The Dreaded 1980s: Not So Bad After All

DECADE BY DECADE – THE LIVE CONCERT EXPERIENCE / OVERVIEW

Episode 2: 1980s

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

splitenz

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

 

marillion

 

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

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

enobrian70s

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

 

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

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

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

thompsonrichard

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

 

 

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

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

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

jethrotull

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

Type Uno

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

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

 

jethrotull2zztop

 

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

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

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

A First Time For Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

gabrielpeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What a way to START a concert!

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

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

nelsonbill74

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Type Dos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

pretenders

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Never Thought I Would See The Day When…

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

Awesome Guitarists – one motivator for attending so many concerts

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

 

 

Forward…into the future!

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

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

Until next time then again–

 

Dave Stafford
June 6, 2018

 

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

The Sinuous 1990s – The many-headed stylistic beast

 

1980s Concert Ticket Stub Collection (courtesy Dave Stafford)

1980sConcert Ticket Stubs – 1980s

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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

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!