the record that I made, was made with the m-tron mellotron, and the way it worked with bryan’s tracks is simply breathtaking – and simplicity is also key, in some cases, what was needed, was a very simple, very effective “basic flute” mellotron setting, and sometimes, of course, “simple” is best.

the one exception is a very brief, very reverberant grand piano part that I play on the first track, but after that, it’s mellotron all the way 🙂

hearing the fully produced, fully mastered and mixed version now, it’s difficult to conceive that (with one notable exception) the only instrument I played was a mellotron, because the m-tron does make a lot of very unconventional sounds, many of which I did use during some of the more…atmospheric tracks, so some of the mellotron work was more of the “creepy” variety, as well as the sweet, beautiful flute tones used in other sections of the piece.

some early mixes included versions that had just bryan’s parts, or just my parts, (the “overdubs only” or the “underdubs only” mixes) and listening to those, is like hearing two different, fully alternate versions of the main “dreamtime” album.  I haven’t properly finished or mixed either of those alternate versions, I suppose if there was enough interest from folk, I’d be happy to take the time to do so – perhaps they can be “added on” to the main album, as bonus tracks…maybe.  finding time for things like remixes is increasingly difficult – bearing in mind that the first draft of this very blog was written on january 23, 2013, and it’s taken me until march 6th to finally update and upload it!).

I also paid homage to my progressive rock roots on one of the tracks, performing a very camel-like flute mellotron part, and also, my one contribution to the main form of the album “part 9” (a new, thirteenth track that I added in after the existing part eight) – a mellotron solo, also has it’s roots in prog.  both bryan and I love a bit of progressive rock, and while it’s influence is here, it’s not overt – it’s mostly inherited, just subtly “rolled into” the overall feel of the record.

“dreamtime” is therefore a new creation, from a new, revitalised musical partnership, and bryan and I have both spent a lifetime in music, as he puts it, a “life-in-sound” – and after some forty years plus in the business of music, it’s great – no, it’s fantastic – to sit down and make a record with such a capable partner.  I respect bryan’s prowess as writer, performer, keyboardist and guitarist, and I am always interested too, in hearing what he gets up to in the studio, the things he records – because he has an approach to looping and ambient like no other, but is utterly willing to try anything once, or twice, in the studio or in performance – and we often pushed our own broad boundaries even farther than we would have perhaps planned to – often resulting in some real musical surprises, and some fabulous live improvisations came out of those early two incarnations too.

“scorched by the sun” is different though – it’s a very different animal – because for the first time since “the dozey lumps” – we are not looping. well, let me re-phrase that – I am not looping.  at all, not one note.  bryan may well have looped in creating his original pieces, I never analysed them that deeply (I shall have to ask him!) but whether he did or not is irrelevent – they are just lovely pieces of music regardless, and they represent “his half” of the work beautifully. and, they gave me a mostly melodic, often ambient, sometimes unusual but very, very inspirational “bed” of music to play over – a fantastic experience!

I also think that…maturity has a huge part to play here, and being…older…helps in so many ways.  I think we both have learned from our mistakes, and I think we are both much more subtle in our approach, and are both capable of sitting back, and letting the other lead the way, when that’s appropriate, or, if need be, taking the lead ourselves – whatever the piece of music at hand demands, we are ready for it.

most of bryan’s 12 songs, were fully realised pieces of music when they arrived; fully-formed, and quite complete on their own, so I had to work hard to find “overdubs” that were not too over-the-top, that complimented rather than were overbearing, and I think the finished record is testament to my success in that endeavour.

and it was a real pleasure too, to first, “imagine” this piece as a single, continuous piece of music – which I had to do in stages, first, by “deciding” what order those 12 pieces needed to go in – then, making the decision to add a 13th part, and inserting that into the piece – and finally, not just the overdubs for each of the pieces, but the small “linking” parts, which variously did or did not carry – overlapping pieces of music – bridging two of the songs, binding the pieces together like musical glue.

that was really fun, trying to subtly “mask” each transition, by having melodies or perhaps, a single note, playing across and over each transition…attempting to make it sound like a smooth, continuous piece of music as opposed to 13 separate tracks running in order.

so the process of “imagining” this as one single, long song, began with arranging the 12 supplied tracks into a specific order that sounded right to my ears, then, adding one short grand piano (on track one only – true piano via sonar) and mellotron parts to each of the tracks, then, adding a thirteenth piece, then, working on linking the tracks via parts that “overlapped” – and finally, melding and mixing all of the pieces together into a cohesive whole – I’ve never really had an experience quite like it, and it was highly enjoyable.

