Friday, October 19, 2012

A Celebration of Led Zeppelin

'Celebration Day' - The film of Led Zeppelin's show at London's O2 Arena in 2007, is a real treat and worth catching on the big screen if you get the chance. It captures the band at their majestic best, turning in a performance that defies the fact they hadn't played a full live show for almost 30 years.

It was Friday night and there was plenty of clapping and whooping in our movie theatre, which for once was quite appropriate. The film takes you into the crowd and onto the stage, giving a sense of what it was like for both audience and band on the night. And it really does capture the spirit of classic Led Zeppelin. At one point, Robert Plant says, "It still feels pretty good up here" and there are several moments where you see them look at each other, as if to say "we've still got it". I was at the Knebworth show back in the day and I think the 02 performance stands shoulder to shoulder with that 1979 vintage.
We're gonna groove - backstage before the show
I was also at Earl’s Court in 1975 and while that was really the band at their peak, for anyone coming to 'Celebration Day' without knowing more than a couple of the classic albums, this film gives you a good representation of what Led Zeppelin were about. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are both on fine form here and Robert Plant manoeuvres his way round the difficult registers without losing the spirit of the original songs. There’s so much to enjoy. The material is nicely varied and really blows away any notion that they were just ‘Hey hey mama and squeeze my lemon’ big haired posers. The best musical moments are the ones where they show their roots but also their sophistication: In My Time of Dying, No Quarter, Kashmir. And if you have ever liked Stairway to Heaven, you will love this version.

Jason Bonham did a great job of driving the band, especially on things like Kashmir. As his father did at the Knebworth shows, Jason allows the band to ride on top of his monumental groove. Similarly, In My Time of Dying stays true to the spirit of the original recording. Jason really channels the spirit of Bonzo at times. It’s true what Jimmy Page says; they couldn’t have done this with any other drummer. At no time, do you feel like he’s throwing them off – his appreciation of the music is total. What a proud moment for him.
Another great thing about the film is how it shows the many warm exchanges between all of them, when they know they’ve nailed a tune. Like on Black Dog, you can sense their elation at having not just got through it, but really rocked it. JPJ talked about the over-riding feeling being one of relief, that they got to the end of the show without any train-wrecks, and as long-time fans we share in that relief. But what makes this show special is they reminded themselves, and us, in the best way possible that they were an incredible and quite unique band. You don’t see musicians playing with this level of respect for their music and their legacy – not rock bands anyway.
 I'm glad they didn't take it out on the road though. This was a one-off.

I was curious to see how the film would look on my phone, so towards the end I took this clip of 'Kashmir'. It came out pretty well. The original file size was 290mb! For less than 3 mins.
But there's a much better clip that someone else has posted from the screening at Hammersmith Apollo:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Elton John and Rod Stewart at Watford FC, 1974

May 1974. Elton John was already an international star and Rod was about to become one. Watford Football Club, my home team, were in need of funds and Elton, newly installed as a director of the club, decided to put on a benefit concert. Tickets were £1 and it was billed as Elton John and guests. 
Nazareth opened the concert. We were actually big fans of their album 'Loud 'N Proud' which had their version of Joni Mitchell's 'This Flight Tonight' as well as a  cover of the Little Feat song 'Teenage Nervous Breakdown'. 
We held back during Nazareth's set but then a couple of us moved right to the front for Elton's set. This was the classic EJ band, with Dee Murray, Nigel Ollson and Davey Johnstone, plus new member Ray Cooper on percussion. Watford are known as The Hornets and so Elton naturally arrived on stage in a hornet costume. You can see from the footage of the concert here that Elton's colourful outfit was a contrast with the long hair and denim of most of us in the crowd (I'm down there at front centre). There were a few glammed-up Rod-alikes and by the sound of the screaming, quite a few girls. It was a good-natured crowd - and I remember at least one streaker. Elton's set included recent classics like Candle In The Wind and Daniel. They debuted a new single, a cover version of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.  I'm not sure if we knew that Rod was going to appear, but his appearance certainly added an extra element of star quality. He appeared wearing a white silk suit and matching scarf and his trademark haircut - every inch the rock star. This was pre-Atlantic Crossing, the point at which he focussed on making it big in America, so he sang a mix of Elton material that he had covered on his early solo albums. 
Melody Maker's front page story about the Watford gig and rock's football fans
The second video clip shows Rod's entrance and the run-through of Country Comforts. It's just a shame the sound balance has his vocals way down. There are no official release clips from this concert, so this is all we have to go on. I remember the Elton John Band being really professional and excellent musicians. It was a treat to see them up-close. The photo here, taken from the front page of the following week's Melody Maker, is pretty much the view I had. 
The article in the MM - 'How rock gets its kicks' was about how people like Elton, Rod, Ian Hunter, Rick Wakeman, Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters were "confirmed soccer freaks". 
This was 10 years before Watford had their period of success in the old first division under the management of Graham Taylor. At this point, they had made it up from the third to the second division and were holding their own without ever really looking like being promoted to the first division. They had a brief glory period in the 1970-71 season, beating Liverpool 1-0 in the FA cup quarter finals before being trounced 5-1 by Chelsea in the semis. Chelsea went on to win the cup that year, beating Leeds Utd in a replay at Old Trafford. Having stood on terraces as a 12 year-old through my mid-teens, I drifted away and only rarely ventured back to Vicarage Road. I returned recently to watch them playing Spurs in a pre-season friendly. The ground is looking much better now, apart from the old players entrance stand, which was condemned and is yet to be rebuilt. 
Rod Stewart joins Elton John on stage at Watford Football Club, May 1974

