I am beginning today as I often do recently – by listening to Mike Keneally’s musical masterpiece, “Wing Beat Fantastic” while I go about my business – since I recently finally got to see and hear Mike play guitar and keyboards (on the recent “Bizarre World of Frank Zappa “ tour when it stopped here in Glasgow) – since seeing Mike play – I’ve been going back to the items I have from his recorded catalogue – and I had almost forgotten just how much I love this incredible music – in my opinion, “Wing Beat Fantastic” is one of the most important records we have, and for me it cemented the inescapable fact of Keneally’s genius as musician, writer, arranger, guitarist, vocalist (oh my God, those vocals!), keyboardist, engineer, producer and yes, I agree – guiding light – this album “kills me” – in the best possible way – because it is in itself, a perfect piece of rock music with some of the best arrangements of some of the best songs ever written in the pop idiom.
I think something happened to Mike when he made this record, the retired spirit of the Beatles visited him in the night, and sat on his left shoulder during the sessions – the sounds, the playing – the sheer joy of “Wing Beat Fantastic” rings so incredibly true – so much so that I can’t stop playing it at the moment – it is an experience like nothing else on earth.
I think that on top of that, that when the opportunity arose for Mike to work with these orphaned Andy Partridge tunes – that he took that with a seriousness bordering on the edges of “oh my God, I have to do these tunes justice – I have to make them into what should have been” – and “I also need to create my own tunes that are equal or better to make the whole thing sit together in as perfect a way as possible…”
It must have felt like an overwhelming responsibility – while at the same time, having the potential, the excitement – the idea of finishing up some half-completed masterworks by the Lennon & McCartney of XTC – songwriter / guitarist Andy Partridge of XTC – I would imagine that just the idea of doing “Wing Beat Fantastic” had to be one of the most exciting things that can happen to a musician – to receive those tapes, to have someone say to you, “here – here is something so rare and so precious and so utterly unique – now – it’s down to YOU, Mike Keneally, to make something of it”.
And make something of it – he did. Something fantastic…the ineffable oomph of everything that is “Wing Beat Fantastic”.
While the Zappa virtual show was the first time I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing Mike playing guitar and keyboards, and singing – it was not actually quite the first time I had “seen” him, though…
Many, many years ago, I had attended a special screening of an amazing batch of live music videos by various progressive rock bands. This was a few years before the Internet, and certainly far in advance of YouTube – and Mike Keneally was the host – he gathered us in a small theatre, and then proceeded to blow our minds by showing us live performances by early Genesis with Peter Gabriel in full regalia – and to a bunch of Californian music fans – sure, we loved Genesis and Peter Gabriel but WHO KNEW there was actual FILM of them actually playing – not maybe the best quality film – but for us, it totally brought these progressive bands to life for the first time ever.
We wouldn’t have had opportunity to see them in their heyday or in Europe and the UK – where they often mainly played in the earliest days of prog – Genesis didn’t start coming to California until the early 70s – so to see something like “Supper’s Ready” played live by the classic five piece line up of Genesis – what a treat.
I can’t really recall much else of what was on the programme – but it did also include a “more recent at the time” clip of Frank Zappa’s band playing live, and featured our video curator / host Mike Keneally himself, playing the picked-note pattern that is “Watermelon In Easter Hay” – so he included himself in the program, and why not? – but it was mostly his extreme enthusiasm for prog that took me by surprise – he knew his prog – and his appreciation for bands like Genesis, Gentle Giant, Yes and so on was inspiring – it made you feel less alone – hey, here’s a young guy, a great player in his own right, from Frank Zappa’s band – that ACTUALLY LIKES all the same prog bands that I like….hmmmm.
Taking the long. long view back to that odd night of grainy, questionable quality video curated by a young Mike Keneally – and then being catapulted by time to 2019 and seeing the man himself playing lead guitar, synth and singing so amazingly well, live – supporting his virtual band leader the late Frank Zappa, from beyond the grave – and there it was again – footage of musicians – but this time with a live band backing the pre-recorded vocals and lead guitars of the late, great Frank Zappa.
So video was a big part of both events – but – the mature Keneally, leading and inspiring this amazing band of musicians in their shared support of their old bandleader, the amazing Zappa – hearing and seeing Mike play in 2019 – well, I am so glad I finally got the chance to see him play – because in the last 30 or 40 years – he has become one of the most remarkably fluid, creative and interesting musicians on the planet.
I mean, I have the albums, I remember being absolutely blown away by “hat” at the time it came out – which is a remarkable record – but seeing him now, as a more mature musician – he is absolutely at the height of his powers right now – what a powerhouse performance he put on that night – and I was fortunate enough to be there to hear his lead guitar added to and blended with Zappa’s and taking centre stage on compositions where there was no video of FZ – and his renderings of tracks like “Farther O’Blivion” was absolutely astonishing – this is a man who understands something about Zappa the player, Zappa the guitarist – the sheer genius of Zappa the serious composer and writer– and the reverence and joy in the performances was more than apparent – this band was almost like an extension of Frank – and I think Frank would have been flabbergasted and also amused to hear and see Keneally and friends playing live “backing” to videos of Frank that had been turned into holograms…Frank would have LOVED it!!
So it’s been Keneally week around here, and that’s a good kind of week, I reckon.
As you might have noticed, I’ve not been writing a lot lately, but I believe that this year, that is going to change – and I am here to tell you why. When I first started working on the blog (a few years ago now) – I had all these “ideas” about what it should be, what it shouldn’t be – what I should write about – and so on. And that’s fine for what it is – but I think it needs to change now, and become much more stream-of-consciousness – and hopefully, much more interactive – I want to challenge, I want to talk about some of the more introspective and personal aspects of music – and I want to hear your thoughts on my thoughts…if you know what I mean.
So – planning blogs and choosing topics – that was then – this is now. I want the blog to become to my writing, like an “improv” for writing – without the formal ideas and planning – I want it to be the “writing” equivalent to what a good, unplanned and unique “improv” is to my guitar playing or piano playing – it’s a whole new decade about to start and the end of a most interesting one – and I hope that maybe, just maybe – I’ve learned something this time around. I can do this without the safety nets – no net for the blog, no net for the guitar and keyboard playing.
Out of the ashes of the old, comes the new. Fewer rules means more freedom, but by adding back in unique intangibles, hopefully I can avoid too much repetition of what has gone before – and move forward with new writings and new music for a new decade.
And today’s blog is a new thing – a thing I’ve not really experienced before – it’s done without any plan whatsoever – and that is in line with my new approach to music – I am going to stop “planning” – and start allowing music to appear based on – whatever the heck I feel like playing (or, for the blog – whatever the heck I feel like writing about), and without trying to compose, but to allow a kind of “improv” that can lead to compositions – I am going to try to (serious cliché alert – but it is the ONLY way I can describe this – wince) to let go as much as possible
To that end – I’ve done a bit of work over the past three or four months (yet another reason you haven’t heard from me much recently) – I’ve been very busy revamping my recording rig, rebuilding the studio, and preparing for a new scenario where I set up my equipment – plug in an instrument – and play.
Just –play – and see what comes out of it. At the same time – there is a lot on my mind that I want to explore in the writing, here in the blog, with you – and I hope we can discuss a number of musical aspects that we haven’t looked at previously.
I think that for the mature musician, artist, player, or writer – that you have to go through a lot of stages during your development as a musician – first you have to learn your instrument, then, you need to acquire enough technique to navigate through that instrument – and over time, you build up infrastructure – obviously, physical infrastructure – so guitars and amps and effects and devices with which to record and perform – and the physical is undeniably a big part of your experience as a musician. It’s what makes you sound like you sound…
But I think it’s the mental infrastructure that undergoes the longest and most lasting and most important transitions – and maybe, this just takes time – you have to have played your instrument, performed, recorded, composed with it – for x number of years – when quite suddenly, the mental infrastructure or if you like, your own set of “rules” – changes, or you suddenly perceive things in a new way that you never imagined or saw before.
