Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell interview from 1974

Joni Mitchell's sixth album, 'Court and Spark' was released 45 years ago. I recently unearthed this interview from the US pop magazine 'Raves', which appeared in June 1974. In it, Joni talks about the evolution of her songwriting craft and her ongoing sense of loneliness.

The interviewer paints Joni as a tragic Garbo-like figure who had retreated from the LA music scene for some time, only recently re-emerging with her new album and a tour that took in a series of dates in London.

Joni had changed and indicated she had undergone "a painful transition" - "I was too close to my own work," she said. She took to the psychiatrist's couch - "I was practically catatonic," but that provided no solution.

She found some answers in the writing of German novelist Hermann Hesse. As she skimmed the book 'Narcissus and Goldmund' she ran across a passage in which Narcissus the priest does not reproach Goldmund for his lack of insight into himself. Instead, he advises him to 'get his life in focus'.

Travel also broadened her mind and ultimately she "gained a perspective and distance on most of my songs."

She emerges, said the reviewer, "as a talented entertainer, rather than the emotional registrar of experiences."

Court and Spark marked the beginning of the most musically fulfilling period of her career. The confidence shines through in the performances from the London shows.

Joni embraced the opportunity of working with talented jazz players like Tom Scott, John Guerin and Robben Ford.

The results, in her next album, would blow away any notion that she was just a confessional singer/songwriter. But that's another story, told here:

Here's an excerpt from the London concerts with Tom Scott and the LA Express:
see also:
Joni Mitchell in the 70s - Court and Spark 

Monday, November 5, 2018

March 1973 - 'Dark Side of the Moon' enters the charts

The UK pop charts from March 1973. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon makes its first appearance in the album chart. It stayed there for the next 10 years, but apparently it never made it to Number 1.

The singles chart is the usual mix of the cool and the seriously uncool. The notable aspect is the high proportion of soul artists, including Roberta Flack, the Detroit Emeralds, Timmy Thomas, Jimmy Helms, the O'Jays and Gladys Knight.

The albums list contains quite a few all-time classics, including Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, Bowie's Ziggy Stardust, Moving Waves by Focus, Holland by the Beach Boys and Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

February 1970 - Bowie in obscurity, Mick Ronson joins Michael Chapman

Michael Chapman's album Fully Qualified Survivor had just been released on Harvest. It featured some classic Mick Ronson guitar, instantly recognisable as the sound Ronson would soon deliver on David Bowie's album, 'The Man Who Sold The World'. But at this point, it would be hard to say who was the more successful of the two, Bowie or Ronson.

David was at this point involved in his Arts Lab project, and a long way (another two years) from seeing any more commercial success after his lone hit 'Space Oddity' in 1969. Mick Ronson, on the other hand, was being picked up by various emerging artists including Michael Chapman and Elton John.

Here is Ronson to the fore on this track from FQS, 'Stranger in the Room

The common denominator between Chapman and Elton was producer Gus Dudgeon. Gus was so impressed with Ronson's playing on Fully Qualified Survivor, he recommended Elton John check him out for his forthcoming album 'Madman Across The Water'. Ronson did record some guitar for that record, but it wasn't included in the original vinyl release. It didn't see the light of day until a much later CD version of the Madman album included extra tracks, including the version with Ronson's guitar part.

Here it is:

Meanwhile, as the above page from the Melody Maker of the time shows, on Tuesday this week, Bowie was doing a gig at the White Bear pub in Hounslow!

Here's some rare footage of Michael Chapman, live in Paris in 1970, with Rick Kemp on bass and Richie Dharma on drums - both of whom are mentioned in the item about Chapman teaming up with Ronson in the MM cutting, under 'Folk News'.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Heyday of the NME

There's a been a lot of talk this week about the closure of the NME's print edition - the end of an era and all that. In his Guardian obituary for the music paper, Alex Petridis reckoned the NME had umpteen “golden eras” which he said usually had less to do with the quality of the writing "than whether or not you were 17 or 18 when you were reading it".|

That's true-ish, but really, the legend of the NME as the cool, trend-setting weekly bible for music fans, was formed in the first half of the 1970s, which was really a hangover from the late 60s. It was a wild and often chaotic paper in those days, informed by the underground press vibe of Oz and IT, that had spawned some of the NME's own writers including Charles Shaar Murray and Nick Kent.