and I do believe that we succeeded in the stated goal of getting “dreamtime” to sound like a single, continuous song; this mix sounds about as continuous as it ever could, and possibly, I would live in hope that this might be true, possibly if I had never mentioned publicly that this work, this single 50:57 long piece of music, is actually comprised of 13 individual “songs” linked together – that many folk would not really have ever thought about that – they would have just perceived it as one piece of music – which is actually how I listen to it now – I really don’t think about the 13 pieces any more (after all, the work has been essentially complete for about one year – it just had a long, long wait in the queue for mixing and mastering), I just think about the sound of the “whole piece” as it unravels…a lengthy (but not too lengthy), continuous ambient musical journey, the first of many I hope, to emerge from the now mature musical minds of mssrs. helm and stafford, otherwise known as, “scorched by the sun”.

it’s “dreamtime”, everyone 🙂

“dreamtime” – available now from pureambient records via bandcamplisten and download now, on the new “scorched by the sun” bandcamp site.

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

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

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

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

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

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

 

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

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

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

the music of the moment – a new kind of dave stafford music ? – “synthraga orchestra”

well, by complete accident, I think I have created a new kind of music for myself, a kind of music that I’d really like to do a lot more of, work out this new process really well, so that I can play pieces that are truly beautiful and inspiring. the good thing is, technology is making it possible for me to play this music live, so that is even more exciting – live performance, with tanpura drone and tabla drums – and it’s wonderful fun to do!

in my head, I am thinking of this new kind of music as a “synthraga” – and that’s because on may 19, 2012, I set up a scenario where I could have an application, itabla pro, providing both tanpura drone and tabla percussion, and then I also set up between one and three apps, synthesizers, that I could use separately, or ganged together, to play melodies on top of this beautiful rhythmic “bed” of indian sound.

when I was playing the pieces – six of them, all of substantial length, I wasn’t convinced that it was really “working” – I had my doubts if a synthesizer was a valid melodic device to play over an indian rhythm.  however, when it came time to listen back to the tracks, my opinion changed completely – it works really, really well indeed, which surprised me greatly – I would have thought that synth + tanpura + tabla might have been a disaster, but really, all six takes succeed, one or two of them need a little bit of attention, and a few of them are just exquisite right out of the box – thanks mainly to the genius app that is itabla pro.

the first take, “felled trees float rapidly down river” starts with a ghostly, lone synth melody, that plays for about a minute, then the tanpura enter, then the tabla – the piece continues – then I bring in a second synth, and play a lot of very strange melodies, including violent up and down sweeps of the pitch bend wheel…and then, I switch back to synth one, the ghostly one, and continue with the pitch bend antics but in a more subdued way.  for me though, it’s the tabla that make the piece – constant, beautifully recorded – they are just lovely.  the tabla stops; but the drone continues, the ghostly soloist returns, then suddenly, the tanpura and melody just fade away – and a new kind of dave stafford piece is borne.

take two could not be more different; two synths are operating at once, one a stuttering, chattering beast, the other a slow, long, wah sound, the two play together for several seconds, with lovely oscillations and delays – then, the tanpura enter – which just sounds amazing on top of these two wildly moving synth voices, and it begins to set a mood, the soloing on the dual synth voice is just wonderful, the drone of the tanpura really enhancing it – then, suddenly – the tablas enter, and we are away. “branches splaying flying outward – powerful gusts of wind” – once the tablas start going, the chattering synth melody begins to move up and down the keyboard, following it’s own melody line, up and down the scales, then ending up in the high registers – the tablas stop, some amazing synth sounds happen thereafter – then, it’s just tanpura – and we are gone.  another remarkable piece of music from nowhere, I had no plan, I just set up the instruments and just…played.

the third piece starts with a strange, half-strangled square-wavish sound, as usual by now, the drones enter first, always, to set the mood, while the synth melody plays alone, the drones envelop it and make a lot of beautiful noise.  a heavy bass note emerges, then repeats – the tablas enter – and then the strangest thing ever happens, a sort of extreme, in your face wah based synth plays a short sequence – surprisingly – then disappears – then – reappears thirty seconds later, just the most unlikely synth voice you could imagine, it’s arpeggiator based, but it’s the sudden starts and stops – while the original voice continues to play melodies, in fact, it now goes solo, including several interesting pitch wheel motions – then, back to the extreme arpeggiated voice, which if at first was almost irritating, you now can’t help but really like it, and it’s the unusual justaposition of this weird solo voice with the lovely drone/tabla backing, it’s SO unlikely – that it actually works, really, really well. “rustling of leaves turns to rattling, then back to rustling, then, to silence” is a very strange, but very wonderful piece of music, unlike anything I have ever created.