Saturday, September 22, 2012

It's Frank Zappa Day

September 19th is officially designated as Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore, the city where Frank grew up, before his family moved to the west coast of the US and he eventually settled in Los Angeles.  Two years ago, I happened to be in Baltimore on business and as usual I checked to see what was on while I was there. The announcement of a statue unveiling grabbed my attention straight away:

"FREE Outdoor Festival and Tribute Concert Featuring DWEEZIL ZAPPA AND ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA.
On September 19th, the city of Baltimore will dedicate a monument to the memory and cultural impact of the legendary Frank Zappa".

To me, Frank Zappa is a complete one-off; a man whose unique musical vision was formed by early exposure to obscure and, to most ears, impenetrable sounds at the extremes of classical and jazz - with a garnish of doo-wop.  I'm pretty sure that from an early age he would have been seen, and seen himself, as an outsider. His family lived in a series of small towns and this sense of cultural isolation contributed to his singular vision. He remained a maverick throughout his life, which is why I think he deserves greater recognition, not just for the enormous catalogue of music he created, but for the purity of his vision. He was driven to create and although he understood the 'business' of music very well, his music was unaffected by commercial considerations. He did what he did and some of it was successful, artistically and commercially. Some of it was only successful artistically and, yes, some of it was artistically and politically questionable. But musically, the proof of his worth as a composer and his skills as a band leader are the sheer number of virtuoso musicians who have come through his ranks. Only Miles Davis could beat him in that regard.

Percussionist Ruth Underwood
said of Frank, "there was always more music..". He never stopped working and writing out manuscripts for the band to work on. If you are a musician and you want a fuller appreciation of Frank's oeuvre, it is essential to read 'The Real Frank Zappa Book', his autobiography. In it, he details the unusual inspiration he found in the music of Varese and Stravinsky and of his early musical efforts in cahoots with schoolfriend Donny Vliet (Captain Beefheart).  Frank also writes about how the Mothers of Invention evolved their act, via a 6-month residency at a club in New York. The book provides the cointext and a greater understanding of how Frank came to create those early Mothers records - the arrangements, the little filligree passages, the tape looping, the orchestral interludes. There is so much in there.

Here is Ruth explaining the richness of her relationship with Frank:

So anyway, on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Baltimore, I grabbed a cab out to the Highlandtown suburb. My driver was a lovely Nigerian guy who played Fela Kuti and explained the stories behind each of the songs.  Highlandtown is an ordinary featureless suburb, but for this day at least it got a spruce-up. The sidewalk bushes had been fitted with larger than life dental floss containers. Pictures of FZ were hanging from all the lamp-posts, and best of all, the main street running through the town had been renamed 'Frank Zappa Way'.
The official bit was mercifully short. Gail Zappa, Frank's wife, made a speech reminding everyone that Frank had stated ‘if you want to get laid, go to college, but if you want an education, go to the library’. So it was fitting that his bust would be unveiled outside the community library in the place of his birth.

Gail, Ahmet, Dweezil, Diva - and Frank
Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made the official proclamation, then invited Gail to unveil the statue topped by a bust of FZ. Curiously, the bronze bust was donated by artists from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where apparently Zappa was a beacon of freedom of expression during the Soviet occupation.
Over by the denil floss bush

The other members of the Zappa clan included daughter Diva and son Ahmet. All were openly moved by the honour and respect being shown to Frank. Then Dweezil and the band paid their own respects with a two hour set that ran as follows:

Stinkfoot / Florentine Pogen / Broken Hearts Are For Assholes / Easy Meat / Keep It Greasy / City Of Tiny Lights / Echidna's Arf For You / Don't Eat The Yellow Snow / Blessed Relief / Big Swifty / Apostrophe / RDNZL / I'm The Slime / Dinah Moe Humm

You want some more? Well here's some more.....The following clip starts with the unveiling of the statue and continues with highlights from the set by Zappa Plays Zappa

Spooky - Frank's ghost appears front centre

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Tubes - how they conquered London, 1977

Without doubt, the most spell-binding rock show I have ever seen was staged by The Tubes at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 1977.  The group were not all that well known in the UK, having never played there before. But they caused a sensation by booking a week’s residency at the famous London theatre and putting on an outrageous, hilarious and sexually explicit show that blew everyone’s mind. 

The review of the show written by the NME’s Paul Rambali said, “If you saw them, you will probably feel conned next time you hand over the notes to watch some other group merely stand there and play.  The Tubes are a spectacle unlike any other. They present a relentless onslaught of humour, outrage, parody, idiocy, music and costume – a feast for the senses.”
How does a band that has never played in the UK, and doesn’t have a hit record, create enough of a buzz to sell out a week of shows?  They had also made plans to record a live album. They must have been damn sure of themselves.  The pre-show hype was a testament to the power of the NME in the 1970s, because without any other publicity, save for a few plays by Capital Radio's Nicky Horne, there was no other way for them to spread the word in those days. The NME was still the bible for rock fans and their coverage of the US scene had always been first-rate.
Here was a good example - the NME writer Mick Farren spent time with The Tubes at their rehearsal studios in LA. He described their act as “satiric mania choreographed with split-second timing. The Tubes may play for laughs but the laughs are delivered according to a spot-on orchestration. They don’t amble into a rehearsal studio, down a few beers, blow a joint and then put down an hour and half of lackluster boogie and call it a day. Both musicians and dancers work out under the uncompromising direction of choreographer Kenny Ortega.” On the Columbia Studios soundstage, the show was going though its full dress run-through and Farren observed:  “It’s nothing short of magnificent. The only words you can use are ones like sensory overkill. The act doesn’t leave you alone. One moment it’s the band in white intern coats playing straight techno-rock. Then it’s a dance troupe on the lam from Star Wars, and then there’s the punk pastiche. Except, pastiche or not, The Tubes can cut harder and deeper than 90%s of the new wave.”

The band’s first two albums in the mid-70s established the template for satirical pieces about show business, consumerism and sex, with titles like White Punks On Dope,  What Do You Want From Life, Don’t Touch Me There and Mondo Bondage. 
Good as those records were, the songs really came alive on the stage, where The Tubes could put their creativity and art skills to work.  Not only that, they could really go to town on the outrage, with bondage, simulated sex, exploding TVs, live chainsaws and a cascade of semi-nude dancers.  Naturally, they were banned from several of the more conservative states of America. And with a group that contained eight musicians and several dancers, this was never going to be a commercially viable operation unless they could take the show to the big venues.  So there was a lot riding on the European tour. Lead singer Fee Waybill acknowledged that The Tubes needed to make it as a headline rock act, to cover the cost of their large touring group: “I think we’re primarily a rock and roll band. We have to establish ourselves as that. We have to convince these promoters that we are not just a visual act – that we can kick ass.”

Well they did that alright. In common with everyone who saw it, the NME’s Paul Rambali was blown away by the London show: “The stage exists in a continual chorus of activity that veers from anarchic chaos to precision orchestration with virtually no breathing space. The band continually assail the senses with extremes of spectacle. After doing their duet ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ from a motorbike, Fee Waybill strapped backing singer Re Styles between two video monitors for ‘MondoBondage’.                  
The finale was the appearance of Quay Lewd, Waybill’s obnoxious glammed-up rock star with three feet high platform shoes. Rambali wrote: “Quay sang a song, fell over, insulted at least half the audience, fell over, did ‘Stand Up And Shout’, fell over, then told us, “this is the audience participation bit. When I say ‘stand up and shout’ you lot all shout…erh…’go down on me you bitch!

“Eventually he settled for having the whole audience shout “you bleedin wankers” on cue, fell over and finally was buried beneath a toppling 50-foot speaker column.”

Rambali concluded his review thus: “I have never witnessed anything remotely like The Tubes. Neither, to judge from the rapturous response and conversations afterwards, had anyone else. Amazing”

It really was, musically and visually remarkable. I saw them again in 1978, at the Knebworth Festival on the bill with Frank Zappa and Peter Gabriel. And again in 1979 at Hammersmith, on the ‘Remote Control’ tour, where they were supported by Squeeze (that’s another story…). But that first time in 1977 was shockingly good.

'White Punks On Dope' performed by The Tubes on the BBC 1977

The NME's review of the Tubes, published on 19th November 1977

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Frank Zappa and Lowell George together

For a brief period in late 1968, early 1969, Lowell George was a member of The Mothers. He can be heard on the album 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' and the first disc of 'You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 5', which included a version of "Here Lies Love" with Lowell as lead vocalist. 
Whether he jumped or was pushed, there's not a lot known about why he didn't last very long working alongside Frank Zappa. I imagine he was ambitious enough to think he might be able to get some of his tunes included in the set. But of course, this was Frank's band and Frank's music. George said he was fired from the Mothers because he "wrote a song about dope". Anyway, for whatever reason, Frank suggested Lowell should go and form his own band. So thanks to Frank, we got Little Feat.

There isn't much photographic evidence of Lowell with Frank, but this photo has just been released by a member of Lowell's family.

And here's another that's recently surfaced, from early 1969. From left to right: Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, FZ and Lowell

See also:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Joni Mitchell in the 1970s - the Bill Graham archive

Here's a treat for Joni Mitchell fans. The amazing audio archive collected by legendary promoter Bill Graham, made available at the 'Wolfgang's Vault' website, has released a bunch of performances featuring Joni and other artists performing her songs.

There's some rare and fairly unique material in there, including Joni playing solo at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, and the showcase performance during Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue show in 1975. In the Dylan show, Joni would perform songs from her current album 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns'. The archive here includes 'Woman of Heart and Mind', 'Coyote', 'Don't Interrupt the Sorrow' and 'Edith and the Kingpin'.

Also available is a version of 'Shadows & Light' performed with The Band in 1976 that I've never heard before, together with a version of 'Furry Sings The Blues'. The cover versions include Bonnie Raitt singing beautifully on 'That Song About The Midway', Judy Collins doing 'Chelsea Morning' and Don Henley covering 'River'.
There's a free 14 day trial on the archive, so check it out at

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Some have gone, and some remain

Here's a strange magazine cover from February 1970. These people are approaching 30 (no age to be a rock star back then). So would they survive the next decade? For Circus to be asking the question, it must have been clear that the rock and roll lifestyle of the 1960s was going to result in more casualties, following the death of Brian Jones in 1969. What's surprising is not that some of these 20 rock stars died (three of them - Jimi, Janis and Jim in little over a year)  but that 13 of them are still with us.

It's interesting to see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are featured, but Keith Richards is not. Apart from Keef, who by any normal measure of abuse, should be dead by now, the most notable survivor here is golden-voiced hippie David Crosby.  Crosby, whose favourite pastime for many years was freebasing cocaine,  has come close to death on numerous occasions.  The catalogue of drug busts, car accidents, guns and overdoses make Keith Richards' story seem tame in comparison.

Here's just one of many stories: On March 7, 2004, Crosby was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, illegal possession of a hunting knife, illegal possession of ammunition and illegal possession of about 1 ounce of marijuana. Crosby left said items behind in his hotel room. Authorities said a hotel employee searched the suitcase for identification and found about an ounce of marijuana, rolling papers, two knives and a .45-caliber pistol. Crosby was arrested when he returned to the hotel to pick up his bag.

In the prologue to his autobiography, Long Time Gone, Crosby, when asked if he was ever stoned onstage, replied, “The answer to that is that never once, until I got out of prison, did I ever record, perform, or do anything any way except stoned. I did it all stoned.”
He's still with us and singing as beautifully as ever.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Joni Mitchell in the 70s (4) - Don Juan's Reckless Daughter

Assessing this stage of Joni Mitchell’s career, the making of the double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, I should first of all say that this is my personal favourite of all her albums. I have often challenged that assessment, trying to make sure that I am not just being contrary when, in fact,  I really love ‘Hissing’ the best. It’s a tough call, but the fact remains I listen to these recordings as much as any of her others.

In the recent documentary on his life, Bruce Lee is seen talking about the importance of expressing himself honestly - of not lying to himself. That purity of expression is what all artists are striving for in their different ways; to follow the muse wherever it leads and never have to go over old ground. Those who achieve this will invariably start to confuse or alienate their fanbase at some point. By the time she released Don Juan's Reckless Daughter  in late 1977,
that was certainly the case for Joni Mitchell. Attitudes towards Joni had hardened. Some of the fans who had been turned off by the new jazzier direction of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns  may actually have given Joni another chance after Hejira, where the instrumentation was much sparser.  However, most casual fans would have baulked at a double album of (mostly) new material with elements of jazz, classical and what later became known as 'world' music. So Don Juan's Reckless Daughter  never stood much of a chance. As such, it remains under-appreciated in comparison to her previous albums.

Don Juan could have been the natural follow-up to Hissing. The use of jazz players and the exotic instrumentation of tracks like 'The Tenth World' and 'Dreamland' have their origins on Hissing (Dreamland was demo'ed for that album). 
The biggest surprise, for those who bought Don Juan, would have been the side-long track Paprika Plains, with its moody strings and Keith Jarrett-like piano passages. It is a sophisticated piece with a variety of moods; it requires that you listen to it - for 16 minutes! What was she thinking?  All the best double albums allow an artist or a band to stretch themselves musically.  So Joni would have relished the idea of taking a large canvas and using some broad brush strokes.  In the middle of Paprika Plains we enter the world of Carlos Castaneda's Native American Don Juan, the peyote shaman in his dream state. Mitchell said of the composition: "The improvisational, the spontaneous aspect of this creative process is to set words to the music, which is a hammer and chisel process. Sometimes it flows, but a lot of times it's blocked by concept. And if you're writing free consciousness - which I do once in a while just to remind myself that I can, you know, because I'm fitting little pieces of this puzzle together - the end result must flow as if it was spoken for the first time."

But there was a critical consensus that Joni was over-reaching. While some of us were happy to hear the more extended pieces, especially complemented by such wonderful players, most did not have the patience. However,  the very fact that she could cover so much musical ground, and hold her own in the company of virtuoso players, suggests that actually Joni was right where she belonged.

The playing and arrangements on 'Hissing' had been as confident and accomplished as you could ever hear, largely because of the assured way the band handled Joni's material. On 'Don Juan' she brought the musicians further forward and again gave a prominent role to bassist Jaco Pastorius, together with his Weather Report bandmate, veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter.  Joni seemed to have reached a point where she felt fully in control in the studio. On the 'Overture' that preceded the track 'Cotton Avenue', she created waves of sound with her voice and guitar. The virtuoso players helped Joni produce many of her most complex yet engaging arrangements. Pastorius is particularly inspired here; Don Juan contains several of the most sublime bass parts he ever committed to tape.

Joni on stage with one of the all-time greats of the bass guitar, Jaco Pastorius
At the time, Joni commented on her collaboration with Pastorius:
"I was trying to find a certain sound on the bottom end, going against the vogue at the time. He had this wide, fat swathe of a sound. I know he stretched me. I stretched him some too, inadvertently, on things like ‘Don Juan's Reckless Daughter’. That was Alexandro Acuna, Don Alias, myself and Jaco. Alex's background is in Latin music, so that track was getting a very Latin percussion sound on the bottom. I said, "No, this is more North American Indian, a more limited palette of drum sounds." So Jaco got an idea. I don't know if he detuned his bass, but he started striking the end of the strings, up by the bridge, and he'd slide with the palm of his palm all the way down to the head. He set up this pattern: du du du doom, du du du doom. Well, it's a five minute song, and three minutes into it his hand started to bleed. He shredded it making it slide the full length of his bass strings. They turned into a grater. So we stopped tapping and he changed to his Venus mound, below the thumb. And when we finished the take, that was bleeding, too. So his whole hand was bleeding. But the music was magnificent, and he was so excited because he'd discovered a new thing. Later he built up calluses and you'd always see him doing those slides. But then he was mad with me because I had copped his new shit for my record" 
Sonically, Don Juan is easily the best record Joni made in the 70s and her voice never sounded better. There is a clarity to the vocals that provides a heightened level of intimacy on some tracks. Listen closely to the sensuous syncopation as she sings over her guitar on 'Otis and Marlena'. I think it’s nothing short of genius the way she does that.

Now that people are more attuned to jazz and world music in a mainstream ‘rock’ context, this album doesn’t seem all that radical. That it alienated people shouldn’t detract from the evidence of its sophistication and beauty.
Very few of her contemporaries, if any, were stretching themselves across such a range of different music, and with such emotional honesty. Along with the long form and the exotic, there are also the signature soulful and bitter-sweet love songs, 'Jericho', 'Off-night Backstreet' and especially 'The Silky Veils of Ardour'. The title track is, along with 'Song For Sharon', probably the most lyrics she ever wrote in one song; and they are great lyrics too:

I'm Don Juan's reckless daughter
I came out two days on your tail
Those two bald-headed days in November
Before the first snowflakes sail
Out on the vast and subtle plains of mystery
A split tongue spirit talks
Noble as a nickel chief
Striking up an old juke box
And he says:
"Snakes along the railroad tracks."
He says, "Eagles in jet trails ..."
He says, "Coils around feathers and talons on scales ...
Gravel under the belly plates ..."
He says, "Wind in the Wings ..."
He says, "Big bird dragging its tail in the dust ...
Snake kite flying on a string."

I come from open prairie
Given some wisdom and a lot of jive!
Last night the ghosts of my old ideas
Reran on channel five
And it howled so spooky for its eagle soul
I nearly broke down and cried
But the split tongue spirit laughed at me
He says, "Your serpent cannot be denied."
Our serpents love the whisky bars
They love the romance of the crime
But didn't I see a neon sign
Fester on your hotel blind
And a country road come off the wall
And swoop down at the crowd at the bar
And put me at the top of your danger list
Just for being so much like you are!

You're a coward against the altitude-
You're a coward against the flesh-
Coward-caught between yes and no
Reckless this time on the line for yes, yes, yes!
Reckless brazen in the play
Of your changing traffic lights
Coward-slinking down the hall
to another restless night
As we center behind the eight ball
As we rock between the sheets
As we siphon the colored language
Off the farms and the streets

Here in Good-Old-God-Save-America
the home of the brave and the free
We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards
Of some duality
Of restless multiplicity
(Oh say can you see)

Restless for streets and honky tonks
Restless for home and routine
Restless for country-safety-and her
Restless for the likes of reckless me
Restless sweeps like fire and rain
Over virgin wilderness
It prowls like hookers and thieves
Through bolt locked tenements
Behind my bolt locked door
The eagle and the serpent are at war in me
The serpent fighting for blind desire
The eagle for clarity

What strange prizes these battles bring
These hectic joys-these weary blues
Puffed up and strutting when I think I win
Down and shaken when I think I lose
There are rivets up here in this eagle
There are box cars down there on your snake
And we are twins of spirit
No matter which route home we take
Or what we forsake

We're going to come up to the eyes of clarity
And we'll go down to the beads of guile
There is danger and education
In living out such a reckless life style
I touched you on the central plains
It was plane to train my twin
It was just plane shadow to train shadow
But to me it was skin to skin
The spirit talks in spectrums
He talks to mother earth to father sky
Self indulgence to self denial
Man to woman
Scales to feathers
You and I
Eagles in the sky
You and I
Snakes in the grass
You and I
Crawl and fly
You and I

Much as I love her other albums, it’s this one I keep coming back to. If you’ve never listened to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, or you haven’t listened to it for years, dig it out and discover the missing link between the Hissing/Hejira era and the Mingus record. This, for me, is where she struck the perfect balance between the songwriter, the jazz musician, the singer and the lyricist.

'Overture / Cotton Avenue' from the album 'Don Juan's Reckless Daughter', 1978 

See also:
Joni Mitchell in the 1970s - Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell in the 70s (2) - The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Joni Mitchell in the 70s (3) - Hejira

Sunday, July 29, 2012

36 Rules For Bands - The Wit of Steely Dan

The second of two lists originally posted on the Steely Dan website in the 90s. Enjoy

1. Never start a trio with a married couple.
2. Your manager's not helping you. Fire him/her.
3. Before you sign a record deal, look up the word "recoupable" in the dictionary.
4. No one cares who you've opened for.
5. A string section does not make your songs sound any more "important".
6. If your band has gone through more than 4 bass players, it's time to break up.
7. When you talk on stage you are never funny.
8. If you sound like another band, don't act like you're unfamiliar with their music ("Oh does Rage Against The Machine also do rap-rock with political lyrics?")
9. Asking a crowd how they're doing is just amplified small talk. Don't do it.
10. Don't say your video's being played if it's only on the Austin Music Network.
11. When you sign to a major label, claim to have inked the best contract ever. Mention "artistic freedom" and "a guaranteed 3 record deal".
12. When you get dropped insist that it was the worst contract ever and you asked to be let go.
13.Never name a song after your band.
14. Never name your band after a song.
15. When a drummer brings in his own songs and asks to perform one of them, begin looking for a new drummer IMMEDIATELY.
16. Never enter a "battle of the bands" contest. If you do you're already a loser.
17. Learn to recognize scary word pairings: "rock opera", "white rapper", "blues jam", "swing band", "open mike", etc.
18. Drummers can take off their shirts or they can wear gloves, but not both.
19. Listen, either break it to your parents or we will; it's rock 'n' roll, not a soccer game. They've gotta stop coming to your shows.
20. It's not a "showcase". It's a gig that doesn't pay.
21. No one cares that you have a web site.
22. Getting a tattoo is like sewing platform shoes to your feet.
23. Don't hire a publicist.
24. Playing in San Marcos & Alpine doesn't mean you're on tour.
25. Don't join a cover band that plays Bush songs. In fact, don't join a cover band.
26. Although they come in different styles and colours, electric guitars all sound the same. Why do you keep changing them between songs?
27. Don't stop your set to ask that beers be brought up. That's what girlfriends/boyfriends are for.
28. If you use a smoke machine, your music sucks.
29. We can tell the difference between a professionally produced album cover and one you made with the iMac your mom got for Christmas.
30. Remember, if blues solos are so difficult, why can so many 16 year olds play them?
31. If you ever take a publicity photo, destroy it. You may never know where or when it will turn up.
32. Cut your hair, but do not shave your head.
33. Pierce your nose, but not your eyebrow.
34. Do not wear shorts onstage. Or a suit. Or a hat.
35. Rock oxymorons; "major label interest", "demo deal"," blues genius", "$500 guarantee", and "Fastball's second hit".
36. 3 things that are never coming back: a)gongs, b)headbands, and c)playing slide guitar with a beer bottle.

Expressions to avoid during a recording session

I was reminded of this list by a thread about Steely Dan on the Afterword Blog. When SD reformed in the 1990s, their website was an extension of Fagen and Becker's sardonic humour. This list appeared on the site, together with things like '36 Rules for Bands'. Anyone who has been in a band, or in a studio, should get a laugh or two out of this.

During A Recording Session

1.     Ready, Freddie (pronounced red-eye fred-eye)
2.     Bingo, gringo
3.     Uno, Bruno
4.     The phones sound O.K. but I need more of myself
5.     We won't need a click
6.     I like what you're trying to do but not the way you're doing it
7.     An excellent first attempt
8.     Was that the sound you had on the demo?
9.     Make the click louder
10. That was a pretty good take for this time of night
11. If you want the tempo any brighter than that, we better wait for a sunny day
12. No dynamics? We're playing as loud as we can
13. I think that's a pretty good sounding take for what were getting paid..
14. That was great, let's do it again
15. Is that about as tight as you boys want to get it?
16. Is it possible the click is speeding up?
17. I'm at the point where I'm making dumb mistakes - before I was making much smarter mistakes
18. So many drummers, so little time
19. Why don't we do the double first and the lead will be easier to get once we've got the double
20. I never had this problem when I was being produced by Lenny and Russ
21. We got some things, we need some things
22. Fabulous
23. Punch in at the section
24. You can't make ice cream out of shit
25. You can't polish a turd
26. Just let your spirit soar
27. My spirit's already sore from the last thirty takes...
28. Close
29. Less is more
30. Less is Paul
31. Less is Brown
32. Less is less
33. That's the way I've been playing it all along
34. I just wish I could get a whole band that sounds as good as I do
35. This will be a great opportunity for me to show off my chop
36. Let's hear the bass, if you can call it that
37. Does your amp have an underdrive channel?
38. You can erase that one, I remember exactly what I played
39. We'll catch that in the mix
40. You guys can fix that in Soundtools, right?
41. I brought my kid along, he's never been in a recording studio before
42. My girlfriend sings great background vocals
43. I know a great drummer
44. You guys want to try some heroin?
45. Your girlfriend's been in the bathroom a long time
46. Please, man, stay away from my faxes, okay?
47. I'm not going to be any more dishonest with you than I am with Donald
48. I'd like a little more of a live feeling on this tune.
49. I also play eleven other instruments
50. Sorry I'm late, I just got through with my blood test (or CAT scan)
51. That vocal's not a keeper is it?
52. That's how I wrote it but that's not how I like to play it
53. I can't think of any improvements that won't make it worse
54. That ground loop is a trademark thing for me
55. That's the new old comp from today - I want to hear the new old comp from last Tuesday
56. That reverb would sound a lot better if it were coming out of a piece of MY GEAR
57. How bout we get rid of these 3M machines and get ourselves a frozen yogurt machine
58. Skunk called, he's on his way down
59. The frozen yogurt machine is broken
60. When was the last time we worked together? Tonight.

Automatic Man - cosmic funk prog anyone?

File this one under ‘Buried Treasure’.  In 1976 I bought an album called Automatic Man on hearing their single My Pearl  and in the knowledge that the band included one of my favourite drummers, Michael Shrieve, formerly of Santana. 

It’s an oddity for sure, with its mixture of funk, rock guitar and cosmic lyrics.  It still sounds good today though. Last year I heard one of the tracks played over the PA at a large festival, so I figure there must be a few people out there who think the same way.
How did  this cosmic funk prog band come to be?  When Mike Shrieve left Santana in 1975, he was keen to  develop a band project and so got together with guitarist  Pat Thrall and jazz keyboard player Todd Cochran, also known as Bayete.  Shrieve met Thrall when he  collaborated with Steve Winwood and the Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta on the ‘Go’ albums.  An established recording artist in the jazz field, Bayete had the songwriting skills, and it was his influence that would prove to be the greatest in terms of the band’s direction. The fourth member of the band was bassist Doni Harvey.

They were signed by Island Records and moved from San Francisco to London, recording at Olympic Studios in Barnes with engineer Keith Harwood.  The result was a collection of songs high on melody and set to a background of synthesiser swirls, wild guitar solos and with Shrieve’s dramatic flourishes propelling the whole thing.  The balance of the rock and funk elements was pitched just right, making the album accessible and appealing, potentially, to a wide audience.
The problems came when they tried to reproduce it live.  The band played in Europe and the US in 1976, but by all accounts they struggled to capture the magic of the album. Since much of its dynamic was due to the layered synth lines and the various effects applied to the guitar and drums, it’s easy to see how they might have found it hard to reproduce.

Expectations had been high though; the record was good and the album artwork had been expensive to produce, so Island were looking to recoup. But the single just scraped into the top 100 and the album failed to capture a wide enough audience.  The band, minus Shrieve, moved back to the US. Bayete and Thrall recruited a new rhythm section and recorded a second album, Visitors, which lacked the panache of the first album. Shrieve was the big name in the band and without his distinctive style, there was even less interest in the second album. Automatic Man disbanded in 1978.

Mike Shrieve said: “I put a lot into Automatic Man. We had great players, Pat Thrall on guitar, Bayete - Todd Cochran, a genius on keyboards, David Rice on bass at first, then Doni Harvey. We rehearsed every single day at my house in San Francisco, I bought instruments for everybody, my girlfriend at the time, Maria Ysmael, cooked wonderful dinners every single night. We moved to London to do the record, which we were really excited about. We just couldn’t seem to get it together live, though. We had a falling out and the rest of the band moved to LA and made another record without me, and that was that.”

Todd Cochran's career continued to thrive as he wrote and performed with artists including Aretha Franklin and Peter Gabriel. Pat Thrall went on to work in the fusion field with musicians including Narada Michael Walden and Alphonso Johnson. He joined the Pat Travers Band and later worked with Glenn Hughes.
Doni Harvey continued to play sessions and for a time was a member of the fusion band Nova. I saw Nova play a support slot at the Hammersmith Odeon around 1978. Harvey obviously modelled himself on Jimi (right down to the spelling of his name – and see back cover photo of Automatic Man) and on this night he was pulling all the Jimi shapes and moves. It was remarkable but also faintly ridiculous.

In 2004, a remastered version of Automatic Man was released by Lemon. Tom Karr of Progressive World gave the disc a five star rating in his review:  "People have a strong desire, an urge, to categorize things, to put them in boxes. In the sense of Automatic Man fitting into a pre-conceived sub-genre of progressive rock, then no, they are not a prog band. But they are much, much more than any label given them could describe. This San Francisco band had strong elements of spacey synthesizer driven progressive. Definitely. They could just as well be described as a hard rocking funk band as well. Both are true. Neither is accurate. No group I can think of so defies categorization as does Automatic Man."

I’ll stick with Cosmic Funk Prog.

The track 'Geni-Geni' from the album Automatic Man, 1976

Friday, July 20, 2012

Classic vinyl album recommendations

As a complement to my blog on where to buy vinyl records*, here are some classic vinyl albums that really stand out as an audio experience. They were chosen by myself and members of the Word Massive. Feel free to add your own recommendations

Yes – The Yes Album  (Squire and Howe jump out of the speakers)
Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed  (original Decca pressings recommended)
Joni Mitchell – Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter  (brighter sounding than Hejira – an audio delight)
Stephen Stills - Manassas
Montrose – First album  (the raunch of Ronnie’s guitar comes across best on the vinyl)

Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced  (the brown 'Backtrack 10' was the very first version of AYE issued in the UK as stereo – it says mono on the sleeve – it is phenomenal)

Roy Harper - Stormcock  (original Harvest pressing)
Santana -Caravanserai
Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill  (original US pressing)
John Hiatt - Slow Turning
Troubadour - JJ Cale

Dr. John - Desitively Bonnaroo  (original ATCO pressing)
The Hissing of Summer Lawns - Joni Mitchell (astonishingly good sound reinforces what a tremendous musical achievement this was)
Michael Franks – The Art of Tea
Show Some Emotion - Joan Armatrading
Boston - first album – (again, the guitars just sound better on the vinyl – I have the half speed master version)

Todd Rundgren - A Wizard A True Star  (original US pressings, with the die-cut cover and 'Sterling RL' in the run-out groove)
Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws - Bruce Cockburn
Aretha Franklin - Get It Right  (produced by Luther Vandross, Marcus Miller's bass to the fore)
Average White Band - Soul Searching

The Who - Quadrophenia  (original Track pressing - 'I'm One' showing the band at their very peak)
Graceland - Paul Simon
Famous Blue Raincoat - Jennifer Warnes
Godbluff - Van der Graaf Generator
Pawn Hearts - Van der Graaf Generator

Jimmy Reed - any of the Charly albums
The Stooges - Fun House
John Coltrane - Giant Steps
Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones
Rolling Stones - Exile On Main St

Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland  - 1983...never sounded better.
MC5 - High Time
Neil Young - Zuma
The Fabulous Thunderbirds - 1st LP
The Blue Nile - 'A Walk Across The Rooftops'
Aja - Steely Dan

Supertramp - Crime of the Century
Yes - Close to the Edge
King Crimson - In The Court of the Crimson King
Joe Jackson - Night and Day
Aimee Mann - Lost in Space
Rickie Lee Jones - The Magazine

Bat Out  of Hell - Meatloaf
Hot Rats - Frank Zappa
Penguin Eggs - Nic Jones
Black Sabbath – first album  (guitar is much less contained than on subsequent albums)
Deep Purple - In Rock nd Fireball (both Harvest pressings have the same crunchy guitar sound)Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell 
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath - new 180gram pressing. £8 at HMV.
Rainbow Rising - Rainbow

Led Zeppelin IV
Max Romeo - War Ina Babylon
‘Dynamite’ Reggae compilations
Doctor Alimantado –Best Dressed Chicken in Town

Bryter Layter - Nick Drake
Dare - Human League
First Take - Roberta Flack
Solid Air - John Martyn
The Man Machine - Kraftwerk
Thomas Dolby - The Flat Earth

Donald Fagen - The Nightfly, Kakakiriad
Steely Dan - Gaucho
Delbert McClinton - Keeper Of The Flame
Never Die Youn' - James Taylor -
Beck - Sea Change - The MFSL vinyl version

Nick Drake - Pink Moon.
Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire De Melody Nelson
Judee Sill – first album (the Four Men With Beards 180g version sounds just great)
Isaac Hayes - Black Moses
The Wailers - Catch a Fire
The Small Faces - Ogden's Nut Gone Flake
The Faces - Ooh La La