It was the first break with the formal traditions of music writing, passed down through the jazz age in the 50s and the still formal and respectful pop journalism of the 60s. The more anarchic style of the NME's new brand of hacks made star names out of maverick characters like CSM, Nick Kent, Mick Farren and Ian MacDonald.
They were given as much space as they wanted and used the opportunity to write think pieces about relatively obscure artists. Kent's long elegy to Nick Drake soon after the singer's death, was a landmark in UK rock journalism, influenced no doubt by the kind of intelligent analysis they had seen in Rolling Stone.

The central storyline of Kent's 1975 three-part series on Brian Wilson, 'The Last Beach Movie', was the collapse of the Beach Boys' 'Smile' project. It was the first time most of us had heard any details about the album Wilson was forced to abort in 1967 and Kent's detailed account was rightly acclaimed.

This was also a time when the market was clearly divided between pop and rock, albums and singles, US and UK - two very distinct music markets in those days. America was still a foreign land in those pre-cheap transatlantic travel days. The NME writers schooled us ordinary folk in the different music coming out of New York, Detroit, LA and San Francisco.

Meanwhile, the thinking freak's rock critic, Ian MacDonald, a Cambridge drop-out, was writing feature length pieces about Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan and Sparks - expanding our consciousness and daring us to go along for the ride. Ian Mac was the guy that turned me on to all these artists and more.

It wasn't all ground-breaking though; much of the rest of the NME was throwaway - entertaining that Thursday when it hit the streets but not meant to last. Nonetheless it was a reflection of the time. Rock had yet to become an 'industry'. The lunatics were still running the asylum. The Lone Groover, Tony Benyon's stoned cartoon character, was emblematic of the long-haired freak scene, a hangover from the sixties that persisted until the advent of punk. The NME's album reviews were often wildly funny, but often dismissive - and downright wrong - about albums and artists whose work is now justly revered. From Bowie to Joni to Marley and even the early punk scene - there are individual examples where the NME's writers didn't get it right.

But collectively they had great taste, as the 1974 Top 100 albums demonstrates. Every single one of those 100 albums remains a classic, which I suppose goes to support the idea that the period up to 1975 was the classic era for rock and roll.

No doubting that things changed from '77 onwards, and if truth be told, the NME's writers were as blindsided by the new wave as any of the other music mags. For a time though, in the first half of that decade, they created the lasting legend of the NME. The rebelliousness was now led by the musicians themselves, and arguably that's just another form of PR. But the legend of an NME full of edgy, exciting music writing allowed it to remain in business way beyond any of the other music papers of the time. Melody Maker and Sounds went the way of the dinosaurs. Smash Hits was wildly successful for 20 years but was closed in 2006. It's a wonder the NME lasted as long as it did.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Bowie - "It's a Drive-In Saturday"

Other-worldly. In the early 1970s, David Bowie really was that rock hero from another planet, the starman waiting in the sky. His words and music sparked the imagination of a new generation of pop fans. The images from the Ziggy Stardust period in 1972 and '73 show an artist taking the early stylings of Glam Rock established by T. Rex and Slade to a whole different level. The front cover of the Ziggy Stardust album plays up the other-worldliness perfectly, as if Bowie had just fallen to earth. And this advert for his 1973 single 'Drive-in Saturday' plays on the other-worldly persona; a cleverly cultivated image and a perfect complement to the music. Drive-in Saturday  is one of the stand-out tracks on the 'Aladdin Sane' album and, for some fans it is one of Bowie's greatest songs. Its setting is a futuristic world where people have forgotten how to make love. When he played the song live soon after he wrote it, Bowie said, "This is after a catastrophe of some kind, and some people are living on the streets and some people are living in domes, and they borrow from one another and try to learn how to pick up the pieces."

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Kansas - why 'Leftoverture' is their masterpiece album

Kansas may just be the ugliest band in the world. Not hip or trendy in any way, but if you can put that aside and you have an appreciation for progressive rock, read on.

To put my interest in context, 1977 was a schizophrenic year. My old concert tickets show that I saw Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, but I also saw the Clash and the Sex Pistols. In the middle of all that, in the summer of ‘77, I went to America for the first time and stayed with a family in the heart of Long Island, New York. I had met the girl when she came over on a school exchange trip. We bonded over a shared appreciation of Boston’s first album.

The other music she and her friends listened to was Aerosmith (Toys In The Attic), Foghat Live, Frampton Comes Alive, Rumours (you couldn’t get away from it) and Leftoverture by Kansas, which contained their big hit at the time, 'Carry On Wayward Son'. Some of it has stayed with me. In fact all of it, except Foghat.