our fourth piece here, “hailstones rattle down the hillside, into the empty riverbed” starts with a mysterious, minor key solo synthesizer that is more fender rhodes than synth, but it sounds wonderful with the tanpura drone and tabla, and most of this piece is taken up with this subtle instrument, it gently plays a lovely melody atop the perfect rhythm kept by the tablas, courtesy of course of the remarkable itabla pro application (which just underwent a fantastic update) – then suddenly, a technological disaster, by accident, the volume increases dramatically, some strange musical events occur, then it goes back to normal – and then, the middle section synth solo comes in (and, the “loud” section can be normalised in post-production, so it’s not a problem) – with again, a most unlikely voice, a very squelchy modified sine wav with a lot of glide, a lot of delay, and a lot of insane pitch wheel bending from the synthesist – that’s me!.  again, a sound I would never pick to go with an indian backing – it shouldn’t work at all – but, it works really well !!! – then returning to the rhodes-like sound and quickly dissolves into nothingness….

track number five (“thousands of leaves fly into the air, borne upwards on rising thermals”) again has a lovely, rhodes-like beginning, very mellow, really nice melodic playing as first the tanpura drone, then the tablas enter, just waiting for that completely out of control, mad, glide and delay, brash synth solo – in fact, this track uses exactly the same set up as track four, so it’s a second attempt to control this mad scenario of controlling multiple synth apps from one keyboard – it works, but the solo section is quite insane, but still, a lot of fun, with amazing pitch bending going on – and it’s wonderful to hear the crazy, brash voice AND the beautiful rhodes voice jam through the long, improvised mid-section – in the end, resolving down to just the rhodes-like sound…and through that lovely outro, tabla stop, continuing rhodes-like melody, and eventual drone fade and ending…beautiful stuff!

a third and final attempt using the same set up, track six, the final take of the session – entitled “the moon lights the heavens reflecting on the forest canopy below” – each time, the sound balance a little better, the transition from the rhodes-like beginning and end sections from/to the louder, brash/crazy middle section is more balanced – the piece begins to really, really  work, although the beginning of the middle section is STILL a shock, in terms of increased volume; the strangeness of the voice, etc. – although lots of great X-Y pad action makes that voice very, very interesting – a long, descending riff works beautifully – and the arpeggiation is just fantastic!  I love this solo I think best out of the three, it’s sudden, like the other two, but it’s very fluid, and it has a very crazy atonal section with lots of VERY warped pitch bend and X-Y manipulation – beautiful.

the inevitable return to just the rhodes-like voice is welcome after the extensive solo, but I believe that I can find a way to balance this out – I think that the right reverb may smooth this somewhat awkward transition between middle solo and the beginning and ending sections.  a beautiful, calm, rhodes-like solo finishes the piece, and the series…of course, fading to just solo and tanpura, and then fading away completely…

as I mentioned, when I was actually doing these, I was not sure if any of them was “working” – there are certainly some strange combinations of odd-synth-voice-choice to backing, but the way I played the parts, as if it were “supposed” to be that way – really makes the pieces just work somehow.  I would say off hand, that all six are imminently release-able – which is amazing, really – OK, maybe I should only release the first three plus which ever out of takes 4, 5 or 6 is “best” – so, four great takes, two very good takes – but it’s the concept here, the idea of playing synthesizer as the melodic instrument on top of tanpura and tabla – it sounds weird on paper, wonderful on tape. (or on digital, actually!).

I wanted specifically to recount this session, because I believe that I will be trying several more along these same lines, although I may incorporate the guitar synth rather than the keyboard synth – although to be fair, both is probably the best idea.  I could certainly command a larger “orchestra” to play over my indian backing tracks…I can forsee playing live on both keyboard synth(s) and guitar synth, using itabla pro as the rhythmic and drone backing – I believe that, over time, I can expand and perfect the “synthraga orchestra” concept, technology, and set-up – maybe even eventually do live streaming performances of synthraga pieces – why not?.

 

all I know is, I am loving this new sound, kinda found it by accident, but that is what I would call a very, very happy accident, because it’s given me yet another unique kind of dave stafford music to play, along with my ebow loop set up, or my various guitar synth string orchestra set ups, I now can add “synthraga” to the menu – and the best thing of all, they are all LIVE performance set ups – no other way to go if you ask me!

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!