That is sort of my lame and not terrifically articulate way of trying to explain the mental transformation I am going through right now (over the past several months – as I’ve rebuilt the physical infrastructure of my music – at the same time, I have been rebuilding the mental infrastructure too) – I think I had reached a point where I realised that most of the work in the physical – is just routine, it’s necessary, it’s good, it’s positive – but it’s more in your mindset, it’s in the mental infrastructure, it’s the road map – the way to get from silence to music and back again unscathed…that is what is important.
Another way to express this might be to say “it doesn’t matter what guitar you play or what amp you use or what modifiers you use to change the sounds your instrument makes – what really matters is – the notes you play”. And those notes and chords – come from the set of possible notes and chords that form PART of this “mental infrastructure” – and choosing those well, is what makes the difference between a performance – and an inspired, beautiful performance or recording.
Which notes, which chords – yes, that is incredibly important – and choosing well might result in a rare, one of a kind performance where you actually exceed what you are normally capable or – or, if you are recording, it might result in the creation of a truly unique and remarkable composition – that you might never have come up with if you had just chosen ordinary or predictable notes and chords – so yes, that choice is important…very important…however:
On top of the very desirable goal of picking enchanted and beautiful and unique notes and chords – there are also what I will call “The Intangibles” – and that is perhaps, a more flexible set of mental infrastructure rules that overlay the “play this chord now, now play those three notes” kinds of instructions – so part of your brain is getting you to play notes and chords…but at the same time, there is another force at work – The Intangibles – and they can be the source of real magic – they can take an extraordinary set of notes and chords, and turn them into a once-in-a-lifetime tour-de-force performance or recording – or even just an enhanced, more meaningful experience of playing your instrument.
It’s those Intangibles I want to now take a good look at – because there are so many of them, some obvious, some subtle, some so subtle as to be done almost unconsciously – what are they?, and how can I harness their power?
I think now, that my goal has shifted to combining the “Magic Of The Intangibles” with “The Well Chosen Notes And Chords” – so that when I strap on that guitar, and I turn on the Physical Infrastructure that takes my thought and turns it into a chord or note – what Intangibles can I apply, to take that particular performance to the highest level possible – to make it the very best that it can be?
That is what I want to explore going forward from here.
I want to work out how to do that – so that I am no longer just “improvising” – but instead, I am applying creative ideas in real time – overlaying the notes and chords (which I hope, are being produced almost on “autopilot” by this time) with a new excitement and in particular, with something (The Intangibles – whatever they become) that elevates the music I am playing beyond the ordinary, beyond the “same old thing” beyond being predictable and repetitious – even if it only happens once in a blue moon – it’s an amazing goal to work towards attaining – and that is what I am aiming to do right now – here as we approach the end of 2019, the end of a decade – I want to step up, and use The Intangibles to drive forward a heightened, impassioned, kind of new music that will take even me by surprise. Universe – surprise me!
To bring us full circle, I want to say that I can definitely sense an absolutely amazing and unique set of “Intangibles” in the recording of “Wing Beat Fantastic” by the remarkable Mike Keneally – a musician who is defined by his brilliant set of internal, mental intangible rules for making records and for performing – it’s one of those records that has that special something about it – that most other albums just do not – and I might never be able to articulate what “that special something” is – and maybe that is the whole point – it’s built off of some kind of “intangible” or set of rules that Mike was holding in his mind as he created it – something inspired him in a way I doubt he’d been inspired before – to take the seeds planted by Andy Partridge – and in nurturing them and growing them into this incredible record – which to my way of thinking, is simply one of the best pop records ever made – and if you’ve heard Mike Keneally’s other albums – this record sounds unlike any of his other releases – so give it a try – it’s atypical, and well worth the journey – it truly is “fantastic”.
Moving forward, I want to try and articulate some of the new intangibles that I’ve been conceiving in my head and that I hope will inform upcoming recording and performance projects in an incredibly positive way – and hopefully, I will learn a few things along the way.
More as it happens – fellow music lovers and fellow travellers.
Thank you for listening.
August 17, 2019
N.B. Honourable mention: “Wing Beat Elastic” by Mike Keneally – a record of amazing remixes and a remarkable breakdown of the musical DNA from “Wing Beat Fantastic” if you like “Wing Beat Fantastic” – you will almost certainly enjoy this record, too.