Leftoverture has great songs, some intricate but not too complex arrangements, with just the right mix of guitar and keyboards to keep the whole thing interesting. It was on pretty constant rotation in my bedroom in the late 70s. I was lucky enough to see them live at Hammersmith in 1978 too, playing the set you can hear on the live album from that time 'Two For The Show'.

Kansas have recently released a 40th anniversary 'Leftoverture' concert CD, with a second CD of other classic material. It's probably not the best starting point, but it does at least highlight their prog credentials, including as it does many of their long-form compositions. This incarnation of Kansas contains only two original members out of six – drummer Phil Ehart and rhythm guitarist Rich Williams. Leader and songwriter Kerry Livgren left many years ago, while more recent departures include singer and keyboard man Steve Walsh, along with singer and violinist Robbie Steinhardt.

So, the first thing anyone familiar with the originals will have to get over is the change of singer. Vocals are now handled mainly by new keyboardist Ronnie Platt, supported by bassist Billy Greer. Platt can carry a tune, but prog singing requires a certain delivery to match the ostentation of the music. Steve Walsh had that in spades. A song like Journey from Mariabronn, from the first Kansas album, is one of their most successful compositions, made especially effective by Walsh’s impassioned delivery. Platt, while he hits the notes, can’t convey the drama in the same way.
This clip of JFM is a little fuzzy but it's the real thing. Early Kansas in all their prog pomp
Listening to ‘Journey from Mariabronn’ again on this disc, I’m reminded they did some really good long-form compositions that mark them out as the best of the few US bands that could be compared with their UK prog peers. Those who bought the Best of Kansas because they liked 'Carry On…' and 'Dust In The Wind' probably missed that point, which is why Kansas get lumped in with the pomp rock bands like Boston and Styx.
Here's 'Icarus - Wings of Steel'

I had hoped for a large dollop of nostalgia listening to them play Leftoverture, which takes up disc 2. It was OK, but I felt I was listening to a tribute band. If you don’t have the originals, this is not the place to start. Get a copy of Leftoverture and the original live album, Two For The Show. And if you want to investigate further, the albums either side of Leftoverture – Song For America and Point of Know Return, as well as the first album – are worth checking out.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The many sides of Walter Becker

Having just contributed to a podcast in memory of Steely Dan's Walter Becker, who passed away this week, I've compiled some examples of his work that casual listeners and readers may not be so familiar with.

The partnership between Becker and Donald Fagen was such that it is often difficult to know where an idea has stemmed from. They were so well-matched in terms of intellect and musical knowledge, they were in the habit of finishing each other's sentences. Nonetheless, it is fairly well accepted that Becker, with his rather more chequered background, contributed the darker, more surreal ideas to The Dan's music.

And there were plenty of them. The new identity fixer in Sign In Stranger; the 'man of science' mixing up his psychedelics in Kid Charlemagne; the ode to "the Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian" in Hey Nineteen and perhaps most personal of all, Any World (That I'm Welcome To).

"Whenever I recorded with Walter and Donald, right before the engineer pushed the red button, Walt would shimmy over to me and in a stage whisper, would say: 
“Just play the blues Elliott… just play the blues”.
- Elliott Randall, session guitarist on Steely Dan's albums 
and most famous for his soloing on Reelin' In The Years

We don't know too much about Becker's early years, apart from the fact his parents separated, but we do know he had his demons and, as Fagen noted, his "habits". The song 'Time Out Of Mind' from Gaucho would have been very close to home at that point in his life. The heroin halted his friendship with Fagen at the end of the 1970s and Becker retreated to Hawaii to recover from his addiction.

He re-emerged in the 80s handling production for the band China Crisis (the story of how he was attracted to the British band because he'd misheard their name as Vagina Crisis seems fitting somehow). He produced their album 'Flaunt The Imperfection', which contains the track 'You Did Cut Me', released as a single in 1985. It could easily be a Steely Dan song.

In 1989, he met up with Rickie Lee Jones and the two collaborated on her fourth album 'Flying Cowboys', which contained a lovely song 'The Horses'. Co-written with Becker, a cover version of the song by Daryl Braithwaite made No 1 in Australia.

and this song, Satellites, which shows traces of Becker's influence
Rickie Lee Jones wrote a touching tribute to Walter this week for Rolling Stone magazine. She said Steely Dan made it OK to be educated: "It was the idea that intelligent music was cool".

"I was brought up, you might say, on writing thick with imagery and subtle implication and I loved it. I loved the innuendo, the humor, the sting. The genius was as much in the part we filled in, the lines they didn't write. That was where the sticky stuff of memory made their music a part of our own personal history."

Of Becker, she wrote, "I have often said that so much of what we write seems to be prophetic. Walter lost too many people to drugs. He found too many people laying on the floor. The bed. Too many heartbreaks."

Becker and Fagen were able to move forward with their unique musical partnership in the 1990s, initially working together on Fagen's second solo album Kamakiriad, where Becker was the co-producer, and co-writer of the song Snowbound. He is listed as the bassist/guitarist on the album too.

In 1994, the year after the Steely Dan reunion tour, Walter produced his first solo album '11 Tracks of Whack', which was well received but not as commercially successful as his partner's solo records. Becker's sound was less polished and without the rounded melodies of The Nightfly or Kamakiriad. But it did contain some great compositions, demonstrating Becker's vivid imagination and a lyricism few could match.

This, for example, from the track Surf and/or Die, about a friend of his who died in a hang-glider accident:

Earthbound to Johnny boy just picked up your message
‘Bout those Balinese ikats you thought I might buy
Now your voice on my machine is more alive than what you are
Since your daredevil hang glider fell out of the sky
Now Armand’s looked all over but he can’t find your car keys
Were they under the tire? Were they under the seat?
Because as it stands now your beloved white Aires
Is fair game for the vandals up on Makapuu Street
And your grandmother’s number, we know it’s here somewhere
But Suze can’t seem to find it, now she’s losing control
And so what about her, and little Eldon and Layla
And that hypothetical spectre, your gilt-edged soul
Which defied many perils, in the face of all reason
And in so many settings and for all your young years
Insisting on pure freedom for its too-short season
Riding high on its ration of enchantment and fear
Over the hill and into the next meadow and on and on and on
In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they’ll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, suspended without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show
Going too far too fast in that final wing over
As your glider comes tumbling out of the clouds
And you clutch at your chest but the chute never opens
And they find you there tangled in that white nylon shroud
When we get Grandma’s number I think I’ll just say to her
Your Johnny’s home for Christmas, it was a hell of a ride
And I know that some day you’ll be showing me those blankets
All covered in glory on the hereafter side, saying
There was never any question, it was always all or nothing
Surf and/or die

"My inner Steely Dan geek was extremely anxious to get answers to the many questions I had since the age of 14. What guitar did you use on the solo (perhaps my favorite of his) on “Pretzel Logic”? Answer: an old Epiphone solid body. What is a “squonk”? (now, of course, you can wiki it). Who were some of the others on the legendarily large list of guitarists who took a stab at the solo to “Peg”? (He told me that Robben Ford had recorded an especially awesome solo.)"
- Drew Zingg, lead guitarist on the reunion tour, and heard to best effect on Third World Man from the 'Alive in America' album

Becker didn't produce his second solo album, 'Circus Money' until 2008 and many Dan fans are probably unfamiliar with it, as it received no promotion and virtually no airplay. But it has better production values than the first album and hangs together as a good collection of songs.

In the last 10 years, he also collaborated on a couple of albums with Madeleine Peyroux, notably on the 2009 album Bare Bones. One of the co-writes on the album is the song 'You Can't Do Me' which has an undeniable Becker stamp on it.

To round off this review of Walter Becker's musical legacy, if you want to enjoy more of the man's writing and his sense of humour, check out the stories and tour notes he wrote for the Steely Dan website. The site was set up when they first started touring again and many of the early stories are still up on the site - - here's one random example. All this stuff is made up, it's just him riffing on an idea:

And while they took songwriting to another place, and made it OK to be intelligent in popular music, Becker and Fagen never took themselves too seriously. As here, where they cruise around New York, picking up seemingly random girls to discuss their music: 

Not that you'd know it from that clip, but Walter was the quiet one of the two, and would have been a rather intimidating presence at times I'm sure, as the wittiest and most urbane guy in the room oft times. But his wit and intellect added much of the spice within the complex flavours of Steely Dan. He was a one off, and he's left a wonderful musical legacy.

Here's what his daughter had to say in memory of her dad:

RIP Walt.

Further reading and listening:
New York Times: Listen to 13 Essential Walker Becker Songs
Pitchfork: 8 Songs That Show Walter Becker's Brilliance
Washington Post: Walter Becker was the cynical one, hiding behind the guitar

If you're looking for a thoughtful and perhaps unusual Steely Dan playlist, may I suggest this one?

And someone has thoughtfully packaged the out-takes from the Gaucho Sessions into a 'lost' album compilation: